Big Society Versus Big Government Versus Catastrophic Climate Change


Image credit: Alan Cleaver (Creative Commons)

When I wrote about UK Conservatives' Big Society campaign as an alternative to Big Government, commenters were skeptical. Yet there has been a lot of (admittedly guarded) interest from grassroots green groups like the Transition Movement. After all, "think global, act local" has been a mantra of the environmental movement for decades. But how does the threat of climate change fit in with all this localism?Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Movement who we interviewed here, has written some typically balanced and well thought-out responses to the whole concept over at Transition Culture. His latest is the result of his involvement on a panel discussion about Big Society featuring David Prout, Director General of Communities at the Department of Communities and Local Government. In it, he poses some interesting questions about what Big Society means for the fight against climate change.

You certainly won't find much argument from Rob that communities need to feel more engaged, more empowered and more connected with the core issues and challenges we all face. From peak oil to climate change to food security to an uncertain global economy, there are plenty of initiatives that can create real, lasting change on a local level much faster than any top-down approach. My original post on Big Society posed questions about whether it would simply perpetuate, and even accentuate, class and economic divides—poor communities being in many ways less equipped to take control of self-governance and development—but Rob points out another major, serious threat from this decentralized agenda. How the heck do we tackle global climate change or escalate renewables in any meaningful way if we are dispersing power to local planning authorities that are inevitably more susceptible to NIMBY elements in their community?

The question came as a response to David Prout's assertions that devolved decision making would force planners to learn to take responsibility for their actions. The idea, claimed Prout, was that Big Society would eventually lead to more mature local governance. The trouble is, argued Hopkins, we may not have time to wait for a gradual maturing of our decision making bodies:

"This exchange somehow embodied for me the way in which the Big Society feels really unthought through. Are we really saying that climate change, and the need for a wartime mobilisation scale of response needed, the government's commitment to increasing renewable energy generating capacity from 3% today to 15% by 2020, the bulk of which will come from wind, half of it onshore, will actually happen by the decisions being delegated to Councils ideologically opposed to wind power? Surely climate change is an area where strong central government is vital, and such delegation is actually deeply dangerous. Although the Big Society has many elements that could lead to increased resilience at the community level, it is couched within a context that appears to have little likelihood of achieving the scale of response necessitated by climate change."

Whatever we think of the Big Society agenda, I must say it's good to see all sides talking to each other. In light of the angry rhetoric about Tea Parties, socialism and "real America" going on on this side of the Atlantic, it's nice to see a more rational discussion about the appropriate role of the State in creating positive social and environmental change.

More on David Cameron and the UK Conservatives
Can Big Society Squash Big Government, and Save the Planet Too?
British PM Shuts Down 3rd Runway at Heathrow for Good
David Cameron Calls for Carbon Tax on Electricity Generated from Coal and Gas
UK EV Grants Slashed 80%? Or Not...

Tags: Activism | Communities | Economics | Peak Oil | Poverty | United Kingdom