The question is valid because, for the first time in 30-odd years, no Green party is sharing government in a major European country. The Latvian Greens are one quarter of a four-party coalition; there is a self-styled "Red-Green" alliance now running Norway, but that doesn't count because the official party has denounced it; the Finnish Greens pulled out of power over the nuclear question; the Germans - so long the standard bearers - are kaput.

While there are still thousands of elected Greens in European, national and local parliaments, the idea of them participating in the running of countries now seems quaint.

To be fair, their fall has been outside their influence. There is little evidence that the green vote has seriously dropped off, and plenty to show that it is rising in places such as Scotland. Rather, it seems that support has dropped for the big left-leaning parties that have wooed the Greens to join them in power. It's not your fault if your big partner fouls up.

But equally the idea is growing that green ideas suit political opposition better. When your stated intention is not just to achieve power but to totally reform human governance to fit the constraints of the biosphere, then you are not really in the same political ideas field as, say, New Labour or the Greek socialists. Philosophically, you might as well as be Venusians or Martians.



And that is why green politics is not dead. For many people, both in and out of the parties, the point of green politics is to challenge the status quo, and question what traditional parties might term "progress", or "growth" or "prosperity". For them, the green political spirit is about devolving, decentralising and localising power - the opposite tendencies to most parties, which seek to control, concentrate and expand. Many German Greens are said to be rejuvenated now they have lost power and no longer have to compromise their ideas.

And no one doubts that green thinking has changed the face of European and international politics since it joined the political arena 40-odd years ago. Every institution and political party must these days take the environment seriously, which means they must steal the ideas of the Greens.

When the Women's Institute sounds more radical than the Labour party, then you know your message is getting through.

- kind permission
John Vidal

John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor.

October-November 2005