Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Insidious Economics of Climate Change

• Whilst it may be true that a change in our perspective of the world is a necessary prerequisite for a change in our behaviour in relation to it, it is worth remembering that human beings do not construct the world ONLY in this metaphysical sense. The intricate physical composition of the biosphere is dependent not only on the ‘environment’ - the ‘earth-as-stage’ - but on the creatures that animate and are an extension of it.

James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis (a theory that suggests the world is a self-regulating and interconnected living system) states the following:

“The atmosphere on earth may seem to us like the most natural thing, but its composition - 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen - is very odd. These gases were generated, and are maintained at an equable level for life's processes, by living organisms themselves; if the biosphere died, oxygen and nitrogen would disappear with it, leaving a greenhouse atmosphere similar to that of Mars and Venus (around 95% carbon dioxide and hundreds of degrees hot).”

If we learn to understand our place and functionality within the world, we may come learn to (re)value the earth itself. Both these processes, it seems, like countless others, are intimately bound up together and mutually constructive.

• Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, now thought by many environmental economists to be the panacea for global warming, are, instead, another short-term fix designed to stave off the negative effects of pollution for another generation or two.

Rather than systematically rooting out the disease that underlies the symptoms of climate change, technologies such as CCS deal in the same ‘problem-solution’ rhetoric that has prolonged the failure of current governments to address the environmental crisis in a substantial and enduring way: in ways that recognise and respect the intrinsic value of the earth and not its value in terms of the future of human beings (e.g. the highly influential Stern Review).

CCS involves trapping industrial carbon emissions and then burying them, thereby preventing the escape of CO2 into the atmosphere and limiting its contribution to global warming.

Once the waste is swept under the carpet (i.e. old oil and gas fields, such as those in the North Sea), then what? Try to forget it is there because we can’t see it?

The lasting solution is to focus on low carbon manufacturing, sustainable development and to change our lasting perspective on a world which we still understand, experientially and intellectually, so little about.

• Simon Hoggart, writing in the Guardian last week, explains that instead of making green gestures such as switching your mobile phone off (doing so for a year would save the equivalent amount of energy that is used to run a hot bath) we need to think in terms of more substantive action, and on a broader scale:

“Much environmentalism is fundamentally religious, the equivalent of taking a tin of beans to Harvest Festival in the hope of ending world hunger or, as David Mackay puts it in his new book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, like baling out the Titanic with a teaspoon.”

• I would like to say a word in defence of the ‘fat cat bankers’ who we all (myself included) despise so much. The said financiers, especially those who have been at the centre of our spiralling economic crisis, are simply, in my view, successful capitalists – just as are those who employ slave labourers. Why should we blame them for mastering a same socio-economic system that we all support and aspire to succeed in without worrying too much about the welfare of others, at home or aboard?

(To set a precedent, animal rights philosopher Peter Singer donates a quarter of his wage to charity).

We should focus instead on fundamental, systematic changes that address the motives and values that underpin our culture as a whole, its institutions and prolonged direction, not merely on those who become TOO greedy.

Similarly, natural disasters (an inherently contradictory, humanly-biased term) are only indicators of a more serious environmental crisis, which is itself a consequence of a still wider, human crisis: a crisis of mind (which may itself prove to be a consequence of the homelessness we experience, living in a heavily industrialised world.)

• We cannot expect urban economies to suddenly become wholly organic systems, or even sustainable ones. But there is no reason why this utopian ideal shouldn’t be the goal which world leaders set in their sights.

Writing in the Guardian today, Suzanne Goldenberg reports that over two thirds of South Korea’s multi-billion dollar stimulus package will be spent on ‘green’ investments. The UK is investing just 7% of IT’S stimulus package in this way.

Given that wind and (in the UK) solar energy are inefficient energy sources, other than recycling our waste, what form can these ‘green measures’ take?

The U.S. package, recently passed by congress, includes: insulating buildings, investing in a new electric grid and improving public transport. Such action is vastly progressive for a country that, only a year ago, “was still in denial on issues of energy conservation” (Earl Blumenauer, a Congressman from Oregon and a champion of the environment.)

But until there is a cap on carbon emissions the inverted logic that ‘by saving the economy will hopefully also save the planet’ will continue to prevail and lead politicians and the public into a dark, carbon-sensitive alley.

• An assessment of the ‘green stimuli’ that should be put in place in order to help the economy and the climate, rated CCS as the ‘least good’ measure for triggering immediate fiscal growth, it was revealed today. The report, whose authors include Lord Stern, focused on ECONOMIC stimuli as those most urgently in need of attention, but also took into consideration the need to “lay the foundations” for low-carbon growth.

Although the report cited the need to increase “efficiency” and “make cuts” that might prove favourable for the environment, these and similar measures were discussed as a secondary concern, one that was considered predominantly in terms of its economic gain.

Green measures, said the report, would be a “useful” public investment in the current economic climate; not for their intrinsic value but because they are less financially risky than they previously have been, since they are “less likely to displace private spending in a recession”.

So whilst the growth of “green” technologies and “green” strategies is welcome news for environmental lobbyists, the same people may also, quite rightly, feel that the environment is not being rescued or respected but that it is being exploited in order to bolster economic growth. Any environmental gains will merely be a favourable by-product of economic ones.

Lord Stern’s report just confirms fears that the environment must still await its proper time and, when, or rather IF, that time comes, its advances will be charted with the subsequent economical benefits at its helm.

If energy resources such as coal and oil were not running out (as a result they become more expensive) and if the economy could thrive indefinitely, would these “green measures” even get a look in?

• By treating the natural world as a set of resources to be utilized for human use, we are simply disguising exploitation with the banner of ‘preservation’. And, by so doing, not only do we exploit the countless numbers of organisms whose quality of, and right to, life we destroy, but we are “debasing ourselves by debasing being itself” (Oscar Wilde).

Radical idealism should not stand in the way of practical changes in global industries - but, equally, it should not allow itself to become buried under a hollow heap of figures and arbitrary targets.


  1. Hi Mike,

    we recently had Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association, down to Exmouth to give a talk on food security in the 21st Century. He related the current economic crisis to the forthcoming food crisis; suggesting we have treated food resource as capital income rather than a basic human need/right. His solution was to follow Transition Town philosophy and relocalise production, supporting local farms through community supported agriculture, where you 'adopt' a farm and give it a guaranteed income each year so it can decline offers from supermarkets and distribute locally. I suppose the same concept is being driven by local currency, where only independent local shops who sign up to the scheme wil accept and trade in local notes which are equal to the pound, complimenting national currency but entirely replacing it (yet). Southampton have just released plans to produce thousands of notes adorned with local heroes such as Matt Le Tissier (awesome) and Craig David (wtf?).
    really impressed with your blog Mike, and a valuable resource. thanks.

  2. >>which may itself prove to be a consequence of the homelessness we experience, living in a heavily industrialised world

    Wow, what a way to sum up something I have only ever articulated vaguely. Yes! Exactly! Homelessness.

    Good article Mikey Moo...

  3. storage preston
    I am so glad to hear how well you are doing, Lancashire We hope to come for a visit in the fall.