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Putting an end to 'business as usual'

On the day the government launches its renewable energy strategy, it might consider the fact that while three-quarters of British people are worried about climate change, more than half have no confidence in political leaders to tackle the crisis. According to a recent Mori poll, two-thirds want more government action, but just as many are cynical about the real purpose of so-called “green taxes”.

An expert panel set up by the government itself, the Renewables Advisory Board, to advise on achieving the target of 15% renewable energy by 2020 says the most crucial component is political leadership. RAB states that “a rapid development of a transformed energy framework with radically new economic, political and social drivers is necessary”.

But New Labour’s strategy has none of that sense of urgency. It relies on the market to deliver targets and sticks to profit-driven, business-as-usual “solutions”. And there is no sign that the government is looking at a reduction in fossil fuel use – indeed it plans to allow new coal-fired power stations. And Gordon Brown spent last week in a futile bid to get the Saudis to pump more oil and to invest in his mad nuclear power expansion project, which new planning laws will facilitate.

So people are absolutely right to have no confidence in governments to lead us into this new energy era. The big question is, what kind of leadership is going to do it? Across the country thousands of people are setting up Transition Towns, in an attempt to make the switch to a post-oil era by unleashing local activism and talents.

Transition Towns (TT) have an up-front, anti-political approach. For example at the launch of the Transition Town meeting in Lewes, a member of the audience urged TT Lewes to join the campaign against construction of a rubbish incinerator but it was made clear that this was inappropriate as not everyone might be against it. The same is true in Ireland, where TT stood aside from the community campaign to stop Shell building a new pipeline at Rossport. Transition Towns want to focus on the things people already agree about.

The difficulty with this approach is that it promotes the idea that there can be a managed, painless transition to a post-oil era. This is the kind of environmental consensus the government itself promotes because it does not disturb business interests whilst focusing people’s energies on individual and local activity.

But we cannot any longer take the risks of ignoring the crisis-driven, life-and-death nature of the global energy crisis. As the authors of The Rocky Road to Transition Towns (by TT members and supporters) argue:

“Communities must face up to issues such as nuclear expansion, market-based solutions to climate change such as carbon trading and offsetting, agro fuels and food scarcity, developments such as airport expansion and resource extraction. These things all occur through active government policies, which try to maintain the economic and political, ‘business as usual’ scenarios. Unfortunately, left unchallenged they could also wipe out the best efforts at local sustainability, like a tsunami in front of a sand castle.”

The authors are right to open up this debate. Transition Towns represent a positive recognition that citizens cannot – and should not – rely on governments to deal with the energy crisis. Yet a localised, individual and generally non-political, approach leaves unchallenged the corporations’ control of energy production and fails to question the ruinous capitalist approach to the economy in general. As difficult as it might be, we have to make a transition beyond the rule of the corporations and market “solutions” that actually intensify the problem. That means struggling for a new consensus rather than simply rehashing the government’s message.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
26 June 2008

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