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Why the enviromental crisis needs a new politics.

Protecting the Environment

Everyone's green now. Everyone accepts how serious dangers like acid rain and global warming are? Perhaps not. The government makes noises about the greenhouse effect not because they intend to do anything about greenhouse gases but to take the heat off nuclear power. And if you're cynically inclined you may suspect that Thatchers U-turn on CFCs has less to do with concern for the ozone layer than the fact that ICI is now developing a CFC substitute and believe a CFC ban could help sales.

But this is not the main point. The new trendiness of green issues is only skin deep. Protecting the environment, for these 'green-greys', means waiting until the environment starts complaining before they act. Hence they will only begin their faltering steps towards controlling power station emissions when forests and lakes start dying from acid rain.

Thinking we can wait until the environment shows obvious signs of damage has two flaws. The first is the time delay. Pollutants take time to peculate through the environment to the points where they do the most damage. One can see this with CFCs. In the lower atmosphere CFCs are completely stable. It is only when they seep up to the upper atmosphere that they can be broken down so enabling them to do their job destroying the ozone layer. Hence a vast reservoir of CFCs is building up in the lower atmosphere so that even if CFC production was banned tomorrow that reservoir will maintain the supply of CFCs to the upper atmosphere for years. Indeed the time delay means it is possible for a pollution problem to increase even after a complete ban of the pollutant.1

The other flaw is that environment damage is not necessarily one of gradual decay. Sometimes a threshold is reached resulting in sudden changes. That is the real message of the hole in the Ozone layer over the antarctic. Initially small increases of CFCs produced small drops in Ozone. Scientists assumed this trend would continue, so much so that when they began to get results showing total collapse in the Ozone layer during the spring they at first did not believe their results.

That is why global warming is so dangerous. Our climate may show only gradual changes for a long time while building up a potential instability until the climate 'flips' violently to a new state.2 Likewise the ice caps would be unaffected for a long time but when they start to melt a vicious cycle will be set in motion that will end in massive flooding the world over.

But being Green means more than playing safe. It means recognizing our limitations - recognizing that we should stop meddling with a world ecology that is far too complex for us too understand. We need a change in our philosophy of life and we must stop regarding the environment as a resource to be plundered (merely arguing about how much) and instead regard our ecology as sacred for on it our life depends.

Are Greens against technology?

We live in a society where the idea of scientific progress has become an ideology and where technological change can destroy whole communities, yet we are told that science is politically neutral. However it quickly becomes clear to anyone involved in the campaign to protect the environment that science is not above politics. What Green for instance would trust aerosol manufacturers to research the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer? Yet if science is neutral why should it matter who does the research?

But the politics of technology goes deeper than this. The kind of technology that encourages democratic control at the grassroots will be very different from a technology designed to maintain control by a small elite. That is why Greens believe in the need for an alternative technology, an appropriate technology.

But what is appropriate technology? It can be described as a set of priorities:

_ Non Polluting

_ Small scale rather than large scale so that it can be controlled by local communities.

_ It should use minimum capital so that the benefits of that technology can be redistributed throughout the world.

_ It should use minimum resources.

_ It should be simple enough to be understood by the users. Otherwise people will end up working in an environment of alienated hierarchies with highly educated technicians giving orders to unskilled labourers at the bottom.

Other people have produced longer lists than this but already our criteria excludes most of modern technology. That is hardly surprising. During the last hundred years scientific research has been directed by the state and industry to an unprecedented degree. The elites who run our society have used this influence to channel technology along a path of increasing centralization.

The most glaring example of this is nuclear power. Nuclear power is a crazy way of producing energy. A group of French scientists in 1975 came to the conclusion that when you took into account all the peripheral aspects of nuclear energy (mining, reprocessing, infrastructure etc) it actually consumed more energy than it produced.3 But it makes a lot of sense if you're part of a small elite who want to ensure your control of society's energy. To quote Jean-Claud Levy an executive director of a firm that produces nuclear reactors.

"In my opinion it is essential that few nuclear plants be constructed, and therefore that they be large, installed on ad hoc sites, and controlled in a quasi military way"4

Few in number means the industry can be easily controlled from the centre. A quasi military work environment ensures that there is no risk of you being bothered by troublesome trades unions.

Nuclear power is merely the most glaring example of the way modern technology has little in common with peoples needs, let alone the environment. Hence inevitably Greens appear to be against technology as such because the kind of technology we are in favour of is often still on the drawing board. That means greens must campaign not just over the technologies that already exist but also for the research that will make new technologies possible in the future. Even where the alternative is being used (eg commercial production of electricity by wind power is already underway in the US) there will be massive investment needed if we want to base our society on an appropriate technology.

Zero Growth?

The Green movement has been linked with the idea of zero growth. In a sense it is no more than a slogan, for what the Green movement actually believes in is a steady state economy.

That is:

_ Where we take our inputs (energy raw materials) preferably from renewable resources or, if from nonrenewable resources, we limit our consumption so there is no risk of those resources being exhausted.

_ Where, on the output side, we ban all pollutants that the environment cannot absorb (eg heavy metals, DDT). Also we must limit emissions of other pollutants so at a bare minimum the level of that pollutant is not increasing (eg CO2).

The move to a steady state economy would not involve stagnation but vast economic changes. But those changes will cost. We will need massive investment in renewable energy. There will be the expense of fitting anti-pollution devises. Further some industries are so harmful that they will have to be closed down.

In theory the steady state economy is quite compatible with economic growth. But given the vast economic strains involved in a change over, economic growth will, in practice, be impossible for the foreseeable future.

Yes, 'Zero Growth' is a slogan but it is good slogan. It's a litmus test. Anyone who claims to care about the environment and is unhappy with the slogan 'zero growth' is either being dishonest or hasn't thought out the implications of a green economy.

The Ecology of Revolution

The more one gets to know about the dangers to the environment, indeed to survival, the more frightened one becomes. Yet the very enormity of of the threat sounds a note of doubt. Surely things can't really be that bad or 'they' would do something about it

That's also when you become aware of how limited our democracy is. So many decisions are made by faceless bureaucracies or unaccountable corporations. Worse the collective ethos of these people is about short term gain and leaves little room for green concerns except as PR. Similarly in Russia, for the state bureaucrats the survival of their ministry is all - even at the cost of implementing vast ecologically destructive projects.

A move to a sustainable economy is going to come up against massive resistance from those who currently run our society. A green government that tries to change things only on the surface will just get sucked in.

Green politics is about grassroot democracy. For us that is more than a principle but a necessity for how else can we challenge the power of vested interest? Accountability needs to be spread throughout society by means of direct elections and referendums. Secrecy will be replaced by a right to information. On an individual level everyone needs to take a responsibility for the planet whether it's by recycling or conserving energy.

A more democratic society must be a more equal society. Indeed if we accept that economic growth is unsustainable then the only way we can eliminate poverty is by redistribution.

A major cause of poverty is unemployment - not just directly but also indirectly because it undermines the economic power of those in work. Ecological policies will help create full employment for recycling, organic farming and alternative energy all create jobs while conserving resources. At present market forces encourage firms to cut their number of workers by introducing resource squandering automation. The Green party's proposal for a basic minimum income payable to all would help for it would make labour relatively cheaper, especially if paid for by taxes on resource and energy. But that is not enough. Democracy must be extended to the workplace. That can't be done by some government decree handing over all workplaces to the workers but if a group of workers decide to take over their factory and run it as a cooperative then a green government should give them support. What green government should never do is send in the police to throw out the workers as would happen at present. Further if a group of people have an ecologically sound idea for a cooperative they should have the right to sufficient capital to set themselves up.

Already we are talking about a revolution - but it must be a nonviolent revolution. A green society is one based on harmony and cooperation - such cannot grow out of bloodshed. Likewise the movement for change must reflect the society we are trying to create in the sense of democracy. If we want a society whereall participate and act responsibly without leaders that is the kind of movement us greens must be.

A green society may at times appear a little stark. But if we must do without some of our luxuries (enjoyed only by a minority in any case) a green society will be much more democratic, harmonious, cooperative and colourful than the one we know today. The future is Green! (if there is one).

Worth Reading

The Hole in the Sky: J Gribbin. (On the hole in the Ozone layer)

Ecology as Politics: Andre Gorz

The Seventh Enemy: R Higgins

Zero Growth: Sauvy. (Not from a green perspective but manages to give both sides of the argument on population and economic growth)

The Sane Alternative, Signposts to a Self-fulfilling Future: James Robertson

The Turning Point: F Capra


Woman on the Edge of Time: Marge Piercy

The Dispossessed: Ursula LeGuin 1 See 'Britain's Poisoned Water' Craig and Craig p22 for the example of Nitrates 2 R Mathews: The Ecologist Vol 19 No 3 p124. 3 Gorz: Ecology as politics p101 4 ibid p109