by | Mar 22, 2008

Writing in the Guardian this week, John Vidal says,

The government is in danger of losing credibility on climate change because more than half of all its departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions enough to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet.

This data is from the Sustainable Development Commission, who are, they tell us,

the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.

The fact that there is a public institution watching over the other public institutions to make sure they are ‘sustainable’, might have once implied some kind of economic auditing process in the public interest. But this quango is more worried about the UK Government’s carbon footprint than the uncorrupted delivery of public goods. The Commission’s website front page says,

Carbon emissions from offices have fallen by 4% since 1999, however nearly two thirds of departments are still not on track to meet the target of reducing carbon emissions from offices by 12.5% by 2010. The sixth annual assessment of government operations finds that, despite encouraging initiatives, government is still not on course to meet targets and urgently needs to raise its game.

But who gives a toss what the UK Government’s performance in delivering ‘sustainability’ actually is? Did anyone vote at the last elections for the concept of ‘sustainability’? Governments are supposed to deliver public goods, and the level of ‘sustainability’ of that process bears no relation to the utility of those services, the legitimacy of delivering services to particular end users, or the diligence of the civil servants engaged in delivering services. As long as services are being delivered, then it’s not as if anyone is being robbed.

Words that used to mean something in political discourse related to human experience; ‘Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie’. We know what these words mean, even if we might enjoy the expression of them in different ways. Similarly, once the influence of Churches and accidents of birth no longer had so much pull on the direction of society, political ideas were about how society might be more legitimately organised so as to best realise those values.

Today’s green buzzwords are instead designed to bridge the chasm between Environmentalism’s objectives and human values. Like ‘balance’ (as in ‘the climate is out of balance’), ‘sustainability’ in fact has very little meaning. Your house is not ‘sustainable’ – it is, at some point, going to fall down, or be knocked down. You are not sustainable – you are going to die, at some point. Nothing material is ‘sustainable’. The political currency of these words has not been achieved by the prospect of them making the world a better place, but by capturing anxieties about the security of the future. The values of ‘sustainability’ and localism reflect a breakdown in the belief in society and its ability to improve life through industry and democratic organisation. Indeed, industry becomes an antithesis to Environmentalism, and pesky democracy just gets in the way of ‘ethical’ lifestyles.

Environmentalism’s attempts to justify itself on a rational basis by using ‘science’ belie its mystical foundations; ‘sustainable’ lifestyles which are ‘balanced’ or otherwise in ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’ are designed well before any scientific evidence exists that they will have any effect whatsoever. Hairshirt lifestyles and Gaia worship existed before the Gaia hypothesis. Now it’s trendy, not because the world has been brought up to speed on the science, but because the ‘ethics’ are so appealing in our ethically disorientated world. In other words, being ‘sustainable’ is not about one’s actual ‘impact’, but about distancing oneself from the chaotic, immoral world in favour of the comforting morality of natural orders.

Vidal is wrong, the Government may be embarrassed by it’s performance, but this will not undermine its credibility, because no one cares. In setting up the quango, it set itself up to be embarrassed, but this embarrassment will not make any difference because only a small group of people believe that ‘sustainability’ actually means anything.


  1. Anonymous

    The interesting part about gov. bureaus not meeting goals is that they have nearly unlimited ability to buy new equipment, alter figures, and discontinue activities in order to meet the numbers.

    However, they do not pay taxes, penalties, and fees for their carbon usage. Those measures are reserved for use on the public sector.

  2. john a. bailo

    Exactly. Nature is not sustainable and evolution and speciation is driven by change in the environment.

    Sustainable (as in sustainable wind power, sustainable solar power…) is code for “needs lots of government subsidies to keep it going.


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