“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

9 February 2013

Time to make the environment issue No.1

This article was originally published on LabourList on 22nd December 2010.

Turn on your TV to watch one of our many popular nature programmes and you are more than likely to hear sad tales of wildlife in decline alongside the footage of furry badgers and funny penguins.
In the more outspoken accounts the presenters will issue heartfelt pleas about how “we” need to change our ways if species are to be preserved. Government, politics and the world economic system will not be mentioned.

But while the producers and presenters of these programmes are restricted in what they can say by rules on political impartiality, politicians seem to be bound by a code of silence on the environment.
It is a curious state of affairs when our politicians have so little to say about huge changes that are taking place, in the face of overwhelming evidence.

According to the WWF and Zoological Society of London’s Living Planet report, populations of vertebrate species (like mammals and fish) fell 30% between 1970 and 2007. Tropical zones where deforestation and development is currently a major factor saw a 60% loss. Specifically on birds, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) spokesperson Grahame Madge says:

“Globally the situation is very distressing, with around one in eight species facing risk of extinction. That is 1,226 species.”

Mark Stanley Price, Chief Executive of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, says in the Saving Species episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series, “I think we are faced probably with the extinction of at least half the world’s frogs.” Friends of the Earth Executive Director Tony Juniper adds:

“The situation in the Asian region in particular is extremely serious. Nearly all of the natural rainforest has gone from several countries now – Thailand and the Philippines and what remains in the big blocks, for example in the Indonesian islands and New Guinea – is now under serious threat, not least because of the huge consumption boom that is going on in China.”

Despite some recovery of vertebrates in temperate regions, startling declines in certain animal populations are continuing to take place in the UK.

Between 2002 and 2008 the RSPB added 18 birds to its “red” list of endangered species, including the Cuckoo, Corncrake, Yellow Wagtail, Herring Gull and Arctic Skua. The organisation’s Birds of Conservation Concern publication now has 52 species on its “red” list, more than a fifth of the UK’s bird species.

Both house and tree sparrows remain on this list. The UK-resident starling population has fallen 77% in the last 25 years according to the Autumnwatch episode screened on November 18th this year – described as “staggering and terrifying” by presenter Chris Packham.

Many farmland birds declined rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s due to the impacts of agricultural intensification, but there are many reasons for bird number declines, including changes in foreign migratory habitats and climate change.

The overriding argument to be made is that though we do not necessarily know the specific reasons for every percentage change in every animal species, the trends are clear and we know more or less what is causing them: human activity. From climate change to overfishing, appropriation of wild land for food and contamination of water with industrial chemicals, human activity is depriving other species of their basic requirements for survival and reproduction – while also endangering our own species because of our dependence on many of the same things.


In the Planet Earth series, James Leape, Director General of WWF International, says:

“We have perhaps one in four mammals now on the threatened list. We have one third of all amphibians on the threatened list. So we know that we are pushing more and more species of the edge of extinction. We have lost half of the world’s forests, half of the world’s wetlands, half of the world’s grasslands. We are systematically eradicating many of the habitats which make up the world’s ecosystems.”

He is not quite right, in that “we” are not “systematically” eradicating anything (certainly “we” were never asked if that is what we wanted to do). It would be more accurate to say it is the runaway train of globalised capitalism and economic expansion that is driving “us” (our governments, corporations and people) to take actions that extend the eradication.

Whether it is a new petrochemicals plant, airport or forest clearance for agriculture, many of the decisions that result in environmental degradation are made on the basis of supply and demand and the opportunity to make money from willing consumers, not a big plan put in place by “us”.

It’s the Stupid Economy

The will to build and grow and make more money feeds into the political system in various ways, including the general tendency to prioritise Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and GDP growth above all other things. This is frankly bone-headed, as an examination of what GDP actually is and the activities that serve to increase and reduce it quickly establishes.


Neil MacDonald put it nicely in a piece for Channel 4:

“Imagine hiring a firm of demolition experts to blow up a building. This increases the Gross Domestic Product of the country. Then imagine you hire a construction firm to come and put the building back up again – perhaps you require them to put it back together exactly as it was prior to the activities of the demolition experts.”
“This also increases the Gross Domestic Product of the country. Most of us would feel instinctively that this makes no sense whatsoever. This may be economic activity but it is also completely pointless.”

Our obsession with this number is unhelpful and counterproductive, encouraging economic activity that is not needed or wanted while not including unpaid work like caring for one’s children – so a mother going out to work and employing someone else to look after her child makes a double contribution to GDP while the same mother staying at home and caring for the child herself makes none.

It also suits governments to prioritise GDP by giving them something to strive for that they can use the tools of office to manipulate. Just as police officers, health workers and media sales managers can work numbers for their own benefit, so can politicians.

Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner and the geeks at our Office of National Statistics (ONS), openly downplay its importance for human welfare and contentment once countries reach a certain level of wealth.

But the crazy striving for growth is a function of the same striving that is inherent to modern-day capitalism – to grow continuously by finding and exploiting new markets. This means that it feeds off rising populations.

According to the UN, world population will reach nearly 7 billion by the end of 2010, up from 2.5 billion in 1950, and move on to 9 billion by 2050. Each of these people will need to be fed, clothed, and housed, which automatically uses up precious resources. And the more they contribute to economic growth by buying things costing more and more, the more of the Earth’s resources they will use, of food and land, fresh water and the earth’s mineral deposits. However, any idea that the world or this country needs more people is surely pathological. Is a greater population going to stop humans from killing each other and dying of hunger and thirst? Surely the increasing competition for resources will make these problems worse.

Making the Move

So how do we translate these reflections into a positive vision for the future and policy programmes that the people will sign up to?

It will be no easy task. Putting together a platform and policy agenda based primarily on the environment would represent such a wholesale departure from the past that the positive arguments in favour, defences and specific policies will take time to prepare and present. The positive arguments are relatively straightforward. Start with the basic injustice of sacrificing species in a drive for economic growth, and then add further increases food and energy prices, fresh water scarcity and increased human migration, with possible famine and war to follow.

And covering all these arguments is the reality that, unless the scientists and campaigners have all got it completely wrong, we will have to make the change at some point to preserve our own species, let alone the others.

How we act and the specific policies we adopt is a more difficult issue, not least because environmental degradation is a global problem, with the most dramatic effects being seen in the developing world as countries including India and China play catch-up in the global economic growth game.

For the long-term Labour should consider pressing for a meaningful and powerful level of global governance to protect the environment, like the EU but much less bureaucratic. However it is the domestic agenda that will establish a new definition for Labour as a radical force committed to real change. And here is where the first and most important political fights will be fought.

Labour will need a powerful narrative and vision emphasising national and patriotic elements, pitching to preserve and protect Britain and the wider world so that Britons can enjoy and benefit from biodiversity in the future. Attacks could then be fought off as anti-British and not just anti-environment.

A few policy ideas:

  • A “Big Bang” a couple of years after an election when the most radical policies come into being, in order to give people and organisations time to adjust;
  • A new Robin Hood-type tax on trading activities that hoard scarce commodities like housing (but not first and maybe second homes), land, energy and wheat;
  • An aviation fuel tax;
  • A ban on further runways in Britain and severe restrictions on airport-building;
  • New infrastructure projects use existing transportation corridors except in exceptional circumstances;
  • Taxes/restrictions on importation and use of mined or produced materials that we currently throw away, plus incentives to save and recycle those materials;
  • A ban/tax on the importation/production and use of plastics (encouraging recycling and reuse of existing materials);
  • Incentives to stop food waste, including punitive penalties on large-scale wasters if necessary;
  • Abolish or reduce child benefit for children beyond the first; 
  • Restrict immigration to check rising UK population;
  • Prioritised offshore energy production and nuclear (because of little space required for high production);
  • Education curriculum changed to a “How Life Works” approach showing how nature operates and where humankind fits into it, including the basics of modern society like bank accounts, the energy, the law and where food comes from.

There will be a lot of opposition from vested interests to such changes, including possible revolt from a mass of people who are still excited by our vast and fast-changing consumer wonderland. Labour will need to prove it is not anti-business and anti-consumer.

However there will be alliances to be made that could help to reinvigorate Labour – the RSPB alone has more than a million members. An avowedly countryside-friendly agenda could also prove to be a route back into the shires.

However the most important thing to do would be to establish a powerful and deep-rooted narrative that can inspire people while standing up to heavy scrutiny and attack.

The government, and credit where credit is due, has its narrative, one that it repeats ad nauseam about deficits, debts and other terrible inheritances from Labour’s 13 years in power, casting the coalition as purposeful agents of change against a stale and discredited former government. Labour needs to take back that change mantle.

In doing this, we need to put the “we” back into the equation, through hard-headed, muscular democratic politics focused on protecting the environment that we live in, rely on and love. If we do not, our generation will likely be looked upon with scorn in the future, for knowing what was happening in the world but declining to act.

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