We are living, apparently, in a post-factual age – where a referendum can be won on the basis of myths, lies and soundbites, and in which there is no place for experts. Our carefully curated Facebook feeds, driven by algorithm and assumption, create the echo-chamber in which we receive the constant positive reinforcement of our opinions. The BBC, hamstrung by its need to remain impartial at all times, can actually end up lending validity to the crack-pot ideas demanding equal airtime. Politics has become farcical, the fictions created in the social media bubble are reported as bring truths, and all the while our government offers us endlessly limp nautical metaphors about the need to “steady the ship”. Yes, we’re all likely to become poorer as a result of Brexit, and yes, our leading universities are already beginning to feel the effects of being NFI’d when it comes to EU funding. But the right-wing enclave of the Conservatives will no doubt be congratulating themselves on maintaining the neo-liberal status quo through Theresa May, and will ultimately get the split from Europe they’ve been squabbling over for generations.
Meanwhile, and despite the apparently imminent implosion of the Labour party, the left is organising. The Greens are assembling a petition calling on the Labour Party, SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Liberal Democrats to form an alliance with them – with a view to blocking the Tories, rather than one another, when it comes to election season. Apart from the UKIPpers sculling around on the extreme edges, the Conservative party essentially has a monopoly on being right-wing. There are, however, myriad ways of being a liberal, with the result that centrists and leftists inevitably spread their votes too thinly across too many parties – fatal in a first past a post electoral system like ours. For the first time, it looks as though there may be a move towards collaboration.
I’m giving this as context, really: because it’s in the priorities of that embryonic Progressive Alliance that I hear echoes of the things explained so clearly in Is the Planet Full?
For the past eighteen months I’ve been swimming around in books about climate change; environmentalism; and sustainability. It was all triggered by Naomi Klein, of course. The books I’ve been reading aren’t “extreme” – although Michael Gove may disagree, given that they are written by experts – but translating any of the ideas from those works into a political arena is somehow seen as being an eccentric thing to do. It is accepted as fact that climate change is a critical threat, and that we need to amend our ways if we have any hope of preventing the most catastrophic levels of change. Articulating how to achieve that adaptation, though, and trying to implement it through a political manifesto is a very difficult prospect.
I don’t want to suggest that my enjoyment of this book relied too much on my post-referendum political obsession… However, I do think the timely idea of a Progressive Alliance gives this collection of essays a particularly interesting context. The premise of the volume is that a group of academics specialising in a range of disciplines are asked to answer the same question:“Is the Planet Full?” Each contributor focuses on a different ranges of priorities and perspectives – from sustainable food production to welfare economics – and in each case, the response is offered in an accessible and hugely engaging way. This is just as readable as “Feral” by George Monbiot, for example, or “Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, and certainly focused my mind.
I’ll admit, for example, that I’ve been guilty of twitching in self-righteous horror at the idea of British parents choosing to have huge families when our global commons are already under such immense pressure. And I don’t think it’s wrong to have a sense of self-awareness about a growing population, or to moderate your decisions accordingly. What these essays demonstrate, though, is that this really isn’t just a question of numbers. Yes we’re still growing at an alarming rate, but the global population will inevitably stabilise and even decline as the developing world becomes developed, and as more women are educated and given choices regarding their fertility. The problem is not really one of numbers – it’s one of consumption. Because it’s not the growing populations in the developing world which are putting our shared resources under such pressure – it’s the consumerist, extractivist mentality of the already developed world. As Goldin puts it in his introduction, “Is it just and fair that the 19.5 million residents of New York State consume as much energy as the 800 million residents of sub-Saharan Africa?”
As I say, this book definitely isn’t a political manifesto – it’s an exploration of the ways we need to think about our global population if we want to stay within the planet’s carrying capacity. In an immensely readable way, it identifies the fact that “major accommodations” will need to be made to find a way to share our resources more equitably, and to change the lifestyles which are driving global consumption, if we are to have any hope of living sustainably. When sentiments like that are offered by politicians, of course – say, by the UK Green party – it’s still seen as being hugely radical. The redistribution of wealth, reduction in meat consumption and divestment from fossil fuel are seen as being properly leftie issues. When academic volumes like this are sounding exactly the same warnings, however, then surely the radical decision is to ignore what they experts are saying, rely on the post-factual status quo, and keep on flogging neo-liberalism to an ever-burgeoning middle class.
If Brexit genuinely kick-starts a Progressive Alliance with these questions at the top of its agenda, then maybe this grizzly referendum won’t have been for nothing. In the meantime, this is a really fascinating read.