Saturday, September 19, 2015

The environment and red-green politics

This is transcript of a talk Howard Pilott gave at a meeting in Brighton on 15 September.


Let me start by putting my cards on the table: I think the state of the environment is a major threat to the stability of human life on this planet, and moreover this is directly attributable to human activity. The truth is that we as human beings interfere with our environment – and this is not always with the most long-term of awarenesses. From the forest clearances of the Neolithic and early Bronze Age through to the planned exploitation of the melting North Pole, we interact with this planet in a way which has a major impact on existing ecosystems. This is nothing new however – what is new is the extent to which we are now doing things which are pushing us towards environmental tipping points and make cause irreversible damage to the world we inhabit. The purpose of this discussion today is to look at the political dynamic as a part of this and to consider what we as socialists can bring to this situation.

Since human beings are not passively compliant with the environment that are constantly in some way interfering with it to the extent of even eliminating complete species. For example the dodo and possibly even the Neanderthals. Industrial factory ships leave areas of the ocean completely dead as they hoover up virtually everything, leaving nothing behind for anyone else – a ghastly parody of our world. We have to find some means by which we can ensure that this interfering activity does not prejudice our continued safe existence on this planet.

If you accept my premise that the environmental problems we face the moment are as a result of our activity some questions arise. Firstly what kind of economy can be sustained and in this I refer to the kind of material expectations we can have that world which enable us to live sustainability. Secondly issues relating to the politics of any society that might persist in order to promote such sustainability.

Let's start by looking at some crucial pieces of information from history. Material consumption on this planet really took a step change starting with the industrial revolution which kicked off in the United Kingdom and was much if you want but cheap and accessible coal. Coal as you probably know is effectively fossilised wood from the Carboniferous period. The reason why there is so much wood from this period is that when trees first appeared on the planet the particular substance which gives wood its hardness, namely lignin, was something for which there was no animal or plant able to digest, and therefore for many millions of years when trees fell down, there were no bacteria or microorganisms that could in any sense recycle the wood into anything else, so they just stayed there and built up generation upon generation upon generation of trees on top of each other, finally being covered up and compressed under the earth and turning after millions of years to coal. As you probably also know, trees and plant life are effectively means of storing carbon: trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen and a simple look at the chemical equation demonstrates that the carbon is missing.  The carbon is trapped within the tree and when a tree nowadays decomposes or is burnt the carbon is given off. The Carboniferous period therefore represents a time when a huge amount of atmospheric carbon was removed and stored. This resulted in a very oxygen rich atmosphere which may in turn have allowed air breathing animals to emerge from the water [my supposition].
Plants are effectively the power houses of this planet.  They are the living things which have developed to converted the sun’s rays into some storable form – in their case, chemical storage in sugars or starches.  Animals survive by consuming these [or each other].  Without plants, animal life here is impossible. Fossil fuels are so-called because they are the ancient remains of living things and still hold their chemically trapped energy.  We burn them and access this trapped energy: coals in fires, oil in engines, gas in cookers, etc.  The chemical name for sugars is carbo-hydrates – mixtures of carbon oxygen and hydrogen.  When compressed over millennia they become hydro-carbons: still mixtures of the same basic ingredients.  The power comes when these large molecules are shattered via combustion: the energy that held them together is released, usually as heat, which we utilise in some manner [in eg an engine or a generator]. More importantly the carbon that was trapped within these molecules, combines with oxygen and becomes the gas carbon dioxide, which is then released into the atmosphere. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution we have been doing this with little regard to the impact.

The foregoing is a quick and dirty outline of what has led us to the position of the greenhouse in our atmosphere: the carbon layer acts like glass in a greenhouse and reflects back some of the earth’s heat, rather than letting it dissipate into space.  This means the planet is warming up…and much of life on earth is adapted to temperatures below those to which our global temperature appears to be heading. This sounds alarm bells.  However this is simply one aspect of the corrosive impact of our activity on this planet.  I could also mention toxicity in the air, earth and water: increasing acidification of the seas and air, degradation of our top soil and loss of drinking water.  The list goes on with agrichemicals, hormones, antibiotics, radioactive waste, noise and light pollution…that’s enough for now.  Suffice to say we have arrived at a situation where we are on a downward slide.


As the world has become progressively global and markets especially so, much attention has centred on the actions of ‘hot money’: hot because it doesn’t stay in your hands for very long. Large amounts of cash [real or virtual] which swoop in and out of particular markets because there is a quick kill in sight. Commodities, financial and stock markets, futures, all variety of assets – any of these can be prey to a sudden rush or loss of interest by investors.  Financial investment computer packages are now built to identify these and play them accordingly. These minute fluctuations can result in huge payouts for big investors and large bonuses for the guy executing the deal. The casino economy in operation. This metaphor reveals much about the nature of this business, because few who enter a casino are looking to the longer term. Likewise those who execute a split second investment decision are unlikely to be thinking about the potential impact it might have on the employees, or anyone else at all come to that.  They are almost certainly not thinking about how this will play out in several months, and certainly not in years: rather grab the winnings and get out quick [before something goes wrong].

Our present government repeatedly talks of ‘rebalancing’ this economy because so much of this nation’s earnings arise from exactly this kind of activity and, as the banking crisis showed, it can have its downside.  However the power and attraction of city finance, of working on fine margins, of split second deals are both too attractive and too lucrative: amongst the reasons that the greatly trumpeted market reforms amounted to not very much.

But it reveals something deep about the thinking of our society; the thinking behind the throne in our society. It shows that the precept is to make money today and not think about tomorrow. And supposedly there is a theory to support it: as long as markets are free and traders can do what they want then what happens will reflect the priorities of the active agents: supply and demand ensures that we get what we want and need….or so we are told.  But how is the future factored into this? How are the interests of our children added into the calculus? Where does their demand figure?

Viewed collectively, we are living in a great mansion where we are ripping out parts of the floor and walls to sling on the fires and are not worrying because the house has not yet fallen down. We are carrying on smoking because we haven’t developed lung cancer yet…

If you have ever looked at a set of company accounts you’ll notice that there is hardly ever anything beyond a 5 year projection. Just to add to the mix, governments seldom last for more than 4/5 years.  We want results folks and we want ‘em now: what government swept to power on the ticket that things will be better in 25 years?


Adam Smith is the daddy of much capitalist ideology and his view of supply and demand is seen to underpin much of the rhetoric which argues in support of the market system.  However, even accepting the theory, for supply and demand to operate correctlyoweverHHhhhh all active agents must have perfect information: buyers must know all available options and the relative merits, and this information must be accurate and timely.  However Adam Smith was writing in the days before the advent of the PR industry [I accept it’s always been there in some form but not to the scientific and technologized form it is today]. Starting in the 20th century, the science of psychology was utilised in the cause of shaping public opinion, both spawning the PR world and heavily influencing advertising/propaganda. Welcome the world of false consciousness writ large: a world where in the UK 98% of climate scientists assert the reality of man-made global warming whereas a majority of the population think it’s a con. Perhaps as an example the fact that Exxon can offer $10k to any scientist who publicly criticises the IPCC distorts the picture…

Fossil fuel companies have an amazing track record of funding genuine sounding groups with the sole intention of spreading confusion about climate change.  In the same way that tobacco companies knew the dangers of their products way before they were revealed by Fisher, and pharma companies supress unsympathetic tests, we have fossil fuel giants distorting the debate with misinformation, personal diatribes, threats of legal action, and simple lies. The problem with supply and demand is that it assumes everyone is equally able to access information: it doesn’t work on the basis that certain key players can tilt the playing field to their advantage. And as fossil fuels companies are in the game to make money, and climate change information represents a threat to their money making potential, they will use their power to damage it and deflect it; to minimise its impact on their business.


The thing I never understood about the climate change deniers – and there are many who should obviously know better – is how they can reconcile their activities with the fact that they are exacerbating a problem which threatens them also, as well as their children and so forth.  How can they act as if in some sense they might be able to breathe all this money they have made; or they can buy another planet to live on. If there is anything in this climate change stuff – and everyone must accept it sounds like a risk – then do they not worry about the future at all? How can they park all these potential concerns?

The best explanation I have come across I attribute to Naomi Klein: they cannot conceive of a world unlike this one and so cannot countenance the idea that it has to change.  Essentially they grasp that this system and environmental degradation are synonymous but that this system is the only means to support the life style and world view they have and therefore must be defended at all costs, even if that involves bringing down everything with it.  Like the crazed old dictators of history who would rather the entire empire collapsed than they relinquished power, these capitalist titans would rather have it all smashed to smithereens than share any of it. Classic dog in a manger attitude, but with far worse consequences: I’d rather watch is all destroyed than hand it over and become like the rest of you…


Let us try to summarise:
1] Climate change [amongst other environmental threats] is happening and is a serious problem for all of us
2] Climate change has resulted from our activity
3] Capitalism by focussing on the short term is unlikely to take the longer term, and hence the environment into account
4] Capitalists and corporations will seek to distort the facts of the matter so they can carry on as usual
5] Capitalists are ideologically blinkered against climate change since it exposes the dangers of capitalism as an environmental threat


A] we cannot expect the problems to be solved within capitalism: all the powers tilt the opposite way.  Consider the fact that this has been on the international agenda for 30 years and nothing has been achieved: emissions have increased over this period [apart from effects of recession].  Additionally as an example our government has publicly stated that the environment must come second to the economy – isn’t that what got us into this mess?
B] we cannot believe much of what we hear in the mainstream media [no surprises there, eh?]
C] the agenda of all green groups and so-called left wing parties who seek to change things without completely scrapping this system, is a hiding to nothing.  
The approach advocated by eg the Green Party of tough regulation is a sham.  If regulation worked, wouldn’t big corporations be paying their taxes? The legal systems which govern these matters end up as the preserve of well-paid lawyers of whom the corporation have more than the governments. As an example of the antics of corporations, Philip Morris [makers of Marlboro cigarettes] is currently suing the Australian Govt over plain packaging laws via obscure laws in Hong Kong.

Ultimately the issue of the environment is an issue of power: who has the power to determine what happens to this planet. Only in a society where we have the power to determine what can and cannot be done will we be able to stop this headlong rush to environmental devastation. Anything else which anyone offers is merely using an Elastoplast to seal a volcano.  Only socialism can deliver on the environment.


As perhaps some closing remarks and maybe grounds for discussion I suspect that part of our problem is our love affair with consumption. I believe that the level of consumption on this planet is simply unsustainable, and here I point the finger mostly at the West/first and second world. Aside from the issue that we must consume less to create less pollution – just how many overseas flights are justifiable given that one flight to Rome has an environmental footprint equivalent to me running another car for a year – also as resources diminish, we cannot produce as much of this stuff.  Besides which, do we really need it?

It’s easy for us as socialists to say ‘things will be different when we produce for need’ but who will determine what that is? Who decides what is necessary? Do I really need 3 i-phones? 25 shirts? 5 holidays? 300 DVDs? Do I really need all this stuff? I personally am not rich but nonetheless I seem to have accumulated a lot of stuff over my lifetime…and I am not particularly acquisitive. People I know have garages full of stuff…all effectively going to waste and it is just gathering dust.  Ever looked in your loft?

I’m not an ascetic but I am an advocate of serious downshifting…

Over to you

1 comment:

Dan Lambert said...

An excellent presentation, I'm sure the following discussion very interesting. I wish I could have attended.