Gösta Lyngå has been involved in Green politics for over 30 years, including as a Greens MP in Sweden. In this essay he offers his reflections on the ongoing relevance of core green values and their importance in meeting the environmental, social and economic challenges of today.
What is important to the Greens?
Through the last thirty years, during which time I have been involved with Green parties in Sweden, in Australia and also globally, I have seen a gradual widening of the causes we stand for. Environmental problems, be they forest destruction, acid rain or pollution of land and seas, were reasons for the formation of political parties to work in the places where decisions are made, for a better ecological future and for the benefit of people now and in coming generations. The environmental aims are still with us, but many other causes such as social justice, peace and compassion for all people and other beings came to be our goals. As the realisation grows of how important climate change is for our future, this issue has become the overriding concern for many in our party.
Our four pillars
To contemplate what the Greens are about as a political party, I would first emphasise that our policies are based on certain values and that our aims derive from those values. This is in contrast to how we often see politics play out as a contest for power and the means to get power is through policies with a short term appeal to a majority of voters.
Our values can be examined starting with our four pillars. They are:
- peace and nonviolence,
- social justice,
- grassroots participatory democracy, and
- ecological sustainability.
Peace and Nonviolence
Nonviolence is a fundamental concept on a personal as well as on an international scale.
Throughout the ages, violence has all too often marked relations between religions, ethnic groups and countries. It has been seen as natural to return violence by similar or stronger violent actions with little or no attempt to find reasons for the initial aggression. A number of recent wars are either based on religious difference or they are justified by religion even when the underlying reasons may be access to land or to resources. In any case it is not easy to justify Australia getting involved in the escalation of these conflicts.
On the personal scale the lack of a will to understand other people often leads to violent attitudes. In the Greens I have been pleased to see the spirit of safe meeting processes applied even where the views expressed are quite different.
If nonviolent attitudes were the normal way of resolving difference on a political as well as on a personal scale, a more peaceful and humane society would result. Also, it is interesting to reflect that several attempts to solve international conflicts by armed intervention have at times led to escalation of warfare.
If nonviolent attitudes were the normal way of resolving difference on a political as well as on a personal scale, a more peaceful and humane society would result.
Largely as a result of current economic thinking, the gap between rich and poor is widening both within and between nations. The influence of the rich and powerful dominates and the invisible hand of the free market gives preference to profits for rich people and rich nations. The so called trickle-down effect has been shown to be minimal or non-existent. The taxation policies of the Greens aim to rectify inequalities within countries and our aid policy aims to encourage sustainable development in disadvantaged countries.
A blatant case of social injustice is the Australian treatment of refugees without compassionate understanding of their situation. Also, Australia stands to miss out on gaining from the immigration of people with initiative and will to contribute to our country that could give them opportunities refused by their home country.
Grassroots Participatory Democracy
By grassroots the Greens usually mean those members of the party who are not elected to councils or parliaments and those who do not have office bearer or other formal roles. Grassroots members have views based on their individual experiences and personal views. Their participation is thus very valuable and it is important for those in roles of power to both to keep grassroots members informed and to listen to them.
An interesting but not yet applied format for involving grassroots is the deliberate democracy process. By selecting participants randomly one can get an assembly that reflects the positions of general members without having to go through a full membership ballot, which is both costly and cumbersome. The ultimate application of grassroots democracy would be to use this method of decision-making on a global scale.
Our fourth pillar is the one most commonly associated with the Greens and also the one of most importance for the future of the world as we know it. The issue of the survival of the ecosystem including humanity is basic in our policies. The main threats to ecological sustainability are current economic priorities. As long as the deciding powers believe that continuous economic growth is possible on a planet with finite resources, the future will be in danger.
Instead of sustainable priorities, economic considerations lead to unsustainable use of limited resources, pollution of the atmosphere, destruction of habitat by clear-felling of forests and misuse of water resources. Greens policies and actions address these issues by working for sustainable energy sources and by promoting leaving of fossil fuels in the ground.
As long as the deciding powers believe that continuous economic growth is possible on a planet with finite resources, the future will be in danger.
The major problems facing the world today are:
- Escalating climate change, caused by human activities.
- The natural world in decline with mass extinction of species.
- Increasing economic disparities within countries – a growing gap between “haves” and “have nots”.
- Increasing economic disparities between countries.
These huge problems are partly interconnected. I am going to discuss these issues under four headings: People, The Democracy Agenda, Climate Change and Reforming Economics. These all share a common feature – they have not been adequately addressed by today’s political and economic leaders who appear to be more interested in preserving their positions of power than in addressing the issues.
Also, most of the solutions proposed by the old parties are short term. There is a reluctance to challenge the current economic system and yet, that is exactly what has to happen. With all the four problems listed above, I can see economic reasons for the lack of will to address them.
Quality of Life
There are often huge differences in the quality of life within countries, particularly between the employed and the unemployed. This is an obvious effect of the economic system.
The growing mistreatment of refugees in Australia as well as in some other countries is a matter for concern. Instead of showing compassion as well as appreciating the abilities of people with initiative and strength to break away from repressive governments, our authorities depict refugees as burdens on the society.
By prioritising their own countries ahead of aid to less fortunate countries, the rich countries of the world get ever richer. The supposed trickle-down effect has proved to be illusory as the gap between rich and poor countries is widening. The quality of life in many countries of the world remains very low.
Work, formal and informal
We are witnessing an exciting era where automation, computer control and other technologies are creating opportunities to cut down on dirty, dangerous and tedious jobs. Our aim should be to use those advantages to give everybody a better quality of life by reducing working hours and allowing longer holidays. Also, opportunity for early retirement is of value for people with interests outside their formal work. That would give job opportunities to younger people. The informal work sector would then grow, providing more opportunities for people to care for family and to contribute to social wellbeing.
A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without a means test or work requirement. Such a system has been discussed widely and promoted as a way of working towards social equality. It would make it possible for people whose contribution to society is very important but who are not normally paid for their work to bring up children or care for family members. Such work is usually unpaid yet extremely important as are the contributions of artists or musicians to the quality of life for us all. Technique has developed to the extent that a large amount of production is efficiently carried out by the use of computers and other automated means.
Recognition of differences
The recognition and celebration of differences between people, be they gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion, is a very important part of Greens values. The Greens have led the way in the recognition of LGBTI rights, in promoting gender equity and in working for the equal rights of Indigenous people and immigrants.
Because of ingrained attitudes, many of these issues have taken a long time to be addressed so the work and good example of the Greens are of great value.
The Democratic Agenda
In many European countries Greens politicians are asked to limit their time in parliament in order to get new people with new ideas and to avoid our politicians being too “professional”. Since most European countries have multi-member electorates, people tend to vote for parties rather than persons, so this option of rotating parliamentarians is reasonable. It is also made easy because of the willingness of public service departments and universities to grant leave of absence to elected politicians. In Sweden it is considered of value that people from different walks of life have a period in parliaments where relevant decisions are being made. In Australia such rules may not be effective since name recognition has come to mean a lot at the ballot box.
Who does an MP represent?
Another difference between Australia and many European countries is the system of single member electorates in Australian lower houses. This has the effect of disenfranchising a large proportion of voters. Presumably the system is inherited from the UK and assumes that the politician is representing an electorate, and does so on behalf of all residents in that electorate. In practice, the elected member will be loyal to their party and feels mandated to ignore other views. Multimember electorates with several different parties represented in parliament allow for expression of a much larger range of views, better decision making and better representation of the views and wishes of the electorate. I can only hope that such a reform is possible even if it would disadvantage the currently largest political parties.
Multimember electorates with several different parties represented in parliament allow for expression of a much larger range of views, better decision making and better representation of the views and wishes of the electorate.
Behaviour in Parliament
For me as an immigrant it has been a shock to see the behaviour of the elected members of the old parties. The shouting, the lack of will to discuss issues and the negative attitudes to members of other parties is very different from my experience as an elected member in the Swedish Parliament. I believe that other European Parliaments also have codes of conduct different from those that seem to apply in Australia. I am pleased that our Greens elected members behave in a much more respectful manner and I hope that others will learn from them. The Greens pillar of non-violence is an important one for relations between people in any situation, not least in Parliament.
Long term vision
There is a basic problem with a reform that gives benefit in the future but may cost a lot in the current budget. Politicians opposing the reform take advantage of this and tell the voters that this reform involves reckless spending, an argument that goes well with people to whom the daily budget is what matters.
Lack of Trust
Unfortunately the trust of politicians has been eroded by several cases of corruptive behaviour and it is gratifying to note that the Greens elected members have shown honest behaviour compared to some elected members of the old political parties. Also, broken election promises make voters disappointed and leads to a distrust of politicians.
There is no question that media play an important part of politics and it is gratifying that most journalists feel the responsibility of reporting without bias. Unintended bias can sometimes be introduced by the very words that are used. People talk about the “major parties”, thereby ignoring the Greens, polling results are frequently reported as “two-party preferred” and the word “bipartisan” implies that no other views that those of the two old parties need to be heard.
Issues, more important than money
Historically, the Green parties in many countries have started out as voices for environmental problems, such as soil acidification, destructive dam building, nuclear energy or nuclear bombs. The currently dominating issue is the threat of irreversible climate change. This is now the most threatening danger to the human race as well as to our planet’s ecosystem. Because of several serious feedback loops, such as the release of greenhouse gases in the oceans and less reflectivity because of decreasing polar ice masses, the effects may be much greater than has been predicted so far.
To address the global problem of climate change a collaborative global effort must be made. No country should be able to opt out due to perceived economic self-interest. Opting out would seriously undermine the global effort. It is important that industrial countries lead in the actions against climate change.
The mass extinction of species is partly due to climate change, partly to other environmental damages such as large scale deforestation and habitat destruction. Also in those cases the destruction is usually based on economic interests.
The reactions to climate change issues from the world’s major economic powers have varied from outright denial to shifting responsibility for actions to other countries, or to supporting technological fixes. There have been a number of proposals for what has been named geo-engineering. Most geo-engineering projects are very large scale and the consequences may be difficult to predict. The most seriously considered is Solar Radiation Management (SRM) involving attempts to reduce the solar radiation through the atmosphere. The Pinatubo option imitates a volcanic eruption by spraying sulphate into the atmosphere. This would cause cooling as did the Pinatubo eruption. However, to continue the emission of CO2 and other gases that trap heat would still be irresponsible. Also, most geo-engineering projects are very large scale and the consequences are not sufficiently understood.
The obvious way of combatting the climate change effects of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere is to cut those emissions. Unfortunately, current short term economic interests frequently oppose attempts to do this.
Carbon tax in Sweden, 1990
While taxation is fundamentally aimed at raising revenue, it has also a steering effect on the behaviour of people. Thus a tax on tobacco is usually introduced as a method of supporting the health of the population.
I was involved as a Greens member of the Swedish Parliament in the work to introduce a carbon tax in 1990. To prepare for a proposal to the chamber, members from the six different parties spent a weekend at a retreat outside Stockholm together with a number of economic advisors in order to find common grounds on the issue. It relatively soon became clear that the most right wing party (the Moderates) and a country party (the Centre) were not positive to the idea. Also the left party (formerly the Communists) did not want to be involved. However the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens got together a proposal that would win majority in the chamber. The common proposal then went to the party rooms for further refinement before being accepted by Parliament and becoming law as from 1991. Fuels from renewable sources such as ethanol, methane, biofuels, peat, and waste were exempted. During the 1990s the tax led to heavy expansion of the use of biomass for heating and industry as well as use of alternative fuels for transport.
Several other countries have now introduced a carbon tax or emissions trading rules to combat climate change. Australia came along in 2012 with a tax of $23 per metric ton of carbon dioxide under a Labor government, because of collaboration with the Greens. Unfortunately, due to the Abbott government’s political priorities and short term economic interests, this tax was repealed on July 14 .
It is inspiring to find that the USA and China now have made agreement on this front and it is shameful for Australia to let down these trendsetters.
Finding that human as well as environmental problems are caused by and/or aggravated by economic priorities, leads to the conclusion that reform of the ubiquitous economic system is of the highest importance.
Gross Domestic Product
The aim of traditional economics is to achieve economic growth and to measure that growth in goods and services using the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP is defined as:
The monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, usually on an annual basis. It includes all of private and public consumption, government outlays, investments and exports less imports that occur within a defined territory. These values are supposedly determined by the invisible hand of supply and demand.
Growth of GDP is usually quoted as a success for a government. However, the question must be asked whether GDP is a good measure of the well-being of a society. Some basic objections must be raised:
- The valuation is made in present time. Usually no consideration of future impacts is made.
- Environment is not measured at all.
- Goods and services do not include all that is important for quality of life of individuals.
- Goods and services include many negative values, which damage quality of life for individual people and/or the natural environment, for instance:
- There is an increase in GDP when a traffic accident causes increased work at the hospital and in the car repair workshop.
- The value of a tree is only counted as the value of the wood when the tree is cut down and the wood can be used.
- Neglected values, although very important, are the assistance given by volunteer workers in many areas of the community, the unpaid work and caring within families, the quality of family and other personal relations, and the effort volunteers put into sustaining a good environment and a healthy life.
Alternatives to GDP
So, what are the alternatives? Surely, if somebody comes up with an index measuring values that are important to people and which can be numerically compared among countries and followed over time, this would be well worth the Nobel Prize for Economics. There are several alternative measures in use and I will refer to four of :
- The Human Development Index, HDI, published by UNDP is based on numerical comparisons of education, longevity and per capita income. This index is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and having a decent standard of living. The HDI is the mean of normalised indices for each of those three dimensions. In 2014 Australia ranked 2nd, after Norway among 187 listed countries. UNDP also studies effects on the development indices by social inequality, by gender inequality and by multidimensional poverty.
- Internationally, countries have been compared by the Earth Institute of the Columbia University as to their Happiness. Some of the features are: social support, GDP per capita, freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy and perceptions of corruption. For 2010-12 Australia ranked 10 in a list of 52 countries.
- Quite a different approach is taken by the New Economics Foundation when introducing HPI, the Happy Planet Index. This gives a higher score to nations with high experienced well-being, high life expectancy and a lower ecological footprint. Costa Rica and Vietnam lead the ranking – Australia comes in as No. 66 and the USA as No. 105 of the 120 nations studied in 2015
Several of the features used in these indices are difficult to quantify and to some extent subjective. However, compared to GDP they do give value to what is important for people now and for future generations.
How our Pillars are relevant
In conclusion, it is of interest to examine how the four pillars of the Australian Greens are applied in the different areas discussed above.
- Peace and Nonviolence are important for behaviour between nations as well as between people, globally and locally.
- Social Justice involves not only recognition of the equality of different people and their situation but also economic justice issues.
- Grassroots Participatory Democracy as applied by the Greens is a basic principle that all political parties and other organisations would do well to apply.
- Ecological Sustainability may well be our most important principle, implying as it does that we should work to avoid serious climate change and to leave this Earth in a good shape for future generations.
On those pillars are built the policies and actions of the Greens to work towards a world where people live peacefully in a sustainable ecosystem. This is a huge task in the current day situation where violence is prevalent and priorities are set by a dogma of unlimited economic growth on a limited earth. Our challenges are enormous but the goals are worth working for.
Our challenges are enormous but the goals are worth working for.
How to communicate Green values
It is important to know our goals but it is also important to communicate them to people. If you talk about climate change and tell somebody that the world will be two degrees warmer, they may well enjoy the thought of a more comfortable temperature. Instead we should point out the serious consequences of those two degrees of global warming, which often are not clear to people. It is important to talk about things like the increase of the number of uncontrollable weather events, species extinction or sea rises causing millions of migrants fleeing from the coastal plains of Bangladesh and from the Pacific islands.
We should also point out that most countries collaborate in global efforts to mitigate these threats. The agreements between USA and China are extremely important in this respect. Australia’s failure to follow that lead is an embarrassment.
The basic problem
“The economy, stupid”. This famous phrase was used in 1992 during Bill Clinton’s successful campaign to unseat George Bush. This was at a time of economic recession in the US and the growth of the economy was promoted. Now, more than 20 years later, economic growth is still dominating the priorities of the old political parties. I see this as an expression of massive naivety and a strong motivation for the Greens to present more human and more sustainable alternatives as to how the world should be run. The phrase now takes on a new, and more fundamental, meaning.
Money has been the deciding issue in many situations:
- Our economic system encourages people to work long hours, spending less time with their families and community.
- Coal is extracted and burnt rather than solar or wind energy utilised built because of vested interests.
- Lowering taxes for the richer and more influential people is preferred to spending budget money on health, education or international aid.
Gradually it is becoming ever more clear that “The problem is the economy, stupid”.