With motifs of climate-friendly transport woven into the fabric of the building, the Tricycle Cinema in north London was the ideal location to premiere Franny Armstrong’s new film, The Age of Stupid. One story in the film concerns the conflict between a wind energy entrepreneur and his rather self-satisfied and uptight posh local opponents who dislike the idea of any change to the landscape. The posh people win.
Afterwards, in the cinema bar, a slightly intense woman came up to me and asked, “Why don’t they make the wind turbines out of glass, then no one would be able to see them?”
Practicalities aside, her comment threw into relief the absurdity of a current impasse. We have a landscape that is already denuded and industrialised, flattened by monocultural farming and marked by pylons, motorways and mobile phone masts. But we are unwilling to restore to it the windmills that once proliferated, and could, today, help avert climate change and cleanly meet a significant share of our energy needs.
A few years ago, Allan Moore, chair of the British Wind Energy Association, pointed out that the opposition suffered by wind power was almost hysterically disproportionate and historically blind. He argued that in 17th-century Britain there were around 90,000 windmills. Now there were plans to build perhaps 4,000 bringing the total to 5,000.
Inverse proportions seem to be the order of the day. As the clock ticks down, it’s the environment that could bail out the economy if only politicians could order their priorities sensibly. Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the heir to the throne now understand this.
But, while the UK government were able to produce support to the financial sector equivalent to 20% of the nation’s GDP, new and additional spending for green measures in the Treasury’s pre-Budget report amounted to just 0.0083% of GDP.
The streets of London are filling with thousands of people calling on governments to link their responses to the global recession, climate change and poverty reduction. But, across a range of economic stimulus packages in countries around the world, the average share of spending going to green investments, according to HSBC, is just 15%.
So while the cries outside from industry, unions, the churches and environmentalists are for jobs, the climate and social justice, government is clinging to the illusion that, with the right support struts jammed into place, business as usual can continue. As no amount of rational argument holds sway, we’re reduced to cups of green custard, spiderman climbing buildings, clown armies and fantasies of transparent glass windmills, in order to achieve progress.
But, perhaps there is still more that we can learn from the economic collapse. The old banking system, with all its bravado, scams and subtle deceptions was held together, ultimately, by little more than aggressive self-belief. As soon as that went, it fell apart.
The notion that we cannot change, that we are bound to the status quo by what the poet William Blake called unbreakable “mind-forged manacles”, is similarly false, fragile and prone to sudden collapse. Rather than the politically popular fashion for “nudge” economics, however, we probably need to be given a good shove.
The “bystander effect” is a well-known psychological effect in which people are more likely to underestimate threats to the their safety in a group than on their own. In a group there is a kind of self-reinforcing inactivity if there is no initial response to a threat. Each assumes it must be ok to carry on, because everyone else is. That is why leadership is so important. To encourage fuel savings during the second world war government departments, public buildings and utilities all took high-profile measures to demonstrate that they were taking action.
Today, the head office of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) HQ is among the least energy-efficient buildings in Britain. Due to arcane rules governing access to information, the only way to discover each public building’s energy efficiency is by visiting each one.
Then, there’s the matter of the privatised research arm of the Ministry of Defence, Qinetiq. They have the consultancy contract to crunch numbers on greenhouse gas scenarios for the offical climate change committee that advises government over mandatory targets for emissions reduction. But Qinetiq is also a fully paid-up member of the lobby group pushing the expansion of UK aviation and a third runway at Heathrow – the organisation known as Flying Matters. Step forward whoever thought of awarding the procurement contract above.