Our market economy: the solution or the problem?

No doubt in an attempt to bolster its green credentials in advance of the UN climate conference starting in Glasgow at the weekend, last week the Government published its ‘Net Zero Strategy’. Whilst this strategy aims to achieve many worthwhile outcomes, it is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because it is embedded within and built upon an economic model that measures its success in terms of economic growth. In his forward, the PM asserts that “over the last three decades we have already reduced our emissions by 44 per cent – while growing our economy by over 75 per cent – and this strategy sets out our plan for going the rest of the way.” This no doubt sounds good, as it is intended to, but when analysed the shine quickly fades.

For one thing, the 44% reduction in carbon emissions does not include emissions associated with international aviation nor those associated with the UK consumption of goods and services imported from overseas. This means that the emissions associated with approximately one third of the goods and services we consume are not taken into account. But worse is the relentless pursuit of growth, growth that is fuelled by the constant imperative to consume: to consume stuff we didn’t know we needed; stuff to replace other stuff that is made to appear out-of-fashion; stuff we then need to spend more resources and energy disposing of.

If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions we need to consume less stuff. End of. It is as simple as that. The manufacture of any product results in some amount of carbon being emitted. We need to start asking ourselves which of these products we actually need, and which we simply buy to appear fashionable or to impress others. The problem is that our current economic model is grounded in consumption. If we stopped consuming our economies would stop growing, and the presiding government would be blamed for mismanaging the economy. An alternative economic model could be based on population wellbeing – perhaps based on some measure of the degree to which the population is healthy, have warm and secure homes, sufficient food, are free from crime, abuse or hate, and, most importantly, are not exploiting their natural environment.

One way to adjust the current economic model would be through the introduction of a carbon tax. Currently many of the ‘costs’ of producing a consumer item are not included in the price – the carbon emitted during its production and by its shipping half way round the world for example. If these costs were included the consumer market would better reflect the realities of production. To be fair, the ‘Net Zero Strategy’ does hint at this. In the Executive Summary (p16) the 2nd of 4 Key Principles says “we will ensure the biggest polluters pay the most for the transition through fair carbon pricing.” But, and this is a very big but indeed, I can find no reference to a carbon tax in any part of the 368 page document.

One of the other consequences of having this strategy imbedded within the model of a market economy is the belief that, given the right incentive, the market will find the necessary solutions and that direct government action would simply get in the way. Hence a large part of the strategy is given over to investing sums of public money in various policy areas (net zero bus and rail travel or clean maritime vessels and zero emission flights) in the belief that private companies will use this money to create the desired solutions (together with their necessary profits of course).

An alternative would be for the government to take a lead and directly deliver what’s needed. So rather than simply proposing a date for when all new cars will need to be fully emission free (2030) and investing in public transport to enable half of journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030, why not bring all public transport back into public ownership with the aim of making it both a cheaper and more convenient option than using a private vehicle. Even a zero emission car has a carbon footprint, not least of which as a result of the steel used in its manufacture. And when you consider that most cars spend most of their time not being used, wouldn’t it make sense to try and find ways of living without them?

Another area that needs far more radical action is the building sector. Rather than simply saying that no new gas boilers will be sold after 2035 and offering a small number (compared to what will actually be needed) of grants for boiler upgrades and fuel pumps, the government, through revised planning guidelines, needs to be legislating for all new buildings to be built to the highest energy efficiency standards, and offering encouragement and help for all (not just a few) existing homes to be retrofitted to the highest standards possible.

The bottom line here is that the market economy is part of the problem, not part of the solution – and the government just doesn’t see it. As Michael E. Mann points out in his new book The New Climate War, “Seventy-one per cent of global emissions come from the same hundred companies.” I just can’t believe that with a few nudges in the form of relatively small sums of government investment these large global companies are going to stop prioritising profit and the wealth of their directors and CEOs over the wellbeing of the Earth and its citizens.

Reflections on the week past

Reading Chris Loder’s column in last week’s Bridport News has left me a little confused. On the one hand it’s given me hope. His criticism of supermarket chains as “defenders of corporate greed” leads me to suspect that our MP may be a rarity amongst Conservative MPs – someone who does not support a neo-liberal free market economy. It is, after all, the open competitive nature of our market economy that allows these supermarket chains to saturate the market and devour most locally based small businesses.

It’s also reassuring that our MP recognises that the “cost of cheap food is nature.” One way to redress this, of course, would be to impose some restrictions and controls on our market economy. Perhaps the introduction of a carbon tax? Such a tax would allow many of the externalities, those costs which are paid by nature but not directly by the consumer, to be absorbed into the market price of goods. For example, the price of foods transported from the other side of the world would include the cost of removing the carbon deposited into the atmosphere from their transportation. This would make these foods much more expensive and locally produced foods much more competitive.

But on the other hand I get the strong impression that he is simply playing to the local farming community, trying very hard to develop the ‘son of a farmer’ image, someone who’s fighting their corner. I also get the strong impression that he is ambitious regarding his career in the Conservative Party. Such ambition would be incompatible with being a critic of the free market economy. I’m struggling to imagine him rocking the boat regarding any Conservative orthodoxy

I’m pleased though that our MP will be attending the Transport Day of the COP26 Climate Summit. However, if he is serious about mitigating the worst effects of our climate emergency perhaps he will also support a carbon tax on air travel; perhaps he will be advocating for public transport to be made easier and cheaper than driving by car; perhaps he will be calling for public transport to be nationalised and regarded as a not for profit public service?

Last Thursday saw a full meeting of Dorset Council. Fortunately this one was far less cantankerous than the last, and we managed to get through all our business in a reasonable time without falling into chaos. During the ‘Questions from Councillors’ I asked two questions to the portfolio holder for planning. The first was:

A recent report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concludes:
“The scale of the challenge to retrofit existing homes to tackle the climate crisis is enormous. Energy efficiency is a precursor to the transition to low carbon heat, so action must be taken in the 2020s to set homes on a decarbonisation trajectory to meet our net zero targets.” In Bridport, and other parts of Dorset, many of these existing homes have had requests to install energy efficiency measures, including the installation of double glazing, refused by our planning system because they are listed buildings. These listed buildings are nothing grand. Many are simple terraced houses that have been occupied by generations of working families, and the installation of double glazing would “lead to less than substantial harm” to their significance as a heritage asset. Could I have an assurance that the new Dorset Local Plan will take a different attitude to listed building consent and positively encourage the retrofitting of energy efficiency measures?

The issue of energy efficiency in general, but the installation of double glazing in particular, in listed buildings is fast becoming a personal campaign. Whereas most home owners are free to install double glazing if they have not already done so, and install solar panels on their roofs to generate electricity, those who happen to live in listed building have to apply for permission through the planning system – permission that is often refused on the advice of the conservation officer. The national planning guidelines on this are less than clear cut and require conservation officers to balance one guideline against another. In the absence of stronger wording in support of energy efficiency measures in listed buildings from the government I plan to argue that Dorset Council makes its case in the new Local Plan. My question was in effect the opening move in this campaign. I was not surprised at the bland and non-committal answer I received.

Green Ethics Part 4

I have used my previous three blogs to work through and outline an approach to green ethics that has been fermenting in my mind for several years. A week last Thursday I had an opportunity to present these ideas to a public audience at a local ‘Green Ethics’ event held as part of Bridport’s ‘Great Big Green Week’ – a series of events aimed at bringing the public’s attention to the up and coming UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The discussion that followed my talk, together with an informal debrief down the pub afterwards, has prompted some further thoughts, a few of which I will sketch out in this blog.

My comments on empathy probably provoked more reaction than anything else I said, including the question of whether it was ‘right’ to empathise with someone who was obviously acting against your own moral code – say someone who prioritised the accumulation of personal wealth above all else, or even (my example) thinks nothing of hurting someone else to satiate their own personal desires. Answering this becomes harder the greater the public distaste for the crime, but, yes, I probably would argue that attempting to empathise with someone who has done something you find abhorrent is a good response. To empathise is not to agree or condone. It is simply an attempt to see and feel the offence from the perspective of the offender. This could have a variety of effects. It could generate a degree of sympathy for the offender because you understand an aspect of their behaviour, some mitigating circumstance, that was otherwise hidden. Conversely it may reveal a darkness that makes you want to punish them even more severely. Either way, on balance, I think the attempt to empathise to be of value, though I do accept that for some offences the darkness revealed may be too much for many of us to deal with.

Some members of the audience expressed a desire for the introduction of clear rules or laws that would limit our behaviour with regards to our carbon emissions, for example: couples being limited to having two children or people being limited to one flight every five years. I am torn about how to respond to this. In many ways I agree. I certainly think that there should be more top-down ‘guidance’ from the government on the lines of the compulsory wearing of seat-belts in cars and the banning of smoking in public spaces. We could all (and I do mean all – every single one of us, no exceptions for power or wealth) be limited to so many flying miles per year, or be subject to some other form of carbon rationing. On the other hand I often think that the imposition of hard rules prevents us developing good judgement, what Aristotle termed phronesis or practical wisdom. As I argued in the first of this series of blogs, there is no definitive reference point that makes something absolutely right or wrong – there are always nuances. The same applies to rules or laws. As a senior officer in the Fire Service once said to me, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Such practical wisdom requires space to grow.

On the way to the pub after the event, someone asked me whether green ethics requires hope? This threw me at first – but later it got me thinking. There have been times in recent months when I have thought there to be little hope for humans on this planet. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued, we humans will not truly grasp the full implications of our climate and ecological emergency, and what we need to do and change, until the effects are well and truly ‘in our face’, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. And even when it is ‘in our face’ far too many of us will still hold onto some misguided belief in progress and be waiting for the technological cavalry to come charging round the corner and save us. But perhaps hope is not the same as optimism. The standard philosophical account of ‘hope’ suggests that it is a compound attitude comprising of both a desire for a certain outcome and a belief that that outcome is possible. Note ‘possible’ not ‘likely’. So in terms of the outcomes that could be achieved by the approach to green ethics I have outlined, I certainly have a desire for them and also a belief that their achievement is possible. In this sense I have hope. But perhaps the more important point here is that this hope, this desire for a ‘green’ future and the belief that its achievement is possible, needs to be held by the majority of us. Without this hope we are well and truly on the path to extinction.