, , , ,

A Common Good Manifesto for our Rivers, Seas, Land and Climate?

The natural environment – our land, air, rivers, seas, climate – are the commonwealth of the planet and of our country. Their health underpins the functioning of our economy and they have a vast material value which is often neglected or ignored.

But our relationship with nature and with place also sustains meaning in our lives and binds us together as communities and as a nation. This ‘relational’ value of nature – implicitly recognised by Britain’s millions of bird-watchers, ramblers, gardeners, allotment holders, and anglers – is precious and fragile, and requires mindful protection, both against the commodifying forces of the market and the centralising and bureaucratising pressures of the state.

Moreover, on a crowded island with a long history of settlement, it is impossible to separate how we grow food, catch fish, build homes or generate energy from this wider relationship with place and nature. How (for example) can we reconcile national priorities for infrastructure and housing development with the impulse to protect local green space? Is it possible to have food that is locally produced and grown in a way that protects our soils, water and wildlife, but is still affordable? And are common good outcomes possible at all in a low-wage economy – or do we need to connect these aspirations to a much wider programme of reforms?

These questions are even more pressing, since the public’s trust in political elites to address them is at an all-time low. For the green movement, this represents a particular challenge, because until recently our model of change relied heavily on these political elites to deliver our goals, by creating new laws and providing new funding. If political parties no longer feel that they have the mandate or budgets to take such action, and the public are increasingly cynical about their competence to do so, where does that leave us? What do we risk, by relying on a change model that is no longer politically fit for purpose – and which is (anyway) ill-suited to nurture the emotional and moral ties that bind people to nature – and that are the foundations of our own public support?

These questions are not going away soon; and in my view it would be a mistake to answer them solely with a business as usual approach to campaigning, hoping that one or two of our demands for new laws or public funding make it through the Westminster machine. But neither do I believe that we should retreat into the kind of bijou localism that benefits a small part of the population, and is hopelessly divorced from major sources of funding and power. The scale and urgency of the climate crisis (to give one example) does not allow for doodling in the margins of the political economy. We need an approach that discovers and nurtures new sources of power, not one that pretends power doesn’t matter.

Instead, I think we should explore interventions that engage far more people and a much wider range of institutions in environmental problem solving. At scale, such approaches could provide alternative political pivots for change and help expand and re-invigorate our supporter base. By creating unexpected coalitions of interests and new models of ownership or trade, they could also threaten vested interests, and generate long-term and systemic shifts in the organisation of the economy.

Examples might include citizen-owned energy companies delivering energy savings and power to our major cities; farmers, conservationists and engineers taking over flood risk management at the catchment scale; regional food and nature contracts between local authorities, schools, hospital trusts and farmers; and commitments by major land-owners (the church, the crown, local governments and universities) to release land into land trusts to enable high quality affordable housing.

To realise their true potential, such approaches would not replace a national conversation about our shared interests in environmental protection. Rather, they would be the means by which such a conversation was renewed and democratised. However, the condition for their success would be governance reforms that allow power and money to flow downwards and outwards, towards local communities and non-state partnerships. Are we ready for that degree of letting go?

This paper is an invitation to anyone working on such solutions or with ideas about how they might work, to share them and discuss them with others.

It is also an opportunity to consider some of the difficult questions they raise – for example, what level of national over-sight is necessary to ensure that shared problems (like climate change) do not get lost in the mix? What programme of reforms would we need to advocate from the centre, to enable such solutions to flourish? What kinds of campaigning and organising would we need to invest in, to help catalyse and support this kind of change?

I have posted a taster ‘common good’ proposal about rivers and their catchments today, which you can read here, and will add others over the next few weeks.

Please comment directly on the site, or if you would like to contribute something more extended as a guest post, get in touch with me via twitter @ruthdavis27.