Longing for the bad old days

For some greens, the problem with the recession is that it just isn’t deep enough to force people into eco-poverty.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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Just three years ago, some politicians and commentators advocated austerity measures, including 1940s-style rationing, to tackle the alleged obesity epidemic and overconsumption. Some even argued that an age of austerity could help renew conventional family life and community spirit. Now, some eminent British scientists are suggesting that such rationing is the only way to combat runaway climate change.

In a series of papers published by the Royal Society, scientists from some of Britain’s most esteemed institutions, including the University of Oxford and the Met Office, have argued that it is imperative to halt economic growth in wealthy countries over the next 20 years. At a time when large swathes of the population are suffering from redundancies and pay cuts, such a suggestion appears particularly insensitive and distasteful.

A key suggestion in the papers is that people in wealthy countries should use less carbon-intensive goods and services, which would mean, amongst other things, cutting down on plane and car travel. As Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, admitted, it ‘would not be easy’ to persuade people to reduce their consumption and to change their lifestyles radically. But he said politicians should still consider introducing a rationing system similar to the one introduced during ‘the last time of crisis’ in the 1930s and 1940s. This could mean a limit on electricity so that people would be forced to turn the heating down or to turn off the lights. ‘The Second World War and the concept of rationing is something we need to seriously consider if we are to address the scale of the problem we face’, said Anderson.

Anderson also admitted that people in the developed world may have to accept a level of ‘discomfort’ by reducing energy consumption, and a loss of liberty by travelling less. In other words, if the coalition government’s public expenditure cutbacks aren’t making you poor and miserable enough, then enforced state rationing will.

There is no inevitable connection between consumption and carbon emissions, while the extent of the connection between carbon emissions and global warming is hotly debated. It seems insane to introduce widespread austerity measures on the basis of speculation. Eco-doom discussions are often centred on our consumption and how we should reduce it – eat less, travel less, shop less – even though there may be innovations on their way that will reduce the potentially harmful effects of climate change while allowing us to continue enjoying the good life.

It’s not just scientists who demand we enjoy less of the nice things in life. This week, the health secretary for England, Andrew Lansley, expressed hopes that adults will drink less if taxation on high-strength booze is increased. In both Anderson’s and Lansley’s cases, it’s worth noting just how quickly proposals to nudge people into correcting their apparently damaging habits are taken up to argue for coercive regulations. ‘Persuasion is simply not good enough’, said one medical expert in response to Lansley’s proposals. Indeed, many in the medical profession would like to see even more clampdowns on booze, cigarettes and fatty foods (so long as duck is still served up in high-class restaurants, of course).

The idea of Austerity Britain now looms large in the imaginations of policy wonks and scientific experts. They’re thinking: if the government could successfully enforce restrictions on the masses’ consumption habits in the 1940s, then why can’t it do so again?

In his paper, Anderson points out that the UK’s carbon emissions were ‘a lot less 10 years ago and we got by OK then’. Perhaps Anderson and his peers got by fine a decade ago, but since then a lot of consumer goods and habits that were previously relatively exclusive have also become a lot cheaper and more attainable for millions of people. In quack discussions around the presumed problems of consumption, there always seems to be a seething resentment about the fact that ordinary people are now enjoying things like flights abroad, brand-name clothes and decent food. People consuming such goods in great quantities are described as tacky, gaudy and mindlessly materialistic. To some, it’s very irritating that low-paid workers can now enjoy a galaxy of reasonably priced consumer goods that they wouldn’t have had access to in the recent past.

The cheerleaders for a dystopian Austerity Britain have realised that the current recession won’t bring true austerity in itself, because people enjoy their stuff too much. So, the thinking goes, official policies are required to nudge people into thinking of the planet first. In many ways, the vile fantasies of a return to strict rationing also involve a yearning for a time when the elite was able easily to impose its authority. Anderson and others instinctively appreciate that in the 1940s such authority was built on the cowering, diminishing impact of scarcity.

Far from the cultural elite being embarrassed over yearning for the tough times of the 1940s, the idea that a bit of hardship is good for us is being shouted from the rooftops. Merry Christmas, plebs!

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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