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General election 2015: a stark choice for voters in five weeks

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Periodically voters have the opportunity to nudge the tiller of their country in a different direction. 1910 saw the election of a government to pass a radical People’s Budget against the will of the Lords. In 1945 the electorate voted for the creation of the NHS, Welfare State and a massive house building programme. 1979, saw the country shift towards neoliberal economics. 2015 could be another turning point for the UK.

We’ll make a prediction. Every election from now on will deliver a hung parliament. None of the major parties can, or will ever again, command the support of enough of the electorate to secure a majority. ‘None of the above’ will too often be the winner. Minor parties will have more influence than they have ever had. They should use it wisely.

The United Kingdom is not at ease with itself.

The three ‘main’ parties memberships have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves (~280,000 between them), while the SNP, UKIP and Greens have all surged (~200,000). The current electoral system cannot handle a genuine multi-party democracy, thus delivering unsatisfactory and undemocratic results.

We run the risk of becoming a minoritocracy where minority parties can secure big policy shifts to keep a ‘main’ party in power. We run the risk of becoming a plutocracy, with the interests of a tiny minority of wealthy individuals determining the nation’s policies and direction through access and influence. We run the risk of becoming a gerontocracy where the country is run for the benefit of its older voting citizens, while the interests of the non-voting young are ignored. Some would argue we are there already – a minoriplutogerontocracy (neologism of the day).

Our local, national and international environment is being degraded, leaving a terrible legacy for future generations. This is on top of a growing pile of public debt, incurred by older generations. We are over-centralised in Westminster, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

We have too few homes for our people. We have too few schools for the generation entering education. University funding is a joke. Our hospitals and surgeries cannot cope with ever increasing demand. Our infrastructure, especially water, energy and rail, is insufficient for the demands placed upon it. Our financial system is utterly unreformed and remains out of control, meaning another crash is inevitable and will be even more ruinous. Our borders are porous so we have no idea who is entering or leaving the country.

And we don’t have a free media that holds the powerful to account because they are part of the same establishment and funded by the establishment. Editors, leading journalists and unpaid interns went to the same schools and universities and share the same philosophy. If there hasn’t been a state-educated editor at, of all places, the ‘left-wing’ Guardian since 1956, what do national newspaper editors really know about the lives of ordinary working people.

So we do face a stark choice at this election. ‘More of the same’ failure or a bold new direction for the United Kingdom, its four nations and diverse regions. The same is clearly failing a resilience test.

We need to protect the environment and lead the world on climate action. We need to devolve decisions making to the most local practical level, giving power back to communities.

We need to build hundreds of thousands of energy efficient homes every year, many of them for social housing occupants and first time buyers. We need to reform the private rental market. We need many more schools and better funded tertiary education with apprenticeships and university places that lead to well-paid, secure jobs. We need better funded, integrated, locally-run health and social services. We need a massive shift to local, clean energy and energy efficiency. We need to look at the utilities and rail ownership again. We need banking to be reformed root and branch and made to work for society. We need to know who is entering and leaving our country, especially in a period of ‘lone wolf’ terrorist threats.

We need a functional democracy, without unelected members, and parliamentarians that are more representative of the people they serve, with life experiences outside politics or the highest-paid professions.

We need a genuinely free, domestically-owned, press to hold all of the above to account.

All of this is possible if we vote for it. Capitalism (profit), socialism (people) and environmentalism (planet) can coexist quite easily, without one trampling on the needs of the other two. Capitalism failed utterly in 2008, but bizarrely socialism, in the form of public spending, was blamed. Environmentalism doesn’t get a look in on most occasions.

It’s time to make the UK sustainable, by creating a balance between all three, to make the United Kingdom a group of countries, cities and regions at ease with itself and more resilient against future shocks.

The hand on the tiller moment happens every 35 years or so (1910, 1945, 1979 and 2015). It’s time has come.

Photo: Martin Bamford via Flickr

Further reading:

Sustainability could hold the key to 2015 general election result

General election: Green Party turns to the crowd to raise funds

General election: quarter would switch vote based on climate change policy

General election: Cameron to refuse TV debates if Greens are excluded

Vote for Policies launches ahead of General Election

Environment

Two Ancient Japanese Philosophies Are the Future of Eco-Living

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Eco-Living
Shutterstock Photos - By Syda Productions | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/dolgachov

Our obsession with all things new has blighted the planet. We have a waste crisis, particularly when it comes to plastic. US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made – 8.3 billion tons! Unfortunately, only 9% of this is estimated to have been recycled. And current global trends point to there being 12 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050.

However, two ancient Japanese philosophies are providing an antidote to the excesses of modern life. By emphasizing the elimination of waste and the acceptance of the old and imperfect, the concepts of Mottainai and Wabi-Sabi have positively influenced Japanese life for centuries.

They are now making their way into the consciousness of the Western mainstream, with an increasing influence in the UK and US. By encouraging us to be frugal with our possessions, (i.e. using natural materials for interior design) these concepts can be the future of eco-living.

What is Wabi-Sabi and Mottainai??

Wabi-Sabi emphasizes an acceptance of transience and imperfection. Although Wabi had the original meaning of sad and lonely, it has come to describe those that are simple, unmaterialistic and at one with nature. The term Sabi is defined as the “the bloom of time”, and has evolved into a new meaning: taking pleasure and seeing beauty in things that are old and faded. 

Any flaws in objects, like cracks or marks, are cherished because they illustrate the passage of time. Wear and tear is seen as a representation of their loving use. This makes it intrinsically linked to Wabi, due to its emphasis on simplicity and rejection of materialism.

In the West, Wabi-Sabi has infiltrated many elements of daily life, from cuisine to interior design. Specialist Japanese homeware companies, like Sansho, source handmade products that embody the Wabi-Sabi philosophy. Their products, largely made from natural materials, are handcrafted by traditional Japanese artisans – meaning no two pieces are the same and no two pieces are “perfect” in size or shape.

Mottainai

Mottainai is a term expressing a feeling of regret concerning waste, translating roughly in English to either “what a waste!” or “Don’t waste!”. The philosophy emphasizes the intrinsic value of a resource or object, and is linked to hinto animism, the notion that all objects have a spirit, or ‘kami’. The idea that we are part of nature is a key part of Japanese psychology.

Mottainai also has origins in Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhist monastic tradition emphasizes a life of frugality, to allow us to concentrate on attaining enlightenment. It is from this move towards frugality that a link to Mottainai as a concept of waste can be made.

How have Wabi-Sabi and Mottainai promoted eco living?

Wabi-Sabi is still a prominent feature of Japanese life today, and has remained instrumental in the way people design their homes. The ideas of imperfection and frugality are hugely influential.

For example, instead of buying a brand-new kitchen table, many Japanese people instead retain a table that has been passed through the generations. Although its long use can be seen by various marks and scratches, Wabi-Sabi has taught people that they should value it because of its imperfect nature. Those scratches and marks are a story and signify the passage of time. This is a far cry from what we typically associate with the Western World.

Like Wabi Sabi, Mottainai is manifested throughout Japanese life, creating a great respect for Japanese resources. This has had a major impact on home design. For example, the Japanese prefer natural materials in their homes, such as using soil and dried grass as thermal insulation.

Their influence in the UK

The UK appears to be increasingly influenced by thes two concepts. Some new reports indicate that Wabi Sabi has been labelled as ‘the trend of 2018’. For example, Japanese ofuro baths inspired the project that won the New London Architecture’s 2017 Don’t Move, Improve award. Ofuro baths are smaller than typical baths, use less water, and are usually made out of natural materials, like hinoki wood.

Many other UK properties have also been influenced by these philosophies, such as natural Kebony wood being applied to the external cladding of a Victorian property in Hampstead; or a house in Lancaster Gate using rice paper partitions as sub-dividers. These examples embody the spirit of both philosophies. They are representative of Mottainai because of their use of natural resources to discourage waste. And they’re reflective of Wabi-Sabi because they accept imperfect materials that have not been engineered or modified.

In a world that is plagued by mass over-consumption and an incessant need for novelty, the ancient concepts of Mottainai and Wabi-Sabi provide a blueprint for living a more sustainable life. They help us to reduce consumption and put less of a strain on the planet. This refreshing mindset can help us transform the way we go about our day to day lives.

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Energy

What Should We Make of The Clean Growth Strategy?

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Clean Growth Strategy for green energy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By sdecoret | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/sdecoret

It was hardly surprising the Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) was much anticipated by industry and environmentalists. After all, its publication was pushed back a couple of times. But with the document now in the public domain, and the Government having run a consultation on its content, what ultimately should we make of what’s perhaps one of the most important publications to come out of the Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the past 12 months?

The starting point, inevitably, is to decide what the document is and isn’t. It is, certainly, a lengthy and considered direction-setter – not just for the Government, but for business and industry, and indeed for consumers. While much of the content was favourably received in terms of highlighting ways to ensure clean growth, critics – not unjustifiably – suggested it was long on pages but short on detailed and finite policy commitments, accompanied by clear timeframes for action.

A Strategy, Instead of a Plan

But should we really be surprised? The answer, in all honesty, is probably not really. BEIS ministers had made no secret of the fact they would be publishing a ‘strategy’ as opposed to a ‘plan,’ and that gave every indication the CGS would set a direction of travel and be largely aspirational. The Government had consulted on its content, and will likely respond to the consultation during the course of 2018. And that’s when we might see more defined policy commitments and timeframes from action.

The second criticism one might level at the CGS is that indicated the use of ‘flexibilities’ to achieve targets set in the carbon budgets – essentially using past results to offset more recent failings to keep pace with emissions targets. Claire Perry has since appeared in front of the BEIS Select Committee and insisted she would be personally disappointed if the UK used flexibilities to fill the shortfall in meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but this is difficult ground for the Government. The Committee on Climate Change was critical of the proposed use of efficiencies, which would somewhat undermine ministers’ good intentions and commitment to clean growth – particularly set against November’s Budget, in which the Chancellor maintained the current carbon price floor (potentially giving a reprieve to coal) and introduced tax changes favourable to North Sea oil producers.

A 12 Month Green Energy Initiative with Real Teeth

But, there is much to appreciate and commend about the CGS. It fits into a 12-month narrative for BEIS ministers, in which they have clearly shown a commitment to clean growth, improving energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. Those 12 months have seen the launch of the Industrial Strategy – firstly in Green Paper form, which led to the launch of the Faraday Challenge, and then a White Paper in which clean growth was considered a ‘grand challenge’ for government. Throughout these publications – and indeed again with the CGS – the Government has shown itself to be an advocate of smart systems and demand response, including the development of battery technology.

Electrical Storage Development at Center of Broader Green Energy Push

While the Faraday Challenge is primarily focused on the development of batteries to support the proliferation of electric vehicles (which will support cuts to carbon emissions), it will also drive down technology costs, supporting the deployment of small and utility-scale storage that will fully harness the capability of renewables. Solar and wind made record contributions to UK electricity generation in 2017, and the development of storage capacity will help both reduce consumer costs and support decarbonisation.

The other thing the CGS showed us it that the Government is happy to be a disrupter in the energy market. The headline from the publication was the plans for legislation to empower Ofgem to cap the costs of Standard Variable Tariffs. This had been an aspiration of ministers for months, and there’s little doubt that driving down costs for consumers will be a trend within BEIS policy throughout 2018.

But the Government also seems happy to support disruption in the renewables market, as evidenced by the commitment (in the CGS) to more than half a billion pounds of investment in Pot 2 of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) – where the focus will be on emerging rather than established technologies.

This inevitably prompted ire from some within the industry, particularly proponents of solar, which is making an increasing contribution to the UK’s energy mix. But, again, we shouldn’t really be surprised. Since the subsidy cuts of 2015, ministers have given no indication or cause to think there will be public money afforded to solar development. Including solar within the CfD auction would have been a seismic shift in policy. And while ministers’ insistence in subsidy-free solar as the way forward has been shown to be based on a single project, we should expect that as costs continue to be driven down and solar makes record contributions to electricity generation, investment will follow – and there will ultimately be more subsidy-free solar farms, albeit perhaps not in 2018.

Meanwhile, by promoting emerging technologies like remote island wind, the Government appears to be favouring diversification and that it has a range of resources available to meet consumer demand. Perhaps more prescient than the decision to exclude established renewables from the CfD auction is the subsequent confirmation in the budget that Pot 2 of CfDs will be the last commitment of public money to renewable energy before 2025.

In short, we should view the CGS as a step in the right direction, albeit one the Government should be elaborating on in its consultation response. Its publication, coupled with the advancement this year of the Industrial Strategy indicates ministers are committed to the clean growth agenda. The question is now how the aspirations set out in the CGS – including the development of demand response capacity for the grid, and improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential premises – will be realised.

It’s a step in the right direction. But, inevitably, there’s much more work to do.

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