Green politics and lifestyle change

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 22 May, 2019 - 9:07 Author: Mike Zubrowski
A person riding a bike

The Committee on Climate Change report, which I wrote about in Solidarity 506, tags 53% of the carbonemissions reductions as “requiring some change from consumers”. What are the changes in individual lifestyle which may be needed to get rapid cuts in carbon emissions?

The CCC’s 53% includes, for example, “purchasing an electric car or installing a heat pump.” Such changes are not genuinely lifestyle changes, they simply involve introducing new technology to perform equivalent tasks, leaving daily habits unchanged. Such transitions should not be left to individuals either to be coerced by managed “market pressures”, or to voluntaristically undertake their own transition.

Climate change warrants a social response: publicly funded, centrally co-ordinated systematic programmes to bring about such changes. Serious investment to improve low-cost or free public transport, and to support walking and cycling, would be best. This would be greener, and the lifestyle changes encouraged – more exercise – would be an improvement. Other changes, such as slightly lower thermostat settings on heating, would have little impact on quality of life.

The two more significant direct behavioural changes required are reductions in meat consumption and flying. Reductions in flying are called for because carbon emissions from aviation are growing fast: the number of flights is increasing much more than fuel economy. Reductions in meat consumption, because meat and other animal products account for 58% of global food-industries carbon emissions for only a fifth of the calories we consume.

I would like to see more individuals going vegan or vegetarian. But eating habits can be changed more effectively at the level of the whole food industry. Moralistic emphasis on the causal chain in the reverse direction, from individual diet choices to the food industries, is ineffective. What people eat, and in what quantities, mainly reflects availability, pricing, and marketing. When varied and good quality vegan diets are made cheaper, less time intensive, and more available than their alternatives, then changes in people’s habits can follow.

Workers’ control of the production and distribution of food can best bring the changes in food industries. We should challenge simplistic opposition to genetic modification, which comes in part from sections of the left. In fact, eating less meat is healthier for individuals, and social reductions in consumption have an additional major benefit. Additionally, current levels of production involve, and largely require, horrific subjugation and abuse of, and unthinkable suffering by, literally billions of animals each year. On CCC’s modelling, aviation will remain the top source of emissions for decades to come.

More efficient and lower-carbon fuels, and biofuels, can limit this slightly, but no major green technological changes are on the horizon. Public funding of high-speed low-cost rail could significantly undercut the growth of flights, but not entirely. Modern telecommunications could make many “business flights” redundant, but as yet such flights continue to increase. Some on the left see things being “local” as good in themselves, or are against any kind of globalisation. As internationalists, we see increased global integration, facilitated partly by faster travel, as a progressive, and not counterposed to being familiar with your more immediate local surroundings. The need to reduce flying comes at a cost.

The cost of not reducing, however, is greater. Policy passed in Workers’ Liberty’s 2008 conference said the following: “Our general policy is for direct progressive taxation, summed up by the slogan: ‘Tax the rich’.

“Indirect taxation is almost always regressive (anti-egalitarian – because poorer people pay more as a proportion of their income) and elitist (entrenching certain forms of consumption as the exclusive preserve of the rich).

“We don’t rule out the use of indirect taxes on particularly polluting activities and products but we should only promote them where alternative policies (regulatory and infrastructural measures and subsidies for greener alternatives) are not practical and where the likely effect is a change towards less polluting consumption patterns rather than simply raising the cost of living for working class people or preventing working-class access to travel, leisure, culture etc. We do not see indirect taxation as an instinctive first response to carbon pollution.

“Almost half of journeys by air in Europe are now less than 500km. For many such relatively short journeys, air travel is now much cheaper than rail, despite being ten times as polluting. That is in part due to the low rate of taxation on air travel. There is no tax on aviation fuel, and it costs about $800 per metric tonne, as against about $3000 for petrol in the UK or $1000 in the USA, and $400 for bunker (shipping) fuel.

“We demand policies that would have the effect of replacing short-hop air travel with rail and coach travel. Primarily, this means improving and expanding rail and coach networks and regulation limiting air travel, including bans on flights if less-polluting, viable, alternative transport is available. Taxes on short-hop flights could be part of such a policy and we don’t necessarily oppose them, but we shouldn’t make them our priority demand…

“Our attitude towards rationing is basically the same as towards taxation: acceptable only where there is no better alternative but not the basis for a general strategy to resolve global warming. Rationing is more equitable than regressive taxation, though the rich will usually have access to a grey market. It is in addition highly bureaucratic. We are opposed to individual carbon rationing, which would be unworkably complex.”

These basic principles remain correct and we have opposed expansion of Heathrow’s third runway. Rectifying the absurdity of flights generally being cheaper than trains, even for short distances, would help reduce air travel. Currently, it can even often be cheaper to holiday in a country several hours flight away, where everything costs less, than elsewhere in the country or a neighbouring country.

Environmentalists sometimes dismiss life-quality impact of transitions as secondary in the face of the impending climate crisis. Yet to bring about the transitions democratically requires tackling these issues head on, not hoping to impose a more austere existence on humanity.

Marx wrote that “development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of Communism], because without it want is generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.” Socialism requires a society able to deliver a sufficient quality of life to its members to undercut this struggle for necessities, and to empower them to seriously participate in its democratic functioning.

The degeneration of the isolated and attacked Russian revolution, building on an underdeveloped economy, provides a stark vindication of this concern. The brutal exploitative class society that developed within Stalinist Russia was at least as environmentally destructive as its western capitalist counterparts. Luckily, we do not face such a catch-22. A high quality of life is fully compatible with environmentalism.

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