Robin Mcalpine: Saving ourselves – harder than you think, better than you think

Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine says a future where we successfully tackle the climate emergency can also be one of healthier and happier citizens, but only if we are genuinely willing to embrace change

THERE’S only one step to go before Scotland can be said finally to be taking climate change seriously – we must get past accepting that something has to be done and start to accept what actually has to be done. Only then can we do it.

The bad news is that if you believe this might mean us tanking on as we are and someone else fixing things behind the scenes for us, you're going to be disappointed. We have to change how we live if our children are to prosper.

The good news is that if we pull this off our lives will be much better. We'll be happier and less stressed, face lower mental health risks and have more free time to spend with family, in our communities and at leisure.

Food will taste better, clothes will feel better, houses will be much cosier, transport will be faster and more efficient, products will last longer, work will pay more. Saving ourselves isn't just about survival, it's a recipe for humankind to thrive. And Scotland is wonderfully well placed to make very rapid progress towards this brighter future.

We just have that one barrier to break, the most difficult barrier. That's the one in our heads where we instinctively fear change and overstate the benefits of the status quo. 

READ MORE: Escalation: Where next for the climate action movement?

And until we do that, until we stop seeing the future as some kind of siege in which we nail the doors closed against change, politicians will keep feeding us what they think we want rather than what, between us, we need.

And overwhelmingly what the politicians think we want is the retail life, an economy geared to maximum (and constantly expanding) consumption. They almost all seem bought into the idea of growth, that more is better, that quality of life rises inexorably with purchases made.

So that's what underpins Scotland's economic strategy – more people buying more things equals more happiness (and those not in a position to consume because of poverty simply don't count). It's the unwillingness to challenge this dogma which stands between Scotland and a genuinely Green New Deal.

Because don't let yourself gain the impression that we're somehow ahead of the game on this in Scotland. Setting targets is easy, but our performance is far from world leading.

To take one example; yes, Scotland has an impressive track record on the amount of renewable energy it generates (because of our natural assets). But this masks the fact that in reality only 20 per cent of the energy we use in Scotland comes from renewable sources (only about five per cent of Scotland's heating is powered renewably).

READ MORE: Ian McCall: The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland and Climate Emergency

And while we generate a lot of clean energy, because we have only a very limited amount of large-scale energy storage we also have to burn a lot of gas (and uranium) to meet peak demand (while exporting surplus renewables to the UK at other times).

Why is this? It's because everyone seems wholly wedded to the privatised free-market version of an energy system, and the free market doesn't do things like invest in energy storage for the collective public good.

This is the first lesson; there is no free market solution. We need collectively planned, collectively funded investment in a new kind of collectively owned energy system. That's why Common Weal has published detailed plans for a National Energy Company and a Scottish Energy Development Agency.

So we need to pay, and the Thatcherite 'let the consumer pay' model won't work because the whole process needs to be coordinated and integrated and can't be achieved via a 'race to the bottom'.

And its not just energy. We need to take the collective planning approach to housing, to heating, to land, food and agriculture, to transport, to waste, recycling and re-use and more. Common Weal has explained in a number of policy papers how to do this, but at the moment the free market answer still dominates public policy.

And that's just the 'engineering', just the things that need a machine installed or a pipe fitted or a hole dug. The cultural shift away from hyperconsumerism will be much harder to achieve.

READ MORE: Richard Lane: The sanctity of growth is blocking our future

But that's the real problem at the heart of the wider problem. What we don't sufficiently accept is that 'stuff' has a price much bigger than we pay for it. Climate change isn't even the most immediate threat we face – soil degradation, collapse in pollinator colonies and the impact of plastic waste in the environment are just three examples of existential risks.

And it is worth noting that a wind turbine or two doesn't solve any of these. We simply consume too many material resources and so have managed land, water, minerals and agriculture in a way that is leading to their collapse. And of course we then throw a lot of it away unused.

Setting targets, announcing a climate emergency or posing for pictures will not do anything serious to make these changes happen. We need to restructure our economy and society.

For example, are we even aware of the extent to which our cities are largely designed to facilitate our consumption? Think (for example) of how easy it is to find a shopping mall and then think how easy it is to find say a swimming pool or an evening class in Spanish. The more we've made it easy to consume, the more we've made it hard to be active.

So if you're telling yourself that in a survivable future you'll still have a wardrobe stuffed full of cheap imported Chinese clothing that you'll wear half a dozen times and then throw out, you need to think again.

But this is a cause for celebration, not despair. Hyperconsumerism isn't a natural state for humans – to make us consume more than we need it takes advertising to make us feel insecure and our living spaces to be designed for shopping. Yes it drives footfall to the big retailers, but in large part because it makes us feel so bad about ourselves.

READ MORE: Government in an age of Climate Emergency: Is it time for carbon budgets?

Shopping less but shopping better does three things. First, it means that what we are buying is simply of a higher quality – clothes designed to last, food grown to taste good, better quality appliances that can be repaired and future-proofed.

Second it means that the constant 'status anxiety' (the fear others are judging us on how much we own) is greatly reduced. It would do wonders for our self esteem and sense of happiness.

And third it frees up our time and money to do things which are really, deeply rewarding and are not simply the short-term high of shopping for things we don't need.

We'd build bigger, warmer, nicer houses. We'd have town and city centres which were about meeting and sharing and being together (not the head-down, teeth-gritted shopping rampage we see just now). We'd invest more in activeness like going to arts and culture or engaging in learning or in hobbies, travel, social events.

READ MORE: From rhetoric to reality: How do we make a Scottish Green Deal happen?

And of course if we stop the hyperconsumerism and focussed not on cheap and low-skill but on good and high-skill, wages would rise and the number of hours we needed to work would decrease.

This I think is one of the two big battles we need to fight. To get out of this extinction spiral we're approaching we need to hold politicians to account and make clear that their warm words about their commitment to 'do something' means nothing until they put a meaningful plan in place.

And to get them there, we all need to accept that we can no longer afford to see the future as simply a bigger version of the present. We really need to change how we live.

But this is going to be so much easier to do if we sell its merits and not its perceived sacrifices (I mean, is cutting back on balloons, glitter and novelty socks really a sacrifice?). We need to sell the idea of a better life through rejecting hyperconsumption.

This is a positive vision of Scotland's future. Now is there a politician ready to get past the soundbites and photo-ops, to believe in that future – and to lead us there?

CS FORUM 30 May: Climate Emergency – how do we turn words into actions?