I think it’s time to call it. Renewables and associated storage, transport and digital technologies are so rapidly disrupting whole industries’ business models they are pushing the fossil fuel industry towards inevitable collapse.
Some of you will struggle with that statement. Most people accept the idea that fossil fuels are all powerful – that the industry controls governments and it will take many decades to force them out of our economy. Fortunately, the fossil fuel industry suffers the same delusion.
In fact, probably the main benefit of the US shale gas and oil “revolution” is that it’s keeping the fossil fuel industry and it’s cheer squad distracted while renewables, electric cars and associated technologies build the momentum needed to make their takeover unstoppable – even by the most powerful industry in the world.
How could they miss something so profound? One thing I’ve learnt from decades inside boardrooms, is that, by and large, oil, coal and gas companies live in an analytical bubble, deluded about their immortality and firm in their beliefs that “renewables are decades away from competing” and “we are so cheap and dominant the economy depends on us” and “change will come, but not on my watch”. Dream on boys. Continue reading
It’s easy to understand why there’s widespread support for politicians and others who argue we shouldn’t talk about climate change in the middle of a bushfire emergency.
When you’re fighting to keep your house, grieving over the loss of a loved one or putting your life on the line to protect others lives and property, people talking about climate policy or how these kinds of events will become more common and more severe is very uncomfortable.
This very human response should be understood and people who are suffering loss, or fear of it, should be treated with sensitivity. That’s an argument about how we talk about it, but certainly not a reason to avoid doing so. This is actually the perfect time to talk about climate change and about climate policy – it couldn’t really be better.
This is where it gets really interesting. Since I first engaged in the climate debate in the late 1980’s it’s all been fairly slow and predictable. Environmentalists argued for action, big business resisted and government acted as the referee, deciding the policy winners.
As I look around today however, I see a shift underway from ‘environment vs business’ to ‘business vs business’. The global impact on both policy and investment decisions could be revolutionary.
While there has always been some big business advocacy for climate action it has, with a few exceptions, been largely driven by companies’ sense of social responsibility rather than their immediate economic interest. Businesses have called for action and CEO’s have signed on to joint statements, all with genuine intent. But it has always lacked the urgency and resources indicating a core business issue.
This hasn’t cut it in the debate because those businesses opposing action see it as a fight for survival and therefore approach their opposition in a far more aggressive, strategic and well resourced way. In a fight between corporate responsibility and companies fighting for economic existence, the latter will always triumph. And in this lies the key to why the current shift is so important. Continue reading
There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory. If we read the current context correctly, and if the movement can adjust its strategy to capture the opportunity presented, it could usher in the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history. This would include the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.
What a privilege it is to be alive in these times, in such a significant period in human history. It’s not always easy to see moments of great historical importance when you’re in the middle of them. Sometimes they’re dramatic, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the landing on the moon. But more often the really big ones appear, from within them, to be unfolding in slow motion. Their actual drama and speed then only becomes clear in hindsight.
That’s how it will be with this. But in the end we’ll look back at this moment and say, yes, that’s when it was clear, that’s when the end game began. The end game of the industrial revolution.
Hang on, you’re thinking. The industrial revolution? With its belching smokestacks, dirty industry and steam engines? You thought we left that behind long ago, right? You look at your smart phone, robots on Mars, the rise of Facebook and Google and think ‘we’re well past all that’. Isn’t this the age of knowledge, when we’re all hyper-connected in a 24/7 information rich economy? Think again.
Hiding behind those entertaining devices, information overload and exciting new companies, the real bulk of the economy is still being driven by those dirty belching smokestacks and is still being shaped by those who inherited the economic momentum of 19th century England – the coal, oil and gas industries. Look at any list of the world’s 20 largest companies by turnover and you’ll see around three quarters are either producing fossil fuels, trading them or converting them into transport or energy. So I’m afraid the proverbial belching smokestacks still underpin our economy. But they are now in terminal decline. Yes, after 250 years, their time is coming to an end – and faster than you, or they, think.
I’m writing this on my way home from speaking at the annual TED gathering in Long Beach California, where 1,500 people gathered to listen to what the organisers call “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED has always been an influential gathering, but then they put some of the talks online and, with over 500 million views, their global reach as a spreader of ideas has become quite a phenomenon.
There is nothing quite like this event, with its eclectic mix of investors, entrepreneurs, activists, think tanks, corporate execs and philanthropists. There’s owners and CEO’s of companies like LinkedIn and Amazon alongside enthusiastic founders of young start-ups hoping to emulate their success. There’s people with big picture ideas about where the world’s going, alongside social entrepreneurs taking today’s practical ideas into the field in the developing world. The latter included many examples of beautiful hope and simplicity, like the guy leaving a good corporate job to help run a social start-up called Wonderbags, which uses insulated bags to dramatically reduce the dangers and expense of cooking fuel in poor villages in Africa.
The optimism is infectious and so the opening session sparked quite a controversy. I gave my worldview with a talk titled “The Earth is Full”, arguing a major economic crisis was now being triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water. While I argued humanity was good in a crisis and we’d get through it, my argument left the techno-optimists a little shell-shocked, as they are more used to being uplifted with stories of optimism and endless opportunity.
Whenever anyone questions the way things are, from the Occupy protestors through to people like me arguing that economic growth will end in tears and crisis, the response is very often, but “markets are wonderful and efficient way of organising our society”. I say what? That’s like saying to someone who says “I don’t like oranges” that “you’re wrong, you haven’t tasted this great cheese”. It’s an irrelevant and illogical response.
The term “markets” does not mean “infinite growth based capitalism that is destroying the ecosystem and preferentially serving the interests of the rich”! Markets don’t have to do that, and don’t always do that, including today. Indeed, markets as an idea have proven themselves as a resilient mechanism for many objectives. From the food markets of ancient Rome to the emerging boom in renewable energy, markets touch something very powerful in the human psyche and can deliver great good for society.
As Tom Friedman recently wrote in the NYT, “There’s Something Happening Here”. There sure is. The market system that has delivered so much to the world over the last century – brought great technology, alleviated so much poverty, produced a better life for billions – is now destroying itself.
Some say this process is now inevitable. That like an empire in decline, the system is deluded by its grandeur and historical power and thus fails to see its weaknesses – so is unable to respond. I disagree. The crisis is certainly inevitable, indeed that is well underway. The ecosystem is breaking down, and the economy is in hot pursuit in the collapse stakes. But the path into and through this crisis is a choice we get to make. The future doesn’t just happen, we create it.
But who gets to make these choices? Some argue it’s “the 1%” and that the victims of their decisions are “the 99%” – that the rich beneficiaries of the current system control it, and do so in their own interests. This analysis says that’s why we have low taxes, bailouts of wealthy investment banks, lack of action against those who caused the financial crisis and a failure to deal with climate change – because the rich 1% want it that way. But is that correct? And if so, are they making the right decision even for themselves?
It’s going to hit hard and it’s going to hurt – made worse because most aren’t expecting it. They think the world is slowly returning to our modern “normal” – steadily increasing growth, with occasional annoying but manageable interruptions. After all, the global recession wasn’t so bad was it? Sure there was pain and things got shaky but Governments responded, bailed out companies, stimulated economies, got things back on track. While it’s still a bit bumpy, Greek wobbles, US debt, extreme weather, high oil and food prices etc, it’ll work out. It always does….
If only it were so. In fact we are blindly walking towards the next in a series of inevitable system shaking and confidence sapping crises, deluded in the belief that the worst is behind us.
Each crisis will be a little worse than the last. Each one will shake our denial a little more. This is what happens when systems hit their limits. They don’t do so smoothly, but bump up against the wall, hitting hard, then bouncing off equally hard. It is the behaviour of a system trying to break through. But if the limits are solid, as is the case with our economic system hitting the limits of the planet – defined by unchangeable physical capacity and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology – then it can’t find its way through. So eventually, when the pain of hitting the wall gets too much, it stops.
Then it will hit. Like a grenade in a glasshouse, shattering denial and delusion and leaving it like a pile of broken glass on the floor of the old economic model. Then we’ll be ready for change.