Friday, December 04, 2009

With friends like these...

Those who have followed Rawls & Me know that I have come to defend a techno-environmentalist position, arguing that the convergence of radical technological change and social innovation offers the most promising path to global sustainability.

Unlike many Greens I believe that a planetary future of high mobility, global prosperity and accelerated technological innovation is compatible with maximizing habitat preservation and natural flourishing. However, from the beginning, I have also argued that in order to facilitate such a future we need lifestyle changes in the present; that we need to reduce our environmental impact at the same time as we make unprecedented investments in scientific research and R&D.

Yesterday evening, Swedish public TV ran a documentary on the new long-term infrastructure bill for the period 2010-2021. Despite a total spending of 217 billion SEK ($30 billion) in new investments, the net reduction in emissions is expected to be a meagre 0.1 percent! With half of the investment going into new roads that number should perhaps not come as a surprise but still. This is 2009. We should know better.

With the transportation sector being the single largest source of direct emissions (not counting land conversion, forestry or, more ominously, imports), it is also a sector where politics can have a direct effect. Unlike more tricky issues such as dietary patterns, it is after all a political decision what infrastructure we want in our society. Either we can continue down the grey fossil road with more external shopping centres, more highways and sprawling suburbia or we can move in the opposite direction towards a bright-green future of dense urbanism, efficient collective transportation and a restoration of the public.

The documentary featured some leading centre-right politicians who insisted that new fuels will make the road investments all “green” (as if the production of cars did not require any material resources). Clearly unable to grasp the complexities and the global dimensions of the issue, they failed to see why a country like Sweden should “lead by example” nor why we need to provide a powerful example of what Green Growth can look like. But what was worse was to listen to their watered-down talk of “innovation”. In it, I could hear a foul echo of my own words, that we cannot hope for “radical” lifestyle changes nor should we put blame on individuals. True as this may be for the global, as I think that we cannot realistically ask billions of Chinese or Indians to not go to McDonalds or to forgo modern sanitation, we sure as hell can tell people that they should not drive excessively, and if they still do, they should at least offset their emissions. And sure as hell, high carbon taxation is the way of sending this message.

But, and this is what I missed in the debate afterwards with Gunnar Falkemark, we also need to project a positive vision of the future, to challenge the Neo-Malthusian logic that says that we are witnessing “peak everything” and that from now on, it is just downhill. We need to talk about space colonization, fusion energy and maglev trains! Or to take another of my favourite examples, there will be Argentinean steakhouses in the future; the only difference is that they will serve in-vitro meat!

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