Green communities

Websites that give green suggestions can make a social difference because these online communities s

Looking through the nominations for the New Media Awards 2008 that have come in so far I was pleased to see the Big Green Switch there. Similar to Do The Green Thing, it’s a site that can help us all to overcome the apathy that so easily undermines our best efforts to recycle and reduce our resource consumption. These sites, and others in a similar vein, work in the old-fashioned internet way, by enabling communities to cohere around shared interests independently of geography or time zone.

In this case the shared interest is saving the planet, and by providing every member of the community with information about what others are doing, the sites manage to bring out both the competitive and altruistic sides of human nature at the same time.

They encourage altruism by making it feel like the small things that one person or household can do make a difference because they are cumulative over large numbers of fellow members. Reports on how many people have switched, or the progress that others are making, can be reassuring when your neighbours have just bought an SUV and a massive plasma screen.

They also allow for an element of competition in being the greenest, reducing energy consumption the most, and having the smallest carbon footprint. And once we all get smart meters there will probably be a national scoreboard for the home with the lowest electricity usage, while those with solar power and windmills will boast about how much power they are providing back to the grid. This may not appeal to the more socially-minded, but it might persuade people to change their behaviour.

We often miss the way that the pervasive network and easy access to computers have changed the pattern of daily life and made many things that would previously have required far too much effort simple and unremarkable.

Just as ubiquitous mobile phones make it unnecessary to make careful plans for where to meet your mates in town on a Saturday night, because a few texts are all it takes to assemble everyone at the pub with the cheapest beer or best band, so easy access to the net allows us to overcome many of the obstacles to achieving real social change.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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