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Last Updated: Friday, 5 May 2006, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Greens must come out of the woods
Peter Gibson
Peter Gibson

Self-styled "greens" are seen as out of touch in many communities, says Peter Gibson. They should concentrate first on local issues, he argues, which are what many people, particularly the disadvantaged, see as the most important ones.

A beautiful and remote stretch of the Quebrada La Cuecha, including a small waterfall and a bromeliad-covered log across the creek. (Photograph by Brett Cole/
For people in deprived neighbourhoods, the last thing on their minds is ozone depletion or the condition of the rainforests
Hippies, loonies and anoraks - that's how the public views environmentalists. Or so a recent British survey on recycling habits reported.

Well-meaning, but out of touch. Allied to the political extreme, rather than the mainstream; obsessed by the state of the planet, but frankly, living on another one most of the time.

The charge, of course, is grossly unfair, and those organisations that have managed to mobilise communities and get neighbourhoods cleaned up deserve far better.

But can we really blame people for believing that environmentalism has nothing to do with them?

In the UK and other Western countries, green groups (even the colour suggests "tree hugger") appear to be made up solely of the white middle classes. Their messages - no car, no waste, no air travel - seem preachy and remote.

For people in deprived neighbourhoods, where poverty, crime and drug addiction are very real daily problems, the last thing on their minds is ozone depletion or the condition of the rainforests - which are, literally and metaphorically, thousands of miles away from them.

Blight and grime

Graffiti on railway footbridge

And yet if environmentalists could connect with those in greatest need, they would usher in dramatic changes to the quality of life in these communities and beyond.

Take the situation in England, for example. According to Keep Britain Tidy's latest survey of the nation's streets, high density housing areas are in dire need of a brush-up.

If residents were to take ownership of their land, pride would be restored, crime could be reduced and an interest in environmental issues would snowball.

In sharp contrast to rural parts and leafy lane estates where the main problem is (ironically enough) leaves, poorer housing areas suffer the worst blight, with high levels of litter, grimy pavements, damaged street furniture and badly maintained landscaping.

Spots around local shops are particularly poor. Since these sell everything from sweets to alcohol, they are already popular hang-outs for youths, making them seem intimidating places to visit after dark.

Add boarded-up windows, graffiti and vandalised bins, and the fuel-guzzling exodus to supermarkets and out-of-town malls suddenly doesn't seem so surprising.

Lozells Road in Birmingham was a typical example of one of these areas.

Spoof eco-warriors Cyderdelic.  Image: BBC
Environmentalists; seen as saving this planet but on another one
Open spaces had become dumping grounds for mattresses, broken furniture, cookers and bags full of household rubbish, resulting in a chronic rat problem. Poorly-lit subways and secluded, ungated alleyways made burglary and other crimes easier to commit.

No wonder 60% of residents felt their area was dangerous, compared to just 25% in other parts of the city.

Desperate to reclaim the streets, residents decided, with the help of local churches, to take ownership of their land and clean it up.

And they are not alone. Mosques in Bradford have been working hard to care for their city; and from Harpurhey in Manchester to Normanton in Derby, people-power is driving environmental improvement forward and bringing previously divided communities together.

The state of the streets is what matters to most people. And when communities decide to care for their local patch, their motivation has more to do with making their local area safe than a belief in protecting the planet for future generations.

Preaching to the converted

Yet combating global environmental problems should be equally important, particularly to the vulnerable.

Man pushes bicycle through flooded street in India.  Image: AP
It is those in the poorest parts of the developing world who suffer famine, disease and disaster when freak weather conditions strike
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Those in need tend to live closer to polluting factories and landfill sites; children are losing green spaces to walk and play in, while older people suffer the worst consequences of breathing in dirty air.

And it is those in the poorest parts of the developing world who suffer famine, disease and disaster when freak weather conditions strike.

Greens need to stop preaching to the converted and take their fight instead to those who would benefit most from a better environment.

They should be inspired by the local drive to clean-up neighbourhoods, get into these communities, listen to people and understand what motivates them.

Then they can make their messages to waste less and travel sensibly relevant and inclusive.

Then they can attempt to engage people in global environmental issues with a reasonable expectation of success.

People genuinely want to do their bit, but it is all about the here and the now, and we must use language and terms that everyone can relate to.

The time has come to connect, or risk forever being portrayed as hippies, loonies and anoraks whose quest to improve the environment faltered because they ignored those who were most in need.

Peter Gibson is head of communications for the independent national charity Keep Britain Tidy.

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC news website.

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