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Q&A: Gary Haq on his history of modern environmentalism

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Written by Marion Davis

Tuesday, 15 November 2011 15:17

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Gary Haq answers questions about his new book, which traces the evolution of the modern environmental movement, its major successes, and the road ahead.

Haq is a ‘human ecologist’ and research associate at SEI-York. He co-authored Environmentalism Since 1945 with Alistair Paul. 

Q: You say in your introduction that the widespread view that ‘green’ is good could lead to the conclusion that ‘we are all environmentalists now’. Are we really?
A: There is a general consensus on the need to protect the environmental to maintain clear air, water and soil and to conserve natural landscapes and resources to protect human health and well-being. Most countries have ministries of environment and/or environmental protection agencies, and many governments have embraced the concept of sustainable development. But closing the ‘value-action gap' – putting into practice what we believe – is a key challenge for government agencies, industry and individuals.

Q: Media coverage of dramatic pollution events has greatly increased awareness of environmental issues. To what extent is fear of disasters a good driver for environmental action?
A: The environmental movement has, to some extent, used fear to raise public awareness about the potential consequences of pollution (e.g. the effects of nuclear radiation, air pollution, GM food or climate change). This combined with information to empower individuals to take action has proven to be a successful tactic. However, fear can also cause apathy and resignation when used to address a enormous global problem such as climate change. A more positive vision of a low-carbon future needs to be communicated.

SEI-Book-Haq-EnvironmentalismSince1945-Routledge-150x236Q: You talk about advancing an ‘alternative worldview that integrates society, economy, ecology and equity’, and about a ‘new era of green localism’. How big a leap would that be?
A:
While there are many local initiatives addressing community energy, food, transport, these are done separately. If we are to address future environmental, social and economic challenges, we need to take a more holistic approach. Focusing on carbon emission reductions alone will fail to engage a disinterested and suspicious public. Thus it is necessary to place well-being at the centre and address issues of resource efficiency together with carbon reduction. Some initiatives are beginning to do this, but we need more, especially if we are to reach beyond the white middle class.

Q: Has the role of environmental advocates changed?
A: Environmental groups continue to play a key role in engaging with governments and international agencies, but they need to evolve with the times. A new approach is needed to engage local communities using social media. We need to return to the grassroots to close the gap between what people think and what they actually do. No longer can we pay our annual subscription to an environmental charity, feel good about it, then fly off to some far-flung destination. Allowing individuals to effect change on a local and personal level will also help gain their interest in national and global campaigns.

Q: You note that environmentalists ‘have traditionally been suspicious of new technology’ and opposed GM crops and nuclear power, for example. Where do you stand on these issues?
A: There is no denying that technology has a role to play in resolving many environmental problems. However, some technologies should be treated as a ‘last resort’. Our first priority should be to address the level of consumption and the efficiency of consumption. We need to promote energy conservation and improve the efficiency of our housing stock, for example, and adopt renewable energy technologies before opting for nuclear. However, we may be in a situation where we cannot afford to leave any technology out of the mix, no matter how undesirable it might be.

The book is available through Routledge or on Amazon.com.

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