13 January 2007

It’s the environment stupid

By Jacqui McCarney

2006 is dead and gone and it feels symbolic to me that Milton Friedman died as the year was dying, in November. Mr Friedman, a renowned economist, was a big influence on President Reagan's and Mrs Thatcher's view of the world - a world where the economy came increasingly to determine the outcome of all decisions.

This convenient idea has been around for quite a while, but in the 1980s Mr Friedman's clever ideas on monetarism meant that capitalism gathered momentum and making money was sanctified.

Since then few politicians have dared question the omnipotence of the economy and while there has been a great deal of pious bleating about values from Tony Blair, Iraq has shown that all our values are subservient to the need to fuel the economy.

Yes we have known about climate change for more than 30 years but it was what Al Gore described as an Inconvenient Truth.

But 2007 should be the year when "It's the economy stupid" becomes "It's the environment stupid".

The dominant economic leaders of the late 20th century, including Mr Friedman, were seriously misguided. History will judge them to be men of myopic vision - men who gained prominence and almost lost us the world. While many of us got richer and fatter, climate change has already devastated many parts of the world – Africa has suffered continuous drought and famine, flooding and loss of lands has led to climate refugees in Bangladesh, species have been wiped out at an unprecedented rate with a million expected to be extinct by 2050. Not least is the polar bear, drowning as ice floes melt.

The 21st century, facing challenges that no civilisation has had to confront before, needs visionary environmental solutions not 20th century economic expediency. Yet none of our political leaders is prepared to risk the radical action needed. They are too busy jostling endlessly for what they see is the safety of the 'centre ground'; sending confusing, contradictory messages – "climate change is our greatest threat" while expanding airports will be "good for business".

Or Blair like, pre-occupied with their legacy, their place in the history, they are still looking back at 20th century projects like Trident on which to hang their hats. Replacing Trident will cost £76,000,000,000 of UK taxpayers' money for US controlled nuclear weapon. At the same time, Sir Nicholas Stern called for immediate, massive investments in renewable energy - the biggest spending in the first 10 years – to combat climate change. We can't afford both!

Stern's economic analysis of climate change shook not just this country but the rest of the world – we only have a very short period left in which to act - the effects of climate change are the biggest single threat to the economy, as well as millions of lives in the southern nations.

There are politicians who have not waited around for Stern to confirm what was obvious anyway. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governor of California, has legally committed that state to 80pc emission cuts by 2050 that will be delivered by huge investments in renewable energy. Despite George Bush, states across the US are working on similar climate change initiatives.

There is a Catch 22 for leaders fearful of slowing down the economy and rocking the monetarist boat. Their refusal to take radical action now on climate change will lead to far worse economic meltdown. The EU showed just such lack of courage with its energy strategy announcements this week that did not attempt to slow down energy demand.

The problem for Britain was summed up by the Institute for Policy Research in its report High Stakes when it concluded that we need "action that starts sooner and moves more quickly than would be characterised as practical in today's political climate".

Our slumbering democracy needs to wake up and wake up fast. Without strong leadership to guide and inspire us through these complex times we must all become environmental leaders in our own homes, streets, communities and towns. And our strength? Yes you have guessed it. It is as economic units – consumers. This is where it all comes full circle. Because we are the ones who fuel the economy we can have a big say in what we want to consume and how businesses run.

Just a few questions you might like to start asking businesses. Why are shop doors left wide open with the heating blasting away? Why is the lighting excessive and left on 24/7? Why can't we buy locally grown produce and why can't it be fair trade too? Once you start asking you will think of lots more questions. WAKE UP - Its The Environment Stupid.