Thursday, January 2, 2020

Blog 5 - Happy New Year... Maybe

Welcome to the new decade. The glorious, roaring, twenties have arrived. Lets hope 2029 sees us in a slightly better place than its 100 year past predecessor though.
Mind you, 1929 might have seen the world tipped into the largest peace time financial crisis it had seen but at least the oceans weren't full of plastic, large swathes of the planet weren't scorched by bush fires and no one was calling the North West passage a regular shipping route. That's the thing about progress, it's a funny old beast.

But what about the decade before us, what do we stand on the cusp of? It's easy to feel very pessimistic when we see the news every day. We're currently being bombarded with images of Australian's fleeing their homes as fires rage with an intensity and breadth that is unknown. Aussie firefighters admit there is nothing they can do in the coming days. The fires are too big, too widespread, they will do what they will do, and humans can scurry around like frantic ants in the face of the destruction as much as they like without making any dent in them. It won't be the last time in the next decade that we are powerless to deal with the consequences of the climate emergency we are living through. Wind, rain, heat will batter us, sometimes into submission.

Closer to home supermarkets pledge to reduce their plastic use. This is fantastic, long overdue, important news. Yet despite the eye catching press releases and proclamations, the big retailers sold more plastic in 2019 than ever before. Sales of bottled water continue to rise. Someone, somewhere, isn't getting the message.

Partly that is due to the confluence of forces stacked up against meaningful change and it is these that will make us feel most hopeless in the coming years. Many of us understand the need for change on a personal level (we wouldn't be in business if you didn't), yet change is also required on a systemic level and here we run into problems. In 2020 no government in the world will be run by a Green Party. The closest may be the Greens becoming a powerful force in a new coalition in Germany if they have a slightly earlier than planned election. Greens are minor partners, shrill opponents or an easily ignored fringe in too many places. This allows governments to listen to those able to shout louder, in particular, big business.

It is a sad fact that all the largest oil producers in the world forecast continued growth over the next decade. Just take a moment and get your head around that, Oil producers, despite all we see going on around us, still believe they'll find a way to sell more oil in 2029 than they did in 2019. Sometimes it can truly feel like we're screwed.

A lot of that growth is planned to come from increased production of plastic. As we burn less petrol in our cars, the oil majors are working to compensate by feeding the ravenous plastic monster that is western consumerism even more. Sustainable it is not. Oh and we haven't even mentioned their opposition to carbon taxes in places like Canada. There is plenty to be pessimistic about if we look for it.

And yet, there are reasons for optimism and it's important we cling on to these. Awareness is rising, particularly among the young, they have seen the future we want to bequeath them and they don't like the look of it one bit. A child born this year will retire in around 2090 (if retirement as a concept even really exists by then). What world are they going to face by then? Will then be happy to work for 50 odd years to find their retirement is blighted by the problems we saw coming but never found a way to deal with?

As that increased awareness took root climate protests rocked major cities around the world in 2019 as the power of the pavement took a definitive step in finding a way to challenge the clout of big money. More and more of us will take the the streets to protest in 2020 and beyond. If we act together we have to believe that our voices can become a tsunami that washes away those who would rather safeguard their next quarter's profits at the expense of the next generations future.

That rising, urgent shout from the streets may claim its first large scalp in 2020. The EU has long been negotiating a trade deal with the bloc of South American countries known as Mercosur, a group which feature Brazil amongst its members. As international outrage at the increasing rate of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest under new President Bolsonaro grows, the EU is considering ditching the agreement instead of ratifying it as a means of showing its unwillingness to be complicit in such environmental destruction. Public pressure has moved the position of President Macron of France in particular on this issue, alongside leaders from Ireland and Austria.

In 2019 the UK burned less fossil fuels for it's electricity than it had for decades. We went weeks without burning any coal at all as renewables become an ever bigger part of our energy mix. This is a real step forward and does show what's possible even as solar panel subsidies for individual households bit the dust. By the end of the decade we could have weaned ourselves off coal totally.

Single use plastic bags continued to disappear from high street shops last year across the western world as more and more countries bought in outright bans or charges to acts as a deterrent. Scotland saw the UK's first meaningful trials of deposit return schemes for plastic bottles. The way forward it out there, we just need to find the right mechanisms coupled with the correct incentives to drive changes in behaviour. The next few years will continue to see shoppers change their habits. It's important to remember that the big supermarkets only sell cucumbers wrapped in plastic because we buy them. A fortnight long, nationwide boycott of wrapped cucumbers would see them removed from our shelves never to be seen again. We have power, and in the next decade we will learn how to use it meaningfully as our knowledge and anger grow.

And therein lies the biggest reason for optimism about the next decade despite all the evidence to the contrary. If we look back at 1929 we have one huge advantage on those who didn't see the great financial crash coming, we have so much information at our fingertips. Ignore those who cry 'fake news' all the time, they merely seek to render all facts as challenge-able opinions. A huge percentage of the knowledge we need to make meaningful changes is out there already. We have agency, we can arm ourselves with facts and information and make the 2020's the decade that real change happened because we learned what it could be. If one Swedish schoolgirl can shout loudly enough to make the world hear her, what's stopping the rest of us?

Here's to 2020, the year we optimistically find our voices and shout for change.

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