Degrowth, divestment, politics

The red snail from degrowth

Updated: 5 February, 2018

In addition to the Left Foot Forward piece below, I’ve just published three other related pieces:

  1. Practical degrowth for Labour (fuller version).  Published as The Case For Degrowth?

(not my question mark!) on the SERA blog.

2) Divesting from Fossil Fuels: a public health action, published on the Socialist Health Association blog.

3) And now, a longer piece on these themes – essentially exploring the hypothesis that degrowth/post-growth is now at last beginning to enter the mainstream of left political discourse and what that might mean for thinkers and activists.
Is the UK Labour party facing up to a post-growth future?
 

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Could Labour implement a post-growth economy?

Here is the full version of the article published, in rather truncated form today, on Left Foot Forward. I will be posting a fully referenced extended version in the near future.

pdf version of the full text

Could Labour implement a post-growth economy?

Earlier this month, John McDonnell gave a remarkable speech to the IPPR who had asked him to address the economy after Brexit. But John went much further in speaking

John McDonnell

John McDonnell By Rwendland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

of a context that is both wider and more fundamental. For perhaps the first time, a leading Labour politician has acknowledged that the pursuit of economic growth is itself problematic and the reason is the ecological and climate crisis that threatens the very basis for any kind of economy, and indeed for human society itself.

This is what he said:

“At the most abstract, the problem we face can be stated very simply. Every 1% added to global GDP over the last century has meant, on average, adding 0.5% to carbon dioxide emissions. As the size of the world economy has grown, so too has the pressure it places on our ecosystems. The consequences of that pressure are now becoming all too apparent. …. On current trends we are heading for a 3.5 degree celsius increase in global temperatures this century; a rise that would wreck everyone’s economy. This isn’t only about climate change. Other fundamental natural systems are at risk.”

These lines wouldn’t have been out of place at an International Degrowth Conference.

But he then spoilt it with a standard, technologically optimistic “green growth” policy perspective, which goes against evidence that the material demand and impact of the economy cannot be significantly reduced while it grows. This is so both for the very deep carbon emission reductions we need and for the demand on other raw materials.

What might it look like if Labour were to seriously adopt the principle of an economy that doesn’t have to keep growing? Could it be realistic? I think so.

Some sectors will have to grow, the “replacement economy” of socially and environmentally benign production. Much of Labour’s economic and industrial approach is relevant and appropriate to this. But it is only ecologically realistic if the aggregate level of resource throughput decreases and then stays stable: it can’t be done in an economy that is growing overall.

Dumping the mantra of “growth” means devising and securing support for unprecedented and innovative policies. Our group, Steady State Manchester, has explored them at the level of the city region in some detail. At the national level, a start could be made with the following (where I’ve built on suggestions by Giorgos Kallis and colleagues of the Research and Degrowth Group).

1. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting, moving liberated public funds towards clean production.

2. Sharing work-and resources, reducing the working week to some 32 hours, supporting employers to facilitate job-sharing, with income loss for the top 10% only.

3. Minimum and maximum income. High incomes mean disproportionate resource use: cap them but also set a floor.

4. Tax reform for a progressive system that taxes use of energy and resources, wealth, property and land value.

5. Control money creation ,regulating bank lending for tight but cheap credit.

6. Citizen debt audit: “pardon” unpayable household debts.

7. Support the alternative, solidarity society through subsidies and tax exemptions for co-operatives, social enterprises, community land trusts, opening up resources to community groups.

8. Optimise buildings. Establish a hierarchy from expropriation of vacant housing, incentives to down-size and share, prioritising retrofitting and refurbishment, and then respond to any remaining need by building low energy social housing, within already urbanised areas. Invest in a jobs-generating deep retrofit programme, saving fuel costs and emissions.

9. Curb advertising, reducing the incessant promotion of consumption.

10. Establish environmental limits, via absolute and diminishing caps on the CO2 that can be produced and the material resources the country uses, including emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

11. Abolish the misleading GDP indicator. Focus on real things- jobs, incomes, activity, investment, care, health, wellbeing and environmental restoration. McDonnell proposes that the OBR include the impact of climate change and environmental damage in its long-term forecasts – that’s a start.

This isn’t a full programme for a steady state economy but it demonstrates how, far from suggesting something impractical and unpopular, Labour could and should promote a genuinely ecological literate and socialist approach: degrowth.

Mark H Burton

…. is a member of the Steady State Manchester collective, a Labour Party member and divestment activist.

Posted in climate change, ecology, economics, ideology | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge – revised version

Here is the revised version of my working paper, “After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge“.  I’m grateful to those who have offered encouragement and constructively critical comments. 

This new version,

  1. Has numerous improvements to the text and further references to substantiate or situate (or rhetorically inflate?!) points made.
  2. Adds another crucial objection, national welfarism and imperialism, to the various strategies that are criticised.
  3. Finishes with a new sketch of a “better collapse” in the context of the post-industrial parts of North West England.

Click for the article (pdf)

Summary

The former industrial towns of the global North have already seen capitalism
peak locally. Globally we may be living through a similar peaking as the
system exhausts both its options to fix its internal contradictions, and more
critically, the capacity of the planetary systems that sustain it. This essay
begins with the first sense of peak capitalism and moves on to the second.
Strategies, mainstream and alternative for economic and social restoration,
are criticised the context of the relentless expansion of global capitalism that,
having created these places in conjunction with colonial pillage, has now
moved on. It is suggested that the reform strategies, whether proposed by
mainstream or critically inclined bodies and campaigners, is inadequate to
scale of the challenge posed by footloose capital. Moreover, such strategies,
insofar as they require growth in the material scale of the economy, are
ecologically illiterate and will both hasten and be rendered powerless by the
coming resource and climate crisis and catastrophe. Given this picture, the
counsel of the degrowth and similar movements, North and South, to live
better with less, makes sense, as practice and as policy. Given that a global
economic and social collapse will happen, the only policy and practice
approaches that make sense today are those that provide scalable resources
that will aid (but not guarantee) communities to make a livelihood under
turbulent and harsh conditions. Helpful guidance can be found from
permacultural thinking on materially and socially retrofitting urban and
suburban human settlements.
Read the working paper by clicking here.

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Brief notes on Catalonia

Flag of the Second Spanish Republic: a plague on both your houses!

Having friends in Barcelona and liking the city and region, as well as Spain in general, the situation in Catalonia causes me a lot of concern.  A lot of the commentary here oversimplifies the situation with some on the left, who should know better, characterising it as a simple matter of self determination and struggle for freedom.  If only it were that simple.  Here are some brief observations.
1) Independence is probably not supported by a majority of people living in Catalonia although it is difficult to tell.  The recent referendum took place under conditions of duress from the Spanish authorities with astonishing levels of violence from the Guardia Civil in particular.  But it also seems likely that a lot of people who oppose independence did not vote, not wanting to give legitimacy to the process.  A rigorous opinion survey in March showed that a majority (63%) think that Catalonia has insufficient autonomy but only 37% supported full independence.  However the independence sentiment was rising.
2) Given the clear desire of a majority for more autonomy, there should be a referendum to test this and the action of the governing right wing Partido Popular (PP), supported by the PSOE  (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Part – sic) at their coat-tails, in blocking it can only increase the support for independence, as do the fascist era style violent actions of the two national police forces under PP direction.
3) A motley collection of parties support independence – the right have consistently used it as a distraction from austerity policies while the maximalist left mostly seem to think it will mean Keynesianism (or even socialism) in one “country”. Much of the motivation  for independence has the ugly tone of economic privilege, rather like the Right Wing Northern League in Italy. But like our own London and the South East, Catalonia should subsidise the poorer regions. It’s basic socialist redistribution.
4) It seems that only Podemos and its allies (e.g. Barcelona en Comú) have any kind of a sensible position on this in their call for a national constitutional referendum orientated to a federal model, with as well as for dialogue with mediation. They largely oppose independence but respect the right of self determination (unlike the independistas who want to take the populace out of Spain whether they like it or not).
5) Both the nationalist sides (Catalan and Spanish) are playing with fire. Catalonia is a multi-cultural polity like former Yugoslavia. We know what happened there (and comparisons with the relatively peaceful Slovenian secession are disingenuous).  Spain, like former Yugoslavia is a plurinational state with considerable mixing of populations, including the many from the poorer regions who have settled in and raised families in the wealthier parts.  Nationalism, as opposed to regional government (based on the principle of subsidiarity), should be opposed by leftists and republicans.

My own hope is for a mutual backing off from confrontation and an agreement to call elections to both reset the mandate for the Catalan parliament and test the strength of support for greater autonomy.   Meanwhile I hope that the minority and PSOE-supported PP government in Madrid falls soon.

Finally, on the margins of the debate, there has been a more promising development: Sergie Saladié, a deputy from the CUP (actually one of the left parties criticised above for their maximalist separatist stance) introduced a debate on degrowth.  This is probably a first for a political party and it is heartening to see the rejection of Juan Carlos Monedero’s widely quoted suggestion that degrowth means electoral death, a myth recycled, along with other misrepresentations, by the UK Labour Party’s Chi Onwurah in a polemic in the SERA magazine New Ground. We translated an interview with Saladié and an analysis of the debate on the Steady State Manchester website.

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After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge.

Note: there is now a revised version.  See this later post.

This is my new working paper. It attempts to deal with the question of peak capitalism and ecological crisis on two levels – the post-industrial wastelands of the core capitalist countries and the global exhaustion and toxicity of capitalism as a system for appropriation, commodification and accumulation. It has an explicit degrowth perspective and asks the question, how adequate are policy proposals, mainstream and alternative in this challenging context. Finally it suggests that a criterion for their adequacy might be their relevance to a “better collapse” of “civilisation”. Obviously it is a working paper, exploring, thinking aloud questions for which there is no adequate answer, but possibly suggesting a compass rather than a roadmap.

NEW: I’ve also uploaded it to the academia.edu site where I’ve invited readers to join the discussion and comment on the paper.

After peak capitalism: the livelihood challenge.

download (revised version)

Mark H Burton

Summary

The former industrial towns of the global North have already seen capitalism peak locally. Globally we may be living through a similar peaking as the system exhausts both its options to fix its internal contradictions, and more critically, the capacity of the planetary systems that sustain it. This essay begins with the first sense of peak capitalism and moves on to the second. Strategies, mainstream and alternative, for economic and social restoration, are criticised in the context of the relentless expansion of global capitalism that, having created these places in conjunction with colonial pillage, has now moved on. It is suggested that the reform strategies, whether proposed by mainstream or critically inclined bodies and campaigners, are inadequate to the scale of the challenge posed by footloose capital. Moreover, such strategies, insofar as they require growth in the material scale of the economy, are ecologically illiterate and will both hasten and be rendered powerless by the coming resource and climate crisis and catastrophe. Given this picture, the counsel of the degrowth and similar movements, North and South, to live better with less, makes sense, as practice and as policy. Given that a global economic and social collapse will happen, the only policy and practice approaches that make sense today are those that provide scalable resources that will aid (but not guarantee) communities to make a livelihood under turbulent and harsh conditions. Helpful guidance can be found from permacultural thinking on materially and socially retrofitting urban and suburban human settlements.

Read the (revised) working paper.

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How much greenhouse gas has been emitted in your lifetime?

This simple tool allows you to calculate how much annual global emissions have increased since a certain date, e.g. your year of birth.

It also calculates the proportion of all time cumulative global emissions during your lifetime. It also shows this in a simple bar graph.

The data set is the freely available spreadsheet file from http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html using data from the US Oak Ridge laboratory.

Note that this web resource will be removed as a result of the present US regime’s climate denialist policy but it will still be available at https://web.archive.org/web/20170731170115/http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html. The full citation is http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html.

To use the tool, open the tab “Emissions since date” and enter the desired date in the box with yellow highlighting. Click here for the global carbon emissions tool.

The file might download as “read only”, in which case use “save as” where upon you can enter your own birth or other key date – try 1997, the year of the Kyoto accord, or 1992 the year of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example.

bar chart

The gaphical output looks like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jeremy Corbyn, Prime Minister. What could go wrong?

Labour manifesto coverHow things change! Within the space of a few weeks, there is now a real possibility of a Labour government with a left wing leadership. That is the result of the snap UK General Election that resulted, not in the Tory landslide, predicted at the start of the campaign, but a hung parliament with a large swing to Labour and the reversal of approval ratings for the Labour and Tory leaders. There is plenty of coverage available so I will not repeat the details here. However, it is worth noting that

a) Labour benefited from the eclipse of UKIP – more in Remain-voting constituencies than in Leave voting ones. The votes did not all go to the Tories as many of us had feared.

b) The call for a Progressive Alliance, while not operating on a formal level, did mean that Green (and Liberal Democrat, NHS Action Party, Women’s Equality Party) voters tactically voted Labour, sacrificing the overall vote share, except in Brighton Pavilion where Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP increased her majority, despite Labour bizarrely refusing to stand down.

What I want to do here is raise some questions about the likely outcomes of a Corbyn-led Labour government.

To clarify my own position, I voted twice for Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections and helped campaign for Labour in a Tory marginal seat. But I oppose the growthist economic model that underpins the neo-Keynesian policies on the economy, despite welcoming many elements of the manifesto, including many of the economic ones. This blindness to the Limits to Growth represents everyday climate denial and invites an eventual ecological, social and economic collapse.

It seems to me that there are three possible outcomes of a Corbyn government.

1) Labour for Degrowth. They see the writing on the wall and both embrace and gain increasing support for a steady state / degrowth approach, with the kinds of innovative policies people like Tim Jackson, the Greenhouse think tank (and we in Steady State Manchester) have been advocating.  This seems highly unlikely, but maybe as the ecological and climate crisis intensifies, ecological realism will prevail.

2) Labour for Growth. More likely is a traditional Social Democratic, Keynesian, demand stimulation, growth approach, successfully implemented.  There would be some raising of ambition and action in line with the manifesto – how could there not be after the Tories’ dismal record, but ultimately the contradictions will set in and it will be like the Latin American pink tide governments, using the receipts of growth to fund some redistribution, but not actually changing the production of poverty / inequality by the capitalist system.  Most of the left will be deaf to the ecological dimension (climate and environment was almost absent from the GE campaign), so I expect little help from there.  Even our alllies in neon are largely concerned with economic and social justice – those more immediate, pressing concerns.  There are also good reasons to expect a mere Keynesian reboot, even with more redistribution, to fail, on economic terms (see this piece, the comments on Melenchon towards the end: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/france-the-choice/

3) Labour defeated. Nearly as likely would be a Corbyn government (whether with a slender majority or not) beset by a concerted fight back from the owners of capital, most of whom would not ally with a reforming supposedly socialist government – the city, and finance capital would be a key element, either launching capital flight or subverting the government (as in Scotland, as in Lula and Dilma’s Brazil).  Stage set for the re-installation of the “rightful” stewards of capitalism – whether in Tory or Labour costume.

So it seems to me that we still have a double struggle on our hands – against all who will marginalise the environment and against those who will seek to defeat a left labour government. Or, more positively, for a Labour government that is consistently both green and left.

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The General Election in Greater Manchester: what do the results mean?

What happened in Greater Manchester on June 8th?

Here is a map showing the swings in Greater Manchester’s parliamentary seats. Red figures indicate a Labour victory while Blue figures indicate a Conservative was elected. Positive figures mean a swing from Tories to Labour, negative figures (also in italics) indicate a swing to Labour from Conservative. In two cases the swing reported (I  used the data from the Guardian’s seat by seat compilation) was from Conservative to Liberal Democrats .

Map outline from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greater_Manchester_UK_constituency_map_(blank).svg
Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right

Key to constituencies – map source as above, annotated by MHB.

These figures can be compared with the National average swing of 1.8% to Labour (1 per cent in Leave voting seats and 8% in Remain voting seats).

Larger swings to labour (and the LD’s) are found in the South of the region (with Bury North, Labour’s gain in the city region, and Heywood and Middleton, the exceptions). There were only slight swings in the economically less favoured “inverted horseshoe” to the North and North East of the city, while in the Bolton and Wigan seats the swing was actually to the Tories (except in Wigan itself). Having helped the Labour campaign on three days in Bolton West (I was elsewhere until last weekend), I’m not altogether surprised, from doorstep conversations, apart from a few public sector workers, there was little evidence of voters switching back to Labour.

The Green vote collapsed, here as in most of the country. In Manchester Gorton, the Green candidate came second in 2015. This time they were in fifth place, even the opportunist irrelevancy that is George Galloway did better (in third place but with just 5.7% of the vote). This is disappointing. I may be a Labour Party member, but I’m an eco-socialist, critical of the growthism in Labour’s economic strategy (though there is a lot in the manifesto to like) and Labour would benefit from pressure exerted by a stronger Left Environmentalist presence.

UKIP, once seen as a challenger in seats like Heywood and Middleton, were, as elsewhere, obliterated, with Labour and the Tories the main beneficiaries.

Returning to the large swings in the area enclosed by the “inverted horseshoe”, these cannot just be attributed to Remainers rejecting the Tories, nor to the student and youth vote, although both are likely factors. The Liberal Democrats campaigned almost exclusively on the Brexit issue, but this did them no favours – they were, at second place, 30,000 votes behind Labour in Manchester Withington, a seat they held until 2015 (although there were swings their way in Cheadle and Hazel Grove. Tactical voting will have played a part). Nationally, Labour got bigger swings outside its traditional heartlands: areas not unlike the southern and central parts of the City Region in terms of educational levels and generally socially liberal outlook. Labour’s manifesto seems to have appealed to enough people here, and in these areas people are perhaps more likely to be aware of it, less influenced by the xenophobic, right wing tabloids, accessing and evaluating alternative sources of information.

What is this telling us?

Where does that leave the post-industrial, “peripheral” areas? In a region whose Labour leaders have seemed to favour economic “development” in the city centre and the south of the conurbation, it is perhaps not a surprise if people remain unconvinced by a Labour promise to improve things for them. Of course the huge changes in the Labour Party with, rejection of New Labour, the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn his team, and mass membership, does mean that the national party is now making a different offer, but scepticism is understandable from the de-industrialised working class and those groups who have experienced a precarious upward mobility, whose housing estates I walked around last week. There are some signs that the new Mayor of Greater Manchester recognises the need to break with the old model but there are plenty of traces of orthodox economic thinking (at least in the manifesto for that election). Time will tell whether we will see a real alternative to austerity, urban boosterism and trickle-down theory in the dangerous social, economic and environmental context we are living of this “interregnum” between a failed and destructive global order and whatever will take its place.

Interested?  Steady State Manchester will be discussing the implications of the General and Mayoral elections on Wednesday 14 June, 6.30pm, Central Hall, Oldham Street.  More info HERE.

minor corrections 12/6/17

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Italy by train

By train to Milan and Como, via France and Switzerland.

Another European journey by train: this time to Milan, going via Zurich, Chur and the Bernina Express and returning via Lausanne and Dijon. Full cost and carbon analysis below.

Bernina express

Bernina express

(more pictures below)

If you’ve the time, I recommend these routes. The Bernina Express, a narrow gauge line over the Alps, is particularly worth going on – one of those experiences that lives up to its promise.  Again, credit to Mark Smith’s seat 61 website for all the tips on how to arrange the tickets.  The ride from Tirano (end of the Bernina line, just in Italy) to Milan isn’t bookable in advance – we made the mistake of forgetting to validate our tickets on the platform (not required for reserved tickets) and got fined, having to buy new full price tickets, by a very sullen ticket inspector (just our luck, all the others were friendly) accompanied by two security guards.

We also stayed at a wonderful eco bed and breakfast in the hills above Como, walking through the forest and criss-crossing the Swiss border. Truly a slow travel, slow holiday experience.

The cost and carbon analysis (click image for pdf).


Notes:

1.  I don’t include fares across Paris between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon (still undecided whether RER or metro is the better option – RER always seems very packed but metro is slower and involves a change).
2.  CO2 estimates are just that, estimates, dependent on a number of assumptions.  The amount per mile varies, in part because the type of train varies as well as the energy mix – a lot of nuclear in France and a lot of hydro in Switzerland, for example. The upshot is that train travel emits about 10% that of flying, and strangely we wouldn’t have done better on direct trains (though maybe would have on the Thello Paris-Milan sleeper which goes slower than the TGV).
3.  We had to be in Milan on those dates, but otherwise could be flexible with trains, so we got good prices.

Como, the city and the lake, from the Spina Verde forest park.

My sketch of Cascina Rodiani, green hospitality, Drezzo near Como - click for website

My sketch of Cascina Rodiani, green hospitality, Drezzo near Como – click for website

 

Dijon

Dijon

 

Chur, Switzerland

 

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Fixing the roof when the sun shines

Hello is that Mr Osborne?

Well, you know that roof you fixed the other summer?  It’s begun to leak again.  Could you come round to sort it out?

You don’t work there any more? Firm taken over? Oh.  Could you let me have their contact details?

You could but they only do demolition now?  Oh dear.

Well can’t you come round and take a look anyway?

Oh you’ve left the district.  So what are you doing?

Oh, a job in London, selling papers, for the Russians!  Nice little earner you say.

That sounds nice, but what about my roof?!

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