Putting a forcefield around green ideas

The notion that green beliefs in the workplace should be legally protected from ridicule is deeply censorious.

Nathalie Rothschild

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He’s a staple of office life: the penny-pincher checking that colleagues aren’t using too much paper or drinking more than their fair share of instant coffee. Now, anyone who shows open contempt for a colleague who does these things in the name of upholding ‘sustainable office practices’ or caring for the environment can be deemed prejudicial, and green workers can take their bosses to court if they feel they’ve been discriminated against because of their environmental convictions.

A British court ruling this week by Mr Justice Michael Burton stated that ‘a belief in man-made climate change… is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations Act’. This signals that discrimination on the basis of green views is as unacceptable as sexism, racism or religious prejudice. How long before we see the term ‘envirophobia’ to describe people who dislike greens?

The ruling was a response to the treatment of Tim Nicholson. A former head of sustainability at Grainger, one of the UK’s largest property companies, Nicholson won his case that he should be able to take his former employer to a tribunal, arguing that his views on climate change were met with contempt and eventually dismissal at work. Nicholson says he was made redundant because of his ‘philosophical belief about climate change and the environment’.

This has helped set a worrying precedent on how environmental views are regarded in English law: not as a political outlook which can be held up to scrutiny and debate like any other political outlook, but effectively as faith, as gospel, and anyone who contests it might face retribution.

So just as some employers have to cater for staff members’ religious practice needs, by providing prayer rooms or special meals, a company which fails to cater for environmentalist employees’ green lifestyles can be regarded as discriminatory. Recycling facilities, low-energy lightbulbs, bicycle storage facilities, composts in the communal kitchen, solar-powered computers, fair trade coffee for boardroom meetings… to what lengths will employers have to go in order to ease the minds of green employees who believe we are all headed towards apocalypse?

Because that is what Nicholson’s ‘philosophical belief’ amounts to. As Dinah Rose, QC for Nicholson, explained, it is a belief ‘that mankind is headed towards catastrophic climate change and that, as a result, we are under a duty to do all that we can to live our lives so as to mitigate or avoid that catastrophe for future generations’.

Nicholson is of course entitled to believe that there is a moral imperative to take action on climate change. He has every right to make his house more eco-friendly and to avoid flights, two private choices he has made. But in effectively demanding that opposition to his green antics should be regarded as a form of bigotry, he also believes that his convictions should be beyond reprehension.

Apparently Nicholson was affronted by Grainger’s chief executive’s decision to fly a staff member to Ireland to deliver his Blackberry, which he had left behind in London. He was also angry about not being able to set up a company-wide ‘carbon management system’ because colleagues failed to provide the necessary data. Nicholson may have felt all this made his job as a sustainability officer challenging, but why should anyone who chooses to put business interests ahead of environmental interests, or who objects to having their personal habits monitored at work, be regarded as discriminatory?

Essentially Nicholson’s case is about seeking state protection for environmentalist views. And because that is all they really are – views – they should be up for contestation and critique. How can you even develop an environmental policy at work if employees are afraid to raise concerns and objections to the exact terms of that policy for fear of being disciplined?

After the ruling, Nicholson tried to distance himself from the idea that he was turning environmentalism into a protected religion. He said the difference is that his is ‘a philosophical belief based on my moral and ethical values underpinned by scientific evidence’. Some critics of environmentalism have responded by arguing that this case does show that environmentalism is a religion. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

On the surface, environmentalism does resemble a modern-day religion. It has turned into a moralistic campaign where carbon sinners must be punished through taxes and fines or be rendered social outcasts. Any objection to the ‘absolute truth’ of an impending climate catastrophe is treated as heresy. Greens’ ritualistic behaviour resembles religious rituals, with carbon offsetting as the modern form of penance and the endless rules on what food is ethical and how to separate household waste looking like a secular version of kosher laws.

But in truth, the rise of environmentalism has little in common with how old-fashioned religions emerged and how they developed, or with the meaning and sense of community they can provide. And while religion at least offers the hope of redemption or some form of transcendence, and a belief in the power of man to shape his world, environmentalism is an inherently pessimistic worldview which says we should forsake our ambitions in the name of protecting the planet.

By first demanding that green views be put on a par with religion in the eyes of the law and by then suggesting that green views should be elevated above religion because they are ‘underpinned by science’, Nicholson not only debased religious belief but also expressed an ignorant attitude towards the scientific process. As Frank Furedi has pointed out on spiked: ‘Science emerged through an intellectual struggle to free humanity from the tyranny of sacred dogma… science depends on an open-minded and open-ended attitude towards experimentation and the testing out of ideas.’

Nicholson’s efforts to stamp out opposition to those who ‘believe in anthropogenic climate change’ is an expression of dogmatic thinking if ever there was one. In his new role as head of the healthcare section of the Guardian-supported 10:10 climate change campaign, he will at last be in a safe haven, free to spread the green gospel without a colleague batting an eyelid. It’s a shame Nicholson is not satisfied with preaching to the converted; the ruling on his case may make it harder for any workplace to conduct a proper discussion around how to deal with environmental issues, or to choose to ignore them altogether.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild thought the response to Lord May’s speech on climate change revealed greens’ authoritarian desire to chastise ungreen heretics. Stuart Blackman argued that climate change is not beyond questioning. Brendan O’Neill wondered why environmentalists demanded Martin Durkin’s film The Great Global Warming Swindle be censored because it contained scientific errors, but were happy to accept Al Gore’s mistakes as ‘good lies’. Ian Murray wondered if environmentalism is the opiate of the liberals. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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