Politics: Populism & Protest

Writing in the London Review of Books Ferdinand Mount surveys the political landscape the UK is now in post Brexit. Apparently his article is being much discussed by Tory grandees. It certainly mentions all the figures of historical and economic thought to whom many Conservative MP’s look for inspiration. Under the influence of the ‘terrible simplifiers’ all checks and balances to the ‘elected dictatorship’ of Boris Johnson’s regime are now under attack, from the BBC to the Supreme Court, from local governance to the House of Lords. He cites Edward Luttwak prophetic predictions on the re-emergence of more fascistic forms of governance in these times of capitalism run rampant. Johnson is following a cohort of demigods from Trump to Putin, Orban to Bolsonaro down this most dangerous of paths.

Across much of the world the forces of centrist moderation, or of organised labour, are exhausted and spent. They represent no challenge to these emergent fascists. Ferdinand Mount’s prescription seems to be to battle to save what is left of the old checks and balances to moderate the excesses of these populist demigods. However he fails to mention the elephant in the room.

Other forces are at play. Rampant capitalism is running up against the laws of physics, of biology and of chemistry. These scientific realities are immutable. Humanity is easily expendable. Our dependence on a well functioning biosphere is absolute. Without forests and phytoplankton we would suffocate, without bees and worms we would starve, without nurturing nature and human community we would all go insane. Pure unpolluted air, fresh clean water, supportive human communities are fundamental to life in a way that gold, jewels, oil and coal simply are not. Capitalism, socialism or any of the old economic ideologies failed to understand this simple reality.

Greta Thunberg and the school strikes movement, Extinction Rebellion, and countless indigenous, environmental and community groups embody this different understanding of the World, that is both ancient and emergent. The nation state and national politics are not for them the main focus of attention. The World is one. We either all thrive or we all collapse as one single species. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is one simple calibration of planetary health. For most of human history it jogged along at about 285ppm. When I was born in 1955 the figure stood at 314 and it is now 413ppm. Humanity’s future is on a knife edge. Our survival must inevitably involve many rapid political changes, nearly all of which are beyond the scope of current political discourse. But the Overton Window is shifting. What is now beyond the pale could soon be mainstream orthodoxy: global free movement of people, global governance with globally redistributive taxation and a global health care system free at point of use may be a few of the changes. The end of throw-away consumer capitalism and the whole fossil fuel economy are necessary first steps. There is much to be done and not long to do it. This is the simple reality. It is a reality based on scientific understanding of the way people and planet must coexist. The old centrist politics failed to grasp the scale of the changes required, and the current crop of neo-fascist populists don’t give a damn.

I like many millions of people am now increasingly committed to non-violent direct action as the most vital and necessary act of political expression. Yes, I vote, and yes, I am an activist within a political party, but party politics in this country and in nearly all countries has failed to deliver the changes required to ensure humanity can flourish in the future. In the past all meaningful progress in human history has come from below. The streets now, perhaps more than ever, are where real politics is alive, exciting and transformative.

Over the next few months I’ve got three speaking engagements booked, in Presteigne, Hereford and Newtown, Powys. All three will be on various aspects of what needs to be done about climate change. More details on the events page of this blog.

Rage, Resistance & Gratitude

Almost everything this government are doing is wrong. We are leaving the EU, intentionally increasing inequality, doubling down on austerity, investing in over-priced and inappropriate infrastructure and most importantly of all failing to tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

I’ve opposed every government over the last fifty years and have never voted for any party that has formed a government. I’ve been on countless protest marches, written letters, lobbied my MP, leafleted for the Green Party and been a member of countless pressure groups. I’ve given talks and led evening classes articulating how we could have a very different future.

Last weekend we had an Extinction Rebellion training weekend: lots of people, energy and determination, love and courage. Tomorrow I’m off to Birmingham for the West Midlands Green Party regional conference, which is a sell-out event. I’m also getting more involved in the Quakers and their Yearly Gathering has the intriguing title ‘Listening, prophecy & reconciliation: allyship in a climate emergency’. In this extraordinary Planetary Emergency we have countless allies in all countries on Earth.

Those still promoting socially and ecologically destructive policies control the media, and have the money and the power, and seem able to hoodwink sufficient numbers of people to vote for them, as is evidenced by Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and so in a way Putin and Xi Jinping. Change is inevitably coming. The future could be dreadful: ecological and social collapse, war, famine and quite possible extinction of our species. We could also be on the verge of something very much better, an era of ever greater ecological restoration and growing global equality, of social and environmental justice. As many of the young climate protestors have written on their banners, ‘Everything Needs to Change’.

To effect that change we need many millions of us active in multiple ways: legal, political, non-violent direct action, entrepreneurial and academic. So this week I want to say ‘Thank-you’ to Client Earth for taking the UK government to court over their mad decision to build a vast new fossil gas power station, going against their own climate guidelines. Thanks too to Caroline Lucas and Ellie Chowns for being politicians to be proud of. Thank-you to Extinction Rebellion, to the School Strikes movement and to the vast number of activists for Ecological and Social Justice in every country on Earth, and thanks too to all the academics and entrepreneurs developing the ideas and technologies that might make rapid decarbonisation possible.

Australia, Bush-fires & Climate

Bushfires are raging across the length and breadth of Australia, twenty-five people and over a billion animals have died. You will no doubt have seen countless images of the destruction. The scale of the fires is unprecedented. Months of hot dry weather have turned the country into a tinder box.

The above graph shows the mean average temperature for Australia for the month of December and charts how it has changed over the last 110 years. Note how the peaks have increased from the 1970’s compared with the previous decades. 2018 was a record hot year, but this was massively surpassed in December 2019. For decades many of us have been warning about global warming. This is what it looks like. This December has been an example of what 2.75 degrees of warming looks like. Ed Hawkins, the eminent professor of Climate Change at Reading University in UK, who made this graph tweeted it with the headline ‘Australia: you have just experienced the future.’

I have blogged numerous times about how Australia has failed to develop its renewable energy potential and what a succession of useless leaders they have had (See here, here, here and here). Their current prime minister, Scott Morrison, plumbs new depths of scientific illiteracy. He is the coal industry’s man.

In a blog in October I quoted the Australian Chief scientist Alan Finkel calling for an extremely rapid roll-out of renewables, from the current 20% of electricity generation up to about 700% to cover the electrification of transport, heating, cooling and industrial processes, and for major exports of electricity and hydrogen. Now Australia desperately needs the politicians capable of driving this through.

Our hearts go out to the people suffering the effects of fire, drought, flooding and other climate change induced misery in Australia and in many other countries. Things will inevitably get very much worse, but with radical global system change, a rapid end to fossil fuel use and consumer driven capitalism, we could yet avert the worst. But the time window available gets ever narrower as the hotter the planet gets the more feedback loops kick-in, making the changes more extreme, more chaotic and more difficult to either adapt to or to mitigate.

This blog’s awards, 2019

Mark Z Jacobson et al

On this blog I usually pick a Person of the Year, and/or a Technology of the Year. Globally, and in the UK, the political landscape looks bleak. Leadership is coming from the street, from academia and from entrepreneurial start-up companies.

As I did last year, this year Greta Thunberg is undoubtedly my person of the year. She is an extraordinarily articulate leader who has inspired millions of people to engage with the realities of Climate Change. Many of the young climate protesters are truly remarkable individuals, making their voices heard despite many challenges, especially in China, Russia and other countries where the police routinely harass protesters. Greta speaks for many people, both young and old, me included.

Mark Z Jacobson leads a team of academics and researchers at Stanford University in California. They produce, and continually update, a possible route-map to 100% renewable forms of energy, for all countries and for all purposes, including electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and for industry. Their plans are workable, costed, and jobs lost and gained are taken into consideration. A book titled ‘100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything’ is due for publication this spring, and many draft sections are available to read.

On this blog I’ve not written about food, farming, diets and land use as much as I should have. Over the next few months I’ll write about a number of the best examples of sustainable land use. Holland is remarkable in that it is a small densely populated country, yet manages to be the second largest agricultural exporter in the World. A long article in National Geographic points to how this was achieved and the important role of Wageningen University and Research, which has spun out dozens of tiny agricultural start-up businesses pioneering new ways to grow more food, more sustainably, with lower inputs of chemicals, energy and water. I’ll post a blog shortly about this.

Electoral Dysfunction

We’ve had a week or so to digest the UK general election results. The case for electoral reform has never been stronger. The LibDems increased their vote from 7.4% to 11.6%, an impressive 4.2% increase, yet got one less seat than previously. The Green Party increased their vote by 60%, to 864,743 votes, but still only the one seat. About four dozen parties got at least 500 votes each, several getting many tens of thousands of votes, but still no seats. The SNP increased their vote share by less than the Greens, yet their cohort of MPs shot up from 39 to 48, meaning that for each 25,882 votes they got an MP, as the above graphic from the Electoral Reform Society shows.

Labour lost 61 seats and gained one. Their vote share slumped from 40.0% to 32.2%, a fall of 7.9%. They continued to lose ground to the SNP in Scotland and now have lost much of the traditional Northern working vote to the Tories. Ironically, had we had Proportional Representation, Corbyn would now probably be leading a broad left of centre coalition of Labour, LibDems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens, which would have included 18 Green MPs.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives got only 43.6% of the vote, but that yielded them 365 MPs, a comfortable working majority. The Queen’s speech reveals more of the tone and direction of this Johnson led Tory Party, heavily influenced by Dominic Cummings. Out go any respect for science, fiscal responsibility or factual reality, in comes simplistic populism, preening narcissism and unfettered corporate greed.

The outcome of this general election is of course disappointing, but to me at least, it was not surprising, given our antiquated voting system, the toxic influence of huge flows of dark money, the use of psychological warfare techniques and the agenda of the billionaire owned newspapers. The media pitched the election as a contest between Corbyn and Johnson and many people voted for the one they hated least. Sadly few people felt they could truly vote for what they believed in. To reflect the breadth of opinion we need more parties in Parliament contributing ideas in a more cooperative and collegiate manner, as is the case in most of Europe, where, of course, Proportional Representation is the norm.

Hong Kong & UK elections

Pro-democracy landslide in Hong Kong
Pro-democracy landslide in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has just had district council elections. Normally these would not elicit much reaction in the international media or even much enthusiasm within Hong Kong itself. But these are not normal times. Hong Kong has experienced many months of anti government street protests. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her Beijing backers gambled on there being a silent majority who supported them, and the police reaction to the protesters. The youth dominated pro-democracy activists stood candidates for all 452 seats and amazingly won 388 of them. The pro government and pro Beijing candidates dropped from having 298 seats to just 59, an absolutely catastrophic collapse. Critically turnout leapt from 47% to 71%.

Here in UK we have a general election on 12th December. The polls are predicting Boris Johnson will win. The debilitating chaos that is Brexit will continue to dominate our media for many years to come, whoever wins. Meanwhile the climate and ecological crisis relentlessly unfolds and governments everywhere are totally failing to take the required action. The School Strikes movement and Extinction Rebellion express the pent-up rage of ordinary people at the lack of governmental leadership on this, the most important challenge humanity has ever faced.

If the Hong Kong elections prove anything of relevance to the UK it is that people can vote for what they really believe in, and not what their governments or the media expect of them, or for the candidates and parties that they habitually supported in the past. It would be like the millions of people who all are concerned about the climate and ecological emergency suddenly all realizing the Green Party has the best policies and all voted for them. It is of course pretty well inconceivable that the Green Party could form the next British government, even if that would be the best outcome for what very many people are deeply concerned about.

After every UK general election for many decades I’ve been disappointed by the outcome. One tribal party forming the government, others the opposition, and always the big issues left unaddressed. Even I, as a passionate supporter of the Green Party over many decades, don’t expect them to make massive gains. However a couple of extra Green MP’s would be great, so I’m off to help in Bristol West where the wonderful Carla Denyer stands a good chance of winning. If we can’t have the sixteen year old Swede Greta Thunberg as the British prime minister I can think of no one better than Carla Denyer. She would lead the UK towards a useful role in the World by leading on climate action, so getting her elected seems like a very necessary first step. As today’s news from Hong Kong shows, the unexpected can happen and elections can mark real moments of change.


People in Beirut, Lebanon, celebrate the Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation, but will stay on the streets demanding system change.

Protests are kicking off all around the World. In Lebanon, Chile, Iraq, Hong Kong, Spain, Ecuador, Bolivia, Pakistan and Russia and in many other places there have been anti government demonstrations. The school strikes and extinction rebellion movements touched nearly every country on Earth, with their demands for action to be taken over the ecological and climate crisis. Most of the media reporting covers each demonstration as a separate story and the focus is usually to magnify visually photogenic dress or on any violence, however tiny this is in relation to the total event. Serious analysis of what impels all these many millions of people to take to the streets and what links all the various actions seems very inadequate.

The BBC in a rather bland and disjointed article did try and make a few linkages about people’s frustration over inequality and government corruption, and mentioning in a rather disconnected way the climatic and ecological emergency. Will Bunch, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave some good historical background on Chile and the malign influence of American foreign policy, and how both countries now have such dangerously high levels of inequality as a direct result of a toxic economic ideology.

Francisco Anguitar, a demonstrator in Chile said “We’re asking for justice, honesty, ethical government”, a sentiment no doubt shared by many. The question is what does ‘justice, honesty and ethical government’ look like in the current global situation? Recent revelations about the extent to which Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change and then systematically organised a massive disinformation campaign over several decades come as no surprise to many of us. Governments consistently promote corporate interests over public health. Air quality in our cities is atrocious, but nobody expects governments to take the required action. Inequality grows ever more extreme. Governments may come and go but the ruling oligarchs and the corporate interests they represent remain unchallenged. They control the media. Public frustration and anger grow ever greater, opening up dangerous possibilities.

The vast majority of the people demonstrating all over the world want peaceful change. They want a degree of social and ecological justice simply beyond the scope of anything that gets much coverage in the media. If change does not come quickly and peacefully the ever growing levels of public frustration and anger could led to violence and chaos. Recent Syrian history is a warning.

During the Arab Spring peaceful protesters in Syria were met by ever greater levels of repression and violence by the state. People felt impelled to protect themselves and their communities. The violence escalated into a multi-sided and intractable civil war. Some increasingly credible visions of a dystopian future see such strife escalating to become a totally global phenomenon.

Private jet aircraft embody social injustice and climatic destruction. Sales of such planes are increasing. In any conceivable future that is both ecologically and socially just they simply could not exist. The co-existence of billionaires and the very poor is the result of an economic system that was designed to create inequality. Taxation systems need to be redesigned to create radically greater equality both within and between countries. Any billionaire anywhere on Earth is evidence of a failure of economic justice. What the people are demanding is for the austerity that has been directed at the poor be redirected towards to the rich, and the affluence and resources that has flowed to the rich be redirected to the poor until some degree of economic justice is established. And to do all this while rapidly cutting carbon emissions and all other forms of pollution, and restoring the Earth’s wonderful biodiversity. A big ask, and one that requires system change, globally.

Climate: Action Required

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has said that capital markets are financing projects likely to fuel a catastrophic rise in global heating. This of course is exactly why Extinction Rebellion activists have been rebelling in the city of London this week. Carney also pointed out that companies with assets concentrated in the fossil fuel sector are likely to go bankrupt, just as others in the cleantech sector flourish.

The scale and speed of the energy transition required to avert catastrophe is way beyond what any politicians are advocating. Let’s take the energy debate in Australia where they currently generate about 20% of their electricity from renewables, and which the governing party energy minister thinks is too much, and is advocating for huge investments in coal. The opposition parties are advocating increasing renewables by 2030, the Labor party to 50% and the Green Party to 100%. Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, is calling for a goal of 700%, which to me seems a sensible way forward. Cheap wind and solar could easily meet all Australia’s electricity needs, and facilitate the energy transition in the transport and built environment sectors, and open up a huge new market in the form of clean energy exports. Already plans are afoot to lay an undersea cable to Singapore to directly export renewable electricity and for a huge growth in green hydrogen for export to Japan, Korea and China, helping them rapidly decarbonise. These are the sort of economic changes to which Mark Carney was referring. The question is where are the politicians needed to implement such profound and rapid changes?

Meanwhile Prince William is in Pakistan and has called for climate action after seeing for himself glacial retreat and consequent flooding and drought problems. He has called for greater cooperation between the UK and Pakistan on the issue. Pakistan, like Australia, has enormous solar potential. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has published a detailed paper on ‘Pakistan’s Power Future’, where they point out that solar and wind are already the cheapest forms of new energy and are projected to only get cheaper. Currently solar provides only 0.5% and wind 1.5% of Pakistan’s electricity. Pakistan currently generates 61% of its electricity from largely imported and expensive oil and gas. It would be good for Pakistan’s balance of payments, for local communities currently struggling without electricity, and for the global climate if their politicians worked with the many people who could help them rapidly develop their renewable energy potential.

Here in UK Boris Johnson has just announced that he will chair a new government committee on climate change. It is right that the Prime Minister chairs such a committee, but hard to imagine anyone less qualified to do the job. If I was to chair the committee I’d want to invite Professor Peter Strachan from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and Jeremy Leggett from Solarcentury as my key advisors. Sadly Boris is unlikely to listen to such voices and unlikely to take any sensible action to avert climatic, ecological and financial collapse, which is why Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Greenpeace and others will keep up their protests for urgent and radical change.

Change Is Coming

A solitary climate striker in Russia. Last week she was one of 7 million globally on climate strike

Change is coming. As planetary systems are collapsing a new global consciousness is beginning to emerge. The climate and ecological crisis that has long been building, and which the global political and economic system has singularly failed to address, is now being bravely flagged-up by a new generation. This generation clearly is demanding profound, global, system change. This is not about anything as superficial as a change of government here or there, or even a global switch from capitalism to socialism; it is something much, much more profound.

At last people are beginning to think about the welfare of our species as a whole. We all require a stable climate, clean air and water, shelter and security, food, family and friendship. We need a new political and economic system that unites us in our common humanity. Longer term many exciting possibilities emerge for excellent free global health and education, for global ecological restoration, for new forms of global and participatory democracy. But today I want to focus on the short term.

The global strikes for climate from 20th to 27th September saw over 7 million people take to the streets. It was a truly global phenomenon, led and organised by teenagers, inspired by Greta Thunberg. On Monday 7th October Extinction Rebellion’s international rebellion will kick off again. I’m intending to be there on the streets of central London. The rise in ecological and climate activism on the streets can and does influence public opinion and political outcomes. Examples abound.

Austria had an election on Sunday, and the Greens tripled their vote to nearly 14%, resulting in them going from no seats to twenty-six. The Sydney Morning Herald put this surprise leap in the Green vote down to the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’, as following massive school strikes for climate action the issue has risen up in the public’s perception and concerns. This result in Austria is part of a wider European and global trend. Last May Green parties did exceptionally well in the European parliamentary elections and in the local elections in England and Wales.

Here in Herefordshire since May we’ve had a new council, and what a breath of fresh air they are. Last week I went with a number of people from Extinction Rebellion to a council debate on the climate emergency. It was thrilling to hear the heartfelt contributions from the public and to hear the sensible and constructive response of our councillors. Our new administration is a coalition of Greens, Independents and a local group called ‘It’s Our County’, and talking to individual councillors about how well they are working together is wonderful. They all understand the need for change and want council policy to rise to the challenge of the climate and ecological emergency.

The coming weeks will not only see the ongoing school strikes and the next wave of Extinction Rebellion action, but also demonstrations for freedom and democracy continuing in Hong Kong, Moscow and many other places. These things are all related. The yearning for system change, especially among the young, is overwhelming. This old man says ‘Bring it on!’

Purpose & Policy: Transport

Hereford Station. Usage here and across the network is increasing. Investment is needed: who should pay and own   it?
Hereford Station. Usage here and across the network is increasing. Investment is needed: who should pay and own it?

In my last blog I talked about how Anu Partanen found a purpose underlying the policies that shape Nordic societies, and single terms like capitalism and socialism are not helpful, creating as they do false dichotomies, that can obscure the bigger picture. This way of thinking I find useful in looking at all manner of issues.

Let’s take UK transport policy, and debates around the railways as an example. For most of the last 70 years the UK rail system has largely been underfunded. It is important to note that our rail system has been in decline from the days of private companies before 1948, through the years of a nationalized service and through the last couple of decades since privatisation.

The predominant view was that roads were a more modern alternative. Oil companies and car manufacturers reinforced the politicians in this. Political debate focused on whether the system should be nationalized or privatized. This to me seems a very secondary consideration. Clarifying the long term purpose of what a transport policy should look like, and what part rail should play within that framework, seems to me to be what is required. Then, and only then, does what part of it ought to be in public ownership and what part in private ownership and what other models might be appropriate for various bits of infrastructure become an important issue.

Any sensible transport policy fit for the twenty-first century ought to focus on how we can cut carbon emissions and pollution, ease congestion, increase safety and make mobility affordable and accessible for all. For many decades it has been clear that cars are not suitable for big cities, and that even smaller towns are plagued by too many of them. Rail has many advantages over road transport. Steel wheels on steel rails generate much less friction than rubber tyres on tarmac, and are therefore more energy efficient, and their longer thinner shape further adds to this advantage. Railways are the fastest way to move large numbers of people. Walking, cycling, buses and trams then need to be integrated into the rail system.

UK tragically lost many of its railway lines with the Beeching cuts. Now the government is pushing the HS2 high speed line, which seems a very poor investment. By contrast Switzerland has what is considered Europe’s best railways. They did not experience any equivalent of the Beeching cuts and have not focused on high speed rail. Their priority has been intensity of use, reliability, quality of service and safety. The UK should follow this model and invest heavily in regional railways, suburban rail and tram systems, and in the walking, cycling and buses that are all needed to make any modern city more enjoyable and pleasant to live in. We could also follow Estonia and Luxembourg and make some or all public transport free.

Cars of course will have a role to play, but with excellent walking, cycling and public transport, that role ought to decline, and it would be good to see individual ownership largely replaced by car sharing clubs for those journeys when a car really is the best option. So on to who should own what. The Swiss rail system is a Special Corporation whose shares are owned by the federal government and the cantons. If regional and county councils had a stake in UK rail we might have better provision across the whole country. The cars in our car sharing club are owned collectively by a group of forty or so households within our local community. In Germany the municipal Stadwerke own lots of well functioning infrastructure. There are many possible systems of ownership, and the unregulated free market and the centralized state monopoly may be the two least helpful starting points for thinking about the best future of our infrastructure.