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.