London is the biggest city in England, by far. It’s the country’s commercial hub, administrative centre, cultural powerhouse, priciest 610 square miles of real estate and an eight million-person fuck you to everyone who says that different cultures and ethnicities can’t peacefully coexist. And it’s the ultimate symbol of the self-destructive insanity of our way of life.
To some extent, it’s true of all modern cities. But London represents the modern city at its most extreme – most unequal and elite-dominated, most wasteful and polluting, most insular and unaccountably powerful. It’s a planet-choking over-concentration of entitled, self-fixated, consumption-crazed hyper-individualists living life as if the world’s some sort of consequence-free playpen built for their own personal enjoyment – plus thousands of less fortunate Londoners living in abject poverty, and millions struggling and just about managing to keep their heads above it. It’s also world capital of neoliberalism, and the values system that’s a) destroying, and b) crushing any attempt to save the environment.
Never making much of an effort to hide my borderline Partridgesque London-phobia, I try and avoid going as much as possible. Recently, though, I couldn’t get out of it, and spent a weekend wandering around the capital being walloped by the wrongness of the place.
As if the city was determined to legitimise all my yokel prejudices in one go, the first leg of my journey dragged me through a maelstrom of intolerance, elitism, and frightening lack of empathy. Within minutes of leaping ashore at Hammersmith Bus Station, I saw a young woman’s Trade Description Act-infringing ‘bag for life’ rupture catastrophically in the distance, sending shoes, books and clothes flying everywhere, and an expensive-looking bottle of plonk go rolling out of sight. I naively waited a bit to see if any of the twelve or so human beings actually within helping distance would do anything (they didn’t), before trudging over to help her scoop up her stuff and lug it to a taxi rank myself.
Outside, a woman’s Ford Fiesta hadn’t quite cleared a junction because of a long queue of traffic in front. She was maybe a foot further back than she ideally would’ve been. But the reaction from the cars behind was borderline pathological. Amid a frenzy of deranged horn-honking and bellowed abuse, one driver leant out his window and exploded into an eye-bulging rage, like she’d murdered his children and burned his house down. Instead, she’d made him steer about two inches to the right to avoid her.
Muttering misanthropically, I installed myself in as secluded a bit of a tube station waiting room as I could find. Alas, it wasn’t long before I was joined by a plutocrat’s wife-type apparently fresh from buying half the stock at Sweaty Betty, who proceeded to get on the phone and negotiate segregating her offspring from the real world at a private school. “No, my child doesn’t need to come to the viewing”, she said, as if it was a baffling question. Why on earth should be the kid be consulted on where it gets sent? It’ll only spend about a decade of its life and have its whole outlook on the world shaped there.
Mrs Made In Chelsea and I got the same Richmond-bound tube, although a loving friendship sadly failed to materialise. A few stations along, a hopelessly lost-looking Japanese man peered anxiously into the tube carriage and asked if this was the right train for Waterloo. He had the misfortune to find a clueless bumpkin several thousand leagues out of his depth and the I’m-blatantly-ignoring-you zombie-faces of about twenty seasoned commuters staring back at (or through) him. Again, I waited a few awkward seconds in the vain hope that the people infinitely more qualified to give tube advice would pipe up. They didn’t. “I’m really sorry” I managed, “I don’t know London or the tube very well. I’ll have a look at my map and see if I can work it out for y-” and the car door robotically slammed shut in his face.
On the home stretch to Richmond, though, the sun came out, and the place was suddenly bathed in that precise modulation of well-watered green, sky blue and hazy autumnal gold that can redeem practically anywhere. I wended my way through the bourgeois Valhalla that is Richmond-Upon-Thames in leisurely fashion, and for a minute its detachment from reality – hipsterish affectations, grown men on scooters, shops selling nothing in particular at eye-watering prices – just seemed strange, almost quaint, as opposed to dangerous and destructive.
But it wasn’t long before I reverted to type. I sat on Richmond Bridge and meditatively chewed through an apple like a philosophical horse. Sunlight spasmed entertainingly in the Thames. People faffed around in boats on the river. Singly-occupied cars rattled past at the rate of about one every three seconds, and about every third one was a Merc or a BMW. Kiddywinks skipped past in their private school boaters (reminding me that I think private education or private healthcare should forbear a person from using any public amenity. Including pavements). And every minute or so, another Heathrow jumbo yet lumbered into the air from behind a minaret-ed gastropub complete with a riverside garden filled with ironically-sported bowler hats. In other words, the terribleness of it all started to bleed through the sunny aesthetics again.
How long has our species been in existence (I pondered on the bridge)? And how few of us have had this freakish experience of being alive, of everyday reality? When has humanity ever lived quite this destructively? And when has behaviour so inimical to the continued existence of life on earth ever been treated as so normal and unquestionable?
Sit in Richmond for an hour or so on a sunny afternoon, and nothing could seem further from the truth. But this way of life, the one London (or to be precise, Elite London, the incestuous bubble the city’s rich professionals live and work in) epitomises, is blandly, unthinkingly wreaking devastation – a sort of apocalypse in slow motion.
The scientific community is now in near-universal agreement that human activity is doing massive damage to the environment. The frenzied rate at which we consume resources for things we don’t need is heavily contributing to both irreversible climate change and a critical reduction in the planet’s natural capital.
It’s been argued that to stop the planet warming catastrophically we need to ensure that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere doesn’t exceed 450 parts per million. In fact, 450ppm only gives us a 50% chance of stopping global temperatures rising two degrees above where they were in the pre-industrial era, and undermining the fine ecological balance that sustains human and other life. To give ourselves and the planet the best possible chance, we need to be aiming for 350ppm.
The onus for bringing about the radical change needed for us to meet those carbon reduction targets falls massively on places like London – the richest parts of the richest societies on earth. Every year, London consumes three times its fair share of the world’s resources, and pumps 90,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Energy and transport only account for 44,000,000 tonnes of that – with the remaining 46,000,000 coming from consumption.
The City (ie London’s main banking district, that wretched hive of corporate-financial scum and villainy), has the highest carbon footprint per person of anywhere in the UK. The average British person accounts for 12.5 tonnes of C02 a year, whereas the bankers and the big businessmen account for 25% more – tallying nicely with research that shows the rich are consistently the worst carbon emitters because of their excessive lifestyles (elsewhere in London, impoverished Newham has the lowest carbon output per head in England).
Governments around the world are signed up to a pleasingly socialistic plan that would see every person on earth allotted the same carbon allowance by 2050 – 2 tonnes a year. It goes without saying, they’re doing next to nothing about it. They’ve made the commitment to make it look they’re acting on climate change, but no government on earth is doing anything anywhere near radical enough to make that aspiration a reality.
To hit the 2050 sustainability target, London’s carbon output would have to be cut by 90%. Imagine how much lifestyles would have to change to achieve that kind of reduction. That’s not just sticking up a few wind turbines and solar panels. That’s the end of consumerism – the death of the jet-setting, shopping-spree, go anywhere do anything anytime you want economy.
And now try and imagine the capital’s professional class co-operatively going along with that kind of change. Just think of the metropolitan toddler tantrums that go up when well-heeled London’s constant stream of privilege and convenient excess is ever so slightly disturbed – when Ken Livingstone brought in the microscopic step in the right direction that was the congestion charge, when tube workers strike because their terms and conditions have been basically ripped up and redrawn without any consultation. You see it all the time on twitter – incensed liberal elites spitting venom at the poor bod running the Transport For London account because their train’s a bit late.
What can be done about it? We’re set for a headlong collision with an immovable, unavoidable, unnegotiable object – the planet’s ecological limits. And the most influential people in society are squashing any attempt to take it seriously. Even the marginally more progressive Guardian-rustlers of the elite are dead set against the kind of radicalism needed if the species has a future. Just look at how the establishment, from army generals to Polly Toynbee, has robotically closed ranks against Jeremy Corbyn, a radical socialist forced to stand on policies less radical than the SDP’s by the madness of the times. These people hold all the keys, and time and time again have shown their determination to lock out anyone even mildly opposed to a status quo that does them very nicely.
Sadly, as nice as it is for them, that status quo does a profoundly rubbish job of catering to the vast majority. Since the 1980s, and the traumatic birth of neoliberal Britain, millions of us outside the capital have essentially been living in the wreckage of the old industrial economy. London and the south-east boomed on the back of useless financial speculation, gambling on house prices, the utterly unsustainable Western consumer religion and the advertising industry that stokes it. And almost everywhere else was just left to rot. Between 1996 and 2006, 37% of the UK’s economic growth occurred in London. Since 2007 that’s grown to 48%. Everywhere else bar Scotland, the share of that growth has declined – and in most places, it’s still only in single digits.
Whole generations, entire communities, have been scrap-heaped. I come from a place where a third of children are impoverished, and where hundreds of houses still don’t have central heating. I’ve known people die in squalid poverty in bedsits in their 50s, and watched their mates genuinely struggle to scrape together the pennies to buy some Hula Hoops for a bargain basement wake. And there are hundreds, thousands of towns and villages like mine all around the country – a few in the West Country, where I live, a few in the South East, and far more in the Midlands, the North, Wales and Scotland.
What we’re living with, in other words, is an economic model that benefits almost no-one, creates misery and deprivation for millions, and is destroying the planet. It’s a set up geared around enriching a lawless, amoral elite – and corralling the kind of people who once would’ve been securely employed doing something useful into serving them tea and coffee for poverty wages. The reason that unavoidable fact isn’t better appreciated probably has something to do with the media being owned and run by the few people the status quo does benefit.
Addressing the eco-crisis means wresting power back – correcting a situation in which politics and economics are monopolised by so few, and ran almost exclusively from one city. Everyone committed to equality and sustainability has a moral obligation to try and drag the focus away from this place, and kill off the all-consuming obsession with it – something the Left is as guilty of as anyone, unfortunately. We need a decentralising, democratic, egalitarian revolution. Because as much as our culture fawns over London, and treats it as some pinnacle of civilisation, it’s at the very heart of what’s so wrong, so destructive and will ultimately prove so catastrophic about the Western way of life.