Crippled by the hypocrisy police

Madeleine Bunting on the problem of speaking out

Where is the environmental movement's Bob Geldof or its Bono? Can you think of one celebrity who is very publicly associated with campaigning on climate change as ferociously as Bob has done on development? It's not easy. What comes to mind is the derision poured on Sting's head over his passion for an exotic combination of the rainforest and tantric sex.

Rightly or wrongly, the Geldof/Bono alliance has been crucial in keeping an issue on the international political agenda; politicians losing authority need endorsement, and rock stars can demand some concessions in return.

I've been told that environmentalists have tried associating with big names. There's a rock concert in Cardiff this summer that is linked to climate change. But the big obstacle is that no well-known music star can sustain credibility as an environmental campaigner; any suggestion of a greenish hue and the critics pounce on the air miles, the cars, the multiple house ownership, or some other aspect of the lavish lifestyle, and cry hypocrite.

Since we're all involved in the vast energy-intensive economy that is destroying the atmosphere, it has become almost impossible for anyone to point out this problem without being accused of double standards and told to "put your own house in order". The Archbishop of Canterbury recently made a useful contribution to the issue in which he rightly warned of the catastrophic impact of climate change. Instantly there was criticism that he had used a plane to get to Sudan. Such a response makes other public figures hesitate before speaking out.

So we have a debate crippled at every turn by a bizarre form of hypocrisy policing. We're failing to hear the kind of leadership and the urgent moral passion that could mobilise and recruit new energy to this cause.

That in turn reinforces the deep complacency which sits oddly alongside our growing anxiety. The line is, "there's no point little me doing anything until big polluters such as the US are brought into line". The abdication of individual responsibility in this debate is profoundly depressing. In a broadcast of Any Questions? on Radio 4 in March, the final question to the panel was what each of them was doing to limit their own environmental impact. Lord Haskins said he walked his dogs 25 miles a week, while Simon Heffer said he put his newspapers and wine bottles out for recycling. The threshold here is depressingly low.

Perhaps the one advantage of David Cameron's well-documented photo-opportunities is that they have prompted considerable debate about the difference between appearing to do something useful and actually doing it: the more we start applying our social competitiveness (honed in a market culture) to green behaviour, the better.

Madeleine Bunting is a columnist on the Guardian

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