Eco-everything: are eco-towns just greenwash?

OK, here’s a list of things. Check these out:

It’s pretty easy to find examples of all these things – follow the links if you like.

Green car of the year Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid © georgnerd

Green car of the year, Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid

Now here’s another list of things:

  • Eco-flower
  • Eco-field
  • Eco-wetland
  • Eco-horse

Couldn’t find anything to link to, there. Anyway, you probably get the idea. These are all silly things that The Ranger made up. Nobody would call a field an eco-field, even though it’s patently far more beneficial to biodiversity than, say, a car. This fact highlights an interesting and common bit of double-speak. It’s very often the case that when something is called an eco-thing, what this label paradoxically means is that the thing is actually harmful to the environment. Eco-plane is perhaps the easiest example of this usage to explore. The proposed eco-plane described in this article, to be used by easyJet, will be ‘capable of cutting CO2 emissions in half by 2015’. Now that sounds pretty good. Until you remember how UK air travel is expected to increase between now and 2015. In the last 30 years there has been a fivefold increase in air travel and it is forecast that UK air traffic will increase by 45% by 2015. It’s fair to assume that any benefit from CO2 reduction is going to be more than eaten up by the extra miles flown. So we won’t actually be any better off than we are now, despite the eco-plane. There are many other examples. The Tahoe eco-car – Green Car of the Year at the Los Angeles Auto Show 2008 (see pic above) – is a 4WD that gets 21mpg. It got this award because it has “a fuel efficiency improvement of up to 30 percent compared to similar vehicles equipped with a standard V-8”. Well done, Chevrolet, for that contribution. However perhaps the biggest example of this prefix-abuse is the eco-town. The government is proposing to build ten new eco-towns, largely on greenfield sites throughout England. Sounds great – until you read that sentence without the eco- in it. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) says many of the short-listed schemes are former failed development schemes, chosen by developers and running against local development plans. CPRE even says that eco-towns are “the least sustainable way” of developing housing. The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities in England, is also very unhappy about this proposal, not least because they say it will bypass the existing planning process. This wouldn’t be a surprise. The planning process has already been the target of Gordon Brown’s ire when he was chancellor. He seems happy to argue that the long, tortuous and painful process of getting planning consent is something which should be bypassed for big, shiny projects that, basically, he wants to undertake. This is a mistake. The planning process is long and annoying for a reason: it’s meant to be. Big projects which have a big impact need long, careful and thorough consideration. Everyone needs to have their say. And if lots of people say they don’t want like it, often – although not necessarily always – that might mean that it doesn’t happen. The correct answer to dissent cannot ever be to ask a different question. So to dress up a proposal for a set of new towns by labelling them eco-towns is annoyingly patronising. Eco-towns might well be less environmentally damaging than non-eco-towns. But the eco-label is here in danger of making eco-towns look like the Chevvy Tahoe. In the areas affected, eco-towns are still overall a lot worse for the environment than no eco-towns. The eco-label seems to be a way to bypass the step of asking ‘do we want new towns at all?’, and if anyone is critical of the proposal, they cannot avoid the suspicion that they are perhaps not as ‘eco-‘ as they should be. Better to be frank. All new buildings should be meet high environmental standards, not just special ones in ‘eco-towns’. New towns are new towns: let’s call them that. And then use the well tried and tested planning system to decide honestly and openly whether we really need them or not.

3 thoughts on “Eco-everything: are eco-towns just greenwash?

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    The yardstick for any development re. biodiversity, and any other environmental aspect is -‘will it be better with it than without it?’ (or before and after it). Anything that is not improving the situation is not sustainable. To have a net improvement for biodiversity, even a net neutral effect, from any development is ‘hard’ to do fully, unless the site is awful to begin with. Which is why we are in the state we are today. The day I see a proposal that actually looks really positive, from the outset, is the day I fall off my chair in amazement! But it’s not at all impossible, you just need more land than you think to off-set the losses. Some species will live happily in gardens, small patches and the bits inbetween; at the end of the day, apart form the disturbance, buildings are just large square rocks/ caves/ dead trees to wildlife, and can be made very green in many ways. But other species need specific habitat and size of area, and these are what are hard to conserve. It also concerns me that farmland is being lost, and while intensely farmed areas are not ideal for wildlife, if we are to grow more local and organic food we have to have space and soil to do it. Short of building homes underground, I can’t see how it can add up. It does all come down to population size in the end I’m afraid to conclude. It does make me wonder if anyone has bothered to actually work out how many people/ houses is the limit to what the country can take in terms of food production, landscape, wildlife, water, carbon, timber, natural resources. Seeing as we import 50% of our food, I have a feeling we are past it already. We should really concentrate on sorting out our existing housing stock, ailing drainage and water systems rather than building new. However, doing a whole new town in one go does have the advantage of taking cumulative impacts into account and getting it right on a large scale at the beginning, rather than small pieces doing damage gradually. It also means economies of scale if including ‘new’ sustainable technologies/ features. But you could say, this is what strategic spetial planning should be able to do too!

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Well said. We’ve got an eco-town (I call them Brown Towns) scheduled for a mile down the road from here. Ours is Tescopolis, financed by Tesco, who’ve been trying unsccessfully for years to get permission to build an out of town store on the site. Despite transport connections being already at gridlock at rush hour, despite local biotech employers saying they’ll move if the town is built (thus removing the alleged raison d’etre), despite the district being designated a severe water stress area, and oh, a couple of SSSIs, despite this region already planning for building over 40,000 new homes – and at a higher eco standard, despite all political parties in all local authorities being against the proposal… we are accused of NIMBYism if we complain. It will destroy 500 hectares of agricultural land, and drain the commercial life out of nearby villages. Richard Rogers has it right: cities are the most sustainable places to build. Trouble is, most people want to live in the suburbs and drive everywhere…

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    oh for God’s sake (well, it’s better than saying what i’m really thinking, which is for f*** sake) – a Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid is a Chevy Tahoe – a big, lumbering behemoth. a gas hog. always has been. prolly always will be.

    i cannot believe that the Tahoe is described as an “eco-car,” and won a “Green Car of the Year” award. corporate doublespeak at its worst. and here i thought i was having user-inflicted technical difficulties today and that my intelligence might leave a little to be desired at the moment. but i can’t hold a candle to the judges for the “Green Car” award. thank you, thank you! you made my day. 🙂

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