Thursday, September 17, 2009
Review: "The Constant Economy - how to create a stable society" by Zac Goldsmith.
“Vote blue to go green”, or so David Cameron advised after his photo-opportunity in the Arctic two years ago. Bur can we really believe that the party of big business, of private enterprise and of deregulation has suddenly become the party of the environment? Could you really see a Tory administration introducing carbon taxes, restricting car use, curbing cheap holiday flights, introducing combined heat and power schemes, backing anti-supermarket campaigns? Zac Goldsmith can.
The multimillionaire former editor of the Ecologist magazine and current Tory candidate for East Park seems to believe in green fairies at the bottom of the Tory garden. His “Blueprint for a Green Economy” produced for David Cameron's policy review two years ago has, he claims,largely been adopted as Conservative policy on the environment. Now Zacharias has followed it up with “The Constant Economy”, a personal manifesto from a politician who clearly regards himself as future cabinet material, even before has won a seat.
Now, in some areas it is not too difficult to see Conservatives and the green movement striking accords. On opposing building estates in the south east of England, for example, or preserving the integrity of wild land, or opposing poorly located wind farms. The Tories are, after all, conservative. However, there so many areas of conflict – most obviously the need for increased state regulation and limits to economic growth – that it's hard to imagine a coherent Conservative environmental manifesto. But Goldsmith is convinced we can do without the state by allowing market mechanisms to engender changes in behaviour by use of the 'hidden hand'.
He accepts that cap and trade – the method of limiting carbon emissions by giving co2 quotas to firms and then letting them trade amongst themselves – was a failure, but he believes the system can be made to work provided companies have to bid for carbon credits in an auction. Goldsmith insists that saving the planet is compatible with low personal and corporate taxation. “There need be no need for net tax increases to pay for our indulgence in things green”, he argues Income tax, he believes, is fundamentally unsound since like the rest of the tax structure it promotes “indiscriminate economic growth” Once things like scarcity of resources and damage to the environment are priced into markets, the laws of supply and demand will do their work. “It means using taxes to protect natural capital, like forests and fisheries, so that we can continue enjoying the interest”.
Well it's a nice idea, and in an ideal world there would not need to be lots of regulations imposed by government. Indeed, Goldsmith claims that his environmental revolution would mean ditching lots of Labour regulations on housing and replacing them with building standards. I'm not entirely sure I understand the difference, since if you have standards for, say, greater efficiency this would surely have to be regulated by some government body. Goldsmith is deeply suspicious of GM crops and nanotechnology, but again it is not entirely clear to me how these could be regulated without – er – regulation.
He says that “We need to move to a position where new products are assumed to be guilty before they are proved innocent”. I agree that the precautionary principle is important, but this surely would involve greater regulation of pharmaceutical or agrichemical companies taking new drugs and seeds to the market. But perhaps I am missing the point here. Goldsmith is rejecting the target culture of new Labour, where detailed policy objectives are laid out in rather meaningless five year plans. Hebelieves that micromanagement can better be done by market forces.
Zac is certainly on the side of the angels, if not away with the fairies, and there is an infectious enthusiasm about his 'can do' conservative conservationism. He is surely right that most of the tools for dealing with the environmental crisis are already to hand: insulation, renewable energy, public transport, zero-emission housing, combined heat and power. He's also right to insist that the market ieconomy s not going to go away and that the idea of living in low-tech subsistence communes is never going to win votes. The problem with much green rhetoric is that it expresses an anti-technology philosophy which seems to regard civilisation itself as suspect.
We all know what needs to be done. The real problem is not a lack of solutions, but public apathy, indeed outright resistance to going green. People don't like being preached at. Even I have acquired a curious resistance to pious appeals to save the planet by not using plastic bags or whatever, and I'm hardly Jeremy Clarkson. In a society of curmudgeons we are going to need bright, attractive and above all optimistic people like Zac Goldsmith if the planet has any kind of future. Pity he's a Tory though.