Issues about Single Issues on the Climate March
December 8, 2008
I attended the Climate Change March on Saturday, mostly to seek absolution for my lack of domestic recycling, but also to support the Cleggmeister in his attempts to sway hippies with powerful rhetoric.
Previous readers of this blog will know I love protesting. There’s always a little bit of theatre that makes me believe it’s all going to somehow work out right, whether it be the hippies with the painted faces pushing a cart labelled ‘Climate Change Bandwagon’ or the entrepreneurs selling whistles to the communists, protests are always reassuring.
And so it was again. Despite the fact that a protest consisting mostly of socialists marched on a route that took in the Rolls Royce & Bentley showrooms, the Ritz, innumerable Starbucks, and the US embassy no-one threw any bricks at all. We arrived in Parliament Square in good spirits and settled down to listen to some hippy band’s deep and meaningful song about how capitalism was bullshit, man.
Then the voices of the young Liberals and middle-aged environmental Liberals around me rose in cheering as the Clegg came on stage to give his speech. And it was very good. He’d clearly worked out that his audience weren’t going to be particularly market friendly, and so his speech was full of exhortations to environmental action.
“No to a third runway at Heathrow!”
“No to Kingsnorth!”
“And no to spending twelve and a half billion quid of our money to give us a short-term VAT cut – which we’ll all have to pay for in the future – when every penny of that money should be spent on public transport, on green energy, on sustainable housing for the future.”
Hippies look confused!
That last part was a typically Lib Dem complicating of the issue, I admit. But it did make me observe the reactions of the rest of the protest during the remainder of the speech. It brought something interesting to light.
During the, “…the scandalous situation that the big energy companies are charging a pensioner – scrimping and saving, living on her own, to perhaps heat one room in her home (or his!) – is charging her or him more than a multimillionaire who’s heating their five-storey mansion from top to toe…” section, the only ones cheering such an ostensibly worthwhile statement were us. Even the socialists didn’t want to know about little old ladies. Everyone just looked grumpy.
Why would that be? Theoretically, the majority of the crowd were the self-defined ‘ethical’ sort, who doubtless do their recycling, owned a wormery, biked everywhere and generally are very nice to the planet. But they don’t appear to care about little old ladies.
I’d like to make a distinction here, based not on science but on public perception. It’s about single issues. They fall into one of two camps: the ‘sexy’ single issues, and the ‘unsexy’ single issues. Climate change, human rights and the developing world fall under the former, the plight of the elderly, the mentally ill and arguably trade unionism fall under the latter. The test is whether you’d find someone more attractive depending on which field they worked in. “I work with the elderly” isn’t as attractive (to me at least, putting subjectivity aside here) as “I work for Friends of the Earth”.
And this is the danger. People who think they’re saving the world don’t want to be reminded about the people who are too poor and too old to join in. As evidence, I give you the crowd’s reaction on Saturday. While single issue campaigning has been spoken about as a reflection of society’s new individualism, with people focusing on the issues they care about, I see it more as intellectual cowardice. If you don’t consider that your new bill that’ll cut carbon emissions by whatever percent by levelling a higher duty on fuel will leave the elderly to freeze to death in the winter because they can no longer afford to heat their homes, then you’re a monster. Reducing the sphere of the ethical to an individual’s relationship with the planet ignores the rest of society. Single issue campaigning will ultimately lead to bad policy – if it hasn’t already.
So the next time you’re confronted by an environmental activist who’s demanding that you recycle more, ask them if they’re sharing their wormery with the little old lady living by herself in the flat upstairs. Picking and choosing when you’re going to be ethical is despicable. Luckily, I chose not to be ethical. I work in politics instead.