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The changing face of the environment

Zac Goldsmith

27th May, 2006

An editorial by editor Zac Goldsmith. Published in the 28 page exclusive Ecologist supplement that appeared in the Independent Information magazine on 27 May, 2006

The Ecologist was born 35 years ago into a political vacuum when only the most dramatic environmental stories made it onto the front page of newspapers.

At that time, environmental issues were relegated to academic journals and the Ecologist itself was an elite quarterly written by and for a small group of radical thinkers. Organic food was not available in supermarkets, evidence of climate change was widely disputed and environmental issues did not play a central role in mainstream politics.

In many ways the Ecologist was ahead of its time. Indeed many of the features written over the last three decades – on rising cancer rates, climate change, the dangers of factory farming and so on, could have been written today. Whereas these stories were initially regarded as extreme – today they are issues of mainstream public concern, and our role has changed.

If proof of exploding consumer interest in these issues were needed, it’s been provided by high street stalwart, Marks and Spencer. Its recent ad campaign and commitment to ban the worst chemicals from its products, sell only fish from sustainable sources and become the first UK high street retailer to sell clothes made from fair trade cotton, isn’t just an ethical one. It’s a practical and strategic one based on the discovery that customers are demanding – and rewarding – positive ethical action.

This same dynamic has given politicians the strength to prioritise the environment to an extent that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. Climate change has now leapt up the political agenda, and will inevitably feature largely in the next general election. It’s tempting to simply attribute these changes to media pressure, but the media is simply reacting to the same pressures as M&S. The real reason for the shift is that problems that seemed abstract just a few years ago are now hitting closer to home. And neither businesses nor governments can ignore what is happening.

As large-scale threats to our environment increase, they are affecting us all at a much more personal level. Today this is where the infl uence of the Ecologist is most strongly felt. In just 15 years the dominance of supermarkets has changed our food economy, damaged our local high streets and destroyed rural livelihoods; our levels of chronic and serious illness have risen dramatically and extreme weather conditions and retreating glaciers are constant reminders that climate change is a reality.

Fortunately solutions exist. On an individual level there are hundreds of things we can do, many of which are mentioned in this supplement. But individuals are not to blame for the actions of governments or corporations. In fact it is our complex relationship with these twin forces that lies at the root of so many environmental problems.

No longer the preserve of hardcore radicals, environmental issues have started to hit home with people who would never label themselves “environmentalists”. Is this because the environment has become ‘fashionable’? Perhaps. But if we have a new sense of shared purpose – whatever its source – then it’s our job now, each and every one of us, to continue to apply pressure on major retailers, banks, product designers and, above all, the government itself and ensure they are clear about the world we really want.


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