Places for Everyone? The new GM Spatial Framework

The final consultation draft of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is now out. It is now called “Places for Everyone” (P4E below). Consultation closes on 23 October.

The image GMCA have used to illustrate P4E’s vision!

P4E is little changed from the previous versions that appeared in 2018 and 2020. However, Stockport council voted not to be part of the plan, so P4E just covers the other nine councils of Greater Manchester.

P4E is the Strategic Plan for those local authorities, taking on the strategic element of their “Local Plans” (a misnomer from the National Planning Framework which governs the approach).

We are currently working through the plan and have already spotted a number of serious problems with it. Broadly, we think the plan bakes in an unsustainable economic model for the city region, fails to take serious account of the climate emergency, and makes questionable assumptions about the need for additional land for housing and commercial activity. By early September we will publish a response guide for environmentalists and social justice campaigners to help inform their own responses.

The consultation at this stage is a formal one. Greater Manchester Combined Authority say:

The Publication Plan is the plan that the nine local authorities consider to be the plan they intend to submit to the Secretary of State for examination. This is a formal stage of consultation and at this stage of consultation we are asking you whether you think the Places for Everyone plan meets the ‘tests of soundness’. 
The term ‘sound’ is used to describe a Local Plan that has been prepared in accordance with what Government expects of local planning authorities.

The tests of soundness can be found in the National Planning Framework publication, page 12. They do provide significant scope for questioning the assumptions and methodology of the plan. So watch this space for more information.

Meanwhile you can access the plan, the consultation, and the enormous library of background papers, HERE.

Posted in Greater Manchester City Region, Planning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Fighting Fire with Fire?

Book review

Peter Somerville

Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton (2021) Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown. London: Verso. 280pp. £12.99 (hb).

Jonathan Neale (2021) Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and global climate jobs. London: Resistance Books. 348pp. Available as free e-book at: https://theecologist.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Fight_the_Fire_0.pdf.

These are two very different books but with much in common. Both are concerned with how to respond to the climate and ecological emergency. Jonathan Neale’s (JN) focus is on the global level, while that of Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton (L&L-L) is primarily on the UK. Both argue strongly for a social democratic approach, by which I mean an emphasis primarily on public provision and governmental regulation to address the crisis. Both use the term ‘we’ repeatedly throughout, but never make clear who the ‘we’ are. Related to this, I think, is a lack of reflection on their own position and the possible problems with that position. Nevertheless, these are each, in their own way, superb books, with numerous interesting ideas and much food for thought – well worth reading. The strength of JN lies mainly in the priority he gives to mitigating climate change, particularly in calculating a technically detailed path to a safer world, and the strength of L&L-L is in their vision of a political way forward to prevent environmental breakdown. Both accounts, however, are limited in that they do not engage directly with the politics of the day (though there is some stirring rhetoric in JN’s final chapter) – that is, with the messy business of political parties and actual governments, most of whom do not share their social democratic inclinations.

JN’s book is the more ambitious of the two, as he sets out a programme for a global green new deal. As the title of his book suggests, the emphasis is on providing what he calls ‘climate jobs’. These are defined as ‘jobs that directly reduce the emissions that heat the world’ (p9) or ‘jobs which work directly to halt climate breakdown’ (p14). The problem here, however, is that very few jobs actually do this: examples would include restoring peat bogs and other forms of carbon dioxide removal, and enforcing regulations to phase out fossil fuel extraction and burning. Contrary to what JN appears to think, jobs in renewables do not in themselves reduce emissions. Even the term ‘green jobs’ is too broad as it ‘can be anything useful or ecofriendly’ (p9). ‘Low carbon’ might be a better term: arguably, all jobs should be low carbon, but not all jobs have to be useful.

JN calculates the amount of renewable electricity required to power a world without fossil fuels – mainly for energy, vehicles, heating and industry. But then he declares that ‘the market cannot deliver renewable electricity on this scale’ (p44) and ‘We will need public ownership of the grid and the main electricity providers if this is going to work.’ (p44). This is a good example of his style of argument – a reasonable and usually convincing calculation followed by an unsubstantiated assertion. In particular, with regard to electricity grids, he says: ‘there is no way to make a profit from these grids’ (p54), even though privately owned grids such as the UK national grid have been making profits for years. The basic point is that such grids provide a service for which users can be charged. There is an issue to the extent that such grids are monopolies, so the price of electricity has to be capped by law to prevent excess profit, but the case for (re)nationalisation simply has not been made here. Providing electricity free at the point of delivery would place an enormous financial burden on the taxpayer and arguably would serve only to increase energy demand and waste. The immediate task is to decarbonise the grid and create larger grids, both of which the UK national grid continues to do.

On transport and buildings, JN makes many useful suggestions but in the former there is arguably too much emphasis on electric cars. The reality is that there are just too many cars on the roads, and too much being spent on roads, so the priority should be to challenge car culture and reduce car use by whatever means possible. On buildings, despite rightly dismissing the use of hydrogen to heat homes as ‘a con’ (p129), JN does not recognise that heat pumps are more efficient than boilers (p122). The main priority here, of course, should be for a programme of mass retrofitting of UK buildings to make them as low carbon as possible. JN offers some useful proposals on concrete, namely to ban it for most purposes (p118), and on steel, namely to recycle more of it and use (green) hydrogen to heat the iron ore from which steel is made (p116). In order to reduce the amount of steel, he proposes banning tall buildings (p123) and using aluminium (produced using renewable energy) instead of steel for vehicles (p117).

Perhaps the best part of JN’s book is the section on agriculture. It contains an up-to-date account of conservation agriculture (no-till farming, crop rotation, organic cover, restricting the use of fertilisers, etc), the problems with rice paddies, the management of livestock and land and forests, and rewilding, among other topics. I liked his critique of the ‘rewilding fantasy’ (p185) and his advocacy of pigs! However, I cannot accept his claim that: ‘Pigs and poultry are not a climate change problem’ (p156). Maybe if there weren’t so many chickens and if pigs and chickens were fed only on human waste products, this could be true. As it is, however, the land currently used to grow crops to provide feed for farm animals could be better used to grow crops for the increasing number of vegetarians. Also, on his alleged myth of ‘sustainable forestry’ (p180), he doesn’t seem to understand that a life cycle begins with birth (afforestation) not with death (deforestation). I think this shows how easy it can be to choose the wrong starting date in making one’s calculations (if one starts with planting trees, it is blindingly obvious that the process can be sustainable). Also, it was not at all clear to me how ending deforestation could save 5GtCO2 a year or how planting new trees could sequester another 5GtCOt a year (p183).

JN calculates that a global climate transition will cost 3-4% of global GDP (p240), compared with 2% paid by governments (p259) for a climate jobs programme (compared with L&L-L’s 4-5% of GDP a year for a ‘green stimulus’ in the UK – p130). He thinks that world governments are eminently capable of incurring such expenditure, but gives short shrift to modern monetary theory on the grounds that it is biased towards sovereign economies such as the US who can control their own currency. As he says, the problem with this is that it undermines international solidarity, which is essential to achieve a peaceful global transition.

Where JN is clearer on the detail, L&L-L are clearer on the broader political context of what they call ‘environmental breakdown’, which is not just about climate change but also about species extinction, wetlands lost, deforestation, soil degradation, habitat destruction and ecosystem collapse. They argue that this breakdown is caused by ‘the economics of extractivism’ (p10), which has a long history (at least 500 years) but has accelerated in more recent years. They emphasise three political points: first, they identify a powerful elite or elites who are benefiting most from the extractivism that is causing breakdown; second, they outline an ideological formation called ‘eco-ethnonationalism’ (or ‘ethnonationalism’ for short), which supports this elite in a variety of ways, e.g. by denying or ignoring the breakdown, by pretending to respond to it (greenwash) or by blaming other forces for it (such as overpopulation or globalisation); third, they argue that extractivism, supported by this ideology, presents a serious and growing threat to life on this planet.

L&L-L’s solution to environmental breakdown is explicitly political (their book does not have the technical detail that represents the core of JN’s book). Their ‘vision of the future’ is set out in full on p82 but can be summarised in terms of democratisation, decommodification and social solidarity. A slightly different vision for ‘a pluralistic economic commonwealth’ is outlined on p140: ‘a thriving ecosystem of business forms, where ownership is held in common, governance is democratic, and purpose is rooted in serving needs.’ It is interesting to note that decarbonisation is not mentioned in either of these visions, though it is presumably implied by the term ‘green industrial strategies’ (p82). This suggests that, whereas JN prioritised the technicalities over the politics of mitigating climate change, L&L-L may be less concerned with such technical detail than with advancing a particular political project. They call this project ‘ecosocialism’ (p77) but actually it looks more like social democracy, as they describe later on: ‘providing the public goods which markets under-provide, regulating negative externalities, “derisking” life through comprehensive social safety net’ (p200). This is consistent with a long tradition of social democracy, going back to Tawney and earlier, and it doesn’t seem very radical – there is no mention, for example, of toppling the elites or just ‘taxing them till the pips squeak’ (Denis Healey) or ‘taking control of the commanding heights of the economy’ (Tony Benn) or anything similar. The vision itself looks a little blurred, with the aim being ‘to build societies of flourishing and meaning’ (p235). How is one to identify such societies? How much democratisation will people accept? How much decommodification is really necessary or desirable? At what point does an emphasis on social solidarity encroach too much on individual freedom? L&L-L don’t mention citizens’ assemblies but they could be useful for deliberating on such questions.

Perhaps most importantly, the use of the term ‘flourishing’ fudges the issue of the need to reduce our consumption of the earth’s resources. There is a certain wordplay here: ‘Growth will remain the goal, but growth of a different kind, of social and environmental progress, of equity and care’, not ‘blindly degrowing the economy’ (p236). Such vagueness just offers a green light for greenwash. This fuzziness tends to pervade the whole book. Just as fine words butter no parsnips, warm words about caring and sharing are just talk, and L&L-L’s wish list is a very long one. To be fair, there are some nuggets here, e.g. on democratising finance and taming corporations, but little that is really new. Much of what they are calling for requires good management, but they seem to assume that this is a no-brainer when the reality is that good management is very difficult and arguably rarely to be found (L&L-L are not alone here: similar naivety about the quality of public management goes back to the founders of the Fabian Society, and is to be found more recently in the works of Mazzucato, Blakeley, and other left theorists).

L&L-L seem to want to democratise everything but what exactly this means is not clear. I was taken with the phrase ‘a commitment to the primacy of democratic power over technocracy’ (p129). Some might say that this already exists since we have a democratically elected government that can exercise control over technology. This prompts the question of what the demos is here and who the technocrats might be. In the context of the book, it seems that what they have in mind is a social democratic government that will prioritise public investment, enterprise and ownership over the private sector. In addition, perhaps, to avoid the risk of one set of technocrats/managers being replaced by another, they want to hold the managers accountable to a wider public (workers, consumers, communities, citizens, etc), but it is not clear who is supposed to be doing what or how it is to be done effectively (statements such as ‘reshape and pluralise economic coordination rights’ on p203 do not help).

L&L-L have much to say about the corporation. The changes they recommend are largely uncontroversial, such as aligning strategic and investment plans with a 1.5 degree centigrade pathway, making directors liable for their company’s environmental damage, half of company board members elected from the workforce, with workers having at least 30% of total voting rights, investing in socially useful activities, and promoting worker ownership and social ownership (pp151-60). However, they do not seem to understand that this does not challenge the fundamental rule of capital – indeed, such changes would serve to incorporate the workers more closely into the capitalist system. They do not seem to understand that businesses are both exploitative and generative, and government interventions generate both good and bad outcomes at the same time, which are often unforeseen, anyway. Labour itself is a form of capital, as it generates expanding value, which has to be abolished if we are to move away from capitalism. Cooperatives, for example, are a clear advance on mainstream shareholder-owned companies but they still have to compete in capitalist markets – and it is the same for all the other alternative models of ownership and institutions and practices of workplace democracy (multi-stakeholder boards, general assemblies, and so on – p213). At the end of the day, the democratisation of the corporation means giving labour and other ‘key stakeholders’ their ‘proper share’ of the corporation, making the corporation fully accountable to the people. This may involve taking the corporation into public ownership, so that it becomes ‘a democratic commons’ (p150). To make this work, however, a high degree of popular participation will be required, so maybe the people should be consulted first, and maybe they will just want the government to do the right thing and make sure corporations decarbonise and flatten their hierarchies.

Whereas JN makes a reasonably clear distinction between technology and politics, L&L-L tend to confuse the two. For example: ‘the political crisis of environmental breakdown consists precisely in knowing the technical solutions needed to become sustainable rapidly’ (p143). This is the same mistake that the IPCC have been making for over thirty years (as well as promoting unicorn technology such as on carbon capture and storage), namely to show what needs to be done and then assume that policymakers will respond accordingly. Still, on some technical points, L&L-L have got it right, e.g. (and comparing favourably with JN) on the need for a ‘retrofitting revolution’ (p174) and the need to reduce car use (p175). Proposals for a progressive frequent flyer levy and the banning of non-electric private jets (p176) are also most welcome. Stopping new fossil fuel projects and subsidies for fossil fuel production, and fair carbon taxes and rules to shift investors out of carbon intensive assets, are of course all no-brainers, though they come only at the end of the book (p244). The discussion of agriculture and food, however, is not as good as in JN’s book: if the problem were really one of ‘cheap natures’, as Jason Moore claims, then the solution would be to make them more expensive, which does not seem as if it would serve the aim of ‘reducing hunger and poverty’ (p181). So there is clearly some confusion here.

On the concept of a technological or digital commons I don’t feel competent to comment but I doubt whether innovation can be regulated or directed as L&L-L appear to imply (p186). Thinking about the BT monopoly in the old days, I’m not sure if digital infrastructure needs to be publicly owned, and it is not clear how the new forms of public ownership will be different from the old forms. Also, the issue of the vast amounts of energy consumed by the use of digital technology is not mentioned here. L&L-L’s vision of a hi-tech future does not sound attractive to me: ‘a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability’ (p211). I simply do not understand why they deem it necessary or desirable to accelerate automation (p210).

Work emerges as a key problem for L&L-L (contrast JN, where ‘climate jobs’ are proposed as the solution to a problem). For some reason they want to ‘weaken the link between income and the labour market’ (p204). This seems to mean increased benefit for those who are not in the labour market (e.g. a minimum income for all and free public services), which is fine but arguably should not be at the expense of wage-earners. A real transformation of work would involve challenging managerial power and equalising of wages and salaries at the very least – not to mention a transition to 100% low-carbon jobs (to be fair, they do mention ‘dissolving the authoritarian relationship at the heart of work’ on p242, which displays another fine rhetorical flourish). But they are right to stress the importance of care work, which they interpret widely to include free universal childcare, public and cooperative provision of adult social care, building green infrastructures and urban rewilding (pp205-7) and the foundational economy generally (though it is not entirely clear what this term includes or excludes – p208). On the other hand, they are wrong to assert that: ‘The key [to transforming work] is expanding leisure time for all’ (p219). Arguably, transforming work should be about making work (more) attractive and enjoyable, so that the gap between work and leisure is reduced. For example, writing this book probably counts as work (it could have done with a proper bibliography and an index, but that would have involved more work!) but my writing of this review counts as leisure because I am retired. Also, leisure services are themselves labour processes, and leisure spaces can also be workplaces.

Finally, politics. L&L-L call for ‘deep constitutional reform, democratising political power and experimenting with new forms of voice and participation, and decentralised governance’ (p229). They do not elaborate on what this all means but one can guess that it involves things like proportional representation, an elected upper house, maybe citizens assemblies – detail is sadly lacking and of course the devil is always in the detail. There is at least a recognition that a coalition of a variety of forces is necessary to build and win state power (p230), but these forces are not clearly identified, nor is there any sense of how this coalition might be able to transform and democratise the state. There is also a nod to green community wealth building and green enterprise and investment (p231), but there is no assessment of what this might be capable of achieving. They say: ‘if done right, municipalism and community wealth building could drive rapid sustainability from the bottom up’ (p245), but it is not made clear how it is to be done right (as in Preston?) or what the real capacity is for change at community level. Suggested ‘structural reforms’ do not look particularly structural, e.g. ‘the expansion of paid holidays’ (p232), changing company rules, a public banking ecosystem, scaling democratic media. The proposal to ‘democratise capital’ (p238) sounds suspiciously similar to the Conservatives’ property-owning democracy, with the property being public rather than private. This may well be the intention but it can only serve to buttress and even enhance the power of state capital (as happens in China), especially if it is managed well (by whom and how?). The vexed issue of the relationship between centre and locality is fudged thus: ‘Local action should be connected and coordinated by a centralised and better democratised state’ (p246). The nature of such a state remains to be developed, though I would have said that the English state, if not the UK, was already well centralised, and I thought that L&L-L were in favour of a certain amount of decentralisation. As a manifesto, therefore, this leaves much to be desired.

Both books warn of the dangers of right-wing extremist nationalism (JN, p291; L&L-L, pp227, 251). This is a new version of the old trope of ‘socialism or barbarism’. Like the latest (but very different) fashion of ‘deep adaptation’ (e.g. Bendell and Read, 2021), however, this narrative is based on scare-mongering and fatalism, and appears to foreclose a number of possible alternatives (e.g. degrowth).

Overall both books inadvertently serve to reveal the weakness of social democracy that was highlighted in the 1970s. The key problem here is that the tribalism of the left cannot solve the existential crisis of climate and ecological emergency. There are many very good points in both of these books but a coherent, comprehensive, convincing and realistic path to a safe world remains to be developed. This is the key challenge for our times.

References

Bendell, J. and Read, R. (2021) Deep adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Blakeley, G. (2019) Stolen: How to save the world from financialisation. London: Repeater Books.

Mazzucato, M. (2020) Mission economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism. Allen Lane.

Posted in Climate Change, further reading, key concepts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The timidity of Transport for the North (TfN)

Transport for the North has released what it calls its Decarbonisation Strategy.  It is also asking for comments on it via its consultation process. Occasional contributor to this website, Peter Somerville, has provided the following commentary.

The timidity of Transport for the North (TfN)

Peter Somerville

This report makes some interesting points, for example, on the need for adaptation to climate change. Overall, however it lacks the ambition required to decarbonise transport sufficiently quickly or effectively. It is broadly supportive of the status quo without recognising that it is precisely the status quo that has got us into this mess. A ‘near-zero emissions surface transport network in the North by 2045’ (p10) plus zero emissions before 2050 (p12) is just not good enough in the context of a global emergency. They seem very proud of their target of 55% reduction from 2018 to 2030 but this is really nothing to write home about.

It’s good to hear that they will soon be taking account of emissions from aviation and shipping, but of course they could be doing this already. They report that Manchester Airports Group have pledged to be a net-zero airport by 2038 (p14) but they omit to mention that this applies only to the airport itself and does not include the emissions from all the flights into and out of the airport.

Their four hypothetical future travel scenarios up to 2050 are worth noting. Three of them involve significant car growth: it’s interesting to hear that the high-tech scenario would increase car usage by 44%, and that a scenario based on soft solutions such as quality of life and community still involves massive car growth of 30%, more than the business as usual scenario increase of 28%. Even the more radical fourth scenario involves 10% car growth, when of course what is really required is a significant reduction in car usage. It is hardly surprising, then, that none of these scenarios would hit the 2030 target (p44) – indeed the carbon budget would be exhausted by then (p46). 

I could not make sense of Figs 18 and 19 on pp44 and 45 but it seemed clear that their proposed decarbonisation strategy purports to be going much further than any of the four hypothetical scenarios. How this can possibly happen they do not really explain. It seems as if we are just expected to accept on trust that the measures they recommend will lead to the emissions reductions that they say will result. Unfortunately, this sort of approach is not uncommon in government publications (see, for example, the famous ten point plan), and needs to be considered with a comparable degree of caution and scepticism.

When it comes to the recommendations themselves, the general impression is one of timidity and incremental change, representing no clear advance over any of the four hypothetical scenarios. Indeed, the report largely fails to go beyond current government policy. The only example I could find that did so was the recommendation that all new cars sold from 2030 onwards should have zero emissions, compared with the government’s policy that new hybrids can be sold up to 2035. Big deal, you might say. Given that cars last for an average of fifteen years, a more appropriate policy would be to ban sales of new fossil fuelled cars from 2022.  In any case, this is not something TfN controls: it requires government legislation, so the “should” is just that, an exhortation without substance.

The report’s proposed reduction in car demand (1%-4% by 2025, 3%-14% by 2030) is pitifully small. The best way to stop car demand increasing is to stop funding road development, but the government is still proposing to invest £27 billion in new and expanded roads, and the report has nothing to say about this. So demand is set to rise, not fall, particularly as electric vehicles pay no fuel tax and the cost of battery recharging is much less than the cost of petrol or diesel. A possible increase in the road fund tax is mentioned but not actually recommended. Larger cars should of course have to pay more, and car owners generally should be required to pay tax that is equivalent to the whole cost of their car usage. This would be a bolder but fairer proposal.

Similarly on public transport there is no bold thinking in this report. For example, on rail TfN envisage only a 25% reduction in emissions by 2030 (p48) when they should be advocating full electrification by that date. And it wasn’t clear to me what they were proposing on buses – just ‘invest in bus and light rail networks’ (p68) and more demand-responsive bus services (p61). This sounds fair enough but how far does it go? It would be more radical to argue for publicly controlled bus services (as proposed for Greater Manchester) and free bus travel, as exists in other countries (e.g. Luxembourg), but there is no mention of such possibilities in this report.

Finally, the report contains a section on ‘clean growth’. Here, however, the calculation of emissions goes out of the window. The emphasis is on delivering charging infrastructure, developing hydrogen technology, digitalisation, green freeports, and carbon capture and storage. There are many problems with all of this (see, for example, on Carbon dioxide removal). The report does not distinguish clearly between blue and green hydrogen, and doesn’t seem to be aware that green hydrogen (made by the electrolysis of water) is already well developed (though not in UK) and becoming cheaper by the day, so there is a real opportunity here and we should not be advocating hydrogen manufacture that is not green (blue hydrogen relies on fossil fuel production). I am not competent to comment on digitalisation, but I’m sure that it has a significant impact on carbon emissions, as well as embodied carbon and other impacts arising from the extraction of the materials required for its production. None of this is discussed here, and indeed there is no mention of a circular economy. As for freeports, it is difficult to see how they will not add to the transport of goods and services and therefore contribute further to the UK’s carbon footprint rather than reduce it. All in all, even if clean growth is possible (which is doubtful), this report clearly fails to show it.

Posted in analysis, Climate Change, transport | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Members and Supporters Event – Shifting the debate

Last month, we held a meeting with some of our members and supporters to collectively consider the challenges facing Greater Manchester and look ahead to some of the ways Steady State Manchester can work to address those challenges. The meeting built upon a short discussion paper, and some of the key points discussed are drawn together below.

In the context of big challenges

Steady State Manchester works to influence thinking, practice, and policy in Greater Manchester. However, in the discussion with our members, it was clear our focus places limits on our scope. While there is a long way to go in building a more viable Greater Manchester, the fact is that many of the necessary shifts we discussed will require large-scale changes. A key case of this is the need for a fundamental rethinking of how national government invests tax revenue (e.g. the Green New Deal). While we agree that government investment and other wider structures need changing, this is in tension with a focus on advocating at a city-regional level. A similar tension arises when thinking through the impacts of Brexit (which have been obscured by the pandemic). Indeed, operating in the context of big challenges means understanding what we can – and what we can’t – directly influence.

Still, we will continue emphasising the many ways that a viable economy and society can improve lives and wellbeing, not least through advocating policies at the Greater Manchester scale. Equally, stories of success need celebrating, including activist mobilisation in Manchester calling for the city-region to address the climate emergency, the local wealth building of the Preston Model, twenty minute neighbourhoods being taken up in places like Melbourne, and adoption of the doughnut model in Amsterdam. These and countless other examples show ways of putting a more viable future into practice now, and our work will continue to draw inspiration from these exemplars while urging wider structural change.

Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

A main point of discussion was, understandably, the kernels of difference that might be taking root as a result of our collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most obviously, and widely discussed (such as here, here, and here), is a newfound appreciation for certain industries: especially those working in healthcare and food shops. Less widely acknowledged, however, are others essential workers that operate with less immediacy to many people’s everyday life, such as rubbish collectors or those in ‘elementary processing’ industries (aka un-unionized factory workers). This redefinition of what is essential to our society points to one possibility for recognizing that certain kinds of services that characterize a prosperous society are not amenable to a productivity-obsessed, growth-fuelled logic – a point brilliantly articulated by Tim Jackson some years ago, which is closely linked to our continued calls for an embrace of new social values – from care and democracy to resilience and localisation – in a more viable economy and society.

Another lesson emerging from the pandemic that we discussed is related: the flaws and weaknesses that COVID-19 exposed in various systems, along with the innovative responses, indicate ways forshock-proofing against future unexpected events. Examples such as the community groups that activated to provide mutual aid or the way that regional food systems adapted rapidly, are positive developments that have emerged in the past year or so. They need considering as we think about a post-pandemic Greater Manchester – and we intend to account for these lessons in our work moving forward.

Looking ahead

A last theme in the discussion with our supporters emerged when thinking ahead about the future. It was clear there is a need for unity amongadvocacy groups andto buildmomentum behind positive change. There is latent support for acting to address climate change, homelessness and so many other issues. But, at the same time, while there is potential, the limits of people’s engagement with civic life should be understood. People need an outlet for bringing them closer to decisions, which is seriously lacking in Greater Manchester – and elsewhere. A climate assembly (like the one in Blackpool) may be one possible way to encourage greater civic engagement, and we stand with Extinction Rebellion in calling for climate assemblies in other places, including Greater Manchester.

Another way we discussed for encouraging civic engagement involves drawing media attention to key issues and local events – both positive and negative – that can raise people’s awareness about what matters. Our post-growth challenge, in partnership with The Meteor and Systems Change Alliance, is one endeavour in this direction. Please do explore the entries to the challenge here and here. We plan to pursue other similar innovative ways to communicate with broader audiences in our future work.

A third route for catalysing civic engagement is our coalition work. At Steady State Manchester, partnerships and alliances are a key part of what we do. These activities are all aimed at activating a local ecosystem where people feel like they have a say in governance – despite the challenges (such as arcane ‘consultations’ and dull committee meetings). But to continue developing a groundswell of support for a more viable economy and society for Greater Manchester, we need your support. Whether that is donating, joining as a member, or remaining committed as a supporter. Our monthly emails often include several actions that we are asking you to take. And to encourage your engagement, our future mailings are going to highlight ‘Our Ask’ for a concrete action we hope that you will take each month.

Most importantly, we are keen for others to get involved in our work by joining our collective. If you might be interested, we encourage an informal chat with one of our collective, followed by no-commitment attendance at a collective meeting as an observer, to help show you what Steady State Manchester is about.If you are curious and would like to learn more, please drop us an email.

Overall, it was great to reconnect with some of our members and supporters, and we thank those who came very much for attending and participating. We are looking forward to further activities in the future involving our members – especially for a return to in-person events – including both our AGM (keep an eye on your email). In the meantime, the free and all-online Degrowth and Ecological Economics Conference, which we are co-sponsoring, is coming up in July. Hope to see you there!

Posted in degrowth, events, Greater Manchester, Greater Manchester City Region, Supporting SSM, Viable Economy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

News about the Manchester Degrowth and Ecological Economics Conference, 5th – 8th JULY 2021

Building Alternative Livelihoods in times of ecological and political crisis

The International Online Joint Conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics and the European Society for Ecological Economics, the international degrowth research networks and Steady State Manchester, hosted by University of Manchester, UK.

Registration Link

Conference website

Conference portal (for those who have registered)

Live programme and abstracts book linked on this page

Plenary speakers and plenary panels

Registration is now open for this event which comes at a critical time for our planet, its people and the entire living world. Lives and livelihoods have been unequally impacted and threatened by climate change, ecological degradation and the global pandemic. The construction of alternative livelihoods requires a radical transformation of economy, culture and society. What are the institutional arrangements which safely provide for basic needs, social stability and democratic legitimacy in the transition to environmental sustainability? How can both social justice and ecological justice for the populations of the Global North and the Global South be ensured? How can political support be mobilised for the necessary transformations?

We have had an enormous response to our calls for contributions with a variety of symposia and round tables, artistic and participatory events, that will appeal to scholars and activists concerned.

We are pleased to announce there will be conversations with Naomi Klein and George Monbiot and events with indigenous activists and with trade unionists.

There is NO CHARGE to attend this virtual Conference as an Attendee or Invited Speaker. Presenters are asked to contribute a fee to help cover the costs.

To register, click this link.

As we develop the programme, more information will appear on our website: https://www.isee-esee-degrowth2021.net/

For a taster, take a look at the videos from our September 2020 event: Economy and Livelihoods after COVID-19 click HERE.

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Post-growth: an economist meditates

Review of Post Growth: Life after Capitalism. Polity 2021.

by Tim Jackson

Book cover, Post Growth from the publisher's website.

ISBN 9 781509 54529

The economist Tim Jackson is well known as a leading advocate of an alternative to the dominant growth-orientated economic policy. He wrote the report to the UK government, Prosperity Without Growth (2009), later published in book form (2011) and now in its second edition (2017). It’s an important resource for all of us trying to explore and promote the possibility of a society whose material basis does not have to keep expanding: post-growth or degrowth. He has produced numerous papers mostly based on macro-economic modelling of the consequences and policy options for a post-growth economy. In the two book versions of Prosperity Without Growth, Jackson asked whether doing away with growth means doing away with the capitalist system.

For many people, growth and capitalism go together. Growth is functional for capitalism. Capitalism demands growth. The idea of doing without growth is tantamount to doing away with capitalism, in this view. [Second edition p. 561].

He concluded that while a post-growth economy would not be compatible with “casino capitalism”, it could be compatible with other variants. His discussion was rather impaired by a somewhat simplistic definition of capitalism, limiting it to the private ownership of the means of production, rather than considering it as a system in which capital in its chameleon forms is continually accumulated, expanded, as a result of expropriation (Marx’s primitive accumulation – Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession) and exploitation (expropriation of surplus value from the labour process). Instead he followed Baumol in contrasting private with State ownership of the means of production, although he notes that this breaks down when “State capitalism” comes into the picture.

Jackson’s new book has a subtitle that refers explicitly to this question of capitalism. If anything, in this new book, Jackson seems to be yet more critical of capitalism. However, the reader will not find here a critical political economy that analyses the dominant system and its contradictions, together with the options for its replacement and the vulnerable leverage points in that system for activists and movements to address themselves to.

Instead the book is very much a personal and philosophical essay wherein the author seeks and takes inspiration from an eclectic group of figures, including Rosa Luxemburg, Robert Kennedy, Wangari Maathai, Hannah Arendt and Emily Dickenson, who have in various ways gone against the grain of the dominant system and its associated world-view. I suppose whether this enterprise is judged as successful will depend on the resonance that these paths of exploration have for the reader, not just the choice of those figures but the selections from their works and the sense Tim Jackson makes of them. For me, notwithstanding the fulsome praise cited from twenty notables, mostly with pedigree in post-growth, or at least sustainability circles, the resonance was not generally there. It will be for others.

If you are looking for a path from the madness of the current system to an alternative, then this book is not for you. Tim Jackson gives some pointers but I found it too idiosyncratic, and curiously, given that it is ultimately about systems, too personal and introspective. We all need to look inward and reflect on values, on what’s important in life, and find ways of detaching that from the imperatives of the encompassing, dominant system. The pandemic (referred to in several places) has helped many of us to do that, with more time out and more time alone and at home. Yet somehow, Jackson’s reflections didn’t take me any further. Maybe because I read too much Thoreau (Tim cites the Civil Disobedience essay but not Walden), listened to too much demanding music, and was lucky enough to get a good ecological grounding as a youth, the rather Buddhist talk of mental “flow” (with no less than 10 index entries) and anti-materialistic values weren’t much of a revelation for me. I suppose I was looking for something else.

There are some macroeconomic sections, and these are not unhelpful, but this is ground that Tim has covered extensively elsewhere, in research articles and blog pieces and his previous book. For example, there is discussion of the reduction of labour productivity in capitalist economies, which has, it is commonly supposed (and Jackson concurs) led to increased inequality. He sees a distinction between a high technology “fast” sector and a human orientated, “slow” sector, where, for example the jobs in caring are. This second sector, which cannot be made “more productive” is where he sees the hope for a reformed economy that doesn’t continue to destroy the basis for life. But the macroeconomist doesn’t offer us an analysis of how this might be arranged and under what kind of systemic arrangements.

My final disappointment was that, in a book that surprisingly dwelt little on global inequalities and the transfer of resources, wealth and value from South to North, there was a repeated use of the pronoun “we” when describing tendencies of the system. It is not all of “us” that are destroying the planet and stealing people’s livelihoods. It is a system, operated by those in power, economically and politically, who relentlessly extract, exploit and exterminate and will continue to do so …. until they are stopped.

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The Post Growth Challenge entries (2)

This is the second of two posts in which we share entries from our Post Growth Challenge. You can read the first post HERE.

Ideas for a post-growth policy package.

Stanislas Rigal at the Institut des Sciences de l’Évolution de Montpellier, Université de Montpellier, contributed an concise policy briefing, “Ideas on a Post Growth Policy Package”. This is admirably concise, so we reproduce it here. You can download it as a pdf, and this includes the appendix which explains some of the concepts, indexed with numbered notes in the piece below. Stanislas uses some unusual language to set out his idea, and we think, because this makes the reader pause and think, there is a real value in that.

Ideas on a Post Growth Policy Package (1)

Stanislas Rigal
Reviving democracy and pools of life. The goal is that each pool of life (2)
achieves a relative autonomy for goods, food and infrastructure production while
avoiding authoritarian drift thanks to a democratic control of local institutions.
Such a strong democratic renewal is allowed by an extensive decentralisation in
decision-making authority, enabling direct democracy through citizens assemblies.
These assemblies will define local needs and production levels, in direct connection
with neighbouring pools of life and interacting with all the other pools of life via
a national assembly (3).
Empowering ourself. To break hindrances of growth-based capitalism such
as the debt burden, we need to set up a debt moratorium through a citizen audit to
determine the legitimate debt and cancel the illegitimate one (4) . Empowerment will
also come from a co-operative or national management of banks (5). In addition, by
redesigning taxation and allowance6 , limits may be set to incomes, and inequalities
will deeply decline (7) .
Deciding collectively of our limits… Common goods such as forests and
rivers may be managed by local communities with respect to smooth running prin-
ciples (8) , in a continuous dialogue with similar communities for sharing experiences.
The right to a healthy and liveable environment could follow the same rational
than commons with a similar governance using individual and non-transferable
quotas for greenhouse gas emission and material footprint (9). A complementary
policy would be to planning goods production while avoiding imitating failure
examples from the past century (10) .
… to regain liberty and life quality. Relocation of production will bring
new autonomy and stronger resilience to global perturbations. Third places could
be encourage, in which citizens can train themselves to craft goods conception,
using low tech production machines (11). Local currencies can be set up, allowing
local and reasonable trade without speculation in the remaining market activities (12).
De-commodification with end of advertising will free space and minds whereas
work sharing (13) will free time for private life as well as community life and direct
democracy. Even if the material living standard will be lower (14), the quality of life
will be far better.
Toward a sober and cleaner energy production. The need for mate-
rial and energy will decrease to enable a clean production of the remaining needs
through renewable sources. Renovation of housing will be combined to the
development of district heating networks. Small methanation units, shared between
farms, will be set up throughout the country and supply biogas into the distribution
network and to co-generation plants providing heat and controllable power.
Low-tech and locally produced wind turbines and solar panels will supply the remaining
needed power (15). Rail network will supplant plane and car for long distance travel
and freight. Cities will be gradually reshaped to a more human size, with multifunctional
districts avoiding many useless travels and releasing public area from car tyranny by promoting
active transportation and public transports (16).
Developing farming that makes sense. Farming will be reterritorialised
to supply to local needs, accounting for changing diets toward less meat and less
processed food. Farming will revive the purpose to get maximal calorie produc-
tion compare to calorie expenditure, generalising agroecology to drastically reduce
mechanisation and inputs while maximising yields. Farming will be the core of
the pool of life structure by providing jobs, rebalancing population and supplying
raw material and energy sources (17).
Living in harmony with our environment. Areas affected by human activities will suffer
less from disastrous practices with the end of chemical inputs
and from population density with the population rebalancing. Furthermore, substantial
jointly-managed areas could be set as free from human activities (18) to leave
room to biodiversity.

Policies for Degrowth

Another text-based entry, in the form of a blog post, came from Andrea Rigon, from The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London.
Andrea’s notes that, “

Acknowledging the diversity of perspectives and a more concise set of proposals by Research and Degrowth, this article puts together a number of policies and proposals consistent with degrowth. These are policies that either contribute to reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials, or help people and companies to understand their impact and contribute to social equity. The proposals below are a synthesis of collective reflections in various degrowth fora; mistakes are mine.”

The 19 policy ideas are ones that we will be dipping into from time to time as a helpful resource. You can download his piece here.

A “prezi”

Finally, Beth Stratford from the University of Leeds submitted a slide presentation using the prezi application. It is based on a longer policy paper by Beth and Dan O’Neill, The UK’s Path to a Doughnut-Shaped Recovery. Beth has also written a related article, perhaps controversially asking, Green growth vs degrowth: are we missing the point? Both contributions are concenred with policy approaches that tend to reduce the dependency of the economy on (material) growth. The prezi is concerned with four policy areas that aim to offer opportunities for all while respecting the planetary system boundaries, worker empowerment and protection, tackling rent extraction, reducing exposure to debt crises and safeguarding basic needs. You can watch the prezi here but note that you have to advance each step manually with the > button.

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Invisible workers, invisible systems.

Invisible workers, invisible systems.

By Mark Burton                                                                                                            pdf version

also available at Resilience.org

This is based on a short talk I gave to an event, What have we learned about work during Covid 19 and what needs to change? organised by Manchester Art Gallery. I am grateful to Clare Gannaway and colleagues for the invitation and for permission to use the two pictures.

I was asked to make a selection from a collection of images at Manchester Art Gallery, which is reviewing what should be on public display from its vast collection, and how what it shows can be made more relevant to our people and our times. I chose two pictures and reflected on what they suggested to me.

Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1941-44

Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1941-44

I’ve recently picked up my paintbrushes after a long break, courtesy of the lock-down. So the picture is of interest in its capture of a mundane scene, the play of the light and the rendering of the brassicas that appear to have frost on them. Is it the end of the day or the beginning?

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the experience of the lock-down, has made some things more visible to us. So many of us have had the luxury of slowing down, noticing the natural world, experiencing lower traffic volumes and cleaner air, focussing on the important things, like food and family, and maybe taking part in more creative activities. It’s also highlighted the importance of workers in basic services and provisioning – in social and health care, delivery drivers, supermarket workers for example.

Some things, though, have remained largely invisible and Sprout Picking illustrates that for me. While the picture is of a sprout field, in war time, with members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) hard at work, for me, it also looks like the lettuce fields where I spent summers working as a young man. It speaks of the fundamental importance of food and provisioning more generally, something heightened in times of pandemic and crisis. Early on in lock-down, there was uncertainty, and shortages, then for many a renewed focus on food, cooking and quality. But behind it all there is hidden, hard, manual labour. It is back-breaking and monotonous, but there can also be conviviality and comradeship. In the picture there are also what could have been the greenhouses where we also worked, in the heat, training, side-shooting, and picking tomatoes, and I’m reminded of the modern equivalent, the acres of “los plasticos” the polythene covers in Murcia and other parts of the Mediterranean littoral, where, as in the Netherlands and elsewhere, legions of low-waged migrant workers toil. In the picture though, it is probably cold, adding to the hardship in a different way.

What’s happening here, under the conditions of the pandemic, is that, paradoxically, the possibility of our social isolation, is made possible by that hidden, collective labour, now often the lot of those marginalised and displaced. We can stay at home because they can’t.

But there’s a difference. This is from wartime, when the country focussed on producing its own food. The pandemic and brexit give us a hint about the vulnerability of our supply chains and our national dependency on imports.

In the picture, the WLA went out and worked the land. Could we envisage a return of the rural as the linked crises intensify and likely system collapse looms?

We are in a pancrisis, a series of interlocking crises: 1. carbon pollution – global warming; 2. ecosystem encroachment and edge-convolution1 – biodiversity reduction; 3. resource exhaustion and peak extraction leading to profitability reduction and extraction frontier expansion; and 4. internal contradictions of capitalism – secular stagnation and financial crises. These wider crises have no satisfactory exit within the terms of reference of the current capitalist world system.

It isn’t just food production that makes isolation possible, but all the areas where key workers work:, and in most of these sectors people are most vulnerable to infection.

We have learned that production for need, and use values, are more important than production for profit, and exchange values, but the two sides have become ever more dis-aligned.

The Hell of Copper Series, Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, 2008

The Hell of Copper Series, Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, 2008

Isolation is also made possible by information technology. In the picture we see some of the consequences of the over-production and obsolescence of computing and communication equipment. It is worth quoting from the display label for this photo.

From dawn to dusk, dozens of young Ghanians, from 10 to 25 years of age, exhaust themselves seven days a week. Their mission is to disassemble the old computers and burn certain plastic or rubber components to cull the precious copper, which will then be resold. Everything is done by hand or with iron bars, makeshift tools found among the refuse. They have neither masks nor gloves. There are not even any functioning toilets. The photographic series The Hell of Copper documents the 10 square kilometre electronic graveyard of the Aglobloshie Market in Accra, Ghana where thousands of computers and electronic goods are shipped from Europe and North America. …….

Using their bare hands, the young workers are exposed to lead, mercury, cadmium, and PVC plastic which are incredibly toxic to the human body. These chemicals have seeped into the nearby canal and also contaminate the grazing land for cows and sheep. Ouedraogo’s imagery of the sprawling landscape filled with computer carcasses and the individuals engaged in this dangerous work demonstrate the profoundly troubling consequence of the constant search for the latest phone, fastest computer or new electronic gadget.

This isn’t just a problem with IT. We rely on an enormous shipping fleet to bring materials, fuels and manufactured products across the world: when the ships reach the end of their life they are taken apart in similarly horrendous conditions on the beaches of countries such as Bangladesh.

It’s not only in the exit of such products as waste for possible recycling that such devastation and super-exploitation happens. It happens in the sphere of production too. Computing and communications technology (and “renewable energy” come to that) relies on the mining of rare metals: there are conflict materials – produced in zones of conflict, often funding warring factions. Artisanal mining (a nice name for a nasty reality) is mining by private individuals who, typically without safety regulations or protective equipment, sell what they pull out of the ground for a pittance. Gold, which does not corrode, so is good for contacts, is extracted with mercury, polluting watercourses. There are concentrations of mine tailings and dam disasters like the two big ones recently in Brazil. Ecosystems are devastated by open cast mining, while habitats are destroyed as well as people’s livelihoods and communities, especially indigenous communities. Those who resist often get murdered, sometimes with the collusion of the extraction companies and governments.

Manufacture and assembly of the products is another whole panorama of injustice and exploitation: 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week at Foxconn, for example, where Apple and other products are assembled. These are what we think of as Victorian levels of labour exploitation.

The nexus of profit, the hyper-exploitation of workers, community and ecosystem devastation, these are the consequences of our mode of living. We are all implicated in ways but it is the capitalist system that is culpable.

The pandemic casts a light on inequality, exclusion and exploitation at home but the wider dimensions of the world of work and the capitalist economy remain largely invisible.

The pandemic is the writing on the wall.

We have to make profound changes to the way we all live, and that includes work. The problem is getting a toehold on the system whose parts are mutually reinforcing and and locks in destruction with its incessant expansion.

But that is another story.

1Edge-convolution is used here as concise way of referring to the increase in the ecological edge between wild ecosystems and human-dominated ones, which, together with industrial agriculture is the source of new zoonoses (pathogens of animal origin). See Wallace, R. (2020). Dead epidemiologists: On the origins of covid-19. Monthly Review Press.

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