Zac Goldsmith

Science & Nature SpecialEcology

Time for Tories to turn Green

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Until quite recently, if it could be found at all in shops, the Ecologist magazine, which I edit, would invariably have been wedged somewhere between Motor Digest and Computer World at the far end of the lowest shelf in a magazine rack. That may have had something to do with the magazine itself. But not exclusively.

Survival of the planet, it goes without saying, is the ultimate priority. If only half the reports on the state of the world are true, then logically we should all be environmentalists. But we aren't, and environmentalism remains a 'niche' concern. Newspapers, terrified of upsetting the corporations that subsidise them, are partly to blame, having too often relegated the worst examples of environmental destruction to three-line notes at the end of obscure pages. 'Independent' scientists who report falsely in the interests of further corporate perks and grants are also responsible.

But so too are environmentalists. During the last general election, a BBC camera crew accompanied a Green party campaign bus through London. As the bus stopped in front of a petrol station, activists poured out, screaming at startled customers that they were 'killing the planet'. It was a frightening spectacle, and I would wager that the party, having berated the very people it was trying to enrol, failed to secure a single fresh vote on the back of it.

People don't choose to wreak havoc on the environment. If a Londoner consumes more than an Indian, it's because the system requires him to. The nature of the industrial economy is that luxuries like cars very quickly become necessities. If jobs are concentrated in urban centres, people have no choice but to commute morning and night. If basic foods are flown from one side of the world to the other, each mouthful is an ecological nightmare. These things don't make people better off and, unless you are ascetic or wealthy, you cannot avoid being a rampant consumer.

Blaming individuals is the wrong tactic, and ironically it is one that fits perfectly the agenda of the multinational corporations. It's much better for them that we campaign for an impossible change in apparently innate human greed than for a systemic approach to the symptoms of a deeper malaise that they are responsible for.

They know it, and that also explains why none of the main political parties is willing to engage in any form of systemic analysis. They all have opinions on how to run the NHS, but not one of them publicly wonders why it is that we are getting sicker year by year or why cancer has mushroomed to affect more than one in three people. Instead they share the view that the NHS should perform the role of mechanic, merely fixing the failures that inevitably accompany lifestyles which our evolution never bargained for.

They all express alarm at the unfolding rural crisis, but none has been willing to state the obvious: that rural Britain is being destroyed by the global food economy. For New Labour, the future involves more than half our farmers leaving the land, their farms amalgamated into ever larger units of industrial production capable of being 'internationally competitive'. For the Conservatives, rural decline is merely the sad but inevitable consequence of natural market pressures. But how can you have a free or fair market, given the concentration of power that agribusiness enjoys? Internationally, just two grain traders control 80 per cent of the world's grain trade. Our own domestic food retail market is controlled by four giants. Natural market pressures aren't bankrupting rural Britain. Policies are. We spend billions of pounds every year covering the indirect costs of intensive agriculture – not to mention the direct subsidies, 80 per cent of which go to just 20 per cent of Britain's farmers. Who pays for the infrastructure, without which it would be impossible for nations to justify swapping identical quantities of identical products on a routine basis? We do. What, for that matter, is the value to big businesses of the political access they enjoy?

When it comes to the big issues, the big parties have no answers at all. The reason is simply that the trail from the cancer epidemic, climate change or rural decline leads immediately to the doorstep of a tangle of powerful corporations. And all the mainstream parties broadly accept the premise that what's good for multinational corporations is good for the country. To that end, each of them regards attracting foreign direct investment to be a top priority for Britain. Unfortunately, so do the leaders of most countries, with the effect that we are all performing acrobatics to attract – through tax relief, subsidies and so on – the same corporations, just 100 of which account for a third of all such investment. The result is that global corporations have become more powerful than nation-states. Of the biggest 100 economies today, half are businesses. And with their financial power, it's impossible to exaggerate their political influence.

It's a problem that the Liberal Democrats have acknowledged, but their answer involves erecting an international political mega-structure, despite the fact that big institutions of this sort almost always yield to the interests of big business and ignore those of local communities. New Labour, meanwhile, is awash with corporate representatives, and regards anything that isn't covered in corporate logos as unfashionable. The Conservatives reject the anti-democratic EU, but bizarrely advocate, through their support of the World Trade Organisation, handing power to an even more unaccountable, even further removed decision-making body. WTO decisions are made by tiny groups of anonymous trade 'experts' behind closed doors. Its mandate is vast, and includes the power to overturn national or regional laws if they are seen to interfere with the interests of big business. Effectively it is illegal today for communities to set their own standards if in doing so they make it difficult for a giant corporation to make a profit. That became clear when the Prince of Wales suggested as a solution to the rural crisis that public hospitals, schools and the army should support local producers. The immediate response was that what he was proposing was an infringement of EU and WTO rulings.

For people who oppose further centralisation of corporate or political control, who do not want to be dependent for everything on anonymous corporations, who see a value in human-scale interactions, a general election provides little choice. It needn't be that way.

The Green party, despite an election farce, boasts some exceptional people – Caroline Lucas, for instance – and it is generating some impressive ideas. But for the time being at least voting for it is a form of protest.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, could make a difference. The traditionalists among them want neither big government nor big business, and should realise first that New Labour is better now at securing the patronage of multinationals, and that the kind of society pursued by the multinationals is one that in any case they theoretically abhor. Multinationals crave a single mass of identical consumers, each dependent on the same products and services that they alone provide. They need society to be atomised so that it cannot organise itself and must depend on central control.

If the Conservatives are to escape dissolving into insignificance, they need to emerge as the party with big ideas and a willingness to tackle pressing issues. Already there is talk within the party of instituting a system of referendums on local planning issues, such as supermarkets, new road schemes, airports and so on. The effect of this would be that real communities could defend themselves against the worst of a biased and centralised planning system, and would have the power to discriminate between useful and malignant 'progress'.

But the Conservatives need to go further. They can start by recogni sing the massive support that intensive agriculture for export enjoys, and lobbying for resources to be invested in rebuilding our crumbling domestic food infrastructure. They can call for renegotiation of the trade treaties to put communities and the environment before the interests of the multinationals. They can demand the adoption of the Precautionary Principal which assumes, at a time when the market is miles ahead of the science, that new technologies are guilty until they are proved innocent. And they can do everything possible to nurture, rather than destroy, strong local economies – by far the best insurance we have against continuing social and environmental breakdown.