Renewable Energy Foundation

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How Sincere is Global Environmentalism?

This article appeared in a shortened form in Sustainable Business (January 2009).

Historical analogies are tempting, giving a sense of security and chiming nicely with that very deeply held intuition that there is nothing new under the sun. However, it is precisely because they are are so attractive that we generally regard them as suspect. This may be a mistake. The human record is short, and our activities over that period largely unchanged, in spite of vast acquisitions of knowledge, consequent technological power, huge populations, and enhanced communication. It would not be entirely suprising if the complicated eddies observable in the historical past were sometimes to recur after an absence, as they will in a river where a large stone beneath the surface makes its presence felt by calling into exeistence at irregular intervals a transient downward sucking spiral of water.

I mention this because the last year, 2008, has often suggested to me a sickening tendency to resemble certain parts of what one of the period’s principal cultural architects called the “low dishonest decade”, the 1930s. Every month I walk from my office to the Waterstones at the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square to look at books published in the environmental sector, some hundred titles spread over three substantial shelves. A sprinkling of worthy academics aside (Sir John Houghton Climate Change: The complete briefing), most of this is curiously tabloid in character. I find elegantly presented anouncements that Green is the New Black (“how to change the world with style”), which comes with a preface by Lily Cole recommending thrift (“holes can be beautiful too”), and ends by wishing its readers “Happy Shopping”. The book itself more practically passes on “Big Ideas for you Smalls” (re-use old “undies” as dusters). Another volume, Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life, comes with an enthusiastic introduction by Julia Roberts, from which we discover that she loves the planet to distraction and has learned all or nearly all she knows from this book and its author. The text gives recipes for houmous, advice about yoga, and suggests, almost insists, that we discard carcinogenic talcum and use cornflour instead.

While this seems comic, it is, I suggest, sadly, indicative of the deeper character of the current environmental movement, which is superficial, self-advertising, and fragile. A chilling historical analogy presents itself. In October 1934, Canon Dick Sheppard, late Vicar of St. Martins in the Fields, wrote to the Manchester Guardian renouncing war. Within a few weeks he had some thirty thousand supportive replies, and in 1936 Sheppard formed the Peace Pledge Union, a movement which grew to astonishing proportions, with a membership of over 100,000 and a very much larger body of generalised support. Similar movements existed around the world, and formed part, along with other organisations such as the League of Nations Union, the political foundation for the Disarmament Conference that rolled around the world in never-ending and well-intentioned debate. None of this prevented war, and may even have made it more likely since it prevented actions that might, even at the eleventh hour, have stifled German aggression.

Isn’t this exactly where we are in current climate change and energy politics? Faced with global instability, resource competition, and a creaking energy system, particularly in the UK where the electricity system is entering a period of chronic crisis, we seem trapped in a generalised abnegatory benevolence, a faith in international agreement led by panels, Non-Governmental Organisations, committees, campaigns, conferences, Leagues, Unions, a trust that salvation lies in renunciation, then more purely of arms, now more generally of the tools and power delivered by industrial wealth, a faith in the virtu inherent in idealistically pure cheek-turning passivity rather than inevitably compromised practical self-defense, and running through all a lack of self-confidence evident in rather than concealed by strident popular demands: Stop Climate Chaos, No More War. Will any of this work? Are the utterly infeasible EU renewable energy targets really expected to have an effect on energy security and climate change, or will they actually make things worse. Does the Prime Minister’s recent creation of a Department of Energy and Climate Change show an imaginative determination to tackle the issues, or is it a meaningless gesture, as if Chamberlain in 1938 had created a Department of War and Peace. Time will tell, perhaps in 2009.