“If you want to build a ship, don’t call together some men just to gather wood, prepare tools and distribute tasks,” proclaimed the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Instead, teach them the longing for the endless sea.”
The evidence of the recent budget, in which the environment was like a salad leaf abandoned to wilt in the June sun, suggests that the wrong approach has been taken to building a green economy.
It’s a shame, because there is no shortage of tasks and tools to distribute, and a long list of patient, rational reasons why we should do so.
For example, in the recently published Zero Carbon Britain 2030, both the ample potential of switching in a short period of time to a genuinely clean energy system, and the dangers of not doing so, are comprehensively examined. In these austerity-minded times in which the government is acutely concerned about our balance of trade, a single figure makes the point: based on an oil price of $78 a barrel, which could prove far too modest, replacing our own North Sea oil and gas with like-for-like imports will add £53 billion to the trade deficit, the report estimates.
Even at a time of broader cuts, the potential economic, social and environmental benefits of spending on a carbon detox for the UK economy have been repeatedly and exhaustively made.
Neither is there any mystery about the necessary conditions needed to make it happen. New sources of funding to encourage investment are needed from, for example, a green investment bank, which has been approved but not capitalised, and a high price for carbon to make change economically attractive.
There are the easy, reliable no-brainer initiatives, such as the mass roll-out of energy efficiency makeovers for buildings, wind, wave and solar power, which in turn create jobs. But there is also no shortage of more exotic, less reliable ideas to keep people entertained.
This month, cloud whitening or so-called “seeding” to help reflect heat away from the atmosphere enjoyed a shower of new interest. Research from the Carnegie Institution and the Indian Institute for Science suggested the potential for a cooling effect, but not without consequences. It reduced overall global rainfall and simultaneously created a more extreme pattern of monsoons.
And yet, for all the time that the rational case for action is put and its benefits outlined, we are failing not just to leave the harbour on our journey to an economy that operates in balance with the biosphere, but our boat lies in pieces by the dockside, incomplete and construction barely begun.
A longing for the adventure in unknown seas, in equal parts fearful and exhilarating, is yet to be released. Admittedly, at the moment, this is made more difficult by the fact that when most people watch pictures of the sea, it’s typically covered in a vast oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of BP.
On current trends, in 77 months time, by the end of 2016, it will no longer be likely that we will be able to stay on the right side of the risks that surround destabilising our climate system. Yes, we need to start building our low carbon energy arks. But we need more than that, an excited longing for things to be different, better.
The human impulse at the heart of modern society has been brilliantly co-opted by the sellers of disposable, upgradable consumer goods, not to mention by TV makeover shows. Counter-intuitively, in some ways we embrace change – but we demand it in unambitious ways, through novelty, redesigned gadgets with extra functions and added apps. In this sense, we approach the world on the assumption that it is never good enough. The impulse may be destructive when harnessed to conspicuous consumption, but does it have to be a bad thing, innately, and can’t it be dematerialised, and redirected from simply having more stuff towards a better way of being?
The thinker Zygmunt Bauman makes the point that the “the good society is the society that is convinced it is not good enough.” He calls gardeners, “obsessive compulsive utopians,” always trying to improve the world around them in a job that is never complete.
As we try to ensure a world fit for future generations, have a look around and ask yourselves, is this the best that we can do? What would it take, and what could we achieve if we were able to harness our transformative impulse for good? Instead of tying ourselves into a bloodless, technocratic exercise, what if we were able to find a longing for the endless sea?