Osborne's feeble response to the growth crisis

You can't fault the Chancellor's chutzpah. But his growth strategy is paper thin.

As ever, George Osborne summoned a special chutzpah for his speech to the Conservative conference. In the midst of a growth crisis, he warned that "we should not talk ourselves into something worse", as if he had never spread the myth that Britain was on the "brink of bankruptcy". He insisted that the government could not afford to borrow a billion more to stimulate the economy, forgetting that he announced £46bn of extra borrowing at the Budget. And he hailed the "precious stability" that his deficit reduction plan had brought, failing to mention that it left us with a lower growth rate than every G7 country except Japan.

"Don't tell me this government isn't going for growth," the Chancellor snapped, taking a swipe at Labour and Conservative critics alike. But there were few signs of a change of gear. Osborne's response to the growth crisis? A re-announced £805m council tax freeze that will do nothing to cancel the damage wrought by his £12bn VAT rise.

The Chancellor's wager is that loose monetary policy (interest rates and the exchange rate) will compensate for tight fiscal policy (spending cuts and tax rises). He was clearer than ever on this point today. "We are fiscal conservatives and monetary activists," he declared.

The biggest difficulty for the government is that Osborne has few monetary weapons at his disposal. Interest rates are already at record lows and the exchange rate has fallen sharply since the crisis began in 2008. By contrast, after the savage cuts of the 1981 Budget, Geoffrey Howe was able to loosen the money supply by cutting interest rates by 2 per cent. Insofar as the government has a plan B, it is for further quantitative easing (QE). But with the cost of unsecured loans significantly higher than before the crisis, it is far from certain that another monetary injection will have the desired effect. Today, Osborne promised to begin "credit easing" - government lending to small businesses - a tacit admission that Project Merlin - the government's much-vaunted agreement with the banks - has failed.

It was telling that the most effective passages in his speech were not on the economy but on politics. Like his predecessor, the Chancellor is never happier than when identifying a dividing line (see Rafael's blog for more on this) or a partisan jibe. He quipped that Labour had ceased to be a "producer or a predator", one of the best attack lines of the conference season. He rebuked Vince Cable, who described some Tories as the "ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys", by noting that it was a Conservative who abolished the practice and that the Liberals objected. And he described Manchester as the city where Rutherford split the atom and the Miliband brothers split the Labour Party (a decent gag by his standards).

Unlike Cable, who spoke only of "grey skies" in his speech, Osborne ended by turning his gaze to the sunlit uplands, "the calmer, brighter seas beyond". Channeling Jim Morrison, he insisted that we would "ride out the storm together". One can only respond, not with your plan, we won't.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.