Growth Under Pressure: London's green conference this week advocated 'non-growth economic models'
This week's Planet Under Pressure conference in London set in motion how green activists will attempt to stop economic growth around the world.
There’s always something vaguely satisfying in the irony of thousands of climate scientists and activists flying, driving, and trekking by train, bus and Docklands Light Railway to a sacred-ground for modernity and capitalism – London’s renovated Docklands – to tap away on their iPads, iPhones and MacBooks.
The organisers, and indeed the attendees, of Planet Under Pressure 2012 may try to console themselves with carbon-offsetting and vegetarian-heavy, nitrogen-low diets – indeed, it was claimed that London’s ExCeL centre, where the conference was held, had 30 percent less nitrogen than is normal due to the type of food on offer – but this misses the point entirely.
Because this isn’t really about carbon per se; it’s not even really about global warming. It’s about corporatism.
Caroline Spelman, the British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs outlined that herself in her opening speech to the conference. Her comments regarding the coercion of government towards 'green balance sheets', outlining that it is not 'an either/or choice' will shake free marketeers to their core.
She bragged about a new government-funded quango that will 'keep a watch on the state of the UK's ecosystems' as if there wasn't already an environment department, a Department for Energy and Climate Change and various other Arms Length Bodies doing this work. It was all very 'The Thick of It' as she seemed to strain to announce a policy to placate the audience.
She went on to boast to the crowd that her department would be spending £8.5m over the next three years funding projects, the likes of which from 2002-05 bribed Kenyan farmers by granting them special access to UK markets if they used Forest Stewardship Council (another NGO) certified wood. This state-corporate nexus is precisely what activists on the same side of the debate moan about when it comes to 'big business' working with government to undermine 'the little guy'.
The conference was largely focused on how scientists and activists can coalesce to deconstruct the Western way of living and moving to something entirely different, where economic growth and wealth creation is abandoned and replaced, instead, with sustainability targets, trade barriers, regulation and taxation. Indeed there were numerous occasions during the main sessions whereby even the mention of the word ‘regulation’ was met with rapturous applause.
Ultimately – and here is where the irony comes into play – it’s about moving away from the very system that brought us the very same laptops, iPads, iPhones and cameras that those in the conference were using to document their sojourn in East London. And to deny the billions of people in the world the most basic standards of living, from food to social services that we in the UK so readily take for granted.
That, for all our initial goodwill, was our takeaway from the four days we spent at Planet Under Pressure 2012.
Yes, seminars and presentations were littered with data and scientific jargon the likes of which Stephen Hawking would have struggled to comprehend. But never far from the surface was the call for new ways of living – sustainable ways of living – and the interrelation between the “hard sciences” and a new and increasingly important tool for the audience: the social sciences.
After all, it is the social sciences which will prove to be utterly essential in that middle ground between knowledge and action. What they mean by this is summed up best by one word: lobbying.
This is where the interplay between science and governance will be made or broken. And right now it’s certainly closer to the former – for a neat example, we counted eight government departments or quangos as supporters of this conference alone. And in the midst, they were joined hand in hand (or at the hip) to their environmental brethren.
But science should work with government to help formulate evidence based policy – so why is this such a problem?
Because hearing many of the speakers and delegates over the four days, we realised that they weren’t simply talking about making minor alterations to they way government and trade works, but rather to turn the ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’ on its head – we heard of ‘coercion’ and ‘mandatory behaviour’. We also heard a lot about ‘bridging information gaps’ whereby evidence wasn’t yet available. We surely don’t have to remind you of what that means.
According to Lord Anthony Giddens – a preeminent sociologist and speaker at the conference – it means that now is the time for an “activist civil society” to move away from the Western way of life which has proved “too destructive” and toward a radical utopia (read, communes) – all part of what he terms a renewed assault on global warming sceptics.
We heard from Sander Van Der Leeuw – Dean and Professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University – that now is the time for scientists to forget objectivity and become citizens once again; for scientists to “better understand decision-making” at the highest level.
These voices were by no means alone. Time and time again, over the course of four days, we heard calls for new ways for the science community to force through new means of governance which extend beyond the socially constructed national borders we know today. That this is a means of extending control internationally was barely hidden.
Whether it was the EU Commission and it’s Director of the Environment Programme in Research and Innovation, Manuela Soares, disclosing that some €30billion was to be spent – from a total “European Horizon 2020” budget of €80billion – on “social innovation”, or Frank Biermann – Director of the Global Governance Project – telling us that we need is “a new lifestyle”, the message was loud and the message was painfully clear.
For those in the ExCel centre, even though the information isn’t received, understood or even accepted at some junctures, the knowledge debate is over. A paper recently released by one of the speakers at the conference, Kari Norgaard, identifies climate change skepticism as a kind of sickness, stating, "resistance at individual and societal levels must be recognised and treated." Now, they argue, its time to move into changing the rules of development as one poster at the conference so brazenly put it, to ‘non-growth models’.
What Planet Under Pressure 2012 spelled out clearly was that the anti-development lobby has long since moved to the next stage: implementation. If they succeed, we will continue to see the fusion of non-governmental initiatives with taxpayer-funded government backing, incremental erosion of our freedoms, of growth and worst of all, the stifling of developing countries trying to get a foot in the front door, while a new wave of anti-growth lobbyists manage to sneak in the back.
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