Netroots Taking Hold in Scotland?

At the weekend I travelled down to the London for the UK’s first Netroots conference. There are already been plenty of reports on the day’s proceedings elsewhere on the web, from the Guardian and Total Politics to Red Pepper and Counterfire….so surely another one won’t hurt.

On the whole it was a useful day – although I’d agree with the criticisms of the fetishisation of the Labour party and the over-reliance on establishment speakers voiced by many – but my aim here is not to critique Netroots, either as a concept or as an event, but to briefly sketch what I learned from the day that might be of use to activists in Scotland, and beyond.

In the morning plenary, Nigel Stanley from the TUC made a strong pitch for showing people that the cuts are both unfair and unnecessary: we are not all in this together, the Con-Dem coalition has no electoral mandate for cuts. Stanley made a number of very useful points: we are not yet in the majority, we’re in danger of mobilising a minority, coalition narratives are strong, we need to make the case for alternatives such as Robin Hood tax, end to tax dodging, and a return to growth.

Excepting my scepticism about the possibility of growth as we know it returning the Western world – that’s an argument for another day – Stanley, and Clifford Singer from False Economy both made strong cases for the primacy of creating new narratives against the cuts that can grip the public consciousness. This is definitely something that we need to take up in Scotland, where the mainstream media has, broadly, accepted the logic of government cuts even if many leading commentators have not.

Surprisingly one of the recurring questions heard at Netroots was whether personal stories or facts and figures are the best way to persuade the public that the cuts are wrong. This Manichean division struck this observer as rather unnecessary: surely individual stories supported by broader context about the economic and social situation in the UK, and Scotland, provide the most effective framework for creating anti-cuts narratives?

I went to Netroots with one main aim – to learn from others about the best way to help grow and develop the anti-cuts movement in Scotland. With this in mind, in the late morning I attended the ‘Theory of Change: Planning Your Campaign’ session, which highlighted the fact that winning the argument isn’t enough (cf. Iraq, Climate Change, etc), we need to use on-line in tandem with physical and economic power.

Here in Scotland the inspiring occupations by students in Edinburgh and Glasgow have shown the physical power can achieve results, while the UKUncut boycotts have demonstrated our economic power. Developing new, creative forms of such protest in the coming weeks and months seems crucial.

Julielyn Gibbons, from the New Organizing Institute in Washington DC, talked of the importance of mobilising around a key date. In Scotland the Holyrood election in May is the most obvious red letter day in the short-term for anti-cuts activists.

The afternoon session on ‘Countering Cuts in Your Area’ was excellent. Jim Cranshaw from Oxford Save Our Services spoke of the need to be creative, something I’ve written about before, and also to think about how anti-cuts groups market themselves: instead of coming across as some sort of hard left proxy force (which we’re not), we need to focus on our own, and others, concerns as residents in a neighbourhood.

Cranshaw also highlighted the need to create a clear, attractive website, to organise in a non-hierarchical way and to try to make meetings fun: ‘I’ve never thought that fun is a counter-revolutionary concept’.

Matthew Scott from Community Sector Coalition had excellent advice for getting voluntary and community groups on board an anti-cuts campaign: show solidarity with local campaigns; listen to community groups rather than telling them what you need from them; avoid jargon; put a premium on collective rather than individual action; get beyond funded brokers to grassroots level; get the whole community involved; start from where people are physically at; never try to go beyond the experiences of your own people.

Much of this might sound self-evident but we all have experience of movements and campaigns that broke many of these rules – and failed as a consequence.

Given that the overwhelming majority of those at Netroots were based in and around London, that the situation in ‘the regions’, and particularly in Scotland, was rarely discussed was no great surprise. But that is not to say that campaigners in Scotland cannot learn from the broader UK anti-cuts movement.

In Edinburgh, where I live, we already have a vibrant student campaign against the cuts as well as community groups opposing the government’s spending policies. But we need more; we need an up-to-date website that allows people to see clearly what cuts are being made where; we need to make the cuts THE issue of the Holyrood election; we need to broaden the movement’s appeal to encompass people from all walks of life; and we need to find creative, innovative ways to organise and get our message out.

Perhaps a useful bridging step would be to organise our own ‘Netroots Scotland’ conference, there are certainly enough grassroots activists and innovative thinkers out there to make this worthwhile.

We also need to build a Scotland-wide anti-cuts movement and to get the cuts onto the political agenda – which is more difficult given the fact that Holyrood is passing on Westminster edicts.

But first off I’m working on building an anti-cuts group in Edinburgh. Everyone is more than welcome to join – just drop me a line.

The Secret Life of Stuff

Review of Julie Hill’s new book the Secret Life of Stuff appeared in the Sunday Business Post on January 9

Economic growth is always a good thing, right?

Not according to the New Economics Foundation. In January 2010, this left-leaning British think-tank warned, in the aptly-titled Growth Isn’t Possible report, that the prevailing orthodoxy of perpetual increasing, consumption based prosperity has left the world teetering on an ecological cliff.

Instead of trying to grow further, developed economies should look to consume resources in a stable, sustainable way.

While such views are unlikely to curry favour with many captains of industry, particularly in the face of a protracted worldwide financial slump, their influence reverberates across Julie Hill’s insightful, if occasionally frustrating new book, The Secret Life of Stuff.

Dismayed at ‘‘how little we understand the complexity of the material world that surrounds us’’, Hill draws on her 25 years’ experience as an environmental campaigner to examine where the ‘‘stuff’’ that clutters our lives comes from – and why we need to change radically the way we use, and abuse, the earth’s natural resources.

The problem is dispiritingly simple: we currently consume resources around 30 per cent faster than they are replaced naturally – and the rate is increasing annually.

Hill lays the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on the linear economy’s disposable philosophy – ‘‘make stuff, use stuff, throw stuff away’’. Growth at any cost simply produces more stuff, more waste and, crucially, a marked reduction in our core capital asset, the natural environment.

Take newspapers. If you’re reading this in print – and you probably are – then you can try to console yourself that newspapers today are printed on recycled paper. But this system isn’t an indefinite closed loop: paper can only be recycled half a dozen times before its fibres irrevocably breakdown.

Meanwhile, trees are diminishing. Half the world’s forest has already been felled; another quarter will be gone by 2050. Almost every other material resource – metal, minerals, water – is similarly overexploited.

So what’s the solution?

Not the ‘green consumer’ trend that, Hill argues, has simply produced a niche market for putatively environmentally friendly products. In its stead the author proposes a comprehensive overhaul of how we produce and use goods and objects: zero waste.

Zero waste ‘‘represents an aspiration to let as little stuff out of the economic system as possible’’, a philosophy of renew and reuse, not chuck away and start again.

It is a simple phrase, but one with devastating implications for our accepted ways of living and, even more so, doing business.

Alongside changes in government procurement policies and tax incentives for recycling and renewable energy, Hill proposes the introduction of binding ‘producer responsibility’.

Put simply, companies should be legally responsible for the entire life cycle of the products they produce.

Before buying a stick of timber or a spool of copper, businesses would have to consider how these raw materials would be used again after their product’s lifecycle.

It is a compelling argument with obvious benefits: massive savings in energy bills, the increased preservation of natural resources and the alleviation of the effects of climate change. But there are also drawbacks to zero waste at present.

Recycling technology is, in the main, remarkably primitive, even in the developed world. Economic inducements would certainly help change this, but progress takes time as well as legislation.

Lowering the price of renewables could also invite a Jevons paradox, whereby technological advances increase demand and consumption, negating any efficiency savings.

The Secret Life of Stuff is no dry, academic treatise.

Hill takes the reader on a journey from community incinerators on the Shetland Islands, to toxic spoil pits that pollute parts of Montana via ground-breaking recycling plants on the Japanese island of Shikoku, all the while explaining where our material world comes from, and how we too often waste it.

A range of sources are drawn on to produce a well researched, cogently-argued whole.

Unfortunately, the breadth of Hill’s reading is not always reflected in her style, which tends towards the demotic and too quickly becomes predictable.

Almost every section is prefaced with an historical anecdote, some of questionable relevance, while attempts to breakup the text with invented letters and hypothetical discussions fall flat.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend here. The Secret Life of Stuff is a mine of revealing stats and facts: our consumption of agricultural products from other countries means that each person on earth uses a staggering 4,645 litres of water a day; Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year; the largest aluminium smelter in Australia uses as much energy as a city of one million people.

Ignore the rather misleading subtitle, A Manual for a New Material World, The Secret Life of Stuff is a polemical , often persuasive, manifesto for reusing and remodelling the planet we already have, not designing a new one.

Hill’s is a radical challenge to our prevailing economic culture, not just a paean to eating organic and buying local.

There are limits to growth; if we haven’t bumped our heads off them already, we certainly will soon.

Hopes and Visions for Holyrood in 2011

Among the many inscriptions on the Canongate wall at Holyrood, it is a terse Scottish proverb that sums up the reality of political life in the Scottish Parliament better than any bon mots from Hugh MacDiarmid or Norman MacCaig: ‘To promise is ae thing, to keep it is anither.’

Despite the enthusiasm that greeted its inception, Holyrood has not always managed to capture the Scottish public’s imagination in the intervening years. The realpolitik of representative democracy – special interests, deal making, coalition building – has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, to dominate popular perceptions of life within the chambers.

With Parliament gearing up for its fourth election, it is an apt time to assess where Holyrood has succeeded – and where the Parliament still has room for improvement. And who better to ask than some of the 19 MSPs that have declared their intention to retire in 2011.

Professor Christopher Harvie has little doubt about the root case of Parliament’s image problem. ‘The public are turned off by Holyrood’s bloated bureaucracy,’ the SNP MSP, who is stepping down after on term, says frankly. ‘When the Parliament was founded it inherited an oligarchy of administrators that have built a cushy regime for themselves but really offer no value added proportionate to the cost of their salaries.’

Harvie says Holyrood suffers from a preponderance of ‘yes men’ and a reactionary fear of freethinkers. ‘From the start an awful lot of people elected to Parliament were safe figures. There was a fair degree of filtering of lists, a lot of interesting characters never got in, people that could have offered a different analysis. At present there is too much central organisation of opinion across all the parties,’ he remarks.

The Mid Scotland and Fife MSP would also like to see more joined-up thinking across government. Drawing on his experience of public life in Germany – he was professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen before coming to Holyrood – Harvie believes that the Office of the First Minister needs strengthening to allow it to act as policy driver for the whole administration and to encourage more long-term planning.

Harvie speaks positively of his time in office but bemoans the lack of creative thinking in Parliament. ‘In my time at Holyrood I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Big Idea. Education, environment, culture – what I call the ‘talky’ ministries – do a lot of talking at nice drinking parties but they’ve not been able to produce any big ideas that people can get enthused about,’ he comments.

Why has Holyrood failed to generate the kind of creative initiatives that could animate Scottish voters? Harvie feels that divisions both within and between ministries are to blame, citing the range of different departments with responsibilities around renewable energy as supporting evidence.

One reasonably large idea that Holyrood has successfully developed is its wide-ranging public petitions process. Irrespective of age or even voting rights, anybody resident in Scotland can petition the Parliament, a right that citizens in most EU countries do not possess.

‘Petitions are judged on their relevance, whether Parliament can do something about the issue and if they’re of public interest,’ explains Robin Harper, a Green Party MSP and member of the Public Petitions Committee.

The committee, which receives some 2,000 petitions in the lifecycle of a Parliament, has met everywhere from Fraserburgh and Fife to Arran and now also accepts electronic submissions.

Harper, who is stepping down from the Lothians seat he has held since 1999, describes the process as ‘innovative’ but feels that not enough money is spent publicising the committee’s work. ‘Getting the public to know what we are and what we are doing is difficult, but when they do turn up for one of our sessions they are clearly impressed,’ he says.

Marlyn Glen, a Labour MSP since 2003, argues that the public petitions committee, of which she is also a member, has helped to break down some of the tribal politics that can still dominate debates in the house. Glen, too, would like to see less focus on the points-scoring of First Minister’s questions and a greater emphasis on ‘cross-party committees like this that show we can work together on issues that can change people’s lives.’

The North East Scotland MSP, who is standing down this year, cites her work on the Equal Opportunities Committee as her greatest achievement at Holyrood but remains disappointed by the level of female representation in Parliament. Having seen the number of women in Holyrood grow from 48, in 1999, to 51, in 2003, the number fell to just 43 in the last election.

Glen firmly believes that a fairer gender balance at Holyrood would benefit Scottish voters. ‘The presence of more women would ensure that Parliament worked better. Most committees are too male dominated, the presence of more women would make a real difference,’ she remarks.

Somewhat paradoxically for an ardent nationalist, Christopher Harvie thinks that the Parliament would be significantly improved by a stronger Scottish voice among the Westminster panjandrums.

‘We’ve got to have a greater presence in London, and especially in the House of Lords. We’ve got to exploit that. Plaid Cymru have done to great success and so should we,’ says Harvie, whose penchant for fine speeches and acerbic witticisms would doubtless play well in the rarefied air of the Lords.

Back at Holyrood, ensuring the widest possible public participation in the life and decision-making of the Parliament requires innovative responses from our MSPs. Whether it is encouraging female participation and expanding the public petitions committee or creating fresh, exciting proposals for Scotland in this new age of austerity, as we head into 2011 our politicians would do well to heed another, more celebrated, maxim from the Canongate wall: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’

This article originally appeared on Newsnet Scotland on December 28.

Public Thinkers Beyond The University?

Last week a BBC Radio 3 scheme looking for “a new generation of public intellectuals” closed. Initiated in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the scheme aimed to unearth a new wave of public thinkers with an expressed “interest in broader cultural debate”. The competition was open to all – as long as you worked inside a university and in a discipline that the AHRC supports (so economists, political scientists, sociologists, etc, were all excluded as well as Joe public).

Social innovator (and co-creator of the excellent Dark Mountain project) Dougald Hine has blogged about the Radio 3/AHRC scheme and the need to recognise and encourage public thinkers beyond the academy.

Now, call me self-interested, but by this criterion, the likes of John Berger or a young Karl Polanyi would fall through their net. I’m not comparing myself to those remarkable men. But as someone whose work gets cited by academics in a range of disciplines and is, I hope, beginning to make some impression in the public sphere, I’m disappointed to be excluded from consideration.

This isn’t just about me, though – there’s a whole network of people I’m aware of in the UK and beyond who are doing substantial new thinking from outside of academia – often in close and constructive dialogue with those operating from inside university departments. The way Radio 3 and the AHRC are approaching this project is going to miss out on a huge amount of the emerging intellectual culture of our generation – many of whose brightest minds saw what was happening to academia and chose to do our thinking elsewhere.

It certainly seems odd that, as one commentator noted, the very terms of Radio 3’s scheme would rule out Antonio Gramsci, inventor of the term “public intellectual”. Lots of excellent thinking goes on in our universities but, as almost any academic will concur, academic departments – and research councils – do not always encourage broad, cross-disciplinary thought that challenges the way we live. And with the pressures that seem certain to heap upon social sciences and humanities in light of last week’s events in Westminster it would be naive to expect positive changes in this situation anytime soon.

As well as writing to Radio 3 controller, Roger Wright, asking him to broader the terms of the “new thinkers” scheme, Hine has also called for nominations for innovative public thinkers outside the academy. I’ll put forward a couple of names, Pat Kane, whose sui generis writing on social life, and particularly play, has long been a source of inspiration, and Jenny Diski, who has spent a career unswervingly seeing the world differently without slipped into tired contrariness.

Who would you choose? What kind of public thinkers should we (and institutions such as the BBC and the AHRC) be recognising and encouraging?