I’ll write a proper post on this later today, but there’s a superb article in yesterday’s Guardian by Andrew Simms, examining our proximity to the fabled ‘tipping point’ for climate change, and the potential to shift our economy into reacting to the greatest threat humanity has faced in recent history.
The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere today, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, is the highest it has been for the past 650,000 years. In the space of just 250 years, as a result of the coal-fired Industrial Revolution, and changes to land use such as the growth of cities and the felling of forests, we have released, cumulatively, more than 1,800bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Currently, approximately 1,000 tonnes of CO2 are released into the Earth’s atmosphere every second, due to human activity. Greenhouse gases trap incoming solar radiation, warming the atmosphere. When these gases accumulate beyond a certain level – often termed a “tipping point” – global warming will accelerate, potentially beyond control.
Faced with circumstances that clearly threaten human civilisation, scientists at least have the sense of humour to term what drives this process as “positive feedback”. But if translated into an office workplace environment, it’s the sort of “positive feedback” from a manager that would run along the lines of: “You’re fired, you were rubbish anyway, you have no future, your home has been demolished and I’ve killed your dog.”
The challenge is rapid transition of the economy in order to live within our environmental means, while preserving and enhancing our general wellbeing. In some important ways, we’ve been here before, and can learn lessons from history. Under different circumstances, Britain achieved astonishing things while preparing for, fighting and recovering from the second world war. In the six years between 1938 and 1944, the economy was re-engineered and there were dramatic cuts in resource use and household consumption. These coincided with rising life expectancy and falling infant mortality. We consumed less of almost everything, but ate more healthily and used our disposable income on what, today, we might call “low-carbon good times”.
A National Savings Movement held marches, processions and displays in every city, town and village in the country. There were campaigns to Holiday at Home and endless festivities such as dances, concerts, boxing displays, swimming galas, and open-air theatre – all organised by local authorities with the express purpose of saving fuel by discouraging unnecessary travel. To lead by example, very public energy restrictions were introduced in government and local authority buildings, shops and railway stations. This was so successful that the results beat cuts previously planned in an over-complex rationing scheme. The public largely assented to measures to curb consumption because they understood that they were to ensure “the fairest possible distribution of the necessities and comforts of daily life”.
There is no point in postponing action until the economic downturn has levelled out. If we don’t change our lifestyles now, we’ll look back on these as the glory days.