Tag Archives: economy

Autumn Statement

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Things we have learned from the Autumn Statement:
1) Labour were right, borrowing to invest is a good thing
2) After 6 years of pain, the Tories haven’t managed to reduce our national debt one jot, it’s still going up
3) The cost to our economy of Brexit will cancel out any saving from not contributing to the EU. Although right now we are bearing the cost and still contributing
4) Despite Mrs May’s lovely speech, the poorest families will be hundreds of pounds a year worse off
5) But don’t worry, because there’s still enough money to fund tax cuts for those earning over £43,000 a year.

 

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The story of the black stuff

img_1388_2The roots of the devastation that is climate change lie in the same roots as the industrial revolution – in the discovery and burning of coal. Leading to steam engines, capitalism, colonialism and the British Empire. Without coal, none of this would have been possible. And we have merely been postponing the consequences.

It has been clear to me for a while that in order to stop rampant global warming, we will need to consume much less. There may be some technological fixes, and it will help if we switch to renewables. But at the end of the day, the earth’s resources are finite, and we need to stop using them up at the current rate.

But this using up of resources is what our economy is based on. We depend on perpetual growth to make the world go round. If people stop buying so much stuff, then we won’t need to make as much stuff, so there won’t be as much work to go round. There will be less money being spent and less profit being made. I can see some easy solutions – shorter working hours, but with a decent minimum wage so everyone can manage, and capping of wages at the top. But all of this is a great departure from our current system of how we measure progress and success.

So far, this is challenging, but not too difficult to conceptualise and imagine how we might get there. What I’m struggling with today is not what the future might look like, but how we interpret our past. The coal that built the world we live in is the cause of its destruction. The rapacious appetites of capitalism and empire have created gross inequalities between people and countries north and south, and stored up in the atmosphere enough carbon to finish us off.

But coal built the world we live in. As I walk to work through Leeds city centre, I admire the beautiful buildings that coal built. And I live in Sheffield, a city built on steel. To regret the industrial revolution feels like betrayal. The wealth created by capitalism transformed our lives – warmth, comfort, health, leisure. There’s no way I want to go back to subsistence farming, or even working in a Lancashire cotton mill. I like the life that I lead, but how do I process it?

Does it even matter? Do we need to develop a new narrative to come to terms with our past in order to move on with our future? Is the reason that we seem to be failing to face up to climate change anything to do with the fact that it means owning up to our responsibility? That the life we lead has caused climate change. Not just our current lifestyles, but 300 years of history on which our country is based.

We are already facing up to the realisation that progress is no longer inevitable, that our children’s lives will not necessarily be better than our parents’. But now I think we have to face up to the idea that what we call progress is not all it seems, certainly not all progress is for the better. There is much about our past that we have cause to regret – slavery is but one example that springs to mind, and having lived in Liverpool I have admired the beautiful buildings there built on the back of slaves. But until now, I have never stared down the whole edifice of capitalism and wondered if it should ever have happened at all.

What story do we need to tell ourselves about who we are, what we have done, and where we are going? We need to acknowledge the good things that capitalism has brought. There is progress that we can celebrate. But we must also acknowledge the cost, not just the fact of it, but the enormity of the price. Was there a better way? Could we have transformed our lives to this extent without the same rape and pillage of the earth? We can never know, and we cannot change what we have done.

But we can learn from our mistakes. When we tell our stories, we must tell them with humility. We enjoy so much about what progress has brought, but this progress has come at great cost, and that cost is not being borne equally. Our history is not a history of learning to tame the earth, but thinking that we have learnt to tame the earth and now finding out that we haven’t. And now these lessons need to inform our future, and a new understanding of what progress looks like.

 

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s ‘This changes everything’ and this train of thought was set off by chapter 5, which I’m currently half way through!

Shopping Costs the Earth

Bravely or foolishly, we went to Meadowhall shopping centre on Saturday afternoon. It was a good afternoon, actually, as we took my mother-in-law with us, who can’t walk far. We were able to borrow a mobility scooter at no cost for as long as we needed, meaning we could have an outing all together, which is otherwise often difficult. She was able to take her grand-daughter shopping for clothes for her birthday, a lovely shared experience which doesn’t happen very often.

But sometimes these places are too much for me! I stood in the crowded shop amidst rows and rows of cheap clothes and wondered what on earth we were all doing there. No wonder our planet is groaning under the strain of our over-consumption when every Saturday is full of people buying clothes they will wear a few times and then discard for a newer, trendier outfit. And on this is our whole economy predicated. We all shudder when Marks and Spencer’s profits drop, and yet their profits will only remain buoyant if we keep buying clothes. The Chancellor is pleased with the apparent economic recovery driven by people spending money. He is concerned that we are too reliant on a consumer-driven recovery and would like to see more exports. But what are exports other than consumption by people in other countries?

On Monday, the IPCC published a report demonstrating that climate change is no longer something we need to worry about in the future, but a problem which is already happening now. The report details the devastating consequences of extreme weather in poor countries where people do not have the resources to adapt and manage the changes. As Rowan Williams puts it, we thought the floods in the UK were difficult to deal with, but we have so much more capacity to cope than those living in typhoon-prone Philippines for example. The report also describes how climate change is already reducing food production and sketches out the likely consequences of food scarcity, leading to rising food prices, mass movement of people looking for food and potential riots and war. Scary stuff.

The energy involved in the production, transportation, retail and purchase of clothes is only small proportion of the UK’s carbon footprint. Supplying energy to homes and businesses produces 41% of our CO2 emissions. But the same principle applies to our desire for cheap food available all year round regardless of season, and our economic context which allows the energy companies to shift the blame for high prices onto the part of our bills which pays for investment in renewable energy and get away with it. (As an aside, I’m very sceptical about SSE announcing they will freeze their prices by cutting investment in renewables.) The chart below shows the share of carbon emissions by sector in the UK in 2012, which energy supply being divided between the end users.

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Information taken from the Department of Energy and Climate Change report 2013 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures and 2012 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures by Fuel Type and End-User, page 20.

Somehow, we need to think about facing up to climate change at a much more fundamental level. We know that buying stuff doesn’t make us happy on one level, but buying stuff is the basis of our economy, and therefore our wellbeing is reliant on consumption. How do we move forward and build an economic system which ensures people are in work and paid enough to look after their families, but doesn’t rely on a permanent striving after growth and material things? When is anybody who might actually be able to come up with an answer actually going to ask this question?

I guess I’m still looking for an alternative to capitalism, and no-one’s come up with that yet. But here are a few ideas for a start. We could move on from this disposable age where things are built not to last and technology comes with built-in obsolescence. I’m all for a bit of make-do and mend, but I realise not everyone is keen on the hair-shirt aesthetic! We need to invest our time and money into things which don’t burn fossil fuels. And I don’t just mean renewable energy, but spending our disposable income, after the essentials, on non-material things. Some of this already goes on, as we can see with the proliferation of nail bars and hair salons on our high streets. Perhaps we can build our economy on creative and service industries like art, music, film and theatre, on locally produced food and drink enjoyed with family and friends, and on sport and leisure pursuits. Things which don’t cost the earth, in more ways than one.