Peter Jones: We should reinvent sustainable world

THE ARGUMENT about how best to save the planet is becoming more subtle, writes Peter Jones

Simple messages such as the self-sufficiency of Barbara and Tom in the Good Life are swiftly being ditched. Picture: Contributed
Simple messages such as the self-sufficiency of Barbara and Tom in the Good Life are swiftly being ditched. Picture: Contributed

Exciting news from the green save-the-planet movement: a big split has developed and the two parts are at war with each other. This is, I think, really good news but not because I expect the greenies to destroy themselves. On the contrary, I expect them to emerge refreshed and rather more influential than now.

Here’s a fairly pithy description of the divide and the conflict, written in April by Brendan Barrett of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology: “We are entering a new and more intense phase in the ongoing battle for our hearts and minds between eco-modernists and eco-radicals.

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“The former want us to believe that we can solve climate change through accelerated technological progress, while eco-radicals insist that only through fundamental transformation of our consumer capitalist society [in other words by scrapping it] can we avoid disastrous climate change.”

What does that mean in practical terms? Imagine that somebody invents a machine which is capable of sucking vast quantities of carbon dioxide (the stuff causing global warming) out of the atmosphere and converting it into something useful and saleable so businesses can profit from operating the machine.

Brilliant, not especially greenie types might think. Now we can slow down, then stall, and then reverse the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, hence slow, stall, and reverse global warming. And that, albeit crudely, is the way eco-modernists think.

But the eco-radicals would be horrified. This carbon dioxide-gobbling machine would simply validate processes which have brought the planet to the brink of destruction – ripping the Earth apart to extract and then burn finite fossil fuel resources, the consumerism that demands greater ownership of polluting vehicles and other resource-intensive fripperies, and the culture which encourages greedy folk to become excessively rich at the expense of the poor.

The clash of these two schools of thought is the front line in the green-on-green war. Actually, this sort of intellectual tussling has been going on for a long time. The wrestling over whether new nuclear power stations, especially newer designs which use existing radioactive waste as fuel and convert the waste into less dangerous materials while generating low-carbon electricity, have a role to play in combating climate change is an example.

But now the different factions have labels which reduce complexities to the sort of simplicities the media, including social media, adore. It gives the Greens familiar political stage props of splits, clashes, and power struggles, making them much sexier in the media world which should ensure that they, and their ideas, get more coverage.

It also might help the Greens shed an image that makes them unattractive to most people – that they are against progress and modernisation. Every time protesters chain themselves into treetops to rail (usually futilely) against construction of a road or factory, it must generate rather more hostility than sympathy amongst a public rather more concerned about employment or, in the case of the A7 Dalkeith bypass for example, a much better town centre environment.

And, since the public tends not to distinguish between eco-warriors and milder Green party folk, the political movement suffers. Having been at a few public meetings discussing environmental matters, a lot of the public seem to think being Green means returning to a back-to-nature, back-to-bicycles/horses, grow-all-your-own-veg society.

Eco-modernists, or eco-pragmatists as some style themselves, recognise not only the image problem, but the intellectual flaw in such an approach. In “The Eco-modernist Manifesto” published in April, which sparked Mr Barrett’s comment about a “new and more intense phase”, the eco-modernists “affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonise with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”

The essential insight offered by eco-modernism is that humankind is doomed to disaster if people try to re-couple themselves with nature by, as in the Richard Briers/Felicity Kendall Good Life comedy, aiming to be self-sufficient. Most of the planet’s deforestation, they point out, came before the Industrial Revolution when people relied on wood for heating and cooking.

They argue: “Ecosystems around the world are threatened today because people over-rely on them: people who depend on firewood and charcoal for fuel cut down and degrade forests; people who eat bush meat for food, hunt mammal species to local extirpation. Whether it’s a local indigenous community or a foreign corporation that benefits, it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem for the conservation of nature.”

The correct response, they contend, is for people to aim to de-couple themselves from nature by embracing technologies which use resources more productively, for example, more intensive agriculture. Services can also be more resource-productive – a less developed economy can, for example, gain modern communications through mobile technology without having to use the metal, wood, and plastic we needed for landline telephony.

There are signs that arguments claiming infinite growth will inevitably hit the buffers of finite resources may not turn out to be true. Meat consumption, for example, is gradually declining in some wealthy countries, while intensive agriculture has seen forests returning in developed countries to previously de-forested areas.

“Modern technologies,” the manifesto argues, “by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere” and that current trends suggest that “the total human impact on the environment, including land-use change, overexploitation, and pollution, can peak and decline this century.”

Put simply, it means that the link between economic growth and increasing resource use and greater pollution and emissions can be broken. Economies can grow and also reduce climate-changing emissions. That sounds a pretty attractive proposition to me.

If this way of thinking wins out (it ought to because it is pretty soundly intellectually based) then Scotland is in a good position to profit from it. Through our adoption of renewable energy despite its obvious cost problems, we have developed a reasonable reputation as an eco-minded country.

We have the brain power to turn eco-modernist concepts into practical propositions. Though we lack the industrial power to capitalise on it, we could still generate a new enlightenment comparable to that of the 18th century and reinvent a sustainable modern world.