Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Wales : The Green and Grey Desert

What are we trying to do to Wales
through "sustainable development?"
(Pic : btaoregon.org)

Following on from my look at census demographics, and three excellent Click on Wales articles, it's worth considering the future of the Welsh economy and fitting that around sustainable development.

Former Plaid MP and AM, Cynog Dafis, wrote about squaring sustainable development with economic development. Cardiff University economics professor Calvin Jones addressed economic growth itself, mooting a "steady state" economy for Wales. Subsequently, Dr Kelvin Mason added to the debate, focusing on sustainable development activism.

No country for young men and women

It's an uncomfortable fact, but the Welsh (or people living in Wales) are amongst the most pig-headed, small-c conservative, cantankerous people in Europe. We generally oppose things for the sake of opposing them because we're used to someone else – historically the British state apparatus – taking whatever they want. In response, we try to "protect what's ours" by keeping things exactly how they are; pristine, green, damp and largely dead.

In many respects, anti-Welsh/anti-Welsh language comments are the same thing with different criteria. There's something in the Welsh psyche about wanting to be the Llywelyn statue in Cardiff City Hall – a raised fist against "something", just not knowing precisely what, and not really knowing why.

Nothing that threatens, as Cynog puts it – the "priceless and unsullied landscape....preserved from development and radical change" - is allowed. Nothing to ruin views from expensive ex-farmhouses. Nothing to make a country seem "alive". So it seems nothing always wins, and a few people get to raise their fists in defiance to make it so.

What remains is a massive folk museum. A slowly fossilising nation that exists like a pensioner sitting in a chair waiting for the Grim Reaper. It's not a country for the young, but – as the census statistics show – we're going to need them.

The only way to keep them is having a functioning economy, coupled with a high standard of living for young families. The former doesn't matter to the retired, their toiling days over and they understandably don't want any excitement. That excitement being anything from wind farms, a new bypass, houses or constitutional change. True, it isn't just the retired either, that's just a stereotype. It's also true that economic prosperity shouldn't be the only measure of well-being.

Sometimes those worries are justified. Open-cast mines are nothing but giant holes that make the land unusable for decades. You can still do things around wind farms, the footprint of which consists largely of the turbine bases themselves.

Nuclear energy has side issues - like waste and decommissioning - that makes it nothing but an expensive, panicked stop gap due to poor long-term energy planning. Nuclear's proven technology, but I'd take biomass or tidal as sloppy seconds every time.

The jury's out on fracking. Based on providing communities with a steady supply of gas over several decades, it might qualify as "sustainable". If it's burnt as quickly as possible in the National Grid to make quick profits (based on Welsh experience, that's what'll happen) then it most certainly doesn't qualify.

Is there room for compromise between "sustainability" and economic development? Is that even desirable? As Prof. Jones points out, should we rethink "growth" itself?

Economy or Ecology?

"Sustainable development" generally means balancing what's taken out – like natural resources - with what's put back (i.e. greenhouse gas reductions) enabling it to be managed at that level indefinitely.

Call me cynical, but "sustainable" has become a meaningless slogan to smooth through unpopular policies. Search any Senedd debate and see how many times "sustainable/sustainability" pops up – regardless of relevance. As a word, it's been raped.

Nothing quite representes the battle between sustainability, conservation of the landscape and economic development in Wales quite like wind farms.

As Cynog Dafis says, the fact we can generate clean energy directly from wind, sun or tides is a miracle of modern technology – even if we've used wind and watermills routinely before.

You can see two wind farms from prominent north-facing hills in Bridgend on a clear day – Heol y Cyw and I think the other's Fforch Nest. They neither add or take anything away from the landscape as most of the time they're shrouded in low cloud. That's different if you're right next to them, of course.

As for noise and health, pylons carrying electricity from Aberthaw can be pretty noisy, and it's unclear if they have a health impact. There's one less than 200m from me while it's practically in the back garden of someone living on the local estate.

I accept it because it keeps the lights on, just as wind turbines play their small part in doing so too.
Likewise, agriculture is probably the single most damaging activity humanity's done to the environment, but we accept that because it keeps bellies full and fields full of animals and crops. So, as you might expect, I don't see the point of keeping otherwise unproductive upland moors as they are for the sake of it.

Using the wind farm example, if they're manufactured, replaced and maintained by Welsh companies, and if the energy generated is supplied by Welsh companies or co-owned by local communities, that means jobs and economic benefits for Wales with minimal impact on the ecosystem - "sustainable development".

Lights on, factories working, jobs, money, "engineering graduates required", clean energy, community ownership. No massive holes in the ground. No grey blocks built next to the sea full of burning coal or submerged uranium.

However, as wind farms spring up, the "Welsh/community economic element" is missing – perhaps because no Welsh companies took advantage in the first place because they knew what the reaction would be from the locals.

Environmental protection should be a top consideration for sustainable development, but if you don't match that with economic sustainability too – that means rural and urban Wales paying its way - it doesn't work. It's too one-sided. All you would be left with is the equivalent of a garden full of weeds and rocks. It'll be overgrown with life, but slowly choked off and dying as a result.

Not everybody's happy with change, as opposing it keeps the noise and excitement – subsequently the youthful vitality - well away. I don't know what point it proves, other than leaving Wales an unkempt future graveyard.

I don't fancy living in a graveyard. Look at "brain drain" figures and many others my age have forsaken the vaunted "peace" and "tranquillity" and decided they don't fancy it either.

Post-Growth Problems : The "War on Stuff"
A world without growth is likely to be a world
with less "stuff". Try telling them that.
(Pic : Lunson Mitchenall)
An issue with economic growth is that economists and politicians expect growth to continue forever. They're ill-prepared for disasters like the 1930s, 70s oil shock or 2008.

Economic growth – by and large – is a mirage anyway. London's the wealthiest part of the UK thanks in main to global financial institutions, but that means diddly squat to those living in poverty around Canary Wharf. Ditto areas of rural Wales with sustained below average levels of economic inactivity - thanks in main to the public sector - but low productivity.

It's an economic pulse. It's a good indication of whether an economy's thriving or not, but you can't use it alone to tell if it's well overall.

A lot's been said about Wales benefiting from the green economy because we have the natural assets to take advantage of it. Prof. Jones makes a strong case that these developments aren't enough to meet either "sustainability" or economic growth.

I don't think his argument was Luddite or Malthusian, in fact it made sense. We don't have an ecosystem in isolation. Technology can meet our national targets, but pointless if our half-dozen fossil fuel plants get supplanted by thirty coal-fired power stations elsewhere in the world.

Technology can help, but only if we're smart about it. That could be to develop and export it – proving schemes like the Swansea Bay lagoon work - and show emerging economies currently reliant on fossil fuels that there are viable alternatives. That has to be coupled with global moves to stabilise the population, as well as local actions like energy conservation and changes to how and why we buy and use things.

The chase for "endless growth" is no doubt causing global unsustainability. However, thinking like that makes economics seem a mystical force, not an artificial human construct. Throughout history, when something doesn't work to our benefit, we change how it works – that applies to economics as much as energy generation and manufacturing.

We've seen moves towards practical steps in Wales, like Leanne Wood's Greenprint for the Valleys and The Collective Entrepreneur. But those approaches are still – largely – based on growth, just redefined and repackaged.

With regard "post growth economics" - as mooted by Prof. Jones and others - several problems arise.

Firstly, it's a generational "War on Stuff", and the Welsh like "stuff" as much as anyone else. I loath consumerism, I can't emphasise that enough, but it's hard to picture returning to "the simple days of old" that those acting as Wales' curators are perhaps keen to cling to.

It's twee to believe Welsh people - amongst all others - are going to give up their "stuff" so we can dance through the forest like The Smurfs and live in ecovillages. We'll need to be told to, maybe forced to once exhausted supplies of "stuff" can't meet demand. All that has unfortunate implications.

Next, the elephant in the room – global population growth.

Europe's population is stabilising and ageing, which has problems in itself. It's under-developed nations who'll get shafted (or not as the case may be). That's where population growth – and demand for food, energy and resources - is driven from. The poorest have large families because children die of preventable diseases, and bring in an income via more heads working for very little.

Also, they're not to blame for global unsustainability, but they'll have to be told to have fewer children so we in the developed world can feel more smug about saving them from themselves. Those emerging economies who've spent a century catching up to us will have to take our calls for them to stop with a straight face too.

Then there's the problem of innovation. It's not that a "post growth" economy wouldn't innovate, it's that any viable innovation – no matter how small - will result in some sort of growth.

What would a steady state economy look like? Would growth in one economic sector have to be offset by an engineered decline elsewhere to maintain artificial equilibrium? Hasn't Wales been living through a version of "steady state economics" since the 1980s? Look where it's got us.

I like the idea of rethinking why we work, and the concept of "useful work" – so much so I might come back to it another time. But people doing "useful work" will still want to get paid and buy "stuff" unless they've undergone a mass re-education.

Useful work will be assigned a value. That could be done via a virtual, inflation-proof or negative interest currency, the value of "useful work" based on factors including effort, resources used and (mental & physical) sacrifice. Your nurse could be paid more than a footballer, and your politician can be paid less than a binman.

It works in Star Trek because they have infinite resources via molecular resequencing - the ultimate version of recycling - and infinite energy sources unknown to modern science. "Money" and "wealth" are useless concepts in an economy like that.

Except, we still have finite resources, and scarcity generates "worth" in itself. The only workable, but massively imperfect way of managing that in human history is the market. So far from throwing in the towel on growth, we should probably ensure sustainable products and concepts become cheap, desirable and marketable.

For example, housing. I'd prefer to see low-carbon, modular homes made out of fast-regenerating materials like timber (and "smart materials"), built along walkable grid pattern streets, close to public transport hubs, replace sprawling estates of brick and mortar cul-de-sacs. Keep the individualist concept of "what is mine", but change how that looks and works.

Those advocating stable state economics need to be careful they don't end up on the same side, philosophically speaking, as those opposed to development for the sake of opposition or to "preserve something" - a country photographed for the front of chocolate boxes. A country stuck in a glass bottle, full of tiny waxworks for people to gawp at. A nice country to die in.

We couldn't be bothered to maintain it properly as it was "too hard work". We'd rather sit and stare at it through the window, maybe getting someone in to trim things back every now and again.
In the end, Wales ends up a weed-ridden garden.

We'll think the
neighbours will sit back and admire that too, and our commitment to letting nature reclaim its own, but instead it's practically an invitation to chuck whatever rubbish they have over the fence.


  1. There are some really great points throughout this article. Going for 'degrowth' or anything not involving growth is a tough one, democratically. If something can be done internationally, that'd be a way forward. Cuba has been acknowledged as a country loving broadly within its means, and has achieved great things in terms of human capital, but Cubans still want more stuff which is why their government is...you guessed it...pushing for more growth.

  2. Thanks, Luke.

    Moves towards global sustainability has to be international, and I think that's what Prof. Jones was getting at, albeit a bit pessimistic (or maybe realistic) about the chances of that happening.

    "Degrowth" sounds sensible, but the reality of "stuff" means that it'll be too much of a shock to the system to be adopted. It does genuinely look like a forced regression of society. I prefer international efforts to use resources carefully, and bombing the developing world with condoms instead of drones.

  3. Interesting piece. Wales has suffered for long enough from unsustainable development - look at the problems we have today of obesity, unemployment and developing climate change.

    But I'm quite optimistic because at least Wales has sustainable development on the agenda. It's not about trade-offs - it's about integrating social, environmental and economic decisions in a smart way for the present and the long term - instead of short termist and narrow or 'siloed' decisions.

    Actually achieving sustainable development is going to mean real shifts in how we do things e.g. developing a sustainable economy - low carbon and clever about resource use, as well as creating good jobs and strong communities. It doesn't mean rejecting everything - far from it.

    It also means building on our great Welsh tradition as internationalists and taking a lead on the world stage. We have a duty to people overseas and to future generations, as well as to people living in Wales right now.

  4. Thanks.

    The industrial boom is the picture post card for unsustainable development, as was its decline too it has to be said.

    I think having sustainable development "enshrined" is broadly positive. My issue with it is that it hasn't been spelt out what that means in practice. I think we all know what it means in theory, but it's just become part of a "feel good" vocabulary politicians wheel out to make their proposals sound better than they are.

    The trouble is that, like I've perhaps shown here, one person's idea of sustainable development is likely to be different from another person's, especially once you factor in ideologies or political goals too.