The end of abundance

French president Emmanuel Macron made a speech on Wednesday that was little reported on this side of the Channel – which is a shame, because it may mark the beginning of a tidal change in western politics.

Speaking at the French Cabinet, he warned that the tough economic times to come could mark the world facing a possible “end of abundance”.

“I believe that we are in the process of living through a tipping point or great upheaval,” he said. “Firstly, because we are living through… what could seem like the end of abundance.”

Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan never actually quite said: “You’ve never had it so good”, but the post-war period has been marked by politicians across the spectrum riding the popularity of economic abundance, even though the reality is that it’s been pretty up and down, especially for those at the bottom of the heap.

Those who limit their media consumption to newspapers and broadcasters supporting the Government may be surprised to discover that we face a perfect economic storm and the main priority for the new-look Government won’t actually be how far and how soon to cut taxes.

Inflation is reaching levels not seen since the dire recession of the early 1980s. Energy and food costs are spiralling. Public sector workers, reeling from three years of effective pay cuts, are striking and being joined by private sector workers. Climate change has taken this moment to remind us the emergency isn’t something coming down the tracks, it’s already here. Numerous public services are close to collapse after 12 years of “austerity”. A superpower dictatorship with imperial ambitions has invaded a friendly democratic European state and is threatening the world with nuclear war.

I don’t want to depress anyone too much with what’s been called “catastrophe porn” (though it’s beginning to look more like cataclysm porn). At the least, however, 2022 may come to be seen as one of those years that mark a turning point in history, including President Macron’s end of abundance.

“The moment we are living … may seem to be structured by a series of crises, each more serious than the other,” he said.

The only really chilling thing around – at least until winter combines with astronomical fuel bills to remind us we really should have invested more in home insulation and warm clothing – is watching the country’s populist media still feeding their audience myths about abundance, at least for the majority of the population. And just look how commercial interests like the roads-lobby and sprawl-lobby (powerful and successful operators both) continue to press their 1960s vision of motorway building, airport expansion, low-density, car-dependent sprawl and distribution systems based around HGVs doing ever greater mileages between huge tin sheds beside trunk roads.

But times are changing. This is becoming the age of threats.

What can we do? The 2022 summer gave us a foretaste of the droughts and deluges to come; both agriculture and the water industry need to make vast changes in response. The latter has been a cash-cow for 30 years; now we need a big rethink of drainage, water supply, wastewater, flooding and sea defence.

Equally, we need to make a serious start on ending transport greenhouse gas emissions. That would mean an immediate end to road building and a shift to investment in local public transport, rail electrification, capacity and freight and a switch of fuel duty to mileage-related revenue.

We need to stop building on productive farmland – and that includes solar panels which belong on roofs, not arable land. Europe’s bread-basket has been invaded, climate-change is carving through world food production and this country, which needs to import so much of its food, has been replacing its EU-trade agreements with new agreements which appear designed to hurt our agriculture.

All new buildings should have solar panels and heat pumps and there should be a national industrial stimulus programme aimed at retrofitting most of our existing stock with them. We need to work out what public services we need and fund them accordingly, and if this involves dropping cherished policies like stealth privatisation, then so be it.

We need too to face the fact our democratic way-of-life faces its biggest threat since 1940. Internally, extremists who despise it are energised as never before; externally there are two vast military superpowers who regard freedom as a threat. One has already shown its hand. We can only hope that those who regard Ukraine in the same way as Neville Chamberlain described Czechoslovakia in 1938 – “a far-away country of which we know little” – may not have to face the shock this country received in 1939. Whatever, one of the public services that needs substantial beefing up is defence, which we really can’t go on running at the emaciated levels of the safe world of 20-odd years ago,

 These are no longer mere hopeful aspirations; they’re the minimum of what we need. It’s time for some rapid reflection and rethinking. Plainly the poorest in our society need more help with their housing, eating and heating costs – and indeed, that’s no longer just the poorest. The country showed its mettle during the pandemic – far more than our leaders expected. Now it’s time for more stiffening of the sinews, as the Bard might have put it.

Never before has a Smart Growth approach to planning, transport and communities been so essential.

We’ve had 15 years since Smart Growth UK was launched by a group of national NGOs – a time marked by economic ups-and-downs and increasing stagnation. It’s seen the climate emergency take hold. It’s seen a pandemic also take hold. It’s seen the rise of hostile superpowers and military threats equal to those at the worst of the Cold War. Now abundance is running out of steam.

“Freedom has a cost,” said President Macron. “The battles we have to fight … will only be won through our efforts.”

Jon Reeds