At least we have some ideals to fall short of.
In her new book, Not In My Name, Julie Burchill reserves her grandest fury about hypocrites for environmentalists. We are, she says, pious, sexless and contemptuous of humankind. All of us are posh and rich, and have found in environmentalism a new excuse for lecturing the poor. We tell other people to live by rules we don’t apply to ourselves.
Like all stereotypes, these claims are lazy, familiar and sometimes true. Burchill knows nothing about environmentalism and, almost as a point of pride, hasn’t bothered to find out, but when you use grapeshot you are bound to hit someone. Yes, many prominent greens are posh gits like me. The same can be said of journalists, politicians, artists, academics, business leaders: in fact of just about anyone in public life. But it is always the greens who are singled out. In truth, while the upper middle classes are, as always, over-represented in the media, the movement cuts across the classes. A recent ICM poll found that more people in social classes D and E thought the government should prioritise the environment over the economy (56%) than in classes A and B (47%)(1).
Environmentalism is the most politically diverse movement in history. Here in the climate camp I have met anarchists, communists, socialists, liberals, conservatives and – mostly – pragmatists. I remember sitting in a campaign meeting during the Newbury bypass protests and marvelling at the weirdness of our coalition. In the front row sat the local squirearchy: brigadiers in tweeds and enormous moustaches, titled women in twinsets and headscarves. In the middle were local burghers of all shapes and sizes. At the back sat the scuzziest collection of grunge-skunks I have ever laid eyes on. The audience disagreed about every other subject under the sun – if someone had asked us to decide what day of the week it was, the meeting would have descended into fisticuffs – but everyone there recognised that our quality of life depends on the quality of our surroundings.
The environment is inseperable from social justice. Climate change, for example, is primarily about food and water. It threatens the freshwater supplies required to support human life. As continental interiors dry out and the glaciers feeding many of the rivers used for irrigation disappear, climate change presents the greatest of all threats to the future prospects of the poor. The rich will survive for a few decades at least, as they can use their money to insulate themselves from the effects. The poor are being hammered already.
Sure we are hypocrites. Every one of us, almost by definition. Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations – they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn’t moral purity (no one manages that) but cynicism.
In reality it is people like Julie Burchell – who is incidentally far richer than almost any green I’ve met – who treat the poor with contempt. So that she can revel in what she calls "reckless, romantic modernism", other people must die. But at least you can’t accuse her of hypocrisy: she cannot fail to live by her moral code, because she doesn’t have one. Give me hypocrisy any day.
1. See Mark Lynas, 2nd July 2008. Climate change is no longer just a middle-class issue. The Guardian.
Published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, 6th August 2008