Presenting Cap and Share to a citizens’ assembly in the Scottish Parliament

by Justin Kenrick

On Friday 25th January 2019, on Robert Burns Day, we (as Extinction Rebellion) occupied the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and held a Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis. We appreciated the very real steps that the Scottish Parliament and Government have taken to address Climate Change, but pointed out that they are still relishing north sea oil discoveries, still providing billions in subsidies to aviation and to fossil fuel companies, still need to take far more radical action to wean society and the economy off our addiction to fossil fuels.

Apart from Burns poetry and song, this peaceful act of civil disobedience focused on enacting a Citizens’ Assembly which considered the power of Cap and Share to reorientate the economy. It would do this by placing a ‘cap’ on how much fossil fuel will be allowed into the economy. Fossil fuel companies would have to bid at auction for the right to bring these fossil fuels into the economy. Since that cost would be passed on to consumers it would thereby encourage a rapid shift to a non-carbon economy. At the same time the money these companies will have to pay for this right would be redistributed as a ‘share’ to all citizens equally, making the transition one that can help empower and support the majority (and especially the poor and those committed to zero emissions).

The big change since the days of Richard Douthwaite and the 2012 publication of Sharing for Survival is that we now have zero faith in an international order being able to bring this about. Hence my presentation was focused on the need for Scotland to enact Cap and Share and show the way, rather than wait for a global agreement.

After I presented, the police again asked the 45 of us who were sitting in the seats of the Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) to leave the chamber. We held a vote on the request and unanimously voted to stay until the Assembly was through. The police asked us whether we actually would leave once we were through, and a vote confirmed this.

We then broke into small discussion groups after which each group presented powerful questions and challenges to Cap and Share in reporting back to the plenary. These included:

– An emphasis on the need for tariffs on goods from countries where carbon is not priced in, and the importance of boundaries and borders to control carbon and finance (along with the importance of freedom of movement for people).

– The fact that Cap and Share does not address emissions from land nor the need for land to be revitalised and carbon negative was raised, and it was emphasised that Cap and Share would need to be a central part of an interlinked set of policies to address social and ecological disruption. Ones that include land reform and a restoration of the land, a Green New Deal and taking control of the financial sector etc. Unless we see the climate crisis and austerity as two sides of the same coin then we will not be able to address either.

– A major objection was that Cap and Share simply works with capitalism rather than replaces it. My response was that whether or not it is part of (or acts as a bridge to) a far more radical reorientation of the economy and society, this is the kind of minimum act that needs to be undertaken. It seeks to change the rules regulating capitalism so that – in this worst case scenario of capitalism continuing pretty much as is – the rules of the game both drive carbon from the economy and redistribute resources to the poor and majority from the rich and carbon profligate.

– Does C&S need to be part of a creative and courageous ‘Marshall Plan’? Does it need to part of a plan that tackles the cause of the social and ecological crisis driving austerity and climate change? If the cause is the power and greed of those billionaires – the James Ratcliffes of our world – who maintain a system that is impoverishing us all and destroying their children’s future too, then do we need to have the courage to name the cause and tell them we are changing the system they maintain, and if they want to leave these shores then they can leave, but such people need to learn to be be equal or leave for their Monacos and leave their infrastructure with us to transform – whether nationalised or taken over by communities.

When the Assembly had completed its work then we left, with yellow jacketed policeman lining the way and us appreciating their willingness to tolerate our peaceful insistence on care. We were welcomed by hundreds of fellow activists and supporters outside Parliament, and many people in Extinction Rebellion have asked for copies of Sharing for Survival which I hope to provide once I can track copies down. (You can also read it online at http://www.sharingforsurvival.org.)

MSPs are elected representatives and meet during the week, but every Friday the debating chamber is empty and unused. We could hold Citizens’ Assemblies like this every Friday on the interlinked crises of our times (Citizens’ Assemblies like the 2016 Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland that led to the referendum that repealed the 8th amendment). They would need to genuinely reflect the demographics of the country and – advised by experts but reaching their own conclusions and decisions – they could create a space for a radical and realistic set of policies to emerge which can be put – one by one – to the population, not in bland broad brush referendums, but in ones that focus on specific policies.

Perhaps it is time for the next phase of the Scottish Parliament. One that arises from and nurtures an independence of spirit that insists that Citizens not Parliamentarians are the ones who can lead the way. Cap and Share was central to the first such Citizen-made Citizens’ Assembly. My hope is that it will also be the focus of one of a series of Parliamentary-sanctioned Citizens’ Assembly meetings.

Justin Kenrick is a co-author of the Feasta climate group’s book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society. He is an anthropologist activist who lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, where he helped co-found PEDAL – Portobello Transition Town in 2005, and where he Chairs Action Porty which in 2017 undertook the first urban community right to buy in Scotland when it brought Bellfield Church and grounds into community ownership. He is a member of Extinction Rebellion having participated in the November 2018 blockade of the bridges in London, and the January 2029 Citizens Assembly occupation of the Scottish Parliament. He lectured in social anthropology at the University of Glasgow from 2001 to 2009, when he left to return to work for the Forest Peoples Programme supporting forest peoples – mainly in Kenya and DRC – to secure their community lands and determine their own futures.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

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