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Proceedings of The Great Debate: Development, Sustainability and Environment

Session 1: Environmental Ideas in the 21st Century
Proceedings based on the notes of John Theaker, edited by Caspar Hewett

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The Chair, Dave O'Toole, framed the discussion by pointing at how environmental ideas now cut across all areas of politics, business and civil society and asking what impact these ideas are having; Environmental ideas are now taught in schools, discussed in the House of Commons and debated at world summits, so what does it mean to be an environmentalist in the 21st Century? He introduced the three speakers; Derek Bell, Leverhulme Research Fellow in Politics at University of Newcastle, Joe Kaplinsky, Technology Analyst and Mary Mellor, author The Politics of Money: Towards Sustainability and Economic Democracy and asked them to consider the impact of the environmental movement, what is behind the mainstreaming of environmental ideas and what consequences this has for the future

Derek Bell opened by saying that the problem for environmentalists at the start of the 21st Century is that environmental ideas have become part of the mainstream and have lost their radical political and economic edge. The principle of sustainability is widely accepted. For governments and businesses that buy into it there is an attitude of win-win. There is no notion of trade offs. The idea of environmentalism has become part of the mainstream and weakened as a result. He outlined what he sees as the ideas inherent in sustainable development;

  • Justice. The Bruntland report defined sustainable development as 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' Justice is a very important element in this.
  • Public participation is also very important. Emphasis is placed on public participation. However, often this is only a formal commitment - paying lip service to participation. We need to go beyond the "same old faces" syndrome. How do we encourage people to get more involved in decision-making? What innovations can encourage people to participate? One way forward here is the concept of environmental citizenship.

Bell argued that we need a new paradigm of social and hard science - to move away from the technological fix - for there are important social and political aspects to environmentalism as well. An inter-disciplinary approach is needed. In a world dominated by money and power it is important for environmentalists to find ways to participate and to engage in dialogue on these issues.

The second speaker, Joe Kaplinsky, felt that environmental ideas have been a disaster so far - we don’t need them. He asked; what is at the core of environmental ideas and what are the common themes? Using a quote by George Monbiot as an example, Kaplinsky argued that, underlying environmental ideas is the sense that, contained within our aspirations are the seeds of our own destruction. It is the idea of ‘nature’s revenge’ - Monbiot says that our ‘dreaming’ will destroy the conditions for life on Earth.

For Kaplinsky environmental ideas represent a profound scepticism towards science and technology. The environmentalists claim that we have made science a god. The solutions are often drastic. For example it is suggested that we need to cut our energy use to 10-20% of present levels and that draconian regulation needs to be introduced. However, these ideas are not informed by a series of evidence and disasters. Rather they represent two things; a reaction against progress and a politics of fear. The precautionary principle is intimately linked to these two things. It places emphasis on unknown effects at an indeterminate time in the future - it is all speculation and is not based on the present situation. More often than not it projects distaster onto the future.

Kaplinsky asked why we should minimise impact, our ‘footprint.’ Impact is often referred to but is rarely defined - Paul Erlich defined it in a very general way which seems to see any impact of human activity as bad. The logic of Erlich’s argument is that we should regress to the stone age.

In closing his introduction Kaplinsky pointed out that, while it is tempting to see these trends as being unique to the European Union, in fact the politics of fear is world wide. For example the US is experiencing something similar but there it is most clearly manifested as a fear of international terrorism and of muslim fundamentalism.

Mary Mellor argued that the economy is the biggest thing we have to contend with and made a passionate attack on money. She drew attention to the defeat of the left in the 1980s and the vacuum this left in politics; while the greens have developed views about the economy they tend to underemphasise the importance of money - We need to go to the heart of how the economy really works. The economic system is a money-based system. However, money is not real. It is presented as real but it conceals the true value of things. After all a house is just a house regardless of its ‘value’ in money terms. Mellor feels that we have lost any sense of what is valuable.

Mellor argued that money only recognises what it wants to recognise and that it confers power. She asked what right have they got? The most important aspect of the modern economy is that it presents itself as a wealth creating sector - but the modern economy is a money making sector, not a wealth creating sector. 97% of the money in our economy is circulated through debt, mainly through consumer and housing debt. She asked; shouldn’t we collectively harness that money and use it for things that are valuable, that we want to? There is nothing natural about the economy. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Mellor closed by arguing that we should collectively take control of the way money is issued. If we grasp this politically and socially then there will be a revolution.

During the feedback session Kaplinsky pointed to the explosion of financial activity in derivatives and insurance driven by risk aversion. This current obsession with minimising risk is another consequence of the influence of green thought and provides a further illustration of the politics of fear and precaution. Kaplinsky also drew attention the stigmatization of industrialization which he sees as a barely concealed critique of production.

On the question of democracy Mary Mellor argued that only with economic democracy can democracy have any strength or meaning. Derek Bell defined democracy as rule by the people for the people and pointed to representative, participatory and deliberative democracy as essential forms, each being part of a whole. He felt that an emphasis on democracy is essential - so many of the decisions made in our society are undemocratic. We need to look at the democratisation of science so that the specialists do not run away with the world and it is incumbent on scientists to bridge the gap. For Joe Kaplinsky what democracy requires is the formation of some kind of expression of the general will, the collective decision. He argued that environmentalism denies the old way of rational discourse and debate, that too much of the irrationality of environmentalism is given too much respect and that there is too much emotion injected into the discussion. Thus he defended rationality itself.

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The Politics of Money: Towards Sustainability and Economic Democracy Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age The 'Death of the Subject' Explained Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle The Skeptical Environmentalist
Our Common Future Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use From Here to Sustainability: Politics in the Real World  An Introduction to Sustainable Development Why the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam

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