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) http://www.cei.org/ 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
Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.