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Many people think that we have a major environmental emergency on our hands called climate change. That is, of course, quite wrong. We have at least three major environmental emergencies going on and none of them is remotely under control.
One of the worst of those crises is the proliferation of plastic waste. If, repeat if, every government keeps to every commitment it has ever made about reducing plastic waste then the latest research indicates that by 2040 we will have three times as much plastic waste going into the sea as we have now. Picture in your mind the worst scenes from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series and then multiply the problem by three.
Production and use of plastics is increasing not reducing. There are large lumps of plastic lying around at the very bottom of the ocean and on every beach, whilst a rain of microplastics is constantly falling onto even the most remote mountain tops and is percolating down through our oceans to settle onto the sea floor. Every person who reads this will have microplastic particles inside their body and we simply do not know the impact of that.
Consumer pressure has made a significant difference to the margins of the plastic production problem and has concentrated the minds of some retailers in some countries. Yet we are still covering the entire planet in a thin layer of microplastics that will stay in the geological deposits as the record of our time on this planet. It takes a change in manufacturing practices and in the packaging and distribution systems to really make a dent in the problem. That doesn’t mean replacing a few plastic straws with biodegradable alternatives. It means an investment in changing almost every aspect of the production and consumption process to ensure that less is used, and once used every part of the product is either reused or recycled. No government can claim to be remotely serious about tackling this product whilst it continues to allow significant proportions of the nation’s rubbish to be put onto boats and shipped across the world to poorer nations in the hope that they will process it. That is what is still happening to much waste created in Britain.
Future geologists won’t just be able to detect our presence by looking for the layer of plastic. They will also have little difficulty spotting the second big environmental crisis we have created. The destruction of entire species and the near destruction of many more. All too often those who care about the destruction of entire ecosystems are portrayed as well-meaning but unrealistic people who say impractical things like “What about the poor pangolins?”. In reality there are few things that threaten human existence as directly as the destruction of wildlife and its habitats. The pandemic we are living through is a case in point. Most scientists believe the outbreak began as a direct result of capturing pangolins in one part of the world, bats in another and then placing them in cages next to each other so they could exchange viruses. In other words, we have killed half a million people and deeply damaged the entire world economy because the market economy pays a high price for high status food that can be served up to a few top bureaucrats in an obscure Chinese city in the hope that it will influence their decisions. Most scientists also think that other viruses have jumped species because the destruction of forests has brought humanity into close contact with new species and new viruses and that there will be other more serious pandemics. In those circumstances who is being unrealistic? Those who care about the destruction of the environment or those who want to carry on taking extreme risks as though nothing has happened?
All of which takes us straight back to the climate emergency. The commitments made at the Paris Climate Talks were very welcome but were far from adequate to tackle the problem. Since then the United States has ripped up its commitments and Brazil has gone all out to make money from cutting down rain forests. Yet even if every country fully implements their promises the hope is that we will stop injecting new net carbon into the environment in 2050. There is a twenty year time lag between stopping net carbon emissions and stopping new human generated climate warming. So we can expect the climate to continue to get worse every year for another fifty years.
This summer Siberia has seen the worst heat waves and fires since humans lived on the planet. It is a region that hold enormous quantities of frozen methane just below the surface of the permafrost. It also holds much of the world’s forest cover in places where new trees grow very slowly. Both burning trees and releasing methane speeds up the climate emergency. This summer has also seen the lowest levels of arctic ice on record. White snow and ice reflect heat whilst dark oceans absorb it. There is a real risk that the climate change models are all wrong. It is entirely possible that the feedback loops are already in progress and problems are happening more rapidly and more intensively than scientists, who value their reputation for cautious and responsible publications, have dared to predict.
In such circumstances is it perhaps time for a backlash to the backlash? The best predictions of scientists have been criticised for over two decades for being too extreme and for recommending actions that are too costly to implement. In reality it is increasingly looking like the dire predictions of scientists were in fact too cautious and that what we really need to do is to act more rapidly and tackle more problems more seriously.
We need to tackle the multiple environmental emergencies that are engulfing us before reality imposes costs that make the current pandemic seem small scale.
There aren’t many companies in the world that would pay out ten billion dollars in compensation if there wasn’t a problem. Yet that is how much the giant German drug company Bayer is reported to have agreed in order to settle claims made by users of products containing glyphosate in the USA who believed it was the cause of their cancer.
Any reasonable person might assume that once a huge payment like this was made then the product would cease to be sold in case it was harmful to human health. Yet that is not what is happening. Glyphosate is widely on sale in the UK without any warning.
Few people know which products contain glyphosate. Indeed, most people will never have heard of it. Yet they might very easily pop down to the garden centre to buy some weed killer to spray around their garden to keep it looking “nice and tidy”. A high proportion of those weed killers contain glyphosate. Roundup is, perhaps, the best-known brand that does.
As I write Amazon is offering to sell customers in the UK a large plastic container of Roundup with its own fast action pump for quick and easy home use. Without a word of warning that farm workers and gardeners in the States had experienced the remotest concern over their health. Ten billion dollars’ worth of apparent damage to health doesn’t stop the product from being sold and doesn’t warrant a health warning.
Humans aren’t the only creatures who have been reported to experience health problems from glyphosate. It wouldn’t occur to many people that they were likely to harm bees by spraying a weed-killer in their garden. Yet there have been studies indicating that glyphosate damages helpful creatures living in the guts of bees and that it may also interfere with their navigation system
This is not the same chemical as the neonicitinoids that have also been associated with weakening honeybee communities by damaging bee navigation systems. Neonicitinoids are a ‘pesticide’ that penetrates every cell of a growing plant and then poisons insects that try to feed off the plant. Every scientist agrees that in high enough doses neonicitinoids will kill bees. Yet the producers have tried very hard to convince decision makers that in the wild no bees will ever get a high enough dose to kill them. Researchers have shown that directly killing the bees is indeed highly unlikely but that indirectly doing so by confusing their ability to navigate really is a genuine problem. As a consequence of this and other problems, the vast majority of the now notorious neonicitinoid chemicals were suspended from legal use across the EU. The manufacturers continue to insist they are safe and to press for their legalisation. Neonicitinoids are almost certain to be back on the list of sprays used on products sold in the UK once any trade deal with the US is agreed.
That would add to the already alarming cocktail of sprays that are permitted for use on apparently healthy food that people in the UK eat every day. The average apple orchard in the UK receives thirteen fungicide sprays, five plant hormone regulator sprays, five sprays of insecticides, two herbicide sprays and one spray with urea. Think on that the next time you tuck in to an imported apple that has been transported across the planet to appear on your plate. Then think hard about how much you can rely on receiving accurate and reliable warnings from producers about what their products do to your body or to other creatures.
It is highly unlikely that any politician in the US will sign a new trade deal with the UK unless that deal allows its farmers to export large quantities of food grown using a greater range of chemicals than British farmers are allowed to use.
Remember that when someone tries to tells you that there is no problem about washing chickens in chlorine because it is a safe chemical that is used in swimming baths. The issue isn’t what the chicken is washed in. The issue is the high-risk practices which are used to produce the food in the first place and the way problems aren’t openly admitted and addressed but are covered up.
It seems that it is worth $10 billion dollars to some companies to carry on selling chemicals without alerting people to the existence of rather expensive concerns about their safety. How much is it worth to you to be able to trust the regulation system that protects the quality of the food that you eat?
 Dave Goulson, The Garden Jungle, Jonathon Cape, London, 2019,p 43
Most reasonable people are occasionally riddled with doubt. Questioning what you believe, changing your mind, and never being over certain or over confident are actually very positive behaviours. Particularly if you are trying to make objective decisions about how best to run a country.
Boris Johnson seems riddled with certainty. He knows what the “good guys” think, surrounds himself with those who share his views and lack the courage to challenge them and he only listens to advisers who tell him what he wants to hear. The consequences for the country are becoming clearer by the day.
The UK has the second highest death rate from Coronavirus in the entire world. The UK has so far experience 560 deaths per million of people diagnosed with the new virus. Germany by contrast has 107 deaths whilst South Korea has 5. That’s because those countries have better local test and trace systems and took action earlier.
In Britain Johnson took too little action too late. It took the Premier League to cancel football matches, his government boasted that it had enabled 1,500,000 Britain’s to return from abroad during lockdown. Not a single one of them was required to take any test or to place themselves in quarantine.
We were told with absolute certainty that face masks were pointless. Then later asked to wear them. We were told we’d shortly have the best test and trace system in the world operating. We still don’t have anything actually working effectively. We were informed that it was safe for the elderly to return untested to care homes. They took the infection with them and killed thousands.
Now the government is confidently ploughing ahead with too much re-opening too soon in the hope that it will rescue business. Internationally the virus is currently infecting more people than ever before. Yet Johnson’s government is encouraging us to take foreign holidays. It is opening the pubs. It is telling us that businesses must be allowed to get back to normal.
We are not in a normal situation. It doesn’t help businesses one bit to encourage them to open before the pandemic is under control. Opening costs money. If any of the businesses that open up are later forced to close again it will do much more economic damage than waiting an extra couple of weeks until infection rates were near zero. Like they did in Scotland. There were 165 deaths in a single day in the UK on Friday 26th June which is way higher than the number when we entered lockdown. Yet the pubs are being told to open for the first time in weeks on a Saturday night. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? In the US an early easing of controls has led to serious fresh outbreaks in places like Texas. Why is the government so confident that it can avoid the same thing here?
It would also be interesting to know why they are so confident about their economic recovery strategy. Johnson is about to announce major interventions into the economy that will be funded by extra government debt. Something which is in direct contravention of the policies of his party for the past forty years.
Margaret Thatcher told the country at every opportunity that it is dangerous for the state to try and prop up failing industries or to think that it is better than the private sector at picking winners. Johnson is about to give money to airline companies that have no prospect of returning to their previous size. He is confident he can return fossilised industries to economic health.
George Osborne and Philip Hammond repeatedly told us that there is no such thing as a free money tree. Johnson’s government is about to borrow billions and spend big. Some of that money will be spent on new schools and colleges, better hospitals and small heavily publicised green infrastructure projects. All very welcome. Much of it will be wasted on new roads, subsidies for airport infrastructure and on keeping fuel duty low. Johnson is confident that he can fund a full recovery and is calling it a New Deal. Those of us who still retain the capacity for doubt fear the consequences of letting him build up massive amounts of new debt months before the country crashes out of the EU for real. What we have is the same Old Deal rehashed. Fossilised thinking from a blinkered Prime Minister.
We must, of course, expect Johnson to spend a lot of time talking about his determination to invest in a greener future and more advanced agricultural practices. But when Johnson talks it is always wise to check what the money is spent on not what the words say. The real money will go to the people who help fund his political party like large building firms and on set piece nationally visible vanity projects. Little will go on local green initiatives that might actually work.
Johnson arranged well in advance for it to be leaked that his key note speech on economic revival carries the title “Build, Build, Build” and that pesky planning laws will be swept out of the way. Which means that he is dumping effective local democratic controls over planning decisions and making it easier for builders to put up what they want where they choose.
The inner cities of Britain are crying out for investment to revive their housing stock and transform their collapsing High Streets. That takes targeted state and local government intervention with serious new money going to local governments to let them build council houses, retrofit homes with heat exchange units and solar panels to cut energy bills, and proper investment in changing disused shops and no longer needed offices into attractive town centre flats. You don’t let local people control the transformation of their neglected communities by scrapping local planning controls. We need stronger local government intervention driving forward local regeneration projects that are understood and welcomed by people who live in the local community they have the knowledge and incentive to transform.
What we are about to get instead is Dominic Cummings over riding local wishes with great confidence. As he rewards the housing developers who paid a lot of money into the Conservative Party campaign funds with policy changes that suit their pockets but risk harming local communities.
So, if you are prepared to place your hopes for economic recovery on the tender mercies of cynical property developers then feel free to place your full confidence in the policies of Boris Johnson’s government. It you retain any sort of capacity for independent critical thought then prepare for a long hard fight against arrogance. Johnson is quite certain that he has the right plan for the future. The rest of us are entitled to be riddled with doubt.
Few people are fascinated by the intricacies of quantitative easing. Which is a shame because how it is done is going to have an enormous influence over everyone’s lives for at least the next decade.
As I write this the Bank of England has just announced that it will operate another programme of £100 billion of it. That is an enormous amount of money. It is enough to cover most of the extra spending the Chancellor has made so far to try and cover the costs of the Covid 19 epidemic. How that kind of money is spent ought to be the issue of passionate debate.
Let’s put it this way. If you had to decide how to prioritise the spending of £100 billion of public money what would you wish it to be used on? Then consider what is actually happening.
All that money is being used by the Bank of England to buy bonds on the financial markets in the hope that this will lower interest rates and provide the banks and financial institutions with so much financial liquidity that they will be willing and able to lend shedloads of money to businesses and thus revive the economy.
I doubt whether many people had that at the top of their wish list.
I also doubt whether it will work. Because it is based on a deeply flawed piece of economic theory.
In normal times the Bank of England uses the mechanism of buying or selling financial bonds as a quietly subtle way of tuning the economy that is pretty effective. It enables them to speed up or slow down the economy a little according to need. Effectively they either create money or destroy money to speed up things or to slow them down.
We are not in normal times. We are entering a deep recession that risks becoming a genuine economic depression. In such circumstances it simply doesn’t work to offer businesses the opportunity to borrow money easily. Who is going to borrow money and invest in a new business if millions of people have lost their job and business after business is going bankrupt?
It doesn’t matter how cheap the loan is or how willing the bank is to offer that loan if it is highly likely that you will lose money on the deal. John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, described this as trying to push on a piece of string. He lived through the deep depression of the 1930s and so understood what a major economic slump is like. Since his policies helped the entire Western world avoid a repeat of that miserable experience and live through the more prosperous times of the 1950s and 1960s it is worth taking note of his ideas of how to deal with the kind of economic crisis we are about to live though.
Unfortunately, Keynes theories are no longer in fashion so the Bank of England are busy creating £100 billion of new money and then squandering it on a project that won’t work. At a time when the government is going to be desperately short of money.
We are constantly told that there is no such thing as free money because in normal times for normal people that is true. The Bank of England does not experience the same rules as normal people and we are not in normal times.
If the Bank of England electronically creates large amounts of new money at a time when the economy is operating at anywhere near full capacity it will simply result in a dangerous bout of inflation. If they do it in the depths of a depression and let the government use that money wisely then things are very different. It is the key mechanism that could save us from at least another decade of deep austerity.
The way to get an ailing economy back to work is to pump in enough new money to shore up the economy and to invest it directly into that economy with the deliberate intention of fostering projects which are future orientated. If that is done in one country it will have a hugely positive impact. If it is done in many major economies at the same time then it will rescue billions of people from grinding through hard times that are no fault of their own.
If governments seek out ways of financing economic and social changes which are likely to be sustainable and to provide people with secure employment into the future then they will be able to significantly reduce the impact of the coming recession. That means investing in a low carbon, low plastic future and in ensuring that agriculture and industry operate in ways that are genuinely sustainable in the long term.
It does not mean spending money on shoring up industries that are entering a period of long term unavoidable decline. Such as airlines, cruise ship operators, manufacturers of plastic packaging or suppliers of fossil fuels.
What the government is allowing the Bank of England to do right now is utterly sort sighted. For an entire decade the British people were told that they had to tighten their belts and vicious cuts were made to public spending in an attempt to get control over government borrowing. Whilst that was happening the Bank of England spent £645 billion on quantitative easing.
If we go through that experience again what is going to be left of the National Health Service? Or education? What will life be like for the millions living on benefits that will have to be cut to the bone.
There is an alternative. There is a relatively simple economic solution. It just so happens that it is one that is ideologically difficult for some people to accept. The most important thing we have to do to get out of a really enormous economic hole is to put the money that the Bank of England creates directly into the economy and to do it intelligently.
Remember that every time you are told over the next decade that there isn’t enough money around to be able to afford government investment. The job of the Bank of England ought to be to create enough money to make sure we can finance our way out of a recession and the job of government ought to be to spend that money wisely on long term change.
How confident are you that the people currently running the United Kingdom are about to do that?
One phrase seems to be being trotted out with increasing frequency at the moment. An awful lot of quite surprising people are telling us they are determined “to build back better”.
Which is just as well because what they built for us so far hasn’t been very impressive.
Start with the simple fact that the main power source for our entire civilisation is the burning of fossils that can’t be replaced. Then add in the fact that the economic system relies on market signals about what is profitable to the person who makes it, supplies it or consumes it without many serious incentives to have regard to the consequences to others. So, the cost of a flight doesn’t remotely reflect the impact of that flight on the environment. The cost of a gallon of petrol pays scant regard to air pollution or CO2 emissions as the taxes pretty much only cover the realistic costs of road construction, maintenance and traffic management. And we produce mountains of plastic waste that have now reached the bottom of the deepest oceans and the top of the highest mountains.
Then there is the vulnerability of our civilisation. Our supermarket shelves are filled with products that are out of season in the UK that are shipped or flown in just in time to be sold. Any disruption to the supply chain and the country will be short of food in a couple of weeks. There is little or no connection between the growers of food and the buyers.
Add to that the gambles we are taking with human health. We have already seen a new illness spread across the planet just a couple of months after it spread between caged live wild animals and the humans who bought them to serve up to party functionaries at sumptuous banquets. Scientists have been warning for years that cutting down rain forests and mistreating wildlife would increase the risk of pandemic and that mass cheap air travel would make control of infection spread near impossible. They’ve also repeatedly warned that there is an imminent threat of us losing the availability of antibiotics through over use and misuse.
Unfortunately, when many politicians talk about building back better they show little or no grasp of any of these issues. The Johnson government has just agreed to allow antibiotic soaked meat from the US to be brought in huge quantities into the UK to be put into processed food that will be that little bit cheaper and nastier. The grain they are seeking to import is soaked with pesticides that are illegal in Europe. They are busy negotiating with the airlines what financial support package they would like. Whilst working hard to make sure as many cars are sold as possible with some slight incentives to switch to electric.
The opposition isn’t doing much better. I heard Ed Milliband, who now speaks for them on trade and industry, speaking on the radio just before I sat down to write this piece. His argument was that we should support Virgin Airways once they registered themselves in the UK for tax and promised to spend a little more in the future on greener air travel. That attitude is fundamentally flawed. Airlines that paid tax abroad don’t need UK taxpayer help to get back to business as near normal. The people with the skills to make plane parts, service or fly the planes and work in the travel industry need help to adapt to a necessarily smaller market not guarantees that their industry will soon be back to normal.
Air travel has experienced a huge drop in demand. The challenge isn’t how to restore that demand. The challenge is how to stop it returning quickly. There will, of course, be people who will wish to take the kids off the Benidorm for their annual holiday without worrying about the possibility that they will return with a virus that could kill their Granny. More understandably there will also be business travellers that genuinely have little option other than to travel to meet with international clients. Such travel needs to be at a much lower level than before lockdown permanently. We have learned a lot during lockdown about how to be happy without travel and how to do business via videoconference. At a time of fresh austerity what Chief Finance Officer is going to sign off on a first class flight across the Atlantic to stay in expensive hotels to do a job that could be done in minutes on Zoom? A few short months after news reports of people trapped on cruise ships riddled with a deadly virus how many pensioners are going to shell out large amounts of money to travel across the world for pleasure? The whole airline and travel industry is going to be smaller for years whether we like it or not. The planet will like it. Those working in that industry need help to adjust not promises that there is going to be an early return to irresponsible levels of air travel.
Building back better therefore needs real thought about how to help workers who need to retrain and regions that are suffering job losses. Amongst the issues we need to be addressing if we really want to build back better are:
It is up to us on the opposite side of the fence to articulate a genuinely better alternative and to make sure we do indeed build back better. And to do so in ways that build on the support of the large majority of people who enjoyed the clean air, the lighter traffic and the more sociable contacts with their neighbours that we experienced during lockdown whilst telling them the honest truth. A lot needs to change. That change needs to be fundamental and rapid.
One of the most important things to try and figure out at the moment is what the economy will look like once the current pandemic has either passed or reached a normalised balance point. It is tempting to look at the future through the lens of wishful thinking and to hope that things will be different in a positive way. It is more valuable to try and assess trends via objective analysis and to try and think through the consequences of recent experiences and the likely impact on efforts to rebuild the economy.
Looking at the data there is one statistic that stands out as being particularly dramatic. The price of oil has hovered around 20 to 30 dollars a barrel for several weeks and there was even a week when producers had to pay those with storage facilities to take the unsalable deliveries off their hands. It is possible that the concerted efforts of Saudi Arabia and Russia will succeed in cutting demand and bringing that price back up. It is unlikely that those efforts will be entirely successful and that the market price will quickly get back up to the heights of 100 dollars a barrel that were once normal.
That low price is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it means that fracking is no longer going to be economically viable even looked at from the very narrow point of view of the owner of the fracking site. The cost of land and licenses added to the cost of the technology make it pretty near impossible to break even. Few companies are going to invest in a method of doing business that eats money and irritates many of its own customers. That has to be a huge positive. We know that we have to leave most fossil fuels in the ground if we are to keep the damage to the climate to a minimum. So, we badly need to avoid becoming addicted to one of the dirtiest and most wasteful technologies and to the increases in methane emissions that have happened since fracking started.
The other huge positive from a lowering of oil prices is a shift in economic power and hence political power. It is no bad thing to see a huge cut in the state budgets for Saudi Arabia and for Russia given how that money has been used in recent years. Nor will it be a disaster to see the oil industry in the US become an expensive leach on taxpayers’ money instead of a wealthy source of campaign contributions for politicians. There is also a reduced temptation for political leaders to indulge in warfare if the oil rich territories become less valuable sources of easy income.
But hang on a minute. All is not necessarily going to be good. A low price usually means increased demand. It is going to be hard to stop people buying petrol if it comes in at half the price that they’ve been used to paying. Cheap oil and gas could seriously undercut the upcoming technologies of solar, wind, heat exchange and energy storage. We need to see dramatic reductions in use of oil and gas not dramatic reductions in the price that encourage greater use. A temporary post Covid drop in fuel prices could create a dramatic setback for demand for electric cars or decisions to install fossil fuel free heating systems. Why pay a lot of money for a capital expensive next generation product if the running cost savings disappear because you can fill up your tank with fossils on the cheap? Low fossil fuel prices just create an incentive to continue bad behaviour. And if the temporary cheap prices are coupled with a fear of people mixing on public transport we could see a very dangerous increase in car use and greater consumption of fossil fuel.
Fortunately, this is a pretty simple way out of this for governments. If they are desperate for revenue to pay for post Covid debts then should raise the taxes on fossil fuels so that the price gets back to pre-Covid prices. Doing that provides stability and predictability for customers if the price at the pumps doesn’t dramatically change. It is therefore one of the least painful ways of paying for the costs of the crisis. Keeping fossil fuel prices relatively high but stable is also extremely helpful for those bringing in new technology. It is hard to invest for years in bringing a wonderful new fossil free machine to the market that operates at less than the price than the fossilised version if the price of fossil fuels suddenly plunges and stays low.
It is entirely possible that many governments will indeed take such a common sense approach and tax fossil fuels realistically in order provide a high and stable price for markets whilst shoring up their own revenues. It is also entirely possible that they will bottle out of it because of public pressure. There is going to be a real battleground over this and every effort will be made to portray environmentalists as killjoys who want to inflict cost on the poor working man and woman. The truth is that the cost of ignoring the environment is always higher in the end. Just look at how much we have all paid recently as a result of mistreatment of wildlife in wet food markets providing an ideal breeding ground for inter-species virus transmission. Those of us who raised the issue of the environmental damage or of animal rights were portrayed as wild idealists. It turns out that ignoring animal rights creates a perfect breeding ground for a virus to jump between species and that massive practical damage was done to lives and livelihoods by ignoring the environmental consequences. The environmentalists who raised this issue turned out to be the practical common-sense people and the ones who ignored the warnings the impractical people. Hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars of economic damage is a consequence that has to be taken seriously by everyone regardless of their morality on wildlife crimes.
We have gone past the point where there is a battle between well-meaning but naïve environmentalists and practical hard headed people who understood economics. Any practical person who studies the real economic consequences of using fossil fuels for more than a few seconds must now accept that the collective price of using them has become too high. A single world economy can’t keep lurching from one massive crisis to the next without any changes to business as usual. Mistreating wildlife in a market in China has brought the entire world economy to its knees. If we keep pumping out Carbon Dioxide and Methane then the damage will be on a scale that dwarfs Coronavirus. That damage is just starting to materialise. Extreme weather is happening more and more frequently and comes with huge price tags. Yet even if we hit current targets of net zero emissions by 2050 the climate will continue to get more extreme until 2070, sea levels will continue to rise and coral reefs will continue to be destroyed.
The time has come for governments to face up to their responsibilities and act realistically. Fossil fuels cannot be allowed to become cheap. Governments must raise taxes on them now before the next crisis caused by carelessly mistreating the environment wrecks the economy even more comprehensively than the Coronavirus has done.
The cost in human lives cut short of the pandemic we are going through is something we are all too aware of at the moment. The cost to people’s livelihoods is yet to be properly understood.
Just at the moment governments are spending money as if there were no tomorrow for the very good reason that there will indeed be no tomorrow for a lot of people if they don’t act quickly. The urgent need to act means that whatever it takes to fund health care, social care, and public services has to be found. It is also not possible to ask people to stay at home and then expect them to manage without an income. So, across the world funding has been pumped into benefit systems and special crisis payments. In Spain they are now starting to do this simply, directly and fairly with a Citizen’s Income. In the UK millions of people are battling with the complexities of overloaded Universal Credit phonelines, trying to reclaim tax or struggling to get a bank to extend their credit. Those individuals aren’t the only ones in trouble. Consequently, huge payments are also going out from the government to help businesses survive. All of that adds trillions of dollars to the debt load that almost every single country in the world took on in 2008 to help banks survive.
Conventional economics tells us that as soon as we are out of the immediate crisis the pressure on government finances must cause huge problems. It is expected, for example, that the UK national debt will increase to exceed what the country earns in an entire year for the first time since the decade after the end of the Second World War. That means most economists think governments are going to have to cut back on expenditure whilst increasing taxes for at least a decade to get their finances back under reasonable control.
Try and visualise that and it quickly becomes evident that the experience simply won’t be tolerable. After ten years of painful cuts, we are going to emerge from a health crisis and expect public spending to undergo another ten years of much sharper cuts. Governments could be asking hospital doctors and nurses and care workers to take pay cuts and increased workloads as a reward for getting us through this pandemic. If that isn’t acceptable then they could turn on the teachers, or the police, or pensioners.
Before we passively accept that level of pain, we need to do some hard thinking about whether it is necessary and what the alternatives are. Fortunately, there are very workable ways out of this. The bad news is that they require Keynsian economics that is deeply unfamiliar and troubling to current policy makers. Put more simply the best solutions are ideologically difficult for governments but they have no good alternatives.
The quickest and simplest way of financing ourselves out of this crisis is to print money. In a time of inflationary pressures that is a really stupid thing to do. But we are not going to come out of this at a time of any serious inflationary pressures. All the dangers are in exactly the opposite direction. If we are going to avoid something worse than a second Great Depression it is going to need governments to pump a great deal of money into the system. After the 2008 financial crisis the Bank of England effectively printed over £400 billion and inflation went down. Their Quantitative Easing programme saved the banking system. Now it is the only realistic way of saving government finances. If a co-ordinated move is made by central banks in several different countries to do this at the same time there will be very little risk of it triggering balance of payments or currency value problems. Yet it is a solution that clashes strongly with political ideologies. We could easily find ourselves facing years of misery and risk entering a genuine economic depression because currently fashionable economic theory doesn’t feel comfortable with the most realistic policy option.
The second practical way of financing a recovery without a depression is to impose serious taxation on the very richest people and to increase benefits or reduce taxation for the poorest. The rich spend a much smaller proportion of their money than the middle classes or the poor. Cafés, restaurants, kitchen fitters and plumbers get the vast majority of their income from people on middle incomes or lower incomes. Letting tax dodgers launder money through tax havens doesn’t cause a trickle down to the poor. It acts as a drag on the economy. Taxing them heavily and enforcing those taxes and then providing that money to people in need boosts the economy. This was standard economic theory for three decades after the Second World War. Doing it now would rescue thousands of businesses that will otherwise go under. Yet Ideology will once again stand in the way of practical actions that have been proven to work.
Then there is a third option. A set of policies called a Green New Deal which seeks a planned reduction in consumption of resources and a planned increase in investment in sustainable economic activities. In the last few weeks, we’ve all experienced the joys of no air pollution, no car noise, no airplane trails in the sky and communities working to help each other instead of individuals encouraged to compete. There is a serious opportunity to continue those positives and to use this crisis to restructure the economy and update it to cope with the post fossil fuel era. That won’t happen if we spiral into a destructive economic depression where governments are desperate for every penny of finance and business after business lays off staff. The Green New Deal needs to genuinely echo the original New Deal. A thoughtful plan as to how to use a crisis to put people and businesses back to work whilst changing the way the economy works for the benefit of all. And by all, I mean all species. We got into this crisis as a result of over exploiting the environment and allowing wild animals to be treated as something to exploit so that rare creatures mixed together in wet food markets in China and exchanged viruses. The sensible way out of it is to prioritise the environment and build genuinely sustainable economies.
That means thinking very carefully about which businesses we support and which we don’t. There is going to be a massive reduction in air travel after this crisis. Why use public money to prop up an airline if there needs to be many fewer of them? Nor will it make great sense to subsidise fossil fuel companies to survive the low oil prices that have been produced by this crisis. Their product was already living on borrowed time and consuming the future. If low prices knock US fracking companies out of business then it would be criminal short sightedness to do anything but cheer. Yet if whole sectors of the economy are not likely to ever recover their previous size and strength after this crisis others will need to make up the slack. It is not easy to build a better society amongst the ashes of a Great Depression. Governments are therefore going to have to redouble efforts to invest in health science, clean energy, sustainable agriculture and small businesses. As much finance has to be pumped into the business economy as is being destroyed.
That destruction is not the product of bad luck. The virus didn’t just fall from the skies by chance. We have been exposing ourselves to increased risk of transmission by cutting down forests and by poaching wildlife on huge scales. We have increased that risk by relying on single use plastic products and just in time over complex supply chains for essentials like personal and protective equipment. How much simpler and more effective for a hospital to rely on high quality specialist clothing that can be cleaned and reused rather than on disposing of hundreds of thousands of flimsy plastic garments that are worn once and thrown away? How much better for food to come in season from local suppliers than to depend on being flown in at risk of the supply chain collapsing in hours?
For decades environmentalists have been telling us that our economic practices are unsustainable and urgently need to change. If we are genuinely interested in following the science then the time has come for economists and governments to listen to the warnings. We can’t sustain an economy on burning fossils. We have to act now to stop disaster happening to our climate. We can’t carry on covering the planet with plastic without any thought for the consequences. We’ve had one very unpleasant reminder of the costs that are encountered in human lives and in people’s livelihoods as a direct result of treating wildlife badly. It is way past time we gave a lot more thought to how to restructure our economy and our society in order to avoid a much worse disaster. Let’s have a Green New Deal not another decade of the far right telling us it is necessary to tighten our belts whilst they try and continue with business as normal.
Almost every time a government Minister answers a challenging question about their handling of the Covid 19 crisis they give the same answer. They are just “following the science”.
This sounds so very reasonable. How could anyone object to politicians objectively listening to rigorous scientists and putting the best possible policies into practice? Surely anyone who dares to question the wisdom of that approach must be as daft and as dangerous as the people who are telling us this variant of Coronavirus was created as a result of installing the 5G network?
Yet hold on a minute. It might just be worth asking what science is and where it reaches its limits and the social science of good policy making takes over.
Science is about objective evidence and repeatable testable experiments. That means that if you want to know whether a particular test for Covid 19 gives valid results then you absolutely must checkout the science and take care to ensure there is real evidence behind claims. It is also a rather good idea to listen to science when it comes to deciding what treatment a patient with symptoms of the disease should receive at any particular stage of their illness. Those are very fact-based assessments.
When it comes to making policies about how to best control the spread of the disease the science is a lot less clear because you are actually dealing with a social and political problem. Once you start asking questions about how to influence human behaviour you enter the world of social science where there is a messy mixture of evidence that has to be assessed with great care and little certainty about how to interpret that evidence and translate it into action.
It is really important not to confuse the two. No government should ever try and dodge constructive criticism of its actions using the excuse that it is powerless to do anything else but follow the extreme wisdom of its current course of action.
Particularly when that course of action has led us to death tolls of over 900 people in hospital in one single day and more in care homes. It is only necessary to compare the death toll in Germany with that of the UK to see that something has gone very wrong with British political decision making during this crisis. With a higher population, and long land borders, Germany has had many fewer deaths. With all the advantages of an island setting, and considerable advance warning, the UK is now exceeding the worst death tolls of Italy.
The reasons for this are pretty clear. Firstly, the UK was slow to act. Boris Johnson let the Cheltenham races go ahead and allowed one in every thousand of the population to mix when the disease was already beginning to spread within the country. We will never know how many of those people took the disease home with them. We can pretty reliably say that the decision cost lives. Incredibly the government was also prepared to allow the Premier League to go ahead as late as 14th March, at the risk of half a million spectators mingling. The games were only cancelled by the responsible decision of the League not by the government.
Then it was quickly discovered that the UK didn’t have enough testing facilities to even succeed in checking whether doctors and nurses in the frontline had the disease. Curiously Germany did have enough kit. That was not down to bad luck in the UK. It was down to bad planning. The UK has actually got quite a strong medical science infrastructure when Universities, the medical industry and the NHS are collectively considered. Germany managed to marshal its facilities and make sure tests were available in time. The UK didn’t and has been playing a very dangerous game of catch up. That wasn’t the result of following scientific advice. It was the result of slow and sloppy decision making.
The worrying lack of kit also applies to personal protective equipment and to ventilators. After a very slow start, the government has actually done rather well at rapidly trying to increase the supply of these things in difficult circumstances. It did extraordinarily badly in refusing to join in an EU wide procurement exercise. That decision wasn’t taken because of scientific guidance. It was taken because it was embarrassing politically to do anything in co-operation with the EU and the decision was then covered up by ludicrously claiming to have lost an email that invited them to participate. Officials had in fact sat in three separate meetings before letting the opportunity go.
Yet one of the other key mistakes the government is making goes completely against the strong border control policies Brexiteers usually love. They have consistently refused to put any meaningful controls on people arriving at airports. So, every day flights arrive from hotspots like Madrid, Rome or New York and the passengers just walk off, get into the transit bus, mingle in the baggage hall, queue up for a quick passport check and are then waived through with an advice leaflet. The UK has so few proper tests available that the government can’t spare them for tests on airport arrivals but there isn’t even a quick temperature check. As a consequence, the empty hotels surrounding Heathrow are not full of quarantine cases. People just get on the tube, then on the train and head off around the country.
All the scientific evidence suggests that the virus originally arrived in the UK by plane. All the scientific evidence suggests that it is wise to avoid travel and so millions of people have been very rightly advised to stay close to their homes and not risk transmitting the disease over significant distances. Yet when challenged on why airport arrivals weren’t being checked the government told us in its daily briefing on 10th April that it wasn’t wise to do so and they were “following the science”.
All the scientific evidence is that there are different strains of the virus around the world. It is not a great idea to keep importing new ones. Sooner or later the UK is going to get on top of the virus domestically. At that point it is going to need to make sure it doesn’t keep coming back into the country. Surely the government needs to start doing something to get the necessary controls in place as soon as possible. Or are we going to once again delay taking action for no good reason?
As I write there are incredibly brave NHS staff working flat out in intensive care wards worrying about the personal protective equipment that is available to them. The dedicated low paid staff in care homes have even less. We all want the government to succeed in their efforts to get more supplies to them, win the battle to control this virus and emerge with the minimum death toll and the minimum damage to the economy. That doesn’t mean we should all shut up and listen without the smallest hint of criticism if the government chooses to follow bad policies.
The vast majority of the whole country is showing great discipline and wonderful community spirit in working together to get through this. It doesn’t remotely help anyone to do that if the government refuses to listen to helpful advice, or to learn from countries that are getting on top of this crisis much more rapidly and much more effectively than we are.
Governments need challenge if they are going to improve policies. Good government rarely comes from us all bowing down before the wisdom of the “dear leader”. Particularly when that leader ignores his own advice, shakes hands with hospital patients and puts his own life at risk at a time of great national crisis. The death toll in the UK has risen faster and harder than almost anywhere else apart from the US, where Trump proved even slower and clumsier in taking action. Asking the citiens of the UK to follow government policy blindly and uncritically after their previous policies have contributed to an appalling death rate isn’t following science fact. It is following science fiction at its worst.
At the last election the Green Party argued that the central issue of our time was the breakdown of our relationship with the environment. Rarely can events have demonstrated the truth of an argument more rapidly.
Shortly after the election Yorkshire and much of the rest of the country was hit by dramatic floods. Extreme weather hit farmers, homeowners, and businesses and did millions of pounds of damage. Events that insurance companies expect to happen once in a hundred years have hit some local towns like Hebden Bridge four times in a decade. This is not normal and extreme weather is expected to get worse for another fifty years.
Then in obscure and horrible wildlife markets in China a virus moved between species. Humanity has been stripping forests and taking every last Pangolin and previously remote species of bat across the planet to sell in wet food markets for the dinner parties of rich officials. The result of this cruel and thoughtless exploitation of the natural world is that a virus has jumped species and we are now confined to our homes worrying about the health of our friends and families. The damage to our economy could take decades to sort out.
The response to this crisis has varied between governments. China, Germany, South Korea and Singapore have taken rapid and effective action. The USA and the UK dithered and delayed for too long. One in every thousand people in the UK was allowed to gather from across the country at the Cheltenham races when the virus was already spreading within the population and some of them will have taken the virus back across the country. The government said it was OK for the event to take place because controls were not yet necessary.
Even now planes are arriving every day in the UK from New York, Italy and Spain and the occupants are being ushered onto airport transit buses, mingling in baggage halls and then getting onto tubes and trains without so much as a temperature check or requirements for immediate local isolation. Since the virus almost certainly arrived in the UK via a plane this is astonishingly lax.
When it comes to supporting people financially through this crisis the government has made a genuinely impressive effort to devote truly astonishing amounts of resources to helping people. It is unfortunate that it has done so in complex ways that have put huge numbers of people and businesses through immense stress. The Green Party advocated a simple citizens income paid to every person in the country as a quick, simple and fair way to getting help where it is needed. This method is being used in Spain. In the UK millions are battling with the bureaucracy of a clumsy and slow universal credit system or struggling to reclaim tax payments.
The reason for the poor leadership our country has experienced during this crisis is very simple. Every single person in the government who showed the least tendency towards independent thought or the ability to question leadership was purged. Even Julian Smith, the MP that voters in Skipton and Ripon elected, was sacked despite demonstrating considerable ability in getting the Northern Ireland assembly back into action.
Anyone who has ever run an organisation knows that if you sack all those who ask awkward questions then sooner or later you end up with a collection of grey yes men and women running the show. We have been left leaderless and vulnerable at a time of great danger because people at the very top of the country have chosen to break the rules that the rest of us are following. Like not shaking hands.
It remains vital that we all get behind the fantastic national effort being made by our nurses, our shop workers, our delivery drivers, our bin collectors and our doctors. It is to our national shame that we have sent these brave people in to do battle under equipped because of decades of running down vital facilities in the NHS. This is not the product of bad luck. It is the product of bad government.
If I sound angry then it is because I am. People are dying because our relationship with the environment has broken down and because of failures of government. It has been an extraordinarily stressful four months. We will emerge from this but we must learn the lesson.
We depend on each other. Strong mutually supportive communities are vital. The solution to every problem is not the competition of individuals. The strength of our community is what gets us through a crisis and we need to foster that strength once the immediate crisis has been weathered.
Andy is an FE lecturer, a bee-keeper and lives in Cononley.