Life and Times – two eco-reformists
A friend of mine who’s a keen vegan recently sent me an email with a Channel 4 podcast link to an interview with someone she greatly admires. That person was Dale Vince, a vegan himself who has become a wealthy entrepreneur through his setting up of the ‘green’ energy company Ecotricity, even if he’s probably best known for his ownership of Forest Green Rovers, a small football club recently promoted from non-league football to the Football League. The other thing about FGR, as they’re known, is that, in Vince’s image, the club itself is entirely vegan, so that everything sold, eaten and drunk in the ground is plant and not animal based. My friend described Vince as ‘an amazing person’ and ‘a genius’ for his espousal of environmental causes and efforts to bring about change in that area. Her view was that ‘his involvement in the business world has nothing at all to do with making money’.
The ‘Green New Deal’
As all this piqued my curiosity, I couldn’t not give the 40-minute podcast a go. It was definitely worthwhile. I found Vince quite a fascinating character, with a ‘rebel’ past (from the age of 15 he became a traveller for 10 years living from hand to mouth) who hated being constrained and was resistant to living the kind of life dictated by money-based society. He came across as likeable too, not deterred by adverse reactions and of course very clever for the way in which he had personally conceived and set up a highly successful energy business.
So far so good, but, as the interview progressed, what became clear was that Vince, despite his obvious good intentions, was , like so many others, falling into the trap of thinking you could solve the problems thrown up by the system we live in by making certain adjustments to certain aspects of it. The proposed innovation he was especially enthusiastic about was the use of biofuel, in the form of grass, as a way of creating abundant cheap energy. The lines along which he was talking were clearly compatible with what has come to be known as the ‘Green New Deal’. This involves, among other things, boosting renewable energy sources and lowering reliance on fossil fuels, using energy-saving appliances, constructing buildings with lower negative environmental impact and, in Vince’s case, campaigning against over-fishing (he funded the Seaspiracy documentary) and encouraging veganism.
All this is in a sense to be applauded, yet it is hard to see how this ‘greening’ of economic activity will not simply be integrated into the global system (capitalism) whose bottom line is always profit rather than human need. Even veganism, on which Vince is so keen and which is definitely on the rise, can only be – and is in the process of being – sucked into the system of profit-making with the problems it produces – and cannot solve – of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. What was traditionally seen as a subversive and anti-establishment form of resistance to the global food industry and its horrific abuse of animals has itself increasingly become a ‘cash cow’.
The friend who expressed admiration for Vince also drew my attention to a pair of articles from the Guardian written by another environmental campaigner, George Monbiot. One of these lamented the government’s policy of continuing to subsidise farmers despite their anti-environmental practices, while the other, entitled ‘Why are we feeding crops to our cars when people are starving?’ attacks the widespread and increasing use of crops, grasses, marshes and trees for fuel purposes, so-called ‘biofuels’, the very thing that Dale Vince advocates and claims to be a form of cheap, sustainable and non-destructive green energy. Monbiot takes aim at Vince by calling Ecotricity’s plan to turn huge land areas into feedstock for biogas plant as ‘the worst land proposal I’ve ever seen in the UK’. He goes on ‘But we can’t use such fixes to solve our climate crisis. To leave fossil fuels in the ground, we should change our energy system: our need to travel, our modes of transport, the fuel economy of our homes and the means by which we heat them. Modern biofuels, used at scale, are no more sustainable than an older variety: whale oil. And burning food is the definition of decadence’ (bit.ly/3IAaqRG).
Is there a side to be taken here? As socialists we wouldn’t want to do that, since it would involve supporting one plan or another for managing capitalism, even if both campaigners refer to it as ‘ecosocialism’. And what we explicitly want is for capitalism to be replaced by a completely different kind of society organised on the basis of human need not profit. So, though during his interview Vince calls himself a ‘socialist’, his arguments, well-meaning as they may be, show his ideas about social change to be a million miles away from what we mean by ‘socialism’. And he confirms this by ending with the admission that he would like to have a future role in the Labour Party. It’s doubtful that Monbiot would want that for himself, but he too shows he is still thoroughly into policies to reform capitalism when, in his article on government policy on farming, he states: ‘I want to see Defra diversified and clear lines drawn between private and public interests. I want to see the lobbying power of the NFU curtailed’ (bit.ly/3uCZE7J).
In her message to me, my friend, in support of Vince and his plan for producing energy from potential food sources, drew attention to the fact that more food than needed is already produced on a world scale. The only problem, she stated, was distribution ‘due to economic and political factors’. And that’s exactly right, but the trouble is that those ‘economic and political factors’ will always exist as long as we have a society with such things as money, banks, governments and states.
So we need more than a vegan football club à la Vince and more than changed government policies à la Monbiot. We need something quite different – a world of planned cooperation which takes advantage of technology in a sustainable way and in which everyone can develop their interests and abilities with full social support and live without the ever-present threat of pervasive material insecurity. That, and not just the tinkering at the edges of capitalism that both campaigners advocate, would be the true ‘ecosocialism’.