Environmentalism as an argument has been comprehensively won. As a practice it is all but extinct. Just as people in Britain have united around the demand for effective public transport, car sales have broken all records. Yesterday the superstore chain Sainsbury’s announced a 6% increase in sales: the number of its customers is now matched only by the number of people professing to deplore its impact on national life. The Guardian’s environmental reporting is fuller than that of any other British newspaper, but on Saturday it was offering readers two transatlantic tickets for the price of one.
The planet, in other words, will not be saved by wishful thinking. Without the effective regulation of both citizens and corporations, we will, between us, destroy the conditions which make life worth living. This is why some of us still bother to go to the polling booths: in the hope that governments will prevent the rich from hoarding all their wealth, stop our neighbors from murdering us and prevent us, collectively, from wrecking our surroundings.
Because regulation works, companies will do whatever they can to prevent it. They will threaten governments with disinvestment, and the loss of thousands of jobs. They will use media campaigns to recruit public opinion to their cause. But one of their simplest and most successful strategies is to buy their critics. By this means, they not only divide their opponents and acquire inside information about how they operate; but they also benefit from what public relations companies call “image transfer”: absorbing other people’s credibility.
Over the past 20 years, the majority of Britain’s most prominent greens have been hired by companies whose practices they once contested. Jonathon Porritt, David Bellamy, Sara Parkin, Tom Burke, Des Wilson and scores of others are taking money from some of the world’s most destructive corporations, while boosting the companies’ green credentials. Now they have been joined by a man who was, until last week, rightly admired for his courage and integrity: the former director of Greenpeace UK, Lord Melchett. Yesterday he started work at the PR firm Burson Marsteller. Burson Marsteller’s core business is defending companies which destroy the environment and threaten human rights from public opinion and pressure groups like Greenpeace.
So what are we to make of these defections? Do they demonstrate only the moral frailty of the defectors, or are they indicative of a much deeper problem, afflicting the movement as a whole? I believe environmentalism is in serious trouble, and that the prominent people who have crossed the line are not the only ones who have lost their sense of direction.
There are plenty of personal reasons for apostasy. Rich and powerful greens must perpetually contest their class interest. Environmentalism, just as much as socialism, involves the restraint of wealth and power. Peter Melchett, like Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Engels, Orwell and Tony Benn, was engaged in counter-identity politics, which require a great deal of purpose and self-confidence to sustain. In Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, Prince Nekhlyudov recalls that when he blew his money on hunting and gambling and seduced another man’s mistress, his friends and even his mother congratulated him, but when he talked about the redistribution of wealth and gave some of his land to his peasants they were dismayed. “At last Nekhlyudov gave in: that is, he left off believing in his ideals and began to believe in those of other people.”
Lord Melchett was also poorly rewarded. There is an inverse relationship between the public utility of your work and the amount you get paid. He won’t disclose how much Burson Marsteller will be giving him, but I suspect the world’s biggest PR company has rather more to spend on its prize catch than Greenpeace.
But, while all popular movements have lost people to the opposition, green politics has fewer inbuilt restraints than most. Environmentalism is perhaps the most ideologically diverse political movement in world history, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. There is a long-standing split, growing wider by the day, between people who believe that the principal solutions lie in enhanced democracy and those who believe they lie in enhanced technology (leaving existing social structures intact while improving production processes and conserving resources). And, while the movement still attracts radicals, some are beginning to complain that it is being captured by professional campaigners whose organizations are increasingly corporate and remote. They exhort their members to send money and sign petitions, but discourage active participation in their campaigns. Members of Greenpeace, in particular, are beginning to feel fed up with funding other people’s heroics.
As the movement becomes professionalized and bureaucratized (and there are serviceable reasons why some parts of it should), it has also fallen prey to ruthless careerism. The big money today is in something called “corporate social responsibility”, or CSR. At the heart of CSR is the notion that companies can regulate their own behavior. By hiring green specialists to advise them on better management practices, they hope to persuade governments and the public that there is no need for compulsory measures. The great thing about voluntary restraint is that you can opt into or out of it as you please. There are no mandatory inspections, there is no sustained pressure for implementation. As soon as it becomes burdensome, the commitment can be dropped.
In 2000, for example, Tony Blair, prompted by corporate lobbyists, publicly asked Britain’s major companies to publish environmental reports by the end of 2001. The request, which remained voluntary, managed to defuse some of the mounting public pressure for government action. But by January 1 2002, only 54 of the biggest 200 companies had done so. Because the voluntary measure was a substitute for regulation, the public now has no means of assessing the performance of the firms which have failed to report.
So the environmentalists taking the corporate buck in the name of cleaning up companies’ performance are, in truth, helping them to stay dirty by bypassing democratic constraints. But because corporations have invested so heavily in avoiding democracy, CSR has become big business for greens.
In this social climate, it’s not hard to see why Peter Melchett imagined that he could move to Burson Marsteller without betraying his ideals. It was a staggeringly naive and stupid decision, which has destroyed his credibility and seriously damaged Greenpeace’s (as well, paradoxically, as reducing his market value for Burson Marsteller), but it is consistent with the thinking prevalent in some of the bigger organizations
Environmentalism, like almost everything else, is in danger of being swallowed by the corporate leviathan. If this happens, it will disappear without trace. No one threatens its survival as much as the greens who have taken the company shilling.
George Monbiot writes about environmentalism and politics for The Guardian of London.