Stopping our economic obsession with ‘more stuff’ gives us a chance to save our planet and transform our societies, writes ALAN SIMPSON
THE Canadian journalist Naomi Klein recently came to interview Jeremy Corbyn. Afterwards, she gave him a copy of her latest book No is Not Enough.
Jeremy should read it alongside Ian Sinclair’s most recent Morning Star article — Labour must put more focus on climate change (July 12) — then treat himself to an evening watching the 2015 film Tomorrow, directed by Cyril Dion and Melanie Laurent.
What the three have in common is probably the most important message of our time. Forgive the pun but “climate is going to trump everything.”
The unfolding debacle that is Brexit deflects parliamentary attention from a far bigger European conversation that should be taking place. It involves a recognition that economics, as we have known it, is finished. The obsession with “growth” — based on ever increasing production and consumption — is absolutely incompatible with avoiding a climate crisis.
Sustainability has to turn economics on its head, putting work, wellbeing, security and inclusion at the centre of a different economics, one which treads more lightly on the only planet we have.
It was a massive achievement that Labour offered an election manifesto as uplifting as it was. But energy and climate proposals did struggle to get past Labour’s internal interests. Many of the most far-reaching ideas never reached the starting line.
But the ticking clock of climate science (and the sea change in public mood) now demands that Labour, like Star Trek, must boldly go into hitherto uncharted spaces.
Climate security will not be found in a new round of free-trade agreements. This is self-delusion land, chasing cheapness into spaces blind to the climate destruction that comes as its handmaiden.
Concepts of “growth” will have to be redefined in quality-of-life terms, not quantity of consumption.
Circular economics will displace outdated growth models, with more localised consumption and supply becoming central to how we radically and rapidly reduce the carbon footprint of everyday life.
Internationally, it must be underpinned by resources that allow others to do the same.
This is a world away from the “America first, and sod the rest of you” policies of US President Donald Trump.
When historian Edward Thompson plunged into the European peace movement campaign of the 1970s, he talked about solidarities that crossed national frontiers, citizens carrying their “cargoes of intellectual contraband,” exchanged freely in the dead of night. It was the notion that we could live, non-threateningly, alongside each other in ways that belligerent political leaders seemed unable to grasp.
What it called for was a different mindset, and then new institutions that might build “common security” upon different foundations.
Today’s European institutions were never designed to deal with flood-tides of forced migration. The poorest parts of Europe carry a disproportionate part of its consequences, with next to none of the resources needed to do so.
Britain pulling up the drawbridge — even if we weren’t massively dependent on migrant workers to run the NHS; staff our universities and research institutes; pick our foods; run our care homes and build and repair our houses — would solve nothing of this bigger crisis.
Nor would it address the turbulence of emerging food uncertainties. Spain, Greece and southern Italy are in the middle of a drought and heat wave that will massively reduce their harvests.
Farmers in the US are not doing much better, with warm spells in the Arctic stunting their summer crops.
British farmers might be enjoying bumper harvests from the milder weather we have had but it is a momentary distraction. Britain is anything but “food secure.”
Nearly half of the food Britain consumes is imported. In 2016, nearly 70 per cent of this came from the EU.
One way or another, the world has to begin a new conversation about buffer stocks of food.
Europe is an ideal place to begin. It is where we could all discover the new relationships needed to link the local with the supranational, the defining of a new common wealth. This is where Dion and Laurent’s Tomorrow comes into its own.
The film takes viewers to a host of localities (across different continents) already moving into circular/sustainable economics. It doesn’t matter whether this is urban food production within US cities, Indian low-carbon housing or European agro-ecology programmes. The key is that localities (the likes of you and me) are becoming the practical and political drivers of change.
The film includes UK examples of sustainable food programmes and local currencies, but the real challenge is to take all the global examples — from 100 per cent recycling schemes to zero-carbon homes — and turn them into today’s mainstream thinking, putting sustainability and accountability at the heart of everything.
Britain’s Asda, Morrisons and Co-op supermarkets have made a start in this, committing to only sell British meats. It is a step short of the European slow food movement — which attempts to locally (and seasonally) source most of its food products — but it is a start. The real gains, however, are to be found as much in reduction as production.
The charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) estimates that Britain currently throws away 10 million tonnes of food and drink a year. Seventy per cent of this is household waste, while around eight million people in Britain live in food poverty.
What we throw away also adds to the annual trade deficit in food, drink and animal feed (£22.5 billion in 2016). Much of this could be sourced domestically and (preferably) organically.
None of this makes the case for a Little Britain, pull-up-the-drawbridge mentality.
Britain’s 70 per cent of food imports that come from the EU could be a part of a resilience programme, providing British surpluses also form part of the buffer stocks. But to do so sustainably, such programmes must also be required to restore the levels of organic carbon stored in European soils. Therein lies the difference between a “common wealth” of Europe and a more rudimentary common market.
Exactly the same applies to energy. A European grid (preferably owned by national governments) can offer transmission security for the whole of Europe. But the revolutionary changes will come in more decentralised systems of “clean” energy generation, storage and distribution and in markets designed to sell “less” consumption rather than more.
The battleground is “democracy,” whether old energy oligarchies can be replaced by more inclusive energy democracies. These are the bigger issues that Britain’s political leaders should be raising with European partners (and beyond). We have much to share, and much to learn in the narrow window that climate change leaves open.
“Climate” will shape tomorrow’s economics of water, energy, housing, transport and goods. Work and skills will be at its centre, but essentially we must write a new economics of “stuff,” with the emphasis being on circularity rather than unlimited extraction.
Such a vision is not hair-shirt survivalism; its anything but. Apply it to energy and you race into Germany’s transformation economics — where two-thirds of the jobs are now in energy saving, not generation.
Apply it to transport and you shift into “clean” systems that might free 40 million people in Britain from health-destroying air-pollution levels.
Break the shackles of how money itself is created and new ways of financing renewal (and real jobs) unfold in front of you. Give localities carbon budgets to live within and an economics of recycling more and using less will have to follow.
The starting point, as Ian Sinclair demanded, is that we accept that yesterday’s economics is dead.
Old free-trade agreements and growth obsessions are a race towards the abyss. Security and prosperity will be found within broader solidarities. Forget the illusions of sovereignty. Security, real security, is when we rediscover how interdependent we really are.