Interview with Peter Wiggins

Mayer Hillman holds legendary status among many in the environmental movement. George Monbiot’s new book Turn Up the Heat is dedicated to Hillman—‘the mirror in which we all see our own hypocrisy’. In theory Hillman has retired, but he continues to work all waking hours on the biggest problem mankind has ever had to face: climate change.

By Peter Wiggins

I sit in the upstairs study of Hillman’s Hampstead home. It is built above the Old Midland line. It is strange to think of trains passing below. Stranger still, above us – on his roof – lies a huge array of unwanted refuse that he has collected from skips over many years. “You have stolen it?” I ask. “I haven’t stolen it” he replies. “I have stopped it from being wasted, from ending up in some land-fill site. It’s all stuff that people can find a use for.”

During his thirty-six years at Policy Studies Institute, Hillman researched a wide range of topics. These included the way in which roads restrict children’s freedom to walk to school or to play, and the social effects of railway closure on communities. He has campaigned against the demolition of homes to make way for motorways and he has vied to protect small shops from the great power of supermarkets. He is a tireless advocate of the bicycle but now he is devoted solely to the environmental cause.

I ask him what the connection is, if there is a synergy?

He starts out by talking about ‘waste’ which he describes as ‘fundamentally evil’. I begin to think about his roof until he turns to his campaign to put the clocks forward all year round. “I still can’t abide the waste of daylight hours” he asserts. During the 1980s his proposal in this area came very close to getting into the statute books before being pulled at the last minute.

Next comes the notion of ‘equity’ which he says has always guided him and his concern for the future. He describes himself as a ‘devout humanist’ and ‘militant atheist’, yet he has enormous respect for people of faith. “If I understand religious people correctly they think that God is watching their every action”. Hillman does not believe this is true, but he leads his life in this spirit. That is why he cannot give up on the issue of climate change, “far and away the most important issue humanity has ever faced”.

Hillman’s outlook has become gradually more and more global and this is by necessity not choice. His latest book How to Save the Planet, published by Penguin,comes to bold conclusions about what must happen globally if millions of people are not to be displaced.

Hillman is an advocate of the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ principle. This is the brainchild of Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute. Carbon emissions will be reduced by 90% by 2030 and this will happen through a system of personal carbon allowances. Each of us will be allocated a carbon allowance. A kind of coupon system will keep track of how much we use. Over the next two or three decades, at most, emissions will contract and converge towards equal per capita emissions for the populations of poor and rich countries alike.

It is not something you hear governments talk about. But there is a new interest in the environment from all the major parties. Both the Stern Review and the Eddington Transport Study commissioned by the Labour government speak of reducing carbon emissions in their reports. Does Hillman take solace from these? He doesn’t. Indeed, quite the opposite. He isn’t interested in the implications of the reports when the methodology is crucially flawed. Stern concluded that climate change will cost 1% of GDP. Hillman asks: “Does that 1% include the re-settlement of tens or quite possibly hundreds of millions of ecological refugees?” “Where are they going to go?” he wants to know.

It is wrong, he says, to think of this enforced migration as happening at some arbitrary moment in the future. Climate change is already in progress and it has its victims already. Contrary to what one hears in the news, many of the refugees in Darfur are ecological not political.

According to Hillman, economic growth can’t be decoupled from carbon emissions sufficiently for it to continue as a legitimate aim. That is why these reports are worse than useless when they have nothing to say about our lifestyles. They are in denial of the problem, shielding the public from the extent of the changes that must be made now.

Does the use of renewable energies offer us anything in way of solution? Hillman agrees that it may play a part in a sustainable future – a sufficiently sustainable future, he hastens to add – but they do nothing to lower the demand that pollutes the environment. Indeed he says that lowered costs of consumption actually enable us to consume more. In the first instance it is the demand for carbon-producing activity that must be lowered.

It occurs to me that it must be the market economists of this world with their rigid aims who must constitute Hillman’s natural adversary. He replies: “I have been joking about this stuff for forty years.” He points out that car crashes are good for the economy. “They create employment, inspire investment et cetera. But it’s just not a good way of talking about anything. It’s so obviously ridiculous.” At this point I suggest that he sees the economists’ aims are not only false but actually sinister. “I am sure they have the best of intentions”, he responds and he means it.

I first encountered Hillman at a Green Alliance talk given by Patricia Hewitt, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The questions session provided a forum for Hillman to attack the speaker furiously. She had highlighted the threat of global warming, but Hillman now revealed her complicity in the plan to build a new runway at Heathrow. He did so with a real antagonism.

When I ask about the new-fangled interest in the environment of the Conservative party, I am expecting a similar outburst but I am quite wrong to do so. Hillman is no more cynical about politicians than about economists. “For the most part, politicians go into the business trying genuinely to make the world a better place. … They are just misguided.” Even the Green party, he tells me, aren’t green enough. “But I am willing to keep an open mind about Cameron”.

“What we need to do is to get to the jugular of the political process.” Hillman believes that the inherent moral logic of what he is saying will eventually override the mass consumerism and greed in which we live. That is why he always makes reference to rationing. He wants people to draw the parallel with World War II. When we were at war against fascism there was a consensus that the poor must still be able to eat. Just about everyone saw rationing as a fair solution to a limited food supply. There is a parallel justification for rationing our carbon emissions. This is the only way to enable future generations to live on the planet.

Maybe the model of Western Liberal Democracy is unable to incorporate the interests of future generations. Does Hillman’s mind veers in the direct of social revolution? “Yes it does. Sometimes I think that the idea of a benign dictator, dedicated to adopting policies focused on slowing down the speed with which the areas of the planet’s surface will be unable to support life, is the best we can hope for.”

I have now stayed longer than I said I would. I have a last question. I have just read James Lovelock’s prophecy that in one hundred years’ time the best part of the world will be uninhabitable. What does he think? “Yes I am afraid I agree. We are already beyond the point on no return.” “Oh dear” I reply. I don’t know what to say. He has read my mind. “I know. I know. You don’t know what to say, do you? You look out of the window, and everything just appears to carry on as normal.”

This interview was written on 1 March 2007


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