Darwin – Green Liberal Democrat? (serendipity part 1)

I have long held the view that serendipity plays a significant role in the furtherance of human knowledge and understanding and, by reason of timing, geography and my need for a cup of coffee, I found myself, this morning, wondering what Charles Darwin would have made of today`s environmental crises. Indeed, would he have sought, or argued for, the sort of radical change of direction of political thinking and action engendered in the greening of Liberalism? Hold that question for a few moments as I introduce the other thoughts that were sparking neurons and put them in today`s context.

I had anyway been thinking of the potential issues impacting on the environment resulting from the probable (possible?) withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. There are many, of course, so one may need to prioritise in terms of the possible extent of whatever damage may result and the extent to which political beliefs or actions can mitigate such damage as may be caused.

Contributing to the serendipity I should also reveal that I have with me the Spring, 2018, edition of the Journal of Liberal History, which discusses the Liberal Commitment to Europe in both a modern historical context – ie post WWll – as well as the longer view, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century and beyond.

First, the context. I am in Brazil as I write this. I am now married to a Brazilian and commute at least once per year between the UK and Brazil, a fact that I am conscious of in terms of the inevitable carbon footprint it burdens me with. In my own defence I should declare that I am also in the fortunate possession of a modest acreage of two small fields in England upon which I am planting many trees, thus offsetting said footprint with the gradual sequestration of carbon as the trees grow. I had a conversation with an active and avid ecologist quite recently and, to my relief when discussing this very point (he regularly advocates giving up air travel and is totally against any extension of Heathrow, for example), he said “I have no answer for `love miles`”. I took that as understanding and acceptance of my predicament.

We have a home in Jacone, Saquarema, about 40 miles from Rio as the “Magnificent Frigate Bird” flies (I thought “crow” didn`t quite do justice to the context!). It is in what is the Rio equivalent of the Lake district – Region Lagoa in Portuguese. From our terrasse we have a superb view over Saquarema Lake and herein lies the connection with Darwin. On his travels to the Galapagos Islands back in the early 1830s, The Beagle stopped off in Rio de Janeiro for a little R&R and re-stocking and the young Darwin, just turned 23, had organised a horseback excursion from Rio which brought him along the coast to the region lagoa. He is very critical of the general level of hospitality they met with on this and other journeys through the Brazilian hinterland but on the 9th April 1832, the day ended better than it had started and they happened to stay in a better quality Vanda – or Inn – if it may be described thus. Let me quote his own words as he describes the visit:-

April 9th, 1832.-We left our miserable sleeping-place before sunrise. The road passed through a narrow sandy plain, lying between the sea and the interior salt lagoons. The number of beautiful fishing birds, such as egrets and cranes, and the succulent plants assuming most fantastical forms, gave to the scene an interest which it would not otherwise have possessed. The few stunted trees were loaded with parasitical plants, among which the beauty and delicious fragrance of some of the orchid were most to be admired. As the sun rose, the day became extremely hot, and the reflection of the light and heat from the white sand was very distressing.

We dined at Mandetiba; the thermometer in the shade being 84°. The beautiful view of the distant wooded hills, reflected in the perfectly calm water of an extensive lagoon, quite refreshed us. … the vanda here was a very good one and I have the pleasant, but rare remembrance, of an excellent dinner …  

No longer called Mandetiba, it turns out that the delightful inn and the refreshing view were literally just around the corner from our Jacone house and my view over the lake was Darwin`s view nearly 200 years ago. It is no further away from our house than one hedge of my English fields is from the opposite hedge!

Lake Saquarema – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

According to his Wikipedia biography, “Darwin’s family tradition was nonconformist Unitarianism, while his father and grandfather were freethinkers… He grew up in a family of Whig reformers who, like his uncle Josiah Wedgwood, supported electoral reform and the emancipation of slaves…. Darwin’s holistic view of nature included “dependence of one being on another”; thus pacifists, socialists, liberal social reformers and anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin stressed the value of co-operation over struggle within a species. Darwin himself insisted that social policy should not simply be guided by concepts of struggle and selection in nature.”

He was, of course, an archetypal scientist, so I have no doubt that he would have concurred with the 97% of scientists who now attribute Global warming to human activity and I am sure he would have been appalled at the real possibility that now exists that the Galapagos Islands are under threat from rising sea levels and other environmental problems associated with Global Warming. A study reporting in 2011 looked specifically at the risks the Galapagos Islands faced. Indeed, the first paragraph of the preface pretty well says it all:-

The Galápagos Islands are among the many places in the world already experiencing the impacts of climate change. It is predicted that climate change will cause rising sea level, higher ocean temperatures and more acidic waters. As the ocean largely regulates the climate, changes in ocean temperatures and currents are already altering the frequency, intensity, and distribution of storms, floods, heat waves, and the amount and distribution of rainfall. The unique and endemic biodiversity of the Galápagos is at risk. In addition, the loss of Galápagos biodiversity directly impacts its local human communities as their livelihoods are dependent primarily on nature-based tourism, fisheries, and agriculture, all of which are dependent on these threatened natural resources.

Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Galápagos Islands. 2011. Eds. I. Larrea and G. Di Carlo. WWF and Conservation International, USA.

So for the purposes of this essay I shall count Darwin as a Green Liberal Democrat, for we Green Lib Dems certainly believe in the dependence of one being upon another. Such interdependence is also linked serendipitously to my other historical links mentioned above and I would like to pursue this line of thinking for a while.

It so happens that the first article in the Spring 2018 Journal of Liberal History examines Liberals, Free Trade and Europe from Cobden to the Common Market and Professor Anthony Howe says “The emergence of a distinctive Liberal identity in mid-nineteenth century Britain was virtually synonymous with the adoption of free trade and the range of cultural values associated with it.” Whilst noting that some Liberals departed temporarily from free trade loyalties due to emergency conditions of the first World War and the 1930s Depression most returned “… to a set of values linking peace, free trade and interdependence which seemed newly pertinent in the post-war reconstruction of Europe and of the world economy.”

I am going to take a slight liberty here and add into the mix stated above the burgeoning sense of accord, certainly amongst Liberals of all shades within Europe, about our need to respond positively and urgently to the environmental pressures of the world in a similarly interdependent way. Indeed, the later interview with Shirley Williams in the same edition of the Journal, gives me cause to take this liberty with little concern. Responding to a question from Peter Hennessey (Baron Hennessey of Nympsfield) about whether there was anything Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins might have done differently to ward off the inevitability of the apparent path from Entry into the Common Market in the early 70s to Brexit in the Twenty-teens, Shirley sharply takes him to task, affirming that her view “loudly and clearly” is that “it`s not all over”.

In concluding her response she says that “…when one looks at the areas where Britain is strong, things like science, engineering, aerospace, the sustaining of nature (because we are getting better and better at that)… …all these things suggest that our natural home is Europe, not floating around looking for somebody that we can seize on and make into an ally, whether or not their own proclivities and values are the same as ours” [my emboldening emphasis! KM]

Also this view is borne out by a Liberal politician recently in a position of power. Liberal Democrats were severely punished by the electorate in 2015 for supporting an austerity led Conservative government, but we did manage to achieve quite considerable progress in the greening of democracy during the coalition years (much of it backsliding under the Tories by themselves, though not all!) One of the key positions Liberal Democrats managed to achieve in the coalition negotiations was the post of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Taken first by Chris Huhne in 2010 and then by Ed Davey when Huhne resigned in February 2012.

Ed Davey, now Sir Ed Davey, was a key speaker at the 2018 Green Liberal Democrat conference in Nottingham, celebrating 30 years of GLD existence. In his talk Davey explained that in order to achieve the biggest green impact possible in that post the decision was taken to concentrate on the greening of the production of power…

“When you look at how you are going to reduce greenhouse gases over a 20/30/40 year period, most people believe you have to start with power. The reasons for this are:-

  1. that is technically ahead in terms of “greening”
  2. It`s easier because you`re dealing with a small number of plants, 3 or 4 hundred power plants you’re trying to replace or reinvent; rather than heating systems in 26 million properties, or 30 million vehicles.

So it is easier to do, but even more importantly, if you green power, part of the solutions for transport and heating will be electric, but they’re not green if the electricity isn’t green – so you’ve got to start by making electricity green. If you do that, decarbonising transport becomes a lot easier.”

As well as making serious greening commitments contractually in the UK, which could not be ditched by the Tories in the future because they were contracts, Huhne and Davey also concentrated upon what could be achieved in a European context with like-minded colleagues, many, but not all, from similarly Liberal parties, or at least like-minded in the sense of realising the overwhelming need to reduce carbon output.

“If you want anything done at Brussels you have to form coalitions, coalitions of member states, countries that think like you, that share the objective. So I set up something called the green growth group. We got a number of member states to come for dinners at the UK residency at Brussels, we got our officials together to discuss how we as member states who wanted to take action on climate change at the European level, could work together to make that happen; knowing we have opponents in industry; knowing we had opponents around the table and how we going to win those debates. Opponents round the table from places like Poland – and how we were going to win those debates.

Round the table we got Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the Scandis, Slovenia, a number of other countries. It started off with about nine of us, grew to about 12. We had about 80% of the votes.  We knew if we could agree we could take it to the council and get a really ambitious agreement. The problem was the Germans wanted to repeat the agreement we had in 2020 and update it to 2030 agreement reached in 2008 between Merkel and Blair renewable targets, energy efficiency targets, and greenhouse gas targets for 2020 and the EU is going to meet those targets

But the decision in our time was EU targets for 2030. You need targets a long way off so that industry can prepare and invest to meet those targets. So the real debate was what targets was Europe going to adopt for 2030 and take to the UN Paris summit to get others to move globally, that was a real issue.”

Davey went on to explain that by wearing down Tory objections to the point where they gave way to a 40% reduction in carbon output (“because they`ll never get it”) and by building the European informal coalition by dogged Liberal-style persuasion over time, they not only got their 40%, but that the ambitious goal pushed USA, India and China to lift their own aspirations. That, of course, was with Obama in the White House – the current Orange Peril is something else again!

The burden of this blog post, then, is that building temporary coalitions within the European Union is of great significance in the greening of Liberal Democracy. Also that the Liberal ideal of Free Trade, which underpins the EU, not only has a Peace Dividend, it potentially has a Green Dividend too. I think that is perhaps enough for the moment, but I shall pursue this mode of thought shortly in the next post. (serendipity, part 2)


About Keith Melton - Green Lib Dem

Retired English liberal environmentalist living in Nottinghamshire; spent six years in Brazil. Author of Historical Novel - Captain Cobbler: the Lincolnshire Uprising 1536. Active member of the Green Liberal Democrats - (pressure group in Liberal Democrats) - was Founding Chair of GLD in 1988
This entry was posted in Environment & Sustainable Development, European referendum, History, Politics, Radical Liberal, Serendipity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Darwin – Green Liberal Democrat? (serendipity part 1)

  1. Jane Geraghty says:

    Really enjoy d reading this particularly later no’s with Darwin and Brazil. Need to hold our nerve whilst others don’t

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