When Governments Won't Act Because They Don't Want To Do the Right Thing

Does this sound familiar?

All governments [over-promise], but XXXXX XXXXXXX’s has perfected the art. It operates on the principle of commitment inflation: as the action winds down, the pledges ramp up. Never mind that it won’t meet the targets set by the fourth and fifth carbon budgets: it now has a thrilling new target for the sixth one. Never mind that it can’t meet its old commitment of an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Instead, it has promised us “net zero” by the same date. Yes, we need more ambition, yes, the government is following official advice, but ever higher targets appear to be a substitute for action.

That's George Monbiot's critique of his prime minister, Boris Johnson. BoJo, he writes, freely promises Nirvana when he's really just moving food around his plate.

Monbiot recalls the urgent optimism in his now 15-year old book, Heat. As a yardstick of how his government has delivered on its climate change promises, it's bleak.

Researching the preface for a new edition, I wanted to discover how much progress we’ve made. An article in the journal Climate Policy uses a similar formula for global fairness. Its conclusion? If the UK were justly to discharge its responsibility for preventing climate breakdown, we would need to cut our emissions by 90% by 2030. And by 2035, it says, our emissions should reach “real zero”. In other words, in terms of the metric that really counts, we have gone nowhere. The difference is that we now have nine years in which to make the 90% cut, instead of 24.

Road transport in the UK releases the same amount of greenhouse gases as it did in 1990: a shocking failure by successive governments. Yet Johnson intends to spend another £27bn on roads. Every major airport in the UK has plans to expand.

Buildings release more greenhouse gases than they did in 2014, and the schemes intended to green them have collapsed. The green homes grant, which the government outsourced to a private company, has been a total fiasco, meeting roughly 8% of its target. At the current rate of installation, the UK’s homes will be equipped with low-carbon heating in a mere 700 years.

And no one in government wants to touch the biggest issue of all: the greenhouse gases embedded in the stuff we buy, which account for some 46% of our emissions. Government ministers urge China to cut its greenhouse gases, but our economic model depends on us buying junk we don’t need with money we don’t have. Because the fossil fuels required to produce most of it are burned overseas and don’t appear in our national accounts, the government can wash its hands of the problem.

Monbiot is right about the "consumer economy" that plagues so many nations, ours very much included, and defeats our ability to avert climate catastrophe. This is the focus of a new book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, by J.B. MacKinnon reviewed in the latest Tyee.

“Overconsumption,” writes J.B. MacKinnon, “surpassed overpopulation as the greatest driver of our ecocrises sometime around the turn of the millennium. When it comes to climate change, species extinction, water depletion, toxic pollution, deforestation and many other challenges, how much each of us consumes now matters more than how many of us there are.”

“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” wrote old Bill Wordsworth more than 200 years ago, and now J.B. MacKinnon is here to tell us just how grievously all that getting and spending — that shopping — is laying waste to the natural world. And how urgently we need to stop.

MacKinnon envisions a world in which consumer consumption abruptly falls by 25 per cent.

MacKinnon writes fascinatingly about the combined forces that have produced our consumer society and that keep almost all of us on a treadmill of more, reminding us for instance that there was a time not so long ago when shops weren’t open on Sundays (that’s 15 per cent less shopping time right there), but the stampede for more put paid to an “older, even ancient architecture of time” that was the sabbath.

He disdains “green consumption” as having done nothing to produce an absolute decrease in material consumption in any region in the world. Clothing, meanwhile, is mostly “garbage-in-waiting.” Efforts in “de-marketing” — such as Patagonia telling shoppers not to buy their clothes unless they really have to — end up having opposite effects and increasing sales.

While “our primary role in society today is as consumers,” MacKinnon writes, “when it comes to reducing consumption, you can be the change you want to see in the world, but it will not change the world.”

For that to happen, systemic changes at a scale and magnitude that no politician would be brave enough to campaign on — but that an epidemic can trigger because viruses don’t fear voter backlash — are required in every branch of our society and economy.

...Not long after the New York World’s Fair, Robert F. Kennedy made a speech, quoted by MacKinnon, “noting that material poverty in the U.S. was matched by an even greater ‘poverty of satisfaction, purpose and dignity. Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.’

“The GDP was buoyed, (Kennedy) noted, by cigarette advertising, ambulances, home security, jails, the destruction of redwood forests, urban sprawl, napalm, nuclear warheads, and the armoured vehicles used by the police against riots in American cities,” MacKinnon writes. In latter years, oil spills in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, or wildfires in California, outputs of the tarsands, etc. — these, too, get added to GDP as if they are good for us.

What seems to be missing from MacKinnon's prescription is any convincing proposal for how to get a hyper-materialistic society - people groomed on more and bigger in perpetuity - to suddenly reverse course especially if that path is not supported by the political caste and corporate sector. 


  1. Monbiots Heat and Dyers Climate wars should be recommended reading for all age groups.


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