By Dirk Campbell of TTL
Industrial growth in the wake of COVID-19 is set to pursue its usual trajectory with all the environmental damage that entails. So what will it take to force public policy to tackle the climate emergency? Dirk Campbell explores some ideas.
Though some Cassandras had long warned of the danger of a global pandemic, everyone else was looking the other way. National attention seemed to be focused mainly on Brexit and gender identity politics. In the months leading up to March 2020, climate change was increasingly featured in the media. After March 2020, that stopped; we weren’t even talking about Brexit any more. It was almost a relief to be talking about something else.
Idealists saw in the short period of total lockdown the hopeful signs of a breakout of sanity. Unfortunately it’ll take a lot more than the worst global pandemic for a hundred years to achieve that. Covid has done nothing to dislodge government’s faith in industrial growth. The longer term consequences of the pandemic – economic shrinkage, widespread business failure and the bill for Rishi Sunak’s lavish handouts – have to be paid for, and to do that the juggernaut must be kept on the road.
As non-Covid issues have begun to trickle back into the media, it’s dawning on us that global warming has not temporarily halted, but is continuing its inexorable trajectory with record-breaking climate events and environmental disasters. Efforts to shift public policy must be resumed, if not redoubled. We need higher-leverage ways of doing this than sitting on the street holding placards.
Noreena Hertz in her 2001 book The Silent Takeover was among the first to point out that democratically-elected governments no longer represent the interests of their electorates, let alone protest groups. Their main function is to supply service and infrastructure for big business. How did this happen, she asks? Why would any democratic institution choose to defer to anybody whose raison d’etre is not the welfare of society, but the maximisation of its own wealth?
Hertz dates it to the ascendency of Thatcher who sold off public utitilies, deregulated the financial markets and put inordinate power into the hands of corporations, on the basis that what is good for capitalism is good for – well, she didn’t call it that, but – society. In fact, the seeds of Thatcherism were sown long before Thatcher. In 1776 Adam Smith theorised in his hugely influential book The Wealth of Nations that you can increase total wealth by improving the efficiency of work. Instead of everyone scrabbling for their piece of the existing pie, he surmised, the actual size of the pie could be increased, benefiting everyone and alleviating poverty. The first part of that theory worked brilliantly, especially for the early adopters, the Dutch and the British. The unintended consequences, however, have proved incalculably disastrous. From Smith’s ideas developed the capitalist growth economy and the Industrial Revolution with its horrendous impact on many millions of working class and colonised peoples and enslaved Africans. Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ were the thin end of a very thick wedge.
Hertz suggests that since governments no longer act primarily in the interests of electorates, we, the common people, must exercise power in other ways. Businesses are very sensitive to consumer trends. Our actions as consumers are more powerful than our actions as voters. Shopping is, in effect, the new politics.
According to Tim Root, one of the most effective ways of signalling our preferences is by our choice of bank. He writes:
‘The best strategy to complement our pressure on governments is targeting the major banks, which invested $2.7 trillion in fossil fuels in 2016-19. Recent improvements by various huge banks, including BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche, show that they are susceptible to pressure.’
Rather like Smaug the dragon who sprawls, armoured and arrogant, on vast piles of treasure, but with a vulnerable point in his underbelly, the banks have a weak spot. Bank directors are aware that fossil fuel investment makes them look dirty. Moreover, as the Financial Times recently reported, some banks are starting to reduce their fossil fuel investments – whose returns have been poor – and putting aside funds in the expectation that many fossil fuel companies will be unable to repay their loans. Getting people en masse to change their bank to the Co-op or Triodos would signal the public mood very powerfully. The challenge, as with all these things, is to create the perceived need. Without that, people will just carry on doing what they’re used to doing.
Root suggests asking opinion formers to speak out the way Marcus Rashford did on free school meals. As American marketing psychologist Robert Cialdini says, ‘People always defer to a perceived authority.’ So who would British people defer to? (Apart from politicians, I mean.) David Attenborough, our most trusted national treasure, certainly. He’s top of the national popularity poll. Pop, rap and football stars – yes, but they are popular with young people, who don’t have much money. Famous actors – Judy Dench, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart? Too easily dismissed as luvvies, though Richard Curtis’ current divestment campaign could change that. Media celebrities – Stephen Fry, Graham Norton, Mary Berry, Brian Cox? Their contracts prevent them saying anything that might expose their employers to legal action. The same applies to comedians, sadly. Who are we left with? Authors, artists and composers. Rowling, Pullman, McEwen, Hockney, Hirst, Emin, McCartney, Sheeran, Elton John. Now if they got together and told everyone to take their savings to a non-fossil-fuel-investing bank, bingo! That would happen pretty fast I think.
Our politicians won’t do anything unless it gets them votes, and as Noreena Hertz pointed out twenty years ago, voting don’t change nothing. The result of the Brexit referendum is no big deal for big business. The silver lining to this is that when you have politicians who are reactive not proactive – following trends not creating them – there’s an opportunity to create the trends they then have to follow. Not something you can so easily do in Russia, Turkey or China, or even perhaps in the USA these days.
But changing bank policy in our little country? What difference is that going to make? Chinese banks are the biggest fish in the pond – 3 trillion in assets (investopedia.com) – surely British banks are tiddlers by comparison? Not so. The British banking sector is the largest in Europe and the fourth largest in the world (mordorintelligence.com). Changing the investment policies of British banks would have a direct effect on the rest of the global sector. Investment banks, like insurers, are highly risk-averse and seek safety in numbers. The herd instinct of these awe-inspiringly wealthy and powerful institutions made them fall for the sub-prime mortgage scam that caused the 2008 financial crash – they were only doing what everyone else was doing. When UK commercial banks pull out of fossil fuel investment, other banks will see what looks like writing on the wall.
Which proves another of Cialdini’s marketing principles: people will always tend to do what they think everyone else is doing. So no need to engage in dialogue with the guy who gets shirty with you when you’re taking part in your local piece of civil disobedience. Just tell him he’s in the minority and hardly anyone else thinks like him. Works a treat.
I’ll end with a rather surprising but – in a strange way – edifying story which I heard on Radio 4’s The Patch, broadcast on August 10. A small Mormon community on Anglesey decided to put their efforts behind the 2016 referendum Leave campaign. Well-used to doorstepping and leafleting, they systematically worked the whole of Wales, helping to achieve a Welsh leave result of 52.5%. ‘England could not have taken Britain out of the EU against the wishes of the Celts,’ said the group’s leader. ‘It was the Welsh vote that legitimised Brexit.’ Yes indeed, the determined actions of a few can change the fate of a nation – for good or ill.