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 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


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 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 The full citation is

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:

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
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).


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





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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Platitudes, positions, policies and principles.

Platitudes, positions, policies and principles: what can we learn from Gorton’s selection meeting?

I attended the selection meeting for the Labour Party’s Gorton by-election last week. There were five candidates, a short-list selected by a 5-person national Labour party panel. It would be possible to write another article analysing the factions at play – there were several. What I think might be more helpful is to consider what the meeting told us about the candidates’ understanding of policy. Their responses to questions were not particularly impressive, and it is worth exploring what more adequate responses might be. This is not to get at the candidates who are probably no better or worse than most other aspiring politicians, but rather to draw out lessons for effective policy and politics.

Candidates responded to a series of questions selected at random from the many submitted by participants. They had no prior notice of the questions so had to think on their feet: a daunting task in front of some 600 people. Those questions were rather variable. Some were poorly framed but the responses to all were rather revealing, not so much of the candidates’ position on the left-right spectrum, or their loyalty to the party and its leadership, but of the quality of their thinking on key policy questions and the nature of political and social change. After the candidates gave their pitches and answered their questions, nearly everyone I spoke to remarked on how disappointing their responses were.

Why? Some candidates gave rather good speeches, the better ones avoiding platitudes and sound bites, and some didn’t. When it came to the questions, most struggled most of the time, and all struggled on some questions. In what follows, I’m generalising across the five, so I offer my apologies if I misrepresent, but I want to write this in general, rather than personalised terms, the better to identify the lessons. For some questions I’ve tried my hand at drafting a more adequate politician’s answer, or setting out the elements that would need to be covered.

1) Was Jeremy Corbyn right to impose a 3 line whip on the vote to trigger Brexit.

Nobody answered the question. Two seemed to indicate that they thought he was wrong (or maybe I’m reading too much into what they said – it happens to be my view). All acknowledged that he was in a very difficult position – “defy the people’s will or back the Tories”, and the media would exploit whatever he did. Most made the argument that the referendum must be respected and nobody made the case that the referendum was an advisory one (“Should the UK leave the EU….”) with no clarity at to what leaving the EU meant. It was won by 52% against 48%, with a majority in Gorton voting to remain: so on the 72.2% turnout the “majority” is 37.5% of the electorate (i.e. 52% of 72.2). Most importantly of all, the referendum was won on the basis of a series of myths and lies from the Leave campaigns, channeled enthusiastically by most of the mainstream media. None of this was noted; instead we got a simplistic invocation of “democracy”. Most noted that now the struggle will be to prevent a self-injurious hard Brexit.

A better answer?
Brexit is the wrong decision, the result of a campaign of misrepresentation and outright lies about Europe. Jeremy was possibly wrong, but he was pretty much in a no-win position. But what now? I will fight with his team to obstruct the hard Brexit that will seriously damage people here in Gorton and the rest of the country.

2) Loyalty

This question was about the divisions in the party and the candidate’s stance on them. All handled this one pretty well, committing to work against division, and emphasising the need for a disciplined PLP.

3) How will you deliver progress – and specifically for the NHS.

Not the best drafted question maybe, and there were two parts to it. Most opted to answer the easier, crowd-pleasing NHS part but their answers were generally formulaic – more funding, end privatisation (nothing to disagree with, but not enough). There were some mentions of Greater Manchester devolution and its possibilities and at least one noted the risk of this being a devolution of austerity. There was a little mention of health inequalities.

As for the “deliver progress” part, this could have been interesting, an opportunity to show how innovative a politician the candidate was. There was some mention of consultation but nothing on what to do with it. How would the candidates communicate policy goals and milestones and work with the various stakeholders in the constituency to monitor action, together deciding how to resolve issues that arise, prevent backsliding, and build a coalition of support for change?

A better answer?
Oh that’s two questions really. I’d want to work with my constituents to build a better way of working together for change. It’s not good enough to elect your member every 5 years and then leave it to them. I’ll need your help to keep up the pace of change, and to fight against bad policies. Let’s identify key things to achieve in Gorton. Let’s together identify the steps on the way to achieving them. Let’s plan and plot how to make it happen and decide what to do if it doesn’t work out.

As for the NHS, its principle of health care for everyone regardless of wealth and status is essential and can only be effectively be delivered by a public service free of the waste of the market. And we have the choice as a nation to make it a priority – it’s not a question of money, but of policy choice. But it isn’t enough to just protect the NHS, we need to raise its standards, and those of social care, to those of the best bits while dealing with the challenges of changing patterns of ill health and changing technologies. That won’t be easy, but with adequate funding, the end of market madness and a commitment to much more democratic ways of working, we can do it.

4) What do you think should be the key principles of foreign policy?

The answers here were generally shockingly narrow. Most failed to identify any principles at all. Some talked generally of ethics and several talked about refugees.

A better answer?
This country has done some good things on the international stage but an awful lot of bad things. We continue to benefit from the exploitation of the majority world and our foreign policy and military defend our unfair advantage. We live with the consequences, including the threat of terror and the plight of refugees, to which we must add the threats of resource depletion and climate change that will mean further shocks to life on the planet, from which we are not immune. These challenges need truly international solutions and not the domination of the “international community” by a few powerful nations.

So what’s the answer? Firstly, we need to be truly internationalist, offering help and support where we can, without conditions. Many people in this room will know about Cuba’s wonderful assistance after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Secondly, we need to stand with the majority world against the rigging of trade by the rich countries; we need to oppose militarism and cease supplying arms to oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Thirdly, we need to fight for international institutions fit for purpose – the kind of international financial institutions envisaged by Keynes after WW2, but blocked by the USA and the bankers, for example, and a reformed United Nations where the General Assembly is sovereign, not a security council dominated by the historical big powers. And that’s just a start. Our Foreign Policy should not just be ethical but one that actually redresses past and present wrongs: there can be a better world!

5) Transport

I think all mentioned the GM Mayor and explicitly or implicitly alluded to the Burnham campaign (in some cases that was all that was said). Most mentioned integration and regulation. Most mentioned improving bus services. There was a little mention of active travel. Nobody really tackled the central problem, the private motor car in this car-dominated city. Nobody mentioned strategies to reduce the need to travel. Terms like “modal shift” (or a non-jargon version of it, didn’t figure. I’m not sure air quality was mentioned either.

Although the question was framed in terms of transport in Gorton and Manchester, here was an opportunity to identify the national level interventions that, as a MP, the candidate needs to begin thinking about.

6) What makes you unique?

This was one for candidates to answer in their own way, but their answers were all rather similar.

7) Left or Centre Left policies?

A potential trap here, and candidates were circumpspect in saying they supported “Labour policies”, the label not being an issue. I’ve some sympathy with this (as a non-orthodox leftist). But here was an opportunity to again offer principles, getting behind and under the labels.

A better answer?
In 1983 the Labour Party’s manifesto promised
‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’1. That’s what I believe in. But there’s a problem, one identified by Sir Gerald Kaufmann himself who called it “The longest suicide note in history”. Now, much as I respected him, he was wrong about the content: read it and you’ll recognise many things we take for granted today and quite a few proposals that we are still greatly in need of, though the world has changed and we can’t just reproduce the same manifesto content today. But the conditions, then as now, were extremely hostile to such policies, and I think that’s the relevance of Sir Gerald’s point. I’m not saying you can create such a shift by stealth: it is important to be uncompromisingly honest, but we have to communicate those ideas effectively. We need to explain that Labour didn’t bankrupt the country, the private banks did. We need to explain that government debt is often a good thing – it’s what paid for the victory in WW2, and the post war reconstruction with its NHS, social housing and secondary education for all: the country can afford it, and becomes more wealthy through it. We need to explain that the wealthy and powerful will fight us tooth and nail, and why. So we need nothing less than an ambitious public political and economic literacy campaign to match our policy aspirations. I see no sign of the party seriously doing that – it will be my personal mission to change that.

So yes, you might call my policies “left” but at the same time they are practical – so long as we’ve the political campaign to bring them about.

8) Inequality and homelessness

Between them, the candidates identified most of the key points: supply of social housing and a variety of stock, debt and the benefits system, the need for early intervention. But hardly anyone seemed able to put all that together. My notes for this question have the words “no specifics” and “vague” in several places. Manchester pretty much dismantled a decent homelessness service when the first round of Osborne cuts came after 2010 – no mention of that. After a period of denial, the council is again beginning to respond, but with a “Charter” – hmmm.

A better answer?
A good answer would combine the following

1) Supply of housing, that is affordable and allocated on the basis of need. Some candidates only mentioned council housing but this alone is not enough. On the housing front, there needs to be an end to the sweetheart deals with developers that allow them to build developments without even “affordable” housing, let alone social housing.

2) A social security system that supports people to stay in housing rather than making it difficult to meet demands – meanwhile more help for people to challenge decisions.

3) People who become homeless often need a lot of help – they aren’t always easy to work with so skilled and sensitive workers are needed. So the third element is a safety net that responds immediately and sensitively to the variety of people who find themselves homeless or at risk of homelessness (the Housing First2 model is the key here).

With the above components it is clear that some things need national policy changes, but there are also things that can be done locally now.

9) Accessibility and Accountability

Again the answers were remarkably sketchy. The ideas that the candidates came up with, between them, in addition to doing the job of responding to constituents’ problems, were: living in the community and being visible, having a full time constituency office and having one job. In response to a different question there was mention of consultation and the use of social media.

The Gorton constituency has an estimated population of 116,889 (mid 2015 estimate) some 73,000 electors. That’s a lot of people to be accessible and accountable to; some creative thinking is required. It is arguable that one reason the EU referendum had a Leave majority, despite the benefits flowing to some of the biggest Brexit-voting regions, was the invisibility of MEPs to the electorate. What were they doing? What was the European Parliament and the EU itself doing? What was good and what needed changing or opposing? With some exceptions, MEPs were invisible. Much the same can be said for many MPs. Popular discontent with the “political class” (a misnomer if ever there was one) calls for a different relationship with citizens.

A better answer?
I will do my best to be accessible and accountable to all the citizens of Gorton constituency. As well as living and spending as much time as possible here, I will work with you on new ways of keeping two way communications open. I’ve a few ideas, but I will consult with people before deciding which ones to develop. We could,

  • Have six-monthly public meetings where I report back on what I have been doing in your name, where I can both explain and seek views on key policy choices coming up and on other matters that are important to you. We could live-stream these meetings and also complement them with webinars.

  • I will use Labour campaign leaflets to highlight what I have been doing and to seek views.

  • I will maintain Sir Gerald’s courteous and fast response style to constituents’ correspondence.

  • I will look at the possibility of a constituency office, which with relatively paperless new technology, could run on a roving basis, going to different corners of the constituency each day or week.

  • I will use social media, selectively, to publicise key points of information and to advise constituents on how bes to contact me.

  • And I will do my best to maintain an active relationship with you, our membership.

Here was also another opportunity to mention the Burnham campaign which has tried very hard to take an open and inclusive approach to policy formulation via the crowd-sourced manifesto.

10) Environment and Climate Change

All candidates did highlight the central importance of this issue. There was mention of the environment having no national boundaries, and of the need for international action, with the Paris agreement mentioned, I think once. There was mention of climate change affecting all classes and of the impact of Western lifestyles. But no candidate really got beyond platitudes and more than one seemed to think individual actions would solve the problem. (“If we all do a little, we’ll achieve ….. a little”3).

A better answer?
We are living in dangerous times. We know that the lives of all of us depend on maintaining the natural systems of the earth that are the basis for our food, water and the air we breathe. I’m going to talk about just one of the environmental crises facing us4: climate change. We stand on the threshold of runaway global warming – unless we can radically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, by around 10% per year according to University of Manchester climate scientists5, then we will soon pass into that danger zone where the temperature will rise by 2, 3 4 or more degrees, rendering large parts of the earth uninhabitable through heat, drought and rising sea levels. Let’s look at the north of the Indian subcontinent, from where many of you, or your families come: not only are coastal areas threatened by rising seas – people are already being displaced in Bangladesh, but the glaciers that feed the great rivers are receding, threatening water supply, agriculture and energy supplies for huge populations. Here in the UK, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and frankly, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

We have to act urgently on many levels.

The Paris agreement was a great achievement but the pledges made by nations are insufficient to stop the warming. We have to press the UK for more radical action, with a plan for drastically reducing energy use via improving the insulation of homes and other buildings, through a rapid transition to renewable energy (and this government has been moving in the other direction), so we leave fossil fuels with the other fossils – in the ground. A programme like that can actually create many more, and decent jobs for our people, as the Trade Union Climate Change Campaign has shown6.

And we need to do the same things here in Manchester – pressing the Combined Authority and City Council for more demanding targets and more assertive action to cease carbon emissions. We can also look at the investments of the pension funds that many of you contribute to, or rely on – moving them out of fossil fuels and reinvesting in clean energy, energy saving schemes and schemes to help our local economy become more self sufficient and resilient, reducing the emissions of overseas trade while making us less vulnerable to supply chain shocks.

Yes, this has to be the number one priority, from which all others flow: without an environment we and our children can live in, the rest of our political aims become irrelevant.

Values and Facts – Platitudes and Policies.

All too often the candidates were good at stating values but less good at translating them into concrete policy statements. A cynic might say that there were too many platitudes and not enough thought. I don’t blame the candidates – it’s a reflection of the dire political culture we have in the UK, a country where political theory is little discussed and where the term “intellectual” is used as an insult. Values are vitally important but it isn’t enough to proclaim belief in socialism: some principles we choose but some depend on facts. There has to be an understanding of how society, economy and environment work and how they interact. Without that, there can be no credible policy. Values, facts and theory need to be integrated, not in an elite ivory tower but collectively. In that work, we need leadership, but leadership that responds to those led and that teaches and learns with them. It is not easy, but without such a politics there will be no Labour government worth having.

I should say that I was broadly happy with the choice of Afzal Khan. He was clearly the most experienced of the candidates and is likely to help unite the party locally. His politics appear pragmatically progressive, if not very exciting. I trust that this piece will be seen as comradely and positive criticism and not just of these five individuals who were brave enough to put themselves forward.

Mark H Burton

March, 2017

1 The Labour Party: 1983 The New Hope for Britain. Available at This article is a fair discussion: Neil Clark (2008). Not so suicidal after all. Guardian

3 David Mackay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.

5 Anderson, K., & Bows, A. (2010). Beyond “dangerous” climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1934), 20–44.

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Oslo, by rail and boat, in January

We made another trip to add to those in the previous post. Carolyn was invited to examine a PhD in Oslo and not having been there, I went along too, as tour organiser.

This was similar to the Gothenburg and Malmö journeys. As far as Copenhagen, but from there we took an overnight DFDS ferry to Oslo. Everything went well, except for missing a tight connection at Hanover on the way back: Deutsche Bahn (DB) like giving tight connections in their routings but unfortunately the trains don’t always run on time (ours from Hamburg was 9 minutes late) and we just missed our onward train to Cologne. The DB staff re-routed us on the next train but from Cologne we had to take the Thalys rather than the DB ICE. On going to the Thalys office for seat reservations we were told we had to buy another ticket and reclaim it. We refused since the CIV and Railteam conditions (DB and Thalys are both part of this alliance) mean you just “hop on the next train”. We did this: the train was about 15% full so finding a seat was no problem and although the conductor started to question our tickets, the mention of CIV led to his hasty retreat. As a result we just made our original Eurostar connection in Brussels.  [Update 15/2/17: Thalys have just responded to my complaint about what the Cologne staff told us: “You’re totally right. The HOTNAT allows you to take the next available Highspeed train. Unfortunately you were misinformed. “]

Leaving Copenhagen on a very cold day

Leaving Copenhagen on a very cold day

The ferry crossing reminded us of the former DFDS crossings from Harwich to Esbjerg and to Hamburg. Now there are no UK-Scandinavia ferries, incredible really – especially for us after visiting the Viking boat museum in Oslo where there are preserved Viking boats from burials – more than a thousand years old and preserved by the clay under which they lay. If they could cross the North Sea and beyond (to what became called America) in these craft surely our abundant industrial “civilisation” could arrange a ferry crossing. Crazily it was environmental regulations on sulphur emissions that meant the end of those DFDS ferries- there was talk of restarting them but nothing has transpired, so most people make far more damaging emissions by flying. Next time we’d try Hull-Rotterdam and then Kiel-Oslo.

Sunrise on the boat: Oslo fjord

Sunrise on the boat: Oslo fjord

Here again is our cost and carbon data for the trip. Again note that aviation is highly subsidised (e.g. no tax on fuel) and pays nothing for its environmental damage, so price comparisons are misleading. Carbon metrics are not a precise science, at least as applied to such activities since precise figures depend on the assumptions made. This time I provide two estimates for comparative aviation emissions – flying direct to Oslo would make for between 4 and 7 times the carbon footprint.


Oslo was cold on arrival, about -4 degrees and we experienced the first snow of the year, late and not much of it. It warmed up a bit with temperatures around freezing point. As you’d expect (the latitude is that of Lerwick), short days and very low sun. We visited lots of museums and galleries, went to a New Year concert (where Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no 2 was played, with the audience singing a patriotic Norwegian song to it!), and got a feel for this very quiet city. Highlights were the Viking ships, the polar exploration museum (Fram), the Munch collections (we hadn’t realised what a great painter he was) and the Vigeland and Ekeberg sculpture parks. And of course riding on trams!

Tram emerges from the fog: Ekeberg Park

Tram emerges from the fog: Ekeberg Park

Yes, it was expensive – mitigated by some good hotel deals and the Oslo pass. Take a hip flask!

Viking ship.

Viking ship.

Snowy Oslo

Snowy Oslo

Edvard Munch - a phenomenal technique

Edvard Munch – a phenomenal technique

One of Vigeland's many sculptures.

Oslo in freezing fog.


One of Vigeland’s many sculptures

Statue by Hilde Moehlum, Ekeberg Park

Statue by Hilde Moehlum, Ekeberg Park

Late c19th Norwegian hyper-realism: Girls of Telemark

Late C19th Norwegian hyper-realism: Girls of Telemark

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Train travel in Europe and the UK

We’ve covered a lot of miles by train this year, both in the UK and on the continent.  Here are some brief  notes about it.

We did several long journeys: the bare facts first and then some reflections.

Manchester to Inverness in May.  The sleeper was all booked up so we had to take day trains.  A bit of a nightmare when the first train, to Edinburgh was cancelled on our arrival at (Manchester) Piccadilly.  Wrong information from station staff meant a longer time to get to Preston than was necessary to pick up another Edinburgh train. Of course all our seat reservations were to no avail and we had to stand for some of the way to Stirling.  We got into Inverness about 90 minutes late which entitled us to a refund of the full price forthe outward journey.  The return journey went smoothly (and it was Sunday too).

Manchester to Budapest in August/September.  Down to London, an overnight there and then Brussels and Cologne before taking the Austrian Railways sleeper to Vienna.  A couple of days there and then a morning train to Budapest for the 5th International Degrowth Conference.  Return to Salzburg for a couple of days and then all the way back to Manchester by daytime trains.  A lot of this journey was on First Class as there were some very cheap advance deals.

Manchester to Gothenburg, later in September.  Down to London and just caught Eurostar after delays due to a prior derailment near Watford.  Then Brussels, Cologne again and Hamburg for an overnight.  Hamburg-Copenhagen (see previous post about this interesting journey on the “boat train”) and up to Gothenburg over the Oresund Bridge.  Back via Hamburg and an overnight in Bremen and then all the way to Manchester in one day.

Manchester to Exeter, in October.  Direct train via Birmingham and Bristol.

And of course several trips to London and around the NW region.

The UK trains and network compare very poorly with the continental ones.  Remarkably little is electrified so on long journeys you end up chugging along in rattly multiple unit diesels which are crowded.  Prices are also high in comparison.

Long distance continental journeys needn’t be costly, although it does help to have flexibility of dates.  Here is my comparison table for the Gothenburg trip.  The flights taken by other conference attendees from Manchester are used as comparison.  Carbon emission estimates are also given.  (NOTE: problems with table formatting- will fix shortly).The carbon emission figures aren’t (particularly) to claim a high moral ground, because carbon is systemic rather than individual. Cost per person (two made the jouney by train) was about £20 cheaper than the flights.  Of course we also had three nights accommodation extra but we’d calculated for three city-breaks in addition to the Gothenburg stay. The costs are a bit misleading because railways have to pay tax on fuel while airlines don’t – to name one hidden subsidy among many. Two late trains made for a dash in London on the way out and Copenhagen on the way back, but that’s all part of the fun … afterwards. Carbon emissions used the German DB calculator, pro-rating for Manchester-London, and using as comparison 2 separate flights via Frankfurt each way – assumptions, assumptions.  The advantage would have been less had our colleagues flown direct to Gothenburg, but still considerably in favour of the train.  Moreover, within Germany you can opt for green energy (a bit like green electricity tariffs here – a bit meaningless maybe since it doesn’t really change the big energy production picture).


Minor niggles are the general lack of adequate luggage space.  Continental trains do a lot better (and have the advantage of bigger size due to the UK’s first mover disadvantage, with its lower “loading gauge” – clearance under bridges etc.).  But on the fancier German ICE’s there were no rack at the end of the coach so big cases had to be manouevered onto the luggage rack.  British trains are totally inadequate for luggage leading to dangerous obstruction of gangways and doors and no doubt great frustration for staff.

We went on a sleeper from Cologne to Vienna.  These are great because you travel while you  sleep – a cost and time efficient way to go.  But Germany is terminating its remaining sleeper services this year.  OBB, Austrian Railways is taking over some of them, but others will not be replaced.  French railways is doing the same with just three left and those threatened.   There have been some good articles about this (e.g. HERE) and campaigns, including a petition to French railways SNCF.


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Labour again: Corbyn’s victory and the growth narrative

This is a short post to note Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership re-election and ask some fundamental questions.  Despite some misgivings in the last post, I’m delighted.  This is all about rejecting the politics and economics of the last 30 years or more: how impressive that the party has a socialist majority and the membership has the ascendancy over the parliamentary party.  This could lead to a renewed approach to politics, linking extra-parliamentary action with an electoral strategy.  There is a long way to go but this is most definitely not about one man who we should see as an honourable place-holder.  But politics is full of surprises.

I was really pleased to see the paper on energy and environment released by Corbyn.  It is far better than I had anticipated.  But as we learn that the concentration of CO2 will not return below 400ppm, then it has to be said again and again that if the Labour team is serious about the environment, about the climate, and about a future for humanity, then it needs to get a grip on economic growth.  The economy (or at least its material flows) must be downsized.  Continued “growth” makes it far more difficult to realise the radical emissions cuts that are needed, probably no longer to prevent runaway climate change, but to delay it.  I wrote at length on this in a recent post – one that proved impossible to get into more mainstream outlets.

That knowledge presents some extremely challenging dilemmas: how do you ensure that the population has sufficient to live on.  How to you prevent extreme economic turbulence of the kind that will lead to extreme social conflict (including a further rise in xenophobia and the demonising of minorities)?  More immediately, how can a Labour party with productivist ideology and reliance on environmentally reactionary working class organisations (Unite, GMB for example – trade unionist consciousness has never been the same as socialist consciousness, although the two can work together and the one can set the scene for the other) resolve the internal conflicts that a truly redistributive, and environmentalist strategy will provoke (a dilemma for all of us in the degrowth movement – the left of the environmentalist movement)?  How can the realities of climate and ecological security be translated into the bread and butter realities facing people and which will decisively influence their behaviour at the ballot box?


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