Why the environment matters
We see environmental concerns as part of a political philosophy based fundamentally on the replacement of conflict in our society with a culture of peaceful co-operation.
Humanity has for centuries, or perhaps millennia, seen nature largely as something to be conquered. This was not much of a problem when the total world population was only two million, and our distant ancestors are unlikely to have had a major impact on the environment as a whole. Now there is a global human population of nearly eight billion — and advanced technology on a vast scale — and we need to be more careful.
It’s not just that it’s dangerous to ignore the damage we are doing to our environment. An increasing number of people are finding that a life lived in tune with nature is more rewarding, and somehow more ‘right’. This is a difficult thing to define without becoming unfashionably mystical, but it seems to be strongly felt at some level by many, if not most people.
Ownership of land, responsibility and stewardship
In many traditional societies land could not be owned, any more than air could be owned — the concept of ownership simply did not apply to it. In developed ‘Western’ societies land ownership now seems perfectly natural, but it has not always been so, and relics of an older tradition still survive in the form of ‘common land’ and public ‘rights of way’.
It would not be easy to put the clock back, but there is much to be said for the idea of land as a common resource. Certainly the ownership of vast swathes of land by people whose ancestors acquired it by force or as a gift from the king for services rendered in battle, seems to have little moral justification.
There is a sense that, morally, all land is held in trust, so that that while an individual may be its legal owner, in a deeper sense we can only be custodians, with a responsibility, or even a duty, to take care of it, not to deny its proper use to other people who have a legitimate claim on it, and eventually to pass it on to future generations in good order and repair.
Pollution due to energy generation
It is generally recognised that the major environmental issue of the moment is pollution of the atmosphere. It is reasonable to suppose, and innumerable scientific studies confirm, that this not only causes health problems by poisoning the air we breathe, but also contributes to dramatic changes in climate that will have unpredictable consequences. Much of this pollution is caused by the burning of carbon-based non-renewable fuels such as gas, oil and coal in order to generate energy for transport, manufacturing, and domestic use.
The other major source of energy, nuclear fission, produces a different form of pollution — radio-active waste — that does not directly pollute the atmosphere (unless there is an accident as in the case of Three-Mile Island and, much more seriously, Chernobyl), but is hazardous, difficult to dispose of, and long-lasting.
It is clear that the use of fossil-fuels is unsustainable. The amount of ‘greenhouse gas’ in the atmosphere (principally carbon dioxide) is already too high and is increasing. Greenhouse gases must be phased out as soon as possible, unless ways can be found to extract virtually all carbon and other pollutants from their emissions.
While there is some political agreement in principle on these points, progress remains too slow. Ways must be found to accelerate the process, whether through taxation, pollution-levies, emissions regulation or more intensive promotion of schemes like carbon credits. Wide-scale re-afforestation can also help by re-absorbing some of the carbon dioxide that has already been released.
The issue of nuclear power is complex and there are things to be said on both sides. It is clearly unsatisfactory to create waste that will remain dangerous for hundreds or thousands of years. It takes a great deal of faith in the good sense of generations in the distant future to be confident that the storage of such products is not a significant hostage to someone else’s fortune. On the other hand it seems doubtful that sufficient power can be generated safely by alternative, non-polluting methods for them to be able to replace fossil fuels in the very near future.
This is a situation that needs intensive study before a definitive answer can be given. Unfortunately there is not much time for deliberation as it takes many years to bring nuclear power stations on stream. But there is much that can be done to reduce energy use and although this will not solve the problem, it could give us more time to find solutions.
Using less energy
Good, well-organised land-based public transport (trains, buses, trams) can be much more efficient than private cars. But it needs to be affordable, comfortable, to run at convenient times, and to connect a much wider range of destinations.
Providers should be required to work together to ensure that their services connect reliably and conveniently.
Prices should be reduced and standards improved dramatically. It needs to be recognised that a good transport service is of major benefit but costs significant amounts of money and cannot be operated as a profit-making business. Nationalisation or subsidies coupled with more stringent licensing conditions should be considered as possible ways of bringing about the desired changes.
At present around 50% of the cost of the railways system (for example) is carried by the tax-payer and 50% by passengers. We should aim for 90% of the cost to be a public expense and 10% to be paid by individual passengers.
Companies should be encouraged, by fiscal and other means, to enable their employees to work from home, and grants should be made available to companies wishing to develop secure intranets to facilitate this. Tele-working should replace commuting wherever possible, thus relieving the burden on the transport system, and video-conferencing must replace long-distance travel in all but exceptional circumstances.
Safe cycle-lanes should be mandatory on all new urban roads, and on existing roads where practicable. These should be combined with traffic control systems that give priority to cyclists and pedestrians.
No new inter-city roads should be built unless they can be clearly shown to be of overall environmental benefit, and the same criteria should be applied to any proposals for road-widening projects.
Energy-efficiency of moving vehicles decreases disproportionately at higher speeds. Serious consideration should be given to the possible reduction of the national speed limit to 60 m.p.h. (which is already the limit in many states in the USA) and speed limits should be rigidly enforced.
Alternative sources of energy
Reduction of energy consumption is not an end in itself — it is primarily a means towards reducing atmospheric pollution and the consequent climatic changes. The longer term objective must be the implementation of non-polluting sources of energy. This must be tackled far more seriously than is the case at present.
Other forms of environmental degradation
Although atmospheric pollution and its effect on the climate is a primary concern, there are numerous other ways in which humans are seriously damaging the environment, polluting the oceans, destroying fish-stocks, damaging the sea-bed, destroying habitats and causing massive rates of extinction.
There are, of course, numerous conferences on these issues, but we believe we should take a lead not only in pressing for but also in developing and implementing solutions. We should, for example actively support EU attempts to introduce much tighter legislation on fishing practices, encourage the development of advanced methods of recycling, and discourage use of land-fill.