Green & Growing
by Gwydion M. Williams
- The wit and wisdom of the Green Party
- Far-sighted people?
- Safe and static?
- Handling the farmers
- The zero-damage economy
There is said to be a cunning stratagem for catching a monkey. You put grain in a jar that is itself fastened by a rope. The monkey will put its hand in the jar and grab a handful of grain. But it will find the neck of the jar too narrow to withdraw its hand. You can then come with a net and catch the beast, secure in the knowledge that it will not have enough sense to let go of the grain in order to free its hand and get away. It wants the grain. It wants to escape. It wants to escape more than it wants the grain. But a monkey can’t work out that giving up the grain is the only way to preserve itself.
[This may be a myth. I have asked a few times and never got a clear answer.]
Industrial civilization is in a similar bind. Securing our long-term future shouldn’t involve anything as drastic as zero economic growth or encouraging the population to shrink. Pollutants can be made safe at a price. And the price is not an impossible one. If states gave the long-term future of the planet the same weight as they give the possibility of losing a war with some rival state, there would be no problem and no need for a ‘green’ movement. But each interest group wants to save the planet with the least loss to its own interests.
Had 19th century capitalism decided to cure pollution, it could have done so and continued to produce a modern industrial society. Had history gone that way, we might today be a couple of decades less advanced, with maybe only half the present national wealth. But what’s the hurry? The earth is good for maybe another hundred million years, if we don’t mess it up. Human beings go back maybe two million – it depends what you define as human. Agriculture and cities go back 20,000 years, maybe less. Industrial civilisation maybe 200 years. There’s plenty of time to fulfil the whole of human potential without messing up the planet we live on. The only habitable planet we know of, and just possibly the only habitable planet in the universe.
Some of the worst forms of pollution were indeed dealt with in the previous century. We take it for granted that pure clean water is available to all, and that human beings do not defecate in the street But in Europe, this was only really established as the norm in the 19th century. The history of industrial civilization involves increasingly high standards of cleanliness, as much as it involves problems from new sorts of waste and filth. As each type of problem is solved, a new one pops up.
(‘The damage to the Ozone layer might end soon. Someone has found a cheap safe way to pressurise aerosols with nitrogen, the gas that makes up four-fifths of the air that we breathe [New Scientist, July 22, page 33]. With luck this will soon go into production, although the damage already done will not heal quickly.)
‘Green’ politics are not really a new matter, simply an intensification of ideas and feelings that have been about for a long time.
The wit and wisdom of the Green Party
The Green Party people are fond of saying that since the world is finite, unlimited economic growth is obviously not possible. They are quite wrong. Unlimited pollution, energy use and consumption of raw materials are obviously not possible. But these things are not the same as economic growth, even though they have often gone together.
Industrial civilisations were maturing. There was a shift of emphasis from more to better. Modem televisions or cars use no more resources that did those of the early 1970s. They are however much more efficient. Computers are an even more remarkable case. Something that would have filled a large room in the 1970s can now sit on the top of a desk, and will soon be small enough to put in your pocket.
Green Party ideology is a re-hash of the Limits to Growth thesis of the Club of Rome of the early 1970s. They built an economic model full of naive assumptions, and found that the model had a tendency to crash. They assumed that the real world must follow their model, unless something drastic were done. In fact, the real world was much more stable than they supposed. Their scare tactics proved counterproductive. When it was found that things were nothing like as bad as the Club of Rome had said, people used this as an excuse to push aside the awkward matter of long-term pollution.
The notion of cutting arms expenditure to boost spending on pollution control is rubbish. These are two quite separate issues. The present world situation does indeed suggest that we can cut back on arms. But even if it did not, the need to clean up the world would be exactly the same.
Britain was definitely wrong not to have spent more or re-armament in the 1930s, when thinking people could see that Hitler could only be stopped by warfare. But they were also wrong not to have done more about pollution in those days. If they’d started then, we wouldn’t now have a problem.
The Green Party has an odd attitude to population. They say it must be curbed, or even reduced. This is a hold-over from older attitudes. There was a time when the prophets of doom were saying that population was bound to surge up for ever, until a final catastrophic crash. It is now generally accepted that it will stabilize some time in the next century, at about ten billion. Since the present population is about 4.5 billion, this seems an acceptable figure. In any case, we have little choice but to accept it, unless we want to get really uncivilised. Murdering female babies would be a highly effective way of curbing population; the key factor is the number of potential mothers. But who could argue for such a thing? The Green Party do not, of course. In fact they simply demand that population be curbed at below the civilized stable point, without saying how this is to be done. At best, this is foolish and impractical.
Green Party politics are a silly mishmash. They hold that Britain is overpopulated – we need to lose some 20 million people, somehow. But they have no idea how. They call for a decentralised world, and have no mechanism for stopping some of the decentralised groups from breeding or polluting in an unacceptably non-Green manner.
The Green Parties in Western Europe are intent on breaking up the Common Market. They would dismantle the one really useful international state structure that people have managed to put together. They hate it because it does not perfectly match their ideal. Rather than work to make it better, they plan to demolish it in the hope that something better would emerge. Naturally, they say that once they have done this, they will create a new and much better form of internationalism. Lots of people have said that, and failed. Getting serious practical co-operation between a diversity of different peoples is no simple matter, and it is remarkable that the EEC has achieved as much as it has. In point of fact, it is rational for any one human group to be as selfish as the rest of the world will allow. Some groups will be idealistic, most even – but never all. The EEC is useful as a body with the power to make sure that everyone behaves.
If the Greens ever achieved great power, they might find that pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall is much easier than putting him together again.
Jonathon Porritt is one of the leading figures of the Green Party (as well as Director of Friends of the Earth). His book Seeing Green was written in 1984, and has an introduction from Petra Kelly of the West German Green Party. And it is remarkable for how badly it misread the way the world was going. He assumed that OPEC would be able to keep the oil price high. He assumed that multilateral disarmament would not get anywhere. He missed the two key issues of the damage to the Ozone layer and the Greenhouse effect. The former he mentioned only as an after-effect of a nuclear holocaust, even though the real threat from CFCs had been talked about in some circles for a number of years. On the latter he says:
“When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. There’s no technological fix that can do anything about this…. C02 concentrations will have doubled by the middle of the next century. This may well trigger off the ‘greenhouse effect .. ” (Page 41 Basil Blackwell paperback, reprinted in 1989.)
In fact, the possibility that the Greenhouse Effect might already be operating had been debated in some circles over the past few decades. The question is not an simple one. It is a matter or sorting out long-term changes in the weather from short-term fluctuations. There is a suspicion that we would now be entering another ice age, had it not been for industrialism changing things via the Greenhouse Effect. But the fear is that that warming will be excessive – and that the odd weather of the last few years has indeed been the first instalment of a major shift to a warmer world with new patterns of climate.
[The evidence was not decisive in 1989. The last three decades have made it so. But I correctly picked up the likely trend.]
Porritt, for all his Green talk, underestimated the danger quite as badly as any of our political leaders. He says: “In the meantime, our reserves of coal should see us through for the next 250 years or so“. (Ibid, p 176.) If things are as bad as many experts suspect, we cannot afford to do any such thing. The burning of fossil fuel may have to be reduced drastically. (But Porritt is wrong to say that there is no ‘technological fix’: there are many. One is to plant trees, which grow by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and fixing it in their tissues.)
Porritt and people like him blandly assert that in their Utopia, everything will be perfect. They propose a new and totally untested system, and assume that it will work without a hitch. They ignore the fact that every human society has exploited its environment as heavily as it thought it could get away with. Most of them have not got away with it, in the long run. Most of the lands which supported ancient civilizations are much less fertile than they used to be.
It is foolish to assume that a static economy would be a stable economy. Pre-industrial civilisations tended to change little from century to century. They might get a bit richer, or a bit poorer, but their use of the land and its resources did not greatly change. Nevertheless, some of them were highly destructive in the long run. Huge areas of the Mediterranean coastline and the Middle East were once much more fertile than they are now. Irrigation in Mesopotamia, the area where civilisation first flourished, slowly but surely destroyed the soil’s fertility.
As far back as we can trace, people have been disrupting their environment. Though the matter is complex and sometimes disputed, people looking at the fossil record have noted that a huge number of large and medium-sized mammals went extinct at about the time that primitive human hunters began to spread. And the North American Indians may have done as much as the white men to destroy that continent’s buffalo and similar wildlife. (It is definite that we think of as the traditional Red Indian way of life was actually fairly new. Before Columbus, there were no horses in the New World. The hunting and horse-riding tribes of the prairies were not necessarily in harmony with their environment.)
The people of Easter Island are a clear example of a stable but self-destructive society. A few months back, their probable history was traced by Horizon on BBC2. The pre-European settlers arrived on a well-wooded island, very suited to their needs. Over the centuries, they developed an interest in carving huge stone statues, the famous ‘stone heads’ that have attracted such interest over the years. They could have carried on doing so indefinitely – or at least until the Europeans arrived – had they only taken care to preserve their trees. Regrettably, they did not. They cut them down and did not replant. In due course their culture crashed. By the time that Europeans discovered them, they were living at a much lower level on a treeless island, and the stone statues were mysterious relics of a more prosperous past. Between times, they had also made a local sea-bird the centre of a cult, and driven it to extinction by collecting its eggs.
[There is now an excellent film about this. Called Rapa-Nui and produced in 1994, it mixed up several different eras in the island’s history to get a better story. But on the basic point of the islanders wrecking their home by taking its trees, it is completely correct.]
Green Party people tend to be middle-class people living in big cities, who find both industry and farming dirty, confusing and alien. They use the real problem of pollution as a pretext for trying to kill off other ways of life. Even when they do live in the countryside, I’ve found that they tend to be ignorant and arrogant, not taking into account the farmers and farm labourers whose work keeps the land alive. They may say that they protest at modem distortions of traditional agriculture. But I wonder how they’d react to such traditional practices as castrating sheep, or cutting a pig’s throat and hanging it up alive so that the blood will drain out and leave the meat in good condition?
Serious left-wing Green politics would involve teaming up with the farmers. It’s hardly possible to do anything on the land except in co-operation with them. The last person to try it anywhere in the world was Joseph Stalin, and Soviet agriculture has not yet recovered. In any case, we can be quite confident that no one will try an ‘anti-Kulak’ campaign in Western Europe. Even the self-styled Hard Left are not remotely that hard.
Since you have to co-operate with the farmers, you might as well be polite to them. They tend to be very decent people at a personal level. They were told that they must go all out to produce food. The previous generation of doomsters were predicting inevitable world famine. Fanners did what they were asked, they produced a great deal more food. It is wrong to blame them now forecasts have changed and priorities have shifted.
Farmers control the land – or rather, each farmer controls his or her own bit of land. Make it in their interests to conserve wildlife, and it will be conserved. We can afford to grow rather less food – provided only that the Greenhouse Effect does not upset everything. Assuming that the change in the world’s weather will produce as many winners as losers, we should ask farmers to produce less food and conserve more natural beauty. Initiate a subsidy for rare butterflies, and you will soon find them produced in profusion.
[It now looks likely that the changes in weather will produce many more losers than winners. A major crisis is very possible, with a prolonged failure of the South Asian monsoon the biggest danger. Earlier fears about losing the Gulf Stream are now thought mistaken.]
This is a society where almost everyone else expects to be paid well for doing the right thing. Farmers are not going to be unselfish, to provide a nice weekend in the country for people who are well-paid and selfish in their city offices during the working week. We must change the system of subsidies so that rare songbirds and bright wild flowers pay better than turnips or barley.
But Green Party people do not think in that way. Most of them are pig-ignorant about the actual countryside. They are middle-class city dwellers. They have the typical city-dwellers’ view of the countryside – they look at a landscape that people have worked to tame for centuries, and think that the people who maintain it are spoiling it.
Green Party notions actually involve a fairly basic rejection of life, and an ignorance of the natural world.
Zero-growth is a false aim. The true target should be zero damage. That is to say, you make sure that the economy doesn’t use up anything that can’t be replaced, or destroy anything that it would be better to keep.
Since everyone shares the same atmosphere, since all the waters of the world flow into each other, only a global solution is possible. In practice, this will mean national governments getting together and agreeing to act for the common good. It is crazy to pressurise Third World countries to repay huge debts, so that they are pushed into destroying their rain forests and the like for short-term gain. Debt-for-rainforest swaps have occurred on a small scale; they should be encouraged.
Labour should pledge itself to work for a world-wide zero-damage economy. If it means slower economic growth, then that is the price that must be paid for long-term survival. (Only an idiot would saw off the branch he was sitting on, because he could get a good price for the wood.) I am confident that the absurdities of the Green Party will be pointed out at the next election – assuming they hold their place as the third party in British politics. But Labour needs something definite to set against them. Not general talk about conservation, which has gone on for years while things have got worse. But a specific and realistic long-term goal – a modestly growing economy that can survive on this planet for an indefinite future.
This article appeared in September 1989, in Issue 13 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more from the era, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazines-010-to-019/.
Thirty years on, I stand by what I said then.