Rattling the political timber

Last week in Britain there was an appreciable rise in the general anti-government temperature: for once it wasn’t linked to financial woes or scandals but instead the seat of the problem stemmed from two unlikely sources, the culling of badgers and ash trees.

Across the world at the same time there had been violent protests in China against a planned petro-chemical complex and heated words and threats over salmon netting in Oregon, just two further examples of ‘environmental confrontations’ that provide a vivid reminder to politicians about the potency of environmental issues.

The description of the events of last week varied from ‘uproar’ (badgers in Britain), ‘battle-lines’ (salmon in Oregon) to ‘clashes’ (petro-complex in China), depending on the level of violence but all trails lead back to democracy and ‘people power’.

Banking scandals and the growing divide between rich and poor have increased those people across the world ill-disposed to their governments: on the environmental front there were disasters such as the lack of response to Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima nuclear plant disasters, where in all cases governments were deeply culpable.

The febrile environmental atmosphere last week in Britain was demonstrated when the British Environment minister, Owen Paterson, while defending government handling of the culls managed at the same time to wade into the highly toxic waters of the climate-change debate (he is a sceptic).

The political trajectory of the culls goes back to when the British government wanted to sell off large chunks of public woodland, only to meet a ‘fire-storm’ of protest: on the surface the message was that the woodlands were part of the national heritage, so sacred as to be beyond tampering by politicians; but on a deeper level ‘the people’ could be viewed as sending a potent two-fingered salute to express their hearty disenchantment with politicians in general.

While modern technology can of course quickly ‘ramp up’ any campaign nevertheless last week’s events underlined that the public across the world have a growing appetite to engage in ‘environmental confrontations’, whether on the barricades or not.

Social scientist John Vogler has noted that as political discourse increasingly securitizes the environment, people ‘will be tempted to stretch traditional definitions of security’, stemming from the evolution of the cultural and moral values that motivate the public. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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