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Brexit is a dirty business, but grassroots resistance is growing - an interview with Friends of the Earth’s Kierra Box

Brexiteers plan to slash regulation to a terrifying degree, after years of poor enforcement of existing rules. But Friends of the Earth's Brexit expert takes heart from the new ecosystem of resistance taking shape.

Brendan Montague
1 November 2019
Climate activists holding a banner reading "Stop playing games with our planet"
Climate activists protesting in London earlier this month
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Laura Chiesa/Pacific Press/Sipa USA/PA Images

Brexit may not have happened this week after all – but it is nonetheless already having a dramatic and profoundly damaging impact on environmental policy across the UK. The ‘pollutocracy’ appears to be consolidating its control over British political life. Boris Johnson – for now at least – has pretty much concluded the takeover of government by those with a direct vested interest in undermining environmental policy.

As Kierra Box, Brexit campaigner for Friends of the Earth puts it, “Johnson has put together a cabinet of deregulators, who see the rules that safeguard our health and our environment as barriers to business and innovation. Rather than acknowledge and attempt to mitigate the immediate damaging impacts of no-deal - or avoid them entirely by ruling out a no-deal exit - the new government immediately spoke out in favour of overturning science based EU protections and sought advice from the US on an ‘about-turn in regulatory direction’.”

She added: “Since the referendum we have heard repeated promises that Brexit would not lead to a decline in environmental safeguards - and that is precisely the hazardous course this government is now taking.”

The timing could not be worse, she observes.

“We are in a crisis, an emergency, that has been building for a number of years. But we’re effectively making it harder and harder to deal with this crisis by breaking apart the structures that have given us the ability to take action, that we could use to manage our relationship with the natural world in terms of sustainability in the future,” she observes.

The logic of growth

The fundamental driver for the current ecological crisis - and indeed for Brexit - is the illusion that economic growth is vital to national prosperity, and personal wellbeing. This is the argument being advanced by those who benefit most from such growth - private and institutional investors, multinational corporations, and incumbent vested interests such as the fossil fuel industry. But it’s simply not true.

Box argues that support for economic growth made sense in a previous era, when the benefits were shared more equitably and this resulted in increased living standards. When people are suffering famine, or extreme hardship, there is a moral case for increasing how much we as a society produce. However, our economies now spew tonnes of unnecessary rubbish - literally filling the countryside with landfill, and yet economic growth remains the mantra.

“When you really think about it, the major barrier to change is our constant fixation on economic growth, and consumption for the aim of consumption,", says Box. "The reason I find it quite so depressing is the idea that this growth might need to come at the expense of life, or a future, or the survival of species and indeed the way in which we live now. And yet we still seek it.”

Those in favour of Brexit believe that crashing out of the European Union will advance the wider campaign of increasing economic growth, allowing Britain more freedom to trade with countries around the world and also reducing the “red tape” of environmental regulations that, they argue, have stifled enterprise and innovation.

“Something we have been talking about more at Friends of the Earth recently is that when we look at leaving Europe ‘come what may’ and at ‘taking back control’ as the key objective, we are doing so based on this idea that we need to become a ‘global Britain’ which can start buying more, selling more, and becoming richer.

“But in order to get there, what we have done is accept the fact that environmental regulations will be removed, we’re going to have a huge governance gap where communities won’t be able to access environmental justice through the European Courts of Justice, we’re looking at losing access to funding and to data-sharing bodies. That is all being accepted in some quarters because we’re looking to make more and more money - but for what purpose? We are ignoring what we will lose.”

Ecological catastrophe poses an even greater threat to people’s livelihoods now than continued sluggish growth. Growth today has gone to the richest, while the poorest suffer endless austerity. Kierra is also deeply frustrated because it seems clear that Britain becoming a world leader in climate mitigation and adaptation would be far more likely to result in economic benefit than essentially telling our most important trading partners to bob off.

Two tier system

Kierra has witnessed first-hand how the Conservatives in government have operated a two tier system when consulting on environment policy. Environmental charities and NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, are invited to meetings in cold government offices and offered coffee and biscuits. They get to shake hands with the lower echelons of the civil service. But no real information is ever divulged and very little changes.

The real business takes place in separate meetings dominated by industry and lobbyists. Here, ministers offer a free flow of information and the senior civil servants present take studious notes. The dominance of industry interests on the Strategic Trade Advisory Group is a case in point. “These are much more detailed conversation with a much stronger sense of honesty on the side of the government and the Department for International Trade but they have had more restricted invites, and they are dominated by industry. One thing that really concerned us: it is seen [by the government] that a couple of groups can represent the environment sector and civil society, yet the faces around the rest of the table are representing individual parts of industry and individual lobbying interests who definitely had something to gain from reducing environmental regulation.”

Even while Michael Gove was being praised as one of the best Tory environment ministers in living memory, there continued a slow undermining of effective environmental regulation. There were welcome announcements about what would happen in the future, but the interests of the most carbon intensive industries are not seriously threatened however much damage they cause.

Deregulation by stealth

And there has been a much more insidious attack on environmental protections in the UK. The underfunding of the Environment Agency and Natural England has taken them to the verge of collapse. The economic crisis, the decade of austerity and the Brexit farce has meant cuts to regulatory agencies inevitably sit well below the primary causes of public concern.

“The fact is, there are two ways to deregulate,” Kierra tells me. “You can actively deregulate by making it legal to do more things that are damaging. But you can also deregulate more stealthily if you simply stop funding the organisations that monitor and enforce. They are unable to follow up when there are breaches in terms of pollution of waterways, unsuitable chemicals used in soils or illegal use of land, flouting planning applications. When you ask, are those systems there and are they fit for purpose? Well they are there. But, no, they are not proving fit for purpose.”

Campaigners have resorted to taking legal action more frequently in the last decade to make the government act. “Right now, the legal systems for holding government to account and protect the environment through appeal to the courts is working quite successfully, with the caveat that access to justice is still curtailed by the expense of fees and the number of lawyers out there willing to do pro bono work. Having expertise and that access has been vital to our work, for example in Northern Ireland to protect Loch Neagh from illegal sand dredging, delay the start of fracking, and (in the case of ClientEarth) to ensure the government takes real action on air quality.

She added: “This has involved sustained fundraising, and legal battles taking years. The changes in the legal system have made it more expensive and it takes even longer. And most of these cases have involved some recourse to the European courts, supranational courts. But we have won important victories. Yet now we face losing access to the European Courts of Justice - and the shrinking of the legal space.”

Brexit has also resulted in paralysis. The Environment Bill was promised by Gove but campaigners saw only the first half of the proposed legislation, and this only in draft, with no parliamentary debate. That bill did promise a new Office of Environmental Protection, a vital institution if the UK is going to be able to keep its own corpus of environmental law in step with international advances, such as case law in the ECJ. But the draft proposals would need massive improvement, if they came back under the next government. And the constitutional crisis we now face is more than enough excuse for politicians funded by polluting industries to leave this crucial bill languishing in a government filing cabinet rather than taking on that challenge.

The priority for Friends of the Earth is to make sure that any legislation that goes forward after an election, under whichever government, includes "further protections, so we can increase access to justice, to make sure that access is available to the most hard hit and marginal societies, and is based on a rights based framework that focuses on people being able to defend the environment as a good in and of itself. We should not have to prove economic damage.”

What of the private sector? Kierra has noticed that public facing companies - for example, a supermarket - may talk publicly in favour of regulation, but the hedge fund that invests in the same supermarket will lobby to drive down regulation to increase the short term return on investment. “We are seeing what is quite a cynical fracture between what the head of a supermarket that is talking to consumers might say and what the lobbyist working for the hedge fund invested in that supermarket might want. What they want is not safe, ethical consumers, but a better bottom line and its hugely short-sighted,” she says. There is much to concern us.

A new eco-system of resistance

But amidst the frustrations and paralysis of Brexit, and the takeover of government by the Brexiteers most closely associated with the dirtiest and most intransigent industrial actors, in the very same moment there is much cause for celebration and optimism. There is a whole new ecosystem of resistance at the grassroots.

The incredible success and growth of Extinction Rebellion, the inspiring actions of Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikes movement, and the dedication and determination of local groups such as Fossil Free London and the Preston New Road anti-fracking campaign are examples of the fundamental shift in public opinion towards demands of better environmental protection on a local, national and international scale. Kierra is also inspired by the indigenous communities in Latin America taking to the streets to end deforestation from illegal logging.

“Where there has been a sea change is amongst the general public, and civil society. There is political change - among the least enfranchised and least powerful political players. These communities that are having these site battles are those that are generally seen as an easy win for the frackers and the mining corporations - they are seen as more marginalised, less powerful communities. But they are, increasingly, gaining support. This change is widespread, powerful, pervasive and it is picking up speed since [the UN climate conference in] Paris.

“There is an increasing understanding of the scale and immediacy of the crisis - but it does not represent an understanding among the most powerful people and powerful nations that they need to sort this out, and that requires a radical transition in the way we trade, the value we put on economic progress and the ways in which we value ourselves as successful individuals, companies, nations. That has not happened yet.

“Here in the UK we are talking about supermarkets taking plastic off cucumbers, but we are not talking about the multinational organisations that produce these products, the Proctor and Gambles, the Monsantos, the Unilevers. They do a very good job of talking about having had a moral epiphany but that is not translating into a substantial change to their business model.”

Friends of the Earth is looking to shift focus from reacting to negative events to driving positive change. The environment charity is increasingly working to support community-led campaigns, asking people what issues are most important to them. One example of this was providing people with the equipment to measure air quality - allowing communities themselves to reveal that the UK was failing to meet European standards designed to protect children from toxic fumes to an even greater extent than previously understood.

This is all part of a new energy and determination across civil society. Greenpeace - having itself been the subject of an Extinction Rebellion protest - has increased the priority of climate action, non-violent direct action, which has made headlines as well as garnering public support. Reclaim the Power recently shut down the Drax headquarters and some of central London, an action run by younger activists.

Kierra is also significantly more optimistic about the role of a new breed of trade unions in environmental struggles. The newer unions are campaigning for their members’ rights and livelihoods - going well beyond pay and conditions. There are increasing demands for climate justice. “This is one of the most surprising and positive things to come out of the attempt to divide and rule workers through denying them rights and giving out zero hour contracts by companies like Uber and Deliveroo. We now have organisations like the Independent Workers Union springing up and gaining power, and what is great about these newer, more community-led and global organisations is that they have been able to leapfrog over some of the problems of more traditional, hierarchical, white, male dominated unions.

“With these new organisations we have seen women leading them, women of colour leading them, and a willingness to engage and see how their struggles are intersectional, for example looking at how problems of female workers can be addressed by fighting together for better hours, pay and childcare. Supporting land rights. Challenging unwanted development and environmental destruction. Fighting for unions to be part of the much vaunted Green New Deal. They are also supporting communities on the ground, and helping people to campaign as part of a healthy democracy and community. That’s a far more positive way of taking action.”

Change is coming. It’s coming from the grassroots. It’s coming from people like us.

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