Tag Archives: Green politics

How the BBC cover their backs

Complaining is usually a frustrating experience. We hope it will be cathartic, perhaps even effective. The BBC is among those grand institutions that, when they respond at all, make clear that your views are wrong, irrelevant, and that you are so infinitesimally small a concern that one should be grateful for any response.

When the BBC first responded to my complaint about their coverage of the European Election results on the 25th May, they managed to ignore my every point. Going by responses to previous complaints, I wasn’t entirely surprised.

I wrote about their ignorance of the politics of the European Parliament, their focus on Westminster (yet again) despite the large public interest in recent European matters such as the ban on fishing discards (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fish fight).

I wrote about their scant coverage of the Green Party, not interviewing a single spokesperson for the party until 2.30am, having constantly interviewed representatives from other parties in the preceding four hours.

Their first response told me they had received a lot of complaints, and they were right to cover UKIP to the extent, and in the manner, which they did.

At least the irony of their first response made me laugh, managing not to mention the Green Party or European politics in response to a complaint that they did precisely that.

My follow-up complaint pointing this out got a proper reply.

Now there are three ways to respond to a complaint: humbly apologise, robustly defend, or distract and dissemble. You can judge which they opted for.

They first told me:

The amount of airtime the BBC gives to a party in the run up to an election is based on evidence of past and current levels of support. This can include the number of candidates a party is fielding, how it performed in the last equivalent election and other evidence of current electoral backing.

This calculation was informed by Ofcom’s decision in March to downgrade the Green Party to an also-ran, despite running a full slate, being part of the fourth largest grouping in the European Parliament, having substantial achievements under our belt, having coming third in the most recent London elections (in 2012). The decisions by Ofcom and the BBC wrote us out of the script, even as our polling picked up (as it always does) weeks away from the elections as we pulled up alongside and even went ahead of the Lib Dems.

They continue:

We showed the Greens as part of the permanent on screen tally from the first result of the night. We also took care to mention the Green share of the vote after every declaration – even where the party did not win a seat.

It is true that the Green result was always on the screen, but it was rarely on the lips of the presenters and guests. The usual refrain, “the Lib Dems have been pushed into fifth place”, made clear that we were an invisible nuisance to the Westminster party they were interested in. The constant interviews with Lib Dems about falling into fifth place only confirmed this.

So why weren’t Green Party people also being constantly interviewed about beating the Lib Dems, and even winning seats?

Natalie Bennett was interviewed towards the end of the results flow at 2.30 am. The reason for such a later interview was in part because we were waiting until the full picture for the Greens was known. Every extra seat matters for smaller parties and we wanted to know how close they would come to their prediction (made on our local election programme) of 6-7 seats. The other reason is simply that this was an election results programme and later interviews are not unusual.

By that logic, they would have waited until the night was over before interviewing any Lib Dems. Surely the story was, will they lose all of their seats or will they hold on in any region? What of UKIP? Why not wait until 2.30am before interviewing them about the “earthquake” the BBC kept on about?

The truth is that the BBC’s editorial team simply aren’t interested in the Green Party. We aren’t an attraction in their Westminster bubble. Nick Robinson admitted at one point that he had only ever been to Brussels once, to cover a Cameron trip there. Journalists who, if they ever leave the gossip in the Gothic halls of Westminster struggle to adjust to the notion of politics at a different level of government, inevitably see the Green Party as nary a threat to either of the Big Three. UKIP are not doted on so much for their support across the country, but for their ability to pull the Conservative Party every-which-way, even to panic the Labour leadership or dictate the tone and focus of the Liberal Democrat campaign.

Regional BBC journalists are quite different. In London, for instance, they fully understand that we are on a level pegging with the Lib Dems, that we have interesting contributions to make in debates on policing, housing and transport as well as the environment. But at a national level the BBC just don’t understand that, yet.

Thankfully the petition organised by Portia Cocks was handed in with almost 50,000 signatures, and the BBC was forced to respond to mine among 1,200 other complaints about their election coverage, prompting several discussions on TV and radio as to whether their coverage was appropriate.

This discussion with Nick Robinson shows them covering their backs.

Perhaps, over time, we will be able to persuade those editors and journalists that the Green Party does have some interesting contributions to make to their debates. I suspect that we will struggle, though, so long as the Beeb frames everything in terms of the narrow consensus of the Westminster bubble.

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Traffic reduction in Crystal Palace and Anerley

One of my top priorities for the Crystal Palace and Anerley area would have to be traffic reduction. Every day on my way home from work, walking back from the station or cycling down the hill, this is what I see:

Traffic in Crystal Palace and Anerley

The crawling queues are similar around the Triangle and down the other main roads in the area. This is bad news, if only because it’s annoying to be stuck in traffic! Plus, it snarls up buses and makes them less reliable.

Here is another pair of pictures, this time showing air pollution in the area.

anerley-road-pollution

The map on the left shows the quantity of deadly nitrogen dioxide emitted by vehicles each day, and in case you’re wondering the dark blue along Crystal Palace Parade is about the same as the Strand in central London, while the pollution down Anerley Hill is similar to that on the roads leading north from Kings Cross and Euston. The map on the right shows the stretches of road that are predicted to still exceed legal health limits for nitrogen dioxide in 2020, and the bus stops near them.

The main cause of all this pollution is traffic, particularly vehicles idling in queues. We have to walk along these roads to catch a train, wait there to catch a bus, sit out next to it on a sunny day with a pint down the pub. It retards lung development in children, increases the chance of asthma and makes the symptoms worse, and can exacerbate heart conditions. After smoking, it’s the second biggest cause of premature death in London.

So less traffic would mean healthier, more pleasant streets with more reliable buses.

Solutions

So how do we reduce traffic?

The first solution is to give people a good alternative to driving. That’s one reason why I support the Space for Cycling campaign. Besides making the area safer and more pleasant for cyclists, and we could also remove pavement clutter and improve the streetscape to making walking nicer (as the Anerley Regeneration Project are doing). Bromley also needs to embrace car clubs – there are parking bays scattered across surrounding boroughs, but they disappear when you come into the wilds of Tory Bromley. Fewer people would need to own a car if there were more club cars.

A lot of the traffic isn’t even local, we’re just a through-route for people, so we also need TfL to get back to thinking about traffic reduction. Since he was elected, Boris Johnson has actually scrapped or reversed policies that were supposed to reduce traffic. From 2000 to 2012, traffic actually fell across Greater London despite the population growing by one million people and the economy (mostly) booming. Now TfL expect traffic to start rising again.

Finally, we need to block development that encourages even more vehicle traffic. That means stopping the crazy proposed hotel and conference centre in the park, making sure new flats are built with minimal car parking. Some people worry this will cause parking problems, but with the above policies it doesn’t need to. More than half the households in this area already don’t own a car.

Without a clear vision like this, we’ll just drift into ever increasing congestion and pollution.

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Densifying London the wrong way

I’m a firm believer in “densification” – that we can make our towns and cities more dense. This can help us to avoid building on other species’ habitats, and to support more sustainable transport habits like public transport and cycling. I’ve written two blog posts looking at the scope for densifying outer London.

But yesterday, Eric Pickles re-announced his own densification programme, and I’m dead-set against it. The Communities Secretary wants to give Boris Johnson £150m to accelerate the demolition of council estates in London, building more dense housing on the land.

The official statement describes the estates as “London’s most deprived”; the Evening Standard helpfully spelled out what they meant by that, describing “run down” and “notorious” areas. It’s one of those easy stereotypes to trot out that actually have very little basis in fact – UKIP supporters are wealthy Tories, housing benefit claimants are unemployed scroungers, and council estates are crumbling and crime-ridden.

In a bizarre attempt to make this sound benign, the official statement mentions that 1.7 million more people lived in inner London in 1939 than are expected to live there in 2021, implying that it really isn’t all that dense at all. Compared to Tokyo, it isn’t, but compared to 1939? Back then inner London was seriously overcrowded, still blighted by slums; depopulation was a deliberate policy to improve quality of life, moving people to outer London or new towns.

You might wonder – why doesn’t Pickles want to regenerate the sprawling low density suburbs? The potential housing capacity there, as I demonstrated, is anywhere up to a trebling of our housing stock.

The answer is obvious. Council tenants in inner London are easy targets. Their councils lack the funds and imagination to protect and maintain their homes and so, reluctantly or otherwise, they go along with these redevelopments. This in spite a growing list of such schemes that have seen the net loss of social housing, the expensive new flats mostly sold to investors, the dislocation of settled communities, the worsening health of affected tenants, and the environmentally destructive loss of existing buildings.

For Pickles and these councils, the tenants have no right to stay put, certainly not equivalent to home owners. But why not? Think of this as a moral, not a legal question. These tenants have been offered a social contract, the assurance that they will be secure in their homes so long as they want to stay there and can pay their rent, equivalent to the social contract for home owners who can continue to pay off their mortgage. They thrive in lively communities, cope with poverty and social exclusion by relying on networks of neighbours, establish settled family lives and hold down jobs they can afford to commute to.

What is the difference between a compulsory purchase of a council estate, such as the Heygate with 1,200 homes on 9 hectares of land, and a compulsory purchase of some homes in Bromley or Havering, with typically 270 homes on an equivalent 9 hectares?

The difference is cost and political will. Councils own their land and can do with it as they wish; the only question is whether they will gain financially from the redevelopment. But to buy those homes in Bromley or Havering they might need to find the best part of £135m. An imaginative council might see an opportunity to fund that by building 1,200 homes and selling half of them on the open market, but councils aren’t encouraged to be imaginative and proactive in Britain. More importantly, most politicians treat the property rights of home owners as sacred while the rights of tenants are temporary and fungible, and few would countenance the idea of redeveloping swathes of suburbia in this way.

If Pickles wanted to densify areas of London to meet needs, he should look at all areas of low density housing and explore how clever use of compulsory purchase and land assembly can deliver his aims in a way that recognises homes are about people and communities, not bricks and mortar.

This so-called regeneration of council estates is densification through urban clearance, sweeping away the powerless and ignoring the impact on their lives in order to deliver numbers – new homes built, council tax revenues collected, stereotypes confirmed.

For an alternative vision for London, visit the Crumbs for London campaign.

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Densifying London (part two)

Following yesterday’s post on making London more dense, Tim Lund suggested I do a slightly more sophisticated analysis. Planners in London use a metric called the Public Transport Accessibility Level, or ‘PTAL’, which does pretty much what you’d expect.

Rules for things like car parking levels and the density of housing you should build are based on these, because obviously if you’re in central London you have no need for a car and you can justify quite tall blocks of flats, but in low rise suburbia with only sporadic bus services it’s accepted that more car parking and less dense housing is appropriate.

So if you were to follow these rules, how much more housing could you build in London?

First, I took the data for PTAL levels (the map on the left). Then I took my wards, sliced up to remove any areas that cannot be built on, cut out the Heathrow airport too because it was such an extreme outlier, and worked out the median PTAL level for each one (the map on the right). Click for a larger version.

Densifying London (part two)

Then I took all the wards where the density was below London’s median. I calculated how many homes you could have, taking the midrange for urban areas for each PTAL level from the Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance (page 32). I deducted the actual number of households from that potential to arrive at the extra homes you could build if you were to bring the areas in line with the planners’ expectations.

This would imply flattening the lowest density half of London and building anew at densities between 80 and 225 homes per hectare.

Here are the results. This map shows all the wards that fell below the median, colour-coded based on the number of extra units you re-built them at the density suggested by the London Plan, using every bit of land for housing:

The result: an extra 6,500,000 homes! That’s twice as many as exist across the whole of Greater London already.

Obviously nobody is about to demolish such an extensive area and re-build it from scratch, and to take every inch of commercial and industrial land for housing and mixed-use development. The environmental impacts of such a huge demolition and construction program would also be ruinous. So it’s a slightly absurd number. But it gives you an idea of what’s possible. Maybe this is what would have happened if we had a sustainable planning system during the 1930s, when these sprawl suburbs were built?

An interesting ‘part three’ would be to take those areas and see what capacity there is on brownfield site. Sadly, I don’t know of any good up-to-date sources of brownfield data. There’s this data produced by the now defunct London Development Agency, not updated since 2009, which you can see on a map here. One to think about…

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Making parts of London more dense

How do we build more homes in London? The Mayor’s latest exercise assessing needs suggests we need up to 690,000 over the next ten years, but a parallel exercise looking for land only came up with sites for 420,000 homes.

The usual debate is whether or not we build in London’s greenbelt to make up the difference. But there are at least three good reasons not to go down this route to solve our problems: there are an awful lot of protected habitats that we really cannot build on; building sustainable developments around transport hubs and avoiding those habitats could only deliver (in Andrew Lainton’s estimation) 72,000 homes; and if we ignore these,  it could lead to more low density, car-dependent urban sprawl, which the greenbelt was established to prevent.

The alternative, or perhaps complementary, approach is to make London more dense, particularly around transport hubs in sprawling, low density outer London. This has actually been pushed for over a decade by Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson with the London Plan, the main planning document for the capital.

There is a lot more to be said about that debate, but it isn’t my purpose with this blog. Instead, I have indulged in one of my hobbies and done a rough-and-ready analysis of the current density across London, by local electoral ward.

My methodology was as follows. I started with the ward boundaries, and the ONS household estimates from 2011. I then chopped out all the areas covered by the land uses which I reasoned we cannot build on.

  • greenbelt
  • metropolitan open land (strongly protected in planning policy)
  • parks, commons, allotments, nature reserves and other important green spaces
  • railway lines with a 5m buffer either side

The data for these came from the London Datastore and extracts from OpenStreetMap.

I considered cutting out areas covered by roads, but then found it would take so long for my software package QGIS to process the data that I’d lose interest! So, given that roads cover pretty much every area, I decided it wouldn’t make a significant difference and left them out.

I also didn’t cut out industrial or commercial areas, for three reasons: first, often commercial buildings have flats above; second, the coverage in OpenStreetMap is too inconsistent; and third, while many should be retained for this use, there are also lots of areas that could be redeveloped for homes, or as mixed-use sites.

So given these caveats, I calculated the number dwellings per hectare of land that could potentially be built on. Here’s the result:

Making parts of London more dense

The green area is all the land that can’t be built on. The rest is coloured from deep red for very high density to light pinky grey for the lowest. I haven’t put a legend on because, well, it’s a very rough approximation. You can see obvious problems with the data, e.g. where Heathrow airport sits, and the Thames Gateway with lots of strategically important industrial land as well as lots of sites for new housing.

So what could densification achieve? Well, let’s say we increase the least dense half of London and brought it all up to the median density. That would increase the number of homes by 815,000!

I haven’t gone any further with these because it is such a rough calculation. If I can get my hands on better data to account for the flaws mentioned, I’ll give it another whirl. But it would be quite interesting to take an area I know really well and look for development sites, and see whether they could be brought up to that median.

Update see part two where I look at density and public transport accessibility.

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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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