A Green New Deal

A "war economy" social mobilisation harnessed, this time not towards fighting fascism, but towards h

If you thought a growing economy was bad, try living through a recession. Environmentalists routinely denounce the "mantra" of economic growth, pointing out - quite rationally and entirely correctly - that infinite growth on a finite planet does not make mathematical, let alone ecological, sense. But the idea of a no-growth, steady-state economy has always sounded like pie in the sky - and you have only to read the papers every day to be reminded why. The credit crunch and looming recession in the UK illustrate nicely how the economic system knows only two options: growth or collapse. During good times, it seems almost impossible to imagine how anything could ever go wrong. Hence the willingness of investors and banks to snap up mortgage-backed securities without worrying how "toxic" these might turn out to be. In bad times, the reverse is true.

It is tempting for environmentalists to welcome recessions: after all, if you believe that rampant consumerism is killing the planet, then a sudden decrease in consumption can only be a good thing. A falling property market means that the pressure to concrete over the countryside is lifted. With higher fuel costs, people drive less and buy smaller cars. My local allotments association, once rather neglected, now has a waiting list of several years. Talk of new car-share clubs abounds, and more and more people are breaking the driving habit and taking to the roads on their bikes.

What is particularly noteworthy about the present economic crisis is that it has not - so far, anyway - led to a drop in oil prices. With the world's largest oil-consuming country, the United States, in full-scale recession, and other western countries beginning to follow suit, the ensuing drop in demand for oil ought to lead to downward pressure on crude prices. That it has not produced such pressure - and the price per barrel continues to hover just below $150 - suggests that fears about long-term supply, often aired by the so-called "peak-oilers", are well founded.

Combined, the credit crunch and oil crunch have delivered a double shock to the world economy. And with climate change raising the risk of weather-related damage to crops, and so driving up food prices, one group of thinkers has begun to use the term "triple crunch" to describe the present situation.

This group, which launches a landmark report on 21 July calling for a "Green New Deal", consists of two former directors of Friends of the Earth, the Guardian's economics editor, Larry Elliott, the Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation, among other luminaries. The report is still under embargo at the time of writing, so I cannot delve into it too deeply, but what I find striking and novel about its content is the clear attempt to bridge the credibility gap between whimsical environmentalism and the harsh real world of everyday economics.

The Green New Deal Group is not talking about incremental changes, however. It is calling for nothing less than a return to pre-war Keynesianism - complete with big increases in public investment spending and much tighter controls on international finance - with a "war economy" social mobilisation harnessed, this time not towards fighting fascism, but towards heading off ecological crisis. What is novel is that this call is directed not just at stabilising the climate, but also at stabilising the economy - lower interest rates and higher government spending are aimed at ending the credit crunch as much as tackling the oil and climate crunches.

Indeed, everywhere you look, environmental thinkers are embracing the market. All the various greenhouse-gas-regulating frameworks under serious discussion depend crucially for their success on high carbon prices sending a signal through the market rather than through direct government regulation. The recent Time for Plan B report from the US-based Earth Policy Institute calls for 80 per cent cuts in carbon emissions by 2020 - but sees this, crucially, not as a belt-tightening sacrifice, but as an opportunity for renewed growth.

For example, to achieve Plan B's target of three million megawatts of new wind capacity in the next 12 years we'll have to put up 1.5 million turbines. That seems an unfeasibly large number, until you consider that 65 million cars are produced worldwide each year. Indeed, the report suggests, some of the turbines could be produced "on idled automotive assembly lines, reinvigorating manufacturing capacity and creating jobs".

Keynes would have been proud.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.