Metanoia for the many – can we save the planet from ourselves?

Is it all too late? I hope not. But we are cutting it fine.

In all recorded history, there has never been a more urgent need for an new societal vision. This is not just about redistribution from rich to poor. It entails a fundamental rethink of how we live and what sustainable economics is all about. To do so will involve profound changes for us all. World Environment Day is a good place to start.

All around us, capitalism has been crumbling into feudalism, but the Left has crumbled even faster. We failed to read the runes and write a different script.

The Left became just as locked into ‘growth’ and ‘consumption’ economics as the Right. Few of us took enough notice of the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ report or Tim Jackson’s 2009 book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’. Earth scientists, not political scientists, were the ones warning about the destruction of fragile eco-systems. But even they focused more on species loss than climate breakdown.

It wasn’t until the 2015 Paris Agreement that political leaders recognised what climate scientists had moved on to saying; that human activity was driving the planet itself to overheat and ecosystems to break down. The Paris Agreement aimed to limit global warming to 1.5C by radically reducing fossil fuel extraction and use. Fossil fuel lobbyists and cheap politicians ensured we’ve done nothing of the sort.

The great unravelling

Even climate change deniers accept we are now deep into ‘wild weather’ events. The Met Office reported on the excess rainfall Britain has faced during October-May. With fields still waterlogged and harvests abandoned, farmers could have told them this for free. The key point, though, is the Met Office’s acceptance that this is down to human generated carbon emissions. Scientists, more than socialists, are the ones sounding the alarm.

The climate roller-coaster we are on doesn’t lack variety. In Brazil, life in the city of Porto Alegre has been literally swept away by overflowing rivers and relentless rain. The city is cut off, with 80% of its 1.3m IMG_0753.jpeg population having no access to drinkable water.

South East Asia and Central Africa faced the opposite problem. With New Delhi hitting temperatures of 52.9C and much of Mexico experiencing 48.0C, extreme ‘heat domes’ are making normal life almost impossible.

Mediterranean Europe hasn’t fared much better. Heat and drought has killed off one third of Puglia’s olive trees, while in Greece an area bigger than Paris, London and Berlin combined was lost to its worst ever forest fires. Across North America and Latin America the same combination of extreme heat and intense winds created forest fires that pressed emergency services beyond their limits.

Today’s economics fuels the crisis. When the focus should be on redistribution, regionalisation and carbon reduction, the major parties remain obsessed with ‘growth’ and ‘living within Treasury Rules’. This is bonkers.

For the record, the Covid pandemic threw Treasury Rules out of the window. So too did the Second World War. That’s what a crisis calls for … and we are in one.

The 10% reductions test

To get through the climate crisis we will have to deliver both food security and energy security… and doing so whilst cutting carbon reductions by 10% per year. Inevitably, it means re-localising production systems and reviving local markets.

Liege’s ’Food-Land Belt’ and the European ‘Slow Towns’ movement may offer models Britain might follow. But farming also has to be re-thought to meet its own 10% carbon reduction obligations. Restoring orchards, flood and drought resilient policies, innovative ‘urban agriculture’ and novel food programmes will become central parts of food security planning.

The transition will require massive investment, massive redistribution and a rewriting of economics. Can Britain afford it? For sure.

In 1835, after the abolition of slavery, the government agreed to compensate slave owners (not the slaves) and borrowed a huge sum – 40% of annual tax revenues – from the Bank of England to do so. UK taxpayers only finished paying this off in 2015. Through booms and recessions the debt was never flagged as unaffordable. Nor should the cost of avoiding climate collapse. In today’s terms, such borrowing would give the government £330bn to launch the transformation.

To that, you can add all the subsidies government needs to end. Tax Justice’s ‘Taxing Wealth Report, 2024’ flagged up £90bn of allowances going to the rich that could easily be re-directed. The fossil fuel industry also gets £60bn a year in tax subsidies and allowances. Aviation and airports are not remotely taxed in line with their carbon emissions. Nor is the petro-chemical sector.

Then, by turning construction subsidies in favour of zero-carbon homes and energy saving improvements, Britain could deliver both the carbon savings and job opportunities that circular economics has to pivot around. And all this comes before you consider the impact of placing the 10% annual carbon reduction obligation on pension schemes and ISA’s.

Money isn’t the problem. It’s the vision that is missing.

A retreat into political conformity has reduced parliament to a cohort of small minds arguing about small boats; and where identity lanyards assumed greater importance than environmental lifelines. It makes a general election, fought around common acceptance of today’s Treasury Rules, all the more nonsensical. Like football supporters arguing the relative merits of Burnley and Sheffield United, ignoring the fact that both teams have just been relegated. Climate breakdown will do the same to conventional economics.

Virtual Economics

If globalisation caught the Left on the hop, the drift into virtual economics compounds the problem. This isn’t just about how to tax virtual trading and data harvesting. It involves the impact of virtual economics on climate and equity.

Undergraduates might love it that Generative AI allows them to effortlessly have assignments written for them, and crypto-currency traders might love easy access to virtual markets, but we have barely begun a conversation about the climate impact that comes with AI.

We surf the internet barely recognising how energy-hungry the data centres are that underpin it. Ireland offers a cautionary warning. Nearly a fifth of Ireland’s electricity is consumed by data centres while fuel poverty remains entrenched in its society. Dublin has placed a moratorium on new data centres because of their impact on energy demand (and prices). As households are pressed to reduce their energy consumption, data centres look to increase theirs, in exponential leaps. This is not a zero-sum game.

Data centres could, of course, be required to channel their waste heat into (free) district heating for neighbouring towns and cities. But Britain has shown little inclination to follow the Netherlands (which harvests heat from the galleries of abandoned coal mines) or Norway (using heat cleverly extracted from fjords) to run district heating schemes. To do so requires political leadership and a more joined up approach to energy economics.

Species loss

If Britain is in a poor state, politically, the international landscape is even worse. The first species to disappear was that of visionary political leaders. There is little chance of a 1945 moment, where leaders re-found the United Nations.

In today’s fragmented politics, wealthier nations will not pay to rescue the Global South. The only magic button around might come from giving the World Bank the power to levy a global Tobin Tax in lieu of national contributions. If it is the only way to pay their own wages, I’m sure the World Bank would do it in a week. Which then comes back to the rest of us.

Metanoia for the many

Metanoia is an Ancient Greek word for ‘changing one’s mind’. It involves a fundamental change in our way of life; a rebuilding or healing process. It is probably our best hope of surviving the climate roller-coaster.

Central to it involves reclaiming and re-building the interdependencies that held past communities together. All the securities now needed to restore the land, feed the kids, provide shelter and worth and work, lie along this path. But we have to ditch the con of neoliberalism.

Obsessions with individualism, personal freedoms and national or localised identity politics have been the beads and alcohol that free-marketeers offered in exchange for their plunder of the planet. Reclaiming our interdependencies is what the looters fear most. They rail at the notion of ‘15 minute cities’ as prison camps by another name. But speak to our grand parents and this is what they knew as stable communities; where shops and amenities, repair services and health services, tailors and toy-makers all existed within accessible reach. Even energy was delivered through local networks.

We can do the same today, reducing the carbon footprint of supply services, repairing nature’s fences and breaking the power of off-shore multinationals as we go. Better for the planet. Better for people. It just requires vision and leadership.

So, metanoia for the many. It could be our best hope.

Alan Simpson

June 2024

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