Tag Archives: Conference

Do the ‘population doesn’t matter’ arguments stand up to their own evidence?

At the Green Party autumn conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. I wrote about this in a recent blog post, describing the debate between a representative from Population Matters and Sebastian Power from the Green Party. I also mentioned that Sebastian offered during the debate to send references for his claims to anyone who was interested in what he said.

Now that he has sent these around, I wanted to write a third (and hopefully final) blog entry on the population debate. Having followed up his references, I felt I had to write this because so many people in the conference audience and more widely will have heard his arguments and heard his claim that he based them on solid, scientific references. He also made the same arguments in an article for the internal magazine, Green World, and I have heard the same arguments from several other party members.

This post is all the more important now that some members have submitted a proposal to delete the Green Party’s entire policy chapter on population at the spring 2014 conference.

I realise that in writing this blog entry it could seem like an extended personal attack, but I really don’t intend it that way. I want fellow Green Party members to find points of consensus on which we can mobilise to elect Green politicians and engage in other Green political action. I don’t want to dig trenches and see party politics as a protracted internal war of attrition. But in light of the above I feel it is important to publicly air a critical examination of these arguments, and to examine how our own policy on population stands up in relation to the academic literature Sebastian has circulated.

The headlines, for those short of time

For the impatient, the key points that one should draw from the references he circulated are:

  • population is relevant, and stabilising the global population sooner rather than later through policies like family planning and access to contraception could deliver up to one fifth of the greenhouse gas reductions we require
  • there is no simple solution to feeding nine or ten billion people while addressing environmental problems, it will require revolutionary changes in production and consumption around the world, not just in the West
  • the academic and journalist literature mentioned below often point towards exactly the principles and policies found in the Green Party’s population policy chapter

The references

Here is what Sebastian sent us following the debate at conference:

According to a paper in the scientific journal Nature, global population will peak this century at around 10 billion1. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs reckons “even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem”2. According to another paper in Nature we will also be able to sustain 10 billion so long as we change our consumption habits in the West.3Danny Dorling4, Ian Angus and Simon Butler5 and literally hundreds of other authors of peer reviewed journal articles also come to the same conclusion.6

Kuylenstierna believes we need ‘productivity increase, changes in trade and market regimes, climate change adaptation and an increased focus on land and water management issues’7 but does not believe population growth is the fundamental problem, especially considering it will, according to the peer reviewed literature, plateau at around 10 billion.

Monbiot has done a lot of research on population/consumption and I generally agree with his opinion on the matter. Worth reading what he has to say about it.8

1 Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516

2 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/sixbillion/sixbilpart1.pdf

3 Foley, J. 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, pp 337–342

4 Population 10 Billion by Danny Dorling

5 http://www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/too-many-people

6 http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&q=feeding+10+billion&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=

7 Kuylenstierna, J. 2008. Feeding the future world: securing enough food for 10 billion people. Water for Food

http://www.monbiot.com/?s=population+consumption 

I’d like to cover each in turn, then make a general critique of Sebastian’s portrayal of his research, and then turn to the Green Party’s policy.

1 – Global population will peak this century at around 10 billion

I don’t have any argument with this suggestion, which seems uncontroversial. Population growth is already slowing, and ten billion is within the range that most experts seem to agree on, as you’ll see in some the articles I review below. I will note, though, that the difference between a population of nine, ten or twelve billion (the normal range given by the UN) is very substantial.

2 – Even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem

This argument sounds like a strong reason to ignore population.

Sebastian’s reference didn’t actually contain the quote he gave – that zero population growth would barely touch the climate problem. The report he linked to wasn’t the ‘World Population Prospects’ report he mentions, nor could I find evidence that a 2005 revision of this report was ever published, and the versions of that report I could find make no mention of this debate. But the exact quote can be found in the State of the World Population 2011 report by the United Nations Population Fund. Sebastian is critical of this branch of the UN, pointing out to me in over email that they have been criticised for “dubious assumptions” in some of their population projections. Anyway, as this is the only place I could find that quote I presume it’s his reference, so here’s what it says.

The report states that consumption is the key, but not only, problem. Before it concludes that “zero population growth… would barely touch the climate problem”, the authors cite a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That paper suggested that “slowing population growth could provide 16 per cent to 19 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change”.

So by “barely touch” they mean “only deliver up to one fifth”. It does not say that stabilising population will have no impact on climate change, it says the opposite.

Bear in mind that 16 to 19 per cent of emissions reductions is probably greater than the entire impact of domestic energy efficiency programmes.

3 – We will also be able to sustain 10 billion so long as we change our consumption habits in the West

The paper he refers to sets out a number of challenges to overcome in feeding ten billion people. One of its main sources for problems is some work by the Stockholm Environment Institute, which covers a range of major challenges and quantifies the changes we need to make. I touched on this SEI paper in my second of three blog posts on the subject.

Reading both papers gives you some idea of the challenges we face, and the depth and breadth of changes required to meet them. The authors of the paper suggest that we could “double food production while greatly reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture” by “halting agricultural expansion, closing ‘yield gaps’ on underperforming lands, increasing cropping efficiency, shifting diets and reducing waste”.

I will raise two points on this paper.

First, this is not the same as saying we just need to “change our consumption habits in the West”. This paper lays out massive changes to the entire agricultural system across the globe, with targeted measures in every country depending on particular local issues. In the tropics, they say farmers should stop clearing forests. In many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, they advocate better deployment of existing crop varieties with improved management of water and nutrients. In developing countries, they suggest better storage and transport to stop 40% of post-harvest food being wasted, and in developed countries they pin a similar proportion of wastage on retailers and consumers.

Second, the changes the authors cover, taken as a whole, pose an immense challenge. They describe it as a “revolutionary approach”. I argued in my first population blog post that we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of achieving such big change. Given the importance of grappling with these issues, we can’t afford to hide in utopian politics.

Let me turn to another example for a moment. It may be theoretically possible, as the Committee on Climate Change suggest, for us to meet climate change targets while aviation expands by 60 per cent. But that would require us to reduce emissions elsewhere by 90 per cent. Given the gravity of the situation and the difficulty of achieving those 90 per cent cuts, not to mention that we have reasons to think the Committee is unduly optimistic, most Greens argue that it isn’t worth the risk and we should halt the expansion of aviation.

I would argue that the same could be said of population. Even if it were theoretically possible to tackle climate change, resource depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss, the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and all other environmental problems without aiming to stabilise population sooner rather than later, not trying to do so would make our task much harder. If socially just means of stabilising population sooner rather than later can deliver up to 19 per cent of emissions reductions, they would make our chances of sustainably feeding the world’s population a good deal more realistic.

4 and 5 – The books

I’ve not read these books, and buying them or getting them from the library seemed over the top in writing this blog entry. If what they say particularly contradicts the academic papers I’ve read in writing this blog, I’d be interested to know why.

6 – the hundreds of other peer-reviewed articles

I’m not going to read hundreds more articles on the strength of a recommendation from somebody who has misrepresented the work I have reviewed so far. I just don’t have the time. So I read the first article on that page that I could access without payment just to test the waters, and it made for very interesting reading.

The paper in Science magazine, ‘Food Security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people‘, looks at how we can reconcile this with environmental sustainability. Its content is very similar to the paper in section 3 of this blog.

It looks at closing the yield gaps that often occur

“because of technical constraints that prevent local food producers from increasing productivity or for economic reasons arising from market conditions. For example, farmers may not have access to the technical knowledge and skills required to increase production, the finances required to invest in higher production (e.g., irrigation, fertilizer, machinery, crop-protection products, and soil-conservation measures), or the crop and livestock varieties that maximize yields”.

The authors caution that “we do not yet have good enough metrics of sustainability, a major problem when evaluating alternative strategies and negotiating trade-offs”, suggesting they are far from confident that they have reconciled the problems “at the interface of science, engineering, and economics that urgently need more attention”.

They cover the sovereign wealth funds that are buying up land, funds by the way that are based in countries as diverse as Norway, Libya and China. In my previous blog post I discussed Sebastian’s suggestion that rich, white men in the West are principally to blame for our environmental problems because they consume too much. But those aren’t all countries run by rich, white men in the West.

The authors also mention the pressures arising from the “rapidly increasing demand for meat and dairy products… largely attributable to the increased wealth of consumers everywhere and most recently in countries such as China and India”. Again, are these all the rich, white men we are told to blame?

But it is their conclusion that is particularly important for everyone interested in this debate to reflect on (emphasis added):

There is no simple solution to sustainably feeding 9 billion people, especially as many become increasingly better off and converge on rich-country consumption patterns… Together, these challenges amount to a perfect storm. Navigating the storm will require a revolution in the social and natural sciences concerned with food production”.

It bears repeating: the academic literature should not give us hope that “we will also be able to sustain 10 billion so long as we change our consumption habits in the West”.

7 – Population isn’t the fundamental problem

The chapter in the ‘Water for food‘ booklet that Sebastian refers to is written by Johan Kuylenstierna, the Chief Technical Advisor for UN Water. So far as I can tell, this wasn’t peer reviewed. Sebastian suggested that Kuylenstierna does not think population is “a fundamental problem”.

But this is clearly misleading.

The author repeatedly states that population growth is one of the underlying factors, is a challenge, and cannot be ignored as part of the complex issue. If we understand “fundamental problem” to imply “impossible to solve”, then at best Kuylenstierna leaves us with other factors that might allow us to supply enough water to feed the world even with the projected population growth. But he offers no evidence that we can do this, he only expresses his hope that it might be possible.

He clearly outlines why population growth is a relevant factor that cannot be ignored, one that limits our options, just as ruling out onshore wind farms would limit our ability to generate electricity in a more ecologically sustainable way. 

Here are some quotes that set up the context:

Keeping pace with population growth remains a challenge in many regions

[The current situation] shows the complexity of current problems – how difficult it is to understand what the main drivers are and how they interact

With a population approaching 6.5 billion and still increasing by 90 million each year, the degree of freedom to act is becoming limited, and minor changes can trigger substantive effects.

He states that it is “a responsibility [of] anyone working with global development issues not to believe [that] the same technologies and methods we have developed over the past two centuries will, with some refinements, be enough to cope with future challenges”. It’s one thing to hope this, but he states quite baldly that “improvements have lately not managed to keep pace with the total population growth”. Faith versus fact.

The author also states that our understanding of the impact of climate change on water resources for growing food is limited. He hopes that “if we strengthen capacity to deal with current [climactic] variability, through improved water management and investments in infrastructure and adaptive physical planning, humanity will clearly be better prepared to deal with climate change by 2050.” Of course we will be better prepared, but do we know how to make these changes to an extent that will enable us to feed ten billion in a world that warms by 2°C or 4°C? He doesn’t say.

In an honest paper that repeatedly stresses the complexity of feeding the global population, Kuylenstierna also pays no attention to whether the population could be stabilised sooner rather than later. If, as reference 2 suggests, this could deliver 16 to 19 per cent of the global emissions reductions we require in a socially just way, it’s a critical oversight on the part of Kuylenstierna.

8 – What does George Monbiot say?

Monbiot has written some very strong articles on this subject, and most of Sebastian’s references are also found in Monbiot’s articles from the past four years or so.  Monbiot’s main theme is attacking “post-reproductive wealthy white men” whose “sole purpose” is to raise population as an issue in order to distract from their own impacts, best argued in this article from September 2009.

However, he doesn’t argue the same case that has been made by Sebastian and others in recent party debates. In fact, Monbiot’s argument pretty much reflects the Green Party’s position, as I’ll show in the last section of this blog.

In that article from 2009, he proposes that we adapt “the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT)”. It is wrong, he says, it should be “I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology” because “many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation [and] are the ones who have most children”. But this is really just an adjustment of who we count in “population”, not a rejection that population is relevant at all.

As he wrote in April 2013, “I agreed that population is an element of the problem, but argued that consumption is rising much faster and – unlike the growth in the number of people – is showing no signs of levelling off”.

Following his reading of the report that I covered in section 2, he wrote, in October 2011 that the relatively smaller contribution made to climate change and other environmental problems by population stabilisation should make it the junior partner in this debate. His concern is with the wealthy and powerful trying to use population as a distraction to avoid policies that address their own impacts, not with it being raised at all. In his 2011 article he saysthis should not prevent us from strongly supporting the policies which will cause population to peak sooner rather than later. Sex education, the report shows, is crucial, so is access to contraception and the recognition of women’s rights and improvement in their social status. All these have been important factors in the demographic transition the world has seen so far.”

In his 2013 article, he points out that wealthy people commonly emphasise things like “recycling and population” in order “not to see the clash between protecting the environment and rising consumption”. They are probably raising a red herrings – a kind of informal fallacy where one attempts to change the topic of debate to save one’s skin. It can also be less conscious. I have often come across the sort of people who mention recycling and their veg box while leaning on their 4×4 about to go on their third foreign holiday of the year. Their hypocrisy (or inconsistency) doesn’t make veg boxes or recycling wrong or pointless. In the same vein, hypocrites emphasising recycling and population doesn’t logically make those issues wrong or irrelevant.

A more general comment on “peer-reviewed science”

Credit for this point really goes to Andy Chyba from Bridgend Green Party. Sebastian made much of his references to peer reviewed science during the debate at the Green Party conference. In a later email he tried to suggest an equivalence between his reading of the literature and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s work on climate science. This shows a confusion on two points.

First, the IPCC’s fifth assessment report involved more than 250 scientists from 39 countries examining more than 9,000 scientific papers and nearly 55,000 comments on their work. It was an immense and unparalleled exercise in peer review, and to compare the level of consensus on population to that of the IPCC undermines the latter’s significance.

Second, there is a difference between empirical science based on observational data, and the academic work Sebastian refers to about possible future scenarios based on loaded and imprecise assumptions. Yes, the work has been peer-reviewed so we can assume it is of a high quality and credible. But it doesn’t make the work correct, nor as certain as science based on the observation of phenomena confirmed by subsequent tests. It also doesn’t mean all of these revolutionary changes are feasible or likely.

I have had work published in a peer-reviewed journal on BedZED, the eco village where we found that the usual strategies to reduce consumption still left working class tenants with unsustainable carbon and ecological footprints (‘Towards sustainable residential communities; the Beddington Zero energy development (BedZed) and beyond.’ Environment and Urbanisation 21: 527 – 544, 2009). I mentioned this in my first blog to argue that achieving sustainability is much more difficult than many make out. I would like to think it is credible work of a high quality, but it is in no way comparable to that of the IPCC, nor is it ‘scientific’ and so beyond reproach.

I would hope we would make much more use of peer reviewed academic literature, along with other means of getting at the truth such as randomised controlled trials of policies. But we shouldn’t confuse respect for scientific evidence with scientism – the attempt to displace political ideologies by slavishly following current scientific research programmes. It might be great science, but it might ask all the wrong questions, or be chasing the wrong objectives. Ironically, it seems that Sebastian got the science dead wrong in order to arrive at the answers he wants to suit his ideological position.

What does the Green Party’s population policy say?

I wanted to cover the population issue in so much detail because some members of the party want to change or delete the population chapter in our Policies for a Sustainable Society.

So what does it actually say, and how does it stand up in relation to these various academic papers?

Our population policy:

  • is based “on the principles of ecological sustainability, equity and justice”
  • sets out some of the general reasons why it should be “explicitly considered”
  • protects individual liberty, for example it “holds that the number of children people have should be a matter of free choice”
  • reaffirms our “liberal migration policy” that should achieve “greater global justice and equality” and rules out restricting migration on grounds of “social, economic and environmental pressures” that might arise
  • notes that the UK’s consumption is unsustainable, which is also detrimental to the global south, and reaffirms our commitment to deal with our own problems and support poorer countries to develop their own economies

The chapter therefore sets population up as the junior partner to other related issues of ecology and social justice. This is exactly what you would do if you were basing your policy on the academic papers I have reviewed in this blog, and on the views of journalists like George Monbiot.

The chapter then proposes twelve long, medium and short term objectives (which should be read in light of the hundreds of policies in other areas that address the UK’s over-consumption). These cover the familiar points about ensuring access to family planning services and sex education. These objectives also, again, affirm the importance of tackling consumption in the developed world, affirm the need for socially just migration policy, and rule out setting population targets.

The party’s sole objective is definitely not to distract from consumption but rather, as Monbiot advocates, to strongly support policies which will cause population to peak sooner rather than later in a humane, liberal and socially just way. I would hope that any Green Party member interested in the evidence would support our policy.

Endnote – many thanks to my friend Ed Jones for his help reviewing this post, helping me to write more clearly and be more rigorous in my research, as he has done a number of other times.

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Young Greens for the environment

I joked a couple of days ago that I should set-up a Young Greens for the Environment grouping in the Green Party. I wasn’t being facetious, because I think there is a lack of environmentalism (or perhaps even a current of anti-environment thought) within the Young Greens (the organisation, distinct from the many Greens who are under 30).

By all reports, Young Greens were out in force at this weekend’s party conference, along with older members who have joined in recent years in search of a left-of-Labour party with realistic electoral prospects. Their scalp was a change to the party’s philosophical basis, removing clauses like this:

Life on Earth is under immense pressure. It is human activity, more than anything else, which is threatening the well-being of the environment on which we depend. Conventional politics has failed us because its values are fundamentally flawed.

And replacing them with clauses like this:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism.

Leaving side various quibbles, the new clauses contain sentiments I broadly agree with. Green politics has, for a long time, had four basic principles: ecology, social justice, peace and democracy, all equally important goals.

What’s interesting is that the preamble to this policy motion went further than saying social justice is as important as ecology. It sought to “make social justice central“, asking that we “put our struggle for equality and democratic control of resources at the centre” of our politics (my emphasis).

Keeping the environment central

I am dismayed by this change.

I joined the Green Party because I think the environmental crises we are creating are the single biggest political problem we face. I want to distinguish between goals – the world we want to see – and struggles – the issues or problems we need to tackle. I think social justice, peace and democracy are equally important goals, but the raison d’être of the Green Party is surely that no other political party in England and Wales takes the struggle for the environment seriously?

If we don’t fix our environmental problems, the other concerns might as well not matter. Social justice issues like welfare reform will pale into insignificance as runaway climate change, the exhaustion of oceans and soils, the disruption of the nitrogen cycle and other growing crises all take their toll. Unlike most social justice issues, environmental crises are stuck in feedback loops that mean late or timid action fatally undermines our ability to tackle them later on; you can always build more homes in 2015 to make good on a few years of inaction, but we can’t, yet, take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere at a scale that could undo the damage of past years.

It is possible to conceive of an environmentally sound society that is socially unjust (such as many poor countries today) and of socially just societies that are environmentally unsound (such as many Latin American lefty countries, though they are of course undermining the foundations of their future prosperity). We are in politics to bring about a society that is environmentally sound, socially just, democratic and peaceful. But of all the struggles we face to achieve those goals, we must, I believe, give the environmental problems the highest priority because we live in a country in which they are the most severely neglected, and in which they pose by far the greatest threat.

One slogan I use with confidence is, “if there isn’t a Green in the room it won’t get discussed”. On occasion this is true of pay inequality, co-operative housing and alternatives to military intervention. But it is most often, and most starkly, true of environmental issues. We can and should work across a broad range of topics, but if we fail to work on environmental topics as a central concern then nobody will work on them in a serious way.

I also feel slightly queasy at the implication that the party is moving away from a deep green, ecological philosophy. The pale Green approach asks us to fix problems like pollution and resource depletion in order to build a socially just, peaceful and democratic society; the environment is important insofar as it underpins those things we really value. The deep Green approach asks that we adopt a wholly different framework, an ecological framework that sees humanity as part of nature and all of nature as inherently valuable. We struggle against pollution and resource depletion and other problems in order to realise a world with greater ecological well-being. Our understanding of social justice, democracy and peace flows from our ecological philosophy, which is central and formative. You can read more about this “ecological philosophy” here.

When we discuss policies that can be pursued by Green councillors, people without the power to overturn the basic values of the UK political system, we must be more pragmatic. For example, I don’t think it’s right to fight against housing development in regions of the UK that have severe shortages, on the grounds that we might – if in national government – begin to rebalance the UK’s economy to other regions with more empty homes and less housing stress (something I wrote about here).

But when we discuss our philosophical basis, we needn’t make this compromise.

To my mind, this new philosophical basis throws that out, and makes us a left wing party concerned with humankind that is fixing environmental problems for humankind’s benefit.

The Young Green element, or bloc

The motion vote came about in part through the emergence of something of a ‘bloc’ of Young Greens, self-identified as more left-wing, less hippyish and less deep Green than previous generations.

This first really came to my attention in a Guardian interview with Adam Ramsay[update: I should point out Adam isn't an officer or spokesperson for the Young Greens, I mention him as a prominent 'young' Green who talks up this idea of a new approach among younger members] Here is the full quote:

There are, he explains, three elements within British green politics: the kind of veteran “ecologist liberals” represented by the Greens’ London mayoral candidate Jenny Jones; more left-leaning people who joined the party towards the end of the 1980s, like their current leader Caroline Lucas; and Ramsay’s own lot: what he calls “the Iraq war generation, which blurs into the cuts generation: people who are students now”. The middle group, he says, tends to side with his faction, and the result is an increasing emphasis on such issues as inequality and the public/private balance, as well as the Green staples of sustainability and climate change. “There’s more of us now, so we win,” he says. “And in terms of ideas and energy – we run the party.”

I know Adam from our shared time as activists in People & Planet, a fantastic student campaigning organisation he now works for. I admire Adam’s energy for direct action politics, and respect his tireless work to further Green politics. Back in the day, when I was on People & Planet’s Management Committee (a kind of democratic board) we were both pushing for the organisation to campaign on workers’ rights and to take a harder, more political stance following years of slightly fuzzy trade justice work. But his interview made me think we have subsequently departed for different planets.

My first bone to pick was his description of Jenny Jones as an “ecologist liberal”, and by implication not a lefty who would pursue issues like inequality and privatisation. That is rubbish, but not a tangent I have space for here.

My second bone was the idea that there are delimited “elements” in the party. What made it even worse was that Adam was apparently suggesting some elements have taken control of the party!

I’m not in any element or faction, thank you. I’m a Green, I follow my values and the evidence to support any proposal that I think is right. Talk of factions encourages people to switch off their brains and vote en bloc, and even to start imagining that there are other factions they should oppose or undermine. This divisive attitude put me off Green Left, despite feeling I was on the left of the party when it launched.

At conferences I have voted to remove unscientific nonsense about homeopathy that was a relic of a new age form of deep Green thinking, and I have voted to strengthen private tenants’ rights in the face of concerns from older home-owning and landlord members, but I don’t identify with young or old exclusively. I would have voted against this motion.

The emergence of the pale Green bloc

Back to Adam’s quote.

Like him, I came to the Green Party following nine years of Labour’s work to wage foreign wars, privatise public services and maintain the global trade agreements that kept corporations in the business of exploiting people and planet. I came to the Greens out of admiration for our Living Wage policy, but also for our deep commitment to ecology and the recognition that pitting the environment against the economy or society is always a false choice, always an ignorance of environmental science and economics, always a mistake, and deeply out of kilter with my philosophy. I joined following years campaigning on climate change, trade justice and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and my early years coincided with the buildup to the Copenhagen conference, during which climate change was unambiguously one of the biggest campaigning issues of the day.

I can see that people five or ten years younger than me have had a different track record. I first noticed this when drawing up our manifesto for the London Mayoral and Assembly elections in May 2012. I had extended various invitations to the London Young Greens committee to meet and discuss what they would like to see, to host workshops with new young  members, and to consider whether we should write a youth section into the manifesto. My offer wasn’t taken up, and in good time I received a polished Young Green manifesto to consider. The document had lots of good ideas, but there was nothing – and I mean, nothing – about the environment. From the Young Greens!

I was pretty astonished, until I reflected on the main issues on campuses in the preceding years – student fees, cuts, anti-austerity, pay inequality. Like weather vanes, the Young Green committee in London had followed the political winds and dropped any interest in the single biggest intergenerational injustice we have to deal with – climate change – let alone other environmental issues affecting young people or the pressures on London’s environment.

This has been repeated with the national Young Green’s innovation of  their own policy platforms. The first two concern housing and economic democracy (see Google cache while their site is down). These contain lots of  great ideas, but again the environment is almost entirely absent. The one mention of environmental issues in in relation to housing and energy use, left as a single pale Green consideration, far from the deep Green heritage of the party.

Do we need Young Greens for the Environment?

I don’t really want to propose setting up another faction, a group-within-a-group. That would only add to the problems we face.

I’d prefer to believe that we are really all on the same page, and that we can find ways to bring ecology back to the fore in the coming years.

I would like to think there are fellow Greens aged 30 and under who still think that ecology is a central concern; who think that it is, of all our core values, the one we most urgently need to struggle for given that it is the only one comprehensively ignored by the other four national parties; and who are also concerned at these signs that their peers seem to be downgrading ecology, either deliberately or by omission. Fellow Greens who recognise the need at times to present ecology in terms of social justice, and to give social justice and democracy greater prominence in our day to day work, but who still feel that ecology is paramount.

Join me! Or tell me what I’m missing…

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Sitting around the data campfire

Similar to Gail Ramster, I went along to the Friday afternoon part of UK GovCamp 2012 without really knowing why. I suspect most people would say the same thing. You go because… well, you never know which useful people you might bump into, and what interesting things you might hear about. Plus a colleague Janet Hughes was going, and I’d cleared my desk of essential work for the week.

Here are a few takeaway thoughts from my afternoon.

1. I barely knew anyone

It’s years since I was a fish in a geeky pool, active in the free culture movement, the KDE community, software patent activism and other odds and sods.

For the past five years or so I’ve moved onto land, or perhaps a coral reef, to be more involved with issues around the environment, housing and pay inequality. The past two or so have been working as a local government employee at the GLA, supporting Green Party Members of the London Assembly. They have pushed for open data, but it’s not exactly a hot topic in our weekly meetings. My only remaining connection has been OpenStreetMap, my one geeky obsession.

Still, it didn’t matter, go along even if you know no-one at all.

2. It was nice to reconnect with optimistic techies

The event reminded me of one of the things I most like about these crowds: they’re all optimistic about the future and enthusiastic about the common interest.

I’m glad I managed to quickly chat to a few people I did know, sort of… Gail via Twitter, and Giles Gibson from the Herne Hill Forum, but sadly I only said as much as “hello” to people like Emer Coleman and Chris Osborne. That’s what you get for arriving late and leaving early.

3. It’s more meaty than you’d think

That’s “meatspace” as in “the real physical world”, compared to “cyberspace” online. Compared to events a few years ago on open data and technology, most of the discussion I heard was about councils and companies working on staff structures and consultation processes, and then thinking about how technology and data could help.

I used to get frustrated with discussions that started with the assumption that open data and technology was going to revolutionise the world. That seemed upside down to me. So I was pleasantly surprised at this.

4. There’s a lot of “we”

Somebody pointed this out in one session – it’s very easy to apply “we” to the wider population when you really mean “we sort of people in this room”.

Often “we” are innovators or early adopters of ideas that become more mainstream, like using a smart phone to access services. Sometimes “we” are set to be a significant minority, like journalists, bloggers and politicians who use data to enhance their investigatory work. Just as often “we” are a world unto our own.

It’s fine, innocent mostly, typical of any event with like-minded people. It just grated on me when people talked about reconfiguring public services or management around their preferences, as though the rest of the world will thank them.

I might make a badge for myself if I go again, with the slogan “we’re not normal” or similar!

5. Theres a lot going on out there

Cocooned in City Hall, working on affordable housing or the pay gap, it’s hard to keep even a toe dipped in this pool. It was great hearing from so many people in so many walks of work and life doing so many useful things.

Sometimes when I map an area for OpenStreetMap, walking down a street noting house numbers, I feel a bit bewildered by all these people living here! London feels impossibly enormous. I left UKGovCamp feeling similarly bewildered by the enormity of work going on in this field, relative that is to my own small bits and pieces in my job and my free time.

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The cut and thrust: how Green Party policy really works

At recent party conferences and meetings of the London Federation of Green Parties, it has struck me that many members lack any experience or understanding of how our elected politicians work with party policy. I was in the same boat until I started to work closely with our London Assembly members, Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones, so I thought I’d share my experiences from the other side of the valley.

The main misconception I want to address is that all policy advocated by elected politicians can, or should, be found in our written party policy. Another way of stating this myth is to say that the policies we debate and pass at conference provide the bulk of the detailed policy used by elected politicians.

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Last of the year’s “garden” work

After packed weekends at weddings and the Green Party conference, and with my fiancee away for a week, I’ve spent a very nice weekend doing those things I always mean to do.

Top of my list was to build a cold frame-come-greenhouse for overwintering my herbs. One salvaged broken chair, a trip to the DIY store and a few hours work later and I had fashioned the rather nice frame pictured opposite. It is sitting on our small balcony, the only space available to most Londoners. I’m not really sure which of the strawberry plants, rosemary, mint, coriander, broad-leafed parsley and the chives will survive the winter but at least they now have a cosy little added help.

In between ironing, cleaning, sit-ups and press-ups, I’ve also caught up on some of the debate following the autumn Green Party conference. No mention online of my motion introducing policy on Community Land Trusts being passed, but there is plenty of chatter on the Bright Green Scotland group blog and a very nice roundup from top blogger Jim Jepps.

Thanks to Jim I stumbled across Molly Scott-Cato’s defence of her motion on living within our means; I spoke against this, and have left a comment outlining my reasons. What is interesting is that she ascribes all opposition to “an influx of socialists who are understandably disillusioned with the Labour Party”. Now that certainly does not include me though I have noticed a growing number of self-described socialists, particularly in the Young Greens.

No, what I enjoyed about this conference was the growing number of people interested in policy relevant to our MP, MEPs, London Assembly members and councillors, not just to those who like to think in terms of broad political theory. After weeks of theory and politics crammed into my working day, evenings and weekends, some time with a hammer and saw has been very nice indeed.

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Turning green shoots into political roots

Rupert Read has posted some useful thoughts on how the Green Party in England & Wales can build on the historic election of our first MP, and on the rapid growth in membership in recent years. There’s much to agree with, particularly on making the internal systems and finances work. If anything, I think he has understated the importance of finances… even to stay still and retain our two London Assembly Members in 2012, our two MEPS in 2013, our MP in 2015 and over a hundred councillors in between.

Here in London, a lot of thought has gone into our electoral strategy following the near-wipeout in May. I won’t digress into the London strategy here, but Rupert echoes comments from many party members I have spoken to in emphasising the need to blend realism and ambition.

Rupert is also right to ask how we can tighten up our policies, which needn’t amount to a removal of anything radical as Jane Watkinson has suggested. My first concern is that we need to go beyond the dry policy documents to think about how we engage those high-profile elected politicians with changes, so we don’t get (justifiably) bad press like this after so much effort improving policy.

I have provided some advice to Caroline Lucas MP and the office on intellectual property issues, but I can’t be as quick in helping Caroline as I can be in my full-time job supporting our London Assembly members. How can the party provide the politicians with swift responses and germane guidance whilst relying so heavily on volunteers? When researchers employed for the politicians are often restricted in their dealings with other branches of the political party (as civil servants), how can we ensure consistency between offices? More money for researchers in the party office would be a big help.

Though I think Jane’s worries are unwarranted, she is right to ask how we resolve radicalism with realism. My second concern in building on recent success is that our politicians are actually effective, and that we are able to tell the stories of their successes. This is an age-old dilemma for a small party in a big-media world (new/social media are still a bit player when it comes to getting the message out beyond activists).

Trying to be a party of radical politics in Westminster, and one that bucks the “green = environmentalism” label without shrugging off environmental issues altogether, is a tough job. Trying to pick radical policies to advice where there is a realistic prospect of a political gain – i.e. actually changing something – or a prospect of good media coverage to inform the public debate – only makes it harder.

Our Policies for a Sustainable Society run to thousands of words over hundreds of topics. Our 2010 general election manifesto has detailed proposals across most areas of government. Caroline will only be able to notch up limited political gains and big media hits on a handful of national topics; she is only one MP.

Take the Green New Deal, for example, which Caroline is rolling together with an opposition to public service cuts. The current government is going to appear very green to most voters. That is partly because the previous government had such a terrible record; and partly because it is inheriting some fairly radical proposals such as these on energy efficiency. Will Caroline just look like the impossible-to-please nutcase on the fringe, or will she be able to establish a credible line of scrutiny, attack or productive lobbying?

So I am looking forward to hearing at the Autumn conference what she is going to focus on in Parliament, how that will connect with the work done by canvassers and councillors up and down the country, and how the party can continue to forge a distinctive and very focused image for the next tranche of Green voters.

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Political philosophy in Open Street Map

Thea Clay made the killer point in Chris Osborne‘s “What’s wrong with OpenStreetMap” session (video here). It was even better than Mikel Maron‘s observation that people should agree with founder Steve Coast just a little bit less!

Foundation Board member Henk Hoff (a very nice-sounding chap) was describing the classic technocratic argument that in a “do-ocracy”, those who get on with doing things make decisions by default. Steve must have loved it, you just get on with useful stuff and avoid getting bogged down in pointless debates. Right?

Thea pointed out that in a community of tens of thousands, only a few hundred can “do” stuff like making amazing tools and creating useful maps from the tags they’ve invented. I’m in the bigger mass of people who want to contribute data, see lots of good uses and ways in which OpenStreetMap can improve, but lack the skills to “just get on and do” much that I’d like to with the data. I’ve been at it for five years.

I spend a lot of time involved in local groups trying to improve their town centre, grow food on their housing estate, represent tenants or establish a community-owned renewable energy company. They’ve come up with some great ideas for using OpenStreetMap, but none of us have the skills or money to “just do it”. I’ve tried, for two years, to get others to help with this with very little success. So is OpenStreetMap just not for us? Do I leave them to use Google Maps and miss out on the potential of such an amazing open platform?

Henk’s suggestion that the decisions of the “do-ers” are generally accepted is also just plain wrong. Nobody has ever been able to agree on the appropriate difference between marking a feature as a footway or a path, after years of debate. The same goes for wood/forest and countless other features.

That’s a pretty sad inditement as it makes for even more confusing map detail (the map key is absurdly long, and why should the average map user care if it’s a footway or a path?) that also makes applications like routing needlessly complicated.

Anarchy gives OpenStreetMap real energy and the space for innovation by the do-ocracy elite. But it leads to very inconsistent data and the exclusion of all but a technically hyper-literate few.

Most mappers come from countries run by democratic governance; they use software created by communities with clear and functional democratic structures like this, this and this; there’s a great study on Debian that drives the point home. Many mappers have engaged with the pseudo-democratic process of voting on new tagging proposals. I suspect that most mappers – if you canvassed beyond the extremely vocal elite – would support a more democratic approach to basic decisions about core tags, use of funding, etc.

That won’t stop people “just doing” what they want to do, but it will make the data more useful and the project more accessible for the vast majority of people outside of the technical elite.

Finally, just as we let people who prove their technical skill loose on the technology, why not let people with proven organisational and political skills loose on these problems? An audience member suggested OpenStreetMap was going through puberty. Well as much as teenagers hate to admit it, sometimes authority borne of experience and training is worth listening to.

For these reasons and more we need to hear much more from the likes of Thea and Mikel, and a lot less from techno-junkies like Steve.

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