Friday 30 January 2009

Regression to the Middle Ages?

Can we save the planet yet keep our freedoms? British Library, London, 14 January 2009

The British Library’s first discussion of the New Year Taking Liberties series was entitled ‘Can we save the planet yet keep our freedoms?’, but showed scant appreciation of the ‘struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights. Rather than ‘hinting’ the process of people advancing their freedoms is currently being reversed - as observed by Mick Hume in his review of the Taking Liberties exhibition (1) - the discussion was instead a showcase for individuals actively advocating the restriction of people’s freedoms. Where there was any debate, it was about not about protect liberties, but how best to take them away.

Of course you don’t actually say ‘restrict freedoms’, as panellist Ken Livingstone pointed out - referring in his introduction to the congestion charge when he was mayor of London – you need to spin it differently by claiming something like, ‘we will introduce a pricing mechanism’. That way you can apparently get people as far to the right as Milton Friedman to agree with your proposals.

It was obvious from the outset this was no debate about ‘Freedom v Environmentalism?’ as billed: it had already been decided that freedoms had to go. The chair, writer and broadcaster Dr Gabriel Walker, nailed her colours to the mast from the beginning. It used to be fashionable, Dr Walker tells us, for the environmentalist movement to claim we need to, ‘live back in the Stone Age and destroy capitalism’. Now, however, it’s more fashionable expect new technology to allow us to ‘stay as we are.’ The ‘truth’, Walker tells us before even introducing the speakers, is ‘somewhere in-between’. So maybe a small regression to the Middle Ages?!

Livingstone was not the only one who appeared bitter he was no longer enjoying endless media coverage. As Dr Walker pointed out, until the credit crunch started stealing them away last September, climate change was in the headlines ‘all the time’. She was eager to point out that climate change is no minor flash-in-the-pan fear-mongering stunt. Unlike the Y2K bug, it’s ‘not going away’. And if you think the credit crunch is bad, then just wait for the impending ‘climate crunch’. According to Livingstone, the ‘emergency’ is so great, if we don’t act there will only be a few million humans eking out a ‘marginal existence’ by the end of the century. 

The reaction of governments to the current economic crisis was a source of optimism to some of the panellists. As Simon Retallack, Associate Director and Head of the Climate Change Team at the Institute for Public Policy Research, pointed out, if governments can throw trillions at the financial markets, then they can also do it come the climate crunch. This, Retallack told us, is about ensuring the planet remains habitable. As a result, ‘if there was ever a case for restricting liberties, it would be precisely on these circumstances to ensure the survival of the human race’.

But the liberties that need to be restricted aren’t real liberties, panellist after panellist tried to convince us. We’re not trying to undermine Roosevelt’s four fundamental liberties – speech, religion, freedom from want and fear. And Roosevelt emphasised ‘freedom from want’ not that we should have whatever we want. We need to question whether lifestyle choices are really freedoms, Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, asserted. Unlike the right to life, freedom from torture and free expression, ‘personal lifestyle choices are not fundamental rights’. And, furthermore, not only is Western consumption causing climate change, but it is impinging upon the fundamental freedoms of others, such as forest-dwelling native Amazonians.

Eating less meat was flavour of the month amongst the panellists as to how lifestyle choices should be curbed, along with the usual restrictions on flights, switching off lights and computers and using less heating. There is, Livingstone declared, ‘no right to follow the Atkins diet’, and consume ‘excessive amounts’ of meat.

This was, he said, the equivalent of people arguing for the ‘right to throw a bucket of shit out on the street’ when sewers were introduced in London. Livingstone then continued to repeat his ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow’ mantra in order to save water that took large amounts of CO2 to clean only to find its way into our toilets and filled with our waste.

One could be forgiven, listening to Livingstone ramble on about how he seemingly spent vast amounts of time in office as London mayor discussing with Dutch companies how light bulbs could save the planet, for feeling a sense of relief at what he dubbed the ‘great tragedy’ of his losing the mayoral election last year. However, given Boris’ recent plan to retrain unemployed Londoners as ‘energy efficiency advisers’, it is evident that the green flag is still flying as high as it ever was over City Hall (2).

Also on the panel was David North, the government and communities director of Tesco, who appeared to have caught the nasty virus of Sir Stuart ‘Plan A’ Rose, Executive Chairman of M&S, in seeming to think that he was on a moral mission to save the planet rather than a senior executive of a supermarket chain. Even Ken pointed out to him that he ran the risk of having competitors ignore his ‘greener than thou’ approach and instead start to undercut Tesco’s prices – something shareholders would be none-too-pleased about. 

The solution wheeled out to resolve this problem – and many others – is usually tax. Tax carbon-emitting goods so they cost the same as normal goods. Tax electronic goods so it costs more to buy a new one than get them fixed. Tax people’s lifestyle choices. And where this doesn’t work, then – as a fizzy young girl declared repeatedly from the floor – we need to ‘dictate’ how people need to live their lives.

Perhaps surprisingly, amongst a panel of lobbyists and politicians, the person who seemed to be most engaged with what those people Ken derogatively called ‘the masses’ actually think was David North of Tesco. Must be all those focus groups. North – during an evening when just about everything was deemed ‘unsustainable’ – made what was probably the only correct characterisation of something as unsustainable, namely ‘the temptation to think that action can be achieved over the heads of the people.’ He continued with his warning: ‘people don’t forget if you go over their heads… You can’t ride over the people and win.’

All evidence in this room points to the fact that this warning will continue to go unheeded by the majority of environmentalist campaigners. As Andy Atkins put it, ‘the stakes are too high for people to do what they want’. No matter how they dress it up as an ‘eco-emergency’, fundamental freedoms are being threatened. Just because no-one has yet needed to fight for the right to eat meat does not make it any less of a right worth defending. It was at this point that you could be heartened by the fact that next door was an exhibition documenting the long history of people’s successful struggle for rights and freedoms in Britain. However, the fight to resist those attempting to take away our liberties now will have to be fought no less hard.


1) Taking Liberties at the British Library, NW1: how our rights were won, The Times, 28 October 2008
2) Boris Johnson launches plan to retrain jobless Londoners as energy advisers, Guardian, 7 January 2009


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