Bring on the Third Runway - It's a Gift to the Green Movement; Let Battle Begin: Heathrow Protesters Earlier This Week. This Could Be the Moment We Decide the Environment Is What Matters Most

Article excerpt

Byline: ANDREW GILLIGAN

AS BOTH its opponents and, unintentionally, its supporters have demonstrated, the economic case for a Heathrow third runway is weak. But though today's announcement does not represent much of a boost for the London economy, it does throw a vital lifeline to another troubled cause: the British green movement.

Until now, this had not been a good few months for environmentalists.

Recessions seldom are. Sales of organic food, for instance, have dived as shoppers turn back to cheaper, factory-processed stuff. Now there is less money around, it will be harder for policymakers to pursue higher green taxes.

Green ideas have often flourished in times of plenty, when consumers have the so-called "luxury" of worrying about the environment, and dwindled at times of hardship, when immediate personal survival seems more urgent.

In 1989, the height of the Thatcher boom, the Green Party got nearly 15 per cent in a British Euro-election. Three years later, in recession, green issues had dropped off the agenda.

Even though economic activity, production, consumption, and thus damage to the environment will fall over the next few years, the risk is that the system's underlying unsustainability will not be addressed, with environmental destruction ready to roar right back when the economy picks up again.

Aside from the recession, the past few weeks have also seen challenges to some of British greenery's holiest totems. With incandescent lightbulbs soon to be banned, there's been a consumer revolt against their low-energy replacements. And we've learned that much of the time we spend sorting our rubbish for recycling is essentially wasted: the market for recycled paper has collapsed, and our painstakingly collected old boxes are being stored in warehouses instead.

I am an absolutely convinced environmentalist, and I do my best to live sustainably no car, brick in the cistern, loft insulation, woolly jumpers. But I still think the green movement has been in danger of losing its way.

At its worst the recycling fetish shows the almost religious nature of some environmentalism. Even when the recycling market was healthier, the carbon footprint of transporting, sorting and recycling waste was high; a lot of recycled materials weren't and aren't much use for making things anyway; and a great deal of "recycling" still ended up in landfill..

So an irritating superstructure of council nagging and fines for putting your crisp packet in the wrong bin has been erected, but the actual benefits to the planet are often minimal or nil.

Many greens concede this, if pressed, but say that's not the point the point is to "raise awareness". Ritualism, phoney atonement for your sins, the principal beneficiary your own sense of righteousness it has all too uncomfortably much in common with the Catholicism of my youth.

The same awareness argument was used to defend Ken Livingstone's [pounds sterling]25 charge on a few thousand gas-guzzling vehicles in two London boroughs, that absurd piece of gesture politics which would have made precisely no impact on C02. Carbon emissions and particulate pollution from London's traffic actually rose on Ken's watch (think of all those thousands of extra threequarters-empty buses belching out fumes from their eight-litre diesel engines, or all those cars accelerating away from all those extra red traffic lights). …