“Our current economic system only works by cheating future generations out of their birthright and by exploiting the vulnerable here and abroad”
Speech by Caroline Lucas, Member of Parliament and leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, to Alliances for Green Growth, a conference organized by the Trades Union Congress, October 11.
Thank you for that introduction and for the chance to speak at today’s conference. As one who has been a supporter of workers’ rights and of the union movement throughout my career, it is incredibly satisfying that the union movement should be taking such a positive role in another issue close to my heart, that of transforming our economy into one that is both just and sustainable.
It is also right that we should be looking to forge alliances, and join our forces where we can. For these are not easy times. As a Member of Parliament, right now, for example, I am campaigning alongside trades unionists over the threat to jobs posed by the coalition’s savage and frankly often counter-productive cuts.
And because this is a coalition that not only wants to sack hundreds of thousands of people working in our public service, but also to cheat them out of their redundancy money while they do it, I am particularly proud that my party is standing four-square with the public sector unions and with the wider movement to ensure that civil and public service workers receive a fair deal.
Today’s conference has a more optimistic theme – though one where the challenges and dangers are every bit as sharp. Optimistic, because the themes of the conference demonstrate the growing acceptance that a return to ‘business as usual’ after the recent financial crisis is not a realistic option.
There are two factors driving this acceptance.
- First, because it is economically and morally unsustainable: in other words, our current economic system only works by cheating future generations out of their birthright and by exploiting the vulnerable here and abroad.
- Second, because the crisis has shown the essential inability of laissez-faire economics, globalisation and financial chicanery to meet our economic needs, let alone our social or environmental ones.
So when we talk of a green recovery, we are not talking about a traditional economic recovery boosted by selling some home insulation or building some windmills. It is not about business as usual with green trimmings.
We are talking about a recovery based on green principles and insights: one that is rooted in social justice and which balances our needs against those of the developing world, the natural world, and those of future generations.
Today’s agenda has covered both the Big Picture and the detail of how to make it work. It has also touched on some of the ways in which we can work together to achieve this.
Of course, there will be areas where our points of view will differ. On effectiveness of the Emissions Trading Scheme for example. And some of us will be hard pressed to find common ground with the supporters of nuclear power.
But I don’t see these debates as standing in the way of building wider alliances on the Green economy. Coalitions are ‘in’ at the moment. Indeed it is only by working together that we can find ways to reach the low carbon future that we want and need.
The task, actually, is less about finding technological or economic solutions. Those solutions already largely exist. The real task is to create the political will to make them happen.
People are fed up with being told this is their responsibility. They expect governments to take action on their behalf. To display leadership. The role of governments is to govern, and to match their rhetoric with meaningful action.
For decades, we have known that our patterns of production and consumption are not sustainable. We have seen how they have failed to bring about a more equal and just society here, or to meet the needs of people in desperate circumstances around the world.
We have known that we are living on borrowed time, mortgaging the future of the planet and the birthrights of future generations. We do have the solutions. We need to forge an alliance around them.
But we also need a shared vision, which in turn needs a shared understanding of what a Green Recovery actually means.
First, it means transforming the economy so it is our servant, not our master. And when I say ‘our’, I mean everyone, not the bankers or industrialists or financiers, but everyone.
The financial crisis showed how the economy has been run for the benefit of the few. It aims to create wealth, but ensures that most of that wealth goes to those who need it the least.
And that wealth comes from exploiting people and resources here and abroad. Exploitation that brings suffering and inequality now, and threatens the total degradation of our planet in the future. We need an economy that serves us all. It’s not about GDP growth or exchange rates. It’s about having a job with some security. That pays enough to meet the essentials and leaves some left over. Where hard work is rewarded, but greed is not. That includes a welfare state that provides services every bit as good as anything the private sector can, and does so because it values those who work for the public good.
Can this be achieved? It depends on taking back control over economic decisions from financial institutions and international and unaccountable bodies such as the IMF and the World Trade Organisation.
And also reforming our own democratic institutions so that the people’s will can be translated into action.
Steady State Economy
Second, we have to accept that a Green recovery cannot mean a return to growth as we have known it. We already use up far more resources each year than the earth can sustain. The bottom line is that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, no matter how much greater your efficiency, because if we keeping growing growth outweighs efficiency gains. And the more we use, the less we have. If you take too many fish from the sea, soon there will be no more fish to catch. Similarly, once the oil has gone, or the forests have been torn down, the open spaces have been lost or the species driven to extinction, we are all worse off.
In business terms, we are treating our capital as income. We use up our resources and say we are better off. In the real world, if a business does this, it will go bust. In the parallel world of economics, we are supposed to carry on like this forever.
To be fair to the economists, many recognise the fact that this is not only unsustainable, but poor economic theory. The Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen, for example, has worked on ways to replace the prime goal of GDP growth with a suite of measures that reflect the needs of ordinary citizens. The New Economics Foundation is also mapping out how a ‘steady state’ economy could provide all of the things we need every bit as well as our current economic model – but crucially, can do this without needing to exploit workers here or in other countries, or use up irreplaceable natural resources at an unsustainable rate.
The third aspect of the Green Recovery that we need to consider is our attitude to consumption. It is what links how governments manage the economy, and how we live our lives.
Around the world, there are many millions of people who do not have the essentials of life. They do not have decent food, a proper home, or access to basic services such as health and education. They need more. No question about it.
Then there are the rest of us. We have those things, and more. We might want extra – a bigger house, another foreign holiday, a new TV – but we could hardly claim that our need is greater than those who don’t have these things at all. For those who have a reasonable standard of living, consuming more can bring some satisfaction – but most of us would agree that we’d rather live in a society that treated everyone fairly, where children didn’t go to bed hungry or switch off the heating because they can’t afford to recharge the meter.
Most of us want to know that we’ll be looked after properly if we’re ill. That our children will get a decent education. That we’ll be OK when we retire. That we’ll be safe out on the streets and that our homes won’t get broken into. In other words, what matters most is the kind of society we live in, not about how much extra we can consume.
We know this. But our economy is based on encouraging us all – or at least, those of us with the money – to consume more and more. Though it’s natural to think it makes us happier, the evidence is that it does not, particularly when you think of the extra hours we need to work to earn the money to pay for these things.
So we need to think about the kind of economic activity we want to encourage. Do we want more cheap plastic toys and clothes from abroad – with all the concerns about the conditions they may have been manufactured under – or do we want to spend money on making sure people have decent places to live?
The economists would tell us that they are equally valid forms of consumption. I would say that it is nonsense. If we return to cheap credit to stimulate a high street boom, that is not a recovery that is sustainable in any sense of the word. A Green recovery is about making sure economic activity gives everyone a chance to contribute, and also that more and more people benefit from their labour – and major investment in energy efficiency and renewables is one of the best ways to do it.
It’s two years now since I was present at the launch of the Green New Deal. Had its proposals for a major investment in energy efficiency and renewable technologies been taken up by the government of the day, then we would have been better placed to deal with the financial crisis and recession when it came. That was a missed opportunity, but we still have time to put it right.
The coalition has stated it wants to be the greenest government ever. This will be one of the tests against which they should and will be judged. That means recognising that while the economic crisis is serious, the environmental crisis risks being literally unbearable.
In turn, that means not slashing the budgets for environmental and climate change. How can it possibly make senses, for example, to scrap the £60m to set up the offshore wind infrastructure competition, which would provide 60,000 new green jobs as well as boosting domestic production of green technology?
How can it make sense not to give sufficient capitalization to the Green Investment Bank? Lack of government guarantee is sending entirely the wrong message to investors, who will choose to work with other countries offering a more attractive deal. In April, the previous government introduced feed-in tariffs, financially rewarding homeowners, businesses and local authorities who generate electricity from clean, green sources. A heating equivalent – the renewable heat incentive, RHI – is due to begin next April.
Now the RHI may be delayed or watered down, and the feed-in tariff cut. This is absurd. In Germany a similar policy created hundreds of thousands of jobs and the rapid growth of a now core economic sector.
It would be incredibly short-sighted for the Treasury to backpedal on these commitments. Damaging investor confidence would ultimately make it more expensive to meet our renewable energy targets. And as fossil fuels dwindle and prices rocket, business leaders agree we should be doing everything we can to produce more renewable energy.
The energy and climate secretary, Chris Huhne, is pushing ahead with a “green deal” that encourages people to make homes energy efficient slashing fuel bills and tackling climate change at the same time. This is promising, but the devil is in the detail. We need free insulation rolled out on a comprehensive street by street basis, not an opt-in model.
And we need legislation to compel private landlords to bring the worst housing up to a minimum standard.
The Treasury announcements on 20 October will be the 1st litmus test of how green this government is. Unless these doubts are cleared up, investors will walk away and our 2020 climate change targets will be even more difficult and expensive to achieve. This would be a tragedy for the UK, undermining our chance to seriously compete in the renewable market and hindering communities from producing their own energy – costing vital jobs in the process.
For a self-styled green government advocating localism and the power of private enterprise, that would be an own goal of epic proportions.
So the more that we can unite around the idea of a Green recovery and the money needed to achieve it, the less excuse there will be if they fail to take this chance.
And the more likely it will be that we can recognise the real win-win of investing in green measures and technologies – that we get our emissions down and increase radically the number of jobs in our economy.