Sorry, I have posted the wrong blog. The one you should be looking for if you are hoping to read the current Little Green Blog is ‘The One Who Decides’ below.
We, by which I mean Gloucester Green Party members, had an invitation recently to go for training as local government councillors. It was addressed to women members in particular; there is evidently a shortage of women councillors. One of our members said she had, some years ago, been on one of these courses. The course itself was all right but the more she found out about local government the more disillusioned she became. To put it simply, the real action was somewhere else.
If that was true some years ago, it is almost certainly more true than ever today. In recent years local government has been systematically disempowered. I was reminded in this context of the saying attributed to Carl Schmitt, the political theologian: ‘sovereign is the one who decides’. The big question is: ‘who gets to make the decisions round here?’
I think this is a question we should ask more frequently. We talk rather glibly about individual sovereignty, that we all have the right to choose, but in how many matters are decisions being made over which we have no control? Politically perhaps we should start at the bottom and work upwards. Is my vote worth much? (Bring on Proportional Representation.) Does local government work? (Change the system whereby all the important decisions are made at Westminster.) Does parliament work? (See Caroline Lucas’s book, Honourable Friends?.) How much is government influenced by big business? (Whose decision was it in the final analysis to build Gloucester’s huge incinerator?). And so on and so on.
‘Sovereign is the one who decides.’ Good point Mr Schmitt.
The old Irish joke – now worn rather thin – that to get where we want to get to we had better start from somewhere else, still resonates.
If you look at the Gloucestershire Vision 2050 Consultation Document, supposedly something to promote discussion about how we can achieve a better County, one is forcibly struck by the feeling that it starts at the wrong place. It wants to know how the County can achieve economic growth, attract more businesses and young people, build bigger cities and even more roads. Even the provision of more green spaces is to promote eco-tourism.
Frankly, this is a business document, drawn up by business people, to promote more business.
What about sustainability rather than growth? How about distributing our resources more fairly? We urgently need more affordable housing, better wages, more active concern about conservation, better (i.e. non-polluting) transport, better social care and so on.
I notice that the original document does not speak of fairness at all. But, if you are thinking about a whole County, prosperity and justice go together. You can’t have one without the other.
It seems to me quite often legitimate, even necessary, where truth and justice are at stake, to push issues in the direction of ‘for or against’. Who, or what, in any particular matter is ‘on the side of the angels’. This is often relatively easy to work out. Take for example, the need to improve air quality in our cities. It is not easy to be against this. But of course there are plenty of people – people who make cars for a start – who would rather not do anything about it, and some who are even prepared to run false tests in order to confuse the situation!
Having said this, I wonder whether the right response on some occasions is what we might call non-alignment. Sometimes we need to say: ‘this dispute is nothing to do with me. I am not aligning myself either with the pros or cons, either with the establishment or those trying to resist it’.
Looking back at world history one can see what a good position was taken up by the non-aligned movement during the Cold War (the phrase ‘non-aligned first became popular at that time). There were nations who did not want to be counted as either on the Soviet or the Western side of the argument, and why not?
In terms of current politics, I continue to appreciate the position of the Green Party. If the establishment is Tory and the opposition is the Corbynist Labour Party, I would undoubtedly be on the side of Labour. But the Green Party is the party of active non-alignment. This is better still. It is against economic growth at all costs, in favour of a citizen’s income and so on. In other words it has a clear political programme, but it is different from that of either of the big players.
I think all of us Europeans should have an extended stay outside Europe (not US, Canada, Australia etc.) and preferably in the Middle East or North Africa. We then might generate a little more realism about what we have done and how it is rebounding on us. I have just finished watching the four part serial ‘Collateral’ by David Hare on the BBC. A good title because it is set in London, but about people trafficking from countries where we Brits have been meddling. The plight of people from the ‘stressed’ countries – Iraq, Syria, Libya etc. is heart-breaking, but the drama also shows up the greed and cruelty of those who are trying to exploit them. Many of our citizens (British i.e.) do not come out well, especially the army, security services, politicians, detention centre staff and the like. And of course this does not just apply to the ‘baddies’. The soldiers who served in Iraq, for example, seem horribly damaged.
I am reminded of that well-known saying that the British don’t really understand their history because most of it happened somewhere else. This was a comment about Britain’ long imperial history, but it might work too in a contemporary setting. The obvious example is the Second Iraq War and its aftermath. The regional chaos subsequent to March 2003, especially but not only the rise of Isis, has been one of the main contributing factors to the refugee crisis and the growing number of asylum seekers. (Patrick Coburn has documented this meticulously: see especially The Age of Jihad.) Even the surge of economic migrants, which we feel is somehow not our fault, can often be traced to the failure of eco-systems, agriculture and industry due to the effects of Western policy. If the West accepts any responsibility for the effects of climate change, this must be the case.
Whatever the final arrangements about Brexit (I am sorry to introduce that word) I hope they do not mean that we think that Britain can ‘go it alone’ or even ‘take back control’. That is a complete illusion. Our history, good and bad, remains our history. Imperialism was a big bad idea. The fight against fascism was ‘our finest hour’. Invading Iraq, along with the United States, was a mistake, just to pick out some ‘highlights’. The consequences are with us still. We shall have to deal with them. Treaties and laws and boundaries won’t change any of that.
The Green Party, like most political parties, wants people to be active citizens, concerned about the way we are governed, expressing their views on public issues and, of course, voting in elections. It becomes particularly concerned when people simply do not care about the big issues because it is obvious that people who try to ignore the political process lose out in the end. Victims of austerity, for example, who cannot be bothered to vote, are ignored by legislators just because they have given away what influence they have. They are then surprised that governments are not working on their behalf. But if we want change we shall have to do something about it.
The truth is that we cannot cut government out of our lives, especially when living in a modern state. People complain about the ‘nanny state’ but it is not state action which is the problem but the wrong sort of action. Frankly, I am happy about government, and feel that those who complain about the nanny state are mostly those who want all the benefits that the state can provide but are irked by its equally necessary disciplines. I would like to see the state collect more taxes, particularly from wealthy tax dodgers and corporations. I love the BBC and am pleased to see the license fee being efficiently collected. I approve of every penny I am asked to contribute to the NHS, a wonderful addition to our society, and sufficient reason alone to live in this country and not the USA. I am delighted that we have laws prohibiting unduly long working hours, drink driving, child labour, air and water pollution and the like. I am on the side of law and order and wonder whether we should spend more on policing, not because I have fascist tendencies, but because a lawless state, even in a small way, tends to lead to the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.
Of course there are bad laws – some of the ‘austerity laws’ fall into that category in my opinion – and of course we have the responsibility to try and get them changed. But again, let’s not ignore the system. Let’s make it work better.
I have been reading with great interest a biography of Nikita Khruschev, the man who, despite his many personal failings, tried to turn the Soviet Union in a better direction after Stalin. Khruschev believed in the great Enlightenment values – rational planning, mass education, scientific and technological advance, socialism and Progress (with a capital ‘p’). He promoted these ideas again and again, but the end product was disappointing. The Soviet Union became a by-word for corruption, inefficiency and medocrity. Interestingly, when Khruschev’s schemes faltered, he tended to appeal to human nature. He claimed that everybody, from the government official to the lowliest party member to ‘the people’ themselves, could do better. He was fond of pointing back to the achievements of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of fascism in the Great Patriotic War, but he was constsntly frustrated by the results of his own well-meaning efforts. People just let him down.
Maybe, after all, Khruschev, was right. Many today, in the same way, look out on a world of warfare, poverty, massive displacement, and environmental destruction and then look around for someone to blame. What is the root cause of the ignorance, superstition, rivalry and exploitation – the sheer wickedness we encounter? Well, perhaps it really is human nature. The ideas that stem from the Enlightenment are grand and impressive, and like most ideas can work well enough in a utopian environment, but they are difficult to make work well on Planet Earth, particularly if they do not include a realistic assessment of human capabilities. It is not that I am trying to diminish or downgrade humanity. Quite the reverse. But when ideologies are promoted at the expense of people and those ideologies have within them an unrealistic estimate of human nature, then the trouble begins. Humans are not infinitely anything. They are not infinitely good, or adaptible, or educable, or productive or, for that matter, wicked or useless. They are…humans. We must understand what they are if they are to thrive: people who lead ‘ordinary’ lives, who need the support of others and who look to the future with hope.
What does this mean for the Green Party? We too have some big ideas: more care for the planet, more social justice, more democracy. But good ideas like these will not, on their own, achieve much. We need people more than anything, people who are not heroes, or great thinkers, but who know, despite their limitations, that there is something worthwhile to be done. Come and join us.
A viable community, like a viable farm, protects its own production capacities. It does not import products that it cannot produce for itself. And it does not export local products until local needs have been met. Wendell Berry
I think there is a danger if local amenities depend entirely for their profitability on visitors and an even greater danger if big businesses are only in the City (I am talking about Gloucester here) to extract profit. A similar issue is one of local productivity.
To what extent are we dependent here in Gloucester on imports; not imports from abroad but from London or Birmingham or Bristol? Do we produce any food, clean water, electricity, building materials, furniture or clothing within the city boundary? Some, perhaps. There are allotments and vegetable gardens, occasional windmills and an assortment of solar panels; some folk collect rainwater and others (very few, I suspect) make their own clothes and build their own furniture, though nobody spins or weaves or makes bricks.
We are now so far down the track of dependence that the whole subject hardly seems worth discussing. Of course we don’t live like that! Is Gloucester some sort of desert island on which we have suddenly been marooned? Yes, but that’s just the point. The modern city is part of a vast complex machine which provides us with everything that we need. But what if the machine stops? What if there were no electricity? What if we were cut off from our food suppliers? Is it not time that we made a move in the direction of becoming more self-sufficient? Full self-sufficiency is admittedly not something that we can easily achieve in this complicated world, but we can make a start.
This is not just a matter of survival. I believe we would be much happier and healthier if we grew our own food, built our own outhouses, brewed our own cider, made our own clothes, entertained ourselves more, walked more and lived more.
As I said in my last blog we need to see connections and then be connected. Just to mention (again) all those worrying and distressing items that we watch on the news or read about in the papers, and which are now so familiar to us: climate breakdown disasters, famines, wars, failed states, huge amounts of money spent on weapons including weapons of mass destruction, bad government, corruption, refugees and people trafficking – and I am only making a selection. Obviously these all belong together. Start at any point in this list and your journey is likely to take you on a pathway that visits the other items. Climate breakdown leads to food shortages, which lead to conflict and refugees and bad government and so on.
But those who oppose these things also belong together. If you put together the people who, at different times and in different ways, have felt they wanted to react to these conditions, we would have a mighty army. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work quite like that. It appears that, at the moment, many individuals have not even seen the possibility of linking with others; similarly, many small organisations, while doing a great job, are scarcely talking to each other.
I used to work at an international school in India. Most of the staff were expatriates like me. On the wall of the staff room there was a picture of a sailing ship and under it the comment: ‘We may have all come in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now’ (a quote incidentally from Martin Luther King). It was so true. It was no use pretending that there was another ship that we could go to, or that the crew of the ship was likely to change in a hurry. No, we were stuck with what we had got and had to get on with it.
What we had to do was to work better together. This applies to many life situations – a school staff room, an office, a rugby club, a hospital ward. It also applies more widely. Our neighbourhood, our city, our nation: it’s what we’ve got and who we have, and working better together will always help. In the end it applies to our world. I suppose one day some of us might live on Mars (not a happy thought!) but for the time being this planet is our home. We are going to have to do better at looking after it together.
In a recent London Review of Books article (LRB 39/10) Thomas Jones mentioned some familiar information.
The World Meteorological Organisation reported in March (2017) that last year was ‘the warmest on record’ with ‘exceptionally low sea ice, and unabated sea level rise and ocean heat…Extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.’
He also suggested, in the same article, a surprising response to this situation.
There is nothing to be gained from trying to persuade the likes of Pruitt and Tillerson (Head of the US Environment Agency and US Secretary of State respectively) of the reality and seriousness of climate change. It’s exactly what the deniers want. The longer ‘that debate’ goes on, the more those who profit from the status quo can plausibly deny the need to do anything.
I think he is right. There comes a moment when a situation is so serious that the talking must cease.
There are two points here. Firstly, the obvious one, that in an emergency there may not be time for much talking. We might use a simple example from the past. Walled cities were built in part to provide a safe place when an enemy army was advancing on the land. The herald’s job was to warn people in the countryside that they must get inside the city as quickly as possible. This was not a time for discussion. If they lingered they might find the city gates shut and the enemy upon them. A second point (here I am referring to an interview with Salman Rushdie in the Guardian 2.09.17) is that evidence is evidence. Denying it does not change the evidence. As Rushdie says: ‘Let me put it to you this way: if you say the world is flat, it doesn’t make the world flat. The world doesn’t need you to agree that it’s round in order to be round, because there’s this thing called evidence.’
So I am not sure that we need to win the argument any more, in the sense that we want to put time and resources into arguing the case for climate breakdown. Instead, we must simply get on with the job of doing everything we can to save the planet, while helping as many of the already-victims (currently people in the southern United States, large areas of South Asia and the Caribbean) as possible.
If we are going to do any arguing, perhaps it should be about connections. Climate breakdown and natural disasters and food shortages and communal wars and bad government and the increasing flood of refugees (just to make a selection) are all part of the same picture. Saving the planet is one thing and saving ourselves, I mean our whole civilisation, is the same thing. They belong together. ‘