Come Clean, Keir! Did You Really Disparage ‘Tree-Huggers?’

This article first appeared on Byline Times here.

If it’s true that, as reported in The Times, Labour leader Keir Starmer has responded to a shadow cabinet presentation by Ed Miliband on revolutionary new energy policies that could help combat our existential threat of climate and ecological breakdown by declaring “I hate tree-huggers” it shows his unwillingness to understand the severity of the ecological crisis facing us, his lack of commitment to green policies – and, most interestingly and tellingly, his naïveté to the historical context of his own words. 

‘Tree-hugger’ has been used as a dismissive term for environmentalists for quite some time now. Tony Blair and, remarkably, Martin McGuinness, sneeringly referred to Gerry Adams as a tree-hugger in the lead-up to the Belfast Agreement. 

During the making of Avatar, film director James Cameron was urged by executives at Fox to take out the “tree-hugging hippy crap” from the soon-to-be highest-grossing film of all time. One only has to Google ‘tree hugger Daily Mail’ to be greeted with a slew of articles dismissing the antics of ‘tree-hugging’ environmentalists as, among other things, ‘mad’.

But the real historical meaning behind the term is one of brutal oppression that deserves more reverence than being banded about haphazardly by the opposition leader. 

If you’re ready to hear the true, awesome, tragic, hopeful story of tree-hugging, then here goes.

A History of Tree-Hugging

Soldiers arrived in Khejarli, a rural village in North West India in September 1730 to cut down the local woodland and convert the raw materials into a great palace for the powerful Maharaja Abhai Singh. The village was inhabited by the Bishnoi people, a sect of Hinduism with a strong emphasis on the sanctity of nature who had lived in the region for centuries. 

As the soldiers moved to begin the felling of the forest, a local woman called Amrita Devi ran to protect the native khejri tree by hugging it and refusing to let go. When the soldiers decapitated her, her three daughters also began to hug the tree. They also met the same fate. 

Inspired by this act of heroism, other Bishnoi from the surrounding villages began to hug the local trees to protect their felling, with a total of 363 giving their lives to protect nature in what is referred to as the Khejarli Massacre. When Maharaja Abhai Singh heard of the lengths the local people were willing to go to protect their environment, he rescinded the original order and imposed a ban on the felling of Bishnoi trees. Today, the village is a place of pilgrimage for the Bishnoi people, as the brave actions of the men, women, and children in 1730 remain unforgotten. 

In the 1970s, a new wave of environmental activism called the Chipko movement swept over Northern India where protestors of deforestation would hug trees, inspired in part by the Bishnoi sacrifices over 2 centuries earlier. The popularisation of the term ‘tree-huggers’ in the modern psyche is heavily linked to the Chipko movement. These nature defenders too would throw their arms around the trees – to stop them from being chopped down.

Missing an Open Goal

If Keir Starmer really made the claim that he “hates tree-huggers,” does he have the devout, peaceful Bishnoi people in mind? Or the Chipko movement? No doubt it is not, but it would betray the Labour Leader as crudely careless of the words he chooses. And entirely ignorant of WHY people have heroically thrown their arms around trees.

Moreover, it would suggest that the modern Labour Party is now in opposition to a certain influential current of environmentalism, namely, one that is active, spiritual, non-violent – and effective. When the current Government has been repealing the right to protest, is it wise for the leader of the opposition to make comments which could easily suggest, with the correct historical context, that he ‘hates’ peaceful protestors? Who are in the lineage of those great Indian forebears?

So far, Starmer’s victories have been handed to him by Tory infighting, incompetence, or iniquity. This week has seen the Conservative Government on the verge of scrapping its £11.6 billion pledge on climate and nature funding, an appalling and irresponsible failure on the Government’s part. 

The political goalposts are unmanned; all Labour had to do is critique the Government for its shameful negligence and display its own environmental commitment. Instead, Labour upholds its U-turn announced last month to postpone its £28 billion a year investment for green industry

Is the Labour Party is serious about tackling the realities of dangerous man-made climate change and of habitat and nature destruction? Or does the careless and telling language alleged to have been used by its leader prove the opposite?

We have a right to know.