New series: the environment, corporate power, democracy and the British state

Our new series will look at why Britain is failing on environmental justice... but, what should we call it?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
2 February 2017

Canary Wharf, a centre of British power. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

I have a question for you all. You see, we’re launching a new series here on openDemocracyUK, and I’m pretty excited about it. We’ve just recruited two excellent columnists to help drive it – who I’ll introduce in a sec – and we’re going to be exploring over the next two years one of the most important questions I can think of for people in the UK.

Basically, it’s: why is Britain so crap at environmental justice? What’s the relationship between the environment, corporate power, democracy, and the British state after Brexit? Why is it, for example, that many environmental activists would expect to have more luck taking their case to Brussels than Westminster? And how will that change with Brexit?

Like most countries, Britain is failing to secure sustainability. The blockages are neither scientific doubt nor insufficient technology. The failure is therefore political: our institutions, in the broadest sense, aren’t delivering.

This has long been a problem. But Brexit will bring new powers to Westminster: decisions over agriculture will no longer be governed by CAP. Climate treaties won’t be negotiated collectively. The Habitats Directive, alongside rules to clean our air, rivers and seas, will become impotent. We will rely on the British state to deliver sustainability.

Yet Britain’s state includes numerous institutional barriers to the changes which these interlocking crises demand. There’s the Treasury’s culture and attitudes; the press and its ownership; the vestigial power of land owners; centralised political decision-making and the crushing of local authorities; the dominance of the City; corporate lobbying and ‘revolving doors’. There’s the way our imperial history moulds our racism and creates specific corporate interests, bound tight to the foreign office. There’s our astounding lack of progress on gender equality, and the hole it leaves in public debate. 

Now, as we leave the European Union, Westminster will be solely responsible for English environmental policies. We can no longer ignore any of these questions. We will either identify and remove the institutional barriers to environmental justice, or discover how it is that civilisations end.

Over the next two years we will be curating a conversation here on openDemocracyUK, surveying the links between these issues. As thousands die from air pollution, species are driven to extinction and the climate changes, we will examine what it is that is stopping us from acting, and what can be done about it.

This, of course, isn’t a new question. I suspect some readers will have done work on these issues before, or certainly considered them. But we hope to bring together is a wide-ranging conversation, bringing together new information and old to help us all better understand the challenge we face in order to confront it.

The series will include monthly columns from two excellent environmental journalists. Brendan Montague, who has worked at the Sunday Times, been editor of DeSmogUK and is now Managing Director of Spinwatch, has long worked exposing the powerful people doing everything they can to stop us from acting on the climate crisis. Amy Hall has wide-ranging experience reporting from the front line of Britain’s climate movement (and much more besides) in roles with both the New Internationalist and the Transition Free Press. Each will write monthly columns for the series, exploring different paths in this maze of issues, and helping cast light on the shape of the problem we face.

But the series will also rely on you – in two key ways. First, we need you to write for us. Tell us, perhaps, about the movement you’re involved in and the institutional barriers it’s faced. Help us understand how the inequalities of power in Britain interact with our failure to confront the environmental crisis. Engage with the series – comment below pieces, thrash out ideas, help us get to the heart of it.

And second, there’s the question I started asking at the start: what on earth should we call this series? In the funding application to the excellent folk at Polden Puckham who are paying for this work, I simply named it “the environment, corporate power, democracy and the British state after Brexit”. But obviously that’s not a catchy title. We’re looking for something which sums up the tangled web of issues we’re trying to unpick; which helps readers understand the conversation in a clear, precise and jargon-free way; which communicates the breadth of what we’re trying to understand without sounding totally vague.

Any ideas? Write them in the comments below. Thanks.


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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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