Stuck in the muddle with you – the politics of complete confusion

“This is the new extinction and we are half way through it. We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it the worse it is going to get.”

Sir David Attenborough

I want to weep. The Sunak government has announced it is putting Britain on a ‘war’ footing. What he ignores is the war his policies have been waging against ourselves and on human existence.

The threat level has nothing to do with MPs being locked in a room by ‘bad people’ demanding a £5,000 ransom. That would be much simpler to unravel. Far more complicated is unpicking the political confusion that currently passes for ‘leadership’.

Sunak’s commitment to raise Britain’s defence spending, and to an Anglo-German collaboration producing new munitions, didn’t consider how effective this might be against the threat of torrential downpours, floods, famine and drought. Yet these are the most profound and lasting challenges we face.

In reality, it is the planet that is locked up and held hostage by ‘bad people’. As odious as they are, this isn’t just about Putin, Netanyahu, the gangs terrorising Haiti, or the bag-full of tinpot dictators around the globe. It is about countries and corporations and (yes) us as citizens.

A planetary perspective

Back in 1972 a group of scientists and economists published The Limits to Growth. Commissioned by the Club of Rome, it should have become the politicians bible for human survival. Instead, neoliberal zealots threw it in the bin, pretending we could just consume our way to eternity. As climate scientists forewarn, it IMG_0734.jpeg would be better to talk of extinction than eternity.

Climate deniers dispute the reality of man-made climate change but even they have to engage with some of the realities of the current crisis. The most pressing of these is food.

The most telling graph in The Limits to Growth was the ‘Business As Usual’ (BAU) scenario charting predictions about industrial output, resources, population, pollution and food. It was the food crisis that they predicted would hit first. And so it is.

A year of wild weather events has delivered ravenous floods, devastating forest fires, extreme heatwaves and unrelenting downpours. Food has been the major casualty.

What harvests?

In Puglia, a third of the region’s olive trees have died. The region used to produce half of Italy’s olive harvests but the trees have been dying off from heat-stress diseases. The picture doesn’t look much better in Spain. Meanwhile, in Britain, farmers warn that torrential downpours and flooded fields make it likely that Britain will face its first ever summer with no crops. And in India, rice exporting has been halted because harvests cannot even meet domestic needs.

Last year’s European State of the Climate Report recorded that the EU saw an area larger than the combined size of Paris, London and Berlin lost to wildfires. On its own, Greece experienced the largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU. Overall, some 40% of Southern Europe was hit by extreme heat events throughout July. Add this to cascading calamities across North America, South America and Africa and you get some idea of a global food system spinning out of control.

Against any of these crises, Sunak’s mock militarism looks completely absurd. All meaningful intervention measures point in the opposite direction to his political obsessions.

Deregulated food trade chases cheapness into the food chain, damaging soils, water security and food standards. Delaying our exit from fossil fuel dependency just accelerates the climate roller-coaster we have created. Obsessing about ‘growth’ (rather than circularity, social inclusion or stability) humours an economics that threatens human existence. What we need is an economic and political reset that redirects priorities from the ‘bads’ and in favour of the ‘goods’.

Rearming diplomacy

Internationally, the compelling case is for more diplomacy, not more weapons. An array of different policy priorities would follow.

  • In Gaza, you only create the space for diplomacy once you halt the supply of weapons. At the very least, if Israel cannot bomb hospitals then medics can work with the ill and the injured.
  • Then, in answer to the former BP’s complaint that it would cost £2.7 trillion a year to ‘pivot the climate crisis into correction’, we could put the current £5.6 trillion of annual fossil fuel subsidies into energy saving and renewables.
  • As the planet sinks beneath an ocean of plastic waste, Britain has announced a delayed introduction of its deposit-return scheme. Sunak’s claim is that it is too difficult to do what Norway did in 2006. Yet we know that just 60 firms are responsible for half the world’s plastic waste. A 50% plastics tax would allow countries to follow Norway and make recycling pay for itself.
  • The UK could make dividend (and bonus) payments in its water industry conditional on the removal of sewage from our rivers and beaches.
  • The electricity sector could be transformed, allowing the falling cost of renewables to set the market price rather than letting gas set ‘extortion’ prices. Driving this into decentralised and integrated energy ‘systems’ would lower costs even further. And setting annual ‘carbon reduction’ duties on the whole sector would promote the growth of energy partnerships, focussing as much on energy saving as on new generation.
  • And bringing this back full circle, tomorrow’s food security will require new partnerships between farmers and consumers. These will not come without a cost, but nor do food riots and shoplifting. What we will see is more localised food systems (that are non fossil-fuel dependant) and more innovative growing techniques. Many are as likely to be urban as rural.

A different politics

All this is a far cry from the turgid menu of todays political offerings. From the demeaning dishonesties of Netanyahu’s pursuit of genocide, to the inverted logic of US troops breaking up students protesting about civilian slaughter, to Sunak’s absurd pretence that a war footing is our only hope of security, we are genuinely in a mess. Goodness knows what today’s first time voters will make of it.

Most of the time, they will find themselves caught between Attenborough’s forewarnings and Quentin Tarantino’s whispering of –

Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight

I got a feeling that something ain’t right

I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair

And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs

Clowns to the left of me

Jokers to the right

Here I am

Stuck in the middle with you.

Both are probably right but the answer may come in the linking of 2 quite different strands.

Almost unnoticed in the latest arms announcements was the fact that we were supposed to be celebrating Earth Day. Inspired by US anti-Vietnam War protesters in 1970, this led to the US introduction of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the founding of their Environmental Protection Agency. Other countries followed suit. We can do the same again.

It isn’t beyond our wit, or our means, to renew the Earth-saving commitments. We can feed ourselves, and others … sustainably. We can put work and worth at the centre of a different economics. We just have to let the protestors take the lead.

If the rest of us have lost the path, and the plot, let’s give the kids the chance to rediscover it. Honestly Rishi, they couldn’t do much worse.

Alan Simpson

26 April 2024

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