Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Greens - grow up

The last year has seen a huge upsurge in the intensity and urgency in the climate change debate. Hurricane Katrina, the first climate refugees in the Pacific, the next generation of nuclear power stations, dire predictions from respected scientists such as James Lovelock, and the BBC’s climate chaos series have all contributed to the sense that climate change is happening now and has the potential to be catastrophic. Many climate change scientists argue that we have thirty years maximum before we cross the ‘tipping point’ when cataclysmic climate change becomes inevitable. Some say that we may already have passed it. A year ago it was mainstream to say that environmental issues were very important, but not the number one priority. Now most prominent public figures accept that climate change is very urgent and very important. A growing number of businesses are also pushing for a greener regulatory framework to promote investment and business solutions to climate change.

The Green movement should be pleased by this new found concern, but also has to adapt to the new reality in which it finds itself. The Green movement has its roots in the new ‘identity’ personal politics that began in the 1960s, along with gender and politics of sexuality. Its emphasis has been on living sustainably, building communities and making individual ‘green’ choices such as recycling, not owning a car and buying organically. Green campaigns, directly or indirectly have predominantly been about changing individual consumer’s behaviour rather than macro green policies: do your bit – we can change the world one by one.

The problem is that China is building as many coal power stations in a year as the UK operates in total – the Chinese have plans to build a further 544 coal power stations. The growth of the car market in India makes our vehicle journeys insignificant by comparison. As James Lovelock puts it: “Nothing we do in Britain is going to make a hill of beans of difference.” Trying to reduce the number of car journeys in the UK is a bit like putting all our energy into buying egg cups for people so that they everyone can help put out a fire, whereas what we really need is to club together and get a few aeroplanes with water jets. There may be ways of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change, but it’s not going to be through each individual changing their behaviour. Instead we need to be investing billions in clean technologies such as carbon sequestration techniques and transferring them to the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians as quickly as possible. The Green movement should be lobbying our government for the biggest investment in scientific research in history. If we’re going to prevent millions of climate refugees and the world’s poorest people being hit time and again by unnatural disasters we need to think big and quickly.

But can the green movement adapt? The idea of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions by changing their own lifestyles is deeply rooted. It rests on the assumption that doing good for others is also good for our own happiness, fulfilment and contentment – it’s a win-win situation. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the whole picture. The Green movement has always critiqued the descent into an atomised, consumer lifestyle, but like the rest of society has reacted against organised large scale, coherent collective action. We’ve focused so much on encouraging individuals to make good environmental choices we’ve lost faith in the potency of collective political lobbying and large scale human endeavour and scientific research. It’s time to “practice the latter without leaving the former undone.” It’s time to work with businesses, engineers and research companies to find large scale solutions to catastrophic climate change, without forgoing the critique on a wasteful, materialistic society out of touch with it’s environment. It’s time for the Greens to grow up.

Monday, June 19, 2006

What would you do?

Last week the Joseph Rowntree foundation published ‘need, not greed’, a report which analysed the reasons why people take informal cash in hand work. The findings make fascinating reading for those familiar with the one dimensional government approach of enforcement and cracking down on benefit fraud. Every week I meet people who want to find legitimate work, but are frustrated by the benefits and tax system.

Andrea (20) had been out of work for a few months after personal problems before she found herself a 16 hour a week job in a hairdressers, which earned £88 per week. She wants to get back into full time work, but doesn’t yet feel she has the confidence to do so. The government estimates that she needs £45.50 a week to live on and therefore stops paying her Job Seeker’s Allowance. In addition, two thirds of the money above £45.50 a week that she earns is deducted from her Housing Benefit claim. She is £14.36 a week better off. However, because her hours and her pay vary from week to week she has to inform the Job Centre and the Housing Benefit department every time she gets paid. Sometimes she is not paid on time by her employers and she has to trust that she will not get caught out by inefficient, impersonal, unhelpful benefits administration that might delay the payments she needs for rent and living expenses.

Is it any wonder that people take on cash in hand work, whilst staying on benefits? If Andrea had taken cash in hand she would be £88 a week better off without taking the risk of being without money for weeks if her job stopped and she struggled to ensure she got the right benefit payments. There are numerous non-financial advantages to working part time rather than staying on benefits. It raises self esteem, helps people to get back into the job market, makes it easier to access privately rented housing and crucially, averts boredom and a downward spiral into lethargy and depression. When people ask me about cash in hand work I advise them that legally they must declare their earnings, but I would much rather they worked cash in hand than not at all. There are extra problems to cash in hand work over legal work– you are more liable to be exploited, be paid less than the minimum wage or not get paid at all, but in the context of the immediate minute to minute financial needs of most people on benefits these risks are worth taking.

The government is right that you can survive on the Job Seeker’s rate of £57.50 a week for over 25s, with the help of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. But imagine not being able to afford birthday cards and presents for your family; not being able to treat yourself once in a while without knowing that it will put you into debt at the end of the month; not being able to travel to visit your grandma for want of what is often just a few pounds. People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

This is not an argument for increasing benefit rates. We need to encourage, equip and support people back into work in as many ways as possible (education, training, preparing CVs, fare to job interviews etc etc) and a higher weekly allowance will not achieve that. Neither would it reduce the amount of work in the informal shadow economy. We need to make a bigger financial differentiation between benefits and work, through significantly increasing the minimum wage and allowing a greater ‘run-on’ of benefits for the first few months when someone finds work. We also need an efficient and accurately run benefits administration. The ‘faceless bureaucrats’ which Gordon Brown and Oliver Letwin fight to cull have an important job to do in ending Benefit dependency.

The informal cash in hand economy can be an insecure and difficult financial environment, but it can be a lifesaver for those on benefits and I rarely feel the need to reach for the phone number of the government’s Benefits Fraud Hotline.

Name and some of Andrea's details have been changed.

Men - Go Crazy!

It’s still the men who are REALLY interested. It has reached a mass male and female audience for the first time as shown by the endless stream of merchandise from pushchairs to tents, but most women can take or leave football. It’s the men who drive the fever, the passion and the wall to wall media coverage. Them, and the kids. For many kids football is the only thing that they see their dads and their dad’s mates get really excited about. Kids love adults getting excited about things – most of the time they are so sensible and boring: “stop running around, be quiet, calm down, I’m trying to have a snooze”. When the football comes on kids are encouraged to shout and wave their flags and jump up and down.

We are role models to the kids around us whether we like it or not and whether we’re parents or not. The only question is what kind of role model we’re going to be. Both genders can be role models to all children, but because boys and girls (to state the obvious to anyone who has any contact with kids) are very different, boys need male role models and girls need female role models.

There have been rumblings over the last fortnight about the ‘feminisation’ of school – the curriculum now suits girls’ style of learning and teachers, especially in primary schools are overwhelmingly female. Therefore, boys, so the argument goes, are bound to underachieve, because the system is weighted against them. What we need is a curriculum that boys can learn through as well, especially in secondary school. In Australia, although boys are behind the girls in the same way as in this country in more academic subjects, they aren’t seen as struggling because of the emphasis put on sport. More hands on learning is needed through apprenticeships and other work which provide a context where older men can garner respect and therefore authority over male teenagers. Before we go any further, let me be clear: there are multiple masculinities and some boys will always excel in the school system and society, but we can’t deny that there is a problem in the way that boys are growing up, coping in schools and maturing just for the sake of political correctness.

There is a stereotype that churches are ‘feminised’ domains too. In this stereotype a few older, weak in character, possibly gay men are in charge of a female congregation who prefer flowers, hymns and touchy feely emotions where everyone is terribly nice to each other. Like all stereotypes, this one contains some truth for some churches, but is far from always being the case. The Frontline Church in Liverpool, amongst many others exhibits a great model of Christian masculinity. Men play stupid, physical, games with each other, are highly competitive and are also demonstrably passionate about God. The church meets in single sex cell groups of up to 12 people (guess where they got that idea?!) with mixed ages. Boys and younger men learn emotional literacy and character development through discipleship and being around older men. Men who show that they can love their wives, give each other a hug and cry whilst still jumping into a freezing cold river, owning five guitars or going ballistic at a football match.

The best thing about Frontline is that, although I’m sure they would be the first to say they’ve got loads to learn, they share what they’ve got. Every week they run a 'Kidz Klub’ for over 500 children with as many boys as girls, as many male leaders as female. It’s telling that it’s only possible to properly discipline and teach the kids when particular leaders have a strong relationship with them. This does happen cross gender, but especially as the boys get older it comes from men. Good relationships beget respect and respect begets authority. It is in this environment that learning takes place. Jesus offers a great model of learning, mentoring and discipleship in the gospels. The church has a huge amount of tradition, learning and expertise that it can offer society when it comes to masculinity, male role models and mentoring relationships. Let’s freely give through our churches, projects, schools and time the good news that we have and show the next generation of boys and young men that we’re crazy about more than football.

This article was first published in a free monthly newsletter called 'IMPACT' run by the Christian Political Forum, which takes a thoughtful look at political issues and events. If you want to sign up email CPF-online@excite.com .

Monday, June 12, 2006

Nostalgia IS what it used to be.

“If you weren’t born when and where you were, where would you have liked to have been?” In the late night discussions that followed I imagined myself taking part in the student protests in 1968 Paris, when the majority believed that it was worth trying to change things and were prepared to risk their degrees and futures to do it. You can picture my pleasure when such idle dreaming found its way to the top of the charts last week through Sandi Thom’s first single ‘I want to be a Punk Rocker’.

The song taps into the richest seams of nostalgia – yearning for a lost innocence and a rose tinted affection for previous fads and trends. However Thom’s nostalgia goes a step deeper. She yearns for a time when an individual’s actions counted and there was the freedom to imagine that a completely different and better society was possible. The implication of the song now is that we’re stuck with what we’ve got and that fighting against the capitalist and mass media dominated system is futile. We were born too late and our generation can’t be change makers.

Thom may well be speaking for a generation unhappily caught up in the corporate machine of work to live and live to work, but her defeatist attitude is wrong and self perpetuating. Firstly all those punkrockers and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s are now in their 40s and 50s and running the country. You only have to look at the background of current Labour ministers to see that the leftie protest generation made it into power – Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and Charles Clark to name but a few. This generation did make huge strides campaigning for gender and race equality and against apartheid. They also campaigned against the imperialism of Vietnam and the proliferation of Nuclear weapons. It’s great to look back on the 1960s and 1970s with a touch of nostalgia, but it’s important to remember that the idealism of the 1960s contributed to and then got swallowed up by the consumer society and family breakdowns of the 1980s and 90s.

Our generation does care – it cares about making poverty history and the Iraq war and is the first generation to grow up with the environmental movement. It cares about stable families and long lasting friendships. However it doesn’t have the confidence that it’s possible to do anything about it. Adrift in a world of individualism it doesn’t know the power of and doesn’t think it has the time for sustained grass roots organised mass action. As a result people only offer shallow commitment to ‘Make Poverty History’ hoping it will do something, but not really believing that it can. This can change. We too will become the generation that runs the country, but in the mean time we desperately need to find, grow and equip leaders and change makers so that we can show that we weren’t born too late and that radical change for the better is always possible.