Staring down the pipeline

A telltale sign of our various governments’ inability to grasp what the environmental problem actually is is the enthusiasm with which they embrace the possibility of a business-led solution. That it is specifically business-led view of the world is indicated by the specifics. For example, it is perfectly clear that a huge campaign of insulation would be a powerful, low-tech method of substantially reducing our collective carbon footprint at minimal cost and with a huge impact on key economic problem such as issues as employment.

But although this is an economic solution, it isn’t a business solution, so it won’t do. Well, not for central government anyway. Local government (such as Kirklees) is busy insulating, distributing energy-efficient light bulbs, updating boilers and otherwise making millions of one-off improvements in the countries’ carbon consumption. But that’s the problem: from business’s point of view, one-off is only one step better than ‘no step’. What business needs is a continuing stream of buyers who will need to come back over and over again.

But pandering to a growth-obsessed economy – which is to say, a capitalist economy – is precisely how we got into this mess in the first place: by creating an economic system that not only busily generated an endless pipeline of new demand (through marketing, built-in obsolescence, consumerism, and so on) but also is unable to survive if that pipeline is ever turned off. The current finance-driven crisis is only a taste of what would happen if demand for industrial products as a whole collapsed, or even stood still. That really would be a global crisis, and no amount of Asian savings would get us out of it, not least because the manufacturing-based Asian economies would be as badly affected as everyone else.

So the business necessity for an endless pipeline explains why it is that central governments (who, unlike local government, have both the power and the obligation to drive the capitalist economy as a whole) all but ignores one-off, ‘passive’ measures such as insulation. The scale of the effort that would need to be mounted is vast, but being a single shot, is not what business needs. So business programmes and journals, having finally got over their initial queasiness about green ventures, are looking at alternative energy, nuclear power, and so on – because they mean continuing streams of high-value sales that can be safely predicted to go on mounting and mounting for decades to come!

How much more ironic could it get? The solution to an environmental problem caused by uncontrolled growth is to give the people who got us here a whole new area into which to grow! Clever us. Likewise for the obsession with toys like electric cars: what purpose do they serve from an environmental point of view, given that the electricity they will run on will reduce the electricity available for genuinely social purposes such as heat and light. It isn’t very likely at the moment that we will be able to safely generate enough clean energy for those purposes in time to deflect our environmental problems, but we are talking about electric cars anyway. The odd allusion aside, we are not talking about public transport, reducing travelling for work and the many opportunities they would offer to clean up our planet ant, but rather methods for keeping an inherently unsustainable economic system in its present image. And why? Because that is what business needs. And what society needs? What the environmental needs? Who cares.

Of course, we need alternative energy and many other things for which the only solution is mass production by industrial methods. But what we don’t need is another turn of the very wheel that got us where we are today. There will be no solution to our environmental problems until we take a good clear look at the economic system we are relying on to deliver it.

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