Jonathon Porritt: We need growth, but not heedless growth

Sensemaking / Jonathon Porritt: We need growth, but not heedless growth

The Founder-Director of Forum for the Future urges politicians to start taking the low-carbon agenda seriously.  

26 Jan 2012

The Founder-Director of Forum for the Future urges politicians to start taking the low-carbon agenda seriously. 

I normally kick off with the good news. This time, let me start with a bit of the bad. In fact, quite a lot of bad news. The official CO2 figures for 2010 tell us that overall emissions increased by 6%, at a time when half the world’s economies were flat-lining in terms of economic growth. China and India were of course responsible for much of that increase – no flat-lining there.

Did any world leader, on hearing this news, even twitch? Make a speech? Press a panic button? Not one. 

Welcome to the ‘new normal’. I nicked that phrase from Vice-President Al Gore, who I heard give a cracking talk back in October. He did something I’ve not heard anyone do before, by concentrating purely on the weather-related data from the first eight months of 2011. During that time, 387 million people were affected by drought. More than 2,000 US cities experienced their highest ever temperatures. More than a dozen countries experienced their worst ever flooding – which doesn’t include Pakistan, by the way, because the 2011 floods in Pakistan displaced a mere 10 million people, in comparison to the 20 million displaced in 2010. Massive media coverage in 2010. Come 2011, however, we heard next to nothing from that devastated country. Welcome to the new normal.

The worse the news gets, the more adept people become in letting it bounce straight back off them. As US political scientist George Lakoff puts it: “We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise, facts go in and then they come right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they simply mystify us.”

Global leaders are presiding more or less helplessly over another massive economic crisis. To which the standard response is: grow, grow and grow again. It doesn’t matter if this growth drives up emissions of greenhouse gases, exacerbates inequalities, creates new commodity bubbles, erodes life-support systems, and leaves billions of people even more vulnerable to water shortages, rising food prices, and diminishing quality of life. Growth at any cost is better than no growth at all…

The uncomfortable reality is that we do need growth, but we absolutely don’t need this kind of heedless growth. We need growth that drives billions of dollars of new investment and creates millions of jobs in energy efficiency, renewables, retrofitting our built environment, smart grids, electric vehicles, storage technologies and so on. Indeed, this is the only way we can both sort out the economic mess and
simultaneously start building the foundations for the genuinely sustainable economy of the future.

Back in November, Forum for the Future teamed up with the Energy Institute at UCL and investment company WHEB Partners to launch Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’ [see ‘Are we on the cusp of a third industrial revolution?’]. And here comes the good news.

Many of the most creative people we’re working with at the Forum can barely contain their enthusiasm for innovation in almost all areas of cleantech. The Briefings section in each issue of Green Futures offers just a glimpse of that pipeline. And many of the most creative minds in ICT are equally excited about the contribution they can make in a low-carbon world, through smart meters and grids, local area networks, distributed energy systems, and so on.

This is the synergy that underpins Rifkin’s case that we’re on the cusp of the Third Industrial Revolution. Efficiency, renewables, storage and smart grids will add up to an energy revolution. All the constituent parts are already out there, or ‘in emergence’. But, Rifkin argues, the full impact will only be felt when the whole system is transformed into a new kind of “energy internet”, through peer-to-peer networks.

This is the easy bit! Unfortunately, getting politicians to start thinking strategically about this kind of transition remains a nightmare. Jeremy Rifkin has built up good political contacts in Europe, particularly in Germany, but I don’t share his optimism that this is an agenda that has already seized hold of the majority of politicians. There’s certainly no sign of it here in the UK.

Our Treasury-dominated Coalition Government would appear to have no intention of doing more than the bare minimum on the Green Economy, let alone on some new industrial revolution. As George Osborne so witheringly put it, when explaining the Government’s
new strategy: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”.

There you have it: that’s what ‘leadership’ looks like here in the UK. And the US. And, to be blunt about it, most other countries, with Germany the exception to the rule of mediocrity.

Which explains why so much of the drive and creativity around the low-carbon agenda can be seen in small cleantech start-ups and social enterprises. These are the real ‘revolutionaries’, cursing dysfunctional politicians and rejecting any sense of ‘the new normal’ out of hand.

Abnormal times summon forth abnormal people.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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