Renewable energy, cornucopian dreaming and ‘anti-capitalism’

Energy futures delusion

(The above image is from a feature on renewable energy in the ‘National Geographic’ magazine)

These notes cover a range of topics raised in a debate on Facebook (March 2020: https://www.facebook.com/sandy.irvine.18/posts/1344237949096381 ). It was triggered by an article by Bill Rees (https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/11/11/Climate-Change-Realist-Face-Facts/?fbclid=IwAR3ggTgf-Urra0SE9OhNIXTdPkua4R3QuQYBGPdrfaStWLuniv-NEMAEiZ8).

Part of the debate was the intrinsic limitations of renewable energy technologies (regardless of their desirability on other grounds) and the wider issue of what a sustainable society might be like. However, part of the exchanges extended to calls for the “abolition of capitalism” and the issue of ‘reform’ v ‘revolution’. One contributor to the exchanges called for a planned economy and international ‘state control’.

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As a starting point, we collectively need to keep reminding ourselves of the fundamental reality of limits to growth as well as the extent of current ‘overshoot’ and the corresponding need for substantial degrowth in many sectors, not just obvious ones such as arms production. Specifically, Bill Rees is quite right to argue that ‘renewable energy’ could not sustainably power anything like current society, with its high (and still growing) population levels and high (and still growing) expectations in terms of physical per capita consumption.

As Rees explains, renewables are limited by their low power density and intermittency, while energy storage will also be limited in its capacities. To be sure there have been and, as seems likely, will continue to be improvements in efficiencies etc but there is not energy cornucopia awaiting us. This is a case backed up by many studies eg https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/06/the-path-to-clean-energy-will-be-very-dirty-climate-change-renewables/. A particularly interesting paper is this one from Australia: http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue87/TrainerAlexander87.pdf. It also looks at lifestyle implications, something avoided by those who glibly demand “system change” but do not explore what in detail that would mean in terms of diet, clothing, shelter, and so much more.

We do not, of course, live by energy supply alone but need land and water for many other things as well. That finite space is also needed by a myriad of other species for habitat (the scale of that latter requirement in terms of biodiversity conservation is suggested here: https://www.half-earthproject.org ). There are, then, unavoidable trade-offs between competing uses for what is a finite amount of physical space. In any case, only some of that land, river and sea is suitable for renewable energy devices such as wind turbines, thereby intensifying that inherent geophysical limitation. Abstract aggregations of theoretically possible output tell us little about those trade-offs and opportunity costs.

There are also side-effects of some renewable energy technologies such as the terrible impact of neodymium production (for magnets) that are also ignored. To date, the impact of large HEP dams has arguably been more destructive than that of the radioactive white elephant of nuclear power. Both local human communities and critical wildlife habitat have been destroyed by HEP schemes, which, in warmer parts of the world, also generate significant volumes of greenhouse gases (eg https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/nov/06/hydropower-hydroelectricity-methane-clean-climate-change-study) Large-scale biomass energy is another ruinous energy source, requiring vast chemically saturated monoculture to produce significant yields. It literally takes food out of the mouth of people and instead ‘feeds’ vehicles.

We have to look beyond carbon emissions and consider not just all greenhouse gases but also the sheer depth and breadth of the various ecological crises we face, from soil erosion and aquifer depletion to coming peaks in certain specific resources such as phosphorus and some rare earths. There is little to be gained ‘solving’ the energy crisis by making those other crises worse. Indeed, abundant energy probably would speed up the rate at which forests are being felled, wetlands drained, farmland overtilled, roads filled with vehicles and so on. The ‘rebound effect’ might also cancel out some gains in energy efficiency (to which there are ceilings anyway).

On a more specific  point, it is very ungreen thinking to perceive deserts as just wasteland, there to be exploited (cf https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/deserts/; see also the work of Gary Nabhan in particular eg https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/gathering-the-desert ). There are several critical studies of the dream that, say, the Saharan desert could power Europe with gigantic solar collectors and a gigantic grid, eg http://www.greens.org/s-r/60/60-09.html . It might be noted that dependence on solar energy from lands potentially ruled by the likes of Colonel Gaddafi might be as unwise as that on oil from the Middle East. [On the politics of the Sahara region, see, for example: https://www.ispionline.it/en/publication/crisis-watch-2020-sahel-24705 ]. In any case, desert solar power towers are not unproblematic eg https://eu.desertsun.com/story/tech/science/energy/2016/08/17/how-many-birds-killed-solar-farms/88868372/

Of course, many attack the notion of degrowth to a steady-state economy as some kind of ‘miserabilism’, probably needing a Mao-style dictatorship. Let us be clear, then, it is quite possible to combine the necessary degrowth with a stable, convivial, much fairer and democratic society. On many fronts, from personal health to a reconstruction of local community bonds, there is much to be gained. Indeed, there is much empirical evidence eg http://www.fodorandassociates.com/book/bnb_info.htm . Organisations such as Simplicity Institute (Australia) and Post Carbon Institute (USA)have also compiled a compelling evidence base. Renewables could supply enough energy for civilised living providing we keep human numbers in check. Indeed, Bill Rees point out that the USA of 50 years ago managed reasonably well on far less energy. I once spent a few days in Amish country. People there seemed healthy and happy but used far less energy than their neighbours. The key point is that ‘mass consumerism’ and renewables cannot go together. The community on Eigg gives an idea of what a renewable energy budget might power (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170329-the-extraordinary-electricity-of-the-scottish-island-of-eigg) and, to be honest, it does depend on a fair bit of tourist income (ie on people who have travelled there courtesy of fossil fuels).

But, to explore the transitional steps to get from here to there, we need to drop empty revolutionary rhetoric. The notion that all our problems could be solved by the “abolition of capitalism’ is simplistic, to say the least. Many anti-capitalists do not even agree on what actually is ‘capitalism’ (just look at the tiny Trotskyist movement to sample how definitions vary even in such small circles) so it is far from clear what is to be abolished. In any case, there are huge between countries and, within them, between provinces and councils at a policy level. It underlines how crude it is to think that there is one ‘system’ that dictates that things will be one way and no other.

Furthermore, it is false to pose ‘market tools’ versus ‘state control’. There is a place for both. As the fast and large-scale reduction in plastic bag usage shows, the price mechanism can sometimes work very well. In 1921, the ‘market; saved many Russians from starvation.

But we need to judge things on a case by case basis. As the ‘neo-Trotskyist’ theorist Tony Cliff argued, the distinctive nature of agriculture, as opposed to manufacturing, means that “the private farm (will have) a new lease of life under the socialist regime.” There is a case for public ownership of inherent ‘unities’ but many other economic activities could be conducted by other organisations, ranging from (regulated) for-profit enterprises to ‘benefits corporations’, producer and consumer cooperatives, land trusts and community banks. Often, the size of the enterprise, not its ownership, will be the critical parameter. We need in-depth debate about the best combinations, not empty sloganeering.

Demands to abolish capitalism actually leave begging all the key questions. How big would the overall economy be? What size of population would be sustainable, locally as well as nationally and globally? What levels of per capita consumption are durable? What technologies would it use and what ones would it reject? We cannot put off such questions until ‘after the revolution’ (a rather unlikely event in any case). All the evidence suggests that the only sustainable option is to ‘think shrink’ and the bigger the current economy the deeper the shrinkage will have to be if we are to avoid collective ruination (https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/country-overshoot-days/)

Substituting planned production for social use for private production for profit makes no difference in itself in terms of sustainability. Ambulances made in a state enterprise have the same ecological costs as armoured cars made in a private firm, regardless of their different social value. Nuclear power plants will still need uranium mines and dump radioactive waste on future generations, regardless of social control and usage.

In any case, the historical record of centralised planning is not a good one, as dissident economists in the Soviet Bloc such as Oscar Lange came to recognise. Indeed, the worst environmental and humanitarian disasters of the 20th century happened in planned economies, ones comparatively insulated from the world market (see, for example: http://www.frankdikotter.com )

‘International state control’ could be a bureaucratic nightmare and likely to degenerate an inefficient, unbending and unresponsive (http://duaneelgin.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/the_limits_to_complexity.pdf) What we actually need is radical decentralisation, ideally along bioregional lines, with each local economy and society adapted to the patterns, capacities and limits of their ‘ecoregion’ (see: https://sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/28/regionalism-devolution-and-subsidiarity/

The posing of a reform v revolution dichotomy is false anyway. We need a transitional programme, with a myriad of changes, some big, others seemingly small but still significant in terms of cumulative impact. Berne Sanders, for example, is no revolutionary but a reformist. That does not mean he has no good ideas and ones that are quite practicable in the here and now (https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/110915/review-bernie-sanders-economic-policies.asp ). Clement Attlee specifically denied being a socialist but his government did some very good things in what were very discouraging circumstances.

What the ‘Hard Left’ routinely dismisses as ‘reformism’ has delivered major improvements in the lives of ordinary people. The NHS as well as , before it, national insurance and pensions legislation reduced a lot of poverty, insecurity and sickness. Public housing took a lot of people out of slums as did private reformist initiatives such as Quaker ‘model village’ projects (Bournville etc). Accumulated health and safety legislation might not go far enough but we are better off with it than without it. Children benefited enormously from reforms on child labour. Much as I loathe Tony Blair, his government’s ‘Sure Start’ programme did help a lot of youngsters and their parents.

There are also plenty of examples of beneficial environmental reforms. Controls over CFCs for example, saved many people from skin cancer and worse. Sanitation reforms delivered huge public health benefits. Town and country planning did protect some beautiful environments while access legislations opened new recreational opportunities for ordinary people. A lot of successive reforms can, of course, create a huge overall change in the nature and functioning of society eg https://steadystate.org/discover/policies/

Now let us consider ‘revolution’ (in the sense of a dramatic ‘big bang’ transformation). I’ve just tried to skip through Wikipedia’s very long list of revolutions. What struck me was how many of the ‘successful’ ones led to dire consequences, often the opposite of the original goals of their leaders. Indeed, revolutions regularly do ‘eat’ both their children and their parents. A dynamic of escalating violence has routinely been present. By far the most numerous victims of the French Revolution, for example, were poor people, many of them children (eg the ‘noyades”). Even less bloodthirsty revolutions could threaten ‘innocent’ groups eg the bad consequences of the then newly independent USA, post-revolution, for both native Americans and slaves).

Indeed, the speed of degeneration across many revolutionary regimes surprised me. Thus, after only a few weeks of being in power, the Bolshevik regime created a secret police organisation, the Cheka, to suppress striking workers, ie well before the ‘White’ counter-revolution. Even the remarkable Haitian revolution involved some terrible crimes, including the massacres of mulattos. There was indiscriminate violence on all sides. Revolutions do, then, seem to have a way of brutalising those that made them

At the very least, it might pay to be more circumspect in calls for the revolutionary overthrow of this, that and the other. We need ‘wins’ in the here and now otherwise there will be little left to save. But we also need a realistic vision of what a sustainable society might be like. To return to the original post, it won’t resemble the imaginings of assorted cornucopians, be they ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.

Featured

Green: What Does It Mean?’ presentation

This Powerpoint presentations hopefully, might help to deepen appreciation of the depth and breadth of green politics. It tries to provide an overview of the roots and shoots of those ideas as well as summarise them.

Green – What Does It Mean?

Green – What Does It Mean?Green – What does it mean?- notes

 

 

 

 

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.

Green Party elections 2018

One of the better things about the Green Party these days is that, during internal elections, there are now some good candidates in the field. Regarding forthcoming Green Party elections, for instance, three caught my eye. They are:

1. Andrew Cooper
2. Liz Reason
3. Rupert Read

The context to these elections is particularly significant. The last General Election was a significant setback for the Green Party. It certainly faces a hostile external environment in many ways. Yet the party also sometimes make things more difficult for itself. Its external campaigning has often been unnecessarily weak, both at election time and in terms of campaigns over specific issues. Internally, things still need to be tightened while internal democracy and transparency could also be much improved. I feel sure that the election of all three candidates will greatly help the party in these and other respects, not least strengthening ‘regionality’ inside the party.

Andrew CooperAndrew Cooper is one of the party’s best voices and activists. He has been a regular visitor to my region, the North East, and was a great source of support with regard to the threat of open cast coal mining at Druridge Bay. He is, of course, well known for his achievements on Kirklees Council in the field of energy conservation. He proposed the UK’s first universally free insulation scheme, with over 50,000 homes insulated. In 2000, he initiated the Council’s Renewable Energy Fund that has seen Kirklees become the leading authority in the deployment of micro-generation technologies. Andrew embodies that mix we need so much of real vision coupled to practicable policies for the here and now. As I know from walks with him around the ward he represents, he is very good at relating to those outside our ranks. I spent the first 18 years of my life there and more recently I had quite wrongly not seen Newsome as fertile ground for the Greens. The fact he is from ‘up North’ is a particular asset since there is, arguably, a certain London-centrism at national level in the party. I think he would be a strong voice for all the regions in the post for which he is standing.
See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy7vteD16mk&t=8s

Liz Reason

Liz Reason is probably best known inside the party for the lead she gave in setting up a thorough-going review of party governance. Previous efforts in this area were going nowhere and, worse, some bad ideas were abroad. Liz really did come to the rescue: it is down to her that we have a real chance of taking a good hard look at the workings of the party. She has long experience in energy conservation but it is the organisational side of her career that really boosts her credentials for the post she is seeking. Indeed, she has extensive community building, political and business skills. For example, she has been chair of ‘Sustainable Charlbury’, a community organisation whose major achievement was to build a 4.5MW solar farm, developed, financed and managed by the community. She is now chair of ‘Southill Community Energy’, a community benefit society, which runs the solar farm and distributes its surpluses to environmental projects. Liz is exactly the person needed to keep national decision-making grounded in reality. I’d note also that she is particularly strong on fund-raising and, in my experience, works in genuinely collaborative ways
For some background on Liz, see: http://lizreason.co.uk

Rupert Read

Rupert Read is standing for a post with a more external focus and one that would require a first class speaker and debater to ensure our message is effectively projected. Rupert has the right qualities: a sharp thinker and quick on his feet in debate. His work at the Green House think tank is widely admired. It has provided a steady stream of excellent publications (https://www.greenhousethinktank.org/publications.html ). The Green Party really needs to have the intellectual tools with which to challenge the dominant mind-set if it is to play its part in changing society. I particularly admire the work Rupert has done on the ‘precautionary principle’ and, more generally, ‘post-growth’. On YouTube you can see plenty of examples of how effective Rupert can be at public meetings and on TV.
See: https://rupertread.net

If you are member of the Green Party of England and Wales, I hope you’ll vote for them in the relevant contests. If you agree with me, encourage other people you know across the party to do likewise. I am sure that all three would welcome message of support

 

Caroline Lucas: a critical appreciation

Lucas and Bartley

At the end of May 2018, Caroline Lucas, the then Green Party co-leader, announced she would not be seeking nominations to re-run for the position. It was not a surprising development. Indeed what is quite amazing is how long she performed that role alongside her many other demanding commitments as the party’s sole MP, her repeatedly effective appearances in the media (all of which takes a lot of preparation), and a very active role in assorted grassroots campaigns, not least anti-fracking.

Many people outside the Green Party have recognised Caroline’s qualities and achievements. On TV programmes such as BBC One’s ‘Question Time’, she has regularly been the best person on the panel. Her combination of an attractive persona, knowledge and sharp debating skills has been a potent one.

But that is one of the problems. The Green Party and Caroline Lucas can become synonymous with people signing up because they were so impressed by her performances but not necessarily understanding or agreeing with the party’s full programme. Obviously there is a fundamental need to attract support. The danger lurks in the absence of mechanisms to integrate and harness those who have been drawn to the party by Caroline’s sterling efforts.

Caroline has played a ‘star’ role and rightly so. Yet this inevitably casts others into the shadows. Her co-leader Jonathan Bartley, for example, is a talented man but it is probably fair to say that in the public eye at least that the Green Party was a one-person show. Ironically proportionally the party has more talent in its ranks than do Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats. There is, for example, real expertise on a range of subjects from climate change and transport policy to food and agriculture. Perhaps here is an opportunity to do more to harness and display that knowledge and experience, even if the media do tend to go for just one or two faces they know.

Another problem is that leading individuals such as both Caroline and Jonathan have tended to reflect and encourage a certain London-centrism (Brighton where Caroline is MP is often described as London-by-the-sea). The party’s HQ is of course in London as well. There is always the danger of being sucked into a metropolitan bubble, It was reflected, for example, by the fact that many people within it were surprised by the Brexit vote, not fully appreciating the resentments about metropolitan elites (with which the EU is of course associated) felt by large numbers outside that bubble.

Perhaps here is another opportunity: to really regionalise the Green Party (perhaps as some federal entity, with financial and other resources being redistributed around the regions). A number of tactical mistakes have been made (over, for example, the relative importance of the Manchester mayor and Gorton by-election campaigns) because of a certain degree of insensitivity to what is happening ‘in the sticks’.

By being centred in London and with the (admittedly very small) apparatus of a conventional political party, the Greens have been playing by the ‘rules’. Even the announcement that Caroline and Jonathan were the new co-leaders was organised like some American presidential candidate event. Conferences are similarly built around leaders’ speeches. A lot of Green Party literature also looks like the literature from other parties, laden with promises to serve the public and all that waffle but few serious ideas. Yet all this is a political game that is heavily loaded against small parties such as the Greens. Perhaps it is time to try and break free, doing things differently and being seen to be really different from what, after all, is widely and rightly seen as a corrupt and corrupting political system.

There is a good case for having a leader (or co-leaders) in the manner of other parties. After much weeping and wailing in some quarters, the Green Party decided on that matter some years ago (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2007/nov/30/greenpolitics.uk). Yet it does not have a proper political leadership, one that leads the party in analysing the world ‘out there’, identifying emerging opportunities (and threats), and galvanising the party to respond to them in a united and effective manner. Instead there is something of a vacuum though, it has to be said, Caroline was not averse to taking, at times, somewhat unilateral actions by herself and her close circle (an example being the fiasco of the Richmond by-election).

Actually there is a case that she should have intervened far more often to give the party a steer. Quite reasonably she tried to work with all sections of the party. Perhaps, deep down, she is conflict-averse. But there were times, not least regarding the internal problems of the Brighton party, when she might have knocked a few heads together (non-violently of course).

Insofar as she did push the party down certain roads, it has to be said that they were not best ones. There are a lot of issues here. Some are discussed in three papers here:

https://wordpress.com/post/sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/1287while there are many posts on the same matters here as well: https://www.facebook.com/sandy.irvine.18. To cut a long story short, Caroline seems to have become stuck in that well-worn groove that sees politics primarily in terms of a left-right continuum and that at the moment puts nearly all the emphasis on a ‘kick out the Tories’ narrative. This led a focus on so-called ‘anti-austerity’. Thus Caroline enthusiastically endorsed the ‘2012 People’s Assembly Against Austerity alongside various left-wing luminaries. (http://www.compassonline.org.uk/)

Difficult questions about how an end to government-imposed austerity could be reconciled with the deep cuts necessary to avoid disastrous climate change, the destruction of biodiversity and more generally live within the planet’s means (‘downsizing’ from a 3-planet to a 1-planet economy) were just dumped on one side, a matter for some vague rhetoric but little else. [cf http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/counting_consumption.pdf

Caroline has rightly spotlightedsheer unfairness of government policies and the way the economic situation is being used to drive forward a programme of privatisation and enriching the already super-rich. The problem of unsustainability is not just caused by what in her stepping down speech she called a ‘callous’ government. A caring government committed to the same growth agenda would cause the same fundamental problem of ‘overshoot’. The fact that the UK needs the equivalent of 3 planets to support it must be addressed squarely (http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=1222) Glib slogans about nocutbacks scarcely help.

Part of this orientation was of course the pursuit of the will o’ the wisp of a Progressive Alliance. I was centrally involved in the negotiations over the precise strategy (it became something very specific: “Electoral Alliance for Proportional Alliance”, definitely not a broad front across a range of issues). But I could tell Caroline still wanted to pursue the Progressive Alliance option. In reality, it was never on the table (despite some honeyed words from bodies such as Compass). In practice, it led to an electoral disaster. The Green Party was always going to be squeezed but it did not help itself by appearing to be not so different from the Corbyn Labour Party. [See many of the posts on the above Facebook page for relevant evidence and argument)

Indeed Caroline conspicuously failed to present a forceful and across-the-board critique of Corbynism and ‘Left Labourism’. Perhaps the main reason was her identification with the Left. Thus on the BBC’s Question Time programme (13/0310), Caroline said, ‘Well, we have socialist principles’. But the nature of this ‘socialism’ was seldom given any concrete meaning by her. The fact is that nearly all regimes and political leaders who have called themselves ‘socialist‘ have trashed environmental systems and human communities with neither restraint nor remorse. Socialism as a theory has been overwhelmingly cornucopian, centralist, and enthusiastic for the “white heat of technology”. Only in one or two corners of the whole tradition has there been recognition of the intrinsic value of non-human nature and of the need for a ‘steady-state economy, and a ‘human scale’ within society.

One final matter worth noting is how Caroline pushed the Green Party into a less critical position regarding the EU and the Single Market. Historically the party had always been hostile to the centralising, growth-pursing EU as well as the large-scale, long-distance (and mainly road) transport inherent in the Single Market. It posed instead a strategy of economic ‘localisation’ and political subsidiarity (a “Europe of Regions”). One might oppose this particular form of Brexit at this moment and on the terms likely to be agreed. But that does not alter the fact that anything remotely resembling the current EU is utterly unsustainable. It is interesting that one of best advocates of such ideas in the past used to be Caroline herself (see https://shop.greenparty.org.uk/products/book-green-alternatives-to-globalisation). Of late, she seems to have shifted towards a more conventional agenda rather than trying to articulate a distinctive green ‘take’ on the matter.

But there are all sorts of difficult strategic and tactical choices here. Thus a case might be made that Caroline was spotting an opportunity for the Greens as a strong voice within the Remain camp. It is also true that there is something peculiarly inept and mean-minded amongst the government of Theresa May. Its failings do need to highlighted in a rigorous and coherent way. Caroline’s ability to deliver it stands in contrast to the performance Jeremy Corbyn signally fails to deliver in a consistent and compelling way, most strikingly in parliamentary debates where his mistakes often let the government wriggle off the hook.

But the big issue is not about individuals but about political ideas. Caroline has served the Green Party exceptionally well from the days of being a press Officer to her recent time as co-leader. In terms of the deeper Green worldview some of her stances, most especially regarding the Progressive Alliance strategy, have been problematic. But they most certainly do not diminish her achievements.