A revolution is taking place. Don’t get too excited or you may scare it away – but it is clear now that ecological awareness is moving steadily from the margins of political, social and technological thinking into varying degrees of action by individuals, businesses and governments.It may be a false dawn and we could all go back to good ol’ smokin’, pollutin’ and wastin’, but there is enough technological and intellectual momentum building worldwide to suggest that we are in the process of changing for the better our relationship with nature. The process is muddled, slow and sometimes incoherent, but it’s all leading to dramatic shifts in the way we live, work and do business with each other.
Consider how far we have all come in just a generation. Have you thought about installing or have you bought renewable electricity? Have you deliberately not taken an aeroplane, or bought a less powerful car? Have you chosen to eat food that has not travelled vast distances, or which has been grown without pesticides? Have you thought about voting for a political party or an individual because of their record on the environment? Or complained about people smoking or littering the streets? Have you tried to recycle more and turn off more lights? Have you started to link heatwaves and hurricanes with climate change, or wondered what kind of physical world your children will inhabit?
As Al Gore has said, “We are all environmentalists now”, which is just as well because the signals are that modern man, obsessed with economic growth, is on the way to creating a degraded and impoverished world in which fewer and fewer people live well and more and more species are denied even the fundamentals of life – clean air, water and enough food.
And now consider how far we may have to go in the next 20 to 30 years just to get through without catastrophe or resource shortages that cripple our economies or lead to immense social upheavals and strife. Even the least alarming and most cautious forecasts by scientists and governments suggest ecological change is going to accelerate rapidly as climate change, population growth and industrial development puts extra stress on societies.
If you cannot see why change is necessary, just stretch the imagination. Within most of our lifetimes there will at least two billion more people alive – another China and a half, or nearly 10 times as many as live in western Europe today.
So there will be nine billion people alive, all being encouraged to consume as much oil, water, land, minerals, wood and stone as we in Britain do today. That would mean something like 1000 times as many aeroplanes, 10 times as many cars and half as much food and water again being needed.
Forget it. This would also require several new planets, so something will have to give – and it’s going to be the environment.
So far there is no Plan B, but as the scale of the ecological crisis dawns, some radical big ideas are emerging. Most are technological and managerial. The first is to compel industry to come up with goods that need fewer resources to make, use less energy to run, and which when they are finished with can become the raw materials of another industrial process.
It may need new laws or pressure from consumers to get there, but a fourfold decrease in resource use is considered an absolute minimum for life in 2050. Few people can imagine everyone smoking fags on the London underground any more, and our grandchildren will wonder how on earth cars could be conceived that used a whole gallon of petrol to take one person 15 miles, and which were thrown into a hole after a few years.
But then most people will look back on 2006 and think we lived in prehistoric conditions. They will wonder why everyone did not generate their own electricity but allowed a national grid system to waste more than half of what was generated. They will ask why houses leaked heat, and why we needed nuclear power when solar and marine power was possible. It may always be a mystery why we travelled and polluted so much, or how we became addicted to oil.
But new generations will also regard what was happening today as really significant. We are seeing the shy emergence of a global carbon economy, which could genuinely counter climate change. Britain must reduce by 90% its climate changing emissions in the next 40-odd years, which seems daunting but is actually only about 3% a year. Big industry can already trade carbon just like coffee, oil or pork bellies, but by 2020 or sooner everyone in Europe could have personal carbon emission quotas, set by governments. Imagine going to a cash machine to buy extra quotas to go on holiday, or to drive more than 5,000 miles a year. What effect would real carbon constraint have on where individuals live, or how we travel?
But that may be just the start. Beyond personal emission trading comes the potential of resource economies developing. Every good and transaction, every movement and action, may in future be valued by its embodied carbon or water. That melon you buy in the supermarket is effectively several hundred litres of precious groundwater exported from southern Spain. That computer which needed tens of thousands of litres of water and scarce metals to make may have to be rethought. A global hydro economy would demand that industry and farming use less water, and would encourage different crops to be grown and fewer animals to be bred for food.
This is just the start. Today we begin to switch to green electricity, put photovoltaic cells and micro power plants on our roofs, buy local produce, and travel and consume less. Tomorrow, it will be much easier, cheaper and more convenient to change to a green lifestyle. But we will still ask ourselves why it took us so long.
Saturday September 23, 2006