Environmental Sustainability: The Debate

Alicia Siddons

By Alicia Siddons

Note from the Editor

Who are Warwick Blackout? If you find yourself asking that question, scroll on down to the end of this article, and watch our introductory interview with Blackout’s co-coordinators for this academic year!

If you missed the spirited political debate on environmental sustainability, organised by Warwick Blackout on the 1st of February, you are in luck. The recordings are available on Warwick Blackout’s Facebook page (and in 15 minute chunks so you can just about squeeze them into your busy day). Five representatives from Warwick Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Conservatives and Marxist societies met to battle out the following question: “How should we, if at all, go about in bringing an environmentally sustainable future?”

The question doesn’t seem to be asked often enough. Politicians struggle to keep pace with those hungry, colossal forces that currently sweep across the globe. They sign treaties and bargain with trade as though traversing the distance between, say, the United Kingdom and China leaves the most miniscule carbon footprint. Surely, any concern for the future of humankind ought to trump short-term economic interests. Yet, politicians appear far more comfortable signing trade deals and treaties (or, indeed, withdraw from them), than they are at responsible and effective governance. Corruption, austerity, self-interest and denial – these certainly dictate political discourse and detract from environmental issues. But perhaps the more significant impediments to environmental sustainability have more to do with the over-arching political system: the methods of campaign and protest, the artificiality of political language and the (seemingly) inherent antagonism between parties.

The debate here at Warwick on Thursday went some way to illuminating why environmental sustainability, even when discussed by the most committed, passionate and candid panellists, nevertheless emerges as a political hot potato, muddied and soiled in the quagmire of policies. Two key contentions shaped the debate: the role of capitalism in environmental sustainability and how governments should tackle the difficulties that lie ahead. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were confident that working with current market systems is the way forward. Labour, while acknowledging capitalism’s role in environmental degradation and pollution, nevertheless committed itself to retaining it, stressing instead the need for strict regulation and strong top-down action by the government. The Marxist party, unsurprisingly, claimed that the capitalist system is at odds with environmental protection. The Greens, meanwhile, recognised the party’s dependency on getting elected within the current system, and suggested, vaguely, that somehow capitalism needs to be transformed.

While the economy is no doubt vital to any discussion on environmental sustainability, many of the solutions and policies advocated by the panellists were nevertheless so frustratingly concerned with money, that the debate lost sight of the larger picture. The Liberal Democrats’ proposal to tax those who pollute and the Tories’ insistence that subsidies help make renewable energies more profitable reiterated a widely-held belief that throwing money at the problem is the best solution. The Marxist party pointed out that taxation is unfair to the working classes – already financially burdened – and that subsidies will contribute little towards a sustainable future if wealthy countries continue to outsource labour. Yet the distribution of money, whether in a capitalist or indeed Marxist economy, makes little difference, if the means of generating wealth is fundamentally unsustainable. More damage is done making money than can ever be mitigated through taxes and subsidies.

It struck me how quickly the debate on environmental sustainability came to concentrate on energy production and carbon emissions. Both these concerns regurgitate standard political discourse: they are easy to quantify, they sit comfortably in party policy and energies, of course, fuel the economy. Yet there is so much more that needs to be considered: how is any government to tackle global population? To ration or even ban plastic consumption? To dictate what pesticides, we spray in our gardens? What coffee we drink? What meat we eat? What bleach we pour down our sinks? Down our toilets? Could the current political climate even allow for such invasion of privacy? And, leaving aside the difficult logistics of the matter, should we really want governments to take such drastic measures?

Warwick Labour, in particular, was adamant that radical, top-down regulation be put in place. But perhaps we need to be even more radical in our considerations. If we are unsettled by such a dystopian prospect, if we should resist authorities invading the confines of our households, then – in the absence of other solutions – should we not at least question the value of the households themselves? Is ownership of property, of land, sectioned off and separated from outside ‘nature’ not – in some ways – unnatural? What other social constructs are we accustomed to? How do they fit within the wider picture of environmental sustainability?

It is time we all put our minds to the task. It isn’t enough to turn to politicians and policy-makers to solve the issues. It isn’t enough to rely on scientific knowledge alone either. Politics may provide institutionalized governance, but, in the absence of empowering leadership, we need to emerge as leaders in our own right. Whatever our field of study or line of work, we can all apply ourselves to the search for an environmentally sustainable future. Institutions, and indeed the entire global-system, is beginning to crumble. There, in the cracks, lie moments of opportunity.

The heart of the planet feverishly pounds beneath the sickly sweat, the puffing toil, the rising gorge. It is time this sound transforms. Our goals and our futures may be conjoined. But we each have our own battle cry. What is yours?

Video edited by Ellie Church

Header image: Warwick Blackout

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