Beyond the Stupid Economy

As the vultures circle to try and encapsulate the Irish economic bailout as an excuse for doing nothing (expect a re-tread of  ‘arc of insolvency’ gags)  it’s worth reflecting on something Burdzeye View has written about: what’s an economy actually for?.

As Slugger neatly suggests here the emerging challenge is not just to think beyond the failed constitutional model but together to think about completely new economic  models. Though Sunny Hundal points out that the enthusiasm for Irish economic policy wasn’t just Salmonds.

But Slugger is out of line arguing simply ‘prosperity is not the same thing as sovereignty, the latter does not guarantee the former’. It does not – but without sovereignty you can only have dependence and dependency culture.

The real issue is not the relationship between sovereignty and prosperity but between prosperity and growth. Ireland’s real ‘crime’ was not to be independent, or to be part of Europe, it was to be obsessed with growth.

This is four stories slung together…

1. The Stupid Economy – the story of how our economic world has crumbled and changed

2.  Redefining Green – the story about how being green isn’t about saving pandas any more, it’s about allowing the world to be habitable.

3. The toxic legacy of the British State. The story about how we have allowed weapons of mass destruction, toxic nuclear waste and depleted uranium to be dumped in our country.

4. And finally the story of what we’re going to do about it. The story where we ask ourselves: what’s Our economy for? Can we imagine a different kind of prosperity?

Underpinning all of this are the stories we tell ourselves about our power and our powerlessness:

“There’s a story, you may have heard it. It has many forms and goes something like this. Some people are powerful. They are the ones in charge, in control. They make things happen. If you or me or anyone else who isn’t rich, isn’t powerful wants to see things change, we have to ask them to make changes for us. The other side of this story is that we, you and I, are powerless. Do you tell yourself this story? I do, sometimes. It’s just the way things are. There’s nothing we can do. Those are the rules. Sound familiar? The thing is, these are just stories. I know they are not true. With other stories, we might imagine other possibilities. ‘Another world is possible’, says the global justice movement.” – from ‘Nurturing Autonomy’ by Jamie Heckert

The Stupid Economy

I don’t believe that the severity of the financial collapse we have seen and the impending cuts we are about to see is really acknowledged or understood yet. WE need to think beyond the paradigm of economic growth and finance speculation that brought us to this place. I want to try and look at how the ongoing financial breakdown and the new realities of climate change affect the political crisis – the loss of legitimacy of the political process which lasts as a hangover from the political scandal which engulfed Westminster (which is quite a task for a 15 minutes lot on a wet Glasgow Sunday afternoon).  But these three crisis (I think) – are key to the success of the independence movement and the dismantling of the British State.

You will have noticed that previously hardcore neoliberals, in the face of danger – have overnight converted from the market faith to the state faith. The great risktakers are – it seems – protected from the thing they argue against. Now they’re praying, begging, pleading for the mercy of the state interventions and multi-billion pound handouts of tax payers’ money – the sort of thing they condemned for as long as the profits were pouring in. What was once inadmissible is now essential, unavoidable, strictly necessary. Banks are bailed out, hospitals and nurseries are not.

The financial crisis is something that everybody suggests was both unavoidable and unpredictable. And yet, in 2007 big financial corporations posted record profits – more than $70 billion in Britain alone – along with record complaints about bad service.   We knew the system wasn’t working when millions of people complained about bank charges, when we couldn’t afford our mortgages or couldn’t get a home or faced the onslaught of stress and overwork that comes with the housing system we have arrived at. Our ecological debt mirrors our economic one. The average British household owes 160 per cent of its annual income. That makes us, individually and collectively, a lot like the cartoon character who’s run off the end of a cliff and hasn’t realised it yet.  But crises expose true relations. We need now to move forward because the London governments response in the last few months has changed things again.

So the first story we tell ourselves is this: things have been bad but will go back to normal soon and then everything will be okay. Except the back to normal won’t happen because the ‘back to normal’ meant spiralling house prices going up and up and up. Back to normal won’t happen because  western growth was based on cheap oil and assuming an infinite supply of a finite fossil fuel and back to normal won’t happen because people don’t believe in the British state any more. Back to normal won’t happen because the Tory-Liberals have just changed the game and they know not what they have done. Westminster may have been full of braying gleeful public schoolboys but they have no idea what four of five / six million unemployed will do their cosy world.

Though people yearn to go back, the system has been exposed as being inherently unstable and based on a false promise. The stupid economy is that which piles debt upon un-payable debt, makes things people don’t need then creates an industry to persuade them they do. The stupid economy offers no work and no hope to some and over-work and over-stress to others.

When we are imagining a new economy for Scotland we need to shed this approach which is degrading and exploitative and the very definition of unsustainable.

End of story one. It’s not the economy stupid, it’s the stupid economy.

2.  Redefining ‘green’: Environmental justice not conservation. Ecology and local solutions are the opposite of empire.

So here’s the challenge. Just at the time when we need a massive leap of faith to confront the political task of our generation (dealing with climate change) we are instead faced with a haemorrhaging of faith in the institutions that govern us.

This is an opportunity to transform these institutions and in many cases remove them entirely.

In Scotland embracing a green economy and adopting a genuinely ecological perspective is hard. This is because of story two.

Story two assumes that environmentalists are basically conservationists, telling others what to do, reintroducing golden eagles, kill-joys, anti-fun hectoring outsiders. Turn down your heating, don’t fly, don’t drive, don’t smoke, don’t don’t don’t…

Our experience has often been of environmentalists who want to preserve the falsely pristeen ‘wilderness’ of the highlands, preferring nature over people. But that is not what ecology is about.

Story two also tells us that Scots have a proud record of innovation from tarmacadam to dunlop tyres, from penicillin to insulin, from radar to tv to telephone and on and on. So when we are confronted by a problem we proudly refer to this default history of technological invention. But there are some problems that can’t be ‘solved’.  We need to now to deal with the reality that we have to lie within natural limits.

In Scotland this means confronting some harsh truths about oil and coal – fossil fuels that have an iconic status in our cultural history and have acted a s beacon of hope for the independence movement. But what if the Holy Grail for the independence wasn’t oil but was the wind in the hills and the waves on the sea?

We need to tell a different story about ecology as environmental justice, about why old people lie cold in bed, why our children are overfed and undernourished, why our housing is shoddy and poorly insulated and our transport system expensive and unfit for purpose.

The second story can be different – it can be about how we unite social and environmental justice and lead the world in good practice for climate policy, innovation but drawing on our other stories about thrift and good solid economics, the sort of thing the Scottish banking system used to use to brand itself to the world.

Ecology is not about conservation – the environment is the place where you work, live and play. The ecological challenge is not primarily about species preservation but about protecting our habitat and the threat of man made climate change.

3. Costs of the toxic legacy of the British State: Nuclear Power, Trident, Depleted Uranium

Before we look at the POSITIVE OPPORTUNITIES for a green Scottish economy we need to confront the third story we tell ourselves (and are told).

This is that the presence of the British State is a benign one, and one that we can do little about. In this case we need to just tell a very different tale, we need to confront the toxic legacy of the British State, we need in any settlement for independence to make sure that the costs for the removal of nuclear waste, the contamination of depleted uranium and the basing of weapons of mass destruction is not met by Scots.

[* In Scotland – where all the UKs WMD are based – opposition to Trident and its replacement is firm. The Churches, the Trades Union, and civil society in general totally reject the moral nihilism of nuclear weapons.]

[* Polls last month show that LESS than a fifth of Scots are in favour of building new nuclear power stations north of the border, again and again people declare this is a technology we don’t want, don’t need and can’t afford – either ecologically or economically]

Times of crisis provoke reaction, kickback, and regression. A classic expression of our ongoing inability to live within any limits – financial, ecological, or other is the rush for nuclear power.

Desperately incapable of grasping the technologies inherent contradictions and failings, from its fossil fuel source to its waste output, there is no better icon of our incapacity to face the change ahead than nuclear energy.

At the G8 meeting in Hokkaido pre-Obama, the then US president, George Bush, reiterated his plea for the construction of new nuclear energy plants. Gordon Brown, announced the fast-tracking of eight new reactors and called for “a renaissance of nuclear power” in a “post-oil economy”. Scotland’s veto on new nuclear power was quickly identified as a major issue by Kenneth Calman in his one man devolution report. Recent reports by the journalist Rob Edwards have catalogued the systemic failure of nuclear power facilities in Scotland.   But cheaper and cleaner alternatives present themselves and have popular support.

Similarly with Trident (which Gordon Brown famously described as “…unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful, and militarily unsound” as he did in 1984). This is a technology we don’t want, don’t need and can’t afford. But thank god that as we heard of the threat of bombs in planes in ink cartridges that we could rest easy in our beds knowing that we had nuclear missiles at Coulport (or were they aground off Skye or wherever they are).

Scotland has for a long time been contaminated by a British military presence, and its high time we stopped basing our hopes for jobs on their ongoing handouts. We need an economy that is sustainable but we also need a moral economy.

4. So what are we going to do about it? What does a green economy look like?

I’d like to argue that the climate change legislation we have before us (Scottish Climate Change Bill) – of 42% cuts in ghg emissions by 2020 and 80% by 2050 offer a framework for transforming Scotland to a low carbon sustainable nation.

These ideas are mirrored in FOE Scotland recent report, ‘42% Better’, which identifies extra jobs in energy efficiency and public transport, health care savings arising from reduced obesity, improved mental health and reduced respiratory disease, and social inclusion gains from reductions in fuel poverty amongst the many non-environmental benefits of a strong climate policy. Even in the limited case studies examined, the estimated value of the health benefits alone exceeds £2bn.

For example, improving and insulating the homes of those in fuel poverty in Scotland, could avoid an estimated 180,000 cases of anxiety and depression each year, and cut days lost to work and school as a result of respiratory illnesses by up to 25%. The increased levels of fitness resulting from raising cycling rates to Danish levels could save over 1,600 lives a year, and help cut obesity rates in Scotland in half, especially if supported by the widespread adoption of low-carbon, low-meat diets.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: In energy terms we have the outline of real possibility – this week a £70 MILLION investment fund to provide infrastructure for the renewable energy industry has been unveiled by the Scottish Government. The First Minister announced the National Renewables Infrastructure Fund at the annual conference of RenewableUK, the industry body for green energy firms.

Scotland is also getting ready to capitalize on something the country has plenty of: water.

A new project generating up to 1.2GW will be built on the northern coast of the Scottish mainland. About 750,000 Scottish homes expect to be powered by ocean technology by 2020, as the Scottish Government has announced that 10 wave and tide power schemes capable of The 10 projects will comprise the world’s first commercial-scale wave and tidal power scheme. With this project, Scotland plans to produce the same amount of clean energy as a small nuclear power station.

The Scottish Govt has approved Siadar, one of the largest wave energy projects on the planet; as well as developing and consenting hydro and biomass projects, and the massive Whitelee wind farm in South Lanarkshire. Harnessing all these opportunities has the potential to create more than 16,000 jobs over the next decade.

In Scotland we are uniquely placed to benefit from our renewable energy but this must be decentralised and put into public and community ownership. Regionalisation of our food culture, a four-day week and the re-structuring of our building and housing system into ones that uses sustainable practices and resurrects public ownership in new forms could be the basis of this real ecological revival.

BEYOND GREEN JOBS: All this is good but what we need is a shift in consciousness about climate change and the reality of the new economics. This would mean more than renewable energy and carbon capture technologies. It would mean the end of our growth obsession. In this old story we told ourselves that achieving prosperity relies on the pursuit of economic growth, this would mean that higher incomes will increase wellbeing and lead to prosperity for all. But now a new story is emerging:

1. This is about creating the conditions for people to flourish. Includes tackling systemic inequality and removing incentives for unproductive status competition; sharing available work and improving work-life balance, and reversing the culture of consumerism

2. An economy which can succeed by prioritising investment in public assets and infrastructures over private affluence

3. Putting an awareness of ecological limits at the heart of economic decision-making. Scottish economic thinking must be governed by clearly defined resource and emissions caps.

Make less, buy less, work less is the new paradigm. Until very recently this would have seemed as improbable as nationalising the banks, or a black US President. But it’s the core of the ideas put forward by the (now abolished) Sustainable Development Commissions report ‘Prosperity Without Growth’  :

“In the last quarter of a century, while the global economy has doubled, the increased in resource consumption has degraded an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems. The benefits of growth have been distributed very unequally, with a fifth of the world’s population sharing just 2% of global income. Even in developed countries, huge gaps remain in wealth and well-being between rich and poor.”

Ultimately the question we have to ask ourselves is – what’s our Economy for?  Answering the question what are our houses, jobs, markets for? The New Internationalist recently summarised that houses have become property, jobs have become a means for increasing inequality and markets have become God.

The hope must lie with the emergence of a new political space in Scotland which takes  challenging this reality seriously. We need to create new participative forms and economically sustainable models around the idea of making less, buying less, and working less.

But the money markets of London will not have this. And the constitution remains central to our abilities to think beyond our current situation and imagine a Scottish democracy. As John McAllion has written: “WE cannot remain ensnared within the carefully contrived limits of a constitution that for more than 300 years has been successfully blocking all threats of radical change in order to preserve the stability of the oldest capitalist state form in the world.”

I know some of this seems far-fetched. But I remember different times of my life when things seemed impossible.

I remember NELSON MANDELA walking to freedom when once that seemed utterly impossible. It was just the way things were. There’s nothing we can do. Those are the rules.

I remember when defeating the POLL TAX seemed unlikely.

I remember when a Scottish Parliament was a radical dream and we talked of an ASSEMBLY.

I remember when the idea of LIBERAL DEMOCRATS propping up a Tory government intent on swingeing cuts, new nuclear power and excluding all but the rich from higher education would have seemed ridiculous.

The truth is that the realities of climate change means that we all will have to change whether we like or not. But we can be part of a better set of solutions.

This is the new story we need to tell ourselves and tell the world, but its more than a story its now one of the pathways to Scottish independence.

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  1. Vronsky says:

    “what’s our Economy for? ”

    This is a key question and therefore of course one which is never asked. We have heard often of how our economy was ‘successful’ but without any reference to the criteria for success. It is important to attack all the silent assumptions: it’s not about high house prices, buoyant stock markets, consumer confidence – it’s about the quality of public health and education, the incidence of poverty, the quality and durability of the environment.

    Excellent and timely post, but ..

    “I remember when the idea of LIBERAL DEMOCRATS propping up a Tory government intent on swingeing cuts, new nuclear power and excluding all but the rich from higher education would have seemed ridiculous.”

    ..never seemed ridiculous to me.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    But it would have seemed ridiculous to thousands of people – probably to the vast majority of Liberal Democrats.

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