ResPublica researcher Jonathan West argues that the need to collectively fight climate change can provide the spark that the Big Society needs
There appears to a broad consensus that climate change is the
crisis of the twenty-first century. Confronted with this colossal crisis, our response to date has consistently been hampered by political inaction.
Political inaction acerbates the crisis. The Coalition has reneged on green election pledges
, such as those around blocking the import of illegal timber and extending green subsidies. Despite its inclusion in the Queen's Speech, the Green Investment Bank (GIB) has failed to materialise and is reported to be beset by severe Treasury resistance. Simultaneously, the Treasury has not only slashed the Department for Environment and Climate Change's (DECC) budget by £85million for this year, but also appears to have the department fighting for its very existence
However, the silver-lining that could prevent the oncoming storm is the powerful and mobilising narrative of climate change around which individuals freely associate. Environmental activism can provide a prototype for the Big Society, showing how individuals' actions are magnified by collective and coordinated organisation. Given that associational behaviour increases exponentially, the mobilising narrative of climate change could begin a chain reaction of civic engagement. And one mustn't underestimate the effects that communal action can make.
Home energy use is commonly accepted to be responsible for a quarter of UK carbon dioxide emissions
. In light of the failure of the state to take action to tackle wasteful home energy use, community-focused organisations, the foundation blocks of a Big Society, are actively taking the lead.
, for instance, is working within its community to insulate the homes of the most vulnerable citizens. The organisation is simultaneously promoting association within the community around purchasing energy, developing renewable and sustainable energy alternatives and promoting the community's awareness of energy consumption. Through its work Peckham Power is ensuring that its residents live in greater comfort, are better protected against fuel poverty and ultimately are seeking to lessen their environmental impact.
, an umbrella organisation supporting the work of its constituent charities, enables skills training and employment, young people development, greener living and working, regeneration and community work.
These organisations provide us with inspirational archetypes of how the Big Society could and should be. Government must provide these organisations with the support that they request. In order to realise its vision of a Big Society and an enabling state, it is vital that Government inspires and enables as many individuals as possible to participate in collective action. One important way for the government to enable this is by disseminating models of association as widely and accessibly as possible. After all, the dissemination of information and evidence is a vital weapon in combating environmental ignorance and informing action, as this New Scientist article
on public awareness of energy efficiency indicates (for the record some of this was news to me). The result could be a womb capable of nurturing a healthy and repeatable embryonic of the Big Society.
These responses to climate change offer us a foundation for our conceptualisation of the Big Society, from which we can draw strength, precedent and impetus. In the words of Matthew Parris
, “practical examples, example by example, is how this idea [the Big Society] will gain traction.”