Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Greens in the Room and A Falling Man at Sussex University

Last Friday the University of Sussex Centre for Community Engagement hosted a “Limits to Growth Forum” organised by the Sussex Student’s Union and The STEPS Centre, (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways).  mad men 2 The theme for the day echoed the STEPs manifesto that “Meeting the interlinked global challenges of poverty reduction, social justice and environmental sustainability is the great moral and political imperative of our age.”  (picture from Mad Men).  About a hundred of us turned up to hear a series of high-profile speakers consider the impossibility of continuous 'infinite growth on a finite planet,' and how we might steer our economy onto a more sustainable path. Some of the most memorable bits:
  • Brighton’s Green MP Caroline Lucas knocking the idea that green = sacrifice, as in “What’s not to like about efficient public transport and well insulated homes”
  • Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation calling for new social norms not based on consumption (Andrew doesn’t own a car) – since only this will enable A Great Transition to sustainable economics;
  • Professor Peter Victor of Canada’s York University, a pioneer of ecological economics (fittingly, by video link), whose economic models demonstrate that there is a macro-economic policy that’s consistent with reducing both green house gases and poverty (albeit with no illusions about the difficulty of getting there);
  • Richard Wilkinson’s comment that he had now given the talk about his book The Spirit Level 500 times, and that 20 translations were in preparation – proving that there is a huge appetite for a more equal society. The book’s country-by-country, data-based analysis finds that more equality works better for everyone: less inequality = less social dysfunction, more happiness, and more sustainable behaviour. Wilkinson quoted his co-author Kate Pickett, “If Americans want to live the American dream, they should live in Denmark.”
  • Carfree Choosers (like me) could relate to Molly Scott Cato, Reader in Green Economics and Director of Cardiff Institute for Co-operative Studies, who approvingly cited Girardet’s idea of the Regenerative City, and it’s distinction between “Petropolis” and “Ecopolis.” Libyan oil anyone? Molly thought we should think more carefully about our needs – do you want a cup of coffee, or are you expressing your status and identity? (answers on a postcard, Starbucks need not reply). 
  • Professor Mary Mellor of Northumbria University, an expert in green finance and the monetary system, linked the money system with ecological unsustainability: financial crashes became inevitable when states no longer controlled the money supply. Prof. Mellor thought local currencies were A Good Thing (Lewes take a bow), and agreed that Cash Is King (Just Say No to bank credit).
The day proved, once again, that we pretty much know what needs to be done – the problems have been endlessly diagnosed (for one of the latest, see The Sustainable Development Commission Report “Making Sustainable Lives Easier).  As Andrew Simms put it, the main challenges are political and cultural.  A big message from the speakers was that positive change depended on people like us – the people in the room. But I couldn’t help thinking about the people who weren’t in the room: the kind who have access to the same information, but who don’t make the connections, and don’t change their behaviours. 
And the falling man? It isn’t only Don Draper from Mad Men.  E J Mishan described those who just don’t get it in The Costs of Economic Growth: “A man who falls from a hundred-storey building will survive the first ninety-nine storeys unscathed. Were he as sanguine as our technocrats, his confidence would grow with the number of storeys he passed on his downward flight and would be at a maximum just before his free-fall abruptly halted.”  Staying sanguine whilst in free fall is ok, but eventually we’re going to reach the ground. When we do, it isn’t going to be pretty.

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