Thursday, 23 June 2011

Is Green Good for the Environment?

For years, the green lobby have presented themselves as the guardians of the planet.  But many people look at green campaign issues as impractical flights of fancy.  As big business rallies under a new banner, "sustainability", perhaps it's time tae think again on the reality of ecology in the modern world.

The notion of being "green" really became big news in the 1960s, with the dawning of the environmentalist and ecological movements, but it wasn't until the 80s and the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer that it really became a mainstream issue.

I grew up in an era where TV was dominated by debate on acid rain, the greenhouse effect and rivers poisoned by industrial, domestic and agricultural waste.  Smog was causing athsma, industrial chemicals were causing increases in allergies.  The campaigning of the time was successful, and many of the most harmful substances and practices of the time were banned.  As children, we celebrated that our future was being preserved.

And what now, when the children of the "green revolution" are now settling into marriages and mortgages?  What do generation most informed about the environment do?

Not precious much, truth be told.  We resent the simple act of splitting our rubbish into different bins for recycling, but we pat ourselves on the back for doing it and ignore all the things that we bin unnecessarily.  I've bought, broken and binned several pans in my dozen or so years out of the parental home, and meanwhile my parents have binned none.  My collection of CDs, DVDs and computer games, safely stored in a series of disc caddies, has been responsible for the production of almost a thousand little plastic boxes that have gone to landfill.

And then there is that great totem of our time: the carbon footprint.

Why do I call it a totem?  To me, it is purely symbolic.  Many talk of the "carbon cult", and they're not far wrong.  Very little is understood about the meaning of the carbon footprint by the general population, and to me it seems to have become a substitute for education and critical thinking.

Two examples spring to mind.  In the UK, a best-selling brand of crisps now have a little "carbon footprint" boxout on the back of each pack.  The exact amount escapes me, but the weight of carbon dioxide produced outweighs the weight of the packet in the region of 2:1.  Unfortunately, there is no comparitor that I can use to evaluate whether this is good or bad.  The pack contains a vague promise to work to decrease their carbon footprint.  Nothing anywhere states that these crisps are any better for the environment than their competitors, but the consumer is likely to assume that on the grounds that the environment is mentioned at all.

Even if they are using the environment as a badge to sell a normal product, they're not as bad as my second example: a market-leading laundry detergent that sells itself as good for the environment by allowing washing at low temperatures.  Certainly, low temperature washes have a lower carbon footprint than washes in hot water, but carbon footprints are not the be-all-and-end-all of environmentalism.  Low temperature washes rely on biological agents, and if there's one thing I remember from my childhood TV it's that biological washing powder is one of the worst household polutants, poisoning rivers and killing frogs in particular.

When pollutants can be justified as environmental protection, it is surely fair to say that the carbon cult has indeed got out of hand.

And yet the environmental lobby still love the carbon footprint.  It's easy, it's convenient, and even if their enemies can abuse it, so can they.  Not everyone in the environmental lobby is interested in honesty and openness.  While calling them "human-hating greenies" is unfair, they does seem to be some among them willing to lie on the grounds that the ends justify the means.  (Even the man that coined the term "the ends justify the means", Niccolo Machiavelli, was probably being sarcastic.)

For most of my life, I've heard the same question: how do we make business more environmentally-friendly?  Up until recently, the only answer has been legislation -- any attempt to sell a company as "environmental" has meant a premium pricetag and often an inferior product.  In some cases it has worked -- for example, the Ecover brand of detergents has carved a niche for itself not just in the homes of the "right on" crowd, but has become popular in the Western Isles of Scotland where the locals have a more direct experience of and relationship with their environment.

But that's still not the mainstream, and when it comes to mainstream business, the keyword isn't "ecology" or "environment", but the press like to simplify it all back to "green", but when you listen to someone like Logica's Andy Green, the word you'll hear most is "sustainability".  Green comes across as a man who passionately cares about the environment, a man who understands that caring for the environment is an extension of looking after his children, but he's a successful businessman, and that has to come with viability built in.

Sustainability is an idea with a history far older than environmentalism.  Even the book of Exodus, the second book of the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament and almost 3 millenia old, recounts the story of "mannah from heaven" in the desert, a fable cautioning against taking more than needed from nature.  Every morning, the exiles woke in the desert and on leaving their tents, were faced with more food than they could eat in the form of "mannah".  When one or two of them became concerned that it wouldn't last, they hoarded all they could, and the next day there was less and what they had stored had gone rotten.  The story told is directly analogous to our recent problems of overfishing, where we have simply sucked entire populations of fish out of the sea, leaving less to be caught year on year.

Very few human civilisations have taken so much from nature that nature has been unable to recover.  The worst offender is the civilisation of industrial Europe.  Sources of food that have persisted for millenia wiped out by industrial scale "harvesting".  The forests of Europe stripped bare to fuel furnaces and build ships to conquer foreign nations.  It's only us who have been so stupid as to reduce our resources beyond a level where they can recover of their own accord.

Who will stand up for sustainability?  Unfortunately not the environmental lobby.

Back in January, there was an interesting program on BBC2: The Guga Hunters of Ness.  It follows the work of a small group of locals in a small Scottish island community who travel out once a year to catch and kill young gannets on a remote sea skerry.  This tradition dates back centuries to when food was scarce.  In years gone by, catching and preserving the guga provided them with most of their meat for the year.  The SSPCA want an end to the hunt, saying that it is unnecessarily cruel and that it is no longer required as a source of food.

However, the number of birds breeding on the skerry has been constantly increasing over recent years to the point where the hunt has become exceptionally easy, as demonstrated in the film by comparing the climbing required 50 years ago with the locations from where the young birds can now be simply picked up without any serious risk to the hunters.

This is sustainable. It is a source of food that has a negligible effect on the environment.  As more and more traditional sources of food are banned and our palette narrows, we are increasing pressure on the environment.  Sustainability comes from diversity -- a little of this, a little of that.  The birds on Sulasgeir and places like it have very little in the way of natural predators.  They live in places that we cannot farm.  Their main source of food is fish, and one of their biggest competitors for that food is man.  The more we can take from the wild, the less land we have to dedicate to intensive farming, and the more is available for wild animals.

The green lobby should be championing this, but many of them started from a vegetarian standpoint which they are unwilling to abandon.  To them, it is impossible to accept that eating animals might actually be the best thing for animals in the long term.

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