RR talking on socialism, tomorrow

I am speaking tomorrow [see ‘Capitalism and the Environment’, above] on the relationship between capitalism and ecology. Lots to say, but for now I think the key thing I want to say is this: that the population issue HAS to be faced, because we have (b)reached the limits to growth. If one is serious about ecology and about localisation, one has to be serious about restraining population. It is not proven that this can be done entirely by voluntary means. We may have to think, e.g., about limits to family size, or at least about fiscal incentives for smaller families.
What is not good enough is the standard old socialist mantra of open borders and procreative freedom. This mantra only works if one just doesn’t care either way about ecological limits — as old socialists, indeed, generally didn’t care, preferring simply to maximise ‘production’.

Is there still a role for the state?

I am sometimes asked why we need to use the state to make the political changes that are needed in order to address the climate crisis; in order, for example, to make Transition Towns have the real-world impact that they deserve to have.
The answer is straightforward: The state has to provide the caps that make a framework within which public goods (such as limits to pollution so that we stay within our ecological limits) are incentivised and public bads are disincentivised. The only fair way to do this is through carbon entitlements, etc. [See e.g. http://www.feasta.org/documents/energy/dtqsoct2003.htm ] That is why it is Green Party policy to introduce such a scheme. Without such a scheme, either one introduces regressive carbon taxes (which is what, inasmuch as their policies address the issue at all seriously the Conservative Party and the LibDem Party propose to do, in effect punishing the poor for the emissions of the rich); or one simply gives up the ambition to be serious about carbon-reduction nationwide, and so about Contraction and Convergence etc. worldwide.
As I have argued in several posts during the last week, there is no voluntary-based way of reducing fossil fuel use, ESPECIALLY once one reaches the limits to growth, and less for one person simply opens up the opportunity of more for another. The climate crisis and Peak Oil introduce a renewed and utterly vital role for the state: setting the framework which gives us some chance of acheiving climatic balance again, by creating the conditions under which low-carbon living can happen for all.
Opposition to the positive use of state power is nothing less than a total disaster, an abnegation of responsibility, in the historical period that we are now in.
And recall: it is unbridled corporate power — it is the unleashing of capital that has been the big economic-political story of the last 25 years or so — which has got us into this emergency in the first place…

Martin Bell and me at GP Conference!

I am back from Green Party Conference. The Conference blog continues here:


The event that I chaired with Martin Bell (and that featured also Guardian Weekly journalist and Green Party Communications Officer Natalie Bennett) went really wonderfully well.
Bell gave an inspiring speech, in which argued that our Party could and should be anti-war and pro-peace but also pro-soldier; he mentioned the ‘remarkable’ fact that all 165 Murdoch newspaper editors ‘independently’ decided to back the Iraq war…; he called upon the Green Party to cast itself as “the Party of honest politics”, and suggested that this was a very plausible string to our bow beside our ‘core’ issues; he said (drawing upon his experience of having fought the Eastern Region Euro-elections last time — this is the Region where I am now our Party’s lead candidate) “Rupert has a very good chance of winning in 2009; You are a mainstream Party now and deserve such breakthroughs; I wish you every good luck.”
Wow! You can’t get much closer to an endorsement than that…

Patio heaters…

We in the Green Party are highly critical of the EU where criticism is called for. For example, we find the Common Agricultural Policy as it is presently constituted a dangerous waste of money; we oppose joining the Euro; and we think that big business fat cats and lobbyists have an undue role in creating European laws. We are Euro-critical. But we are not outright Euro-sceptical – because it is obvious that Britain’s membership of the EU has in some respects conferred significant benefits on this country. For example by playing a key role in keeping the peace in Europe for most of the last sixty-three years, by ensuring human and political rights for all citizens (including equal rights for men and women), by giving rights of travel and employment throughout Europe (for plumbers, for painters and decorators, for British people who want to live and work elsewhere in Europe, for everyone).

But, most significantly, it has taken action, where the British government has failed, in measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus fight dangerous climate change.

The most recent move in this direction is the proposal to ban the sale of patio heaters which must be the most wasteful form of energy-use of all. A 9.3 kW gas heater generates 2.3 tons of CO2 per year and 90% of the heat generated goes straight up to the sky. I have long campaigned against the use of these climate-dangerous patio heaters and welcome this move by the EU.

EU policy in this instance is really just common sense. Isn’t it just a bit silly to burn your money? But that, in effect, is what one is doing when one uses a patio heater. Paying, to heat up the night sky…

More on why the Transition movement needs politics, so that it can work

1) Inasmuch as Peak Oil is upon us and oil is running out, recall that ‘energy descent’ involves not a complete giving up of any reliance upon oil / carbon-based energy, but a radical reduction. But this means that one still needs some: and so it is very important to the possibility of the Transition movement building genuine resilience that the remainder is not just guzzled. This is where politics comes in, to manage energy descent among everyone, including would-be ‘free-riders’. A Transition Town deprived of ANY oil at all is a ‘Transition Town’ in free-fall.
2) One needs to take in the terrifying truth mentioned in my article on Transition Towns ((see below)): that, unless we stop it politically, Peak Oil will result in the tar sands, the oil shales, heavy oil, coal including heavy-sulphur coal (and including the gasification and ‘petrolification’ of coal) being exploited far more heavily, so long as they yield a positive energy balance. This means that Peak Oil will not magically save us from dangerous climate change — it will MAKE IT WORSE. Peak Oil will unleash climate cataclysm — unless we restrain these exploitations of fossil fuels, by politics and other means.
Across the country, across the continent, and across the world, we absolutely need collectively to implement the g/Green agenda. (By the way, Simpol may be a critically-important tool here: http://www.simpol.org.uk/ ).

Why I am a Green

I am now back from Green Party Conference. But: Why am I a Green? Why do I have very little hope for any of the ‘main three’ Parties delivering the needful changes, at this fateful point in history?
The key reason why is that the ‘Conservatives’, the LibDems and New Labour are all thoroughgoingly committed to neo-liberal economics. This points in the OPPOSITE direction to the changes that are needed. As fast as their manifestos become ‘environmentalistic’, so their belief in ‘making things easier for business’, in building roads and airports and coal-fired and nuclear power stations etc. undermines any progress they make elsewhere.
What we need is not environmentalism attached to an agenda which in other respects involves business as usual. What we need is ecologism (See e.g. Andrew Dobson’s book, ‘Green political thought’. http://www.andrewdobson.com/?page_id=14
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2465/is_4_30/ai_63699792 ) And, as I bring out in the posts and comments below, we need moreover ecologism across large tranches of the world. ‘Ecologism in one country’ is pretty hopeless. But that of course doesn’t mean (and here I am taking up an issue in the debate around Transition Towns that I have spawned — see below) that we shouldn’t try to make Britain one huge demonstration project — we _should_.
I am also given hope by the increasingly global nature of the anti-globalisation movement — and of the Green Party, the closest thing we now have to a truly European and to some extent global political Party…

A point by point response to Rob Hopkins

[See the posts below, for explication of the context here.

This is a reply to Rob Hopkins’s critique of my column, here



>The first of [Rupert Read’]s specific arguments, the one that I am still scratching my head about days after reading his piece, goes as follows; ”The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us because, within the existing economic system, some people reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by everyone else as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels”. This seems like an astonishing argument from a member of the Green Party, to suggest that it is counter-productive to reduce fossil fuel consumption in one place because it will just increase it elsewhere. I sometimes hear the same argument from those who suggest that there is no point in our doing anything to lower our carbon emissions because China and India will never do so. So does Read suggest that instead we just madly consume whatever fossil fuels we can in order to use them up as quickly as possible? No. His argument is that what we need is “legislation that enforces lower overall use of fossil fuels and/or that forces everyone to try and become a Transition Town”.

Yes – because anything else simply will not work.

Look: you cannot change the world very much just by asking people to be nice. In a globalised world, if you succeed in getting tens of millions of people to be nice, you have only a very tiny effect, if you simply allow other people to do more of what isn’t nice, as a result.

But let me be completely fair to Rob here: he asks a good question. The question he asks is: If Rupert Read’s argument posing a problem for Transition Towns is valid, then doesn’t that imply that if we use less oil China and India and America and so on will just use more, and so it isn’t really worth us using less oil, in terms of having any impact at all on long-run resource-crunches and pollution-disasters? This is a good question: because the reality is that the main reason for Britain to use less oil is not to have a lower overall pollution and resource-depletion effect, because (as any economist worth their salt will quickly tell you) even the whole of Britain cutting back on its oil use as a matter of a successful government policy – a far larger effect than Transition Towns can hope to have for a long time to come – would have only a relatively minor effect upon world consumption levels, because it would send a price signal to other countries that its OK to burn even more of the stuff like there is no tomorrow.

Is this a shocking – “astonishing” — thing for a Green Party member to say? No, because it is simply fact. Only: if one stops there, one is being irresponsible. There IS a very good reason for Britain to use less oil: and that is, to lead by example, and to show what is possible. In other words: to be what I call a demonstration project. Wouldn’t it be great if Britain was the first major world economy to try to be a Transition Country? But that alone wouldn’t do much at all to save the world.

We can show an example to others: and then, to actually save the future, we have to get most of them to make the change too. (And not just allow them to free-ride and to be in denial about the need for energy-descent for years longer as a result.)

That is going to require political action on an unprecedented global scale – it will make Seattle look like a walk in the park.

Rob goes on:

>It is absurd to suggest that reducing dependence on fossil fuels is counter-productive for many reasons, including the following;

  1. It inspires other places. Places such as Findhorn and BedZed with their low carbon footprints show the rest of the world what is possible in an inspiring way. There is no research to the best of my knowledge to indicate that communities living next to those places feel duty bound to increase their fossil fuel consumption due to that left over by their more frugal neighbours
  2. This is about more than just cutting consumption. In the Transition approach, the cutting of carbon emissions/fossil fuel consumption is a way of making the settlement in question more resilient, with a stronger local economy which in turn unleashes all kinds of other positive economic feedbacks
  3. In the context of the peak oil argument, as the price of liquids fuels starts to rise, it will be the degree of resilience that has been put in place that will be important. Delight at being able to pick up, for example, Totnes’s fossil fuel leftovers, will be short lived and entirely counter-productive.

Well, I agree with 1, 2, & 3: but they do nothing to address the issue that I have raised. Nothing. What is Rob Hopkins’s answer to the free rider problem?

Rob asks:

>It seems to me that legislation will struggle and be ultimately ineffectual if it is fighting against rather than with the will of the people.

I agree. This is the huge challenge that we face: reframing the issues such that making the collective changes that need to be made becomes the will of the people. This requires democratic engagement on a large and intense scale. And it requires that we have faith that people can desire to make these changes, and can face the realities – and the wonderful opportunities — of the long emergency that we are embarked upon.

> Read misunderstands the Transition approach when he writes “the Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us”. No-one has ever said it can.

Well; what I have sometimes heard people say is that individual and small-scale local action is enough, and is all we are ever going to get. But Rob and I at least evidently agree on fundamentals, which is good:

>Transition Initiatives are seen as one of a hierarchy of approaches that will be required to get us through the twin crises of peak oil and climate change. We will need international action such as Contraction and Convergence, the Oil Depletion Protocol, strong international climate legislation and a moratorium on biodiesel production. We will need national action such as strong climate legislation with realistic targets, a carbon rationing system such as Tradable Energy Quotas and a national food security strategy, and we will need more local solutions.

Here we are in total concord.

>That said, Transition Initiatives can do a lot more than merely, as Read sees them, “function as demonstration projects”.

Well, I don’t think ‘merely’ is the right word at all. ‘Merely’ is Rob’s word, not mine. I think demonstrating that one can live sustainably on a path of energy descent is fantastic, and vital.

>For me, if Totnes were to be the only Transition project in country it would have failed. Isolation is not a viable response to the challenge that peak oil presents us with. Hence the Transition Network, which now comprises around 40 formal Transition Initiatives on a range of scales, and over 600 more at earlier stages of this process.

Absolutely. The more the Network grows, the stronger and more effective the demonstration.

>That said, Transition Initiatives can do a lot more than merely, as Read sees them, “function as demonstration projects”. It is not unimaginable that we might move to a stage where the majority of settlements in the UK adopt this process, and start engaging with proactively designing their pathways to a lower energy future in the form of an Energy Descent Plan, seized by the potential such a future holds.

But even if we imagine this – and it seems to me slightly far-fetched, although I would be delighted to be proved wrong on that point – , then, unless the same thing is happening in most countries of the world at the same time, a very serious problem remains, for the reasons given above. If Britain alone was a haven for Transition Towns, this would function as a magnificent beacon to the world, showing what was possible. But it would delay by only a very short time the onset of very serious oil depletion and of climate catastrophe – because in the meantime other countries would simply be helping themselves to what we were voluntarily abstaining from.

>The suggestion that Read puts forward of legislation that “forces everyone to try to become a transition town” misses the point completely. That would surely be the fastest way to kill the idea stone dead.

This is not a suggestion that I am putting forward as a recommendation for policy. I think that the much better option is to put in place carbon rationing and contraction and convergence, which will create the kind of atmosphere in which Transition Towns will flourish and ‘mainstream’. The point I was making was that, logically, you either have collectively to insist upon Transition Towns or collectively to insist upon carbon caps. Allowing most people voluntaristically simply to carry on as they wish would, by contrast, eat up most of the benefits for society that the Transition movement was creating.

>Legislation at each of the three levels outlined above needs to be based on enabling the building of resilience at a local level, alongside cutting carbon emissions. That legislation may come from parties such as the Green Party, or may even come from other political parties. There is often discussion about how politically difficult it will be to get elected on a platform of “vote for me, and every year your consumption of energy, carbon producing goods and services and travel will fall, but you’ll be happier for it”, a difficulty reflected in the Green Party’s poor standing in recent elections. As well as encouraging and supporting political representatives who are skilful at turning that message into both votes and legislation, we also need to find other ways of initiating and supporting that change, and the Transition movement is our attempt at doing that.

Huge agreement here. I hope that I / we are skilful… And I am totally with you in what you are trying to do.

>The key point about legislation is that its role should be to support and enable the Transition work happening at a local level.

Agreed. That is exactly why I am saying that Green Party policies are needed – because we’ll do that by far the best.

>Of course we need ‘ordinary politics’, but we cannot wait for/depend on it. The beauty, as I see it, of the Transition approach is that it engages people at a community level, and it makes preparing for life beyond cheap oil feel like an exhilarating challenge, a historic opportunity to do something extraordinary. Indeed I suspect that what makes it more powerful is the fact that it is not an overtly ‘green’ approach. It steps outside the usual suspects and is all the more powerful for it.

Agreed. With this one important caveat: without ordinary politics to complement your efforts, you will be stuffed in the end. We all will. There is no solution to this that is local or that comes down to individual action.

The exciting aspect of why, is that we truly are all in the same boat. …Humanity has (b)reached the global limits to growth: We are now having to learn that we are in this together; that we are one. Will we truly learn this in time? The question is open. But it is for sure that only a solution to our predicament that involves us all will work.

Consider the — importantly different — case of vegetarianism. If one becomes a vegetarian, one ensures that over time the lives of many animals are saved, or at least not lived in a dreadful manner. Because one reduces the demand for a ‘commodity’ whose total amount can be reduced or increased in proportion to that demand. But with oil and carbon emissions, the situation is that the total quantity available is, roughly, fixed. There is a given amount of oil on the Earth – increasing demand for it cannot really increase that amount; nor can reducing demand for it really reduce it. All we can do collectively is decide whether or not to use it all. The same goes, crucially, of course, for all other fossil fuels, too, including much more deadly ones. For the same goes for carbon emissions: there is more or less a fixed amount which we can put into the atmosphere without generating runaway climate change and extinguishing ourselves.

Are we going to leave enough fossil fuels in the ground, and use what there is gingerly enough, or not? Remember: we are all in this together. Me using less and someone else using more doesn’t help. As George Marshall rightly says: The atmosphere doesn’t care who emits carbon. It grinds on, remorselessly. All that matters is the total amount of carbon emitted into our collective life-support system, our great lungs: the atmosphere.

We have to find ways, fast, of ensuring that the amount that gets put up there is not too much. We have to do this together, societies as a whole and the world as a whole.

That is the point: that liberal individualism is not conceivably a way forward. Now is the time for collectivism, and ecologism.

>Perhaps the Green Party should be looking at how to engage with and support this emerging [Transition movement] groundswell rather than seeing it as competition.

This is a cheap shot, which I am sure that Rob doesn’t really mean. (And let me note again that my article does not in any case express Green Party policy. It is a personal view expressed in a Column in order to provoke thought and discussion.) I am fully in support of this groundswell; and there is no competition between us. ON the contrary: my point is precisely that we need each other.

>Perhaps the Green Party should be looking at how to engage with and support this emerging groundswell rather than seeing it as competition. The Green Party has done much that is wonderful, and contains many inspired, principled, dynamic activists, no doubt such as Read himself. But any frank assessment of where it finds itself as the country teeters at the top of the peak oil curve, about to enter a crushing recession, hideously dependent on cheap imported food, would suggest that we need, at this historic juncture, more than just the Green Party.

Agreed. Nothing that I wrote suggested otherwise.

>What concerns both Transition Initiatives and the Green Party is how best to design a pathway through this ‘sustainability emergency’ to the benefit of everyone. However, unless we also have a tool that motivates and engages people in seeing these challenging times as also being a thrilling opportunity, we are always going to struggle, and we will end up needing to resort to imposing change from above resulting in a long and drawn out process of the public being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the post carbon age. The Transition movement may not, in the long view of history, turn out to have been that approach, but whatever that approach ends up as being, it is hard to imagine that it wouldn’t use many of the tools it has been developing. At the moment, it appears to be unleashing a spirit and a depth of engagement that Rupert would do well to support rather than belittle.

I agree with this; and I sincerely apologise that evidently what I wrote was not carefully enough framed… For the last thing I would want to do is belittle the Transition movement. What I want to do, rather, is to make it possible for us all to work together in order to win; or at least to be able to have the long view of history, rather than no view at all (because there is no-one left to write the history).

But do not be under the illusion that everyone is going to be persuadable to give up carbon-obesity in time through the power of a good example. Any political movement involving real change has seen hard hard struggle. Look at the suffragettes; at the Chartists; at anti-apartheid; at the Civil Rights movement; at Trades Unionism. Look how viciously people who felt threatened have held onto their power and riches.

It is going to take political action to provide the umbrella through which amazing new experiments in living are able to lead the way into a sustainable future. For the struggle we face is much harder than the ones I have just mentioned. Because none of those struggles involved absolute limits which we as a species are breaching and none of them essentially involved tragedies of the commons.

We need to be clear that Rob’s ‘hierarchy of approaches’ has to be taken in earnest. And that is all that I was saying in my piece. So I’ll stop now, in hope that we can now agree to agree…