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4 Creating a sustainable future
The ecology of planet earth, and human society as part of it, is facing an existential crisis driven by interacting negative trends including:
- climate change resulting from global warming, leading to drought, hunger, water shortages and growing conflict over resources
- an accelerating extinction of species and destruction of coastal, forest and marine habitats, threatening the survival of our interdependent eco-system
- a crisis of power generation due to the decline of oil, resulting in soaring prices and the expansion of the most polluting forms of energy production.
Driven by the need to expand year on year to reward shareholders, capitalism regards all of nature purely as a “resource” to be exploited. And this includes the people who inhabit the planet and labour on behalf of the corporations. The accelerated rise in emissions coincides with the period of corporate-driven globalisation for profit. The food supply has been undermined by climate change but soaring prices are also driven by profiteering, speculation in land and commodities and the search for “safer” investments in the wake of the financial crisis. Food prices rose by 36% in one year (to April 2011) according to the World Bank’s Food Watch, which estimates that an additional 44 million people fell below the $1.25 poverty line, joining the one billion hungry people in the world.
Salination, excess cold, drought, hurricanes, floods, late and failed rains, forest fires and heat waves, have ruined crops in many parts of the world. High oil prices have raised the price of fertiliser, leading to lower yields. And whole tracts of land and forests are being turned over to production of bio-fuels. Food prices in the UK have risen by 22% over the last three years, the highest rises in Europe. In the UK’s entirely unregulated market, supermarkets are cashing in. Tesco’s pre-tax profits rose by 11.3% in the year to February 2011. Since 2006, corporations and countries have spent $30 billion buying up 20 million hectares of fertile farmland in Africa and Asia – an area that equates to a fifth of all the agricultural land in the European Union. Catherine Flax, investment bank JP Morgan’s CEO for commodities, admitted in January 2011 that “investors are increasingly looking at physical assets, whether agricultural assets or infrastructure type assets, in part because of the expectations of inflation but also I don’t think investors are entirely over the insecurity of the financial crisis”.
Food prices were one of the factors in the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and the United Nations’ top climate official Christiana Figueres gave a dire warning to capitalist nations in February, saying: “It is alarming to admit that if the community of nations is unable to fully stabilise climate change, it will threaten where we can live, where and how we grow food and where we can find water... In other words, it will threaten the basic foundation – the very stability on which humanity has built its existence.”
There is a powerful and growing opposition to the law of the market, represented by the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Governments of small but determined nations such as Ecuador, are prepared to leave oil in the ground in return for global support. In the leadership of this movement is the Bolivian government. They are pioneering the concept of legal rights for Mother Earth. This idea creatively brings together the material reality of the unbreakable unity of the eco-system with the human ideal of a law-governed society. This cannot be delivered by capitalism, but it is an urgent necessity for our survival as a civilised society that we unite in a global network of People’s Assemblies to pass this law and implement it.
The total failure to sign a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012, was set in stone at the UN climate talks in Cancun in December 2010. There will be no binding international agreement on emissions reductions. Of course, during the period of Kyoto’s existence greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise. The concept of a market in carbon was soon corrupted into yet another area for speculation and profit, and many of the carbon credits were awarded fraudulently. Every country signed up to the Cancun betrayal with the exception of just one – Bolivia. President Evo Morales explained they refused to do so “based on the principle of responsibility and the need to defend Mother Earth, which is under attack from the irrational politics of industrialisation of the developed nations”. He added: “It is unfortunate that the industrialised countries fail to assume their responsibility and expect developing countries like Bolivia to carry on their shoulders the crisis generated by capitalism.”
Since Cancun, European governments have retreated from pledges they had made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with Kyoto. Commitments to researching and funding a switch to renewable forms of energy generation have been abandoned. In Britain, the ConDem Coalition dumped subsidies for local renewable energy schemes overnight and plans to abandon legally binding emissions reduction targets put into law by the last parliament. Governments globally have accepted that temperatures will be allowed to rise by +2ºC above pre-industrial levels. A study published by the United Nations Environment Programme shows that rises of up to +4.3ºC could occur. This exceeds the threshold for many “tipping points”, including the end of summer Arctic sea ice, and the melting of glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet. Sea levels could rise by up to two metres by 2100 and five to ten times that over following centuries.
Some regions, populations and eco-systems are already suffering irreversible effects of climate change. Most affected are the Arctic, where the ice cap is melting; sub-Saharan Africa, where drought, and therefore hunger, is increasing; small islands, like the Maldives, which are losing coastline as the sea rises; and the Asian and African mega deltas, where fish stocks are diminished and fertile land becoming salty because the sea is pushing back into the river deltas. As the final declaration of the Mother Earth rights conference held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2010 stated: “The corporations and governments of the so-called ‘developed’ countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.” Attended by 25,000 people, the declaration added: “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”
According to the United Nations, the planet is in the worst biological crisis since dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago. The causes are deforestation, marine pollution and the creation of dead-zones as a result of the use of chemicals and the result is:
- close to 30 countries have lost 90% of their original forest cover
coral reefs in the Caribbean have declined by 80%
- globally 30% of mangroves have been lost in the past two decades
- 22% of the world’s mammals are threatened and at risk of extinction
- nearly a third of amphibians, one in eight birds, 27% of reef-building corals, and 28% of conifers face extinction.
The protest movement, represented in Britain by Climate Camp, the Climate Justice Network and other direct action groups, faces a dilemma. They have learned that neither popular support, nor direct action, will shift governments on climate change. The state will not listen, but will spend millions to “listen in”, planting police agents in organisations. Transition Towns’ experimental and innovative localism is producing some important lessons that can be built on. But the Transition Town movement is now debating whether local food markets and energy initiatives can truly make a difference in the face of government and corporations pulling in the other direction.
Fukushima and the energy crisis
The on-going crisis at the four Fukushima reactors, damaged in Japan’s devastating earthquake of March 2011, has forced many governments to halt plans for new nuclear power stations – at least for the time being. There were numerous cover-ups by Tokyo Electricity & Power Company prior to the earthquake and tsunami. Anti-nuclear campaigners in Japan called regulation by the government’s trade department “an amiable fiction”. And in Britain, a leaked report to ministers admitted that in February 2011 there were two spillages of radioactive waste – at Sellafield and Torness – and a breakdown of an emergency cooling system at Hartlepool.
The other factor in the nuclear equation is the availability of uranium. Mining uranium wrecks the health of miners and their families and leaves land polluted and useless. At current levels of use there is about 80 years supply of uranium remaining in the world – not all of it so easy to get at. A massive expansion of nuclear is not feasible. But nuclear provides around 15% of Europe’s energy, and with older nuclear power stations coming to the end of their lives, the problem is how to keep the lights on, never mind fuel a fresh round of profit-driven commodity production. Under these circumstances you would think a massive shift to renewable forms of energy would be underway but you would be wrong. Instead, the oil and gas companies are finding ways to tie three or four more generations in to fossil fuels.
The Obama administration has just given the go-ahead for an expansion in coal mining on federal land, enough to raise the country’s annual climate pollution by more than half. And major oil companies, facilitated by governments, are pushing ahead with the polluting process of extracting shale oil from tar sands. Drilling for new oil and gas in deep water and extreme conditions, such as in the Arctic and in the Gulf of Mexico, has already had devastating results in Alaska and in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Shale gas from rock deposits is potentially a massive new industry. Governments are being charmed with promises of freedom from dependence on imported oil or coal and emissions reductions without the effort of developing renewable power. But a report from Cornell University shows that far from reducing carbon emissions, this form of natural gas releases 30-50% more methane into the atmosphere than conventional natural gas.
A central part of creating a healthy and sustainable eco-system is the need to break the tyranny of profit-driven production relationships. We need to develop an entirely different approach to production, based on recognition of the unbreakable relationship between meeting our needs and the health of the eco-system as a whole.
Through a new commonwealth, and democratic, not-for-profit forms of ownership and management people can agree the goods and services they need to live life to the full. Associated producers can set prices that include the costs of meeting high environmental standards and providing a social surplus for vital public services – but no private profit. (See section 3 for more detail)
Technology in the service of capitalism adopts a one-sided approach, setting out to create new processes and bring new products to market, with minimal concern for wider social or environmental impacts. In a not-for-profit society, technology will serve a social purpose. No novel technologies or new products will be rushed into production without extensive testing of their environmental and social impacts. The focus of innovation would be recycling everything; even revisiting materials dumped in the past could be beneficial. All enterprises will be required to take back the products they sell at the end of their life for recycling. In a networked world, the waste of one product can be offered on-line to become the useful material for another product.
In the UK, 27% of carbon emissions come from transport and this continues to grow as car use increases and public transport is limited to that which is profitable. A low emissions transport strategy is about fundamental economic and social change. Existing work patterns have people travelling long distances to get to work or to buy goods. A transformation of our cities and of people’s working hours, is essential.
A new generation of planners will put the needs of pedestrians and cyclists first, discouraging individual car use, in favour of urban rail and tram links. Between transport routes, cars can become the new buses, with car sharing and car pools for occasional use.
Communities will consider what flights are important and what is not. Business conferences, importing cheap flowers and out-of-season vegetables will not be needed, leaving scope for people to explore each others’ countries and have new experiences, using a personal allocation of air miles.
Research published in the Scientific American (November 2009) shows that renewables like wind power can meet 100% of the world’s energy needs (not just electricity) and that it is technically feasible to do so by 2030. A European Environment Agency report found that potential wind power amounts to more than three times projected demand for electricity in 2020 and seven times projected demand in 2030. And that could be achieved with existing technology and without covering the entire landscape with wind farms. Offshore wind power alone could meet between 60% and 70% of projected European demand for electricity in 2020 and about 80% of projected demand in 2030. This is without taking into account the reduction in energy requirements that would result from properly insulating existing buildings and ensuring new ones meet higher standards. We can achieve all this in Britain by putting energy generation and use under democratic control, creating decentralised local or small regional, energy supply co-operatives.
- Combined Heat and Power plants (CHP) to provide electricity, heating and cooling. This will enable waste heat from one building to be used in another that needs it, rather than going to waste
- anaerobic digesters transforming the community’s waste, to create bio-gas to fuel the CHPs
- combining decentralised CHP with solar thermal panels for providing hot water and photovoltaic arrays, plus using the storage capacity of the ground itself to make the whole community a clean, de-carbonised power station
- rural and coastal communities forming community owned not-for-profit energy generating co-operatives to benefit directly from the harnessing of wind, wave or tidal power from within their communities for exporting to urban communities, through unobtrusive cables to reduce grid losses
- formation of not-for-profit co-operatives of architects, construction workers, suppliers and product makers, creating all new buildings with energy efficiency as the main driver, not pushed to the margins
- crash programme of insulating all existing homes, and firms to achieve agreed standards of insulation and energy efficiency for offices and factories. The firms would participate fully in the energy strategy for their district.
Food and land
The food we eat is responsible for an eighth of our carbon footprint and the UK exports the same amount of food as it imports, adding to carbon emissions solely for the purpose of profit.
In the West, an uncontrolled experiment of feeding the population highly processed food has caused serious neurological and physiological damage, and an explosion of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and behavioural and psychological problems. Common ownership of land in every country is absolutely vital, with farmers’ rights protected. But at the same time, that does not mean an immediate end to people’s right to hold land and use it – either individually or co-operatively. A framework for land use will protect people’s right to continue farming. This must be a local and community-based framework, not a handing over of land to the state. The concept should be of a new Commonwealth.
A handful of transnational agri-corporations, seed corporations, commodity speculators and supermarkets monopolise the food chain. They exploit producers and consumers alike. Corporations like Monsanto, Wal Mart, Glencore, Tesco, Syngenta and Cargill have to come into collective ownership, and be run by partnerships of employee-owners, suppliers, farmers and consumers. Farmers and natural scientists can then work together to develop solutions to the problems formerly solved by the application of herbicides and nitrates, leading to impoverishment of the soil and the crop.
Essential to sustainability is that composting becomes a structured part of social life. Returning waste to the soil is a concrete recognition of the unbreakable cycle of life. It will also re-establish the essential link between town and country, consumers and producers. Discouraging industrial-scale meat and dairy production and encouraging diets high in grains, vegetables and fruit would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving human nutrition and lowering health costs. Locally-sourced food must become the priority wherever possible. The system of Green Belt land in Britain could include an expansion of allotment land, to encourage local food growing. These new commons would be sacrosanct for use by the community for ever.
An unprecedented destruction of species is taking place just at a time when natural scientists are providing more and more evidence of the interdependence of the eco-system, and the extent to which the survival of genetic diversity is the key to human survival. The UN’s Bio-diversity treaty, with all its flaws, could dramatically improve this situation – if ever it was implemented. But the process is going in the opposite direction with the market now embarked on what we could call “remaindering”, where formerly uneconomic land, mineral deposits and fossil fuel deposits have now become valuable commodities to be dragged out of the earth at any cost.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, proposed at climate change talks in Bali in 2007, established a copyright-free global seed bank to protect the widest possible range of seeds so that we can respond to climate change. But because it includes WTO rules, the corporations are taking materials freely given by countries and transforming them by seemingly insignificant modifications into private property.
The rights of farmers to reuse seed and develop their own seed appropriate for local conditions are being destroyed. As the organisation Via Campesina, which represents peasant farmers from across the world, states: “This is a contradictory and ambiguous treaty, which in the final analysis comes down on the side of theft.”
This manifesto supports the Bolivian government’s proposals for a binding global treaty recognising Mother Earth Rights. This will protect the rights of indigenous people, who live in wildernesses or other tribal lands, for all time and make the patenting of any plant species illegal. The only equitable way of halting climate change is through contraction and convergence. We need a democratic global forum to plan to halt the growth in emissions and to mitigate the impacts that are now inevitable. They would draw on all the expertise represented by climate scientists, world food and health experts and support each others’ development towards self-government and economic independence.
- close London’s carbon trading exchange
- fund insulation grants and solar panels for all households where suitable
- bring rail, air and bus networks into not-for-profit ownership, slashing fares and working for an integrated transport system
- take cars out of city centres with park and ride, and create public transport/cycle-only boxes in the centre of cities
- establish car pool schemes and car sharing schemes
- set upper limits on total flight miles in and out of Britain and distribute them fairly through an air miles system; halt airport expansion
- halt plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations
- launch a crash programme of renewable energy projects.