Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Panic Over?

“The question remains whether, as the Berliners say, ‘the situation is desperate, but not hopeless,’ or ‘hopeless but not desperate,’ as the Viennese used to put it.”
Walter C. Dowling (US Ambassador to Korea), 1957

Consider three documents. The first is the State of the South West Report 2011, which informs us that human activity first exceeded the planet’s biocapacity some time in the 1980’s, that the situation continues to worsen (para. 7.18.1) and that if everyone consumed resources at the same rate as residents of the ‘South West’, we would need 2.64 planets (7.18.3). We are already living far beyond environmental limits, despite official pronouncements that we are – apparently – working hard to stay within them. The UK’s is one of the highest ecological footprints in the world, lower than those for the USA and Australia but considerably higher than those found in other developed nations with a high quality of life such as Italy and Japan. Worse still, the ‘South West’ zone has a greater eco-footprint than the UK as a whole, despite the perception of Wessex as a ‘green’ and ecologically-aware region.

Why are we so bad? Food (26%), transport (21%) and housing (21%) are the largest contributors to the ‘South West’ footprint. Transport should come as no surprise. We have a highly dispersed settlement pattern that is dependent on the private car, coupled with the long-term rundown of regional rail services compared to the London fringe. Overall, our largest towns and cities perform better than our rural areas and, broadly speaking, the further west the urban area lies, the better its results become. Commuting to London might be dragging down our figures but relative wealth seems a more likely explanation for this, with the greenhouse gas footprint in particular increasing eastwards as higher average household income fuels higher consumption.

The second document, Footprint Results for Local Authorities, draws comparisons between 2001 and 2004. (More recent data is not comparable: the two earlier snapshots allow us to examine trends.) Pages 11 and 12 show the ‘South West’ as the largest area in England to have deteriorated over that period in terms of eco-footprint, and the largest in Britain in terms of carbon footprint. Despite all that greenwash. Nothing can disguise the fact that development which is ‘less bad’ than it used to be is not the same as ‘good’, or that the footprints won’t reduce if we keep adding more feet.

So what of the third document? The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out the Coalition’s thinking on planning – and the ‘limits to localism’ it seeks to impose. It decrees a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Alarm bells should begin ringing at once. You either have sustainability or you have development. To attempt both is to guarantee failure. You may as well stand on your feet and your head at the same time.

But worse is to come. According to the NPPF, ‘sustainable development’ means ‘sustainable economic growth’ because “without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved”. This is not just a misunderstanding. It is a wilful inversion of reality. As a rule, the higher the rate of economic growth, the higher the degree of environmental degradation that results. The only way an economy can appear to grow without harming the environment is if the transactions all involve buying and selling things that don’t actually exist. Think banking. Think toxic assets. A sustainable economy need not be a static economy – our recent policy review committed the Party to support economic change in place of economic growth – but unless the total amount of activity is kept within strict environmental limits there will be no economy.

So who’s listening? None of the London parties. Even the Greens talk about ‘green growth’, without reminding us what therefore needs to contract if the ecological books are to balance. As for the media, no chink of light is ever permitted to penetrate the articles and discussions that pore over economic orthodoxy as if it meant a thing. Orthodox economics has become for our day the Big Lie, which, if it’s big enough, most people will end up believing. So much for education. We seem to be edging towards a scenario like the last decades of the Soviet Union, when ever more desperate remedies are applied to ‘save’ the system. A system that those who can add two and two correctly know is bound to fail. For the rest, evidence is not just ignored: the true believer cannot see it at all. A Blairite conjuring trick will soon reconcile infinite growth with finite resources. Development is environmental protection.

Standing up to a lie is personally threatening. The gut reaction is to protect one’s security and stability, to not rock the boat. After all, how far does the remit of the security services actually extend? Passively, or worse, the deceived defend the lies and the lies go on getting bigger as London politicians push the boundaries just a little bit further.

Fortunately, faced with such nonsense, sane folk are duty-bound to ask the searching questions. Let’s take one example.

Is man-made climate change a hoax? If it is, then we need to ask what is it a cover for? There is good reason to think that it may form a gentle introduction to the much more intractable issue of Peak Oil, though along the way it gives a heck of a boost to demands for a world government with dictatorial powers. The so-called ‘debt crisis’ illustrates how easily global governance, even now, can be manipulated to ‘deliver on austerity’, transferring astronomical amounts of public wealth into private hands with barely a whimper of real protest. More locally, the imperative of ‘green growth’ can recruit hordes of dewy-eyed useful idiots, to campaign, for example, for heavily subsidised wind farms instead of the low impact community wind, hydro and bio power that a decentralised society might actually need.

If man-made climate change is NOT a hoax then the actions of politicians, advised by the best science available, are rationally inexplicable. They would by now have abandoned all this pretence about growing the economy to pay off the bankers. They would have slammed on the brakes and radically transformed the financial system to support a rapid transition to a steady-state economy. Instead they insist not only that growth must continue but that environmental protection must be switched off for as long as it takes to accommodate even more growth in population and consumption. All to re-pay debts that were created out of nothing. Imaginary debts, which could be paid off at once with imaginary money and no-one would be any worse off than when they started.

So if man-made climate change is not a hoax, we must conclude either that London politicians are stupid enough to ignore the warnings of the world’s top scientists, or else that they fully realise what they’re doing. That they genuinely love money more than they love their own children and grandchildren, whose future they’re throwing away for the sake of a silly numbers game. Either way, they have to go. Or it will be time to panic after all.

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