“What a lovely evening,” says Andrew Simms, opening a talk about his latest book, Cancel The Apocalypse. “If you knew how much time you had left, you wouldn’t be wasting it on something like this.”
Starting as he means to go on, the author’s genial manner remains at odds with his distressing message on climate change. We are “living beyond the threshold of tolerance of the biosphere,” he states. More importantly, we are fast approaching the point of no return. Simms believes this will happen within a time period roughly equal to the length of a government’s term in office. And, he says, that’s a conservative estimate (not that you’ll find many Conservatives who agree with the forecast). So, like Bowie says, we’ve got five years.
Andrew Simms is an author and fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a London think-tank which focuses on “Economics as if people and the planet mattered.” He’s also an advocate for the Green Party. When he mentions that Caroline Lucas is his daughter’s godmother, her name gets a cheer. He might be preaching to the converted but the banner of Brighton Festival has at least drawn in a cross-section wider than most activist meetings. Besides, you don’t need to be equivocal about green politics to be startled by his matter-of-fact remark that “we are living through a mass extinction event”.
Taking his cue from the football press, Simms indulges in a spot of ‘fantasy economics’ outlining what his ideal society would look like. The various achievements of ‘Goodland’ include a four-day working week, progressive taxation, a decarbonised economy and a mutually-owned banking structure which punishes irresponsible investors instead of awarding them bonuses. All of which would be overseen by a people’s president who lives in voluntary simplicity. “Hopelessly, hopelessly utopian,” he concludes. “Or is it?”
Flipping the thought experiment on its head, Simms points out that all of these supposedly fantastical ideas have been proven to work because they already exist in reality. It’s here that Simms really gets into his stride as he provides examples from around the world of countries that have already taken on some of Goodland’s founding principles. We hear about a real-life citizen’s constitution (Iceland), a four-day week (Netherlands), banking reforms (Iceland again), progressive taxation (Denmark) plus plans to go 100% renewable in Nicaragua and islands like Samsø, Gotland and the Maldives. Best of all, we learn that the president of Uruguay gives away 90% of his pay to charity simply because he refuses to earn more than the national average. Suddenly those ideas don’t sound so hopeless.
Simms follows this up by making the point that a demand for the abolition of slavery and votes for women would have seemed just as utopian 200 years ago.
With his Green Party connections and his “friends at the Guardian” Simms in many ways represents the archetypical bleeding-heart liberal so reviled by the right-wing. Yet he demonstrates tonight that the Tory mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ is plainly false. Even if his some of his examples seem a little stretched, the idea that we need to hold onto a sense of utopia can’t be disputed. In light of the pressure to come up with an alternative to the apocalypse, this timely and engaging talk was anything but a wasted evening.
Dome Studio Theatre, Tuesday 21st May 2013
Words by Ben Bailey