A Porrittbear’s picnic
February 9, 2011
I have a lot of time for Jonathon Porritt, not least because he has the best voice in the environmental campaigning business. Never underestimate the importance of a good voice in this podcast-driven age. But I worry that in his most recent blog post he’s failed to confront the reasons why many top-rank environmental NGOs have not campaigned on what’s mooted as the sell-off of all our forests to the dreadful wizards of the private sector.
Porritt argues that these NGOs are failing in their duty to their membership by not actively campaigning against the sell-off. What’s interesting is the language in which this is couched – not ‘preventing damage to the environment’ but ‘letting down ordinary supporters’. Surely, given that these organisations exist to protect the environment, the former should be the main reason for criticising their inaction, rather than the latter. And yet it’s not. Why is that?
The answer lies in what Porritt isn’t saying, which is that the central bodies of these NGOs are staffed by people who do things like actually read the blasted consultation document and discover that the relative environmental impact of these proposals will be minimal at worst. Heritage forests can’t be sold to malicious wood-hungry developers, only to organisations that will safeguard them as a public benefit. Only large-scale commercial forest (i.e. vast pine plantations) can be sold commercially. Our glorious English woodlands are still safe. But the media narrative that’s developed around the sell-off is reliant upon media consumers not doing that sort of research and simply swallowing opinions from their chosen news teat without question. As a consequence, members of these organisations and the general public are getting all annoyed at something that isn’t actually happening, providing an opportunity for environmental campaigning organisations to position themselves at the vanguard of public opinion. Which hasn’t happened for a very long time.
The absence of Friends of the Earth et al. from this piece of public space has allowed other campaigning organisations like 38 Degrees (motto: ’38 Degrees brings you together with other people to take action on the issues that matter to you and bring about real change, just so long as isn’t anything beastly like bringing back hanging’) to take the lead, missing out on an opportunity to enthuse a new generation of environmental campaigners. It’s this last point which I suspect lies at the root of Porritt’s criticism of the broader environmental movement: they’re being unpragmatic by not campaigning on a populist issue which they know to be wrong, but which could nonetheless net them significant ongoing support.
On this score, I think Porritt is wrong. The environmental movement has not succeeded by being populist, it has succeeded by being right – by utilising science to demonstrate the impact of man’s activities upon the biosphere. To put aside an evidence-based approach for a few brief moments of populist approval would be to betray this heritage, and significantly reduce its credibility in the future.