Gregorio Mirabal is General Coordinator of the COICA (Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin) and was their representative to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Congress in September this year. He is a prime example that citizens do have power.
In my previous article, I argued that neither international organisations nor governments would act decisively, quickly or robustly enough to save humankind from the disastrous and worsening impacts of climate change, of which the latest United Nations Climate Report has warned. Just two out of 31 UK Government milestones on climate have been met, and the UK remains one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe. The necessary collectivist, collaborative approach will not be forthcoming at the national or international level, despite all the rhetoric about legislative targets for net zero. Only actions count, and there have been very few of those, and even they are inadequate. As Professor Tim Palmer, CBE, FRS, University of Oxford, has said,
‘If we do not halt our emissions soon, our future climate could become some kind of hell on Earth’.
UK Government Failing
The UK Government’s approach has no sense of urgency nor planned coordination. As Sir Keir Starmer recently said, the Prime Minister is not an international leader. The Ten Point Plan announced recently by the Prime Minister is a list of hoped for technology advances and carbon capture projects which may or may not deliver meaningful change sometime in the future. The Government prioritizes ‘business as usual’, hoping that this will lead to a large Conservative majority at the next election. Unsettling voters or businesses with effective change, tax increases, or encouraging them to change their behaviour in any inconvenient way, is not part of their agenda. More importantly for the Conservatives, there are party donors and supporters to keep happy. Some other national governments are trying harder with their Green agendas, and some are not really trying at all. The overall outcome will be far too little and far too late to be effective. Waiting for governments to lead the way and do the job will not work.
As noted by Hywel Williams, MP, the Prime Minister is trying to have his cake and eat it, and failing miserably in pursuing the necessary policies to protect the UK and the world from the climate emergency. While the UK is President of COP26, and President of the G7, the Government has fatally and shamefully undermined those crucial roles by, for example (and the full list of failure is very long):
- Cutting the UK International Aid budget;
- Pledging £700m for an oil refinery in Oman and £720m towards a liquid natural gas project in Mozambique;
- Failing to ensure that the $100 billion G7 climate assistance support finance for under-developed nations got paid;
- Conceding that Australia did not need to comply with the Paris Accord climate agreement or environmental standards when supplying goods under the new UK/Australia trade deal;
- On-going Government support for new North Sea Oil, a new coal mine, an extended roads programme, and airport expansion.
Citizens do have Power
In earlier times, small communities worked together for the common good. Neighbours helped each other to build their homes, erect security fences, and farm each other’s land. Cooperative efforts then developed further, with specialised groups and structural arrangements to crew lifeboats and fire stations, collect rubbish, police the streets, run hospitals, educate the young etc. We now have very sophisticated systems in place to do all this, and it largely works.
But in the face of the Climate Emergency, with some exceptions, this out-sourcing approach is letting us down, or even making matters worse. There are harmful, unintended or unknown consequences arising from our way of life, like CO2 and methane emissions, and loss of natural habitat. Existing political and economic systems are both inadequate and very resistant to dealing with these problems. The price mechanism within the capitalist system doesn’t reflect these environmental harms (it could be made to, with carbon pricing and tax changes, but Government won’t choose those options).
This top-down, out-sourced approach is failing, not because the solutions aren’t known, but because the governing system is not geared up to succeed in that way. It is likely to continue to fail, although in the longer term it may make a contribution.
It is now, in the short term, that urgent action is needed. This can only come from a bottom-up approach, which needs to accelerate rapidly and rise to the challenge.
Citizens do have power, as voters, society members, business owners, employees, residents, families, travellers, entrepreneurs and consumers. This power is both indirect and direct. Indirect power is the influence citizens have on organisations. Voting power influences political parties and governments. Choice of employer and workplace influences employers. Working practices influence the workplace and employment.
Choice and nature of home and location influence property businesses. Families talk to each other and share good practices. Travellers impact the air, rail, bus, motor and cycle industries. Entrepreneurs are well-placed to influence the behaviour of others. Consumers with their purchasing choices are extremely well-placed to influence the behaviour of their suppliers.
Direct power is what each individual and family does to make a difference to their own impact on climate change. There are thousands of options here, which many people are aware of, although there is huge scope to make the options clearer, better and more widely available. These may require some personal changes which may be uncomfortable or inconvenient for a while, until the changes become permanent and habitual. Their justification is the contribution to the common good, something which our ancestors were deeply aware of and took responsibility for. But in our current society we have out-sourced to others, particularly to governments, who are now, despite what they say, ducking that responsibility. Some businesses are making some effort, but not enough, and not quickly enough.
There are many very promising local-level initiatives, and they are gaining momentum, but not nearly fast enough. Here are a few of them:
This is a mostly volunteer-led organisation, which began in Totnes, South Devon. It now has hubs in over 50 countries around the world, and initiatives in many more. Each town defines its own way of transitioning to a cleaner, more energy-efficient and more natural system of living, using advice and examples from the central hubs. Volunteer-inspired, it then spreads to involve local businesses and councillors in activities and policies. A West England example is Transition Stroud.
Belinda Bawden, Green Party Councillor for Lyme Regis, described recently the amazing amount of effort and number of initiatives, too many to mention here, that are occurring locally, in local government circles and elsewhere, in counties like Somerset, Dorset, Cornwall, and Bristol City Council. They include Climate Action and Environmental Networks and Community Carbon Calculators which provide local support to activists and volunteers and local councillors. More than 70% of councils have now passed Net Zero pledges covering the activities they can influence.
Declaring a Climate Emergency:
My local town council recently declared a climate emergency and a commitment to be a carbon neutral Council and Borough by 2030. The roadmap to eliminate the Borough carbon footprint includes action on leadership, engagement, energy, transport and buildings.
Kate Raworth’s 2017 book, Doughnut Economics, provides an alternative to mainstream economics, which is heavily influenced by the Scottish economist Adam Smith’s theory of the ‘Invisible Hand’. This notion emphasises that the pursuit of self-interest leads, through the market pricing system, to beneficial outcomes for everyone. This idea underlies the search by governments for continual economic growth as the way to meet the demands of growing populations and their continuing demands for ‘better’ standards of living. It also underlies Mrs Thatcher’s famous quote, ‘there is no such thing as society’.
By contrast Doughnut Economics incorporates the idea that humans are also altruistic and collaborative in mutually beneficial ways. By ensuring that no one falls through the holes and gaps in society, everyone is looked after (the hole in the middle of the doughnut), and to ensure that planet Earth’s natural resources and limits (the outer edge of the doughnut) are not over-exploited or over-whelmed to everyone’s ultimate dis-benefit. The doughnut itself is the only sustainable area for human activity. Pope Francis himself has commended this approach.
“We want to make sure everybody has the fundamental resources they need to lead a life with dignity, community and opportunity. Leave nobody in the hole in the middle,”
The goal is to ensure nobody falls short of life’s essentials, from food and water to social equity and political voice, while at the same time ensuring humanity does not break down Earth’s life support systems, such as a stable climate, clean air, clean water, well-functioning eco-systems and fertile soils.
Scholars advocating this new approach argue that the current economic system sacrifices both people and environments at a time when everything from shifting weather patterns to rising sea levels is global in scope and unprecedented in nature.
There is now growing world-wide interest in the ‘Doughnut’. Initially envisaged as a general theory applying to the world, or continents, or countries, it is now being very successfully applied at city level. Amsterdam was the first city to embrace the concept for its post-Covid recovery plan, and to reduce exposure to future shocks, and was quickly followed by Brussels, Copenhagen, Barcelona, the city of Nanaimo in Canada, and possibly Paris. An organisation (Doughnut Economics Action Lab DEAL) assists local authorities with the transition.
Marieke van Doorninck, responsible for Spatial Development and Sustainability in the Dutch capital, said in the European Journal that the city’s circular strategy was focused on areas where local government “can really make a difference …”. These areas include food and organic waste streams, consumer goods and the built environment. As a result, the city has targeted a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030, implemented measures to make it easier for residents to consume less (by establishing easily accessible and well-functioning second-hand shops and repair services over the next three years) and pushed for construction companies to build with sustainable materials.
“We go where the energy is and it is getting picked up. We know the power of peer inspiration so when Amsterdam launches, it triggers this interest in many places.”
Barbara Trachte, secretary of state for the Brussels region, told CNBC that an important feature of the Brussels doughnut was its “deeply participatory dynamic.” Trachte, who is responsible for economic transition and scientific research for the Brussels region, said the model embodied a “paradigm shift” and helped to shape the region’s efforts to look at economics differently.
“I think people understand the power of the doughnut theory, to rethink the old economic mantras,” she said. “It gives them a positive boost, a sort of ‘let’s do it’ attitude, that can move mountains. And if the Brussels Region can help show the way, all the better.”
In conclusion, I believe, that with Governments doing more greenwash talking than acting, and with the great urgency of the climate emergency now upon us, it is imperative that citizens make a massive sea change in their own views, actions and behaviour. We citizens do have power!
The most effective ways to help the planet, and Gregorio Mirabal in the Amazon Basin are:
- Re-thinking what the pursuit of self-interest means. At one extreme there is the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality, and at the other is the total sacrifice of self to public service and the common good. In between, where most people are, the balance ideally needs to shift to take account of the vital need now, to meet the climate emergency, towards a more altruistic, collaborationist view.
- Understanding more about the various types of climate-warming and nature depletion effects and causes, and communicating with others, including influencers, charities, pressure groups and politicians local and national;
- Getting our own personal house in order as well as possible within existing constraints, especially in respect to consumer purchasing decisions;
- Supporting local, ground-up initiatives such as those described above.
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