Into the Emptiness

Until someone ‘helpfully’ leaked the Labour election manifesto, the biggest issue of our time had barely got a look in. Human survival came a poor second to immigration targets, hospital parking charges and who empties the household bins. It took a different gathering, at the same time in Bonn, to set out what British politics avoids; the urgency of a fundamental change in the way we live.

The disparity took me back to painful lines in Maggie Gee’s, The Burning Book (1983)

Our children, should they survive, will try to make sense of those speeches. But they will find nothing there. There never was anything there. We give real power and glory to dying, neon-dipped actors. They radiate our own sickness, speaking blank words, through blank smiles. That blankness will not be forgotten, the deadness in our own souls.”

There was no such deadness in Bonn, where the launch of ‘the Global 100% Renewable Energy Platform‘ brought together organisations from across continents to share know-how about how to deliver the biggest societal change ever known in peacetime. Why the urgency? Well, the Magazine Science captured it most simply –

To limit global warming to 1.5C this century the world needs a new economics; one that will halve its carbon emissions in the next decade, halve them again in the following decade, and halve them again by 2050.

At the Platform launch the mood was upbeat but urgent. As Bill McKibbon (co-founder of put it,

“…we have to get there so very fast if we have any hope of catching up with the effects of climate change”.

This is a long way from Britain and a General Election that makes me want to scream.

Serious British commentators hide behind sound bites, only to find political leaders hiding there already. Greed or insecurity divides communities from one another. Vanity politics and bile strut the stage. And ‘strong leadership’ has become the Emperor’s New Clothes of campaigns that are close to naked. We, the public, are just too fearful to say so.

A new commonwealth of nations?

Perversely, the EU may help us. Britain’s election will (genuinely) re-define our place in the world; though not in ways Theresa May would have us believe. ‘Dumb and divisive’ is a better strap line than ‘strong and stable’.

France’s election of Emmanuel Macron may, though, mean that European stability – and inclusiveness – will become the centrepiece of a new European agenda. To survive, Europe will have to turn itself from a trading block into a ‘commonwealth of nations’; its institutions transformed. France’s 26 partner nations will largely welcome this. It won’t make them anti-British. Britain will just become irrelevant. No amount of huffing and puffing from the sidelines will make a difference.

Meanwhile, as some of us wait (in vain) for climate change to even make it into the UK election contest, Britain ignores the fact that every French Presidential candidate put tackling climate change at the centre of their political priorities. Macron will discover that, to do so, his global free-trade instincts will have to be parked behind the shed. Europe’s economics will have to put the needs of European citizens before those of global corporations.

The European internal market will then become far more important than external, global-trade agreements. Carbon budgeting, carbon pricing and carbon mileage will accelerate this; changing climate accounting rules and redefining the economics of food, energy, transport, waste and water. Increasingly, the ‘local’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘accountable’ will shape a new moral marketplace.

Regardless of how tough (or grumpy) Theresa May promises to be, she would leave Britain detached from this morality … and excluded from its markets. May’s ‘ultras’ hunger for a bonfire of environmental and climate regulations. To do so would burn Britain’s passport into tomorrow’s markets. Why Labour isn’t saying so, beggars understanding.

The sad truth is that Britain’s general election lacks any big picture narrative. It’s politics have degenerated into demands for a blank cheque for Brexit negotiations. Most commentators know the cheque will bounce.

Britain is ill-prepared for any future, ‘In or Out’ of the EU. In truth, the era of globalised ‘free-trade’ is almost certainly over. Illusory, credit-driven, growth will not return. The choice will be between ecological protectionism and a retreat into narrow/feudal nationalisms. Only the former offers the chance to move from the Age of ‘me’ to the Age of ‘we’.

For Britain, it would begin from a recognition that we cannot simply ‘shop’ our way into the future.

Making rather than spending

In his 2016 lecture, at John Moore’s University, Liverpool, the Governor of the Bank of England warned that Britain has effectively become a nation of shoppers.

Britain’s credit-based consumption growth has been the illusion of an economic strategy, not the evidence of one. The sub-text of the Governor’s speech was that, at some point, ‘making’ has to come before ‘shopping’.

Britain must take an increased responsibility for its own food, infrastructure, energy and transport needs. It must also begin to clear up its own mess.

Let’s start with ‘air’.

Every breath you take

Some 40 million people in Britain currently face air pollution levels well beyond their legal limit. The government’s response (7 years late!) was to side with polluters rather than the public. A limited ‘car scrappage’ scheme has been mooted, some mild incentives offered, but no radical plan for a new ‘clean transport’ strategy.

Putting ‘go fast’ stripes on a Reliant Robin would still leave you with a Reliant Robin. It is not a modal shift in transport thinking. The plan looks even more pathetic once you see others (internationally) moving towards a future where towns and cities will offer recharging/refuelling networks for clean energy vehicles … the only ones then allowed on their streets.

This is where ‘smart transport’ – in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia – is already heading. Britain – with its Reliant Robin, gas guzzling and diesel polluting obsessions – will not be leading anyone. Car manufacturers that remain in confused, post-Brexit Britain, will still be making cars you will be unable to drive (or refuel) elsewhere. Living in the past is not the modal transport shift Britain needs.

Economics and the pursuit of less

Picture a different economics; one in which driving does not come at the expense of breathing, where making is the precursor to buying, and where skills and jobs provide the income (and tax) base upon which Britain’s sustainable Money-go-Round economy might work. Carbon reduction, car making, craft apprenticeships, smart communities and clean air, all come as part of the same package. This is what circular economics is about.

It applies just as easily to food. Europe’s ‘Slow Food’ movements already have strong roots in local supply, seasonal production and food accountability. It is a small step to extend the accounting process into lower food/carbon miles and reduced soil exhaustion.

You can do the same with German approaches to the energy efficiency of people’s homes. This isn’t just about installing renewable energy on virtually everything that doesn’t move, but attaching economic (and ecological) virtue to a shift into low energy living. Talk to the banks, who’s low-interest loans underpin this, and you quickly discover the self-interest angle. The huge number of jobs and skills it generates, translate into economic security for German citizens (and tax revenues for the State).

Sweden is following a similar logic in its approach to waste; raising taxes on new consumption but removing taxes on repair and recycling. Everything hinges on us changing the way in which we view the Earth; not as a bottomless pit, but as a finite resource who’s limits must be respected and replenished.

Another world is possible

As you head towards the ballot boxes, just understand that this is not what Britain is being offered. Don’t hide behind cheap caricatures of Corbyn. Don’t blame it on the poor; understandably pissed off with an economics that made some richer but most poorer. The harsher truth is that we are all lost…’blank words’ and ‘blank smiles’ tapping into ‘the deadness in our own souls’.

Another world is still possible, but only if we can break from the blankness.

Alan Simpson

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