Category Archives: Politics

Tomatoes: Economics & Ecology

British supermarket salad section
EU supermarket salad section

The UK currently has shortages of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces and other salad crops. The government and BBC are pushing the line that these shortages are due to poor weather in Morocco and Spain. This has been a factor, but a very minor part of the reason for our shortages. The entire EU has an abundance of these salad crops, and even in Kherson on the frontline of the war in Ukraine has plenty. So: why the shortage here?

Brexit is largely to blame. Holland, which grows salad crops for export in heated greenhouses, has plenty, but Brexit red tape means Dutch lorry drivers, who often have to queue for up to 77 hours, are refusing to drive to the UK. We could grow our own but as the UK energy costs are somewhat higher than average EU energy prices it is often uneconomic to heat greenhouses here, and this is compounded by the shortage of agricultural workers now that Brexit has forced so many East Europeans to leave. Ukraine meanwhile has open access to the EU’s single market and so it is has tomatoes and the rest in plentiful supply.

We could of course re-structure our energy market to be more in line with the EU. That would make energy costs cheaper, but reduce corporate profits, and our government is firmly on the side of maximizing corporate profits, even if it means impoverishing UK citizens.

Traditionally we did not eat many out of season crops. Tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces were mainly harvested in the summer and autumn. To have such crops in February is either done by bringing the produce from southern Europe or Morocco, or growing in the UK or Holland in heated greenhouses, any of which usually mean high carbon footprints.

It is possible, but almost never done, to grow tomatoes and salad crops in the UK in greenhouses that do not result in carbon emissions. The New Alchemy Institute pioneered greenhouses with very high thermal mass, and solar thermal panels way back in 1976 on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Now with cheap solar and wind power, we could add utilizing surplus wind energy to heat giant hot water stores under greenhouses. Technologically this is feasible. Iceland pioneered using geothermal heat to grow bananas, a much more heat demanding crop than tomatoes. Greenhouse technology has great potential to feed more of humanity, but it needs sensible governments that want to promote ecologically and economically sustainable practices. Our government is obsessed with the delusion of Brexit, nostalgia for empire, putting corporate profits over ordinary people, and cares not a jot for true sustainability.

James Rebanks, the author and regenerative farmer, tweeted: ‘Being a farmer in Britain right now is like being trapped in the back of stolen car driven at high speed by a driver who’s high on drugs and oblivious to the obstacles ahead… and all the time shouting absolute gibberish at you from the front seats’. Therese Coffey is currently the British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and she is certainly shouting absolute gibberish.

Oh, for a government that actually cared for the people and the planet, and a BBC that actually wanted to speak the truth!

Ukraine & the Defence of Democracy

President Zelensky address the combined houses of Parliament

Yesterday President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the combined houses of Parliament before meeting King Charles and visiting Ukrainian tank crews training in Dorset. Last night he met Macron in France and today is in Brussels. This whistle-stop tour is all about securing tanks and planes to repeal the Russian invasion of his country. We, along with partners, should supply him with all the weapons he needs. It is vital that Ukraine defeats Russia, and that Putin and all his key supporters face trial for war crimes in The Hague, or death.

Many on the far left, and the far right, in UK, USA and Europe oppose this. They tend to see NATO expansion as a cause of war. They are utterly wrong. Most of the countries of Eastern Europe wanted a peaceful life: they never invaded their bigger neighbours, but have been repeatedly invaded by them. Finland and Sweden have spent decades trying to be neutral, but now Russian aggression has forced them to apply to join NATO.

Many countries, once they joined the European Union thought that they did not need large armies. Poland is a case in point. Russian media is full of talk of the next stage of the war being fought in Poland. They talk of it as a non-country, just as Stalin and Hitler did, suitable for annexation. Understandably, Poland is now purchasing huge quantities of weapons.

My book ‘System Change Now!’ was finished in April 2022, a couple of months after Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine. The book envisaged a more peaceful, ecologically sustainable, and socially just world with thousands of co-operating tiny democratic communities networked together. It envisaged much less military spending. That world is only possible once aggressive colonial empires such as Russia are no longer a threat.

I have become very interested in the many countries that have been invaded by the Russian Tsars, Bolsheviks, Stalin and Putin, and many also by Hitler’s Germany. They are showing great solidarity with Ukraine. In October I posted a blog about how Finland and Estonia have become two of the best governed countries, and Sanna Marin and Kaja Kallas two of the best leaders. Ukraine has made remarkable progress since the Euromaidan protests of November 2013, and Zelensky has emerged as a tremendous leader. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Romania and Moldova are all emerging as key supporters of Ukraine. Many of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have long been under Russian domination, are expressing greater independence. The Kazakhs erecting ‘yurts of invincibility’ in Ukrainian cities offering tea, warmth and hospitality is an expression of support for Ukraine that has enraged the Kremlin.

In December I posted a blog, Understanding Ukraine, and saying how useful I found Timothy Snyder’s Yale lecture series. He also writes a blog which includes many excellent articles, including ‘Why the world needs Ukrainian victory’. Another academic I find helpful is Janne M Korhonen, from Aalto University in Finland. Here’s a long Twitter thread of his on democracy, war and peace and why small democracies need to stick together and oppose aggression. We in UK, USA and Western Europe have a duty to stick together with these relatively small independent democratic countries: our futures are deeply intertwined.

Energiewende: Protest & Politics

The Energiewende is the idea, and the policy objective, to gradually phase out all fossil fuels and also nuclear power, and develop a more energy efficient and renewably powered German economy. The term was first coined in 1980. It remains a policy objective, but German politics has been riven between the foot draggers and the real energy transition enthusiasts. I have followed developments over the decades. In 2014 I spent a month in Frankfurt studying the process and posted a blog, ‘Energiewende: Success or Failure’.

Now, nearly a decade later, much has changed, and it is time to look again. The German Green Party was the most enthusiastic supporter of the policy, while the larger CDU & SPD parties were both in the foot dragging camp. Both the CDU & SPD supported the construction of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, bringing gas from Russia. The Greens opposed this, but were overruled. Gerhard Schroder, the former Chancellor and leader of the SPD became a member of the board of Nord Stream 2, which was dominated by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Angela Merkel also supported Nord Stream.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 exposed German economic dependency on Russian gas. Politically Germany had to abruptly stop fossil fuel imports from Russia, and then the Russians blew up their own pipeline. The pressure was on to find alternative sources of energy, and quickly.

The German Green Party was now the minor party in a coalition government with the Olaf Scholz’s SPD. Robert Habeck, as Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs got the poisoned chalice of a job of finding emergency alternatives to Russian gas. He had long supported the Energiewende. Had the policies he advocated been acted upon the impossible role he now finds himself in would not have been necessary. He now reluctantly has to keep more coal and nuclear plants going and go begging to Qatar for LPG, as well as increasing gas imports from Holland, Norway and others. Environmental activists were horrified. Protest focused on an open cast coal mine at Luetzerath, where a couple of weeks ago Greta Thunberg joined the long-standing protest, getting much media attention.

I have much sympathy for both Robert Habeck and Greta Thunberg. However I see some hope. These pro coal, LPG and nuclear power actions will probably be short term temporary fixes. The cost of solar and wind power has declined rapidly, and the growth of their deployment has been increasingly rapid. Germany was one of the early pioneers of wind and solar, and by 2003 they were generating 46 TWh from renewables, by 2013 this had risen to 152 TWh, which rose to 256 TWh in 2022. (See above graph)

It looks inevitable that solar, wind, energy storage and transmission systems will now see very much larger investments. The longstanding Energiewende goal of 100% renewables now looks both the cheapest and most politically appealing policy. It is a tragedy that larger investments in renewables and demand reduction were not pursued more vigorously and consistently over the last couple of decades. Dependency on Russian gas and the current desperate measures would all have been unnecessary. There are painful political paradoxes: Robert Habeck and the German Greens are being held responsible for the consequences of policies they themselves spent years opposing. Such is politics!