“What we have on our hands is a species problem. None of us is exempt… People – communities, castes, races and even countries – carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market.”
(Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, pp 194/5, Penguin, 2018)
I spend my life trying to fix things. It’s a character defect. But it has struck me that ‘things’ are not the problem. The problem is ‘us’.
Humanity faces a massive, existential, ecological crisis. If we were serious there are (still) numerous ways in which society can repair its soils, restore its rivers and forests, clean up the air, deliver food security and shift into clean, renewable energy systems. Never in human history has such a richness of technological means sat in the same space as ‘transformative’ human dreams of doing so. The trouble is that this is the moment when political vision seems to have gone AWOL.
Throughout history, whenever there’s a retreat from ‘big picture’ politics, fragmentation and pettiness always fill the gap. Instead of becoming tools for transformative change, today’s smart technologies have become the means by which the ‘we’ is shoved aside in favour of the ‘me’. Identity politics occupies the space that structural politics cries out to be filled. It is trap organised capital has set for the selfie generation.
Religious leaders – often silent about the plight of tens of thousands bombed and brutalised by governments their country sells arms to – complain only about their own religious group’s vulnerability. Zealots demand the death penalty for ‘heretics’ whose crime has been to challenge those who would not even drink from the same cup.
American politics has raced into an abyss of division and abuse. Trump happily describes white supremacists as patriots but derides distantly dispossessed refugees as an approaching army of murderers. It doesn’t seem to register that all recent US acts of domestic terrorism have come from the extreme Right.
American TV stations banned Trump’s final election advert as a racist slur, but half a million derogatory ‘robo-calls’, directly attacking his opponents, had already gone out. Most were paid for by supremacist groups.
The big loser in the US mid-term elections was the planet. It didn’t even get a look in. Arizona ditched plans to force energy companies to source half their power from renewable energy. Washington State threw out plans for a Carbon tax. No one seemed to notice.
Elsewhere, the planet isn’t doing much better. Brazil elected a Leader who wants to ‘develop’ the rain forest. He joins a gaggle of ‘tough guy’ leaders whose vision barely reaches beyond a ‘sod the system’ appeal to disillusionment.
In Europe, a resurgent Right obsesses about building walls and attacking foreigners, rather than redistributing wealth or restoring Eco-systems. Europe’s political centre has collapsed. And the Left often looks fragmented and confused. It is easy to blame this confusion on ‘false news’ and social media. But, in reality, the failure is more mainstream. Division has replaced vision in what passes for mainstream politics.
In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell can mention the looming climate emergency as often as they like. But the media pack pursuing them are barely interested. For the pack, what matters is whether those meeting Corbyn and McDonnell are black, gay, Jewish, Palestinian, transsexual or Irish Nationalists? The political commentariat, once famed for rigorous analysis and thought, has today settled for being mere outriders for ‘Hello’ magazine.
A Tory government permanently in internal meltdown doesn’t help. Personalised abuse and denigration has become their modus operandi as much as Trump’s. The only difference is that the Tories direct most of their vitriol at each other. There isn’t much political space left.
So, as Britain’s bus of State heads towards an existential cliff-edge, our politics sinks into disputes about who should occupy the front seats and who the back?
Reclaiming sanity: the silver linings
There are two critical elements to becoming un-lost, and Britain has at least one of them. We should remember that Jeremy Corbyn never abuses anyone. It isn’t in his nature and would be anathema to his politics. Any politics that offers inclusive security will have to be built around this reclamation of respectfulness; for the planet, for each other, and for the decencies and kindnesses essential to how we live together. This isn’t a retreat from radical, transformative change, just a way of rooting it beyond the poisonous tentacles of abuse.
Then you come to the vision. McDonnell increasingly emphasises that today, climate physics is in the driving seat. Few understand where this will take us. It means putting carbon reduction and climate security at the centre of tomorrow’s Treasury obligations. Free market ideologues will die in their boots. Better them than the planet.
It will be a tough road. The Treasury has blocked Tory moves to make post-Brexit environmental pledges mandatory. It’s conventional economics want nothing that adds to short-term costs or reduces Treasury revenue streams. The trouble is this will just roll us from one climate crisis to another. We need a different economics.
Few of yesterday’s ground rules are fit for the challenge of today’s (and tomorrow’s) climate upheavals. What Corbyn and McDonnell have to do is move the debate into spaces the public understand and can identify with.
Feed me, feed me, feed me
The first issue already kicking in is food. A year of extreme weather events has led to a series of food crises. In Britain, ‘the Beast from the East’ froze the ground just when planting was needed. Then a really wet spring, and a really dry summer, produced the worst of all growing conditions. The result: this year’s UK onion crop is likely to be 50% less than normal. Potatoes, cabbages, parsnips and leeks are down by 20-30%…and farmers have no idea how well the crops will store.
For several decades, neo-liberal economists said ‘Who
cares? There’s plenty of food elsewhere.” Except that now there isn’t.
Climate turbulence is playing havoc with everyone’s food security. A catastrophic heat wave in North Korea left crops withering in the fields. Elsewhere droughts, floods or fires caused their own chaos. Everyone is chasing shortages that will not go away.
Scientists estimate that global food production will fall be over 10% by mid-century. Worse still, this could carry a 90% increase in environmental damage…threatening the very basis of common security.
The world needs a fundamental re-think of what we eat, what we grow, and how we share.
Labour’s conversations with sister parties in Europe will have to include a new ‘solidarity of food security’. It would not be the CAP by another name. This was always a lousy idea; subsidising agri-business to force family farmers out of existence; replacing localised food systems (with low carbon footprints) with heavy-footed global networks in the hands of a few agri-cartels. Tomorrow’s ‘solidarities’ must put community food needs ahead of corporate food dominions.
And tomorrow’s politics of land doesn’t end with food.
“Buy land, they’re not making it any more.”
After the 2008 crash, speculative capital took Mark Twain’s advice and bought land. Over 80% of UK bank lending now goes into property and land. Town centre retail outlets may cascade into bankruptcy but rents demanded by building owners are ever-rising.
So too in housing. Buy-to-rent pushed up house prices, but not housing standards. None meet Labour’s ‘zero carbon homes’ standard. ‘Saving the bank’s’ turned into the accelerated growth of (private) land banks. Cheap finance underwrote the growth of expensive (corporately owned) land This is how developers like Persimmon Homes were able pay their Chairman a £75m bonus. Spiralling land prices drove spiralling profits. And spiralling house prices took ‘ownership’ beyond the reach of average households.
It was much the same for the sale of publicly-owned farmland, 50% of which has drifted into private hands. The 2008 ‘bank bailout’ merely underwrote the growth of new corporate fiefdoms in Britain’s land ownership. This is what Labour must break up. One way of doing so would be through climate and carbon-reduction duties.
Denmark’s 2014 ‘State of Green’ Programme made housing finance conditional on huge improvements in energy efficiency. Germany’s KfW Development Bank did the same; making 1% loan finance conditional on delivering passive-haus or energy-plus housing standards. Britain’s Tories turned their back on both approaches. Labour must embrace and extend them.
Low cost finance can be attached to radical carbon savings and a ‘carbon threshold’ attached to any Right to Rent. Carbon taxes on the poorest performing buildings (public and private) should be the ‘stick’ that goes with the ‘carrot’ of low cost finance. Then, public authorities need fast-track Compulsory Purchase Orders restored to them, to break the grip of private land cartels. Carbon duties (and taxes) then drive more sustainable policies, working for the many (species) not the few.
Land, food, air, water and soil will be at the centre of tomorrow’s more durable economics. To avoid Arundhati Roy’s warning about carrying our “tragic histories and misfortunes” into the marketplace Labour will need a different economics; one with climate at its centre, rather than a token afterthought.