Thursday 29 January 2009

The Politics of Limits

Many of the middle classes lucky enough remain secure in their jobs may actually benefit from the recession. A university lecturer told me recently he has £300 a month more disposable income after his mortgage repayments plummeted along with interest rates.

He is one example of a fortunate few whose lives may well improve as the lives of others decline. Given this new spending power, the
"politics of limits" urged by Sir John Harman in the recently published Fabian pamphlet, "The Green Crunch", may not be of interest.

The environmental challenge facing this country, and the world, is an urgent one and how best to approach it is a complex issue, Harman argues. But if much ecological damage is caused by excess consumerism, addressing the problem now would seem to have the advantage of killing two birds with one stone. (Peter Mandelson’s rescue bid for the car industry has certainly taken this approach, in tone at least.).

But the environment is not on most people’s list of personal priorities and it will take a dramatic shift to put it there.

At the top, that increased disposable income may be spent on extra luxuries- a break away from all this gloom perhaps- not 'going green'. At the bottom, those battling poverty may not be able to afford the greener alternative, and with more personal struggles on their mind, may not care.

It was suggested during yesterday’s lunchtime discussion of “The Green Crunch” that the increasing need for financial restraint demanded by the economic crisis may actually come as a relief to some who now have an excuse for not keeping up with the Joneses or who find their families living closer.

Advocacy International's Ann Pettifor claimed: “We have turned people into consumers and they find themselves wandering down supermarket aisles lost and lonely”. A new “politics of limits” that brings us “back to basics” and a sense of fairness not felt since war rationing may help us reconnect with what’s really important once again. And living simpler lives, or at least more efficient ones, will help save the planet.

The problem is how to make this happen. Lucy Siegle, who is charged with trying to get the environmental message across everyday on the BBC’s The One Show, knows how difficult the job can be.

There is still a sense that environmental concerns are a middle class niche, she said. Although she also pointed out that 20% of people produce 80% of the country’s emissions. Presumably this is the same minority who consume the lion's share of resources, i.e. the wealthy, and so it is perhaps right that they should take the greater responsibility.

Scientists and economists must work together, Harman urgued, to "balance the economics of nature with the economics of man" as the present partnership is unmanageable.

Disaster will inevitably strike, but we need a better message than that: political kudos must be separated from materialism if the government is to make any headway.

The environment is not natural Labour territory, he went on, it could belong to any party, but as everyone at the discussion agreed it needs to be seized and made centre ground for everyone.

It is time for the government to start asking what it is they have to. More importantly, it is time they start doing it.

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