Craig Bennett, the new chief executive of Friends of the Earth, has suggested that the green movement should engage with football. Bennett, a West Ham fan, told the Independent of his desire to take the green movement out of its “white, middle-class ghetto” and advocated fewer white wine receptions and more people-based solutions, such as football fans monitoring their clubs’ emissions.
Football and Greens have long had a problematic relationship. Back in 2008 I wrote a memoir, There’s A Hippo In My Cistern: One Man’s Struggle on the Eco-Frontline, the story of my relationship with my wife, Nicola Baird, who was eventually to work for Friends of the Earth for ten years and co-author FoE’s book Save Cash And Save The Planet.
One chapter detailed the year that Nicola lived in Oxford, surrounded by Greens. As the country became obsessed with Euro ’96, the Oxford Greens (mainly academic, white, ex-public schoolboys) played non-competitive Ultimate Frisbee in the park.
The spiritual leader of the Oxford Greens was George Monbiot, a brilliant thinker and decent bloke, but someone who just didn’t get football. He had been to one England international, and said it embodied all that he hated about nationalism and xenophobia. He took the Orwellian view that it was “war minus the shooting”. The others were the same; some hadn’t even heard of Eric Cantona.
Later, Monbiot was to attack the ideal of the Olympics too, writing a piece on “How sport is killing the planet” in the Observer in 2006. He lambasted the transport emissions of those attending the Olympic games, the tens of thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases used to build Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, and the wastefulness of F1, suggesting that some sports might have to be abandoned to prevent climate catastrophe. Logical, but not likely to win over many sports fans.
The Greens’ lack of interest in football (and we’ll except Ecotricity’s Dale Vince who is chairman of veggie-burger vending non-league football club Forest Green) is a sign of an inconvenient truth. They don’t get soap operas or celebrity trivia either. Back in the Nineties, most Greens were amazed that I should be paid to write reviews of Doctor Who videos when there was much more important work to do. The overwhelming need to prevent planetary meltdown gets translated into overwhelming earnestness and a lack of ability to do human.
Craig Bennett is right. Football might be a big nasty business but it still engages the emotions, it fosters a sense of community and continuity for generations of fans, as writers such as David Golblatt have pointed out. Both the Pope and George Marshall (one of those original Oxford Greens) in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change have argued that the environmental movement has to embrace the heart.
Sport will be with us as long as the planet survives because we have a deep need for these Homeric tales of tragedy, glory and grandeur. Better to work with it rather than against it.
What if FoE was to receive an endorsement from a Rooney, Messi or Ronaldo? That would reach millions of young fans. Or link up with David James, the ex-England keeper who has advocated greener grounds. There’s wind turbines at Man City and Middlesbrough and good eco-work at Ipswich and Dartford FC on which to capitalise.
What if FoE were to sponsor a football team and let both the home and opposition fans’ inventive wit come up with the chants? “You can stick your fucking wind turbines up your arse!”, “We’ve got more meat than you!” or “We’re so green it’s unbelievable!” might not please the eco-purists. But they would get the issues talked about by people who would never normally attend a FoE branch meeting.
The planet matters, of course it does, but so does football to billions of people. The eco movement needs to understand this if it is to engage with normal people and move out of its ghetto. Craig Bennett: back of the net!
Pete May is the author of There’s A Hippo In My Cistern: One Man’s Misadventures on the Eco-Frontline.