Market Forces

Sunday 4th of October 2020
Wind turbines

In the last post I concentrated on the potential benefits of technology and questioned whether there can be sufficient benefits from this for reversing rises of temperature to make the required difference when it comes to climate change.
I was equally thinking about market forces when I was writing. To my way of thinking, the two are very closely linked. Technology tends to be developed in order to try and give companies a commercial advantage. As I pointed out previously, that requires investment and there is always something of a balancing act when it comes to investing in and developing new technology and receiving what is considered to be the necessary financial return on that investment.
One area of (relatively) new technology in our world is that of “renewables”, generating energy from renewable resources, such as wind, wave and solar. There has been a need for research to find ways of doing this as effectively (and economically) as possible, but there are also implementation costs as regards manufacturing and installing this technology and keeping it running. Those costs will vary from technology to technology and where it is sited - offshore wind will cost more to install and maintain than onshore wind - but there can be benefits depending on energy policy (see below).
At the beginning of September a report was published by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University. A Ph. D. student, Galina Alova, has surveyed the changes in the make-up of the source of the energy supplied by electricity companies and published her research in Nature Energy.
I confess that I haven’t read the whole of the article, but she summarises it as follows:
“My analysis demonstrates that electric utilities might have hindered the transition of the global electricity sector towards renewables, which has to date mostly relied on non-utility actors (such as independent power producers) for expanding the use of renewables. At the same time, utilities continue to dominate fossil-fuel-based power generation capacity.
 ”Although I find that a substantial number of utilities (accounting for 10% of all utilities globally) have been prioritising the expansion of their renewables portfolios (that is, they have been growing their renewables-based generation capacity faster than gas- and coal-fired capacity), the decarbonisation pace of these companies remains slow. This is mostly due to these utilities continuing in parallel to invest, although at a slower rate, into fossil-fuel-based power plants, particularly gas.”
The main thrust of this research appears to be to discover whether utility companies worldwide are shifting their energy generation in the direction of renewables and Galina Alova appears to believe that this is not happening as quickly as possible.
My initial reaction to this was to try and discover whether this might be attributable to cost issues. However, the 2018 report of the International Renewable Energy Agency, published the following year, suggests that the costs of renewable energy generation and that even the more expensive types of energy within the renewable energy field are now similar in cost to fossil fuel energy generation and some are cheaper.
At the same time, things may not be that simple. The foreword of the report contains the following sentence: “The competitiveness of renewable power generation options was not always widely recognised.”
This seems puzzling. It is possible that utility companies fear that any shift towards renewables may be represented negatively. Some of this may be historical. There has been a “macho” image of fossil fuel exploitation for many years and using renewables may appear “soft”. Could that be one reason why companies are reluctant to switch? That does seem unlikely, but I can’t help feeling that there must be some psychological reason behind the slowness of this movement, as commercially it would seem to make more sense.
There is one other possibility that I can think of. I have already talked a number of times about the climate emergency being related to an over-emphasis of or over-reliance on the approach of the left hemisphere. Could it be that at least part of the issue with energy companies is the way in which the left hemisphere finds it difficult to move from what it knows to something unknown? Although we have had renewables playing a role in energy provision for a number of years, there is a quantum leap in moving to a situation where energy from renewables could become the majority element. There are practical considerations in relation to this because of the output from renewables being dependent on natural forces which do vary. This means that there may be a need to increase our ability to store energy in one form or another before renewable energy can take on the role that it needs to if we are to reduce the production of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels as fully as possible. However, perhaps the bigger issue is the need for a quantum shift in our thinking.
I am reminded of a talk at a conference I attended which I think was approaching thirty years ago. The speaker, Danaan Parry, had worked as a nuclear physicist but his energies were at that point concentrated on peace-making in a number of different arenas across the world. (I subsequently completed a training with him and colleagues to deliver Essential Peacemaking which addressed issues between men and women).
Parry was talking autobiographically about his shift from a scientific world-view towards a different approach. He drew on Native American thinking to explain what it was like for him switching from what was known to what was unknown.
I have found an article which consists of an interview from 1989 with Danaan Parry published by the Context Institute. The interviewer is Robert Gilman. In it there is an explanation of the thinking of a Native American tribe called the Yaqui people who originate from northern Mexico but can also be found in the southern United States. (Some similar material appears in Warriors of the Heart by Danaan Parry). In the interview, Danaan Parry explains the following:
“One [view of reality] is the tonal, which can be described as the "table top" – like your kitchen table – where all of us in the tribe have piled our consensual reality. That’s everything we know, believe, hold sacred and dear, everything that is "true", and our consensual collusion is that nothing exists outside of that table top.
“Well, the Yaqui say there is a greater reality called the nagual, which includes the table top, but it also includes everything else, all the way from your kitchen table out to infinity in all directions. The warrior’s job is to get her or his butt off the table top and go find out what’s in the nagual, however they can – physically, psychologically, spiritually. And at least as important is to bring it back and share it with the whole tribe, because it doesn’t become change until it is added to the tonal, the consensual reality. Then the tonal grows and expands. You might even describe the Yaqui vision of enlightenment as when the tonal meets the nagual – for everybody. It has to be a collective experience. When real change happens, it happens instantaneously and for everyone at once. When one person changes, everybody changes. It sounds like quantum physics, and I’m not surprised at that.”
The rest of the interview is devoted to looking at two related concepts. One is that of the warrior and the other is peace. For Danaan Parry, the work of the warrior is to look within ourselves and to work on what holds us back, as well as the role of initiating change which is suggested. He talks about the darker parts of our psyche and also specifically about fear. He also suggests that if we focus on peace as an absence of war, we will still be affected and indeed held back by the mentality behind war and which leads to war.
How does any of this relate to taking care of our planet? Well, it strikes me that there are a number of potential tie-ups. I started off with the question as to why it is so difficult for us to step out from what is known into the unknown. To use Danaan Parry’s book title, it requires warriors of the heart for this to happen. Is this happening with issues related to climate change? I would argue that the answer is probably both yes and no.
The stakes are being raised in a number of different ways. One is that news stories are continually referring to climate change issues, so that there are not many days when this isn’t featured in the media (in spite of COVID-19 coverage being dominant). Over the last few weeks this has included coverage of fires on the west coast of the U.S.A, some of which has tipped into campaigning for the presidential election; reporting of Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK, plus coverage of various reactions to them, including column inches devoted to a former spokesperson challenging some of Extinction Rebellion’s approach; a BBC TV programme presented by Sir David Attenborough on the sheer number of species whose future hangs in the balance because of human activity; the Welsh government continuing to focus on how much the recovery from COID-19, including the financial dimension, needs to be driven by prioritising “green” issues.
What is becoming clearer and clearer to me is that there are tactics used to undermine (and do so in an underhand way) the voices which concentrate on both the urgency and severity of climate change which faces humanity. In recent months I have heard parallels drawn between how the tobacco industry drew a veil over scientific research (including from scientists which it itself employed) into links between smoking and cancer in the mid-twentieth century and how the oil industry reacted to the perceived threat to its business from more and more science suggesting that global warming is a reality.
In both cases, the answer was to “fight science with science”, although by no means all of that science was “bona fide”. If these industries could find “scientific experts” who were prepared to go on record in challenging the growing scientific evidence which was beginning to provide a direct challenge to their business, this would make it more difficult for the public to believe the science or at the very least believe that it offers conclusive evidence. This enables President Trump when questioned about what lies behind the extent of the forest fires affecting several west-coast States to say that science “doesn’t know” to what extent climate change could be responsible.
There are a number of factors which contribute to this. One is that the level of scientific understanding of the general public has not been fostered by Western society, at the same time as the number of decisions which are made on the basis of science (ostensibly at least) continue to grow. (I am not going to digress other than very briefly onto the use of the phrase “we are following the science” in the UK’s response to coronavirus). As science has become both more and more specialised and more and more dependent on statistics, it has become more difficult for the person in the street to evaluate its accuracy. The research which I referred to at the beginning of this blog may be an example of this. Galina Alova used an algorithm to survey complex sets of data about the international energy industry, but this in itself creates each own problems. The more complex science becomes, the easier it is for the science to become obscured by misinformation (or even conspiracy theories). It also becomes easier for people deliberately to question the value of science, so science becomes more of a hostage to interpretation. That interpretation tends to arise out of particular agendas, either consciously or unconsciously.
Another is that there are particular difficulties in presenting the science of climate change. Those difficulties may be sometimes in relation to the physical challenges of getting observations of temperature, ice thickness, sea levels and so on, but the main difficulty is that the links between these natural phenomena and both climate trends and their potential effects on human beings are not always easy to establish. If there is a deliberate strategy to create doubt, which is the approach adopted by the tobacco industry decades ago, that becomes that much easier when much of the science does not pin things down in the way that makes conclusions incontrovertible.
One of the strategies adopted by the oil industry in relation to sewing seeds of doubt is not totally reliant on science. A BBC online article written by Phoebe Kane and dated 19th September 2020 includes an advertisement from the Information Council for the Environment (ICE) from around thirty years ago which uses selective information about winter temperatures to suggest that the facts are different from those which would support the existence of global warming. However, it also features the word “catastrophic” in the headline. Doing this makes it easier to make questioning the reality of global warming more appealing to people reading the advert, given that most people don’t want to believe the worst, especially when it’s about something that might make their own lives more difficult, dangerous or even merely complicated in the future.
Even today, climate change protesters are often described as “doom merchants”, as if they gain pleasure or currency from being “prophets of doom”. There is a sense in which human beings can derive pleasure from predicting something awful. There is potential for satisfaction to be gained from being right or also from a sense of superiority over others, but the latter only really works if we are not all affected. This may be an example of the limitations of the left hemisphere - it cannot really relate to a scenario in which someone predicts a dire outcome but they are not exempt from that.
There is another related issue, which is again referred to in passing in the BBC article referred to above. Jerry Taylor, who regularly appeared as a spokesperson for the Cato Institute, which the article refers to as a right-wing think tank, makes a link between climate change and socialism. This may be a particularly toxic association in the United States. However, I’m not sure that it is less weighty in other contexts, at least on a subconscious level. Part of my reason for saying this is that some of the leading climate change sceptics, at least those who are given air-time, come from the right wing of politics. In one sense that is not surprising. If we are make progress with measures which combat climate change, it is difficult to see that this will happen without government involvement - I don’t feel this will happen on any meaningful level purely from market economics. For anyone who is tightly wedded to an unfettered market, any sense of government intervention can seem unpalatable. Whether or not there is awareness of this or whether it is openly acknowledged even if there is, this can be part of a resistance to accepting the reality of climate change.
Anyone whose prioritisation of market capitalism also includes a dose of “market neo-Darwinism” in terms of the “survival of the fittest” may well think that species which become extinct have demonstrated that they are not able to adapt sufficiently to a human-dominated world and that there is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, which cannot be denied.
Even without the specific question of market economics, a sense of the greater good or a need to look at a bigger picture seems to arouse suspicions in certain quarters. Environmental concerns in many ways raise the stakes, because the “bigness” of the bigger picture includes not just human beings but other beings also (it is possible to look at this area from a purely self-interested view and take it seriously merely because of its impact on human beings but that would seem to defeat the object to me, given our race has had these negative impact on the ecosystems and climate of our planet home because of our inability to be lifted above the self-reflexive).
Seeing this type of reaction can act as a reminder to what extent our society has been affected by an individualistic mind-set. Economically speaking, there has seen to be an advantage of the rich getting richer because of the perceived benefit of a trickle-down effect, but if we were to look at our financial systems in terms of ecosystems, it would be difficult not to entertain a sense that this could actually be harmful because it doesn’t reflect what happens in the natural world.
Ecology as a science has probably struggled for acceptance in some ways because it is a science of inter-connections and relationships. In that sense it has been “swimming against the tide”, as science has become more specialised and our ways of being with each other have been more atomised. There are signs, however, that the tide is turning, as much of the latest research has begun to be interdisciplinary. Perhaps that will have an indirect benefit for ecology, as we start to realise more and more the need to ensure that we do not consider anything in isolation.
We face a need to have more joined-up thinking. For example, building new housing may not be the most obvious area to think of in relation to climate change. However, there are a number of questions (and hopefully some answers) which need to be considered in this area. If we look at where we build housing, flood plains which would once have been considered to be “no go areas” for housing are now used for this purpose, ironically when the risks of flooding have risen. (This in itself needs to be looked at in relation to land use, so housing then links with land use and so on). There are also huge questions as to what we use to build houses and how we build them. Using sustainable materials is not top of the list for most commercial builders or most people who want to build houses, but there are those who think in those terms and we could start to encourage this more.
Using wood more for building would be more sustainable if we planted more trees, which could have equally have a beneficial effect on climate through the ability of trees to store carbon and control the flow of water. However, none of this is a short-term fix. This reminds me of a saying (sometimes referenced as a Chinese proverb): When is the best time time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. The second-best time is now. (Unfortunately, many “green” endeavours could have been prioritised a number of decades ago, but, given that has not happened, the next best time to act is now).
There is also a need to acknowledge that if we plant more trees, then that land will not be used for something else. What comes to mind immediately is that much of our land needs to produce food, so that could easily become problematic. One response to this would be to look at food waste. An issue which is quickly identified in this regard is people becoming increasingly reliant on pre-prepared food rather than cooking from scratch. Giving people more confidence in the kitchen seems a long way from how we build houses, but that is just one potential indication of how much a multi-pronged approach is needed when we look at how we use resources, as different areas are so closely related.
Returning to building specifically, we could do far more than we do to make new houses more energy-efficient and use them to feed in energy to the National Grid through incorporating renewable energy generation in the design of houses. Even a supposedly small thing such as the orientation of a house can make a difference, although I realise that making houses south-facing would have ramifications for the design of housing developments and potentially for the number of “units” which might be achieved. Here again, we are looking at the best use of a finite resource, in this case land. The land could be used for energy generation, housing, food production, commercial premises, leisure and so on. Perhaps the future is one in which, rather than land being given over to a single use, we find ways of accommodating as many possible uses on one site as possible.
For example, a home could be a workplace (becoming especially prominent as a result of COVID-19 restricitions), a place for growing food and generating energy. The complexity and degree of making decisions (some of them no doubt difficult) involved in this are considerable and we tend to find it simpler to rely on a single-use approach, but that perhaps needs to be a thing of the past.
In a slightly similar vein, it is possible that our cities have outlived their usefulness. The evolution of cities has been a long and multi-faceted one. There were benefits as regards security and organisation of bringing people together in one place and the beginnings of democracy were probably part of this, along with cultural benefits. In more recent times, cities have been engines of both production and consumption, but much of this is now in question, certainly in modern Britain. The impact of COVID-19 and the need to check the spread of the virus has probably accelerated this, but much of this was already in train.
The other aspect of our cities which social isolation has shown us is that the natural world is not as divorced from our cities and towns as we might think. In the same way that, in the past, they have been engines of other things, could they now become generators of natural regeneration, offering homes to species which had been excluded from these environments? We would need to think of our cities in a totally different way if this were to be the case. The positive side to this could be that taking something which seems so far away from being able to contribute to anything green and realising that there is something that this could be part of forward movement.
In the same way that we could become more aware of houses being multi-faceted, that could also become the case with cities. Instead of them being energy sinks, they could start to generate energy through renewables such as solar panels on public buildings. I am even aware of a company called Pavegen producing kinetic pavements which generate electricity from pedestrian footfall. If we use existing parks and make them more environmentally friendly, it would then be possible to start creating green corridors which could criss-cross our cities. As I live in the north-west of England I am aware of the part which water power used to play in powering the industrial revolution and I wonder if it could be possible to re-create this role within the energy needs of our cities. It is likely that cities will play less and less of a central role in creating workplaces so we could also begin to expand into other uses other than those which have dominated them. Similarly, the amount of land in towns and cities given over to retail was already open to much debate before COVID-19 but that is likely only to accelerate now.
If there is really going to be a dramatic shift away from the land use for workplaces or shops in the centre of towns and cities, it does beg the question as to what it is going to be used for. Obviously there are enormous economic questions around that, given that a lot of that land is rented by those who use it and that property investment forms a significant part of financial portfolios, including within the pension industry. In spite or even because of that, I wonder whether some of that land could be returned to a “wild” status. I say that partly because in many of our major cities, the original settlement took place because of water courses, often related to crossing them at this particular point. They are thus relatively low-lying and subject to flooding. Creating wetland areas which could absorb this excess water would have beneficial effects for the cities themselves and anywhere else downstream. There is also the question as to whether any of the existing housing could be supplemented either by new building or by converting existing buildings. That might mean that the money invested in property could still yield a return. How a financial return could be generated for creating city “wild” spaces I am not sure, unless funding became avaiable for new city parks emerging from this.
To return to another one of the judgments passed by climate change sceptics on those arguing the opposite case, a charge often laid at their door is that they are impractical, naive and idealistic. This is often done in quite an ageist way purely based on the fact that quite a lot of the protesters are young people. It has been interesting to see that Sir David Attenborough, when he has been challenged about this, responds very positively both about the inevitability of young people being concerned about the planet and their ability to do something about it. My impression is that part of that is an empathy because they will have to live with the more severe conseqences of global warming, but there may also be pangs of guilt involved because previous generations have proved themselves incapable of fully addressing climate change.
Although that doesn’t seem to prevent Sir David Attenborough expressing solidarity with young climate change protesters, it may be another part of why some professed climate change sceptics find it so difficult to accept what is suggested by innumerable scientists. If they admit this, they also, at least those who have been in positions of power and influence, will be forced at some point to admit that this has happened “on their watch”. Perhaps an inability to engage with having contributed to an issue which is likely to dog humanity for years to come makes it more problematic to engage with the science. This may be an example of the way in which science becomes no longer just about “facts”.
Generally speaking, human beings find it difficult to take personal responsibility for matters which are essentially a collective matter (including retrospectively). That is by definition part of the essence of global warming and the challenge it presents to us as a human race. Only by a radical change are we able to meet this challenge and grasp it with both hands.