Men (and Women) in Dark Times

In her book Men in Dark Times, the philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the notion of inner emigration. What was it that stood in the way of so many prominent/influential people challenging the rise of Hitlerism or organising escape routes from it?

From the biographies she explored, Arendt concluded that many found the external realities of the time so discomforting they opted instead for “an invisibility of thinking and feeling” – living a form of inner exile; fleeing without fleeing.

Faced with the scale of today’s climate emergency we are in danger of doing the same.

When asked, over half of Britain’s adult population felt we cannot afford to delay tackling the climate emergency. One in five took the opposite view; that we can’t afford the financial cost of intervening. But almost a quarter of the population ‘didn’t know’. Increasingly, these are today’s ‘inner emigrants’.

Bombarded by streams of unremittingly bad news, large numbers of people simply ‘blank off’ from anything that feels too big to deal with. The BBC’s recent coverage of the state of Antarctica probably met the same fate

Inner exile

Instead of being a continent of impenetrable ice and snow, aerial photographs show parts of West Antarctica now look more like “an epic vision of shattered ice” whose melt contributes to the rise in sea levels and ocean current distortions. Scientists say that the last time global CO2 concentration levels were as high as today, sea levels were up to 30-40 metres higher. No wonder people blank out from the implications.

To this you could add the news of unending forest fires in the USA, Australia and Russia, destructive flooding from Germany to South East Asia, heat domes over North Africa and the Mediterranean, melting glaciers and rampant deforestation. All have the ability to send people into the ‘inner exile’ of spaces where it seems safer not to know… But it isn’t. The only safe space is in living differently.

Paradoxically, the world has never been better placed to address a radical change of direction. We know how to grow foods (hydroponically) within existing towns and cities, cutting the carbon footprint of ‘food miles’ by up to 90%. Smart technologies can run integrated, local energy grids. Zero-carbon transport is no longer a pipe dream. Communities are bringing nature and beauty into the middle of bleak urban landscapes. Houses and businesses can generate their own renewable energy. And buildings can be constructed (and refurbished) to near-zero energy standards. But all of this exists in fragments.

Never has the world been governed by leaders so bereft of vision or coherence; so adrift from the urgency of how little time we have to make this the centrepiece of a new (sustainable) economics.

Don’t blame Boris

Notwithstanding his invoking the support of Kermit the Frog (about the difficulties of being green), Boris Johnson’s speech to the UN openly acknowledged the existential challenges we face and the recklessness of current lifestyle patterns. Of course Boris runs on inconsistent platitudes. Of course his most far-reaching claims lack the policy framework (or resources) needed to deliver. Of course his own Ministers’ current

proposals would often make the predicament far, far worse. But none of this subtracts from the emergency.

It merely reflects the civil war taking place within the Conservative Party itself.

Labour, however, is no better; preferring a civil war of its own against radical voices on the Left, but with barely a jock-strap of radical climate policies left to dress itself up in. Ed Miliband and Alan Whitehead know the scale of transformations needed, but both are restricted by the Leadership’s predilection for paddling radical change rather than taking a headlong plunge.

To deliver a minimum annual cut of 10% in UK carbon emissions involves turning current economics on its head. The trouble is that Labour (and its favoured trade union leaders) want a revolution that looks more like ‘All Our Yesterday’s’ than a visionary tomorrow. The furore around today’s energy price rises captures it all.

Energy security

With or without Russia’s manipulation Nord Stream gas supplies, spiralling gas prices are here to stay. Their aim is to lock in Britain’s dependency on gas. The climate emergency demands a race in the opposite direction. But let’s be clear, spiralling gas prices aren’t connected to the growth in renewables. They are entirely a failure of market economics.

In 2017, obsessed with deregulated markets, the (then) Conservative Minister, Chris Grayling, allowed Centrica to avoid replacing the gas storage facility it closed. As a result, Britain now has minimal gas reserves to draw on. France has 10 times as much gas storage as the UK. Germany has 15 times as much and Italy 17 times. No wonder Britain is susceptible to price shocks.

In that sense, Ed Miliband was right in suggesting that the whole notion of strategic reserves should be seen as a socialised (not-for-profit) safety net, not a competitive market. But breaking the addiction to fossil fuels requires so much more. And the bigger debate about (socialised) energy storage must shift to renewables; storing the solution, not the problem. Then we can move on to clean generation.

The government may strut its target of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 but the current rate of installations (35,000 p.a) barely gets Britain into the game. Meanwhile, the UK installs gas boilers at a record rate of 1.7million per year and looks to approve new offshore gas and oil developments. It does so backed by a Treasury that puts that bulk of climate taxation on electricity rather than gas. Whatever Boris says, his government is a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of policy contradictions.

Saner solutions

Greenpeace, as ever, offers a saner starting point. It’s latest report shows that an ambitious programme of energy saving – insulating Britain’s 25 million existing homes (and swapping gas boilers for heat pumps) – could radically reduce the amount of energy we waste. In doing so it could create 138,000 new jobs, inject £9.8bn into the economy … and radically cut carbon emissions. So where are its political champions?

To this, Britain should add a national programme to reclaim disused coal mines; not for coal, but for the hot water that fills their abandoned galleries. Heerlen in the Netherlands has led the way, tapping into the hot water, boosting it with heat pumps and providing a (renewable) district heating system for the whole town. Britain has 25,000 such disused coal mines. An estimated 1 in 4 of the population live above flooded galleries waiting to be tapped for renewable district heating.

In the immediate gas-price crisis the government may have to throw a large slice of cash, not to the energy companies but into Winter Fuel payments. But beyond that, it seems crazy to sit on top of at least 2.2 million GWh of everlasting (renewable) heat and do nothing with it.

Britain could also tap into waste heat from the data centres serving banks, credit companies and on-line giants such as Amazon, or using the discarded heat from energy intensive industries.

And if you want electricity that isn’t reliant on the sun or the wind, then tap into Britain’s tides and rivers. Munich, with the sleepy river Isar flowing through it, has 25 weirs generating electricity every moment of the day. Britain has an abundance of rivers and streams that could do the same; putting into storage whatever electricity wasn’t needed for immediate use.

Looking for leadership

The point about this is that no Green Transformation can be found by propping up fossil fuel interests. New, sustainable solutions need direct carbon taxation, annual carbon-reduction duties and an end to non-renewable subsidies. There are dozens of pieces to this jigsaw, but all rely on the commitment to a different picture of how we live. For this, you need both vision and Leadership. At the moment, Britain has neither.

Boris Johnson’s United Nations speech refreshingly ‘owned’ the existential crisis we face. But there was nothing behind it but muddle and contradiction. Labour, meanwhile, wraps itself in expulsions and ‘10 new principles’ – none of which excites those who would just prefer to save the planet. And therein lies the origin of ‘inner emigration’.

Faced with the absence of anything visionary and uplifting, inclusive and accessible, the numbers retreating into ‘an invisibility of thinking and feeling’ will only increase. The answer is ‘Leadership’ – bold, clear and inspiring.

It can’t all be left to Kermit the Frog.

Alan Simpson

24 Sept 2021


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