A phase of regeneration in society is an entirely feasible prospect in the times ahead. It could be sparked at the intersection of the three great crises of our times: the crises in finance, in climate and in energy. Such a regeneration could be a global renaissance, a road capable of leading to a much better future than the one that looks probable for humankind at present. Sadly, this positive outcome is far from guaranteed.
Let me explain my argument, starting with the climate crisis. Greenhouse-gas emissions are leading to the destruction of wealth faster than we can possibly create it, unless emissions are cut deeply. The first footprint of global warming is appearing now, in extreme climatic events around the world.
As I write, British heaths and forests are ablaze after a single hot spring month without much rain. The American South is reeling from the worst-ever month for tornadoes. Queensland, Australia is recovering from unprecedented floods. Such impacts will compound far into the future if we are foolish enough not to enact an orderly retreat from our dependence on fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gases.
It is within our power to execute this retreat. We have the technologies and strategies that can steer us into a sustainable future. We simply need to accelerate clean-energy deployment, and the social strategies and tactics that sit most comfortably with its use. Unfortunately, in the system in which we operate at the moment, some big energy companies and their peripheral institutions threaten at best to delay us ruinously on our road to survival, at worst to stop us.
The climate crisis arises at a time of escalating fears that the oil industry is about to repeat the mistake of the banking industry. The common wisdom is that oil supply can meet growing world demand for several decades before that supply peaks. But increasing numbers in industry and elsewhere believe that there is either less oil underground than many assume, or that there is insufficient investment and infrastructure to deliver new flow capacity in a timely manner, or both.
The UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, a varied group of companies spanning British industry, warn that peak oil is just a few years off, and that it will involve a dire energy crisis in an oil-dependent world. It believes that for some consumer countries, energy crisis will quickly turn into energy famine as oil producers start husbanding their own resources for use at home.
Ahead of the financial crisis, a few maverick economists and financial journalists were blowing the whistle. With peak oil, captains of British industry, plus the energy equivalent of the World Bank – the International Energy Agency – are among those doing the warning. This is the highest of high-risk, high-consequence issues. Yet Whitehall, BP, Exxon and others scoff at it. It’s a familiar pattern: ‘How dare you question our risk assessments of derivatives trading?’ ‘How dare you question our oil resource assessments?’
The threat posed to healthy economies by climate change and peak oil are merely symptoms of a much deeper malaise. The entire operating system, in the form into which we have allowed it to evolve, is dysfunctional. It focuses inexorably on the short term, even if that involves the burial of dire risk in the mid term. Capitalism, the way we now practise it, needs to be re-engineered: we need regeneration in the shape of a ‘neocapitalism’ model. We must grow and proliferate the kind of people-power projects that have sprung up in the face of the three great crises. Consider, for example, the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network, wherein a town of 10,000 people is coming together to derive its own energy from renewables sources installed locally.
Back in their casinos, the big banks are too busy to bother with lending to numbers of small- and medium-sized enterprises such as local power projects. People-power financing needs to be energised as a replacement. In Lewes, the Ouse Valley Energy Services Company is financing a solar system on a brewery, costing almost £250,000, via citizen investors. This, the first project of its kind, will hopefully open the gates to many like it in future.
Neither do the banks lend readily to individuals, at the moment. So we can lend to each other. Zopa.org, a peer-to-peer lending initiative, is showing what could be achieved at scale. And if it can be done with retail banking, it can be done with pension investing, if people can find a way to force the right changes in the regulations currently shutting them out of managing their own money.
Neither do we need to limit the application of people power to a regional or national process. Strengthened international cooperation is going to be vital if we are to find a route to survival and genuine prosperity. Model resilient communities in Britain will not survive the economic and ecological backlash if the developing nations are left to pursue their futures according to the ruinous models from which our own development has been hewn. For this reason, kiva.org is an inspirational standard-bearer for the mobilisation of people power in development. Using loans of no more than $25 per person, the US-based organisation is raising a million dollars every five days for microloans across the world, mostly in developing countries.
This kind of people power, applied to financial and energy affairs, can disintermediate the backward-looking constituency that is currently mortgaging social coherence.
Humans are capable of amazing mobilisations. We did end slavery. We did put a person on the moon less than a decade after committing to do so. Society too, in its turn, can awaken itself to the suicidal undercurrents in our dominant operating system, and make the necessary changes in time.