Exeter, January 2015
It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).
The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.
A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.
But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.
Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.
It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:
- A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance. This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
- A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
- A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors. No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
- A banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry .
- Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
- Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business .
- A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
- A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
- A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
- A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England .
- A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
- Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
- The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….
I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.
We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.
Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.
It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.
But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?
The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.
 See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/
 See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation
The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk
 Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf
Liked the article, Peter like you I remember the shared power cuts of 1972/3 and the problems we had locating patients in the dark with only the Ambulance spotlight for light. Edinburgh seems to being doing something with the introduction of low omission busses and the first all electric route planned for 2016, Your article has prompted me to look further at the Green Party, I’ve voted Liberal most of my years so as I approach 70 maybe it is time for the old dog to learn new tricks. All the best. Gordon Smith (Edinburgh).
Thanks, Gordon, glad you liked it. Best wishes, Peter
“Lost sight of a moral compass”, that sums it up for me really. Great read, thanks Peter. Happy new year to you.