Environmental Principles?

29 Jun 2020

Written in May, still locked down in Scotland, there was time for pause. I fell to wondering about where we were headed.

The daily permitted escapes from home are mostly helping to find or regain some calm – in a local wood, on a beach, a country path or looking up at a vapour trail free sky. Breathing clean(er) air. Hearing birdsong, clearer, louder, more diverse. Seeing wildlife in empty streets. In such strange times there is a clear opportunity to reflect and to reimagine and to plan.

How on earth did we get here?! We did let it or, in some cases, make it happen. It has been a long journey from our origins inside nature, to the times of subduing it with a sense of right and sovereignty. All the way to a point where nature is seemingly fighting back against the uncomprehending, careless human foe that has wreaked such havoc.

The trajectory saw us “survive” various self-inflicted tragedies: wars, economic crashes, previous pandemics, the Silent Spring. We have proposed limits to growth, a case for sustainability, even sustainable development goals. Some have seen these as opportunities to continue conventional growth models and variations on neoclassical economic dependence on stimulating demand and offering more and more supply that exploits the resource base of the planet, but better dressed up. Nodding appropriately towards greenness. But with fingers crossed behind our backs. Growth at all costs. The cost in fact of planetary health and therefore, ultimately, our own.

We have crescendoed now to climate and ecosystem crises and crises too of democracy and trust in governments, of media influence, intense global poverty and management of diseases stretching beyond our once seemingly supreme creativity and power. So, in surviving, what have we learned? What will we do differently?

With some echoes of the 1930s US New Deal, there is extensive talk of Green Recovery and Green New Deals and an EU strategy too. But is this really a late on, ecologically credible Franklin Delano Roosevelt make-over? Great, beneficial and necessary, often “environmental” public works giving society useful and serious work. Decarbonising? Bringing lifelong skills, networks and participation? On a fair, fair-paid, community-building and sustaining basis? Universal basic income maybe, and a farewell to effete, class-based, pejorative “low pay=low skill=low value”? And all, respectful of our planetary asset base?

Once, clean air, water and land, healthy and safe environments were goals and objectives likely to be shared by, almost, all. Achieved by a positive clear vision, strong policy, plans and investment and competent, effective regulators. Reflecting on parallels with the banks and the Global Financial Crisis still sends a shiver. How we got in; how we got out. Self-regulation, for the genuinely responsible professional, the perpetually focussed and the lucky, may be good and work for a time.

But then if jobs (number not quality) and growth matter most, and recovery is just about “getting back to work”, getting on with profit, flying, driving, making, polluting, selling and buying as before, what has changed? Is it a marketing gloss and more political rhetoric? And where really does environment fit?

If new cycle lanes will soon be redrawn narrower once more, if shareholders still want arms and oil sales, if assets are as maldistributed as before….we return to rainforest clearance, habitat loss, poor air quality and health.

These genuinely are testing times. We must be tested. And how will we perform? Will we fight to protect what we have rediscovered as valuable: things, ultimately, we do not wish to live without.

Pollution levels have fallen dramatically but the downward spike, if it turns to a rebound, will count for nothing….other than a massive generational opportunity missed to make better, life-saving choices.

Leaders must lead and it will require vision and boldness. Signs of timidity are emerging already. Growth, so long the drug of choice. Growth, infinite, physically impossible growth. And the magnetic draw of the old model, life and politics seems to make some leaders and many followers reluctant to give up the old and to want, to believe in and to seek and lead real change.

Amidst lockdown and sensing clearly what good clean air once again can look and taste like, we could push on with new air quality standards and proper transport plans for the masses; all of us, irrespective of our economic power should be able to buy better quality for ourselves. In London, the congestion charge is returning. But, in Scotland, no, apparently. Now is not the time.

So will we just return to “normal”? We know we know better. Don’t we?

Global commons are perhaps for share-owners after all. But which? For all of us? We all have a share. The environment, like principles, must not be tradable.

Once, not least in the EU context, with an elaborately and, yes, often messily constructed, set of laws and policies, the notion of a clean, healthy and safe environment as a given, an agreed societal goal, perhaps even an inalienable right or a self-evident truth, was beyond argument, if not always the highest priority. Now it simply has to come first. The health of the planet frames our own.

We surely can’t claim ignorance of the connectedness of the system – that oil, plastics, marine pollution, inequality, addictions, drugs, animal trade, greed and disease are related; that natural resources, stock exchange, pension funds, traders, hedgers, prices, shopping, clothes, food, water, waste, housing are all part of a nexus desperately needing improvement?

Rewilding, green growth, the new normal. A genuinely green new deal must be so much more than slogans. It is time to define this and for our leaders to be challenged to set out credible shared visions and real plans, engaging comprehensively in its making and urgent delivery. And certainly not just from traditional economic perspectives. We have had so many warnings. How many more do we need? Would we survive the next?

Professor Campbell Gemmell, LINK Honorary Fellow

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