The 3 pillars of unsustainable denial
Last week, I re-published Nele Marien’s ‘20 years of unsustainable development’ – commenting that I knew this stuff but had not presented it as clearly as Nele did. Today, I would like to try and re-formulate Nele’s message in view of what the UK government is doing (or rather not doing) – as I summarised on Monday.
First of all, I should just like to say that I have been looking back at the notes I made in the very first lecture I attended at the start of my MA (i.e. 2 years ago already); and have discovered why this image of three intersecting circles seemed strangely familiar: The 3 Pillars of Sustainable Development is quite a well established concept – just try using any search engine and you will find out what I mean…
If not three intersecting circles, the other common illustration – as the name of the concept suggests – is that of three columns supporting a rectangular or triangular structure like this.
However, as Nele made clear, the three intersecting circles are a misconception of reality and, if so, then so are the three pillars. However, at the risk of completely mangling the metaphor, I think the only edifice that the three pillars are supporting is unsustainable denial. This is the denial – apparently widespread amongst politicians of all kinds – of the reality that our current power generation methods and energy policy are not sustainable. There is – and can be – only one excuse for such denial of reality; the highly questionable belief that the ingenuity of humans will solve the problem (i.e. “prometheanism” – also known as “technological optimism”).
I think this is highly dangerous strategy. I do not think we should have allowed ourselves to get into a position where we must rely on technology to minimise the adverse consequences. However, we are where we are, and I am not anti-technology. There is, therefore, a great deal that we could do that we are not doing (because so many are still far too complacent about the nature, scale and urgency of the problem we face). We have been fooled into a false sense of security by this misconception of reality: We have taken it and distorted it in order to allow us to pursue growthmania. As a result, where we are is still a very long way from where we need to be.
For all of us, therefore, embracing reality is going to be tough. In the UK context, it would be a good start if the government would try a spot of lateral thinking. Rather than focus on large infrastructure projects (such as the new power distribution networks that power stations of all kinds – not just fossil fuel burning ones – will need), our government needs to focus more effort on reducing the demand for centrally-generated power. After all, compared to all this expenditure on infrastructure, how much would it cost them to pay to install Solar PV panels on the roof of every single suitable home in the country? They almost certainly know but – if they do not – do they not have a moral responsibility to future generations to find out?
However, I suspect they do know what this would cost (or at least they have a good idea of the number of suitable houses), because many local authorities have already surveyed their entire areas to determine the feasibility of micro-generation of wind power. However, if an equivalent survey – to determine how many properties have a south-facing roof – has not been done; it should be done as soon as possible. Why? Because micro-generation – reducing the demand for centrally-generated power by getting people off the grid – is the solution to our energy crisis.
As far back as May 2011, George Monbiot warned us that our problem is that we have too much fossil fuel (not too little) and earlier this year Bill McKibben quantified the problem by telling us that we have 5 times more fossil fuel on Earth than it would be safe to burn. Therefore, because (as Dr Myles Allen and others have been saying for at least three years) it is cumulative emissions that now matter…
— we need to stop burning conventional fossil fuels: and
— we need to stop looking for unconventional fossil fuels.
This is not going to be easy or quick; but planning not to do it for at least the next 20 years is not the answer – that is what people do when they are in denial about the nature of the problem.
Our politicians need to have the courage to admit that the Carbon Age must be brought to a premature end. If they do not, within 80 years, they may well be consigning 20 to 50 % of species to a premature end instead! This is because:
— As sea levels continue to rise, we will find that fertile soils and trees cannot migrate to higher ground; and
— As temperatures continue to rise, species that can migrate to higher ground will find they run out of space.
Dr James Hansen summarised all of this in a talk he gave at a TED conference six months ago. If this does not sound familiar to you, please click on the link below for the video and my 10-point summary of what he said:
The solution to all our problems (13 March 2012)