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Erik Swyngedouw: Where is the environmental movement?

17 October 2008 - Amsterdammers with low incomes will suffer as a result of the financial crisis. However, the crisis also opens up possibilities for a true political debate on economic policy, says Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography at Manchester University.

Part three of a series on Amsterdam and the crisis

As a result of the crisis, financial services will face tighter regulation. "Banks will return to a more traditional role and busy themselves with boring bank operations. Speculative products, which have proven to be a bubble, will be curtailed. This will affect the expansion of the entire sector".

Inhabitants of Amsterdam have a difficult time ahead, although some groups will be affected more than others. "People who work in the financial sector will feel the effect, but many of them have been filling their piggy banks during the past years anyway. People with large debts will also be affected. This includes small businesses, but also families that have bought a house".

In addition, there will be the effect of the bailouts. "Since last Sunday, Europe, Great Britain and America have jointly taken 2.1 trillion pounds' worth of measures. That's incredible. And governments don't have that kind of money, right? Inflation will rise. Again, this will mainly cause problems for vulnerable groups".

Swyngedouw challenges the view that there is little the municipality can do. "Local governments often say: 'Ah, but there's nothing we can do about this. We don't have any real power or influence'. In part that's true, but on the other hand, city governments are in direct contact with the regional, national and European governments".

Posing as powerless would be one of the ways in which governments avoid real political debate. Another way to obscure political choices would be to present them as technical matters to be decided by experts rather than through public debate.

However, Swyngedouw hopes that authentic political debate will return now that the neo-liberal ideology has been discredited and governments are moving to a more Keynesian, mixed economy, in which things are not uncritically left to the market.

Take for example the development Zuidas business district, which was to be paid for in part by financial institutions. During the past years, there has hardly been any debate on this project. Now that private partners seem to backing out of the project, this may change.

"If the government pays for it, it will become clear that this is a political matter", Swyngedouw argues. "The question will arise whether it's justified to invest money in a project that will mainly benefit the better-offs".

However, such a debate will not arise unless citizens and organisations challenge current economic views. Swyngedouw thinks trade unions should play a role here, but also the environmental movement. "I haven't seen anything yet. I don't understand why the environmental movement isn't seizing this opportunity".

Professor Erik Swyngedouw. Image: Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth) cutting bank cards in front of the ABN Amro headquarters at the Zuidas to protest against environmentally unfriendly investments, June 2007. Photo: Dirk van der Made / Wikipedia


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