One Nation Environmentalism?

November 15, 2012 11:43 am

By Guy Shrubsole

Can you be both a patriot and an environmentalist? One seems to privilege the national over all else, my country right or wrong. The other requires you to think globally, to safeguard the interests of the planet as a whole. Greens tend to regard talk of national pride as an infantile disease. Nationalists are wont to rejecting environmental regulation as a threat to national competitiveness. Seldom do the twain meet.

But there ought to be ways a-plenty to reconcile love for one’s country with being a friend of the Earth. I don’t just mean that in the weak sense, that one can hold multiple identities at once. I mean that our national identity in Britain needs to be based on a profound sense of ecological purpose – and that our national narrative would be all the stronger for it. You might call it – to coin a phrase – One Nation Environmentalism.

Ed Miliband’s recent ‘One Nation Labour’ speech at his party’s conference was the latest salvo in Labour’s effort to reclaim patriotism for progressives. It followed in a vein begun seventy years ago by George Orwell, who tried to demarcate a patriotism of the left in his pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn.

For Orwell, the threat posed by Hitler and the advent of war made disdain for national feeling untenable. Miliband’s reasons for invoking patriotic feeling are clearly more parochial: a desire to park his tanks on Tory lawns, to stake out a claim to be a party of the nation as a whole not sectional interests, and to win back votes. But that the invocation of patriotism is itself seen as worthwhile is telling. Post-Danny Boyle, it is possible for the left to talk about the nation once again.

Greens should take note – and speak up. For today we have to fight a war of our own – the fight against catastrophic climate change. Yet this truly existential struggle seldom registers amongst the issues our political classes deem to be in the national interest.

What’s more, when politicians do talk about tackling climate change, they invariably focus on the technologies needed to wean us off fossil fuels – renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, electric cars. As a result such talk is often dry and desiccated, a laundry-list of technofixes seemingly bereft of any need for human heroism. Few discuss the social changes required to win this fight: a transformation of our society, the creation of a vast new green workforce, the forging of a new national purpose.

And this is what I mean by One Nation Environmentalism: a green patriotism that places the environment at the heart of our national identity.

All nations are “imagined communities” (to use Benedict Anderson’s nice turn of phrase), and all national narratives involve a certain amount of myth-making. This one would have the added benefit of being true, in four important ways.

Firstly, many Britons already equate the environment with a sense of Britishness. This is reflected in everything from the mass-membership of conservation groups (the National Trust recently gained its 4 millionth member) to the public’s impassioned defence of our national forests from privatisation. When YouGov polled the public on the eve of the Diamond Jubilee, it found that the thing most people thought best about Britain today was its countryside. A sense of place – the qualities of the environment around us – are crucial to feelings of belonging.

Secondly, becoming a green economy is now the only way for our nation to be prosperous in the long term: global competition for scarce resources and the pressures of global warming require us to be green, but also are creating a huge opportunity for new industries. Britain is already a world leader in offshore wind and wave technologies and could become a major exporter if it invests properly.

Thirdly, our national history obliges us to be at the forefront of efforts to stem the ecological crisis. As Danny Boyle’s brilliant Olympics opening ceremony reminded us – with its smokestacks and satanic mills – Britain’s industrial wealth was amassed at the expense of our green and pleasant land. Britain began the fossil fuel age; now it’s our chance to end it.

Lastly, the sheer threat of catastrophic climate change requires a response that places it at the heart of our national interest. That has been starkly apparent for many years, and this year’s record Arctic sea-ice melt only underlines the urgency. Doing so doesn’t in any way negate the need for international agreements or cross-country cooperation. Yes, global warming is, as the name suggests, a global problem. But it requires nations to have the courage to act when others won’t.

One Nation Environmentalism, then, would recognise the power of acting together as a nation to address the world’s greatest challenge. As Miliband put it, describing the success of the Olympics, “We joined together as a country. That’s why we achieved more than we imagined possible.” Faced with the Herculean task of arresting climate change, we need a sense of binding national purpose like never before.

So, then – yes. Yes, one can be both a patriot and an environmentalist, just as one can be leftwing and have national pride. But before I can feel truly proud of my country, our political leaders need to understand that One Nation politics has to walk hand-in-hand with the politics of One Planet.

Guy Shrubsole is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, writing here in a personal capacity

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • jip

    The problems is that politicians are forced to play the populist card in order to get elected, even though they know the environmental consequences of their policies. So both Ed and Obama bang on about lowering fuel prices, when what we need to be doing is increasing fuel prices to discourage driving, while of course improving public transport.

    Something like 30,000 people in the UK die prematurely every year because of air pollution, most of which comes from car emissions. But what politician dares to make war on the car?

    And when we come to energy, Obama’s championing of shale gas is frankly disgusting. I hope Ed doesn’t try to jump on this band wagon too.

  • Wyrdtimes

    “…the public’s impassioned defence of our national forests from privatisation. When YouGov polled
    the public on the eve of the Diamond Jubilee, it found that the thing
    most people thought best about Britain today was its countryside. A
    sense of place – the qualities of the environment around us – are
    crucial to feelings of belonging.”

    And this is the problem with Labour’s ‘one nation’ rhetoric. Only England’s forests were up for sale because the UK parliament can only sell England’s forests. Only England lacks the defence of a national government and so it bears the brunt of the UK governments cuts and asset sales. As far as the UK parliament is concerned there is no ‘one nation’ unless that one nation is England.


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