21. 01. 2018

'A Green Future': Another 25 Years of Bland Platitudes?

So what are we to make of the lionising of Michael Gove by a host of people who really should know better? His speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, and his scripting of Theresa May’s speech to launch the new 25-year Plan to Improve the Environment, have persuaded large numbers of my colleagues in the Green Movement that we should forgive him his past (egregiously unsustainable) errors, accord him the benefit of the doubt, and see him from herein on as the eloquent, progressive politician that deep down he always wanted to be. REALLY!

I grant you the eloquence. Who doesn’t love this kind of stuff:

‘If we want to preserve that which we cherish – a thriving agriculture sector, a healthy rural economy, beautiful landscapes, rich habitats for wildlife, a just society and a fair economy – then we need to be able to shape-change rather than seeking to resist it.’

But for me, out of his mouth, such fine words turn instantly to shit-encrusted dust. Forget leopards and their spots, think more hyenas and their rapaciously opportunistic lifestyles. Just as Cameron once set out to ‘sanitise’ the Conservative Party by hugging the odd husky, so Gove is on a mission to sanitise his own toxic past. Not a shred of integrity here, and nothing that tells me that anything would survive his next ministerial move.

OK, this is personal. When Gove became Secretary of State for Education in the Coalition Government of 2010, one of the very first decisions he took was to sweep away all the Department’s ‘Sustainable Schools’ initiatives, painstakingly built up over the preceding six years with the very active support of the Sustainable Development Commission, of which I was Chair until 2009. He took that decision without even reading the brief given to him by civil servants to explain why the initiatives were so important.

People talk a lot about the dangers of knee-jerk ideology, especially in this post-truth world, even in those purported to have seriously active minds. So please understand that Gove’s default jerking in the knee department is always anti-intervention, anti-regulation, pro-market neoliberalism.

So to see him now, buzzing around like the green-arsed little fly that he is, reminds me why I hate today’s Conservative Party and everything it stands for. Take the speech that Theresa May gave on the launch of the 25-year Plan (scripted by Gove), held up by some as the greatest thing on the environment to come out of the Conservative Party for decades.

Do people really have no sense of history? For instance, has anybody set this evanescent, vacuous little speech against Chris Patten’s infinitely more impressive White Paper on the Environment, ‘This Common Inheritance’, published back in September 1990, in the run-up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992? If you were to check it out, be prepared for a painful immersion in the reality of Shifting Baseline Syndrome when it comes to policy-making: back in the early 1990s, the Tories still really believed they could make a difference in terms of environment policy. Now they have absolutely no intention of making any such difference, but they’ve simply got better and better, over 25 years, at cynically manipulating people’s hopes by recycling the same flatulent rhetoric.

I’m sorry if I sound a bit too jaundiced for some people. ‘Give them some space’, I’m told. ‘Celebrate the new and dynamic energy that Gove brings to the table.’ REALLY!!

I’ve now read this wretched 25-year Plan to Improve the Environment, and it’s impossible to feel anything other than the deepest contempt. Just take one of the headlines: ‘Zero unavoidable plastic waste by 2042.’ Nearly 25 years from now! When May and Gove will be long gone, and probably dead. As will I.

The hypocrisy on the whole waste and recycling story is quite staggering. This is the same party that included a commitment to ‘a zero waste economy’ in the 2010 Coalition Agreement – and then did literally bugger all to make it happen. In fact, it did exactly the opposite, by dropping all recycling targets for local authorities and reneging on establishing proper quality standards for recycling. Rest assured that hyena Gove would have been cheering on those deregulatory knee-jerks.

And what’s happened since then? Levels of recycling in England plateaued two years ago, and we’re rapidly slipping back down the EU league table. Unlike in Wales, which set mandatory targets and high-quality standards, with the result that it’s now the second best performing country in the EU after Germany.

We have to interrogate the facts here, not the platitudes. Gove is one of the most ideologically-driven deregulators in this scarily deregulatory Cabinet. Which is why this 25-year Plan has literally not one specific policy measure apart from extending the charging for plastic bags to apply to all retailers, a measure which the Lib Dems did their best to put in place under the Coalition Government, only to be rebuffed by the Tories.

Again, this is somewhat personal. As Director of Friends of the Earth back in the 1980s, we campaigned hard to reintroduce bottle deposit schemes. Even for Thatcher in her short-lived ‘green period’, this was an ideological bridge too far. As it is for Gove/May, despite having flirtatiously suggested that this was something the Government was ‘looking at very seriously’. All the evidence they need to justify such policy interventions already exists; the barrier is in ministerial minds obsessed with exhortatory voluntarism of every kind.

So whilst I appreciate that organisations like WWF, the RSPB and the Soil Association, all have to be rather more balanced in their response than I have been, do they really have to be quite so naïve? Isn’t it completely obvious that Gove’s principal intention here (apart from personal detoxification) is to try and persuade voters that our post-Brexit environment really will be safe in their hands. We already know nothing could be further from the truth. Post-Brexit, it will be trade first, and everything else (including environmental and animal welfare standards) just so much chaff to be negotiated away. Liam Fox makes no bones about this, happy to let Gove blather on knowing how these things will play out once the deals are being done – especially with the USA.

So why would anybody in the Green Movement be going along with this transparent deceit? Having completely failed to make the pro-environment case for Remain in the Referendum campaign in 2016, every one of our environmental NGOs should now be forensically focussed on ensuring that the Gove/Fox hard Brexit is avoided, reminding citizens of the calamity that awaits us if those free trade Brexiteers eventually get their way. This is absolutely not the time to be toadying up to Gove, even if he has promised to do a couple of things (to support the EU’s ban on neonicotinoids, for instance) that represent real victories for campaigners.

As for Theresa May herself, she must be only too happy to have Gove out and about as a born-again greenie – indeed, as the standard-bearer for wooing young people back into the Party on the strength of its new-found passion for the environment. From what I know of young people, this is a completely preposterous expectation, and Gove must know that. But that won’t stop him ‘reaching out’ to gullible environmentalists, wherever he can find them, to smear them with a little bit more green slime.
 

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Comments

14. 03. 2018
Trevor Watson

Where are the leaders of the environmental movement now? They have either been marginalised like JP or subsumed into one of the NGO’s that have collectively become businesses indistinguishable from the neoliberal establishment represented by the ‘Gove’s of this world’. NGO’s now have donors not grass root activists, donors that feel good by giving money instead of activist that feel good because they achieve something, no matter how small. For the past twenty years NGO’s (not just environmental NGO’s) have sought to cosy up to the establishment and compete with each other for influence and as a consequences there are now very few leaders in the environmental movement.

JP this needed to have been said, thank you, although I have always thought the recycling targets should have been replaced with waste production targets!

22. 02. 2018
Roderick Leslie

25 year plans are great - we need a long term vision to work to, not just endless short termism. And, of course, they need a lot of discussion and thinking about - which means Government doesn't have to do anything real whatsoever ahead of the next election - as I've been pointing out to RSPB etc since long before Gove took over.

And, of course, the powerful (think Natural England) new body to ensure Government performs is a brilliant new idea. It was called the Sustainable Development Commission until the Conservatives abolished it.

The only genuine ray of hope I see (and it only just emerges through the miasma of the plan) is the growing attention to natural Capital thinking - there really could be a chance for genuinely integrated land use that delivers what we need in 2050, rather than 1950. The NCC proposal for 250,000 hectares of community forest around our towns and cities could be transformational - I know, I worked on the real life examples the NCC based its economics on and they are genuinely transformative.

31. 01. 2018
Andrew Harmsworth

Brilliant! Why isn't this front page news? Sustainable Schools could be rekindled, if someone managed to suggest that Gove came up with it as a brilliant new idea to engage youth...

30. 01. 2018
christopher day

1000% endorsed

23. 01. 2018
Leah Graham

Love love love the tone of this - nice and refreshing to read honest commentary instead of the bland crap you usually get exposed to these days! The 25 year plan is still on my bedside table waiting to be read - just can't seem to work up the enthusiasm for it!

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