Many of us like the idea of swimming with dolphins and our children having dolphins around to give them the option to swim with them. Patriotism anyone?
Most of us hit a form of mental and emotional autopilot on hearing dire environmental messages. Like the teenager told to tidy his room we believe that the problem’s so big that only a global superhero can do something worthwhile. So we procrastinate and squabble as our one and only ecosystem is collapsing.
Our inaction in the face of scientific evidence is arguably wierd. Afterall, most of us accept that climate change is our doing. It’s doubly odd if you accept that the majority are probably concerned on grounds of morality and stewardship for future generations. Yet the disconnection between belief and doing something persists. How do we close that chasm?
What about we accept that a radical environmentalist path won’t gain traction if it demands our departure from our current pampered lives as its starting point. So only persistent and obvious environmental deprivation on our doorstep will persuade us to change by which time it’ll probably be too late.
“Our inaction in the face of scientific evidence is arguably wierd.”
Perhaps then the way forward is a “Green Deal” combining economic, social and environmental factors together in a parallel of FDR’s New Deal. It’s got more chance of delivering a genuinely green future but in terms of odds it’s a shift from no chance to little chance; the politics are too unpalatable for too many. The radicalism of the New Deal was only accepted following massive crisis, that opened the way for progressive ideas to become normal.
For a Green Deal to be initiated before environmental damage and associated costs become even more undeniable than they are now, it will have to be driven by highly politicised social and economic factors. The environmentalists will be crushed rather than supported and The Green in the Deal will just be a hashtag to win backing.
So the chances are we’d get chaos from societal failure as the massive sociopolitical experiment blows up. Arguably, that’s more manageable than environmental meltdown but that’s not much of a sell.
What about carbon trading? Carbon trading is a whizzo financial market-based idea – meaning its a new way for traders to scalp profits so they’ll back it. Truth is it’s not likely to be a sustainable solution in a world where there is no global policeman. It’s supremely irrational for the UK to commit to action and costs that only make sense if China or USA play by the same rules. What would we do if China finds it in their national self-interest to ditch the rules?
“We tend to assume that boffins somewhere will do something fabulous to make it all okay.”
So we should only go as far with trading carbon as our national self-interest lets us and that’s the global limiter on carbon trading.
Nevertheless, if we accept that there is somewhere a collective will – and therefore a collective way – to head off environmental ruin, how do we go with the societal grain to cut through the block on action?
The magic mix of innovation, competition and markets is perhaps what most of us can agree on today as a route. There’s a powerful faith in mankind’s ability to progress and overcome the odds. It works in disaster movies so why not environmental disaster?
We tend to assume that boffins somewhere will do something fabulous to make it all okay – an agnostic belief in the divinity of scientific progress.
There is undoubtedly significant finance available for alternative energy that comes in many forms – green bonds, yieldcos, Corporate PPAs, pension fund activity and more. But the availability of funding is skewed to mid- to late-stage, lowest-risk project implementation often with some subsidy thrown in. Funding is not abundantly available at the risky innovation stage. The superhero innovation we seek comes from hope and prayers, not the conservative discounted cash flow projections of green bonds.
So how might we get innovation financing into solving our planetary problems? The answer, if we are non-ideologically honest with ourselves, is to unleash hubris and greed.
Yes, non-commercial research and government funding have provided the foundations for much of society’s scientific progress. But, loathe it or love it, it’s the profit motive that has powered transformative large-scale implementation.
If we want capitalism to save the environment then we need to feed its vanity and avarice. Disruptive innovation is a brutal game with lots of fast money chasing hope and leaving loads of loss and chaos in its wake. Nourish capitalism’s greed with the right incentives and it just might bring us revolutionary envirotech solutions. Government could choose to provide copious funding and simplified regulatory frameworks to unleash a manic, but hopefully productive, feeding frenzy of big egos. Who’ll vote and pay for that?
How about, then, a strategic objective of getting as near as we can to food and energy self-sufficiency? That neither of these things will be possible would be a superbly enlightening education for us all. It would illustrate our vulnerability as individuals and as a nation, and our dependence and need for partnership with others.
“Mature political leadership is about executing the possible rather than pining after the ideal.”
A focus on national self-sufficiency in food and energy provides a valuable insurance policy against exogenous shocks. There is imminent danger of Western nations slipping backwards economically and socially as China and other countries rise. And access to resources is part of the risk.
Self-sufficiency could align nicely with ambitious environmental goals particularly in a country like the UK that is running out of the option to burn homespun hydrocarbons. People care about the future and could be motivated to meaningful action, even if it means personal cost, as long as the issue and solution are both tangible. Immediate, local or even national self-interest has much greater leverage on folk than globalised progressive aims and ideals. Which is why we are in a period where global values are in decline as they chaff with perceived local and national interests and needs.
But national self-sufficiency can only be delivered politically by engaging populist sentiment. And the power of populism today is plain to see – the anti-globalists, Brexiteers, Trumpers, Salvini, Corbynistas are sending a message we should at least partly heed. There is a current in there to navigate to progressive shores. A national self-sufficiency project would have the attractions of a green deal, stripped of at least some of the political and ideological warts.
Mature political leadership is about executing the possible rather than pining after the ideal. The UK looking after itself and its environment does not solve a global problem but where we lead others might follow. There is so much about protecting the environment that can chime with mainstream conservative sentiments towards self-sufficiency, local community and thrift. Blend in an element of patriotism and you have a powerful collective motivating force. What did the man say? “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
We can all be the heroes in this story.