Friday 30 January 2015

Sustainability Over Growth: The Paradigm Shift At The Heart Of The UK 's "Green Surge"

With the leftist Green Party now polling at record levels in the UK , the predictable backlash from the conservative media arrived last week.

The Tory press had fun spinning the Party's policies into sensationalistic drivel (see Matthew Holehouse's Drugs, brothels, al-Qaeda and the Beyonce tax: the Green Party plan for Britain for the Telegraph). There was vocal criticism from a number of Labour supporters too.

While hostility from the conservative press was to be expected, I must say I have been quite taken aback by how many Labour commentators have completely failed to grasp the mentality of Green supporters or what the "Green Surge" is all about.

Most of the articles I have read ranged from bad to terrible, such as this one on LabourList, where a bizarre swipe at the Green Party's " almost exclusively white, middle class and privately educated " leaders served in lieu of a sustained critique of the party's policies. By far the worst though was this abysmal rant by the (supposedly Labour) writer Conor Pope on the New Statesman's political blog. 

Here it was said that the "joke... crackpot... utterly useless" Green Party's " current solution amounts to little more than free condoms. " If further evidence was needed that Pope hadn't bothered to actually read the Party's detailed policies, the article touched on such hard-hitting issues as leader Natalie Bennett's views on homeopathy.

Needless to say, the standard of debate isn't particularly high.

Ultimately though I get the sense that there is genuine confusion amongst supporters of the mainstream parties as to what is motivating people to 'go Green'. In my view this is what is prompting some of the wild lashing out we have seen. It's easier to dismiss ideas that you don't understand than actually try to engage with them.

Sustainability or growth?

The major stumbling block appears to be what a Green economy might look like. Many commentators seem to have grabbed hold of the fact that the Green Party, unlike other parties, doesn't condition all of its policies on the premise of economic growth. This has, in some cases, been twisted and spun into the notion that what the Green Party wants is a stagnant economy where everyone is poorer.

According to LabourWire: " Most (Green) economic policies are recessionary, which would mean job losses on a massive scale and lower living standards for almost everyone "

Meanwhile, the Telegraph said: " Britain would be in permanent recession; families would become materially poorer each year."

Comments such as these are misconceived.

First, it is important to point out that Green supporters as a whole reject Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a reliable or informative economic indicator. No matter how much David Cameron bangs his dispatch box and tells us the economy is "growing" (in GDP terms), people are now clued up to the fact that this growth is not reflected at all in broader society.

GDP is misleading in all sorts of ways. It only measures certain types of transactions that occur within the formal economy, so for example a million pound personal injury claim would contribute to GDP growth whereas unpaid community work wouldn't. Similarly, it offers no real qualitative data, failing to distinguish between "good growth" and "bad growth". To illustrate what this means in practice, the rise of payday lenders and fixed-odd betting terminals since the recession are deemed to have contributed to our recent "recovery" despite being widely condemned as socially irresponsible.

For these reasons Green supporters don't put much stock in GDP, so it's hardly surprising that this type of growth isn't seen as a priority.

To be clear though, the Party doesn't think growth is bad. It just recognises that a blind commitment to GDP growth is a fairly poor basis for running a fair and sustainable economy. A Green government would look to different types of economic indictors as barometers for prosperity. For example, it would consider increased growth and technological advancements in priority industries such as renewable energy as a sign of success. On the other hand, growth in sectors that damage our health and social fabric would be seen as a bad thing.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that the relentless pursuit of growth is no longer sustainable. The world's population is rising and the earth's finite resources are declining. Science and technology aren't advancing fast enough to plug the gap. We need a new paradigm to meet these challenges.

Therefore the key to a Green economy is sustainability, which would always take precedence over growth. The definition of a sustainable economy is one that meets society's current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Contrast this with the economic policies of the mainstream UK parties, which are all premised on short term growth without a long term strategy. David Cameron repeatedly talks of a " global race" between nations for economic power. He talks of Britain needing to "compete" with emerging powerhouse economies in Asia . 

This is a race to the bottom, not a race to the top. It is a race which will ultimately see all countries lose out when natural resources are depleted and recession becomes not a choice, but an unavoidable reality. Do we have to wait for this to happen before we realise what we should have been doing all along?

The Green Party is the only party in the UK that seeks to address these concerns in the long term. It is ironic that the party is accused of wanting to impose a recession on the British people when in fact it is the only party that seeks to put into place long term economic policies that would actually protect the poorest in society if there is a repeat recession.

Idealistic policies?

The notion of Green supporters as a ragbag band of hippies, out-of-work liberal arts graduates and animal rights nuts is now dead. Nevertheless, certain prejudices remain. The one that I find most difficult to stomach is the idea that Green supporters are middle-class idealists who care nothing for the working class or about solving immediate problems.

On this point, I would first take exception to the idea that Green policies are idealistic. In this sense I believe the Party is being penalised for being the only party to set out, in painstaking detail, its long term goals for a better society (something no other party has had the foresight to do). By the Party's own admission, not all of its long term goals can be achieved immediately. It is quite wrong to suggest that the Party would seek to enforce all of its policy objectives immediately when it is clear that a process of gradual reform will be needed to bring the changes to fruition.

In the short term the Greens rejects austerity and strongly oppose the marketisation of crucial public services. But unlike Labour, it is not content with protecting those services that are already in public hands (i.e. the National Health Service), it also wants to bring other services, such as rail, back into public ownership where the private sector has failed to deliver what the free market ideologues promised.

The truth is that most people in the Green Party would rather see change start today than spend an eternity on the sidelines waiting to be taken seriously. If that is by Labour (or the Liberal Democrats) taking on board some of the Party's messages, so be it. Given that a recent poll revealed Green economic policies are more popular than those of any other party (according to the excellent Vote for Polices website ) perhaps this is something the mainstream parties ought to seriously consider.

But for the time being conservative economic thought remains entrenched within all the main political parties. An ever increasing number of people throughout the UK (not to mention in Europe ) are abandoning these principles and have found a new paradigm in sustainability. This now represents a red line that won't be crossed.

The sooner the mainstream parties realise that, the better. 

Written by Richard Collie who blogs at The Green Man


  1. This was a joy to read. Excellent article.

  2. Good analysis. :)

    "The notion of Green supporters as a ragbag band of hippies, out-of-work liberal arts graduates and animal rights nuts is now dead"

    I'm a new member and I'm the middle one at present, but I've met all sorts since joining. I think my fellow members of the precariat (in or out of work) may be a fair part of the Green Surge.