Come on, you greens. Photo: Flickr/Katie Brady
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It's time the green movement left its earnest, middle-class ghetto and enjoyed some football

The overwhelming need to prevent planetary meltdown gets translated into overwhelming earnestness and a lack of ability to do human.

Craig Bennett, the new chief executive of Friends of the Earth, has suggested that the green movement should engage with football. Bennett, a West Ham fan, told the Independent of his desire to take the green movement out of its “white, middle-class ghetto” and advocated fewer white wine receptions and more people-based solutions, such as football fans monitoring their clubs’ emissions.

Football and Greens have long had a problematic relationship. Back in 2008 I wrote a memoir, There’s A Hippo In My Cistern: One Man’s Struggle on the Eco-Frontline, the story of my relationship with my wife, Nicola Baird, who was eventually to work for Friends of the Earth for ten years and co-author FoE’s book Save Cash And Save The Planet.

One chapter detailed the year that Nicola lived in Oxford, surrounded by Greens. As the country became obsessed with Euro ’96, the Oxford Greens (mainly academic, white, ex-public schoolboys) played non-competitive Ultimate Frisbee in the park.

The spiritual leader of the Oxford Greens was George Monbiot, a brilliant thinker and decent bloke, but someone who just didn’t get football. He had been to one England international, and said it embodied all that he hated about nationalism and xenophobia. He took the Orwellian view that it was “war minus the shooting”. The others were the same; some hadn’t even heard of Eric Cantona.

Later, Monbiot was to attack the ideal of the Olympics too, writing a piece on “How sport is killing the planet” in the Observer in 2006. He lambasted the transport emissions of those attending the Olympic games, the tens of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases used to build Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, and the wastefulness of F1, suggesting that some sports might have to be abandoned to prevent climate catastrophe. Logical, but not likely to win over many sports fans.

The Greens’ lack of interest in football (and we’ll except Ecotricity’s Dale Vince who is chairman of veggie-burger vending non-league football club Forest Green) is a sign of an inconvenient truth. They don’t get soap operas or celebrity trivia either. Back in the Nineties, most Greens were amazed that I should be paid to write reviews of Doctor Who videos when there was much more important work to do. The overwhelming need to prevent planetary meltdown gets translated into overwhelming earnestness and a lack of ability to do human.

Craig Bennett is right. Football might be a big nasty business but it still engages the emotions, it fosters a sense of community and continuity for generations of fans, as writers such as David Golblatt have pointed out. Both the Pope and George Marshall (one of those original Oxford Greens) in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change have argued that the environmental movement has to embrace the heart.

Sport will be with us as long as the planet survives because we have a deep need for these Homeric tales of tragedy, glory and grandeur. Better to work with it rather than against it.

What if FoE was to receive an endorsement from a Rooney, Messi or Ronaldo? That would reach millions of young fans. Or link up with David James, the ex-England keeper who has advocated greener grounds. There’s wind turbines at Man City and Middlesbrough and good eco-work at Ipswich and Dartford FC on which to capitalise.

What if FoE were to sponsor a football team and let both the home and opposition fans’ inventive wit come up with the chants? “You can stick your fucking wind turbines up your arse!”, “We’ve got more meat than you!” or “We’re so green it’s unbelievable!” might not please the eco-purists. But they would get the issues talked about by people who would never normally attend a FoE branch meeting.

The planet matters, of course it does, but so does football to billions of people. The eco movement needs to understand this if it is to engage with normal people and move out of its ghetto. Craig Bennett: back of the net!

Pete May is the author of There’s A Hippo In My Cistern: One Man’s Misadventures on the Eco-Frontline.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.