Protecting the Planet
(a WEA course)
Week 4: Alternative approaches/strategies for solving environmental problems
‘Right-wing’ vs ‘left wing’ or ‘light green’ vs ‘dark green’ (minimalist vs radical)?
1 ‘leave it to the market’: once a phenomenon hits someone’s pocket they will start paying to prevent it. The competitive market is the best way to produce new technologies to deal with environmental problems. Example: carbon trading
But: what if a problem is too expensive? Won’t profit come first? Functional vs intrinsic values. Growth is the problem. New technologies can bring new problems!
2 ‘self-regulation’ by business, ‘socially responsible business’: good business is good for business. Consumer pressure can bring change. ‘Sustainability’
But: how to persuade companies to be caring of the environment? ‘Sustainable’ can come to mean nothing. The ‘real world’...
3 the ‘green consumer’: essential to get public support. Note: carbon footprint, eco-housing, divestment from fossil fuel investments. But: should consumer have so much responsibility? How to motivate people?
4 ‘pressure groups’: [civil society] the way to persuade companies [and government]? But: commercialism, consumerism, capitalism are the real problems?
5 political parties e.g. greens: to get elected and change legislation. But: a slow process?
6 government regulation, laws: most effective? But: still need to motivate people, and some will resent government intervention. Also governments can be manipulated by commercial/industrial interests. Such legislation is restricted to each country, while many problems are international, so:
7 international and inter-governmental bodies: e.g. WHO, IPCC can play very useful role. But: can be weaker than national governments, and can also suffer from mistrust.
8 lobbying by industry: ‘dark money’ used to influence government
9 changing the economic system – socialism?
10 international civil society organisations: Naomi Klein argues these are the only way forward: we have to engage people and bypass corporations. But: may still need national or inter-governmental legislation to be effective?
11 the ‘power and systems’ approach
Alternative strategies or viewpoints, and their limitations:
The kind of practical solution that anyone recommends for a particular environmental problem will depend on their view of the nature and causes of the problem. Sometimes commentators have been influenced by their political views, which are usually classified as varying from the right to the left wing. However, many would argue that nowadays views on the environment do not fit into this traditional spectrum.
It might be more helpful to classify the views as ranging from ‘conservative’, ‘minimalist’ or ‘reformist’, through to the ‘radical’ argument that the whole economic and industrial system needs changing. In ‘green’ language this is the difference between ‘light green’ and ‘dark green’ – and we will explore this further when we look at different environmental philosophies.
I have listed 12 different strategies:
1. Voluntary, pro-market #pro-market
2. New technology which arises from the market #technology
3. Self-regulation by business and industry #self-regulation
4. Green consumerism #green consumer
5. Pressure-groups #pressure groups
6. Political Parties #parties
7. Government (and local government) regulation #government
8. Lobbying by industry #lobbying
9. Changing the economic system #changing the economy
10. International and inter-governmental bodies: #international and intergovernmental
11. International civil society organisations: #international civil
12. ‘Power and systems’ #power
There have always been those who believe so strongly in the market that they would leave all these problems alone, provided the market is made as free as possible. The argument goes that once a phenomenon hits someone’s pocket they will start paying to prevent it. If another producer comes up with a product that is more environmentally friendly (and not more expensive!) then the public will start buying that product instead. Competition will make producers change their ways.
This view is also based on hostility to regulations: government interference is bad for business, it is argued. (And we can see how popular this view is at present!)
It seems to me that this will work provided producers are not able to escape the cost to them of pollution etc (which takes us back to the question of ‘externalities’ or ‘residuals’. Surely regulations brought in by central or local government (fines for pollution or CO2 emissions) may be necessary before producers act? Adair Turner, former director general of the CBI, believes that environmental restrictions and economic and industrial growth are compatible (Simon Caulkin, Observer 31/8/2003).
This view also assumes profitable growth is compatible with a healthy environment...
I have commented on the problem of market values already (does ‘nature’ have value only in its usefulness to us (*), or is it intrinsically valuable?), There is a worrying (in my opinion) trend towards such concepts as ‘ecological services’ (i.e. what nature does for us), ‘green infrastructure’ (measuring the ‘multiple benefits’ of e.g. green spaces to the community) in discussions about planning. These concepts do at least acknowledge that the natural environment is valuable, but they go too far, in my view, towards counting the value only in so far as it benefits us.
I have also made the observation that we do not seem to deal with problems until they cause us noticeable damage. But this is precisely how the pro-market viewpoint deals with problems: why should we spend money unnecessarily on putative problems, when once a phenomenon hits someone’s pocket they will start paying to prevent it?
A parallel view to this stresses that it is only as a result of the market and competition that we are come up with new technologies at all. If we could not make money out of something, would we bother with trying to make it? Consequently, the best way to deal with the negative consequences of industrial and technological growth is to try to find new and better (i.e. more energy efficient, less polluting, less wasteful) technologies.
However, Adair Turner, former director general of the CBI, believes that environmental restrictions and economic and industrial growth are compatible (Simon Caulkin, Observer 31/8/2003).
There is also the argument (says Freedland, Guardian 05.12.07) that capitalism is best at innovating. For example, we now can have a meter to show how much energy a household is using… promoted by SEED: social environmental enterprise + design.
We also need to be looking for technologies that will help to clear up pollution, otherwise how are we going to do it? And after all, money can be made from clearing up a mess! Witness the discussion of how it is the Chinese who are processing most of Britain’s recyclable domestic waste.
To solve the problem of getting international agreement on reducing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases), the Kyoto protocol (which came into force as a legally binding international treaty in February 2005) endorsed the idea of “carbon trading”.
I shall take this as an example of a market-based approach, although it also depends on international governmental agreement. At first sight it looks like an attempt to put a value on “externalities” – but it is a money value, and then the inevitable happens, i.e. if any reduction in pollution occurs it will be because it makes economic sense to the country concerned, not because of any intrinsic value in reducing pollution. Also I am concerned that desire for profit will mean the scheme is used for profit rather than to reduce pollution. (I will try to explain this below)
Under the scheme, each country is given a target amount of permitted emissions, and these are expressed as “credits”. If a country manages to reduce its emissions beyond the target, it will have credits in hand that it can “sell” to another country that is likely to exceed its target. If it goes over that figure, it can “buy” excess credits from elsewhere, but if it still fails to meet its target there will be fines, in proportion to the excess that it produces. (See the Guardian, Life, Kyoto Issue, 3/2/2005). The country concerned will also have to explain to the other parties why it has failed, and it then may be excluded from the trading agreement. It is hoped that with this mix of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ incentives countries will reduce their output of greenhouse gases – though whether it will bring about enough of a reduction is but one of the big questions that critics raise (not to mention the fact that the United States, responsible alone for 36% of the industrialised world’s emissions, refused to join up!).
There are now trading schemes that are up and running – for example the European trading Scheme – where millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are traded each month. In fact, it looks as if banks and others (including Enron, before it collapsed!) are interested in how they can make money from buying and selling pollution credits. If this happens, I am not sure what will become of the original purpose of the scheme. However, the hope is that as governments make their targets more stringent, it will be cheaper to reduce emissions than to buy credits. But this obviously depends on governments being strict, and to date what we have observed is the British government backtracking and reducing pressure on industry. Not only this, but governments have to set targets for particular companies – and this has not been thought through carefully or fairly, according to some critics (Ian Sample, loc cit).
In October 2017, Adam Vaughan (23rd Oct, Guardian) says: ‘Two of Britain’s biggest energy companies have called on Philip Hammond [the chancellor] to strengthen a carbon tax – the carbon price floor. The government the carbon price floor, the minimum price for greenhouse gases emitted by power generators, would be frozen until 2020. SSE and Drax ask: ‘We urge you to ensure the UK has a robust and strong carbon price.’ Without a commitment to a strong carbon price, coal could enjoy a last hurrah in the early 2020s. (Energy-intensive industries such as chemicals want to see it abolished or watered down). Introduced in 2013 he carbon price floor was a key factor in coal power generation plunging by two-thirds last year. (See also notes week 7)
More optimistic observers (e.g. Michael Meacher, the former Environment minister, Guardian 9/2/05) stress that at least we are getting international agreement – “at least an enforceable goal has been set on which to build”.
In 2007 Jonathan Freedland, (Guardian 05.12.07) noted that there is much cash now in the carbon cap-and-trade market: it grew x 3 last year, and is now worth at least $30 bn. My concern is that the whole thing has become a way of speculating to make money, rather than a way to reduce carbon emissions.
Also, opponents who believe the underlying problem is industrial growth, not just the increasing production of greenhouse gases, will not see much benefit from this treaty. It is all very well being a “realist”, as Michael Meacher is, (Guardian 9/2/05: “at least an enforceable goal has been set on which to build”), but if as much damage has been done to the environment as some scientists claim, then surely the time has come for something more drastic?
Here is John Gummer, former secretary of state for the environment, arguing that free markets are the only real way to stop global warming:
‘Conservatives cannot properly be climate deniers. At the heart of their political stance is a desire to hand on something better to the future than they have received from the past. Now that climate science is so clear, a recognition of the duty to act to protect the next generation follows naturally. Of course, Conservatives have been somewhat cautious. Constitutionally they don’t chase after novelty, and it’s in their character to question fashionable theories.’ He goes on to say that it is no surprise that Margaret Thatcher, as a Conservative and a scientist was committed to fighting climate change. ‘She would have had little patience with mealy-mouthed politicians who refuse to act ‘because the jury is still out’. It isn’t, and she knew it – and that made her the first leader of a major economy to commit to the Rio Earth Summit.’
He makes a strong attack on Trump’s distorted markets, ‘that allow coal owners to make profits while the community pays the cost of the consequent pollution, ill-health and climate change; the market that enables American cotton farmers to damage land and air while driving poor African producers out of business on the back of US subsidies worth more than the value of their crops, etc...
However, he weakens his case, it seems to me, by insisting that ‘Today’s consumers must be charged for the real costs of the products they buy... solving these existential problems [slag heaps, air pollution, flooding] needs the strongest of forces and therefore the most efficient of markets where real costs are charged to customers and companies make real profits.’
Other arguments that oppose the pro-market position should be noted:
(i) the market may throw up new technology, but there is always the possibility that this is accompanied by new problems. For example, when nuclear power was first put into operation, enthusiasts told us we would have virtually free electricity. Experience has thrown up the incredible difficulty and cost of disposing of waste, and the likelihood that cancers have been caused. Now the whole viability of nuclear power is in doubt.
Another example would be how automation was supposed to bring more leisure time, but in practice has meant that we all work harder because the technology enables us to do more. With BSE and CJD we “discovered” some unforeseen consequences of intensive meat production. After all this, isn’t the public right to be wary of new technology having as yet unknown harmful consequences? It is surely little wonder that there is uncertainty about GM crops, mobile phones and radiation from radio masts.
(ii) as the market works on the basis of risk-taking to make a profit, how likely is it that money will be found to deal with very expensive environmental problems? We have noted already that insurers do not have a bottomless purse when it comes to the likely consequences of climate change. Nuclear power, too, would not survive without enormous government subsidy. In fact nuclear power has probably only been worked on because of its connection with bombs. I would maintain that the market can not deal with nuclear power, and that to hand such a dangerous and costly industry over to “free market” forces would not only be dangerous – experience has shown (in this country at least) that a buyer is unlikely to be found.
(iii) inequalities across the globe must be considered, and market forces are not good at this. See also A Gore p 253 for comparative figures on CO2 emissions world-wide.
Amongst those in business who accept that the dangers of climate change are real, there is still disagreement over the extent to which regulation is necessary. Elkington and Hailes in their best-selling “Green Consumer Guide” (1988), represented the view that business would “green” itself – as a result of market forces, and consumer pressure. They argued for “bridge-building” between business and environmental groups, and they set out a number of criteria that consumers could use in order to make their purchases environmentally sound – which would then put pressure on business to meet this demand.
An argument that was common when ‘corporate social responsibility’ became more accepted was: ‘good business is good for business’. And it is not too difficult to envisage business realising the benefits of environmental consciousness, and such slogans as - “reduce, recycle, re-use” are attractive to businesses if explained in such a way that they realise they might gain from adopting them!
This position differs from the entirely pro-market view given above, since Elkington and Hailes recognise the need for some sort of outside pressure on firms in order to produce “green business”. However, this is a very mild form of pressure, and often takes the form of providing “consultancy” over environmental issues – whilst building on public alarm over the environment.
In fact, John Elkington himself has become a consultant for “sustainable business”, and other environmental campaigners have decided that if you can’t beat them you should join them! For example, Jonathan Porritt (formerly of Friends of the Earth) is now chair of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, and runs Forum for the Future, a “charity working closely with business”.
‘Sustainability’ is frequently used as a way of describing a process that is environmentally friendly. Surely all businesses should be ‘sustainable’ – i.e. so that there is no danger of running out of some vital resource, or source of energy. However, it has a deeper meaning if we consider the UN definition (Stockholm Conference 1972, and the 1992 Earth Summit Rio Declaration): ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’
In other words we should not pass on to our descendants a world which has a worse standard of living or quality of life than what we have now. This formulation gives an ethical underpinning to something that other wise appears to be based on self-interest (for business at least).
I am not convinced that Elkington and Hailes’s argument makes sense: their optimistic view that business is becoming green seems to have little foundation, given the track record of most business in relation to the environment, (as argued above).
It is also hard to see how links between business and environmental groups can be made, since (see next point) environmental groups are often based on a radical philosophy that is not compatible with traditional business methods and values. Moreover, it is not clear to me where consumer pressure will come from – except, as argued above, when consumers are faced with some sort of threat as a result of environmental degradation (by which time it may be too late).
However, it is not too difficult to envisage business realising the benefits of environmental consciousness, and such slogans as - “reduce, recycle, re-use” are attractive to businesses if explained in such a way that they realise they might gain from adopting them!
Personally I would apply this argument even to some of the new “green businesses” (see www.GreenBusiness.net) – are these businesses supplying real needs in an environmentally friendly way, or are they simply pushing their way into a “niche market”? (This is much the same argument that I rehearsed concerning Body Shop, in my Corporate Social Responsibility notes: Chapter 1).
Take “Red Jellyfiish” as advertised on the above (American) website: its main activity is selling posters and e-cards with themes about nature – “every purchase helps the environment” presumably by donations from the proceeds to environmental protection groups. You can also click on one of the advertisements appearing on the site and a similar donation is made (out of the money paid by the advertisers presumably). I need hardly say that posters are hardly a basic need, and all sorts of question come to mind about the ecological costs of producing them!
A good example of environmental awareness: National Trust HQ, Swindon: photovoltaic cells, woolen carpets from NT’s own sheep, recycling. Reduced running costs by £550,000.
Recently we have seen the growth of “social enterprises”, which have environmental considerations as part of their goals – and which seem to have adopted Elkington’s triple bottom line (see below link). These will be dealt with separately, as they are not primarily concerned with the environment. See my notes: Corporate Social Responsibility Chapter 8 : Inequality - Social Enterprise link
Elkington (1997) writes of seven “sustainability revolutions” that he believes must take place to reach sustainable business. These include changes in the approach to markets, values, transparency, life-cycle technology, and governance.
He describes the series of events that have changes our awareness of the environment – in a similar way that I did at the start of this section – identifying three “waves” of sustainability, with peaks and troughs for each. For Elkington, the formation of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (1970s), the disasters at Bhopal and Chernobyl (1980s), public battles over environmental issues such as Brent Spar and Shell in Nigeria (1990s), together with the more recent BSE “mad cow” disease etc, and the current phenomenon of globalisation, have all helped us move towards sustainability by convincing business that it must do something. Now, he says, business must be aware of the “triple bottom line” – economic, environmental and social, but this will not be really effective until it is “built into” corporate agendas from the moment a new business is set up.
I am not convinced that Elkington and Hailes’s argument makes sense: their optimistic view that business is becoming green seems to have little foundation, given the track record of most business in relation to the environment, (as argued in relation to the coal, oil and nuclear industries).It is also very reminiscent of John Humble’s (1973) argument, referred to in my Corporate Social Responsibility notes (Chapter 1, link) and it seems to me to be just as over-optimistic, and lacking in grounds and evidence of actual change inside corporations.
Writers like Elkington are fond of inventing colourful terminology to describe the different business practices they observe with regard to CSR. Thus there are “corporate locusts” (who devour the environment rapidly), “corporate caterpillars” (slowly munching away!), “corporate butterflies” (like Body Shop, with some CSR but many limitations) and finally “corporate honey-bees” who are fully sustainable. He even acknowledges that “corporate butterflies” have an impact on consumers that is out of proportion to their small economic role. How he then can be optimistic and not see the world as nearly over-run by swarming corporate locusts I do not know!
There are, then, serious weaknesses in the argument that business is becoming sustainable. Predictions of how the “big picture” is changing – large-scale historical predictions - are fun to draw up, but time has an even funnier habit of proving them wrong! (Burnham, Heilbronner, Marcuse, Marx – their names are legion). One would have thought that after the incredibly complex and supposedly scientific predictions of Marx were demonstrated to be seriously wrong, social scientists would be a bit more humble and recognise the unpredictability of history. This is not to say that we should not say how we wish the world to become – but it seems to me that the basis for these arguments have to be ethical not pseudo-scientific.
It is also hard to see how links between business and environmental groups can be made, since (see next point) environmental groups are often based on a radical philosophy that is not compatible with traditional business methods and values. Moreover, it is not clear to me where consumer pressure will come from – except, as argued above, when consumers are faced with some sort of threat as a result of environmental degradation (by which time it may be too late).
This of course leaves the final doubt: to what extent is a business that boasts of its environmental credentials simply indulging in clever PR or ‘Greenwash’!?
Another serious weakness in these arguments about sustainability is that they do not address current inequalities and power structures across the world: to ask the Indians and the Americans at the same time to be “sustainable” is to maintain the gross inequalities (See Corporate Social Responsibility Chapter 7 and Chapter 8) and that were touched on above with regard to carbon emissions. It is surely impossible to expect Americans to give up their way of life altogether, and if carbon reduction is achieved we can be sure it will be done by new and cleaner technology. On the other hand, what do we say to third world countries about their environmental impact? Are they to be denied the standard of living of the developed world?
Finally, I would question whether ‘sustainability’ and ‘growth’ can go together – remember the ‘limits to growth’ and the dangers of ‘exponential growth’ in a world where there are such limits. (See supplementary notes at the end and: ‘Sustainability and ‘sustainable growth’ by Olivia Hanks – Norwich Radical... )
‘Labour MEP David Martin, was author of a European Committee on International Trade document celebrating climate change as creating “new opportunities for the economic development of the Arctic”.
The comment, spotted and lambasted by Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, might seem extreme in its suicidal logic: we’re burning down the house, but look, we can use the newly exposed rafters for more firewood!
Yet such statements are the logical conclusion when economic growth is viewed as the goal of all human activity. They lead on naturally from support for wasteful and destructive infrastructure projects like Hinkley Point, Trident and any number of ill-conceived road schemes on the grounds that these projects will provide jobs. This is the Labour position from which the party will have to free itself before it can have anything meaningful to say about climate change.
It has been known to us for decades now that there are limits to the growth of an economy based on the extraction of fossil fuels and minerals. At first, the focus was on the finite nature of the planet’s resources: the economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding famously observed in 1973 that “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Supporters of the pro-growth status quo have come up with a phrase to reduce their cognitive dissonance: ‘sustainable growth’. The use of the word ‘sustainable’, with its association with the green movement, makes this phenomenon sound ideal to the appearance-conscious capitalist: we can keep building and burning all we like, with a friendly nod to the treehuggers. But, lest we forget, ‘sustainable’ means ‘can be maintained’ – maintained indefinitely. Political and business documents are littered with examples of the word ‘sustainable’ achieving nothing but a warm sense of satisfaction for those involved. The second point of the trade committee document states that “any current and new economic activity should be carried out in a sustainable way in order not to undermine the Arctic’s natural heritage”. The idea that profiting from the melting of the Arctic by extracting oil and gas reserves which can be burned to further melt the Arctic can be done “in a sustainable way” would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening. It simply doesn’t make any sense. But it doesn’t have to make sense – it just has to include the magic word ‘sustainable’, and then all will be well.
When we go back to thinking about what growth actually is, we quickly realise that the idea of it as a) a goal and b) sustainable doesn’t make sense in any field. Whether it’s an ecosystem, the human body, or a friendship group, for example, any system regulates itself so that it can continue to function – it doesn’t expand indefinitely. Growth is the means by which a system reaches the optimum size for its function.
Yet when it comes to the economy, we have stopped speaking of growth as a means to ends we might once have considered its functions: better health, prosperity or quality of life. Growth itself has become the goal; and if growth is the goal, then the economy will never reach a size that is ‘big enough’ – it will always demand more resources. That cannot be sustainable.
We are able to mentally project the upward curve of growth endlessly into the future because we view time as a straight line. We can rely on fossil fuels only if we have this linear view of time, since each fuel can be used only once – an extreme example being fracking, where wells are exhausted and abandoned almost immediately as companies move on to new sites, ignoring the obvious snag that the Earth’s land doesn’t actually stretch on for ever. The linear model of time allows us to imagine a future onward march in which we discover ever more resources and solutions to the problems we are creating today; an upward curve which allows us to predict only a continuation of that curve. This leads to a dangerous reliance on future technology, as found in the belief that geoengineering will save us from climate change – releasing us from any obligation to change our high-carbon way of life today.
Societies with a more cyclical understanding of time, like Native American and many African cultures, would feel this to be a nonsense: our ways of living must be such that recurrence is possible. Sustainability is fundamentally circular, as proponents of the circular economy understand.
Societies like ours, with a linear view of time, may be more inclined to focus on the short term because it’s all we can see; we talk of ‘future generations’, but it is a fairly abstract concept. If, however, we understand time as cyclical, in some sense we are future generations too.
We cannot rebuild our entire way of thinking on a cyclical model (regardless of what a recent Hollywood offering might have you believe). What we can do is try to learn from cultures which think in different ways; learn from natural systems, which embody real, eternal sustainability in ways we are at risk of forgetting; and in fact, while we’re at it, maybe abandon the word ‘sustainable’ to its bland corporate fate. It is so ubiquitous that it is a dead term: we no longer think about what it means. A new word is needed. How about ‘cyclical’?’
Comments on report by Sustainable Development Commission at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/30/g20-sustainable-development-commission
Update: Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility/irresponsibility!
Meanwhile, airlines resist plan to include them in emissions targets!! IATA says 170 countries oppose the proposals to make flights in and out of EU subject to caps that apply to power stations etc. (see above on carbon caps). America’s ICAO also opposes caps – says we need a global rather than regional system, and Europe should have a single sky agreement rather than trading. (Guardian 19.11.07 Financial). British steelmakers also want an opt-out.
Shell: sponsored conference on the environment, but still burning flares in Nigeria, working on tar sands in Canada (carbon-intensive) i.e. spending more on fossil fuels and PR instead of green action. Criticised by FOE, Green Party; Lucas said business is always asking for the lowest possible denominator on environmental measures. But Ken Livingstone defended business: working with EDF, British Gas: it is government that is holding things back. No new technology needed, just political will – need £15 carbon tax on air tickets. G 120607
Christian Aid report, by Andrew Pendleton 190207: only 16 of top 100 meet govt guidelines on greenhouse gas emissions – almost 200m tonnes missing from annual reports. Top 100 produce 12-15% of our emissions. True figures should be 67% higher..
Consumers International and Accountability (includes National Consumer Council and Which) report, June 2007, says 40% distrust business claims about the environment, and 50% not sure. 60% believe scientists, 50% believe pressure groups. Family and friends are also trusted more than business or politicians. Only 17% trust the media… Director of Accountability: Philip Monaghan (international non-profit making body). [Terry Macalister, Guardian 19.06.07.] Survey of consumers’ actions shows 60% often reduce energy use, nearly 50% bought energy-reducing light bulbs, but complaints about cost of environment-friendly products, and 1/3 “confused”.
Many of those concerned about the environment would feel that it is worthwhile adopting a green lifestyle: for some, this can also put pressure (see next point) to make business and industry “behave better”. However, of course, your lifestyle is your individual choice and may have no effect on society whatsoever. Hence, I would see green lifestyles or green consumerism as belonging to the “light green” or ‘conservative’ or ‘minimalist’ end of the environmental movement (although some individuals might adopt a very deep green lifestyle – vegan, anti-car, etc). I will deal with the “dark green” approach later.
The “light green” position is that capitalism can be reformed – and that it is our responsibility as consumers and businesses to find ways of doing the least damage possible to the environment. We can do this by adopting a green lifestyle.
Thus, as with Elkington and Hailes’s “green consumerism”, what we are given is guidelines for us to modify our purchasing behaviour. There is little explanation as to what will motivate us to do this however. The most widespread guideline to environmental impact is the “carbon footprint”: for those who wish to minimise their “carbon” impact, it is possible to measure how much carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) we have used each day in various activities (from boiling a kettle to leaving the computer on standby, or from driving some miles in a car, to travelling by air). Once we know how big our “carbon footprint” is, we can all take steps to reduce it.
The same procedure can be used for whole businesses or nations. This is sometimes called “carbon accounting”. If we go beyond only thinking about fossil fuels, and include other impacts on the environment, we can identify an “ecological footprint” for each of us (or, again, for a given business, industry, or nation).
Whilst these measurements produce some interesting information, and can be used to “shame” excessive polluters, there are obvious limitations with this approach. First, do companies or nations feel “shame”?! Or are they only concerned about their wealth or their power?
Second, there is an underlying drive for growth that still has to be dealt with: to significantly reduce all our ecological footprints would surely require a re-structuring of whole economies and societies?
This is even more obvious if, thirdly, we consider the inequalities that exist between the developed and less-developed world: the main polluters are countries like the US, and they should surely have to reduce their footprints first and further than the rest – but how is this to be done? Incidentally, the US produces about 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita per year, as against 9 for Britain, and 1 for India, and the USaccounts for 25% of the world total.
On the other hand, leading a green lifestyle within developed countries is increasingly feasible – for example, houses that are sustainable and have nearly no environmental impact (Passivauhs) have been designed and built, according to Steve Rose, the Guardian 29/11/2004. (see www.earthship.com or www.lowcarbon.co.uk). They are “heated by the sun, generate electricity from solar and wind energy, use rainfall, process their own sewage through plant beds which also produce bananas all year round”. They also can be built using waste such as old car tyres.
There are many green products (the Ecover range for example) on the market; there is more interest in organic gardening, including composting food waste; you can buy cosmetics and clothing made from hemp – which is more environmentally friendly for developing countries to grow (see www.thtc.co.uk for the Hemp Trading Company, or www.motherhemp.com), and you can even arrange to have a green funeral: www.naturaldeath.org.uk! Re-usable water bottles (see www.sigg.com) are made by a Swiss company sustainably, and free from phthalates and Bisphenol-A (which can leach out in landfills).
On the other hand, Phillip Inman (Observer Business 22nd Jan 2017) warns: ‘Urging people to stop consuming stuff in order to slow the rate of climate change is a gambit that is doomed to fail.’ Expecting people to put off buying things ‘isn’t going to happen’... It’s not for nothing that economists base their assumptions on populations having unlimited wants... Consumption is how most people measure progress...’ He then quotes the extraordinary figures for people flying out of the three big London airports: City – 4.3 million in 2015; Heathrow – 75 million; Gatwick – over 40 million; and even Stansted – 22.5 million. So we can’t stop people flying, but aircraft should be made cleaner. And he ends up advocating electric vehicles.
However, Andrew Simms, in a G2 supplement on global warming (19th Jan 2017) points out: 70% of all flights by UK residents are accounted for by just 15% of the population.
Divestment: recently (writing 2015) The Guardian has started a campaign to get investments taken away from the fossil fuel industry. Here is a link to a piece about the Gates Foundation, which gives a lot
of money to charity etc, and Bill Gates has said that climate change is the most serious problem we face, and yet it invests heavily in oil and mining:
- based on the belief that (a) businesses need pressurizing into protecting the environment and (b) not all consumers are environmentally aware, nor does everyone want to be actively involved
- work by raising public (and companies’) awareness of environmental issues, and by e.g. ‘shaming’ a company (coke bottles. Tate and oil company sponsorship)
- can promote environmental awareness by snappy slogans e.g. ‘reduce, re-use recycle’...
- can work with local councils and government (by putting pressure on MPs)
- again, may be fighting a losing battle against commercialism, consumerism, capitalism.
- can companies be ‘shamed’?
- will not change the nature of capitalism, and this is not enough if you believe that environmental damage comes from deep aspects of society and the economy
But: commercialism, consumerism, capitalism are the real problems? Can companies be ‘shamed’? And how do you get companies or industry to do something that will reduce their profits or even make them lose money?
A party like the Greens in the UK puts up candidates for elections to local and national government. At the same time it works to change public opinion. As a party that wants to be in power (whether locally through councillors, or nationally as MPs) it has to have a set of policies that cover not just the environment but other issues such as the economy, jobs, health, transport, even defence.
For some Greens (as will be seen) all these issues are inter-connected, and a Green philosophy or politics will have something to say about all of them.
The main problem with working to gain power is that it is a slow process (the Green Party still has only one MP, though it has quite a few councillors and some MEPs). In this country the two main parties seem to monopolise the political process and it is very hard to replace them (see the history of the SDP, and the Liberals!).
Clearly, if we regard environmental problems as serious and as affecting many aspects of our lives, then government legislation appears to be essential. There are many regulations and standards designed to protect the environment, and covering all the areas we have touched on: air quality, water quality, waste, clean-up laws, chemical safety etc). In planning, an Environmental Impact Assessment must be carried out before a proposal can be accepted. Water resources, forestry, wildlife and plants can all be protected by legislation. They are based on such principles as ‘sustainable development’. ‘The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.’ Note the word equitably...
The precautionary approach was adopted at the Rio Declaration (1992): ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’
Other principles, such as ‘the polluter pays’, ‘prevention’, and ‘transboundary responsibility’ are a part of environmental legislation. (Wikipedia)
Of course, there are many limitations to the role of government: legitimacy (does the public accept what a government decrees?), transparency (can we see what is being proposed and why?), accountability (will the government answer questions about its policies and listen to objections?), democracy (does the government represent what the people want, or is it subject to particular interests?), and corruption (has the government been ‘bought off’ in some way?).
But: even if government intervention is the only way to deal with a problem, the public still needs to be ‘brought on-side’, and some will resent any kind of government intervention.
Also governments can be manipulated by commercial/industrial interests, see George Monbiot’s article about Liam Fox and his network of contacts and lobbyists, and ‘dark money’ (Guardian...:
‘Dark money is the term used in the US for the funding of organisations involved in political advocacy that are not obliged to disclose where the money comes from. Few people would see a tobacco company as a credible source on public health, or a coal company as a neutral commentator on climate change. In order to advance their political interests, such companies must pay others to speak on their behalf.
Soon after the second world war, some of America’s richest people began setting up a network of thinktanks to promote their interests. These purport to offer dispassionate opinions on public affairs. But they are more like corporate lobbyists, working on behalf of those who fund them.
We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates. The remarkable story of a British member of parliament provides a unique insight into this network, on both sides of the Atlantic. His name is Liam Fox. Six years ago, his political career seemed to be over when he resigned as defence secretary after being caught mixing his private and official interests. But today he is back on the front bench, and with a crucial portfolio: secretary of state for international trade.
In 1997, the year the Conservatives lost office to Tony Blair, Fox, who is on the hard right of the Conservative party, founded an organisation called The Atlantic Bridge. Its patron was Margaret Thatcher. On its advisory council sat future cabinet ministers Michael Gove, George Osborne, William Hague and Chris Grayling. Fox, a leading campaigner for Brexit, described the mission of Atlantic Bridge as “to bring people together who have common interests”. It would defend these interests from “European integrationists who would like to pull Britain away from its relationship with the United States”.
The diplomatic mission Liam Fox developed through Atlantic Bridge plugs him straight into the Trump administration
Atlantic Bridge was later registered as a charity. In fact it was part of the UK’s own dark money network: only after it collapsed did we discover the full story of who had funded it. Its main sponsor was the immensely rich Michael Hintze, who worked at Goldman Sachs before setting up the hedge fund CQS. Hintze is one of the Conservative party’s biggest donors. In 2012 he was revealed as a funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on the science of climate change. As well as making cash grants and loans to Atlantic Bridge, he lent Fox his private jet to fly to and from Washington.
Another funder was the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. It paid for a researcher at Atlantic Bridge called Gabby Bertin. She went on to become David Cameron’s press secretary, and now sits in the House of Lords: Cameron gave her a life peerage in his resignation honours list.
In 2007, a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) set up a sister organisation, the Atlantic Bridge Project. Alec is perhaps the most controversial corporate-funded thinktank in the US. It specialises in bringing together corporate lobbyists with state and federal legislators to develop “model bills”. The legislators and their families enjoy lavish hospitality from the group, then take the model bills home with them, to promote as if they were their own initiatives. Alec has claimed that more than 1,000 of its bills are introduced by legislators every year, and one in five of them becomes law. It has been heavily funded by tobacco companies, the oil company Exxon, drug companies and Charles and David Koch – the billionaires who founded the first Tea Party organisations. Pfizer, which funded Bertin’s post at Atlantic Bridge, sits on Alec’s corporate board. Some of the most contentious legislation in recent years, such as state bills lowering the minimum wage, bills granting corporations immunity from prosecution and the “ag-gag” laws – forbidding people to investigate factory farming practices – were developed by Alec.
To run the US arm of Atlantic Bridge, Alec brought in its director of international relations, Catherine Bray. She is a British woman who had previously worked for the Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth and the Ukip MEP Roger Helmer. Bray has subsequently worked for Conservative MEP and Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan. Her husband is Wells Griffith, the battleground states director for Trump’s presidential campaign.
Among the members of Atlantic Bridge’s US advisory council were the ultra-conservative senators James Inhofe, Jon Kyl and Jim DeMint. Inhofe is reported to have received over $2m in campaign finance from coal and oil companies. Both Koch Industries and ExxonMobil have been major donors.
Kyl, now retired, is currently acting as the “sherpa” guiding Jeff Sessions’s nomination as Trump’s attorney general through the Senate. Jim DeMint resigned his seat in the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation – the thinktank founded with a grant from Joseph Coors of the Coors brewing empire, and built up with money from the banking and oil billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Like Alec, it has been richly funded by the Koch brothers. Heritage, under DeMint’s presidency, drove the attempt to ensure that Congress blocked the federal budget, temporarily shutting down the government in 2013. Fox’s former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence, an American called Luke Coffey, now works for the foundation.
The Heritage Foundation is now at the heart of Trump’s administration. Its board members, fellows and staff comprise a large part of his transition team. Among them are Rebekah Mercer, who sits on Trump’s executive committee; Steven Groves and Jim Carafano (State Department); Curtis Dubay (Treasury); and Ed Meese, Paul Winfree, Russ Vought and John Gray (management and budget). CNN reports that “no other Washington institution has that kind of footprint in the transition”.
Trump’s extraordinary plan to cut federal spending by $10.5tn was drafted by the Heritage Foundation, which called it a “blueprint for a new administration”. Vought and Gray, who moved on to Trump’s team from Heritage, are now turning this blueprint into his first budget.
This will, if passed, inflict devastating cuts on healthcare, social security, legal aid, financial regulation and environmental protections; eliminate programmes to prevent violence against women, defend civil rights and fund the arts; and will privatise the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Trump, as you follow this story, begins to look less like a president and more like an intermediary, implementing an agenda that has been handed down to him.
In July last year, soon after he became trade secretary, Liam Fox flew to Washington. One of his first stops was a place he has visited often over the past 15 years: the office of the Heritage Foundation, where he spoke to, among others, Jim DeMint. A freedom of information request reveals that one of the topics raised at the meeting was the European ban on American chicken washed in chlorine: a ban that producers hope the UK will lift under a new trade agreement. Afterwards, Fox wrote to DeMint, looking forward to “working with you as the new UK government develops its trade policy priorities, including in high value areas that we discussed such as defence”.
How did Fox get to be in this position, after the scandal that brought him down in 2011? The scandal itself provides a clue: it involved a crossing of the boundaries between public and private interests. The man who ran the UK branch of Atlantic Bridge was his friend Adam Werritty, who operated out of Michael Hintze’s office building. Werritty’s work became entangled with Fox’s official business as defence secretary. Werritty, who carried a business card naming him as Fox’s adviser but was never employed by the Ministry of Defence, joined the secretary of state on numerous ministerial visits overseas, and made frequent visits to Fox’s office.
By the time details of this relationship began to leak, the charity commission had investigated Atlantic Bridge and determined that its work didn’t look very charitable. It had to pay back the tax from which it had been exempted (Hintze picked up the bill). In response, the trustees shut the organisation down. As the story about Werritty’s unauthorised involvement in government business began to grow, Fox made a number of misleading statements. He was left with no choice but to resign.
When Theresa May brought Fox back into government, it was as strong a signal as we might receive about the intentions of her government. The trade treaties that Fox is charged with developing set the limits of sovereignty. US food and environmental standards tend to be lower than Britain’s, and will become lower still if Trump gets his way. Any trade treaty we strike will create a common set of standards for products and services. Trump’s administration will demand that ours are adjusted downwards, so that US corporations can penetrate our markets without having to modify their practices. All the cards, post-Brexit vote, are in US hands: if the UK doesn’t cooperate, there will be no trade deal.
In April 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt sent the US Congress the following warning: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” It is a warning we would do well to remember.’
Update: April 2nd, Observer, Carole Cadwalladr: ‘Dark money’ is posing a threat to the integrity of British elections, warn data experts. Our electoral laws are lagging behind the technological developments. The media policy project at the LSE warns ‘there is a real danger we are heading down the US route where whoever spends the most money is most likely to win.’ My point is that what applies to lobby groups influencing elections also applies to large companies such as pesticide manufacturers, who can use their financial resources to influence public opinion and that of ministers etc.
The UN has criticised pesticide manufacturers for perpetuating the myth that their products are essential to prevent hunger in the world:
Believing that only limited change can be brought about by or within capitalism prompts some to turn to the state, or to international bodies with the power to regulate and control business. Socialists often make the assumption that with state control, or workers’ control, we will automatically adopt greener industrial practices. There is a questionable logic at work here: state ownership does not necessitate care for the environment, and in fact could be carried out in a manner that is totally un-ecological – as was seen in the former Soviet union, which turned out to be (along with communist East Europe) one of the world’s worst polluters. (Conversely, it is possible to take measures to protect the environment without at the same time converting to socialism. Andre Gorz (1987) recognised this when he wrote of the danger of “eco-fascism”).
Those such as Gorz who want to maintain a link between socialism and ecology must “add” something to the idea of common or state ownership as promoting equality. It could be argued, for example, that planning the economy must involve long-term perspectives, which in turn must mean ecological sensitivity. Gorz (1994) argues for an “eco-social rationality”, but the strongest point he makes is that this rationality is quite incompatible with capitalism’s drive for growth and profit and its creation of never-ending needs (see on the consumer in Corporate Social Responsibility Chapter 5 - marketing link). Where his thinking is lacking is on how to implement this eco-social rationality, and he even seems to have made socialism less important than ecology in some of his writings.
Having said this, there still remains the further, real/practical problem for “traditional” socialists that most of the experiments that have been carried out so far with state planning have led to an unaccountable bureaucracy. This might be, as many believe, because “power corrupts” or, more subtly because planning came to be regarded as a specialised activity, in which the amateur public could not be involved. Another way of putting this is that the problem is ‘technocracy’ – rule by technocrats, or by technology itself!
Finally, governmental legislation is restricted to each country, while many problems are international, so:
10. International and inter-governmental bodies: e.g. WHO, IPCC can play very useful role. But: can be weaker than national governments, and can also suffer from mistrust. The role of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change) has been controversial: even though it has drawn on an enormous body of expertise, it has been challenged over global warming (see week 6).
11. International civil society organisations: Naomi Klein argues these are the only way forward: we have to engage people and bypass corporations. But: may still need national or inter-governmental legislation to be effective? This is another radical approach, and I will deal with it later.
In ‘How Change Happens’ (OUP 2016) Duncan Green argues that in order to be effective change-makers we have to (i) locate where the power lies, and recognise there are different ‘dimensions’ (my word) of power:
- visible power
- hidden power (what goes on behind the scenes)
- invisible power ( which causes the powerless to accept their condition, to internalise the power esible power
- hidden power (what goes on behind the scenes)
- invisible power ( which causes the powerless to accept their condition, to internalise the power exercised over them – belief systems such as what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ contribute to this. Empowerment counteracts it).
Green quotes Jo Rowlands (Questioning Empowerment, Oxfam 1997) who classifies power as follows:
- power within (personal self-confidence, sense of rights etc)
- power with (collective power)
- power to (effective choice, capability to decide actions and carry them tou)
- power over (hierarchy and domination).
Green also argues that it is necessary to use systems thinking: recognise complexity, be flexible, use resources that are already there etc. Systems are at the basis of ecosystems, and I like this approach because of its similarity to how I have described ecology.