Monday, June 29, 2009

Loose and Tight models of Sustainability

For some sustainability optimists, the simultaneous crises of climate change and peak oil (to which we must now add the economic slump and debt crisis) is also a great opportunity. The need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to live within our planet's needs is, they hope, a wake-up call for our civilisation, and the chance to move towards a different way of living.

This new way would be based on a deliberate, conscious decision to reduce the complexity and inter-dependence of our civilisation. It would involve re-localisation, a reduction in consumption of many unnecessary goods and services, a degree of de-industrialisation and re-engagement with more fundamental aspects of life such as food growing. We'd have less stuff, and our 'standard of living' as measured by conventional indices like GDP would reduce, but our quality of life would improve.

This kind of vision is sometimes accompanied with an evocation of the wartime spirit, with fond memories of digging for victory. The Slow Food movement, and even more the Transition Towns movement, are good examples of this kind of thinking. In essence, this view says Loose rather than Tight is the key to resilience, which in turn is the key to sustainability.

But there is another vision of a low-carbon, more sustainable society, which is more or less the polar opposite – even though it is also a plan for sustainability. It argues that we need less Loose – that Tight, and efficiency, are the only route to a sustainable society.

Here, sustainability depends on more technology and more centralisation to deliver efficiency gains; it's these that make it possible to reduce energy consumption and emissions without reducing the quality of life. So energy efficiency based on “smart grids” that link generation more closely to consumption – real-time monitoring of your electricity meter is a must. High-tech communications equipment in our homes substituting for travel – both for work and for leisure. We'd be less likely to have our cars, and we'd be more urbanised and densely packed, not less – especially since high-energy modes of transport would be less affordable.

This second vision is the one implicit in some of the plans for a sustainable future drawn up by business, by the big consulting firms and the technology industries, like the “SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age” drawn up by the “Global e-sustainability Initiative”and The Climate Group.

Most of the time there is little contact between the two different visions. For the most part, the Green movement simply pretends that the high-technology model of sustainability doesn't exist; there are a few exceptions. Simon Fairlie at least confronts the issue head-on in his revisit to 'Can Britian Feed Itself?', in which he attributed to James Lovelock a plan whereby “a third of the land is given over to wilderness, and a third to agribusiness, while the majority of the population is crammed into the remaining third and fed on junk food”.

Mainly, though, Greens prefer to think that when business talks about the transition to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity, they are only interested in a bit of greenwash and marketing spin, and to sell us more stuff with a green label on it. And of course, business doesn't think much about the Loose model either – except to caricature anyone who has doubts about the possibility of growth without end as a know-nothing who wants to return us to the Middle Ages if not to the Stone Age.

As a Green, my heart, and my sympathies, are with the proponents of Loose, but increasingly my head is with a version of Tight. A more sustainable society will de-centralise some things, but it almost certainly will need to centralise others. It's fun to play around with local currencies, but funding social services and health requires a proper tax system. The Transition Town vision of re-localisation is great for Totnes and Lewes, but we need a different vision for the great urban conurbations that have arisen because of the existence of a global economy and don't make sense without it – this is true not only of the City of London, but also for Haringey and Brixton.

Those who invoke the wartime spirit tend to forget that 'dig for victory' was part of a bigger picture that included rationing and the massive bureaucracy that went with it. Running an integrated transport system will need lots of real-time information processing about the whereabouts of vehicles and passengers.

Personal carbon quotas will require massive databases and data collection systems; Enforcing rationing and preventing 'off-ration' carbon consumption will require an extension of state surveillance and powers; anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't thought much about the huge infrastructure that organised crime has built up around the transhipment of narcotic drugs, a commodity with much more minority appeal than energy.

It seems unlikely that carbon rationing will be based on little paper books and cardboard coupons; I am not at all sure that we can simultaneously oppose ID cards on civil liberties grounds while calling for the introduction of any kind of carbon rationing or quotas, and perhaps it's time to stop automatically resisting any initiative like this. Otherwise, we end up sounding like the nutters who oppose speed cameras on civil liberties grounds.

And the later we leave preparing for transition, the bigger the shock is going to be. When the lights start to go out and the food stops arriving in the supermarkets, many people will be grateful for the smack of firm government, and not too fussed about who gets hurt or what gets taken away in the process.

What's important, then, is not to reject Tight versions of sustainability out of hand, but to start a proper political engagement with them. Who is going to be in control? What safeguards will there be on surveillance? Who decides what the ration allocations are going to be? It's fun to brew our own beer and grow our own vegetables, and it helps to rebuild communities and help think about priorities. But it's no substitute for a proper plan to save civilisation that starts from where we are now, not where we'd like to be.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The sad death of Michael Jackson

The only comment I've found worth reading was this one by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian - about the false dream of celebrity.

My first reaction on hearing of the death of MJ was one of sadness - yet another case of someone who seemed to have it all but found no happiness as a result. One day on and I'm already fed up with all the coverage.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Is this what they really meant?

From the website of the Edwardian Radisson Hotel at Heathrow:

"We believe in doing business with a clear conscience, so we're careful not to waste either your time or our resources in planning an environmentally responsible conference, meeting or event."

Delightfully honest.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Kastner on TV

A couple of weeks ago I watched the Storyville programme about Kastner (entitled “The Jew who talked to the Nazis”), and it stirred me up a lot. Few people who read the broadsheet newspapers (or the Jewish Chronicle) can have missed the row over Joe Allen’s play “Perdition” a few years ago; so the suggestion that some Zionists were involved in some dealings with the Nazis is not exactly news. And though everyone who writes about this feels compelled to act as if they are personally revealing something that has long been hidden, in fact there is a long and detailed account of Kastner and others’ roles in Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial.

For years the subject was also used as a stick by the Zionist right to beat Labour Zionists – as represented, for example, in Ben Hecht’s book “Perfidy”; more recently Lenni Brenner has written several books which meticulously document the involvements of the Zionist Right (especially Lehi) with attempts to do a deal with the Nazis. Proper historians, including Jewish and Zionists ones, know all about what happened, and the indignation of the Jewish community about the Allen play was either fake or ignorant. There is a debate to be had about how we should interpret and even judge these episodes, and what we can learn from the; but it shouldn’t be based on denial of the facts.

Nevertheless, the Storyville film not only told the story rather well, but did manage to tell me a lot that I didn’t know. I knew that Kastner had been assassinated after a Pyrhrric victory in his libel action, but had always assumed it was the work of crazed individual. The film not only show that the assassin had been part of an underground rightwing group (which had also attempted to blow up the Soviet embassy in Israel) but also that the group had been penetrated by the Shin Bet, and that there seems good reason to suspect that the Israeli authorities knew about the planned assassination but chose not to prevent it.

Why? Perhaps because Kastner had been giving witness statements on behalf of Nazis at their trials after the war – and that he had been doing this so that they would reveal the whereabouts of money looted from holocaust victims. The money was then transferred to the Israeli state, though not to descendants of the victims or other survivors. Evidence of Kastner’s statements for the various Nazis had emerged at the libel trial and had very much influenced the judge’s attitude towards him, yet Kastner had not given an explanation as to why he appeared to be helping these odious men when there were no longer any Jews to save. The film suggests that the assassins were allowed to go ahead with their plans because Kastner knew too much; it also shows that the murderers served relatively short sentences. Curiously, the actual assassin, who is still alive and was interviewed for the film, is one of the most sympathetic characters in it.

Also interesting in the film is the close collaboration between Uri Avnery and the right-wing lawyer (a Herut leader) for the defendant in the libel trial. We’re used to seeing Avnery as a peacenik, but his political career is much more chequered than that. He started out on the right, and obviously maintained links there in the muck-raking days of Haolam Hazeh.

The film also shows the way that the Jews rescued by Kastner were made to feel like they were the wrong sort of survivor. I suspect many survivors in Israel felt like that. The fact that the Kastner episode happened in Hungary, and that at least some Zionists seem to have had scant regard for the assimilated Hungarian Jews, may also have played a part.