Rio+20 and responsible capitalism: opportunities for Labour

We cannot rely on the market to create sustainable growth.

Next week, world leaders will meet in Rio de Janeiro to discuss how the global economy can tackle the joint challenges of global poverty reduction, social equity and environmental sustainability. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit: hence the popular short-hand, "Rio+20".

For environmentalists, Rio+20 is one of the most significant events to happen for a generation. But that's precisely the problem. As long as it remains the preoccupation of the green movement, Rio+20 will deliver only a fragile consensus that will ultimately fail.

The natural environment is fundamental to supporting and supplying the basis of economic value. Yet we do not consider the protection and enhancement of the natural environment is a strategic economic priority. Part of the reason for this is because our conventional model of economic growth values short-term return and wealth creation, rather than long-term productive wealth. While we may increase GDP in the short term, our conventional approach to economic growth can actually reduce a nation’s wealth.

Ed Miliband recognised these limitations in a speech to the Social Market Foundation last year where he told the audience that rules that encourage wealth creation focus on "short-term returns not the productive creation of long-term value". A major consequence is that resource consumption and the loss of ecosystems are treated as a benefit rather than a cost. And communities, co-operation and equality are undervalued in favour of creating conditions to maximise consumption.

An important challenge for Labour is now to translate Ed Miliband's vision for a "new economy" into a shared understanding of exactly what we want, and need, from the economy - and to be clear about the measures that will ensure that this can be achieved sustainably.

For many years there has been a lively debate about how the transition to a "green economy" will happen. However, no one has successfully managed to align the green economy with the everyday priorities of people, business and politics. Nor has anyone managed to set a pro-growth agenda that is also clear about the long-term productive value of a sustainable economy.

Most would agree that our expectations for the economy include job creation; competitiveness; the fair distribution of resources and wealth; fair and affordable access to food, water and energy; and enhanced biodiversity and ecosystem services. While these outcomes are complementary, much of the debate about our economic future has hitherto traded one aspect against another: green groups have one priority, business another, politicians another still.

Rio+20 provides a valuable political focus to continue work already underway on how Labour can address this. A question that the party might seek to answer is how we embed the three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental - into policy-making so that they become a natural by-product of the economy's total activities.

This would create huge economic opportunities for the UK - new green technologies, sustainable innovation, sustainability skills and sustainable investment products - all of which will also be instrumental in assisting emerging economies with the transition to a green economy.  

The Labour Party has a strong track record on the green economy. The world’s first Climate Change Act and the Climate Change Committee; the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy with its recognition of the concept of environmental limits; the Sustainable Development Commission; the Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance and the Low Carbon Industrial Strategy are all good examples of the Labour government's successes.

The party's approach in government was based on an understanding that policy and regulatory intervention is necessary to correct the market failure of un-priced environmental costs and benefits - thereby reconciling the free market economy with environmental sustainability. It understood that a strong and robust economic-environmental policy framework would also encourage finance and investment in low-carbon, resource-efficient business operations and supply chains.

Green conservatism of the sought advocated by David Cameron is flawed in this respect as it fails to reconcile the free market economy with environmental sustainability. It relies heavily on "environmental stewardship", which typically values the natural world only in terms of its contribution to human well-being. It leave the environment detached from and irrelevant to the wider economy.

As Chancellor, George Osborne has resurrected the age-old argument that we need to choose between economic growth and the environment - despite stating in 2009 that he had "always considered this to be a false divide" and that "economic growth and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand". He is the cheerleader for the outdated view amongst Tory MPs that the free market alone can satisfy the long-term needs of the economy.

For the reasons Miliband identified in his speech to the Social Market Foundation, an over-reliance on free markets - and their short-term priorities - is not a viable response to the challenges we face.

He has therefore been absolutely right to distinguish between "productive" and "predatory" capitalism. If it can underline the links between economic and environmental sustainability, Rio+20 will represent a valuable opportunity for the party to develop further examples of how it would tackle predatory capitalism.

It’s a chance to challenge the limitations of Tory economic orthodoxy. Most importantly, it’s a chance to start thinking about how the next Labour government can deliver long-term growth and sustainable wealth creation, while at the same time improving human well-being, creating jobs, ensuring fair and affordable access to resources such as water and energy, reducing inequalities, and tackling poverty.

Danny Stevens is an independent environmental policy and political consultant and a Labour councillor in Hackney.
 
Tristan Stubbs works on climate change and development policy at the Overseas Development Institute.

Terena indians dance around a Brazilian national flag during the opening of the Green Games as part of the UN Rio+20 environmental summit. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder