Greenpeace activists campaign in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To build a popular environmentalism we need to restore people's pride of place

People need to be able to feel they can effect change in their own backyard before they can change the world.

The staggering loss of faith in elites that we have witnessed in recent years has shaken the foundations of public life. Following a series of scandals and catastrophes - the abuse of parliamentary expenses, phone hacking, the financial crisis – trust in our major institutions is at an all-time low and elites are seen as remote and unrepresentative.

The environmental movement has not sparked national outrage on the same scale but it is perhaps guilty of similar detachment from people’s lives. Environmental politics is another one of those things feels like it is being done to us, not with us; that can feel bossy, high-handed and technocratic.

This may explain why the environment has been able to slide so rapidly off the political agenda. In recent years, politicians from all parties have given the clear impression that, while they see environmentalism as "nice to have" during good times, it now serves as a distraction from the real business of securing the economic recovery. Committed "greens" may howl betrayal at politicians reneging on pre-recession commitments, but the inconvenient truth is that there has been hardly a whimper of public protest. An approach to environmental campaigning which has focused on elite-level engagement – on the rationalism of climate science and the agency of top-down legislation – has failed to embed the concepts of sustainability and conservation in people’s lives and build a broader sense of environmental citizenship.

But people do care about the environment – it’s just the popular understanding of it is different to the political one. Indeed, pro-environmental sentiment provided one of the highest profile political news stories of this parliament: the huge public opposition to the coalition’s botched attempt to sell-off the nation’s forests. As new Fabian Society research published today shows, people think of the environment in terms of the place they live and the people they live there with, not carbon emissions and climate change. People have a strong sense of local attachment, including a resonant spirit to conserve, which we can rarely muster when thinking about the global. "Pride of Place" argues that it is only by restoring faith in the power of collective action in a specific locality that we can restore the momentum environmental politics needs.

Our research reveals the following four lessons that hold the key to building an environmentalism that is owned by the people rather than imposed on them: a truly popular environmentalism.

Place is about people. People do have a strong attachment to the places they live – but it is as much about human relationships as it is about the natural or built environment. And similarly environmentalism must start at home. People need to be able to feel they can effect change in their own backyard before they can change the world.

Environmentalists also need to care about the ecology of the economy. Lack of time erodes people’s capabilities and greater transience of people erodes solidarity. These are serious problems that environmental campaigners would do well to care about.

And finally, environmentalists (and political campaigners) need to concern themseves with the chemistry of community. Our research revealed that people feel a strong sense of loss, believing that community spirit has declined over time. But at the same time one person’s community is another person’s clique: ‘little platoons’ can feel exclusive without action to encourage wider participation in community life. Addressing this requires a different approach to environmental campaigning and policy-making.

These insights present a serious challenge to environmental campaigners, policymakers, trade unions, businesses and communities. We need nothing less than a revolution in the culture of environmentalism, that puts a much greater focus on rebuilding democratic capacity rather than focusing on securing so-called ‘policy wins’ at a national and supranational level.

Creating a popular environmentalism will also require a different approach to politics. While Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have long been champions of localism, it has tended to be viewed with suspicion in some quarters on the left. This reticence stems from understandable fears of the potentially harmful impact on life chances in the poorest areas without strong oversight from central government through the emergence of so-called "postcode lotteries".

But there is now a renewed and growing interest in the concept, in part due to the realisation after 13 years of government of the limitations of what can be achieved from the centre, and in part due to a growing recognition that "real, practical democracy is the only answer to people’s massive sense of disempowerment", as Jon Wilson put it in the Fabian pamphlet Letting Go in 2012. Labour’s leaders are beginning to embrace the decentralising ethos, with Ed Miliband promising "people-powered public services" and large-scale regional investment. The party’s policy chief Jon Cruddas explains that his policy review "is about giving power to people to give them more control over their lives".

Our work shows the same guiding spirit can inform all party’s approaches to the environment. The political approach to environmentalism has put the cart before the horse: instead of focusing on the abstract and transnational, we need to build out from people’s pride in their sense of place. People need to be able to see the change they wish there to be in the world.

Ed Wallis is the editor of Fabian Review

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.