Julie Burchill can’t stand them. According to her new book, Not in my Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy, she thinks all environmentalists are po-faced, unsexy, public school alumni who drivel on about the end of the world because they don’t want the working classes to have any fun, go on foreign holidays or buy cheap clothes.
Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, agrees. In an interview with Rachel Sylvester and me, he told us that the “nutbag ecologists” are the overindulged rich who have nothing better to do with their lives than talk about hot air and beans.
So the salad days are over; it’s the end of the greens. Where only a year ago the smart new eco-warriors were revered, wormeries and unbleached cashmere jeans are now seen as a middle-class indulgence.
But the problem for the green lobby isn’t that it has been overrun by “toffs”: it’s the chilly economic climate that has frozen the shoots of environmentalism. Espousing the green life, with its misshapen vegetables and non-disposable nappies, is increasingly being seen as a luxury by everyone.
Only a year ago, according to MORI, 15 per cent of those polled put the environment in their top three concerns. That figure has dropped by a third to 10 per cent this month. Now that people are fighting for their own survival rather than their grandchildren’s, they put crime, the economy and rising prices at the top of their list.
According to Andrew Cooper, director of the research company, Populus: “There is a direct correlation between how people perceive the economy and the importance they place on the environment. When times are tough people resent paying more to salve their conscience.” This means that fewer people are now buying organic chickens from smart supermarkets when they can pay £3.99 at Lidl. With all food prices rising, the organic market is being credit-crunched. Demand for it grew by 70 per cent from 2002 to 2007; now it has stalled, according to the consultancy Organic Monitor.
The vast new organic Whole Foods Store on Kensington High Street in London is so quiet you can hear the cheese breathe in the specially designed glass room. Meanwhile the demand for takeaway pizzas and McDonald’s has risen as people find the cheapest way to eat.
When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party he said that green issues were at the top of his agenda. His slogan for the local elections last year was “Vote Blue, Go Green”. But in the past few months he has realised that voters have lost the appetite for their greens.
He has only given one environmental speech since Christmas. Once he used to talk about putting a £3,000 windmill on top of his house. Now the message is not about conserving the planet but preserving his bank balance. He wears catalogue clothes, grows his own vegetables and holidays barefoot in Britain because it is less extravagant, not because he is trying to reduce his global footprint.
In fact, when the Tory leader’s bicycle was stolen a week ago, the message of the story was not how green he was for riding his bike, but how broken our society has become when a politician finds his bike nicked from under his nose.
Boris Johnson was the first to realise that the tolerance for green taxes may have peaked. When he became Mayor of London, he dropped plans to charge a £25 congestion fee on gas-guzzling cars.
The Tories have quietly been reviewing many of their green policies. A range of measures designed to penalise motoring and other polluting activities has been put on hold in case they alienate families struggling to pay their bills. A proposal to tax the highest emitting cars up to £500 more than the greenest vehicles has been quietly shelved, as has the plan to raise taxes on short-haul flights. Instead George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, has promised to cut tax on fuel when oil prices rise.
Gordon Brown has also stopped discussing his solar panels and compost heap in Scotland and is trying to dissociate himself from local council rubbish taxes – even though they have been driven by central government plans to put up landfill charges.
Both parties are looking at ways of rewarding people for being green rather than penalising them for throwing out their yoghurt pots with their teabags. Mr. Osborne, in a speech last month, admitted: “When people are feeling the pinch, we need to make it pay to go green. Instead of being fined for not recycling, households should be paid for recycling.”
When Barack Obama first decided to run for the presidency, he embraced the green cause. Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming had just become the biggest grossing documentary in history and Mr Gore had won the Nobel prize. But recently Mr. Obama has been talking more about thrift than trees. Instead of showing off his recycling skills, he explains that his children don’t receive Christmas or birthday presents.
It’s not just the economic downturn that has harmed the green order. People have become wary of environmental causes that can turn out to do more harm than good. They don’t want wind turbines marching across Britain’s moors when nuclear power stations can do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They worry that washing and bleaching all those non-disposable nappies may be damaging the ozone layer, that the massive incentives for biofuels have distorted the world food market, and that green taxes are actually stealth taxes.
But paradoxically, just as Britain is turning its back on the environment, the country is finally becoming greener. Fewer people are moving house so they are buying fewer new white goods such as washing machines and fridges. They may not be queueing up for £9 organic Poilâne bread, but for the first time in a decade they are discarding less food. They buy less impulsively and think more carefully before their weekly shop. Children are wearing hand-me-down uniforms rather than new ones made in sweatshops.
Bottled water sales have fallen. Garden centres have reported a 10 per cent rise in the sales of vegetable seeds in the past 12 months. People are saving money by growing their own potatoes and carrots. They are turning off their central heating for a few more months of the year and ditching their second car rather than buying an electric runaround. And instead of carbon-offsetting their holidays, they are simply going on fewer of them.
It’s the downturn that has made greenery look unappetising – but it may yet prove to do more than anything to save the planet.