24 December 2006

So What is this Christmas?

One of the most pernicious aspects of capitalism is its compulsion to appropriate everything exciting, energetic and creative, then package it and sell it back to us. This is what Marx called commodification and nowhere is it more evident than in the celebration of Christmas. The only possible response to the perversion of a sacred festival into a range of shopping experiences is cynical revulsion.

And yet we need a festival in the darkest time of the year. We need an excuse to stay inside our warm homes with our friends and not do any work for a couple of weeks. We need to reclaim this midwinter festival by thinking our way back to a time before it was corrupted by capitalism.
The biscuit-box image of Christmas is usually a Victorian one, with Dickensian characters in snowy city streets. But Victorian schmaltz will not do: I recommend a few hundred years further back to Medieval times.
Christmas in Medieval times was a time of misrule. This must have been a necessary counterbalance to the social order of the time, where your occupation gave you a place in a guild and so your identity was fairly tightly constrained. The twelve days of festivities were organised by the Lord of Misrule, a member of the community selected by lot who was allowed to turn all rules on their heads for the duration. I can only assume that the purpose of this was to give people a chance to let their hair down in a society that was otherwise fairly stifling. Something akin to the modern office party.
Further back again we can try to make out the outline of the pre-Christian festival. Because believers in the old religion of this land were burnt and tortured their wisdom has been dispersed but we can find a few traces in traditions we still enjoy. The burning yule log was a symbol that light had not disappeared at the darkest part of the year, and a promise that it would return. The word 'yule' apparently comes from a word for 'wheel', meaning the wheel of the year, that will continue to turn. If you burn a log as part of your festival remember that you can attach to it things you don't want to take into the new year with you, whether bad luck or bad character traits or habits.
Evergreen trees were of special significance because they continued to live in the dead time of the year. Holly was used to decorate the home because it kept bad spirits at bay, hence its association with 'holy'. Mistletoe was the most sacred of all. It still seems mysterious, with no roots in the ground, and maintains a bright green right through the winter. It was associated with death and rebirth and so had a central place at the midwinter festival.
So there are a few ideas to get you doing. Time to design your own festival. Time to reclaim the midwinter festival from the profiteers!
While celebrating your reclaimed festival with your low-consumption friends you will need some games to play to avoid the TV advertising. Ideas on this would be welcome. For a starter I propose Fetish, a game which involves trying to decide on the most pointless item that is being sold this Christmas. Bonus marks are available for items that needlessly produce carbon dioxide.

23 December 2006

The Message of Christmas

‘Peace on earth: good will to all men.’
‘And why not women?’ asked my 7-year-old daughter, in her last nativity play when she yet again missed out on being Mary because she didn't have the right colour hair.

Why do the teachers always choose the girl with fair hair for Mary? Don’t they know where Mary came from? Joseph is also sadly miscast, his tea-towel-and-bootlace headdress a childish imitation of the real thing. It’s curious, really, that we don’t do better when we see an authentic version on the TV news every day. Perhaps we can’t face the connection between Jesus and Yasser Arafat. Mary’s costume has appeared frequently in recent news bulletins too—the burkah is an added extra of course.

‘What’s Christmas in three words?’, asked the television advert of a few years ago. ‘Peace on Earth’ is mentioned only in a joking aside about noisy children, but then it can’t be bought at Marks and Spencer. Our preparations for Christmas focus as usual on consumption of presents and food, providing a contrast to the Muslims’ similarly timed festival of Ramadan, which involves a month of fasting. But the preparations this year are taking place against a backdrop dominated by the Middle East. The appropriateness of this goes unnoticed. But it’s not just the scenery and the costumes that produced the story. Christianity grew out of the same mess of violence that is going on today. Jewish victories over the Philistines are celebrated in the psalms; the battle-lines are unchanged thousands of years later.

So did Jesus fail with his message of peace?’ In a world where a born-again Christian in the most Christian country on earth parades his ruthless killing and boasts of his military might it appears that he did. It’s almost impossible to stomach the hypocrisy of celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace while the slaughter of children continues in the very town where he was born.

The message of Christmas was a message of peace to a world in conflict. Jesus turned his back on the vengeful God of the Old Testament; his life demonstrated his understanding that if you really believe in something you are willing not to kill for it but to die for it. Unable to rise to such high standards I can only wish that all those disunited in hatred as another year ends could follow his example.

19 December 2006

Men and Sheds

This is the name of a book I'm giving my brother-in-law for Christmas. I'm very proud of my brother-in-law, whose name is Nick. He not only won a coveted Ivor Novello award but was also so cool that, instead of attending the presentation, he stayed at home to put up his shed. Also grateful since he has sorted me out for a website and also persuaded me to start this blog having heard enough of my moaning about not selling enough of my books and having my ideas ignored.

So what is it with men and sheds? I can't claim to understand men, never having been one, or at least not in any lifetime I can remember. My guess is that it is something to do with the way women tend to dominate the domestic space. Presumably sheds give men a space where they can be themselves. Homes, these days, have become spaces for competitive domestic consumption, the realm of the domestic goddess. I can see that a shed is a place where you can be relaxed and messy, and perhaps just yourself.

The fetishisation of home furnishing has reached such a pitch that people no longer invite friends into their homes for the shame of what they might find there—last year’s style of sofa would be social death. Fashion was always capitalism’s favourite child, but it has now been allowed to run around all areas of our lives, throwing tantrums if we dare to express our individuality rather than buying the latest designer label. The brand has become an expression of who we are, and those who can only afford the cheaper brands are themselves branded as losers. To avoid this shame a friend insists on pronouncing Lidl as lidèle, imbuing the pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap supermarket with a contintental air that saves his blushes.

What about this example of sofa madness reproduced from the Guardian:

At one minute past midnight last night, Ikea's new flagship store opened in north London, and managers expected that around 2,000 bargain-hunters would quietly file in. The British, after all, have a reputation for being decorous queuers. But Ikea had not predicted that up to 6,000 people would descend on the new store, in Edmonton, with a stampede to get in resulting in a frightening crush. Thousands had been lured by bargains—some of which were only available until 3am even though a 24-hour opening was planned—such as 500 leather sofas for only £45. Cars were abandoned on the roadside as shoppers attempted to reach the store in time to secure the best offers.

Six people were taken to hospital, including a man in his 20s who was stabbed nearby at around 1.30am. He was said to be in a stable condition, and it was not clear whether the incident was related to the opening. According to a senior fire officer, ‘There were crush injuries and people suffering from shock from the pushing and shoving.’ Nine ambulances attended the scene.

This is all unnecessary sacrifice at the altar of the growth fetish, that sanctum sanctorum of neoclassical economics exposed so brilliantly by Richard Douthwaite in The Growth Illusion. It is also unsupportable within the confines of a limited planet that is already creaking at the seams. In spite of the money, energy and intelligence spent persuading you of the need for elaborate consumption patterns, this particular mindgame—elsewhere I have called it ‘Sen and the art of market-cycle maintenance’—is easily defeated. You can get together with your friends, green friends are particularly useful for this, and establish your own ethic of consumption based around minimizing carbon and maximizing self-expression.

14 December 2006

Feed Me!

The publication of a report on ethical consumption sponsored by the Co-operative Bank was rapidly followed by an article in the Economist telling us we are wasting our money. We can ascertain that the real food movement is building in power and starting to threaten the mega-food corporations. This is unsurprising since ethical consumption now accounts for 5% of all spending, overtaking spending on alcohol and cigarettes. The various co-operative shops take up a similar proportion of the total retail market.

The report shows that sales of organic food increased by 30% from 2004 to 2005, with a nearly 40% increase in fair-trade purchases and nearly 55% increase in sales of ‘sustainable fish’. Some of these rather dubious categories cause me to have a little sympathy with the Economist's scepticism, but I interpret these consumption changes as indication of a deeper concern about how we are feeding ourselves.

Food offers a perfect case-study of how the domination of the profit motive distorts the system of distribution in our globalised world. Economics is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Economics as ‘the study of how scarce resources are, or should be, allocated’ . How can capitalism possibly justify itself as an efficient system, never mind the only system in town, when it achieves this so badly that we have some people dying of starvation and others dying of obesity? No, it isn’t the vending machines, or the corrupt dictators it is the economic system that is to blame. Green politics is about limits and meeting needs, and an efficient economic system would respect these; conventional politics is about profit, and profit can be increased by the encouragement of greed. That is the central explanation for the rise in obesity.

We are encouraged to be greedy, to buy a new sofa to sit on while we over-consume and absorb advertising to persuade us to consume even more, interspersed between programmes instilling our patriotic duty to keep the economy afloat by shopping and terrifying us that we are heading for premature death because of, yes, over-consumption. This is the sort of self-contradictory message which generates internal confusion and mental dis-ease. No wonder that people over-eat to try to fufill the hunger that artificial and chemically based foods cannot satisfy. And no wonder that rates of anti-depressant prescription have increased by 125% between 1993 and 2002. Profits are made by advertisers, food corporations and drug manufacturers, while the costs are borne by us, not consumers but human beings.

Is it too outrageous to see a link between the pseudo-religious commitment to growth amongst policy makers and the accompanying growth in our waistlines? Clive Hamilton identifies the addiction to growth as a ‘fetish’ which he compares to the cargo cults that grew up in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. ‘Cargo cults and the growth fetish both invest magical powers in the properties of material goods, possession of which is believed to provide for a paradise on earth.’ The fact that ever-increasing consumption does not bring happiness is not an exciting new thought for most environmental campaigners, but the fact that a book called Growth Fetish received such wide publicity may be.

Our need to be fed runs deeper than just our daily bread. We have lost our relationship with the land and with other people. We have lost our ties to those close to us in our own communities in a world where we buy stuff on faceless estates made by nameless children in countries we could not locate on a world map.

Stroud Community Agriculture offers a model for how we might rebuild meaningful economic relationships, and the sense of wholeness and purpose that comes with these. The strap-line for the community agriculture project in Stroud is—‘Become a Member: Share the Harvest’. We do not buy our vegetables, we support the livelihoods of two farmers who manage the rented land by buying a share of the farm; we contribute our own time on fortnightly workdays; and we collect our share of whatever was produced that week. The farm also organizes festivals and events to mark the turning of the year.

This is a wholly different relationship to food and one that leaves you feeling satisfied on all levels. Food arrives not only infused with the vitality of your local soil but with a real sense of belonging to you. Ownership is not a right. Unlike the sanitized meaningless exchange of money for dead, pre-packaged vegetables that takes place at Tesco, in the world of owning your own food pounds sterling are a debased currency and only physical work will do. In the new green economy we have all to become producers; demonstrating our principles through ethical consumption will not be enough.

Find out more about community farms here.

You can find out more details of the ethical purchasing report here.

12 December 2006

Capitalist mantras

Capitalism is a powerful economic system, but more importantly it is also a system of ideas. We grow up with such ideas in childhood and reinforce them in our dealings with each other. The ideas are communicated, maintained and elaborated through a system of mantras, which operate to control our thinking and to tie us in to a nasty, selfish way of behaving in society. I’ve listed some of the most popular further on, with some suggested replacements. On the principle that it would be a good idea not to do the opposition’s work for them I would suggest you begin to eliminate these from your vocabulary, and challenge them when used by others.

Some of these are rather insidious. For example, if you believe that there is no such thing as a free lunch it makes you feel like a ‘loser’ (a tremendous capitalist concept) every time you give something away, such as a lunch for your friends. Your act of generosity immediately becomes a gesture that requires reciprocation. Against the backdrop of this mantra, gift becomes exchange. Kindness is lost to capitalism. I am making a collection of these as a consciousness-raising exercise so please send others on a postcard or by email.

The way to reject the mantras is through active intellectual subversion. If you find one of the mantras pops into your head, or that you are responding to it in your behaviour, you need to switch it for something that has the opposite consequence. I once saw a poster for a band called ‘Shocking Insanesburys’; the name is subversive in itself since the comfortable task of supermarket shopping has been ideologically challenged. The band-name is more accurate for the nature of consumption in modern capitalism, which is no longer about satisfying desires but rather about bringing the competitiveness of production into our homes.

More importantly you can engage in random acts of kindness of pointless acts of beauty. An excellent one you can try is to pay the toll for the person behind you on a bridge or stretch of road. I have tried this on the Severn Bridge and it completely fazes not just the recipient of you generosity but also the toll-keeper. Anything that gets people questioning has got to be good!

Here are a few examples. Please send me more, or better revised versions and I'll add them to the blog:

There is no such thing as a free lunch → Food is for sharing
You can’t get something for nothing → Unless you are a shareholder or landowner
Everybody has a price → Generosity is its own reward
Time is money → My time is my own
If you’re so clever, how come you → If you’re so rich, how come you ain’t
ain’t rich? happy?
Nothing in life is free → The best things in life are free
Money makes the world go round → Love makes the world go round
We need to protect our wealth → We need to rely on the love of others
If it isn’t hurting it isn’t working → If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution

Green Economics: Expanding the Circle of Influence

The glib phrase ‘economics for people and planet’ is one that green economists frequently use to describe how what they propose for the world’s economy is different. It is really shorthand for expressing a need to move beyond the narrow view of the economy as it is currently organised. So many perspectives are never considered by a system of economics that privileges white, wealthy, western men (see the extraordinary picture of the Bretton Woods conference). The way the global economy is organised can be seen as an extension of a colonial system whereby the resources and people of most of the planet are harnessed to improve the living standards of the minority of people who live in the privileged West. On the one hand, the rights of people living in the global South to an equal share in the planet’s resources should be respected. On the other, their approach to economics, especially that of indigenous societies which have managed to survive within their environments for thousands of years, has much to recommend it and much we may learn from. While we do not glorify low living standards we do see the value in learning from the South.

Even within western societies there are gross inequalities between people. The system of patriarchy has ensured that the majority of resources are controlled by men. Most of the world’s poor are women. The male dominance of the economy has resulted in a situation where women form 70 per cent of the world’s poor and own only 1% of the world’s assets (Amnesty International). According to UNFPA (2005), on a global basis women earn only 50% of what mean earn. And in spite of equal pay legislation in the UK and US the pay gap between the genders persists. Green economics also extends the circle of concern beyond our single species to consider the whole system of planet earth with all its complex ecology and its diverse species. As an illustration of the narrowness of the current approach to policy-making we can use the thought experiment of the Parliament of All Beings (see earlier post).

Policy-makers are happy to use the word ‘exploit’ when talking about resources such as oil or minerals. Yet for green economists exploitation of the planet’s resources is as unacceptable as exploitation of the people who live on the planet. The failure to respect the planet has led to problems as diverse as climate change and desertification. In order to address these problems green economists suggest that we need a completely different attitude towards meeting our needs that involves respecting ecology and living in balance with the planet.

Another short phrase that encapsulates something important about green economics is ‘beyond supply and demand to meeting people’s needs’. This contains an explicit criticism of the discipline of economics with its obsession with graphs and mathematics and its inability to look out of the window and see what is really happening in the world. Green economics begins with people and their concerns rather than with theories or mathematical constructions of reality. Conventional economics will provide a graph with two straight lines representing ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ and then apply this to the complex relationships which are entailed by the production and exchange of goods. Green economics calls for a richer and deeper understanding of people, their relationships, and how they behave and are motivated. The ‘needs’ we are concerned about are not merely physical needs but also psychological and spiritual needs.

The word ‘holism’ sums up the way in which we have to learn to see the big picture when making economic decisions. The absence of holistic thinking is clear in modern policy-making, where crime is punished by incarceration without attempting to understand how an economic system which dangles tempting baubles in front of those who cannot afford them and deprives them of the means of meeting their deeper needs is simply generating this crime. A similar comment can be made in the case of health, where pollution creates ill health which is then cured by producing pharmaceuticals the production of which simply generates more pollution. From a green perspective we need to see the whole picture before we can solve any of these problems.

11 December 2006

So what is green economics?

I feel it may be time to offer some thoughts about what green economics actually means. In a practical sense, my favourite green economists (we are a fairly select group so far!) are Richard Douthwaite (find out more from the Feasta website) and James Robertson, who was a founder member of the New Economics Foundation and has his own archive of work available at http://www.jamesrobertson.com/.

From a theoretical point of view I find the insights of ecofeminism really helpful. Here are three important principles from which we can build a sustainable system of economics:

  • Immanence: the source of the sacred in all aspects of the planet and her people;
  • Interconnectedness: a belief in the inevitable relationship between all these aspects of the sacred, closely supported by the science of ecology;
  • Unity-in-diversity: the need to respect difference and to value the whole as requiring all of its different parts.

Three narratives demonstrate these principles.
The following quotation from James Lovelock’s autobiography illustrates the principle of immanence:

Gaia: The meaning of that cloud-speckled ocean-blue sphere was made real to me by their newly won scientific information about the Earth and its sibling planets Mars and Venus. Suddenly, as a revelation, I saw the Earth as a living planet. The quest to know and understand our planet as one that behaves like something alive, and which has kept a home for us, has been the Grail that beckoned me ever since. It came to me suddenly, just like a flash of enlightenment, that to persist and keep stable, something must be regulating the atmosphere . . . My mind was well prepared emotionally and scientifically and it dawned on me that somehow life was regulating climate as well as chemistry. Suddenly the image of the Earth as a living organism. . . Emerged in my mind. At such moments, there is no time or place for such niceties as the qualification ‘of course it is not alive—it merely behaves as if it were,’

To get a sense of the principle of interconnectedness you have to use your own imagination. I expect that nearly all of us have, at one time or another, been in a car that has hit and killed a small animal while driving on a country road. A squirrel or badger or rabbit has rushed out of the hedgerow and under our wheels before we could do anything about it. It is the feeling that follows this experience that makes real for us our interconnectedness with other species. I challenge anybody not to feel a sense of shock and horror for the life destroyed.

The third principle of unity-in-diversity is severely neglected in our culture, which sets up either-or dichotomies constantly. A simple illustration in a context we are all familiar with comes from the North American Gitksan-Wet'suwet'en people as told by their tribal elder Marie Wilson:

A North American Indian philosopher has likened the relationship between women and men to the eagle, which soars to unbelievable heights and has tremendous power on two equal wings--one female, one male--carrying the body of life between them. The moment one is fractured or harmed in any way, then that powerful bird is doomed to remain on the earth and cannot reach those heights.

These principles are drawn from the ecofeminist wing of green economics. You can download a full discussion of the economic implications of adopting the ecofeminist perspective of the earth as our mother from my webpage on the theme: earthmother.

8 December 2006

Inequality is bad for your health

A recent report from the UN University shows that, on a global basis, the richest 2% of people in the world own half of the world’s wealth. Now only a little experience of economics tells you that the first thing you need to do on hearing a statistic like that is to ask exactly what they were measuring. It appears that in this case they were making a fairly sensible assessment. The measure of wealth is based on assets, always a more important indicator than income, and deducts from these what people owe as debts. So for most UK ‘home owners’ their apparent wealth would be considerably diminished before it was included in the measurement. The study is also wide-ranging, including all the countries of the world. The report, from the World Institute for Development Economics Research based at the UN University, finds that the poorer half of the world’s population own barely 1% of global wealth and that most of the wealth is concentrated, you won’t be surprised to learn, in North American, Europe, Japan and Australia. This is shown in the graphic.

The report gives an interesting perspective on inequality, showing that the concentration of wealth varies markedly between different societies as measured by the Gini coefficient.[1] Two high wealth economies, Japan and the United States, show very different patterns of wealth inequality, with Japan having a wealth Gini value of 0.55 and compared with that of around 0.8 for the USA. Wealth inequality for the world as a whole is higher still. The study estimates that the global wealth Gini coefficient for adults is 0.89. The same degree of inequality would be obtained if one person in a group of ten took 99% of the total pie and the other nine shared the remaining 1%.

The loss of concern with inequality has coincided with the abandonment by the major political parties of any attempt to oppose or even constrain the capitalist economic system which is its cause. Even parties which still call themselves ‘socialist’ will now argue that it is the overall size of the pie that counts, not how much of it you are able to get your hands on. The capitalist system requires inequality for its operation, so that any theorist who suggests that once there is enough money it can be shared with the poor is either a deceiver or has not understood the system. Capitalism operates like a pump, where the energy of those who have least pushes them upwards to become those who have most; inequality is the motor that drives this pump. It causes the capitalist machine to function to its maximum, but caught up in that machine are human lives and the costs of inequality on those lives is very great.

US researchers have found that inequality is bad for the life expectancy of all in a society, rich and poor alike. In a study which compared Gini coefficients for different US states with the life expectancy in the states they found a positive relationship. What surprised them was that the relationship persisted after they had controlled for poverty. So it isn’t being poor that makes you die sooner, but living in an unfair society.

It is a shame that the conclusions from such a substantial piece of work are so weak. While taking debt into account as a negative when measuring assets the authors none the less conclude that the solution to the problem is—more debt! Yes, Professor Anthony Shorrocks is quoted as saying that it draws attention to the importance of enhancing banking systems in developing countries to help generate the funds for business investment. And since banks generate these funds by imposing debts on those who really need assets this is hardly likely to improve the situation.

He also tells us that ‘The report is not about policy recommendations’, which makes me wonder why we invested so much of the UN budget in paying for the findings. Anybody know my favourite word? Could be pusillanimous.

To find out more visit the UNU website link:


[1] The Gini coefficient is a measure wealth inequality where 0 corresponds to perfect equality (i.e. everyone has the same wealth) and 1 corresponds to perfect inequality (i.e. one person has all the wealth, while everyone else has zero).

7 December 2006

The Parliament of All Beings

So, the worthy Kate Barker has allowed her rational and enumerising mind into another area of our national life. Not content with skating the surface of the inequity that is the ‘housing market’, as though something so essential to human well-being as the need for shelter could possible be bought and sold like a CD or piece of underwear, she has now passed judgement on the nature of the planning process. I have not looked at the report; nor shall I. It will be the usual hundreds of pages of text garnished with incomprehensible graphs assembled as weaponry rather than to facilitate understanding. Instead I invite you to consider how planning might be if we extended its concerns beyond the desires of property developers and the rich, beyond the needs of our fellow citizens in the wealthy North, beyond even the unrecognised and uncounted needs of our brothers and sisters of the South, and included all the species of planet earth. I invite you to consider the Parliament of All Beings.
The thought experiment of the Parliament of All Beings is an illustration of the narrowness of the current approach to policy-making. We begin by considering a national parliament in the UK or the USA, which is made up of representatives of a significant number of people in those countries, only excluding those who could not or will not vote or whose votes do not translate into seats. Now we imagine a world parliament, where each country sends a number of representatives so that all countries’ interests are equally represented. We now have a much broader-based and democratic way of deciding whether the solutions to Iraq’s problems will be solved by a US invasion, or about policies to tackle climate change. But now we need to extend this further, to include all the other species with whom we share this planet in our decision-making. We need a representative from the deep-sea fish, the deciduous trees, the arctic mammals, and so on. If we imagine putting to the vote in such a parliament the issue of a planning decision over an out-of-town-shopping centre, not to mention ten new nuclear power-stations, we begin to see how narrow our current decision-making structures are. In the case of most of what we do for economic reasons we would have just one vote against the collected votes of all the other species of planet earth.
The lesson of ecology is that, as species of the planet, we are all connected in a web of life. A Buddhist parable brings to life this rather stark and scientific lesson from ecology. During his meditation a devotee fantasises that he is eating a leg of lamb, an act proscribed by Buddhism where a strict adherence to vegetarianism is required. His spiritual master suggests that when this fantasy comes to him he draws a cross on the leg of lamb. The devotee follows the advice and, on returning to self-consciousness, is amazed to find the cross on his own arm. A more prosaic way of reaching the same sense of connection is to think about a time when you might have hit an animal or bird when driving your car. The sense of shock and horror that you have destroyed something so precious is the same no matter how insignificant the animal appears.

4 December 2006

Green Lord argues for a convivial economy

Sometimes politics works. On Monday 27th November the only Green Lord, the only Green Party representative in the whole of the palace of Westminster, described a positive and inspiring vision of how the green economy might be. Wrapped up as a challenge to the feeble gesture towards climate change in the Queen's Speech it is really a deep green appeal for a holistic and sustainable economy. It is reproduced here in full:


My Lords, there are many things in the gracious speech that the sole Green Party representative in Parliament might have chosen to speak on and for a time I was tempted to speak on international affairs, to protest against our illegal involvement in two wars and to point out that no one had ever dabbled in the affairs of Afghanistan or Mesopotamia with profit to any of the parties concerned from the First Afghan War, chronicled by my great-great-grandfather Henry Havelock, through the advocacy of the use of mustard gas and the bombing of unarmed civilians by Winston Churchill to the present unhappy events.

Not all that long ago the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association sent me to Tonga and I learned there that there is a lot to be said for a policy of no entanglements and of dubbing ones islands The Friendly Islands and behaving accordingly

But even two illegal wars are not the most important matters on our plate.

Much the most important and dangerous problem is Climate Change and we very much welcome the forthright challenge of the Stern Report. In which the risks of making only small cuts to our CO2 production are laid out in full. Including the risk of an increasing likelihood of "abrupt and major irreversible changes".

The major changes include the melting of the Greenland icecap and the resultant 6m rise in sea levels that this implies.

The upshot of this is that if London, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai are to be saved and the cost and suffering of the refugees to be avoided going for CO2 concentrations of 550ppm as the Government is doing is really not enough.

In order for the UK to do our share to avoid such drastic consequences, annual reductions of 9% are needed now, order to cut CO2 production to 90% of 1990 levels by 2030. That is the Green Party's message. The modest 3% cuts envisaged by the recent Climate Change Bill are simply not sufficient. Annual reductions in CO2 production of 9% may sound ambitious, but in reality are not impossible, requiring only political will in the place of political rhetoric.

The first necessary economic steps include putting an effective value on carbon emissions, through a capped tradable quota system. They include ending airport expansion, and embarking on serious investment in energy efficiency and renewables. They include Market mechanisms such as the feed-in tariff scheme deployed by Germany, Japan and Spain, which has resulted in Germany installing 56% of the world's solar panels.

By paying households to generate clean, green electricity, such feed-in tariff schemes can be used to shift our electricity production by making investment in renewables cost effective for the individual. And let no one sneer at the efforts being made by Mr. Cameron. These are early days in exploring the way forward and Mr. Cameron is at least trying.

We also need to take responsibility for all the carbon production in the whole of our economy. Having watched the demise of much of British manufacturing and the coal industry, it should be no shock to noble Lords that carbon emissions in Britain briefly dipped in the early 1990s.

But in truth, those now rising levels of CO2 emissions are an under estimate of what our economic activity produces. For we are in effect now exporting the production of CO2 abroad, to China and other countries. When we consume products manufactured abroad, they use carbon in production and transit. The production is counted in the carbon figures where it is produced, and the transportation, under Kyoto, is not considered at all. If we took these factors into account, our society would be seen to produce around 20% more carbon emissions.

The most obvious and significant conclusion is that, if we were to meet our needs for food, clothing and household goods from local, sustainable production we could drastically reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions. The Green Party advocates a system of strengthened local economies, where we have a role as producers as well as consumers, thus not only reducing our impact on climate change but also reinforcing our identities and self-esteem within our local communities. Trade should return to its right role as being the exchange of goods we cannot produce within our own economies.

This seems far from the thrust of current economic thinking on any of the front benches at present, which ought to be a source of deep concern to us all. Instead, we continue to hear from them about competitiveness in a globalised economy which provides ever cheap goods manufactured abroad for consumption in countries such as ours. Such a view is fundamentally incompatible with serious and sufficient action on climate change.

Without addressing these fundamental measures, both the government and opposition continue to be insufficiently ambitious, and wrongly focused, for the sake of supposed 'economic stability', thereby risking catastrophic climate events. The Green Party on the other hand believes we must begin to localise our economies into more efficient and sustainable units, to guarantee the future of our planet and economy.

Such a vision offers greater community and personal satisfaction: a world where conviviality replaces consumption, where local identity replaces global trade, and where community spirit replaces brand loyalty.

29 November 2006

The Bioregional Economy: A Constructive Response to Climate Change

Bioregions are natural social units determined by ecology rather than economics, and that can be largely self-sufficient in terms of basic resources such as water, food, products and services. Bioregionalism has at its heart two of the central principles of green economics: balance and cycles. Ecology demands that we recognize our part in a complex web of natural systems and this should reflect the places we choose to live and how and where we choose to access our resources. This is what we mean by living in balance with nature. Respecting the natural cycles of life is often referred to as ‘closing the loop’, so that within our bioregional economy we are responsible for all our waste and we have a neutral impact on the natural cycles that maintain the earth in balance, primarily the carbon cycle.
Your bioregion is effectively your backyard. It is the part of the planet you are responsible for. Bioregionalism means living a rooted life, being aware of where your resources come from and where your wastes go. It is the opposite of a life lived in the limited knowledge that food comes from Tesco, leaving everything to the global corporations who are only too willing to take on this responsibility in return for their profits. Unlike political boundaries, bioregional boundaries are flexible, but should be guided by the principle of subsidiarity in the case of any individual resource or service. Within the bioregional approach beginning with the local is a principle that trumps principles such as price or choice. Within our bioregional economy we are responsible for all our waste and we have a neutral impact on the natural cycles that maintain the earth in balance, primarily the carbon cycle. From a bioregional perspective the ideal way to organise your economy is by borrowing for your needs from the local environment.

What can you do?

  • Stop flying and drive less; if you must drive set up a biodiesel recycling plant in your community like Sundance have done in Ammanford: http://www.sundancerenewables.org.uk/

  • Shop more locally, especially farmers’ markets, or start your own community farm, like the one in Stroud: http://www.stroudcommunityagriculture.org/

  • Form a bioregional group and conduct an annual audit of your consumption to see which changes will reduce your carbon emissions most rapidly

  • Have more fun doing things that don't produce CO2, like joining a choir or inviting your friends round for dinner

  • Join your local coop and make sure you do at least 90% of your food shopping there; John Lewis (including Waitrose) is also a coop

  • Start you own food coop organizing bulk deliveries from suma or essential (both workers co-ops: http://www.suma.co.uk/ and http://www.essential-trading.co.uk/

  • Start a group in your town and register as a Transition Town: http://www.transitiontowns.org/

Learning a stern lesson

As part of the Green Party’s submission to the Stern Review I wrote that ‘the globalised capitalist economy is inherently unsustainable because it is based on turning energy into money without regard for ecology. Climate change is just the first and most urgent piece of evidence that this is the case.’ OK, this is rather trite and simplistic, and says nothing of the vast proportion of capitalism (around 97%) that generates profits by speculating on the future values of currencies or commodities, but as a slogan it has much to recommend it.
In the sustainable economy energy will the important measure rather than money. In fact these two can be joined through the creation of a currency backed by carbon, as first suggested by Richard Douthwaite. Scarcity is one of the key requirements of a successful form of money (hence the use of gold or cows in other societies at other times) and now our most valuable scarce resource is the global atmosphere.
The poverty of the South can be explained in terms of their inadequate consumption of the global economy’s energy; the over-consumption of the rich, developed countries can be explained in the same way. The shares of carbon dioxide of poor countries do not match their shares of world population. The comparison of India and the USA is the most striking: a direct swap of carbon dioxide would resolve around a fifth of the inequality at a stroke. India is responsible for 5% of the global output of CO2 but has nearly 20% of the world’s population; the USA, by contrast, is responsible for 25% of emissions but with only 5% of world population.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a UN panel of experts who have exhaustively analysed available data about the consequences of carbon dioxide emissions to estimate the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet, that is how much CO2 it is reasonably safe for us to emit. The Global Commons Institute (GCI) in London has developed a model for sharing this total amount fairly between the world’s people on a per capita basis, and then for reducing this amount rapidly over time, called Contraction and Convergence (C&C). If we work with the year 2000 the sums work out rather neatly, since the model suggests around 6 billion tonnes of carbon can be produced, and the planet had around 6 billion people, which allows us 1 tonne each. At present in the UK we produce around 2.5 tonnes, which gives a clear idea of the size of cuts required just to reach fair shares today, even before the cuts that are necessary.
A comparison of CO2 emissions by country shows how the poorer the country is the less of its share of carbon dioxide it is producing and the more it needs an input of energy from the richer nations. At present we measure economic energy in terms of money, usually dollars. In an economy that respected planetary limits we would measure activity in terms of energy, since this is the scarcest planetary resource. As green economists we need to move towards an economy which uses energy as both a way of measuring the economy and, ultimately, the basis for its means of exchange or money.