Green communities

Websites that give green suggestions can make a social difference because these online communities s

Looking through the nominations for the New Media Awards 2008 that have come in so far I was pleased to see the Big Green Switch there. Similar to Do The Green Thing, it’s a site that can help us all to overcome the apathy that so easily undermines our best efforts to recycle and reduce our resource consumption. These sites, and others in a similar vein, work in the old-fashioned internet way, by enabling communities to cohere around shared interests independently of geography or time zone.

In this case the shared interest is saving the planet, and by providing every member of the community with information about what others are doing, the sites manage to bring out both the competitive and altruistic sides of human nature at the same time.

They encourage altruism by making it feel like the small things that one person or household can do make a difference because they are cumulative over large numbers of fellow members. Reports on how many people have switched, or the progress that others are making, can be reassuring when your neighbours have just bought an SUV and a massive plasma screen.

They also allow for an element of competition in being the greenest, reducing energy consumption the most, and having the smallest carbon footprint. And once we all get smart meters there will probably be a national scoreboard for the home with the lowest electricity usage, while those with solar power and windmills will boast about how much power they are providing back to the grid. This may not appeal to the more socially-minded, but it might persuade people to change their behaviour.

We often miss the way that the pervasive network and easy access to computers have changed the pattern of daily life and made many things that would previously have required far too much effort simple and unremarkable.

Just as ubiquitous mobile phones make it unnecessary to make careful plans for where to meet your mates in town on a Saturday night, because a few texts are all it takes to assemble everyone at the pub with the cheapest beer or best band, so easy access to the net allows us to overcome many of the obstacles to achieving real social change.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.