Time For A New Green Agenda?

Yesterday’s meeting started me thinking about why, despite some NGO finding another potential climate related catastrophe almost every day, there is a feeling of frustration and a lack of progress. It looks to be the fault of the Green movement itself.

If we take a look at the history of the environmental movement, most if it sprang from the anti establishment movement of the early seventies, when people were fighting against corporate greed and government inaction. This was inexorably linked with left of centre politics, and into this rainbow coalition were drawn all of the other popular movements demanding an end to war, liberation for Palestine, legalisation of LSD and a whole variety of other causes. As a result, it is hard to get any rational discussion of environmental issues without running into some rather naive anti capitalist rhetoric, and this probabl;y goes some way to explaining the Green movements confrontational stance. In a nutshell, they are a bunch of old hippies, still fighting the battles of 1975 in 2009 because a) that is all they know how to do and b) there is a natural human instinct to try to preserve the status quo even if you started off fighting to overturn it.

If we look at the green leaders we see people such as Lord Jonathon Porrit and George Monbiot, sitting pontificating about how people should live their lives from a position of unimaginable privilege when viewed from most of the developing world. I have been in plenty of meetings with this strata of the green movement where people have had the arrogance to try to deny developing nations the very technology which would allow them to start improving standards of living. “We’d rather let them starve than risk using GMOs” seems to be the rather depressing view, which completely missed the point that while we in the west are rich enough to waffle on about downshifting, and slacking for the several billion other people living in grinding poverty would result in an early death.

Let’s face it, cycling to work or trading tomatoes for lettuces with your neighbour might make you feel better, but  isn’t going to save the world, so what is?

Well it has to start with economic growth. Population will continue to rise anyway, and contrasting the living standards in London and Lagos illustrates why money is important. So demanding that x% of GDP be spent on mitigating climate changes isn’t really going to work because that money is being raised through green taxes which just takes more money out of the economy and leaves less of a margin to do good works with. But stimulating economic growth doesn’t necessarily mean pollution, as I mentioned yesterday the environment in the UK is actually getting cleaner and greener while at the same time we have got considerably richer.

It seems that the established Green movement knows only how to use the stick – taxes and scare stories – and not the carrot to change peoples behaviour. Nudge by Richard Thaler would be a good place to start looking for ideas. In addition this obsession with technology being bad is really holding back progress. technology isn’t all bad, as you’ll find out if you ever need to go into hospital.

The other thing that we can do to make a real difference is to encourage the development of, and if safe, the deployment of the whole range of new and emerging technologies that can address climate change. Should we be bothered that an entrepreneur or a company that comes up with a way to make a major difference to carbon dioxide emissions gets rich on the back of it? Of course not, we should applaud it and hope that it it will encourage others to try. There are a huge range of technologies, from nanotechnologies in thin film solar cells, through to engineering carbon capturing microbes using synthetic biology to solar shaded and geoengineering that we need to develop.

Groups such as Friends of the Earth and ETC have fought tooth and claw, and in the dirtiest possible way to encourage the wholesale rejection of technologies. It’s these old hippies with their 1975 mindsets that need to be rejected, not technology. Let’s forget the politics and see some action. If their approach is not appropriate for the 21st century then wither replace them or start a movement that is.

Comments 6

  1. Blake Ludwig

    Hi Tim
    I half agree with your view but you need to make some more distinctions i think.

    My experience of the ‘environmental movement’, the corporate world and government is there is a real strata of cultural and moral values.

    Just as there are ‘deep greens and eco warriors’ there is a large portion of the country still in love with a romanticized English countryside that is unchanging, equally afraid of new technology, and they don’t want to change; in fact many deep greens would have us return to the mythical ‘past’ when life was ‘better’ and ‘simpler’, thus not wrestling with the many complexities of life as it is now.

    Just as there are the ‘light greens’ who are happy to compost, fly less, recycle and shop ethically, there is a post modern portion of society who see that we do have an effect on the planet, and believe that we can do something to help repair it through simple actions.

    And there are the bright greens, who aren’t afraid of harnessing technology and architecture to design a new world where the ‘built environment’ is made to resemble natural living systems (ie Worldchanging.com and Cradle to Cradle) – obviously you fall somewhere in this camp.

    The murky sticking point I see in your arugument (and that of many NGO’s we work alongside, such as Greenpeace and FoE, as well as the government bods such as DfT and DECC), is that the choice seems to be between environment or economics most of the time.

    Many in today’s Britain would have us believe that scientific materialism was the highest aspiration. Others a fundamental religious belief. Others that economics is the highest ‘god’.

    My conclusions, looking at myself and wading through my years of activism as a peacenick, 80’s born-too-late hippy, new age wannabe healer, gardener, greenpeace volunteer and 4×4 activist, as well as my years of working for aerospace and multinational corporates, is that we now are experiencing a real breakdown in our values as human beings. Many would say the 60’s hippies changed us unalterably from a dismally entrapped existence that we had outgrown, but failed to finish the job. They stopped, and left the work undone. We are all in need of a new moral compass that has integrity, conscience, hope, and brings us together rather than separates us.

    With your good intentions about nanotechnology and GM, there is a real distrust of science because our moral values haven’t caught up to the technological advancements, and we see the real possibility that the ‘solutions’ could have devastating results.

    Simultaneously, the nature of us as humans is to take risks and to move forward and we seem stuck in this ambiguous stalemate where nothing big seems to be happening just when we need it to happen. I would suggest that there is something else at work now, and we need to be mindful that major systems are falling apart and we are in a stage where we need to create something new.

    Perhaps its best to debate and dialogue about these things, but not get angry at the ‘other’. I know – I’ve done it enough in my life.

    1. Post

      Ah but isn’t this just the problem? We have a problem, climate change, that needs a solution. If you don’t trust science then don’t get ill or use the Internet. Simple local solutions might make you feel better, but they won’t feed the burgeoning global population or provide them with clean drinking water. No doubt 20,000 years ago some of our common ancestors may have worried that rubbing two sticks together could have devastating results, and it has, but these have been far outweighed by the benefits.

      I’m not talking about rediscovering morality or fixing broken societies here, simply addressing the big issue without getting distracted. If we don’t do that, and spend our time discussing the relative merits of the various shades of Green while the world starts to resemble something out of Mad Max then future generations will remember us as the one that had the chance to do something, but blew it.

  2. Blake Ludwig

    Hi again
    Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, but it’s not that simple. Whilst a lot of us want to just get on with solving the problem, we find out simultaneously either that we at loggerheads with the ‘right solution’ – or we find a big part of the population who says they care about climate change actually stand in the way of dealing with it. A big example is installing inland wind turbines. Until the RSPB recently said they wouldn’t get in the way of most applications for turbines, for years they have been fighting them, along with the National Trust and nature groups – even people like David Bellamy. Imagine where we would be if we had been installing arrays of turbines already. So the problem is how do we speak to each of these groups in a way they understand and agree to solutions? And then what are the right solutions? Maybe nanotechnology, or nuclear is or isn’t the right way forward. What about the Severn Barrage project? good or bad? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/05/severn-barrage-consultation

    1. Post

      I think we are approaching the problem from different angles. I would argue that the focus on windmills and tidal barrages are symptomatic of applying 1970s thinking and 1970s technology to 21st century problems. As a result, the first reaction of the green lobby is “what if it goes wrong?” whereas we should be thinking “What if it goes right?”

  3. Blake

    Hi Tim
    I agree that there is the real possibility for us to actually shift things along using technology, just as we have managed very well to shift things in the wrong direction. There is also a real need to re-evaluate and perhaps even reject the ‘precautionary principle’. The real point is that we have limited time to act and so we need to make the right decision.

    I thought you would find this article by Alex Steffen from Worldchanging.com of interest, as well as the ensuing comments. Alex argues that yes we need to utilise new ‘bright green’ ideas to transform the world, but that doesn’t mean we should just do anything. Rather he argues that we need to work along with nature. http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009704.html

    “The second implication is that we know what we’re doing well enough to get the results we want from planetary engineering, even if we don’t have a better climate blueprint. We don’t. The magnitude of our ignorance about even the most fundamental aspects of the planetary systems on which we depend staggers the informed mind. We’re just coming to understand the climate system. We’ve discovered only a tiny fraction of the planet’s species. We are almost still in the age of alchemy when it comes to truly understanding all the interplay of influences that make up an ecosystem. We are simply not up to the task of running the biosphere as a whole like a machine, because we don’t have a copy of the operating manual, and we’re probably still illiterate anyways. This may be true for generations to come.”

    In the comments, by David E. there is an interesting example provided of human intervention which I copy here:
    “Flathead Lake in Northwest Montana is the largest body of fresh water west of the continental divide. Kokanee salmon used to be in abundant supply. The salmon were a natural food supply for wildlife and humans forever. Then one-day scientist’s decided that they could increase the salmon population by adding more food to the system. They introduced a little shrimp species into the lake so the salmon would have more food. The desired outcome was salmon would thrive and populations would flourish. It was a win win solution for wildlife and humans. Suddenly the salmon populations failed to the point that Kokanee salmon are now extinct in the Flathead Lake system. The Salmon are gone but the shrimp are thriving. Turns out that the shrimp foreign to the eco system have no predators, other species that want to eat them for food. Further, the salmon didn’t eat the shrimp once they were in the lake, they may have in fact ate them in the laboratory. But turns out when the salmon were feeding near the surface in the day time the shrimp were on the bottom of the lake. When the salmon returned to the deep water at night, the shrimp went up to the surface to feed. Soon the shrimp were eating the same food source as the salmon. The new competitor the shrimp with no natural presence in the lake prior won the contest and the salmon died and became extinct. Now no one can figure out how to get rid of the shrimp without killing everything in the lake and it is a big lake.”

  4. Pingback: Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific? | TNTlog

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