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“If you want to build a ship, don’t call together some men just to gather wood, prepare tools and distribute tasks,” proclaimed the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Instead, teach them the longing for the endless sea.”
The evidence of the recent budget, in which the environment was like a salad leaf abandoned to wilt in the June sun, suggests that the wrong approach has been taken to building a green economy.
It’s a shame, because there is no shortage of tasks and tools to distribute, and a long list of patient, rational reasons why we should do so.
For example, in the recently published Zero Carbon Britain 2030, both the ample potential of switching in a short period of time to a genuinely clean energy system, and the dangers of not doing so, are comprehensively examined. In these austerity-minded times in which the government is acutely concerned about our balance of trade, a single figure makes the point: based on an oil price of $78 a barrel, which could prove far too modest, replacing our own North Sea oil and gas with like-for-like imports will add £53 billion to the trade deficit, the report estimates.
Even at a time of broader cuts, the potential economic, social and environmental benefits of spending on a carbon detox for the UK economy have been repeatedly and exhaustively made.
Neither is there any mystery about the necessary conditions needed to make it happen. New sources of funding to encourage investment are needed from, for example, a green investment bank, which has been approved but not capitalised, and a high price for carbon to make change economically attractive.
There are the easy, reliable no-brainer initiatives, such as the mass roll-out of energy efficiency makeovers for buildings, wind, wave and solar power, which in turn create jobs. But there is also no shortage of more exotic, less reliable ideas to keep people entertained.
This month, cloud whitening or so-called “seeding” to help reflect heat away from the atmosphere enjoyed a shower of new interest. Research from the Carnegie Institution and the Indian Institute for Science suggested the potential for a cooling effect, but not without consequences. It reduced overall global rainfall and simultaneously created a more extreme pattern of monsoons.
And yet, for all the time that the rational case for action is put and its benefits outlined, we are failing not just to leave the harbour on our journey to an economy that operates in balance with the biosphere, but our boat lies in pieces by the dockside, incomplete and construction barely begun.
A longing for the adventure in unknown seas, in equal parts fearful and exhilarating, is yet to be released. Admittedly, at the moment, this is made more difficult by the fact that when most people watch pictures of the sea, it’s typically covered in a vast oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of BP.
On current trends, in 77 months time, by the end of 2016, it will no longer be likely that we will be able to stay on the right side of the risks that surround destabilising our climate system. Yes, we need to start building our low carbon energy arks. But we need more than that, an excited longing for things to be different, better.
The human impulse at the heart of modern society has been brilliantly co-opted by the sellers of disposable, upgradable consumer goods, not to mention by TV makeover shows. Counter-intuitively, in some ways we embrace change – but we demand it in unambitious ways, through novelty, redesigned gadgets with extra functions and added apps. In this sense, we approach the world on the assumption that it is never good enough. The impulse may be destructive when harnessed to conspicuous consumption, but does it have to be a bad thing, innately, and can’t it be dematerialised, and redirected from simply having more stuff towards a better way of being?
The thinker Zygmunt Bauman makes the point that the “the good society is the society that is convinced it is not good enough.” He calls gardeners, “obsessive compulsive utopians,” always trying to improve the world around them in a job that is never complete.
As we try to ensure a world fit for future generations, have a look around and ask yourselves, is this the best that we can do? What would it take, and what could we achieve if we were able to harness our transformative impulse for good? Instead of tying ourselves into a bloodless, technocratic exercise, what if we were able to find a longing for the endless sea?
“The Chancellor has unequivocally stated that this crisis began with the banks. It is clear that his next step must be radical reform of the banking system to ensure that such a crisis doesn’t happen again. But let’s keep the £2 billion banking levy in perspective: it’s only a third of what the bankers pay themselves in annual bonuses,” said Tony Greenham, head of Business and Finance programme at nef.
“The Chancellor says he is committed to a Green Investment Bank, but we still have no more detail about what it will do and how it will be funded. Mr Osborne spoke a great deal about the ‘crisis’ of national debt, but barely mentioned the much bigger and more dangerous crisis of climate change. These are supposedly five year plans, but we heard nothing about the need for a rapid transition to a low carbon economy.” said Dr Victoria Johnson, climate scientist at nef.
“The Chancellor was giving with one hand and taking with the other,” said Dr Faiza Shaheen, researcher in economic inequality at nef. “The increase in the income threshold is a positive measure, but the hike in VAT will have a disproportionately negative impact on low income groups. Also, the Chancellor’s cap on housing benefit overlooks the root cause of the rise in costs, namely the property boom and lack of social and affordable housing.”
“While we welcome the waiver of National Insurance contributions from new businesses in the Midlands and the North, this won’t be enough to fill the jobs gap created by cuts in the public sector,” said Dr Faiza Shaheen, “Nor does it deal with the considerable barriers to the success of new enterprise in these regions.”
“The cut in employer’s National Insurance contributions is the kernel of a great idea since it involves shifting the burden of tax away from something we want more of: employment,” said Tony Greenham, head of the Business and Finance programme at nef, “The Government now needs to follow this logic through and make up the difference in revenue by taxing things we want less of: short-term financial speculation, pollution and waste of natural resources.”
David Cameron yesterday described the need to make drastic cuts as “critical” and “urgent”. He said that his predcessors in government had “thought the good times would go on forever”, and that not we must face up to the fact that “we have been living beyond our means”. Profligacy and waste “is the legacy our generation threatens to leave the next.” The current situation is “unsustainable”. Now is the time to “face the music” and stand up to the “most urgent issue facing Britain today”.
Cameron was, of course, talking about cuts to public spending. But wouldn’t it be nice if he used the same language, the same gravitas and urgency to talk about need to cut carbon emissions, in order to address the far more urgent, far more dangerous and far more unjust problem of climate change?
We’re often told that politicians can’t take drastic measures to tackle climate change because they are unpopular, or because it would be electoral suicide to talk about the need to make sacrifices. But this whole discussion of the deficit, and what George Osbourne has called the ‘painful’ cuts to come, shows that our political discourse can cope with talk of unpopular sacrifices. So why, if our Prime Minister can make a grave and serious speech about the deficit, can’t he do the same with climate change? If he thinks people can cope with hearing that there will be painful cuts to public services, why does he think that they’ll baulk at the idea of painful cuts to their carbon budget?
At nef, we don’t believe that tackling climate change means sacrificing everything we hold dear. In fact, we’re adamant that the Great Transition to a sustainable economy could result in us living happier, more meaningful lives. But we’d be foolish to say that such a transition would be easy. It won’t be. It’ll be the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced. And yet no politician can be honest about it. None of them are talking as frankly about the need to cut climate emissions as they are about the need to cut spending. Something is seriously awry when we make a huge fuss over the deficit, while the climate on which our economic and social stability depends is getting ever nearer to meltdown.
The word spill doesn’t really do justice to the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, brought to you by oil giant BP. A spill, as Sophie Elmhirst has pointed out, is what happens to milk: “There’s no point crying over it, as the saying goes”.
But before you start wondering whether to call it a slick, a disaster, a catastrophe, be sure to pay a visit to IfItWasMyHome.com. Enter your home town and watch as the big black blot of oil is superimposed on where you live. Here’s what it looks like dumped on nef HQ in London, engulfing most of East Anglia, and stretching right across to the Breacon Beacons.
At this point, most words feels like an understatement.
(Hat-tip to @JohnHitchin for the link)
There are two rather encouraging things about Julian Huppert, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. First of all, he’s got a Ph.D in biological chemistry, making him one of the few MPs with experience of science and hence a likely advocate of heeding scientific warnings on climate change and other environmental issues, no matter how inconvenient to politics. Second, Huppert’s maiden speech to the House of Commons yesterday contained these wise words:
…economic growth is not all that we should care about. We know that economic growth can lead to environmental damage, but the issue is broader than just that trade-off. We are too fixated on GDP, and make too much of whether it has gone up or down by 0.2%. It does not measure the things we ought to care about – education, health, or well-being. If there is an oilspill off the coast, which we then clear up, more or less well, GDP has increased, but I’m not sure any of us would be delighted with that outcome.
We need to focus more broadly on personal issues such as well-being and happiness. We need to develop rigorous metrics to measure this wellbeing throughout society, and then ensure that we bear them in mind when developing policy. For we already know a lot about well-being – it doesn’t change much with income, above a figure of around 7,000 pounds per annum. It changes with the quality of the environment, with the number of friends and other social bonds we have, with the activities we get involved in, with family and with community.
His words bring to mind those of Robert F. Kennedy, the celebrated US Senator and civil rights activist, when he addressed the University of Kansas in 1968. In fact, it was Kennedy’s words that inspired nef to develop National Accounts of Well-being, the first comprehensive international analysis of personal and social well-being. In other words, exactly the kind of rigorous metrics that Dr Huppert rightly calls for.
It looks likely that while George Osbourne will take the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Vince Cable is being assigned a role looking after business and banks, although details are understandably sketchy at this stage.
From nef‘s perspective, Cable could be an excellent choice for this kind of role, as he appears to be dedicated to at least some structural reform of the banking sector. During the election campaign, Cable spoke out against the cartel of big banks in control of the financial sector, calling for them to be broken up. He also seems to be in favour of a levy on the banks – possibly a financial transaction tax.
Perhaps most encouragingly, Cable wants to encourage the local financial sector, including local enterprise funds and regional stock exchanges, which will help reconnect banking with the high street economy and small businesses. He’s also in favour of our plans to create a People’s Bank at the Post Office. Speaking in at the parliamentary launch of the Post Bank campaign, Cable said, “The Post Bank is an attempt to clean up banking. This is a cleaner principle based on sound banking ideas, but driven by public interest rather than narrow short-term profits.”
Obviously, in a coalition compromises may come, but let’s hope he holds true to principle and pushes for the kind of far-reaching reordering of the financial system that will kickstart the economy and tackle financial exclusion.
UPDATE: More on Cable’s likely moves are outlined by the Guardian, including what looks like taxes, curbs on bonuses and moves towards breaking up some of the banks. There’s a rather revealing comment as well from David Buik, City commentator at BGC Partners:
“Lovely bloke he may be, but the thought of Vince Cable, as Treasury Secretary, bringing influence to bear over the banking system and its constitution fills me with horror. This is nightmare material and I must head to the chemist for some barbiturates! I never voted for this and nor did millions of others.”
Of course, none of us voted to bail out the banking system with no strings attached. We’re going to have some serious moral hazard on our hands if those working in the financial sector think that they can continue to walk the highwire of speculative risk knowing that the safety net of public money is always below them.
Jeremy Harding on food insecurity in the London Review of Books:
“The new hesitation about food reflects broader doubts about the last 30 years – the trente glorieuses of the Anglo-Saxon model: our confidence in the energetic binge-and-treadmill culture that propelled us through the 1980s and 1990s has taken a knock. We doubt, above all, whether we can pay off our rising debts to the environment. Feelings about eating and not eating are more immediate than thoughts about rainforests; like the energy or water embedded in the produce we buy, many fears, including fundamental ones about life and death, destruction and incorporation, are already embedded in food. Others migrate to it, making food the bearer of unwieldy questions about the survival of a planet whose destiny we can’t foresee and the fate of people whose problems aren’t the same as ours. Do we bolt down what’s in front of us or do we curb our appetite in the name of our children’s future, or a ‘good’ we can’t guarantee? The modern table is groaning with dilemmas.”
Read the rest of Harding’s article here, and find out about nef‘s views on food security in Nine Meals for Anarchy. The concept of ‘ecological debt’ is explored in our Interdependence work stream, and in Andrew Simms’ book.
(Image by piston9 via Flickr)
Juliet and Saamah’s letter to the Times today points some of the misconceptions in last Saturday’s leading article on well-being economics. And there’s plenty more that they could have said, given enough space. For example, the leader argues that
There is more to life than [happiness]. There are many forms of life — monastic devotion, public service, freedom fighter — in which the pursuit of happiness is a subsidiary value, if it appears at all.
As someone who counts among his friends several public servants, a handful of people who you might call freedom fighters and one monk, I find this suggestion rather strange. Why shouldn’t happiness figure as major part of their lives?
It depends, of course, how you define happiness. The Times seems to equate it with pleasant feelings and positive emotions, what the philosopher Owen Flanagan calls the ‘standard American’ or ‘joy-joy-click-your-heels’ understanding of happiness. But anyone working in the field of positive psychology or well-being economics knows that positive feelings are only one minor part of a much broader and well-established definition of happiness, which includes finding meaning in work and daily activities, good relationships with others, inner resilience, individual vitality and a feeling of autonomy and freedom. There’s no reason why this deeper understanding of happiness, or rather well-being, shouldn’t figure in the types of vocation mentioned in the article.
After all, nef fellow and psychologist Tim Kasser and his colleague Malte Klar recently published a paper outlining the well-being benefits of engaging in political activism and campaigning. They found that
in both college student and national samples, well-being was higher to the extent people self identified as an activist, expressed commitment to the activist role, and reported engaging or intending to engage in activist behaviors. Results were similar across measures of hedonic well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and positive affect), eudaimonic well-being (e.g., personal growth, purpose in life, vitality), and social well-being (e.g., social integration). The results of both studies also suggest that activists are more likely to experience the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, an indicator of more frequent experiences of intrinsic motivation. Both Studies 1 and 2 also showed that significantly larger percentages of activists met preexisting criteria for “human flourishing” (Keyes, 2002) than did those less engaged in activism.
It seems that freedom fighters can be happy after all.
Jokes about climate change used to be in short supply, but fortunately climate “sceptics”* rectified all that. Here’s Richard Glover of the Sydney Morning Herald:
Do climate-change sceptics have the same attitude to other pieces of expert advice? When their car develops a fault and the local mechanic says the brake pads are shot, do they seek a second opinion? And having been told by the second mechanic that, yes, the brake pads are shot, do they then trawl around town until on the 99th visit, they strike a mechanic who says “no, the brake pads are fine”? And then driving at high speed up the F3, do they entrust their lives to this last opinion?
No. Because it would be mental.
What happens when Maurice Newman, climate agnostic and ABC chairman, goes to the doctor? Does he storm from the office when they diagnose chickenpox and seek second, third and 99th opinions until he finds a doctor who will give him the all clear? And does he then decry the first 98 doctors as victims of “group-think”?
No. Because it would be mental.
* The word “sceptic” can only be used euphemistically when describing those people who think anthropogenic climate change is some sort of massive hoax. They are, in fact, embarrassingly gullible: happily accepting whatever half-truths and distortions that have been put about by libertarian think-tanks and PR firms employed by fossil fuel dependent industry. True scepticism is the lifeforce of scientific enquiry, include climatology. The Royal Society’s motto is Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it.
The weekend papers reported that Vince Cable is in talks with HM Treasury about becoming Chancellor in the event of a hung parliament. Cable has been widely touted as the most trusted politician in the country, and would most likely to be a progressive choice for Britian’s economy, given his support for policies such as the Post Bank and the Robin Hood Tax.
But would Vince ever take the most radical step of all, and question whether economic growth is really the best compass to guide the progress of nations?
Sadly, it seems not. Speaking at a confrence last week, Cable took a swipe ‘environmentalists who advocate de-growth’. Explaining why environmental issues have slipped down the list of public priorities in recent months, the Shadow Chancellor for the Liberal Democrats said:
well, we’ve got zero growth in fact, we’ve got minus growth and it isn’t very nice. And I think people somehow wised up to this idea that all this puritanical non-consumption of resources we were being told was a good thing is actually really rather painful if you’re one of the people who was losing your job in the process. So recession has played very badly in terms of its environmental impact.
(Thanks to @adanylkiw for the transcript)