A green conspiracy against fun?

As a member of a genuine grassroots campaigning group, I have been riveted by the recent articles and Newsnight report by George Monbiot trailing his new book, Heat (now high on my growing reading list). These have been exposing what he calls the denial industry, a wide-ranging “network of fake citizens’ groups and bogus scientific bodies” funded by the oil and motor industries to cast doubt on climate science and inspired by the example of the tobacco industry.

Their strategy of sowing confusion and misinformation is very familiar to me. The Alliance Against Urban 4×4s highlighted the involvement of the Ford Motor Company in funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in our leaflet for visitors to the British International Motor Show in July, using evidence from the excellent Exxonsecrets website.

The AEI’s big wheeze this year was a set of adverts on US television that praised carbon dioxide build-up as no danger but a friend of nature, essential for life. Scientists whose work was cited by the AEI have since disowned the ads and they thankfully never aired in the UK, but the messages seem to be reaching us anyway. Whenever I take part in a discussion programme or phone-in on 4×4s, similar myths about climate change make an appearance.

The huge sums of money invested in this public relations scam are what astound me most about the evidence Monbiot has collected together. And what makes me most depressed. The carpet cleaning expenses of the AEI alone would have paid for all the activities of the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s in the past few years.

Starting out in a pub with six people and a fifty quid whip-round three years ago, we have kept the campaign going largely by selling t-shirts and applying for small grants from other environmental organisations and foundations. Our most famous ‘school run’ demonstration, where we dressed up as lollipop ladies and teachers and handed out mocked up school reports to 4×4 drivers, cost us £100 – an amount most PR professionals would laugh at – but because our cause was valid and newsworthy it got us six months of regular publicity.

However, despite our modest means, it seems that a certain section of the population now believes we are part of a well-funded, top-down global environmental conspiracy out to ruin everyone’s fun. Michael Crichton’s 2005 novel State of Fear took this fantasy to its ultimate conclusion, depicting the environmental movement as a cabal of jet-setting megalomaniacs prepared to commit mass-murder to achieve their sinister aims.

There’s an obvious logical flaw in this. What possible aims could we have beyond concern for the planet and a desire for a way of life that might last beyond peak oil? People like Crichton will tie themselves up in knots inventing bizarre plots before they will admit that the race to be richer and accumulate more houses and cars may not actually appeal to everyone.

There are two pertinent facts I have noticed since I joined the green movement, which commentators like Crighton simply haven’t grasped. Fact 1 is that no environmentalist I know is in this for personal gain. They would be mad if they were because Fact 2 is that there isn’t any real money in being an environmental campaigner.

I can count the people I know who make their living solely from green campaigning on my fingers and toes. And if there are any greens maintaining a flash luxury lifestyle on the proceeds of their work I haven’t met them.

Instead, as the ecological emergency becomes more urgent, it is notable that more and more of my colleagues are in fact downsizing their careers and lifestyles, living the simplest life they can and deliberately earning and working less in order to find more time and energy for their campaigns.

At the Green Party’s spring conference this year, Scarborough Councillor Jonathan Dixon gave us a lesson in creative downsizing as part of a debate on energy. His advice was to be hard working and very good at your day job. Then, when you are offered a pay rise for being so great, ask to reduce your working hours instead. After a while you will find yourself with an equally rewarding career and, in addition, plenty of time to work on non-paying things like saving the planet - or indeed anything that takes your fancy.

Brilliant and inspiring stuff, even if Jonathan turns out to be sponsored by an international conspiracy intent on making everyone more civilized and contented - at any cost.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.