26 September 2019
The only way forward
By John Watson
In his article last week “It’s the environment, stupid!” Richard Pooley made the point that the choice for or against Brexit should be seen in the wider context of the political fight against global warming. He was right about that and, at the risk of gilding the lily, I would add that it is important to remember that the purpose of political structures is to deliver a society which works for its citizens. They should not be seen as free standing objectives by themselves.
So what features do we, here in 2019, expect this way of living to have? For a start it must be sustainable, using less resources than at present and deriving more of those used from renewable sources. Second it must deal with the impact of the new technology, giving outlets for human ambition and fulfilment in a world where much of the work is done by machines. It will be a new world and its political structures need to be tailored to novel demands.
It is perfectly normal for technical and social advances to drive political change. In fact the process is a continuing one although, from time to time, there are obvious jumps. The advent of the Industrial Revolution drove the repeal of the Corn Laws as it became evident that cheap food was necessary to feed the urban workforce. The end of the First World War saw women get the vote as the myth that they were insufficiently tough or intelligent became unsustainable. The end of the second brought in the welfare state as the gap between the social classes decreased. The need to compete in a new global economy was a trigger for Thatcherism. In each case the body politic saw the movement, sniffed the wind and reformed itself.
What then are the changes needed to accommodate today’s realities? Would Britain be able to contribute more as part of the EU or outside it? It is very debatable. You can point, as Richard does, to the power of the EU acting together and the fact that within a large entity there is less chance of those who are prepared to sacrifice an element of efficiency to better environmental practice being undercut by those who are not. On the other hand a supranational authority can be a stifling thing as the USSR showed only too clearly. Would it be better for the EU’s member states to take alternative paths with the best coming through under Darwinian principles? Most of us will be guided in our choice by the extent to which we trust bureaucracy. However as far as the environment is concerned a preoccupation with political structures takes us away from the central point.
With the exception of certain US Republican, most politicians understand the importance of global warming and that has been the case for many years. Since the days of Mrs Thatcher, one of our most scientifically literate Prime Ministers, it has had a central place in public affairs and the UK political establishment is well aware that vigorous action needs to be taken. So, presumably, are the political establishments of Europe and those of the rest of the world. I don’t suppose that the Chinese want their children fried any more than we do. The difficulty is though that taking the necessary steps involves spending money and reducing living standards; that is hard to sell, particularly in democracies and especially when the symptoms become aggravated when action is already too late. Doctors fear diseases with a long incubation period because victims pass on the infection before they can be treated; so too the lag between carbon emissions and global warming’s worst symptoms inhibits the taking of timely action.
So how do we rise to such a challenge? Altering our political structures may help a little but it is really just moving the deck chairs on a sinking ship. The real need is to raise public consciousness and outrage to a level which gives the politicians power to act. That may sound difficult but the swinging of the public mood is not impossible. Look, for example, at the campaign against sexual discrimination. Yes there are laws and they have had some effect but the real driver for change has been one of attitude. Say something rude about homosexuality in a public place and people will come up and tell you that the remarks are not acceptable. Young pharisees you might think but actually they are the leading edge of a healthy social movement. Public opinion has moved and woe betide those who do not move with it.
That is what is important about Extinction Rebellion. Look at their list of targets and you may not agree with all of them. Perhaps you think that those for carbon reduction are impractical. Perhaps you do not think that a Citizens Assembly is a sensible way forward. No matter. It is not their demands which make Extinction Rebellion important but the changes in sentiment which they are driving. The public need to be got to a place where they will support politicians who cut their living standards for environmental gain. They need to be brought to a place where they will not buy things with non-recyclable packaging or made of non-sustainable materials.
It is an important campaign and to those who find it irksome there is only one thing to say. In a democracy there really is no alternative. The politicians cannot act until the public is convinced and there are no obvious alternative forms which a public campaign could take. Good luck to the demonstrators. We need them.