19 July 1975

The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XIV

Politics and the Environment

Delivered by:

Lord Ashby of Brandon, Kt, FRS.  Master of Clare College, Cambridge, and formerly Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-73.

Almost exactly 113 years ago readers of The Times came across an astonishing statement. It was about the condition of the countryside around St. Helens and Widnes in Lancashire. Whole tracts of this country, The Times reported, ‘once as fertile as the fields of Devonshire, have been swept by deadly blights till they are as barren as the shores of the Dead Sea’. The blight affected not only vegetation. Metal objects of all kinds, window fittings, locks, gutters, etc., wasted away at an alarming rate and mechanics’ tools were rapidly blunted.

The cause of this devastation was acid vapour from alkali works. It had been getting worse, as the number of works increased, for some thirty years. Means for condensing the ‘noxious vapours’, as they were called, were known and easy to apply. But there was no obligation to abate the nuisance. The industry prospered; the cost of prosperity was a wholesale destruction of crops and woodlands.

Londoners were not affected by the Lancashire blight but they had their own environmental problems. Dickens, writing about the same time, opened Our Mutual Friend with this scene:

Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre. . . . Gas lights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblessed air. .

The Lancashire blight was not, so far as anyone could discover, a danger to human health. But London fogs were. In the week ending 20 December 1873, for instance, a bad fog was followed by a 50 per cent increase in the death rate in the metropolis.

There was something worse than the fog: open sewers discharging untreated waste into the Thames. In the summer of 1858 the stink was so awful that, as one observer wrote: ‘For many weeks the atmosphere of Parliamentary Committee rooms was only rendered barely tolerable by the suspension before every window, of blinds saturated with chloride of lime. . . .‘ Accompanying the stinks—it was generally believed that the stinks caused it—were dreaded outbreaks of cholera. Not surprising: listen to this description of a sight in Bermondsey (it was written anonymously by Mayhew for The Morning Chronicle in September 1849—the year my grandmother was born):

“we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer... we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. ... we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it … a whole tier of doorless privies... built over it… the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble... we were taken to a house where an infant lay dead of the cholera. We asked if they really did drink the water. The answer was, “They were obliged to drink the ditch, without they could beg a pailful or thieve a pailful of water.”

Contrast these grim pictures with the state of Britain’s environment today. There is still some damage due to noxious vapours but it is sufficiently uncommon and local to become a matter for public protest. You have to be well into middle age to have witnessed a genuine, dense, yellow, pea-soup fog. Since the 1950s, winter sunshine in London has increased by nearly 80 per cent. And the Thames, which in the early 1950s was too polluted to support any fish from above Chelsea down to Gravesend, now carries some 60 species of fish. It would not be a fantastic ambition—though it would require considerable patience— once more to catch a salmon from the terrace of the House of Commons.

What has brought about this transformation in the environment of Britain? The short answer, of course, is: ultimately, the people of Britain, for we are a free society and even those who most ardently want to reform us cannot have their way without our consent. But how has our consent, however diluted by delegation to MPs and civil servants, been secured? There is no short answer to this. It is the result of a complex interplay of public opinion, technology and politics. With some reservations, it is a success story. In these anxious days some of you may think a success story is out of place. But this one, I think, has got some relevance to our anxieties, so I make no apology for inviting you now to reflect on it.

Twenty-five years ago the word ‘environment’ hardly existed in the vocabulary of politics. Who, even in 1950, would have predicted that Britain would have a Department of the Environment and America an Environmental Protection Agency, both with quite formidable powers? The contemporary paradigms in legislation are the National Environmental Policy Act passed by the 91st Congress in 1970 and the Control of Pollution Act which received the Royal Assent in 1974. ‘Men legislate’, wrote Dicey, ‘not in accordance with their opinion as to what is a good law, but in accordance with their interest.’ The significant feature of these most recent laws to protect the environment is that they are not concerned primarily with the politics of interests: they are concerned with the politics of values. A good example is the Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Protection Bill, going through Parliament now. It gives legal protection to six rare creatures (including the natterjack toad) and a number of rare plants.

I do not believe that these recent laws are being passed solely in order to protect health or property. The natterjack toad lobby is not as strong as the National Union of Railwaymen. I believe that part of the motive is a sense of respect for the environment. A sufficient number of people (not everybody, of course, but enough to persuade politicians) now want cleaner air, less polluted rivers, a tidier landscape; and they are prepared to pay for these benefits. There are occasions when the law makes explicit what is implicit in majority public opinion. And I think it is public opinion—that amalgam of beliefs, convictions, sentiments, principles, and prejudices—which determines the politics of the environment. If you examine the history of how laws and regulations have been passed to protect the environment in Britain, if you dissect the decision-making process into its component parts, you find that successful political action requires the combination of four components: (i) an aroused public conscience, (ii) a feasible technology of protection, (iii) an objective and disinterested assessment of the hazard to the environment and (iv) an effective tool for administration. If one or other of the components is faulty, the political action is likely to fail.


Let us look—all too briefly—at these four components. First, public conscience has to be aroused. It is one consequence of the astonishing adaptability of man that people have to be persuaded to be dissatisfied about abuses to their environment. Often this is the hardest task in social reform. Sometimes the agitation is provoked by a zealot. Without Edwin Chadwick in the 1840s sanitary reform in London would have taken much longer. Without Rachael Carson in the 1960s public apathy about the hazards of pesticides might have persisted through the decade.

Without the computerized Jeremiads published by Meadows the public might not yet have been alerted to the ominous consequences of unregulated consumption in affluent countries.

But notice an important point about these zealots. They are commonly what academics would call ‘unsound’. Even Chadwick, who had no need to exaggerate his evidence, presented it with an unacademic vehemence and stuck to outdated views about the cause of cholera. Rachael Carson’s biology can be faulted on page after page. Some of Meadows’ computerized Jeremiads deserve the epithet attached to them by one reviewer: ‘The computer that printed out WOLF’. And yet, if they had been coolly rational, if they had stuck meticulously to uncoloured verifiable facts, would these zealots have made any impression on the public conscience? I doubt it and my doubts are confirmed by the opinions of two very great men. It was A. N. Whitehead who made the surprising assertion: ‘It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true’. Propositions hedged about with reservations, as many scientific statements have to be, are seldom interesting to the non-scientist. Cardinal Newman was even more emphatic. He condensed the theme of this lecture into one epigram: ‘Deductions have no power of persuasion... Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.’

The inference from this is a painful one for an academic to draw. It would appear that some exaggeration, some melodrama, even some deliberate bias to the evidence, may be necessary to kindle public disquiet about an environmental hazard. Even when disquiet has been kindled and propagated some crisis or incident is often needed to raise it to flash point. It was typhus and cholera which came to the aid of Chadwick’s campaign. It was the 1952 London smog, followed by a death rate in the metropolis about as high as the death rate due to cholera in 1866, which produced—after 150 years of gestation—an effective Clean Air Act. Dead peregrine falcons, poisoned by DDT, reinforced Rachael Carson’s argument. And the Arabs have done us a good service in persuading us that warnings about non-renewable resources, even though the warnings, given a mischievously misleading precision by computers, are nevertheless valid.

A recent notorious example of this need for a crisis was the legislation against the dumping of toxic wastes. In 1964, following agitation from conservationists, a committee was set up to report on the disposal of toxic wastes. When the report finally came in 1970 (six years later) the committee concluded that legislation was not adequate and recommended new protective measures. Nothing was done. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution endorsed the recommendations and throughout 1971 pressed the government for action. Still nothing was done. But during that year some members of the Transport and General Workers Union in Warwickshire objected to being asked by a firm to carry out what is called ‘fly tipping’—emptying toxic wastes on tips licensed only to take harmless refuse; they objected even though a cash bonus was being slipped to them for doing it.

On 10 January 1972 the story broke into the press. It was disclosed that the toxic wastes included cyanide. The issue was immediately taken up by radio and television. Overnight millions of people were alerted to the unethical practice of ‘fly tipping’. Drums of cyanide waste were photographed in refuse tips from all sorts of places, including on 24 February 1972 a derelict brickworks near Nuneaton which is a popular play area for children. Television has an explosive power in environmental politics. TV shots of cyanide drums on a dump heap, dead fish on a river, oil slicks on a beach, act like a dose of social adrenalin. There is a sudden mass-activation of public opinion. During the following two weeks the public conscience achieved what hard facts and cool advice had failed to achieve in the previous two years. A hastily prepared Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act was introduced on 8 March, debated on 16 March, and received the Royal Assent on 30 March.

This, like my last point, leads to a painful inference. Political action to control an environmental hazard nearly always comes as a response to some sort of dramatic event, or to mounting indignation about some nuisance which has become intolerable. Very rarely is political action taken to anticipate the event or the nuisance. When the Clean Air Bill was debated in the House of Lords, Lord Macdonald wryly remarked that not only did people have to die, they had to die in London before Parliament acted to control smoke, though London had been bedevilled by smoke for over a hundred years. Legislation on behalf of the environment illustrates well what Paley wrote long ago about English law in general. It ‘hath grown out of occasion and emergency’.

The first component in the politics of environment is the public conscience. The second is a feasible technology of protection. It is unrealistic to make regulations for abating pollution if you do not know how to abate it. Let us go back for a few minutes to the incident I described at the beginning of this lecture: the devastation of the Lancashire countryside over a hundred years ago by acid vapours from alkali works. It is an instructive case history. Three miles west of St. Helens and six miles north of Widnes lies Lord Derby’s estate. So when the wind blew from the east or south it was his own trees which suffered and his own tenants who lost their crops. This fortunate circumstance persuaded Lord Derby himself to move in the House of Lords for a Select Committee to enquire into the law relating to noxious vapours. He was a bit apologetic about it. Having applauded the rapid growth of our industry and our population he went on to say: ‘No man would be insane enough to suggest any measure which would be likely to result in placing the slightest check in the way of these two great elements of our national prosperity.’ He then described the horrible effects of the acid vapours and added that even so, he would not have invited their Lordships ‘to appoint a Committee, still less to legislate, were it not that . . . there was a most perfect and complete remedy—a remedy admitted by the manufacturers themselves’. The feasible technology was available.

The outcome of this Committee was the Alkali Act of 1863. Its importance for my theme is that this Act, in its amended form in 1874, defined the political strategy for environmental legislation which Britain has followed ever since. I can best illustrate this by a contrast. As long ago as 1810 Napoleon had tackled a similar problem in France. He did so by a sweeping and comprehensive decree which forbad the setting up of any manufactures which gave out noxious vapours without the authority of the administration. The law, Gallic in its simplicity and elegance, sunk without trace.

The Alkali Acts of 1863 and 1874 were, by contrast, narrow, scrappy and mouselike in their modesty. They were specific only over one kind of nuisance: the escape of hydrochloric acid gas from alkali works. Over other noxious vapours (and there were several of them) there was no control except that the ‘best practicable means’ was to be used for abating them. ‘Best practicable means’ sounds a vague and insipid phrase, inviting compromise and complacency. In fact it has turned out to be, as one of the alkali inspectors put it, ‘an elastic band ever tightening as chemical science advanced’. Its importance is that it is pragmatic and flexible. The law promises nothing it cannot perform; it does not go beyond the capacity of contemporary technology but there is a perpetual obligation to widen the application of the law as new techniques develop. Like a living organism, the law on noxious vapours has adapted itself over 112 years to new circumstances. It now controls over 3000 processes, from cement to uranium.

The history of the alkali inspectorate illustrates, too, the importance of the other two components in the politics of the environment: disinterested assessment and administrative control. Until recently it was assumed that anyone had a right to discharge wastes into air and water, free of charge. The only way to restrain them to persuade a court of law that the discharge constituted a nuisance. This was very difficult to do, for any legal decision to protect the environment is bound to clash with someone’s private interests. Prejudices are magnified into passions. The polluter may protest that his wastes are harmless; the plaintiff may exaggerate the damage he claims is being done.

Before political action can be taken, someone has to strip off exaggeration and prejudice and give to the government an objective, rational assessment of the matter. This is the function of the government- appointed commission or committee of enquiry. For noxious vapours this was done 99 years ago. In 1876 Queen Victoria, whose own estate at Osborne was plagued by ammonia from a local factory, set up a Royal Commission under Lord Aberdare which included two Fellows of the Royal Society, to inquire into all noxious vapours. A study of their hearing brings to life the politics of environment at that time. The Archbishop of Canterbury bitterly complained about the deterioration of stonework at Lambeth Palace (most of the statues had lost their noses) and the discolouration of his knives and forks. The suspected culprit was Doulton’s potteries. Henry Doulton appeared personally before the Commission. ‘Our operations are quite innocuous’, he said. ‘It would be a serious matter to interfere with a trade which gives employment to a thousand families, and which has existed for centuries.’ And he hinted that if there was interference he might decide to close down his London works.

This is typical of the conflicts of interests which government committees have to try to resolve. Without a cool appraisal from such committees, sound political decisions cannot be taken. Let me digress for a few minutes to illustrate this, by describing two recent political decisions about the protection of the environment, not against noxious vapours but against detergents. In one, the ‘cooling phase’ was present. In the other it was absent.

The total tonnage of detergent sold in Britain and in America greatly exceeds the total tonnage of soap. In the late 1950s it came to be realised that detergents, however convenient they are to the housewife, were damaging the environment. The early varieties, the so-called ‘hard’ detergents, interfered with the working of sewage plants, created great billows of foam when they got into rivers and, even in concentrations as low as one part per ten million, they damaged life in the rivers. Press articles, TV programmes, parliamentary questions, set off the chain reaction. It ran its normal course: the government announced the appointment of an advisory committee. This very announcement was a signal for the manufacturers to search for a chemical to replace the ‘hard’ ingredient in the detergent with a ‘soft’ one which would decompose of its own accord and not cause damage. Quietly, without publicity, the advisory committee negotiated with the manufacturers. In 1959 the housewives of Luton and Harpenden were, unbeknown to themselves, subjected to an experiment: the detergents they bought in the shops contained a new, ‘soft’ ingredient. Following this there was much less foaming in the River Lea which takes the sewage from these two towns; nor was there any complaint from the housewives. In 1965 the government committee secured an undertaking from the Confederation of British Industry not to market ‘hard’ detergent for domestic use. By 1972 over 97 per cent of detergents used in Britain were ‘soft’ and free from these objectionable qualities. Here is an example of the British style of environmental politics at its best. The decision-making machine worked smoothly and attained its objective without any legislation at all.

On the other side of the Atlantic the machine did not work so smoothly. The problem in America was the danger due to another ingredient in detergents: phosphates. In rapidly moving water phosphates do no harm; they are not, so far, an environmental hazard in Britain (though the phosphate content of the River Lea has trebled over the last 20 years). But in some American lakes they seriously upset the biological equilibrium.

In 1968 there arose an outcry against the over-use of phosphates in the United States. Emotional headlines like ‘Lake Erie is Dying’ appeared in the press. The detergent manufacturers were alarmed. One firm took a full page advertisement in The New York Times, asserting that phosphates from detergents were not the sole cause of the damage and that anyway washing machines would not work without phosphates. Meanwhile the industry was feverishly seeking a replacement.

Soon came the announcement that a replacement had been discovered: a chemical labelled NTA. Public pressure in America was so insistent and the propaganda so strident that legislatures were hustled into leaving out one important link in the chain reaction: the ‘cooling down’ committee. One state after another introduced hasty legislation. Phosphates must vanish from detergents by 1 January 1973 (New York), by 30 June 1973 (Connecticut); they must not exceed 3 per cent by 1 January 1973 (Indiana). Meanwhile a congressional committee under Senator Muskie was taking evidence on detergents and one day a witness from the Harvard Medical School appeared before them and suggested that it might be unwise to deluge American waters with NTA. First, NTA is what is called a chelating agent, which means that it might bring certain dangerous metals, like mercury, into solution in drinking water. Secondly, NTA might combine with other materials in the human body to form nitrosamines and some nitrosamines cause cancer.

Immediately the precipitate legislation was put into reverse. On 15 September 1971 the Surgeon General of the United States issued a directive forbidding the use of NTA in detergents. Factories proposing to make NTA by the ton (including one in England) were abandoned. In this case the machinery for political decision failed to include an accurate and sufficient input from science and technology; it succumbed to overheated public opinion.

This was a digression to illustrate the value of the cooling link in the chain reaction of decision-making. We were discussing the four components which enter into political action to protect the environment. The first three were: the public conscience, a feasible technology, and an objective assessment of the hazard, which I called the cooling link. Now we come to the fourth: an effective tool for administration.

As long ago as 1853 Lord Palmerston put through Parliament one of the earliest anti-smoke laws: an ‘Act to Abate the Nuisance Arising from the smoke of Furnaces in the Metropolis....’ The enforcement of the Act was left to the police, who had plenty else to do, and knew nothing about fuel technology, and who found it extremely difficult to secure convictions. In any case there was not much inducement to the police to take on this extra duty, for one of the chief sources of smoke — private dwellings — was exempt from the Act. Opinions are divided as to how much the nuisance was abated by Palmerston’s Act; certainly there was no striking improvement in the atmosphere, and one of the reasons for this was the lack of an expert administrative unit to enforce the law. Today’s parallel is non-enforcement of the law on noise.

For the Alkali Acts it was quite otherwise. Lord Derby’s Committee debated at length how the control of noxious vapours should be administered. They concluded that there should be a special inspectorate scientifically trained and that the inspectorate should be attached to central, not local, government so that it could be quite independent of local influence (the owner of the alkali works might well be on the Local Council). From the outset the administration of the Alkali Act was in the hands of experts. This had momentous consequences for the politics of the environment for the expert could use his own judgement to interpret ‘the best practicable means’; he could and did identify weaknesses in the Act and secure amendments; he could—and did and still does—stimulate research and development in the science and technology of pollution control; his scientific authority enabled him to rely on persuasion rather than litigation to achieve his ends. He was the prototype of a scientific civil servant, with considerable delegated authority and knowing more than his masters.

Out of these very circumstances there arises an interesting political problem. If there were virtual unanimity about the necessity to protect the environment—as there is about the necessity to protect people from criminals and disease—the job of the alkali inspectors would be no more than scientific, technical and administrative. They would be solving problems within some rigid framework of political policy. That would be comparatively easy. But their job is much more complicated than that. They have to make decisions which take into account not only, say, the amount of dust or acid vapour per cubic metre and the technologies for abatement; they have to decide whether this old works, hovering on the edge of bankruptcy and having to throw men out of work if it is obliged to invest in expensive anti-pollution equipment, should be subject to the same rigorous control as that new works, still in the design stage, which could easily install the most up-to-date equipment: the contrast, for instance, between an old ceramic works and a new petrochemical plant.

In brief, they are making political judgements, taking into account not only the state of science and technology but also the finances of the firm, the morale of the employees, the need for the product, and balancing these against the public interest. It is not their job to minimise pollution but to optimise it for each individual factory. This is typical of the British political strategy for protection of the environment. Some nations prefer to set quality standards for air and water to which all polluters must comply and to enforce the standards through the courts. This is already a problem with some EEC draft directives to control pollution. The British strategy is to use its environmental control service—scientists in the Department of the Environment, the regional water authorities, and elsewhere—as human ‘computers’, so to speak, for social welfare, programmed by inputs of hard data and social values, with a bias, of course, toward the improvement or conservation of the environment. But they are computers authorised to include their own judgement as one of the inputs. We entrust political decisions to them.


An aroused public conscience, a feasible technology, a convincing rational assessment of the hazard, an effective administrative machine to control it: these are the chief components which combine to produce political decisions about the environment. The components interact in very complex ways. Sometimes public opinion—or what politicians judge to be the social conscience—overrides rational assessment, as happened, for instance, over detergents in America. There are British examples of this, too. About fifteen years ago, for instance, the Central Electricity Generating Board had to build a large new power station on the Trent. Their cost-benefit calculations showed that the best site, with the cheapest access to coal, transport and cooling water, was at a place called Holme Pierrepont. But Holme Pierrepont is on the edge of Nottingham’s green belt. The conservation lobby protested. There was a public enquiry. At the enquiry it was not disputed that to put the power station somewhere else would incur an additional running cost in perpetuity of between £250,000 and £600,000 per annum. The conservationists won. The power station is not at Holme Pierrepont. The subjective value attached to amenity outweighed the objective, measurable, facts. Newman was right. No man is persuaded by deductions, even from cost-benefit analyses.

The problem, in making political decisions about the environment, is how to combine deductions with intuitions, to reconcile the measurable with the immeasurable, the cognitive with the affective. There are some who deny that anything is immeasurable; they think the way to tackle this problem is to devise ways to assess damage done by pollution, to put price tags on amenity, to quantify social values from statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. Used with great caution, data of this kind have some value; but they can be dangerously misleading, for the neat numerical answer is got only by discarding all sorts of complexities and nuances, not because they are unimportant but because they cannot be measured. For instance, the discount rate on anything which permanently damages the environment is nil. A view which is worth £50 to me now will still be worth £50 in twenty years time to my children. It is just these complexities and nuances which are likely to be essential for political decisions. This is a very controversial topic. My own belief is that a lot of time spent on quantifying social values is wasted—you recollect how promptly the cost-benefit analysis of the Roskill Commission was jettisoned. The time is better spent trying to understand the ethical attitudes which underlie these social values. Let me spend the few remaining minutes on this theme.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is intensely man-centred. It separates man sharply from the rest of nature. ‘Despite Darwin’, Lynn White wrote, ‘we are not in our hearts part of the natural process.’ Genesis enjoined man to have dominion over nature and, until recently, man interpreted this as a licence to exploit nature. Even the concept ‘space-ship earth’ which is invoked to scare us into conserving our resources reveals this man-centred weakness; for spaceships are made for men: we have no evidence that the earth was made for man. Quite the contrary, in fact. Man has no guaranteed tenure upon earth any more than pterodactyls had. It is a phantasm to imagine that our species will permanently colonise the future. Indeed, far from being an indispensable part of creation, Homo sapiens is a species which nature could easily declare redundant. When you come to think of it, the essential organisms, without which no higher animal could survive, are the chlorophyll-bearing plants which fix solar energy and the micro-organisms which recycle all creatures, including ourselves, after death. An environmental policy based on a sophisticated view of nature would give high priority to the ‘rights’ of microbes and green plants. What matters is not whether Homo sapiens will survive. In the long run he is likely to go the way of creatures we now find only as fossils. And of course we do not have to go back to the fossil record, we have only to look at recorded history, to realise that the life-span of civilisations is far briefer than that of species. Even though Homo sapiens may have a long time to survive, Western man is likely much sooner to join the Etruscans and the Aztecs as a fossil culture. What matters is how Western man manages the much briefer span of evolution left to him.

The affluent industrial West is, just now, menaced by ominous instabilities, but over man’s attitude to the environment I think there are grounds for cautious optimism. It is unfashionable to believe in progress any more, yet there is evidence of a trend of improvement in social values about the environment. Until recently man exploited not only nature; he cruelly exploited his less fortunate fellow men in slavery and child labour. Through the nineteenth century in Britain a politics of humanitarian values came to prevail over a politics of private interest, until today the law makes explicit what is implicit in our attitudes towards women and children, toward minority groups and the underprivileged. In the twentieth century man is beginning to extend the politics of values to the natural environment, and I believe it is because Darwin’s message—that man is indivisible from nature—is permeating public opinion.

I said at the beginning that this qualified success story, of Western man’s growing concern for the environment, is relevant to our present anxieties. The relevance of the story for me is simply this. Over comparatively local issues—pollution, the preservation of the countryside, town planning—the attitude of people toward the environment is becoming more sensitive, more concerned. People used to say there are no votes in sewage; today politicians cannot afford to neglect sewage. But in a way this concern covers only the cosmetics of the environment.

Can the concern be enlarged to cover issues where legislation would really threaten the ethos of the consumer society? Here I am much less sanguine. Any attempt to legislate for the much more daunting international issues—population control and the deployment among rich and poor nations of food and resources and energy—would meet with passionate opposition. Picture to yourselves the reaction there would be to a law which made it illegal to have more than two children (as it is at present illegal to have more than one wife); or to a law which made it a criminal offence to advertise anything which incites people to superfluous consumption or which condones premature obsolescence, or even a law which put a crippling tax on use-and-discard articles which, if properly made, could be repaired and kept in use for years, from womens’ shoes to cars; or to add to VAT, something called PAT (a package added tax) to reduce the £1.7 billion we spend each year on packaging; or to a law which severely curtailed the use of resources such as lead for which we see no assured supply by the end of this century. These, at present, are issues which no politician can afford to sponsor. They belong to the future; they have not yet cast a deep enough shadow over the present. The temperature of the public conscience is not high enough to start the chain reaction; nor, I fear, will it be high enough until disasters are visible over the horizon.

Already one can dimly discern what shape these disasters may take: not exhaustion of resources, such as the doomsters predict, but political confrontations between nations which possess the resources and nations which do not. The Arabs have shown the way over energy. Morocco followed in 1973 by putting up the price of phosphates by 300 per cent. Jamaica has just taken similar action over bauxite; and—this is sometimes overlooked—the cost of American and Canadian wheat has risen, relatively, as much as the cost of Arabian oil. There will be a massive shift in the balance of power from the nations which use raw materials toward the nations which own raw materials.

The classical response to political confrontations, such as these would be, is war. But already in affluent and heavily armed nations the public conscience rejects this response, not because we have become more civilised but because we have learnt a lesson. For millennia there has been a twist of social evolution which made it a virtue to kill a member of another tribe but a crime to kill a fellow member of one’s own tribe. We now know that this has led us into an evolutionary trap. The modern technology of war makes victims even of the victors. So what should be the political strategy in Britain for these more ominous environmental issues? Of course I do not know and I must end this lecture—as an academic should—with problems, not remedies. But here are one or two speculations, to start a discussion. First I would not assume, or even hope, that societies will adapt, a long way ahead, to anticipate an environmental peril. The best we can hope for is short- term anticipation. So the political strategy should be to generate as decisive a response as possible as soon as the threat of peril has permeated the public conscience; and, since all predictions about technology are notoriously unreliable, the strategy should be to leave open as many options as possible: it is a policy of shortening time-leads and maximising options. How?

First, to persevere over the education of public opinion, for unless we succumb to a dictatorship, an aroused public conscience is essential to start any chain reaction to deal with environmental hazards. It simply will not do to say that these issues are too complex for the public to understand. Interpreters of science and technology will have to become key figures in the political process. And a prime requirement is to dispel the smokescreen of confidentiality which still conceals some facts about our environment, our resources and our food supplies. Secondly, a simple political tactic: to seize every publicised example of an environmental hazard as an opportunity to introduce legislation or practices which are just ahead of current social attitudes, for this sort of legislation has an educative influence on public opinion. The Safety and Health at Work Act is doing this; so is the recent 50 m.p.h. speed limit.
Thirdly—most important and difficult—to seek innovation in political institutions themselves. The really alarming dilemma is that the time span for environmental disasters to develop is much longer than the life of parliaments or of members of parliament. The problem is how to reconcile this incompatibility without surrendering democratic government. There is a lack of serious thought on this issue, but what seems to be emerging is the need to insulate some institutions from the caprices of politics. We have a model for this already in our judicial system. The laws of man are made within the political system but to enforce the consequences of these laws we appoint judges who are immune from the vicissitudes of politics. Political systems can take no part in making the laws of nature, but I wonder whether we should not appoint men, similarly immune from the vicissitudes of politics, to enforce upon society some of the social consequences of the laws of nature too.

I have, as I confessed, left you not with remedies but with problems. It would be disingenuous to do otherwise.

© The Ditchley Foundation, 1975.  All rights reserved.  Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.