I am impressed by Natalie Bennett as Green Party spokesperson under hostile media questioning. Caroline Lucas apart, I cannot think of anyone who would be as competent. However, my blogs of 8th Feb, 29th Mar, 11th, 17th, and 25th April, offered some suggestions as to what I would also like to hear. However, I also have some words of caution for others who share my frustration. Natalie’s task is rather more fraught than is generally realized.
Natalie’s response to the Chancellor’s autumn statement is regrettable as it stands, but as I say, I am aware of her difficulties, and with a couple of provisos which I shall explain later, her suggestion could make sense, and become quite powerful for the Green Party. But her statement could have been made by any intelligent, well-intentioned but hopelessly un-Green left of centre politician. Natalie advises the government “to boost manufacture and the real economy”, with no mention of what that manufacture should consist of, or the Green Party’s warnings about the need to get away from a dependence on economic growth. My concerns are shared by more influential voices than mine. For example, Rupert Read’s blog http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/greenparty-case-for-challenging.html
is a good explanation of the Green Party case against economic growth: At least Caroline usually manages to work some ecological reference into her public statements, on this occasion a mention of a low carbon future.
Unfortunately George Osborne is also right within his own terms of reference when he says that Britain’s economic performance must not be inhibited on environmental grounds. The problem is the ‘Tragedy of the Commons – as an expanding economy approaches limits to growth, the rational response from society as a whole should be restraint and co-operation, but the most effective individual response is competition and if necessary aggression – make sure you are in a dominant position when the crisis occurs. Any society which has been able to expand will normally be individualistic and hence competitive. It pays – literally – to be the worst behaved. This will remain true until all competitors, world wide now that we are globalized, can agree or be compelled to co-operate.
This has all kinds of seemingly unrecognized consequences. A long succession of conferences intended to usher in sustainability have failed. They acknowledge the Tragedy, sort of – why go to the bother of organizing them if not – but they must fail until an answer to the Tragedy is found. Holding conferences which fail does more harm than good. If the next one in Paris in 2015 is to be any use at all, the Tragedy must be its main agenda item.
Why has the explosion in high incomes happened now? What prevented it happening any earlier? One possible explanation is that those who can take advantage are aware of the Tragedy, and are simply getting the hay in before the thunderstorm. Restraint by some of them wouldn’t help the rest of us, it would just pull any good guys down – the Tragedy again. But accelerating inequality makes calls to smash capitalism more strident than ever. They are also less likely to be effective than ever, such is the grip of the few with all the power. I could expand on this point, exploring the control of governments by corporations (another new phenomenon), but suffice it here to reinforce my belief that it is another symptom of recognition of the coming eco-crunch.
Tim Jackson and Dan O’Neill et al make an excellent case as to why growth is problematic, and they map out important parts of the road map away from it. But with apologies to them, to my mind they do not adequately address how this must look from the perspective of, for example, manufacturers, and how they might be expected to respond either to warnings that the party is nearly over, or to threats to poop it now before the joint gets wrecked? It was obvious to me in 1973 that manufacturing must contract, and repair and recycling expand. Fine, but as long as Britain needs to import things, it must have something to sell. Making cars or fridges last Cuban style does not lend itself to exports. In the short term, Britain must be and remain competitive.
My suggestion is still that failing a more imaginative suggestion, if the principle underlying the Citizens’ Basic Income were to go viral, a co-operative consensus , even including capitalists, would still be possible before we replay the Easter Island catastrophe on a grand scale. Many capitalists are no doubt ruthless and selfish, and regard anyone else as prey, but very few of them are stupid. With a Citizens’ Basic Income, the rich can stay relatively rich, but will have to pay much more tax. Even on Easter Island cooperation eventually became the rule, but must we go through the nasty phase first?
But back to Natalie (and Caroline for that matter). The Tragedy prevents them from saying what Rupert Read and I believe needs to be said as a matter of urgency. This impasse leads me to a suggestion which will seem preposterous to many at first, but it is a possible resolution of the strategic dilemma: tell it like it is and risk losing contact with the public (Rupert) or keep to what the public can relate to but fail to alert them to the real problem (Natalie). If anyone else wondering how best to present the Green case can suggest anything more realistic, then please do so.
As a simple example, should there be another runway at Heathrow, or a complete new airport? The correct Green answer is neither – air traffic must be reduced. Sorry, the Tragedy dictates that though absolutely right, that will put Britain at a disadvantage now. Is it to be a runway or an airport? All a Green spokesperson can do is state loud and clear in supporting her decision, that the whole idea is madness, but we will go along with madness as long as we must, to protect our short term competitiveness.
I started with Natalie’s advice to boost manufacture and the real economy. Absolutely, but it must have the same ‘mad’ qualification, though it would help if she could itemise some low eco-impact examples (Anyone for graphene??). But one final, awkward point. If we really are to be competitive for as long as that has to be the name of the game, then our wage rates per hour will have to be competitive. Which brings me back to the Citizens’ Basic Income. If Britain does gain an advantage due to the potential for the CI to render the minimum wage superfluous (remember, no one has to work) it will spread like wildfire throughout the whole capitalist dominated world. When that has happened, and everyone can see a place for themselves in a sustainable world, a conference on zero growth sustainability will be an excellent idea.