I was a premature green. Writing I was ‘a premature something’ is a joke which refers back to the Soviet Communist Party’s attempts before WW2 to control ‘the line’ of its affiliate parties. Thus, most famously, some people who opposed Hitler and Mussolini before the Soviet CP thought it apposite, were described as – or so I believe; I have never tried to check this – ‘premature anti-fascists’.
So: I was a premature green. I was around in the late 1960s when the first green-eco wave took place. I cannot remember how it happened that I came across this material but I bought an expensive hard-backed copy of Paul Ehrlich’s 1970 Population, Resources, Environments and contemplated the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. What did I do? Apart from spreading gloomy talk through my first year as an undergraduate and clipping British newspapers for the Sierra Club Bulletin, not very much. What could you do? I started a branch of Friends of the Earth, attended the first meeting and never went back: these were not people I wanted to do anything with; nor did campaigning about recycling bottles seem an appropriate response. And then the UK discovered North Sea oil and with that any possibility of another kind of less consumption-oriented society in this country went out the window for a generation. I was one of a minority of people in this country whose response to a government announcement of future oil from the North Sea was ‘Oh, no.’ When the 1975 referendum on Britain staying in the then EEC took place I voted ‘Yes’ for staying in. Why? Well, as I told Andy Mullen a few years ago, when he was doing a survey on this subject for his book, The British Left’s ‘great debate’ on Europe, it seemed like a good idea to belong to a protein surplus area. (At the time, like almost everyone else in this country, I had no idea of the idiotic Euro-federalist ambitions of the elites running the then EEC.)
Yes, the pessimists in the first green-eco wave got the timing wrong – at least as far as the rich Western world is concerned. The environment hasn’t collapsed at the speed they thought it would. But all those issues are back – and we now have about seven million more people on this island than we did in 1970 (and it is really only this island about which I think or care greatly.)
For the British political system as it is presently constituted, the situation is impossible. Parties are constructed to compete to persuade the electorate that they, rather than their rivals, will make the electorate better off and more content. For the foreseeable future all the economic and environmental news about the world is going to be bad and getting worse. How can this work with the competitive electoral system we have today? A friend of mine, Colin Challen, now a Leeds MP, and a serious-minded campaigner on global warming (his Wiki entry doesn’t quite convey this), recognised this in a recent letter to the Guardian in which he called for the creation of a national government to respond to climate change, citing Churchill’s cabinet in WW2 as an exemplar. It says much about the diminished status of MPs that this striking suggestion raised no response that I noticed. Yet he clearly has a point – if we are serious about carbon emission reduction. A party which proposes to reduce society’s carbon emissions is, willy-nilly, proposing to reduce the living standards of the voters and will lose any election to a party which proposes not to do so (or to do less).
Added to which British society has had 30 years of propaganda telling us that the state is the central problem in society and the free market is the answer to all questions. We have a government of people who have abandoned their belief in the efficacy of the state as a regulator of the free market just in time to discover that they were right the first time: we need the state. And, as things degrade, as the price of life’s essentials – food and fuel – continue to rise, we will need more and more of the state. Selling this to a population the majority of whom have now had a generation of easy credit and are accustomed to living now and paying later (to use the late Jack Trevor Storey’s phrase), who think at least two cars per family and two foreign holidays a year is their minimum due, is only one of the huge items on the agendum which the political system is currently entirely unwilling or unable to deal with.