Elephants Left in the Room - Environmental Limits
Today's essay from the 'Elephants Left in the Room' series is on the subject of environmental limits by Nicholas Robin.
If we on the left learn only one lesson from the financial crisis, it should be to trust our instincts and be confident in our values. New Labour let voters down badly when it allowed itself to become ‘intensely relaxed’ about growing inequality and casino capitalism. We should have shown those elephants the door long before they caused the crash.
In the clamour to fix the economy and get people back into work we are now in danger of ignoring an even bigger problem – economic growth itself. Labour is right to advocate a Keynesian alternative to the Tories’ nineteenth-century Liberal austerity, but if ‘growth’ is all we focus on, we run the risk of resurrecting an economic system that literally has no future.
The crisis has presented us with an opportunity to remodel our economy along more sustainable lines. If we do not seize it, the credit crunch may well prove to be the prelude to a bigger and far more frightening environmental crunch.
Growing global demand is pushing up prices of vital commodities – such as oil, gas, copper, food, etc. - as the world population edges towards nine billion and more people adopt Western consumer lifestyles. Meanwhile, climate change and the destruction of forests and other vital eco-systems threaten the very life-support systems that we and all the other creatures on the planet rely on.
As well as supplying all our raw materials and resources, nature processes and cleans our water, regulates the climate, pollinates our crops, and absorbs all our waste outputs. The total value of these services, which are currently provided for free, have been estimated to be in the trillions of pounds and the processes would be very hard and very costly to replicate or synthesize. As the banner outside the St Pauls occupy camp rightly observed, ‘nature doesn’t do bailouts’.
If we continue to outpace nature’s ability to renew our resources and process our wastes we will end up exhausting the Earth’s ability to sustain life or at least its ability to sustain human populations as large as they are now. That is the biggest elephant in the room for both left and right. And every time policies put profit before people or elevate economic growth above all other considerations, we feed that the elephant.
Economic growth can only continue in the long term if it is decoupled from the use of natural resources and the emission of greenhouse gases, and we move to what has been described as ‘steady state’ economy.
Talking about environmental limits to economic growth will not be easy. Vested interests, our political enemies and the dinosaurs in the right-wing media will denounce any attempt to seriously remodel the economy as woolly headed or too costly. ‘Conventional wisdom’ and language will unfortunately be on their side – the very word ‘growth’ triggers all sorts of positive associations in our minds: from the green shoots of spring to thoughts of childhood and personal development.
The left will have to frame the debate very carefully. We must rebrand the ‘steady state economy’ and sell a compelling vision of a genuinely ‘green growth’ that does not rely on high consumption levels and fossil energy. The reactionaries on the right seem to want to leave the UK stranded with creaking twentieth century combustion-based power systems when fossil fuel prices are likely to keep going up and other advanced economies are moving on to cleaner, newer technologies like fuel cells, smart grids and next-generation solar photo-voltaics. We need to make sure the public knows that there is a choice between a left that is looking forward and a right-wing that is stuck in the eighties.
Fortunately, this should not be hard. Many on the right are not just ignoring the elephant; they are actively denying its existence. It seems that some people would rather subscribe to comic-book conspiracy theories about climate change rather than change their world view in line with the scientific evidence. This is a big problem for the right. Free market ideology is already in trouble because of its failure to predict or provide solutions to the crash. If it gets it wrong on climate change, it could find itself thoroughly discredited.
In contrast, left-wing thinking has been largely been proven right over the financial crisis and it is our vision of an equitable sharing society and an active state that is best equipped to provide the policy solutions that will deliver sustainable development. We know that markets work in society’s best interest when they are regulated. And we know that Governments shouldn’t just get out of the way, they should play an active role in setting the right frameworks for the economy.
The economy cannot be revived by simply kick-starting the housing market and retail consumer spending this time. That is an eighties economic model and it has had its day. If we want to create an economy fit for the twenty first century out of the ashes of the recession, we will need an active state that works to rebalance and recalibrate the economy to require less energy and resources.
The electricity sector must be made fossil fuel free by 2030. Clean and affordable public transport must be provided for everyone in the country, not just those in the big cities. All of our housing stock must be insulated, double-glazed and made to be much more energy efficient and all new developments must have renewable energy technologies installed as standard.
By making our society much smarter in the way we use energy and resources, we will not only be protecting families and businesses in the UK from rising commodity prices; we may even create a happier, healthier and less individualistic society. Ignoring the elephant, on the other hand, will leave Britain lagging behind on clean technology and will make the inevitable transition to a sustainable economic system even harder.
Nicholas Robin is a Compass member.
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