Where did big red and green come from?

I’ve always been interested in the environment.  Having trained as a scientist, I’ve been conscious of the threat of climate change for a long time.  But it I’m being honest, I’ve never really found the environment movement, nor the ideas they’ve been pushing forwards, particularly appealing. Apart from the ‘hair shirt’ element of their ethos (I like my home comforts thank you), I’ve never really bought into the idea that a retreat to nature would help things.  Just as I’m pretty keen on the antibiotics and modern sanitation that mankind has invented to help us overcome nature (and premature death), I also tend to think that more not less human ingenuity will help us overcome the environmental problems ahead.  With this view in my head, two things happened that helped shape my thinking to come up with the concept of ‘big red and green’ ideas.

Firstly, I was at a meeting organised by Progress (a group that is part of the Labour Party) looking at what the environment means for the Labour Party.  I was struck very strongly by the realisation that although the in Labour Party we have our own distinct views and values on almost everything, when it came to talking about the environment, my comrades were using the same words and perspectives as the those in the environment movement.  When we talked about social justice in the context of climate change, our ambition was to making sure that the poorest people weren’t worse off than they are now.  But, as a party of change I couldn’t help but think that our ambitions had been curtailed somewhat if the best we can hope for out of environmental action was the status quo – why, when it came to the environment had we dropped our ambitions for social progress?  The environmentalists’ talk of safeguarding, protecting and conserving just didn’t make sense within a party motivated by fairness, justice and a better future.

Secondly, after a couple of years of writing blog pieces and asking questions that pushed this viewpoint, I was given a copy of a book called ‘Breakthrough – the death of environmentalism’ by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.  To be more precise, the book was passed to me in a brown envelope under the table with a naughty look from a colleague at a SERA executive meeting.  If you haven’t read it, an essay outlining the central themes of the book is here.  In short, Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that the environmentalists’ narrative is wrong.  Far from climate change being a tale of man’s fall from grace, it’s a story of ignorance and inappropriate technology and that the solution will be found in more, cheaper, cleaner technology.  Suddenly, in this illicit book, I had found others who shared my perspective on the environment.

Put together, these two thoughts turned into the concept of ‘big red and green’ thinking. Green, because we have to be more sustainable; Red because only progressive ideas will deliver the better, fairer future we on the left want; Big because the challenges ahead are huge – tackling climate change is no mean feat, but doing it while still improving the quality of people’s lives is massive.

Some people say it can’t be done, that we have to accept that future generations will have a lower quality of life than we have.  I say I’m not ready to give up yet.


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