A review of David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change: The Facts’: Facts Do Not Speak for Themselves

Screenshot 2019-04-24 at 10.17.33

In April 2019, the BBC broadcast the ‘Climate Change: The Facts’, fronted by Sir David Attenborough,[i]whose previous programmes about the state of the seas had done much to raise public concern about plastic pollution.[ii] In a 60 minute programme, there is, of course, only so much that can be said about what is an extremely complex issue.

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ was, at that level, a remarkable piece of television. It was clear and hard-hitting, far better than other attempts, some of whom were much longer but failed to hit home.[iii]It was telling demolition job of assorted deniers such as Nigel Lawson and a certain man in the White House.[iv]It also tried to encourage viewers to become involved rather than just gape at another documentary.

Facts and frameworks

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ bend over backwards to provide solid facts. A strong team of scientists gave testimonies to back up Attenborough’s narrative. It is certainly better to be guided by evidence than by wild guesses. The fact remains, however that if we wait until all the facts are ‘in’, it will probably be too late. As the programme itself made clear, there simply too many unknowns and perhaps never to be knowns.

Data & Evidence-based policy

In any case, isolated facts seldom ‘speak’ for themselves. Their value depends not only the quality of the original research. There is also the problem of robust interpretation. Many critical variables such as ‘ecosystem functions’, ‘food security’ and ‘safety’ are hard to quantify and not amenable to expression in prices. Furthermore, factually we humans might survive the losses of some other species but that does not give us the ‘right’ to wipe them out.

We can state certain facts about, say, wind turbines (they filled the screen at times). There are still bound to be conflicting interests and value judgements inherent in plans for more wind power . It is a fact, one not seen in the programme, that mining for neodymium (used in wind turbine magnets) has caused terrible pollution in certain places.[v]Some forms of solar power have generated so much heat as to burn passing birds. We need to be upfront about  the dilemmas involved in some ‘alternatives.’

The statement that nuclear power is ‘carbon-free’ was made without qualification. Yet the fact is that nuclear power plants are part of a whole fuel cycle, from uranium mine to waste disposal site, one that generates significant levels of CO2, not least in the transportation from one part of the cycle to another.[vi]Those emissions (and the many other problems inherent in this blighted energy source) will get far worse as high grade and easily accessible source of uranium are depleted.

The fundamental problem of not one of shortages of evidence or deficient data-processing. The deeper problem is one of analysis, vision and appropriate policy. Here ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ fell short. Mention was made, for example, of rewilding. On a quite huge scale and with more space for ‘non-people’, it will make a real difference.[ix]But, of course, that means restriction on the scale and locations of human activity. Here the programme remained glued to vague generalities.

Though the programme dealt with ‘facts’, it might be imagined that a number of assumptions were being made, if not by Attenborough then by some of the ‘talking heads’. They perhaps include the fallacy of ‘green growth’ and two related assumptions, those of ‘decoupling’ and of a ‘circular economy, both propositions that defy biophysical reality, not least the entropy law,

There was scarcely a hint in the programme that we will have to abandon the pursuit of growth, trying to find paths to significant degrowth in several sectors[vii]and, overall, build a steady-state with a much lower overall level of economic activity.[viii]Instead, the impression was left that the magic wand of technology will vanquish the climate monster, aided by a more responsible form of consumerism. Palatable or not, society is, in toto, obese: some slimming is the only sustainable option.

Gloves Off

Attenborough has been criticised in the past for pulling his punches. He was certainly much more forthright this time round. Overall, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ was a big change of tone compared to previous Attenborough series and, indeed, parts of the programme, notably on ‘tipping points’, were truly scary.

There is, of course, a difficult balance to be struck between doom and gloom on the one hand and, on the other, messages of hope. Too much of the former only leads to dismay and abandonment of all effort to turn things around. Too much of the latter can feed unwarranted optimism, leading, in turn, to seemingly ‘realistic’ but, in fact, really ineffective programmes of modest changes.

On balance, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ erred on the side of underestimating the danger. Time is running out and at an accelerating speed.[x]The scale of the overall global predicament is actually worse than the programme recognised. Climate breakdown is, in fact, only one expression of a multiple and interacting set of crises, for which the only accurate description is ‘overshoot.’[xi]Through the sheer weight of its collective ‘footprint’, humanity is depleting, degrading and destroying the web of life.

Climate breakdown is only one symptom of that excess. Deforestation was indeed spotlighted but mainly regarding the loss of carbon ‘sinks’ (there was a particularly moving sequence in which an orangutan seemingly tried to stop a machine cutting down its habitat). Yet there are many other symptoms of an unsustainable imbalance between people and planet: soil erosion and denutrification, aquifer depletion, salinisation, eutrophication, direct pollution of air, land and water, coming ‘peaks’ across a whole range of key resources, including even sand …[xii]We live in what economist Herman Daly has called a “full world” (ie a full-up world).[xiii]‘Decarbonisation’ and a ‘low carbon economy are very far from enough.[xiv]

As its title rather suggests, the programme was indeed about just climate change but ways could have been found to allude to those other ‘crunches’, some of which, especially falling water tables, might wreck whole regions well before climate breakdown finishes them off. Other species are certainly being wiped out in a variety of ways, not just from the impact of climate chaos: the animal body parts trade, bush meat consumption, trophy hunting as well as, more broadly, habitat clearance, poisoning by biocides and human-introduced invasive species. Trawling techniques alone are decimating the seas. It is not just a matter of changing water temperature and acid levels due to GHG emissions.[xv]

Mercifully, many of the measures that can halt global overwarming are solution multipliers. That fact could perhaps have been used towards the end of the programme, showing such benign interactions, forest conservation and reforestation being an obvious example. In purely human terms, a national effort to make every house energy efficient would also reduce the economic and health problems associated with fuel poverty.

Causes and consequences

Much of the programme was devoted to the relentless climb in CO2 omissions, the biggest ‘driver’ of climate breakdown. Only later did methane appear in the story, while other potent GHGs, nitrous oxide and CFCs, were somewhat passed over.[xvi]Clearly, in such a programme there must be some simplification and the main task was to link human activity to global overwarming. Rather unwisely, the programme stuck with the term ‘climate change’, terminology that can cause complacency, unlike, say, ‘climate breakdown’. Global warming does not sound too bad, unlike ‘global overheating.’

There were good sequences on what lies behind such immediate drivers. Thus, the programme featured the images of the tidal wave of cars and lorries. But it said less about the number of governments and businesses, with some public support, seeking to massively expand road networks, thereby inducing yet more traffic. The biggest scheme is China’s ‘Belt and Roads’ project, a veritable infrastructural Armageddon.[xvii]But most countries are racing down the same road.[xviii]It is one thing to talk in generalities about emissions from the transport sector. It is another to condemn actual transport projects that are driving climate breakdown.[xix]

There were certainly some alarming images of the extreme weather events and other consequences of global overheating. The images of mass bat deaths in northern Australia, due to a heat wave, were truly awful but again they are only one symptom of its impact on wildlife.[xx]It made for gripping television but the footage still ate into time that could have been used to tease out wider aspects of the climate crisis.

For instance, little attention was paid to the likely spread of tropical diseases and its impacts.[xxi]Another understated was the likelihood of more civil unrest and war[xxii]as well as migration on an unprecedented scale,[xxiii]probably triggering further rounds of violence. The problem of such colossal human population shifts tends to be kept under wraps.

Indeed, many otherwise sensible people seem to prefer to hide behind the cosy but facile rhetoric of ‘freedom of movement’, the logical application of which would mean no wilderness areas, no nature reserves, no restrictions on settlements on, say, flood plains or the best soils, and no action to protect areas where facilities such as accomodation, schools, welfare facilities, transport systems and so forth are overcrowded. Building more hospitals and other infrastructure may buy a bit more time (at the cost of more sprawl and resource use) but does not resolve the problem.

Pointing the finger

One of the ‘taking heads’ commented that the bulk of us are to blame, though rightly adding that some are more responsible than others. Of course, there are many, many reasons why people and organisations do what they should not do, in terms of the sustainable common good. They range from ignorance, laziness, insecurity, rashness, myopia, delusion, group think, short termism, and hubris to profiteering and power plays. Sometimes, there is wilful intent or, at least, culpable irresponsibility, at other times, more benign purposes which, nonetheless , cumulatively still produce malign consequences.

It would take an entire series to unpick all these elements, not least what is sometimes called the ‘tyranny of small decisions’, a dynamic more significant than self-serving behaviour of assorted vested interests.[xxiv]Sir David specifically ‘called out’ the major fossil fuel companies for their public denial of the crisis when, internally, they had acknowledged the facts of fossil fuel and global overwarming. Yet the list of culpable parties is far, far longer. Almost two thousand companies with investments in fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure, and power, received a shocking $1.912 trillion from 33 global bankssince the Paris Accord was adopted.[xxv]

Sir David did focus on the enormous profits of the fossil fuel industries. However, they make all that money only because they do not pay for the costs of all the damage they cause and fail to make reparations for all the resources they deplete. Government subsidies further inflate those profits, with the UK being especially generous in giving public monies to dirty private coffers.[xxvi],

Businesses are driven by economic demand, in the main the spending patterns of ordinary consumers (the key exception being the arms industry and defence sector, together a major generator of greenhouse emissions).[xxvii]In the call for more responsible consumption, the current stranglehold of consumerist values was somewhat underplayed. Apparently, Easter 2019 saw British consumers splash out over £1 billion, most of which expenditure will add to the unsustainable demands we collectively place on the planet.[xxviii]Sales of SUV and ‘top-end’ TVs rise.[xxix]There are roughly 1,000,000 people in the air at any given time and over 100,000 flights the cross-cross the world every day.[xxx]Many without such spending power aspire to join the party. Such predilections constitute a formidable barrier that messages of hope cannot wish away.

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Extinction Rebellion protest in London, April 2019

Action!

A number of reviewers deemed the programme to be a robust “call to arm”.[xxxi]The question is, of course, what is to be done. To his great credit, Sir David praised the protests from school students around the world, triggered by the brave action of Greta Thunberg.[xxxii]By contrast, he was rather reticent about the actions of Extinction Rebellion and other such militant bodies.

Yet the most inspiring protests still beg big questions not about just immediate tactics but also basic goals and the best means by which to achieve them. In other words, we need a practicable, comprehensive and internally coherent programme of policies. Otherwise, we might solve one problem but only by making others worse. Like it or not, that means not just protests and slogans but politics and use of the levers of power. It also means rigorous debate alongside protests and practical projects. We need politically active citizens as well as conscientious consumers.

As noted above, great of emphasis was placed was put on personal lifestyle change. To be sure, it is important that people feel that they can be part of the necessary change. It is better to be part of a solution, even in small ways, than persist in helping to make things worse. But personal change is small change, even if, over time, it can add up. The biggest single difference individuals might make was not mentioned, however.[xxxiii]We will return to that deafening silence later.

Yet, often, there are structural, economic and cultural barriers to what individuals can achieve on their own. It is hard to use public transport when there are no bus or train services or when the fares are much, much higher than the alternative of going by car or plane. Such choices are, however, not just shaped by prices but also knowledge of the relevant facts, time needed to seek out better good and services (assuming availability), peer pressure and much more, not least the baleful influence of advertising. In any case, the time factor is decisive. Consider the speed with which CFCs would have been phased out if it had been just left to consumer choice, compared to the much speedier impact of the Montréal Accords.

Changing the framework

Governmental action is more critical than was recognised in ‘Climate Change: The Facts.’ Of course, in the age of Trump as well as seemingly all mighty transnational corporations, that may sound implausible. Yet major steps are being taken by local and provincial governments, despite such straightjackets, some of the best examples being in the USA.[xxxiv]

Thus, the renewable energy revolution rolls on despite the obstacles put in its way. Around the world, community groups and networks are taking matters in their own hands and, in the process, pushing at least some politicians to act. Part of that drive is divestment from fossil fuel firms.[xxxv]Though not without real limitations, the actions of Norway’s Government Pension Fund to pull out of oil and gas is a step forward.[xxxvi]Some actions may be symbolic, such as declarations of a ‘climate emergency’ by local councils, yet it is all part of a shift in the overall agenda. It is a pity a few minutes were not found in the programme to mention more of this work.

In some cases, it will be a case of governments enforcing laws that already exist, in others new laws and regulations.[xxxvii]A whole series of regulations favour the carbon emitters and other forms of unsustainable development.[xxxviii]Only governments can address the huge perversions in land ownership, releasing land for reforestation and other desiderata.[xxxix]Only governmental action can reverse the enclose of public urban spaces, reclaiming them for sustainable regeneration schemes.[xl]Only government action can put in place schemes such as universal basic income to help people get of the growth treadmill.[xli]Specific schemes such as diesel car scrappage payments or mandatory deposit return (bottles etc) similarly depend on government action. So too does the creation of an attractive, affordable and reliable public transport network.[xlii]

Governments retain a huge raft of powers. Indeed, in many ways private businesses depend upon the state.[xliii]Simply switching around current grants, tax breaks, subsidies, insurance requirements, research outlays, infrastructural support and so forth would make a huge difference as would much stronger legislation and enforcement regarding producer liability.[xliv]Again, the programme would have been more powerful had there been more recognition of such opportunities.

Cars filling massive road copy

How much difference would it make if all these vehicles were electric?

Limited alternatives

The programme emphasised technological innovation as the main way forward. To be sure, it is part of the answer but only a part and one not without pitfalls. There is indeed a long history of fetishising the ‘technofix’ as an alternative to necessary economic and social and especially cultural change. [xlv]

Yet, as the programme did depict, there are a number of technologies that really would help. The problem is to separate out the genuinely benign ones, rejecting those what look as if they will do more harm than good or simply not work. ‘Clean’ technology is not necessarily ‘green’ technology. Large-scale hydroelectric schemes, for example, have wrought grievance ecological and social damage. In hot regions, their reservoirs are adding to global overwarming.[xlvi]

Meanwhile, ‘bioenergy’ covers a range of options, some genuine possibilities, others literally taking food out of people’s mouths as well as spreading ecologically unstable monocultures and depleting nutrient cycles.[xlvii]Carbon capture featured quite prominently in the programme but, again, all that glisters… [xlviii]It was interesting to be shown electric aeroplanes but there is little chance they can make even tiny inroads into today’s enormous and still growing aviation industry.

There are many other proposed fixes of one sort or another where a choice has to be made. Examples include: high-speed trains; autonomous vehicles; ‘solar roads’; small modular nuclear reactors; the so-called ‘gas bridge’; hydrogen fuel (often wrongly portrayed as an energy source, not just a potential carrier of energy that has to be generated somewhere); big tidal barrages; energy-from-waste; ‘vertical farms’; aquaculture; genetically modified fast-growing trees; biochar; crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin; ‘teleworking’; concrete flood defences; even geo-engineering and space colonisation. There are still of people deluded enough to think there is such a thing as ‘clean coal’, most of whom focus on the problems caused by burning coal, not its mining.

In all cases, we have to test proposals against likely output, land take, reliability, safety, storage requirements, costs (including opportunity costs), scaling up constraints, dependency on diminishing non-renewable resource inputs (rare earths etc), ecological side-effects, specific impacts on wildlife and so forth. Production and operating costs apart, electric cars, for example, will still need land-guzzling roads and parking spaces as well as traffic signals, road lighting, policing and so forth. Their tyres and brakes will still generate air pollutants. They will still compete with other road users. In 2015, there were 947 million passenger cars and 335 million commercial vehicles worldwide. It may take some time to electrify them!

Or take the case of plastics. Apart from direct pollution, they have a fast rising carbon footprint. By 2050, they are projected to account for a sixth of all global emissions. When they degrade, they further add to global overwarming by releasing methane. Let us assume that biological feedstocks are a good alternative. Currently, they account for less than 1% of all plastics. Other problems apart, shifting all plastic from petroleum to bio-based feedstocks would also require as much as 5 percent of all arable land, a formidable constraint.[xlix]

There is no single economic policy or technology that alone can do the trick. We need a whole programme. However, if we were to single out one overriding ‘fix’, it is not new gadgetry but an age-old entity: the tree.[l]That alternative extends to what are sometimes called ‘natural climate solutions.’[li]Overall, however it will be simpler, cheaper, safer and faster to consume less than to switch from one mode of production to another. Yes, we need better forms of supply but far more important is the level of demand. That means not just looking at per capita consumption but also the number of consumers.

Energy futures delusion

Some visions of  a sustainable alternative (this one is taken from a ‘National Geographic’ magazine special edition on ‘energy futures’) look rather like a modified ‘business-as-usual’. Sources of carbon-free energy are prominent but there is scarcely any space for non-human nature and the this new ‘civilisation’ is devoid of human scale, with people reduced to some anonymus mass.

Numbers count too

Some 230,000 people are added to world population each day.[lii]The growth rate might have slowed but that is very different from an absolute and lasting fall in total numbers. Each addition means more demand for food, water, energy, housing, transport, education and employment opportunities, plus, at least basic consumer goods such as furniture and cooking equipment. Their provision will add more greenhouse gases and more generally, increase the weight of humankind’s already unsustainable ‘footprint’ on the Earth’s life-support systems. It will also take away space and resources for non-human species. Responsible reproduction is in fact more important than responsible consumption (not that it is an either/or choice matter but both!).[liii]

Sir David has indeed been very vocal about this elsewhere, but tjhere was scarcely a peep in this programme, apart from a passing mention of the ‘p’ word (but no strong images to drive home the point). As noted, it focused instead on technology and consumption, not the numbers that multiply their effects.[liv]Respected journals such as ‘The Lancet’[lv]have put their heads above the parapet on this matter as have ecologists such as Paul Ehrlich.[lvi]Surely a minute might have been found for someone from such sources to give the issue at least more a mention.

It is as foolish to omit the role of human numbers as it is ignore the ‘overconsumers’ and the inherently malign impacts of certain technologies. This is as true of climate breakdown as it is of just about every other environmental problem and many ‘purely’ social ones too.[lvii]Conversely ,there are few problems that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people. ‘Population deniers’ are little better than climate deniers. One wonders why the usually forthright Attenborough was so quiet about the biggest elephant in the room.

Elephant getting on bus

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“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.” (Martin Luther King)
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Time and scale

Finally, we come to a barrier that the programme somewhat skirted. It rightly noted a number of solutions, even if the range could have been wider, with more emphasis on the role of government. Whatever the proposed solution, we have to test it against the ‘rate and magnitude’ barrier, ie could it deliver in sufficient time and on sufficient scale, at an affordable cost, without dangerous disruption and without compromising safety and other standards, to make a meaningful difference?

All other arguments apart, nuclear power, for example, fails to pass muster. It is simply beyond all credibility that sufficient nuclear reactors could be built, to replace not just fossil fuel powered plants but also the fast ageing fleet of current reactors plus all those likely to be threatened by rising sea levels. Arguably, carbon capture schemes fail the same test. But the question must be asked of all proposals. Some proposals for PV and wind power seem to assume a rate of manufacture and installation several times that achieved to date by leading countries such as Germany.

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ knocked on the head a lot of nonsense from those who deny or evade what is now compelling evidence. But, for all the alarm bells it rang, it still did not paint a full enough picture of the predicaments now facing us. There is much to be still debated and clarified about what needs to be done.

Box ticked

The BBC has been under a lot of criticism for its failure to cover adequately the climate crisis.[lviii]In particular it has given platforms to deniers as part of a misguided policy of so-called ‘balance’.[lix]It gave the impression that there really was room for doubt. More generally, its sense of ‘newsworthiness’ and overall scheduling policy treat a truly existential crisis as but one matter amongst many.

Conversely, its reportage, as with most media, continues to treat the human economy as the fundamental source of wealth, not the Earth’s life-support systems. Money is treated as real value in itself, rather than what it is: a symbolic token conferring a claim on resources. ‘Market forces’ continue to be represented as some natural phenomenon, just blowing like the wind, not the human constructs that they actually are. Economic growth is deemed to be, ipso facto, a good thing, the bigger the better.

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ did permit the BBC to claw back some of its reputation as a serious broadcaster, not just entertaining but informing and educating. But it will have to do far more if this single programme isn’t going to be just an exercice in box-ticking.

Endnotes

[i]https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00049b1

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/15/david-attenborough-urges-immediate-action-on-plastics-blue-planet
and https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2018-01-25/david-attenborough-says-plastic-pollution-outcry-makes-blue-planet-ii-a-job-worth-doing/

[iii]Eg https://sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/age-of-stupid-not-so-clever/and https://sandyirvineblog.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/al-gores-an-inconvenient-truth-a-critique.pdf

[iv]Even the Daily Telegraph’, not a bastion of radical politics, gave the programme a 5 star rating:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2019/04/18/climate-change-facts-review-david-attenboroughs-superb-documentary/
The Daily Mail however still found it necessary to moan about scientists and what it called their ‘pet theories”:
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-6937767/CHRISTOPHER-STEVENS-reviews-nights-TV-Pity-Sir-David-got-hijacked-doom-mongers-theories.html

[v]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth

[vi]https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/05/false-solution-nuclear-power-not-low-carbon; https://wiseinternational.org/sites/default/files/u93/climatenuclear.pdf; https://worldbusiness.org/nuclear-power-totally-unqualified-to-combat-climate-change/; https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2018/11/more-nuclear-energy-is-not-the-solution-to-our-climate-crisis.html; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-05-11/does-nuclear-power-produce-no-co2/;

[vii]http://kevinanderson.info/blog/avoiding-dangerous-climate-change-demands-de-growth-strategies-from-wealthier-nations/?fbclid=IwAR3ARMZ1P5WKg_vHQK2TzZv_M25O_fCPXG_C9JTi1X46Gcfh1Azp594qYw4;
https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/why-green-growth-is-an-illusion;
https://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-11-21/the-limits-of-renewable-energy-and-the-case-for-degrowth/ 

[viii]https://steadystate.org

[ix]https://www.half-earthproject.org

[x]eg
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-26/record-carbon-emissions-seen-as-energy-use-grew-most-in-decade; https://library.wmo.int/index.php?lvl=notice_display&id=20697#.XLyncS_MzgF; https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/06/deforestation-accelerating-despite-mounting-efforts-protect-tropical-forests;
https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/plastic-production-increase-pollution-ocean-waste/;
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/05/air-pollution-everything-you-should-know-about-a-public-health-emergency; https://theecologist.org/2019/mar/15/global-use-natural-resources-skyrocketing

[xi]https://www.overshootday.org/about-earth-overshoot-day/

[xii]Examples:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/19/water-shortages-could-affect-5bn-people-by-2050-un-report-warns?CMP=share_btn_link;
https://phys.org/news/2019-01-global-groundwater-agriculture.html; https://ensia.com/features/salinization-salt-threatens-soil-crops-ecosystems/; https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/;
https://www.vims.edu/research/topics/dead_zones/index.php; https://www.livescience.com/62489-dead-zone-arabian-sea.html; https://www.wri.org/our-work/project/eutrophication-and-hypoxia/interactive-map-eutrophication-hypoxia; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X19302061; https://theecologist.org/2019/apr/23/europes-rivers-riddled-pesticides; https://www.stateofglobalair.org/sites/default/files/soga_2019_report.pdf; https://www.pnas.org/content/112/18/5750; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature; http://peak-oil.org/peak-oil-review-19-nov-2018/; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-09-19/peak-oil-demand-peak-oil/; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49846798_Energy_return_on_investment_peak_oil_and_the_end_of_economic_growth;
https://www.americanscientist.org/article/does-peak-phosphorus-loom; https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/07/13/628894815/episode-853-peak-sand;
Everywhere is being hit, unlike crises in the past. Some snapshots: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/microplastics-found-in-remote-region-frances-pyrenees-180971973/; https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/mongolia-air-pollution/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/18/decades-of-denial-major-report-finds-new-zealands-environment-is-in-serious-trouble; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42947155;
https://amp.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/18/gwent-levels-wetlands-biodiversity-risk-wales-motorway?fbclid=IwAR1vySyaX1XpVWePFcyht0KGRnehRJWBrrdTOBesRoadcKCTCjSR6ly_1Ew; https://theconversation.com/from-australia-to-africa-fences-are-stopping-earths-great-animal-migrations-114586?fbclid=IwAR3f8fCgvuxHOKkQ6KqIYSUCynQ4tlpn-rKJdRvRKekU3tnsLnPAZVFmvA8;
https://theecologist.org/2019/jan/30/highway-threatens-bolivian-national-park?fbclid=IwAR0gafnXMRxHiTXQQGZ4iGT6mRxBl3cRErjoZEmm7SFazyJJ4U1B-0l4Wms; https://blueheart.patagonia.com/discover; https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/china-belt-and-road-initiative-silk-route-cost-environment-damage-a8354256.html;
Even sea beds are not safe eg
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00757-y?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&utm_campaign=85e9e98bc8-briefing-dy-20190318&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-85e9e98bc8-43745793&fbclid=IwAR0blwKJzYAavYqgF3liRMNRBEbErjI252O8-PPp_cBqDhEQhR0YdwU9UWs

[xiii]https://pages.wustl.edu/files/pages/imce/fazz/ad_5_2_daly.pdf

[xiv]https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/masters/modules/en9b5worldlitanthropocene/crist-beyond_the_climate_crisis.pdf?fbclid=IwAR07dc5VjKlj3jgXN_nwyE0-z8pJ_TpfWXebbom1BygFYy3eCou2V9ozHP4

[xv]Eg https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/ocean-acidification;

[xvi]https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nitrous-oxide-emissions-could-double/; https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/countries-crank-ac-emissions-potent-greenhouse-gases-are-likely-skyrocket;

[xvii]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhuEvnkVXBE&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1FodeVRHBMa4tofOFu3Bt0ZTseVsqP-Zg2acNztHWnWHj6aI3SgjdtVXI

[xviii]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/15/new-map-reveals-shattering-effect-of-roads-on-nature?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Green+Light+2016&utm_term=204482&subid=7423597&CMP=EMCENVEML1631&fbclid=IwAR3fQk16edfkSdI1bLqWmysqHXJDid_MH6km-yXwAiOyQyoK3O9eCOK1Tj4; https://news.mongabay.com/2018/04/chinas-belt-and-road-poised-to-transform-the-earth-but-at-what-cost/?n3wsletter&utm_source=Mongabay+Newsletter&utm_campaign=15abe15f05-newsletter_2018_04_19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_940652e1f4-15abe15f05-67232675&fbclid=IwAR0JHx4SFiORsAaidLjazWyPpVjajXMoDAlHdJu02_cL3GEdoDm4cEtCxe0;
https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/roads-ruin-uks-most-controversial-road-plans;
https://e360.yale.edu/features/a-highway-megaproject-tears-at-the-heart-of-papuas-rainforest;

[xix]By way of comparison, the edition of the BBC’s ‘Gardeners’ World’ magazine on sale at the time of the Attenborough broadcast featured an article by Monty Don in which he forthrightly and unquivocally condemned all use of biocides in the garden (https://magsdirect.co.uk/magazine/gwmay19/)
Sticking to generalities can be a form of evasion itself.

[xx]https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/australia-heatwave-latest-temperature-heat-records-stress-new-south-wales-bushfires-a8735541.html

[xxi]Eg https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/apr/14/tropical-insect-diseases-europe-at-risk-dengue-fever
and
https://grist.org/article/climate-change-could-push-tropical-diseases-to-alaska-according-to-a-new-study/;

[xxii]https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1; http://emiguel.econ.berkeley.edu/research/warming-increases-the-risk-of-civil-war-in-africa;
https://www.newclimateforpeace.org/blog/insurgency-terrorism-and-organised-crime-warming-climate

The causal link between climate and conflict is another instance of the straw man arguments common in the whole debate. Those who warn of dangers are portrayed as if they only blame climate and other environmental factors. The fact that, as is usually the case in history, there are many factors at work does not thereby mean that ecological dynamics can be ignored. In fact, they are increasingly significant direct drivers of conflict and make other factors more potent eg
https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/220575-pentagon-unveils-plan-to-fight-climate-change.
See also:
https://nexusmedianews.com/study-shows-climate-change-is-fueling-conflict-and-mass-migration-5f37de166ec6

[xxiii]https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/climate-change-already-driving-mass-migration-around-globe
and
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/19/climate-change-soon-to-cause-mass-movement-world-bank-warns.

[xxiv]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240297227_Environmental_Degradation_and_the_Tyranny_of_Small_Decisions

[xxv]https://www.ran.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Banking_on_Climate_Change_2019_vFINAL1.pdf

[xxvi]https://www.carbonbrief.org/oecd-fossil-fuel-subsidies-373-billion-2015
and
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/23/uk-has-biggest-fossil-fuel-subsidies-in-the-eu-finds-commission
‘Free market’ America is also free-handed with the public purse eg http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2017/10/OCI_US-Fossil-Fuel-Subs-2015-16_Final_Oct2017.pdf

[xxvii]https://www.tni.org/es/node/22587;https://truthout.org/articles/the-military-assault-on-global-climate/
Such matters can only be addressed by people as citizens (eg voters), not consumers

[xxviii]US consumers play their part:
https://r-login.wordpress.com/remote-login.php?action=auth&host=philadelphia.cbslocal.com&id=15116066&back=https%3A%2F%2Fphiladelphia.cbslocal.com%2F2018%2F03%2F22%2Feaster-spending-survey-2nd-highest-in-history%2F&h=
Perhaps the straw that is breaking the Earth’s back is the rise of the new global middle class eg
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22956470; https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/09/27/a-global-tipping-point-half-the-world-is-now-middle-class-or-wealthier/;
https://www.reuters.com/middle-class-infographic.

[xxix]https://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/manufacturer-news/2018/04/16/suvs-account-for-almost-a-third-of-cars-on-uk-roads; https://www.broadbandtvnews.com/2018/08/29/high-end-tv-sets-drive-global-market/

[xxx]https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07g70j1

[xxxi]https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/apr/18/climate-change-the-facts-review-our-greatest-threat-laid-bare-david-attenborough

[xxxii]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-cant

[xxxiii]https://qz.com/1590642/these-millennials-are-going-on-birth-strike-due-to-climate-change/?utm_campaign=Weekly%20Digest&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=71906136&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8nLuafa1WjxQ-hCc48Q1Q4fHgrjVGcblhgnIyuBQefpSSlIAMIb3K70iAQRy9g3zChoSvK_GM38M9ibvch17gu2klIUA&_hsmi=71906136

[xxxiv]Eg https://wallethub.com/edu/most-least-green-cities/16246/?fbclid=IwAR2OH47IQBC4OvLe8GZBb4mSKnjAXsdbs-0OTl-5Qmz29T1XnRx8ReTxT3wand https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18042019/new-york-city-climate-solutions-buildings-energy-efficiency-jobs-low-income-greenhouse-gases?utm_source=InsideClimate+News&utm_campaign=421af59ce8-&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_29c928ffb5-421af59ce8-327903589See also: https://carbonneutralcities.org

[xxxv]Eg https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/16/divestment-fossil-fuel-industry-trillions-dollars-investments-carbon

[xxxvi]https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2019/03/15/how-significant-is-norways-fossil-fuel-divestment-announcement/#7755dd9e50de

[xxxvii]Eg https://eradicatingecocide.com/the-law/what-is-ecocide/

[xxxviii]Examples in the UK include the National Planning Policy Framework and the energy market ‘capacity’ mechanism, the latter favouring large-scale centralised power generation.

[xxxix]https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/apr/17/who-owns-england-thousand-secret-landowners-author

[xl]https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/e87dab_c893a52a18624acdb94472869d942a09.pdf
Land Value Tax is another part of this armoury eg http://www.andywightman.com/docs/LVT_england_final.pdf.

[xli]One of the first statements of this case was by Warren Johnson: https://books.openedition.org/pucl/1772?lang=en

[xlii]https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/luxembourg-free-public-transport-no-fares-trains-trams-buses-tickets-2020-a8743581.html

[xliii]Some ways are outlined here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/392081/the-trouble-with-billionaires-by-linda-mcquaigneil-brooks/9780143174547
and
https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/why-we-cant-afford-the-rich.

[xliv]There is a flavour here: https://www.taxpayer.net/energy-natural-resources/green-scissors-report-2012/;
https://www.cbd.int/financial/fiscalenviron/g-subsidiesoverview.pdf ;
and
http://www.earth-policy.org/books/eco/eech11_ss4

[xlv]https://www.newsociety.com/Books/T/Techno-Fix
and http://www.edwardtenner.com/why_things_bite_back__technology_and_the_revenge_of_unintended_consequences_21108.htm.
Specifically on carbon fixes:
https://corporatewatch.org/product/technofixes-a-critical-guide-to-climate-change-technologies/

[xlvi]https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/nov/06/hydropower-hydroelectricity-methane-clean-climate-change-study; https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/hundreds-new-dams-could-mean-trouble-our-climate;
https://www.climatecentral.org/news/hydropower-as-major-methane-emitter-18246?fbclid=IwAR3Qm1zS-IlC8NPhXRBiQncpXyvR5t6tHmsAhAO-DZSGAwFiXItvHJ4rLOU;  and https://www.earthlawcenter.org/blog-entries/2017/12/dams-climate-change-bad-news.

Again the challenge is not to think just in terms of carbon emissions but to see the big ecological picture: https://www.internationalrivers.org/problems-with-big-dams; https://phys.org/news/2017-05-major-driver-global-environmental.htmland http://www.ecoropa.info/publication/social-and-environmental-effects-large-dams

[xlvii]https://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-016-1764-4?fbclid=IwAR3TzqqjaV-6F96ftHHS-Zh6MIP9JTxXNdiVLE6s9QLBruGbBJfIosSGsGU; https://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/biofuel-or-biofraud-the-vast-taxpayer-cost-of-failed-cellulosic-and-algal-biofuels/?fbclid=IwAR1Z39OUkizHljbBnjljAvx7_9MeSt6egvLYGknJaCMMvMxIX0zO9ozc58s;  http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/biomass_report_tcm9-326672.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0gKhMzzXmw-0sq4meZ3c64cvmQ60gaa9hR8t07GPUsByfrKtpnwUPR8Ukand https://www.econexus.info/sites/econexus/files/EU%20Bioenergy%20Briefing_0.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2wPXS6gIYjdV78E8NZehl_prnw6bXjdktOvUniPT8Pj6gmc_uh6S9IDWs

Sometimes, bioenergy is linked to carbon capture (BECCS) eg https://www.technologyreview.com/s/544736/the-dubious-promise-of-bioenergy-plus-carbon-capture/?fbclid=IwAR2OoLQ_qe1aaOw_GKQpeNKyII64WSUUVrGGXXfbKxyAVqcpb2NqpPiI_3c.
For an overview, see:
https://tyndall.ac.uk/publications/tyndall-working-paper/2010/biomass-energy-carbon-capture-and-storage-beccs-revie
See also:
https://www.carbonbrief.org/world-can-limit-global-warming-to-onepointfive-without-beccs?fbclid=IwAR38Jo6ear4xyAcM6kznOLy2PcNVvPOlSpw9ti3msO2DjgilfIoo1WZOjew

[xlviii]https://truthout.org/articles/techno-optimism-and-bad-science-in-paris-the-problem-with-carbon-capture-and-storage/; https://hub.globalccsinstitute.com/sites/default/files/publications/49611/424-alstom-sub3.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1EZTlrmMAolICtGnTv8ayFbJzCL_2DF_VYcoAl73T-CUmJMh_Z6gI9waY;
https://thebulletin.org/2016/10/wed-have-to-finish-one-new-facility-every-working-day-for-the-next-70-years-why-carbon-capture-is-no-panacea/; https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Global/usa/planet3/PDFs/Carbon-Capture-Scam.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3rH7-FyxKeJ0uObExOBqVij0dfhzcWddit939ccNHMYe5dj6Kt_TFxWkM; https://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/climate-technofix-weaving-carbon-into-gold-and-other-myths-of-negative-emissions/?fbclid=IwAR3ZBu8JLVZmT3AiVfe3EPKAHOl606fo4MoVmkvjwQZ7Hn_W-5MSF606vds; http://airclim.org/acidnews/myths-about-carbon-storage-–-sleipner-case?fbclid=IwAR0r0zulqwzMT_4UtuCdem556X21d8k-mxvYZdGOwZgkC0VJcGVsGiS-ptU; https://corporatewatch.org/the-zombie-technofix/?fbclid=IwAR09aIbWYmt60OMNcdTerdCg9IlzcrphRhqDGjARCUvNhxeegfThxASC3ck; https://www.greenamerica.org/fight-dirty-energy/amazon-build-cleaner-cloud/coal-carbon-capture-and-storage-not-solution?fbclid=IwAR0SCVvEWtJnydI_0YwBqP1C5CpRpTV2jcFb2C54eSOgXNX4xlbWrButFxc

Carbon capture might, however, be a fix for oil companies, of course: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-15/big-oil-ceos-appeal-to-norway-to-back-carbon-capture-and-storage?fbclid=IwAR2r-9a2naH7W32–V_8k8RS2Av2u817I2F0LwbSYouhNWtwzNDE91tvvJ8

[xlix]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0459-z

[l]Eg https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-best-technology-for-fighting-climate-change-isnt-a-technology/
and
https://www.postcarbon.org/amazing-new-energy-source-introducing-trees/

[li]http://naturalclimatesolutions.org

[lii]This is an interesting overview here:
https://overpopulation-project.com/2019/03/28/overpopulation-during-my-lifetime-of-eighty-years/?utm_campaign=Weekly%20Digest&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=71906136&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8nLuafa1WjxQ-hCc48Q1Q4fHgrjVGcblhgnIyuBQefpSSlIAMIb3K70iAQRy9g3zChoSvK_GM38M9ibvch17gu2klIUA&_hsmi=71906136

To watch the human race still racing, see:

https://population.io/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=population&campaignid=1695828135&adgroupid=64502612525&adid=329422103477&gclid=Cj0KCQjw4-XlBRDuARIsAK96p3BFlPjDdPlCUTYEHWpqlXDkeQsedkm2b9fQw09Umm6mTt_l-zxLt-waAmgSEALw_wcB

https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

[liii]https://www.bigissue.com/latest/social-activism/how-do-you-stop-the-planet-burning-through-climate-change-stop-making-babies/;

[liv]https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2010_Ryerson_TheMultiplierofEverythingElse_PostCarbonReaderSeries.pdf; https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HqhFbplNYQEC&pg=PA136&lpg=PA136&dq=John+Harte+Numbers+matter&source=bl&ots=0-IxF8z4x9&sig=ACfU3U3-Y_-2L6jtRDCaIl60o6_SNRLJdQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwin1pGlxubhAhUITBUIHe23AN4Q6AEwAXoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=John%20Harte%20Numbers%20matter&f=false; https://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy.htmlhttps://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/climate/.

[lv]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22784534

[lvi]https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/22/collapse-civilisation-near-certain-decades-population-bomb-paul-ehrlich;
http://dieoff.org/page112.htm.

[lvii]https://www.pnas.org/content/107/41/17521;
https://phys.org/news/2010-10-population-trends-climate.html; https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/360.pdf;
http://www.philipcafaro.com/alternative-climate-wedges/population-wedge.

With particular reference to the so-called developing world (sometimes an out-of-date descriptiongiven the level of industrialisation and urbanisation across many parts of such regions), see:
https://www.cgdev.org/publication/economics-population-policy-carbon-emissions-reduction-developing-countries-working

[lviii]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/07/bbc-we-get-climate-change-coverage-wrong-too-often

[lix]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/02/bbc-climate-change-deniers-balance

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Extinction Rebellion: Activism needs theory

Screenshot 2019-04-20 at 09.24.01
The Extinction Rebellion protests hit London in late April 2019. It is indeed heartening to see all the energy and commitment. Yet such activism raises many issues.
The problem with action-based protest movements is not only that they have to keep upping the ‘ante’ to sustain interest and make an impact, risking, in the process, mass arrests, debilitating fines from the courts and possible alienation of the unconverted.
There is also the problem of practicable goals and the best means to achieve. It is all very well to pick a somewhat arbitrary date and simply proclaim that we must achieve net zero CO2 emissions by then. But it is another matter altogether to show how that can be done by, say, 2025, especially when, to have any meaning, other states would have to be doing more or less the same thing.
That could cause massive production bottlenecks and logistical nightmares, not to overlook possible political backlashes because of sudden changes to existing lifestyle patterns (new waves of demonstrations by groups in the footsteps of the Gilets Jaunes and Bonnets Rouges, ballot box revolts, strikes by fuel tanker drivers and other key workers, and speculation-driven currency crises… ).
Then there is the capacity of our political institutions to play their part. They have utterly failed to deal with the comparatively simple problem of Brexit. ER proposes a Citizens Assembly instead. It is not clear how it would avoid becoming a chaotic Tower of Babel, with many assembly members speaking, for example, the language of more growth, others talking about degrowth and steady-state economics.
Presumably, groups such as the trade unions and chambers of commerce would be invited to send representatives. That could create a big lobby for airport expansion, more nuclear power plants and other giant infrastructure projects, all ravenous consumers of energy and raw materials, not least cement and concrete, ie more CO2 emissions and other negative impacts.
It is equally unclear how such an assembly would deal with the complexities of selecting what elements of schemes for, say, bioenergy and carbon capture (BECCS) or hydrogen fuel are practicable and truly sustainable in terms of total ecosystem impacts. It is all very well to proclaim a renewable energy revolution but there are questions to answer about problems such as demand for rare earth elements, variability, low power density and associated land take.
The activism of ER has pushed climate breakdown far up the agenda. To date, climate campaigners have largely failed but things might be changing thanks to ER (and David Attenborough!). Yet activity on the ground is not enough. We meet ‘theory’. It might be surmised that many climate activists in London today see theory as so much hot air, akin to medieval scholars debating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. It is indeed true that much theorising is removed from the real world and often there is sectarian disputation over the most trivial and arcane differences.
Yet theory and related debate, constructively conducted, really matter. Without values clarification, we will not know what are good goals. Without analysis, we won’t know in sufficient depth what are the key threats and what lies beneath them. Also, without analysis, we won’t be able to separate good policies from bad ones. Is, for example, the so-called ‘Green New Deal’ still fiddling about or something really worthwhile. Only theory can tell us. To take another example, the rewilding movement has hit some difficult choices (which reintroductions etc). It need theory to resolve them.
Without strategic and tactical thought, we won’t know what are the best opportunities and best ways to exploit them. Should we stick to pressure groups, reform a mainstream party or try to build independent parties such as the Greens. Should we support the ‘lesser evil’? It is theory that can shed light on the best options We need to analyse careful the appeal of climate deniers so we can find ways to counter it.
Good theory can however emerge through thorough, robust but still constructive debate. That debate will probably be more productive in participants are agreed on certain basics. Good theory further provides the vision of a better world without which it is easy to give up, such are the disappointments of activism. But good ideas — a compelling vision — can help to keep up one’s efforts. If we cease to make them, disaster must follow. If we keep up the fight there’s still a change, even if now a slim one.
So, it is not either/or, ideas and debate versus action. If I have to have surgery (‘practice’), I’d prefer to have a surgeon who knows something of the human body (‘theory’).

Green: What Does It Mean?’ presentations

This is a four part series of Powerpoint presentations that, hopefully, might help to deepen appreciaton of the depth and breadth of green politics, ranging from the core elements of the  green worldview to policies and strategy issues. Each will have a set of notes explaining the slides as well as providing links to further evidence and argument.

So far, only part 1 has been completed and its accompanying notes are still be finalised. But the presentation is posted as a taster. In the meantime, trying to decipher what some of the images are all about might be an interesting challenge.

The four parts are:

Part 1: Green Roots and Shoots

Part 2: Green versus ‘Grey

Part 3: Green Analysis

Part 4: Green Solution

Green What Does It Mean Part 1 of 4

 

 

From Stockholm to Rio

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 17.06.39

In some ways, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992 was a re-run of the Stockholm conference twenty years earlier, sometimes with the same faces. It aroused great media interest but again subsequent actions by national governments have not matched the environmental sickness documented in the conference proceedings.

The Earth Summit launched a programme under the name of Agenda 21, which actually endorsed greater world trade ‘liberalisation’, something that has done demonstrable and huge harm to ecosystems and human communities around the planet. Like the 1987 Brundtland Reportfrom the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit reflected and emphasised the notions of global environmental change and of sustainable development, the latter making a false assumption that social improvement and environmental conservation go hand in hand. This is in marked contrast to the notion of ‘limits to growth’ popularised in the early 1970s.

Though it is possible to point to minor achievements, the fact is, when set against what needs to be done to secure the future for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the Summit was a massive failure. But it will have served some purpose if the roots of the debacle are recognised. The seeds of failure were sown years before the 10,000 delegates, 700 UN officials, 7,000 journalists, and 12,000 NGO members boarded their jets to Rio, before some 100 million sheets of unrecycled paper piled up around the conference, before the Brazilians had spent $100m on a new road to speed the politicians past shanty towns and before a $23b. budget had been allocated.

The story starts in Stockholm in 1972 at the ‘One Earth’ conference, when the ideas that dominated this year’s Earth Summit took root. Stockholm too was a failure. Although, like Rio, some progress was registered and the world’s problems were highlighted, the march to ecological meltdown still speeded up. Stockholm left another and more dangerous bequest: the fallacy that has blinded not just decision-makers but also many pressure groups, namely that environmental protection and development (albeit reformed) go hand in hand.

In the following years, this fundamentally flawed perspective blossomed. In particular, the notion that ‘poverty is pollution’ took hold, when it is the total consumption of resources that determines environmental impact. London’s homeless huddled in ‘cardboard cities’, for example, damage the environment far less than the car drivers who speed past them. At the same time, demands grew for a ‘new economic order’ in which raw material producers in the Third World would get a higher price for their exports.

Other bad ideas encouraged the thesis that the world was suffering from ‘misdirected’, rather than too much, growth. There was, for example, the so-called ‘demographic transition theory’, whose misconception was that affluence was the best contraceptive. Meanwhile, the market mechanism was peddled as the way to solve resource shortages, to identify the ‘optimum’ level of pollution and even put a price on the value of wildlife.

All these ideas came together in two key publications—the Brandtand BrundtlandReports. They reflected the fact that concern the environment, human suffering and the arms race was not confined to ecofreaks and dissident scientists. Far-sighted members of business, academic and political elites realised that environmental damage would interfere with growth.  The programme of these ‘Planet Managers’ was the efficient allocation of land, energy and mineral resources (people became ‘human resources’) through scientific management. It is a bit like Taylorism (the ‘time and motion’ managerialism of turn-of-the century America) applied to the entire world. Even the genes of living things are to become an offering on the altar of production.

Another source of misconceptions was the fast growing empire of pressure groups and non-governmental organisations. In  particular, they contributed to a one-sided blaming of the world’s ills upon the rich ‘North’. There was a resurgence of the ‘Third Worldism’of 1960s when many radicals in the rich countries held up as heroes people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. The problems of the Third World were ascribed solelyto imperialist machinations. Organisations such as Oxfam denied the reality of global overpopulation. Others came up with the absurd argument that past deforestation in temperate lands meant that no-one there had the right to criticise the same thing in tropical areas today. More generally, there was an unwillingness to recognise that neither national sovereignty nor any other grounds constitute a right to abuse local environments.

The Earth Summit was therefore a child of many parents Their failings are the failings of Rio and its action programme, Agenda 21. They must not be disguised in the bouts of ‘Bush-bashing’ in the search for scapegoats. The role of the American government under the then George Bush senior merits all the criticism it has received. The Bush administration, like the Tories in Britain, has denied the existence of problems, blocked action and, when those tactics failed, only signed agreements devoid of targets, timetables or mechanisms for enforcement. Yet outrage over their behaviour should not conceal more important realities.

For a start, such politicians reflect pressures upon them, including those from their electorates. Large sections of the public in countries like the USA and UK are not prepared to change their lifestyles in order to combat world poverty and environmental destruction. It is certainly true that responsible politicians would be trying to raise public consciousness rather than exploit it for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the depth of the crisis in human culture and behaviour.

The leaders of other industrialised countries have been let off the hook by the behaviour of the Americans. The Japanese government in particular has been keen to present itself as the world’s new saviour. Yet Japan remains the global ecosystem’s leading rapist. The funds promised by Japan to protect the environment are but a tiny part of the profits made from its destruction to satisfy her consumer appetites. Other governments might seem less tarnished yet the picture remains substantially the same. Since Rio, the Norwegians, for example, have joined the Japanese in the campaign to resume the massacre of the world’s surviving whale populations.

Furthermore, the failings of Bush and other leaders of the industrialised countries have served to cloak those of the so-called G77 countries. For the Chinese government, for example, Rio was a handy device to cover its appalling record on human rights. Furthermore, its new concern for the Earth, has not stopped it from going ahead with one of the most disastrous projects anywhere in the world, the Three Gorges dam scheme on the Yangtse, which displaced more than a million people. The G77 leaders oppose the present division of the global cake, not its size or content. For many members of the G77 elites, the main concern is to get more resources to pay for the armies that keep them in power as well as the luxury imports essential to their lifestyles.

Many Earth Summiteers therefore wanted an agenda focussed upon symptoms, not the causes, of the Earth’s problems. Yet, though the hands of the assembled delegates may have been tied in many ways, they could have given the world at least a lead if they had addressed instead the real issues—not deforestation but the timber trade and the pulp industry; not global warming but the power supply, car and cattle industries; not hunger but the food trade; not indebtedness but the monetary and banking system; not war but the arms trade and militarism; not poverty and unemployment but the transnational corporations and the world market; not population growth per se but the social forces opposed to birth control.

Overpopulation, for example, is easily the biggest and most urgent of all the pressures tearing apart social and environmental systems. Yet the silence from almost all parts of the Earth Summit, official and unofficial, was deafening. The Friends of the Earth ‘Verdict on the Earth Summit’ (Press release, 14/6/92) did not even mention the issue. The main exceptions were opportunists like Lynda Chalker who use it as a way to divert attention from the profligacy of the lifestyles they support and who remain just as silent when it comes to overpopulation in their own countries.

Similarly, the rights of non-human species received scant support. Most debate about biodiversity was about the loss of potential resources to satisfy human wants, not our responsibility to share the Earth with other forms of life. Yet, the ‘resourcist’ approach accepts the logic of sacrificing more parts of the biosphere if the cost/benefit calculations deem it expedient. Contrary to John Major’s talk about the ‘Darwin Initiative’, the real issue is what biologist David Ehrenfeld calls the Noah principle: ‘long-standing existence in nature (carries) with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence’. It implies limits on many human activities which people like John Major bitterly oppose.

Many people have pointed to the weaknesses of the Rio treaties. However, the real problem lies in the background. It is within the Earth Summit’s main legacy, the action programme known as Agenda 21.It is about sustaining industrial society by fine-tuning the engine of production. Its goal remains the maximum-feasible expansion of human society.

The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is at the core of the UNCED project (it is usually given the cosmetic rewording of ‘sustainable development’0. Within Agenda 21, notions such as ‘free trade’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘global integration’ will guide policy despite all the evidence of the damage done by unfettered market forces. Problems are to be solved by more research (as if we were not saturated by information), by technology transfer (as if the failure of the green revolution and other  technofixes never happened), by more crumbs from the rich man’s table, courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (as if underconsumption was not the necessary companion of overconsumption in a finite world).

Otherwise, it is business-as-before: the same goals, lifestyles, and institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Perhaps there will be National Sustainability Plans and even an international Commission to monitor them but they will have little value if based on the kind of ‘sustainable management’ that, for example, has destroyed most old growth forest in regions like Canada and Scandinavia.

Beneath the concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is the notion that we live in an open-ended system capable of more expansion. Shorn of rhetoric, it is nothing more than a revival of the old dream of the perpetual motion machine. In reality, in a geologically finite, entropy bound and ecologically interconnected world sustaining more of this means choosing to sustain less of that.

What matters at the end of the day is the total impact of human society as a whole on the biosphere. It is now quite unsustainable. The Ehrlichs, for example, estimate that already ‘our one species has co-opted or destroyed some 40% of potential terrestrial productivity.’ Coppinger and Smith estimate that, on present trends, by the year 2050, at least 60% of all terrestrial animal biomass and 25% of all plant life would be composed of humans and a few domesticated species. Far from baking a bigger cake, such trends will destroy the very oven!

The Earth Summiteers refused to recognise that human society and its artefacts have grown too large in proportion to the biosphere on which they totally depend. Further attempts at more physical production, no matter how refined or regulated, can only be achieved at the expense of a lowering of the long-term capacity of environmental systems to sustain life. The primary task is to reduce the impact generated by that all important equation of human numbers multiplied byper capita consumption multiplied bythe kinds of technologies we use. Every policy and indeed every aspect of society must be judged in the light of whether it increases or decreases human pressure on the biosphere.

Genuinely sustainable systems will be slower and smaller than today’s superficially productive farms and factories. The reason is simple. Any stable system has to use a lot of what it produces simply to protect and maintain itself: there is less left over for other uses. An agriculture based on the cultivation of perennials, for example, would be much more ecologically sustainable than one that cultivates annual crops but its food yield would be lower. The sustainable cake will cater only for reduced demand.

There are areas where there is avoidable waste such as planned obsolescence and military spending which offer scope for a better use of a lowered throughput of resources (though it must be remembered that ambulances have the same ecological price tag as armoured cars even if they are more socially useful). Beyond that, increased output is possible only at the cost of extra inputs and increased entropy in the system.

In calculating right targets and the policies needed to achieve them, a genuinely ecological approach starts from the outer boundaries of the biosphere and specific ecosystems and works inwards It would deduce what is the carrying capacity for human numbers and derive equitable per capitaconsumption from what space/resources are available afterthe conservation of biodiversity, fertile soil, potable water and clean air has been ensured.

Forestry can illustrate how things would change. To conserve many species, sufficient old trees and snags must be left; to protect soil and water, felling must be done selectively; to maintain soil fertility, sufficient dead trees must be left to decay; to protect people and wildlife, toxic chemicals would be prohibited. Such criteria rule out certain practices and permit others.

Of course, in today’s culture, ‘think shrink’ is not exactly a popular slogan to engrave on one’s banners. Yet the problems of presentingand popularisingpolicy should be kept separate from the development of the right policies. Acceptance of the idea of ‘sustainable contraction’ is theprecondition for the formulation of measures that really will solve the fast-escalating global crisis. Otherwise, we will chase the will o’ the wisps of technological miracle workers and new financial mechanisms until one day, not too far away, it will be too late.

More global conferences like the Earth Summit clearly are not the way forward. Conventional politicians, intergovernmental bureaucracies, global business elites are too much part of the problem to becomes sources of solutions. Fortunately, there is another road. It is one shown, in the same period of the conference, by the struggles of ordinary men and women fighting for democracy on the streets of Bangkok and for their land in the forests of Brazil. It was also shown by the electorate of Denmark in their vote against the Maastricht Treaty. All these struggles are partial ones and will still need political leadership to link them into an unstoppable movement to save the Earth and all our futures.

The Earth Summit in Rio, 1992, illustrated the difficulties of developing an effective international response. It is already forgotten by many, including the media who devoted so much space and time to what was hailed as the last chance to save the planet. Though it is possible to point to minor achievements, the fact is, when set against what needs to be  done to secure the future for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the Summit was a massive failure.

But it will have served some purpose if the roots of the debacle are recognised. The seeds of failure were sown years before the 10,000 delegates, 700 UN officials, 7,000 journalists, and 12,000 NGO members boarded their jets to Rio, before some 100 million sheets of unrecycled paper piled up around the conference, before the Brazilians had spent $100m on a new road to speed the politicians past shanty towns and before a $23b. budget had been allocated.

The story starts in Stockholm in 1972 at the ‘One Earth’ conference, when the ideas that dominated this year’s Earth Summit took root. Stockholm too was a failure. Although, like Rio, some progress was registered and the world’s problems were highlighted, the march to ecological meltdown still speeded up.

Stockholm left another and more dangerous bequest: the fallacy that has blinded not just decision-makers but also many pressure groups, namely that environmental protection and development (albeit reformed) go hand in hand.

In the following years, this fundamentally flawed perspective blossomed. In particular, the notion that ‘poverty is pollution’ took hold, when it is the total consumption of resources that determines environmental impact. London’s homeless huddled in ‘cardboard cities’, for example, damage the environment far less than the car drivers who speed past them. At the same time, demands grew for a ‘new economic order’ in which raw material producers in the Third World would get a higher price for their exports.

Other bad ideas encouraged the thesis that the world was suffering from ‘misdirected’, rather than too much, growth. There was, for example, the so-called ‘demographic transition theory’, whose misconception was that affluence was the best contraceptive. Meanwhile, the market mechanism was peddled as the way to solve resource shortages, to identify the ‘optimum’ level of pollution and even put a price on the value of wildlife.

The Earth Summit was therefore a child of many parents Their failings are the failings of Rio and its action programme, Agenda 21. They must not be disguised in the bouts of ‘Bush-bashing’ that happened as the search for scapegoats followed the Rio failure. The role of the American government merits all the criticism it has received. The Bush administration, like the Tories in Britain, has denied the existence of problems, blocked action and, when those tactics failed, only signed agreements devoid of targets, timetables or mechanisms for enforcement. Yet outrage over their behaviour should not conceal more important realities.

For a start, such politicians reflect pressures upon them, including those from their electorates. Large sections of the public in countries like the USA and UK are not prepared to change their lifestyles in order to combat world poverty and environmental destruction. It is certainly true that responsible politicians would be trying to raise public consciousness rather than exploit it for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the depth of the crisis in human culture and behaviour.

The leaders of other industrialised countries have been let off the hook by the behaviour of the Americans. The Japanese government in particular has been keen to present itself as the world’s new saviour. Yet Japan remains the global ecosystem’s leading rapist. The funds promised by Japan to protect the environment are but a tiny part of the profits made from its destruction to satisfy her consumer appetites. Other governments might seem less tarnished yet the picture remains substantially the same. Since Rio, the Norwegians, for example, have joined the Japanese in the campaign to resume the massacre of the world’s surviving whale populations.

Furthermore, the failings of Bush and other leaders of the industrialised countries have served to cloak those of the so-called G77 countries. For the Chinese government, for example, Rio was a handy device to cover its appalling record on human rights. Furthermore, its new concern for the Earth, has not stopped it from going ahead with one of the most disastrous projects anywhere in the world, the Three Gorges dam scheme on the Yangtse, which will displace more than a million people. The G77 leaders oppose the present division of the global cake, not its size or content. For many members of the G77 elites, the main concern is to get more resources to pay for the armies that keep them in power as well as the luxury imports essential to their lifestyles.

Many Earth Summiteers therefore wanted an agenda focused upon symptoms, not the causes, of the Earth’s problems. Yet, though the hands of the assembled delegates may have been tied in many ways, they could have given the world at least a lead if they had addressed instead the real issues—not deforestation but the timber trade and the pulp industry; not global warming but the power supply, car and cattle industries; not hunger but the food trade; not indebtedness but the monetary and banking system; not war but the arms trade and militarism; not poverty and unemployment but the transnational corporations and the world market; not population growth per se but the social forces opposed to birth control.

Overpopulation, for example, is easily the biggest and most urgent of all the pressures tearing apart social and environmental systems. Yet the silence from almost all parts of the Earth Summit, official and unofficial, was deafening. The Friends of the Earth ‘Verdict on the Earth Summit’ (Press release, 14/6/92) did not even mention the issue. The main exceptions were opportunists like Tory minister Lynda Chalker who use it as a way to divert attention from the profligacy of the lifestyles they support and who remain just as silent when it comes to overpopulation in their own countries.

The USA and other industrialised countries adopted positions for UNCED which in some areas (e.g. military waste) fell behind what was agreed in Stockholm in 1972. Demands that TNC’s accept environmental responsibilities were defeated. At the final UNCED Prepcom meeting the US delegate even objected to the inclusion in Agenda 21 of a recommendation for “less energy intensive consumption patterns and lifestyles in developed countries” as this would “infringe on personal freedom”. References to overconsumption being a cause of environmental degradation were watered down, although, as former World Bank president R.S. McNamara told the UN in 1991, it is “neither morally defensible nor politically acceptable” to avoid the issue of how the rich can “adjust consumption patterns… so as to help assure a sustainable path of development for all the inhabitants of our planet”.

Similarly, the rights of non-human species received scant support. Most debate about biodiversity was about the loss of potential resources to satisfy human wants, not our responsibility to share the Earth with other forms of life. Yet, the ‘resourcist’ approach accepts the logic of sacrificing more parts of the biosphere if the cost/benefit calculations deem it expedient. Contrary to British Prime Minister John Major’s talk about the ‘Darwin Initiative’, the real issue is what biologist David Ehrenfeld calls the Noah principle: ‘long-standing existence in nature (carries) with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence’. It implies limits on many human activities which people like John Major bitterly oppose.

Many people have pointed to the weaknesses of the Rio treaties. However, the real problem lies in the background. It is within the Earth Summit’s main legacy, the action programme known as Agenda 21. It is about sustaining industrial society by fine-tuning the engine of production. Its goal remains the maximum-feasible expansion of human society.

The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is at the core of the UNCED project. Within Agenda 21, notions such as ‘free trade’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘global integration’ will guide policy despite all the evidence of the damage done by unfettered market forces. Problems are to be solved by more research (as if we were not saturated by information), by technology transfer (as if the failure of the green revolution and other  technofixes never happened), by more crumbs from the rich man’s table, courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (as if underconsumption was not the necessary companion of overconsumption in a finite world). Otherwise, it is business-as-before: the same goals, lifestyles, and institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Perhaps there will be National Sustainability Plans and even an international Commission to monitor them but they will have little value if based on the kind of ‘sustainable management’ that, for example, has destroyed most old growth forest in regions like Canada and Scandinavia.

The Earth Summiteers refused to recognise that human society and its artefacts have grown too large in proportion to the biosphere on which they totally depend. Further attempts at more physical production, no matter how refined or regulated, can only be achieved at the expense of a lowering of the long-term capacity of environmental systems to sustain life.

More global conferences like the Earth Summit clearly are not the way forward. Conventional politicians, intergovernmental bureaucracies, global business elites are too much part of the problem to becomes sources of solutions. The answer is more likely to be found by a combination of direct action, individual lifestyle change, political campaigning within existing parties and, last but not least, the formation of new parties.

 

 

Changing Newcastle 1960s-2010s

Below is a Powerpoint presentation of how Newcastle in the NE of England has physically changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. Next to it is a commentary in PDF format that hopefully will provide background so viewers can make better sense of the slide

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse?

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse? notes

Newcastle from air from south

The first part uses the narrative structure of a route I took when I first visited the city in early 1968 for an interview at Newcastle upon Tyne University where I had applied to study Town and Country Planning (I was accepted).

I walked from Newcastle Central station through the city centre to the Claremont Tower on the campus.  Pictures from around that time are compared to roughly the same scene in recent years. Ones featuring trolley buses or trolley bus wires will, however,  be pre-1966 when the last service ran.

The second part spotlights some other changes, with a few slides at the end exploring changes already in the pipeline or being touted by the council and other forces in the city. Some issues are posed about the nature of change, its goals and related decision-making structures. Although Newcastle got off lightly compared to many Brtish cities in terms of  ‘civic vandalism’, many of the changes were steps away from the sustainable common good, sometimes making the city even less resilient in terms of coming ecological challenges. Too often the needs of the private car dominated all else, for example.

Current plans and projections also tend to ignore the ecological ‘facts of life’ and how the future will be very different to what is widely assumed by leading decision-makers and indeed the general public. We need a radically different vision if civilised living is to be sustained and a viable home created by other forms of life with whom we share both our local ‘patch’ and the Earth as a whole.

Plastics, bioplastics and climate breakdown

I am working on a presentation on the above theme. It takes in ‘peak oil’ and other costs of our oil ‘addiction’ as well as the direct impact of oil-based plastic on global overwarming. It will also question whether the ‘fix’ of so-called bioplastics (or, better, ‘agroplastics’) take us much farther foreward. Indeed in some forms they can be worse. In any case, the only soluton is a general ‘downsizing’ and often simply saying ‘no’ to assorted goods and services: in other words not just ‘better’ but also also and more so ‘less.

Constructive criticism will be welcome.

Plastic and climate breakdown

Plastic tide overwhelming Earth

Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion action

The radical journalist George Monbiot has been promoting Extinction Rebellion in is influential Guardian column (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/14/earth-death-spiral-radical-action-climate-breakdown). Basically, we should all be for anything, short of terrorism, that spotlights the crisis of crises we face. We really are drinking in the last chance saloon and many other species are being wiped out day by day. The combination of Bolsonaro in Brazil and China’s ‘Belt and Braces’ project are two mighty big nails in the coffin. Yet too many hopes should not be invested in the Extinction Rebellion group, even if it certainly deserves to flourish.

Sadly, Extinction Rebellion has the hallmarks of a proverbial flash in the pan: too small a numerical base, too incoherent an ideological platform, too lacking in popular appeal, too deficient in means of appealing to a wider public beyond the already informed and concerned, too lacking in terms of practicable and detailed ideas for real change, too many of the ‘usual suspects’ of the kind found in circles such as the anarchist Black Bloc and some Hard Left ‘groupuscules’… I fear it may go the same way as ‘Occupy!’ which, in the UK at least, got almost zero traction, though I really wish I am wrong.

There is a danger of actions being launched in isolation, with little consideration of how they relate to wider activities as well as and, more importantly, how they impact on the critical mass of fellow citizens we need to win over to have a chance. Small turnouts merely demonstrate weakness as well as make participants vulnerable to police persecution.

Furthermore, isolation often leads groups to shout preposterous slogans or indulge in activities simply designed to keep members feeling that something is happening when the opposite is the case. Many will have seen those leftist groups demanding every other month that the TUC call a general strike to ‘smash the Tories’ and so forth (the use of violent language is interesting but another story)

Indeed, a focus on just one-off ‘actions can lead to empty stunts, more designed to make participants feel good, a sort of catharsis, than to build a genuinely popular resistance to destruction-as-usual. Some Black Bloc actions probably did more harm than good, confusing if not alienating onlookers (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/34182788/ns/business-world_business/t/cars-burned-windows-broken-trade-protest/#.W-6tPS10fgE). Realistically, to some extent we have to play to the media since they are the window onto what is going on. It will strike many ’neutrals’ that it is a bit odd to talk of peace and conservation and then to smash or burn the property of innocent individuals.

The absence of a mass base is particularly significant. Of course, there is something of a chicken-and-egg problem here. You have to start somewhere and sometimes an individual action can set big boulders rolling, from Luther nailing his theses to the church door to Rosa Park refusing to move seats. However, the building of a mass movement depends largely on mundane, patient work at the grassroots in local communities. In part, that depends on linking our ‘big’ demands to the existing hopes, fears and general perceptions of large numbers of ordinary citizens, not necessarily a majority but a big enough to set stones rolling. After all, every revolution in history has been the work of minorities but they need the sympathy or at least acquiescence of many others. Otherwise, the fiasco of Prohibition would be repeated.

Isolated actions can of course simply lead to protestors just being heavily fined or locked up: all pain and no gain. Frequently, passers-by can be bewildered by what is going on and why it is happening. I once took place in a ‘tax justice’ action against Vodaphone. Most shoppers just looked the other way. This is not to decry imaginative and well executed actions of the kind Greenpeace do so well. But even then, there is a law of diminishing returns with each event having to be bigger and better than the last one.  It sets in motion a treadmill of escalating expectations that cannot be satisfied, breeding disillusionment in the ranks. Even withpout that, there tends to be a high rate of attrition amongst supporters as happened at various Occupy camps.

Perhaps even more significant is the absence of a coherent programme. We do not need every ‘i’ dotted or every ‘t’ crossed. But we do need some concrete goals and genuinely practicable policies for attaining them. The role of government remains central. Individual lifestyle change is part of the story but, on its own, it is too slow and too small in impact to make a meaningful difference in sufficient time. But policies need to be thought out clearly. Otherwise disaster results. King and Crewe spotlighted how this has repeatedly happened in the UK with conventional politics, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/04/blunders-government-king-crewe-review . It is even more dangerous in more radical circles. The disaster of the essentially programme-less, slogan-driven ‘5 Star’ movement in Italy is a sad example. Its failures once in office have opened the door to the Far Right (eg https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/18/five-star-movement-revolt-rome-decay-protest-refuse-waste ). Part of the chaos following the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 was caused not by resistance from supporters of the ‘old order’. Instead, it resulted, in part, from the Bolshevik lack of concrete ideas for governance. Indeed, only in 1919 were certain details spelt out in the ’ABC of Communism’ and, even then, it is short on the actual ‘nuts and bolts’ of creating a viable alternative system.

To be sure, Extinction Rebellion has some good ideas, most in the Green Party platform already. This is their Draft Manifesto: https://risingup.org.uk/draft-manifesto. They do not address the critical issues of a 3-planet economy in the UK and general global overshoot. It also tends to be a list of ‘bad things out’, ‘nice things in’, with few suggestions regarding actual mechanics, let alone details that might convince doubters. For all its talk of an eco-crisis, there is little about necessary ‘ecocentric values’ and not much about how to stem the tide of extinction of other species.

We also need ideas about how to address this sort of resistance: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/17/french-protester-killed-accident-anti-fuel-tax-blockade. It can be all too easily be imaged that workers in industries such as road haulage, aviation, oil extraction and refining, arms manufacture, car production, volume building and so forth might resist the measures needed to avoid ecological catastrophe.

My main reservation is actually about the focus on ‘actions’, some of which may be premature in the absense of proper preparation and an existing sufficiency of public support. We have seen this strategy in the form of Earth First! Its somewhat unilateral actions exposed itself to state repression (FBI etc) but did not have sufficient support outside its ranks to be able to fight back. We have also seen movements such as Syzira which on closer examination were not as green as some claimed (hence an invitation to address a Green Party national conference). Others such as Podemos have been far more top-down due to the very lack of structure inherent in movements. Jo Freeman’s paper on the “tyranny of structurelessness” remains a classic text ( there is a version here: http://struggle.ws/pdfs/tyranny.pdf).

Overall, we should be very wary of ‘movementism’/ ‘networkism’, with their attendant disdain for party politics. The same goes for what is often called ‘autonomism’. Actually, we need to fire on all cylinders and it is certainly false to pose the tiresome alternatives of ‘movement versus party’.  We need both as well as individual lifestyle change, boycotts, experiments in new co-operative ventures, land trusts and other such initiatives (production, consumer groups, housing, etc), think tanks, (appropriate) technology research centres and ‘philosophical’ endeavours. But party building remains central.

Movements work best when based on a handful of simple demands about large which large numbers can readily agree (eg anti-fracking, no pipeline, no new road, protect this patch of land, keep that public facility, boycott such-and-such a product). That was the strength of one of the very first green movements, that against ‘murderous millinery in fashion (https://fashioningfeathers.info/murderous-millinery/) . It can be seen in grassroots campaigns today such as the fight against coal mining at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, a battle that mobilised large numbers of people in the area.

In passing it is worth noting that the potential of one particular form of activism, so-called ‘clicktivism’ much exaggerated, sometimes an excuse for actual inactivity and complacency, even if now and then there are some notable successes. It can be little more than a feel-good gesture not genuine political engagement. Indeed, there have been several forceful critiques of the limits of what is sometimes called ‘slacktivism’, eg http://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/networks-without-a-cause-geert-lovink/ ,  https://www.onlineopen.org/social-media-abyss-critical-internet-cultures-and-the-force-of-negation ; https://www.theguardian.com/global/2013/mar/20/save-everything-evgeny-morozov-review ]

However, political parties provide something unique: a capacity to synthesise a coherent package of policies across a whole spectrum of issues. In doing so, they — potentially — can link ones of immediate concern (eg health care services) to the bigger picture (eg air pollution and global overwarming). Furthermore, in their campaigning during elections and at other times, they can test those policies against feedback from the public and — potentially — fine tune their programme. Of course, there is always a danger of tailing public whims and prejudices. But there is equally a danger of being too far out of step with the wider public that no traction is gained.

Parties are certainly no perfect. They are umbrellas with disparate tendencies underneath. But, in a genuinely democratic party, it is down to members to push the party the way they want it to go, working with like-minded individuals to that end. Sometimes, there may be a case for launching a new party but there is a consistent record of failure amongst splinters and attempts to launch new parties, especially in first-past-the-post systems. We have to work with what exists, not least time is so short.

Perhaps there are some individual activists who expect parties to be perfect. When these organisations inevitably fail to meet their exaggerated standards of perfection, there is the self-serving excuse not to get engaged. Of course, there are always those who just what want to do their own thing, not accepting that effectiveness often depends on some degree of discipline. Though the term ‘democratic centralism’ has understandably become besmirched, not least because of the Bolshevik experience (eg http://www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Theory/Martov.pdfor the writings of Rosa Luxemburg and the young Trotsky).

But the concept of democratic centralism contains a kernel of truth: we do need party organisation if we are to change society (some parties in history called themselves ‘clubs’ but they were similar in that they had an agreed ‘ideological’ basis, a platform of specific ideas, and a formal structure). Such organisation is the only meaningful ‘scaffolding’ for a proper debate through which to clarify ideas about both ‘theory’ (values, analyses, policies) and activity (strategy and tactics). Only thorough debate can provide the necessary testing of ideas. But, once there is a democratic decision in favour of one option, it will only have any practical import if all members then does their best to implement what has been decided.

Free-wheeling individuals such as George Monbiot can get it so right at times but, since they are mainly listening to themselves, they are also prone to shoot off down wrong roads (eg Monbiot’ utterly wrong stances on population, nuclear power or artificial foodstuffs). Indeed, independent journalists can be especially prone to such traits since, to attract readers, now and again they have to resort to the deliberate striking of a controversial note, regardless of its intrinsic merits.

It is perfectly legitimate that some might conclude that the best option for them is to work within, say, the Labour Party, trying to change it from within. They may be right, though the evidence of past history is against them. The better option to join the party closest to one’s values and accept that it will have warts and all, something hopefully curable, others perhaps not so easily remedied. But that’s life! At the moment, the best option is the Green Party for all its undeniable shortcomings. It really is time to put aside reservations, sign up and persuade others to do likewise.

But, to repeat, it is not a matter of either-or. That does not preclude whatever worthy events groups such as Extinction Rebellion stage.