By crushing emissions, the recession is saving our lives

If it weren't for the global slowdown, our planet would be in a far worse state than it already is.

In the penultimate blog of this series we consider the third dimension of this era of "Great Uncertainty", the profound environmental challenge we face. The story of our environmental crisis is the story of a series of symbolic breaches. On 10th May this year the Earth Systems Research Laboratory (an environmental observatory and part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) perched 11,000 feet up atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii recorded the first ever average daily carbon dioxide level in excess of 400 parts per million (ppm). CO2 levels last reached such levels some 5 million years ago.

400 ppm, just like every other such symbolic ceiling, was long considered an unattainable figure, a level we could simply not allow ourselves to hit – a kind of doomsday portend and the point at which we would need to become (if we were not already) very, very scared that the damage we had inflicted on the planet was likely to prove irreparable and irreversible.  But it came and went, just like all the others – and most of us, I suspect, no longer give it very much thought. Indeed, it may well be that we are becoming increasingly immune to such symbolic breaches as the process of environmental and ecological grieving becomes ever more familiar.

But most of us know we can’t carry on like this. We know, in particular, that we can’t afford to forget for a moment this third dimension of the Great Uncertainty, even as we grapple with its first two features. Nor can we seek to solve those aspects of the situation at the expense of worsening our prospects in relation to this third issue. At heart, we face not just a crisis of growth, but, much more significantly, a crisis for growth.

This is of course immensely difficult terrain on which think and act. But there are some things we can say and do.

First, we can remind ourselves of why the task is so urgent – and we need to do so. There are some things, climate change denial notwithstanding, that we can be pretty certain about. Interestingly, though perhaps unremarkably when you think about it, they are not about symbolic breaches like passing through the 400 ppm CO2 threshold. They are about the planet’s "carrying capacity"; and the point is that for CO2, alas, it’s a lot less than 400 ppm.

This concept allows us to identify a series of planetary boundaries – what Johan Rockstrom called "the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system… associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes".  Here, with the benefits of the latest science, we can start to counter-pose current figures on environmental degradation with expert best approximations of the planet’s carrying capacity (the point beyond which we simply cannot go without threatening human life, certainly as we know it, on earth).

The results are startling and alarming in equal measure. Adapted and updated from Rockstrom, they are summarised in the table below for just a small sub-set of the planetary carrying capacities we might consider:

Earth system processes Parameter Boundary Current level
Climate change Atmospheric CO(ppm) 350 >400
Biodiversity loss Extinction rate (no. of species per million per year) 10 >100
Nitrogen cycle Amount of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere for human use (million tonnes per year) 35 >120
Freshwater use Human consumption of freshwater (km3 per year) 4000 c. 3000
Ocean acidification Global mean saturation state of aragonite in surface sea water 2.75 2.9
Landmass usage Per cent of global landmass used for crops 15 c. 12

Data like this show that we are already in the "red zone" (where we exceed planetary carrying capacity) with respect to a number of earth-system processes and moving rapidly into it in a number of the others.

Second, we need to recognise that the global financial crisis has done more to reduce the pace (or at least slow the acceleration) of the process of global environmental degradation than anything directly intended to have such an effect. That is because it has served to reduced aggregate global growth rates. Of course, we need to be extremely careful here. For one’s enemies’ enemies do not always make good friends – and we can have environmentally unsustainable non-growth just as much as we can have environmentally unsustainable growth. Indeed, what is clear is that we have had both: the post-2008 story is only of the move from the latter to the former.

Nevertheless, what such reflections reveal is just how crucial the question of growth is to our capacity to respond to the global environmental crisis. Almost certainly, we will need to wean ourselves off growth if we are to do anything that takes us out of the "red zone" (and time-lag effects, it scarcely need be pointed out, are very considerable indeed).

So how might we do this? That’s not easy to specify in detail yet, but the starting point is, on the face of it, deceptively simple (though one should not underestimate the political difficulties of what we here propose). It is that we work collectively and globally to change the global currency of economic success – replacing the convention of growth (for that is what it is) with something else.

In effect, we need urgently to devise a more balanced and sustainable array of genuinely global (indeed, planetary) collective public goods whose promotion might eventually replace the blind and narrow pursuit of economic output as the global currency of economic success.

What’s more, it’s not too difficult to imagine what might be entailed here. Alongside GDP we would need to build a new index of economic success – a compound index, inevitably. It might include things like changes in the Gini coefficient (in the direction of greater societal equality), changes in per capita energy use (rewarding increased energy efficiency and sustainability), changes in per capita carbon emissions and other planetary boundary statistics (rewarding the greening of residual growth) and perhaps a range of more routine development indices (changes in literacy rates and so forth).

This alternative Social, Environmental and Developmental index – let’s call it SED – would be recorded and published alongside GDP and would immediately allow the production of a new hybrid GDP-SED index. Over a globally agreed timescale, the proportion of SED relative to GDP in the hybrid index would rise – from zero (now) to 100 per cent (at some agreed point in the future).

In the interim, we would, of course, gauge whether our economies were "growing", "flat-lining" or "in recession" according to the new hybrid index, moving in effect from GDP to SED in how we measured economic performance.

The changes to our modes of living over that period of time would be immense – and would need to be immense. But it’s surely what is required if we are to rectify our planetary imbalance and, even so, it’s only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of exiting that dangerous planetary "red-zone".

This is the fourth in a five-post series on the "Great Uncertainty".

Photograph: Getty Images

Professors Colin Hay and Tony Payne are Directors of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

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