HK: 2008 began with our Prime Minister’s omen: the year was going to be a ‘demanding’ one, economically speaking, and already we’re beginning to feel it, the woozy share indexes, the credit crunches. Do you feel that with the pessimism and unease it entails, an economic downturn will threaten otherwise growing concerns for ethically-minded and ‘green’ living?
GM: I think it could do the opposite. I have come to see economic growth as a political sedative, which snuffs out protest and permits governments to avoid confronting the rich. There was a lot more environmental protest during the last recession in the early 1990s. Aside from its effects on people’s attitudes, economic growth is the primary engine of environmental destruction. It’s notable that the upsurge in green awareness has not been matched by any reduction in consumption. Quite the opposite: manufacturers have now found new markets, selling us a range of eco-junk on top of the other stuff we buy.
Costa Rica is planning on becoming the first ‘carbon neutral’ nation through a combination of laws, incentives, clean energy, biofuels and ‘voluntary tax’ on industry. Considering these measures, how convincing do you find their plan? Is there anything their country can teach Britain regarding such policy, or do the logistical differences between the two nullify any lessons that might be learnt?
I haven’t studied Costa Rica’s plans, but I’ve learnt to be wary of claims of “carbon neutrality” (as opposed to decarbonisation). The questions I would ask the Costa Rican government would include these: are you using carbon offsets to help reach your targets? If so, does this mean that the countries in which you buy them will be less able to make domestic reductions of their own? What does your voluntary tax entail? What is to stop companies which don’t pay it from outcompeting those which do? Have you conducted a full life-cycle analysis of the biofuels which will be used there?
Tropical countries have certain advantages over temperate ones in cutting emissions: a greater potential for solar power, and better matching of peak power output with peak demand; less need for heating, and the faster growth of trees and other crops.
The government has recently announced a new generation of nuclear power plants. You have written extensively on your doubts about the efficacy of nuclear power either in filling the energy deficit or cutting overall omissions. However, many writers and scientists from John Gray to James Lovelock warn that the time for nuclear niceties may be fading fast. Do you feel that a situation could ever abound where nuclear power might become an appealing option?
I am prepared to believe that, in theory, the problem of long-term disposal of nuclear wastes can be solved. I am also persuaded that building new nuclear power stations would take no longer than building the huge arrays of renewables and the new grid connections required to decarbonise our electricity supplies. But for me there is a major sticking point. Every state which has sought to develop a nuclear weapons programme over the past 30 years – Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran – has done so by diverting materials from civil nuclear programmes. The more nuclear material the world contains, the more weapons it is likely to develop, and the more widespread they will become. If, like me, you support the idea of multilateral nuclear disarmament, it is hard to support the expansion of nuclear power.
The Scottish novelist and socialist Alasdair Gray wrote that “it is plain that the vaster the social unit, the less possible is true democracy.” You are an advocate of a sort of globalized suffrage and a world parliament. How do you respond to criticisms that a democracy would only become more unwieldy and less effective the greater the number of people it was representing?
Of course this is true, but Alasdair and others like him allow the best to become the enemy of the good. Democracy at the global level will be less effective than democracy at the local level. But what is the alternative? At present we have plenty of global governance, but it takes place entirely untroubled by popular consent. The UN Security Council, IMF and World Bank are old-fashioned oligarchies with dictatorial powers. Do we leave them like this, or do we seek to make them respond to the demands and needs of the world’s people? It is essential that their powers are moderated by and in some cases replaced with much more democratic bodies.
You have suggested that one way for the developing world to force itself out of the developed world’s grip is to threaten a collective defaulting on debt and thus risk an international financial crisis. Knowing the markets would be opposed to such a crisis, the developing world could then make demands for a more equitable economic system. Are there indications that this idea would be effective, espcially in the current climate, and that such an idea is taking root, in terms of activism and policy?
It has certainly attracted some interest among developing world governments, but what they can say in public is limited. It requires a sense of solidarity among such governments of the kind that was present in the days of the G77, but is now lacking. The global financial system is much more vulnerable to a challenge than it was a couple of years ago. But the courage to mount it appears to be lacking.
Much is being said about the recent US primaries, especially regarding race and gender. Many believe this marks a turning point in American progressive politics. However, others feel that behind the rhetoric there is a general economic and geopolitical conservatism amongst nearly all candidates. Are there any candidates that you feel might still have a positive influence on the global issues of the future?
No. Real political debate in the United States has been replaced with narrow and sometimes solipsistic arguments about race, culture and sexual politics. The big questions about the big issues – such as inequality, public spending, corporate power and foreign and defence policy – are out of bounds. The candidates are gagged by the need to raise vast amounts of campaign finance from corporations and a corporate media which immolates them if they step over the line. I find it very hard to see why Americans get so excited about their elections: the choice always seems to be a dismal one. Even if the candidates stand for something at the beginning, by the time the primaries are over it has been knocked out of them.
Natural law theories claim certain behaviours are proper as they are part of human nature, and they often form the philosophical basis of conservative politics, telling us for example that free-market capitalism reflects humankind’s ‘natural’ acquisitiveness. The left’s response to this often comes from a post-modern perspective, denying human nature in the first place. But as someone with a background in zoology, how do you approach these biological justifications of political ideologies? Does science have a place in politics?
I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. Libertarian conservatives contend that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well-known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group and punished for selfish behaviour. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another). The libertarians extrapolate from this evolutionary experience to argue that we will help each other if left alone by governments.
But the modern economy is about as far removed as possible from the economy of the hominid troupe. If – as multinational capital does – you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. Those with agency in the global economy can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved. Without that regulation, we are rewarded for selfish behaviour and punished for altruism.
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This post was written by Haseeb Khokhar