The end is nigh: is survival all we can hope for?
In the 1980s, I’d meet intemperate Stalinists on CND demos. For them The End would come when Ronald Reagan’s cruise missiles were launched eastward from Britain, inviting Soviet reprisals. Everything, they said, had to take second place to preventing that Armageddon. Class struggle? You couldn’t have that with a planet blown to smithereens…
Thirty years on, at Chris Huhne’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, it’s the same story: the survival of the Earth trumps all other arguments. Climate change, Huhne’s July White Paper Planning our electric future intones, is ‘one of the gravest threats we face’. So, Huhne says, the Coalition has put reduction in the demand for energy at the heart of its policy programme. By 2030 consumers must be ‘engaged’ in their energy consumption – through our old friend, smart meters – and must ‘lower their personal impact on the planet’. As Huhne says in his Foreword, ‘this White Paper is about more than encouraging investment in new generating capacity’. Rein back your profligate energy use if you want to avoid responsibility for accelerating the globe’s rush to the Apocalypse!
Last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told the Conservative conference ‘we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’ through piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies. This sounded more rational than Huhne’s hysterics; but examine the Chancellor’s logic. The millenarian commitment to saving the planet, not improving humanity’s position on it, is still as strong as it was under New Labour. Indeed, Osborne portrayed climate change as an already-established ‘disaster’. Second, Osborne’s bold rhetoric about wanting Britain once again to be a land of innovators cannot disguise that he fears for the survival of business much more than he plans for its growth.
The Coalition has repeatedly postponed plans for growth. Nor will confidence here be inspired by Osborne referring to Manchester University’s ‘discovery of a substance called Graphene’, or to two of its scientists having ‘just’ been awarded the Nobel Prize for this. In fact, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were the first not to find or conceptualise two-dimensional lattices of carbon, but to make it. And they won the 2010 Nobel Prize a full year ago: the 2011 Prize was announced the day after Osborne spoke.
Given that he promised (unspecified) funding for a national research programme to bring graphene to British factory floors, someone should brief Osborne a bit earlier and a bit better next time. Yet New Labour’s ‘Plan B’ for growth is even weaker on innovation than he is. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls merely wants the state to borrow and spend even more money than it has done. But this is a plan for economic life-support, not technological transformation. Labour has nothing to say about higher productivity in industry, construction, agriculture or services.
When David Cameron recently endorsed the efforts of the Daily Mail to indict supermarkets for their plastic bags, he showed the kind of grandeur we have now come to expect in politics. As the BBC’s Robert Peston has pointed out, Mr Cameron’s thrifty economy would be a low-growth economy for many years to come.
However, when Labour recently backed the efforts of the National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Daily Telegraph to preserve the 90 per cent of this country’s land that isn’t urbanised, it didn’t just show a small-mindedness to match the Tories. Nor did it just reveal its deep hostility to building the millions of new homes young families desperately need. No; Labour also confirmed its desire to put Britain into suspended animation. It doesn’t want a new lease of life for the UK, but would instead count a death-defying long sleep as a massive achievement.
It is often said today that politicians are only concerned with their own survival. But the current intellectual crisis of all politicians in the West goes deeper than that. They can, it seems, think of nothing more ambitious than to maintain the status quo. Much else would be too difficult, too risky and, worse, too imaginative.
Hopefully their end is nigh, even if ours isn’t.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and editor of Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation (see: www.BigPotatoes.org). He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas Satellite session The end is nigh: is survival all we can hope for?, organised in partnership with East Midlands Salon, which takes place in Derby on Tuesday 11 October.Tagged in: Chris Huhne, climate change, Energy, fuel, george osborne, opinion, Planning our electric future
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