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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.
It’s always hard to imagine a world fundamentally different to the one we encounter everyday. Even when the balance shifts deeply between established political forces, it feels like there might be a new DJ playing different songs but that you’re still at the same party. The days press in on us with familiar routines, demands and a storm force gale of unchanging multimedia information.
Unless, that is, something happens to really break the routine. Wait long enough and something always will. It wasn’t a gaffe, or a TV debate, but a blast that allowed us all to imagine a truly different world during this election campaign, one in which we are reconnnected to the environment.
In the early hours of Wednesday 14 April 2010, a dormant volcano, covered in ice, with a hard-to-pronounce name (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded. Nobody heard it across northern Europe because the volcano was far away in Iceland, but the skies above them fell silent.
Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to off. Why? Fine dust from the vast billowing cloud thrown up by the volcano was lethal to modern jet engines. Planes that had flown through similar clouds in the past had suffered terrifying, nearly disastrous losses of power. For days Europe was grounded. “Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,” wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.
One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and possibly a glimpse of a future world in which both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies have clipped the industry’s wings.
Philosophers, poets and stranded travellers filled the airwaves with reflections. Yes, it was inconvenient, they said, of course it was. No one was prepared for it. But suddenly the skies were peaceful. People found other ways to get from one place to another. They took trains, buses, taxis and shared cars. They talked to each other and, travelling at a slower pace, found themselves enjoying the scenery and being more aware of the world they were passing through. Most strikingly, as flying was something we thought we couldn’t live without, the world did not come to a standstill.
The sky didn’t fall, it just looked more peaceful. We heard more clearly, as Duffy wrote, “the birds sing in the Spring”. Almost everything simply carried on. The airlines suffered economically, but it revealed how few of the things we depend on for day-to-day life really relied on the airlines. Life would be different without them (or far fewer of them) but life would go on, as it had done for thousands of years.
Kew Gardens in south London is famous for two things. One is its stunning botanical collection, the other is that it lies on the approach to Heathrow airport. Normally, visitors have their appreciation of nature interrupted by low-flying aircraft every few seconds. If you had visited Kew during the brief ceasefire in the skies in April, you would have seen crowds of people staring in quiet wonderment at what was missing from the air above their heads. Like many others, behind the bluster of the threatened airline industry, I suspect they had the creeping sensation, that thanks to a random geological event on a faraway island, we had all stumbled upon a different and better world.
Of course, this is not what our political masters had planned. Quite the contrary. Typical of rich countries, the British government is planning for the number of air passengers using its airports to treble from around 200 million to 500 million by 2030. And, if aviation is allowed to grow, by 2050 it will account for between half and all of the UK’s acceptable carbon emissions, even if the growth slows down. Yet, those few days in April revealed that even in the most dramatic circumstances, of the complete, sudden, unexpected closure of airspace over northern Europe, we could adapt.
Scandalously, the environment, our underlying physical life support system, has been considered worth barely a mention during the election campaign. But, interestingly, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have said they oppose a new runway at Heathrow. With that, and holding recent memories, as the poet put it, of the clear skies’ “silent summons”, perhaps we’ll remember that change is not only possible, it actually happens. Whoever gets elected, they will have about 79 months and counting, to make a real difference on climate change.
Saamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.
There are few who believe that all is well with the world and that we can just carry on as before. Where there is disagreement, it seems, is on how much needs to change. Amongst the leading political parties in the UK, it seems the answer is “as little as possible”. But at the 2nd Degrowth Conference (or Decreixement in Catalan), held in Barcelona this March, we got a flavour of a broader range of answers to this question and, indeed, potentially a new social movement. The concept of ‘green growth’ (investing in renewable and new technologies allowing economic growth without exceeding physical limits) has all but been abandoned by this community – demonstrated to be an insufficient answer to environmental crises by nef’s The Great Transition and Growth isn’t Possible and by the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity without Growth.
Rather the debate centres around what more should, or needs to change, along with an end to economic growth. Is capitalism compatible with degrowth? How about markets? Indeed the entire modern world and industrialisation were questioned by some at the Conference.
Two years ago, attending the first degrowth conference, the concept was somewhat an academic curiosity. Now, with 500 attendees from 40 countries, there is a sense of a degrowth movement, albeit one that is trying to find its direction and a common narrative. The range of attendees – from academics to activists – was a strength; the conference reminded me of the European Social Forum, and the changes degrowth calls for cannot be achieved without such a range of actors. But it was also a challenge, with expectations from the conference so disparate. Whilst some attendees work closely with public bodies to explore aspects of degrowth, others were disgusted that even academic economists had been invited to the event.
So what common narrative may emerge? Well, degrowthers certainly recognise the fundamental role economic systems play in the environmental, social and economic crises we face. Furthermore, groups within the conference lay at least partial blame on the economic system for several other issues, including war, gender inequality, cultural imperialism and, of course, flat-lining well-being. This ‘joining the dots’ is key. There are many rally calls for social change. Where degrowth appears to be different is that it brings together so many apparently disparate issues. It is, as nef fellow Nic Marks would say, a platform with many doors. People are brought to it for all sorts of reasons. The shared understanding is of the primacy of the absurdities of the economic system – one which values a prison above an ecosystem, one whose own success leads to the redundancy of labour, and one which relies on the myth that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet – and the futility of attempting to tackle other problems until this economic system is contested. This understanding may help unite these different causes and concerns into a single and potentially powerful drive towards a Great Transition.
Coming back to the UK from Barcelona by train, we stopped at Cerbère, the first town in France as you come up the coast. Sharing its name with the dog that guarded the gates of hell, there was a sense of a place on a knife-edge. On the one hand it’s a dump, a town that grew out of the need to change train gauges on the border with Spain. A once famous hotel now looms in disrepair over the train tracks, the path from the centre to the train station appears to go through a sewage tunnel and, while we waited for our connecting train, someone set fire to some rags and through them onto the train tracks. But watching two strangers, a young black Frenchman and on old, probably American, man, with a guitar and all the air of a blues player from the 60s, meet, jam together and seemingly become friends, I got that cheesy warm sense of the good nature of humanity. There may be some differences and disagreements within the degrowth movement, but overall, it stands out as the most radical yet robust attempt to mobilise support for a better world – a more intelligent and coherent successor to the anti-globalisation movement of the nineties and the noughties. If that’s true, then we might just be able to turn back from the gates of hell.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
“Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” Can you imagine Peter Mandelson saying that to the CBI? Would Gordon Brown produce such a quip at the World Economic Forum? Even Barack Obama might have problems with this level of political lyricism. Progress might be the realisation of ambition, enterprise, or even dreams, but not utopias.
Utopianism tends to be a pejorative term these days. It’s associated with religious and political myths which we now might find naive and old-fashioned: be it the New Jerusalem of Christianity or the promised revolution of Marxism. The quotation from Wilde comes from his 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism‘, a political polemic with a curiously evangelical and redemptive tone.
We’ve witnessed too many failed or dangerous utopias to be taken in by such rhetoric anymore. How many of the 20th century’s worst atrocities started with a vision of a perfected world? And even when they haven’t ended in totalitarianism, utopian mindsets have collided with the wall of reality sooner or later. The global financial crisis of the last eighteen months has put paid to the neoliberal belief that history “ended” with the rise of free market capitalism.
Today we’re inclined to agree with the political philosopher John Gray, who writes that “utopia is the projection into the future of a model of a society that cannot be realized.”
And yet, somehow, I still have some sympathy with Wilde’s vision. Even once we accept the danger of utopianism and see through its mirages, we still need to chart a course for our societies to follow. We will always need some sort of compass to guide us.
The sociologist Stephen Lukes came up with the idea of a ‘concrete utopia’. Unlike John Gray’s definition, the concrete utopia is based on ‘the knowledge of a self-transforming present, not an ideal future’.
There is no doubt that we are currently in a ‘self-transforming present’. Thanks to a century and a half of industrialisation powered by fossil fuels, the world’s climate is changing – not somewhere else or at a future date, but right here, right now. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has shaken all economic and political orthodoxies. And as inequality has risen in developing countries, so too has social instability and unrest. If we do nothing about these things, the present will transform itself for the worse. nef has calculated the costs of carrying on with ‘business-as-usual’ until 2050: the UK will be faced with a £1.6 to £2.5 trillion bill for climate change, and a £4.5 trillion bill for social problems arising from income inequality.
In order to steer clear of these threats, we’ll need something like a concrete utopia. Our new report The Great Transition attempts to put in place some clear steps towards the kind of economy which works for people and the planet. The Great Transition is undoubtedly utopian in spirit: we call it ‘the tale of how things turned out right’. But its recommendations are based right here in the present moment. There are things we can do immediately to tackle climate change, restore economic stability and create a more equal human settlement.
For the concrete utopian, it isn’t enough just to draw utopia onto Wilde’s map. First, you have to do some scouting, to see if that country actually exists, to glimpse its shores, even from afar. At nef, we’ve been able to do so through the vast array of practical projects we’ve been involved with over the years. Timebanking, complementary currencies, new methods of participation and democracy, Transition Towns, our BizFizz project for budding entrepreneurs, co-productive public services and barter economies all constitute, as we said in our pamphlet From the Ashes of the Crash, part of a ‘sleeping architecture of a new, diverse and resilient local financial system’, human-scale and low-carbon. And it’s on these foundations that we’ll start to build our concrete utopia.
If you’d like to glimpse the beginnings of the Great Transition, and help make it a reality, make sure you head along to The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence, this Saturday 24 October, at the Bargehouse, South Bank, London.