The Environmental Retreat

As a founder member of the Green Party, for me it is self-evident that population growth multiplied by per capita economic expansion should be the central political issue of our time. Why isn’t it?

According to a television documentary by Dr. Alice Roberts a few years ago, a single family group crossed the straits at the southern tip of the Red Sea about 70,000 years ago, and all non Africans are descended from that family. If that is right, every human group outside Africa must have developed a culture which took maximum advantage of the capacity for expansion. Sooner or later every expanding tribe must hit the Tragedy of the Commons.

Imagine an island which could support 10,000 sheep, colonised by a small group of shepherds. Up to 9,999, expansion is in the interests of each shepherd and the tribe, but at 10,000 the interests of the tribe become diametrically opposed. The interests of each individual remain the same. Elinor Ostrom and others have criticised Garrett Hardin’s classic essay, but they miss the crucial point that this conflict must occur the first time each tribe reaches the limits of expansion. Professor Jared Diamond provides evidence on this, but the classic fulfilment of the Tragedy is Rapanui – Easter Island. Archeology reveals that an Adam and Eve sized family arrived around 900AD on what was then a Garden of Eden. Peak population estimates vary from 7,000 to30,000, but on Easter Sunday 1722 a Dutch ship discovered 3,000 malnourished inhabitants on a barren island.

How could anybody be so stupid? What are the likely characteristics of a culture able to take expansion for granted? It will be individualistic and its initial response to physical limits will be competitive, then aggressive, and if necessary genocidal rather than co-operative. Last Wednesday I attended a talk at the Café Economique in Leeds by Hugo Radice

Life Fellow of Politics and International Studies (POLIS). He gave a frightening account of mega corporations having more or less completed their control of national governments (and hence democracy) in pursuit of their short term interests. The behaviour of Ineos at Grangemouth (threatening to close the plant) is a ruthless example of corporate behaviour. Absolutely, but each CEO is in the same position as a shepherd on my theoretical island, or a real Easter Islander cutting down the last stand of rainforest. What else did you expect Ineos to do? Until the culture changes, all capitalists are trapped in their current disaster-bound behaviour patterns. All who think they are powerful enough must try to make sure they are making the decisions when whatever crunch does come. Control of public attitudes through the media is all part and parcel of this strategy.

The Easter Islanders could not change their culture quickly enough. Globally we only really addressed this topic seriously when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report Limits to Growth was published in 1972. Limits predicted that the world as we then knew it, along with assumptions which took for granted the ability of the Earth to cope with whatever demands humans placed on it, would work until 1995, when pollution issues would begin to hamper economic activity. Limits was premature, and it made some wrong guesses, but it was sound in principle. Recessions have delayed the timescale, but we are still on course for a climate change tipping point.

The Green Party was formed in 1973 in response to Limits. I joined before any details had been worked out. My idea initially was that there should be a group who did what political parties do, as a platform to set out the policies necessary to head off the dangers outlined in Limits, unfettered by conventional attitudes. I started doorstepping with an uncompromising message, which included population limitation, redistribution based on the Citizens’ Basic Income, and a raft of more familiar Green policies. The basic message was ‘The End of the world need not be at Hand’. Even in 1973, 1% agreed with me, and up to 10% or thereabouts had heard of ‘Limits’, and took me seriously enough to say they would vote for such a party.

That was better than I had expected, but 90% would have voted against ecological limits. At the other extreme, 10% were confident that humans were clever enough to outwit nature indefinitely. It is not coincidence that this 10% is heavily over-represented in corporate boardrooms. Doorstepping over the years revealed a slow but steady increase of the proportion which took Green issues seriously, from 10% in 1973 to around 30% at the ‘Tony Blair’ Sedgefield by-election in 2007.

Attitudes have slipped due to the economic downturn which started in the USA, and hit the UK in 2008. Naturally enough, almost everybody’s starting point is the growth paradigm. Sustainability is less urgent than insecurity The apparently obvious priority is to ‘get the economy moving again’. In the meantime this government have used ’austerity’ to further their ‘Poor Law’ agenda, and delaying the recovery until just before the next election was an astute move.

Aggression is the natural reaction based on the growth paradigm. Mega corporations and right wing governments, indeed anyone in a position to influence events, are simply following this logic. But the Labour government since 1997 which once upon a time would have been their opponents are in thrall to exactly the same logic. That government set in motion a raft of measures eroding social justice which the present government, theoretically restrained by their coalition partners, enthusiastically consolidated. But many who are trying stop this erosion of social justice, Occupy, The People’s Assembly and Left Unity, as well as a disturbing faction within the Green Party are all becoming increasingly strident that capitalism must be smashed. Their ‘fight’ logic would be sound, if only  it were realistic, because ecological constraints are driving both sides.

On Easter Island, after several centuries of peaceful expansion, they became so desperate that they did not simply kill each other, they ate the bodies. Denial of the problem was not possible: the islanders knew why the trees were disappearing, and they knew what the result would be. But even on Easter Island strategies which Elinor Ostrom would recognize for proper management of common resources were beginning to emerge by the time Captain Cook visited in 1774. The global economy is heading for a classic Tragedy, but if humans are truly intelligent, we could adopt a strategy for sustainability without first going through Armageddon. Richard Wilkinson, of Spirit Level fame, wrote a book in 1973 Poverty and Progress, in which he describes a tribe with minimal resources and technology, which nevertheless perceived itself to have resources  to spare above basic needs, and which was living sustainably within ecological limits. There is evidence that their ancestors must have experienced the Tragedy (book link on my blog), but their strategy was to share basic needs unconditionally, allowing competition for anything not regarded as essential. My book explains how the Citizens Basic Income is based on this principle.

This post is based on my appearance on a Panel at the Great Debate Newcastle 9th November 2013

In a series organized by the Economic and Social Research Council


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