No.76 - April 2010

Admit it, you’re a fashion victim.

OK, so you may not obsess over the latest catwalk cool, or still be in sackcloth mourning Alexander McQueen – but most of us conform, more or less, to current trends. And it’s hardly surprising. The desire to dress in season and style seems to run through every culture in the history of civilisation.

Environmentalists are not going to wish fashion away. Indeed, look around the average NGO office (I just have), and the place is full of subtly stylish people in muted Howie’s colours. The days of wearing your heart on your organic hemp sleeve are, mercifully, over.

But we shouldn’t confuse our inherent sense of style with the shoptastic frenzy of fast fashion which has swept through the last 20 years – dirt cheap, and deeply unsustainable. In ‘Future fashionistas’ [p20], we explore how a combination of resource pressures and technical
breakthroughs is unleashing huge changes in an industry which, paradoxically, has until now been one of the most conservative.

Meanwhile, if you’re concerned about climate change, you probably feel like a fashion victim, too.

Go back a few years, and green wasn’t “just the new black, it was the new red, blue, pink and White Stripes” [see ‘And another thing’, GF59]. Trouble is, anything that suddenly springs into fashion gets flung out of it just as quickly – and rather more brutally. And that, in effect, is what’s happened here. The basics of climate science are still boringly solid. It’s just that, aided and abetted by a few clumsy statements and sloppy errors by climate scientists, the media’s decided that the whole thing’s just so last year, darlings.

It really isn’t that surprising. Environmentalists have been whipping up scare stories for so long, that people eventually wondered if they were crying wolf. Sure, climate change is scary. But if you want to win hearts and minds, it’s far better to excite people about all the rich
possibilities of a sustainable future than try to panic them into submission.

Take energy. In ‘Tornado Blessing’ [p30], Jessica Forres discovers how it took a natural disaster to turn one midwest town into a green beacon. And it’s not alone. From Kansas to California, in small town America, something is stirring.

Small steps in the midwest, but giant ones in the Sahara. If the optimists are right, [‘Light at the end of the desert’ – p26] this could soon be the source of a sizeable chunk of Europe’s electricity, thanks to concentrated solar power – a technology whose time has surely come. As
has, to a less glamorous extent, that propounded by Andrew Mercer [p34]. His simple technique of putting mini-turbines in the gas network to harvest the potential of pressure differences conjures new energy virtually out of thin air. Which is precisely the aim of the third  breakthrough technology featured in this issue. Sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and turning it into fuel [p32] may seem like a distant dream, but the science is sound enough.

You don’t need to ‘believe’ in climate change to see the advantages of such innovations in an age of growing energy insecurity. But their relevance will be all the more obvious when global warming steams back onto the front pages.

Much of the media is so fickle that a couple of hot summers should be enough to make that happen. But next time round, let’s hope environmentalists have the sense to leave the hair shirt at home. Because in every conceivable sense, it’s just not cool.

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Jonathan Dimbleby