From Greed to Need: Reshaping Consumption and Technology for a Sustainable World

SGR Conference and AGM, 2004

University of London Union; 15 May 2004

Main presentations:
'Eco-efficiency of Quality of Life, not Economic Activity' by Roger Levett, Levett-Therivel Sustainability Consultants
'Sustainable Consumption, Eco-Taxation and Social Justice' by Dr Simon Dresner, Policy Studies Institute

Workshops: The link between unsustainable consumption and conflict; Overcoming the barriers to sustainable energy use; The role of new technologies in the transition to a sustainable world; Moving to a sustainable food system

Summary by Patrick Nicholson



The conference took place at the University of London Union, and around 60 participants attended. The day began with a welcome from Phil Webber and swiftly moved on to the first section of the day’s proceedings, the SGR Annual General Meeting.


Stuart Parkinson, Director of SGR, gave summary of the Annual Report. In this past year SGR has steadily stepped up its activity as part of a 2 year development plan aimed at increasing membership and income, with a view to placing the organisation on a firm footing for the future. The year saw the appointment of SGR’s first Director (Stuart himself), and also a part time researcher, Chris Langley. SGR has now published five Ethical Careers briefings, the most recent one covering careers in space-related areas. Around 7000 copies of the careers material have been distributed, of which approximately two thirds has been via the web. Our website now attracts about 1500 hits each week. We have achieved some notable media successes, including coverage in the broadsheets and an article in Physics World. Our project on vested interests and the corporate influence in science continues to move forward, driven by valuable voluntary work. SGR has continued to lobby, for instance on the Iraq war and GM issues, and to respond to calls for consultation, currently on the UK Government’s 10 year Science Plan. We gained 70 new members last year, but this was lower than we’d hoped to achieve. We’ve had some setbacks in funding applications, with only a success rate of 1 in 10, but, on the plus side, donations have been high and this has helped SGR considerably.

Chris Langley, part time researcher on the SGR project investigating the military influence in science, then gave an update on the project which started last July. Most of the final report has been drafted. Chapter 3 has gone out for comments and Chapter 4 is in progress. The current focus of work is on case studies, for example looking at areas like missile defence. Chris highlighted some key findings so far, which involvement of the military in all aspects of science, the absence of evidence to support claims that there significant civil spin offs, the pervading secrecy and difficulty in obtaining information, and the importance of presenting wider notions of security that span encompass environment, climate change, food supply, poverty, social justice, etc. Chris ended by noting that several mainstream and scientific media outlets were already expressing interest in covering the forthcoming report and the issues it raises.

The meeting then approved the minutes of the last AGM and the current Annual Report. The elections then took place and all those standing were elected unanimously. They were as follows: Chair: Philip Webber; Treasurer: Jenny Nelson; Secretary: Tim Foxon; Committee Members: Alan Cottey, Patricia Hughes, Patrick Nicholson, Eva Novotny, Vanessa Spedding.

Stuart then introduced Kate Macintosh from Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (AESR). Closer links have been developing between SGR and AESR, Kate gave a summary of AESR’s history. It was formed in 1991, from the merger of Engineers for Social Responsibility (originally Civil Engineers for Nuclear Disarmament) and Architects for Peace. Activities and outputs over the years have included debates on the nuclear bunker issue, a booklet on landscaping peace parks, briefings on issues such as energy and personal transport, and regular newsletters. Currently AESR has around 250 members and a strong array of sponsors.

Kate’s presentation led into a discussion of the issues involved in AESR and SGR becoming more closely linked. Points raised included the challenge of bringing together diverse groups without anyone feeling sidelined, thinking about our identity (e.g. “Professionals” rather than “Scientists”?), and the potential benefits for AESR from SGR’s higher public profile and larger membership.


Roger Levett from Levett-Therivel Sustainability Consultants gave the first invited presentation, entitled “Eco-efficiency of Quality of Life, not Economic Activity”. Classic definitions of sustainability concern an aspiration (e.g. human welfare) and a constraint (e.g. environmental). The UK Government’s preferred tool in tackling sustainability is “resource productivity”, meaning, effectively, more economic output per unit of environmental damage. This approach is politically popular and fits the New Labour agenda, but it isn’t working! Resource productivity isn’t enough. It has barely kept up with consumption whilst the IPCC is calling for cuts of 60-90% in greenhouse gas emission. New technology isn’t necessarily greener ­ for instance there is evidence that advances in electronic communication actually increase people’s desire for physical meetings. Millennial claims for new technologies usually ignore such “rebound effects”. The fact is that sustainable consumption means consuming less. Changing people’s behaviour, for example from car to bicycle use, offers huge improvements. Individual choice does not always give us what we want, since each choice is constrained by choices already made and in turn influences future choices. For example, increased urban car use leads to increased congestion, poorer public transport, movement to the suburbs and ultimately inner city collapse ­ a result that no one wanted but was the product of individual rational decisions! The more crowded and complex the world becomes, the more we need collective planning. We need to challenge the idea that economic growth is a measure of anything useful at all. Sustainability requires decoupling environmental damage from quality of life, rather than from economic growth.

The second talk was given by Simon Dresner of the Policy Studies Institute on “Sustainable Consumption, Eco-Taxation and Social Justice”. A common objection to environmental taxes and charges is that they are regressive, i.e. they disproportionately affect the poor. In this talk, Dr Dresner considered whether these regressive effects could be removed or limited through the selection of appropriate taxation or charging schemes. In the field of domestic energy, some 3 million were in fuel poverty (spending >10% of income on energy) in 2001. Poor housing stock and low incomes both contribute to this figure. An uncompensated carbon tax would be very regressive. Dr Dresner suggested that we need to tackle high energy use directly, such as through the National Home Energy Efficiency Programme. Incentives could be given through Council Tax and Stamp Duty for increasing household energy efficiency, followed by implementation of a carbon tax after a 10 year period. Hence people would be motivated to improve efficiency and then taxed if they have not acted. In addition, income from a carbon tax could be used to extend the gas network. Moving on to water, Dr Dresner noted that only the North East has surplus water ­ the South and East are already beyond sustainable consumption. Metering reduces water use by around 17%. Combining a “lifeline” (based on the amount required for basic needs) with a volumetric charge according to Council Tax band represents theoptimal approach, with least regressive impact. In transport, Dr Dresner presented a range of options for reducing carbon emissions, including fuel duty, car tax, public transport subsidy, congestion charging and domestic tradeable quotas. Concluding, he said there was no evidence that any of the environmental issues discussed could be cost-effectively addressed without the use of the price signal, meaning environmental taxes and charges. The Government has to find the political will to do it.

Questions from the audience for both speakers followed. Several people were concerned that Simon Dresner’s talk was too narrow in scope, failing to outline any political process to create a demand for the changes needed, and not acknowledging that people are actually prepared to pay more to do the right thing. In response, Dr Dresner stated that whilst opinion polls show people agreeing with general ideas, they always object to paying more. One questioner asked why biomass-fuelled combined heat and power, as proposed by a Royal Commission for all new housing, was not mentioned as a possible solution. Another questioner asked where the influence on behavioural patterns of our present way of life comes from. The role of government was stressed in setting a national framework, and the example was cited of European cities where cyclists and pedestrians take priority over vehicles.


After lunch, the conference spilt into four workshops.

Phil Webber led a workshop on “The link between unsustainable consumption and conflict”. This highlighted the links between high consumption, high resource use, conflict, and the related issues of militarization and climate change. Solutions were about creating an alternative model of security based on human rights and social justice, and from dismantling the false equation of “more might = more security”.

Tim Foxon facilitated a workshop on “Overcoming the barriers to sustainable energy use”. Out of this discussion came a number of suggestions for SGR to take forward, including promoting the idea of universities as flagships for developing, demonstration and education on sustainable best practice, linking more effectively with other NGOs, pushing for the Government to make the 2020 20% renewable electricity target into a firm target, and to extend the obligation to cover renewable heat generation.

The workshop on “The role of new technologies in the transition to a sustainable world” was facilitated by Stuart Parkinson. Issues discussed included the social and technical as a synergistic system, regulation to prevent “design for waste”, building in democratic input to the evaluation of product safety, and the compromise between innovation and prudent caution. The idea of “slow science” (along the lines of the “slow city” movement) was one interesting concept proposed.

The final workshop dealt with “Moving to a sustainable food system”, and was facilitated jointly by Eva Novotny, and by John Turner and Robin Maynard from FARM. The discussion here covered the problems of the current agricultural system, deriving mainly from the fact that ownership of the “costs” and “benefits” lies with different groups. The polarisation between “agribusiness” and “agriculture” was stressed, the former centred on yields and ignoring everything non-financial, the former about a more holistic approach.

After feedback from the workshops, and further discussion from the floor, Stuart Parkinson closed the conference with thanks for all who attended and made it so lively and successful, and special thanks for Kate Maloney for her hard work in organising the event. He noted that SGR will be seeking to use the ideas and views developed during the conference in formulating its response to the Government's sustainable development consultation.

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