A leap of faith

Mike Small looks at the relationship between the collapse of our economy, political system and environment and questions the notion that a return to ‘normality’ is credible or desirable

‘The level of future public spending cuts implied in Darling’s recent budget – which included the laughably optimistic
idea that the economy will grow by 1.25 per cent next year – is greater than the level of cuts implemented by Thatcher.
Remember, that’s the optimistic version. If we’re lucky, it won’t be any worse than Thatcherism.’

John Lancaster, London Review of Books

This is an attempt to look briefly about the relationship between three interlocking crisis we are experiencing: a collapse of faith in the Westminster political system, the ongoing financial breakdown and the new realities of climate change. Ulrich Beck describes it as a play in four acts. “Act one: Chernobyl. Act two: the threat of climate change. Act three: 9/11. Now the curtain is rising on Act four: Global Financial Crises. For a backdrop, see yesterday’s headlines: IMF slashes world growth forecast; Credit crisis could cost $1 trillion. Dramatis personae are the Hardcore Neoliberals, who in the face of the danger have overnight converted from the market faith to the state faith.”

Beck points out with the bitter taste of reality that now they’re praying, begging, pleading for the mercy of the state interventions and multi-billion pound handouts of tax payers’ money – the sort of thing they condemned for as long as the profits were pouring in. What was once inadmissible is now essential, unavoidable, strictly necessary.

The financial crisis is something that everybody suggests was both unavoidable and unpredictable. And yet, in 2007 big financial corporations posted record profits – more than $70 billion in Britain alone – along with record complaints about bad service (The Evening Standard, 16 February 2007). We knew the system wasn’t working when millions of people complained about bank charges, when we couldn’t afford our mortgages or couldn’t get a home or faced the onslaught of stress that comes with the housing system we have arrived at.

Our ecological debt mirrors our economic one. The average British household owes 160 per cent of its annual income. That makes us, individually and collectively, a lot like the cartoon character who has run off the end of a cliff and hasn’t realised it yet.

The sickest fact about the ‘downturn’ was not the equivalent of £10,000 given to the banking bosses from every man woman and child in Britain. It was not the complete lack of control or accountability resulting in this gift-aid. It was not the bizarre spectacle of New Labour – chief architects of our deregulated Ponzi-scheme banking ‘system’ – at first benefiting at the polls from their response to a situation they created. What we have seen is effectively a banking coup d’etat, with the reckless financial elites now funded directly from the ordinary pocket of you and I – with little or no accountability or responsibility in check.

The sickest single fact – was the bailout of the US car industry, a useless, retrograde belching, spewing anti-ecological nightmare of a business. Here, there was more of the same visionless thinking with New Labours desperate attempts to prop up the UK’s failed car industry resulting in the hopeless ‘scrap it scheme’ (see news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8108793.stm).

Studies have shown that reconditioning a 10 year old car to make it last another 10 years leads to a 42 per cent decrease in energy and a 56 per cent increase in jobs, compared with manufacturing a new car. We could actually cut the number of cars being manufactured while still increasing the number of jobs in the industry, even before we took into account the extra jobs building all the extra buses, trains and trams we need. Greener transport is a classic transitional policy we could be pursuing, combining social inclusivity with improved quality of life, reduced pollution costs, and a higher job-creation ratio. Our trains in Scotland remain expensive, overcrowded and under-resourced.

By giving advantage to road transport over rail, the EU lost half a million jobs in railways in the last twenty years of the last century. And as both unions and the Scottish Green Party pointed out as long ago as 1990, the first decade of Margaret Thatcher’s aggressively neo-liberal government and its great car economy destroyed 70,000 rail jobs in the UK alone.

While there is much talk of a ‘Green New Deal’ there is little evidence of it on the ground on the scale that would make it significant enough to be worthy of discussion.

It’s becoming traditional (in an instant-nostalgic kind of way) at this point to argue that perhaps the financial crisis will be good for us, because it will cause people to rediscover other sources of value. I suspect this is wishful thinking, or thinking about something which is quite a long way away, because it doesn’t consider just how angry people are going to get when they realise the extent of the costs we are going to carry for the next few decades.

At what point will the sceptics doubt over climate change turn to anger? John Lancaster: “I get the strong impression, talking to people, that the penny hasn’t fully dropped. As the ultra-bleak condition of our finances becomes more and more apparent people are going to ask increasingly angry questions about how we got into this predicament. The drop in sterling, for instance, means that prices for all sorts of goods will go up just as oil and gas prices have spiked downwards. Combined with job losses – a million people are forecast to lose their jobs this year, taking unemployment back to Thatcherite levels – and tax rises, and inflation, and the increasing realisation that the cost of the financial crisis is going to be paid not over a few years but over a generation, we have a perfect formula for a deep and growing anger.”

But where does this anger go? Faced with catastrophic failure of political leadership about climate change, large swathes of the wider public remain unconvinced of the science and uncertain about what to do. This is largely because the message we have been sending out is that the response should be a) domestic, small scale, personal b) some reforms, adjustments and minor alterations to our lives c) oriented around green consumerism.

Faced with the meltdown of Westminster expenses responses have ranged from making voting compulsory, to a withdrawal from the electoral process to, in some cases down south, a reactionary shift to the right and far-right. The Tory blogger Iain Dale commented on BBC Scotland that the problem lay with the fact that MPs had to live on £65,000 a year.

Faced with the collapse of our financial services industry and the stagnation of the housing market, the almost universal response has been a yearning to get things back as they were. Waiting for ‘things to return to normal’ is the best we can do it seems. But when ‘normal’ means spiralling house prices, a rural housing crisis and everyone suffering massive time poverty as we are lashed to mortgages we can’t afford, a return to ‘normality’ isn’t credible.

So here’s the challenge. Just at the time when we need a massive leap of faith about the political task of our generation (climate change) we are instead faced with a haemorrhaging of faith in the institutions that govern us. This is an opportunity to transform these institutions and in many cases remove them entirely.

Living Within Limits
  • Annual income twenty pounds,
  • Annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six,
  • Result: happiness.
  • Annual income twenty pounds,
  • Annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six,
  • Result: misery.

– Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield (1850)

Times of crisis provoke reaction, kickback, and regression. A classic expression of our ongoing inability to live within any limits – financial, ecological, is the rush for nuclear power.

Desperately incapable of grasping the technologies inherent contradictions and failings, from its fossil fuel source to its waste output, there is no better icon of our incapacity to face the change ahead than nuclear energy – or “green energy”, as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union general secretary Ronald Pofalla has attempted to re-brand it.

At the G8 meeting in Hokkaido the then US president, George Bush, reiterated his plea for the construction of new nuclear energy plants. Gordon Brown, announced the fast-tracking of eight new reactors and called for “a renaissance of nuclear power” in a “post-oil economy”. Scotland’s veto on new nuclear power was quickly identified as a major issue by Kenneth Calman in his one man devolution. Recent reports have catalogued the systemic failure of nuclear power facilities in Scotland.

Or take the debate over expanding Heathrow. The UK Government is staring a blank contradiction right in the face. It has promised to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent, and even buckled under pressure to allow aviation emissions into the calculations. But business leaders say we need a third runway to be able to compete with other European countries.

None of this is new. We have known the inherent advantages of green economics for a long time. It’s now a decade since the European Commission worked out that doubling the amount of renewable energy in Europe would create new jobs. Since then we’ve seen 13,000 jobs created in Denmark in wind energy alone – and that’s a country the size of North West England with a population comparable to London’s. Similarly it’s a decade since researchers assessed that a 10 year programme to cut domestic energy use would create 500,000 person-years of work in the UK; but Tony Blair killed off the highly popular home energy conservation bill and we still want a complete retrofit of 20 million UK homes to 21st-century green energy standards.

Why are we waiting? It was as long ago as 1994 that Labour’s own report In Trust for Tomorrow found that ‘higher environmental standards’ could generate 682,000 jobs, allowing for a carbon tax and various investments. Other organisations made similar findings: Energy for Sustainable Development Ltd found in 1998 that for an investment of £2.2 billion a year, up to half a million UK jobs could be created by a range of policies calculated to cut CO2 emissions by 30 per cent by 2010. In A Green Scenario for the UK Economy, Cambridge Econometrics argued that applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle would create 200,000 jobs in the pollution control industry. But all of this was paper talk. None of it has been implemented on the scale required.

And again back in the mid-90s, the Employment Policy Institute calculated that nearly half a million jobs could be created if eco-taxes replaced employers’ national insurance contributions. Friends of the Earth went further, and estimated that a serious road fuel escalator applied from 1996 could increase employment by 1.275 million by 2005, if the revenue from the tax was recycled through a decrease in employers’ national insurance contributions.

But of course the Tory government didn’t do it then, and Labour hasn’t since. And now there’s even more call for it, but what do we get instead? A VAT cut to increase spending on goods that are mostly produced abroad. More exporting of jobs producing more long-distance goods.

In Scotland the opportunities are clear. Salmond’s administration has approved Siadar, one of the largest wave energy projects on the planet; as well as developing and consenting hydro and biomass projects, and the massive Whitelee wind farm in South Lanarkshire. Harnessing all these opportunities has the potential to create more than 16,000 jobs in Scotland over the next decade. All this is good but what we need is a civic movement based on a shift in consciousness about climate change and the reality of the new economics. This would mean more than renewable energy and carbon capture technologies and a seismic shift in our worldview. In short it would mean the end of our growth obsession, Make less, buy less, work less is the essential new paradigm.

Until very recently this would have seemed as improbable as nationalising the banks, or a black US President. But it’s the core of the ideas put forward by the Sustainable Development Commissions report ‘Prosperity Without Growth’:

“In the last quarter of a century, while the global economy has doubled, the increased in resource consumption has degraded an estimated
60 per cent of the world’s ecosystems. The benefits of growth have been distributed very unequally, with a fifth of the world’s population
sharing just 2 per cent of global income. Even in developed countries, huge gaps remain in wealth and well-being between rich and poor.”
(See www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/redefining-prosperity.html)

From our current political landscape in Scotland it’s difficult to see who will support it. The nationalists are still fixed in a growth paradigm with all the talk of ‘Celtic Tigers’ and the ongoing obsession with North Sea Oil. Labour is still wedded to two contradictory but equally useless pieces of self-mythology. Either they are a backwards looking workerist party wedded to manufacturing or they are a pale shadow of Tory business-class entrepreneurialism mouthing jargon about ‘going forward’ and spreadsheet socialism. The Green party lacks strategy and the roots to make serious headway, and crucially remain confused and compromised on the constitutional question of the day.

The constitution remains central to our abilities to think beyond our current situation and imagine a Scottish democracy. As John McAllion has written:

“The alternative is to remain ensnared within the carefully contrived limits of a constitution that for more than 300 years has been successfully blocking all threats of radical change in order to preserve the stability of the oldest capitalist state form in the world. Socialists owe no kind of loyalty to that Britain.”

Crucially, this approach unites ecological vision with practical social justice. The transition movement needs to become serious and re-establishes itself as the environmental justice movement with its distinct concept of ‘resilience’ evoked as a practical too for community reconstruction and establishing a post-industrial, post-fossil fuel, post-Britain settlement.

So what would a resilient economy look like? And what could or should renew public faith in meaningful political activity?

Answering the question what are houses, jobs, markets for? The New Internationalist recently summarised that houses have become property, jobs have become a means for increasing inequality and markets have become God. We know that we have to re-present social housing as a success not a mark of failure. Using ‘Just Transition’ principles we could convert Scotland’s military workforce into useful civilian reconstructive roles and radically rethink the over-work and presenteeism that marks most occupation.

The hope must lie with a collapse of the Unionist business parties and the emergence of a new political space in Scotland which takes this challenge seriously. We need to create new participative forms and economically sustainable models around the idea of making less, buying less, and working less. In Scotland we are uniquely placed to benefit from our renewable energy but this must be decentralised and put into public and community ownership. Regionalisation of our food culture, a four-day week and the re-structuring of our building and housing system into ones that uses sustainable practices and resurrects public ownership in new forms could be the basis of this ecological revival. Practices such as straw-bale housing offer win:win solutions, diversification for the agricultural industry and housing that can offer buildings that use only 10 per cent of resources and energy than conventional construction with massive energy efficiency, see HYPERLINK “www.s-house.at” www.s-house.at. Other closed-loop systems such as converting food waste products into bio-fuel for local food delivery, compost or heat and energy systems are over-brimming with latent unexplored potential.

The energy and innovation required for this process is unlikely to be able to flourish within the current constitutional or economic structure so our task is to seize and transform these institutions.