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Cynical Silo Thinking Is Not Policy for the Green Challenges Ahead

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This week we learned that the UK Coalition government wants to deregulate farm workers' wages, permit support allowances for only two children in any family, and lower subsidy (?investment) levels for green power plants.

It's commonplace that the Coalition abandoned intentions to be the greenest government ever many moons ago. It seems however that they have also now jettisoned any intention even to give a nod to the serious greening agenda.

Money, or lack of it, is of course the unifying theme. What 'we' haven't got, it's said, we can't share out to others. But the 'we' of contemporary parlance is not the 'we' of the future who will pay dearly, in cash and in kind, for the present failure to join the dots which these can't pay, won't pay positions underpin.

Triangulating difficult issues
Farm workers' wages? Agricultural incomes are already amongst the lowest of any occupational group in Britain. Have we forgotten that the food production industry absolutely must attract and support people who will toil in farms and fields to feed a growing population? And that to do that there must be healthy, working age people (parents, young adults) who, resisting the call of the city, remain to work on the land?

Even the much-disliked factory farming requires people to keep it functioning; and an ever-more stifled low wage rural economy helps no-one, town or country. Food prices and sustainability are not issues which can be addressed simply by paying already impoverished folk even less.

Limited family (children's) allowances? Even aside from issues around the economic downturn catching people out - with parents' job opportunities becoming scarce as children already born grow into teenagers with little hope and few prospects - it must be startlingly obvious that the best way to reduce future family size is to have women in decent and rewarding employment.

Nurturing children is an essential part of any civilised society, important to men as much as women. There is never cogent reason to penalise children who have the misfortune to be born into larger, poorer families. Well educated, well occupied women who have fewer children are better placed to make additional, wider contributions to the economy and social life overall - a win, win when it comes to our future prospects. Good schools and good jobs are the strategic and decent way to keep future family sizes modest.

And green power plants? The UK, with established technical and industrial know-how, has huge potential to take a lead in this essential aspect of our global futures. We need to keep the investments and expertise in Britain, and we need even more to ensure that energy is produced in (comparatively) non-damaging ways.

Of course energy conservation is critical. Of course increasing population and 'demand' for energy is difficult. But simply failing as a government to engage in taking forward new green technologies is the way forward for no-one.

Silo policies betray electoral trust
The connecting theme in all this is investment in the most fundamental sense.

So will that investment be in people and in our shared futures? Or will it be in obdurately short-term political reputation and ambition? Is there realistic horizon-scanning leadership at the heart of government, or is there merely immediate and opportunistic omnishambles?

The current no money theme is what the government invites us to consider. The present-day, now 'we' is asked to accept that nothing can be done; that population, food and energy are separate, siloed issues, and a reductionist perspective is the only possible way to see things.

But that's not how the 'we' of the future will perceive matters. It will be no secret that evidence and knowledge was (currently is) there to devise positive forward-facing and sustainable policy pathways, had we chosen to do so. The future-'we' will condemn the silo narratives which silenced essential truths about conjoined and underlying realities.

The we-of-the-future will look back uncomprehendingly on the self-serving we-of-the-present and ask despairingly how it came to pass that our leaders were not challenged mightily by us, the electorate, about their failure to address the most pressing issues of our time.

The place of each of us in society, food and energy....

These are critically interconnected features of our everyday existence. What could be more fundamental?

And what could have more potential for future disaster, if the current recklessness continues?

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Hilary Burrage was previously a member of the Defra Science Advisory Council, and Vice-Chair of the North-West (of England) Sustainable Development Group which advised the NW regional bodies. She writes in a personal capacity.