human activity and the destruction of the planet

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Developing a new, participatory economy by George Monbiot

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 11th October 2017.  It was entitled “Labouratory” and also appears on George Monbiot’s website

We are still living in the long 20th Century. We are stuck with its redundant technologies: the internal combustion engine; thermal power plants; factory farms. We are stuck with its redundant politics: unfair electoral systems; their capture by funders and lobbyists; the failure to temper representation with real participation.

And we are stuck with its redundant economics: neoliberalism, and the Keynesianism still proposed by its opponents. While the latter system worked very well for 30 years or more, it is hard to see how it can take us through this century, not least because the growth it seeks to sustain smacks headlong into the environmental crisis.

Sustained economic growth on a planet that is not growing means crashing through environmental limits: this is what we are witnessing, worldwide, today. A recent paper in Nature puts our current chances of keeping global heating to less than 1.5°C of at just 1%, and less than 2° at only 5%. Why? Because while the carbon intensity of economic activity is expected to decline by 1.9% a year, global per capita GDP is expected to grow by 1.8%. Almost all investment in renewables and efficiency is cancelled out. GDP, the index that was supposed to measure our prosperity, instead measures our progress towards ruin.

But the great rupture that began in 2008 offers a chance to change all this. The challenge now is to ensure that the new political movements threatening established power in Britain and elsewhere create the space not for old ideas (such as 20th Century Keynesianism) but for a new politics, built on new economic and social foundations.

There may be a case for one last hurrah for the old model: a technological shift that resembles the Second World War’s military Keynesianism. In 1941, the US turned the entire civilian economy around on a dime: within months, car manufacturers were producing planes, tanks and ammunition. A determined government could do something similar in response to climate breakdown: a sudden transformation, replacing our fossil economy. But having effected such a conversion, it should, I believe, then begin the switch to a different economic model.

The new approach could start with the idea of private sufficiency and public luxury. There is not enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury: if everyone in London acquired a tennis court, a swimming pool, a garden and a private art collection, the city would cover England. Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public amenities – wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks – create more space for everyone, at a fraction of the cost.

Wherever possible, I believe such assets should be owned and managed by neither state nor market, but by communities, in the form of commons. A commons in its true form is a non-capitalist system, in which a resource is controlled in perpetuity by a community, for the shared and equal benefit of its members. A possible model is the commons transition plan commissioned by the Flemish city of Ghent.

Land value taxation also has transformative potential. It can keep the income currently siphoned out of our pockets in the form of rent – then out of the country and into tax havens – within our hands. It can reduce land values, bringing down house prices. While local and national government should use some of the money to fund public services, the residue can be returned to communities.

Couple this with a community right to buy, enabling communities to use this money to acquire their own land, with local commons trusts that possess powers to assemble building sites, and with a new right for prospective buyers and tenants to plan their own estates, and exciting things begin to happen. This could be a formula for meeting housing need, delivering public luxury and greatly enhancing the sense of community, self-reliance and taking back control. It helps to create what I call the Politics of Belonging.

But it doesn’t stop there. The rents accruing to commons trusts could be used to create a local version of the citizens’ wealth funds (modelled on the sovereign wealth funds in Alaska and Norway) proposed by Angela Cummine and Stewart Lansley. The gain from such funds could be distributed in the form of a local basic income.

And the money the government still invests? To the greatest extent possible, I believe it should be controlled by participatory budgeting. In the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre, the infrastructure budget is allocated by the people: around 50,000 citizens typically participate. The results – better water, sanitation, health, schools and nurseries – have been so spectacular that large numbers of people now lobby the city council to raise their taxes. When you control the budget, you can see the point of public investment.

In countries like the UK, we could not only adopt this model, but extend it beyond the local infrastructure budget to other forms of local and even national spending. The principle of subsidiarity – devolving powers to the smallest political unit that can reasonably discharge them – makes such wider democratic control more feasible.

All this would be framed within a system such as Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics which, instead of seeking to maximise growth, sets a lower bound of wellbeing below which no one should fall, and an upper bound of environmental limits, that economic life should not transgress. A participatory economics could be accompanied by participatory politics, involving radical devolution and a fine-grained democratic control over the decisions affecting our lives – but I will leave that for another column.

Who could lead this global shift? It could be the UK Labour Party. It is actively seeking new ideas. It knows that the bigger the change it offers, the greater the commitment of the volunteers on which its insurgency relies: the Big Organising model that transformed Labour’s fortunes at the last election requires a big political offer. (This is why Ed Miliband’s attempts to create a grassroots uprising failed).

Could Labour be the party that brings the long 20th Century to an end? I believe, despite its Keynesian heritage, it could. Now, more than at any other time in the past few decades, it has a chance to change the world.

November 2019

George Monbiot has been active in supporting the Extinction Rebellion movement, speaking at their various demonstration in London.  This photograph shows him being arrested for his actions in October 2019.



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Labour’s Manifesto on Sustainable Energy


Labour’s 2017 energy policy is built on three simple principles:

  • To ensure security of energy supply and ‘keep the lights on’.
  • To ensure energy costs are affordable for consumers and businesses.
  • To ensure we meet our climate change targets and transition to a low-carbon economy.

The UK energy system is outdated, expensive and polluting. Privatisation has failed to deliver an energy system that delivers for people, businesses or our environment.

One in ten households are in fuel poverty, yet the Competition Markets Authority found customers are overcharged an enormous £2 billion every year.

Labour understands that many people don’t have time to shop around, they just want reliable and affordable energy. So the next Labour Government will:

  • Introduce an immediate emergency price cap to ensure that the average dual-fuel
  • household energy bill remains below £1,000 per year, while we transition to a fairer system for bill payers.
  • Take energy back into public ownership to deliver renewable energy, affordability for consumers, and democratic control. We will do this in the following stages:
    • Regaining control of energy supply networks through the alteration of the National and Regional Network Operator license conditions.
    • Supporting the creation of publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers, with at least one in every region.
    • Legislating to permit publicly owned local companies to purchase the regional grid infrastructure, and to ensure that national and regional grid infrastructure is brought into public ownership over time.

Labour will insulate four million homes as an infrastructure priority to help those who suffer in cold homes each winter. This will cut emissions, improve health, save on bills, and reduce fuel poverty and winter deaths.

Homeowners will be offered interest- free loans to improve their property. For renters, Labour will improve on existing Landlord Energy Efficiency regulations and re-establish the Landlord Energy Saving Allowance to encourage the uptake of efficiency measures.

Labour will ban fracking because it would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels, long after the point in 2030 when the Committee on Climate Change says gas in the UK must sharply decline.

Emerging technologies such as carbon capture and storage will help to smooth the transition to cleaner fuels and to protect existing jobs as part of the future energy mix. To safeguard the offshore oil and gas industry, we will provide a strategy focused on protecting vital North Sea assets, and the jobs and skills that depend on them.

We are committed to renewable energy projects, including tidal lagoons, which can help create manufacturing and energy jobs as well as contributing to climate- change commitments.

The UK has the world’s oldest nuclear industry, and nuclear will continue to be part of the UK energy supply. We will support further nuclear projects and protect nuclear workers’ jobs and pensions. There are considerable opportunities for nuclear power and decommissioning both internationally and domestically.

Building a clean economy of the future is the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations. Yet recent years have seen a failure to progress towards our targets. A Labour government will put us back on track to meet the targets in the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement.

The low-carbon economy is one of the UK’s fastest-growing sectors, creating jobs and providing investment across each region. It employed an estimated 447,000 employees in the UK in 2015 and saw over £77 billion in turnover. With backing from a Labour government, these sectors can secure crucial shares of global export markets.

Currently, the UK buys and sells energy tariff free from Europe, an arrangement which saves families and businesses money, and helps balance the power grid. As part of the Brexit negotiations, Labour will prioritise maintaining access to the internal energy market. Labour will also retain access to Euratom, to allow continued trade of fissile material, with access and collaboration over research vital to our nuclear industry.

Also, it may be of interest to readers to view a youtube video made last September:
Also, a longer 11-page paper, Protecting our Planet, written by Jeremy Corbyn in August 2015, can be found at:

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A possible contribution of ethical science to the Industrial Strategy of the Labour Party By Dr David Hookes, on behalf of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR)

The paper below has been copied in its entirety, with acknowledgements to Dr David Hookes. As a strategy, I believe it takes us on further than the list of suggestions made in chapter 7 of my book, under the sub-heading Economy 6.  David’s ideas have a uniqueness and should be given serious consideration.

Who we are: SGR is an independent UK-based membership organisation of hundreds of natural scientists, social scientists, engineers, IT professionals and architects. We promote science, design and technology that contribute to peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability. SGR’s work is focused on four main issues: security and disarmament, climate change and energy, including nuclear power; who controls science and technology?, and emerging technologies. Introduction: Our view is that science and technology can be used to help implement the transformation of the socio-economic system on a global basis to create a cooperative, pluralist commonwealth based on fairness, mutuality and equality. In this economy humanity lives within ecological limits, now more commonly known as planetary boundaries. One key to the long-term survival of industrial society is to develop a low carbon energy supply to avoid catastrophic climate change. This will involve technologies which harness renewable energy in all its forms (including solar, wind, waves, hydro, bioenergy, tidal, geothermal). Energy storage technologies will also be essential to help deal with problems of variability and intermittency, and some contribution from digital systems, that is, computers and digital instrumentation will be important in integrating these various sources of energy into smart local and national grids. A background to this renewable energy revolution is that about 10,000 times more solar energy falls on the earth than we at present require for all our energy uses. For instance, a small patch of the Sahara, 100×100 square kilometres could supply all of Europe’s electrical energy needs. Capturing a small fraction of this energy and controlling its release are the vital scientific and engineering tasks necessary to avoid climate and environmental disaster.

2 |  An ethical science contribution to a Labour Party industrial strategy: We believe that would place at least three interrelated issues at the centre of an ethical science contribution to Labour’s industrial strategy: 1. Green New Deal-type proposals 2. Arms conversion or replacement program 3. Technology for sustainable development Science tells us that the fossil fuel era must come to end shortly in order to prevent rapid, catastrophic climate change. SGR is a strong supporter of most of the ideas contained in the Green New Deal. 1. The Green New Deal: This proposal has many aspects to it but we especially recommend the following: Low-carbon energy systems, ‘every building a power station’, maximisation of energy efficiency, with renewable and low-carbon energy sources to generate electricity. Creating a workforce for a large-scale environmental reconstruction program, including house insulation. Rapid reductions in fossil fuel subsidies to reflect environmental costs and support a transition to a sustainable and low carbon economy A range of financial innovations such as municipal green bonds and others to finance a green revolution. Low interest rates offered to kick start low carbon developments consistent with democratic aims, social justice and financial stability. The Green New Deal also proposes, with which we concur: Help developing countries by financing large-scale investment in climate change mitigation and adaptation using funds ($100Bn per annum) as first agreed under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord Support the free and unconstrained transfer of new, largely solar, renewable energy technologies to developing countries (see later) There is now talk, especially in the US, of a Global Green New Deal in which a UK Green New Deal could be integrated- a kind of eco-internationalism. Since the climate and many environmental issues are intrinsically international in their essence this seems a sensible strategy.

3 |  2. Arms conversion or replacement: There are many opportunities to carry a general program of arms conversion but we deal below with the most significant one, namely, the nuclear weapons program. For instance if a future Labour government decided to cancel the Trident renewal program it would have to find alternative employment for the several thousand workers involved in it. There have been a number of studies of alternatives, including ‘Oceans of Work’ by Steven Schofield, which was oriented to harnessing renewable energy from waves, wind, and tidal power. More recently, robust assessments of how skilled workers could be re-employed in the renewable and other industries have been published by organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Campaign Against Arms Trade. There is particular potential in offshore wind and tidal lagoons projects. In addition to these proposals we sketch out some ideas below on to how to reemploy the ship-building community in Barrow as well as workers in sub-contracting firms. Solar eco-ships The government could finance, from the cancelled funding for Trident renewal, the development of solar eco-ships that could run on, say, solar-derived hydrogen, or some another renewable low carbon fuel. Some designers have suggested the use of flexible solar cells as sails, for additional propulsion and solar electricity. Such ships could replace the present oil-based merchant shipping over time by being both more energy and economically efficient as well as eco-friendly. The transformation of shipping into solar eco-ships will create many jobs for workers at shipyards such as Barrow, and elsewhere to replace the nuclear submarine work and the subcontracted employment. Hybrid solar eco-ships: We could also discuss the possibility of constructing a type of hybrid ship that has both cargo-carrying capacity, leisure facilities, workshops, and medical facilities. Such ships could provide largely self-funding retirement trips for workers, especially skilled ones. They could act as the link between communities in the developing world and the developed world exchanging goods, and services such as health and education, and skills, as well as promoting broader social and cultural interaction between the communities. Specialist ships for implementing a program of tidal and wave energy around Britain’s coasts and further into the North Atlantic: Britain used to have lead in wave energy until the Thatcher government withdrew funding, possibly under the influence of the nuclear and fossil fuel lobbies.

4. There is scope for tapping into the wave energy in the North Atlantic fetches so specialist ships could be built to implement this program. It would also create a large number of jobs in fabricating wave energy converters. The development of tidal lagoons would also create many jobs fabricating their structures as well as the turbines to generate electricity. Technology for Sustainable Development We suggest that this can be implemented in a network of R&D centres, each, perhaps, specialising in a specific area of technology for sustainable development. Such centres could incorporate the recently instituted catapult centres. Centres of Technology for Sustainable Development (CTSDs) These centres can eventually replace the many nuclear research, development and production plants such as Sellafield, Harwell, Capenhurst, Springfields, Aldermaston, etc. This will have to be a phased process since expertise in dealing with nuclear waste and dismantling of nuclear reactors and weapons will need to be retained for several decades or even longer. It is important to point out that the research program to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear power was initiated in the late 1940s when UK was effectively bankrupt from the cost of the war and was deeply in debt to the US. Nevertheless, money was found to create the institutional structure for nuclear power and nuclear weapons R&D. We must also note this program did not have any significant economic multiplier effect. The energy produced from the nuclear power plants is very expensive and the plants themselves were very dirty producing long-lived radioactive waste, and are also very dangerous. We suggest that money can be found to fund the CTSDs at a fraction of the long term costs of the Trident renewal program (£200bn). The CTSDs will work closely with University departments and private sector research labs which have existing research programs in similar or allied areas But they will also have an economic multiplier effect. For instance, if the UK were, in the first instance, to give the small farmers of Africa and India and elsewhere, solarbased technologies as proposed in the Green New Deal, to increase their productivity they will, in the future, be in a position to exchange their products, such as healthy food and other agricultural products under fair trade agreements. They will also undergo development without taking the fossil fuel route to development, as we did. The funding for the CTSDs could, therefore, also partly come from the annual $100bn fund created under Copenhagen Accord for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

5 |  The CTSDs will also create much spin-off work for SMEs throughout the country again replacing subcontracting work associated with the cancelled nuclear program. The high level technical skills possessed by the nuclear industry can be adapted to help solve the technological problems associated with the technology for sustainable development. Examples are solar- powered agroecological technology for small- and medium-size farms so that they can replace the highly polluting agribusiness monocultures. The latter have been a key contributor to the catastrophic loss of biodiversity and the poisoning of the land and the planetary water systems. Possible International Alliances? The technology developed by the CTSDs could support international alliances of precariat workers and small farmers. The precariat workers, those with insecure, temporary jobs sometimes on zero hours contracts and usually low paid, constitute at least 30% of the workers in the UK and in some countries, for example, South Korea, as much as 50% of the workforce. They are in a similar situation, in terms of security, to the small farmers especially in developing countries who are preyed upon by agribusiness corporations. Many are driven off the land, ending in the slums of cities, sometimes as a result of being unable to pay debts to these corporations who supplied them with seeds, fertilisers, and so on. In India many have committed suicide. Small farmers constitute at least 40% of humanity but there is, therefore, a possibility of international alliance of these two groups of the marginalised. With appropriate-scale renewable energy technology together with the improvements suggested by scientific understanding of agroecology, it has been shown that the small farmers could grow enough healthy food to feed the world. The development and production of this technology will provide steady income for both the farmers and previously precariously employed workers. Some examples of solar-powered technology from CTSDs Solar-powered water pumping from depth for both irrigation and for drinking. Solar-powered health and education technologies Solar powered- shipping containers can also be developed. Already there are at least two institutions in Germany; one is a social enterprise, AfricaGreenTech in Hamburg, which has engineers and scientists from Africa working with German colleagues; the other is a government-funded R&D institute, the ILK, in Dresden; they both produce solar-powered shipping containers that can be adapted for the above range of functions for small farming communities [ see attached figure below for ILK solar container] They can also be equipped as Agroecology research labs.

6 |  They can even be used for the re-charging of non-military drones, for instance, to deliver medicines to remote communities. Collaboration with German and African colleagues for promoting human and environmental well-being would also be a desirable possibility for historically resonant reasons. It is possible to develop solar-powered small scale agricultural machinery for tillage, transport, and processing of the crops. Environmental clean-up technologies CTSDs can also develop technologies to clean up the environment, for instance, extracting CO2 from the atmosphere using artificial ‘trees’ and storing it underground. Techniques can possibly be developed to reuse the CO2 by converting it to carbon monoxide using a combination of catalysts and solar thermal energy. Carbon monoxide combined with hydrogen is called ‘synthesis gas’ which can then be used to create net low carbon hydrocarbon fuels through the Fischer-Tropsch process. The damage done to the environment by pesticides, herbicides used by agribusiness can be remedied using agroecological methods combined with modern scientific input. Techniques for removal and recycling of plastic waste that at present accumulate in the centre of the oceans need to be developed. Solar-powered water distillation plants: There is an emerging water shortage on the planet caused by the logging of forests and many other reasons, such as its excess use by agribusinesses. Most current methods of desalinating water are energy intensive and can only afforded by rich countries. But there are possible ways that water desalination could be achieved using solar thermal energy. An electric storage technology: This is a key part of operating a low-carbon economy. Primarily this means improved batteries but also using hydrogen, and pumped storage for hydropower. Already there are buses operating in London, Aberdeen, and elsewhere using fuel cells operating on hydrogen Electric powered vehicles: The UK has fallen behind its competitors in developing this technology. But this is likely to be the key transport technology for a low carbon world.

7 |  Conclusion: We have suggested a number of ways in which ethical science can help provide alternatives to controversial and unsustainable industries such as the arms industry and fossil fuels industry. In a sense we have only scratched the surface of the manifold opportunities for creating a truly sustainable economy. With the increasing use of solar energy and digital technology we can anticipate that we can eventually reduce the working day if the work can be shared out fairly. That means an increase in social enterprises working with private companies to create the common good- what Gar Alperowitz has described as a ‘pluralist commonwealth’. References are available on request. Contact: Dr David Hookes, 15 February 2017