We are currently facing four concurrent crises – the economic, the social, the environmental, and the political. They are all interlinked and they all have to be tackled together, and urgently. We have a deeply dysfunctional system that cannot continue as it is now. What we have to do is change everything, and change it in ways that deal with the economic, the environmental, the political and the social. This is the kind of real change the Green Party is calling for. At stake is the survival of life as we know it. The status quo is not an option.
Let’s take one example: the community ownership of renewable energy sources. A recent report for the Liberal Democrats suggested that people living near wind farms should be able to buy a stake for as little as £5. This is something that the Green Party has been talking about for a long time, and now it seems that the government is finally beginning to catch up. If you look at Germany, more than 50% of renewables are community-owned. That’s a broad trend across the continent, where communities compete to get wind farms. It is very different to the situation here.
Community ownership is very important, because if people feel it’s their wind farm, then they feel very differently about it. It almost physically looks different to when a big multinational company has come and imposed something on you, in which case you’re not seeing any benefit from it and you know the profits are swishing off in the breeze, quite often to the nearest tax haven. Community ownership is absolutely critical to the whole model of renewables, and leading towards a very low carbon future.
This logic must also be applied to our political system. The current system is broken: Westminster hasn’t been reformed for nearly a hundred years, when the last big change was women getting the vote. Now it’s too late to tinker; we need to start again. That is why we have put forward our People’s Constitutional Convention. By giving power back to the people we can really show that politics is something people can do; it’s not something that is done to you.
It has been our passive acceptance of the economics of neoliberalism that has led us to where we are today. But this is changing, and as it does so it’s worth thinking about how political change happens. Traditionally, we think of countries and society changing gradually over many years, but that’s not actually how it works. Look at the rise of Thatcher, for example. That was a huge change in political philosophy: before she came on the scene, both the Tories and Labour were broadly in agreement about public ownership, and they agreed broadly (with the dishonourable exception of single mothers) that we should have a welfare safety net. Then suddenly everything changed. You can really feel in the air that that next big change is coming now.
One obvious example of the advantages of public ownership is the railways. Since privatisation, we now have the most expensive trains in Western Europe, thanks to a system that is frequently extremely illogical. If you’re somewhere over in Shropshire and you want to get to London, and the first train misses the connection by three minutes, then it takes you an extra hour to get to London. The whole system is run for the convenience of shareholders and not for passengers. If you run it for passengers, save the billions of pounds that the fragmentation of privatisation costs, then you encourage people to get out of their cars and get on to trains. That’s a very positive step environmentally, and it’s using money in a sensible and logical way.
The reasons for that such change is so necessary could not be clearer or more urgent. We have to start making changes for the survival of life as we know it, at least life as we know it on a 6° warm world. We have absolutely to respect nature – not just in an instrumental way but because it’s there in a whole complex ecology of life. We have to make sure that we’re preserving that. This is a moral duty that is separate from and additional to the duty of acknowledging that we actually depend on the environment, that the economy is an entire subset of the ecosystem.
This is why we must avoid the current approach of putting a monetary value on nature. The implication then is always that it can be traded off, that nature fits within economics, when in fact it’s the other way around. I’m very much opposed to biodiversity off-setting, because the fact is, if you have an ancient forest, for example, you cannot replace that. It is literally irreplaceable. The true value is just beyond valuation. Planting a thousand trees somewhere else simply doesn’t make up for the whole ecology that you’re losing if you’re going to, say, stick a high-speed train through it.
We need to start recognising more publicly the innate value of the natural world. It is precious and valuable in and of itself. Of course people are part of nature too: that’s where we come from, that’s what we live in. We are part of the natural system. What differentiates us is that we have a level of knowledge and consciousness that allows us to understand our impact on natural systems in a way that lions or tigers, for example, cannot. That knowledge gives us a huge responsibility.
This may sound like a massive challenge, but I don’t think it’s actually that difficult. People have an innate concern for nature. One of the figures that I quote quite often is the fact that hedgehog numbers over the last decade have been going down 38% year on year. When I say that to people, there are gasps and real expressions of horror. I’m sure people know that hedgehogs are quite useful for controlling pests in the garden, but that’s not what they’re thinking about. These instinctive responses are because people genuinely care about hedgehogs; they’ve been part of their lives and childhoods, and they want them to be part of their children’s childhoods too.
Change is already under way. There is real recognition that our current systems are profoundly unsustainable, that current levels of exhaust consumption simply cannot continue. The obvious statistic is that Britain is using the resources of three planets every year. We only have one. There is recognition of that, but there’s also recognition that having a huge amount of stuff in our lives really hasn’t made us any happier. People are looking for alternative ways of achieving a better quality of life. To look at it in an objective way, the levels of mental ill health that currently threaten our society are absolutely enormous. It’s very clear that having lots of stuff hasn’t brought us the kind of well-being that a couple of decades ago we perhaps thought it would.
We’re finally seeing a real shift around the world – sadly not in this government here in Britain, but it’s OK because we’ve only got six months of them to go. The IPCC has just published their synthesis report, for example. Meanwhile, in China, they have recently had the first three-month period with a decline in coal usage. Many American states, if not the American national government, are getting their act together in terms of action. A virtuous circle just starting to get underway. It’s vitally important that, here in Britain, we make the right decisions, lead the way, encourage others, and talk to all the people in other countries who are trying to push in the same direction. Every little step forward is one more step forward around the world.
Image credit: Matt Niemi