When politicians are serious about something - terror, drugs, crime, poverty, litter - they declare a war on it, and often appoint a tsar as well. But nobody has declared a war on environmental damage and, though Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, is occasionally called "the sustainability tsar", the term is not in common usage. No doubt the new Labour government is sincere in its commitment to environmental improvement and, as Mr Porritt's commission notes in its latest report, ministers can boast significant achievements. They can also claim to be among the greenest in the world, which is admittedly not saying much. But their environmental policies still lack any sense of urgency or priority. Climate-change scientists predict a global temperature increase of as much as 5.8 C by the end of the century, causing entire countries to disappear under rising sea levels and large subtropical regions to become uninhabitable. Biologists predict the extinction of 40 per cent of mammal and fish species and perhaps half of all plant species. Stopping all this sounds far more important than getting a few more children through their GCSEs or catching mobile phone thieves. But you wouldn't know it from our public debate.
The problem, however, isn't entirely of the government's making. The environmental movement itself lacks a focus, ranging as it does over organic food, countryside, seal-culling, housing, oil spillages, litter, water, recycling, noise, pedestrian precincts, ozone levels, poverty in the developing world and a generalised affection for animals. Mr Porritt's commission interprets its brief as including health, crime, education, working hours and income inequality. It may be true that all these issues are linked; and that, if they are not to wreck the planet, humans need to change every aspect of their lifestyles. But the very scale of the challenge suggests that nothing matters very much. We are all environmentalists now, picking and choosing the causes that suit us. David Nicholson-Lord's article on page 24, for example, shows that while sales of organic food have grown (with government encouragement), thus reducing pesticide use, other environmental concerns - such as the cost of flying the food long distances and the need to support small producers - have been forgotten. Again, we all approve of wind and tidal power but, being friends of nature, we do not want the generators sited on our hillside or off our coast and we fear, in any case, that they will threaten birdlife. And ministers can take credit for improving British air and water quality while doing nothing about rising traffic levels and the huge growth in SUVs.
The government's approach is the characteristic one of setting a plethora of targets and objectives. None of them, as Mr Porritt's commission says, is too demanding in itself and, if some are missed, ministers can boast of achieving others. The commission's report argues that the "situation of the world is too grave for modest incrementalism to be sufficient". True enough: "sustainability" needs to become the word used to justify all kinds of policies, some of them unpalatable, in the way that "competitiveness" is used now - policies on jobs, investment and energy use, for example. But Mr Porritt cannot hope "to inspire the whole of our society" towards all the changes he thinks necessary.
What is needed is a few very clear objectives (three at most), underpinned by explicit warnings as to the consequences for the planet and our children if they are not met. If a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is chosen as a goal, a single-minded determination to achieve it must be evident to everybody. It would have to include, for example, piling high costs on to motoring, domestic energy use, food imports and air travel (currently discounted in all official targets), even at the risk of damaging significant industries and penalising the poor (who should be protected in other ways). Allow exceptions and people begin to doubt the seriousness of the goal. Logically, the goal should be part of foreign and trade policy, with any country that failed to ratify or observe an international treaty on emissions being subject to sanctions.
The whole thrust of the government's environmental policies at present is to minimise their effect on the majority of voters. Saving the planet, most people think, is someone else's job. They will switch the lights off when they leave the room, but they will not tolerate anything that inconveniences them even slightly. Just as Margaret Thatcher once convinced people to support painful policies in the interest of making us economically competitive, so Tony Blair now needs to do the same in the interest of making us sustainable.
Wear your bites with pride
Do not be alarmed if you have bedbugs. Infestations, it is reported, are rising steeply and you may associate them with poverty, insanitary conditions and Dickensian slums. But it is possible to turn what once seemed shameful into social advantage. Head lice were intensely embarrassing until some genius decided that nits preferred clean hair. Fleas now mark you out as the owner of some rare breed of dog or cat. Any unusual beetles crawling around your home suggest you have exotic plants, specially imported. Approach bedbugs in the same spirit. You have picked them up on holiday in a developing country, where you avoided sanitised international hotels, even if such things existed at your fashionably obscure destination. You have Cimex hemipterus, the tropical bedbug, not Cimex lectularius, which used to attack the English poor. Bugs, like everyone else in Tony Blair's Britain, are upwardly mobile.