Being right isn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Policies I greatly support are being implemented and… I’m nervous about it. Why? Because I’m worried that these policies are too isolated, too uncoordinated. I’m worried because the result may lead to a backlash. I’m worried because winning the legislative game isn’t enough – we must take the public with us as we do.

The policies I’m thinking about are the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ). Both of these are greatly important in their own ways. We really do need to take rapid steps towards a circular economy. In fact getting a circular economy right is, for me, the difference between creating an ‘eco-utopia’ versus a ‘green corporate dystopia’. 

Meanwhile transport is an area where we’re doing damage but also being very slow to act on it. For a number of years Common Weal had an office on Union Street in Glasgow, which was Scotland’s most polluted street. Having written a policy paper on the health impact of airborne particulate matter back in the 1990s I am very conscious of the long-term health risks.

So great – the DRS and the LEZ must be getting me really excited? Nope, they’re making me nervous. Here’s why.

Arguably, we face the biggest challenge any generation has ever faced. Plagues, wars, economic crises – they are traumatic and horrible, but when they end, gradually a word in which we can live reasserts itself and history moves on. That isn’t necessarily true of where the world is now. There might potentially be no liveable world to reassert itself.

Which makes this a massive problem, and it carries inside it so, so many other massive problems. We have a vested interests problem. My reading of the titans of capitalism is that they are now perfectly aware of what they’re doing and where it will lead, but they look at all the other titans of capitalism and know they’re going to do it anyway.

Which means they will do it too. There is a disaster-capitalism mindset which I fear now accepts that they are going to make money by destroying the world but they’ll be dead before it happens and so its down to someone else later to clear up their mess.

We have a money problem, because there are now damn few governments around the world which are not totally captured by the mindset of neoliberalism in which collective action is never acceptable if it is expensive. Investment in tackling climate change is greatly insufficient.

When these two issues come together we get the worst case scenario – what money actually is invested in climate change is syphoned off in profits by the already rich (which is, in a nutshell, a description of the modern global economy). So the money doesn’t even achieve what it could because it is being directed not to the best solution but to the most available commercially-lobbied option.

This leaves us with an outcome problem, because what is good for the corporates isn’t good for the rest of us. Look at the Scottish Government’s ‘PFI for Trees’ scheme and ask yourself how much of the investment in rewilding is being wasted as it is syphoned off. Look at the DRS and the way it privatises public sector recycling into a company that pays its boss twice as much as the First Minister.

And this is all exacerbated by a framing problem. An enormous amount of the messaging around climate change reverts back to the implication that it’s your fault (it’s not) and that you’re going to have to sacrifice. Things get worse for you so they can stay the same for the rich and get better (a bit) for ‘future generations’.

Except the sacrifice currently being asked isn’t even nearly enough to protect future generations but is plenty enough to lead to disillusionment. What there absolutely isn’t is any real promise of action on climate change making your life better. It’s all downside.

And that’s what makes me very nervous about what is happening in Scotland. Absent a plan (they don’t have a credible climate change plan) and without available funding (no-one will look at how wasteful public spending in Scotland can be) the Scottish Government is grabbing the options at hand, and they’re all sacrifice options.

If an individual gets the same bottle of beer at a higher price and now has to collect them and deliver them back to their nearest ‘reverse vending machine’ to get the price back down to what it was, there is absolutely nothing about their experience which isn’t worse. If, overnight, people can’t drive their car into Glasgow but are given not a single improved public transport option, nothing gets better for them, everything gets worse.

If you do it properly it is different. In the German bottle return scheme serious investment was put into collection. There are a number of ways you can return bottles and it is easier. They are not crushed and recycled in an energy-intensive way like the Scottish scheme, they are refilled (or at least half of them are, 25 times for plastic bottles, 50 for beer bottles).

That’s possible because they negotiated with all the German breweries and they standardised the beer bottles. It is a pretty seamless system kept in the public domain which was not excessively painful for citizens to get used to.

Then look at countries which have successfully reduced traffic in their city centres – and look at the improvements to public transport they make. I would love to get to Glasgow by public transport but it adds half an hour to my journey time in either direction, which means a journey to Glasgow turns out to be equivalent to a journey to Dundee. It’s like moving all my meetings 50 miles north.

Usually you refer to what is being done as ‘low-hanging fruit’, the easy things a government can do to get easy outcomes. But this isn’t ‘fruit’. This risks being received by the public as the ‘nearest available whip’. Nothing gets better, everything gets worse.

I am worried because I already know two people who rely on being able to get to Glasgow for work. Both of them have cars that in different ways are going to be excluded. Both have precisely the same lack of public transport options I have. Neither are climate change deniers; both support action. But they’re not happy.

And I’ve been worried for a while about whether the Scottish Government could actually pull off a workable DRS even if it is allowed. Again, in a rural community, where is my nearest ‘reverse vending machine’? If you’re an old lady in a suburban housing estate, how far is your walk with a bag full of bottles? Do you just accept that everything you drink is 20p more expensive?

Some things will be a little harder in an eco-utopia. How do we make them pleasantly so? For example, walking a bit more and relying on a car less can be really nice if things are set up for it. Or alternatively you can make some things better while other things get a little harder. For example, food prices will rise, but you can bring housing costs way down, make houses cheaper to heat, warmer, less draughty.

But if you hammer the public with nothing but a relentless list of ‘things getting worse’ and if you do that on top of public services which are getting worse and (for many people) an economy and a housing system which are both also making things worse for them, you end up building resentment.

Policymakers are great at telling themselves that ‘it is only the bad people who are angry at this’, but policymakers all earn a lot of money and live close to places where there will be reverse vending machines. The all want an electric car anyway – and they can afford it.

That is precisely what policymakers told themselves over the 20 years of stagnant wages in the UK (‘look, the good people know this is all for their own good in the long run’) – and then we got Brexit, because people kick back against being told their life will get worse.

If we cannot take the public with us, positively and enthusiastically as partners, the risks of backlash are enormous. Doing the tough thing now and making the world’s vaguest promises about a better thing to come (‘sorry your car is banned, but look at this glossy leaflet about a Metro system which is probably never going to happen and will be decades away if it does’) is asking for trouble.

I’m nervous. We may not get two chances to avoid turning the public against climate change action by creating a situation where every time they hear it they know their life is about to get worse. A life getting worse right now will always trump a life getting worse at an indeterminate point the future. 

The public really do want climate action, but it is the job of policymakers to turn that into the basis for a better world, not a worse one. We must take the public with us. We can’t ‘punish’ them into being the public we want.

9 thoughts on “Being right isn’t enough. Not nearly enough.”

  1. Hi Robin,
    I get what you are saying.
    However, the reality is that all of us have to step up to the plate. We cannot continue living as we have been as individuals. Climate change is coming faster than we thought and this will result in unmanageable and uncontrollable consequences. You are right that public bodies, governmental organisations and corporate bodies should be bearing greater responsibility and acting quicker in a more coordinated manner. That said, judging by the inadequate response of these bodies and sheer public apathy so far, as I said to you before, we have already missed the last opportunity to prevent climate chaos. It is already upon us and getting worse. I can’t help concluding that we have already burnt the planet. Sorry to be a doom merchant.
    Nevertheless, I’ll continue to campaign for climate action till my last breath; we have our children and grandchildren to consider. I can’t imagine what they will live through.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Susan – I’m getting really, really worried about environmental collapse. Action is essential. That is why I am very, very clear that action must happen. And we live in a democracy. We can’t compel action indefinitely. Look at what is happening to the SNP’s position on oil exploration because it came out early with soundbites that were’t worked through and received a backlash. Then look at the Friends of the Earth study on oil industry workers and their attitude to change (positive) and note the difference. Do it right, take people with you, it works. Do it wrong, don’t take people with you, it fails. I can assure you that one of the two people I mentioned above would not react well to being told ‘look, you just need to step up’. Because (not in these words), they would reply ‘says some so-and-so who has a flat in Glasgow, an expensive new car and literally doesn’t have the first clue as to what public transport is like round here’. Now tell them ‘yes, but that’s your own fault and you just need to suck up being treated much worse for the greater good’ and see how it goes.

      It’s all fine in abstract. In abstract there is overwhelming public support for massive climate action now. Then tell them ‘but you can’t ever have sausages again’ or ‘just accept that you need to wait in a half-our queue for a 20 minute charge every time your car runs out of battery’ and see what happens next. Or let me put it another way for everyone – think about the thing you HAVEN’T done for the climate (there is undoubtedly sometime) because it was too inconvenient. Then have that action mandated by law under threat of significant penalty. Perhaps you will feel good about it, but what if you don’t?

      I’ll keep saying this until the day I die – the history of democracy is not that the best idea won out, it’s that the idea that carried the most people with it generally won out. We HAVE to win on this one. We CANNOT screw it up by losing public support.


  2. 100% agree that change will only happen when people can see that such change will make their lives tangibly better.

    100% disagree that DRS an LEZ are meaningful steps towards mitigating the disastrous effects of climate change, which are already upon us. DRS, LEZ, etc. are bolt-on policies, ineffectual tweaks to a system that is inherently destructive. They are a distraction from the radical changes that are needed to stop the destruction.

    We cannot afford to waste our effort on distractions. Capitalism, socialism, centrism, nationalism, even environmentalism with its propensity for “thou shalt not” dogma are all egregious distractions from the critical issue of how we organise our collective effort to provide the things that we need for our individual security and comfort.

    We do not have systems of collective decision-making and finance that allow us to live equitable, sustainable, prosperous lives. Developing and implementing such systems is where we must focus 100% of our effort.

    We must create a framework of decision-making and finance in which it becomes possible and desirable for people to live and prosper in sustainable ways. Such a framework must be built around the primary objective of universal sustainable prosperity. When I can see that change will enhance my personal prosperity, I will vote for it. So will you, so will everyone else.

  3. I don’t know if it still happens in France but I recall from some years ago that there were standard sized wine bottles with (3?) embossed stars which could be returned and re-used.
    The German model you cite for glass and plastic could be used here, it would cost to set up but pay for itself quickly.

  4. I live in Germany and the DRS system works brilliantly. All plastic bottles big or small are refunded at 25 c, drinks cans 25c and beer bottles 5c. You won’t see an empty can or bottle lying around; they’re too precious. It used to be at first you would have to return the bottles to where you purchased them but that is history, and there is no shortage of reverse vending machines.

  5. Ian Davidson

    Excellent article and subsequent comments. From the perspective of a “Cuban Missile Crisis Baby” I will be frustratingly honest and admit: I just don’t know. The climate and eco threats are “real” enough but there is still a wide margin of potential prediction error as to when X will affect Y and produce outcome Z? This problem of identifying credible evidence of specific “real and present dangers” in a world which is, as we speak, engulfed in many “minor” conflicts/wars, any of which could escalate in seconds to major existential catastrophes due to human error, is difficult to crack. The level of emotional intelligence and positive human consciousness of most of our “world leaders” is astonishingly abysmal: I am talking about mass murderers living in plain sight of us all. Millions murdered in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Ukraine, and various other conflict zones which I can’t even recall! War is madness and it destroys everything; it is the ultimate perversity of ecological and climate protection yet it goes on, right now! Stop all current wars and conflicts today; stop new arms production; reform the world economy rather than focusing on making a few taxi drivers in Glasgow become bus drivers because of a tokenistic LEZ scheme! As has been commented, the current neo-liberal context in which the few decide for the many is a block to progress on just about everything. UK Governance and ethics is in the gutter; Scotland slightly better but still, as per article, an essentially middle class group of policy makers advocating real but possibly in some aspects unnecessary/tokenistic sacrifices by folks in much less favourable economic and social circumstances? Of one thing I am sure. Planet Earth/Nature/Gaia will adapt and survive; humanity may or may not (most probable that the existential consequences will be greatest for the least powerful as with everything else?). Right now, for entirely subjective/spiritual reasons which I do not understand, I am neither wholly pessimistic nor optimistic about our collective future, on the basis that getting through each day is on an individual level, enough. Yes, young folks should be concerned about the future, but please, not to the extent of enduring emotional distress over outcomes that are not 100% certain and out with individual control. There are 8 billion human beings alive right now: most of them have little influence over anything but the most intimate and “near” aspects of their lives? I am also sure that neither Lorna Slater nor Patrick Harvie are politically competent to encourage the changes we do need; they are very efficient at creating distraction and discord with very little positive outcome for the silent majority? Whatever we do or don’t do in Scotland matters; however it will not be a significant factor in the future of the whole planet. We are not going to save the world so lets get focused and stop national grandstanding?

  6. If you want to know what’s actually being done, there are lots of interesting graphs here, https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Progress-reducing-emissions-in-Scotland-2021-Report-to-Parliament-1.pdf. However there are lots and lots of instances of “ambitious”, “potential”, “target”, etc., too. If you take the report at face value then the 40% reduction in Scotland’s carbon footprint in the past 20 years would appear to indicate that the problem is solved or at least on track to being so. However, aside from percentages, there is precious little by way of actual, verified numbers in the report. That makes me think that it’s really just a brochure that can be waved around so everybody can stand around and congratulate each other on a job well done.

    As other commenters have mentioned, real change comes with really big amounts of money being spent. Anything else is just rearranging the deckchairs.

  7. Bill Kerr-Smith

    Robin, as always, your article makes compelling reading and eminent sense. But isn’t one of our root problems actually the quality of our politicians? The current Party system (in every Party) leads inevitably to the selection of long-standing members and activists as candidates for election, with no consideration of their ability or competence. This goes right to the top of our political trees, with such outstanding examples as Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in our most recent history. I cannot conceive of any credible mechanism to submit candidates to some kind of competence test during selection, but maybe you good people at Common Weal could advocate some method to at least eliminate the self-serving narcissists who do so much to damage our public realm? Living in hope.

  8. The key word in this whole discussion has been mentioned by Robin in a response to a comment but not in the article itself – Democracy. Dictatorships are able to bring about radical change because they don’t have to check whether the public agree with the direction of travel. Democracies can only make radical change with public support, or at least acquiescence. Few political parties are likely to get elected to power on a pledge that, if elected, they will make people poorer and their lives worse. Ever fewer governing parties can expect to be re-elected if they have made people poorer and their lives have become worse. This is the political reality.

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