Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Understanding Climate Change – or Why I should Fly Less

It will never be in the interests of the free market to furnish people with such a principle and it is rank hypocrisy to claim that it will. Our impulses are much easier to exploit when they are split off from any meaningful application, wandering about as ignorant of each other as they are of the wider world in which they act out their 'private' dramas. This fact is not lost on the film, advertising and retail industries and it never will be.

So then, dissatisfied journalist that I am, what did I do about these stirrings of conscience?

That the Centre for Alternative Technology has welcomed more than two million visitors in the course of its thirty-year history is also a fact. It wasn't much more than that on a weekday morning during a cold snap last autumn. I walked along the lane from the bus-stop to find a car park almost empty and the ticket office closed. A sign by the water-balanced cliff railway, by which the site is usually reached, pointed out the way to walk up. Tickets on sale in the café.

Once on site, visitors were outnumbered several to one by robins. I stopped in front of the first information board I came to – How a Solar Panel Works – and glanced down half-way through the explanation. Its feathers puffed up against the frost, a robin approached and hopped confidingly around my feet before fluttering off. All day they went on bouncing up to me like this, like some courteous diminutive host, very tentatively making sure I was alright. I was more than alright. I was amazed at how long it had taken me to discover this place.

The Centre, in mid-Wales, is quite self-consciously a display-centre, serving a public ever more anxious to inform itself as climate change begins to make itself felt. The number of calls received by its Information Centre increased six-fold between 1999 and 2004. It attracts more than three times the number of visitors as any comparable centre in Europe. On this November day, it was taking advantage of the slow season to put up two new displays, one explaining the different kinds of renewable energy and how they all work, the other about domestic energy use. Work on a new conference centre begins next year. The whining of power-drills and the sound of hammering rang out among the trees.

What thirty years ago was a small community, raising that first wind-mill like a rebellious standard – proclaiming an industrial spoil-heap as the birth-place of a better future – is now, inevitably, an altogether busier operation. The sounds of building work went on in the background and I thought of Blake: “What is now proved was once only imagined”.

The other visitor that day was Alfredo, a journalist from Brazil. We were staying in the same pub in a small town nearby, where we'd happened to strike up a conversation over breakfast. So I knew what he was there for. He saw in CAT an organisation faced with the same dilemma as many environmental groups in Brazil. How to stay true to that original atmosphere of 'sparse sincere rebellion' as your message goes mainstream, as your audience grows. How does that growth feed back into the message itself? Should it? Must it? How else could it be?

A stocky young man with heavy-rimmed spectacles and dishevelled hair, he engaged eagerly with me, gesticulating urgently over his plate of bacon and eggs. He made me feel rather a slacker as the day went on, as I sauntered round the site trying to understand each display in turn. As often as I glanced down to find a robin, I looked up to glimpse Alfredo waving as he shot past me in pursuit of another interview, notebook and biro in hand, or passionately sought clarification on some crucial point with the volunteer he'd been assigned as a guide.

I wondered about him as I sauntered – wondered if that's how I seemed to people in the far-away places I've written about. And I wondered – now that CAT is respectable, now that the journalists and the TV crews are forever turning up from all corners of the earth – is that the argument essentially won, then? Having the ear of government and the media and business and the universities – is it now just a matter of patience, of cramming those ears as full as possible with as much relevant information as possible?

A large part of the answer to that has to be an unequivocal 'Yes'. As we wake up to where our way of life has been leading us, we will need a number to ring and well-informed people to pick up at the other end. CAT's is just such a number.

So was Alfredo's concern, about the loss of that earlier spirit – was his concern misplaced? Not to be outdone, after looking round the site I too asked for some interviews. On some points there seemed to be unanimity. The speed of climate change changes everything – including, obviously, what is required now to combat it. The loss of an earlier radicalism and community spirit at CAT may (or may not) be regrettable but the situation is too urgent to waste time over it. 'Utopia' is from a Greek word meaning 'a place that does not exist'. Here is the society to be turned around, and here is how the world will look to our grandchildren if we fail to do so. How will any wider public anywhere be persuaded to give a damn en masse if environmentalism presents itself as an escape from the world as most people are obliged to live in it?

In short, the answer to Alfredo's question was also ‘Yes’ – the size of the audience both should and must feed back into the message. I spoke to the Centre's development manager, Paul Allen, about how this might work.

“If renewable energy is made available to people in a way they find attractive – anywhere, here or the Third World – the survival instinct will drive the process, without any need for people to intellectualise it. It isn't altruism that will make this happen.”

The best analogy is 1936, he argued. A British aircraft designer sees the new Messerschmitts at an air fair. He puts two and two together and realises there will have to be a Spitfire. He will one day be Sir Reginald Mitchell. He designs it. There are only 120 of them in service at the outbreak of war but the technology is there. Because of his foresight, all is not lost. This is how Allen sees CAT. It makes the practical technologies available to people who have had enough of talking about the impending crisis, who have decided to act.

Others, notably James Lovelock and Mary Midgely, have proposed their own variants of the preparing-for-German-invasion analogy. But as so often when the 1930s are invoked – whether as a guarantee that people will pull together when they have to, or in a call for drastic action with undertones of 'less chat' – there is a problem with doing so. The threat this time is not from a reassuringly foreign dictator and there isn't necessarily going to be any Invasion-of-Poland moment to galvanise us. It is moreover precisely from the countries where consumerism and its version of freedom are most fully established that this threat is emerging. If a heinous enemy is the right analogy here, we have most of us in the 'democratic West' been collaborating enthusiastically with it for years.

A tendency perhaps to see climate change a little reductively, as a practical problem with a practical solution, should neither surprise nor alarm us. It has been suggested that the 'A' in CAT should stand for 'Appropriate' rather than 'Alternative' these days, and mainstreaming renewable technologies is the name of the game here, not nostalgia. The 'T' in CAT quite definitely stands for Technology and always did. That was the Centre's distinctive contribution from the start.

I ask him anyway. What sort of shift could there be in people's underlying assumptions, which might tend to promote the up-take of renewables? He nods, pausing. The answer, he suggests, might be for people to start thinking of the energy they use in terms of flow, rather than as a reserve. In a sense, fossil fuels, like renewables, are ultimately solar-powered. The sun shone on those prehistoric forests of which our coal and oil reserves are the highly compressed and concentrated remains. The reserves are, however, finite and exhaustible. Leading oil geologists, like Colin Campbell (formerly of Amoco), have sounded the alarm over the speed at which we are approaching Peak Production. Our assumption that we can rely even in the medium term on cheap fossil fuels has never looked shakier. It might help if people could re-imagine energy as a flow to be dipped into, not a reserve which we can only exhaust.

Allen then takes this a step further. Energy obesity now underwrites all our living arrangements, from exotic holidays to our weekly trips to the supermarket. “You have to realise – for the people who founded CAT in the Seventies, the Fifties were still a recent memory. These were people who had many of them grown up in the old kind of communities – they could remember what it was like to buy from local shops as a matter of course. Supermarkets have enormously cumbersome supply-chains and the whole system is terribly vulnerable because it is so dependent on cheap oil. People in the Seventies could still remember communities of competence, where everybody knew who had which skills locally. That way of living had a resilience which still appeals to many people – and we only lost it relatively recently. That's the way to see it…”

A lower-carbon way of life in other words is as much the grandchild of something very familiar, as it is the child of Seventies radicalism. The only viable communities of the future will in some ways not be 'futuristic' at all. My own next-door neighbour, for example, now in his seventies, arrived in my home-town aged seven and cycled from it to work all his life. He has never owned a car or wanted to.

Modern affluent societies as a whole, it is true, are clearly not about to start living within their ecological means. We remain as reliant on the supermarket chains for our food as we are psychologically dependent on aviation fuel. My guilt about those recent flights, however, is nothing unusual. Affluent societies are just beginning to feel ashamed of themselves. This is an opportunity of course, but as with individuals, so societies with a bad conscience should be approached with caution.

In this instance they are likely to feel instinctively drawn now to leaders who reassure them that yes there's a problem, but that the essentials of consumerism can be adapted to a low-carbon economy, without fundamental change to the way we live. There is no need to re-think fundamentals and no point in crying for the moon. The technical details still need to be worked out but we have experts for that. For everyone else a kind of 'smart' consumerism will suffice.

It will be exactly the story people want to hear. Nice people like you and me will be the first to applaud it, because it will be an improvement on what we have now. 'Democracy' as delivered by the television set will act as the perfect medium for spreading it to people who aren't as nice as us, or not yet.

The temptation for those seeking power to respond to climate change by offering palliatives will be well nigh irresistible. And once the think-tanks and campaign-managers and PR people have all gone to work on it, palliative measures will soon seem quite natural. Before we know it they will be, like supermarkets, the 'only way we ever could have gone'. The advertising industry will know instinctively that it has nothing to fear. It will be happy to assist. In short, anyone unwise enough to express doubts about this will find him/herself simply without a voice.

But that won't invalidate the doubts. Genuine doubt will find ways of making itself felt. It soon sets about rotting the foundations of any half-truth which you try to build on top of it. This particular half-truth, for all its powerful allies, actually suffers from two crucial weaknesses.

The first is that the ubiquitous system which is there to persuade us that supermarkets, traffic-jams and television constitute a norm, assumes collective amnesia. It has no historical roots. That neighbour of mine is no hippy, he is simply the product of a world which pre-dates the state of total consumerism in which we now live. His world is not a distant memory at all. As a society we could easily still recall it. It is a world every detail of which advertising must either sentimentalise or efface, but the fact of it remains. Something like Allen's resilient, self-reliant communities have been the historical norm. Human beings have never needed a hundredth part of what advertisers now tell them they need.

A 'return to the past' is neither desirable nor possible, but some integrating principle there must be. The opposition's second strength relates to Paul Allen's other point. Perhaps such a principle is implicit in his idea of learning to re-think energy as a flow we dip into, rather than a reserve there for us to deplete. To make the kind of connection we aren't meant to: might not our value systems change in the same way?

The great value systems of the past shared a common origin: they were grounded, to begin with at least, in the irreducible mystery of man's place in the world. But the old belief-systems resembled the old societies too – they were often relatively closed systems, hostile to those defined as outsiders and organised in rigid hierarchies. Beliefs were viewed as a fixed resource which was the property of a caste, a deposit of meaning accumulated over many centuries on which the people could still reliably draw as they always had. Oh God our help in ages past… as the hymn still has it.

But with so many compelling – and conflicting – explanations of our place in the world now, a value system which will adequately address climate change must also connect with this new radically provisional way of being. Borrowing from science, it must be open to constant revision. More, in short, like a variable flow to be dipped into than a deposit to be extracted. More like a sense of sometimes precarious balance than like any inflexible form.

Some such value system will have to be devised, by each of us, if the current status of consumerism as a Non-Negotiable is ever to be challenged as it must be. The urgency of this undertaking at least matches the urgency of the technical difficulties we face. It will be to the longer established consumer-democracies that China and India will soon be looking, for information and more, as the deep flaws in the industrial system they are adopting become evident. If we cannot offer them plausible solutions on every level, from the most intricately technological to the most subtly spiritual, it may be nothing so abstract as 'history' that will judge us.

It isn't of course that I imagine India and China are without traditions of their own but there is something unprecedented in the current situation. At the heart of our profligate energy use is a commercialisation of desire which brooks no opposition. The introduction of 'choice', meaning market forces, into every corner of our experience, inevitably carries this question into every aspect of our lives as never before. None of the philosophical or faith systems with which desire once dialogued have proved equal to the new conditions. This is something that each of us experiences personally, and must reckon with, before any well adjusted response to it can emerge. Will our desires be formed in the image and interests of big business, or can we still direct them towards something which resembles human fulfilment?

What we are taught to prize as the desirable life is being paid for in ways that even our mainstream media and other advertising organisations are no longer able to ignore. Behind this ever more thorough-going commercialisation of desire, however, stand interest-groups which are much likelier to pretend to give ground than to ever really do so, for as long as it remains possible not to.

To combat those interests we will need first of all a way of seeing that is supple and quick enough to catch our own laziness and complicity off guard – something poets and religious teachers have long understood. So I'll close with Thomas Traherne – who was both – and with what might be described as the flip-side of the quotation at the top of this essay: “Pigs eat acorns, but neither consider the sun that gave them life, nor the influence of the heavens by which they were nourished, nor the very root of the tree from which they came”.

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