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Issue 258
January/February 2010
Liberty

Reviews

Green Agenda
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Cover: Common Starling flock, Dumfries, Scotland. Photograph: Paul Hobson/FLPA

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Green Agenda

While John Elkington welcomes the greening of Conservativism, Peter Bunyard urges implementation of the green economy. The Constant Economy: How to Build a Stable Society, Zac Goldsmith. Atlantic Books, 2009. ISBN 9781848870673

Any book that kicks off with the late, glorious Teddy Goldsmith riding into a British election on a camel, particularly under the banner “No deserts in Suffolk”, deserves at least a skim – and maybe even a place alongside Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the annals of British exoticism. More importantly, the very public embedding of Teddy’s nephew Zac in David Cameron’s greener-version-of-blue Conservative Party necessitates a closer reading of The Constant Economy by anyone wanting to know where modern Conservatism may be headed.

As it happens, I had a more immediate reason for welcoming Resurgence’s invitation to review the book: Zac Goldsmith is campaigning to be my local MP, so his leaflets periodically flutter through our letter box. Bringing matters even closer to home, he spotlights a planning dispute involving a proposed new Sainsbury’s in the very community where I have lived since 1975 – just a few years after Teddy’s team published A Blueprint for Survival. Alongside The Limits to Growth, Blueprint profoundly impacted my generation’s thinking. Still, after Teddy and I spent a week in a hotel bedroom in Reykjavík in 1977, we agreed to differ on how to move from blueprint to reality. I inclined towards the experimental, he towards the apocalyptic.

True, the political climate was profoundly different then. 1975 was also the year that Margaret Thatcher took over the Conservative Party – and began to upend British politics. Very few green books have quoted Thatcher approvingly, as The Constant Economy does on page 109, but it’s easy to forget that even right-wing governments have sometimes introduced transformative environmental requirements, as Richard Nixon did some forty years ago, and as California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger did more recently. Thatcher didn’t, of course, but she helped put climate change on the international political agenda.

The younger Goldsmith tilts at a number of traditional green windmills, including gross domestic product (GDP) and chemical-induced puberty. But whereas Teddy seemed quixotic when advancing the same arguments as editor of The Ecologist, a green mantle Zac would assume in 1997, it is clear that Zac is addressing issues that are now in the political mainstream.

The book spotlights the long-standing tensions between ‘light’ and ‘dark’ green mindsets, though this Goldsmith’s political programme keeps a foot in both camps. Interestingly, he shies away from managed population stabilisation, arguing that this will happen because of forces “beyond our control”, but we are left in no doubt of the need for radical, transformative change. And while it seems unlikely that Cameron will be another Thatcher, Goldsmith is convinced that semi-revolutionary change is now inevitable.

He quotes Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute to the effect that by the early 1850s most US homes were lit by lamps burning whale oil. As whales became ever harder to find, the price of whale oil soared, spurring alternatives. By 1859, when Edwin Drake first struck mineral oil in Pennsylvania, the overwhelming majority of whale-oil lamps had already switched to new fuels. “The astonished whalers, who hadn’t heeded the competition,” Goldsmith notes, “ran out of customers before they ran out of whales. Rapid change is possible,” he insists. “Indeed, it’s inevitable, but we must make it happen on our terms.”

So what are those terms? One key feature of the book is a series of ‘Voter Demand Boxes’, spotlighting necessary changes in political, planning and citizen priorities. These include proposed commitments to double UK sovereign waters to at least twelve nautical miles; to ensure the greening of the UK government’s £2.2-billion-a-year public car fleet budget; to ensure the installation of smart energy and water meters in every home; to impose a moratorium on airport expansion; to include aviation and the manufacturing of aluminium and chemicals in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme; to end construction in floodplains, to phase out environment-unfriendly subsidies; and – a favourite of mine since I spent the early 1970s working to improve the pedestrian’s environment – to focus on ‘walkability’ in urban planning.

The Constant Economy ought to be required reading for all politicians and voters ahead of the next General Election. For myself, although voting Conservative would fly in the face of much that I hold dear, I’m going to have to take a closer look at those fluttering flyers. • JE

Many of us now live in a state of fearful frustration. We hear our politicians, and no less the Prime Minister, telling us that the impacts of climate change will be devastating unless we act now to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions, and then, almost in the same breath, that the way to recover from the severest recession for eighty years is to get the show back on the road – business as usual. Yes, we are fearful for our jobs, for our financial survival and indeed for our futures, but is the only way forward to resuscitate the very system which caused the problems in the first place?

Zac Goldsmith’s The Constant Economy is a timely response to our sense of helplessness in the face of a failing economy and a beleaguered planet. He gives us ten prescriptive steps which we, as a society, must take if we are to have a hope of changing our course away from catastrophe. Yet, rather than a set of obligations which the government imposes, the beauty of Zac’s prescriptions is that they are based on a direct democratic system in which the electorate is given a greatly enhanced opportunity to inform those government decisions which have implications for the future wellbeing of Britain in terms of health, prosperity and a sustaining environment, and thereby contributing to a healthier planet for the rest of humanity.

First and foremost, Zac suggests the setting up of an independent Progress Commission which would carry out an annual audit on a whole gamut of issues and parameters related to the health of society and the environment. Obliged to make its findings transparent and public, the commission would tell us how well the government is performing in terms of moving towards a sustainable economy. In addition, Zac calls for a complete revamp of the taxation system, and instead of taxing good things like employment, we should be taxing those companies (and people) that pollute, consume scarce resources and generate waste. The government should invest what it gains from such taxation in supporting a green economy, on the basis that we can’t have a healthy society without a healthy environment.

Through referenda, via the ballot box, and with the power to recall government representatives when it’s clear they are not doing the job, we can make ourselves heard, challenge the status quo and encourage change. The government would then no longer necessarily have the mandate to foist unpopular policies and plans upon us, but would have to respond to informed public opinion. That process already happens in Switzerland, resulting in the protection of people’s rights and wellbeing.

Zac lambasts those government decisions, such as the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, which go against the grain of what the electorate wants and what the environment can support. What we have now, through its new ‘fast track’ planning laws, is a government which can override public opinion, just as it is now doing by pushing through planning for a new nuclear power station in a region of outstanding beauty in Cumbria. And, as Zac makes abundantly clear, the government of the day is excessively influenced by big business and its scientifically and economically trained apologists. The precautionary principle, which stops the genie escaping the bottle, is pushed out of sight and mind.

The seas and fishing, agriculture, food quality and security, energy production and efficiency, transportation, housing, greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change, health, waste and consumerism, and the bringing about of a steady-state economy are all issues considered in Zac’s visionary book. For him, it is essential to bring the public and electorate into the discussion and even the decision-making process, such that we tackle the problems willingly and in a reasonably united manner. And for those sceptics who believe nothing will change, Zac gives plenty of examples where the type of action he would advocate has already made a difference for the good somewhere in the world. The sad truth is that despite fine words on tackling climate change and other environmental issues, we in Britain lag well behind other countries. We need to be motivated if we are to engage in seeking solutions for an uncertain future, and Zac Goldsmith gives us a pretty good idea how. • PB

John Elkington is co-founder of Environmental Data Services, SustainAbility and Volans. His latest book, co-authored with Pamela Hartigan, is The Power of Unreasonable People. Peter Bunyard is science editor for the Ecologist and author of Extreme Weather.

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