For a low-carbon world, what comes next?

What I’ve been reading: Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, 2008

Commentators and campaigners do an awfully thorough job of working over what’s wrong with the way the world works, from unsustainable growth and consumption to tax loopholes and mass suffering. There’s certainly plenty to be dissatisfied about, and lots that needs fixing. But  in relative terms, we don’t spend nearly as much time pointing out what that fixed world looks like, beyond the silos of the particular issue that’s being discussed.

And so to Tom Friedman’s book of two years ago that marks his sort of environmental epiphany, and is combined with his chronicles of globalization and the transformation of the world economy which I first came across nearly ten years ago in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. It is one of the most uplifting accounts that I’ve come across of not only what a low-carbon world looks like, but how we get there. The first part discusses the myriad problems we face, mostly familiar challenges (a catchy formulation for energy dependence is his First Law of Petropolitics). But it is the second part that tries to join up all the dots to really present a picture of trying to answer the question of, how will we live?

A couple of particularly provoking thoughts stand out. He’s writing to engage an American audience, so there’s a lot of yes-we-can-because-we’re-America echoes throughout, most notably in his call to ‘outgreen’ the opposition (i.e. China). But this basically is a recognition that the comparative advantage of the future lies in who can do things more efficiently and become the model for emulation. In an energy-constrained world, outproducing just won’t do – the race to be greener is as much about making money as it is about the values and identity of who ‘I’ am and who ‘we’ are. The longer people focus on living in a world built on fossil fuels – the further behind they’ll be from living in the 21st century.

The second is an interesting counterpoint to the commonplace talk of a ‘Manhattan Project’ to jump into a low-carbon world. But, Friedman writes, “We don’t need a secret government-led initiative involving a dozen scientists in a remote hide-away to come up with a single invention. We need 10,000 innovators, all collaborating with, and building upon, one another to produce all sorts of breakthroughs in abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap electrons and energy efficiency…They would quickly move down the learning curve. We could do for solar and wind what China did for tennis shoes and toys.” Have we been using the right analogy?

Friedman is perhaps what you might call an ‘airport bookstore writer’, whose work you will find on the limited shelves of airport bookstores alongside John Grisham and Who Moved My Cheese? So while serious, it’s also highly accessible stuff, littered with personal anecdotes from his encounters with energy company CEOs, entrepreneurs, academics and mayors. In a way, it’s the inspiration for my own crack at stepping beyond my normal doom, gloom, and frustrations.

A two-page feature that I wrote was published in the final issue of The Oxford Student of the past term – I haven’t been able to work out combining them into a single file, so they are here as individual pages, Oxford in 2030 – part 1 and Oxford in 2030 – part 2. I’ve written this for a very particular audience, so perhaps it’ll seem rather alien to anyone outside the Oxford bubble, but it is an attempt at painting a picture that links up various facets of everyday life with a broader vision of low-carbon change. Whimsical, it might all seem, but perhaps in trying to think seriously about the future it at least gets us out of our chairs to (with apologies to Captain Jean-Luc Picard) make it so.

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