There is a widely accepted maxim that in times of economic hardship people stop caring about the environment – it’s the economy, stupid. The evidence offered to support this is that people relegate the environment to a lower place on their list of voting priorities during periods of recession. This same information is often used to argue that a sense of place, a delight in nature, and a concern for the condition in which we leave the planet to our children, are the preoccupations of the liberal middle classes, not shared by the majority of people who are struggling to find jobs and pay bills.

This seems as absurd to me as it is insulting. To suggest that only the middle classes care about their traditions, their culture, their country, their land or children’s future says more about the unspoken paranoia of a liberal elite – that working-class people are somehow less human, less complex and less moral than themselves – than it does about the values of ordinary people. And there is also a wealth of evidence to suggest that it is wrong.

If any government wishes to know how passionately people feel about their local landscapes, green spaces and wildlife, they need simply threaten to destroy an iconic place, or remove an ancient right – as the current government did in their ill-judged attempt to sell off the nation’s woodlands. Politicians from all parties may also wish to reflect on the fact that historically, it has been the working class who have organised the most effective resistance against such enclosures. The mass trespasses onto the moors and mountains of the Peak District – protests that ultimately led to the creation of the National Parks – were carried out by industrial workers from nearby towns and cities, for example, not by middle-class tree-huggers.

A more contemporary and perhaps more surprising illustration of our common concern for nature can be found in the corporate response of some of the UK’s major retailers to the current crisis in living standards. Recognising that, alongside the squeeze on incomes, a deep public mistrust has developed of big business and other vested interests, supermarkets and other high-street brands are attempting to re-model their relationships with customers through the public articulation of a set of shared values.

As part of this re-modelling, B&Q – the country’s largest DIY chain – is setting out to become a hub for people living close to each other to swap skills and tools and recycle materials. This will help people save money in difficult times; but it also reflects the company’s own research, which tells them that their customers want them to act to reduce waste, save energy and provide products that help protect the environment.

This expectation seems widely held, regardless of income bracket. ASDA – a major retailer that specialises in low-cost food – has recently conducted a wide-reaching survey of its UK customers to understand their values and motivations. When asked if it mattered to them if products were green, the answer was overwhelmingly in the affirmative. It seems that people with less money to spend still want to look after the places and nature that they love. Income and class are not necessarily predictors of values. Why did we think they were?

Working where we live

There is also a much more deep-seated, and often unacknowledged, connection between people’s relationship with the environment and political concerns about jobs and incomes – and hence core economic policies. And that is that it is ultimately jobs and incomes that determine our relationship with place and nature. It’s the economy, stupid – because the way we organise the economy can act either to strengthen or dissolve communities and traditions, and with them our ability and willingness to invest in the places where we live.

A friend of mine from Liverpool recently told me what he felt happened there when decently paid jobs disappeared from the city in the 1970s and 1980s – and why so many people stayed on there, despite having no work. He described it as a conscious choice – a political choice – to remain attached to roots, culture, family and traditions. But such a choice came at a terrible cost, that of abandoning the right and obligation to work.

The agony of being forced to choose between place, culture and community on the one hand and jobs and housing on the other, is being felt today by many in London and the South East. The housing support system we are faced with today in which benefit payments subsidise private landlords to the tune of billions of pounds a year – is the product of successive governments’ failure to tackle a toxic combination of low wages and high rents. A living wage in London is surely a wage that enables people to live near enough to their work to have a decent family life – but also to remain in the places which hold their memories and cultural (common) wealth, and in which they have invested their time and love. Similarly, a properly regulated private rented sector, in which tenants’ rights are protected, and prices are commensurate with wages, is essential to keep the social fabric of a city knitted together. Why care about your local park, or make your streets and playgrounds and green spaces safer, cleaner and more beautiful, if you have no hope of staying in them in the future?

When we consider what jobs and wages means in terms of self-determination and human relationships, it becomes easier to understand the political significance of our relationship with place within that context, and to think beyond the banalities of polling data about specific ‘green policies’. Unless you truly believe that politics is just a matter of ‘predict and provide’ for slivers of the population in marginal constituencies – in which case the environment will be an important ‘divider issue’ in some places – this is the least interesting thing about it. A far more important and engaging enquiry is to ask where environmental politics fits within the wider political challenge faced by our generation. This means asking whether and how politicians can rebuild the institutions, relationships and economic conditions necessary to sustain viable communities – communities that are resilient in the face of the vicissitudes of a global market place.

In a recent lecture about the politics of place Maurice Glasman described how the flow of capital in a globalised economy tends to erase history and geography, for example hollowing out the value we once attached to an engineering tradition in a city. Nostalgia for such ‘place-politics’ might sound self-indulgent in our current predicament, if Glasman were not also able to point to the one modern European economy which has proven resilient to the financial crisis – Germany – and show that is it also an economy where political institutions and corporate governance have most effectively sustained traditional skills and regional investments.

Economies grounded in place – in skills sustained through generations, in local value and regionally specific institutions – far from being a nostalgic liability, may in fact provide the key to our future survival. Such economies are also those in which the demands of the labour market do not inevitably atomise communities and tear up sustained and caring relationships with land, nature, and the local environment. A relationship with place in such economies is both the prerequisite and the reward of resilience, a condition and a consequence of success.

For these reasons, it does not seem unreasonable for environmentalists to claim that a relationship with place can and should lie at the heart of a more democratic, earthy and pragmatic politics – one fit for our times. Yet it is also true that the modern environment movement has at times done little to make this case, and that we have some way to go to, to refresh our relationship with working people and renew our mandate in the political sphere.

Beyond the politics of exhortation

Too often, in the last two decades, we have seemed remote, disapproving, even highhanded. Along with many other parts of civil society, we fell prey to abstraction and bureaucratisation in the 1990s and 2000s; parts of the ‘sector’ were trapped in a managerial approach to nature, which in retrospect can be seen to have eroded our ability to defend the common good. Hundreds of ‘action plans’, with thousands of targets for individual habitats and species, were created and serviced by conservationists and government officials. The impulse behind these plans – to make government accountable for specific actions to protect nature – was a good one. But when it turned out (predictably) that actions that required a sustained challenge to vested interests were deemed politically unacceptable – and that managerialism was often a substitute for effective laws and institutions rather than a means to achieve them – we made compromises from which it was hard to recover. The results are still visible today – for example, in the exploitation of large parts of the uplands for grouse shooting – an activity that for the most part benefits the very rich, at massive cost to the common good. The same moors that working people fought to walk on a century ago are now often deserts of eroding peat – drained, burned and keepered to sterility, and costing all of us a fortune in water pollution and increased flood risk.

Action plans were never the answer to this problem – sustained protests against a continuing and brazen act of appropriation probably were.

Attempts to accommodate ourselves to a prevailing utilitarian ethos within government, by focussing on the quantification and monetising of nature as ‘ecosystem services’, also helped debase our wider relationship with the public and politicians. We came to accept in many of our dealings with ministers and civil servants that it was pointless to voice the common concerns of our members and supporters – who believe overwhelmingly that nature has a value beyond that which can be captured in financial terms. Since the concerns of our supporters are precisely what give us legitimacy in our dealings with government, such silences eroded rather than enhanced our power. A lumpen and dispiriting materialism stole into the way in which we undertook our work, and this divided us both from our vocation and the people we claimed to represent. One of the manifestations of such an approach can perhaps be seen in the recent creation of a ‘Natural Capital Committee’, located in the Treasury and answering to George Osborne. According to the government’s National Ecosystem Assessment, properly managed ecosystem services could deliver an extra 30 billion pounds a year to the UK economy, whilst poor management of the same assets could cost 20 billion. Presumably, we must be happy to kiss goodbye to the plant or animal or park or playground or mountain that doesn’t hold its value in this context, or finds itself outbid by the profits which might accrue from a new office block, road or airport. As a means of deciding the fate of the land of William Blake, John Clare and Ted Hughes, I admit that this leaves me speechless.

Of course, governments that are unwilling to protect communities, traditions, culture and nature from the privations of capital – and that describes most of those during my lifetime – often find it convenient to place the responsibility for such privations at the door of individuals. The result is a politics of exhortation, in which we are all asked to behave better, to make up for capital behaving worse. Here, too, NGOs have been slow to challenge the underlying political logic of such an approach – particularly where it has been used to address the growing danger of climate change.

It is arguable that successive ‘behavioural change’ initiatives to persuade people to reduce their carbon footprint have done more to alienate people than engage them with the problem – because too often they have not been set in the context of a mature conversation about the complementary roles of government and the private sector. There are a wealth of data showing that the majority of people remain convinced of the reality of human-induced climate change, and the need to address it; but that they also know that individual actions on their own are inadequate to the scale of the problem. Rationally, they expect governments and businesses to act too. They know that boiling a bit less water in their kettle is not going to deal with the structural dependence of the world’s major economies on fossil fuels.

But it must also be evident to any ordinary citizen that no government is actually prepared to take on the vested interests that benefit from that structural dependence.

Thus, despite poll after poll showing strong public support for more renewable and community-owned energy (including wind and solar power), the UK economy remains largely dependent on six large power suppliers, at least four of whom make most of their profits from burning fossil fuels. These same companies – which are hiking their bills at a time of falling wages and squeezed living standards – are blaming price rises (inaccurately) on green policies while simultaneously promoting themselves as environmental champions. It is no wonder that people feel that current climate change policy is something of a con.

Careless, insensitive and punitive language from environmentalists has compounded the problem. By referring to the carbon ‘debt’ that UK citizens owe to those elsewhere in the world who have not benefitted from fossil-fuelled industrialisation, I believe we have helped nurture a politics of guilt and resentment, instead of a sense of solidarity in tackling a shared problem. In the context of international co-operation, it of course right that countries have different capacities and responsibilities; does anyone really think that Chad, Bangladesh or indeed India (many of whose citizens have no access to any form of energy) should be cutting their carbon emissions at the same rate as the United States? But as part of a dialogue with citizens in the UK, the language of carbon debt is alienating, divisive and counter-productive. Did we stop to think how it would feel to hear about such a debt as someone struggling with low wages and falling living standards, in a country where the gap between rich and poor has been growing for decades? How would you experience such a story if you were dogged by continual anxiety that your job was going to be outsourced to a country that you believed had less stringent employment, health and safety and environmental laws than your own? Looking back, I can see how it must have felt, to be lectured on the need to tackle climate change by the Chief Executives of businesses that were simultaneously re-locating their offices, factories and jobs to markets with lower costs. It’s a wonder – and a testament to the genuine and widely held concern of ordinary people – that the damage done to our national willingness to reduce carbon pollution was not worse.

Re-imagining environmentalism for the common good

So, now is the time to move on. The environment movement has a vital role to play in rebuilding the political fabric of Britain, and in putting at its heart a relationship with land, nature and the future of our common home. As an essential part of this project we must also begin the work of renewing and refreshing the ways in which we campaign on climate change. But first, we must remind ourselves that if we wish to talk about the politics of place, we will have to engage directly with the economic conditions that create such a politics; and secondly, that if we wish to work legitimately in the new democratic space that is opening up in Britain, we will have to do so through the articulation of shared values around the common good, not through a reluctant utilitarianism or an eager but ultimately futile managerialism.

When the forces of unregulated capital drag families and communities apart, trampling on their relationship with place, memory and tradition, we as environmentalists have lost our vocation. Only when we are willing to take on these privations, can we legitimately ask for the public support we need in tackling global environmental problems such as climate change. Thus we must have a view not just about where the environment sits within economic policy, but also about the impact that economic policy in its widest sense has on where and how people are able to live.

People care about place, and will act to defend the natural commons – an inheritance whose value is deeply rooted in our culture, and which sparks fierce resistance where it is encroached upon or ignored. Environmentalists must therefore be prepared to defend nature as a common good, that should neither be enclosed or commodified. We must mount this defence not as reluctant utilitarians, but because it is our vocation to articulate the shared human concern for place, land, nature and culture, which both states and corporations continually seek to erode. For example, rapacious governments are right now laying claim to large parts of the common land around the Arctic, to secure access to that region’s mineral resources. This is surely an enclosure too far: this is not a no-man’s land – a wasteland, ripe for exploitation by whichever prospectors reach it first; it is a land filled with life and meaning – a territory that is the common inheritance of the peoples of the Arctic, and also a precious commons of the imagination for millions of ordinary people around the world.

We must and will defend the Arctic; but we must also find the golden thread of shared values that connects the Arctic to the parks and playgrounds of urban Britain. So that we are equally prepared (and proud) to protect these common lands from something as mundane as young men with big dogs. The presence of dogs wielded like weapons on our pavements and in our parks amounts to the sanctioned everyday theft of common land from parents, children and old people.

Environmentalists need to imagine themselves into the mind of a young mother with a three year old, unable to leave her house to let her child play on a swing, or sit in the grass, in order to see how strong is the sense of common purpose that binds our work in the Arctic or the Amazon to our work in our own streets.

Defending people’s ability to stay rooted to the places they love, and defending common land as a common good, are thus the necessary starting points for renewing our relationship with the public, from whom we ultimately derive our status in the political life of our country. They must also be the starting points from which we renew our conversation with the public about climate change.

In a world where too few people have access to science as a knowledge system, and where governments and businesses are perceived to deploy elite knowledge as a means to secure power or profit, it is not surprising that science itself (and in particular climate science) might come to be regarded by some with mistrust. It is particularly likely to happen at a moment when there is chronic public suspicion of both the institutions of the state and the influence of capital on society.It is difficult to ask people to have confidence in a description of reality that is offered to them by those whose previous descriptions have proven so spectacularly and dangerously wrong.

Overcoming this mistrust must therefore in part depend on re-building confidence in public institutions and in sources of authority in public life – not just those of government, but also of civil society – of which the environment movement (like it or not) is a part. Put simply – our solidarity with people in engaging with the politics of place, community and the commons must become our credentials in asking for solidarity in the international politics of climate change.

But we can also build a bridge linking the evidence that says it would be prudent to curb greenhouse gas emissions to arguments for collective ownership of the technologies needed to do so. In particular, by arguing for the restoration of the engineering and manufacturing skills of the people of Britain, we can make the work of creating a safe climate a source of meaningful, well paid, rewarding and respected jobs.

It is this idea of valuable work that must become central to our new message about climate change. We must re-imagine the problem not as not one of guilt, debt and fear, but as a global challenge that can unlock the ingenuity, perseverance and pride of a generation.

Despite the entrenched opposition of those for whom a more active industrial policy (including support for the clean technology sector) is an unacceptable interference with free markets, British firms now have the opportunity to fight their way out of their quarter-century stupor. Since the 2008 financial crash, the clean technology sector has consistently grown at a rate of between 4 and 5 per cent a year; and it is now worth 100 billion pounds a year and supports 900,000 jobs.

When in spring 2012 the prime minister made his heavily trailed but ultimately abortive – and a mere seven minutes long – speech about the environment, he must surely have wanted to shout those figures from the roof tops. And perhaps he would have done so had he not been in mortal fear of his own party. In the end, he was muzzled by those who would rather destroy British jobs in the renewable energy industry than recognise that in making our climate safer we can also renew our country’s skills base, and re-assert our role in designing and manufacturing the things the world needs.

There is real work to be done to make our planet safe for our children; work which can be done here, by people who will be rewarded with a living wage, and therefore with the wherewithal to invest in their own communities, their traditions, homes, culture, places and their relationship with the natural world. It’s the economy, stupid; decent jobs, doing useful work, in a world where value and meaning exist beyond the short-term demands of mobile capital, and are inextricably linked to place.

A tall order? Only if you believe that good work doesn’t matter, that most people don’t care about their relationship with place and nature, and that solidarity should not be the foundation for tackling global problems. I believe none of these things, and therefore trust that the work can and will be done.

This Article was first published in Soundings Magazine Issue 51