Green ethics – part 3

In my previous two blogs I have argued that, in terms of ethics, the way forward for humanity is through the development of certain character traits or good habits – habits that will support our flourishing as members of a global land community, character traits that will support the story of this same flourishing. But how do we develop these character traits? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they? I have been thinking this through now for about ten years, and have made several lists of suitable candidates, but here I’m just going to outline what I consider to be the three most important. But first a few words about their general development.

Aristotle termed the character traits he discussed ‘virtues’, and argued that we develop them through constant practice, through constant repetition, through establishing good habits. He never prescribed exactly what each virtue meant for each individual in a given situation, other than it was the avoidance of both excess and deficit, what he termed the golden mean. He recognised that “conduct has to do with individual cases, and that our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases”, and that “a master of any art avoids excess and deficit, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate not in the object but relative to us”.

Let me illustrate what Aristotle means here with the first of my suggested character traits – empathy. By empathy I don’t simply mean feeling what another person feels, I mean a considered response to those feelings that lies between the two extremes of selflessness and selfishness, a mean point that we need to determine for ourselves relative to each social situation. Why? Because it involves a conscious attempt to put ourselves in the position of the other and to assess the situation from their perspective and, perhaps, to ask ‘what does the other person expect of me?’ For each social act it is impossible to describe that act as either right or wrong, but the habit of practicing empathy contributes to human flourishing because it makes vivid the expectations of the other through thought and feeling. Expectations, in both the senses of the word (what ‘should’ happen, what ‘will’ happen), are the relations that form human society and culture, they are the forces that cause it to change and grow, they are the forces that glue it together.

If empathy is the social glue that holds communities together, that brings out our interdependence on others, my suggested second character trait does something very similar with regards our relationship with other animals and our natural environment. Let me term this new habit ‘Ecopathy’. This is the developing trait of both feeling and understanding ourselves as ‘plain members of the land community’, as Aldo Leopold phrased it, of deeply appreciating our interdependence with all life. If we want to get scientific, it means developing an understanding of the dynamic complexity of life on this planet, and allowing this understanding to influence how we act in the daily dramas of our lives. In terms of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’, perhaps it lies between the two extremes of our selfish exploitation of the planet, our thinking that we have dominion over other life forms, and the brutal fact that as a member of the land community we do need to eat, we will produce waste, and some of our actions will harm other members of the land community.

I have recently come to the realization that the outlook for humanity is bleak, very bleak, unless we start learning how to think. Yes, I know we all think we can think, we do it all the time, but I mean really think – not just have opinions. We need to develop the habit of thinking critically, of asking questions about what we hear and read, of looking for and evaluating the evidence that supports our opinions and beliefs, and (most importantly) being prepared to have other people challenge our opinions and not responding with a tirade of insults. For want of a better phrase, I am going to term this third character trait ‘good sense’. I use this phrase to purposely contrast it with the term ‘common sense’ which I equate to a herd mentality, the habit of simply following popular opinion. Perhaps the golden mean here is somewhere between a herd mentality and the arrogance of believing that any thought we have must be correct.

The three character traits that I’ve outlined above are by no means exhaustive, they are simply my top three. It is important to realise that there cannot be a definitive list of character traits, just as is it impossible to say, definitively, what the right or proper action is in any situation. It is impossible to say, therefore, what character traits we should be developing. In the same way as all the characters in good novel have different traits, we will all need to develop our own characters in our own way in response to our own unique circumstances, but we need to do so forever mindful of the story we are trying act out, and our dynamic interdependence on all other natural systems.

Green ethics – part 2

In last week’s post I very briefly outlined what I consider to be the problem with both the traditional approach to ethics (basing our ethical decisions on some non-existent definitive reference point) and the relatively recent consequentialist approach (making an impossible calculation as to the consequences of any action). Instead I suggested that an approach based on the methodology of Aristotle (one that focuses on the development of good habits and character traits in order to flourish as a citizen within a community) may well provide the route to the development of an effective Green Ethics. A different way to think through the importance of habits and character traits is through an appreciation of the importance of narrative or story telling in human life, and especially its role in supplying meaning and purpose to our lives.

One of the paradoxes of human life is both our need for meaning and purpose, and, in any definitive sense, its complete absence. Through both experience and shared knowledge humans are able to make good rough and ready predictions as to what to expect during their day to day activities, an evolved ability that gives them a good evolutionary advantage over animals of much greater strength and speed. However, not everything we expect to happen (in both ‘will’ and ‘should’ senses of ‘expect’) is supported by evidence based knowledge. We fill in the gaps, join the dots, by creating stories. Doing so makes it much easier for our ‘knowledge’ to be passed on to future generations – for the simple reason that it makes sense of what otherwise could be a disparate collection of expectations. Whilst this general process applies to all aspects of human life, it applies particularly so to ethics where, as discussed last week, objective reference points just do not exist.

Take the example of truth telling. Experience over the span of human evolution has shown that in practical terms, within particular communities, human society functions better if individual members can trust each other, and that this trust is dependent on members telling the truth. It’s not necessary for this truth telling to be 100%, in fact there may well be occasions when ‘the greater good’ is best served by the full truth being withheld. But how can this experience be passed on the young members of the community other than through them being told they need to tell the truth? And the easiest way to respond to the inevitable ‘why?’ is to feed this imperative into a story that, as well as explaining how they should behave, explains where they have come from and what their purpose is. Enter the role of religion. Religious myths have, over the course of human history, served the purpose of supplying the ‘grand narrative’ to human existence. But, whereas science, and particularly evolutionary science, now provides an evidence based explanation to our existence, religion still has a grip on the ethical explanation. This needs to change.

Religion myths, then, were arguably the first stories – certainly the first ‘grand narratives’. But the fundamental use of story exists at the personal level as well. We each have a ‘self narrative’, a story that we tell ourselves and others that links our various experiences together into a coherent whole and provides a personal meaning and purpose to our life. As Will Storr points out in his book Selfie, “To make a successful story, a self needs a mission. It needs a plot”. And, as our personal experience of stories will testify, successful stories need a variety of characters – they need good guys, heroes; they need bad guys, the villains; and they need victims. These various characters will also have their associated character traits, those aspects of their usual behaviour that identifies them, that we use when describing them to others. Our grand narratives, those that make sense of our tribe, community, or nation, also make use of characters and character traits, but in a much more abstract way.

The story we need to start telling is the story of human survival. This is the story of stories, the grandest of narratives. It is the story of how humans, though ignorance of their origins, created many false myths, especially the myth that they were special and separate from the rest of nature – that other animals and the land itself (what Aldo Leopold terms ‘the land community’) were there for human exploitation. It is the story of how, as a chapter in this story, humans found a use for the fossilised remains of forests that existed before the emergence of human life, and that in burning this fuel to power their economy they nearly released so much stored carbon back into the atmosphere that human life became untenable. It is the story of how, at the last minute, humans realised that they were plain members of the land community and started to behave accordingly. It is the story of how humans changed their character traits – but in what way? What traits of character, what habits of behaviour will facilitate our survival?

Green ethics – part 1

This will be the first of a three part blog that sketches out a green approach to ethics. I have been working on the various ideas that I hope will come together by doing this off-and-on for some time, but a conversation I had last week has not only promoted these ideas to the top of my thinking, it has also brought various different ideas together. The three most significant questions / areas of thinking that I’m trying to pull together in my mind are: Could the methodology used by Aristotle in his ‘virtue ethics’ help us respond to our climate and ecological emergency? How would an understanding of our use of narrative help in our response to the need for political, economic and social reforms? To what extent are poor thinking skills, particularly the ability to think critically, contributing factors in the problems we face? I will sketch out the first of these in this blog, with the other two following in successive weeks. Hopefully the vague idea I have on how these strands fit together will crystalise in the process.

The central question for any approach to ethics is, given a particular situation, how should we act? The dominant answer in the West for most of the last two and a half thousand years has been “in accordance with a definitive notion of ‘the Good’”. According to this traditional approach ‘the Good’ transcends human experience but exists for our guidance. For Plato ‘the Good’ existed as an ideal Form and was absolute, timeless and unchangeable. Whilst any good that humans did on Earth was but a shadow the Good, Plato argued that we could get closer and closer to the Good through philosophical practice. This approach was adopted by western religion where the Good became the word of God. God’s commands on how to act in any situation were either presented by divine revelation (the Sermon on the Mount) or through an intermediary who, through an inner voice, directly heard his voice.

In later philosophy, Immanuel Kant in effect took the same position by arguing that we should only ever act according to those maxims we would wish to become universal laws – laws that are absolute, timeless and unchangeable. There are two main problems with these approaches to ethics: these absolute and universal maxims and commandments fail to appreciate the complexity of actual life (no act can be categorically right or wrong, good or bad); their transcendent reference points, be they an ideal Form or the voice of God, simply do not exist.

During the nineteenth century an alternative approach to ethics emerged – a consequentialist one. This started with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham who basically argued that we should determine the goodness of an act by the amount of happiness produced; that the act which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the right one to take. Later proponents modified this by differentiating rule utilitarianism from a focus on individual actions, an approach that argued that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. Consequentialism more generally argues that the rightness or goodness of an act is determined by the consequences that result from it. Once again there are two main problems with this approach: the impossibility of determining the consequences of an act, let alone the amount of happiness produced (again, it fails to appreciate the complexity of life); and the later discovery by neuroscience that in actual fact the brain ‘decides’ what to do in any situation a fraction of a second before we consciously contemplate the act. This last point is potentially a lethal blow for ethics, with John Gray arguing that our attempts to be moral animals are futile.

There is, however, a way to rescue ethics, and that is through the conscious development of good habits. If we get into the habit of behaving in a certain way in a certain situation we tend to do so without thinking about it at the time. Most craft and sports skills are developed this way. The problem of determining which habits to develop however, which are good and desirable, which are bad and to be avoided, remains. This, I want to suggest, can be resolved by returning to the methodology of the philosopher who first focused on the importance of developing good habits – Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that whenever we act we do so in order to achieve what we take to be some good, and that that particular good is sought in order to achieve some further good. He went on to argue that we can follow this line of reasoning until we reach the end of the line where we find the greatest good. Aristotle termed this greatest good eudaimonia, a term that is often translated as ‘happiness’, but which can also be translated as ‘flourishing’.
For Aristotle this flourishing was always of an individual actor within society. Good habits, or good character traits were those that made you a good citizen, that allowed you to flourish within your community. I suggest that the some method can be extended to apply to humans as part of the land community, as Aldo Leopold called it. Good habits or good character traits are those that not only make an actor a good citizen within their community, but allows that community to flourish as part of a world community, that world community to flourish as part of a global land community, and that global land community to flourish as part of a global eco-sphere.

Is the alarm loud enough to wake us up?

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published on Monday. According to the head of the United Nations, this devastating report is a ‘code red’ warning for humanity. And Alok Sharma, the UK minister who will preside over the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, said “If ever there was going to be a wake-up call to the world when it comes to climate change, this report is it”. But will it be? What are the chances we just press the snooze button? What if the comfort of the bed we are currently lying in is just too familiar to get out of? The duvet too comfortable? The thought of all we have to do when we get up just too over-whelming?

The report, the sixth from the IPCC since 1988 and eight years in the making, found that human activity was “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the Earth’s climate. These changes include the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the resultant rise in sea levels, and the increased frequency of extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts. The upshot of all this is that only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade can prevent climate breakdown – a breakdown that will render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable through either floods or extreme heat. The result of this will mean a major reduction in land available and capable of growing food, and a massive number of people fleeing their current homelands in order to find a place of relative safety. Ultimately, if nothing is done at all, the Earth will become uninhabitable to humans.

So, can we pull back from the brink? Probably the most pessimistic answer to this question is supplied by John Gray. In Straw Dogs he says that “the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd.” His criticism is aimed the “doctrine of salvation” he terms humanism: “the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny”; “the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free”. This pessimism is a critique of what he sees as the unfettered optimism associated with the humanist idea of “progress and enlightenment”. He admits that there has been progress in knowledge, that we know and understand more about the world we live in, but argues that there has been no progress in ethics. Science, he argues, “enables humans to satisfy their needs”, but it “does nothing to change them.” Bottom line here is that humans are just too needy; that our needs, particularly our material needs, could well be our Achilles Heel.

For Gray, humanism’s cardinal error, adopted from Christianity, is “the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals”, guided by our ability to use reason. On this point he sides with David Hume in arguing that reason is, and can only be, the hard pressed servant of the will – a will driven by our emotions, by our needs. Our intellects are not, as most of us believe, “impartial observers of the world but active participants in it”. In pressing this point Gray is only restating the point made by Aldo Leopold, one of the founding thinkers of the environmental movement. In his essay ‘The Land Ethic’ he argues that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

The way to avoid the bleak future predicted by the IPCC report, therefore, may be through ethics rather than science, technology or reason. Perhaps we need to not only understand our being part of a land-community, a community of all living entities sharing a single environment, but start to feel this connection, and start to feed this connection into our ethical behaviour. We need to start understanding and appreciating the effect of our needs upon other members of the land-community. We need to understand, truly understand, that believing humanity to be something separate from the other life forms sharing this planet is an error; that all life is intrinsically linked and interdependent; and that believing these other life forms and the planet itself are there as a resource to satisfy our insatiable needs will lead to our extinction. But most of all we need to allow this new understanding to feed into our ethics. If we do this perhaps we can steer a path between the pessimism of Gray and the optimism of humanism and survive as a species a little while longer. But if we do, we will need to seriously curtail our consumerism and freely abandon many of those luxuries we associate with modern life.

The joy of philosophical discussion and pessimism

Philosophy has always been important to me. By philosophy I do not necessarily mean a body of knowledge, though that is inevitably picked up to some degree on the way. I mean instead asking questions: questions that resist an easy answer; questions that open up problems rather than close them down; questions that make you think. But above all, and increasingly so over the years, I value asking questions and discussing ideas with a group friends. It was a joy, therefore, when the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group met, in person, this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We’ve been meeting every month virtually through this strange time, but this has been nowhere near the same experience. So, seeing as our last on-line meeting discussed ‘Joy as an act of resistance’, we started our physical meetings off with a discussion of ‘Pessimism’.

Philosophical pessimism is generally regarded as a direct challenge to what John Gray (in Straw Dogs) terms humanism – that is, the belief in progress, the belief that “by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals”. Put another way, philosophical pessimism challenges the optimistic assumption that the future will be kind to us. Such an assumption is manifest in a blind belief in market led solutions, that if we allow economic markets to work in an unrestricted manner the invisible hand will work its magic to the benefit of all. It is also manifest in a blind belief in technological solutions to our climate crisis, an area where we witness many examples of what Roger Scrutton calls the ‘best-case fallacy’. This is where people adopt an uncritical attitude towards the best case scenario of any problem and believe that it will come about.

The future of human survival, let alone human well-being, faces many challenges: global pandemics, growing and deepening inequality, economic collapse, a resurgent religious fundamentalism, post-truth. But without doubt the biggest of these is a rapidly changing climate. Following innumerable severe weather events around the world which most scientists attribute to the rise of mean global temperatures, his last week saw one report in which scientists warn that greenhouse gas levels are already too high “for a manageable future for humanity.” Yet despite these warnings sufficient numbers of politicians grasp hold of some version of the ‘best-case fallacy’. They have faith, for example, that ‘carbon capture and storage’ will provide a technological solution to the critically high levels of carbon in our atmosphere – even though the technology has not been fully developed, let alone proven to work. Others have faith that hydrogen will be able to replace fossil fuels to power our privately owned transport obsessions. And all the time we hold onto this faith we do not consider other options. These technologies may prove effective. But they may not. In other words, optimism may lead to our demise, whereas pessimism would probably lead us to the best outcomes in the long-term – providing, of course, that it doesn’t drain us of the will to live.

So why do so many of us grasp hold of an uncritical optimism? Well one way of approaching such a question is through our use of narrative and through the links between pessimism and the absurd. For proponents of existentialism the absurd represents an intrinsic paradox to human existence: that humans have a deep need for meaning and purpose to their lives, but when sufficiently examined no such meaning and purpose can be found to exist. What humans tend to do, however, is to tell themselves and others stories. These stories are a mix of adopted, often religious myths that explain the place and future of a person’s tribe, nation or religion on this planet, and a personal narrative that assigns a place for the narrator within this grand-narrative. These narratives come complete with the usual mix of heroes, villains and victims. Within the grand-narratives these roles are often abstract, often assigned to other communities, social groups or religions, though occasionally an actual person can become the embodiment of a hero or villain (I’m thinking Donald Trump). Within our personal narratives these roles are assigned to the people we know. With regards to optimism, the key point is that we all tend to prefer stories with a happy ending.

There are, though, exceptions to our liking of happy endings. I’m thinking particularly of how many people enjoy a Shakespearean Tragedy, which usually ends with the death of the hero and most other characters. And many of us enjoy ambiguous endings to a film or drama series – though usually in the hope of a sequel that will resolve all the plot lines. But with regards to both our grand-narratives and personal stories perhaps we need to take a lesson from science. Complexity science, the science of dynamic systems (which we are all examples of), has shown that there is an inherent uncertainty to life. So why not start writing this uncertainty into our narratives, why not start embracing uncertainty rather than writing it out of the script. Rather than anticipate a happy ending (optimism), rather than anticipate a tragic ending (pessimism), why not treat life as a piece of improvised theatre in which the ending is uncertain? Why not develop our character through the performance of our lives fully accepting that the closing scenes have yet to be written?

Opportunities lost

At last week’s meeting of Dorset Council I found myself in a difficult situation. One of the principle items on the agenda was the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy, which was finally ready for adoption. I didn’t want the Council to reject this strategy – it contains much to be valued, and it is surely better to have a strategy than not. But, and this is a big ‘but’, it lacks the vision, it lacks the ambition, and, most importantly, it lacks the sense of mission that I genuinely believe is necessary if we are going safeguard the wellbeing of current and future residents of Dorset.

For example, my original CEE motion to Council (which was referred to the cross-party panel that ‘advised’ on the creation of the strategy, and which has never been debated) called for the development of a Dorset wide transport strategy that discouraged car use, encouraged walking and cycling, and brought about drastically improved rail and bus services. This has not been addressed by the strategy. One way this could be achieved would be to develop an idea sketched out in the Royal Town and Planning Institute research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’, published earlier this year. This could develop Dorset into a network of eco-towns, towns with high levels of self-sufficiency that facilitate local living and the local economy, connected by a comprehensive public transport infrastructure.

Such an idea would require what the economist Marianna Mazzucato calls a mission-oriented approach, a way of thinking that “is about setting targets that are ambitious but also inspirational, [that are] able to catalyse innovation across multiple sectors and actors in the economy. It is about imagining a better future and organising public and private investments to achieve that future.” An approach like this would put the problem of achieving net zero living at the centre of a redesigned Dorset economy. That, I truly believe, is the level of vision and ambition we need to adopt. But sadly the strategy I voted with a very heavy heart to accept gets nowhere near such levels. The battle continues.

The other item which I was hoping to speak on was a motion from the Leader of the LibDem group calling for the Council change its model of governance. The current model is one where the main decisions are made by a cabinet of ten members selected by an elected leader. The motion called upon the Council to adopt a model where these decisions are made by a number of committees made up of members from all political groups in proportion to that group’s success at the previous election. For example: at the 2019 election 43 Conservative councillors were elected out of a total of 82 (52%); so rather than a 100% Conservative cabinet making the decisions, they would be made by committees containing only 52% Conservative councillors.

I wanted to voice my support for this motion on two grounds. First, from a philosophical perspective, because definitive answers or solutions to any problem simply do not exist. It is impossible to say, with an absolute sense of certainty, this is how things should be, and this is how we achieve it. There are no ideal models for human behaviour or relationships existing in some Platonic heaven, and due to the inherent uncertainty of all complex systems there is no guaranteed way of achieving any desired outcome. No, the only way to conduct our affairs is by listening to all perspectives. All views and opinions, reflecting the views of all the residents of Dorset, not just those of a small group of the majority party, need considering and debating. This is the only way to make important democratic decisions that affect the lives of those people living and working in Dorset.

Second, because one of the seven principles of public life (incorporated into our members Code of Conduct) is openness: “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” I see no evidence of such openness from our current Cabinet system. When I have attended cabinet the vast majority of decisions have been unanimous – with no debate, no exploration of alternatives, no transparency of decision making at the actual meeting. The members of the cabinet are not unintelligent; they must have questions to ask; they must have differences of opinion; they must feel the need to at least challenge some of the reports they are presented with. But as none of this is evident at the cabinet meeting open to the public, press and other councillors I can only assume it is taking place behind closed doors. A healthy democracy requires these doors to be opened.

Sadly I never got an opportunity to make these arguments because the ‘debate’ quickly descended into farce. In fact it hardly deserves the name ‘debate’. None of the key issues were examined, none of the main arguments were made. My interpretation of events is that the Leader of the Council, sensing the real possibility of defeat, introduced an amendment that would have effectively kicked the issue in the long grass. Fortunately a yet further amendment was introduced, and supported by a majority of councillors, that will require the Council to decide this issue before the next elections in 2024. I think it really sad, and not good for democracy, that the opportunity to discuss, examine and debate these important issues was lost.

Common sense or good sense?

Common sense has been much talked about this week, mostly in connection with the wearing of face masks. When step 4 of the government’s ‘roadmap to freedom’ starts, possibly on July 19th, wearing them will no longer be a legal requirement in most places in England. According to the Prime Minister, the decision to wear them will be a matter of “personal responsibility”, whilst the health minister, Helen Whately, said that people will be asked to “make a common sense judgement” about such issues. But what does this mean? I’ve long had a problem with the notion of common sense. People who use the term seem to imply that through its use we should be able to assess a situation and arrive a course of action which is both obvious and common to all. Whilst this may work in a few situations (though to be honest I’m struggling to think of an example) I suspect that for most, and particularly for novel situations like the current pandemic, it simply becomes an excuse to abandon reason rather than embrace it.

In The Myth Gap, Alex Evans argues that “When it comes to how we make up our minds about political issues, it turns out that evidence, facts and data matter much less than the values held by the people we hang out with.” I think that this applies to social issues generally, not just the overtly political ones. For most of us, most of the time, our personal responsibility is directed towards “the people we hang out with” rather than society as a whole, and the purpose of any “common sense judgement” is to endorse our relationship with them rather than challenge it. This process has a lot of similarity to confirmation bias – the process whereby we seek out ‘evidence’ to support what we already believe rather than throw it into doubt. So rather than challenge or strain important social, economic or political relationships through independent rational thought we tend to do the reverse, preferring to agree with whichever argument or course of action is likely strengthen these relationships. It takes a very strong independent mind to do otherwise.

Antonio Gramsci had a similar argument. In his Prison Notebooks common sense is described as that comforting set of certainties that make us feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the social world we inhabit. These ‘certainties’ are the basic realities we use to explain our world and experiences. For example, the dominant view in most western countries, the view adopted by a majority of politicians, and the view the world of business and commerce perpetuate, is one that focuses on both the individual (individual self-interest, individual rights) and the value of competition. In terms of mask wearing it is just ‘common sense’ that the needs of ‘the economy’ are of paramount importance and that the rights of the individual to be free of imposed restrictions are fundamental. But what this ‘common sense’ view of human life fails to note is that throughout human life on this planet cooperation has been of equal importance to competition, and that without human society there can be no individual. We are who we are because of our interaction with other people. As I heard one commentator on the mask debate say, social issues concern ‘we’, not ‘I’.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze made a useful comparison between common sense and good sense. Now Deleuze is not the easiest philosopher to read, but my take on him is that he largely agrees with Gramsci about common sense. Common sense objectifies the experienced diversity of our world, it produces our individualised ‘world view’, and in doing so it essentially looks backward. Good sense, on the other hand looks forward. Its purpose is to foresee, and in doing so it is far more analytical – the formula it uses is “on one hand and on the other hand”. Such a formula could be quite helpful in the coming weeks. Rather than just fall prey to the libertarian wing of their party, rather than prioritise economic growth over social wellbeing, the government should examine the evidence and listen to the experts. It would make good sense to listen to both England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and its chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who have said that they will continue to wear masks indoors (in crowded situations or when people are close together), if asked to by any competent authority, or as a common courtesy if someone else was uncomfortable. At the very least such restrictions should remain. It also makes good sense for shops and other places open to the public to have clearly defined times when masks will be worn. This will allow people who feel vulnerable to shop with some degree of ease. My fear is that leaving the decision about mask wearing to common sense will make a lot of people feel very uncomfortable and will produce a lot of social tension. I hope that good sense prevails.

The walls they are a crumbling

Immediately following the 2019 Conservative general election victory the Prime Minister repeatedly used the phrase ‘one nation conservatism’. Referring to the breaches his campaign had made in the ‘red wall’ he said: “I’m proud to say that members of our new one nation government, a people’s government, will set out from constituencies that have never returned a Conservative MP for 100 years.” Fast forward to last Thursday and we have evidence of a possible breach in the ‘blue wall’. Much of the analysis of the Conservative loss of the Chesham and Amersham constituency to the LibDems centred on voters feeling ignored or marginalised; that they were not being listened to on the issues that affected them most – issues like the proposed planning reforms and the HS2 rail link. Assuming that this is more than a one-off, and that Conservative voters in the normally safe southern constituencies are starting to get twitchy, were does this leave the notion of ‘one nation conservatism’ – or even ‘one nation’?

It leaves it were it has always been – in the store room of fantasy ideas. Why should, how could, the whole population of the UK unite behind one collective idea? The only way such a proposal could be justified was if a definitively right or correct answer for the various problems we face not only existed, but could be articulated in such a way that everyone could see it. But there is no definitive position or answer to any issue or problem. Other than in the abstract world of mathematics it is impossible for such a position to exist. The world, and especially the social world, is just too complex. The best we can hope for is a degree of agreement as to what we want to achieve, followed by a degree of agreement in how we plan to achieve it. But even here it is quite often the dissenting voice, the view from a different or original perspective, that supplies the creative input that leads to the resolution of a problem.

No, we need and should nurture a variety of views. We need to view our problems from a multiplicity of perspectives. We then need to discuss and debate the pros and cons of these perspectives before finding a consensus. The bottom line here is that we need to start doing politics in a different way. We need to start opening up debate, not trying to close it down by creating a mirage of unity. In local government the main villain here is the cabinet system. Rather than have committees of councillors made up (proportionally) from all the political parties, decisions in the cabinet system are made by one committee composed of members of the dominant party. This nicely avoids any radically different perspective, makes decision making easier, and gives the false impression of unity. It is often accompanied by statements from members of the cabinet suggesting that such and such an issue is non-political – a blatant attempt to create a (false) definitive position.

Another aspect of opening up debate sounds at first to be a contradiction. We need to move on from the adversarial nature of politics – from having a position put forward by the government which is then opposed by the opposition. Such a system does not promote debate – it only promotes the attempt to win arguments. In good, genuine and creative debate, the type of debate that finds solutions to problems, all parties need to accept that there is no definitive position. Each person taking part in the debate needs to accept that the position they start with may not be the best, and may not be the position they end with. Each person needs to actively listen to other perspectives not just find ways to disagree.

We need, desperately need, some system of proportional representation. We need to encourage both a diversity of views in the electorate, and we need to have those views represented in government. If this means we have coalition governments – then good; it will force politicians to listen to opposing ideas and make compromises. This, to my mind, seems only fair and just. But more than this, more than a formal system of PR, we all need to learn to engage in creative debate and discussion. We need to learn to listen and consider other perspectives than our own. We need move away from the belief that not only definitive answers to our problems exist, but that we have found them. And who knows, but in a supreme twist of irony we may all become united in a collective, open and creative debate about our future.

Dreamland

I don’t read that many novels. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s that I never seem to have enough time for reading and when I do there always seem to be works of non-fiction that are more demanding of my attention. When I do get drawn into one, however, they can quickly take over my life. Such was the case last week when I picked up and read Dreamland, a dystopian novel by Rosa Rankin-Gee. I shall refrain from saying much about the plot because that would spoil it for any potential readers, but I would like to comment on two aspects on what I think an excellent and thought provoking read.

The first is personal – the book’s setting, Margate. I was born and brought up in Margate and know many of the locations described in the book intimately. I can remember the town when the guest houses were full of holiday makers, and can remember these same guest houses being converted to cheap flats for ‘London overspill’ (as it was termed at the time) when the holiday makers decided to visit Spain instead and avoid the joy of sheltering in the cliff top shelters when the weather turned wet and the wind decided to blow. In recent years, when I have visited, I have been shocked and saddened by the gradual decline of the town, and, with the exception of a very small area in the old town, have failed to notice its much talked about resurgence. All the emotions associated with these memories were easily rekindled by my reading, and added a deep intimacy to the narrative.

The second is the book’s slow journey into dystopia. From a social arena not far removed from where we are at the moment we are led on a slow and gradual path to a place that, on arrival, is not only deeply disturbing, but is made all the more so by the characters not really being aware of what was happening until they arrived there. In terms of climate change, one of the main themes of the book, this echoes a problem described by the sociologist, Antony Giddens – that people will not take the threat from climate change seriously until the effects are ‘in their face’, but by the time they are it will be too late to do anything about them. Mean global temperatures are rising and are set to overshoot the 1.5 degree maximum agreed at the Paris conference and confirmed at last weekend’s G7 conference of ‘world leaders’. The ice caps and glaciers are melting now. Sea levels are rising now. By the time our coastal towns are experiencing the floods described by Dreamland it will be too late to turn back the tide.

Another aspect of this slow descent into dystopia is that the people who really need to take the threat seriously (most politicians and business leaders) lightly dismiss it with an air of optimism. Yes, they argue, such a scenario makes good fiction, but in the real world all will be well. Whilst they are happy to admit that the dystopian state is a possibility, they prefer instead to focus on the possible utopian outcomes produced by technologies yet to be devised and inventions yet to be made. This is an example of what the philosopher Roger Scruton called ‘the best case fallacy’: given a range of possible outcomes we tend to focus on the most favourable and develop a faith that that we will achieve it. This dismissal of the worst case outcome not only makes us feel better, it also stops us working to prevent it. There is a strong argument here for pessimism. But who is going to vote for politicians who describe a future that may not come about but which, they argue, we should take seriously and actively work to prevent? Most people prefer a happy ending. They want to believe a whole range of positive fantasies told them by politicians. They don’t want to believe in the possibility of an unhappy ending.

And talking of endings, I want to know what happens to the lead characters after the closing scene of Dreamland! So Rosa Rankin-Gee, what about a sequel? Or better still, why not make Dreamland the first part of a trilogy? I would love to read the story from Franky’s perspective in the second part, whilst the third part could tell the story of Blue. Or is this just an example of me wanting a happy ending?

A Mission for Dorset Council?

My thinking on Dorset Council’s proposed Climate and Ecological Strategy and Action Plan has been clarified, largely thanks to Mariana Mazzucato’s latest book, Mission Economy. Two ideas in particular stand out for me; ideas which I think are of vital importance. One, the central argument of her book, is the need for governments to be ‘mission-oriented’. The other, more in the background, is need for us all to understand issues such as our climate and ecological emergency as ‘wicked problems’.

Mazzucato’s call for governments to become ‘mission-oriented’ is primarily a call for them to fundamentally rethink their relationship with the market economy, and to reassess the way in which they interact with business. Rather than adopt a back-seat relationship with the economy, effectively limiting their interventions to fixing market failures, they should become actively involved in both shaping and co-creating markets; they should recover a sense of public purpose; they should create a vision of what they believe needs developing or achieving and then work with business and other stakeholders to foster the necessary sense of mission to bring this about. These missions may not, probably will not, have clear paths to their achievement – these will be discovered through the creative and dynamic economic relationships engendered by the revised economic attitude. And whilst Mazzucato is talking primarily about national government, I think the same principle should apply to local government. Dorset Council may not be able to change the fundamentals of our national economic structure, but they could start working with local businesses to develop a vision of the type of Dorset they want to create.

Our climate and ecological emergency is the perfect example of a wicked problem. Wicked problems are those that arise from the interaction of many complex systems; they are problems that requires much more than a technical solution; they are problems for which we do not have (perhaps cannot have) definitive answers. Without going into too much detail, complex systems are systems with a large number of variables that interact in such a way that a small variable or input can have a large consequence or output (the butterfly effect, how the flapping of a butterfly wing can be the difference between a tropical storm developing or not) and which often produce effects that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts. If we are to have any chance of successfully responding to this climate and ecological crisis it is vitally important that we all understand the nature of the problem we face. The changes that are occurring to the Earth’s climate are the result of the interaction between an array of complex human social and economic activities and many complex inter-related natural systems. They will require a supreme sense of mission to first stabilise and then reverse.

So what does all this mean for Dorset Council and its CEE Strategy and Action? Well for one, it means that the Council will achieve very little on its own. It means that it needs to be working with residents and stakeholders to bring about radical changes to how we live. It means that it needs to take a political lead and start setting out a visions of what they think life in Dorset should be like by 2030 / 2040 / 2050. But even more importantly, having set out such a vision it needs to sell the vision; it needs to get residents, organisations and businesses onboard; it needs to start working with these stakeholder groups to help create the vision. The bottom line here is that the changes we need to make to how we live cannot be imposed – they need to emerge from Dorset communities working together in a creative way. And the only organisation that can drive this dynamic collaboration is Dorset Council.
It’s not for me to say what this vision of a future Dorset may look like, but just to start some discussion here are three examples of what could be included. Dorset should aim to be self-sufficient in renewable energy. The easiest way for this to happen would be via a large-scale off-shore wind farm. It was estimated that the previously rejected Navitus Bay project could have supplied something like 95% of our electricity – with the remaining 5% easily delivered by solar. Dorset Council should start promoting this idea and encourage discussions amongst all possible stakeholders. It should set the mission, the vision, and then work to realise it.

Another mission would be the retrofitting of all current buildings to the highest energy efficiency standards possible, and for all new buildings (all buildings granted planning permission) to be constructed to these standards. Rather than take a back-seat and wait for national planning guidelines to change the Council should adopt this as a mission and then start working on ways, on creating ways, that will bring it about.

Earlier in the year the Town and Country Planning Association published a report on how to create net-zero carbon living. It suggested various models including those for cities, large towns and for counties like Dorset which are mostly rural but with a number of market towns. The idea for this last option was to develop these towns into eco-towns – towns where local facilities are within walking distance, where the local economy is focused on shopping locally, working locally, producing locally, and where ‘active travel’ is strongly encouraged. But for when this wasn’t practical, these towns would be connected into a network by a first class public transport system. The creation of such a network of eco-towns could be a third mission.