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Who is the real Luddite?

When you hear Sir David King (ex-government chief scientific advisor) accusing green activists of being Luddites, it reminds you of those 19th century mill owner magistrates intent on punishing poor weavers for destroying private property. The cottage artisans who tried to defend their jobs were persecuted on behalf of a system that threw people onto the scrap heap just to keep profits levels high.

King famously said, correctly, that global warming was the biggest challenge facing the world – more serious than terrorism. Yet he is now condemning the idea of “using less energy” as fanciful because “everybody is aspiring to the sort of standard of living that we have”. King’s misconception is that our standard of living is inexorably linked to profit-driven growth. Add to this a society that insists that a happy life and the solution to the environmental crisis involves buying more and more commodities. Ever-increasing levels of energy are consumed and greater amounts of waste are generated through built-in obsolescence by creating the "desire" to always wanting the latest gizmo - as seen in the growth of television programmes like the Gadget Show.

Yet reducing energy demand to cut the level of carbon emissions must be central to any solution to the environment crisis we are facing – and it is possible! The 40% House Report, prepared a couple of years ago, showed how it was possible to reduce carbon emissions from the UK’s existing housing stock by 60%. This would, of course, require significant investment – on which the government remains silent. King, like Brown and Blair before him, supports “solutions” wedded to the interests of big business – nuclear power and genetically modified foods – rather than investing in poor communities to make their lives better.

The interests of big business and trans-national corporations are paramount in our globalised society, where the market is God and there is an insatiable need to generate increasing levels of profit. The results of this can be seen clearly in the privatised energy industry. Remember, in a capitalist society the first responsibility of a privatised energy company is to maximise its profits - from selling more energy! If they don’t, that guardian of public interest (the Stock Exchange) will penalise them. This is why they are currently hiking their prices and see no problem in making hundreds of millions of pounds on their ‘social tariffs’. This is far more important than investing in the long-term needs for renewable energy generation – which still accounts for less than 5% of the electricity generated by private energy companies. The true result of relying on the current global system to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions was exposed in the recent report Too Good To Be True?: The UK’s Climate Change Record. While on paper it looks as though the UK has reduced its carbon emissions since 1990, in reality we have just exported them to India, China and the like! The Report suggests that if the carbon emissions of goods made abroad for consumption in the UK are taken into account the UK has increased its emissions by 19% since 1990.

To tackle the enormous crisis facing the world from climate change, society needs to move. We need to re-evaluate our relationship with nature, plan production and the development of society to ensure bio-systems benefit from our actions and are not destroyed by them as explained in Running a Temperature. Reading about King’s support for the status quo, for a growth-orientated, market-based technological approach to climate change, when what we need is a fundamental change to how we relate to nature and each other, you wonder … who is the real Luddite?

Stuart Barlow
Environment co-editor
17 January 2008

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