The Green Tau: issue 46

System Change?

4th August 2022

Steam Punk is based on the scenario of an alternative history in which steam power, steam engines and hand cranked machines reigned supreme, preventing the development of electrical power and the petrol engine. Might there be scope for Cycle Punk, an alternative history in which peddle power dominates with pedal powered kettles and mobile phones as well as the straightforward two wheel mode of transport?

The way economies and societies work -a product of convenience, economies of scale and inertia – is such that a preferred system will prevail whether that is the energy system, transport system, voting system, or  communications system. The systems or products that are not adopted are not necessarily a worse choice, just different as was the case between VHS and Betamax for video recorders. But once a system is established it is hard to change, because everything is geared to it, business and society have bought into it, lifestyles are built around it, and investment perpetuates it as the safe bet.

In the UK we have favoured a transport system based on private cars over one based on public cars, buses and trains. Our infrastructure favours the former. Our lifestyles have been shaped by the former. Our businesses are geared to the former. Our investment is predicated on its continuation. To change the system would need radical change in all these areas. 

Our energy system is based on the use of cheap fossil fuels. Our agricultural system is based on the production of cheap food, especially cheap animal products. Our manufacturing system is based in the use of cheap labour – as is our hospitality sector. Our investment system on the other hand is based on maximising profits for the few. 

The size and scale of such systems prevent us from seeing or experiencing anything different. Their market share precludes new entrants with alternative ideas. The systems prevent the use of better, more appropriate technologies.

In the UK fuel bills are rising out of all proportion to the cost of production, yet swopping to an alternative system seems nigh impossible. For people struggling financially, there is no spare cash to replace a gas boiler with a heat pump. There is no spare cash to install double glazing and reduce dependency on central heating. There is no comprehensive public transport network to remove reliance on the private car. There is insufficient investment in alternative energy and the odds are increasingly stacked against such investments as the return on fossil fuel investment sky rockets as fuel prices – but not costs – continue to rise.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo drawing on the power of the River Congo has the capacity to generate 100,00MW of hydro electric power compared with its existing capacity of 2792MW (https://www.usaid.gov/powerafrica/democratic-republic-congo). Yet this requires investment. The DRC is a nation struggling to meet the needs of its people, and the government is currently auctioning fossil fuel rights to explore and extract oil from under its rainforests, a move that will generate money now rather than longer term pay back of hydro power.

Africa as a whole has great potential for the generation of solar power, and which if provided via small scale projects can provide electricity to areas far removed from the grid. Yet whilst solar power has still to be developed in countries such as Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria and Tanzania (https://commodityinside.com/reports/solar-energy-market-in-africa/) the big oil companies are developing new oil and gas fields in Angola, South Africa, Ghana, Gabon, Egypt, Namibia and Kenya. 

Understanding that we are to a greater or lesser extent trapped in a system lets us be realistic about our situation, our predicament. It also helps us understand what will be needed to bring about change. 

Changes in government policy to favour the new system and tax changes and rules  to discourage the old.

Changes in global policies as advocated by the World Bank, the UN etc.

Changes in investment strategies and business plans.

Developments in new technology.

Changes in public opinion that will support all these. 

This is where we come in. We can, even in small ways, be the trigger or the irritant that initiates and propels change. We can make a difference – by talking with friends and neighbours, by loving as if we were already part of the new system, by campaigning, by pressing businesses and politicians, by voting with our money, by investing and by pestering those institutions investing on our behalf, by supporting charities, by standing up. As Christians we are well suited to this. We have that calling to be different, to be countercultural, to be willing to go the extra mile, to act for the wellbeing of the other.

The global system of slavery did come to an end when public opinion had changed. They did it then. We can do it now. 

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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