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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Book recommendation: "A Citizens' Income" Clive Lord

Given that Clive Lord is running for the leadership of The Green Party, I decided to read his book "A Citizens' Income" and was very impressed. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting an introduction to green political thought. He manages to explain some rather complex ideas in a way that is straightforward and understandable, which is no easy task.
The first part of the book deals with the ecological crisis facing the planet and why we need a complete 'paradigm shift' to have any hope of solving it, meaning a shift in the fundamental world view shared by a significant number of people. Lord explains the exponential principle underlying economic growth and how the main problem humanity faces concerns 'the tragedy of the commons'. Put simply the tragedy of the commons is the tendency of people to make rational decisions which are in their short-term self interest but go completely against our long-term interests and those of the planet. For example a situation where nations recognise the long-term dangers of climate change but each individual one is reluctant to reduce their emissions if it affects their individual nations' economic growth. Lord uses the example of Easter Island as an example of a society that went to pot because of the tragedy of the commons (hence the cover design showing Easter Island statues), where a once thriving community destroyed all of its trees and much of its wildlife and ended up in a state of perpetual war and cannibalism as a result. Lord elaborates on some of the possible future consequences of unfettered growth and environmental destruction in the disturbing chapter, "Racism and the Environmental Crisis".
That is not to say that the book is one long doom laden prophesy of a 'Soylent Green' future, far from it. The second part of the book offers an optimistic possible way out and route to achieving a 'paradigm for sustainability', meaning a cultural attitude shift in the direction of green living. Lord suggests that the establishment of a 'Citizens' Income' is essential to this. A Citizens' Income would be a guaranteed payment to everyone, regardless of whether they are in work or not and free from any means testing or penalties. Lord argues convincingly that this would break the link between providing people with the means to sustain themselves and endless 'job creation' which takes no account of whether the jobs are environmentally beneficial or destructive. Lord argues that a minimum wage does not work because it fails to break this link and also that means tested benefits simply mean that the poor are subsidised by the slightly less poor rather than the wealthy. He devotes several chapters to explaining the economic arguments behind this with much convincing data. Lord ends on a positive note:

"As long as there is uncontrolled expansion of either population or economic activity, the Tragedy of the Commons is in motion.... The escape plan set out here may be improbable, but it is possible. The same logic applied to both the slave trade and child labour. The first to renounce either risked putting themselves at a commercial disadvantage, but an overwhelming consensus nevertheless developed in each case and they did disappear". (Clive Lord "A Citizens' Income" , pub. Jon Carpenter 2003,  page131).

Clive Lord recommends the following books be read as well:

Colin Hines "Localization - A Global Manifesto", Earthscan, London, 2000.

Clive Ponting "A Green History of the World", Sinclair Stevenson, London 1991.

Polluted Lakes and Fines for Non-recyclers

There were two green issue related stories in Friday's Gazette which immediately caught my attention. Both raise important and different questions regarding how best to deal with the issues concerned and to engage public support.

Pollution in Wivenhoe

The first story concerns levels of pollution in ponds and lakes in Wivenhoe, off Rectory Hill, which run into the River Colne. It seems that long streak of orange gunge has appeared on the water and dozens of dead birds and fish have been found. One of the lakes has been tested for arsenic and has been found to contain 1,320mg per kg when the upper safe limit is 17mg per kg. Additionally high levels of aluminium and manganese have been found. This is a shocking level of pollution and no wonder that that local residents have started to hold meetings to raise awareness of this.
According to the Gazette article there have been suggestions that a local gravel pit may be to blame for this. It is imperative that the Environment Agency get to the bottom of this as soon as possible, however there seems to be a fundamental problem. This being that the Environment Agency is basing its conclusions on water samples rather than sediment tests. This is blatantly inadequate given that heavy rain can dilute and distort water sample readings while the sediment remains full of pollutants.
Clearly they need to get testing the sediment and then get tough with either the quarrying company or whoever else is responsible for this situation.

Bin Fines for Poor Recyclers?

The second story is a rather alarming one about potential fines for people who are poor recyclers. According to the article Colchester's recycling rate has dropped from 46.3%in 2014-15 to 45.2% last year. Not much of a drop but a drop nonetheless. However Cllr Tim Young (Lab) is threatening to get tough with the public and, .."look at (using) the stick..." to get more people recycling. He states:
"If you start fining people, which we can do, then they are not going to like it but that is what it might take".
Well yes, they are not going to like it one bit and that raises a number of problems. We absolutely need to get more people recycling and Cllr Young is quite right to want to achieve this. My concerns however are on the specific approach of dishing out fines and whether this would work. On the one hand it is unclear as to what criteria would be applied when dealing out fines. Would they be for people putting out too many black bags, for putting recyclable items in black bags or what? Are all of our black bags about to be opened and fished through by council snoopers looking for plastic milk bottles or cans? It is right to ask these questions because of my second concern, that being that the council could risk alienating the public and making them hate recycling as an imposition enforced by snoopers and jobsworths. This is the last thing we need.  Moreover as Cllr Young pints out, there has to be cross-party agreement on this for it to work. All it would take is for one of the major parties to campaign against what they would call 'punitive fines' and the plan would probably be sunk.
Therefore I'd try and get away from the fines approach or at least only use them as a very last resort. Surely it is better to reward those people who do recycle in some way. How about a small council tax rebate for those who recycle? This could be funded by a slightly higher charge on those who never use recycling bins/bags or use them less than five times per year.
This would get away from the word fines with all of its criminal justice system implications. Evidence suggests that the 5p plastic bag charge has both worked in reducing the amount of bags used and carried public opinion with it. It can be done however it needs careful thinking and I'm not convinced that outright fines is the best approach.