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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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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