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Johnathon Walker, October 30, 2014

This comment article is written by Johnathan Walker


One of the key challenges facing Bristol Green Capital 2015 is will it be a year in which all Bristol engages with the challenge of living within our planetary limits, or will it become a symbol of economic and social fractures that subtly but powerfully define the Bristol experience?

The scale of this challenge should not be underestimated. We almost have a perfect socio-political storm to contend with. On one front we have a year led by a movement that, by its own acknowledgement, has failed to break out of the circles of a relatively affluent social demographic, socially progressive, cultural elite.

On another we have a city whose progressive “vibe” is undermined by inequalities and divisions shaped by class, race and geographic inheritances.

I say we almost have a perfect storm. It would be made perfect if we added a third front: Bristol Green Capital’s leadership failing to recognise and respect the significance of the first two.

There used be a tacit sense that it didn’t really matter if public events didn’t serve the most marginalised as long as it didn’t do them any harm.

This is no longer the case. The big machinery that underpins our political economy drives us toward economic exclusion and inequality. If we do nothing, the gap grows.

The onus is on public bodies, progressive movements (especially where, as with Green Capital, they are spending public money) to be intentional about inclusion, not treating it as an optional extra.

The early signals are not encouraging. BCFM and Ujima radio stations hosted a Green Capital debate this week. The Chair of Bristol 2015 Ltd said he wanted the audience to give him the answers on inclusion.

It was put to him by one of the guests that diversity was the norm in Bristol not a quirk, that there had been over a year of Green Capital work done already and someone had been paid £100,000 to lead it.

In that context, turning up two months before the year started seeking answers suggested they had only just, and decidedly belatedly, started considering the question.

That might seem a bit harsh but a quick visit to the Bristol Green Capital website to view the beautiful graphic might be seen as confirming the danger. It depicts the balloons, Brunel and bridges version of Bristol, with the Victoria Rooms and the colourfully pricey houses in Hotwells thrown in for good measure.

It is a representation of Bristol of the elite, a Bristol most of the city are not part of and view from both a physical and economic distance. What’s more, it appears to have torn itself from the rest of the city and is ascending into the sky. Who signed that off?

There are a number of important considerations Bristol must hold tight if the year is going to be “successful”.

The city must acknowledge that poverty limits the opportunities people have to think differently. If we are serious about Bristol Green Capital title being for all of Bristol we need to create the economic space for people to participate. I am talking about a living wage, pressing on with building affordable and social housing, breaking the link between wealth and health. If we are going to build public support for the movement, we have to grow the environmental movement in a way that addresses prices, jobs and security.

Next year cannot just be about festivals and events. It has to be about system change: addressing the rules and cultures that trap us in unsustainable lifestyles and produce concentrations of power and wealth, powerlessness and poverty.

The agendas of environmental justice and economic (political and social) justice are inseparable precisely because it’s the same systems against which they battle. A failure to recognise their interdependence will rob the movement of both strength and integrity. Rebranded festivals won’t cut it.

Next year could actually worsen inequality. There has been a lot of talk about the true aim of Bristol 2015 as being to promote Bristol’s green technology business offer.

In and of itself that is laudable. But the problem is that the green industry is a high tech industry. In fact, many of the industries being promoted in Bristol are high tech or for the highly educated. It’s a strategy that works well for the city’s elite. But it does not offer opportunities for those who haven’t excelled in formal education or who may be looking for re-entry to the workforce after years of absence.

The economic development development strategy must build in industries that offer opportunities to enter the economy, not merely through insecure, low-wage positions, but with quality jobs. Of course the high tech offer should be promoted. But that must be done with an awareness that one part of Bristol very publically ascending does not mean all Bristol is ascending.

The challenges are real but so are the opportunities. If 2015 were able to build a strategy that included the voices, interests and leadership of those usually left behind, it could offer the Euro-American environmental movement a powerful picture of a new way of doing things. This cannot be left to the environmental movement. It’s too important for that.

Picture: elroyspelbos / Shutterstock

Source: Bristol

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