To get a sense of the real news, of stories which have not been efficiently shaped and varnished for public consumption by the metropolitan media, it is often a good idea to read local papers. There, the apparently small events of everyday life can contain more real significance and truth than the latest well-spun policy iniative or survey from Whitehall.
At the moment, when so much of the political chat is about energy and the environment, the local press across the country has been revealing the uncomfortable fact that, far from becoming greener, we are as a nation over-buying and throwing stuff away at an ever-increasing rate. Traditionally, the British believe in the right to litter, but April always sees a spurt of vernal activity in the form of fly-tipping and dumping. At this of time of renewal, spring cleaning and DIY, old TVs, sofas and bags of rubbish are being tipped out of cars and left in ditches, by the side of roads and in lay-bys across the country.
Here is an odd thing. For all the talk of green initiatives, it has been in the area of waste collection where local councils have first started to cut their costs. In one county, the opening hours of municipal tips have been drastically reduced. In another, new charges have been introduced for the disposal of bulky items. Somewhere else, community skips have been taken out of service. In other words, litter is about to get worse. In addition to the people who drop and dump their rubbish out of idleness and ignorance, there will now be those who do it out of financial necessity.
Nothing reveals more brutally the muddle and hypocrisy which surrounds our national approach to the environment than our attitude to waste. The Government proudly signs up to grandiose international schemes to reduce C02 emissions, costing billions and placing the emphasis on developing renewable energy plants across the country.
Yet, at the same time, it lacks the political nerve to do anything about over-consumption and waste. Local councils are allowed to cut back on services – recycling and waste disposal have never exactly been vote-winners – while supermarkets cheerfully over-package and encourage customers to buy what they will never eat. Who could be surprised that more is thrown away than ever before?
According to a new report from the Waste and Recycling Action Plan, the British now discard almost half a ton of uneaten food and food packaging every year per household. The financial cost of disposal is £12bn and sees 26 million tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
Still nothing is done. It seems that everyone likes the idea of saving the planet, but no one, politician or civilian, is prepared to change the way he lives.
As a result, our national addiction to over-consumption goes unchecked while billions are spent creating new sources of energy which will forever lag behind the accelerating demand. The easy political fix is to pretend that everything can remain unchanged so long as government develops its way out of trouble.
Either way, the global climate is in crisis, in which case we need to change our lives and to have government with the nerve to pass unpopular legislation, or it is not, which would mean billions of public money – not to mention, swathes of unspoilt countryside – are being thrown away on unnecessary developments.
To believe that we can over-consume and waste at an ever-increasing rate, while retaining our green virtue, is childish and self-deluding.
A points system to keep out demonic migrant animals
As if questions of nationality and racial origin were not already fraught with difficulty, there have been suggestions that a new kind of citizenship should be applied to wild animals.
Speaking up for some – but not all – of those foreign species which have made themselves thoroughly at home in these islands, Dr David Macdonald of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit has suggested that terms like “alien species” are now unhelpfully jingoistic. The correct description should be “non-native species”.
As for whether they should be welcomed or culled, a new report by Macdonald and Dr Dawn Burnham, The State of Britain’s Mammals, argues for a kind of points system, not unlike that being proposed by the Tories for human migrants.
The brown hare, for example, is attractive, in decline and yet is still being shot by East Anglian farmers; it should be granted ecological citizenship on the grounds that it has been here since the 12th century. The Chinese water deer is also welcome, as is, more surprisingly to some, the grey squirrel. On the other hand, various demonic species – including the American mink, the Harlequin ladybird and the ring-necked parakeet – should be subject to the toughest form of immigration control.
Essentially, our attitude to a species should depend on how well it has integrated into the local environment and whether it generally contributes to the native community. Sound familiar?
An unlikely saviour for the public library
Even in these strange times, it is startling to read that, while government culture ministers see the public library of the future in terms of electronic communication, cappuccinos, and a buzzing social hub for local communities, it has taken a grizzled rock veteran to speak up for its least fashionable component – books.
The great Keith Richards may have lived a touch wildly in his four decades as a Rolling Stone, and his face may now look like something out of the Doctor Who special effects department, but he has identified an important truth. Books provide an escape for children, particularly those who live in deprived circumstances – a chink of light, revealing a better, more hopeful world – and it is libraries which provide those books.
“When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser,” says Keith.
These wise words should be framed and nailed to the wall above the desk of Margaret Hodge, and her ministerial successors.
Independent, Wednesday 7 April.