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We all need to be tree-hugging, tofu munching eco-freaks now

March 3, 2021 11:07 PM
By Joe Dodd in GLD Challenge magazine 2020-21

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We all need to be tree-hugging, tofu munching eco-freaks now

Boris Johnson has a talent for grabbing the media's attention with a turn of phrase. Following the Climate Action Summit in December 2020, headlines focused on his insistence that climate change wasn't just a concern for "tree-hugging, mung bean munching eco-freaks". Just a few months later, when he addressed the United Nations, the prime minister argued against those who "say this is all green stuff from a bunch of tree-hugging tofu munchers and not suited to…politics".
Any serious environmentalist would agree with the sentiment that the climate crisis requires ambitious political action not merely individuals eating a certain type of food and dressing a particular way. And yet, it begs the question as to whether this framing is helpful to anyone. Ahead of the Glasgow climate summit, the UK government, and Johnson himself, need to think carefully if this is the type of headline he wants to grab when he needs to mainstream the green agenda. It is worthwhile breaking down the type of environmentalist the prime minister is so keen to distance himself from.

Tree-hugger is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a "sometimes disparaging" term for "an advocate for the preservation of woodlands". Would it not be better for Johnson to adopt the label himself? There is clear support for tree planting with up to 84 per cent of the UK public in agreement that "a lot more trees should be planted". This government has already pledged to plant 30 million trees per year. Wouldn't it be encouraging to see the prime minister rebuke the climate deniers who are dragging their feet on this agenda and call himself a "proud tree-hugger"? That is exactly what the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey called himself during his first campaign to become leader in 2019. For him, a "tree-hugger" could be someone who wants to "decarbonise capitalism".

Johnson's close encounter with death from Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic caused him to declare himself "too fat" and to adopt a healthy eating regime. The obesity crisis and global heating are both reasons for people to choose mung beans and tofu a little more often than steak and beef burgers. Beef amounts to 105kg of carbon emissions per 100g, tofu produces a mere 3.5kg for the equivalent. Even the government's own advisers on climate say that "we can't meet the government's 2050 Net Zero target without major changes in the way we use the land, the way we farm, and what we eat". The government needs to get the country eating less meat, promoting plant-based proteins from the top is the way to go about it.

Finally, the term "eco-freak" has been used to vindicate business as usual for decades. Johnson is often branded an "eccentric" by both his friends and enemies, a word not dissimilar from "freak". But the best eccentrics and freaks are not those who stand out because they have wacky blonde hair or recite classical poetry from memory, but those that hold an opinion that challenges the status quo. "The tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach", the liberal thinker John Stuart Mill wrote, "it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric." If eco-freak means anything, it refers to those of us who were banging the drum on the environment while Johnson was still calling climate change a "primitive fear…without foundation".
The prime minister may not want to admit it, but if his government wants to be the climate world leader it claims to be, he needs to accept that we all need to be tree-hugging, tofu munching eco-freaks now.

Joe Dodd

Communications Officer for Green Alliance 2021