Goodbye to ethical man...

Sian mourns the passing of Newsnight's 'Ethical Man' and reflects on lessons that can be learnt from

Newsnight’s year-long ‘Ethical Man’ project came to an end this week. I watched most of the reports and, although some of them played up to green stereotypes, it was all a big step up from the usual magazine show treatment of green issues. I was also pleased to be asked to talk about the Green Party’s policies in the ‘end-of-Ethical-Man’ debate on Wednesday.

They did invite a token sceptic as well. Only Newsnight seems to do this as a matter of course nowadays and it’s very frustrating (getting Nigel Lawson on to rubbish Stern, for goodness sake!). So, as well as a slightly preoccupied David Miliband, Peter Ainsworth for the Tories, Chris Huhne for the LibDems and me, we had to listen to the delightful ‘professional skeptic’ Bjorn Lomborg, determined to undermine Ethical Man’s efforts.

But I thought Ethical Man was a great experiment. Getting people to try things out for a week or ‘test out the latest eco-gadgets’ for a three-minute slot is never going to show you much about the realities of living a greener life. But carrying it through for a whole year gave some brilliant insights into how an ordinary person can make deep cuts in their carbon footprint with some pretty simple changes and without pain.

They picked a good person for the project. At the beginning, reporter Justin Rowlatt wasn’t at all keen on the idea, so it was great to see the ease with which he adopted some of the measures. I was particularly impressed when, having given up his car for six months, he and his growing family (two small children and another arriving part-way through the year) decided they didn’t want it back and gave it away to a friend. They even walked to the hospital to have their new baby, and then used traditional cloth nappies without a murmur. All very encouraging.

The other big carbon saving was from cutting energy use around Ethical Man’s Camden home, achieved mainly through energy-efficient lightbulbs and changing behaviour to use appliances more efficiently. The main motivator in all this was a portable gadget that communicated with their electricity meter to show the energy being used. Justin took an enormous amount of interest in his appliances as he took it around the house switching things on and off. One of the best bits of the show was seeing his reaction to the effect of one 100W bulb on the readout.

But there were some problems. When having a home energy audit via infra-red camera, insulation was identified as something his home badly needed to cut its emissions. But, without a cavity wall to fill, fitting insulation to the inside of his exterior walls was judged too expensive to pay back quickly enough.

This is a scandal we’re well aware of in the Green Party. MEP Jean Lambert’s recent ‘Hot Houses’ report estimated that 53% of household emissions in London are from space heating and a third of this heat is lost through uninsulated walls. London has a very high proportion of houses without cavity walls – 56%, nearly a third of all solid-wall homes in England, and putting insulation on the inside of solid walls costs £40 a square metre. Not a lot for a small flat like mine with only a couple of exterior walls, but for a house it can run into thousands.

We can’t expect people to make these investments on their own. Thanks to Green pressure, the GLA is now providing free insulation for pensioners and people on benefits, but proper government support for everyone else would be a long-term investment in our housing stock that would pay off for the country as a whole many times over.

Greens in elected positions are already putting this principle into practice. The first universally free insulation scheme is in Kirklees where Green councillors negotiated, through the Council’s budget process, to provide it for 30,000 households this year at no cost.

Schemes like this need extending to the whole country, so that 2.5 million homes are insulated a year. Yes it would cost £4 billion but would save five million tonnes of carbon dioxide after the first year, ten million after the second, and so on until everyone benefits from lower bills, and we all save a huge amount of carbon.

I think there are two key lessons from Ethical Man. First is that individual action can make a big difference – Justin cut his family’s carbon emissions by 20% in one year, and that’s including a questionable flight to Jamaica to expose the bogusness of offsetting. If we’re going to reach the 90% cuts we need by 2050, every possible bit of carbon must be saved, so things like low-energy light bulbs, reducing our flights and cutting down car journeys become obvious.

But government action is also crucial. A lot of our emissions aren’t under our control – they are created on our behalf by public bodies and businesses. Looking only at Ethical Man’s home emissions, the one-year saving was close to 40%. So, government has to lead the way, putting its own house in order, regulating businesses and creating a policy framework that makes ethical lives easier.

The green option needs to be made the easy, obvious and cheap option. This is exactly why I got into politics. By changing my own lifestyle, in the end I’m only changing one life – and then only for as long as I keep it up. But, by helping to change policies and get Greens elected, I can help make it easier – and cheaper – for everyone to change their lives in the long term.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Getty
Show Hide image

Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.