Calling it climate change is like calling an invading army ‘unwelcome guests’. And guess what? Climate breakdown does not care if you are catholic, protestant or a dissenter (or a collapsed catholic, vegan and recovering politician in my own case). This place is the only part of Europe without specific legislation and targets to address the existential crisis (and opportunity) that is the planetary emergency.
So it’s great to see a Climate Change bill being laid before the Assembly, as is the almost 50% of electricity in NI produced by renewable energy (my new summary of Minister Mallon – great on cycle lanes, less good on on-shore wind…), and the recent report from the Belfast Climate Commission (full disclosure, I am co-chair) which shows that the single most effective way to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emission would be through insulating domestic homes.
Retrofitting domestic homes would tackle the scandal that is fuel poverty in Northern Ireland (Department for Communities estimates that 42% of households are in fuel poverty, that is spending more than 10% of their income just to stay warm), provide employment locally, increase the disposal income of people, improve their health and wellbeing …. And as a ‘Brucy bonus’ reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and help us decarbonise the city to reach net zero emissions by 2045 (as laid out in the NI Climate Change Bill). So what’s not to like? What is not every politician in Belfast and all political parties all over this? The good book says ‘without vision the people perish’, but as my father says about the current pandemic ‘it’s only when the tide goes out you know who’s naked’. The pandemic has revealed significance weakness in our BC (before Covid) economic model … let’s NOT ‘return to normal’… rather let us ‘bounce forwards’ not back in ‘building back better’ by demanding a green jobs not ‘growth and competitiveness’ focused recovery for Norn Iron. Wind turbines not Tribeca please …
We have now reached a stage where serious debate is given to Elon Musk’s dreams of colonising Mars, but where someone proposing that we need to transition beyond neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy are viewed as utopian or misguided, dangerous or ‘politically immature’. More worryingly we have reached a stage where our young people, perhaps most clearly evident in those involved in the Youth Strike for Climate movement, can now more readily imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism. The climate anxiety and apocalypticism experienced and felt by these young people, who do not have a vote though they do thankfully a voice outside electoral politics, should bring shame on our generation.
We live in turbulent times. The UK is not simply exiting the EU, but we as a species are leaving the climatic stability of the ‘1,000 years of grace’ of the geological era known as the Holocene, for the dynamically unstable ‘Anthropocene’. At the same time, turbulence is needed to reimagine economics. Dissent, disagreement and discord should be encouraged. There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, any ‘just transition’ to a post-carbon, post-capitalist society will produce ‘winners and losers’, thus necessitating conflict transformation processes within any sustainability transformative process. As such, disagreement needs to be included in any process not marginalised or suppressed, as part of effective and democratically legitimacy problem solving.
Secondly, within our thinking about economics and the policy prescriptions that follow from that thinking, more than ever we need pluralism and challenges to the dominance of neoclassical economics. Revealing the ideological assumptions underpinning mainstream economics (there is no ideology-free conceptualisation of economics), opens up a long overdue opportunity for debate and discussion between different forms of political economy. We live in democracies after all where we have differences in how the state should operate, so why should it be any different in respect of the economy? The pandemic as befits a major crisis has made once marginal proposals possible and worthy of serious debate, whether university basic income, a jobs guarantee, nationalisation of parts of the economy or rethinking state finances as suggested by modern monetary theory. We need to maintain and defend this space against the calls for a ‘return to normal’ of the dominance of neoclassical business as usual. Normal was the problem.
Finally, the oppositional, non-conformist and sometimes outright confrontational character of such non-state actors contain the energy and insight for improvement and societal progress. As George Bernard Shaw astutely commented (and we will forgive him the sexism of his time), ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man’. Perhaps, just perhaps, with ‘our house on fire’ (Greta Thunberg) it might be time for us to be ‘unreasonable’ and do what is necessary?
People, place, planet and peace … lets give these ‘p’s a chance eh?
At this time let’s all be kind to one another.