Guest post by Ed Wallis, Head of Editorial at the Fabian Society.
This autumn, politicians and diplomats will meet in New York to roll up their sleeves and try to come up with solutions to the world’s greatest collective challenge: how to catalyse action on climate change. Whether anyone else will take much notice is another matter entirely. And it’s pretty understandable why.
According to new Fabian Society research, conducted with the WI, RSPB, Woodland Trust and Groundwork, people struggle to engage with large scale environmental issues. Instead they feel a much greater attachment to their local environments.
When people think of the environment, they tend to think of the place they live and the people they live there with. In a series of in-depth focus groups we conducted, climate change was hardly mentioned at all, even when participants were prompted to think about global environmental issues. And in an opinion poll carried out by YouGov to support the work, over twice as many people regarded anti-social behaviour as their biggest environmental concern than climate change.
This poses a huge challenge to the environmental movement, most of whose energies have traditionally been focused on lobbying for legislative change in Westminster or Brussels. This approach hasn’t been without its successes but the environment has slipped off the political agenda in recent years and feels increasingly remote from most people’s lives, particularly as they struggle with ongoing economic hardship.
In order to reconnect, we need to start from what people really value. As the huge public opposition to the coalition government’s botched attempt to sell-off the nation’s forests showed, people care deeply about their local areas and wish to see the environments they have grown up in conserved. What’s more, many would be willing to get involved in ‘community action’ to help improve their local environment.
So the challenge for environmentalists in Britain should be spend less time in New York or Paris and more time in the UK’s towns and villages helping to restore a sense of community about the local environment.
To do this, a broad set of barriers must be overcome. We must ensure there are enough well-paid jobs and affordable housing to allow people to afford to live in the places they grew up in. We need to protect, and extend where possible, the amount of free open spaces like parks and woodland where people can rub shoulders with one another.
And we need to help to change the balance in people’s lives away from work towards being more centred on strong community life. Our polling revealed that over 68 per cent of people felt that community spirit had declined over lifetime, rising to 81 per cent amongst the over 60s. When asked why this might be the case, the answer was clear: people are too busy and working too hard.
One of the key proposals we make, therefore, is a new ‘Community Day’ bank holiday, to provide a focal point for campaigners to highlight local environmental projects. Local residents would be encouraged to take part in activities like litter picks, community events and street parties.
A new bank holiday would only be a start. Something fundamental needs to change for people up and down the country to feel ownership of their local, and ultimately the global, environment. One thing is for sure: if environmentalists only keep their eyes on New York, Paris or Copenhagen, environmental politics is certain to become more distant than ever before.
This article also appears in the July/August Edition of WI Life