Why I don’t object to a plastic bag tax?

Despite recent calls from  environmental groups for a plastic bag tax in England, the UK government’s reluctance to legislate for it is a sign of its dominance over us.

This application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle in this instance makes complete sense. As the user of single-use bags, the individual is also the producer of bag waste. So, as with household waste, the state has recognised the importance of changing behaviour. A number of local authorities (Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Halton Borough) have seen an increase in recycling rates as a result of reward-based incentive schemes run by Recyclebank and others (Bromley, Barnet, Islington) have had success by imposing fines on people who do not separate recyclables from waste. Similarly, when the Welsh Government introduced a 5p charge for single-use carrier bags in October 2011, a study carried out in conjunction with retailers revealed that bag usage fell by between 40-96%, depending on what was being bought. Furthermore, it claims that the fall was even greater than it was in England where some retailers do charge for single-use bags. These figures on their own seem to suggest that a single-use bag charge does have the desired effect of changing individual behaviour. After all, no-one likes to lose out, even if it is only 5p.

But negative and positive incentives (or law in general) do not change behaviour per se. Well, as Hegel would point out, it does and it does not. Of course, the rational consumer does not want to lose 5p. But, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued, there is no such as thing as a purely rational individuals – homo sapiens (human beings) are not the same as homo economicus. That is perhaps why, in their book Nudge, they distinguish incentives from the more relational nudges, which are tools that the content architect (or lawmaker) uses to change the content architecture or environment. Libertarian paternalism indicative of a father as traditional metaphor for the state,  raising the metaphorical child (household or individual). But in reality, according to Hegel, the relationship is more like a mother and father, where both the state and non-state actors are responsible for the protection of children, or future generations. (Indeed, when Hegel said that ‘the real is rational, and the rational is real’, he was indicating it is rational to be real or relational.) Therefore, a nudge can be viewed as a physical act of the state, which interacts with the body or environment individual to which the individual responds. If an incentive were purely a rational instrument, everyone would have responded to a single-use bag charge equally in all circumstances. But, in keeping with libertarian paternalism, the single-use bag charge does not take away a space for opposition.

I would argue that incentives, such as a plastic bag tax, are nudges precisely because they are changes to the environment to which the individual responds; that is, they are rational because they are relational. As a result, the plastic bag tax is not the only thing in the environment which would call for a response; whether an individual chooses to take a bag depends on the prioritisation of environmental factors (or nudges). The Welsh government’s data showed that bag usage depended on what was bought and where. The food service sector recorded a smaller reduction than retailers because the product is less likely to require bags. In other words, a nudge is about an ability to respond, or be responsible in a particular situation. But, the significant reduction in single-use bags – in some contexts, as much as 95% – suggests that there are or were situations when individuals were using single-use bags when they did not really need them. If this is the case, then using a plastic bag is more than just simple behaviour; it could be argued to be a habit or even an addiction, which we think we need even when we don’t and holding on to it can be damaging. In other words, we have a responsibility to the environment but we do not know we are able to respond to the environment. Even if we we can recognise our responsibility on an intellectual level, our ability to respond is based on how much the content architect allows us to respond.

The state, in this respect, is not only a metaphorical father and content architect but also a doctor specialising in addictions trying to make us better. The physicality of a nudge is like the swallowing of medicine. An incentive – whether positive or negative – is like a spoonful or sugar to help the medicine go down. The problem is that sugar is also addictive if we become accustomed to it. Government research into incentives for household recycling found that incentives only led to an increase in recycling up to an extent. The Greater London Assembly has cast doubts on the effectiveness of incentives in the long-term – we either get used to the loss or want more and more – and there is a lot of psychological research which supports this.  Making it more difficult to have something – and ultimately going cold turkey – is arguably just as effective at encouraging desired behaviour. According to House of Commons research, over 59% of local authorities have reduced residual waste collection, which has led to an increase in recycling, because households were forced by a changing environment to think about what to do with their waste. Similarly, when WH Smiths stopped handing out plastic bags automatically to customers, it saw a 12% fall in bags handed out; because customers had to ask, they had to think about whether they needed it. It was as if WH Smith and councils had been feeding an addiction before. Incentives are not necessary to change behaviour but it definitely speeds up the process. Anything that helps us come off a drug can only be a good thing but to stay off, the drug has to be removed. In that sense, the UK government’s reluctance to adopt a plastic bag tax is only enabling our addiction and keeping us weak. It denies us the opportunity to be grown up and responsible; it does not mean that we have to do always comply – not use a plastic bag – if it is not appropriate to situation.

Responsibility to defend my thesis

The Good Samaritan by George Frederic Watts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What does it mean to be responsible?
I found out this weekend that trying to explain/defend my thesis to a lay person is far more challenging than defending it to an academic. But I strongly recommend it.

My thesis is: “The purpose of law is just to remind people of their responsibility and not specifically to change their behaviour.”

When I stated this thesis to a couple of guys from church, practitioners in engineering and software development respectively, it led to the following paraphrased questions which, for whatever reason, I have not been asked in an academic setting.

(1) Surely law is suppose to change behaviour from undesirable to desirable otherwise what’s the point?

Yes, one of the consequences of law could be a change in behaviour. But I would argue that it is a question of causality. Behavioural change is a potential consequence of a law but that is only because the law has reminded the person of their responsibility. In other words, the influence of an external force such as law triggers something inside about  what someone should do. But, just because someone is being “told” what to do, it does not automatically follow that they will do it. There can be other factors, both internal and external, that can either make it easier or more difficult or more or less preferable to behave in a certain way. So, what one does is usually the result of an internal discussion. Of course, the longevity of the law points to its success at leading to changed behaviour but that is not the same as directly causing it.”

(2) So law is about making people feel guilty?

No, the idea of generating guilt stems from a misconception of responsability. The law reminds people of their ‘response’ ‘ability’, that is their ability to respond to the needs of others, the environment, etc.  In other words, one has responsibility to others to the extent that one is able to respond. So, in the hypothetical example that was posed to me, if I am standing on the bank of a river or lake and I see someone drowning, in principle I would have a responsibility to jump in and save them. But, of course, if I cannot swim, I cannot be held responsible for that. If a phone, I could be responsible for calling the emergency services (perhaps). But if the battery is down or there is no signal or I am out of money, I cannot be held responsible for that. And so on. the point is, I am only responsible to do whatever I can do in the circumstances of the time. This is a version of the Good Samaritan law (love your neighbour as yourself).”

My particular area of specialism is environmental law, in particular household recycling. If the authorities want me to behave in a certain way – be responsible by recycling – in a specific situation, then the onus is on them to make it easier for me to do so. Yes, they need to provide an appropriate number of receptacles which are emptied at an appropriate frequency. But does the physical environment in which I live make it more difficult for me to  recycle or put the bins out? What can I do to make it easier and what can they do? Am I able to buy enough products in recycled packaging and how do I know it can be recycled? This is  an extension of the political philosophy known as libertarian paternalism. But, the state’s role is not just about influencing behaviour or nudging  whilst enabling freedom of choice, it is about empowering the individual to be a responsible or moral being.

Do you understand what my PhD is really about?

That’s been the most difficult question I’ve had to deal with during the course of my PhD. Honestly, how do you explain something really complex to people who don’t know anything? Usually, I waffle on about recycling and incentives and through in something around relationships until they go away. But lately I’ve been trying to prepare for my transfer from MPhil/PhD to PhD and I just could not get my thesis abstract quite right. Eventually, my supervisor suggested to write an abstract as if for the layperson, like a blog post. And it worked. So, I am curious now, how comprehensible is my thesis abstract? Please let know what you think.

In my thesis, I argue that a post-humanist approach to environmental law can be developed from a reading of Hegel. Society is ultimately made up of networks of individuals-in-families. Hegel calls the force that hold society together (mutual) Recognition but Jessica Benjamin reads it as Love. The conservation of society comes from the self’s responsibility to (or ability to respond to the needs of) others who depend on the self in the present and the present generation’s responsibility to future generations. Through Catherine Malabou’s reading of Hegel, the family based on marriage and procreation represents a plastic future that is not just a distinct entity from the present but exists simultaneously and is continually transformed by and into the present. This is reflected through the expansion of human civilisation. This means that to be human is constantly changing over time to include whatever is in its environment. In other words, to be human is to be post-human – the human self is its environmental other. The totality of relations between individual humans and their environment is reflected in the relationship between society and the environment. If law is an expression of the self’s responsibility to the other, then all law is arguably environmental law.

Therefore, I argue that law can be nothing more than an aide-memoire of the responsibility and dependence of the self and other. This can be seen from analysis of EU and national waste legislation, local authority literature, government and NGO reports and journalistic articles. The government recognises the role of individuals-in-households and the importance of changing household behaviour to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. This corresponds with the Hegelian family as the basis for society. But there is a debate regarding the limit of the law. On the one hand, the household is the untamed environment of the state; on the other hand, it is protected from the legal environment. Local authorities have an array of different household waste and recycling policies, such as incentivisation, co-mingling and the frequency of collections. The evidence indicates that the more invasive the policy into the running of the household, the more the household is able to reduce waste, increasing recycling and also prevent waste. This demonstrates that when the legal environment is brought inside the household, it reminds the household not only of its responsibility to the state but also of society’s responsibility to the environment.

So, since all law is environmental law, the marginalisation of sections of society is akin to the landfilling of waste. Previously, the household could buy products and dispose of waste by sending it into the environment and forgetting about it. Similarly, sections of society (individuals-in-households) arguably make use of other individuals-in-households until they do not need them any more. This master/slave dialectic is reflected in various ways, including age, socioeconomy, race, physical ability, sex, etc. Hegel argues that this relationship is always one step before breakdown, so perpetuating the imbalance. But since the human is post-human, the relationship has a plasticity that indicates that wasted communities are recyclable. However, through law, their wasting can be prevented because recycling is Hegelian Recognition. I argue that this will result in a more equal society, with an aspiration of a zero waste society. In other words, social equality does not come from the creation of rights (alone) that require resources to enforce them but responsibility that requires a sense of agency or subjectivity.

Energy crisis: Make more, borrow or just cut back

I find that the debate about renewable and non-renewable energy quite simplistic. All of the proponents of either type of energy, or journalists, don’t really challenge any underlying assumptions about economic growth.

Those underlying assumptions are that our current energy consumption is sustainable.

The neo-liberal argument, as espoused by the Adam Smith Institute,  is that renewable sources, such as wind, solar and water, is not as reliable as fossil fuels and cannot generate nearly as much. In its report ‘Renewable Energy: Vision or Mirage?’, it said that the intermittency of renewable sources need large scale-back up back up generators and so, on their own, cannot provide all the secure energy we need.

Renewables UK, the lobby group for the renewables industry, criticises the report for not recognising that wind turbines already provide “more than 3,200,000 homes in the UK, displacing more than six and half million tones of carbon dioxide every year’. Furthermore, ‘wholesale gas prices have risen by 40% over the last year…depending on expensive imports of gas leaves us at the mercy of market forces we cannot control’. It is impossible to build a nuclear power complex quickly and dispose of radioactive waste cheaply. Renewables UK also claim that wind turbines generate energy 80-85% of the time.

Just like the debate about how to deal with the financial crisis revolves around how to get the economy growing, the debate about the energy crisis revolves around how we can maintain our current energy consumption levels. The Adam Smith Institute  and Renewables UK may disagree about renewable energy but they do both agree on one thing: if we adopt the opposite solution to what they propose, we won’t have enough energy and to make sure we have enough we have to pay more.

windfarm
Will renewable energy such as wind mean a cut in energy needs?

Personally, I prefer the renewable energy solution because we know that it is much cleaner. Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that the Adam Smith Institute are right about renewable energy. This raises an interesting question: if we cannot maintain our current energy needs on renewable energy, is the solution to find another way to make up the difference (borrow from other countries, use non-renewables sources, etc) or cut back.

Some economists have started arguing that we may have reached the end for economic growth. At the very least, it is bad for the environment and the health of societies. Indeed, if a neoliberal thinktank argues that renewable energy is not sufficient to meet our energy needs, then the logical next step is to reduce our energy requirements if we don’t want to continue degrading the environment. With less energy to fuel the economy, we can kiss goodbye to globalisation (hmmm, mixed feelings about that) and start producing and sourcing more locally and rebalancing from the economy from one that is mostly service-orientated to one where manufacturing plays a significant role. Of course, as systems get smaller, it becomes much easier to make them more environmentally friendly and deal with issues of income inequality, corruption and human rights.

But, wherever we stand in relation to the green movement, from tree huggers to sceptics, there is a certain discomfort too. I’ve also believed in protecting the environment, but I like tea and my cappuccino, especially from Starbucks. Are these good going to become more expensive or will we be able grow tea and coffee over here? We have come to rely on computers and mobile phones, but much of the manufacturing is done abroad. Will we be able to make as much and will they be any good? It seems that our lives are about to become a whole lot more inconvenient.

 

 

Reading the Riots: An Environmental Problem

Landfill
Clearing away the waste

The UK riots during the summer were the result of people who perpetually felt outside the law, according the research by The Guardian and London School of Economics and contrary to the government’s assertion that it was solely down to criminals.

One of the starker statistics of the newspaper’s ‘Reading the Riot’ series is that 85% of 270 people who took part in the riots attributed policing as a “significant cause”. Indeed, 75% said that they had been repeatedly stopped and searched but there was also a less tangible general anger towards the lack of respect shown by the police. In other words, for the vast majority of rioters  – and perhaps they represent an even larger silent group – law and the state were not about their protection but about their oppression and alienation.

If we take the riots as a series of crimes, then the first instinct is to condemn them. But, in his reading of Hegel, The end of human rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century, Costas Douzinas suggests that crime is in fact a cry for help by the offender. ‘The essence of crime is the criminal’s demand to be recognised and to be respected as a concrete and unique individual against the uniform coercion of the legal system.’ (p277). It is the failure to recognise people as beings who deserve respect and dignity that ultimately pushes them  into alienation and then to trangress the law. (I don’t want to say this true of all criminals but certainly this could be said for many of them.) Of course, a thief often steals to meet unfulfilled needs but the law has a tendency to force people to fit into a certain mould. Crime then becomes a way for the individual to have a voice. Given the link between identity and property, it is surely not surprising that many of the crimes were acquisitive in nature (even if they did verge on the bizarre in some cases).

This lack of recognition or respect by the law can be seen clearly in the way that stop and search powers are applied disproportionately to black people and how the whole ‘War on Terror’ discourse has targetted Muslims (and arguably people who look as if they are Muslim). But the Guardian/LSE research shows that race was just one of a number of contributing factors, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education. What they all shared was a general sense of alienation and of not being a ‘part of British society’.

What happened is that whole swathes of the population have been pushed out into the environment (so to speak) of British society. There are a core group of decision-makers and direct beneficiaries at the centre and everyone else around the edges. Perhaps the Occupy movement captures this thought best with the distinction between the 99% and the 1%. (I think it’s probably more than 1% who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but as a slogan it’s pretty catchy.)

It was interesting that phase 1 of the ‘Reading the Riots’ research was published in the same week as the end of the climate change conference in Durban. One could argue that when the riots happened, like climate change, the environment came back to bite society on the arse. And, like climate change, it wasn’t those in power who were the victims but other parts of the environment.

In the battle against climate change, recycling and renewable energy are seen as the solutions and creating waste the problem. Perhaps the problem that led up to the riots (and other forms of alienation) is that people are treated as waste and not valued as a ‘part of British Society’. When we throw things away, the state (in the form of the local authority) collects it and disposes of it at landfills or buries it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. The problem with waste is that it is never cut off from society. Pollutants will still get into the soil and the air and affect us. That’s why the law imposes an obligation on local authorities to provide recycling services. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps this is how the 1% sees the 99%: resources and waste of their money and power.

It was interesting that the David Cameron claimed he used his veto against the plan amend the Lisbon Treaty to solidify closer fiscal union in the Eurozone in the interests of Britain. What he considered British interests was in fact the interests of (not even the whole of) the Conservative Party and its backers and, more debatabely, the City. He even told Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarchozy that the EU and the ECJ do not belong to them, suggesting possible legal action. So, once again, the power elite in Britain sees law as a way to maintain the status quo. The irony, according to many commentators and politicians,  is that maybe Britain itself got pushed into the environment.

Protests, plastic bullets and plasticity

As I write, there is a possibility that we won’t get through today without London police using plastic bullets on students and protesters. But, of course, being someone pretty immersed in the works of Hegel and Catherine Malabou, I just had to give some thought to the plasticity of those bullets.

By way of a disclaimer, I would like state that I am wholly anti-weapons of any kind, particularly in the hands of people in authority and as instruments of fear, power and security. So plastic bullets and baton rounds are no more justifiable than guns and metal bullets. (When I tweeted on the subject of this post, I found myself in a hole.)

In Hegelian thought, plasticity is the character of the dialectic. Something is plastic if, on the one hand, it gives form (shapes) and, on the other hand, receives form (is shaped). But it also points to the contradiction between resistance and change. One the one hand, something is plastic if it can be moulded (receive form) but, having been moulded, it resists deformation.

Plastic bullets have obviously been shaped, that is unfolded from a universal concept of plastic into something determinant (bullet-shaped). But what is it that they shape? Their purpose, apparently, is to disperse crowds (i.e. protests), or at least, to influence their direction in which the crowd is going (i.e. away from the bullets, police and protected areas). But the protest is arguably more plastic than the bullet. It can be unfolded out of the universal crowd into a determinant group of people and, in response to environmental factors, it can change form, disperse and come together and still be a protest. Indeed, it is has been observed in previous protests that ordinary members of the universal crowd can get caught up in someway with the protest and police have not always been able to distinguish between the two.

But plastic bullets are plastic because their whole raison d’etre is that they resist deformation. Indeed, it is the basis for the fear of pain that they engender. Unfortunately, it is this apparent plasticity that also gives them the capacity to do more than just hurt, which is why there is a concern. They have been known to kill and maim.

There is also a certain plasticity in their function. When they are in the baton round, they are plastic bullets, at least potentially. After they are fired, they become actual bullets. But once they have either hit or missed their target, it is no longer a bullet. Its purpose loses form and dissolves into the universal detritus (waste). But their capacity to resist deformation means that they can be recovered by the police and reused by the bullets either at different protesters or at a different protest. So plastic bullets are, in a sense, reusable and recyclable.

I have to be honest, as a researcher in environmental law, it’s nice to see the police taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. But at what cost? Recycling in general is important for the environment and there is a certain plasticity to it – the continuous formation and deformation and formation. But just as recycling feeds into a culture of consumption, surely plastic bullets, despite claims of responsible use, will make it easier for the police to be more casual in their deployment, knowing that one plastic bullet can be used many more times than a metal bullet. How many times are the police looking to use it? It’s difficult to conceive of British authorities going the way of the Syrians but I don’t really want to finish the sentence.

 

Being 99% Vegetarian

One of the great things about Christianity is that no food or drink is forbidden by God, because he created it all for our sustenance and enjoyment. We can eat pork, beef, genetically-modified corn and products containing palm oil. However, this freedom that God has given us is to be used responsibly. After all, as anyone in the capitalist West knows, there is such a thing as too much freedom of choice.

So, I became 99% vegetarian six years ago this month. Writing out the last sentence, I’ve just realised how long that’s been. I was a voracious meat eater. My nickname at home was ‘Mr Mutton’. I didn’t hate vegetarian food; after all, coming from Hindu background, I was accustomed to having to refrain from meat on occasion. But, in my experience, vegetables, for the most part, just weren’t that tasty.

Then I interned for the Environmental Law Foundation, both to build up some legal experience and contribute to the protection of the environment, something that I have always been passionate about. For once, I was working with people who had even more passion than I did and I think one or two of the members of staff was vegetarian. I was also taking phone calls from people looking for legal redress for environmental problems and being exposed to a lot of environmental literature.

Clearly, it all rubbed off on me because one Saturday I woke up and decided that I should be vegetarian – somehow I had absorbed the idea that the meat industry, through the chopping down of forests for grazing land and the process in general, released a large amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. So, it looked like one massive boil on my ecological foot(print) that needed lancing.

After a lifetime of eating meat, I found it surprisingly easy to give it up (more or less). There was no gradual weaning off, I just went ‘cold turkey’ (pun intended), indeed a lot easier than other things I have tried to give up.  On the one hand, this was because I not only believed that it was the right thing to do but also that I could clearly rationalise it. But there was more to it than that. I loved meat and I do still miss it, especially when I smell it. The rational belief was enough to make me give it up but the existence of decent vegetarian alternatives – soya, quorn, tofu, mushroom – minimised the cost of doing so. Interestingly, I found that vegetables were tastier than I remembered. But again, coming from an Asian background, vegetable dishes were always an essential part of every meal. Even without the meat-free alternatives, being vegetarian  was not that much of a difference to my diet.

Unfortunately, being 100% Vegetarian isn’t possible. There are a number of times where I have found myself the only vegetarian among a group of people. In the context of a dinner party, it is perhaps not always convenient to cook especially for just one person. Even in Asian cooking, stock can be meat-based. And, of course, I don’t believe it is morally wrong to kill animals, just that we should eat less meat to protect the environment. So, for the sake of not causing too much inconvenience to others’, there have been times where I have been prepared to eat meat. A meat intake of zero offers a more room for maneuvre than a near-maximum meat intake.

Recycling: Information, not Incentives

PhD Graduates
Sometimes it feels like you need a PhD to recycle

For my PhD, I am looking at the impact of incentives on increasing recycling rates. So far, I have focused on Windsor and Maidenhead Borough council which launched the first incentivised household recycling scheme in the UK, operated by an American company Recyclebank.

Let’s cut to the chase. According to Windsor and Maidenhead’s own data, offering incentives – reward points to redeem at local businesses – for recycling does increase recycling rates. In a sense, this is not really surprising. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for doing the right thing? Particularly in the current economic situation, anything that helps with running a household can only be good thing.

And yes, the notion of incentives does recognise that we are not purely righteous beings, that we do have a selfish side. The problem with incentives is that it only focuses on our selfish nature, when the real barrier to recycling was that our righteous side is not being massaged enough.

According to the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), the problem with recycling rates is not that most people aren’t recycling but that most people aren’t recycling enough. Most of us are convinced of the argument for recycling, but we’re not provided with either the information or the environment that will help us to recycle, and so we resort back to what we know – the residual waste bin.

Today’s edition of Dispatches, the cleverly-titled ‘Britain’s Rubbish‘, provided examples of how information overload is leading to paralysis. There is no industry standard for recycling labels – seven were counted – and facilities for unusual types of plastic packaging may not always or easily be available. I know that my own local authority states that it cannot recycle Tetra Packs, even though the packaging themselves say that it can be recycled. And what about bottle tops? They don’t have any recycling labels, even though the bottle does. What do I do? Put it in the green bin anyway or throw it in the brown bin.

Another problem is food waste, where two-thirds of what we throw away is still edible. There are three different dates which appear on packaging – ‘Best Before’, ‘Sell by’ and ‘Use by’. The latter ‘Use by’ was found to be a conservative industry estimate, although this is understandable in light of health and safety – in fact, a lot of food is still OK to eat 10 days after this date. ‘Sell by’ dates, which has been the subject of recent government guidelines to phase it out, is more an indication to the supermarket as to when to reorder and restock.  And, of course, it is possible that consumers buy too much in the first place, under pressure from the array of special offers.

Without information clarity, it is not surprising that – even though we believe in the importance of recycling – we can find it a challenge to figure out quite which bin to put stuff in, especially if there are bins for different type of recyclable packaging. The residual waste bin is the devil we know. It has been argued that mixed recycling, where we throw recyclables into one bin, is convenient and the solution to contamination. The problem is that the sorting is carried out by machine and technology, which look for certain criteria, so things are always missed. Although self-reported recycling industry rates are 3-4%, the Environment Agency say that it is closer to 11%. While mixed recycling collections might help the government achieve the headline target of 50% by 2020, 15-20% of that may still end up back in landfill.

Mixed, or co-mingled, recycling may be convenient, but it means that councils are not able to profit from a proportion of what’s collected. In times of public sector cuts, they could do with all the money they can get. Household sorting or even kerbside sorting would actually be more beneficial for councils and their constituencies. But that can only work if the information provided is clear.

What I found particularly interesting from the Dispatches documentary is that mixed recycling collections could actually be illegal, because the EU’s own rules stipulates that separate collections should be carried out for different types of packaging. This is the subject of a Judicial Review claim at the moment.

Of course, the lack of information clarity can also become an excuse for laziness on the part of the consumer. In the documentary, when one woman with a fair number of kids, agreed to be deprived of her residual waste bin, she was forced to think about how she could reuse or recycle. In the space of three weeks, her residual waste went from 13 kg to just 5 kg. So perhaps the residual waste bin is like a security blanket. This raises a question about the government’s latest policy to provide a fund to help councils provide weekly collections.

Finally, in one scheme run by a charity, the residual waste was collected in a seethru bag, so that people couldn’t hide behind the lack of transparency of the black bag. In other words, concern about what others would think and peer pressure was a big motivator.

In encouraging incentivisation, the government is right to recognise that we are complex individuals who don’t always do what’s right. We are creatures of our environment. However, it fails to take into account that, despite our flaws, we still remain moral beings who want to do what’s right. We just need the right environment.

An alternative view of sustainable development

The problem with the UK’s proposed planning reforms is not the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The problem is the definition of sustainable development itself.

The draft National Planning Policy Framework uses the usual definition of sustainable development, that is, a balance between the needs of the society, environment and economy.

The problem with this definition is that it is based on the notion of the economy as an entity that is separate from society. If one is going to treat the economy as somehow separate, then one has to ask the question why sustainable development does not include the law, science, theology, etc as separate entities or systems.

It is indisputable that there is a dialectical relationship between society, i.e. human beings, and the environment. When society expresses or describes the nature of its relationship with the environment, it is recognising that the two are connected. That language of recognition is made up of different dialects.

Law is the expression of the relationship in terms of obligation, economics in terms of value (cost and benefit), science in terms of cause and effect and so on. In environmental law, this is demonstrated in the preventative, polluter pays and precautionary principles respectively. All dialects are part of this one language of recognition and, like American, Canadian and Geordie English, society speaks in all dialects depending on the context.

The point is that one dialect, while distinctive, cannot be separated from the rest. So, in the common definition of sustainable development, there is a preference being given to one particular dialect – economics. It’s a bit like giving priority to Queen’s English. A goal of sustainable development would therefore mean that society sees its relationship with the environment as primarily one of cost and benefit.

On the other hand, how can you achieve a balance between two entities and the method of communication? In other words, sustainable development as defined in this way is impossible.

A more realistic definition of sustainable development would be one that seeks balance between society and the environment through the economy, law, science, etc.

This post is a summary of a part of the first chapter of my PhD thesis

Literary treasures in Philosophy

Reading the work of philosophers that are over 200 years old (and dead) – in my case Hegel – is any amazing opportunity. There are so many things that are published nowadays – in print and online – so there is no shortage of contemporary writings and ideas. It is quite easy to think that anything written before, say, 2000 – with few exceptions – is out of date. When one enters the hallowed walls of academia to do a PhD (at least in the humanities), one finds access and encouragement to actually wallow in the ideas of people such as Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Plato and talk about with people who are similarly inclined. (In case you are wondering I didn’t experience this as an undergrad or Masters postgraduate, I studied mathematics/computing science and journalism respectively, the practice of which has very little need for philosophers.)

Of course, as many people who have tried reading Hegel will know, he is not the easiest person to get to grips with. But, in addition to the ideas contained within, it is amazing the use of specific words – such as ‘sublation’. This week, I have been trying to figure out Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, with a view to figuring out my theoretical framework for a PhD in environmental law. And, in the text, Hegel describes one of the characteristics of animals as “interrupted intussusception

I won’t go into the context of the word but I just had to look up the definition: “a medical condition in which a part of the intestine has vaginated-” WTF? Invaginated? Maybe, this just my (dirty) mind, but this sounds interesting. An invagination means “to fold inward or to sheath”.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

 

 

How do you solve a problem like global warming?

The prospects of global warming becoming irrevocable came a step closer this week with energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 being the highest on record, according to the International Environment Agency. But while we are all trying to figure out how to reduce emissions and trying new initiatives and special laws and financial instruments, I fear that the answer may be staring us in the face.

The IEA points out that the record high emissions comes after a drop in 2009, which has been attributed to global financial crisis. According to the Global Carbon Project, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 1.3%, which was attributed to the financial crisis. However, it was the developed nations that were predominantly affected by financial crisis and that is where the emissions dropped by the largest amounts: 6.9% in the US, 8.6% in the UK, 7% in Germany, 11.8% in Japan and 8.4% in Russia. Meanwhile emerging markets such as China, India and South Korea saw the biggest increases, 8%, 6.2% and 1.4% respectively, because of their increasing reliance on coal.

Carbon dioxide are our own natural waste product and greenhouse gas emissions in general are society’s waste products. Is it possible that we are producing too much greenhouse gases because we are consuming too much, as if we are doing one, continuous, endlessly long fart? The problem is not that we are addicted necessarily to fossil fuels but to the goods we buy. We can’t live without them, so the economy has to keep growing in order to satisfy us. So governments’ plan for tackling with the recession has been either to cut the public deficit so that the economy can grow or spend our way out of the recession and cut the deficit when the economy is strong.

I wonder whether anyone has ever considered that the economy is too big and that the recession is putting it in the right direction. After all, at one time, all our needs were met by the local economy, then the national economy. But now, in the UK for example, our needs are also met in part by the economies of other countries too, such as China. Similarly, the UK economy also works for the good of those in other countries.

This also raises a question over the environmental benefits of recycling. Yes, it means that less resources are being extracted and less greenhouse gases are being emitted from rotting landfills. But perhaps the reason why governments are so eager to encourage it is that recycling guarantees the raw materials for the production process. It means that we don’t have to think about how much we are consuming because whatever we buy can be converted into something else, kind like eating our own shit.

In an interview, economist Jerry Mander warned of the dangers of economic globalisation:

Wherever the rules of free trade and economic globalization are followed, you have economic and ecological disasters immediately thereafter. You’ve got the complete destruction of small, traditional farming in Africa and elsewhere; you’ve got the complete devastation of nature all around the world; you’ve got people shoved off their lands to make way for giant dams and agri-business and so on, who then become part of the mil lions and millions of people roaming the land and going into cities looking for impossible-to-find jobs, all in competition with each other, and violent and angry. And then people are angry with them, because who needs more people around? So you’ve set in to motion a global disarray and nonfunctionalism that would not have been achieved — certainly not at the same level and with the same speed — without this emphasis on global development.

However poorly people lived in terms of material wealth in traditional societies, there was much that they retained. They retained a fair amount of local control. They retained some degree of traditional culture. Even in societies that had already been im pacted, like India, you had a lot of cultural identity and a history of relationships to scale that were really different. It was an economy of small-scale institutions. That has been wiped out by economic globalization with the invasion of franchises and giant institutions that have taken over the land.

A cult of science?

Most Fridays, I attend an academic group at university that discusses the philosophical foundations of law and finance. Yesterday, we looked at why people believe they experience the paranormal or supernatural. One of the things that the lecturer in charge talked about was how, after the second world war, anthropologists went off to remote islands to study the indigenous people and found them worshipping the remains of aircraft (so called ‘cargo cults’). Apparently, the thinking was that these people saw something fall out of the air to the ground and, quite reasonably, concluded that if it has happened once, it can happen again. The whole belief system was premised on the idea that something would happen in the future because it happened in the past. To me, that sounded very much like science – we observe things happening in the past and develop a theory that say that those things will happen in the future.

So, when I stumbled upon this critique of the dominant climate change science narrative by activist teacher Denis G Rancourt, I was already in the frame of mind to read objectively.

On the gargantuan lie of climate change science

In all of human history, what was believed and promoted by the majority of service intellectuals (high priests) in each civilization was only created and maintained to support the hierarchy and the place of the high priests within the hierarchy. To believe that the present is any different regarding any issue managed by our “experts”, whet … Read More

via COTO Report

Now, I have always believed in the importance of protecting our environment and I am not ready to given up my membership of the climate change camp. Indeed, to a science worshipper like myself, Rancourt would probably a heretic. But he does highlight a particular problem in the way that science is presented.

Up to 500 years ago, the Bible was published in Latin. Unfortunately, the masses could not understand Latin, so they had to rely on experts (priests) to read the Bible and interpret it for them. Similarly today, scientific papers are published in a their own scientific language – which can be understood by other scientists – but not by the masses. It then requires several levels of interpretation for us to understand. I am not suggesting there is anything sinister in this.  (On top of that, much scientific findings cannot be afforded by ordinary people.)

As a result of the translation of the Bible from Latin into the languages of the people in the Reformation, anyone could read and understand God’s Word. Of course, the experts and other people are still needed as quality control, but basically one does not need to have studied theology. Yet, if I wanted to read, for example, a paper on climate science, it would read like gobbledygook (sic), as my scientific education stopped at GCSE. Of course, I read the articles in the newspapers and watch the engaging documentaries on TV but all this is second-, third-, even fourth hand.

Now, I am not suggesting that there is necessarily any hidden agenda on the part of certain interests to hide the truth. But we were clearly meant to understand how the world worked. Yet scientific papers seem to write in their own version of Latin.

The same criticism could be made of academia in general. I could go to Waterstones and pick up a popular book on philosophy, but it is quite difficult to get hold of the original material (or at least English translations of the original material). I had never even heard of Hegel until after I started my PhD, now I think he is the greatest guy in the world. Yes, his work can be difficult to read, but I am slowly getting to grips with his philosophy directly. And it makes a big difference to reading it firsthand. But I daresay that I would even be in this position if I wasn’t at university.

Coming back to climate science, everyone throws around this figure of 2 degrees as some kind of target. And I have no reason to doubt what they say. But I get the feeling that there is all this focus on numbers and data, as if somehow not staying within the limit is the answer to the world’s problems.

Ok, I don’t really what the point of this post is. I don’t have a conclusion. Perhaps someone can provide one for me.

Revolting Arabs good for the environment

It’s finally happened. The government has decided to take serious action to wean the UK of its dependency on oil. And it’s only taken the Arabs rising up against the tyrants that rule them, even though the an environmental movement have been warning of the urgency for years, decades even. I can see Greenpeace et al waving a big sign, saying “We told you so!”

And, as if the rising costs of petrol and car use hasn’t been enough of a trigger to red-blooded rightwingers, Energy secretary Chris Huhne baits them even further with the prospects of ‘foreigners getting one over on us':

“China will build 24 nuclear power stations in the time it takes us to build one. By 2020, their nuclear capacity will have increased tenfold…They will lay 16,000km of high-speed rail track in the time it takes us to go from London to Birmingham.

“They have the highest installed hydro-capacity and the most solar water heaters in the world. And they are forging ahead on wind power. So China knows what’s coming.”

So the government has speeded up the implementation of  its Carbon Plan. Maybe it could be the greenest government ever! And who knows, a Tory majority coalition government could also be the most socialist! :)

Recycling Nudges

Respublica have posted about the benefits of incentivised recycling. Jonathan West looks at government statistics, highlighting that the amount of waste sent to landfill has gone down over the last 20 years and the amount recycled has gone up. He acknowledges:  “So our behaviour is changeable, great! And we need to change it more.”

But he then asks how behaviour can be changed more.

I would suggest that this is the wrong question. Before wondering how one can do more, one needs to ask “why do we need to do more?”. Now I am in no way a climate change sceptic. I firmly accept that global warming is happening, that greenhouse gas emissions from landfill is a contributor and that we don’t have access to an infinite amount of resources. But since recycling rates are increasing, why not trust that it will continue to increase?