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Review: "The Constant Economy – how to create a stable society" by Zac Goldsmith.

“Vote blue to go green”, or so David Cameron advised after his photo-opportunity in the Arctic two years ago. Bur can we really believe that the party of big business, of private enterprise and of deregulation has suddenly become the party of the environment? Could you really see a Tory administration introducing carbon taxes, restricting car use, curbing cheap holiday flights, introducing combined heat and power schemes, backing anti-supermarket campaigns? Zac Goldsmith can.

The multimillionaire former editor of the Ecologist magazine and current Tory candidate for East Park seems to believe in green fairies at the bottom of the Tory garden. His “Blueprint for a Green Economy” produced for David Cameron’s policy review two years ago has, he claims,largely been adopted as Conservative policy on the environment. Now Zacharias has followed it up with “The Constant Economy”, a personal manifesto from a politician who clearly regards himself as future cabinet material, even before has won a seat.

Now, in some areas it is not too difficult to see Conservatives and the green movement striking accords. On opposing building estates in the south east of England, for example, or preserving the integrity of wild land, or opposing poorly located wind farms. The Tories are, after all, conservative. However, there so many areas of conflict – most obviously the need for increased state regulation and limits to economic growth – that it’s hard to imagine a coherent Conservative environmental manifesto. But Goldsmith is convinced we can do without the state by allowing market mechanisms to engender changes in behaviour by use of the ‘hidden hand’.

He accepts that cap and trade – the method of limiting carbon emissions by giving co2 quotas to firms and then letting them trade amongst themselves – was a failure, but he believes the system can be made to work provided companies have to bid for carbon credits in an auction. Goldsmith insists that saving the planet is compatible with low personal and corporate taxation. “There need be no need for net tax increases to pay for our indulgence in things green”, he argues Income tax, he believes, is fundamentally unsound since like the rest of the tax structure it promotes “indiscriminate economic growth” Once things like scarcity of resources and damage to the environment are priced into markets, the laws of supply and demand will do their work. “It means using taxes to protect natural capital, like forests and fisheries, so that we can continue enjoying the interest”.

Well it’s a nice idea, and in an ideal world there would not need to be lots of regulations imposed by government. Indeed, Goldsmith claims that his environmental revolution would mean ditching lots of Labour regulations on housing and replacing them with building standards. I’m not entirely sure I understand the difference, since if you have standards for, say, greater efficiency this would surely have to be regulated by some government body. Goldsmith is deeply suspicious of GM crops and nanotechnology, but again it is not entirely clear to me how these could be regulated without – er – regulation.

He says that “We need to move to a position where new products are assumed to be guilty before they are proved innocent”. I agree that the precautionary principle is important, but this surely would involve greater regulation of pharmaceutical or agrichemical companies taking new drugs and seeds to the market. But perhaps I am missing the point here. Goldsmith is rejecting the target culture of new Labour, where detailed policy objectives are laid out in rather meaningless five year plans. Hebelieves that micromanagement can better be done by market forces.

Zac is certainly on the side of the angels, if not away with the fairies, and there is an infectious enthusiasm about his ‘can do’ conservative conservationism. He is surely right that most of the tools for dealing with the environmental crisis are already to hand: insulation, renewable energy, public transport, zero-emission housing, combined heat and power. He’s also right to insist that the market ieconomy s not going to go away and that the idea of living in low-tech subsistence communes is never going to win votes. The problem with much green rhetoric is that it expresses an anti-technology philosophy which seems to regard civilisation itself as suspect.

We all know what needs to be done. The real problem is not a lack of solutions, but public apathy, indeed outright resistance to going green. People don’t like being preached at. Even I have acquired a curious resistance to pious appeals to save the planet by not using plastic bags or whatever, and I’m hardly Jeremy Clarkson. In a society of curmudgeons we are going to need bright, attractive and above all optimistic people like Zac Goldsmith if the planet has any kind of future. Pity he’s a Tory though.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


2 thoughts on “Review: "The Constant Economy – how to create a stable society" by Zac Goldsmith.

  1. My difficulty is that I am a chippy bast+rd who resents being told what to do by plutocratic green toffs like Zac, the son of Sir James Goldsmith, or Lord Porritt best mate of Kron Prinz Karl. I tend to see what they say in the context of we ken best for you and we've got so much money that it won't affect us anyway. Putting my bias into context, you have nailed the holes in his book. Basically you'll not get a green country without a lot of government intervention. Left to itself business will carry on polluting and wrecking without a care for the future and no exhortation or piety will alter this. The dark heart of green toryism was laid bare when Zac and Gummo produced their report a couple of years ago which Cameron promptly binned. What I've read of the book, admittedly indirectly, suggests that green toryism is an oxymoron, dragged out to clothe the laissez faire business party's cynicism on anything to do with conservation. A test might be to ask how many Tory MPs believe in global warming being caused by human activity.So is Zac naive or cynical?

    Posted by Richard T | September 17, 2009, 2:46 pm
  2. Whatever Zac is, you better believe that he and his Cabal of ruling Oligarchs, the Rothchilds etc will go on and make money whatever regulations are imposed.

    Posted by Dark Lochnagar | September 25, 2009, 9:45 am

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