Category Archives: Book Review

British Parliamentary Politics

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On this blog I like to focus on the positive. The General Election result was pretty depressing, and George Osborne’s budget was dreadful. Not much can be expected from this government in terms of a more ecologically sustainable or socially just future. Where does hope lie?

Caroline Lucas is the very embodiment of hope. As the sole Green MP she has a very difficult task, but by working to build cross party cooperation on an issue by issue basis she is achieving more than could reasonably be expected of any single MP. At the General Election in her Brighton Pavilion constituency, not only did she hold her seat but she increased her vote from 16,238 to 22,871. In many ways she represents the more than a million people across the country who voted Green. I’ve just read her book ‘Honourable Friends?’ where she reflects on her first five years as an MP. A great book and highly recommended. Her book was written before the 2015 General Election.

Now with the Labour leadership contest underway, the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn winning might increase the possibilities of building a progressive platform that would include the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour party seem to be split between a more radical, progressive left and a neo-liberal, pro-austerity right. Neither Labour nor the Lib-Dems are likely to be strong enough ever to form a government on their own: it is only through cooperation to build this wider platform that they have any chance of victory. Zac Goldsmith is one of the few Tories I can imagine joining in this kind of collaborative process, and with him a possibility as the next Mayor of London, London could provide a testing ground for this kind of working.

In the meantime, as is so often the case with politics, it’ll be what happens outside Parliament even more than what happens within it that’ll be the main focus in the struggle for a better future. But it is a huge advantage to have an MP such as Caroline Lucas working within Parliament: we could do with more like her!

‘Honourable Friends?’ by Caroline Lucas, Portobello Books, 2015

Latest on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/26/jeremy-corbyn-team-shocked-momentum

Zac Goldsmith profile http://www.conservativehome.com/highlights/2015/07/profile-zac-goldsmith-mp-the-outsider-leading-the-race-to-become-tory-candidate-for-mayor-of-london.html

‘We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it’

Whole Earth Discipline cover

I’ve just finished reading Stewart Brand’s 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline. I love the breadth of vision, the passion and the enthusiasm with which he writes, just as back in the 1970s I loved the magazine Co-Evolution Quarterly that he founded and contributed to.

In this book he states: ‘We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it’. Yes, absolutely, I agree. Humanity has unwittingly influenced the biosphere in profound ways, and now it is our responsibility to manage it back to health. It is a system of immense complexity. Nobody has all the answers. We need to carefully and scientifically keep assessing what we do and modify our policies and practices to fit our evolving understanding to the situation.

One of the things I most like about this latest book is that it profoundly challenges a lot of the positions and beliefs I’ve long held. That is good. There are also sections of the book where I think he is less well informed, and I’d like the opportunity to challenge him. I think he might welcome this too. Early in the book he states ‘In keeping with professional forecaster practice, my opinions are strongly stated and loosely held – strongly stated so that clients can get at them to conjure with, loosely held so that facts and the persuasive arguments of others can get at them and change them.’ I like this attitude.

On many issues, and particularly in the USA, things have become so polarized, so ideologically driven that masses of people stubbornly hang on to obsolete understandings of the world. Examples abound. It’s easy to see the mistakes of others: how daft the climate change sceptics refusal to look carefully at the science! I can’t yet see any issues where this book has forced me into a complete u-turn, but quite a few issues where I feel my position become more nuanced, perhaps a little less absolute. Over coming months I’ll explore several of these, from biotechnology and urbanisation where I feel I’ve learnt a lot from Stewart Brand, to renewable energy where I feel I could usefully help educate him!

Eco-fatalism: Are we all f***ed?

I certainly meet and read of a number of eco-fatalists who believe it is already too late to take action to save humanity. Essentially either we’ve already passed key tipping points or we’ll fail to take the necessary action to stop us passing them over the coming years: scary, depressing and most of all, disempowering. In the Spring edition of Earthmatters, the Friends of the Earth magazine, Jonathon Porritt poses the question ‘Who says we’re f***ed?’ He cites Stephen Emmott and his new book ‘Ten Billion’, who basically puts the eco-fatalist position. As both per capita human impact on the planet and population continue to grow the result is catastrophe. Either population or per capita impact need to fall, or both, for humanity to have a chance.

Jonathon Porritt’s book ‘The World We Made’ is set in 2050, and is one of the few optimistic books on long term sustainability. It’s a good read and I’d heartily recommend it. I guess basically I’m with Porritt on this one. It is still possible for humanity to save itself: for per capita impact to rapidly diminish and for population to peak considerably before we get to ten billion. I even believe that per capita impact could fall so rapidly that even ten billion would not be an undue strain on the Earth systems. As I said last week, and keep saying, technologically, philosophically and theoretically there is much we could do: it is the political will that is lacking.

Even if the chances of success are slim, the struggle for a better future is well worth the effort. It brings us into contact with other people who are passionately working for change, and our numbers are growing, possibly exponentially. Therein lies the key: in democracies numbers matter. Avaaz’s membership has gone from nothing to over 35 million in the last seven years. The Green Party here in the West Midlands seems at long last to be making headway. I was out on the ground canvassing with them in a key ward last week. It’s slow difficult work. We need all hands on deck if we are to prove the eco-fatalists wrong!

The Media and Climate Change

I’ve just finished reading ‘In the eye of the storm’, the autobiography of Sir John Houghton, the former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As one might expect, he comes across as scientifically rigorous, always prepared to modify his position in the light of new evidence. His utterances on climate change are extremely cautious, and always backed up by the most careful analysis of the peer reviewed literature. Cutting edge science will always be some years ahead of the slow and cautious peer reviewing process. (Some scientists such as James Hanson and Peter Wadhams are prepared speak from the cutting edge.) Sir John Houghton meticulously details the damage done by climate change deniers, often willfully acting on behalf of powerful vested interests.

I have in several recent blogs bemoaned the generous coverage given to the barmy army of climate change deniers. It is significant that a couple of days ago the Science and Technology Committee of MP’s have felt impelled to criticize the BBC, Telegraph and Daily Mail for this. In their defense the BBC said in the interests of impartiality they try and represent all sides. If this is the case why don’t they give any time to those advocating major changes to the status quo? I would dearly love the opportunity to present the case for a rapid shift in the economy towards a radically more ecologically sustainable and socially just future. Several people have suggested my ‘Global Problems: Global Solutions’ evening classes would make great television! In them I express opinions that are well received by large numbers of people, yet seldom heard on our mainstream media. If the BBC really wants to take a balanced approach they should give more coverage to those who understand the threat of climate change, and the matrix of other macro level environmental problems facing humanity, and are advocating fundamental change: political, economic, social and environmental. 

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/01/telegraph-and-mail-concede-on-climate-change

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26845103

 

Inequality inevitably destroys democracy

Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in their book ‘Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty’ take a broad sweep though human history and demonstrate that inclusive political institutions are vital for long term prosperity, while extractive systems undermine both prosperity and functional democracy. These authors fail to make clear the extent to which inequality is now destroying countries long thought of as democratic, especially USA.

One statistic demonstrates the extent to which the USA must now be regarded as a failed state. “The top 400 people … own more wealth now than the bottom 185 million Americans taken together. That is a medieval structure.” (Gar Alperovitz) In January the Guardian Weekly quoted Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, who said extreme wealth was “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive”. ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, Annie Leonard’s ‘Story of Stuff’ videos would all be known to many of the readers of this blog, and all give ample evidence to the destructive effects of excessive wealth.

Our mainstream political parties have utterly failed us in America and Britain. Barack Obama is probably the best candidate either the Democrats or Republicans could have come up with and yet judged by any meaningful political or economic indicators he has been a disaster. The extent to which the American state is in the hands of a few rich individuals and corporations makes democracy a sham. The UK is not much better. Inequality has risen consistently from the Thatcher era through Blair, Brown, and Cameron. Paranoia over terrorism has forced us into pointless wars and unprecedented surveillance.

However I remain optimistic. One reason is the burgeoning size and dynamism of what Paul Hawken in ‘Blessed Unrest’ calls ‘The Movement’. We can see it active on the streets of Brazil and Turkey, in the growth of online activism with Avaaz and 350.org, in the increasing global numbers of bottom up, self organising community groups. This movement is profoundly egalitarian, inclusive and global. I feel strongly a part of something very big and very little understood. We demand real social justice, real democracy and real ecological sustainability. I’ll write more about this movement over coming weeks: it is of profound significance.

 

The 400 individuals to 185 million ratio of American inequality is one I heard the excellent Ted Howard of the Evergreen Coops quote at a meeting in Hereford, but here is quoted by Gar Alperovitz on the democracy now website http://www.democracynow.org/2012/7/16/gar_alperovitzs_green_party_keynote_we

The books referred to in today’s blog are:-

‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty’ by Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, Profile Books, 2012

‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, Penguin, 2009

‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, Vermilion, 2007

‘Blessed Unrest’ by Paul Hawken, Penguin, 2007

The God Species

God Species By Mark Lynas

© Mark Lynas

Some thoughts on Mark Lynas’s book ‘The God Species: How Humans Really Can Save the Planet’

This is an important book and one I’d recommend: thoughtful, provocative and full of challenging insights and observations. He is very good at defining what are the real challenges facing humanity and rightly focuses on the Planetary Boundaries, which he (and the Planetary Boundaries Group) divides into 9 categories: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Nitrogen, Land Use, Freshwater, Toxins, Aerosols, Ocean Acidification and the Ozone Layer.

He makes a strong critique of the green movement and where it has gone wrong over the years. While much of his analysis is excellent he sometimes comes up with policy recommendations that I see as not the best. Two big issues illustrate this; nuclear power and economic growth.

Mark Lynas and a number of other former anti nuclear Greens are now avid pro-nuclear advocates. I think that they are right to stress that closing down dirty coal must be our top priority energy policy due to Climate Change. They are also right that many environmentalist groups and individuals have over-hyped the dangers of nuclear power. As regular readers of this blog will be aware I think 100% of humanities energy requirements can best be met via renewables. Oliver Tickell responds to Lynas and argues the case as to why the UK should invest in renewables and not in more nuclear power in the latest edition of the Resurgence/Ecologist magazine.

In relation to the dominant paradigm of maximum economic growth at whatever cost Lyans stresses that the Green movement has too often gone with the opposing paradigm of zero growth initiated in 1972-3 by Herman Daley in his Toward a Steady-State Economy. The pro versus anti growth dialectic I find exhausted. The intelligent versus suicidal growth distinction (first proposed by Stephen Harding in 2008) I find more useful. Arguing against growth makes no sense to those many millions struggling to get by and to improve their lot in the world. Defining exactly what is the most intelligent way to invest money that will help humanity move back within the Planetary Boundaries while also providing a good quality of life for the 9 billion or so of us humans soon to be sharing this unique planet of ours: that is the question facing humanity and one which I’d love to debate with Mark Lynas, Oliver Tickell, George Monbiot, Stephen Harding and others.

Oliver Tickell
http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1482669/ renewable_revolution_or_nuclear_nightmare.html

Stephen Harding and Growth http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article2287-intelligent-growth.html