Tag Archives: Green Party

Space4Cycling in Crystal Palace

I’m supporting the Space4Cycling campaign in the Crystal Palace ward, where I’m standing for the Green Party.

I often cycle up and down Anerley Hill on the way to work. It’s a steep bit of road, difficult for those of us who aren’t zipping up to Cadence every weekend on expensive road bikes. Cycling uphill without wavering a little is hard work, so providing some protected space at the expense of a little car parking makes perfect sense.

Of course some people who currently park their cars there will lose out. But I want to see streets in Crystal Palace, London, the whole of the UK transformed to serve the needs of people on foot, bike and public transport, and this can only happen at the expense of cars because we have limited road space.

The alternative is to leave almost 20,000 vehicles a day trundling along Anerley Hill, creating peak hour traffic jams. This level of traffic is responsible for illegal levels of air pollution, which will remain until at least 2020 if we don’t do something drastic. Find out more about this here. If you walk down to Anerley Road on a school day, you’ll see dozens of children buying fast food, but very few on bikes. Designing roads for cars at the expense of bikes is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

I would also like to introduce 20mph limits on far more roads in the area, particularly for rat runs like Thicket Road, introduce ‘filtered permeability’ to more roads to reduce traffic, and fix the various barriers, potholes and speed humps that make cycling through Crystal Palace Park confusing and unpleasant.

I want to make it easy, safe and pleasant for everyone to cycle in Crystal Palace, whether they’re an 8 year old going to school in the morning, or a fit 80 year old heading up the hill to the shops.

Some thoughts on the Space4Cycling campaign

I think this new campaign from the LCC and all the local cycling groups is brilliant. It is showing yet again that cyclists can be mobilised to make their voices heard in the democratic system, and I only hope it has a big an impact on local councillors as their lobbying of the London Assembly has had.

I also hope that councillors elected in May honour their promises. I do wonder at the Labour councillors signing up in Southwark, a borough I used to live in and cycle through every day. The council has spent four years doing next to nothing for cyclists, while scrapping the London Cycle Network from its Transport Plan and actually removing cycle lanes from busy roads.

As the Stop the Killing campaign found, many other councils are just as bad. Are all these candidates honestly going to push for the cyclists’ proposals having failed to do so in the past four years? One can only hope.

My one other reservation is that it is difficult for smaller parties and independent candidates to get onto the site. For those who have never fought an election, I can assure you that it’s a huge challenge for small parties dependent on volunteers with full-time jobs just to get all the paperwork in to the returning officer, let alone get a list of candidates out to anyone who asks and respond to lots of lobbying requests.

This campaign web site has been live for some time now, and while very well organised parties can get their candidate lists out nice and early, many others won’t have a final list until nominations close next week.

At the moment, the web site gives a very poor impression of the Green Party, for example, even though we have consistently been the most pro-bike party in the capital. That isn’t just my biased opinion, it was also the view of the Londoners on Bikes campaign in the 2012 elections.

So at the time of writing over 12,000 people will have contacted an incomplete set of candidates, and might think the missing candidates and parties have nothing to say about cycling. I hope you, dear reader, will bear that in mind and hold off sending your lobbying email for a couple of weeks.

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A defence of ideology

A defence of ideologyOne of the many abuses of the English language in mainstream political parlance is the denigration of ideology.

Defending his government’s cuts to public spending, David Cameron wrote in 2011 that:

This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.

More recently, Nick Clegg attacked Michael Gove’s education policies as ideological, reportedly saying:

Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education

In fact, Nick Clegg really appears to have it in for ideology because he attacks it all the time. He said a couple of weeks ago:

I don’t take an ideological approach to public spending.

But it isn’t just our dear leaders trying to avoid the whiff of ideology. You hear it all the time – the Government’s cuts are “ideological” (i.e. bad), the Green Party’s opposition to nuclear is “ideological” (i.e. invalid). Just as Cameron denied the charge, Greens sometimes protest that their opposition to nuclear power isn’t ideological.

Hang on a second, aren’t they all involved in politics?

My concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ideology as:

a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

Surely David Cameron should be guided by a system of political and economic theories and beliefs when deciding what this country’s problems are, and how to deal with them? Surely Nick Clegg’s opposition to Michael’s Gove’s policies stems in part from his ideology, and one would hope his approach to public spending would follow his liberal ideology and not whatever “commonsense” notion struck him at each meeting?

The Green Party’s opposition to nuclear power is absolutely ideological. A core tenet of the party’s ideology is putting power, be it electrical or economic, into the hands of the people, not corporations. Corporate power tends to be unaccountable, to act in its own interests, to lie and dissemble when it has done something wrong. Nuclear power can only be run either by the state or corporations, and is largely run by the latter. Another core tenet, coming from our ecological roots, is valuing diversity and resilience. Staking a very large share of our energy future on one technology supplied by a couple of companies in a dozen or so plants that need fuel from a handful of countries doesn’t seem to fit the bill. The party aims for peace and nuclear disarmament, so any move by the UK government that would put more potential weapon material into the world, and that would legitimate nuclear weapons programmes in countries like Iran, should be opposed. So the Green Party prefers a diverse mix of renewable energy technologies that can be owned by individuals, community-led companies, councils, small enterprises and, yes, big companies who build massive offshore wind farms.

To my mind, it is our ideological objections to nuclear power that are our strongest arguments. I’ve never been able to get my head around the comparative costs, and I’ve never wanted to cobble together information about safety that I don’t understand. But I don’t trust nuclear PLC as far as I can throw them, and if we can do without nuclear then I’m ideologically opposed to it.

The most infuriating example of this ideology denial is the claim that “it’s just about supply and demand”. I see this all the time on Twitter and on blogs, whenever anybody has the cheek to write something more sophisticated than an A-level economics essay.

supplyanddemand

Apart from the fact that this is extremely simplistic economics, it is also very often used in an ideological fashion. For example, you see people saying that council housing is pointless because it is just trying to buck the market, and at the end of the day the housing problem just comes down to supply and demand. People making this argument will often claim that anyone who disagrees is both “economically illiterate” and “ideological”, as though an economic theory based on the logic of a free market that has no place for public housing isn’t ideological. A variant is that the planning system must be dismantled because it gets in the way of supply and so makes house prices high, as though there is no value to the planning system and no objective for housing policy besides affordable prices on the open market.

Of course, ideology can prevent people from finding shared ground. Many blame inflexible ideology for the state of affairs in American politics, illustrated by this neat cartoon:

ideology-is-the-source-of-political-gridlock-58326

But this is a defect of the political process and the entrenched positions of politicians who depend upon their extreme wings to win primary selection. It isn’t the fault of ideology per se.

Let’s not shy away from ideology, please. Let’s not pretend we are all pragmatists arguing over the best way to manage a one-party state. Let’s talk about our values, our beliefs, the theories that guide our decisions.

Addendum

This topic came up today in a conversation with a friend, Tom Hill. He suggested that “ideological” is often used to mean that somebody is ignoring, misrepresenting or lying about evidence to protect their own ideological position, as those who are pro or anti-nuclear are known to do from time to time! The same can be true of the reverse; somebody can try to pretend they are simply acting on evidence in order to cover their ideology, as Nick Clegg and David Cameron clearly seem to be doing in the above examples.

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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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On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!

household_changes

One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

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My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

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…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms. Continue reading

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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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Two false hopes that won’t solve London’s housing crisis

Darren Johnson has issued a report arguing that building new homes can’t solve London’s housing crisis alone. He suggests the Mayor should consider other solutions including smart regulations for the private rented sector, taxing land values and setting up land auctions.

But there are two policies you won’t see in his list. Two policies that Greens often bring up in discussions about housing. I wanted to take some time this evening to explain why I think we should talk about them a little less, and in a very different light.

Before I launch in, I would heartily recommend this blog entry by Liz Emerson as an overview of the sources of our housing crisis, to give an idea of why we need to act. The Green Party’s policy platform is chock-full of good ideas to rectify this, but when it comes to building new homes I think Greens sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and sometimes put forward two ideas that frankly aren’t good enough.

I have to make clear – while I worked with Darren on his report I am writing this blog entry in a personal capacity, and this should in no way be taken as reflecting Darren’s views, those of my employer the GLA or of the Green Party.

I also have to make clear that this blog is about London. The national picture is bound to be quite different, but I think many of the basic points still hold.

We should use empty homes before building new ones

The claim runs as follows: there are lots of empty homes in London, we should be making better use of them before building new homes.

Thr problem: It’s true that there are lots of empty homes in London, and that it would be good if we could make use of them. But there aren’t nearly enough to make new housebuilding unnecessary. Not even close.

The latest figures from Empty Homes show that there were 74,811 empty homes in November 2011. But of those, only 29,540 were empty for more than six months. A home empty for a shorter period of time could well be in the middle of renovation or waiting for tenants. So fewer than 1% of homes in London are empty for long periods of time – not very many, is it?

Empty homes are also often quite hard to bring into use. They can be in a bad way, on housing estates awaiting demolition, or owned by some grumpy absentee landlord. Councils, the Mayor and the Government all try to solve these problems, and they could definitely try harder. Our 2012 manifesto pledged to:

Set up a clearing house to offer all publicly owned derelict land to Community Land Trusts and to make all suitable publicly-owned empty homes available to self-help co-operatives to bring them back into short-life or permanent use.

But it would be a tall order to bring every last empty home into use, and to stop any more becoming empty for more than six months.

What’s more, the experts who advised the Government and the Mayor on housing need recommended that we need between 33,100 and 44,700 homes every year for twenty years just to deal with overcrowding and stabilise house prices. So those 29,540 long-term empty homes would deliver at most one year’s supply, leaving at least another 630,000 homes to build over the following nineteen years.

We should re-balance the UK away from London

The policy claim: there are another 250,000 long-term empty homes elsewhere in the UK, and if prices in London are so overcooked because it’s where all the jobs are, then we should give other regions a big economic boost to re-balance the nation.  This way lots of people would move away to Plymouth, Preston and Perth, the market would settle down in London and the south east and we could make better use of the housing stock elsewhere.

The first problem with this argument is that there is already quite a large net flow of people out of London. This diagram from the GLA’s strategic housing market assessment neatly illustrates the point:

The need for housing isn’t coming from job-hungry Yorkshiremen, but from Londoners having lots of babies at a faster rate than people are dying, and from a large net migration from outside the UK. This has changed slightly during the recession for various interesting reasons, but the basic direction of movement remains. A lot of those people leaving are retired, or moving out to commuter towns to raise families. So in fact we would need to persuade even more people to leave London to seek work elsewhere, persuade Londoners not to have so many children, and persuade far more international migrants to settle elsewhere.

The second problem is that these very big changes are far beyond the wit of the Mayor of London and local councils. We can certainly talk about these big trends and our ideas for the national Government. But when the Conservative or Labour government continues to fail to grapple with these trends, we have to be ready to say what we would do if elected in Camden, Lewisham and Bromley. It’s not good enough to throw up our hands and complain about the Government’s economic strategy.

Sticking to the facts

We can definitely say we should do more to bring empty homes back into use, and to re-balance the UK’s economy to boost the north, west, Wales and Scotland. I don’t agree with those who tend to write these ideas off because they are so fixed on new housing supply being the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet, Darren’s work shows that in no uncertain terms. We need every good idea we can get.

But we cannot pretend that they would be sufficient to meet London’s chronic housing need and that they are therefore a reason not to build new homes. Doing so makes us as guilty as those who pretend we can solve climate change and carry on flying more and more if we just build some nuclear power stations and insulate our lofts. We know that the facts don’t support the waffly half-hearted policies of other parties on climate change, so we should be sure that the facts support our policies on housing.

There are often issues with new housing developments. They can be on unsuitable land that should be protected for farming (or they can be on useless pony fields for little princesses); they can be low density car-dependent suburbs (or smart extensions with good transport links); they can feature too little affordable housing (or at least get some built in areas that desperately need it). But we must build housing in parts of the country where the need for housing is greater than the stock available. The social and economic costs are so severe that it should be one of our highest priorities to ensure this happens.

We needn’t be slaves to the market – we can advocate building council and co-operative housing for example – but we also cannot be the party of wealthy elderly councillors blocking housing needed by younger constituents as the Integenerational Foundation has warned.

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Rothamsted: things I’ve learned, things I want to know

In the days since I wrote my first blog post on the Rothamsted GM wheat controversy I’ve spent more time reading up on GM than in the past nine years. It’s been a tortuous few days for me. As a big fan of the Bad Science movement who was loosely involved with improving the Green Party’s science policy; as the author of the 2012 London manifesto on which Jenny Jones and others stood, and somebody who has put a lot of my life in the last four years into helping her achieve great things on the London Assembly and Southwark Council; and as somebody who slightly sits on the fence on the GM debate; I’ve found myself agreeing with all quarters.

On the eve of the protest I thought I’d put down a few more thoughts following the debate.

There is a lot of nonsense from all quarters (but it’s not the end of the world)

The Sense About Science petition really took off because Take The Flour Back appeared to carry a number of misleading or false scientific statements on their web site. For example, wheat isn’t wind pollinated, as they claim. It looked like an open and shut case of Bad Science, one that many anti-GM campaigners remain unwilling to accept or engage with.

Robert Wilson sent me a particularly egregious case of mendacious attacks on GM. This report, signed by major environmental organisations and hosted by Friends of the Earth, makes repeated mention of the tragic suicide rate amongst Indian farmers and the adoption, post 2001, of GM crops. Yet when the report was published in October 2011 there appears to be plenty of research showing that hypothesis has been debunked. It’s slapdash at best, irresponsible and appallingly disrespectful at worst, to repeat this theory if it is false, and is typical of the approach that too many anti-GM campaigners seem to take.

But then the Rothamsted researchers, ably assisted by a remarkable online campaign from Sense About Science, went too far in debunking that claim. One of their researchers (I think it was Prof. John Pickett) went onto BBC news to say there was “zero” risk of contamination. This contradicts his statement to the Telegraph that it is possible but unlikely. Their claim that wheat is only “1% self-pollinating” also looks suspect when you consider that this EU-funded public information web site states the risk is up to 9.7% depending on climate and the type of what. The researchers have certainly put in place safeguards. But perhaps any risk is too great?

Too often campaigners on any issue can be their own worst enemy.

The “pro science” tweeters have also been willfully naive and amazingly one-sided on a number of issues…

Contamination

Tom Chivers of the Telegraph quoted Prof. Pickett verbatim on the risk of contamination without once asking whether he is telling the full story. Tweeters haven’t stopped for breath to examine the protestors’ concerns about a 1% chance of contamination, or their claims that it has happened elsewhere. Their “safeguard” of crops planted around the site which they’ll destroy is only 20m wide.

You don’t have to dig very far to find cases of contamination where risks were downplayed (example one, two, three) and with very serious consequences for farmers whose livelihoods were threatened.

Maybe this small chance really is too big a risk to take? I’ve not reached a firm conclusion on this, but too much of the unhesitating support given to one group of scientists never really engaged with this question.

Patents

They have also failed to engage critically with the issue of patents. Yes, the researchers say this stage of research will be openly published patent-free. But in Farmers Weekly Prof. Pickett is quoted as saying that “companies are very interested and they are keeping a watching brief as they always do in all research”, that “this is of global, great significance and it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business”. Rothamsted are in the business of licensing patents.

My objections to biopatents are so strong that I do not see the value to humanity of any scientific research that is likely to be applied in the field in the form of patent-encumbered crops controlled by multinational corporations. I am always happy for scientists to do their thing, to probe questions of interest to them without reference to anyone else. But until we can invalidate patents on plants I would not give a penny of public money to research that is clearly leading to a commercial patent-encumbered product.

The silver bullet

There is a tendency among some people who care about science to believe technology is a silver bullet. Any cursory study of the history of technology will quickly unearth a more complicated picture. Just as anti-GM campaigners can overstep evidence when they suggest there is absolutely no need for GM anywhere, so it is daft to think GM is a silver bullet and essential to our future food security.

GreenFacts have an official summary of a major 2008 World Bank study, in which over 400 experts looked at options to secure our future food supplies. The full study was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. It’s a very good place to start if you want to understand the place of GM.

They concluded should be part of the solution. But they also think that dealing with problems with patents, land ownership and many other issues need to be part of the picture.

Sense About Science

I feel I should withdraw my public statement of respect for Sense About Science. I have seen them do some good work in the past on libel reform, debunking the rubbish celebrities come out with about homeopathy, and so on. But the way in which they swiftly launched this campaign on behalf of the research project did seem a bit suspect.

I was pointed to this LobbyWatch page on their background and some startling allegations made in The Ecologist. It’s difficult to make sense of this, and to pick out slander from truth, but it is clear that they launched head first into a highly biased campaign without bothering to explore the science or the wider issues. Instead they just gave a platform to the scientists involved in the research project.

It’s a shame that the material posted on their web site has been accepted at face value by many who are highly critical of materials posted by the protestors.

Anti-science?

One of the most depressing charges made against the Green Party is as follows: Jenny Jones, a prominent Green politician, is going to a demonstration that will attempt to damage a scientific research project. Therefore the Green Party is anti-science.

This is just simplistic nonsense. If you are really against all forms of non-violent direction action that involve damage to property; if you really think allegedly dangerous or unethical scientific research should be able to proceed without any interference from politicians or the public; then you may think Jenny are “anti-science” in a limited sense.

But Jenny hasn’t gone around destroying the many other GM research projects in the UK. The Green Party is fine with research, but in the case of this particular open air trial Jenny – and many others – think they have reasonable evidence that it is unsafe and so think it better to stop it going ahead than to sit back and wait to see if the disaster of contamination takes place.

Another possible charge is that in reprinting scientifically inaccurate statements, the party is anti-science. But that’s equally daft. It just shows the party hasn’t got sufficient processes to weed out these statements, and perhaps subscribes to some ideas that it needs to drop. Being wrong about the science doesn’t equate to being anti-science.

The Green Party, like any loose association of likeminded people, is bound to accommodate a wide variety of views. When journalists dug up scientifically inaccurate material in our policy documents a few years ago, we took steps to address that. No doubt this recent debate will reverberate through conferences and policy discussions for the next year or two. Like all political parties with strong principles and beliefs that overlap with areas of scientific controversy, we have a complicated relationship with scientific evidence. That isn’t going to change, not for us or any other political party.

Twitter is a blessing and a curse

There is no way the pro-Rothamsted campaign would have taken off without blogs and Twitter. It was quite startling to watch. It’s a fantastic thing that a niche group of people can mobilise and gain the attention of politicians, mainstream media and their targets online. Cyclists have fully mastered this in recent years, and scientists aren’t far behind (though in their aggressive and shouty tactics many scientists are managing to achieve very little if they want to persuade people of their case).

But just as tweeters dug up and circulated interesting evidence, so allegations and misleading representations swirled around at lightning speed. Reasoned debate became almost completely impossible as the numbers of pro-Rothamsted tweeters overwhelmed the few who joined Jenny in trying to defend the protest.

Sometimes there’s no substitute for a slower, more calm debate.

Two questions I have

In all my reading and debate, two remaining questions are going round and round in my mind:

1. Why can’t GM researchers adopt a kind of “copyleft for patents”?

Dan Olner and Susannah Bird penned a very interesting open letter on the patent issue making exactly the comparison I had in mind. In the world of software, programmers who didn’t like the way that corporations were shutting people out from sharing and modifying their software created a parallel universe. They wrote copyright licenses that said “you can do what you want with this so long as you share any derived versions under the same terms”.

Richard Stallman, the original author of such a license, is a bit of a hero of mine. I’ve exclusively used free software shared under these “copyleft” terms for over ten years.

Maybe GM researchers could try a similar trick? Rather than publishing research without patents, leaving corporations to snap it up for their own nefarious ends, how about patenting your work and releasing it under a copyleft license? This would enable fellow scientists, farmers and others to freely use the work, and it would force corporations to play under the same public good terms if they wanted to use it.

2. Can anyone resolve the contamination issue?

My problem here is again my lack of expertise and background knowledge. There are many cases of GM crop contamination from around the world. Some were clearly irrelevant to this case, for example I came across a case where a farmer failed to remove GM crops before planting a new crop in the same field. Others may be irrelevant, for example the cases of rice contamination may hinge on a biological trait that wheat doesn’t share. But maybe some of the cases are relevant, and it is possible that this GM wheat trial could contaminate nearby fields.

Oh, great lazyweb, help me out?

In conclusion

I could go on, but it’s sunny outside and I don’t want this story to swallow up my weekend.

As Sunny Hundal wrote on The Guardian web site,

Every political party has to weigh up a range of interests that sometimes conflict with each other… The challenge for scientists isn’t to merely focus on what the evidence says. It is also to convince the public that their suggested course of action is the right one, even when the public is sceptical for perfectly valid reasons.

It’s fantastic that the protest has stirred up so much debate. I only hope that everyone who took an interest really takes the time to consider all the arguments before slamming politicians as “disgusting”, tearing up their party membership in outrage, writing all GM scientists off as corporate stooges or thinking campaigners are always the good guys.

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The Rothamsted Wheat Trial (should Greens trash it?)

Genetically modified food is one of those subjects that’s not known for reasoned debate. The public and anti-campaigners are often spooked by the Frankenstein weirdness of splicing genes without really understanding the science. Scientists and proponents are often convinced of the science while hastily dismissing wider social, economic and environmental considerations.

As policy officer for the London region and author of our recent London elections manifesto it’s not a topic that I often cross paths with.

I’ve a personal interest as I spoke against GM at one of the national debate events organised in 2003. I was an undergraduate student at the time, and spoke at my university – Reading – against some eminent scientists. I’m pretty sure 99% of the science I drew on in my argument was probably junk. I remain persuaded by many of the wider arguments I deployed, but like too many campaigners I cobbled together a bunk of “science” I didn’t really understand to try and back up my point. I’m embarrassed thinking what the audience must have made of me!

The Rothamsted Wheat Trial has stirred my memory of this issue, as a group of anti-GM activists called Take the Flour Back are planning to trash (or “decontaminate”) this scientific research project.

It has also given me another personal interest, because Jenny Jones is going to join them. I greatly admire Jenny and have worked with her for years in the Green Party, both in my job and as an activist. She has taken lots of flak on Twitter from scientists and scientifically-minded people for joining in direct action to damage a scientific experiment.

So what should I think? This is my take as somebody who is very far from being an expert on the issue, in the hope that it might help fellow Greens in forming an opinion.

The experiment

What do I, somebody who never advanced past GCSE biology (with some A-Level maths and physics), know about GM research projects? Thankfully Sense About Science have done a great job in pulling together some analysis of the science, albeit with quite an obvious agenda.

The campaign group’s main worry appears to be that the plants will contaminate nearby fields. Their web site claims that “Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports.”

But Sense About Science got the scientists involved to answer lots of questions on this issue. The campaigners’ claim appears to be junk, though it’s interesting to note that the scientists don’t say they can guarantee no seeds will be carried away by birds, nor that no wheat at all will cross-pollinate (they leave open a 1% chance, which in a field of wheat may not be negligible). So a claim by one scientists on today’s lunchtime news that there is “zero chance” of contamination is clearly wrong.

[Update: a colleague also sent me this page on an EU-funded public information web site, which suggests that - depending on the wheat's genotype and the local climate - the chance of cross-pollination could be anywhere between 1-9.7%, suggesting some of the scientists are misleading the public when they so categorically deny the chance of contamination.]

Another point is that the campaigners would presumably struggle to contain any risk of contamination from a bunch of untrained activists turning up to trash the crop, potentially carrying seeds and other plant material out from the trial area.

Green Party policy

Far from being anti-science, as some seem to think, the Green Party’s policy on science has really been quite strong for a number of years. Junk like homeopathy was excised a number of years ago, while in areas like climate change and drugs we have long been the only party to take an evidence-based approach.

On GM the policy is fairly sound. It says:

  • We accept that certain uses of genetic engineering may be benign, but are concerned about the level of research to quantify risks and about the level of corporate control over farmers and health services which this research generally feeds into;
  • We’re in favour of research going ahead;
  • The precautionary principle should be applied – basically that in the absence of consensus the burden of proof for showing it won’t be harmful falls on the researchers; without sufficient proof, nothing goes ahead because the suspected risk outweighs the suspected benefit;
  • Some points on animal welfare not relevant to wheat trials.

So the Green Party should be supporting this research project so long as the researchers can prove that the possible harms have been properly controlled.

The wider issues

Sense About Science also asked the scientists to respond to people’s wider concerns about commercialisation. The scientists also raised this at the end of the page about cross-pollination. Here, to my mind, the weaker arguments start to creep in. For example,

Question: What is the widest held misconception about GM research?

Answer: That it’s somehow all controlled by big multinational companies. Most GM research is done in universities or by independent institutes”

The thing is, while it’s important to defend the scientific method as a means of testing and falsifying hypotheses, or as a way of rigorously working through research programmes, or impartially developing a current scientific paradigm (take your pick), the scientists in the Q&A seem to take a wilfully naive view of commercial interests. Going back to my debate at Reading, their department was sponsored by Syngenta, as was Cambridge in the UK and Berkeley in the USA. Many academic scientists have patents themselves, have spun out their own companies and work closely with large agricorp like Monsanto and Syngenta.

Too often these links seem to close some scientists’ minds to the possibility that these companies might be psychopathic in their pathology, as Joel Bakan has convincingly argued (read the book). Research may not be controlled by multinational corporations, but it is definitely influenced in a way familiar to philosophers and sociologists of science who have long been aware of the bias and influence that can creep into the very human world of scientific research.

Or take this answer:

Question: Presumably GM crops will become commercially owned and create shareholder profits. What about the ethics of patenting life?

Answer: The seeds business is commercial; seed companies that are not go out of business. The patents apply not to “life” but to genes that have been discovered or changed to do something useful, or at least, something that farmers find helpful. Such genes include those for insect resistance, drought tolerance and those that facilitate weed control by herbicides.

Here the scientist totally falls to engage with the question, passing no comment on the ethics at all.

There is huge opposition to agricorp influence, particularly in the developing world (here’s one example) where patents and monocultures and driving poverty, inequality and food insecurity.

When I spoke at the national debate this was my main focus – until biopatents are made invalid by the World Intellectual Property Organisation and all signatory nations (which is Green Party policy); until farmers and governments are able to control their own agriculture free of multinational corporations; until the many other arms of corporate control are shackled, freeing peasant farmers and national governments to control their own policy agenda; and until research is primarily conducted in universities and research institutes free of any commercial influence; I will oppose the commercial applications of GM research.

Scientists can’t dodge these issues, and while scientific research is in no way to blame it would be better to see advocates of GM research engage with these concerns. It’s great that Sense About Science did, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the scientists’ responses.

Summing up

It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it is morally right to engage in direct action to damage the research project. I’ve engaged in plenty of direct action myself and have no problem with people committing criminal damage so long as it is non-violent, they are prepared to face the legal consequences and have a genuine political or ethical reason for doing so.

Personally, subject to the contamination issues being cleared up I don’t think the action is justified. I’m not 100% convinced by the scientists’ responses to the contamination concerns, but it seems to me that if we cannot allow this research to go ahead then we really are adopting an anti-science position.

I remain a supporter of the European ban on the sale of GM foods for the reasons I gave above, but I am also a supporter of scientific research.

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Selecting a good politician

It’s selection time for the Green Party. In London we are voting not only on our list for the House of Lords (in case we get offered another seat there), but also for the London Assembly and Mayor. Since I work at the Assembly and I’ll be writing the manifesto for whichever people are chosen, I don’t want to endorse anyone here. But I do want to share a a few thoughts on what I’m looking for in a politician.

The most important thing for Greens to consider is that we will most likely only get one, two or three London Assembly members out of 25. There’s no room for colourful characters with narrow interests, bad tempers or a tendency for self indulgence. They need to be good communicators, both practical and radical, collegiate and disciplined.

We need to pick people who can get complicated and often innovative messages across to the mainstream media, to other politicians, to the public. It’s no use being Mr or Mrs Brains if you baffle people when you talk to them, or bore journalists with predictable soundbites. Politicians have staff to help with policy research and messaging, but nobody between them and their audience.

We rely on our Members to put across a good, rounded image of our party. Whatever your particular politics, will your choices show that the Green Party is both practical and radical, that we are able to achieve significant changes to Mayoral policy at the same time as advocating a radically different vision of London? Radical idealists might spend four wasted years making good speeches; practical realists might forget the reason they’re Green while working for minor concessions.

Our two/three members have, in the past, won a great many gains for London by working with other political parties and at times with the Mayor. The comparatively collegiate culture of the Assembly is one of the joys of working there. People who enjoy tribal politics, who thrive on factions and who find it difficult to work with others – especially if they’re those hated Lib Dems or “sell out” New Labourites, won’t get very far in the Assembly.

To focus on these basic political skills takes the final quality: discipline. Watching Caroline Lucas over the past few years, it’s been remarkable to see how hard she works to find realistic radical ideas, get them across to the public and the media in a compelling way, and work with NGOs, politicians across the political spectrum and anyone else willing to help her achieve our goals. To compare her to someone like George Galloway, who is an excellent speaker and fires a lot of people up, is to compare an effective small party politician to a character that can only be tolerated in a large party.

Of course this portrait of an effective small party politician reflects my politics; you may think we’re in this game for an entirely different reason. If you think there’s no progress without revolution or the Mayoralty, these reasons may not sway you.

It’s well worth actually watching the webcasts of a few Assembly meetings, perusing some committee reports and reading some press releases to get an idea of the work they do.

If you like the look of that work and can see its value, you might ask yourself: would this candidate be able to work cross-party on affordable housing funding and river deculverting, gain media coverage on these issues, and win some real gains for London?

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