Will Trumps presidency spell disaster for the climate, or can the green movement seize back the debate?
Last June, I voted to leave the European Union. I wasnt an anti-EU fanatic but I was, despite my advancing years, still something of a green idealist. I had always believed that small was beautiful, that people should govern themselves and that power should be reclaimed and localised whenever possible. I didnt think that throwing the people of Greece, Spain and Ireland to the wolves in order to keep bankers happy looked like the kind of right-on progressive justice that some of the EUs supporters were claiming it represented.
So I voted to leave. I didnt say anything about this before the vote and, despite being a writer, I didnt write about it either. There was too much mudslinging on both sides already, and I didnt want to throw any more or have any thrown at me. In any case, I didnt have much to say.
The mudslinging, it turned out, was just a prelude to what would come next. The EU referendum, like the election of Donald Trump in the US five months later, and the Scottish independence question, newly reopened this week, tore the plaster off a pre-existing national wound that now began to bleed freely. All sorts of things bubbled up that had been suppressed for years, and everyone was suddenly taking sides. Some people, when I told them that Id voted to leave, looked at me as if Id just owned up to a criminal record. Why would I do that? Was I a racist? A fascist? Did I hate foreigners? Did I hate Europe? I must hate something. Did I know how irresponsible I had just been? Had I changed my mind yet? I needed to go away and check my privilege.
The eruption of anger that followed the vote, on all sides, was surprising enough. But what was also surprising to me was the uniformity of opinion among people I had thought I shared a worldview with. Most people in the leftish, green-tinged world in which I had spent probably too much time over the years seemed to be lining up behind the EU. The public intellectuals, the Green party, the big NGOs: all these people, from a tradition founded on localisation, degrowth, bioregionalism and a fierce critique of industrial capitalism, were on board with a multinational trading bloc backed by the worlds banks, corporations and neoliberal politicians. Something smelt fishy.
I was born in the early 1970s. At around the same time, two forces two movements, if you like were also born that would shape the lives of my generation. One was neoliberalism. The other was environmentalism.
Neoliberalism was an economic project. It sought to replace stuttering statist economic models with a new laissez-faire order by removing barriers to trade wherever they might be found. These barriers might be protectionist tariffs or taxes; they might also be national laws, local customs or environmental regulations. The creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995 was the culmination of a decades-long project, pushed by the economic and military might of the United States and its allies, to globalise the neoliberal model and cement it in international law.
By the early 21st century it seemed that this globalisation process was both unstoppable and almost complete. Political parties from all traditions had surrendered to it, and the pundits and the economists were happily on board. In the process, the economic project had developed into a cultural one, promulgated by its beneficiary class, the urban, tech-savvy, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie. Often referred to as globalism, this worldview envisaged a borderless, one-world culture, in which trade tariffs and national boundaries were seen as equally damaging to the new hypercapitalist conception of freedom. Traditions, distinctive cultures, national identities, religious strictures, social mores all would dissolve away in the healing light of free trade and a western liberal conception of social progress. Only bigots and luddites could possibly oppose such a utopian dream.
Being something of a luddite myself, I wrote a book, One No, Many Yeses, opposing it 15 years ago. It tracked the great wave of anti-globalisation movements that washed over the world at the end of the 20th century, from the summit blockades at Seattle, Prague and Genoa to the uprising of the Zapatistas in Mexico and the anti-privatisation riots in South Africa. What I found as I investigated these movements was that the most lasting of them were fuelled not by a general rage against the system, but by a sense of place and belonging. Somewhere that people loved or felt attached to was being threatened by outside forces, whether they be trade treaties, buccaneering corporations or oppressive governments, and people were fighting to defend what they knew and what they were.
This sense of the uniqueness of places, and of the cultures that sprang from them, had been what pushed me towards green activism in the first place. From a young age I had an inchoate sense that much of the worlds colour, beauty and distinctiveness was being bulldozed away in the name of money and progress. Some old magic, some connection, was being snuffed out in the process. It must be 20 years since I read the autobiography of the late travel writer Norman Lewis, The World, The World, but the last sentence stays with me. Wandering the hills of India, Lewis is ask by a puzzled local why he spends his life travelling instead of staying at home. What is he looking for? I am looking for the people who have always been there, replies Lewis, and belong to the places where they live. The others I do not wish to see.
As a writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction, I have been looking for the same thing. That first book of mine, it turned out, was a journey in search of people who belong. It was a defence of a threatened fragility. A few years later, I wrote another, this time about globalisations impact on England, my home country. Ive since written novels and essays and poems and they always seem, however hard I try to write about something else, to circle back around to that primal question: what does it mean to belong to a place, to a people, to nature, in a time in which belonging is everywhere under attack? Does it mean anything? Why should it matter?