No.73 - July 2009

Imagine for a moment that you’re an entrepreneur, on the cusp of the 20th century. You’re sharp at spotting coming trends, and so you’re investing heavily in the bright new future that is the horseless carriage. You step into a time bubble, and emerge blinking in the halogens of the New York City Auto Show, 2009. Amazed at what you see around you?

Absolutely – but enough about the dress code of the sales girls. That aside, it’s pretty much as you would have predicted back in 1900: electric horseless carriages, wherever you look. You knew all that excitement about petrol would just be a flash in the pan… ‘Cyberpunk’ William Gibson’s famous quote – “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed” – could have been coined for electric cars. After a century marking time, this seems to be their hour. You can’t turn on a business channel without seeing some Detroit CEO or other,
eyes shining with all the fervour of the new convert, laying out plans for mass electrification.

The near deathbed conversion of the motor industry is, of course, as much to do with the heavy hand of government on its shoulder as it is with genuine business enthusiasm. As April Streeter points out in ‘Spark Plug’ [pp28-32], there are a host of pitfalls to be crossed before all
our avenues are electric.

But ‘EVs’ are far from being, in the words of one critic, “a government-sponsored mass guilt trip”. Take China: a country that, by and large, doesn’t do guilt. (A Chinese company is even negotiating to buy up GM’s ridiculous Hummer.) China is pouring R&D cash into EVs, as well as investing on a truly staggering scale in renewables [‘Crouching Tiger’, pp20-23].

This isn’t fluffy altruism: China’s pollution is a chokingly obvious problem for the country now, and Beijing is increasingly aware that climate change could wreak havoc on its ability to feed itself. So it’s ratcheting up environmental standards, to the extent that (pause to savour the irony), it could soon be illegal to drive a Hummer on Chinese roads. And it knows its export markets. The West may be wounded by recession, but it still wants clean, not dirty, tech.

Even shiny new electric cars leave a hefty footprint, though. So perhaps we shouldn’t get over-excited at the prospect of China and the West abandoning their differences and living in a harmonious balance of endless supply and insatiable demand.

As Susan Neiman acidly comments in her new book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists: “Few things command more consensus than the idea that the path to global peace lies in abandoning strongly held beliefs… in favour of increasing consumption”.
In his regular column [p48], Jonathon Porritt echoes these concerns, arguing passionately that we need to return to a “deep analysis” of our obsession with growth, and pays tribute to the relentlessly radical Ecologist magazine, which after 40 years in print is now becoming an online-only publication.

Green Futures will be staying physical, but we certainly don’t underestimate the power of the web to bring us to readers around the world who we could never reach by print alone. So we are delighted that, in addition to our own website, our content is increasingly syndicated online through other outlets. Among them, China, where, thanks to the British Council, Green Futures articles in translation will now be available to the 40 million readers of China News Daily and Sohu.com.

Price: £6.00

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