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Archive for October, 2010

It seems to me that there are three main areas that we can change to reduce our consumption rates and halt the destruction of our planet. These are population, lifestyle and technology. The trident of climate action, if you like.

Population is fairly obvious – the more people there are, the more resources we will need to keep them fed & watered. Driving around in cars, heating homes and buying tonnes of junk a year just makes things a whole lot worse.

Every year more people aspire to the lifestyles we enjoy in the developed world, so a growing world population is only going to lead to trouble. Unfortunately, it will take a long while to halt the growth, even if everyone on the planet agreed today to have only 2 children. The best ways to achieve lower birth rates appear to be education and the empowerment of women, but neither or these is likely to happen particularly quickly over depressingly large areas of the globe.

Lifestyle is a more complex issue, but is largely about re-aligning priorities in the developed nations and helping the developing nations achieve sustainable growth. Lifestyle is more than just cycling to work or becoming vegetarian, it’s about your decisions in every aspect of your life: how you vote, where you invest spare cash, what work you do etc. It is often said that individuals have no power over government and corporations, that the small changes we can make are dwarfed by their excesses. This is true to some degree – the footprint of the Copenhagen COP15 summit was about that of a small UK city – but it misses the point. If even a few more people vote Green Party, for instance, the main parties will site up and listen. A small drop in revenue will make even the most avaricious multinationals take note. This will be news worthy, so the mainstream population will be exposed to new ideas. What is considered ‘normal’ alters, becomes a little greener and more people act responsibly. This creates more momentum in the swing to green, so normality gets greener a little faster.

Another claim is that to live a one-planet lifestyle you have to drop out. I have heard people say that they cannot live sustainable as they do not want to live in a yurt and do want their kids to go to school. This is complete nonsense. Sustainable lifestyle is about gaining things, not loosing them. It’s about thinking how you live, choosing quality of life over buying lots of stuff – focusing on living life, not climbing the property ladder. There is no reason why you could not be fabulous wealthy, send your kids to public school and still live sustainably, if that really is what’s right for you family. After all, Ghandi’s footprint was not huge & he was one of the most influential people the world has ever known.

Technology may also help us out of our worsening mess. Developing super-efficient transport, productive renewable energy systems and almost 100% recycling rates will make a huge difference. Carbon capture and storage could reverse climate change to some degree (probably) and geo-engineering may reduce its impact.

However, problems with engineering our way out of trouble include time, cost and feasibility. It will take a long time to get the fabulous technology up and running, with a lot of it only delaying the problems rather than solving them. It will cost a lot of money and require quite a shift in economic power, so there will be resistance to doing it effectively. It is also not certain that it is possible to achieve in practice, especially if people expect to carry on increasing consumption rates. Technology has often back-fired in the past, so relying on it could quite feasibly make things worse rather than better.

All three areas are vital to securing the future of our planet, but the central prong of the trident is lifestyle. It can be the most powerful and is the only one we can all influence directly as individuals. Companies are run by people, governments voted in by people and all wealth created by people spending or investing their money. We are those people and it is our choices that can change the world.

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One of the opening speeches of the coalition government said something along the lines of:

“blah blah blah blah rhubarb blah of course we want a fair society wiffle ping zip.”

I still do not know what made me worry about those few simple words. Their truth sounded so unquestionably simple and self-evident. It is only in the passing of the days that I have realised that they gloss over a vast and tangled subject. Because ‘fair’ is a tricksey word, full of traps and chimeras.

The first problem is working out what being fair actually means. For instance, is it fair that key workers such as teachers should be helped to buy houses? If so, is it not also fair that the highly-qualified engineers who design schools but earn less than teachers should also be helped? Who else? Is it fair that the taxes of the school dinner lady should pay for all this largess, while she benefits from none of it?

To carry on the schooling theme, is it fair that private schools exist? Should the best teachers and pupils be forced into the state system so that everyone has fair opportunity? Or is it only fair to let the successful spend their hard-earned (and hard-taxed) money on their children? If not, surely to be fair we must extend that ban to all aspects of life that could give recipient children an advantage: sports, diet, housing, holidays and on ad infinitum.

Which brings us to another question: is ‘fair’ and same as ‘equal’? This may sound like a flippant question, but it is not. These two terms have been consistently confused and interchanged in our political system throughout the last 15 years or so. Equality has been touted as fair, but is it?

Think of an extreme: should the innocent child of violent, illiterate parents have an equal chance at success as a child from high-achieving parents? This at first seems to be unarguably ‘Yes’, but let’s explore it a little further. The ‘achiever’ child will have an intrinsically better chance at success due to her social status and parental assistance: money, knowledge, attitude, contacts and environment. The ‘illiterate’ child will be disadvantaged before she learns to speak; which, incidentally, in our enlightened society will also disadvantage her due to class assumptions over accent. To have an equal chance at success she will have to be given far more assistance from the state than the achiever child, being given every opportunity that the state can offer whilst the achiever child is overlooked.

Now, how far should the state discriminate between the children if they share the same mindset and conduct as their parents? If the illiterate child actually harms the achiever child? What if the children come from similar backgrounds, other than the attitude of their parents? What if they come from identical backgrounds, but one excels and the other is disruptive? How far should it be taken before equality is unfair?

Resources are finite, so is it fair to give the least productive in society more than those who are instrumental in making society viable? Perhaps it is only fair to us all if we do, as otherwise we might foment an underclass that will disrupt the whole of society. But even if it is fair, is it really wise? Will supporting the lower achievers over the higher achievers tend to make us all more equal? Will the former achieve more while the latter achieve less? In other words, will it tend to make us all mediocre and is that something on which our society can thrive?

In evolutionary terms the answer is emphatically ‘No’. Natural selection rewards the achievers and takes away from the losers. Eventually the genetic material of the losers is lost and the species moves on. On the global scale the same may happen within societies, where those that reward achievement become the overlords of those that promote equality.

We have seen through the communist experiment that equal and fair societies are not possible, an observation reinforced by our recent Labour government. They spent a lot of money and effort trying to equalise society, but ended up with a greater divide at the end than they started with at the beginning. But does this matter? I would suggest not. Worrying about comparative equality is just a form of jealousy. What does it matter if there are trillionaires in the world if you have enough for a comfortable life? As a society we should try to ensure that nobody goes without food, shelter, health and education; we should not try to make those at the bottom of the pile feel parity with those in Hello! magazine. Poverty should not be defined in terms of average wages or percentage of population, it should be defined by hunger.

We should also celebrate the differences in society, understand that society needs structure and value everyone within that structure as essential. Trying to make everyone equal is to suggest that the outer reaches of society are wrong. There is an inherent, unspoken assumption that the middle of society is the right place to be, that the working classes need to be elevated and the upper classes subdued. This is reprehensible snobbery; going to university and becoming a good, solid professional is not the ultimate achievement in life.

What society needs is balance. Liberating the able from the social mire must be balanced by assisting those that are already achieving. The only way to do this is at grass-roots level, letting those involved with individual communities decide where resources are best placed. This will undoubtedly lead to some patches of poor delivery, the unfair ‘postcode lottery’ of services, but the alternative is homogeneity through central government dictate. This may result in a more equal system, but to ensure a few do not miss-out the majority would be made to suffer less efficient and less suitable provision. There is also a problem with risk: if central government gets the dictate wrong, everyone suffers; if local providers get it wrong, only a few suffer.

The localised approach is both pragmatic and wise. Many systems that were designed to make society fair ended up causing some of the worst suffering in history. Communism is a great example and, surprisingly, so was Apartheid. There are no absolutes of good and evil, it is all down to cultural norms. After all, the Romans believed that parents had complete power over their children, even unto death.

Something as simple as being fair needs to be questioned: it is not a universal paradigm.  We have to be very careful that our cultural norms do not slip into dangerous, damaging waters without us even noticing it. We need to realise that every policy has winners and losers, so we should choose with open eyes where we draw the boundary between them. We should actively decide whether we want a Fair and Equal society, not unwittingly end up with one due to our political Circus.

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