Opinion: Blind to the local big picture

Rachel O'Brien, director of external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Lisa Harker is recovering from an accident

"X has serious concerns about a number of wind farm proposals on and offshore." Is X a) an international oil company; b) British Nuclear Fuels; or c) an environmental charity?

The RSPB's campaign on the impact of wind farms on birds may be understandable.

But it begs the question to which extent NGOs can become part of the problem when vocal minorities override national and international interests.

As political parties gear up for the local elections, campaigning NGOs are looking further ahead and battling to find ways to ensure the environment gets a look-in on party manifestos. Both are in danger of failing to make political capital on the issue that matters most to people - where they live.

When it comes to developing countries, government and NGOs have responded to the fact that sustainability issues are so bound up with issues of poverty and distributive justice that they are almost indistinguishable.

As yet, they have failed to make the links sufficiently on a national level. For many people, the environment is still an intangible agenda.

But people's local environment has an impact on mortality rates, health and life chances, be it grime and crime, obesity or traffic.

All the political parties have pledged to raise education attainment, improve health services and provide better transport services. Making the case for additional support for environmental initiatives will be low down on the list unless environmental NGOs and sympathetic MPs communicate the links between environmental sustainability and social justice.

And if the environmental lobby want politicians to get serious about creating sustainable communities and lasting environmental improvements, then they need to acknowledge some of the choices that we may need to make. This does not mean crude choices between the global and local, birds and sustainable energy. But it does mean getting better at linking the big picture to the 'on the ground' and being prepared to resist local opposition for longer-term greater good.

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