We were really excited that Natalie Bennett, Green Peer and former Leader of The Green Party, agreed to talk to us about her book ‘Change Everything’ and to discuss all things to do with small businesses and the green economy.
Small businesses and the high street
To explore the everyday ups and downs of running a small business with a well-known politician is a rare treat and Natalie, a champion of the environment, understands that the UK needs to develop a diverse low-carbon economy where SMEs, social enterprises, cooperatives and artisans are all welcome at the top table.
Natalie is a clarion call for pragmatic and necessary change at the heart of our democracy. She has written a book ‘Change Everything’; you can buy a copy in advance of publication and, if you nip in fast, you can even get your name on the dust jacket! The book is crowdfunded – a testament to the fact that we, the people, want to read it.
Like a miracle I pressed the record button so our chat is immortalised! Our conversation is also transcribed in full below.
So enjoy the conversation, buy the book and help the future take shape.
Conversation with Natalie Bennett
Natalie Bennett, writer, Green Party politician and Member of the House of Lords, in conversation with Jane Langley from Blue Patch about some of the issues covered in her book ‘Change Everything’.
Common Sense Politics in an Age of Shocks
Common sense politics is appealing; to save the future we will roll up our sleeves and get this house in order. From liberating the deadlock on empty property to transparency in matters of tax, Universal Basic Income as a generator of creative and appropriate work, ‘Change Everything’ will be laying out a blueprint.
A future that’s fitted to people and planet
We’ll be raising a glass on publication day when the book plunks on the door mat at Blue Patch HQ and we learn how to turn the corner on climate change and foster genuine prosperity that doesn’t cost the earth.
Change Everything: Common Sense Politics in an Age of Shocks by Natalie Bennett
Order Change Everything through Unbound books, a platform and publishing model that shifts the balance of power, allowing people and communities to champion the voices which deserve to be heard.
Transcription in full
Jane Langley: Welcome to Blue Patch Chats. I’m Jane Langley and I’m going to be talking to Natalie Bennett, Green Party Peer in the House of Lords and former Leader of the Green Party. Natalie’s written a book called ‘Change Everything’. It’s a vision for a sustainable, fair economy and she’s going to tell us more in this short interview.
Natalie Bennett: I’m Natalie Bennett, former Green Party leader and Member of the House of Lords and what I’ve been working on a lot lately is my first book. The title is Change Everything Common Sense Politics for the Age of Shocks and I’m publishing with Unbound, which is a small, independent publisher with an unusual business model based on people pre-subscribing crowdfunding the book, and when I’ve raised enough money (from that) it will go into production and, hopefully in about a year’s time, it will come out. What this book says is as the title gives away; what we’re doing now, our current system’s economic, social, environmental, political, educational (systems), are really unsustainable in the broadest sense. They are going to have to change and we need to present / create the model of positive change for a society that works for people and planet.
Jane Langley: That’s a fantastic vision Natalie, thank you very much for agreeing to speak to me. I’m Jane Langley from Blue Patch and we’re really honoured to have you on a zoom call today to talk more about your vision for the future and the kind of profound changes that need to happen. I’ve got some very specific questions that come from the fact that Blue Patch is a community of small, sustainable businesses in the UK and one of the things we’re keen to find out is: what are the three key factors that you feel need to change?
Natalie Bennett: Particularly looking from that small business frame I would say that’s one of the first things the book starts with; chapter one talks about the idea of Universal Basic Income, which is the idea that everybody gets a payment every week, enough to meet their basic needs. And what that means, from a small business perspective, but also from a creative perspective, is that everyone has the chance, if they’ve got a great idea, to start a small independent business. If they really want to be a composer or musician or a novelist, if you’ve got the Universal Basic Income, and it’s only a basic income, it’s enough to live on, you can take the time to put your energy and talents towards what you think is something that you can really contribute to. So as a small, independent business at the moment, say you’re a single mum with a couple of children, it’s astonishingly difficult to start your own business, (it) requires extraordinary bravery because we all know that small businesses don’t always succeed, for reasons sometimes entirely outside their own control. We know that income for small businesses goes up and down in the early years in a really uncertain way, and if you had a UBI that would be a foundation for people to set up small independent businesses, so chapter one of the book talks about the Universal Basic Income.
The second part (of the book) is about the economy, because I think the economy should be there to serve people, not people living to serve the economy, but one of the things I stress about the economy is an intuition – my first degree is agricultural science, by training I’m a scientist, an understanding that comes from ecology. We know that stable, secure, resilient ecosystems are ones that have a huge amount of variety in them, and if we’re going to have strong local economies that meet the needs of the community in those local economies, they need to be based on small independent businesses and co-operatives. The idea where you have an economy dominated by a big five or six, and if you look at the food system this is another area where we desperately need diversity in our food consumption. More than 50% of our calories come from just three food crops, which is simply dangerous, and that’s associated with the fact that we have a small number of seed companies, a small number of agro-chemical companies, a small number of supermarkets, a small number of multinational companies manufacturing food, all the way along the line we’ve just narrowed down to a lack of diversity.
Small businesses give us that diversity.(…) I can think of a small business that I know in Sheffield that makes jams collected from hedgerows; wild food, that’s an example of the kind of diversity (in all kinds of ways) small business brings us, and then in terms of the third idea that I really stress, we need to think a lot about resilience. We’ve been chasing ‘efficiency’, which has literally meant the cheapest price, the biggest profits and that’s given us the really unstable, insecure world we have now. If we actually need to think about how we build a resilient society, one that can stand up to shocks, and that’s why the term the ‘age of shocks’ is there in the title of my book, because if you think about it, the climate emergency – floods, droughts, fires – all those things are obvious. The covid pandemic, there are many more medical risks that we face which are related in significant part to destruction of ecosystems. There’s of course the geo-political shocks in our deeply unstable world,( and) the final section of the book talks about why geo-politically, our world is so unstable and how we can start to change that.
So there’s those three things: a UBI that gives people individual security, a rich ecosystem of small businesses that (form the) basis of the economy and thirdly a government that’s utterly focused on resilience; how we can keep everyone safe and secure and sure their basic needs are met.
Jane Langley: Yes, that’s a very important vision and at Blue Patch we’d totally support that. Because we work with small businesses, what we’re noticing all the time is that access to retail space in the high street is well out of reach for most small businesses. And in fact where we’re based, which is Herne Hill in South London, there are many local shops which have been empty for five years and the rents are off the scale, (you know) £55,000 a year. And then (business) rates on top, and the small businesses can’t afford to set up there, so you’ve got an empty high st, and small businesses forced to leave the area, go and work in the back rooms of pubs as opposed to on the high st. So there seems to be this (kind of) control of property that’s taking it out of reach of small businesses. We think you could have a massively thriving local economy if these businesses could reach out to the customers, so there’s this gap.
Natalie Bennett: Very much so, I mean there’s so many things behind that. I’m at the moment working on the Financial Services and Markets Bill and we’ve had a financialisation of the economy. Many of those small shops will very likely be owned by big investors, investors overseas, quite likely by rather mysterious companies based in tax havens that are owned by companies in this tax haven followed by a company in that tax haven and it may be extraordinary difficult to find out who has the beneficial ownership of it. So local control has disappeared. We’ve also got local councils who a decade of austerity has just utterly hollowed out and taken away their capacity to support their local economies in a way they once might have done.
So we’ve got those problems. I mean looking at that practical thing, I was actually talking to a journalist this week. How do we actually get to a situation where there is an empty shop and it sits empty for six months? Council body, quango – whatever, takes it over and says ‘can we set this up as a ten tables around the room of this small shop’ and small businesses can rent the table for £10 or £20 a day, whatever it is. How can we set up to get those micro-businesses, to get people that are just starting out in business, to give them space on the high street? And of course, if we potentially think about some of the places around the country that are famous for being interesting, fun places, like York for example, the old mediaeval area, okay they’ve got that lovely architecture to start with but it’s lots of small independent shops that makes it different, exciting and fun to visit. Camden Market is an area I happen to know well, and if you go there you hear multiple European languages, people come from around Europe for the small, independent differences, the different sorts of culture. Now the culture of Camden Market and the culture of York Shambles are two very different kinds of culture; they attract different kinds of tourists but in both cases the foundation is ‘difference’. We come back to the point I was making about ecology: something that’s rich and fun and tasty is something that’s varied. A whole lot of all the normal boring chain stores that you find on every single street, in every train station – where’s the fun? And that’s another thing; our society has become so dull and tasteless because everything’s ultra-processed foods produced by multinationals, so it tastes the same all across the country and indeed in the world. (9:41)
Jane Langley: Yes, there’s a real problem with lack of diversity, and what I find absolutely fascinating is with how you are talking about diversity in the high street is that the Blue Patch Model. So we represent small, sustainable businesses. The actual model was inspired by observing diversity of pollination in a wildlife meadow in Wakehurst Place, and observing all different sizes of pollinator and how this kept the ecosystem going. And in a way the economy is very similar to that, you need different sizes of pollinators, you need diversity. And at one point in this wildlife meadow, when I was thinking about this model, suddenly a great shadow came overhead and a giant bee came over the fields and it was the Amazon bee, it was like the Amazon bee was wiping out everything. This monoculture, which is the same in food supplies, it’s the monoculture mentality, it is so dangerous for a rich and diverse economy, you know, it just leaves people out if you remove diversity. (10:48)
Natalie Bennett: We’re actually speaking on Food Diversity Day and I’ve been on some webinars on that and will be again later, and one of the things we’re slowly starting to realise is so much of what we took as ‘sense’ the old ‘common sense’, failed us. The old common sense was the idea that we just rely on these handful of food stuffs and produce them at enormous scale and use large amounts of fossil fuels, large amounts of pesticides. So if you produce large expanses of oil seed rape or similar, or wheat, you’re saying to all the predators and pests: ‘come here, come here, feast here, feast here’. Then you end up having to use huge amounts of costly inputs. We have this idea that our current economy is efficient, but practically speaking it’s costing us the planet. That ultra-processed food is very often wrapped in plastic, it’s sold in all sorts of single use packaging that gets used for five minutes and will exist in the environment for hundreds of years. This idea of what is supposedly efficient, is in fact deeply inefficient, and trashing our world. (12:06)
Jane Langley: Yes we totally agree with that. Going back to a very local story to us, again talking about the large players and ‘efficiency of scale’; so we’ve got a local green grocer who is at the point of giving up after 20 years, because it’s so difficult to deal with HMRC and with rates (council tax), with COVID relief that was suddenly drawn back from them. And I think what I observe with small businesses, where they really struggle, is having the mental space to get their heads around accounts when they’ve been up at 3am in the morning going to the vegetable market. They’re already on an exhaustion deficit, and then they have to do all the other stuff on top. So the amount of tasks that a small business has to deal with, compared with a corporate which would have many different departments and be able to share these tasks, already means that we need to give extra support to small businesses, to help them through all this. (13.05)
Natalie Bennett: And of course what we’ve got is the very opposite of that. We don’t have a level playing field. Big multinational companies, as you say, they have their PR department, and their accounts department, and their ‘tax dodging’ department – it probably won’t be called that, but they’ll have twenty subsidiaries based in the Cayman Islands and that’s where lots of their money goes. And so this is an extremely unequal situation, and one of the ways which we used to acknowledge that difference was that the corporate tax rate was applied to the biggest companies and was 10 percentage points higher than it was for small business. Now what happened was that under Blair, that differential was reduced and under Cameron it disappeared altogether. So one of the things we should be doing is taxing the big corporates more and creating that cushion for the smaller businesses so that it helps to balance this out. But it’s also: why are big businesses allowed to get away with imposing so many costs on so many of us? And the obvious example for this is Amazon the website. I call it the great parasite. It produces massive quantities in the UK and around the world of plastic waste packaging. You think of any street you go down, look in the bins and you’ll invariably find significant amounts of Amazon packaging.We’re all paying to dispose of that. On your road there will be lorries running up and down carrying Amazon parcels. Amazon pays effectively no taxes, it doesn’t pay for the cost of any of those, so it imposes all of those costs on the rest of us, and it’s the way multinational companies have been, in the technical jargon, externalising costs; they’ve been allowed to impose those externalised costs on it. You think of any one of a dozen, say Primark: you can go into Primark and buy a £5 tee shirt, but the cost of that £5 is enormous. It may well be that the cotton was picked in Azerbaijan by children who were forced out of school; shipped over using fossil fuels; shipped over to China, spun into cloth in a factory where the dyes spew out into the local river; shipped down to Bangladesh and, after Rana Plaza, tragic that we know about sweatshops in Bangladesh, which haven’t really improved since; fossil fuels (to) ship back to the UK, sold in a shop where people are on zero hours contracts, minimum wage. The costs of that £5 tee shirt are enormous. But of course – and this is where we come to the cyclical problem – if you’ve got a job interview on Monday and you can only afford that £5 tee shirt because you need a crisp white teeshirt underneath your good jacket for the job interview, then you’re going to buy that £5 tee shirt even though you know it will probably only survive two washes then fall to pieces. And so it’s great if individuals do whatever they can, but I’m not really interested in individual behaviour, I’m concerned with system change, so that the real price is on that price tag in the multinational chain store. And that means a small independent business which perhaps starts with growing some hemp in Kent, spins it up in a local factory; a local seamstress or a local small company sews it up in a local co-operative factory. Then you’re actually getting to some sort of parity. And we’re just so far from that world at the moment but we need to get to that world in which everyone has a fair chance, as small independent businesses just don’t at the moment. (16:42)
Jane Langley: Yes, that’s totally right, we need to even the playing field. One of the very uneven playing fields that we’ve noticed is with the net zero laws, you know, the legislation that’s coming into place for small businesses. I’d be interested in your view on that, because one of the things that I noticed in 2019 is that, before the pandemic I was hearing the term net zero talked about and I was joining meetings and conferences on net zero, which was very much corporate led. There’d be PWC and there’d be consultants, and I was listening in, trying to understand the whole thing and I thought blimey, we’ve got all these small, sustainable businesses, they are tiny businesses, how are they going to deal with this? I’m only just picking up what it means. So I spent the pandemic getting to grips with it and I wrote a very simple programme (LET’S DO NET ZER0) to myth bust the whole net zero thing, so our businesses could train and actually really audit for no money at all, really audit their emissions. And the fantastic consultants Green Element created a calculator called Compare Your Footprint. I tested loads of calculators and they were all doing offset and I found this one and it was just the real thing, no offset being sold, and it was really solid. So I learnt how to use it, and Compare Your Footprint, the team, are lovely. They’re an SME based here and they’ve been joining in and helping our businesses, and we’re now stepping our small businesses through the process, auditing scope 1 and 2 and getting to grips with the process of scope 3 emissions. And from what I’m seeing I think we’re probably the only social enterprise that has this free programme in place that actually delivers scope reports for small business. And I’m wondering why there’s this huge gap in the information because I’m talking to small businesses that aren’t members and they’ve never heard of net zero, they’ve no idea. Why is there this information gap, you know, why aren’t the government informing everyone?(18.47)
Natalie Bennett: Well yes, the Government and net zero is a very big subject that we could do a whole podcast on. But I think to pick out a couple of things that you said, you put a huge amount of useful information there and it’s great to know that it does exist, but of course the problem is that it is so hard to find. One of the problems is the net zero agenda has been captured by the big corporates and what they are very often talking about is business as usual with added technology. And so we’re going to keep the economy exactly the same way as it is but we’re going to have electric cars and solar panels and so we’ve got all this technology, so the whole model of this is the suggestion that you buy a whole load of expensive technology and you replace your technology when you’re coming round on your normal cycle, as every business does, as this is a tax deduction. Lots of that won’t apply to independent, small businesses in the same way. Continuing to use the same technology you’ve already got means you’re not going to create a whole load of emissions from buying a new bit of kit. It won’t always work that way but sometimes it will. And also the fact that we’ve got to have social innovation, and small businesses are people who are very often doing this, and doing things differently, but that doesn’t get counted in some of the standard calculators. And if you are already starting off really well, and you’re cutting (emissions) and you get to the really thin margins and you need to be able to count things like, if you’re a small local business, do most of your customers come on foot or cycle? – we’ll there’s a huge bonus in there and it’s not necessarily anything that’s going to show up even in your scope 3, but that’s the basis of your business so you’ve got to be able to make a real allowance for all of those things. But I think it’s really important to say also that you identify rightly: offsetting is a con. That’s my bottom line; because offsetting is being used by airlines and people shipping huge amounts of goods around the world, and we’re going to use all this fossil fuel but that’s alright because we’re going to plant some trees. First of all we need to plant, or allow to re-grow, lots and lots of trees and stop using fossil fuels. It’s not an either / or, we’ve got to do both; and offsetting is just a way for people being able to find excuses to keep going when actually they need to change their business model. We need much less stuff in our life. One of my favourite figures in the last decade is the volume of clothing sold in the UK up to 2019 doubled. Now I don’t remember people in 2009 going around naked or in rags. There is so much waste in the fast fashion business. And one of the things that used to be on each high street and has largely disappeared is shops that repair clothes, and that’s partly because things are being sold so cheaply that people don’t think about repairing; but also the quality of the clothes is such that they are not even worth repairing and the charity shops say lots of the stuff they get is such terrible quality that it’s not worth reselling.
There’s so much in the current business model that’s broken and changing it will be good for small business and also take us in the net zero direction. (22.19)
Jane Langley: You’ve read my mind, this is really uncanny, this morning I was researching a list of sustainable tailors who will do alterations and repairs. So this is a big sector of the local economy that we want to start bringing onto Blue Patch, so that people can actually walk to their nearest repair person and get stuff copied, repaired or altered after their Christmas lunch. So I agree, we need that service-based economy coming through locally and that will make a really big difference.
Natalie Bennett: It’s not just clothing, it’s also ‘repair cafes’ that have been happening at the social enterprise or volunteer level. Many moons ago, it must have been 2008, we had one Green councillor on Islington council, and she set up one of the first repair shops with some local government funding, and you could take in anything you could think of and, if it was feasible, they’d work out a way to fix it – your coffee table with the broken leg, your microwave, whatever. There’s a campaign called The Right to Repair and they’ve got a manifesto and really interesting things being done; let’s have a repair place and you can take them anything in your local high st. Down in the South West I learnt the invaluable fact that an electric drill gets, on average, used for 15 minutes in its lifetime.
In a few places around the country now are what they call The Library of Things . So you’ve got that one shelf you want to put up on the wall, and rather than going and buying an electric drill, you go and borrow it from the shop, use it for the two minutes you’re going to use it and take it back. When your child decides that they are going to learn the guitar, rather than buying one and five lessons later they’ve entirely lost interest, instead of gathering dust in the loft, you go and borrow one and maybe if the child gets really into it you may buy one that fits better but you can try it out first. I visited one and they did have a lot of pasta machines, but you can try it out once and maybe you won’t stick with it. (24:50)
Jane Langley: I agree, so that goes back to you need spaces liberated in the high st so these companies that are holding property as securities everywhere, these multinationals, that somehow needs to be released, that property needs to come back into use. I visited Goldfinger’s workshops in Trellick Tower yesterday and I was blown away by the project, because not only have they got the workshops there, but they are making this superb furniture that’s from wood that’s been felled in London by tree surgeons, so it’s all got a really low carbon footprint, and it’s wood that had to come down. So not only have they got that, they are training local apprentices and they are starting to work in schools as well, so they are giving local kids this experience of woodworking and running a workshop. But also part of their space they have sublet to a restaurant which has created a community kitchen. The food is just incredible, I had lunch there, the food is nothing like chain food. It’s real food that’s cooked on site. On Sunday they make over 200 meals for people who are vulnerable in the community. Volunteers come into that kitchen, volunteer chefs. They utilise leftover food from local restaurants and shops and they provide food for 200 people. Throughout COVID they were doing that too, the kitchen was serving the community. So this is the beautiful thing about a social enterprise: they are in their community, serving their community and bringing people together. And when I was there I could see all walks of life in that cafe eating really healthy food. (26:38)
Natalie Bennett: If you think about it, we’ve been talking mostly about the high street, but there’s also out-of-town shopping centres that are really struggling, emptying out etcetera. Way back in 2006 I wrote a piece for the Guardian that was rather roundly mocked because I said ‘imagine all of those car parks outside shopping centres being turned into allotments, raised beds on top of the asphalt and raise food’. But we’re going to have to find something to do with those things, and I visited in Sweden a shopping centre that’s all entirely repurposed, recycled, upcycled. As you’d expect in a shopping centre there’s a couple of clothes shops, furniture shops, knik knack shops, but what’s different about it is everything there is recycled. They also had a lovely cafe, and when I was there there was about a foot of snow, so not the food growing season. So I don’t think they had got to the food growing yet, but it’s the obvious next step. And you look at in terms of food growing, Incredible Edible in Todmorden started out on a small scale locally and is now a worldwide movement. There are so many places where we can grow food and there they have built a new doctor’s surgery and every plant in the car park produces something edible. It’s not that you walk outside and the doctor says ‘right pick three apples off that tree and that’s your prescription’, but (it’s a) bit like that. (28.18)
Jane Langley: This takes us back to your Universal Basic Income. So in a way, if that was available, maybe more people would have the time and energy to start cultivating and developing all these local projects, because at the moment everyone is so anxious to try and bring in enough money to live that they are just taking any job going.
Natalie Bennett: And that’s what the government forces them to do, and you’ve just reminded me I just did a really brilliant event on Universal Basic Income with GalGael, which is a wonderful little community group in the east end of Glasgow. It started out as a protest against the planned motorway that was going through a wood, and because of that there was fallen wood and that and they were working with wood and now they are a wood workshop that works with people with drug and alcohol and mental health issues. And hearing an economist there talking about the fact that actually having a really low rate of unemployment and forcing people into the first job they can possibly grab is incredibly poor in terms of your output, because people end up in jobs they are wildly unsuited to, it’s not good for them, it’s not good for the company. If you actually have time for people to look around and find out what works for them, but also, even more than that, one of the volunteers at GalGael said to me that this is a community that’s really short on jobs, we have a real problem, we have people not being able to find a job, but there is absolutely no shortage of things that needs doing; there’s an enormous amount of things that needs doing in this community, and lots of people who want to do it but they are trying to squeeze it, they are working a 48 hour job and all the rest of it, and trying to survive on that basis. (30.00)
Jane Langley: Yes and you say that in a way some of the jobs are unproductive because of all the externalities, you know, when you’re pedalling fast fashion or fast food the externalities would far outweigh the economic benefit to the country anyway, so you’re in a job, but as you say, there are so many things that need doing, need attending to.
Natalie Bennett: Like the great, late David Graber’s term (…) ‘bullshit jobs’ and lots of people are stuck in bullshit jobs.
Jane Langley: So I came across an interesting point talking to some businesses recently and it’s about VAT registration. So this is a rather dry subject, I know, but what I come across is quite a few businesses that suddenly stop selling because they don’t want to get into the VAT bracket, because with a small business what tends to happen is you can have a really good year – it’s feast and famine – and then you can have a rubbish year, and the cost of actually running your VAT, accountancy fees and the whole management of VAT is so daunting to quite a few small businesses that are on the brink that they pull back. And in a way that’s quite negative for the economy, and I was wondering if there was any kind of thoughts around VAT and how there could be a ‘zone’ in the VAT, say £10,000, where you could take that extra money and plough it back into the sustainability of your business; like switching to a renewable energy account to putting insulation on your workshops and that kind of thing? (31.40).
Natalie Bennett: Well that’s interesting. In terms of the book, I’m looking at the bigger picture kind of stuff rather than the fine policy detail. One of the things I set out with this book, which I may not quite have achieved, was to set the aim of not going more than 200 pages, so I suspect it might drift out to 220, but even then I’m covering every different angle, so I’m not getting down to that level of detail. But I think we need to start again and look at the system and say ‘this system is not working’. Now I think one of the things we could do with VAT is to, as one academic said to me, it should be termed as a ‘rubbish tax’ or a ‘damage tax’, sorry damage tax was the word I was looking for. VAT on goods can vary, so if you are looking to capture those externalised costs we were talking about before, and so if your a small local business, you’re the green grocer (okay that’s not VAT), a small local business using all local suppliers and it’s all net zero and you are carefully managing it so there’s very little or no waste, then actually what you’re going to have if you have a damage tax instead of VAT, then you’re going to be zero anyway because you are not doing the damage. Whereas if you want to be that big multinational shipping goods all round the world, then finishing them in three places and all the rest of it, then actually you’re going to end up with an awful lot of damage tax because you are (capitalising) those externalised costs. So in a big structural scale if you actually have instead, in a revenue neutral way, you go from VAT to a damage tax, then what you would find is a vast number of small businesses would actually disappear out of the system automatically because they are working in a sustainable way. (33.34)
Jane Langley: I think that’s very visionary, I think a lot of our members would find that fantastic. Talking about damage tax, we’re partnering with the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and looking at all their waste streams with them and it’s going to be a fantastic journey. We’re going to bring lots of our members through to use their (waste) materials and to repurpose them and recycle them, so what we’re doing is we’re looking at a whole structure for this, from people who are tiny businesses to material scientists, to see what can happen with waste and turn them back into things that people really want. So, yeah, that’s an exciting project for us; the damage tax would be so helpful. (34:18)
Natalie Bennett: We talk about a circular economy and I’ve actually got a written question down with the government at the moment. It would appear to be that the rules have changed so that means that old sofas and that, that local councils are not able to collect them anymore. When I first moved to the UK I bought a sofa and after 10 years it was absolutely dead and there was no practical way of refurbishing it, whereas my grandmother in Australia, when she was married they bought a sofa and after their 50th wedding anniversary and they eventually moved out, she still had the same sofa. And so we have so many problems there. What we’re talking about is social innovation and I think looking at the bigger picture here one of the problems is people think ‘oh it’s so hard to change’, but we’ve forgotten how much things have changed just in the last 20 – 30, 40 years. I don’t believe in perfect circular theories of history, but if we look at from after the Second World War, there was 35-40 years of a social democratic consensus. It was also a period that the economists call The Great Levelling: inequality, whilst not a great speed, was gradually going down and down. What happened then is you have the election of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan in the States, the rise of neoliberalism, Thatcherism, call it what you like, and this was an economy that was built on ‘greed is good’, inequality doesn’t matter, Government bad, private good, we’re going to privatise everything. That’s now been going for 35 – 40 years, it’s clearly failed. If you look at those two things together, both of those things were built on the idea of growth, of more and more stuff. Now you can argue immediately after the Second World War period, the country had been bombed to hell, things needed to be rebuilt, houses needed to be rebuilt etcetera. But what we’ve done since is keep chasing this chimaera of growth. We’ve got a failed model so it’s really time for a change and political change happens in big leaps, it’s doesn’t happen slowly and gradually, and what we’re seeing now is the kind of project you’re talking about with the Royal Opera House; at a small scale, locally, in many different ways people are doing things differently. But at the moment the system makes it really difficult in all kinds of ways, there’s rules, there’s limitations. So what we have to do is free up this flowering that’s happening there at the grassroots level, get to a system where we have to acknowledge where we’ve got to stop chasing growth. That we need resilience, we need to have variety in our life, in our economy, in our food, in everything and value all of those things and support all of those things and change will happen. We can see from the historical pattern that change happens in sudden big jumps, and now we’re at the point where we are going to see change. Where we are now is profoundly unstable and I would say that it splits two ways: it either splits in the small ’g’ green direction I’m talking about or it goes to the far right model which says, oh it’s a difficult, dangerous world, we’ve got to grab what we can for us and ours and shove those others away, whoever those others are, build walls to keep them out. Whereas the green philosophy, the green understanding, is there are enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life if we just share them out fairly and if we empower everyone. We haven’t talked much about politics today but we need people to know that politics is what they do, not have done to them. Empowered people making choices for themselves and their own communities; those can be local communities, but these days with our technology they may be a community of people who are very interested in steam trains or something, they can get together on the internet. People getting together, being able to shape their world, that’s what I call politics. And common sense says we’ve got all these human resources, all this human capacity and most of it is squashed down and not used at the moment. We need an economy, a society that frees all that wonderful human potential to build a new kind of world. We’re going to have to build a new world, it has to change and we can do it in ways that work for people and planet. (38.50)
Jane Langley: yes, that’s exactly where we coincide perfectly, because what we notice is when we get our small business members together it is electrifying. There’s a complete joy in how they work together, they share resources, they support each other and have a laugh, something that’s often missing. But actually, what they are together is more resilient and resourceful and this could be such a joyful economy, people could be so much better off if this was allowed to flower. So yes I really agree with you, we need to change everything and I very much look forward to reading your book when it’s out and sharing it with everyone else. Let’s hope it can trigger all this cascading change from politics to (ordinary) life.
Natalie Bennett: That’s right, empower everybody, get people cooperating, give people the chance to cooperate and get together and build a wonderful, flourishing society.
Jane Langley: How can people get the book Natalie?
Natalie Bennett: The easy way is go to the Unbound website; Change Everything, Age of Shocks, any kind of combination of search engine will get you there. Or you can find it on the front page of my website nataliebennett.org.
Jane Langley: That’s brilliant, we’ll obviously put a link in and you can buy an advanced copy can’t you because it’s been crowdfunded.
Natalie Bennett: Exactly, buy an advanced copy and you get your name in the book, so your contribution will be there and visible and obvious. It starts from £10 for an ebook, upwards from there. Anyone who’s got some extra cash flying around there’s some nice extra bonus bits, if you’d like to put a bit more in.
Jane Langley: I’ve bought my copy already and I can’t wait to read it. So thank you very much Natalie, it’s been really wonderful talking to you and we look forward to reading the book and changing everything. Thank you.
Natalie Bennett: Thanks very much Jane, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today and to all the small business people and perhaps people who are thinking of setting up small businesses out there, well done, go for it and good luck.
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