What does it mean to be a good environmentalist?
[This article is based on a speech I gave at a rally in Denmark in 2021]
“The trees shouldn’t be cut down,” asserted the leader of the local Green Party, at a Planning meeting, where a housing development was being proposed to provide a thousand dwellings for new residents. This was in my home city of Exeter, where there is a housing shortage.
Now don’t get me wrong: I care about trees as much as the next environmentalist. But the argument that the trees needed to be saved because they store carbon was too simple. In this case, the point of the housing development was to enable students and key workers to move into the area where they work and study, to save them from driving across, or from outside, the city several times a week . Preventing those car journeys from taking place would reduce carbon emissions. So which option was greener? Keeping the trees (which would be replaced with new saplings, if removed to make way for the development), or reducing the number of cars on the road?
I know it sounds odd, as an environmentalist, to be in favour of a development, or of building anything new. But isn’t that, in itself, kind of odd? That environmentalists can’t be in favour of building things? I admit that I was once such a lazy thinker. It went something like this: trees = good, new = bad. In fact, I once gave a speech, as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion (XR), titled ‘Speak for the Trees’, based on a quote from the Dr Seuss book. I argued that we should plant trees everywhere — as many as possible. And I was wrong.
The question is, does this tokenistic tree-hugging actually help trees? We do need to protect woodlands, and biodiversity, but if we don’t make correct assessments of what will actually benefit the environment in the long-run, then we have no hope of tackling climate change, or air pollution, or the housing crisis, or any other pressing issue. Going with our feelings over facts, and choosing to think simplistically about complex issues, is not helping us to improve life for anyone.
Back to this housing proposal, though: on balance, I thought it was a good one. For a start it was not a car-led development. I’ve seen my fair share of proposed developments with two car parking spaces allocated for each new property, and I have an awareness of the challenges we face as a city — or even a country — in terms of reducing journeys taken by motorised vehicles, so this was a significant point in its favour. The location was also a brownfield site, with an unused building on it, which is a much better option for the environment than building homes on green fields (although I acknowledge that there is sometimes a need for this too). After all, people need places to live, and they have to be built somewhere.
However, almost everyone present voted against the proposal. Which made me think: when did saying ‘no’ become the standard eco-friendly thing to do? What’s really happening when people are worrying more about a few trees than hundreds of people who need somewhere to live? Is this clinging to an ideology of trees = good, building things= bad standing in the way of level-headed assessment? Surely the best thing to do is to take into account the environmental cost (emissions, local pollution) from the hundreds of people who have to drive into the city because they can’t find anywhere to live there, and the petrol they’re paying for to do this, and weigh that up against the trees?
Ordinary environmentalism has, for a long time, dominated the conversation about what’s natural, what should and should not be built, and many other things that have now crept into the everyday thinking of even the non-eco activist. Many people now worry about their carbon footprints and try to make lifestyle changes to help the environment, but the generally-encouraged changes aren’t necessarily always better for the environment (choosing organic foods over non organic, for example), and no one really questions them or their origins.
When I was in XR a few of us wanted to set up an XR for Nuclear group, but were told (aggressively, forcefully) by other members that this wasn’t allowed. Meanwhile, the XR for Renewables group already existed without issue. Why was one group allowed to exist on the grounds that it was eco-friendly, and the other not permitted? Why was one considered to be a lobby group with ‘shill’ motivations behind it, and the other seen as a campaign to save the environment? And who gets to decide where the lines are drawn?
Back to being a lazy thinker. Their reasoning went like this: renewables = natural = good, nuclear = scary = bad. Which makes no sense, because an atom is of course as ‘natural’ as the sun or wind.
Because of this ideology, I used to advocate for 100% renewables. I didn’t think about the resources and mining required to make solar panels and wind turbines, the cheap labour involved, the environmental costs, the fact that they have to be imported from abroad, the land footprint they require, the grid development required for them to work at scale, or the need for baseload power due to intermittency issues. Because renewables = natural was my belief, I spoke out against other energy sources, like nuclear, lest they displace my Solar God. Again, I was wrong.
We all get things wrong sometimes: that’s why engaging in debate and hearing different opinions is important. But when you believe something in a fundamentalist way, where you feel personally attacked when you hear different arguments, this is a bad sign. After all, if you’re sure you’re right about something, there should be no harm in entertaining opposing views.
For years in these groups, every time I tried to question my own beliefs, I was shut down and told I was wrong. Because they were collective beliefs, they were not to be questioned. By doing so, I was challenging peoples’ identities. So I retained unscientific views of nuclear energy for some time, and I’m not proud of it.
So, who draws the line between what we can be for as environmentalists, and what we can be against? Between what is considered to be natural, or green, and what isn’t?
The answer is: the gatekeepers. These gatekeepers exist in every group, whether it’s people who are anti-vaccine and pro-organic in green parenting circles, or those who are anti-nuclear and -GMOs in environmental groups. I have had experience of all of these. They reinforce the core values, and they shut down dissent. There are usually only a few of them, but they dominate the narrative and it is virtually impossible to be heard above them. When I tried to ask whether we need nuclear energy to decarbonise at a Green Party debate on energy back when I was a member of the group, my question was shut down. “You’re not pro nuclear, are you Zion?” I was not, but I had wanted to ask a question about nuclear energy, which hadn’t been allowed. That didn’t sit right with me, and I quit the Party the same day.
I wanted to help the environment, which meant staying in these groups (or so I thought). So for years I went along with the dominant idea of “going back to living on the land like we’re meant to” (this was actually said to me once, by a prominent Green Party member), where we are all powered by sunshine and wash our clothes together by hand and grow all our food and cook together and are never lonely… But I never really believed it, because I privately felt that this perspective was idolising poverty, which so many people — like my own parents — have been glad to escape, and so many more are still desperate to escape. In India, this supposed utopian ideal was exactly the lifestyle that my parents chose to leave behind. They didn’t want to spend all day gathering firewood, cooking, and growing rice. But the myth of this being a more natural and healthy way of life prevails.
Why do so many environmentalists say ‘no’ to everything? E.g. solar farms, wind farms, nuclear power plants, and housing developments? Because they believe that humanity was wrong to develop new technologies, and it would be better for us and the planet to give them up. They miss the fact that this belief - that primitive, back-to-the-land living is the requisite for achieving eco-utopia - romanticises the poverty that 700 million people in the world are still desperate to escape.
Possibly because of my background, I’ve often held different opinions to the status quo of mainstream environmental groups, but for years I kept them to myself. Instead, I did everything that a ‘good’ environmentalist is supposed to do. I became vegan in 2002 , well before alternative milks were available anywhere.
I was arrested for climate action when protesting coal power, and then again for protesting tar sands, and I narrowly avoided arrest during countless other protests and actions. I gave up flying in 2008, for over a decade. I never learned to drive. I achieved a tiny carbon footprint, because isn’t that what being a good environmentalist means?
In fact, I even wrote a book for families, The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting, on how to maintain low carbon footprints while raising children. It was endorsed by Natalie Bennett, the leader of The Green Party at the time, and Bill McKibben. The Telegraph newspaper review of it called me ‘Britain’s Greenest Mother’.
But then, I started to question everything.
It actually started with my book. The other ‘green parents’ around me were mostly anti-vaccination, and my book included a chapter on why we should vaccinate children. Parents started to exclude me from events. For the first time, I received hate mail in my inbox, calling me a ‘Big Pharma shill’. The editor of a magazine on permaculture that I’d written for (for free) many times emailed me to tell me that I was now blacklisted. Suddenly, I had stepped across the line of what a good environmentalist is considered to be, and I was being punished for it.
I think this is the point where most people would have stepped back into the comfort zone. For a long time in human history, we were kept in line by social approval, and potentially destroyed by gossip. We needed the tribe to survive, so to avoid being ostracised, we stayed behind the line. But we don’t live like that any more. And I started wondering — what else was on the other side of the line? And what if things that were on the other side were also scientifically correct, and I was wrong on multiple issues, and as a consequence doing more harm to the planet than good?
During my time in XR I wrote an article about feeling in crisis. It’s true: I was feeling awful. But not because of the state of the planet, which, despite all its problems is also improving in many ways. I felt that no matter what I did, no matter how much sacrifice and obsessive attentiveness to personal lifestyle choices I had made, it was not making a difference at all to the state of the world, to biodiversity, or to greenhouse gas emissions. I felt like I had failed.
This is also part of the problem: it is normal in environmental groups to feel bad. In fact, if you don’t feel guilty about things, and like you are sacrificing to save the planet, the unspoken rule is that you’re not considered to be doing it properly. No one enforces this, it’s just a feeling we all have. At the root of this is the feeling that if we don’t feel bad then we can’t be taking things seriously enough. As awareness of climate change has grown, so too has this guilt and somewhat self-flagellating attitude, even among non-activists now.
The fossil fuel industry has cleverly capitalised on our tendency to feel guilty by keeping the focus on individual action through marketing the idea of personal carbon footprints. The industry is were well aware of the ease with which humans in general focus on details over the bigger picture (tree = good, new = bad), and our tendency to feel guilty about the state of the world. It was a genius tactic, really, as it’s hard to point the finger at anyone else, like heavily polluting fossil fuel companies, when you’re busy pointing it at yourself. While they continue to destroy our planet, we have become distracted by what type of bag to take to the supermarket and where our food was flown in from, etc.
Eventually I realised that this intense focus on personal choice — I wrote an entire book about how to live with a low carbon footprint, after all — wasn’t actually changing anything for the better, so I changed my approach.
I wanted to know what the real solutions were. To look at things on a large scale, and to find out where I had gone wrong. I went back to university and completed a Masters in Science Communication. It was not a fast or easy process to change my perspective. I had to review everything I’d ever believed, challenge it with data and — the hardest part — change my mind. Initially once I had the information, some part of me was reluctant to change. Who was I, if not a good environmentalist? It was my entire identity, and now the thing I cared most deeply about for so long was going to be taken away from me.
It would be easy to point fingers, but I don’t think the fault lies solely with environmental groups for being misleading. The gatekeepers really believe what they preach, and think that they’re helping the planet. Ultimately, there is a failure of our schooling system to teach critical thinking skills. A failure to teach the basic rules of how science and technology work, to those growing up in a world that is dominated by this science and technology. And a this vicious cycle then leads to a failure to encourage critical thinking and wide debate in our media.
Over time, I changed my mind about nuclear energy. I realised that when we had the option to embrace a scientific discovery that was similar to fire, instead the good environmentalist was told to reject it. And we did. I did. I attended anti-nuclear protests, wrote articles against it, and had arguments with those who were in favour of nuclear. Some time after I’d changed my mind, when I realised that nuclear is actually key climate solution, I decided to undo some of the damage I’d done and advocate for it.
Unlike some other high-profile environmentalists I know who have suffered rifts within the environmental movement, and returned crawling on their knees to appease their tribe, I decided not to pander to the masses and instead carved out a new space for myself within the green movement, with Emergency Reactor. It hasn’t been easy, and it has lost me some friends, but my work now helps to change things for the better, and that matters to me above all else.
Why didn’t I reject my tribe altogether, as others have done? I suppose I refuse to let go of a movement that I have helped to build. That I have tied myself to trees for, that I have squatted land for, and stood in courts for. There should be space for all of us in the environmental movement. There should be continued debate on what the way forward actually is.
This shift is finally taking place. As increasingly more environmentalists question their long-held beliefs on nuclear energy, it is time to reclaim what it means to be a good environmentalist. This means letting go of archaic notions of what is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’. Instead, we should think — is it better? Does it make life better for people? Will it be better for the planet, and in a way that we can measure?
We need to embrace technological solutions instead of being against everything. We all care about the environment, but then we protest new housing, wind farms, nuclear power plants… Just about everything has a NIMBY group behind it. In fact, solar farms are being refused planning permission in Great Britain at the highest rate in five years.
It’s easy to be against things, and much harder to stand up for alternatives. But if you’re an environmentalist and you’re not fighting for solutions, you are only engaging in half the battle… And then you wonder why aren’t making much of an impact. We have to build clean energy, we have to live with developments we don’t necessarily like the look of, we have to make compromises if we really want to stop being dependent on fossil fuels.
We need to think about scale. I’ve debated with high-profile birders who are fighting Sizewell C because they worry about the short-term impacts of noise on local birds, meanwhile if we don’t wean off of fossil fuels soon many of those birds will go extinct. Activists fight against new highspeed railways to protect a few trees, but these trees may not last long in a warming climate and in the meantime people continue to drive or fly instead.
I’m still vegan. I still don’t drive. And I am still a climate activist. But I have changed my stance of saying no to everything, because that’s what the science requires of us if we want to fix the world’s problems. Why do I fight for nuclear energy now? Because if I can save one nuclear reactor from being prematurely shut down, I can actually calculate the amount of carbon that saves from going into the Earth’s atmosphere. If my public engagement and activism helps to get new reactors built, then I know that the resulting displacement of fossil fuels means better air quality for us all, and therefore also more biodiversity in the long run.
I’m still working hard to save the planet, it just doesn’t look like it did when I first started out in the environmental movement. In fact I think you could say that, although it is in a manner that is contrary to the traditional flow, I actually speak for the trees more loudly now than I ever did before.