Newcastle: people power, not car fumes

Grey Street roadspace plan

Newcastle council has a number of schemes in the pipeline or under discussion regarding the reallocation of road space and changed traffic movements, especially in the city centre. One for Grey Street has been widely publicised but more changes are seemingly in store. The Green Party generally welcomes this change of direction in local transport policy. They are certainly a step in the right direction but we need wider, deeper and, most importantly, permanent changes on these lines. All so far are being badged as “temporary”. There does not seem to be the urgency and breadth of vision evident in other UK cities, notably London and Brighton. The London borough of Walthamstow  seems to be particularly ahead in these respects.[i] That said, other countries seem yet again to be leaving the UK behind.[ii]

At the heart of the changes is more space and safer space for pedestrians and cyclists. That must mean reduced lanes for road traffic. Apart from Grey Street, other streets highlighted include Queen Victoria Road and Gallowgate. Both certainly need change but there seem to be major gaps.

For example, the south side of St Mary’s Place seems to be left out yet it is one of the most congested pavements in the city centre, one also cluttered with obstacles for those with limited eyesight. Furthermore, buses often wait there with engines running while waiting to access the Haymarket bus station. Suburban areas also need similar action. Just look at the narrow pavement opposite the Brandling Arms on Gosforth High Street, for example. So, we cannot confine action to just a few streets. Milan, of example, is targeting 22 miles of streets, transforming them into safer places for pedestrians and cyclists.

Other changes

Pedestrian crossing times are to be made more frequent to stop bunching as people wait. That is a direct contradiction — and rightly so — of the previous obsession with keeping the traffic flowing. That has been a policy that, if successful, only encourages more traffic onto the road and is therefore self-defeating in the long run. We also need slower crossing times since current ones are not long enough for less mobile people to cross safely.

Then there are going to be one-way traffic schemes. It seems that this will also apply to pedestrians on Northumberland Street, with street marshals to give guidance. More broadly there may be a new circulation plan to reduce direct routes, especially in the city centre, and thereby discourage drivers. Such schemes have worked in cities such as Ghent. We need to see such measures as part of an overall plan to curb the car whilst boosting public transport, cycling and, most of all, walking.

An essential accompaniment to such plans must be action to make streets more attractive, with flower beds and trees. Unnecessary ‘clutter’, aesthetic and physical, has to go too. We need streets where people will want to walk, not just walk safely. The same goes for cycling, of course. It also means a crackdown on firms whose bike riders routinely go on pavements, speed past pedestrians and ignore traffic lights. One company in particular comes to mind. Such firms must be held responsible for the behaviour of their employees.


There are, however, fundamental contradictions in the current situation. One survey revealed that 24% of people plan to use public transport less. It would cause an explosion in car driving. Imagine the resulting congestion and pollution. A knock-on effect would be to undermine further the already fragile economic state of public transport operators. That applies to the Metro as much as buses. Further traffic is likely to be added by a big new shift to on-line shopping and van deliveries during the lockdown. That could become a new ‘normality’, to the detriment of local businesses and efforts to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Already air pollution levels have risen back to pre-Covid-19 levels in China and Vietnam as well as some European countries. The same could easily happen here, especially if economy recovery is perceived in terms of getting traffic flowing and planes flying just as before the crisis. It is a hard thing to state but the Covid-19 crisis, with all its suffering, physical and mental, did open the door to really progressive changes in society but the opportunity will slip away without comprehensive planning within the framework of the sustainable common good. A failure to provide sufficient safe space could also help to sow the seeds of a second and possibly more costly Covid-19 wave.

Interlocking crises need integrated answers

Safer spaces are actually only part of the picture. Far bigger health problems and other dangers are looming in the future, all, however, tied in different ways, both direct and indirect, to the immediate Covid-19 crisis. There is, for example, a general public health crisis bigger and deeper than the current pandemic. It has helped a situation in which millions have what are somewhat euphemistically called ‘underlying health conditions’, ones which, apart from their specific costs in terms of wellbeing and premature deaths, make sufferers much more vulnerable to Covid-19

One cause is sheer inactivity. Many people simply do not get enough exercice. It is linked to one in six deaths. Sometimes it seems if buildings and other spaces are almost designed to keep people inactive. The same is true of many jobs where people sit slouched in badly designed staring at screens all day long and then sit in their cars when they travel around. We need attractive and safe spaces to get people walking and cycling. You don’t need expensive gyms to be fit!

Then there is the toll from general air pollution. It is a far bigger killers and it kills all the time, unlike pandemics. Again, it seems to have made people more at risk from Covid-19. Estimates vary but it seems that over 40,000 people die each year due to air pollutants. Road vehicles are a major cause, not just exhaust emissions but also pollution from tyres and brakes. One study suggested that that 90% of UK air pollution ‘hot spots’ are caused by road vehicles. Newcastle accounts for 6 of the 10 worst sites in the NE. Bad areas include Percy Street, Mosley Street, Westgate Road, Market Street. Blackett Street and Gosforth High Street.

Children and older people are particularly at risk. It also creates another burden for the resource-starved NHS. One study claimed that each car in London causes the NHS £8,000 a year due to the pollution it helps to cause. But more trees and general ‘revegetation’ will not only make streets more attractive places but also reduce some of that pollution. Many councils are however putting ‘clan air zone’ plans on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis. That is insanity given the intimate links between air pollution and vulnerability to such diseases. The scope for what could be done was underlined, for example, by the British Lung Foundation which reported in June that nearly 2 million people with lung conditions had seen their symptoms improve as a result of the drop in air pollution during the ‘lockdown’.

Looming over such problems however is on-going global overheating and the threat from climate breakdown with all its consequences: heat waves, floods, storms, coastal inundation,  food shortages, acidification of the oceans, mass extinction of flora and fauna… We can isolate at home from Covid-19 but we cannot isolate from climate breakdown. It really is a mass killer on the loose.

Again, the same forces that help to drive climate breakdown are the very same ones that have helped to create the conditions for Covid-19: tropical deforestation, intensive livestock units, mass movement of goods and people. Again, impacts such as heat waves and regular  floods undermine individual and community resilience in the face of pandemics.

Big reductions in road traffic (and aviation) are vital if we are to halt and reverse climate breakdown. Some 20% of total CO2 emissions in Newcastle come from cars. Nationally, then whole transport sector causes some 28% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is now the worst sector of the economy, even surpassing the power supply industry.

Reallocation of road space will help  in that battle as it will make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists in the short-term. Planting trees on a big scale (see Milan’s plan to plant 3 million trees over next ten years) will also help to create bigger ‘sinks’ for excess CO2 emissions as well as improve air quality[iii]. Of course, the record of Newcastle city council is this field is dire. Not for nothing was the city named “tree-felling capital of Britain” by the ‘Sunday Times. But there is joy indeed over one sinner that repents and changes such bad ways.




A Green ‘timeline’ 1800-2010

So far so good

Below attached as a PDF is a shot at a green history of the modern’ era. It tries to chart growing threats to the sustainable common good and those who led resistance to them. Hopefully it complements  Clive Pontings’ ‘Green History of the World’. The main body is a timeline with key events picked out. The preface trues to tease some key developments over the period

Green History of Modern times (Irvine)


Green: What Does It Mean?’ presentation

This Powerpoint presentations hopefully, might help to deepen appreciation of the depth and breadth of green politics. It tries to provide an overview of the roots and shoots of those ideas as well as summarise them.

Green – What Does It Mean?

Green – What Does It Mean?Green – What does it mean?- notes





George Monbiot, Michael Moore and the Population Question

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 18.46.10
George Monbiot is something of a curate’s egg but his column in today’s ‘Guardian’ is rather rancid ( To be fair, he makes some good points about the film ‘Planet of the Humans’ (there are several posts about the film here: It gets a lot of things wrong and much of its data is decidedly dodgy. But its core points about growth on a finite planet and one with receding life-support systems is spot on. Monbiot has a good record of spotlighting ecological limits and the costs of transgressing them. So far, so good.
We must be grateful that Monbiot does not deploy that laziest of left-wing tropes, the accusation of ‘neo-Malthusianism’ (see: That is indeed where many people go when they cannot or won’t think arguments through. To be fair, Monbiot does make the genuflection that numbers can be a problem but he then he completely undermines that concession. Having attacked Michael Moore, Monbiot mimics the political approach characteristic of Moore’s books and films by launching an underhand tirade against those concerned about overpopulation. Here is a selection of what Monbiot asserts:
“Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people. When wealthy people, such as Moore and Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not Us consuming, it’s Them breeding.” It’s not hard to see why the far right loves this film.…Population is where you go when you haven’t thought your argument through”
It is true that the countries with fastest growing populations are in Africa (eg ) But colour of skin, which Monbiot gratuitously adds, makes no difference to the fact that such trajectories spell disaster. Amongst other things, they will destroy surviving tropical forests in Africa and Asia as well as intensify human immiseration. There will be more wars, including civil conflicts over a shrinking resource base. It is not racism to point that out. It is the reality of the situation. Many people on those continents speak out about the danger. Are they racists too? [The image above is from Kenya’s National Council for Population and Development}
Contrary to Monbiot’s calumny, those concerned about human numbers do not just blame “black and brown people”. Since the book ‘The Population Bomb’, Paul Ehrlich has probably the most famous of the ‘populationists’. Perhaps Monbiot might explain why Ehrlich wrote a paper about the USA called ‘The Most Overpopulated Nation in the World” ( The work of Ehrlich and others like him consistently stressed the twin role of overpopulation and overconsumption. Recent history has borne out the basic truth of the argument that the total human population has grown to an unsustainable size (
It is Monbiot who is intellectually lazy and dishonest. More people must mean more economic growth unless the average material standard of living is to go down.
Just as lazily, he treats a fall in a growth rate as the same as an absolute fall in numbers and assumes the current population levels are sustainable, whatever the future trajectory might be. It might be noted here that several countries are trying to raise the birth rate with ‘baby bonuses’ and other inducements, while every effort is being made to extend longevity. Many are also trying to restrict access to family planning. Yes, we have to address overconsumption (and it is not confined to non-black and non-brown circles eg ; on ‘black’ Africa in particular, see: while on ‘brown’ India, ). But every net addition to total numbers put an extra on the Earth’s wilting life-support systems, even in terms of the provision of the basic necessities.
Actually, Monbiot implied case that ‘populationism’ is right-wing is even more lazy, if not deliberately mendacious. Both Hitler and Mussolini, for example, were keen to promote rapid population growth (eg and ). Routinely right-wing politicians and intellectuals have treated birth rates as a test of a nations’ virility. Think of right-wing leaders such as Turkey’s Erdogan or Hungary’s Orban ( )
Right-wing circles are full of talk about the dangers of a ‘birth dearth’ and a ‘coming demographic winter’. I suppose it is consistent, then that leading right-wing often have parented large numbers of children (Jacob Rees-Mogg etc, not forgetting the wealthy Bin Laden family). [To be fair, ‘left-wing’ dictators such as Stalin, Mao and Ceaucescu were keep to promote population growth]
Ideas should be analysed in terms of their merits or otherwise, regardless of who puts them forward or who benefits from them. It is cheap of Monbiot to link those concerned about overpopulation to the “Far Right”. Similarly Moore’s critique of ‘renewables’ should be assessed in itself, regardless of whether it aids the Fossil Fool barons. [For a rounded critique, see, for example:
Monbiot’s laziness (or is it moral cowardice?) extends to other fields. He is a prominent advocate of ‘rewilding’. His book Feral’ sold well. Yet the revival of health populations of large mammals and big raptors will require lots of land for them on which to roam and forage. Current, let, alone projected, human numbers take away that critical space. Monbiot is inconsistent here to say the least.
Such shortcomings also extend to nuclear energy where he has repeatedly downplayed the risks from this blighted technology. His distortion do not stack up (compare his writings on Chernobyl, for example, with . But whatever the chances of nuclear accidents, whatever the consequences of Windscale, Mayak, Three Mile Island Chernobyl, and Fukushima and whatever the current hazards of uranium mining or routine radiation releases, logic would suggest that they would be greater if nuclear power were to expand significantly.
But Monbiot does not like to think his arguments through. I hope those who do recognise that numbers count will support the work of Population Matters ( Study its output on that site and you’ll see how false are Monbiot’s caricatures.
Monbiot was good when he critiques the climate deniers. But population denialism are not much better,
See also:

A Green City Vision for Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Newcastle from air from south

Newcastle transition to a Green City Presentation

The above presentation pulls together some thoughts on creating a ‘green city’ vision for Newcastle upon Tyne in the NE of England. A PDF version is appended.

In 2010, Newcastle did win the ‘top green city’ award from the ‘Forum for the Future’ consortium. Actually, the result was very misleading. The city has the windfall of a big open space called the Town Moor, near the city centre, something rare if not unique in the UK (the green area in the top middle of the picture above). This skewed the result in Newcastle’s favour (and, in reality, the Town Moor is far from green in terms of ecological richness and diversity).

In fact, the city is very far from green in any meaningful sense (see: It was named by the ‘Sunday Times’ for example as ‘tree-felling’ capital of England. It has been threatened with legal action because of air pollution in the city. The council has perpetrated the biggest grab of green belt land in the country, all for the sake of sprawling car-dependent ‘executive housing’ dormitory suburbs on the edge of town.

In many areas, there are empty shops, offices and housing. Indeed much of the housing stock is in very poor condition and many people do not have health-promoting parks and other green space nearby. Meanwhile, the local airport, with council backing, is seeking to expand air flights, despite the unsustainable damage it does. Action to encourage cycling and walking has been fitful while plans for big new roads keep rearing their ugly head (as in the case of the ‘Blue House’ roundabout and the expansion of the western bypass).

This presentation focuses on an alternative vision for a city that is sustainable and ‘future-proof’ in this age of rapidly worsening climate breakdown and other forms of ecological meltdown. Action on all those fronts actually provides many opportunities to build a much fairer, more inclusive, and indeed more convivial community in Newcastle. But it will mean abandoning all the growth fantasies embodied in thje city’s development plan, the Core Stategy. We need a green plan for Newcastle and this presentation is a contribution to that end.

Later, detailed notes will be added in the form of a PDF. For some historical background, see:

PDF version of presentation:

Newcastle transition to a Green City Presentation PDF




Changing Newcastle 1960s-2010s

Below is a Powerpoint presentation of how Newcastle in the NE of England has physically changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. Next to it is a commentary in PDF format that hopefully will provide background so viewers can make better sense of the slide

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse ppt

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse? notes

Newcastle from air from south

The first part uses the narrative structure of a route I took when I first visited the city in early 1968 for an interview at Newcastle upon Tyne University where I had applied to study Town and Country Planning (I was accepted).

I walked from Newcastle Central station through the city centre to the Claremont Tower on the campus.  Pictures from around that time are compared to roughly the same scene in recent years. Ones featuring trolley buses or trolley bus wires will, however,  be pre-1966 when the last service ran.

The second part spotlights some other changes, with a few slides at the end exploring changes already in the pipeline or being touted by the council and other forces in the city. Some issues are posed about the nature of change, its goals and related decision-making structures. Although Newcastle got off lightly compared to many Brtish cities in terms of  ‘civic vandalism’, many of the changes were steps away from the sustainable common good, sometimes making the city even less resilient in terms of coming ecological challenges. Too often the needs of the private car dominated all else, for example.

Current plans and projections also tend to ignore the ecological ‘facts of life’ and how the future will be very different to what is widely assumed by leading decision-makers and indeed the general public. We need a radically different vision if civilised living is to be sustained and a viable home created by other forms of life with whom we share both our local ‘patch’ and the Earth as a whole.

Greens, wildlife and habitats

Screenshot 2019-07-14 at 20.47.19.png

It is an obvious truism that we humans share our finite and, beyond a certain point, fragile Earth with a myriad of other species. It is also starkly true that human activity is destroying the richness and diversity of those other forms of life, a process sometimes called the ‘Sixth Extinction’.[i]We do not just face specific threats such as ‘peaks’ in terms of sustainable supplies of particular resources. We now face ‘peak life’.[ii]It further seems true that many people are concerned about such destruction. But Greens perceive the problem — and solutions — in quite distinct ways.

It is, of course, commonplace to hear people to talk about something they call ‘the natural world’ or for short, just ‘nature’. Greens avoid such notions. The language suggests that, somehow, humans are separate, above and apart from this ‘nature’. Indeed, there is a long and destructive tradition within human society of people thinking themselves as lords and masters of all life. What others in the past have seen as ‘mother Earth’, these would-be rulers of all creation see the planet and its processes as some sort of a disorderly if not treacherous ‘bitch’, to be brought to heel under human control.[iii]

Habitats and species are perceived in this worldview as merely so much ‘stuff’, merely there to be used, reshaped and engineered to serve open-ended and indiscriminate human wants. Its physical expression has been the homogenisation of the Earth, with vast monocultures of crops, farm animals and tree plantations, enormous mines and quarries, giant dams, ever creeping tentacles of roads and other transport infrastructure, and, of course, sprawling conurbations. Many farms, for example, have become veritable biological ‘deserts’, while, in built-up areas, any ‘greenery’ is often in the form of heavily manicured and chemically saturated lawns.

What may look like ‘wild areas’, such as many upland moors, are, in fact, simply barren tracts of man-made degradation, sometimes kept that way so certain people can indulge in blood sports or overgraze sheep, often heavily subsidised at public expense. Many areas are being trashed by ‘thrillcraft’.[iv]Elsewhere, some species are ‘tolerated’ simply for the sake of trophy hunting. Meanwhile, other habitats are denuded of their wildlife by the animal ‘body parts’ trade and by toxic spraying as well as by, at sea, by pollution, not least ‘plastification’, plus ‘bottom trawling’ and, increasingly, seabed mining. Even the most remote areas are not safe.[v]

The protective regulations that exist are usually weak and often feebly enforced. Protected areas are similarly totally inadequate, both too small and too fragmented. Indeed some, especially national parks, have been yoked to industrial tourism.[vi]Local urban parks are routinely treated not as places for quiet ‘re-creation’, with plenty of space for wildlife, but as venues for all sorts of commercial activities, many less than tranquil. Individual trees are being felled left, right and centre, sometimes by ‘left-wing’ councils.[vii]

There is a veritable war against the rest of nature. Homo Sapiens is often more a matter of Homo Rapiens. Though there was never any ‘golden age’ — many species were driven to extinction in prehistoric times – the breadth and depth of this destruction has accelerated since World War Two and continues to speed up, with governments such as Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in USA seeking to remove remaining restraints. Thus, Japan has resumed whaling while China’s ‘Belt and Road’ programme is set to carve up environments that have escaped past onslaughts.

Much of the motivation is, of course, economic. But the problem cannot be reduced just to, say, private profiteering. Wildlife and habitats were destroyed in planned and state owned economies, sometimes on a greater scale than in so-called ‘market’ economies. Nor can the problem be separated from mass culture and popular lifestyles: food predilections, fashion fads, the thirst for creature comforts, mass car ownership, many forms of sport and tourism.

Indeed, one of the very first conservation movements was the fight led by women against the fashion of what was rightly called ‘murderous millinery’ (the bird feathers trade). Personal consumption patterns and their cumulative impact hit the rest of nature in many ways, with food production topping the table. But it is not just a matter of lifestyle choices (and, sometimes, lifestyles ‘enforced’ by poverty, lack of alternatives, and so forth).

Ultimately, it is a matter of the sheer number of ‘mouths’, not just individual appetites. On a finite planet, more and more people must mean less and less physical space and resources for ‘non-people’. It is an issue about which many supposed conservationists seem in active evasion, if not actual denial.

A crisis of culture

At the root of ‘biodiversity breakdown’ and habitat loss is not economics but culture. Fundamentally the war against the rest of nature is driven by anthropocentrism, a domineering and exclusively human-centred view of planet Earth.[viii]Humans are totally exceptional as well as above and apart from the rest of nature. Without the replacement of that ‘paradigm’ by an ethic and practice of living in greater harmony with our fellow dependents of planet Earth, the degradation of biodiversity will continue, even if we can halt the spread of palm oil plantations, reduce plastic production and curb carbon emissions.

Such human-centred ways of valuing, thinking about and doing things also make harder the task of understanding the ecological systems on which all life depends. There has been a pronounced tendency in relevant sciences to analyse life in disconnected and reductionist ways. Too often, fragments of the whole are studied in microscopic detail (how an individual plant may respond to a particular pesticide etc) but the big picture of ecological structures and processes is thereby lost. Indeed, if everything is but a fragment, there is a positive invitation to chop and change at random, simplifying once complex environments, introducing exotic species or releasing genetically engineered organisms.

If everything is just random and inherently unstable, then any land use, any technological innovation, any manipulation is just part of the laissez-faire pattern.[ix]The precautionary principle is just for ‘snowflakes’ in this view. Similarly, there’s no need to keep all parts of the jigsaw of life if we can rearrange and substitute at will. Indeed, there are a fair few people who see today’s level of extinction as just part of change. Perish the thought that the plughole of extinction is now draining the reservoir of life.

Such perceptions mirror the competitive and individualistic worldview that has dominated social thinking since, very roughly, the 17thcentury, most sharply in the realm of economics (‘survival of the fittest’, with competitors grabbing all they can). Thus, ’efficiency’ in land use became nothing more than the yield of a single commodity or output per individual worker, all else downgraded if not totally discounted. Indeed if, say, spotted owls got in the way of maximising timber output, get rid of the pests![x]

If species only count for their utilitarian value, there is little incentive to conserve them if some seemingly more ‘effective’ technological replacement comes along. In reality, those substitutes are usually poorer ones but that is not necessarily immediately obvious and, for some, there may be short-term gains in the meantime (the range of ‘vested interests’, with such a stake, is far wider than just private capitalists!).[xi]

To be fair, it can be useful at times to use human-related concepts such as ‘health’. It can shed light on whether soils, water, flora and fauna are healthily self-renewing or whether they are in decline (tree diseases, eroded soils, oxygen depleted waters, damage by invasive species, a narrowing genetic base… ). The whole direction of evolution has been towards greater complexity and therefore more stable and resilient systems. Indeed, it is remarkable how quickly life can return to land devastated by, say , volcanic eruptions. But the total human ‘footprint’ is now stamping out such healthy vitality.

There is also true that there are sound utilitarian arguments for conserving species and habitats.[xii]Indeed, all species depend, in a variety of ways, on other species. Prey is a resource for a predator, a parasite uses its host and so forth. They are no ‘free lunches’ but, equally, there are no free ‘fasts’, such is the necessary ebb and flow of life.

False fixes for biodevastation

Utilitarianism is not enough and, indeed, can so easily rationalise further destruction. In the short-term, there may seem to be ‘cost-free’ extinctions, with no loss of noticeable utility (for people or, rather, some people). Thus, there is positive feedback that there is nothing to worry about if we drive yet more species into extinction. The Ehrlichs rightly compared this to popping rivers on a flying aeroplane. It may fly along OK for a bit but…[xiii]

Similarly, putting an economic price on a given species or ecosystem ‘function’ perhaps might persuade one or two decision-makers who see life through economic spectacles to stop and think whether current valuations are a genuine guide to real values. But it is, in reality, a poor measure and in any case cannot be said to have had much effect.[xiv]It is truly a case of (sort of) knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Ecological interactions are so complex that it is impossibly hard to separate out different elements and award the ‘service’ they are deemed to provide some nominal price. If something else (say, a development of luxury office blocks proposed for some area that is significant wildlife habitat) commands a higher price, then the signal will be to throw up that new build. Market signals reflect, of course, what people in the marketplace bid: flora and fauna are not likely to enter bids and therefore get eliminated from the process.

In passing, it is worth noting that so-called ‘biodiversity offsetting’ suffers from similar failings and has failed to deliver any significant gains in practice. Basically, it legitimises further ‘development’ which, if not checked, will encroach one day on any places set aside for ‘enhancement’. In the meantime, localities will lose much of the ‘greenery’ that was, before not far from their doorstep. There will be those that argue that building over farmland is no great loss since it is so biologically impoverished anyway.

Greens argue that the challenge is to change farming practices to restore the biodiversity that has been lost, something that can yield quite spectacular improvement in fairly short order.[xv]It might be noted as well that we may desperately need all the farmland we have in future decades.[xvi]For many reasons, from climate breakdown to growing pressure within food exporting counties to feed their own populations, it cannot be assumed that past capacity to rely on large-scale food imports will continue in the future.

There is however another reason why putting a price on nature or planning trade-offs are insufficient.[xvii]What has really motivated people to act on behalf of their fellow species are seldom been economic. Rather, it has been an emotional response and an ethical belief that it only right and proper to share the planet, regardless of what prices may signal. People seldom campaign to protect other species because they stand to gain from their conservation and appeals to such values are therefore likely to be quite inadequate ways to build the cause of conservation.

The Green Alternative

The great American forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold neatly summed up the Green perspective. It changes “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” As another outstanding American David Brower noted, “from citizenship comes responsibility to care”. Caring means valuing other species and the habitat they need for their own sake, their ‘intrinsic rights’, not their usefulness for people. It means ‘living lightly’ so there is physical space and resources for the non-human species.

But citizens have their own rights. The Green perspective is not misanthropic, uncaring about people. [xviii]It is about the search for the sustainable common good of all the Earth’s dependents. In terms of the big picture, we humans can only survive, let alone thrive, if the Earth’s life-support systems remain intact.[xix]Those structures and processes cannot be separated from the flora and fauna that are part of them. Biotic and abiotic components are both part of the total system that needs to be conserved as such. [xx]Setting aside a few scraps of land for certain ‘charismatic’ species will not work. That fact does not deny the value of species such as pandas, orangutans, red squirrels, whales, ospreys, etc, as campaign tools for that wider cause nor the role of ‘flagship species’.[xxi]

The importance of protecting those life-support functions cannot be overestimated if life on Earth is to thrive. Look at what will happens when climate patterns break down, the sky loses the protection of the ozone layer, the air is no longer fit to breathe, the water is no longer fit to drink, soils lose their fertility, coastal areas lose protective marshland, pollinators cease to pollinate, decomposers stop breaking down wastes, uplands are denuded of tree cover, pests multiply following the loss of ‘checks and balances’, the ‘shelves’ of the genetic library empty … Consider in particular how hard it is to survive in outer space where the Earth’s ecological ‘services’ are absent.

But there is also abundant and still growing evidence of the human need for regular interaction with non-human nature. That experience is especially in terms of local and readily accessible ‘green spaces’ (green walls and roofs, backyard wildlife gardens, neighbourhood micro-parks, copses, ponds, etc) The physical and mental health dividends are central to human wellbeing. They too are part of our rights as “plain citizens of nature”.

Some words on language

The above realities can be wrongly represented by the language we use. Thus, as noted above, words such as ‘nature’ and the ‘natural world’ are a kind of ‘othering’, putting humans on some pedestal, above and apart from that ‘other’ world of non-human nature. In reality we are belong to the Earth ‘collective’. At the very least we should alwaystalk of the ‘rest of nature’, thereby demonstrating we are but a part of that whole.

We should similarly beware the word ‘environment’. As the great Canadian scientist and campaigner Stan Rowe used to argue, it is a term that positively invites its own marginalisation. Indeed if, as commonly taken, it means everything around an individual, it privileges issues such as family circumstances, the state of the local schools and so forth, putting wildlife and habitat issues way to the rear of the backburner. It further encourages the ludicrous notion that sensible policy as some balance between economy and ecology (as the widely but wrongly praised ‘Brundtland Report’)[xxii], whereas the former could not exist without the latter. ‘Natural capital’ implies that there are other forms of capital just as important, for which it may have to be sacrificed.[xxiii]For Greens, the human economy is but a sub-set of a wider system on which it is totally dependent.

Sadly, it is probably far too late to stop using another misleading word, that of ‘biodiversity’. Indeed, it is much used above. Yet Greens would seek to stress that it is not about numbers per se. After all, taking rabbits to Australia or European starlings to America added at first to the total number of species there. But great harm followed. There are some 1,500 introduced species in the ecological treasure house that is Galapagos Islands., with similar consequences. Just one plant, the humble raspberry, has been ruinous.[xxiv]Greens see the issue as ‘biocomplexity’, a co-evolved web of life, within whose patterns, flows, and capacities humans need to mesh.

‘Green infrastructure’ is now a commonplace term. The former tends to carry connotations of setting aside patches of land for a few more reserves and parks plus, perhaps, more trees and other vegetation in other areas. Even then those councils who have local development plans and use the terminology have often delivered little in practice.[xxv]Indeed, most remain firmly committed to more new housing estates, more business ‘parks’, more roads, and so forth, all of which must reduce the total amount of ‘green infrastructure’. Not a few are also in the business of cutting down swathes of tree cover (as are organisations such as Network Rail).[xxvi]

We do not want to repeat the mistake of the great conservationist John Muir who, rightly, saw the need to protect the wonders of places such as Yosemite but who seems not to have fully appreciated the need to control as well what was happening in seemingly faraway San Francisco and other Californian cities. But the growing demand for water, increasing air pollution, more cropland  and indeed the thirst for outdoor recreation from expanding urban populations was bound to impact negatively on Muir’s beloved wildernesses.

The last word ‘wilderness’ is problematic too. For millennia, there have been few places in which human activity has not been a part. Human presence in Amazonia goes back some 13,000 years. Like all species we people impact on our surroundings. The issue is the scale and direction of that impact. Beavers impact on rivers but only humans destroy hydrological systems. However, given the ‘great acceleration’[xxvii]in the total human impact and its consequences for non-human life, we must think in terms of creating areas — and links between them — where human interference is minimal so other species have a chance to recover. Certainly, that means an end to the treatment of national parks as some sort of outdoor arena for whatever ‘fun’ activities (some) people want, be off road vehicles, cruise ships or ski resorts, let alone forest clear-cutting and dam construction. Otherwise wilderness will indeed be on the rocks, as Howie Wolke put it.[xxviii]

A Green New Deal for the rest of nature

There is now much talk of a Green New Deal (GND).[xxix]Yet most versions focus on cleaning up the human act (reduced greenhouse gases etc). Leaving aside some extremely optimistic claims for abundant renewable energy or the faith in what electric cars and other technofixes can deliver, most of the goals are self-evidently worthy. Yet they also tend to remain trapped with the same narrow human-centred paradigm critiqued above.

Two things are necessary. First there must be a rigorous critique of any proposals made under the GND umbrella that will have negative impacts on wildlife and habitats. Indeed, that goes for all election manifestos too. An instance is the rather glib tendency to propose brownfield sites for housing developments, ignoring the fact that some have become wildlife havens (not to overlook remediation barriers on a few as well). It has to be stressed too that some renewable energy schemes can devastate wildlife habitat, not least giant tidal barrages and ill sited wind turbines. Indeed, abroad, giant solar power towers have been literally burning birds alive.[xxx]

If there are going to be any ‘sacrifices’, they should be made inside human society. After all, just road transport and related infrastructure takes an enormous amount of land.[xxxi]A study in 2005 found that supermarkets, including their car parks, covered the equivalent of 15,000 football pitches. Ignoring foreign bases, 240,000 hectares of land in the UK is used by the Ministry of Defence alone. If land is going to be ‘sacrificed, such areas should be targeted, not critical wildlife habitat.[xxxii]

Second, we need a truly visionary and comprehensive for protecting, enhancing and spreading high quality wildlife habitat, not just large ‘nodes’ but connecting corridors. We must think big.[xxxiii]Anything less simply will not suffice. More locally, we need a new wave of Biodiversity Action Plans, ones that really do plan for wildlife and habitat as part of comprehensive ecological analysis and land use planning, including the fundamental but routinely neglected framework of sustainable ‘carrying capacity’.[xxxiv]

The fundamental issue is habitat. Wildlife is nothing without it. As David Brower noted with relation to the Californian Condor, such creatures are “manifestations of place… A condor is five per cent feathers, flesh, blood, and bone. All the rest is place.”Without habitat, captive-bred and then released ones have limited chance of flourishing, as the ‘recovery programme’ for the species shows.[xxxv]Given the scale of the biodiversity crisis, there may be a role for (reformed) zoos but it will be an extremely limited one and will have little real point without the protection and restoration of habitats.

Ground cover

Farming is the country’s biggest user of land. Here, there are inherent conflicts between the ecological simplification intrinsic to farming systems and especially high output ones. Specific sowing patterns, overgrazing, water extraction, and especially the use of biocides intensify those incompatibilities. Yet there is a great deal that can be done to reduce those conflicts, especially if grants and subsidies were redirected to reward farming with wildlife in mind.[xxxvi]Contemporary forestry similarly offers much scope for biodiversity enhancement.[xxxvii]

Cities too offer a huge range of opportunities.[xxxviii]Even very small patches of urban land can be transformed.[xxxix]Given the still spreading sprawl of cities (‘patholopolis’)[xl], ways have to be found to create room there for wildlife.[xli]Old industrial sites and waste dumps can be recovered for wildlife.[xlii]Sewage treatment works provide more opportunities.[xliii]

Land now used for sport could be targeted. Sporting estates especially in the uplands provide golden opportunities.[xliv]British golf courses cover an area roughly equivalent to the whole of Greater Manchester. They could be really greened or, indeed when they close, harnessed for full-blown wildlife sites.[xlv]Literally and metaphorically, in one field after another, there is so much scope for making little improvements that, together, can halt biodiversity breakdown.[xlvi]In all these cases, wildlife protection and restoration cannot be separated from the issue of land ownership, an issue that has been remarkably side-lined and needs to be brought back to the centre of debate.[xlvii]

There is of course a vociferous ‘animal rights’ lobby which has raised a good many legitimate issues that urgently need to be resolved. They range from the cruelty and pollution inherent in intensive livestock ‘factory farming’ (including fish pens) and the fur trade to circuses, blood sports and other abuses in the name of ‘entertainment’. To some extent it reflects the basic paradigm of society in which to focuses on animal welfare at an individual level, rather than that of species.

That said, the lobby’s demands overlap with a more ecological approach. Eating high on the hog consumes vast areas of land, drive new deforestation and, in terms of energy and other resource inputs, is a very inefficient way of putting food on the table. Overall, animal rights have little meaning if animals are ‘homeless’, ie habitats in which to thrive. Both ends — animal welfare and survival as species — depend on hugely reduced meat consumption.[xlviii]

It must be remembered, however, that wildlife friendly land usage will tend to be low output. It probably will be significantly higher in quality, but not short-term quantity, as in shown in the practice of ‘ecoforestry’.[xlix]It is basic thermodynamics that it is impossible to get more from less, more production from reduced inputs of land and resources. This brings back the fundamental of the scale of demand created by human populations and their appetites.

The issue of growth — the physical expansion of the total human economy, not just GDP growth — remains fundamental. Protection of wildlife and habitat will involve a downsizing of the ‘technosphere’ — people and their artefacts — if the ‘ecosphere’ is not to shrink further. So, plans to check biodiversity breakdown must be shaped, along with action on global overheating, ‘plastification’, air pollution, indebtedness, the ills of ‘affluenza’ and all the other symptoms of overshoot, within the framework of degrowth to a steady-state economy.[l]Even then no amount of economic change can substitute for the spread of a whole new ethos about the sustainable common good, not just of people but all species.[li]





[iii]Such hubris is not confined to rabid technophiles or the sellers of economic growth. Some religions too have treated people as above and apart from the rest of nature, as Lynn J White demonstrate in his critique of some elements of Christianity ( New Age thinking has suffered from a similar arrogance eg–deandnewage7(8)27(sep87).pdf


[v]Eg suffers in many ways eg

[vi]A classic study is: Parks in the UK such as the Lake District are failing to stop destructive activities eg×4-off-roading-in-the-lake-district-campaigners-sayand See also:



[ix]See the critique of so-called ‘New Ecology’ in Part 6 of



[xii]Some are documented here: also:






[xviii]As Stan Rowe put it: “Not a misanthrope, but a defender of Earth against the excesses of anthropes.”




[xxii]In reality the World Commission on Environment and Development (note the anthropocentric bias there) was largely an updating of the concepts of resource management and sustained yield developed by Gifford Pinchot and others many decades before. Related practices have done great harm to wildlife and habitat. The Brundtland Report advocated a big increase in manufacturing output , more cattle ranching and more international trade, all of which would erode biodiversity. In particular ‘Pareto optimality’ in trade is likely to encourage monocultural specialisation and with, therefore, a severely suboptimal consequences for the rest of nature.

[xxiii]Indeed, there is a history of ‘national sacrifice areas’, mainly for nuclear weapon testing and radioactive waste disposal. That aspect is alive and kicking eg we face the same threat but in the name of ‘clean energy’ with wildlife yet again in the firing line eg


[xxv]The same is of course true of national government eg, failure to meet what was itself a feeble target.



[xxviii]Referenced here:




[xxxii]However these case studies are far, far more typical:;;;  ;; https://saynotoyep.wordpress.com

[xxxiii]Eg See also:;;;;;;;

[xxxiv]A sample study can be found here: generally:

There are some illustrative projects here:


[xxxvi] also:

More radically:;;


[xxxviii]There are plenty of case studies here of what can be done even in the face of seemingly discouraging circumstances:

[xxxix]A short walk from the noise and the crowds at Kings Cross railway station in London leads to this little gem: /London as a whole offers much potential:

[xl]This creature is not a new one: the scale of today’s transformation is unprecedented: attention normally focuses on Asia, Africa and Latin America, the same phenomenon is at work in older industrial countries eg;





[xlv]  On greening golf for wildlife, see: is an interesting scheme for surviving golf courses:

[xlvi]For some case studies, see:



[xlix]There is a revealing case study here:



Covid-19 and a chance for sustainability

Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 11.26.25

The following is the text of a very short talk I gave in my ‘green issues’ slot on local community radio in March 2020 on the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis and the chance to build a better society. Please feel free to recycle in your area

The Covid-19 crisis continues to dominate the news. The costs … the death toll… threatened livelihoods… the general dislocation… are painfully clear. But I want to put the current crisis in a wider context.

Let’s look at the really bad news first. Whatever the costs of the current health crisis, they pale into insignificance when set against the dangers of climate breakdown. Yet that’s not the only danger. There are all the other ecological threats we face, not least the loss of food-producing soils and growing water shortages.

Covid-19 will not create an uninhabitable Earth. Unchecked ecological meltdown will.

We have already seen the portents. They can be seen in deadly heat waves, vast forest fires, huge floods, violent hurricanes and other extreme weather events. Rising temperatures and rising sea levels will force the movement of people on a scale never seen before. And that will only be the start.

Meanwhile, there is the likelihood of future and worse pandemics. So, let’s put the current crisis into context and pay attention to those far worse dangers.

There is actually one more danger. The danger is that governments will try to come out of the current crisis by launching a drive for growth, growth of all kinds, growth at any cost. They will desperately try to get back to normality.

Yet it is precisely that normality that created the conditions for Covid-19 and other pandemics in the first place. It is that very business-as-usual that is depleting the Earth’s resources. It is business-as-usual that is shredding the Earth’s life-support systems. It will make vast tracts of the Earth unhabitable for people and many other species.

The Covid-19 crisis has its roots not just in the so-called ‘wet markets’ of China. The roots stretch across in the whole food production system, not least the factory farming of pigs, poultry and other livestock. Human destruction of the world’s rainforests also fuels the spread of new infectious diseases. The risks are of course amplified by the scale of unregulated world trade… by  population movements… by urban overcrowding… and by the sheer size of our population.

The lessons are clear. Bailouts and so forth should not be used to revive an economy that has been undermining the very conditions for healthy, civilised living. That economy’s lack of resilience and vulnerability to disruption have become painfully clear. In particular, long-distance transport and just-in-time deliveries have been shown to highly insecure.

For something better, we need to face those realities rather than naively think that we can go on as before. We actually have a real opportunity to create a better, fairer and more resilient society. It may be our last chance… time is running out. But nonetheless it is still a real chance.

We can see the evidence all around us at the moment. As the level of economic activity has slowed down so too has the level of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. The air is suddenly cleaner. There is less noise pollution too. Wildlife seems to be thriving.

At the same time, we have witnessed far greater community spirit. There has been lots of local action in which people are trying to help their neighbours. We have seen how quickly buildings can be put to better uses such as health care. We have seen how factory production can be used to produce different kinds of products such as ventilators. We have seen how important is the precautionary principle… no more reckless gambling with the future!

We need to build on those gains.

We need to use grants, subsidies and other support to build another kind of economy. We should be using public policy. Including bailouts, in a programme of economic conversion. The American Defence Production Act of 1950, for example, steered the country’s factories to greater armaments production. But the same thing could be done with regards to more socially useful and sustainable goods and services.

Critical will be a new food production system, with far emphasis on local and regional supply. That includes a revival of allotments and other forms of urban food production. Just in the last few days, a new report from the University of Sheffield has shown the enormous scope there is. We can debate such specifics.

But, in general, it is now clear that we need to change how we live, what we eat, how we get about and how often we travel, what we wear, how we use our buildings and so much more.

Covid-19 is indeed a crisis but it is also an opportunity to mend bad ways.





Greens, Trade Unions & the ‘Labour Movement’


All too often, trade unions and associated bodies (notably the Labour Party and the Co-operative Movement) are viewed as some sort of homogenous whole, basically of one mind and purpose. This viewpoint perceives the ‘labour movement’ as an essentially progressive army, in which the aspirations of the rank and file filter up through a network of shop stewards committees, trades councils, regional and national committees, plus, course, ‘conference’ … and then flow back again. Thus the movement is seen as almost analogous to the human body’s nervous system.

In reality, trade unions by their very nature tend to be sectional, i.e. advancing a specific group interest. They are also frequently ‘sectionalist’, i.e. putting the interests of own members first, at the expense of fellow trade unionists, let alone the general citizenry. Indeed the first unions, emerging amongst skilled workers, were quite hostile to their unskilled co-workers, particularly with regard to wage differentials and so-called ‘dilution’ (access to skilled work by ‘unqualified’ labour).

Many unions have also defended overtime working, even though it soaks up paid work that otherwise might be made available to the unemployed. Furthermore, union pay claims often take the form of demands for percentage, not flat rate, increases, something that obviously favours higher scale groups over those less well paid. Often workers themselves undermined the struggle against job cuts when they took the redundancy money and ran off into the distance.

At the same time, many calls for ‘solidarity’ have fallen on deaf ears since individual unions routinely look to their own. Indeed trade unions have frequently been vehicles for sexist, racist and, in some cases, religious discrimination. In some countries, notably France, trade union successes regarding job security have in practice made in harder for young people to enter employment.

Sometimes, workplace conflicts are replicated within the union itself, for instance when people like office departmental heads or school headmasters, individuals who may well browbeat their underlings, are one and the same person as the union rep. Trade unions often focus just on short-term too, ignoring what might the best interests of their members in the more distant future.[i] Many craft unions, for example, failed to get to grips with technological development, trying to defend skills and practices that already were passing into history.

Indeed trade union sectionalism can easily slip into straight corruption. Perhaps the most notorious example has been the American Teamsters. In Britain, the print unions exercised such a stranglehold on their workplaces that one often had to be a relative of the ‘father of the chapel’ and his clique to have any chance of getting a job. In places like Fleet Street, stories abounded that people such as ‘M. Mouse’ and ‘D. Duck’ were claiming wages.

Downright reactionary politics and corruption have also characterised some union and Labour Party links. An odious example was the GMWU in the years of Andy Cunningham, later imprisoned for corruption (he headed the union’s northern region, was a town councillor sat on the Labour National Executive and sat on, sometimes as chairperson, several ‘quangoes’, not least his local Police Authority). Much more generally, over manning and all sorts of other unsustainable practices have been defended on ‘union grounds’. In terms of individual case work, unions often have to defend members whose laziness, incompetence and other failings only serve to harm other workers who have to make up for the shortcomings of such individuals.

In broader terms, trade unions often end up defending jobs and indeed whole employment sectors that threaten the collective good, ones that would have to be phased out in the transition to an ecologically sustainable society. Of course such a process does not need to be as brutal as, say, the closure of the coalmines by the Thatcher government (not done, of course, for ecological reasons!). It is right and proper to care for individual well being in any such reconstruction.

Yet trade unions as an entity are likely to feel that their power base is being eroded and therefore oppose the necessary change (e.g. defend coal production, both deep mining and open-cast, when, as an activity, it must be phased out as soon as possible). Or they are likely to advocate alternatives which are, in fact, pseudo-solutions in that they either do not solve the original problem and/or aggravate other ones (huge expansion of public transport, vast housing programmes, giant wind turbine farms, large-scale production of ‘green cars’, etc).

In actuality, in sector after sector, from airport expansion, nuclear power plant construction and arms manufacture to the defence of the status quo in the public services (some of which might well contract in a sustainable society[ii]), trade unions can be found on the wrong side of the barricades.

A microcosm of such issues and potential problems was provided by the dispute in 2010 between British Airways and its cabin crews. The initial support from staff for action suggests that BA management style was largely to blame for the breakdown in industrial relations. Nor were BA’s staff as privileged as widely alleged, though many really poor people might disagree.

What is clear, though, is that their action not only jeopardised a company facing stiff competition but also disrupted the holidays of many working class citizens. More significantly, measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable impacts of air travel will reduce job security and perks far more than anything demanded by BA management. So uncritical support for the strike and, by extension, the protection of the status quo for staff is not something Greens can give.

To be fair, there have also been several instances in a number of fields such as silviculture (where mechanised clear-cutting has felled jobs as fast as the forests) or renewable energy plant manufacture (e.g. the Vestas struggle) where there was scope for a positive synergy between the workers’ short-term interests and a long-term programme for ecological sustainability. Perhaps the best example comes from Australia and the ‘green bans’ of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation, led by Jack Mundey.[iii] But this does not change the bigger picture, namely that some trade unions are likely to be the current industrial order’s last ditch defendants and therefore, at best, very wary of bodies like the Green Party, if not downright hostile.

Changing world of work: changing unions

The Labour Movement itself has changed dramatically in recent years. The closure of so much heavy industry and a shift towards employment in the service sector have meant that any strikes and other action such as go-slows tend to hit the general public directly and quickly. In the past, the downing of tools by, say, car or shipyard workers had no such direct effect. One of the miners’ strikes in the 70s in Britain did, of course, lead to significant power cuts but, even then, its effects were not quite the same as a train being cancelled, a benefits office closed, a fire engine not coming to a burning building, let alone bodies not being buried.

Another change in modern times is that the ‘employer’ is less some factory-owning capitalist but rather a chief executive, serving faceless institutional shareholders or, ultimately, a government minister in what, in the case of countries like the UK, is a vastly expanded public sector compared to the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, the spread of the so-called ‘contract culture’ has eroded that base of well-entrenched, long-serving workforces on which strong trade unions could be built. The deduction of union subs directly from wages and salaries has further weakened the link between union structures and the ordinary membership. At the same time, the general trend towards more ‘private’ lifestyles (increased physical separation between work and home, with long distance commuting from one to the other, the lure of home entertainment systems and a host of other distractions, a generally more individualistic culture…)[iv] has further reduced members’ participation in the internal life of trade unions as well as further undermined union membership itself.

Furthermore, many unions now lack a coherent identity, covering a whole range of jobs and workplaces. Indeed they could be seen as conglomerates in their own right. Often they have rather meaningless ‘brand’ names like Accord and Prospect. Many ordinary union members seem alienated from what are sometimes rather remote, even mysterious entities.[v]

Today, many branch meetings struggle to be quorate, while committees often have vacant posts which no-one is willing to fill. Even postal voting in internal union elections, when all members have to do is to seal an envelope and put it in the post, is often characterised by low turnouts.


The notion of the ‘Labour Movement’ owes much to the interaction of the early Labour Party and the unions of that time. The Labour Party was very much the creation of trade unions seeking the removal of anti-union legislation by parliamentary representation, though bodies such as the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and the Fabian Society also played a significant part in its development.

The resulting movement, ‘Labourism’, was based on a division of labour: trade unions dealing with employers, Labour with Parliament, though, of course, certain unions played a major role in formulating Labour Party policies through their block votes at the latter’s conferences. The levy on union members for Labour finances further strengthened that influence.

The notion that union workplace ‘muscle’ might be deliberately used in conjunction with parliamentary action was, however, an anathema (unlike the Conservative Party which will use its connections in its ‘workplaces’, like the Stock Exchange, to trigger a financial crisis, like a ‘run on the pound’, to undermine a Labour government). It might also be noted in passing that, traditionally, trade union leaders have aided the right-wing of the Labour Party.[vi]

There is an old story that tells of the trade union official trying to negotiate a better deal for his members from the boss. Every time he comes back with an improved offer, the workers reject it. Finally, exasperated, he asks them what on Earth they want. ‘Abolition of the wages system’, they shout back. To which he replies: ‘But I cannot demand that: there would be nothing left to negotiate then.’ Trade unionism is a kind of reformism: it works within the institutions of the dominant social order, trying to win improvements within it.

With the exception of revolutionary syndicalism, the mainstream trade union movement has not been about the overthrow of that system. Indeed, during the British General Strike (which started as a protest against wage cuts), the British Worker, put out by the Trade Union Congress leadership, went out of its way to deny any revolutionary intent. As J. R. Clynes, President of the General and Municipal Workers union and subsequently Labour Party leader and government minister, once put it: “I do not fear … to throw such weight as I have on the side of caution. I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.”

Economic struggle and Politics

However others take a more radical view of the potential of trade unionism, ‘bread-and-butter’ struggle is seen as a positive transformational process, a veritable school of socialism that teaches participants the need for a collective solidarity and impresses on them the vision of a new classless society. Some have gone even further seeing the strike — and the launch of a general strike in particular — as the political weapon.

The most enthusiastic were the revolutionary syndicalists such as the Industrial Workers of the World (‘Wobblies’). Others supported the strategy of a ‘knock-out’ general strike, notably the Marxist Rosa Luxemburg in her writings on the “mass strike”.[vii] At the same time, many on the Left viewed events such as the British General Strike of 1926 or the French strike wave in 1968 as potential revolutionary situations.

However some critics, notably Lenin, attacked what they saw as an ‘economism’, one that puts its faith in an almost automatic progression from a (limited) trade union awareness to a full-blooded and comprehensive political one.[viii] Such critics stressed the need for a separate and overtly political party, standing on a comprehensive programme and engaging in a range of activities, of which the trade union ‘front’ would just be one.

Of course, there was the danger that such a party (or, rather, its leadership) would see itself as the very embodiment of the proletariat’s best interests, thereby justifying, post-revolution, the suppression of independent trade unionism as, indeed, was to happen under Bolshevik rule (somewhat ironically, the young Trotsky had warned quite presciently of what he called “substitutionism”).

Greening the trade unions?

Greens have to relate to trade unionism, regarding both its role in the world of today and in the desperately needed transition to a more sustainable society. Central to any transitional strategy will be work-based issues, from training, job-sharing and flexible working to the whole scale and content of production. Indeed the entire issue extends to the very size of the work force and thus public policies regarding population, including immigration.

For all that, the trade unions do represent one of the largest blocks of citizens. Indeed, in some ways, they can claim to speak for the mass of the country – if one counts not just trade unionists but also their partners, children and other directly affected by union members’ wages and conditions. There is something even more important than sheer numbers, however. The unions cover the bulk of people whose knowledge and skills would be vital for the construction of a more sustainable society.

They can construct and furnish homes and other buildings, they do the actual farming of food, they fix the wiring and the plumbing, they operate the machines and production lines, repairing them when they break down, they do the cleaning, they stack the shelves, they process the forms, they operate the various means of transportation and communication, they provide the care and education …Without such work, society would quickly grind to a halt.

Now take the CEOs, board directors, financiers, stock brokers, traders, commodity dealers, marketing gurus, corporate lawyers, big landowners, media ‘barons’, the quango bosses and all their ilk. Take them away and life would go on, even if, initially, there might be some disruption. Indeed, in the long run, life would continue much more sustainably or, at least, there would be a better chance to create a more sustainable society.[ix]

In terms of specific sectors where Greens have a particular interest – the various utilities, transportation, vehicle manufacture, health care, the arms trade, etc. – there is often a significant union presence. Positive co-operation with the unions in such cases is likely to reduce opposition to needed changes and make their implementation more successful. A Green government or a coalition with a strong Green presence could well do without challenges of the sort presented by the Ulster Workers Council strike (1974) which wrecked the then power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. So Greens have good reason to consider very carefully their strategy regarding the unions.[x]

No illusions

What is most certainly not needed is that knee-jerk politics characteristic of the traditional ‘Far’ Left. It almost automatically and uncritically supports just about every strike or hastily advocates all-out action as the best way forward. Such politics often involves dishonest exaggeration of how much support a given strike has or is likely to get. Worse, it one-sidedly blames ‘sell-out’ leaders when strikes fail.

It has to be underlined just how tenuous is the link between union involvement and political consciousness. Most strikes, for example, come and go without leaving any political trace. No radical left-wing group was able, for example, to build a significant and sustained presence in the NUM during the 70s, despite all the energy released by the two big national strikes.[xi]

Of course there will be individuals whose whole outlook on life might change by their involvement in a union dispute.[xii] Sometimes it can be a whole group of people, a striking example being many miners’ wives during the bitter pit closure disputes on the mid-1980s. It might be further noted that radicalised individuals often conclude that life is better elsewhere and cease to be local trade union activists. In Britain, this has often led to the door of Ruskin College and perhaps a new career as, say, a social worker or FE lecturer.

But the general pattern persists in which trade union struggle yields few long-term political dividends. The huge strikes in France in 1968 led to few lasting gains for the Left, for example. Indeed political parties can be harmed when the general public perceive them to be connected to socially disruptive strikes (e.g. the Labour Party and the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ at the end of 1978).

The ideal scenario might be one in which union power is mobilised to halt environmentally destructive activities. But the likelihood of such a development must be soberly assessed. Yet there are potentially promising areas in which Greens could make a worthwhile contribution to the work of trade unions while the latter – or, more likely, some sections of them – might well play a positive role in the struggle for sustainability.

So it is important to look at the Labour Movement as it is. It is easy to be seduced by romantic images of the toiling masses and their alleged representatives. Whenever someone waxes lyrical about ‘the class’ or ‘the people’, we should take a big pinch of salt.[xiii] Perhaps there are, however, a number of principles and policies Greens can readily support:

  1. Standing up for union rights

The most basic one is that union membership itself should be viewed as a basic right (including the right to strike or else it is meaningless). Peaceful picketing is a legitimate aspect of that right. Certainly campaigns to unionise part-time workers and others afflicted by the ‘contract culture’ should be supported by every Green. More generally Greens should argue that for all their flaws, trade unions are a necessary and often very valuable part of a fair and democratic society.[xiv] Such rights seamlessly connect to demands foer a ‘living wage’ (though Greens look beyond that to the implementation of a Citizens Income Scheme, a untested basic payment to all citizens as of right)

  1. Emphasising non-wage issues

Green trade unionists might encourage a stronger focus on various issues other than wage demands, especially amongst the better-off sections of the working classes, e.g.

  • Focus on work flexibility and job enrichment rather than a one-sided focus on pay demands;
  • Support for flat rate, as opposed to percentage, wage increases;
  • Advocacy of work-sharing against overtime working;
  • Demands for more action on health and safety matters;
  • Support for plans for ‘alternative’ production (at least, genuinely appropriate ones!);
  • Promotion of initiatives in the workplace to reduce car usage, promote recycling schemes & other such environmental measures …

Overall, the trade union world might not be the most fertile one for Greens yet it is one it would be foolish to ignore. Indeed Greens could and should put their weight behind a number of worthwhile struggles in which unions are centrally involved.

In discussing this or that union issue, sight should never be lost of the big picture. Regardless of the merits of specific causes taken up by trade unions, they are doomed to become lost causes without ecological sustainability.


[i] This author was a member of NATFHE when it tried to cling on the old terms & conditions, the so-called “Silver Book”, when it was clear that the status quo was no longer viable. A better strategy might have to put forward a whole new set of proposals for change, giving something to management in return for a decent deal for the members.



[iv] See, for example, Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’, Beck’s ‘Individualization’, Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’, Miller’s ‘Egotopia’, & Whittle’s ‘Look at Me’. There is also the major study by Robert Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone’, which charted the decline of many mass membership institutions, not least the bowling clubs of his title. The footnotes to this essay either give references, examples or further amplification of a point but anyone wanting to read it quickly can safely omit them.

[v] Such factors have led to a significant decline in the overall membership of trade unions as well as a shift to a unionism based on the public sector & therefore with a vested interest in high levels of government spending. Union membership has fallen from 13 million in 1979 to 7.5 million in 2009. Only one in seven workers in the private sector is a member of a trade union, though it is over 50% in the public sector. There has also been a big decline in the number of strikes, contrary to the impression given by the Tory press. This is particularly true of the private sector, where days lost because of strike action are roughly 25% of the figures for the public sector. Today, employers often have the whip hand & workers behave much more cautiously than in, say, the 1970s. Greens should never tire of stressing that far, far more days are ‘lost’ because of illness & injury caused in the workplace than by strike action.

[vi] For examples, study the activities of Arthur Deakin (TGWU), Tom Williamson (GMWU) & Will Lawther (NUM) in the 50s or the so-called ‘St. Ermin’s’ group of right-wing trade union leaders in the 1980s. Sometimes former trade unionists are used a fig leaf to cover the Labour Party’s pro-business orientation (e.g. John Prescott ‘covering’ Tony Blair). The union-Labour link has significantly declined, with example, comparatively few union branches now sending delegates to the local constituency Labour Party.


[viii] Britain’s one senior Maoist trade unionist Reg Birch made a similar point in his introduction to the 1966 IS (SWP) pamphlet, Incomes Policy, Legislation & Shop Stewards (see )

[ix] For a selection of self-serving greedheads, see

[x] It can be imagined with painful ease that Green measures would be actively opposed by not just employers but also workers in fields such as factory farming, road haulage, air transport, centralised power generation, superstore retailing, financial services, & indeed many more sectors. Chris Mullin’s story of the undermining of a radical Labour government, A Very British Coup, could easily be rewritten with a Green government in mind. It might be remembered that the young Bolshevik government in Russia was badly hit by a bank workers’ strike.

[xi] This author once sold over 100 copies of Socialist Worker on a march of striking ambulance crews in Durham. There were also large-scale leaflet distribution and public meetings in support of the strikers’ cause. Yet there was absolutely nothing to show for the activity one year later. The strike leader, however, later became a key ‘fixer’ for Tony Blair & was duly rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords. The author also once got a big donation from a local miners’ lodge for the then Tyneside anti-nuclear campaign yet it meant nothing in reality (his presentation was the last item on the agenda before the Sunday lunch-time bar opened downstairs & he suspects that the generosity was not unrelated to a rank & file desire to close the meeting & get down to the real business below).

[xii] Perhaps the classic description remains the autobiography of Farrell Dobbs, one of the rank & file leaders of the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters’ strike. He went on to be a Trotskyist candidate for the American presidency. See his Teamster Rebellion in particular.

[xiii] A sobering & wise treatment of this web of illusions was written by Peter Sedgwick many years ago but the myths remain entrenched in many sections of the radical Left See:

[xiv] That last point might need underlining. Not long ago, the author was told in conversation that trade unions are “evil” (sic). This sentiment was voiced by an intelligent & decent-minded individual who, like so many these days, works in a non-union environment. Such people thereby lack direct experience of what unions actually do, leaving them vulnerable to the anti-union nonsense spouted by the likes of the Daily Mail. In reality, a great many problems are sorted out by trade union representatives, often behind the scenes, to the benefit of one & all, including employers, without any recourse to disruptive industrial action.