Does recycling remain controversial?

Sometimes it seems that an ecological argument has been won. Recycling is one such example because so many of us do it on automatic pilot. At the same time, alternative waste disposal techniques like fly tipping are frowned upon by the majority of the population. Nevertheless, an environmental scientist called Ono Mergen has written about the limitations of recycling in relation to plastic waste. Perhaps it is worthwhile to go over the argument in question. 

In essence, Mergen believes that recycling brings responsibility for plastic consumption down to the level of the individual. She is clear that manufacturers must be held accountable for their products and she would like a circular economy to emerge.  Mergen wrote:

“Recycling is good but the truth is, banning, reducing, and redesigning has way more impact.”

For Mergen, “recycling is the least effective” approach to take with plastic. This is a comparison between recycling and other positive activities. She does not measure the theory and practice of recycling against less responsible behaviour like leaving litter. At the moment, Surfers Against Sewage is trying to lead an environmental battle against carelessly handled plastic. The envisaged clean-up of plastic waste is meant to improve the wellbeing of participants.

It is often the case that controversy increases the level of interest in an article. However, Mergen does make some valid points in her piece. Nonetheless, less recycling can feed into more littering. Recycling is quite easy to carry out and it is better than leaving plastic on a beach. It is no silver bullet for the global environmental crisis but it is easy for most individuals to implement.

At certain points in the article, Mergen is not entirely negative about recycling. This leads me to think that any controversy over recycling is restricted in its scope. Defenders of recycling will not deny that plastic is a problem that should be dealt with on a variety of fronts.

Plastic production is a major contributor to the dilemmas of the Anthropocene. The truth is that excess plastic is devastating in its environmental impact. Recycling is not a long-term panacea to the crisis, but it is far superior to littering. Disagreements between environmentally concerned people do occur and it is important to see the strengths of the arguments deployed by those with different perspectives. Common ground can be found which may facilitate social learning.

A historic moment

It might have been thought that pandemic-related lockdowns would have stopped the rise in greenhouse gases, but it appears that the economic system has continued to pollute the planet despite the interruption to business as usual.  Greta Thunberg has responded to the fact that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has nudged over 420 parts per million.

Kenny Stancil of EcoWatch has quoted a tweet by the amazing campaigner. Thunberg said:

“Is this confirmed, then it is truly ground breaking to say the least. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”

Obviously, it is important that powerful people heed real-world evidence on the climate crisis and act without delay. However, these influential political and economic actors do share our planet. This means that pressure can be exerted on those with the capacity to make big decisions. For example, voting for opposition parties can penalise those governments that have been complacent on the climate front. Procrastination by the authorities should not be tolerated.  

Thunberg has used social media effectively in the past. Without school strikes, the international green movement would have been much weaker. The pandemic response may have limited the opportunity for offline protest but it is only a matter of time before many activists resume their ordinary activities. Non-scientists may struggle slightly when they think about the significance of carbon dioxide hitting the level of 420 parts per million. This is in part because they may be ignoring the impact of other greenhouse gases such as methane. The fact is that an atmosphere with carbon dioxide at 420 parts per million will trigger extreme weather events and climate-related catastrophes.

It is possible for non-scientists to understand the basics of climate science, but flagging up the precautionary principle may help. In the Anthropocene, we are all taking a tremendous risk with our increasingly dangerous climate and it is only prudent to think again. 

Underlining positive news

News does tend to focus on the negative side of life. This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to the climate crisis because disillusioned people can easily succumb to fatalism. If individuals feel that they lack agency then they might not bother with things that they can actually perform. For example, recycling rates might fall if citizens feel that the climate cannot be restored. A few days ago, the British energy mix hit a green high. Sharing this information, reported by the BBC, could contribute in a small way to the positive news we need.

When it comes to the specific piece of positive news, breezy and sunny weather over the Easter holiday enabled renewable energy to deliver the goods. According to the BBC, the UK system of electricity had never attained such a green record before. Assisted by low demand for electricity and by the supply of nuclear energy, the grid was not linked to as many carbon emissions as normal.

Greenpeace welcomed the progress on the energy front. However, the organisation took the opportunity to criticise the government’s carbon record in relation to roads, homes and farms. Reductions in carbon emissions in these vital areas have been disappointing in recent years.     

Positive news is essential for campaigners. Without the manufacture and sharing of such content, the stamina needed by activists can become depleted. If climate change is to be kept within 1.5 degrees centigrade of warming, we will all need to hear a lot of positive news in the decade to come.

Of course, positive news should not be confused with disinformation or misinformation. When environmental disasters occur, we must pay close attention to them. Nor should we ignore the high concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Nonetheless, a positive piece of news can help to concentrate the mind. In the climate crisis, much still depends on social tipping points. These can be pulled closer by being positive about national and international progress. 

A £27 billion question?

When Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an investment of £27 billion in UK roads, the move did not attract universal support. Critics suggested that the policy was not an auspicious one, given the context of the climate crisis. However, the Guardian has shown this week that there are bigger issues at stake. Firstly, Lawyers for Transport Action Network are seeking to push back against the road scheme. Secondly, expert witnesses have alleged that the Department of Transport has massively underestimated the environmental impact of the infrastructure policy in question.

Importantly, there were some sceptical voices to be heard when the roadbuilding initiative was first launched. However, the climate emergency warning tended to come with limited factual support behind it. Evidence gathering tends to take up a significant amount of time. For example, in March 2020 Professor Greg Marsden said: “The focus on shovel-ready infrastructure expansion on the roads will, regrettably, simply dig us a bigger climate hole to get out of.” The thinking behind the statement may well have been that historical precedent suggested that road construction would add significantly to carbon emissions. Nevertheless, any lack of specificity in the argument might have heartened the government.

One way in which the government can downplay the impact of its roadbuilding programme is to claim that electric cars are on their way. After all, recent sales have impressed. Nonetheless, such a position is less reasonable than it first appears. Although electric cars are less polluting than conventional vehicles, they do depend on electricity that must be generated in some fashion. Furthermore, conventional vehicles and hybrids are going to be around for some time yet. This all goes to demonstrate that government estimates of future pollution need to be treated with a degree of caution.

In the past, Sir John Houghton accounted for the lack of progress on the climate emergency. He pointed to two factors. He depicted politicians as timid and pointed out that vested interests were often capable of blocking change. A close look at the British road programme might reveal that lobbying from car manufacturers has driven some of the spending under discussion.      

It is possible that the legal activism could lead to a judicial review. Even if this outcome does not happen, the lawyers have achieved a major publicity breakthrough. If the Department of Transport is forced to be more accurate with its climate impact estimates in the future then this could have positive repercussions for decision-making. Populism is a sloppy kind of politics and its international retreat would help environmentalism. Environmental policy should be shaped by facts rather than distortions. The quality of evidence matters when climate change, air pollution and biodiversity are at stake.

 

Biodiversity loss revisited

The severity of the climate crisis threatens to overshadow two other emergencies. Both biodiversity and air pollution are international catastrophes in their own right. As a novice gardener, I have been fortunate enough to observe two types of butterfly this year. I have also planted some bee friendly seeds in the hope that the garden can sustain more insects than would otherwise be the case. As biodiversity loss is so serious it makes sense to revisit why mass extinction is so problematic.

It is possible to view ecosystems as complex adaptive systems. This way of looking at the world in the Anthropocene highlights non-linear change. The loss of one species can make things awkward for several other species. This degree of interdependence spells potential trouble for numerous animals and plants. Ecosystem resilience is reliant on a move away from the current brand of financialised extractive capitalism.

Even nine years ago, scholars were underlining the scale of the dilemma associated with biodiversity loss. While the climate crisis took up many of the headlines, the rise in the number of extinctions was already on the way. A team of academic researchers nailed their colours to the mast:        

“studies suggest that diversity loss may have as quantitatively significant an impact on ecosystem functions as other global change stressors (e.g., climate change) that have already received substantial policy attention.” (Cardinale, N. et al., 2012)

This just goes to show how important biodiversity is. It is even possible for species to be completely destroyed before they have been identified properly. Earlier in the year, the Dasgupta Review clarified the significance of biodiversity loss but it is unclear to what extent this impressive work has translated into policy change.

Biodiversity loss is as political as the climate crisis. Of course, there are numerous linkages between the two. It is essential that the ruling class come up with strategies to address all environmental problems as it would be an unscientific mistake to rank them in order of significance. It is even possible that a future pandemic could occur because of our difficulties in respecting what is left of nature.

At this desperate conjuncture, it is not altruistic to care about biodiversity. Human well-being and the health of ecosystems are connected. This is why political parties should rethink their ideas about economic growth and sustainability. Business as usual politics has almost cost the earth, it is past time that failed economic models are replaced.  

Cardinale, B. J.; Duffy, E.; Gonzalez, A.; Hooper, D.U.; Perrings, C.; Venail, P.; Narwani, A.; Mace, G.M:; Tilman, D.; Wardle, D.A.; Kinzig, A.P.; Daily, G.C.; Loreau, M.; Grace, J.B.; Larigauderie, A.; Srivastava, D. and Naeem, S. (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature. Volume: 486, Number: 7401, pp 59-67.

On countervailing power

The theory of countervailing power is associated with the economic thinking of John Kenneth Galbraith.  In a balanced international political economy, he depicted trade unions as having a constructive role to play. For Galbraith, the power of labour prevented the tyranny of capital. In the current era of capitalism, the strength of trade unions is much reduced. However, it could be the case that green activists are beginning to constitute a source of countervailing power in the British context.

When one thinks about the politics of the Anthropocene, it is worth reflecting on the contribution of academic Hayley Stevenson. Stevenson has argued that there is a big gap between what politicians say and what they do. For Stevenson, the hypocrisy of postmodern figures is easy to describe. She maintains that much of the public is hoodwinked by “bullshit” that inevitably tries to obfuscate the climate crisis.

It can be seen that pressure groups like Extinction Rebellion are able to expose some of the bullshit discourses. At a time when British finance is trying to present itself as green, the activists are highlighting the fact that the sector has been connected with the exploitation of fossil fuels. Moreover, the group is beginning to make a debt-based protest via non-payment.     

While it may be premature to tell if Extinction Rebellion has the power to be a countervailing force for good, it is clear that there are other green groups which are working hard. Greenpeace is standing up for the oceans, while the Green Party is doing quite well in its tussle with the Liberal Democrats for third party status. Polling has put the party at 7 per cent and this means that the Labour Party could be pulled towards a green orientation.

Countervailing power is a useful concept that can be unpacked to think through the complex adaptive system of the state. Even successful governments do not have things all their own way. In an era of political bullshit, citizens need help to recognise organised deceit. Extinction Rebellion is providing this help and if it grows in membership then it could, with its allies, form an authentic type of countervailing power.  

Would consensus be such a bad thing?

In an era of culture wars, the idea of consensus may seem to be almost absurd. Political polarisation, provoked in part by the mainstream media, is making social media content tiring to consume. It is decades since the Keynesian consensus delivered a healthy political economy to the UK. It seems worthwhile to consider whether or not a less adversarial politics could evolve. 

A few days ago, Ed Miliband MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rejected the idea of a “cosy consensus” on the climate crisis. This position makes sense if the Conservative Party is procrastinating on necessary action. However, the UK might be in a better position if the government was progressive enough for its green agenda to win support from the Labour Party and non-governmental organisations. It is to be hoped that impressive policy improvements shall take place prior to the hosting of the COP26 event. The scientific evidence on the climate crisis is such that major differences between the main political parties should not necessarily become a permanent state of affairs.

The obstacles to reaching a potential consensus are significant. Firstly, a lack of a gap between the parties on the environment might be discouraging for young campaigners. Secondly, a consensus could lead to complacency on the part of the government. However, agreement on big environmental measures could make policy implementation more straightforward.

It is important to recognise that the pluses and minuses of consensual politics are very hard to weigh up. It is fair to say that a proportion of the public would welcome less antagonism between the parties. However, the Conservative government would have to be much more consistent in its approach to the environment before the opposition parties could get behind it. This is partly because the Conservative government is implacably opposed to Proportional Representation. Without constitutional reform, there is unlikely to be the policy transformation that would enable compromise. 

There is another major force that drives disagreement about the environmental emergency. Political activists are much less likely to welcome consensus than the public. This is because they want to make a real difference to the world. Radicalism prevents committed individuals from seeing any virtues in the agenda of the government.

Consensus, then, is neither good nor bad. Policy content is all. While the Keynesian consensus created abundant employment in the 1950s and 1960s, the neoliberal consensus legitimised mass unemployment in the 1980s and 1990s. It does seem that consensus can be practical if a government is prepared to tack to the political centre ground. On the environment, the Conservative government has done too little for consensus to be appropriate. Hopefully, this state of affairs shall change. 

Looking back to look forwards?

Rising sea levels form just part of the threat posed by the climate crisis. Without scientific input, we would have little knowledge of the likely outcome of ‘business as usual’ economic policies. Researchers based at Durham University and elsewhere have studied a past episode of melting ice sheets (Phys.org, 1/04/2021). This important work, grounded on the study of the geological records, has illuminated what might be just around the corner. If global temperatures exceed an increase of more than 1.5 degrees then the consequences could be grave.   

The research in question has shone a light on two things of major interest. Firstly, it has shown that sea levels can increase by 3.6 metres in a single century. Secondly, it has demonstrated that melting in the Northern Hemisphere was influential with regard to higher sea levels. When it comes to the rapidity of the sea rise, that should set alarm bells ringing. However, the recorded impact of the northern ice sheet is significant for those who have concerns for the future of British, European and American weather. The fact is that the potential disruption to ocean currents might well drive how global heating is experienced locally.

Of course, there is much more research to be done. The scientists would like to pin down the specific causes behind the melting of the ice in the past. Such information could potentially have implications for understanding the details of what is happening today.

It is apparent that scientists are better placed than politicians to predict the future. Climate models can deliver a variety of scenarios. Politics is not so open to measurement as the weather. Governments may be complex adaptive systems but they do not always adjust to their context in a rational manner. The best that we can hope for is a policy mix which has the backing of scientific evidence. It does seem that the UK has some way to go in strategy before it wins the approbation of most climate scientists.       

Will the protest work?

There are several forms of protest that can be seen in the postmodern UK. It is difficult to say which mode of activity is the most effective. The most recent demonstration of discontent was implemented by Extinction Rebellion. The pressure group protested about fossil fuels while painting the Bank of England black. It is hard to tell whether the move will have an impact on public opinion. Moreover, it is unclear if government policy is going to change because of the application of pressure.

Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel has made her opposition to Extinction Rebellion clear. Last year, Patel was quoted in the Guardian:

“The very criminals who disrupt our free society must be stopped. And together we must all stand firm against the guerrilla tactics of Extinction Rebellion.”  

However, the Conservative Party is not a homogeneous entity. Some members of the government do appear to have some green intentions. These individuals may not approve of the specific assault on the Bank of England, but they may welcome environmentalist activism in general if it makes the road to the COP26 summit easier.

When it comes to the direct impact on public opinion, it is likely to be small. People who sympathise with the green movement are likely to be supportive of the stunt while individuals who have other ideological affiliations may regard it as a foolish distraction.   

The best way of looking at this protest seems to be through the lens of the social tipping point. Extinction Rebellion has maintained its organisation to make another constructive protest. If it continues with its activism long enough then it can eat into the apathy of the public. A tipping point could be reached where a significant proportion of the governed begin to demand specific actions from the government.     

It is far too early to analyse the effectiveness of a bold protest. It should ensure that Extinction Rebellion gets some media coverage, but it is hard to predict what will happen next. Political science is not a conventional science and it cannot be used to discern the precise shape of the future.    

What if green growth is impossible?

A recent report for War On Want looks at what can be done in terms of greening the economic transition. The primary concern is that a dash to renewable energy may lead to an increased extraction of minerals which is neither green nor socially just. ‘A Just(ice) Transition is a Post-extractive Transition’ goes further than the expression of detailed anxiety about the future. It interrogates the concept of green growth and finds it unsustainable. The report implies that a steady state economy or degrowth must be used to generate a circular society.

The state of the world is such that radical thinking seems to be the only way forward. War On Want has flagged up a key fact that is worth a moment of reflection:

“As the International Resource Panel notes: “90% of biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by resource extraction and processing. These same activities contribute to about half of global greenhouse gas emissions.””

When one examines the triple emergency (climate crisis, biodiversity loss and pollution persistence), one tends to think about capitalism in terms of finance and extractive processes. For example, it is clear that a rush to electric cars might not be as green as one might think. This is not to criticise the potential of such vehicles but it is to question what they will be made from. Similarly, a shift to hydrogen may not work out if blue hydrogen is employed. Blue hydrogen depends on fossil fuel and has been seen as having the potential to increase carbon emissions. In contrast, green hydrogen is not tainted with an association with fossil fuel. It is technical details like these which could determine the success of international moves towards a more sustainable political economy.

Green growth is a chimera. A government can choose to pursue a green policy or it can opt to prioritise economic growth. It is understandable that politicians want to have it both ways. The trouble for policy-makers is that an examination of the facts reveals that the current economic system is unstable from a green perspective. This means there is a tendency to push concrete net zero emissions pledges into the long-term. Unless urgent green action is brought forward, the concept of green growth will continue to promote the wrong kind of policies.

Ideology can blind people to the consequences of their actions. We can believe our actions to do x, while they actually do y. For example, calling for a tax to be imposed on frequent flyers may seem to be a prudent green move. However, if affluent people are prepared to pay to fly more then it might prove to be ineffective in practice. Rationing flights may be a more radical way forward, although the change in flight taxation could be retained. The state of the planet necessitates an end to green growth and this paradigm shift cannot be postponed. Minor reforms are not going to reduce the collective impact that we impose on the environment.