Four decades of getting an ‘ecological perspective’ into politics: we are 40

PrintAccording to an early promotional leaflet, Green Alliance was set up “by a group of individuals concerned that Britain’s political parties were failing to understand or respond to environmental issues”. Plus ça change. With an emphasis on “ideas more than issues”, the organisation aimed “to introduce an ecological perspective into British political life”.

This has been our aim ever since and is needed now more than ever as the scale of the climate and ecological emergency we face becomes clearer. Over our history we have used various methods to achieve it, from poetry and the arts to analysis, thought leadership and brokering historical political pledges.  One ‘softer’ way we do it is by getting people together to talk, to understand the relevance of environmental issues and to catalyse action.

Like many others, my first engagement with Green Alliance was at an event, a 25th anniversary party in 2004. There I heard the then environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, praise Green Alliance’s “important role in helping politicians and the green movement to understand one another”. But what really struck me, a few weeks after becoming chief executive of CPRE (the Campaign to Protect Rural England), was that Green Alliance had very helpfully gathered in one big room almost all the green movers and shakers I needed to meet.

We are now marking our 40th anniversary, an occasion both to celebrate past success and to consider the opportunities that lie ahead. In this blog, I thought I would kick off our celebrations with a look back at our history. Over the coming months we’ll be asking colleagues and friends of Green Alliance from all the sectors we work with to give us their perspectives on the progress made over the past 40 years and the challenges for the future.

Rising public awareness met with political silence
Green Alliance was launched in 1979 at the end of a decade of rising public environmental awareness but relative political silence. The founder members included artists and poets, as well as politicians, and to some, notably Green Alliance’s first chair, Maurice Ash, the ecological perspective meant challenging economic orthodoxy and embracing new ways of living. For them, the ‘green’ in Green Alliance was of a pretty deep shade. One hears echoes of some of Green Alliance’s early thinking in new movements such as Extinction Rebellion, unembarrassed by emotion and intent on fundamental societal change.

But, for good or bad, after a few years the organisation stopped meditating on the shortcomings of “the mechanistic worldview of Cartesian-Newtonian science” and focused instead on political advocacy. In the early days, we hosted debates (often in gentlemen’s clubs), made connections and developed a thorough knowledge of the parliamentary process. In the days before the internet, Green Alliance’s Parliamentary Newsletter told a wide network of organisations what was going on in Westminster.

Our methods were not always popular with other environmentalists. Initiatives such as the ‘common agenda’ with business, launched in 1984, were viewed with deep suspicion but, as it turned out, we were the pioneers. Many environmental organisations now work with businesses, understanding that they are often ahead of politics in seeing the need for change, and acting on it.

Over 40 years, Green Alliance has made its mark. Here are just a few of our claims to fame:

  • We were instrumental in founding other organisations, including the Environment Agency, the National Food Alliance (now Sustain, itself a great spawner of influential organisations), Waste Watch and the Carbon Trust
  • We played a major part in promoting and mainstreaming green finance, including supporting Tessa Tennant, an early Green Alliance staffer, in the launch of the Merlin (now Jupiter) Ecology Fund
  • Our influence on biotechnology and GM food policy, led by Julie Hill, strengthened legislation
  • We helped to frame and push the concept of a circular economy and are still promoting the policies to make it a reality
  • Our coalition of NGOs raised government ambition on climate change in the run-up to the Paris conference, culminating in the historic cross-party pledge to phase out coal
  • We persuaded the government to commit to deploying offshore wind at scale
  • Recently, we have pioneered, with the National Trust, the concept of Natural Infrastructure Schemes, now being trialled for the new environment land management scheme
  • And, over the years, we have hosted speeches, containing important environmental commitments by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and many others. Al Gore’s speech in 2015 was a particular highlight.

In reading about our early achievements in the 25th anniversary annual report, Looking back, thinking forward… I was interested in a piece by Tom Burke, a significant figure in our history, recalling how in the run-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Green Alliance “set the model for NGO engagement in UN Conferences”. What Tom did not mention is that much of the action took place on a symbolic boat trip down the Danube, from Budapest to Vienna, crossing the divide between east and west Europe.

Shifting up a gear to take on current challenges
Green Alliance has long had a role in convening other environmental groups to create effective political interventions. This shifted up a gear with the formation of Greener UK, shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, leading to the most wide ranging and deep collaboration ever between UK environmental groups. Our advocacy with this unprecedented coalition has won the promise of an ambitious new Environment Bill, and a central presence for the environment in the Brexit debate.

Beyond the immediate Brexit crisis is the environmental and climate emergency. As we acknowledged at the launch of our Natural Environment theme in 2015, persuading governments, individuals and businesses to prioritise long term sustainability is an enormous challenge. But, in our fourth decade, with a long track record behind us, it is one we are primed and ready to take on. As ever, we will be harnessing the best organisations and minds to help us do it.

And it starts here. On 26 June, together with the Climate Coalition we will be pressing home the case for immediate action at a mass lobby of parliament on 26 June: The Time is Now. Our newly established cross-NGO collaboration, currently with the working title ‘Cutting Carbon UK’, is making the case for  the policies needed now to ensure the UK becomes a net zero emissions economy by 2050.

As we await the election of a new prime minister, one recurring theme from the Green Alliance archive remains pertinent: politicians can talk a good game on the environment when they feel the need to, but they ignore it the rest of the time, and most of them, in the ‘non-environmental’ departments, are reluctant to talk about it at all. Witness recent major speeches by the foreign secretary and the international trade secretary, setting out their priorities for the future as if the environment simply did not matter.

For all our many successes, the need for our work has not gone away. Politicians still have to understand the ‘ecological perspective’ as central to every decision they make.  And we haven’t got another 40 years to wait for it to happen.

Look out for a major future focused Green Alliance event later this year at which we will also be celebrating our 40th with our many partners, old and new.

This post is the first in our 40th anniversary blog series in which we will feature reflections from Green Alliance’s former staff, friends and associates over the years.

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