Thursday, 9 July 2009

New green thinking in the City?

‘There is no environmental quantitative easing’. These were the words of a senior UK-government figure today, as he addressed a select gathering on the eighth floor of a City bank in London.

He’s right. In fact, his statement is simply a diplomatic version of ‘Nature doesn’t do bail-outs’, the slogan which adorned banners during Climate Camp’s occupation of the City in April this year.

He went on – talking of over-fishing, biodiversity loss and climate change. ‘This’, he said, referring to the environment, ‘has to be part of your day job’. It was impassioned stuff and the room of eminent financiers and UN-types nodded sagely.

The trouble is that despite the fine words from the assembled dignitaries we are still a very long way from this situation.

I should explain. The purpose of the meeting was to raise awareness of a programme seeking to quantify the economic value of the environment and the ‘services’ it provides (water purification, soil production, carbon storage, recreation, health etc.). As such it is part of an admirable effort to do for ecosystems and biodiversity what the Stern report has done for climate change by explaining them in financial language which economists and politicians can understand, and providing some hard numbers.

That a programme like this can get taken up, funded and promoted at the highest levels is in itself a sign of real progress. Not too long ago people who put cash values on trees and clean air were called hippies and kept out of the room. I suppose we should be happy.

The thing is that a lot of the meeting focussed on how to communicate the value of ecosystems and biodiversity ‘services’ to the public. While this is essential, I couldn’t help put feel that a large part of the reason for public apathy was down to those very people in the room. For all their fine words, these banks sill invest in dirty energy, illegal mining, motorway construction and the rest. They also finance the advertisers and PR companies which have done such an outstanding job of denigrating the environmental movement and all those who stand in the way of ever greater consumption. They talk of the need to educate the public, yet it seems that the public will take poorly to being lectured by companies which on the one hand claim green credentials and expect the same of their consumers, while at the same time generating colossal profits from highly polluting industries.

Yet we cannot totally blame business, since they largely function within the rules set for them. Government too must take responsibility and show some leadership. In their defence, politicians and civil servants sometimes bemoan the public’s lack of interest in environmental issues – yet the politicians have not really made the case and have been content to sit back and let business continue as usual. Efforts to educate on climate change have been slow to start, patchy and self-conscious. Think of the bumbling Dad in those TV adverts who believes that green is the colour of his car, or that carbon footprint has something to do with shoes. And that’s just climate change – efforts to educate on other environmental issues simply don’t exist.

Finally, NGOs and activists must also take responsibility. Someone said that Martin Luther King did not start his speech by saying ‘I have a nightmare’, sadly, and for fully understandable reasons this is what the green movement was forced to do. We need to be better at offering a positive image of the future. This has begun to happen, but there are years of adverse messaging to overcome. We must make it clear that it is not about the hair-shirt, or the medieval lifestyle, but about trying to find a better, happier way to live. Perhaps if we can all work together to put that message across then in the future it won’t be about how the banks can educate the public, but about how the governments we elect set the rules for the banks.


  1. According to the report published by MP's on Friday, there should be a third runway at Heathrow airport as it would reduce the "excessive" stacking of aircraft. Source FT
    Do you feel this is a justified conclusion.

  2. Not sure Peter, but I won't let that stop me! I would suspect that it might help reduce stacking in the short term, but as I understand it long term figures from the industry and government used to support the runway all predict a massive growth in flights, necessitating a fourth and fifth runway in due no.... the recession might have slowed thatdown a bit though..