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
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle