Monday, 24 May 2010

Joe Public Doesn't Care

I spent an enjoyable but fruitless day championing sustainability at an outdoor event in Berkshire. The event itself had nothing to do with either the environment or sustainability – that should have warned me. Our stand brought together a number of local sustainability groups aiming to spread the idea of sustainable communities. We hoped that amongst the crowds of people passing through the event we would grab the attention of a useful proportion. How wrong we were.

I had arrived in my electric car which then formed part of the display. The car attracted some attention but the interest was confined to the sort of questions Jeremy Clarkson would ask, such as how fast it can go, how well it corners and how far it will go on a full charge. My interest in testing the prototype BMW E-Mini is the potential such cars have to be a part of a low-carbon transport infrastructure. I tried this thought on the people who stopped and their eyes glazed over.

This was a genuine random sample of people and the results are interesting; and also disturbing. Joe Public is not going to change through free choice. Change will come because costs for carbon intensive transport increase and reduce for low-carbon alternatives - with regulation removing some choices entirely. This is how change will be delivered.

Further along the line of stands I spent some time talking with a salesman seeking to sell replacement windows. He had been in the window trade for over 30 years. He was convinced that there was no longer a place for wooden windows except for the rich who can afford to paint them every few years (his words). He sold exclusively plastic windows. Whatever happened to the idea that if money is tight you paint your own windows over a few warm summer weekends?

Further along there was a line of amusements stalls aimed at children offering prizes - all cheaply made. This was a depressing display of consumer detritus likely to end up in the bin within the day.

From this experience the conclusion I draw is that most people do not care about the concepts of sustainability. It is up to those of us who do care to lead change and push society onto a sustainable path. It can be done but we should not expect active support from the majority.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Old and the New

I attended the Annual General Meeting and of our local scout group on Friday with the family. The organisers had arranged a quiz evening with food to ensure a good turnout. As the social event was buzzing around me I reflected on the advances of the modern age juxtaposed with the historic context.

The wood framed building had been rebuilt in recent years but much of the timber had been reclaimed and reused from an earlier building on the site. A number of the beams went back even further to buildings many centuries back now only briefly mentioned in the historic record. Tree-ring analysis dated one batch of timber to 1540. The quality carving indicated that this may have comprised the Manor House (long since demolished and now forgotten).

Timber with multiple uses over many centuries is an example of good sustainable construction. My thoughts then extended to the modern Formica-topped tables at which we were sat. These ‘monstrous hybrid’ materials are almost impossible to recycle successful and often end up in land fill after a life of 10-20 years.

After the meal all the paper plates and plastic cutlery were gathered into black bin liners and loaded into the large wheelie bin behind the village hall. This is an example of the convenience of modern catering making life easy for us all. What would a 16th century observer make of it all? They would recognise the wood beams and marvel at the gadgets like the Public Address system and data projector; but I don’t think they would be impressed with our wasteful ways.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The new occupant of Number 10

I assume that in London’s most famous address, 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown has packed all his personal possessions into boxes and is ready to leave. He has a constitutional duty to remain until an alternative government emerges. It would be presumptuous of David Cameron to have his bags packed ready to move in, but he must feel confident that this will be his next home. His call for change is what the country needs.

Now, there is a chance for deep-rooted change - if our leaders grasp the opportunity. Difficult times demand bold action. Otherwise, there is a danger that the same tired policies will continue but with a different spin and slightly altered priorities.

Politicians, and most of the electorate, are fixated on our economic ills. The apparent priority is to get the economy back on track. Other problems, such as environmental stress caused by continued high levels of material consumption, are being sidelined. It does not have to be like this.

Rescuing the economy, and stepping rather lighter on the planet, can be on the same route if we choose our direction well. Green stimulus measures are what are needed. This is far more complex than the simple economic levers used so far to counter the crisis. There is a difficult challenge to design appropriate government policy that links with, and influences, behaviour change to move closer to a sustainable society (that includes, of course, a sound economy). It can be done; and this is what the new resident of 10 Downing Street should focus on.

Monday, 3 May 2010

A Greek Tragedy

An agreement for a financial rescue package for Greece has finally been brokered. Any further delay and Greece may have been forced to default on paying out on bonds due to mature in the near future. For a Euro-zone country to default on its national debt is unthinkable – or so we thought. This is an important stage in the development of the Euro. Is it a stable well run currency vying with the US dollar for reserve status; or is does it represent an unwieldy merger of disparate economies that is bound to unravel? These are important questions for Europe; and for the stability of global finance.

Discussions have been slow and tortuous. The internal politics of Greece has made it very difficult to agree to implement the tough austerity measures demanded by the IMF and the EU. For Germany – providing a large chunk of EU new loans – this is a bitter pill to swallow. The Germans take pride in running a prudent economic policy and ordinary Germans have had to put up with belt-tightening. To see this result in bailing out the profligate Greek economy is galling; Angela Merkel may reap a political backlash in the coming elections.

This whole sorry tale of Greece and the Euro is a Greek tragedy. It will end with Greece leaving the Euro. After this agreement the inevitable is delayed but not for as long as people might hope. As soon as it becomes clear that the Greek government does not have the domestic support to implement the full austerity package (nor the stomach to get a grip of tax evasion), and the EU looks likely to reject further requests for yet more loans, there will be a rush to dump Greek Euro debt and to withdraw funds from euro accounts in Greek banks. The final act could be messy and dramatic.

I write in my book, Green Outcomes in the Real World, coming out in the autumn:

‘There is little prospect that the euro will be dismantled any time soon, but it is likely that one or more members will explore the possibility of exit to regain greater financial control. Implementation would be a challenge for both the country and the European Central Bank, but once one country had acted as trailblazer, others might follow.’

Greece and the European Central Bank should have trail-blazed an orderly exit at a much earlier stage. Further delay is dangerous.