How will environmental politics be framed in the post-election muddle, and will the daunting figure of Michael Gove challenge some of the fundamentalist interests in countryside politics?
Watching the enemy camp – respectfully
As I discussed in ECOS 38 (1), an opinion former and Times columnist who has the ear of government is Matt Ridley, who sits in the House of Lords. He owns estates in the North East coal country, does not believe that climate change is a threat or that renewable energy can significantly alter what the climate does. He is fond of GMOs and nuclear power, industrial agrichemicals and well-regulated use of pesticides and pharmaceuticals. He is an anti-ennvironmentalist, who would be dismissed by Greens as a ‘denier’ and self-serving aristocrat in alignment with the interests of capital. I recommend the post-election piece he wrote as Opinion in The Times, 19 June 2017.
There he defends grouse moor ownership and management, in particular, the control of predators, which he argues, has led to the recovery of the iconic curlew, in rapid decline almost everywhere else. He regularly defends no-plough management courtesy of Monsanto, as the best way of conserving soil organic matter and related fauna. He reports routinely on the subsidy sapping nature of renewable energy infrastructure, carbon credit trading, and all the related corruptions of brokers, bankers and their financial mechanisms for making vast profits in a distorted politically driven market. Like many of the people who read him, Ridley is committed to the free market and can hardly wait for Brexit’s completion. Which is odd, being one of those rare people in parliament who does understand the science and economics of countryside issues, because post-Brexit, many people expect a serious reduction in subsidies. Ridley actually argues for that drop of subsidy as an opportunity to increase efficiency and value for money in farming. He would keep the European Union’s directives on habitat and species protection – because, frankly, no landowner has much to fear from them. After all, since they have been in operation in British farming, they have failed to halt a massive decline in farmland birds – at 80-90% for some key species like turtle dove or yellowhammer, and the fate of birds has also been mirrored by amphibians, reptiles, butterflies and moths.
He is no great fan of rewilding – I have discussed this with him. He sees however a ‘more efficient’ agriculture liberating land which can then be allocated to new conservation areas.
Political colours and their prejudices
Within the spectrum of political colours, I think Ridley represents likely policy from the Blue corner, which with the exception of the single Green, will be opposed not because of a passion, but because it is the nature of oppositions to oppose. The SNP, with a tad more influence in a hung parliament, but not a decisive one, may be ‘environmental’ with there hard-edged renewable energy targets for Scotland, but I haven’t heard of any conservationists among them. On the contrary, Scottish governments have sacrificed conservation objectives such as open landscape and wildness, to wind turbines and a funicular railway.
With the current precarious balance of powers, I suspect that the Blues will moderate their climate scepticism and hatred of subsidies. And the Reds, knowing nothing of these matters, as far as I can tell, will make cause with the Left-Liberal Greens.
In all this trading, Ridley highlights the key issue, but one seldom addressed – the role of interests. The new environment minister Michael Gove, Ridley tells us, has a history of standing up to vested interests. Ridley does not reflect on what vested interests Gove might stand for. But as he has no history of environmental engagement, we can assume he has no sympathies other than those of the Blue camp in general – let the free market rule, minimal regulation, and jobs for the boys.
If, Gove rules for any length of time, then the countryside could change radically. Hill farming with sheep will disappear from many areas. The hills will be less cluttered by turbines, which is already happening due to the curtailment of that subsidy troughing. Fracking will get licenses, nuclear power will expand with foreign capital, and GMOs would have a freer hand. Some farmland might be become surplus due to foreign imports of cheap food. Conservation areas might grow. The Blues generally cave in to public ire – for example, over the proposed sale of the nation’s public forests, but then seek ways to get what they want by stealth.
Reintroducing the Green Blob
If the Reds get the upper hand….well, they have their own boys in need of jobs – so fracking, turbines, nukes, GMOs? What about powerful green vested interests to bend the minister’s mind? Ridley thinks these exists. He looks toward the green bureaucracies, the bankers and brokers and sellers of renewable generators, and to a legion of zealots in the media and campaign groups. The Green Lobby is seen as influential but wrong on issues of climate (where I agree with him), organic farming, sustainable development, human health, community and wildlife protection (where I don’t agree with him). And it is this lobby he urges Gove to stand up to. A previous Environment Minister Owen Patterson dubbed much of this constituency the Green Blob, and Ridley wants a return to that thinking.
We conservationists might reflect therefore on the dearth of environmental understanding within the dominant political paradigm, where health, the war on terror, ageing, immigration, housing and public services dominate an agenda still tied to measures of Gross Domestic Product. Issues of the environment exist outside of normal politics – taken up by campaigners and the media, and supported by large memberships attached to organisations such as the RSPB, WWF, FOE and the National Trust. Can it be that these members simply cannot get the link between environmental problems and economic growth, the direction of development and the vested interests of finance and the corporate world? Is it a form of denial?
And then there is Ridley’s take on environmentalism – as a form of denial, where things have never been so good, where, as with climate change, threats were overplayed (acid rain, nuclear risks, DDT, forest destruction etc.) and the anti-growth brigade simply Reds in disguise, determined to create a global command economy. My sense is that he represents the mainstream sympathies of a good few Reds as well as the Blues and that his cogent intellectual arguments will find little informed and effective opposition.
Peter Taylor’s most recent work The Spirit of Rewilding was published in 2017. Find it here. His 2011 edited volume, Rewilding, is available from BANC publications.
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