One of Spain’s governing parties adopts degrowth

Eva García and Alberto Garzón (via 15/15\15)

Eva García and Alberto Garzón (via 15/15\15)

Foreword

We are pleased to publish this translation of an interview with two members of the Spanish political party Izquierda Unida (IU – United Left)1, Eva García and Alberto Garzón. Alberto is currently the Minister of Consumer Affairs and national coordinator of the party. So far as we know, this is the first time that a political party in government at a national level has been so clear in calling for degrowth, in this case within an ecosocialist perspective. Other regional parties (e.g. the CUP in Catalonia) have adopted degrowth and various Green parties include it in their programmes, although, in my view somewhat rhetorically rather than programmatically. However, this rigorously argued advocacy from a party in government in a major European state is a significant development. We look forward to seeing which leading UK politician will be the first to argue unequivocally that degrowth is the necessary corollary of the finite nature of our planet and the capacity of its natural systems2.

Interview with Alberto Garzón and Eva García on the evolution of the Spanish United Left party, Izquierda Unida, towards degrowth.

Interview conducted by Manuel Casal Lodeiro. Translated by Mark H Burton with input from Manuel Casal Lodeiro and Amelia Burke.  Original article at 15/15\15 (Spanish)

Original Introduction (15-15-15)

Last Saturday, May 14, Izquierda Unida [IU, the United Left political grouping] held a meeting in Madrid that had aroused considerable expectations among the activist sectors closest to Degrowth. Preceded by a public letter and a manifesto entitled Degrow to live” promoted by various militants from the degrowth sector of the party, it had the support of its general coordinator through an extensive article (available in English). The article, which has a didactic but also ideological tone, published in the official organ of IU , where the author, the general coordinator, defends and justifies the biophysical need to put an end to economic growth. In the journal 15/15\15 we wanted to speak with one of the promoters of this meeting, the coordinator of the environment area and former parliamentarian Eva García Sempre, and with the general coordinator of IU and Minister of Consumer Affairs, Alberto Garzón Espinosa himself.


15/15\15: The meeting that you have convened through your letter and manifesto might appear surprising from the outside, but I imagine that it is actually the result of debates and reflection that you have been holding internally at IU for some time about the problem of limits to growth. Is that so?

Eva García: Indeed, it is not a new debate within the organization. That we have to live within the limits of the planet was already clear; now we are going a step further and proposing that degrowth is a reality and that together we have to design a political roadmap so that this degrowth does not fall, as always, on the most vulnerable.

15/15\15: A couple of things that stand out about the meeting are that the call is not only to social movements, which might be something more or less common from left-wing groupings, but also to other political parties . What response have you had from each sector? What other parties in Spain do you know that are part of this evolution towards Degrowth?

EG: The response has been, without a doubt, very interesting. Regardless of whether or not they consider it appropriate to participate as an organization in this first meeting, the reception has been positive and hopeful from of the organizations we contacted. And regarding the political forces, especially those that are also having these debates, it is very positive. In any case, and since we are still planning, we will have names on Saturday the 14th. As for other political forces, I believe that to a greater or lesser extent this debate is taking place within almost the entire left. A separate question is how it is approached and whether that position is the majority view. But yes, there are political forces that have considered it and hopefully we will meet with them at some point and work together.

15/15\15: Another aspect that draws a lot of attention is the objective of jointly designing a degrowth-orientated programme for the country. It sounds like the internal debate actually seems to be quite clear and you want to get down to work to turn the awareness of the end of growth into the elements of a practical political programme. Is that right?

EG: We are not naive. The debate will not be easy in any organization or political force (not in ours either) because, when you come to the concrete issues, there is a lot of apprehension: will it be understood by society? What will happen to this or that productive sector that is central to my region? Precisely for this reason we want to promote the widest possible space for discussion, with all possible viewpoints. Addressing doubts and fears together is usually easier. But yes, I think that from the start our position is quite solid internally.

Alberto Garzón: Our party was established in 1986 with the political-social objective, among others, of incorporating the environmental and feminist demands that emerged in those years, especially from the social movements. Since then, the ecological component has been strong within the organization, despite the fact that the IU’s ideological matrix has always been a classical orientation (to the conflict between capital and labour ). In recent years we have made a significant effort with the activists to define a coherent ideological perimeter within which all these dimensions could complement one another. In the coming weeks we will present the main results of a survey on the ecosocial crisis that has allowed us to assess the scale of these ideological transformations within our organization. But I can share some findings now. Today, for example, practically 50% of our militants define themselves as environmentalists, 60% as feminists and 70% as communists; that is, there is a high degree of intersectionality. In addition, among the activists, 39% identify with the degrowth project. I believe that the situation is very ripe to address certain debates, without this meaning that they cease to be problematic.

15/15\15: The text “The limits of growth: ecosocialism or barbarism” has been published in English and has received praise from notable Degrowth thinkers like Jason Hickel and even from someone more associated with eco-anarchism like Ted Trainer. What other reactions have you had from abroad? Will there be international participation in the meeting?

AG: The document tries to take an approach that is rigorous, although not academic per se, but also informative. We knew that the fact that it was prepared by a minister increased its impact, and we have to take advantage of that. But in reality we had already advanced quite a bit with the work carried out by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs which is expressed very well in relation to the controversies over the reduction of meat consumption and the issue of mega-farms3. But without a doubt my intention was to take the debate to new places, such as the communities of our activists or that of the people who relate to us but are not familiar with many of the elements that appeared in the text. The idea was to ensure that the ecological issue was not reduced to the problem of climate change, and therefore a debate was opened up on the measures that we had to take as a society in the face of a much more complex and threatening challenge than what people tend to think. The international response has been very positive, and that is why we translated the text into English. We want to continue weaving national and international networks that go beyond parties, because we understand that it is the only way to build real political alternatives. In fact, the article aims to be a starting point that will explain many of the upcoming actions and events.

15/15\15: And other leftist parties, beyond our borders, that are in this phase of considering the need for degrowth? I am even thinking of the Americas here, because although sometimes we relate Degrowth to countries like ours or France or Italy, what a certain left and a certain indigenism in Abya Yala4 has been defending for some time seems to point in the same direction, although they call it Buen Vivir, for example. I am thinking of the president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, the only one who at COP26 had the courage to say that to truly combat climate chaos it is essential to abolish capitalism. Is it too soon to start dreaming of an International of Degrowth and Buen Vivir?

AG: I think that a new common sense is being installed that makes the eco-social crisis a very serious phenomenon, compared to what might have been thought of this a few decades ago. Some parties have incorporated this into their project or their discourse to a greater extent than others, but it is becoming normative. We talk about the need to build a historical and social bloc —in Gramscian terminology—, so that we understand that it is an issue that goes beyond pre-existing parties and institutions and where the cultural battle is central. That’s why are now focussing more on building networks nationally and internationally. I think there are common threads so that something with a strong capacity for political intervention can be built at some point.

EG: It is difficult to speak on behalf of other parties. I sincerely believe that the debate is already taking place and, watch out, even in the most reactionary forces. What this is about is deciding whether degrowth is is achieved from a social perspective, to guarantee a dignified and full life and all, or as Capital has always done: excluding and expelling the working and popular classes. Either degrowth for life, or ecofascism.

And, well, I don’t know if it’s too early to talk about an International of degrowth, but it is undoubtedly urgent to establish an international space that initiates the political and cultural construction of an alternative model. For me, the ideal model for building a fair degrowth is ecosocialism. But we will have to listen to all the voices.

15/15\15: However, despite the interest aroused in the Spanish degrowth movement and these echoes from some foreign activists, it seems that both the meeting and the positioning of the minister have gone largely unnoticed in the Spanish media, where not even the right has taken advantage of the occasion to draw blood. Is a long article with academic references less interesting to criticize and misrepresent than a few brief common sense statements about intensive farming?

AG: Media logic has its own codes and rhythms and they are actually different from political logic. However, as I have already mentioned, the article aimed to lay the foundations for a line of work that we are promoting from within IU. Soon we will hold new events, perhaps debates as well, which can be understood in the light of that article.

15/15\15: All in all, this very clear and counter-current positioning of yours, Alberto, has been quite surprising. Those of us who follow the positions of the leaders of the left on the question of growth were aware of certain previous statements of yours, the signing of the anti-Keynesian manifesto, Last Call [Ultima Llamada], in 2014, etc. that made it possible to think that you might be one of the first people to speak clearly about the problem of limits. But perhaps what has surprised us most is that you do it while in government. Why this step forward now, this coming out of the closet as a degrowther, if you will allow me the expression? And why not before now, as some people are asking?

AG: You have to understand the aspect that we could call biographical. We all build our ideology socially, that is, in very specific spatial, temporal and vital contexts. I am from a generation (born in 1985) that has taken on board the ecological question from the beginning of my political consciousness, both from a practical point of view (living on the Malaga coast we mobilized many times against the speculative processes that were destroying the land and the natural base), and a theoretical one too (I owe a lot to my postgraduate studies, especially to my teacher and friend Ángel Martínez-González Tablas). These experiences have allowed me, as has happened to so many people, to be unable to accept any worldview or ideology that is blind to the ecological issue, and it has also allowed me to counteract the biases inherent in my training as an economist (for me the works of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and especially Robert Ayres and Reiner Kümmel have been essential). With this genealogical-personal trajectory, it can be understood that, when I joined at the federal coordination team of IU in 2016, I directly initiated a series of discursive, political and organizational transformations aimed at deepening a project that we could call republican eco-socialism.

15/15\15: And to what extent are the positions revealed in texts such as the one signed by Eva and the rest of the comrades from the IU Degrowth group and the article published in your official magazine already largely taken on board in the party? Where is the ideological debate up to and what are the most important obstacles that this ideological turn is encountering?

EG: In our documents, the ecosocial crisis and the need to adjust to the biophysical limits of the planet had already been stated, most recently in the latest documents approved in the Federal Assembly where we re-elected Alberto. It is a baseline in all the interventions that we make. I think yes, in general terms it is an assumption that we have in common that will nevertheless require, as I said before, a lot of work when we have to ground it in concrete measures that, understandably, will generate anxiety.

AG: As I said before, we will soon make public some of the results on the opinions of IU activists regarding the eco-social crisis. These are very positive results that point to the internalization of ecological discourse and practice. In any case, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is hat we are not for a semantic fight regarding the ideological definition —many people can take on board degrowth approaches even if they do not like or do not fully understand the concept itself. The second is that you have to compete with narrow visions, such as the one known as red and brown, which also have a presence on all the left. Our intention is to secure a majority for an ecosocialist, feminist and republican project, within the organization and in society. This is what we have accelerated in particular since 2016, while moving in an extremely complex political-national context (also and above all, in the spaces of the left). Throughout it all, but with prudence and humility, I think we are doing well.

15/15\15: Traditionally the fundamental axis of partisan politics has been between left and right. But in times of eco-social collapse, the axis growth-degrowth or productivism-social ecology becomes even more important. Do you agree with this assessment? The big question that needs to be resolved is perhaps how to combine left-wing policies that speak to today’s social problems, while maintaining a long-range ecological policy to re-situate ourselves within the limits of the biosphere?

EG: Degrowth is already here, we repeat that ad nauseum. And that the important thing is to address the who, the how, the much, of that contraction. In this sense, we can agree that there can be profoundly degrowth policies and, also, profoundly unfair ones. Without the view of the left, without being clear that solutions must embody social justice, then rather than having proposals for degrowth, we will find ourselves with a massacre. The policies of the left are a necessary condition, although not sufficient, to deal with a just outcome. It has to be an eco-socialist left that identifies the planetary limits as the defining framework.

AG: Indeed, as I have already said, we come from a classical tradition where the capital-labor conflict has been central, if not the only one. To a great extent, it is a tradition that is blind to the ecological question and to patriarchal oppression. We are correcting these deficiencies without falling into the other great risk, that is, in considering that the solution is to form a liberal-green party that downplays social issues (inequality, poverty, class struggle…). It means the detailed work of combining theory with political practice. In 2017 I wrote a book called Why I am a Communist, very theoretical (it dealt with everything from the philosophy of science to the theory of the capitalist state) and some prominent leaders of my party criticised me for having included a chapter on political ecology. Five years later I can say that this kind of resistance is already insignificant within IU [United Left party]. Today we are in a different phase. Fortunately.

15/15\15: Your article says, Alberto: “the central task of democratic societies should be to build resilient communities capable of prioritizing the well-being of their populations without permanently damaging the natural environment that sustains them, as well as preventing the escalation of social conflicts and wars, which are increasingly linked to the eco-social crisis”. Building resilient communities sounds great, and nominally very much in line with this Recovery and Resilience Plan, but do you see that these important economic resources are being dedicated, this enormous loan that we have forced our sons and daughters to grant us, really to being used make us more resilient in the face of the clash with the limits?

AG: I still don’t feel capable of being able to freely comment on many of the experiences that we are accumulating during our time in the Government. But I could say that there are indeed numerous inertias —ideological and practical— that from the civil service and the parties promote public policies that not only do not take into account the eco-social crisis but, in fact, aggravate it. The controversy of the reduction of meat and industrial farming not only revealed the weight of strong business interests but also of a very dangerous inertia within public sphere, even from those considered progressive.

EG: An enormous effort is being made to allocate resources to alleviate the consequences of the latest crisis resulting from the pandemic. But, without a doubt, we continue with a developmentalist strategy: many more resources are invested in the development of renewable energies than in improving the energy efficiency of buildings and reducing energy consumption, for example. So we’re not doing well.

15/15\15: The article began by reminding us that this year marks half a century since the publication of Limits to Growth. One of the most unknown characteristics of the model used by its authors is its extremely high degree of success in predicting what would happen around this third decade of the twentieth century if nothing was done, that is to say the so-called “standard run”. When an economist aware of this speaks with an economist such as Minister Calviño5, who does not have any econometric model with predictive capacity that even approaches this degree of success in the long term, in what terms does the conversation take place? Or perhaps we are very naive and the Minister of Economy does not even deign to start a conversation about her area with a Minister of Consumer Affairs who, furthermore, does not even belong to the same party… I say this because even Minister Ribera6, who is from the same party as Calviño, seems to have a quite different discourse and is much more aware of the limits.

AG: To my comment on the previous answer, I would add that coalition governments are like this … there are differences about diagnoses, interpretations and, above all, about possible solutions to the problems. The resolution of these differences depends on the classic constellation of forces, although we should not understand this in a purely numerical sense (so many ministries or MPs) but from a Poulantzian conception of the State, that is, as a condensation of the forces in society itself. That is why the cultural battle is so important. And little by little progress is being made… Greenhouse gas emissions have been included in the Government’s latest macroeconomic chart, which traditionally only incorporated classical macroeconomic variables. And even the Bank of Spain has made a dossier on climate change… The risks of this path exist (from greenwashing to trivializing the problem) but with a framework of eco-social crisis in place it is much easier to also achieve administrative gains.

15/15\15: All in all, reliable sources have been telling us for some time that within the PSOE they were considering replacing the GDP and not long ago Pedro Sánchez even spoke about the drawbacks of this indicator and that it was necessary to go “move beyond GDP. Is it very naive to hope that a movement from outside like the one you are pushing now might stimulate these proto-degrowthers inside other parties, like the PSOE, to come out of the closet? Because the most difficult thing was to put the bell on the cat and now that you have dared, it seems that that stage fright of being the first disappears as an alibi for silence, right?

AG: As I was saying, I think this depends on the cultural battle itself and the dominant frameworks. That is why, for example, the controversy over the reduction of meat and the mega-farms was important. They open debates that, although hard for some protagonists (starting with me), clearly delineate the subsequent playing field.

EG: Well, hopefully this first step will serve to help other forces to move on! A welcome to all those who want to build the future. I don’t know if it’s naive to influence them, but I do think that this debate is taking place in many more spaces than we think, whether or not they decide to make it public.

15/15\15: Returning now to the meeting this Saturday, tell us, Eva, how it is going to be structured, what issues are going to be dealt with or how you are going to approach the dialogue with the other groupings and social movements.

EG: The sessions will be structured around four areas of work: economy and employment, energy and raw materials, public services and food and consumption. The idea is that it serves as a starting point to begin talking about how to build a country-wide proposal in a context of decreasing resources: what health services?, what education?, what energy consumption?, what food model? But that, as a start, we intend it to be just a starting gun and that, from there, open working groups will be formed to reflect and work on proposals that we can advocate from all fronts: politicians, unions, associations, etc. Both with those who participate on Saturday, and those who join in later, we want to open up a constant dialogue: if this is only a space for IU militants, we will have failed. We must open the space so that we are all comfortable and this, too, will have to be reflected on Saturday.

15/15\15: I imagine that one of the critical points to launch a degrowth program is how to do it within the neoliberal framework set by the European Commission. Do you have allies in other European countries to work on this line? Would a degrowth program be possible in a member country of an EU clearly oriented towards impossible perpetual growth? To paraphrase Trotsky’s famous concern, is Degrowth possible in one country?

AG: International institutions have reached conclusions, such as the Paris Agreement or the European Green Deal, in which they recognize the ecological challenges. Their main concern is climate change, and they propose emission reduction targets that are desirable, such as neutrality in net emissions by 2050. The problem is twofold. First of all, everything is entrusted to decoupling and, to a large extent, to technological efficiency. Scientific evidence suggests that this process is unlikely and, in any case, when it does occur, it does so at a rate lower than that required to prevent a collapse. Second, because not even those agreements are being fulfilled. The significant drop in emissions that occurred in 2020 —6%— was precisely due to the economic consequences of such a health disaster as was the pandemic. The main virtue of degrowth is to state that the objective is to scale down in an organized, planned manner, compatible with democratic principles and values, and not through a disaster. Precisely because of all this, because of the current globalized context, one of the main political objectives is to weave international networks and while we build resilient communities from below, we are also establishing security networks at an international level.

EG: I would add that a maximalist programme of absolute degrowth, does not seem very possible. But I think that in this too the idea that the best is the enemy of the good should govern. If we think of creating a degrowth country [degrowth in a single country – tr.], we will probably go headlong into frustration, and even more so being immersed in the framework of the European Union. But let’s walk, let’s explore the limits we have and be aware that each step we take must bring us closer to the goal.

15/15\15: In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its energy and economic consequences, which are added to those of the pandemic, is it easier to state the need to degrow or at least to be more resilient through greater self-sufficiency, for example? The other day, Prime Minister Sánchez said that one cannot depend on overseas sources in basic matters for the economy or Borrell said that our energy could not depend on external sources… This, if taken seriously, can only happen through a decrease in material consumption and energy and by a deep economic re-localisation. But it seems that they are not yet able to connect the dots, to recognize the profound implications of these objectives or of the necessary decarbonization and circular economy. Because the circles do not grow, and if you use your output from the previous year as input, you are in a homeostatic economy and the GDP cannot grow. Are politically exploitable cracks opening up for Degrowth and Ecosocialism thanks to this learning from catastrophes?

AG: The Ecological Transition has been proposed by the European institutions as a mechanism that, above all, revolves around the energy transition. That’s fine, of course, because everything that involves moving towards all energy production with renewable sources will be a good idea. Although it is true that other types of ecological and social costs derived from this transition are being underestimated, such as the scarcity of minerals necessary for the construction of solar panels or wind farms and the environmental and social impact that the construction of these infrastructures has on the land and its populations. It is true that the war has accelerated the perception that it is important to accelerate this transition, but the official discourse is unfocused. It is expressed in terms of geopolitical parameters, and although in part it overlaps with the ecological discourse, it also involves strong contradictions. We see it when countries make efforts to acquire energy from other fossil fuel sources without recognizing the fundamental thing: we must reduce the energy consumption of the economy as a whole. What links both ideas is the following point: the energy performance of renewable sources will not be sufficient to cover current demand (not to mention certain logistical problems) and, therefore, the only viable path is to reduce the level of energy consumption.

15/15\15: Your article, Alberto, appeals precisely to Ecosocialism. But it is not uncommon that when you debate, for example, with certain trade unionists and defend Degrowth, they tell you: “No, but there is another preferable alternative: ecosocialism.” It seems that it is always convenient to clarify which ecosocialism we are talking about. Because it could be either a technolatric or a barefoot one, to use Riechmann’s term7. Or one more focused on the role of the State or one more inclined to leave room for local self-management. What is the ecosocialism that you see IU promoting in the short to medium term?

AG: Here I see two different things that we have to take into account. In the first place, there is no doubt that there are different proposals that, as Weberian ideal types, embody different traditions of thought and that can be pitted against each other theoretically. There the labels, which could help, usually tend to be a problem. We have seen this many times on the left, since the activist associates a label with an ideological package and prejudges reality from there. However, experience tells us that when we get down to specific policies there is often much more agreement than disagreement. Secondly, the theoretical conflict can be resolved in practice, and practice suggests that the formula that is generally more appropriate is the one that combines elements from different traditions. This type of approach, I believe, is the one that emanates from the Manifesto for an Ecosocialist Degrowth signed by Kallis and Löwy among others.

EG: In my opinion, we need to work with mixed proposals. We need state planning proposals in the productive sectors to guarantee essential services, including food, of course. Or water, energy, waste management… but there are many and very interesting self-management initiatives that, of course, are key in the decentralization process that is necessary in order to move towards a degrowth model.

15/15\15: Do you see degrowth ecosocialism as opposed to that catch-all of the Green New Deal or do you think that there is a certain margin of compatibility between both proposals, bearing in mind that the latter has come from groupings that are committed to continued growth, if now in a green way?

EG: Surely we can work on common proposals. Is it necessary to degrow? Yes, sure. In all sectors and treating the entire population the same way Well, certainly not.

AG: I think that the strategies of the Green New Deal and all those that are based on the assumptions of the feasibility of decoupling propose policies that are necessary. The problems are, for me, twofold. The first, that these measures are clearly insufficient to correct the course at the right pace. The second, that many of these proposals are refracted, as in the case of the European Union, through technocratic glasses that relegate social issues to second place.

15/15\15: Julio Anguita8, who came to recognize himself as a defender of Degrowth in an interview, said that austerity should be a value that the left should embrace. But it seems difficult when the majority of the left has bought this usurpation of the term austerity from neoliberalism and has ended up identifying it with the plundering of public affairs together with cuts in social spending. It seems clear that the battle for words is part of the underlying cultural war, and that this is ultimately what degrowth is all about… Creating (or recreating) a culture that knows how to live well with less and that comes to want it as a social goal to build together. Do you agree with this assessment?

EG: I totally agree. The cultural battle will be key. Not only because of the illuminating example of austerity. It is that in general we have spent decades in which the good life has been associated with consumption by all social classes. And I’m not referring to the most essential consumption, of course, but to created needs: I “need” a new mobile (although mine works perfectly), I “need” new clothes for this season, and so on. Degrowth must be worked on not from denial (everything we won’t have), but from an exciting position: everything we will gain, which could be a lot.

AG: One of Berlinguer’s most fruitful proposals was to defend the notion of austerity, long before the neoliberal project appropriated that idea and redefined it in a sense that was only valid for public finances. The truth is that we are necessarily heading for another type of relationship, in magnitude, with the natural environment (resources and energy especially), so that the left will have to dialogue with a culture of austerity. There are lines of work such as consumption corridors9 or post-growth economies that are very suggestive. For example, I find that classical liberal John Stuart Mill’s notion of the stationary state extremely useful, since he also linked it to the idea of equality. Much remains to be done on those lines.

15/15\15: The greatest danger in trying to maintain growth when we have already hit the ceiling as a civilization is trying to maintain it at the expense of others. In other words, if the cake decreases and we want our piece to continue growing, there is only one way: to deprive others of their part, that is, the “barbarism” that Alberto’s article speaks of, in a neocolonial iteration. Is this the key to understanding class struggle and geopolitics from now on?

AG: Indeed, that’s why I used this same idea in the title. Many people believe that ecological collapse is something like post-apocalyptic movies where society completely falls apart. This is unlikely to happen. Without a doubt, civilization as we know it can collapse, and we can enter an uncharted land of social and political conflicts of different scales. But if we slip through these scenarios, it is most likely that we will witness a Weberian social closure, that is, the raising of entry barriers by the oligarchies for the rest of the population. In other words, we would be facing a disproportionate increase in inequality in access to resources, energy and services and, therefore, to the material conditions of life. That is, in short, ecofascism: forms of civilization in which the right to life and its characteristics are distributed asymmetrically. This is the extreme degree of what we are already experiencing with immigration policies at the borders of the EU, for example.

EG: That’s one of the keys. If there is something that the left understands and claims, it is the class struggle. The current struggle for resources is neither more nor less than classical class struggle. Only now it is more dramatic and definitive. Well, that is what we are talking about when we say that we have to degrow: because that contraction must necessarily entail planning and redistribution. And, of course, high doses of internationalism to combat the attitude of “I’m alright Jack”.

15/15\15: Speaking of class struggle, the question of work, understood as employment, is key to combining Degrowth and leftist policies. You usually talk about Guaranteed Work. Ecologists in Action promote a radical distribution of working time, like others in Social Ecologism and Degrowth, and there is also the proposal for Universal Basic Income, perhaps as an alternative or as a complement to all of this. But isn’t it also time to start considering new-old formulae that do not rely on work, which is still a social construct born of capitalism and industrialization, formulae instead that have to do with work for the community, people-care and earth-care? Do you have thoughts in IU about a future beyond work as the only way of life?

AG: It is important to understand that the innumerable life improvements of the last two hundred years, although unevenly distributed, find their source in the improvement of labour productivity. This labour productivity has grown, spurred on by technology, which in turn depends on fossil fuels. The fragility of the current growth model is centred there. As long as we must de-escalate our level of economic activity in general, and of material and energy intensity in particular, the logical thing is that the productivity of work is reduced. Labour productivity is a ratio between production (measured in monetary value) and work (measured in hours or people). If, on the other hand, we consider an extensive definition of work —and one that includes care work and all services not valued by the market— we have to accept that for a society to function, it is necessary to work. In any society, and as has happened historically, it is necessary to produce in order to feed oneself, it is necessary to maintain the services and public goods that have been established that are fundamental for the satisfaction of basic needs (read health, education…), etc. I mean, you have to work. What we have to talk about is how this work is distributed and what is the energy and resource consumption that is going to be produced with each social configuration. If we move towards activities that are less intensive in energy and material consumption and at the same time reduce working hours and/or increase the working population, it is likely that we will witness a reduction in labour productivity. But so long as Guaranteed Work does not mean “compulsory work” and that Universal Basic Income does not mean “you do not work”, I believe that a sincere dialogue between both proposals is perfectly possible.

15/15\15: And finally, what does the ecological economist Tim Jackson suggest to you when he says that the prosperity of the West needs to configure a much more austere life and that governments are incapable of formulating a degrowth program without losing the elections in the face of the false promises of rivals who promise to avoid disaster and continue to grow?

EG: That is one of my fears, I admit it. When they talk about what is important, it is what we do (the material) and not what we say (the cultural battle); we lose sight of the fact that without winning in the street, without people understanding why and for what purpose we propose this or that measure, we are dead. If we are not able to explain that degrowth is not against the working class and so the working class understands it that way, we will throw them into the arms of the rival, and the current rival is very scary. That is why it is so urgent that we involve organizations, parties, unions…. in this process.

AG: Perhaps your question crystallises much of what we have talked about in this interview: the cultural battle and how the fetish of growth is deeply rooted in the minds of citizens. However, there are reasons for hope. It must be taken into account that the reality indicates that not only with more economic growth is there not more happiness (the Easterlin paradox), but in many cases this dynamic leads to the growth of mental problems in modern societies (stress, anxiety, depression). .). Phenomena such as the Great Resignation in the United States, or the growing acceptance of a reduction in the working day in part of Western society, point to important cracks in the received common sense. In this way, I believe that setting out proposals aimed at Buen Vivir could gain general acceptance.

Notes

1 Spanish politics can seem like a set of Matryoshka, Russian dolls. Izquierda Unida is composed of the Spanish Communist Party and a number of small regional parties. IU is part of an electoral alliance with the newer democratic socialist formation, Podemos and allies, as Unidas Podemos. Unidas Podemos entered the coalition government with Spain’s equivalent of the Labour Party, the PSOE.

2 Some politicians have come close to this without making the decisive break with the growthist ideology. See Degrowth: the realistic option for Labour: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333263007_Degrowth_the_realistic_alternative_for_Labour

4 This is an increasingly used indigenous name for the Americas (from the Guna language spoken in the Darien area of what is now Panama and Colombia), chosen as symbolic of the rights and presence of the first nations and the decolonial perspective.

5 Nadia Calviño Santamaría, an (orthodox) economist who is First Deputy Prime Minister in the Spanish government. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadia_Calvi%C3%B1o Member of the PSOE party like the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez.

6 Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, Minister for the Ecological Transition of Spain and Third Deputy Prime Ministers in the Sánchez PSOE government. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_Ribera

7 Jorge Riechmann, Spanish philosopher, poet, political and ecological activist, author of many books on the ecological crisis, including Ecosocialismo decalzo (Barefoot ecosocialism), 2018. A key concept of his is “colapsar mejor” – or “a better collapse”.

8 The former coordinator of IU and Mayor of Córdoba. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julio_Anguita

9 A framework that proposes maximum and minimum consumption levels, somewhat akin to the Doughnut model of a safe operating space.

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Manchester’s Electronic Billboards – Another Sidewalk for Jevons’ Paradox

pdf version

Manchester’s Electronic Billboards – Another Sidewalk for Jevons’ Paradox

By Richard A Shirres & James Scott Vandeventer

In perambulating Manchester’s city centre, now the latest chore is in side-stepping yet more clutter within your pedestrian domain: dozens of electronic

image of fake energy rating sticker

Stickers produced “for research purposes only” by Darren Cullen. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

billboards – and if they are not within your line of sight, they are not doing their job. Each of Manchester’s 86 new e-billboard contraptions hums with the energy to power three households per year (11,501 kWh per year) while visually enjoining us to consume. Yet modern consumption, fossil fuel enabled and propelled, is civilisation’s ‘carcinogen’ and is now driving humanity towards a dire future.

Most obviously, an emergency is serious. But our climate emergency now threatens us with catastrophe: globally, regionally and locally. So, Manchester City Council’s ambition for Net Zero Carbon by 2038 is commendable. Yet, in practice, latest trends already point to a shortfall in attaining essential targets1; bringing to mind a suspicion of: “make me virtuous but not just yet”. The e-billboards suggest high-flown words of ambition are trumped by the more pragmatic, short term, goal of the Council’s ‘get the money’ imperative despite this new infrastructure’s complicity in supporting and growing its citizenry’s consumption.

This animated, dynamic street advertising densifies the volume of consumer messaging, it distracts from enjoyment of any street design and tranquillity. It demands attention to the advertiser’s priorities, “. . . briefly one takes them in, and for a moment they stimulate the imagination by way of either memory or expectation. Each publicity image fills a moment . .” (Berger, 1972)2. These e-billboards go beyond the clutter of street signage, they are vibrant auto-purveyors of a consumer ethic.

The publicity environment that John Berger wrote about 50 years ago has only become more sophisticated and insidious since. Advertising has transformed consumer behaviour from one of buying based on needs to purchasing based on ‘perceived’ wants: transforming people’s concept of wants to need. Thereby, creating a mindset of wasteful consumption.

Manchester City Council’s defence of this street clutter is, partly, that the energy hunger is fed from renewable sources. Thus, Jevons’ Paradox3 is planted in your line of sight, illuminated with advert scrolling 24 hours a day. One must ask: what are the ethics here? Because we have that available energy efficiency, we can use it to promote consumption, the very sickness that promotes our emergency.

Not only do the Council’s particular departmental perpetrators not understand Jevons’ Paradox, it’s difficult to believe they even understand that under current GHG emissions’ trends the window to avoid a 1.5°C global temperature rise will actually be closed by 2030. And that scenario (now likely) would bring about the entire annihilation of all the world’s coral refugia, 25% of marine biodiversity, as well as likely help trigger the looming feedbacks from Siberian permafrost. Against that, hope only comes from actions consistent with a cultural transformation.

The Council’s perpetrators, if not yet instructed on that side of carbon literacy, should be on a mission to create tranquil, quality urban shared spaces to help promote health and well-being for city centre residents. Instead of e-billboards, we could have our sidewalks populated with ecologically productive assets that espouse the ethical mindset to help us actively engage with and steward what could be our precious environment.

Notes

1. Steady State Manchester Report: Greater Manchester is overspending its carbon budget and Places for Everyone will make it much worse.

2. John Berger 1972, Ways of Seeing, published by Penguin

3. The Jevons’ Paradox, see: https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/sites/default/files/Hannis%20-%20Jevons%20review.pdf

FURTHER READING:

Fifield & Pidd (2022) Manchester electronic ad boards use electricity of three households, The Guardian, Sun 9 January 2022

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jan/09/electronic-advertising-boards-manchester-energy-use-consumption

See also a two page text prepared for Steady Sate Manchester: An abridged Extract from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), Chapter 7, (Capitalism’s Synergy with Semiology and its Debilitation of Democracy – A View from 1970s)

 

Posted in cities, Climate Change, Manchester City Council | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Community or Consumption: Social Ecology in Greater Manchester

A guest article, by anon

Photo description: A brown-orange wall. There’s a Manchester bee painting on the left-hand side and MCR, written in black block letters, on the right.

Photograph by Chris Curry – Free to use under the Unsplash License

It’s an inevitability for anything written on the topic of Manchester to mention or make even the most minute reference to the city’s past as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. From the worker bee iconography stencilled through the streets to the cranes and scaffolding sprinkled liberally throughout the city centre, production and labour have been at the forefront of this hardworking city’s aesthetic and ethos.

A lot has changed since the days of cotton factories and mills. However, one unwavering consistency that remains is the outright disregard for the wishes of the Mancunian population itself. Whilst business elites and corporations pontificate pushing Manchester further into being a “second London“, many of us would simply like a long overdue improvement to Piccadilly Gardens.

Here lies a very unfortunate trap. There are two major city plans for Manchester that are often proposed. First is the plan to turn it into a bustling metropolis with further businesses and tourism. The second is the promise to make Manchester “eco-friendly“, with parks and green spaces alike. Whilst these initiatives may produce great campaign slogans – and a greener city is certainly not a bad thing- they fail to grasp at the root of our ecological crisis. Furthermore, neither plan places the people of Manchester in the driver’s seat of change.

What would Manchester look like if people had direct say? What would our communities be like if we weren’t beholden to a council, surveys or authorities, but rather we worked together directly and cooperatively to create a Manchester for the people, not just for businesses?

The answer lies within the philosophy of social ecology and communalism. Spearheaded by American philosopher Murray Bookchin in the early 1970s and continued on by several social theorists, most notably Modibo Kadalie, the crux of social ecology is the belief that our ecological crisis stems from a deep-rooted social one. It’s the belief that so long as our current society is organised through hierarchy and domination, the planet and our environment will continue to be dominated, commodified and at the bottom of the pecking order. This is largely due to the misconception of nature being seen as separate from humanity.

This line of thinking is very specific and in contrast to mainstream environmentalism. Whilst some writers and activists in the green movement see humans as parasitic to nature, social ecology asserts that we are in fact a part of nature itself. Modern technology may be seen as an inherent evil to some environmentalists, however social ecologists view technology as a neutral entity that can be used for liberatory means.

Lastly, social ecology is the belief in achieving what Bookchin described as “third nature”. First nature refers to the untouched organic wilderness; second nature as in what we are now (towns, cities, parks etc.). Third nature refers to a society in which humanity reestablishes harmony with the planet and environment, thus blurring the lines between urban and rural. This can manifest itself in community gardens, food distribution, clothing swaps, repair cafes, tool libraries etc.. Many of these elements are actually already being seen throughout Greater Manchester.

So, how do we transport ourselves from our current state to a reality without hierarchies and domination of the environment? The answer is found through the praxis of communalism.

It is my personal belief that there is no better place to practise the principles of social ecology than that of Greater Manchester. Communalism starts out small, by establishing blocks or streets of highly participatory, leaderless neighbourhood groups, and then combining them into larger confederations, so on and so forth until we have a Greater Manchester made up of decentralised, directly democratic communities ready to tackle whatever is thrown our way. As complicated and complex as some of these words may sound, it can be summarised as simply as talking to your neighbours and organising the community away from hierarchy and institutions.

Older Mancunians, often nostalgic for past decades, have attested that the sense of close-knit “village-like” solidarity achieved through social ecology used to be naturally prevalent in British life. Neighbours knew each other’s names, borrowed what they needed and asked for help when required. This is still the case on certain streets and in certain areas, but largely, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, we remain an incredibly isolated and lonely population, due in no small part to the direction in which we’ve been steered by a select few global companies. All of this persists, and yet our cynicism is pointed at each other as humans. In a way, elites of the industrial period achieved an incredible PR makeover by taking a city with a heavily overworked population, as well as a violently handled labour force, and flipping its narrative into an aesthetic of ‘busy worker bees’ all playing their part.

Through an individualist lens, changing Manchester may seem like an out of reach and idealistic task reserved only for the “decision makers” at the top. Through a collective lens, however, there’s a power within the Mancunian population outside of electoral politics that has yet to be fully realised. Corporations and politicians continue to advertise their promise of a “Northern powerhouse” with parks and greenery, but they can’t promise an organic community. They can’t provide a life outside rigid consumerism and the commodification of our natural world.

It’s not enough to have pockets of parks with flowers or private businesses with greenery in their aesthetic – not when our lives are otherwise stripped down to clocking in and out of work and having our city re-sold to us a commodity to use on the weekends or on days off.

The methodology used to further the philosophy of social ecology has undergone many different labels, from communalism to democratic confederalism to libertarian municipalism. Regardless of which “-ism” it is described as, I envision Manchester in particular as the perfect place for it to be practised. This is not because I think of the city as horrible and in desperate need of change – on the contrary, it’s because since immigrating from the US, I’ve seen the Mancunians’ grit, and determination to achieve goals and work together through whatever hardships arise. From wars, terrorism, Brexits and pandemics, in a city with such a historic industrial past, there lies potential for an amazing ecological future.

Posted in analysis, cities, Greater Manchester, Manchester, social policy | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Greater Manchester is overspending its carbon budget and Places for Everyone will make it much worse.

by
Mark Burton (Steady State Manchester)
and
Matthew Broadbent (Save Greater Manchester Green Belt)

Download as a pdf file

This post is also available at Save Greater Manchester’s Green Belt
and The Meteor

The Greater Manchester Environment Plan isn’t delivering.

minor edits, 12 April, 2022

Greater Manchester has the aim of “…our city region to be carbon neutral by 2038 and meet carbon budgets that comply with international commitments.” (Note 1) The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) commissioned the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester to propose a carbon budget consistent with that aim. This found that an arithmetic ‘fair’ share of global emissions for the conurbation was under 67 MTCO2 for the period 2018-2038 (Note 2) and 71 MT up to 2100.

The Tyndall report made a number of important comments about the pathway to net zero.

To provide a smooth transition in line with the above budgets, average annual mitigation rates of CO2 from energy need to be between 10% and 20% – beginning in 2018. ….. immediate near term action is essential and any reduction in the mitigation rate in the early years will require a significant increase in the rate in future years for the same budget to be met.”

It is therefore rather alarming to discover that the Environment Plan Performance Overview, released this month, using a traffic-light rating system, rates progress toward the 2038 carbon budget as RED, risking the failure of the Environment Plan to achieve a step change in carbon emissions. GMCA’s Chief Executive has acknowledged the problem. As the report candidly puts it,

Across 2015-19, GM’s emissions are 8.3MtCO2 above the Tyndall budget, i.e. an additional 8.3MtCO2 savings need to be made on top of the Tyndall budget. This gap has been increasing year on year. Key point is that significant cuts must happen now. Action to reduce emissions is already being taken but under our current level of activity we will have exhausted our carbon budget in 6 years.”

GM emissions trajectory from Mar 2022 performance report

Graph from the GM Environment Plan March 2022 Performance Report showing the failure to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Tyndall budget

A final point about the Tyndall budget concerns the separate category of Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). This concerns both emissions and carbon capture by the natural environment (the carbon flux). As the Tyndall report states,

The carbon budgeting method for GM’s LULUCF sector has been developed to ensure that across the century any early emissions from the sector will be fully compensated by later carbon sequestration. Moreover, the method has been designed to enable LULUCF emissions to reach zero by 2038, so as to align with GM’s zero-emission commitment. Finally, post 2038, sequestration by LULUCF is set to compensate, at least in part, for GM’s unavoidable non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.”

Thereby,

1) LULUCF achieves absolute zero CO2 emissions, on an annual basis, by 2038 consistent with the year of carbon neutrality.

2) Post 2038 the rate of LULUCF emission reductions continues to increase, reaching a maximum rate by around 2045. Thereafter the sector continues to provide a stable level of annual sequestration across the century.

3) GM’s emissions from LULUCF achieves zero cumulative CO2 emissions for the period 2018 to 2100”

This is vitally important for Places for Everyone, the Region’s spatial plan. Tyndall assume that the cumulative emissions from 2018 to 2038 are compensated with carbon removals (by the land and the trees) from 2039 to 2100. Since Places for Everyone will involve a lot of building on green space, then the capacity to remove these unmitigated emissions will decrease, helping lock in continued carbon emissions after the supposed zero carbon date. Let’s look at the scale of green space loss, and the other carbon consequences of Places for Everyone.

Places for Everyone – a lot of building construction and a lot of carbon. By 2037, Places for Everyone plans to deliver “1,900,000 sqm of accessible new office floorspace” – but 3,352,371 has been earmarked. For Industry and warehousing, “at least 3,330,000 sqm of new, accessible, industrial and warehousing floorspace will be provided”, but 4,185,793 has been identified. For housing, “minimum of 164,880 net additional dwellings will be delivered over the period 2021-37, or an annual average of around 10,305.” (Note 3) Again, they have identified space for more, 190,752. Translated into hectares, the allocation of land is as follows (own calculations from P4E documentation and FOIA responses).

Category

“Existing supply” ha

Green belt
ha

Total
ha

Brownfield

Greenfield

Mixed

Offices

301.39

23.28

2.94

2.15

329.75

Industry & warehousing

117.17

59.14

14.46

215.99

406.76

Housing

1968.93

1007.32

392.80

2,211.26

5,646.12

Totals

2,379.5

1,089.7

410.2

2,429.4

6,477.0

So the total green space to be built on (not including the brownfield areas that have reverted to nature and the “mixed” category) will be approximately 3,600 ha, more than 13 square miles.

This is an enormous scale of development which will have several kinds of carbon impact.
Building on green space means,

  • the loss of the natural ability of the plants and soil to capture and lock away (sequester) carbon;

  • the loss of the opportunity to enhance the capacity of these spaces to capture and sequester carbon, for example by additional plantings and restoration of wetlands and other soils.

While building anywhere involves,

  • the carbon emissions that arise from construction of the new buildings, roads and other infrastructure, both on site and all along the supply chain;

  • the carbon emissions that will be generated by all these new buildings, their heating, lighting, and machinery in use;

  • the carbon emissions from the transport that these buildings require to reach and supply them, including workforce movements from residential to employment space every day;

  • the additional emissions that would be caused by any overall increase in the scale of the economy due to this new investment (a key objective for GMCA in doing al this construction is to stimulate economic growth, which inherently generates further carbon emissions).

The whole question of the carbon consequences of planning (i.e. construction of buildings and so on) is explored in more detail in Steady State Manchester’s Carbon and Planning Workbook (Note 5).

A new study, by a group of researchers expert in climate change, construction, finance and planning, finds that the government’s housing targets for England, if met, would exceed the country’s legislated 2050 carbon budget (Note 6). That budget is less stringent than the Greater Manchester one so if Greater Manchester is still committed to their 2038, 67 MT budget (and why declare a Climate emergency if not?), then it is highly likely that on housing alone, the Places for Everyone proposals will be disastrous for the region’s ambition to be carbon neutral. Since the region uses the government’s methodology for calculating the number of new housing units needed, then it does seem highly likely that here too, the housing plans will scupper carbon neutrality. We can’t let that happen. Our preliminary calculations indicate that this pattern found by the researchers, nationally, holds to some degree for the Greater Manchester case.

Happily, there are other ways of meeting housing need that do not rely so heavily on new construction. The research paper just referred to models these possibilities and concludes that it would be possible, but politically challenging, to “meet England’s unmet housing need without transgressing national sustainability objectives”.

Surely, the GMCA has already made their own assessment of the implications for carbon emissions, and humanity’s climate safety, of their Places for Everyone plan, a joint development strategy brought forward by nine of the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester (Note 7). Well possibly not. Places for Everyone does make mention of climate change and the problem of carbon emissions.

This Plan sets out proposals to support the Greater Manchester ambition to be a carbon neutral city-region by 2038. A key element of this is to require all new development to be net zero carbon by 2028 at the latest – we do not want to build homes and workplaces which require retrofitting in the future and we have set an ambitious target, backed up by our evidence to achieve this as soon possible. Our commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground
remains, at this time therefore we will not support fracking.”
(Note 8)

However, when we looked for an assessment of the full impacts of the proposed developments we could not find the necessary detail, neither in the plan, nor in the voluminous supporting documentation. We have submitted two separate Freedom of Information Requests asking for the data and details of the methodology (Note 9). They have been refused on the grounds that the information is there in the documentation. We have checked and it isn’t. Maybe you can find it where we have failed (there is a vast amount of documentation!).

When a plan is prepared for the purposes of town and country planning or land use it is legally obliged to undertake an assessment of the environmental impact of the plan. The Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) is required to describe and evaluate the significant effects on the environment of implementing the plan and any reasonable alternatives, taking account of the plan’s primary objectives.

However, we fear that the apparent lack of such detail suggests that the SEA (which forms part of the Integrated Assessment of the plan and is an integral part of the plan itself) has not been conducted to the standard that is required by the legislation and guidance on climate change and planning.

In its analysis of the competing spatial strategies, the SEA arrives at the counter-intuitive conclusion that the plan makes a positive contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. By way of contrast, the SEA argues that an alternative spatial option that proposes the integration of public transport with housing development could cause the public transport system to exceed capacity, potentially causing an increase in greenhouse gases. It is curious as to why a spatial strategy that proposes no building in the Green Belt and is proactive in promoting a reduction in the use of private transport is judged more harshly than a spatial option that bakes in dependency on private transport and takes out carbon sinks.

The methodology by which these conclusions were arrived at is not provided in the documentation, and neither are the underlying metrics of the assessment. The opaqueness of the SEA compares unfavourably with the transparency of environmental assessments undertaken elsewhere in other parts of the country. In Cambridge’s Local Plan, for example, the SEA calculates the projected carbon emissions for each spatial option, and arrived at conclusions that contradict those reached in Places for Everyone: they discover that coupling residential development and public transport leads to approximately 20% lower carbon emissions than a strategy that promotes car-dependent development in the Green Belt. (Note 10)

Cambridge SEA spatial options

Cambridge SEA: annual carbon emission per home (tonnes of CO2 per year) for 2030, medium growth, with zero carbon policies

Arguably, the most shocking omission from the SEA is the absence of Greater Manchester’s headline environmental objective, the 2038 target for carbon neutrality. Since the plan runs up to 2037 then this is the plan that must take us there.

In short, the assessment does not appear to have been conducted objectively and the conclusions seem to be biased by pre-determined outcomes. A BBC report recently surveyed 136 councils across England and found that a third support policies that are inconsistent with climate goals. (Note 11)
Given that all ten councils within Greater Manchester have declared a climate emergency, we suggest that it would be prudent for the GMCA to withdraw its Places for Everyone Plan, review these critical matters and re-submit it with climate and social safety uppermost. Maybe the Planning Inspector will reach the same conclusion.

Notes

  1. 5-Year Environment Plan For Greater Manchester 2019-2024, paragraph 2.2, page 17 https://greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk/media/1986/5-year-plan-branded_3.pdf
  2. https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/files/83000155/Tyndall_Quantifying_Paris_for_Manchester_Report_FINAL_PUBLISHED_rev1.pdf Note that this is not actually a fair share since it makes no provision for redressing the historical and disproportionate emissions of this country and it assumes a continuing disproportionate rate of emissions for the time being.
  3. https://democracy.greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk/documents/s19936/05a%20Annex%205_Year_Environment_Plan_Performance_Overview_Mar_22.pdf
  4. The quotations are from Places for Everyone, 2021.
  5. https://steadystatemanchester.net/publications/the-carbon-and-planning-workbook/
  6. Ermgassen, S. zu, Drewniok, M., Bull, J. W., Walker, C. C., Mancini, M., Ryan-Collins, J., & Serrenho, A. C. (2022). A home for all within planetary boundaries: Pathways for meeting England’s housing needs without transgressing national climate and biodiversity goals. OSF Preprints. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/5kxce Note: this article is, at the time of writing, undergoing peer review.
  7. Stockport withdrew from the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (as the plan was known then) in December 2020.
  8. Places for Everyone paragraph 1.52.
  9. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/carbon_metrics_places_for_everyo#incoming-1875367
    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/the_methodology_for_how_the_inte
  10. Greater Cambridge Local Plan – Strategic spatial options appraisal: implications for carbon emissions (https://consultations.greatercambridgeplanning.org/sites/gcp/files/2021-08/gclp-strategic-spatial-options-assessment-implications-for-carbon-emissions-nov2020.pdf); Bioregional, on behalf of Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Authority, November 2020
  11. Shelley Phelps, “Council policies ‘inconsistent’ with climate goals” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-58102578); BBC, 13 August 2021

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Beyond a Green New Deal: book review

Beyond a Green New Deal

Essay review: Max Ajl, “A People’s Green New Deal”, Pluto Press, 2021. Paperback £14.99 or open access download.

Mark H Burton

If you’ve read our commentaries then you’ll know that we have major reservations about the various Green New Deals (GNDs) that vie for the attention of liberal and left governments. We have been critical of them as a Keynesian approach that seeks to use investment in green sectors to both control greenhouse gas emissions and restore, and actually expand, a working economy that provides for jobs and livelihoods. On first sight, it’s an attractive idea, a win-win deal, that is easy to understand and explain. While not all Green Deals are equal, they must all face a number of key issues, which we have summarised in terms of six problems, or questions, that have yet to be answered. In summary they are,

1) Material flows and extractivism.

Increases in economic activity are associated with increases in the throughput of energy and materials, and these increases have involved increased pollution, including, critically, the increased emissions of greenhouse gases, resulting primarily from the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Those flows also start with extraction of fuels and minerals, and this has devastating impacts on ecosystems and communities, especially in the global South.

2) The multiplier doesn’t care about the climate.

Other things being equal, there is no control over where the economic stimulation of the GND, its multiplier effects, have their impact. So the desired, clean, growth of the economy has undesirable implications in terms of additional resource and energy use. Clean begets dirty.

3) The inherent constraints of renewable energy.

So far the increased deployment of renewable energy has added to, rather replaced, fossil fuel burning, and anyway, it is doubtful whether renewables can provide the scale of concentrated energy used by the current global economy, especially if growth continues.

4) Diminishing return on investment due to resource scarcity.

As mineral resources become scarcer, the cost of their extraction increases. This causes systemic shocks to the economic system long before depletion. Yet GNDs rely on massive use of things like rare earth minerals and metals such as copper and cobalt, all of which are depleting.

5) The other planetary boundaries.

GNDs focus on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, but while central, that isn’t the only ecological system emergency confronting the world, and GNDs make little mention of or provision for resolving these other threats.

6) The GND and the capitalist growth imperative.

However financed, the GND requires a return on the investment and that requires the ongoing expansion of capital, the modus operandi of the capitalist system (founded on the expropriation of surplus value in the labour process), which we know as economic growth. We know that economic growth does not decouple (absolutely and sufficiently) from its material impacts – pollutions and increasing resource usage.

Enter Max Ajl, with his intervention “A People’s Green Deal”. The book is in two parts, “Capitalist Green Transitions” and “A People’s Green New Deal”. The first part of the book is a cogent analysis of the world ecological crisis and its roots. He examines in turn the various “solutions” on offer, firstly the Green Transitions of the global elite,

Amidst rising awareness of the capitalism-climate nexus, it is only natural that the ruling class would seek to avert a climate crisis which could imperil their power, to displace blame from fossil capitalism to a faceless and structureless humanity, and to make the poor pay the costs of transition……
“Green social control aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worst consequences of the climate crisis”.

Such plans mean ramping up the security sector, itself a massive user of fossil fuels and other resources, drawing excluding boundaries around peoples (a “Fortress North”), matching up people’s assets such as pensions and public resources with new technology to harness natural energy flows and commodify them. Market mechanisms are never far away with prices set to commodify and trade pollutants and commons.

He next turns to the ‘ecomodernists’ and their vision of airliners running on biofuels, the circular economy recycling every last atom, digital agro-industry and the mirage of clean nuclear power. He provides trenchant critiques of the left versions of this (‘accelerationism’ and the foolish fantasies of ‘fully automated luxury communism’) that, like the ecomodernist mainstream, seek to grow forever, using that destructive expansion to avoid the hard choice of fair distribution. Such nonsense is scientifically illiterate as Ajl shows through an examination of the favourite shibboleth of these writers, the impossible decoupling of economic expansion from material and energy flows.

Those were perhaps easy targets, but what of the green social democrats, the New Green Dealers? Ajl also subjects their programmes to a withering critique. Ajl uses the left liberal icon, US Congress member Alexandria Ocasio Córtez’s proposals (co-authored with US Senator Edward Markey) as a case study. As he points out, this proposed “non-binding legislation” has served as an often unexamined reference point for swathes of a once radical, internationalist, green movement. He highlights two passages. In one, the national security of the United States is described as under threat, in language that could have come from the Pentagon. The other promotes “the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action”. This is all consistent with what Ajl diagnoses as the fundamental flaw in the social democracy of the global North. It has its good side, that which we can look back to with nostalgia for the post war years that brought free health and social care, relatively low levels of inequality, public housing and improved infrastructure, along with rising trade union membership. But that was all dependent on a,

…barely tamed capitalism which continued to hunt and feed on the periphery throughout its short lifespan. …. It is distinguished by four traits. One, it is a class compromise between capital and labour in the imperial core. Two, to compromise, social democracies require constant growth, in order to create a bigger pie – the larger piece for capital and the smaller for labour. Three, they survive vampirically off value extraction from the periphery. Four, European social democracies were a prophylactic against the Communist contagion then spreading amongst a devastated and war-weary European working class. Each trait is critical for understanding contemporary climate talk”.

Ajl knows the US context better than our own, so much of his critique is about the set of North American GNDs. However, the argument also applies to the UK and the rest of Europe, such as the Green Industrial Revolution of Rebecca Long-Bailey and the Corbyn period in UK Labour, the Transición Ecológica of the Spanish Labour Party, the PSOE, and its more radical but still social democratic critic and ally, Podemos. Those two are prominent but they are not the only proposals on (or off) the table. For all these, Ajl’s conclusion is devastating:

There are four problems with green social democracy. First, it is not achievable through current strategies. Two, even if it were possible, it would be imperialist and rest on devastating the South. Third, it is being marketed as something it is not, eco-socialism, or the conversion of the core of the world to non-commodified and non-hierarchical self managed social and economic relations, with convergence between the core and the periphery., and permanently sustainable scientific management of the environment. Four, it limits our political imaginations.”

Ajl concludes the first, diagnostic, part of the book with the question that sets the scene for the whole second part: what would an eco-socialist People’s GND look like?

Firstly, in the chapter before the one on green social democracy, he does cover the fundamental question of energy use and degrowth. With regard to the latter, Ajl is sympathetic, noting that degrowth is a political-ecological call for sufficiency, and that the critique of growth as such has been successful in shaking the faith in growth that has served as a kind of ideological glue, containing people within the consensus of “the Western capitalist pseudo-welfare states”. He goes further though, as I do, in noting that some degrowthers focus more on growth than accumulation and power, and that there is sometimes something of a silence about (actually existing) imperialism. He goes on to identify the way in which massive energy use has become embedded in the Western social and political systems. “From highways to the automobile industry to the current farming system, an entire world has been built in the core countries on economically ‘cheap’, physically dense, and easily storable forms of power.” That means a massive downsizing of current energy use, currently stated to be 12,00 kWh per person in the US, 7,150 in Japan, and 4,928 in France, compared to just 571 in Nicaragua, 268 in Sudan and 91 in Yemen. Like us, and campaigners like Larry Edwards and Stan Cox, he endorses the idea of a cap on energy use in the wealthier countries. As Edwards and Cox put it, that means a combined approach of an annually reducing cap and a policy framework to adapt to the reduction: Cap and Adapt. Work has been done, by, Millward-Hopkins, Steinberger, Rao and Oswald, in a study cited in the book, to show what a globally equitable and sustainable level of energy allocation would look like. If the critics of degrowth are right and we’d all be living in caves, then those caves would have “highly efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; low energy lighting throughout, 50l of clean water supplied per day per person, with 15l heated to a comfortable bathing temperature”. Each household could have one computer, connected globally, and warmth of 20°C year round, and so on.

In the second half of the book, then, Ajl sets out the main parameters of what he calls the People’s Green New Deal. In my view, this isn’t really a Green New Deal at all, and in a recent interview by Manchester based GND Pod, he explained that the term had such resonance and recognition that it seemed wise to use it and try thereby to recover a renewed, radical ecological meaning. I find this section harder to summarise because the visionary utopian dimension is so intertwined with considerations on political strategy – and that is a good thing. Along the way I re-encountered many of my favourite thinkers, and many new ones, a majority from the global South, or with strong connections there. Essentially the argument is that there can be no viable Green Deal without linking together the agendas of fair energy and material use, ecologically safe food production (agro-ecology) resting on land reform, financial transfers to those lands and peoples that have been pillaged by imperialism and the imperial mode of living of the global North, and the key role of national self-determination in the anti-colonial struggle, as exemplified in the Palestinian struggle and the Cuban revolution. Also noteworthy are such varied exemplars as Kerala, and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, as well as islands of alternative development and ecological restoration, often led by indigenous or black heritage groups, in the global North.

Max Ajl’s book is perhaps the best I’ve read on the interconnected global ecological emergency, false solutions and possible alternatives. I have no problems with its overall thrust. Inevitably there are some reservations, which for the sake of completeness and in the spirit of constructive comradely criticism, I’ll state here.

There is little said specifically about women, half of all humanity, yet their labour, their organisation and their struggle must be central to any convincing account and to any political movement for change. Indeed the feminisation of politics is at the heart of the radical municipalism that can be seen as an allied movement in the movement of movements for eco-socialism. At times I thought that Ajl was uncritical of the Latin American pink tide governments, such as the Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorian, which usually talk a good talk on the rights of mother earth etc. but whose ecological record is at best equivocal, and in the Venezuelan case utterly destructive. Yet I agree with him that Cuba is probably the most ecologically advanced country in the world, as shown in a report by Jason Hickel and colleagues and elsewhere. In the book and elsewhere he has been, in my estimation, unfairly critical of the critics of extractivism in those countries (e.g. Svampa, Acosta, Solón, Gudynas, and Lander, in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela, respectively). These critics are writing from the eco-socialist position that he espouses and have been allied with degrowth and indigenous activists. Finally, the narrative doesn’t always quite convince – largely due to the huge ground covered and the inevitable gaps in what has to be in places, a rather schematic argument. These, though are relatively minor quibbles about a very impressive and broadly very sound piece of work.

Finally, what does the book mean for the prospect for Green New Deals here in Manchester and similar places? Ajl teaches us that a seriously ecological, liberatory and internationalist perspective is essential. This is a logical development of the oft-cited counsel to “think globally, act locally”. A Green New Deal that does not take seriously the geopolitical, physical and ecological realities that, thankfully, limit the greening of complacent reformism, is not worth the time of day. However, our proposal for sector-specific green deals within the local bioregion could be consistent with such an aware and committed orientation. Radical, yet selective, re-localisation is the other side of what Samir Amin, one of Ajl’s key references, called delinking, a concept that could do with rigorous further exploration in relation to a post-growth economy. By reforming the way our local economy works, through place-based, multi-sectoral projects, we can reduce reliance on exploitative global supply chains, building resilience, economic and social justice for us here, and indirectly, for those our economy exploits beyond our places.

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UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy – a critical review

a guest piece by Peter Somerville

In this devastating critique, Peter Somerville makes a detailed examination of the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy. Read his review in full here.

He begins by setting the strategy in context.

Cover of the UK Net Zero Strategy report

When the government published their Ten Point Plan a year ago they recognised that it did not go far enough to fulfil their international commitment to reducing carbon emissions. One year on, their Net Zero Strategy does go a little further, but still falls far short of what is required. The problems inherent in the original plan persist, namely:

  • A failure to recognise that the world is now experiencing a climate emergency, and therefore that more drastic action is required in the short term (before 2025) to reduce carbon emissions (see p18, Fig 1, or p77, Fig 13 – minimal reductions up to 2025)
  • A continuing (and increasing) reliance on problematic technologies that do not currently exist at scale, particularly in carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) – e.g. direct air carbon capture
  • A failure to explain clearly how expected future carbon savings have been calculated, particularly in industry, buildings and transport
  • A neglect of issues relating to agriculture, food, land use and energy storage
  • An emphasis on constructing new nuclear power plants, with a new (from 2022) Future Nuclear Enabling Fund of £120 million, but with no net increase in nuclear power capacity likely until after 2030 (Minus 45 – UK FIRES, p7); in the meantime construction work is adding significantly to carbon emissions (see, for example: Record-breaking concrete pour lays Hinkley Point base slab)
  • An emphasis on GDP growth, despite the strong correlation between such growth and increasing carbon emissions
  • A lack of clarity about how specific policies could achieve intended emission reductions, e.g. on hydrogen
  • A failure to curb the expansion of aviation to 2030 and beyond (an expansion that is encouraged rather than hindered by the latest spending review’s decision to cut air passenger duty)
  • A failure to take account of other government programmes that increase rather than reduce emissions, e.g. increased spending on roads (£27 billion) and defence (£24 billion) up to 2024.

Peter concludes:

In spite of progress in a number of areas, for example on the decarbonisation of electricity and industry, and possibly on restoring peatland, planting trees and reducing waste, this Strategy is little changed from the Ten Point Plan of a year ago. Progress on heat and buildings has stalled, due in part to the failure of the Green Homes Grant, and strategy on other sectors, such as transport and agriculture, remains confused and irrational, and inadequate to achieve the government’s goals. Overall, the Strategy lacks urgency, coherence or precision. Far from being the promised green industrial revolution, the Strategy seems focused on merely incremental change, such as from internal combustion engines to electric ones, from fossil-fuel boilers to low-carbon heating appliances, with continuing support for unsustainable aviation – no real modal shift from private to public transport or from unsustainable to sustainable farming.

This strategy fails to demonstrate that the UK can stay within its Sixth Carbon Budget, which is itself too loose to ensure that the UK makes its fair contribution to limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius (Calculating a fair carbon budget for the UK). The strategy takes no account of the UK’s historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions or for emissions embodied in imports or of the City of London’s key role in funding fossil fuels. It has nothing to say about divesting from fossil-fuel companies or about banks and pension funds divesting from those companies. It offers no forms of regulation or mandatory legislation that would be sufficient to bring about the necessary divestment. It exudes complacency by failing to comply with Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommendations (as of June 2021, the CCC’s 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, p16 stated: ‘credible policies for delivery currently cover only around 20% of the required reduction in emissions to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget’), and by effectively postponing decisive mitigative action until after 2025. The only amendment it suggests to the Climate Change Act 2008 is one that would include negative emissions technologies in the carbon budget, which would have the effect of making the carbon budget even looser than it is already, thus reducing the need for immediate and effective action – yet another clear step backwards rather than forwards in the struggle to prevent catastrophic climate change. Above all it continues to promote alleged climate ‘solutions’ that exist, if at all, only in the longer term (e.g. nuclear power and carbon capture and storage), while failing to act decisively in the short term and indeed continuing to support and encourage the fossil fuel extraction and burning that is primarily responsible for causing the current global climate emergency.

Read Peter’s review of the Net Zero Strategy in full.

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The Carbon and Planning Workbook

Diagram showing the carbon transactions of interest in planning

This is a guide for local campaigners who want to estimate the carbon (greenhouse gas) consequences of proposed planning developments on local land.

It takes you through the various aspects to consider and data that you can use in your estimates. It also aims to forewarn you of potential problems and uncertainties in making such estimates. This first, test, edition is very much work in progress so feedback and suggestions will be very welcome.

The workbook provides information you can use for estimating the specific carbon consequences of a development. You do not have to be mathematicians or engineers to work this out, it is a high level estimate (not a finely crafted precision calculation) that can be used to evaluate and, where necessary, to challenge the development.

To access the files, CLICK HERE

There are two items:

The workbook, with discussion of the issues, information on sources of data and hints and tips. It is available in pdf and two word processor versions (.ods and .docx).

A spreadsheet that you can edit for your own calculations, available in .xlsx and ods versions.

The files can be downloaded and used by you. You can also share them. However, please don’t produce derivative versions without our permission and please do acknowledge us in your work.

For later versions check the permanent page: The Carbon and Planning Workbook

We are grateful to Friends of Carrington Moss for the stimulus to develop this workbook, and for comments on an earlier version.

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Can Cop26 lead to a viable future? The Meteor interviews us.

The Meteor is an increasingly indispensable source of news for Greater Manchester an beyond. It is a worker co-op “a not-for-profit, independent media co-operative – an alternative, radical, community-based publication for the people of Manchester.”

Conrad Bower, editor and co-founder, interviewed us on the occasion of both the COP26 Climate Conference and the publication of our book, A Viable Future?

In the interview we discussed the prospects for real success at COP (slim, we think), Manchester’s climate plans and the contradiction with the pursuit of continued economic growth, alternatives to degrowth, the decoupling myth, and low hanging policy options.

You can read the interview here.

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