The Darling (Cotton) Buds of May

There’s a growing problem of farce and surrealism in the green movement and in wider society, I call it Lifestyle v the Apocalypse. It goes like this: the more severe and urgent the multifaceted ecological and climate change crisis becomes, the less we do. Faced with the deluge of information that our Plastic Society has (surprisingly) created Plastic Seas, Rivers and Food our response is to threaten to banish Cotton Buds. It’s a bit like the morbidly obese eschewing a wafer-thin mint or the rampant alcoholic deciding to imbibe a thimble-less of rocket-fuel. This obsession with the ameliorative easy low-hanging fruit is understandable. Why do nothing at all when you can do something useless but catchy? The fact that it is clearly meaningless is not as compelling as the fact that it is politically expedient.

Theresa May this week called her Bud Plans “Drastic action”.

People kept a straight face.

The case has been made this week that the Commonwealth, as well a being a handy instant replacement for the EU trading bloc, will also be a global force for environmental transformation with our newly-appointed Chief Charles and his well-known penchant for all things Green heading the movement.

So how does Canada – one of the Commonwealth’s largest and most progressive entities fare if we reflect on their environmental progress and commitments over, say, a twenty-five year period?

Here’s Canada’s track-record of pledging to – and then failing to abide by summits and protocols since 1992. I can return to this with comparative studies of other Commonwealth countries but that’s a heap of work.


So the stark and tragic reality is that the vast amount of policy measures we take to ‘solve’ the environmental crisis are meaningless in the face of relentless expansion, growth and consumption and that (probably) both us and the wonks and politicians dishing this out know this.

Even on issues when you think you have made definitive progress there is retreat and failure.

As Karl Mathiesen of Climate Home reported this week: “US coal exports rose 61% in 2017 after Asian exports double”.

So is this is a relentlessly bleak outlook of failure?

Kind of yeah.

But there are other options.

The New Green Technocrats

As Kate Aronoff writes in The Intercept this week (‘Denial by a Different Name: It’s Time to Admit that Half-Measures Can’t Stop Climate Change’)

“The problem with this new denialism, then, isn’t only the kinds of policies that Davos environmentalists are prescribing from on high in the Swiss Alps. It’s also about optics. Any climate politics so closely identified with the global elite in 2018 is dead on arrival. Piecemeal, market-based climate policies might win over the support of economics department and a handful of centrist Republicans, but they won’t either get the job done or inspire the support of any critical mass of the population. The scale of changes science demands requires doing something the neoliberals recognized as crucial early: taking state power, then using it to radically rethink the relationship between the state and the economy — in this case, toward building a more equal, low-carbon world.

With precious few years left to course-correct away from catastrophe, political theorist Fredric Jameson’s most famous quote has taken on a more literal meaning: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Aronoff argues convincingly that the gap between the likes of the climate denying far-right Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, and the batty European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE) a German “climate skeptic” organisation; the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others – and some of the climate policymaking groups in Bonn is far smaller than you think. The message (in variant form) from both climate denialists and the New Green Technocrats is the same:

“Relax, everything will be OK”.

With pie-charts that worship spraying particulates, and fossil fuel companies proselytizing carbon capture, the New Green Technocrats: “peddle in a set of easy fixes: a market signal here, an industrial-grade aerosol there, and the crisis will be an artifact of history, with corporate shareholders better off for it.”

As the myths of Geoengineering looms large and the great island of plastic shit floats nearer to home, it’s time for some home truths.

Beyond Green Guilt

We need to give up the comforting models that suggest that nothing really needs to change and that the deep-seated crisis can be wished away in a lab.

1. Yes technology and mass innovation has a role to play but techno-fixes and delusional policy-making are a form of denial as much as Nigel Lawson and Co. 
2. The myths of a green capitalist economy need to be smashed again and again, action needs to be strategic, unprecedented, scaleable and urgent.
3. Change needs to be structural systemic and long-term – not peripheral marginal and micro-short termist.
4. Mass collective action is vital but not if it is contained within a useless lifestyle-ism.
5. Yes we need leadership models and inspiration but endless celebrity politics is demeaning and disempowering.

In short we need to re-politicise the movement, and replace green guilt with collective action. This will also require a complete realignment of political forces that magian that ‘social’ movements and ‘ecological’ movements are separate distinct things. As Martin Lukacs has written recently (“Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals“):

“At the very moment when climate change demands an unprecedented collective public response, neoliberal ideology stands in the way. Which is why, if we want to bring down emissions fast, we will need to overcome all of its free-market mantras: take railways and utilities and energy grids back into public control; regulate corporations to phase out fossil fuels; and raise taxes to pay for massive investment in climate-ready infrastructure and renewable energy — so that solar panels can go on everyone’s rooftop, not just on those who can afford it.

Neoliberalism has not merely ensured this agenda is politically unrealistic: it has also tried to make it culturally unthinkable. Its celebration of competitive self-interest and hyper-individualism, its stigmatization of compassion and solidarity, has frayed our collective bonds. It has spread, like an insidious anti-social toxin, what Margaret Thatcher preached: “there is no such thing as society.”

Studies show that people who have grown up under this era have indeed become more individualistic and consumerist. Steeped in a culture telling us to think of ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, as self-reliant instead of interdependent, is it any wonder we deal with a systemic issue by turning in droves to ineffectual, individual efforts? We are all Thatcher’s children. Even before the advent of neoliberalism, the capitalist economy had thrived on people believing that being afflicted by the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfillment – was in fact a personal deficiency. Neoliberalism has taken this internalized self-blame and turbocharged it.”

This is not to acknowledge complicity or eschew individual action, but it’s to see that action in a new light and to develop a new politics that rejects the new denialism and moves beyond Cotton Buds.

Comments (15)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Well, yes, although I think one underlying problem is the tunnel vision of ideologically-constructed left-right continuum which ignores other political dimensions. To illustrate by the crude example of a fantasy cabinet:
    I might appoint an environmental policy *authoritarian* (authority deriving from current international scientific consensus informed by rational common values like biodiversity good, ecosystem collapse bad)
    while appointing an educational *libertarian* to exponentially increase collective cognition;
    in the same way appointing a *dove* to turn the Ministry of War into a Ministry of Defence (how much does war degrade the environment anyway?)
    and a *hawk* in trade/industry/business/commerce to go on the offensive against the corporations who are poisoning the planet.

    In current culture, I suspect that too many people spend too much time trying to work out what in-group orthodoxy and out-group heresy is through one-dimensional politics, rather than breaking out of the partisan mould of politics that has served the planet so badly.

  2. e.j. churchill says:

    roar like a lion; piss like a mouse … is human nature.

    Trump was/is the very most honest world leader: he did not mumble, temporise, re-define, … … … ‘I’m not going to hit the American Economy over algore shite.’


    1. Not the human nature I have experienced.

      Climate denialists not welcome here.

  3. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Sleeping dog counting sheeple 😉

    You may well be right… but what to do about it?

  4. Crubag says:

    I’d agree with the premise that celebs or politicians aren’t going to effect behaviour change – unless their own behaviour changes first. Al Gore is something of a poster boy for that, but how many of our own politicians walk or cycle to work, or take the train or the bus to appointments?

    But history shows state-control can be just as destructive as market economies, with the added advantage that it can cover up its mistakes and misdeeds more easily.

    On the whole, technology is probably the solution. The only time humans have reduced their environmental footprint otherwise has been the result of disease or invasion. But politics can cloud that too, such as Germany’s coal/nuclear decisions.

    1. Mathew says:

      ‘Technology is the solution’ – do you know of a magical machine that can suck billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere?

      1. Crubag says:

        We don’t need to suck it out of the atmosphere, CO2 is plant food so will reduce over time, we just need to stop generating so much. Which means either regressing to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle or developing better technology. So far, we’ve always chosen Option 2.

        1. Mathew says:

          ‘We just need to stop generating so much’ – so easy, so obvious. F**k why didn’t I think of that!

  5. Mark W. Swanepoel says:

    Recently a relative referred me to an article by Mr Michael Small [The Darling (Cotton) Buds of May, Bella Caledonia, 21 April 2018, blaming “neoliberalism” for the worsening environmental crisis, especially greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste. The author argues that private companies, owned by profit-seeking shareholders, spend much less to protect the environment than is essential. They are encouraged by the governments of political parties funded by shareholders, which minimise government interference and control of markets. Mr Small reasons that if most voters supported political parties that favour nationalisation and which are committed to reversing environmental damage, then the return to public ownership of major public services and key natural resources would curb toxic wastes and emissions.

    Over the long term, on average high-β (volatile) stocks yield higher returns than low-β (non-volatile) stocks. The standard explanation is that fewer people invest in higher risk ventures, so it is necessary for such companies to offer a greater reward to attract the same investment. High-β companies are of three types. Most are primary industries such as the extraction and refining of hydrocarbons, metals, and rare earths, certain farm products, and fishing. Some specialise in “second tier” luxury goods, the sales of which are sensitive to the economic cycle. The third category is tech ventures: companies founded to exploit technical inventions and innovations, be it in engineering or software.

    All these groups attract public support, which is not always obvious. Oil companies pay high dividends to shareholders when the oil price is high, and are granted tax relief when it is low. Many mining companies invest little in land and water rehabilitation during normal operations, boosting dividends instead. When the resource is exhausted, they argue no money remains for rehabilitation. If remediation occurs, it is at the taxpayer’s expense. South African coal is sorted into poor and high grades. Low-energy, high-sulphur coal is sold under huge contracts to the parastatal electricity company, Eskom, to fuel its thermal power stations. These contracts allow the coal companies to export high quality coal at competitive prices. The air in large areas around power stations is badly polluted. South African municipalities resale Eskom’s electricity to consumers at huge mark-ups. These consumers not only subsidise the costs of municipalities in entirely unrelated areas, but also the dividends paid to shareholders in the coal mining companies.

    South African mining companies spend little on rehabilitating thousands of hectares in a country where many people are desperate for land. For decades the boards of South African gold mining companies failed to stop acid mine drainage into natural groundwater and watercourses, in a country where water conservation is essential. A quarter century after the technology had been developed to neutralise acidic mine water by treating it with power station fly ash, South African mines began to apply it – in response to public outrage. Worldwide, the taxpayer carries farmers through major crises, be they pest and livestock epidemics, or climatic disasters. In South Africa this includes the support of cattle ranchers in manifestly unsuitable areas, where drought tolerant indigenous antelope that thrive in semi-arid thorn scrub, should be raised instead.

    In short, many high-β businesses are subsidised by the taxpayer. Low-β industries are not. Taxpayers cough up to ensure that high-β shareholders eat cake. Political parties with vested interests, or too stupid to realise what they are doing, ensure that incompetent and/or malign company boards which fail to store the excess of fat cow years to survive the thin cow years, are spared the wrath of shareholders. Unions, such as those of coalminers, uphold the system. Employees of high-β companies would rather have their companies bailed out by taxpayers, than lose their jobs due to the imprudence of the company’s board.

    The failure of the boards of many high-β companies to protect the environment means we should ponder Mr Small’s arguments in favour of nationalisation. One could argue that the egregious subsidisation of private companies, and the enactment and enforcement of laws to protect the environment are what matters, regardless of who owns companies. Expanding the resources and powers of environmental protection agencies may be the way forward.

    Mr Frank Walsh’s first book, The Afflicted State, described the moribund economy of the UK as it was when the Tories won power in 1979. This book reformed my view of state-owned enterprises, and this view has since been confirmed by experience and observation. Today it is understood that (1) a truly free market comprising only private companies and governed only by market forces is an impossibility, and (2) state ownership concentrates economic power in the hands of a few people who have not gained that power for proven competency in economic matters. The classical left-right division is much less significant than it once was. Given the option, most people would choose to be governed by policies in a way that would make the left-right political alignments and manifestos of parties look silly. Today’s electorate is more knowledgeable and wary than that of the 1960s. Many voters spurn the crass, over-simplified views of the traditional left and right, both of which have dismal records.

    I am certain that state-owned enterprises are of benefit in certain, narrow market sectors. I am equally certain that competition between private companies offers advantages:

    1. A firm that wastes energy and/or materials struggles to compete.
    2. A large firm that harms people’s health is soon in trouble. Competitors exploit its failure.
    3. For political reasons national and local governments are under pressure to limit expenditure. Private companies specialising in single sectors do not have to compare the costs of diverse projects to the same extent as state-owned enterprises. A bus company is concerned with its bus service. To a council that owns a bus service, it is just one of many services vying for funding. If a council must decide whether to repair schools or replace old, belching buses, what will it prioritise? Or would the council commit political suicide with a large increase in council tax? Consider a service that could be offered by several competing private firms or one large state enterprise. Smaller companies with a limited hierarchy are often managed by people who know their business intimately, and who are strongly aware of environmental issues. State enterprises tend to be run by people skilled at office politics, but not expert in the business. Amid the far greater stack of issues to be handled by the manager of a large state enterprise, environmental issues are of reduced priority.
    4. Why will state-owned enterprises comply with environmental laws better than equivalent private enterprises? People behave the same, regardless of ownership. History shows state enterprises are at least as negligent as private ones, most likely worse. Did public ownership of the BBC prevent sexual abuse? Would the ownership of the Aberfan Mine have made a difference? Read the post-accident investigation of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster. Would state ownership have made an iota of difference? Politicians, and managers answerable to politicians, cover-up scandals that would cost votes. Governments are averse to suing their own employees and institutions.
    5. The managerial ladders of state-owned enterprises have many more rungs than necessary, stretching upwards through bureaucratic smog to a cabinet minister. This makes it easier to bury awkward issues, and critical decisions are often delayed and/or bungled. (I have seen this happen!) Through bureaucracy and inertia many a state-owned enterprise has continued to engage in environmentally and socially damaging practices long after the equivalent private enterprises would have changed. Ask the orphans of Nottingham.
    6. Parastatals are subject to changes in strategy when the electorate changes the government: ill-timed changes that often owe more to political persuasion than economic and/or environmental realities. Typical of this is the decision to replace older but functional equipment with equipment that is more efficient and kinder to the environment, wholly neglecting the emissions buried in materials, manufacturing, and disposal.
    7. Parastatals tend to be hamstrung by red tape and the general rules and administration of public institutions. All NHS health services of the same type are subject to the same rules, pay grades, etc. There is no room for individual hospitals and medical practices to take steps aligned with local demand. The attitude is: “One size fits all, and we’ll butcher you to ensure this.” If you are intelligent and innovative, there is nothing more demoralising than working for an inflexible, moribund organisation. The NHS knows very well why so many British medical graduates emigrate.

    Stretching way back into the apartheid era, South Africa has had many state-owned enterprises. For the past 24 years they have been owned and controlled by a left wing ANC government. Under both left and right wings, the state enterprises have lost vast sums, in a country where there is dire poverty. Take a good hard look at electricity generation in South Africa, a country that has almost the best solar resource in the world, and yet has among the world’s filthiest electricity. Consider the interest of the coal miners vested in this situation. Take a good hard look at South Africa’s state oil companies, MossGas and PetroSA. Consider the massacre of miners at the Marikana Mine, or the manner in which the state-owned airline, SAA, has swallowed enormous sums of taxpayers’ funds, year after year. Consider the state of South Africa’s collapsing state healthcare system, or the state of its sewerage services and rivers. Now read about the social and environmental state of the United Kingdom in 1979. Think, and think damn hard.

    1. Crubag says:

      Isn’t agriculture a low-beta industry?

    2. Mathew says:

      On point 2 – Exxon, Shell, BP etc are endangering the lives of millions of people through climate change and yet they get off scot free. These companies are worth trillions. They are effectively protected by the Capitalist system.

    3. Thanks for your comment Mark. You seem to have taken an imagined aspect of my argument and responded to in huge detail.

      I was talking about the deeper issues of productivism and consumption and the contradictions of a supposed green capitalism rather than the merits of privatisation versus public ownership.

      I don’t see any way that you can ‘green’ capitalism as ‘growth’ (sic) is at the very heart of its DNA.

      Of course state-run production and enterprises also suffer from terrible environmental disasters and records, but that’s not really the point.

    4. e.j. churchill says:


      Albeit not entirely on-point, GREAT POST!, made even better b/c it is reliable, valid and testable … (all ‘terms-of-art’) exactly the greens permanent & perpetual achilles heel.

      you done good.


    5. e.j. churchill says:


      Albeit not entirely on-point, GREAT POST!, made even better b/c it is reliable, valid and testable … (all ‘terms-of-art’) exactly the greens permanent & perpetual achilles heel.

      you done good.


  6. Mathew says:

    For a detailed explication of how mankind got into this mess see Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, (Prometheus Books)

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