Democracy and the Environment

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.

The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan

We are living in a time of Climate Change. Technology has given us an unparalleled ability to influence the world around us. Unfortunately, as rising temperatures and sea levels demonstrate, we have not yet developed the necessary maturity to bear such a responsibility. There is now a well established scientific consensus that even the most minor climate change will be highly destructive. If no action is taken to address our abuse of the environment, the end result is likely to be equal in every respect to the devastation of a nuclear holocaust. Fortunately, we have at least some ability to effect the outcome.

The ‘environmental problem’ can be defined simply: our infinite human wants are incompatible with our existence on a finite planet. Given the rapid technological development and exponential economic growth which have come to define human progress, it is inevitable that we should collide with the fixed boundaries of our world.

Whilst the final collision may still be a long way off, smaller impacts are already starting to be visible in the global economy. A growing number of scientists and academics are advocating the Peak Oil theory, which suggests that global oil production will only decrease in the future. There are also commodities shortages of minerals such as indium and helium, as our current consumption already exceeds the amount being mined each year.

The acceptance of an inevitable collision with our environment brings two major implications for our understanding of the coming political landscape. Firstly, all natural resources (both energy and raw materials) must at some point be rationed. The free market is an effective means of rationing resources in times of plenty. However, the market mechanism breaks down when the goods being rationed are essential, devoid of any substitutes and the market has no further means to supply them, regardless of any further investment in the means of production.

Unlike a supermarket, once the shelves of our planet are bare they cannot be re-stocked. The last items of food will be at best sold to the highest bidder, or at worst taken by force. The free market may be the most effective economic system yet devised, but it does not function effectively when the goods are a necessity for human survival and the supply is limited. There are no substitutes for clean air, water and unpolluted soil.

The second major implication is that the natural resources of our planet must be protected against those who would exhaust them in search of short term economic gain. In the current market context, the financial wealth of an individual corresponds directly to their ‘right’ to consume our shared natural resources and in many cases render them unusable for future generations. The liberty of the individual cannot be allowed to threaten the future health of our world.

We must therefore re-appraise our understanding of personal property, when that property is part of our shared planet. Ownership cannot constitute a right to destroy natural resources, from now on nothing can ever be ‘thrown away’ again. Everything that is made in the course of our human activity must be recycled. Our notion of ownership must be entirely replaced with the idea of stewardship, which is the only sustainable model for private property.

However, the by far the biggest danger in implementing these necessary changes is that our democratic process will be undermined and subverted. As citizens and free market consumers, we each have a huge short term incentive to maximise our personal consumption. Equally, political parties who must compete in the democratic ‘free market’ for votes, will surely be eager to avoid potentially unpopular rationing and austerity measures. The temptation to manipulate policies and targets towards taking ‘soft options’ which claim to be workable solutions but do not deliver the required environmental improvements cannot be over estimated. Corporations, as economic profit maximisers, also have every incentive to cover products in ’Greenwash’ for sale to an under-educated market, whilst they continue with a business as usual model behind the scenes.

As members of the progressive left, we have both a duty and a significant opportunity to shape the future of our society and protect our natural environment. We must find ways to take the initiative and sugar the bitter pill that is the end of our current consumer lifestyles. We must build a compelling vision of a sustainable future. Constructing a new model for economic ownership, alternatives to environmentally destructive industry, creating a fairer and more equal society, energising local communities and empowering individuals to protect the natural world on which we all depend, should be the natural territory of the left. The old free market vocabulary of greed, consumption and personal gain must be replaced with a new sustainable vocabulary of hope, meaning and a shared sense of ownership and responsibility.

Then they’ll raise their hands,

Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands,

But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered.

And like Pharaoh’s tribe,

They’ll be drownded in the tide,

And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

When The Ship Comes In, Bob Dylan

A bee flying round in my parents garden

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