Environmental alternatives

Barrie Clarke of Water UK asks whether environmentalism, as a name if not an ideal, may have outlived its usefulness

Is ‘environmentalism’ (single-minded promotion of ‘the environment’) reaching the end of its useful life? This may sound like cynical nonsense, but hold on. The question is stimulated by an impressive strategy consultation from the Environment Agency (EA)1. Clearly that was not the intention. But look into the paper and you can’t help wondering if the cynical tendency might have a point.

The water industry depends on the environment, exists to protect it even. No group is more aware of the need for continual environmental improvement than the people who run our water companies. Cynical they are not. But they would be concerned if being identified with an approach that set off indifferent or negative responses was holding up progress. Could this happen?

The strategy rests on a vision for improvement. It covers quality of life, wildlife, air, water, soil, business, natural resources, climate and flooding. The thinking is characteristically clear, presentation logical and comprehensive. In a way, ‘consultation’ is beside the point. Regulation has succeeded and this is a natural next step. No doubt stakeholders will respond, find little to disagree with, and offer help to build on success. So far so good; exc-ept for a persistent niggle that this road to further improvements may turn into a cul-de-sac.

The doubts are not about the content of the consultation, but about its built-in limits. The questions are good, but they provoke others it can’t answer. Can it really close the gap between the EA and its environmentalist friends (including many of us in the water

sector) and the more relaxed (or just busy) rest of society? If not, then despite a glorious past, the movement could become self-defeating. Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, suggests what might be going on: “we are on the verge of starting a new movement”; his vision is “an age in which we start working with the grain of nature”2. At its heart will be sustainability, which Eden demonstrates is “not about nut cutlets and sandals but good business practice and the community values of the future”3.

Here are five reasons, suggested by the consultation, for wondering if environmentalism needs a rethink, or should hand on the baton to something more in tune.

  • Inequality

    The strategy talks about the need to share environmental goods, and it is right to do so. No group has tried harder than the EA, or its Scottish counterpart, to publicise unfairness. It has improved transparency and links with health policy, and promises more. The problem is that supporters of ‘the environment’ are overwhelmingly likely to be winners in the present distribution. A pure environmental motive, based on property ownership and liberal green thinking, looks ill-suited to tackling institutional nimbyism.

  • Central decision-making

    Pollution knows no bounds. Strategy must be debated, and standards, where appropriate, set at national level or above. Unfortunately, though, environmental regulation is often seen as the work of high-handed central government, while success depends on local

    support. It is not at all clear that a separate ‘environment’ strategy can solve the problem.

  • Single-issue fatigue

    The environment was the original single issue. Outrage at gross pollution and official complacency linked people at all levels. Information shared up and down networks of policy-makers and campaigners brought major advances. But time has moved on. Many ideas are now mainstream and a seemingly endless flow of scare stories has dulled the effect. Furthermore, the main enemy in future will often be diffuse pollution, as the EA recognises. But without point sources to be regulated, the old approach looks less effective.

  • Paternalism

    The EA introduces its strategy thus: “We are the Environment Agency. It’s our job to look after your environment and make it a better place – for you and future generations”. This is a big claim, especially when individual action will be so important in future. ‘Education’ might work (over time), but is ‘the environment’ the best message? ‘Parents’ might do better with ‘quality of life’, a fuller picture, but unattainable without a healthy environment.

  • Regulation practice

    The EA is committed to modern regulation. Acting on risk and outcome instead of rigid rules could transform practice by rewarding performance and fostering trust. Yet the old-style urge to punish continues in the justification for ‘naming and shaming’ polluters. Unfortunately not much trust comes from damaging company names, shareholders and employees beyond the due process of law.

    The polarised but essential thinking that gave us ‘the environment’ and ‘environmentalism’ also collected baggage that may no longer be positive. It’s reasonable at least to consider if a different label might be more useful in future.
  • References:

    1. Creating a better place. EA, August 2005

    2. Tim Smit. BBC Radio, August 2005

    3. Eden Project website, August 2005

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