The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘democracy isn’t easy’

Social Care: An Orwellian Debate

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 30, 2010 @ 08:58

I love finding these. Three cheers for managerialism!

Social care is one of those subjects in politics that not many people like talking about. Just like planning for death, no one really likes to think that they, too, will get old one day, and so it gets pushed to the back of the mind.

The healthy thing in recent months has been the fact that, in England at least, this issue has finally gained prominence. It’s not one that’s going to set the world on fire, but due to the ageing population, the increase in life expectancy, and the general rising costs of healthcare, there is no way that we can carry on like we are now.

What we are seeing is the fact that, for what we want our state to do, we simply do not pay enough tax. The accusation hurled at Britain has long been “a European style welfare system on an American style tax system”. While that is an over-simplification, it’s broadly along the right path. We do not have the money to give our population dignified, free, healthcare in their old age.

So instead, we get a distorted debate. One that is about tax, and yet never talks about tax. Instead, we get talk of a levy to be paid on death. And since death is a certainty, this is, indeed, a compulsory levy. A compulsory levy is a tax. But don’t tell the politicians we’ve got them sussed.

The debate over social care nicely illustrates the Orwellian language involved in the politics of today. We get one side talking about something without actually saying it, and then the other calling them out on it, but using extremely emotive and divisive language: “the death tax”.

Hardly grounds for a healthy and open debate.

Frankly, though, this is one of the areas in which democracy gets in the way. The imminent election means there is no chance of politicians being honest, or us having a discussion between the various stakeholders to produce a united way forward. After all, we all want the same thing: care in our old age which isn’t going to bankrupt the country.

In truth, it’s rather surprising that Labour have brought the issue back up today by insisting that the compulsory levy, payable on death, is probably the only way forward. Perhaps, with their declining poll position, they’ve decided they now have nothing to lose, and want to keep painting the Tories as “policy light” while they are still ready to “take the tough decisions”

In policy terms, I think they are right. When’s the best time to tax someone? When they die and don’t need it any more. Better that then ask them to pay for it during their life, and make them sell their house, etc.

But I regret the relentless march of taxes that aren’t honest about what they actually are. National Insurance, anyone?

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Societal Failure Starts Early. Very Early.

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 15, 2010 @ 09:53

Hilariously, the top three Google Images results for "feral youths" all came from the nation's favourite right-wing newspaper...

Yet another report this morning highlights just how important the early years for children are

Children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils in language skills by the time they start school, research suggests.

Labour’s immediate defence (not yet though) will be to say that it proves their SureStart programme is the right idea, and that the Tories want to scrap it, etc. etc: a message that is somewhat unclear, because some reports say the Tories won’t scrap it, while others say they will cut money from its budget.

But in this case, I’m not interested in the partisan hackery. We’ve had enough of that over the past few days regarding the issue of care for the elderly.

This time, the point is simple. Study after study is showing that the biggest “damage” is done to a child’s prospects before they even enter school. Indeed, the sceptics might argue that all school does is merely nurture a child’s abilities as they get older and turn them into what has essentially already been pre-determined for them by the facts of their early childhood.

A very depressing argument, but there has to be some element of truth to it. After all, why is it that bad schools tend to be in “bad” areas, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and general deprivation? And that this just never seems to change, decade in, decade out?

Time and again, the evidence shows that early intervention is the only way we can tackle the long-term nature of the underachievement from the difficult estates of Britain.

Such a platitude is very easy to say, however, without defining what we mean by “intervention”. And that’s where it begins to get tricky.

Parenting classes are the solution offered by The Sutton Trust, the ones who sponsored this research. Only problem is that you’re broadly dealing with people who, let’s just say, aren’t the sharpest tools in the box in the first place. How much will they be able to absorb and actually put into practice?

More money spent on the right things might help, but in our short-termist mentality it’s just not doable, even though it would probably pay itself back in the long run.

So are we talking then about very aggressive intervention? Social workers and health visitors keeping a very close eye on the development of children? It doesn’t sound very liberal, does it? Where do we stop after that: will people be required to take an IQ test before they’re allowed to reproduce?

Nobody ever said democracy was easy.

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But What Will The People Think?

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 5, 2010 @ 10:44

A picture like this 30, 20 or even 10 years ago would be unthinkable...

Northern Ireland’s political deal this morning is very good news for that part of the world, largely because as long as the parties are working together, even if they don’t really produce anything new, there is much less risk of a dangerous development seriously undermining the fragile political setup there.

Northern Ireland is the demonstration of what politics is all about. The political process has brought peace to the Province, or the North of Ireland, depending on your political persuasion. It is a perfect example of how politics is both a means and an end, and that without it nothing else is possible.

The only problem is that most Northern Ireland deals are concluded in rather grand locations. St Andrews. Hillsborough. And, of course, Stormont. Only one of them was ever put to the test by a democratic vote of whether the people were in agreement.

You might argue that democracy has its other outlets; naturally, we see these in the Assembly elections. But the curious aspect of this round of negotiations was the subtle agreement by all the parties that they have no other choice but to talk, because the alternative – failure – would mean letting the people have their say in a fresh wave of elections.

I’ve just watched the press conference between the First and deputy First minister (note correct capitalisation!), flanked by the beasts of Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen. There was much talk about how the agreement must command community consensus, and how they were going to go back and make the case for it amongst their respective supporters.

But the key thing was missing – a real democratic outlet for them to do so.

It’s still another 15 months before the people of Norn Iron get another chance to reinforce existing prejudices though. Or maybe it’ll all be different next time? It’s quite amusing how each NI election generally brings the same result as the previous one, except maybe some parties have swapped positions.

But this time will be different. This time all four main parties (plus the Alliance) are backing power-sharing. Instead, there is a new splinter Unionist party (TUV) who are going to attempt to wreck everything. Their intervention in the recent European Elections resulted in the Shinners topping the poll; a result which, if replicated at the Assembly, would put Martin McGuinness as the First Minister. Whoops!

If, and it’s a big if, the TUV are soundly rejected, it will be a definitive sign that The Troubles really are over, and that politics is here to stay.

Maybe then they can actually start doing the “normal” politics that everyone else cares about. And then, once everyone is happy in their complacent little me-worlds of liberal democracy, they can all just forget about it and not bother voting, just like the rest of the apathetic so-called citizens of democracies worldwide!

Oh my, that was a cynical ending.

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Ruling The Unruly Mob

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 4, 2010 @ 10:04

The natives of Little Whinging are getting restless once again...

With the news this morning once again filled with stories about MPs and their expenses, it’s made me wonder just what would satisfy not just the media, but the baying mobs of the general public.

The stocks? Self-flagellation? Walking barefoot across a firey pit of doom in the depths of Mordor?

No. Nothing would. The point was sort of reinforced to me the other day when I watched Tower Block of Commons – because there is a scene in the programme where Tory MP Tim Loughton (who, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been embroiled in any of this) tries to have a reasonable conversation with a man whose anger and rage is palpable.

But Tim might as well be talking to a brick wall. Indeed, although it was probably a trick of the editing, by the end of the conversation he merely stands there silent while the man begins at MPs expenses and uses it as a delicate springboard to spout off about all the conspiracy theories everyone has about MPs, power and corruption.

Not that I don’t enjoy the odd degree of cynicism about those in power (he says with much understatement) but the real tragedy of the expenses farrago is that it has been used as the perfect excuse to justify all the things over the years that have been said about MPs, that they don’t listen, they don’t care about people like me, they’re only in it for themselves, they spend all day talking about nothing, what do they actually do, and so on and on and on and Ariston.

Some might say a lot of these people never bothered anyway, and democracy is already lost to them. It’s a fair point, and in truth, horrible though this sounds, they are the reason why voting should not be made compulsory. There is a great deal of ignorance in society about politics, either through choice or through necessity: some people’s lives are hard enough without worrying about whether Cameron really does want to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy.

That creates a brick wall, one which will never be knocked down by politicians. Democracy as a concept is fragile, but just as we shouldn’t export democracy over the world, so we shouldn’t force democracy down the throats of our own citizens. It is up to the political class to prove that democracy is worth the time and effort.

Politicians are not just advocates for their party (or more optimistically, their principles), they ought to be a shining beacon of why democracy is the right and fair choice for delivering the just society and the common good.

With that in mind though, they really ought to buck their ideas up…

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The Question Time Quandary

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 16, 2010 @ 11:51

Dimbleby needs to be careful he doesn't turn into the modern-day McCarthy...

No, not Prime Minister’s Questions, which is 30 minutes of botched soundbites with the occasional mild joke that always brings the House down in tears of exaggerated laughter, but the BBC’s “flagship” vox pop opinion programme, Question Time.

I finally got round to watching Thursday’s episode last night thanks to the wonders of on-demand television. It was probably one of the most interesting episodes I’ve seen for a long time, largely because of the entertaining 20 minute start in which both the panel and audience let loose a continuous anger about the Iraq War.

You can include in that the reaction of Peter Hain. Yes, he dithered and defended his decision to back the conflict, but it was clear for all to see that he was sticking firmly to his guns, that in his mind it was a war about WMDs, and he ever so slightly implied that he may not have supported it if the WMD argument were not present. He looked uncomfortable, and even praised Lib Dem Chris Huhne for his “correct judgement” (maybe paraphrased).

The reaction to this episode from planks like John Rentoul was fast and withering, calling it a “witch-hunt” and bemoaning its quality of fact-checking. True, the fact that even Ken Clarke thought the government only scraped through its war declaration with a majority of 11 was somewhat embarrassing, and perhaps a sign that things aren’t all there any more in Ken Clarke’s head… and I did get the distinct feeling that the audience was filled with A-Level politics students… but to me it was fully reflective of how the British public will never forget Iraq in a hurry.

Criticism rained down all night, from the left and from the right. And even the very right. Thanks Kelvin. It was another tirade against government, against Labour, against politicians, against almost everything we have gone through in the past decade as the world has changed.

I’m still young and hopelessly naive, so maybe I’m not best placed to say the behaviour of the British electorate over the past year is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But it still feels bad. Week after week, the relentless feeling that the old politics is dying just cannot be escaped. The political classes are utterly despised. The record of this Labour government over the last seven years, even since the disaster of Iraq, is a festering wound at the heart of democracy. Did people genuinely think their votes in 2001 were going to lead to this?

Maybe people don’t want representative democracy any more because – in this era where deference is only paid to celebrities and the talented – we don’t believe our representatives are fully qualified to represent us. We’ve had enough of Burke’s trustee model. And we might have even had enough of democracy full stop.

The Tories have to be careful how they ride this wave of cynicism into power. If they misjudge it, they’ll only end up getting bitten themselves.

Meanwhile, Question Time will rumble on. I can’t help but wonder, though, if maybe we’re slowly becoming a victim of too much opining…

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The Perils Of Populism

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 6, 2010 @ 11:20

Now who wouldn't get suckered in by such a great rate!

Yesterday we saw possibly the most impressive collection of signatures in the world turned into a rather annoying little stumbling block for the British and the Dutch.

In Iceland, a quarter of the country’s population signed a petition appealing to their President to do something about a bill that had narrowly passed Parliament.

Over here, our government was very pleased at the progress of that bill. Indeed, many people here would consider it only fair. It requires Iceland to pay back several billion pounds to the British and the Dutch governments, who had bailed out failed Icelandic banks when the banking crisis was at its highest. Declaration of interest: I was one of the fools who had money in Icesave. Whoops. But thanks to Alistair Darling, I got it all back. I won’t hear a bad word said about that man!

But of course, the British government wasn’t just doing it out of the goodness of their own heart. They wanted the money paid back eventually. And so they got just a little bit excited when the newly elected centre-left Icelandic government pledged to pay back their debts and come in from the cold, joining the warm embrace of the EU.

It seems, however, that a significant chunk of the Icelandic people don’t want to pay back their debts. They have a point. Why should they pay for the actions of a few disgraceful individuals who have bankrupted their country with their stupid gambles?

In many respects, it’s like the bonus crisis over here multiplied by thousands. Everyone moans about why government owned banks are paying bonuses, but really they’re a mere trifle compared to the size of the companies themselves, and the size of our taxpayer base. Bankers bonuses are small change to the Exchequer.

Meanwhile, tiny little Iceland, population 320,000, has to pay back a much greater sum. That’s gonna be a lot of pain for their people.

And so they got angry. Their President joined them, sensing an opportunity to hog the limelight in a debate that has torn the country apart and turned opinion once more against joining the EU.

That’s a shame. Iceland would have been a fine member of the EU, but I will be amazed if it happens now.

And all because of a referendum. People power at its ultimate. The only expression of direct democracy there is.

It may sound anti-democratic, but sometimes issues are just too complex to be put to a vote. Once you start, where do you stop? Why referendums on some issues and not others?

Referendums, since time immemorial, have only ever been used to get politicians out of a hole, or used by those who are certain to win as a rallying cry to bludgeon the advocates of things that are often unpopular but usually necessary.

And so it has been proven again in Iceland. A populist reaction to an event that the country really has to bite the bullet over – because if they don’t they are going to lose a lot of friends, especially at the IMF who have bailed the whole economy out – culminates in a referendum and a chance to kick the government, boxing them in and leaving them unable to deal with a crisis.

It’s the classic case of principles versus politics. On the one hand, my principles are with the Icelandic people. On the other, if they don’t suffer in the short-term, they will never recover in the long-term.

Referendums are difficult. The idea is good, but the practicalities are hard to overcome.

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The Long Term Impact Of The Expenses Scandal

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 2, 2010 @ 11:26

I think we all need to take David Cameron's words a little more seriously. You won't hear me saying that very often...

There has been much ink spilled over the expenses debacle, but there has been an extremely disappointing lack of analysis about what the real consequences are going to be. And not just the intended ones either, like making politics cheaper, and making the political class more transparent with the taxpayers who fund them.

What’s really important to me is what the unintended consequences of change are going to be.

First off, I think we need to appreciate that most of us already knew that MPs were on some sort of fiddle. In fact, I’d be aghast if they weren’t. The world is filled with expenses fiddlers, and so politics is no different. MPs are just as human as the rest of us, usually when we “accidentally” overclaim on an expense or leave out something from a tax return. A few extra miles here, some mispriced “depreciation” on assets there, and maybe a few pilfered items of stationery. We all do it.

And the truth of the matter is that no matter how much we try to have gloriously untainted politicians, they are still human, and susceptible to all human frailties. It would be nice if they could be beyond reproach, but it takes a stunning level of naivety to believe that that is ever achievable.

Nevertheless, it was good to see MPs exposed, partially because of the waste of taxpayers money, but also because they’ve had it coming to them for a long time. The direct consequences of it have been severe, with the huge swathe of retirements and even more of them certain to be defeated at the next election.

It will probably resulting in the cost of politics coming down, at least in the short term. But the real price is likely to be in terms of the type of person who goes into it. More and more of our MPs will be of independent means, wealthy before going into politics. Will they be able to understand what it means to live on a council estate today? I think not.

The biggest change, however, will be the resulting rise in the full time politician. The completion of the past few decades work to fully professionalise the occupation. I genuinely don’t think that’s what The Telegraph intended when they started this campaign, but that’s what they’re going to get. All those accidental and part-time MPs will move on, not prepared to be put under so much scrutiny, required to account for all the hours they spend on the job.

Meanwhile, the next generation – well honed by the expectations of reality TV – will understand exactly what is required, and will be even more shameless publicity seekers than ever before. Could we see a rise in the ever more populist politician? Part of me thinks this is why the BNP is gaining ground.

And – let’s face it – we’re also going to see the rise of the squeaky clean politician. Never having done anything; never even lived just a little for fear of what tales may be outed in years to come. Spending their entire lives just waiting for the moment to join the political class, never putting a foot wrong. Honest, yes. Reflective of real life, no.

Maybe we need to be a bit more tolerant of the faults in our politicians. After all, the population of this country regularly engages in adultery, casual drug use, alcoholism, misappropriation and a little white lying to smooth over the roughest social situation.

In the past, politicians used to do all this kind of stuff and no one batted an eyelid. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, and all that. Times may have changed, but we’re often in no doubt that the politicians of yesteryear were better than the ones of today. But if they had to stand up to today’s scrutiny, I’ll bet we’d soon change our mind on a few of them.

Conclusion: let’s stop going down this path. Let’s give our politicians a bit more room to be real people. Stop them wasting our money, of course, but I think it’s time to put away our microscopes.

I would quote that bit from the Bible about motes, beams and eyes, but that would make me a hypocrite as well…

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Did Darling Deliver?

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 10, 2009 @ 10:05

Poor Darling. What a crap hand he was dealt. Thanks, Gordon.

A few days ago, when talking about the then forthcoming Pre-Budget Report, I confidently predicted

I fully expect Alistair Darling to be fairly specific. After all, it makes no sense to be about to legislate for a halving of the deficit if you have no real plans to save money. If they don’t, it’s tantamout to sticking yet another “Kick Me” post-it note on the back of Gordon Brown’s head.

Well, it seems Mr Darling has done just that. Perhaps he is looking forward to the Labour government going down in flames at the next election, and wants to be the one that finally does for Gordon Brown.

Yesterday’s PBR was an exercise in procrastination. Lots of tinkering at the edges, lots of remarkable statistics – such as Darling only apparently being £3bn wrong on this year’s borrowing figure despite the economy falling 1 percentage point more than he thought it would – but the key issue was avoided.

The country’s current spending window runs to the end of 2010/11. This is most fortunate for the Labour government, as it means the overall spending limits for the next financial year are already known to government departments. As a consequence, it means Alistair Darling can dodge the issue.

Clever. Labour, seeing that the Tories are ascending to government without telling anyone what they actually want to do with it, are wanting a slice of the action.

Rather than being a responsible government, and trying to claim the mantle of honesty and fairness for themselves, they have instead deferred. The hot potato has been thrown up in the air, and it will land in someone’s lap some time after May 2010. I’d be utterly amazed, though somewhat delighted, if the possibility of a March 25 election actually happened, but I don’t think it will.

Too clever by half, in fact. But that’s politicians for you. There have to be cuts. It’s simply not possible to sustain such enormous and continued borrowing without eventually upsetting the markets. If Britain loses its top-tier credit rating, which may happen, the cost of further borrowing will rise even more, making cuts have to go deeper still.

But once again, what are the political alternatives on offer? Can we credibly believe George Osborne, who will not spell out his spending plans, even though we will be getting an emergency budget within weeks of a Cameron victory? He must have some idea where the axe is going to fall.

Does this leave scope for Vince Cable to come up with a gigantic masterplan, outlining in great detail what the country needs to do to relieve this burden? Or will doing so be just too much honesty for the British public to take?

We are in danger of having one great enormous lie as our election campaign. More so than usual! Politicians will be afraid of being too negative, for fear of scaring the country half to death.

We need them to be honest, however, or we’ll never face up to the terrible mess this country is in.

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Take Responsibility, Politicians

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 9, 2009 @ 09:56

I wonder whether Dubya will be mocked for many generations to come...

Something I’ve moaned about before, and again yesterday, is the likelihood of politicians these days farming decisions out to an external body so they don’t have to take the flak when something goes wrong.

There are many examples in modern political debate, from quangos in regional development agencies, to NICE – which now effectively decides which drugs should be available on the NHS. All decisions which, in the past, were made by democratically accountable ministers, or even councillors.

And the Tories will be no different. Witness George Osborne’s creation of an Office for Budget Responsibility to “hold a Conservative government to account”.  What’s the betting these independent people will give him cover for his budget agenda?

There are two sides to this tale, however. First is that some of these bodies are useful. NICE, for instance, focus on the evidence. Which, in an area of science, is very useful indeed. But the very fact that their final decisions have no political involvement at all can be argued both ways. On the one hand, it is good that delicate issues are dealt with on their own merits, rather than seen through a prism of politicking. But on the other, it almost negates the point of democracy if our elected representatives have their hands tied from day one.

It’s a debate that will run and run because of its complexity. My instinct is to say that the more decisions politicians make, the better our quality of democracy will be. And then I end up arguing against myself, because the natural consequence of that is populist decision-making in search of good headlines. See the farce over the classification of cannabis.

But really my worry on this topic today is one that emerges from the wars we have become embroiled in. As the years go by, it is becoming increasingly apparent that politicians, having got us into this mess, are looking for someone else to carry the can.

Step forward General McChrystal.

Politicians are wimps at the best of times, but when the issue of war comes along now, the first instinct is to ask the generals for their advice. And for that, read buck-passing.

Once it became obvious that Obama’s main man in Afghanistan was recommending lots more troops, it was a sure fire winner that that was what Obama was going to do. Why swim against the flow?

What worries me is when did we start having our strategy decided by the people on the ground? Military generals should be implementing the policy decided by our accountable politicians. Not the other way around. If this plan all goes belly-up, are we supposed to sack McChrystal? You bet Obama would, but it wouldn’t matter, since Obama would get the blame, even though all he did was follow the recommendations of the guy we all previously thought was an expert.

This is why people tire of politics and politicians. There is no leadership any more. There is no bravery. It is all an exercise in trying to make it look like your ideas are backed by an independent authority, and just say you’re merely following orders.

And now we have McChrystal telling us that what we really need to do is take down bin Laden.

Well, thanks.

It’s time for military figures to disappear into the background once more. No more interviews. No more briefings. No more rent-a-quotes.

Let’s make the politicians more responsible for the mess they’ve got us into.

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Have The Climate Change Doom Merchants Blinked?

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 7, 2009 @ 11:57

Our old friend, the hockey stick. Al Gore will be pleased.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a very distinct changing of the emphasis in the discussion on climate change lately.

Before I begin, though, a declaration of interest. I am one of those climate change doom merchants. I believe man is making a significant impact on the planet. In fact, I believe we’re already past the point of no return, and humanity is too complacent and set-in-their-ways to do anything about it now anyway.

But even I have been tested lately.

We have been told for some time that the science is unquestionable. I believe it mostly still is. I’m no scientist, but even I understand that science very rarely gives a definite answer. So the science is not and has never been unquestionable. There are no real scientists on this planet who would ever be blinkered enough to say that their work has proved the climate change thesis and all discussion is over.

That’s why we should not fall for the climate change deniers who constantly harp on about them being ostracised and victimised. That there is – somehow – this big conspiracy stopping them from getting over the truth that climate change doesn’t exist. That they are going to save you from nasty governments who just want to use it all as an excuse to tax you more or inspect your rubbish bin.

No. The science is a debate going on between people far more intelligent than me, and usually involving stuff that I haven’t a clue about.

Like most things, then, it’s a question of trust. Do you trust the UN panel, the IPCC, made up of the works of thousands of scientists, but with the involvements of governments and maybe other vested interests, who say that there is a 90% chance that humanity is responsible for climate change? Or do you go with the much smaller body of science which believes the complete opposite?

I’m getting the sense, however, that those of us on the IPCC’s side are beginning to squirm a little. We no longer talk in imminent dangers. We talk in probabilities. That we ought to act because even if we’re wrong, it is a gamble that we should not take with our stewardship of the planet.

But the real noticeable change is a sudden shift in emphasis.

We are talking less now about climate change but about the elephant in the room. At last.

We are getting to the heart of the actual issue that’s wrong with Western world humanity.

Sustainability.

I’ve written about this before, how we are avoiding the really important issues by focusing on minor ‘green’ things like recycling.

Because there is one fact that even the climate change sceptics cannot deny.

Fossil fuels are finite. Coal, oil and gas will not go on forever. And our society, utterly dependent on plastic, utterly fixated on production and endless consumption with perpetual growth, no matter the cost, is not sustainable.

This is what we should be talking about. It just so happens that tackling most of these will co-incidentally reduce our carbon emissions. A win-win, perhaps.

But this agenda needs the politicians to be even braver. Who dares stand up to Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP et al?

Oh well. At least the talk sounds good.

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