On a flight a few weeks ago, we had just taken off and were still at 45 degrees when an American girl next to me called to the steward for a glass of water. She was very thirsty. So the steward climbed up the plane to the galley, and fetched back a cup of still water. The girl complained: “I don’t want still. I want sparkling.” So the steward climbed back up to the galley and brought back a cup of sparkling water. I thought about my neighbour as she slaked her thirst: “Spoilt brat. If she’s really so thirsty, what’s wrong with still water? Gallileo was all wrong. The universe revolves around ME”.
By coincidence, at the same time I caught sight of a GE Water advertisement in the FT I was reading: “A third of the world does not care about still or sparkling. Just drinking.” You might think that the number, one third, is a bit on the low side, but the sentiment is there. And the lesson is coming from one of the world’s biggest capitalist behemoths.
So business gets it, while the spoilt consumer is still fussing between Perrier and Evian. Sure, it is not as simple as this: a quick google of the connection between GE and water reveals a long and nasty relationship between the two, now buried in sludge at the bottom of the Hudson river.
Actually, I think companies may well be more likely than individuals to respond effectively to environmental challenges. An individual with authority in a corporation can have a wider impact than an individual on the street. A CEO has the confidence that he has the power and wealth of a huge organisation behind him, making policies which can regulate the behaviour of thousands of employees. GE’s water advertisement, of course self-serving, will be seen by millions. In contrast the individual often feels hapless and ineffective in a sea of environmental destruction wrought by himself and his planet-mates.
This is the toughie with climate change – your vote does not make a difference. But even in Central Europe hope is breaking out and light is now shining weakly through chinks in what was a thick, bleak, cloudscape of ignorance and cynicism.
Today at EUETS conferences in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, you see that people are getting worried. The guys who run coal-fired power stations say “As an individual, as a grandfather, x, but of course as an employee of GERMAN FOSSIL FUEL GOBBLERS INC., y.” Where x does not necessarily equal y. The public expression of doubt and divided loyalty is a huge step forward from blank denial and cynicism.
And the politics are just starting to shift, too. Slowly.
The other day we heard from a senior politician in a central European country: “Renewables and sustainability are unimportant for us, our country is geopolitically insignificant, so frankly we are not bothered about this.”
Is this the same sense of hopelessness as the individual feels? “What I do does not make a difference anyway, so why bother?” Not at all: it’s just a case of the healthy nihilistic cynicism of the few ex-communists still hanging about in the region. Retinas so clogged up with dollar bills that there is no vision.
But this is no longer the only view point. Scarcely a week goes by without a senior politician in Ukraine or Russia pronouncing on the urgency of complying with the Kyoto Protocol. The other week the president of Hungary called for the establishment of a network of green-minded Presidents. Trees wanted; Bushes need not apply.