James Murray wonders if the polarised response to the English riots could spell bad news for the green agenda
There is no clear green angle on the English riots. It was just about possible to detect some green implications from the phone hacking scandal, given hopes it could lead to improved media standards and less misreporting of climate change and environmental issues. Equally, there was an obvious green angle on the banking crisis in the form of parallels between poor financial and environmental risk management and the inevitable impact of ongoing economic turmoil on low carbon investment. At a push you could even argue that the MPs' expenses scandal highlighted a corrupt and venal political class that is more concerned with feathering its own nest than tackling the existential environmental crises we face.
But there is no immediately obvious green interpretation to apply to the eruption of rioting and looting that has scarred our cities in the past week. I'm sure there are some history scholars out there who could draw connections between global resource depletion, unsustainable consumerism, over-population, rising food and raw material prices and the social unrest we have seen, but at best these issues add little to all the analysis currently underway.
Equally, the Green Party and other left-leaning councillors could probably argue that with study after study showing that greener urban spaces help promote health and well-being, the failure to create more sustainable neighbourhoods has made a small contribution to the deprivation and alienation that resulted in hundreds of young people burning their own communities to the ground.
But attempting to interpret the riots through a green lens is ultimately a pretty fruitless exercise. Although the contributing factors are undoubtedly complex and interrelated, it is obvious that regardless of your position on the political spectrum, the unprecedented outbreak of criminality has far more to do with a combination of gangs, family breakdown, a pervasive consumer culture, poor police-community relations, underlying racism, youth unemployment, social and economic alienation, and a collapse in moral standards, than it does any green issues.
But if there is no green angle to apply to the analysis of the causes of the riots, there could be huge implications for the UK's burgeoning green economy in the fallout that will result from the unrest.
The riots are just the latest in a series of scandals and crises that have contributed to a period of polarisation that has left the UK's political elite and media commentariat looking more and more like their US counterparts. True, we have not yet descended to the level of vitriolic personal attacks and fractious culture wars that have defined US politics for the past two decades. Nor are we lumbered with a political system that makes it all but impossible for governments to govern. But in our responses to the interrelated scandals of the banking crisis, MPs' expenses, phone hacking and now the riots, we have seen political leaders rush to apply grotesquely simplistic competing Left-Right interpretations of the various crises, before then rushing to use the scandals as cover for rushing through either Thatcherite or progressive policies that they wanted to pursue anyway, but conspicuously lacked a mandate for.
So the right insists that the root of the economic crisis lies less in banker's bonuses and lax regulation, and more in an unsustainable deficit, thus allowing it to drive through a long-desired roll-back of the state, while largely ignoring calls for much tougher financial regulations. Meanwhile, the Left blames an under-regulated financial system and widening inequality for the economic crisis, urging policymakers to adopt a Keynesian route to recovery that they can use to justify higher taxes and the continuation of social programmes.
Similarly, the MPs' expenses and phone hacking scandals are explained by the right as evidence of a sad decline in ethical standards or by the left as the inevitable result of the creation of a self-perpetuating elite that prospers through nepotism and closed networks.
The riots look set to push this polarisation to a new nadir. While politicians of all stripes have paid lip service to the need to understand the multiple causes of the conflagration, they have quickly retreated to their ideological comfort zones.
As such, the Tories have lurched rightwards, blaming the riots on deteriorating moral values and family breakdown, before promising "fight-backs" and "crackdowns" that appear to centre on increasingly robust policing and sentencing. Meanwhile, Labour has been careful not to veer too far to the left for fear of being accused of being "soft" on the rioters and looters, but has still responded with a clear effort to place the uprising in a socio-economic context where the outbreaks of violence are an inevitable result of deprivation, inequality and resulting youth alienation. The Lib Dems, again reverting to type, have tried to stake out a position somewhere in the middle with limited success. You can now expect to hear much more along these polarised lines throughout the party conference season.
Media commentators, unconcerned by such issues as political responsibility and electability, have rushed to occupy even more extreme positions. With right-wingers blaming liberal policies and parenting for the crisis, and left-wingers lambasting spending cuts and institutionalised racism (interestingly the link between irresponsibility and immorality in boardrooms and on the streets is so obvious that even unimpeachable conservative voices such as The Telegraph's Peter Oborne have been widely praised by those at the other end of the political spectrum for arguing that inequality of opportunity and a decline in corporate and political standards contributed to the violence).
This polarisation could have two major impacts on green issues: one short-term and practical, the other long-term and political.
The first concern is that the riots and their fallout will eat up all the political oxygen for months, if not years to come. A party conference season that should have seen at least some debate on the grave threat posed by climate change and the huge opportunity presented by the low carbon economy will now be dominated by much hand-wringing and political jostling over "the state of modern Britain".
Politicians may insist they are good at multi-tasking but, as the economic crisis has shown, they are rarely adept at dealing with more than one or two big issues at a time. Good luck to Chris Huhne and his colleagues at DECC as they seek to get important announcements about electricity market reforms and other flagship green policies into the headlines this autumn. Equally, good luck to shadow energy and climate change secretary Meg Hillier as she attempts to continue with Labour's efforts to develop a centre-left package of green policies at the same time as keeping on top of a day-job as MP for Hackney, one of the areas worst affected by looting and disorder. Even the Green Party is now likely to spend more time at its upcoming conference debating socio-economic issues than it is environmental policies.
Moreover, what price David Cameron jetting into a Durban Climate Change Summit that many observers regard as the last best chance of delivering an international agreement for tackling emissions, when every time he leaves the country he has to rush back to respond to the next domestic crisis?
More concerning still is the extent to which a hardening of Left-Right divisions will make it ever harder to maintain the political consensus on the urgent need to tackle climate change and develop a green economy that has proven so crucial to the development of successful low carbon policies.
It remains noticeable that neither David Cameron nor George Osborne have yet given a serious speech on the environment since taking office, a scenario that is now even less likely to change. Despite brave efforts from the likes of Greg Barker, Oliver Letwin, Tim Yeo, Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron himself, there remains a sizeable rump of the Conservative Party that sees environmental issues as tree-hugging lefty nonsense. The riots have undoubtedly emboldened those Conservative backbenchers who are at best indifferent to environmental issues and at worst openly hostile to green policies. Significantly, they are supported by a similarly emboldened right-wing media that has in recent months cranked up its opposition to environmental initiatives, most notably through the Daily Mail's increasingly overt climate scepticism and repeated attacks on green energy policies.
It has been noted before that the staggeringly narrow pool from which MPs are now selected means that new-intake MPs of all political shades are more extreme in their views and more ideologically driven – a scenario that is bad news for climate change and environmental issues which, as painful experiences in the US and Australia have shown, can become quickly politicised.
It is easy to envisage the riots acting as a tipping point that simultaneously pushes green issues down the political agenda and makes them more politicised. Just as it is easy to envisage the political response to the riots either securing the next election for an increasingly reactionary Conservative Party, or (less likely) providing a platform for a Labour recovery based on the accusation the coalition has done untold harm to the country's social fabric and economic prospects.
What are the implications of this analysis for the UK's burgeoning green business sector – a sector which, according to recent government figures, defied the downturn to grow 4.3 per cent in 2009/10 and is now worth £4.8bn a year?
As with all debates on environmental policy, the fallout from the riots means little for green businesses in the long-term, but could prove extremely frustrating in the short to medium-term.
As we've argued time and again at BusinessGreen, the risks posed by climate change and resource depletion, coupled with the opportunities presented by emerging clean technologies that are superior to the dirty technologies they replace, mean that many green investments can be justified regardless of the policy environment. Companies such as General Electric with its Ecomagination initiative, IBM with its Smart Planet drive, and Walmart with its greener supply chain push, are pursuing low carbon investments across countless different jurisdictions with hugely differing degrees of green policy maturity because they understand that when you take a long-term macro-economic view, there is no rational alternative to developing more resilient and more sustainable green business models.
However, in the shorter to medium-term, anything that pushes green issues down the political agenda or makes green policies fractionally harder to enact can undermine low carbon investor confidence and, as such, damage the prospects of green businesses. Consequently, the riots are not just a grievous blow to British self-confidence and a tragic indictment of our long-term failure to address deep-seated socio-economic failings – they could also represent yet another barrier to the development of a greener economy. An economy, which through the delivery of enhanced stability, greater sustainability, increased employment and improved living standards, would help make the kind of devastating riots we have seen in recent weeks a thing of the past.
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