In parliament, environmentalists still seem like a minority

2701153820_0f29d46bf4_b.jpgThis post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

In his blog for Green Alliance last week, Lord Deben argued that environmentalists must mature into the mainstream, set aside fringe tactics and speak with a constructive voice. He is surely right that we need to offer credible solutions to the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. But his portrayal of the sector needs one adjustment. These days, we environmentalists don’t behave as if we are a minority. The caricature of the anti-establishment activist can no longer sum up the movement. Instead, we speak with the voice of an under represented majority, with all the authority and confidence that entails. It’s this under representation – the systemic neglect of environmental thinking – that should be the focus of our attention, not simply the style of our approach.

We know environmentalism has popular support
In 2016 the image of ‘eco-warrior’ Swampy feels nostalgic. Environmental NGOs speak assertively about the breadth of their support. The organisations that make up Greener UK boast eight million members, Wildlife and Countryside Link is an alliance of 47 partners, and polls show a popular mandate, like the 80 per cent of people who want environmental protection to be as strong or stronger when we leave the EU.

Even when NGOs take direct action, they do so with the expectation of huge support. When Greenpeace raise its flags at motor rallies or rebrands the Brexit Bus, it knows the images will be shared millions of times.  Environmentalists are confident that we speak with the voice of the majority.

But we struggle with parliamentary support
Unfortunately, widespread public sentiment does not translate automatically into legislation. We have an amazingly rich language of conservation that people really understand: recycling, protected species and renewable energy. But law has lagged behind language. While millions instinctively understand the economic, social, aesthetic, spiritual and intrinsic value of nature, our day to day decision making routinely ignores it. While every child knows we can’t keep taking from nature without putting something back, our politics is still built on an outdated model of everlasting exploitation.

Consider this: last year, an act of parliament required the government to maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum; meanwhile the Energy Act 2016 completed a set of planning changes that would make development of new onshore wind almost impossible. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 paved the way for a million new homes, but government fought against proposals for those homes to be zero carbon or guarded by natural flood resilience measures.

While many MPs and peers do speak up tirelessly and valiantly for environmental protection, the victories come when champions, like Lord Deben, punch home an argument. The status quo is for environment to feature at best as a nice to have, at worst as burdensome red tape, but almost always lower in the pecking order than profit and growth. It is politics that struggles with the language of nature, not people and campaigners.

What needs to change?
The challenge is embedding the logic of environmentalism in decision making. Not every environmental threat has the popular urgency of air pollution or the instant outrage of the forest sell-off. Instead, the nature friendly choice needs to be the natural choice in the humdrum and the day to day, as much in parliament as in business, local planning or the supermarket.

We have a firm foundation. Site and species protection, chemicals regulation and land management rules are strong regulatory compulsions that rule out or require certain behaviours. Many of these keystone standards come from the EU and it is essential that we uphold them and proceed to enforce them better than ever.

But to turn around the ongoing decline, we need to build on that foundation by converting popular support for our values into aims and principles that guide democratic decision making. We need targets for environmental improvement. We need structured markets and investment to reward greener choices, especially in our farming system. We need accountability and clear parliamentary reporting on our environment, just as we do for other public priorities like education and the economy. And environmental considerations need to be in every clause of our trade deals as we negotiate the possibilities for exiting the EU. These changes are about converting public opinion into parliamentary, business and planning decisions, where today our majority voice is still marginal.

In this year of change, there will be separate plans for environment, farming, infrastructure, decarbonisation and industrial strategy, as well as new constitutional law and trading relations. Our challenge, as a voice of popular opinion, is to make sure our message is reflected in parliamentary debate. It is the challenge of every parliamentarian, to balance the stubborn but familiar voices of conventional wisdom with the popular and progressive demand for good environmental sense.

We must keep our minds open
As a mature and diverse community, environmentalists should present a compelling and positive case for a Greener UK. We must follow Lord Deben’s advice and be empathetic, gracious, positive and accessible. We must strive to be more representative and more collaborative. We must bring the voice of the people into the establishment.

Let’s hope, though, that amid the suits and sensible ties, there will always be a few brash voices and wild hairstyles, a few rebels and troublemakers. We must use this time of political change to translate popular environmentalism into establishment thinking, but we must always keep our minds open for the next Silent Spring.

[Image courtesy of UK Parliament from Flickr Creative Commons]


  • Perhaps to achieve the desired aim with MPs and Lords, ministers and parties, you lobby groups need to be more positive, all embracing and supportive in your lobbying.
    Also quite separately Europe (MEPs, the Commission etc) has been leading on the environment – as I am sure you know – and we need to support them, even after Brexit: we have been and still are too isolationist. Where is a post-Brexit pan-European environmental forum? Who in Britain has been lobbying against the destruction of Poland’s Bialowieza Forest, for example?

    • Thanks for writing, Roger. You’re absolutely right, we really do need to stand together to achieve change. That’s what we’re trying to do with new alliances like Greener UK, which does have strong links in Europe, not least through the brilliant IEEP.

      We’re looking now to other agreements like CBD and the Bern Convention to take forward the internationalism we need. There’s lots of inter-NGO collaboration across borders, too. At WWT, for example, we work with Wetlands International and Birdlife and you may have seen our Flight of the Swans project to highlight the importance of international conservation collaboration.

  • It is easy to wax lyrically about the importance of nature and the countryside from the green benches but the political choices that actually play out prioritise policies that is leading us into environmental and social mayhem. This article hints at the radical changes we need. Its premise is that the majority of us gets the importance of a healthy thriving natural environment and it is the elected politicians are lagging behind. If this is the case then we need a democracy fit for purpose. The changes that Mr. Benwell wants to see will most likely never happen under our present FPTP voting system. It would be great if the environmental NGOs started having this conversation more publically.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alison. While we wouldn’t usually comment on the big constitutional questions that don’t have a direct environmental aspect, we certainly will be pressing for change to democratic processes where they clearly affect our charitable objects.

      A couple of examples (1) when the Great Repeal Bill arrives in Parliament, we will be looking at the Parliamentary process for changing EU law to make certain that everything is scrutinised properly (2) we’re pushing for clear accountability and stronger environmental regulators to ensure delivery of environmental objectives. There are some great models, like the Welsh Future Generations Commissioner, the idea of an Office for Environmental Responsibility, or a stronger Natural Capital Committee. These should all bring more environmentalism into our democratic system.

      • Thanks Richard. I do understand that you have to be careful not to stray beyond your remit but if there are ways of linking the democratic deficit and the impact it is having on your charitable objects then I think that is worthwhile to pursue. We are in really choppy waters now with Brexit and Trump so being a bit more “political” is more of an imperative then ever before. All the above you cited is great and should be happening but radical change that you implied in your article that is authentic and enduring has to be validated by the public. The only way to do that is through a democratic mandate. The opportunity for this change to happen will only come about through a fairer voting system.

  • The 80% who want environmental protection perhaps has to be counted with care insofar as a significant proportion might consider anything like wind turbines in their back yard as degrading their environment, so I hope it’s not cited too carelessly in negotiations. Even here I would hope for more granularity. MPs presumably hear NIMBY arguments more than do environmental NGOs, so that making an argument based on this number simplistically could be easily ignored. Whether one admits any given weakness in an argument or waits for someone else to point it out –or to implicitly note it– is of course a delicate part of any negotiation.

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