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Between anger and bargaining

Last week my local BBC new channel posed the question, could lower speed limits end air pollution?  According to the article:

“Speed cameras to enforce 50mph limits designed at improving air quality on the M4 and other roads have been activated…

“The Welsh Government said the cameras would help deliver ‘vital improvements in air quality’…

“In January 2018, the Welsh government conceded a case brought by environmental campaign group Client Earth which said ministers had failed to meet EU targets to cut pollution.”

The answer to the BBC’s question (Betteridge’s Law applies) is a resounding NO!  If you want to end the pollution fallout from burning millions of litres of petrol and diesel every day – as any five year old will tell you – you have to stop burning petrol and diesel…  Which, incidentally, would go a long way to persuading people that you were serious about that “climate emergency” you declared in April.

The problem – as is true of most of environmental politics – is that any serious effort to tackle the issue ends up alienating the majority of voters to the point that they vote for the other party… with climate change deniers becoming increasingly popular.

It is doubtful, in fact, that millions of British workers enjoy the daily routine of getting up early to spend the first hour or more of their day sat in traffic jams inhaling other people’s exhaust fumes.  Most would readily swap the daily commute for an extra hour in bed and a leisurely walk to a job with a local employer.  And that, of course, is what the majority of us did in the days before the poison of neoliberalism was unleashed on an unsuspecting population.

Within months of Margaret Thatcher taking office in 1979, millions of (relatively) high-paying semi-skilled manual jobs had been destroyed – either done away with completely or exported to developing countries that offered cheap labour and non-existent environmental protections.  Those jobs had been in Britain’s equivalent of the US “rust belt” – the “left behind” places that used to make steel, mine coal, build ships and manufacture vehicles.  Less obviously, but equally devastated, they are the places that used to grow our food, and the places where we used to go on holiday.  These days, they are the “downmarket” places that nobody wants to move to.

The “lucky” few survivors were able to go back into education, re-train, and find work in one of the few pockets of decent employment in London and the Southeast or in the orbit of one of the top-tier universities.  But even this good fortune involved sacrificing work-life balance in favour of the daily commute between houses that were just about affordable in order to do jobs that just about covered the mortgage.  Nobody was particularly happy but – as Macron discovered last year – they get a lot less happy when government policy begins by making the daily commute even more difficult and more expensive.

The problem becomes intractable because neoliberal governments will not intervene to engineer a different economy.  To do so would be to “buck the market” – and according to the gospel of neoliberalism you cannot do that.  There is simply no means within the current system to re-localise the economy in such a way as to make car ownership as unnecessary as it had been for most people (in Europe) in the 1960s.  And so we witness the kind of bargaining implied in the BBC’s question.  Lowering – and enforcing – the speed limits on roads adjacent to housing may lower pollution; but not to anything like the extent needed; but in the process it pisses off a lot of commuters who would rather not sit in traffic at all, but now get an additional half hour of it because of the reduction in speed.

Bouncing between anger and bargaining is likely to become even more pronounced as the unfolding catastrophe becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.  At a societal level, western populations have been experiencing something akin to Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ model of the grieving process in which people go through the five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance.

For the majority, the grief relates only to the loss of the (false) prosperity enjoyed in the decade prior to 2008.  While average wages have been increasing recently, in real terms they are still lower than they had been before the crash.  Worse still, the median wage – the half-way point on the wage scale – is £6,000 a year less than the average (which is artificially raised by a small number of very high earners at the top).  The result is that the way of life that the majority of ordinary people had – one which included the daily commute – has proved to be unsustainable a decade later.  So-called “inelastic” or non-discretionary spending – on things like rent/mortgage, utilities, food and fuel – is maintained at the expense of discretionary spends – on things like holidays abroad, meals out and fashionable clothing – with the result that travel companies, restaurants and fashion chains have been slaughtered in a retail apocalypse that shows no sign of slowing.

For a few, this material grief is compounded by a growing awareness that the global economy that underwrote the pre-2008 lifestyle is also coming to an end as the extraction and production of key resources gets ever harder, energy-intensive and expensive; leaving us at high risk of some technological manifestation of Liebig’s law of the minimum.  And beyond this – and particularly among a younger generation who have come of age in the years since the crash – there is growing alarm that the human habitat is itself reaching the point of no return.

In the immediate aftermath of 2008, we were able to psychologically cushion ourselves within a veil of denial.  George W. Bush telling Americans to go out and spend, began a process that ushered in an era of low interest rates and quantitative easing designed to shore up the system until someone (who has yet to put in an appearance) figures out how to fix the system.  On the wider dimensions of our predicament – where far fewer thinkers are prepared to wander – denial came in two versions: a techno-utopian paradise in which human ingenuity would save the day; and a dead weight of doom in which near-term human extinction is guaranteed.

Techo-utopians began promising “green” technologies that would rapidly wean humanity off the fossil fuels that still make up 86 percent of our primary energy – technologies, by the way, that cannot currently be manufactured or deployed without fossil fuels.  Not only that – an unrealistic feat in itself – but they would provide us with the additional energy to continue growing the global economy, and provide us with the means to colonise Mars.  Those at the doomier end of things opted instead for the nearest thing to a species-wide trip to Dignitas – something that allows us to escape the several generations worth of pain involved in Mother Nature forcibly reducing our population and our activities to something sustainable.

The current anger expressed through the Extinction Rebellion protests and the school students’ strikes are ironically evidence of the failure of both forms of denial.  Despite the call for a net zero carbon economy by the end of the 2020s, many of those involved realise that if this were possible, world governments would have already done it.  As Roger Blanchard points out:

“In the 2010-2015 period, individuals such as Michael Brune (Sierra Club), Joe Romm (Climate Progress) and numerous others were pushing the idea that renewable energy sources could completely replace fossil fuels by 2030.

“Joe Romm, as an example, makes it sound like the advantages of renewable energy sources are overwhelming compared to fossil fuels.  According to him, converting all energy sources to renewable energy would be easy to achieve and would cost virtually nothing.

“That begs the question: why aren’t developed nations, such as European nations, rapidly replacing their fossil fuel uses with renewable energy and why do they still have high per capita CO2 emission rates, typically much higher than developing nations?…

“Historically, Europe had little indigenous oil available for development prior to the discovery of North Sea oil so an extensive reliance on motor vehicles was avoided.  A high percentage of the European population lives in cities where people can walk or bike to wherever they need to go, houses tend to be smaller and an efficient mass transit system was developed.

“Still European countries burn huge volumes of fossil fuels, their rates of CO2 emissions are relatively high and those rates are declining slowly if at all, particularly in highly industrialized nation such as Germany.”

Meanwhile, whereas the baby boomer generation could embrace doomsterism as a psychological device to avoid having to experience the fruits of their lifestyles, the younger generations have less change of escape.  The early boomers are already in their 70s and will begin dying off soon enough; although the later boomers will likely get to enjoy some of the horrors that resource depletion and habitat destruction are beginning to visit upon us.  But younger generations will have no option other than to live through the worst of a collapse that could well wipe out several billion humans by the end of the 2020s.

Little wonder then, that we seem to be moving beyond denial into the next stages of grief.  Bargaining was to be expected.  Maybe if we put some taxes on diesel fuel, or lower some speed limits, or impose a tax on frequent flying we will be able to prevent a catastrophe.  Maybe we could eat less meat.  Perhaps we could give up plastic drinking straws.  We might even turn the thermostat down a notch.

None of this offers any serious hope of addressing a predicament that is worsening by the day.  Moreover, with the majority of people experiencing growing economic hardship, for any form of bargaining to gain traction, it will have to simultaneously raise real wages… which is why, of course, the various versions of the Green New Deal are gaining ground as an alternative to an equally unrealistic right-wing movement toward nationalism and re-localisation of the economy.  The former will denude the planet of the last recoverable resources while burning massive volumes of the fossil fuels that its exponents claim we cannot afford to burn.  The later will have a catastrophic impact on the complex just-in-time supply chains and integrated infrastructure of the global economy that keeps us alive, on a par with ramming a steel bolt into a jet engine… remembering that a brief dusting of snow was sufficient to empty the food from Britain’s supermarkets in March last year.

And so we enter the age of anger.  The 20 percent (and shrinking) who continue to prosper are angry because the political choices of the 80 percent (or at least a majority of them) have inflicted the first political setback upon them since the birth of neoliberalism.  Whether it is Brexit in the UK, Trump in the USA or the rise of right and left wing versions of populism across Europe, the anger is the same.  Meanwhile, both left and right anti-neoliberals diagnose the problem and “feel our pain” but their proposed solutions are unworkable.  And so their supporters get increasingly angry at “the establishment” for standing in their way.  The violence that broke across France in the wake of Macron’s diesel tax is merely an appetiser for the much greater outpouring of anger that we face as people begin to realise that there is no good way out of the predicament; and they seek to scapegoat opponents for landing us in this mess.

Many, of course, have already entered the depression stage of grief – something that manifests as a withdrawing inward as all hope is lost for a society-wide solution; and people begin to look out for themselves.  Those fortunate to own land or to have the manual skills that will be needed on the other side of the next crash will be better placed than most.  But the best the rest of us can do is to develop our communities – a process that neoliberalism actively works against.

For a small minority – we might call them “post-doomers” – there is acceptance.  But these are a tiny fraction of a human population that is in the early stages of a new age of social conflict that will pit two versions of populism – Trump v Warren, Johnson v Corbyn, Salvini v Fassina, LePen v Mélenchon, etc. – against each other and against the collapsing neoliberal centre.  Unfortunately, the majority will be swept up in the political anger and violence because they lack the information and understanding to observe the wider predicament.

Neoliberalism was itself the “solution” to the series of problems that were thrown up when the “long emergency” began back in the early 1970s.  But – as is always the case with solutions that add complexity to an already complex system – neoliberalism came with in-built problems of its own.  These are now becoming obvious in the shape of grossly unequal western states dependent upon increasingly fragile supply chains threatened at one end by depleting resources and energy constraints and at the other by a growing movement in favour of nationalism and trade barriers.  See this bigger picture and you understand that the only political arguments still worth having are those about which kind of government would be best to ease our inevitable de-growth… and currently, none of the parties or personalities are offering this.  Which is why, sadly, this is very likely to end badly for all concerned.

As you made it to the end…

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