Shut up about the deckchairs!

In his latest entry, Jonathan Dawson stresses on the need for a collective 'peak moment'

One of the ports of call during the last two weeks that I have been away was the 6th international conference of ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) in Cork. This is the body, founded by former oil geologist Dr Colin Campbell, which more than any other has brought to public consciousness the imminent peaking in the availability of cheap fossil fuels.

'Fun' was hardly the word for it, but it was good to be in the company of people who have clearly understood the pivotal role of cheap energy in creating the highly abnormal and completely unsustainable global society in which we live today. Unsustainable precisely because the cheap energy on which the whole edifice is built is getting more expensive by the month – and is set, bar the odd blip, to do so indefinitely.

Within the peak oil community, the experience of realising this very simple but paradigm-altering truth is coming to be called ‘peak moments’. People at the conference were exchanging stories about their own peak moments, when their focal point suddenly shifted from the pattern of the deckchairs on the fore-deck (the stuff of political and philosophical discourse over the last couple of centuries) to the iceberg of resource (and especially energy) depletion towering over the ship.

It is within the context of this radically altered understanding of what the current moment of history is all about that the eco-village phenomenon comes to make sense. It is lovely to arrive back in Findhorn to see the wind turbines cheerfully twirling to the tune of the brisk, autumnal northerlies; the vegetables being taken from the gardens to kitchens, passing the food-scraps from the last meal making the reverse journey; self-builders working away on their energy-efficient homes; hand-carts coming in from the forest laden with logs being put in for the winter.

However, the point is that these are not primarily the cute and eccentric behaviours of over-privileged urbanites who have chosen to escape the grind of the cities (though there may just be a touch of that as well!)

Rather, the whole experience – here and in a growing number of eco-villages around the world – can only be understood as a profoundly sane response to the imminent energy crisis. (Of course, it is not only eco-villages that have got the message. I return from Cork with serious and intelligent energy descent plans from, among others, the cities of Brisbane and Portland Oregon and the town of Kinsale in County Cork.)

I chose to travel to and from Ireland over land (and sea) which, apart from being enormously more agreeable than flying, also gave lots of uninterrupted time for comfortable reading. On the return journey, I read ‘Making Globalisation Work’ by former World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

Now there is a man, if ever I saw one, who is in need of a peak moment. The book is full of admirable – sometimes inspired – proposals for tweaking the current system to make trade work better for the planet’s poor. However, there is no recognition that the energy needed to continue to ship stuff around the world might not be available - or could be spent without climate-changing emissions.

I have been struck on recent working visits to Sierra Leone and Senegal by just how few private motor vehicles were on the road. The answer soon became clear: the governments were purchasing much of the diminishing oil imports (diminishing because of increasing prices) just to keep the lights on, if only sporadically. Meanwhile, the spark that ignites the flames in Burma is……….yes, a doubling in the price of oil.

As a civilisation, we are in big need of a collective peak moment. Let us embrace the inevitability of expensive energy and use it to our advantage, creating more decentralised and human-scale communities that live well within their means.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.