A brief history of really bad ideas

The climate justice movement offers a wealth of solutions that never get a fair hearing. Every cornerstone of a just, sustainable future, from community-owned energy in the sky to organic agriculture in the earth, is consistently swept aside as utopian thinking.

This is particularly irritating given the spectrum of fantastical and occasionally genocidal schemes that do manage to find traction among power-hungry politicians, profiteering corporations and some truly eccentric scientists. To remind climate justice activists the world over that we are the ones with our feet on the ground, let’s take a look back at some of the worst.

1) Carbon pricing

Carbon pricing and trading emerged from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol to establish a proper cap on emissions in 1992. It has been the flagship free-market climate policy ever since, taxing emissions and issuing tradable pollution permits to businesses and institutions. Often, low-carbon institutions like hospitals and universities are obliged to buy extra credits while the corporations cash in.

Big Polluters have made a killing by speculating, cutting corners and generally defrauding the system, sometimes deliberately producing more emissions just so they can get paid to dispose of them. Like all free-market fixes, it’s extremely lucrative; between 2005 and 2010 the global carbon market turned a $500 billion profit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates carbon taxes are five times too low to discourage the Big Polluters (which, given their more than $5 trillion of annual subsidies, they can afford.) But they are high enough to put a heavy burden on working people, to whom energy companies pass on extra costs. More than 1 in 10 Europeans are blighted by energy poverty, which is forecast to kill 40,000 people this winter in Britain alone. This also contributes to creating the apparent conflict of interest between the planet and the poor.

Lastly, the scheme has completely failed to halt rising emissions. That the EU’s own watchdog admits the scheme is ‘almost never enforced’ gives some indication of how seriously our leaders really take the climate threat, whatever their rhetoric. No wonder, then, that instead of falling, emissions have been rising at their fastest rate in 30 years. Really bad idea.

2) Privatising the planet

Whatever the problem, selling it off is the only solution the market ever has to offer. And since the crash of 2008, politicians have been selling off public services faster than ever. The resulting devastation of our education, healthcare and welfare systems hasn’t put them off – now they want to apply the austerity model to the fight against climate change by privatizing the planet itself.

Nature is reduced to ‘natural capital’; our forests, rivers and fields become ‘green infrastructure’. And the results are utter nonsense. The UK’s Natural Capital Committee has established a price for the aesthetic value of Britain’s lakes and rivers (at about $1 billion.) But you can’t quantify beauty, measure happiness or put a price on what is priceless.

The conviction that we need to is rooted in the belief that people only value something if you slap a price tag on it. That might be true for the CEOs lining up to buy our planet but the research suggests most people deserve a bit more credit. Unfortunately, some sections of the environmental movement have adopted this language of ‘natural capital’.

As Guardian columnist George Monbiot and others have argued, in committing themselves to an ultimately doomed attempt to make big business care about the earth, these ‘mainstream environmentalists’ have destroyed their own moral authority and in doing so, undermined their ability to mobilize the grassroots. Really bad idea.

3) Crazy crops

Biofuels have long been pushed by big business as a magical alternative to oil and gas – even though they are inefficient, expensive and enormously destructive. In fact, the production of biofuels often emits more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels, not to mention the fact it’s become a leading driver of deforestation, reducing vast tracts of ancient, irreplaceable forest to dead land. It also gobbles up enormous amounts of water, which is exactly what we don’t want as droughts and pollution diminish this most precious resource, on which all life depends. Biofuel production has also driven up the price of grain, threatening hunger, instability and conflict.

And this is just a small part of the unspeakable havoc wreaked on food security by the globalization of industrial agriculture, which has exhausted our once-abundant planet. For example, despite controlling three-quarters of all farmland and enjoying massive government subsidies, industrial farming produces only 30 per cent of our food. In just 40 years, its senseless intensity (almost half the food produced is wasted,) has destroyed a third of the world’s arable land while somehow still managing to leave 800 million people hungry.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been trumpeted as another ‘big fix’ for hunger and climate change, despite widespread health concerns and the fact they fail the most elementary standard for sustainability: they are non-renewable. Corporations in the climate negotiations are pushing heat-resistant GMOs and ‘smart-fertilisers’. From an environmental perspective, these methods not only worsen the climate crisis, being both water and fossil-fuel intensive, but heighten vulnerability. Most GMOs are more susceptible to drought, floods and disease and so require intensive mechanical and chemical treatment to survive – which means big bucks for the agribusiness corporations that sell them. It also means peasant farmers are priced off their lands or buried beneath mountains of debt, contributing to almost 300,000 farmer suicides in India over the past decade in what has become known as the ‘GM genocide’. Really bad idea.

4) Geo-engineering

Like nuclear power, the science of ‘weather management’ started off in weapons development at the heart of the military-industrial complex. But since the breakdown of the COP15 negotiations in 2009, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) has resurfaced as a ‘last line of defence’ for the planet; a substitute for (and for some, preferable to) regulating emissions. From filling the stratosphere with sulphate to erecting giant mirror-roofs across the earth to reflect the sun’s rays, SRM proposals range from surreal to plain stupid.

Injecting sulphates into the atmosphere, for example, mimics the sun-blocking effects of volcanic eruptions: widely considered the most life threatening of all natural disasters due to their long-lasting and unpredictable disruption of natural weather patterns. Putting aside the question of who’d be in charge of the thermostat, we really have no idea what the side-effects might be and no way to test, since the only appropriate laboratory is the planet we’re living on.

Most SRM proposals are ‘lock-in’ strategies, meaning we start pumping out one kind of pollution to deal with another kind of pollution with no idea how to stop without frying everything to a crisp. And even optimistic projections predict SRM would fry swathes of the global South to a crisp anyway, disrupting the monsoon and ‘completely drying out’ the Sahel region of Africa, threatening 4.1 billion people. Really bad – and slightly genocidal – idea.

5) Letting Big Polluters sponsor COP21

There is no business bigger than the fossil fuel business. This is an industry with friends in all the high places, subsidized to the tune of $10 million every minute of every day and making annual profits equivalent to the GDP of France. They have 20 trillion reasons to extract every last bit of oil, coal and gas: all of them dollars.

They are not our allies. As Friends of the Earth’s Asad Rehman put it here in Paris: ‘Putting corporates in the driving seat for climate negotiations is like putting Dracula in a blood bank.’ Yet that’s exactly where they are.

Corporate Accountability International notes in its report, Fuelling the Fire: the Big Polluters Bankrolling Cop 21 that these corporations have a long history of political interference with environmental policy making. On one hand, they routinely engage in sophisticated campaigns of misinformation about climate change; on the other, clean up their image by funding COPs and joining climate marches.

Pierre-Henry Guignard, Secretary-General of the UN summit, promised this year to build ‘a very business-friendly COP.’ This is a contradiction in terms. Pretending it’s not, hides the root of the problem from the public and leads us down a twenty-first dead end. It is the mother of all bad ideas.

The power of good ideas

Within the market system, all proposals are viewed through the lens of commercial viability. We see this battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency being played everywhere in the market’s warped attempts to tackle global warming. It promotes the proposals which turn a profit over those that might actually help us, every single time.

To quote Monbiot: ‘What we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong? Here we have a sector whose wealth is built on the creation of debt. That’s how it works, on stacking up future liabilities. Shafting the future in order to serve the present: that is the model.’ It’s the model that got us into this mess and it’s not going to get us out of it.

It’s fantastical, fictitious, pie-in-the-sky fundamentalism, and our job is to expose it as such, not adopt its language and values as our own. So we need to reclaim realism, assert our own values as boldly as our adversaries, and mobilize around the principle that life – all life – is more precious than profit. The big polluters will never want to pay; so it’s time for them to get out of our way.

Written for New Internationalist

Odyssey Entry III: Crete & the Myth of the Economic Migrant

Crete is a remarkable island of outstanding natural beauty and vibrant traditional culture. I arrived there at the end of the tourist season, as the tavernas and hotels were preparing for hibernation. In Chania, a beautiful coastal town drenched in romantic colonial charm, a great black banner reading “Refugees Welcome” hung from the old Venetian castle overlooking the harbour. But none could be seen amidst the tapestry of designer shops and coffee bars. Still, their ghosts seemed to fill the streets and a sense of foreboding quickly entered most conversations on the topic.


When I told people my next stop was the island of Lesvos, eyebrows typically rose above hairlines. Many business owners said they feared tourists getting the “wrong impression” about Greece. When assured that I thought highly of their country and knew what to expect on the island, eyebrows fell off the backs of heads. Then, why would I go? Don’t I know how dangerous it is, “a white woman alone at the camps”?

One hotel manager described the refugees in medieval terms, as “Muslim invaders.” I reminded him that they were not soldiers but civilians, many of them women and children. He was dismissive. “They are single men looking for an easy life. They should stay and fight for their country, like we did,” he replied, referring to the Greek civil war of 1946-49. “They have no respect for our culture,” one hotel owner complained, repeating the now widespread myth about refugees defecating in Greek churches (which turned out to be a lie cooked up by supporters of the fascist Golden Dawn party on Twitter).

Since the financial crash, many progressives have looked with envy at the spirit of resistance that has fueled Greece’s mass strikes and civil disobedience and swept Syriza into power. But those days may be coming to an end. The day I arrived in Crete there was (another) general election; Tsipras was running for a renewed mandate after bowing to the austerity memorandum that a clear majority of Greeks had bravely voted against in his referendum.

I was sitting with the staff at an empty tavern watching the results come in on TV. They were all socialists and Syriza supporters, but none had bothered to vote, considering the outcome both a foregone and ultimately meaningless conclusion. “He betrayed us after the referendum,” growled the elderly chef, stubbing his cigarette out for emphasis. “We vote and we vote and nothing changes.”

It brought to mind Emma GoIMG_1401ldman’s famous adage that if voting changed anything, it would be illegal. Tsipras held onto power, but voter turnout plummeted to 56.65%, the lowest ever recorded in Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974, and Golden Dawn received 100,000 votes. In the islands of Kos and Lesvos, which have been overwhelmed by refugee numbers, support for the neo-Nazi party has doubled.

Many progressive Greeks are suffering a crisis of faith. Tsipras’ pyrrhic victory has cost him the confidence of a disillusioned country. Basilis, a tall, eloquent man in his early forties who would seem more at home lecturing at a university than working at a taverna, told me that, though passionate, he felt too old and too tired to continue the political struggle. Instead, he would go back to his family farm for the harvest.

The island’s iconic rolling orchards of olives and oranges are part of the fabric of life here. December’s olive harvest is an annual event of immense cultural (if not economic) significance to Crete, where small-scale organic agriculture is still an intrinsic part of community life. Young and old, rich and poor, in the orchards or just in the garden, most Cretans still maintain a close connection to the land. And they work without pesticides, using Indigenous methods like limewash to protect their crops. When I told Basilis how much we pay for organic tomatoes in the UK, I had to Google it before he’d believe me.

This culture—and the reduced stress levels, high life-expectancy, and sumptuous food that come with it—is a big draw for tourists, oblivious to the fact their banks and governments at home are threatening it with extinction. During a visit to Crete’s blue lagoon, one local had explained to me that areas of outstanding natural beauty in Greece are marked as “zones protected from the EU.” But the vast bulk of GreIMG_2241ece’s agricultural land has no such defence. Under the terms of the austerity memorandum signed by Tsipras, taxes on Greek farms will double, forcing many organic family farms out of business. In this economic climate, only big agribusiness can thrive by compromising the environment, food quality, and wages.

“The banks are pressuring families to sell off land to pay their debts,” Basilis told me. “I keep telling people, don’t you see, you’ll sell a bit, your children will sell a bit, and your grandchildren will have no land. Monsanto will come in with its pesticides and chemicals and rape the land. To have no money is bad but at least with land we can still feed ourselves properly. But not for long.”

What I witnessed in Crete—the growing xenophobia and corporate enclosure of the farmlands, the social breakdown and erosion of hope—seemed particularly poignant given the island’s venerable history. Four thousand years ago, it was from this island that the ancient Minoans built an astonishingly advanced civilization, with its pioneering literature, theatre, and seafaring, and established a society marked by remarkable sexual and social equality. Where property was held in common, today selling off land and services to private interests is, for many, the only way to survive.

Many Greeks have opened their hearts and homes to the refugees. But for others, the economic crisis makes exclusion not only justifiable, but essential. “We must stop building camps to encourage them, they need to go,” one small business owner told me in Crete. “We have no resources to care for our own people.” With war veterans eating out of rubbish bins in Athens and the suicide rate soaring, that much is true. In a way, it’s also ironic. As youth unemployment hovers around 50 per cent, Greece is already producing its own “economic migrants”: educated young men and women whose talents the Greek economy can’t use, and who now dream of doing meaningful work for a decent wage abroad.


Originally written for The Leap