Monday, 26 April 2010

My generation

My generation, born in the 1950s and 60s are now in power and it is our wisdom that is guiding decision making. We have experienced three decades of economic growth, rising consumption and materially better lives. We have no direct experience to warn us that there may be problems ahead. Scientists tell us about the possibilities of climate change but the evidence is now tainted. Recent polls suggest that only 25% of the population believe that climate change is real and caused by humankind. There is relief amongst many people that they can latch onto the idea that climate change is a hoax. Whether climate change is real, or not, we will find out in the decades ahead. The inability of world society to respond to this threat is symptomatic of deeper problems. My generation are living in denial of the need to make changes to reduce the impact of society on the global ecosystem.

I have been out and about in Berkshire schools talking with sixth form pupils. This has given me huge optimism that real progress towards a sustainable society is possible as they come of age to vote and influence those in positions of power. The younger generation are open-minded and thirsting for knowledge. They are also concerned about the future and not afraid to ask searching and difficult questions.

The younger generation have a different set of observations to guide them. They see a shortage of jobs, a lack of opportunities and an older generation better at generating hot air than taking real action to protect the integrity of our planet’s ecosystem. We owe it to them to start making real progress - and start soon.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Foreign holidays as a Right

According to the Times:

‘An overseas holiday used to be thought of as a reward for a year’s hard work. Now Brussels has declared that tourism is a human right and pensioners, youths and those too poor to afford it should have their travel subsidised by the taxpayer’. The European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry, Antonio Tajani, is reported to have said, “Travelling for tourism today is a right.”

There has been a massive increase in low-cost flying based on cheap aviation fuel. If airlines had to pay a similar amount of tax, as motorists pay to drive their cars, then the mass aviation market would be forced to contract. Instead of curbing unsustainable aviation, the EU is seeking to expand tourism (presumably on cheap flights) to the poorest members of society. The aims are laudable: to encourage a sense of European identity by understanding other countries within the union; but what has happened to the idea of reducing the carbon impact of our holidays?

For now we are enjoying clear blue skies in southern England for the first time that I can remember. This has been courtesy of the ban on flights in response to the risk of volcanic ash thrown out by the volcanic eruption in Iceland. The skies are free of vapour trails and high cloud generated by aircraft. We have just has a very quiet and sunny evening meal in the garden.

We should reflect whether the time has come to charge the full environmental cost of flying. The EU would have to think again about its budget for tourism for the poor and disadvantaged. We might then observe exchanges taking place between adjacent countries to allow people to travel sustainably and engage with neighbouring societies. This would be a more useful way to give the poor a taste of alternative culture than further subsidies on flying.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Threats and Opportunities

The classic view of the external business environment, taught at business schools everywhere, is through the lens of ‘threats and opportunities’.

Responding to ‘threats’, is about looking to the future in order to survive the cut and thrust of a constantly evolving business landscape. Responding to ‘opportunities’, is about looking to the future to grow the business to exploit new markets, new technologies and new ways to do business.

I believe in looking at the world as a series of opportunities. Focussing on threats, leads to defensive strategies and risk-averse tactics. Focussing on opportunities, leads to risk taking and support for innovation. These latter behaviours are the ones that I favour.

These same deep-rooted mental approaches apply also to government and to all of us. People, who focus on the threat of climate change, are digging themselves into a defensive rut of narrow thinking that attempts to squeeze carbon out of the processes we now operate. People, who focus on the opportunities that arise, are getting on with the work of transforming society to sever society’s reliance on fossil fuels.

There is a huge difference between shuffling forward in a timid manner driven by fear and leaping forward taking the problems that arise in our stride. I would rather be running a little too fast than shuffling far too slow.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Paying in Energy

Iceland was lauded prior to 2008 on having clever entrepreneurs who could covert the nation from a remote island reliant on fishing to a major speculator in the realms of international finance. I remember the praise that was heaped on these financial wizards. The Icelanders bought a lot of UK companies and earned respect from overseas observers – although not from me. I was very wary of the alchemy that was being pursued. Conjuring up money and profits by playing the financial system does not fit my definition of sound business.

I like businesses based on innovation and genuinely novel ideas that seek to do something better or more efficiently. These companies deserve to prosper. It might be nothing more than the old and very successful business model built on community values that encourages hard graft from a loyal work force that are valued for who they are and not only the work they do.

The Iceland business model was more smoke and mirrors than hard graft. I was dealing with my parent’s affairs before the crash and was advised to put their savings into Icesave to get the best interest rate. It was advice I ignored. In hindsight, the UK government decided to back the deposits in Icesave so perhaps it was safe but it did not take much due diligence to see that this was a dodgy operation. It might have been better to let people learn the lesson that dodgy investments are to be avoided.

The UK government chose to bail out the savers and now seeks recompense from Iceland. An interesting idea has been floated by Gijs Graafland, the director of the Amsterdam-based Planck Foundation, that Iceland could pay back this debt in energy. Iceland straddles the fault line between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and has good geothermal electric power potential. The power could be generated and passed to the UK through a new 750-mile underwater cable. That would be an innovative and useful idea.