‘Do Look Up’: a time to change everything

2022 is not going to be the year I turn into a film critic. But if you haven’t seen the film ‘Don’t Look Up’, do so now. This isn’t just because the film offers a terrific satire on the conflicting political influences of science and spin, or because there really is a meteorite heading Earth’s way. The great strength of ‘Don’t Look Up’ is that it takes you through the way greed undermines good judgement, and organised dishonesty/disinformation becomes the tool through which the rich screw the rest.

It may always have been thus. But today’s big threat is not that of a rogue meteorite but the existential crisis posed by climate breakdown. Wild weather is already here to stay. The question is do we have the will (and wisdom) to avoid this turning into systemic collapse?

Full of rich, dark humour, ‘Don’t Look Up’ offers a parody of the self-serving shallowness that currently passes for global leadership. Better still, it bites deep into the processes that constantly undermine climate science.

Of course that’s easier when you have a cast list including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio to draw on, but it is the power of ‘disinformation’ that really steals the show.

That is what the climate movement must focus on; relentlessly pestering politicians with the first of the Extinction Rebellion demands: ‘Tell the truth’. It is our biggest challenge. We cannot hope to rescue the planet if we don’t first rescue the truth.

Energy and equity

Orchestrated dishonesty is played into almost every aspect of UK and international climate debates. Fossil fuel lobbyists formed the largest single delegation at COP26; attending not because of the allure of Glasgow weather, but with the intention of slowing down the retreat from fossil fuel dependencies. And they did.

Now, with the prospect of huge energy price rises looming, the lobbying has taken a different twist. Climate denying Conservative MPs and Peers have formed their own ‘false flag’ lobbying group – the ‘Net-Zero Scrutiny Group’. Their call is for a cut in the green energy levies built into energy prices. Superficially plausible, this ducks any recognition that renewable energy is currently the strongest element driving energy prices down. If the public are hit with rising charges it is because gas prices call all the shots.

Without doubt, Putin’s reduction of gas supplies to Western Europe is part of a broader international power play. On the back of it, Gazprom has paid itself a £197m dividend. But oil and gas companies are rubbing their hands with glee. The response (to all those hoping to make windfall profits out of a general rise in energy prices) should be a 100% windfall tax on their gains. Moreover, now is the moment for Britain to withdraw all oil and gas exploration licences, switch climate levies onto fossil fuel consumption and use government policies to lead the clean energy/low carbon revolution.

It isn’t difficult to do so. If you live in Italy and want to insulate your walls & windows, and install a heat pump boiler or solar panels, the government will pay you 110% of the cost. This can be offset against your taxes over the next 5 years. Politically, you just re-structure the tax system in favour of using less energy and more renewables. It is the opposite of what oil and gas lobbyists are pressing for.

Blaming the victims

Today’s politics of ‘disinformation’ urges the public to pursue the wrong culprits and the wrong solutions.

This cuts across every aspect of the political landscape.

Climate levies are blamed for high energy bills, when crap housing standards are the real culprit.

Britain has the least energy efficient housing in Europe, not because of the energy companies that went bust, but because of successive failures in UK housing policy. If you want to reduce heating bills (and carbon emissions) improve the homes we live in. It’s where you would also find a huge jobs and skills programme.

Instead, blame is shifted onto the victims of slum housing conditions, not the causes. The worst slum landlords still get fêted by Treasury policies that favour the rentier class above all else. This is often concealed by press stories blaming refugees and the poor for the slums they are forced into.

But other aspects of overcrowding and benefits dependency pass without comment. In London, last year, some 7,000 shell companies were registered to only five addresses. Under the Covid furlough scheme these companies claimed £473

million in government handouts. None paid UK tax; tax refugees (and potential donors) clearly not being those the Home Secretary chooses to vilify.

The point about all this is that false news has become the weapon of choice for the cheerleaders of corporate feudalism. Those who would rescue democracy (and construct the different climate politics that tomorrow requires) must shift the terms of debate and the analysis of choices we face. This has always been the Left’s biggest challenge.

Moving the goalposts

A classic test will emerge soon in food politics. A huge hike in food prices will follow the energy price rises. China will be flagged up as the villain of the piece, having stockpiled more than 50% of the world’s current maize and grain supplies.

Political tensions between China, the US and Australia made this an obvious move on China’s part, but it will trigger a wider, inexorable rise in global food prices.

Before throwing brickbats in their direction, we ought to recognise that the history of famine figures large in the Chinese psyche. Between 1959 and 1961 some 30 million Chinese citizens died of starvation. Drought combined with political incompetence within Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ to deliver a disaster China has no desire to repeat.

For the rest of the world, however, it raises a different spectre. Following the global disruptions of flood, fire and drought, what happens if food shortages also go global?

With Brexit taking the UK out of the ‘safety net’ of pooled European food surpluses, huge question marks hang over the nature of Britain’s ‘food security’. Large parts of the farming community would tell you there isn’t any. Even the government concedes that it no longer holds any strategic food reserves.

Britain’s unpreparedness stands in stark contrast to China where food imports have risen tenfold during the last decade. In ports such as Dalian along their north-east coast, an estimated 18 months of grain reserves sit (in hundreds of silos) all ready to ride out any global supply crisis.

This isn’t a reason for Britain to cry ‘foul!’ The real question is that if others can see (and prepare for) global supply crises, why can’t Britain? The answer lies in the paucity of our politics, the death of neoliberal fantasies and the absence of leadership.

The global and the local

In 1945, the formation of the UN symbolised a global recognition of the need to invest in common security. Food, education, the environment and development became cornerstones of this common security agenda. Neoliberalism threw these safety nets out of the window, leaving nations to beg, borrow, trade or steal from each other as best they could. Climate crises force us to revisit such follies, but todays leadership is coming more often from the local than the global.

In mid-2021, Sustain – the network for sustainable food communities

  • set out the UK case for local food systems1. It mirrors what is being said across Europe, North America and (increasingly) the DevelopingWorld.

Without even mentioning the 90% reduction in (carbon related) food miles these can deliver, Sustain walked readers through the economic, security and nutritional gains that come as part of the package. For the UK, this could produce 200,000 more jobs than in supermarkets, and (for every £10 of food purchased) put £25 of spending power back into the local economy. (£10 of supermarket spending puts only £14 back into the locality.)

What sustainable food movements elsewhere also point out is that a massive increase in food accountability comes as part of the package. So too do huge improvements in localised food storage and distribution systems; all critical to food security within developing nations.

At a time of looming shortages, one third of global food production still goes to waste. It covers a land equivalent to China itself. The explanation is largely down not to negligence but to the fact that global giants who dominate food and grain markets have little interest in the sustainability of the land or the survival of the poor. But if we want the planet to survive, this is where we must begin.

What we’d then end up with is a more coherent approach to sustainable production, a better safety net for the poor…and better food all round.

So ‘Do Look Up’. That’s where the re-think begins.

Alan Simpson, Jan 2022

  1. Sustain: the Case for Local Food, July 2021, https://www.sustainweb.org/publications/the-case-for-local-food/


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