What will we do with our money? Or: is clean-tech self-defeating?

Environmental policy is predicated on a certain vision of the world.  It’s a clean version of today’s world.  It’s got all the comfort and convenience and fulfilment of today’s world without the smells.

To build the clean world policy-makers insist that we need investment.  Investment is needed to finance the construction of the new infrastructure and the development of the new, odourless technologies.

Investment means the chance to accumulate greater wealth.  Under this model, corporations and private individuals are attracted to clean-tech because it makes them wealthier.

It is important to ask what will they do with the wealth that they create.

If you assume that the tastes of future investors remain the same as those of current investors, then you can expect that clean-tech investors, enriched with the success of their deals, will want to work more (yes, successful people work more as they get more successful, not less), will eat more meat, will travel more, will have bigger homes, bigger cars or will take younger wives.  All these lead to an appreciable increase in their carbon footprints, except, possibly, for the wife replacement.

Someone (say he is called Günther) might say: “But you are forgetting the leverage here.  Yes, a few successful clean-tech investors might start to consume more resources, but the infrastructure which they create will cut the emissions of millions of people.”

To this I would say: “No, Günther.  Those successful clean-tech investors will become role-models.  Through their success they will acquire influence and the lifestyle which they lead will become the model for millions of other people.”

“But,” counters Günther, “it doesn’t matter if people eat more meat, as long as that is emissions-free meat; it doesn’t matter if people fly more as long as it’s carbon neutral flight; you can have a bigger home as long as it is made of sustainable materials and is designed as a passive house.”

“Günther,” I reply.   “You are making a big, unhedged bet.  You are going all out for growth – something you call “sustainable” growth.  You know that as growth happens it will inherently lead to more pressure on resources.  And you are ignoring the rebound effect: the savings that people make on energy get ploughed back into more demand for energy elsewhere.  You are hoping that the increase in resource efficiency will overtake the growth in demand for resources.  You’ve got one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake and you are hoping that, overall, things will slow down.”

Günther stomped off to another round of lobbying in a posh Brussels restaurant, accusing me of being narrow-minded, stick-in-the-mud and unable to imagine a fresh, clean world, working under a different paradigm.

“I can imagine that, Günther,” I called after him.  “But it’s populated and run by saints, not people.  And if it’s populated by saints, then you don’t need clean-tech to make them cut their emissions.”

But we had both forgotten that my argument was predicated on an assumption: that the tastes of future investors remain the same as those of current investors.  Why should future investors want to eat more meat, have bigger homes and travel more?  There are plenty of happy people who eat little meat, have modest homes and travel rarely.  If we could get those people to teach future investors a different way of enjoying life… then when they get rich, they would deploy their wealth in a way which does not put them in conflict with the aims of the policies by which they became rich.

If we could do that to investors, then we could do that to other people.  And in that case we wouldn’t need to worry so much about clean-tech in the first place.

“Hear that, Günther?”  I called out.  But he wasn’t listening.  He was already tucking into a slab of Argentinian steak and bottle of Chateau Latour with a senior EU bureaucrat, cooking up another new scheme to divert public money to the pockets of the chosen few.

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