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Real Values


Illustration by PJ POLYP
Politics, ethics and the future of the world. That’ s all!
The debate draws to its conclusion – for the time being.

There was a generous breakfast to be had at Mrs Jones’ lodgings.

‘I’m all for renewable energy,’ Gloria began, munching on a piece of toast.

Claire’s jaw dropped.

‘...but you know what will happen. As soon as the multinationals get in on it, they buy up patents and either sit on them for years or else run the show for their own profit...’

‘Funny, I was just reading a report from a solar conference where they were worried about ‘top down’ domination of the solar power agenda by corporations who get the lion’s share of what little development funding there is...’

‘Well, what can be done to stop it?’

‘Overthrow capitalism?’

‘Ha! A very realistic option these days!’

‘But seriously, I think the nature of the technology works in our favour... ’

‘How’s that?’

‘Renewable energy systems tend to be modular. Take solar panels. You can have just a very small one or add on according to your needs. The same with wind turbines. So it’s easy for a group or a small community to own the means of generating power. A lot more feasible than owning a coal field or a nuclear power station.’

‘But look at who is making solar panels. BP, Amoco, Enron – all big fossil fuel giants.’

‘And others... there are scores of smaller companies. The corporations don’t have a monopoly on the technology. Companies in Third World countries are already making solar systems...’

‘Until they get swallowed up by the big fish...’

‘Or not. Solar installations can be produced on a relatively small scale. And anyone can make a wind turbine or a water wheel. That’s just basic engineering.’

‘So what are you saying?’ challenged Gloria. ‘Renewable technology is “politically okay” and conventional systems aren’t?’

‘Renewable technologies lend themselves more easily to democratic, decentralized, self-reliant applications than conventional ones; they are by their nature less easy to control by a single powerful group. In fact, they’re the polar opposite of the nuclear industry and the military industrial complex.’

‘So it’s okay. We needn’t worry...?’

‘There is always the danger that multinationals will run the show,’ Claire conceded. ‘I’d far prefer it if people made their own renewable systems locally to meet their own needs.But if it’s a choice between the corporations going renewable or sticking to their old polluting ways and blocking change...’

‘But aren’t they effectively blocking change, anyway.’ Gloria was really getting going now. ‘Their investment and profit is in fossil fuels. They’re going to hang on to them to the death! Even while they are making nice noises about renewable energy. Doing the odd little project here and there that looks good as a publicity exercise... And you lot are conned into thinking: “Oh great they are taking up our ideas!” ’

‘It’s true that they do block change. But they tend to do it less by buying up and shelving inventions; more by being very slow at moving to mass production. They only act when they have to, under pressure from consumers and legislators. That’s why it’s so important to put pressure on governments to put environmental pressure on industry.’

‘Ah, so you rest your hope in governments!’

‘In public pressure to bring about political change. Politicians rarely lead, they follow public opinion – or are dragged along, rather.’

‘And you see that happening?’

‘Well, yes. In bits and pieces. Slowly.’

‘And vast amounts of public money are being shifted to renewables?’

‘A bit of World Bank money... Some overseas development agency money. Some Asian Development Bank money, but still pitifully little. So a lot of the funding for development of renewables is down to the private sector. In northern India, for example, a huge solar installation in the Thar desert is being built by... Let me see. I’ve got something on this...’

Claire pulled out a copy of Down to Earth. ‘This is a very good science and environment journal out of India, by the way. Here it is...’

In March 1996 the solar joint venture of Amoco (the US oil company with $28 billion annual sales) and Enron (a large US gas company) announced a 25-year ‘power purchase agreement’ to supply India with up to 50 MW of electricity from a new PV power plant to be built in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.

‘And that’s supposed to be a good thing!? Sounds like good old-fashioned energy imperialism to me.’

‘I agree. But if they weren’t doing that they would be building a fossil fuel or nuclear plant.’

‘Political idealism around renewables RIP!’ snorted Gloria.

‘I used to believe that an energy revolution could lead to revolutionary social change. I now think it can really help bring about important social changes, but only in conjunction with other political changes and social movements. And with international collaboration. The North absolutely must do all it can to encourage the South to use renewable energy or we are all going to go under as the South industrializes!’

‘Hang on a minute. Shouldn’t you be doing it first?’

‘In terms of the future global environment, the North isn’t the major issue. It’s in the South where the action is going to be. And there is so much we can do to disseminate clean technology in the Third World. Charities and development agencies could be much more involved in this.’

‘Funny you should mention that, because in the stuff you gave me last night there was this rather interesting article,’ said Gloria taking it out of a stack, balanced precariously on the table’s edge. It was by Mark Hankins, writing from Kenya.

Southern Realities and top-down marketing of the solar cooker
‘In the North it looks good on paper. It has all the right buzz words. It saves trees (environment), it’s cheap (poverty alleviation), it prevents women from having to travel 20-odd kilometres to fetch wood (gender), it makes use of a renewable resource and it improves the taste of food (nutrition). It’s the solar cooker, and yes, if the sun is shining it does work, and all of the above could be true. The problem is, African women haven’t been quick to take up the technology!’

What sounds like a wonderful idea for Africa in the North does not necessarily turn out to be so wonderful or easy to accomplish on the ground. If Northern armchair agendas by-pass Southern community priorities in promoting their eco-friendly technologies, ethical conflict is inevitable. Recent misguided attempts to promote solar cookers in Africa provide a glaring example.

‘He’s just anti-solar,’ Claire commented.

‘Read on.’

For the record, this is not a tirade against solar cookers. I work for an Africa-based organization that promotes solar energy, and I believe these solar cookers have their place here. But for any technology to work, there has to be strong local demand and the dissemination must be carried out by local people as part of their work. A concept originating from the North has little chance of succeeding if it is not firmly rooted in the community.

In 1995, our organization was asked to evaluate several solar cooker programs in Kenya. Over six weeks we interviewed 50 families in various parts of Kenya that had received solar cookers. We found that only a handful of the cookers (six of the fifty) were being regularly used. Meanwhile local and Western project organizers were happily propping up under-evaluated and often unsuccessful programs. Moreover, most sent their Northern donors photos of smiling women using solar cookers in the villages and reported success in the number of cookers disseminated.

In the fields, one thing was happening – women were politely thanking the benefactors for solar cookers and then putting them under their beds. In the West, something else was going on but only in the minds of ambitiously idealistic Westerners...

‘I really do get annoyed by this idealism-knocking...’ Claire was quite piqued. ‘Somebody has to have ideals and ambitions...’

There are real, down-to-earth problems with solar cookers. Most people prefer to cook inside their homes, at times when the sun is not shining, and their cooking habits have developed around traditional methods, what they know best and are used to.

The issue here is a style of development that takes a ‘good’ idea that’s not accepted in the North and transplants it to the South in the hope that Southerners will be more receptive.

‘This is very defeatist. You have to try,’ Claire persisted.

‘Listen,’ Gloria insisted. ‘I work for a Southern NGO and I see how much damage top-down development does. And it gives a bad name to what’s being promoted. It’s no good going in there with all your gizmos if you don’t know intimately the priorities of the people who are supposed to use them. Anything else is... just ignorant and patronizing.’

Claire blushed, grew quiet.

She was still uncharacteristically silent as they walked to the Centre for Alternative Technology. Then she stopped in her tracks and, looking Gloria in the eye, asked: ‘Do you think I’m ignorant and patronizing?’

Gloria smiled awkwardly. Claire’s face had gone quite red and she looked almost tearful. ‘Um... I wouldn’t exactly say... but I think you do get a bit carried away with the wonders of the technology... I think it would be a good idea if you came to South Africa. I’d really like to show you around... I’m not saying it would make you change your mind. But it would give you another perspective... Give you a fuller understanding of the problems, the obstacles...’

Claire suddenly felt very grateful to Gloria for her honest but gentle treatment.

‘Yes, I’d like to come.’

They entered the Centre for Alternative Technology’s resource centre.

Gloria picked up a paper by Peter Harper and read:

Why I hate windfarms and think there should be more of them...
‘I detest windfarms. I live in a hilly part of the country where the scenery is particularly varied and to my eye the ancient skylines are utterly spoiled by this kind of industrial machinery. To replace a conventional power station you need an awful lot of windmills, about 10,000 of them, and whatever you do you can’t hide them. They need to be out there on the windiest spots.

Close up the noise is not loud but unnatural and particularly disturbing. And they need more pylons and transmission lines to get the electricity distributed. What more can I say? They are just awful.

Yet I support wind power on ethical grounds.

More than 90 per cent of our energy comes from fossil fuels. In essence every time you use fossil energy you are dumping your waste carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere.

You are collecting the benefits here and now, but passing on the costs to everyone else. ‘Everyone’ includes other human beings of course, but also other species, and indeed other generations that will have to cope in the future. The cost, the risk, of fossils fuels and nuclear, is to the environment and human health, and it’s often irreversible. With renewables, on the whole, the impacts are aesthetic and cultural. I regard that as much softer. If we are faced with a choice of sacrificing nature values, human-health values or aesthetic values, the presumption must be against aesthetic values. I don’t like that windmill on the hill. But if the alternative is flooding in Bangladesh, for God’s sake let’s have the windmills. And you can always take them down!

That is one guideline. The other is: if you ever have the chance to pay environmental costs up front you should take it.

With renewables the costs are congruent with the benefits. The community that gets the benefits pays the costs – so it’s dead honest.

With fossil fuels it’s the other way round. You get the benefits and someone else pays. Fossil fuels are intrinsically unjust and unfair. Renewables are intrinsically fair, with the exception, of course, of big dam projects which have the problems of conventional power.

As I gaze upon windmills it dawns on me that I am paying the bill. Ethically the only way I could argue against windpower would be to use so little energy myself that I didn’t need to buy any, ever.

‘I like that,’ Gloria remarked.

‘Yes, it’s a good one isn’t it?’ Claire had recovered her spirits by now.

‘OK. So what needs to be done to get from where we are now to a fair and sustainable energy future? Five points please!’ Gloria challenged.

The cogs of Claire’s brain almost audibly began to whir.

‘One, develop renewables. Fund properly their applied research. Take research funding out of fossil fuels and nuclear and shift the money across to renewables. Apply new renewable technological developments in the North and share them with the South. Enter partnerships to make the best, cleanest, most modern renewable technology available everywhere. Stop selling the dirty old technology that people in your own country don’t want any more to people in another country...’

‘Okay. So far so good.’

‘Two. Look at the pricing of energy. Remove subsidies from conventional sources that make them artificially cheap. Count in environmental costs. Impose a pollution tax on the polluting energy systems. All of this will reveal the true economies of renewables.’

‘I don’t think the world’s coal miners will be very happy with that one. But carry on...’

‘Three, use less energy.’

‘Ha! That’s very idealistic. Telling people to use less of anything is hardly a vote-winner. It’s just not going to work politically. You could try putting up the price and getting people to conserve energy that way, but only a government with a death-wish would do that...’

‘Then you would agree with Hermann Scheer. He thinks it won’t work either and we should just go hell for leather on renewables.’

‘And you think?’

‘I think he’s got a point. It is true that what has happened with a lot of technical fuel-efficiency measures is that people don’t do the same with less, they tend to do more with the same. Take cars: they are far more fuel-efficient now than they used to be but people are using just as much fuel, driving faster and further.’

‘Because the price is too low?’

‘Yes, the price is not a real one. But personally, I think it’s possible to have both renewables and conservation.’

Gloria raised an eyebrow: ‘How’s that?’

‘Values are changing. We are moving towards a kind of ‘de-materialization’ I think. It’s already begun in the field of technology. Things are getting smaller, less material-intensive. And it’s happening in the area of work and consumption. A lot of people in work are expressing the desire to get off the treadmill of long working hours, earning more to consume more. They value their free time more now, and are prepared to work less, earn less and consume less. And their interests are getting more non-material – you see that with all the books around on organic gardening or spiritual growth... How people spend their money is changing too; it’s more likely to be spent on services like homeopathy or acupuncture, rather than just acquiring more things. It’s part of a value shift away from materialism, from a culture of “the more the better”...’

‘I don’t see much of it!’

‘Yes, it’s true consumerism is still incredibly dominant. But the groundswell of disenchantment is growing. It’s making marketing people think there just might be limits to the desire to consume. I don’t know if it’s happening at all in the South...’

‘Not where I come from!’

‘But it is happening in the North.’

‘About time.’


‘Point four,’ continued Claire. ‘Use consumer power to put pressure on companies to mass-produce items that use renewable energy, like hydrogen cars. Buy solar or other renewable energy items where you can.’

‘Okay. And the fifth point?’

‘Um... Five, join environmental pressure groups and campaign against proposals for new projects that do not use renewable sources. Don’t let governments and corporations get away with repeating what they have always done. Social movements can make a difference as we have seen with the movement against nuclear in the West and the one against big hydro-schemes in India.’

That night Gloria dreamed that her possessions – her suitcase, her hairbrush, her shoes – were dematerializing before her eyes. The dream shifted to giant vegetables visibly growing.

The next day, on their way to the airport, she told Claire about it – somewhat warily, fearing a Freudian interpretation.

‘Makes me think of Findhorn,’ Claire remarked.


‘It’s a spiritual community in Scotland. They have a good renewable energy centre. But they are also quite famous for growing huge vegetables on very poor soil and the reason they give for this is that they put spiritual energy into their work.’

She looked across at Gloria expecting a look of unadulterated scorn this time... But it was not forthcoming.

‘So, what’s special about that? People in Africa do it all the time. Nothing odd about communing with the spirits of nature to give you a healthy harvest...’

She was interrupted by her flight being called: BA 272 to Johannesburg.

‘Well, here goes. I am about to use my entire energy allowance for the year and make my single greatest contribution to global warming,’ sighed Gloria. ‘Perhaps we could carry on this discussion via the Internet?’

‘Are you connected?’ asked Claire with the twinkle of a true nerd.

‘We are getting a connection at the office. But you will come to South Africa all the same, won’t you.’

‘Yes, yes. I think I really need to. I’ve been thinking about what you said and I think you’re right. I get carried away on a wave of enthusiasm and I don’t really know enough, first hand, about the conditions on the ground in the South. I think I also, well. I think I talk too much and don’t listen enough...’

Gloria laughed – and for once did not challenge.

Instead they hugged each other and went their separate ways; Claire to the bus station, Gloria to her plane.

As the plane gained height, the pilot talked about a tailwind that would hasten them on their journey and the sun suddenly appeared above the clouds. Gloria found herself looking at the natural world in a different way, as a place blessed with all kinds of clean renewable energy. The sun, the wind, the waves, all had a hidden potential that now she could see; they had natural rhythms that complemented each other. Flying over the sea she pondered its great powerful tides. The plane banked and suddenly she had the sun full in her face.

‘The future?’ she said to herself. ‘Why not now?’

‘Beg your pardon?’ said the bespectacled man who had just woken up with a start beside her.

‘Why not now?’ she repeated, facing him. He blushed and buried his attention in the business pages of his newspaper. ‘Strange woman,’ he thought. ‘Long journey,’ he added, with a sigh.

Yes, but what can I do?

Temperature: Heating accounts for half the energy consumed in the home. So the best – and simplest – thing you can do is turn it down. Turning the thermostat down by just one degree will knock ten per cent off your fuel bill. A maximum of 18 oC is usually adequate for most people. Elderly people and infants may need 21oC.

Insulation: Drafts account for 15-50 per cent of heat loss. Simple, relatively cheap measures like putting draft excluders around windows and doors and insulating the loft are often more effective than costlier options like double-glazing.

Environmental protection: Passive solar heating – designing a building so that it uses the sun’s energy to warm it naturally – is obviously the best. But if you are stuck with conventional means, then gas central-heating is probably the least damaging, most efficient and cheapest. Oil is dirtier than gas and incurs transport costs. Coal is the worst primary fuel for global warming and acid rain and open coal fires are appallingly inefficient. Electricity is expensive and is often uncleanly generated. The most environmentally-friendly fuel you can use is wood from a sustainably-managed woodland.

Water heating: Solar water heating is the most eco-friendly. Even in a cool climate it can provide 40-60 per cent of hot water required for an average house. Insulating hot water pipes also helps. But probably the biggest saving you can make is to have showers instead of baths: they use just a sixth of the water.

Appliances: Gas appliances are almost always more efficient, cleaner and cheaper to run than electrical ones. Microwave ovens use little energy compared to a cooker – but any energy saving is totally lost if you buy frozen convenience food to put in it. Pressure cookers are good and jug kettles better than others. A good toaster is more efficient than a grill.

If buying a new refrigerator or freezer, check that it has good insulation, is CFC-free, and isn’t bigger than you need. Site away from heat sources. Try switching it off in winter months.

When buying a washing machine, a side-filling type that has a half-load setting and heats its own water is best. Gas tumble-driers are better than electric. Dishwashers are expensive to buy and run, and should be used only when full.

TVs, radios, hi-fi and computers use very little energy. Most of the energy is used in making them. Rechargeable batteries for small appliances are very much more environmentally sound.

Lighting: Energy-saving lightbulbs are really worth having. One energy-saving bulb lasts as long as eight ordinary bulbs and costs less than half the price of eight such bulbs.

Most car journeys are for under five miles so try asking yourself if you really have to make that trip to work or to the shops by car. Couldn’t you walk or cycle? If not, trains are better than motor vehicles, and public transport is much better than private.

The very worst thing you can do is fly – the energy costs are truly astronomical. A one-way flight from London to Melbourne will use up, per person, as much as the average Northern household uses in space and water-heating in one year. Shorter hops are even more wasteful.

This is one area in which your local actions can have global impacts. Your local authorities could follow the Californian example and legislate for zero-emission vehicles. Or public buildings could be run on solar heating or constructed using passive solar architecture. Getting your local political representatives on side can make a big difference. The German city of Freiburg, for example, is on the way to becoming a model ‘green city’, thanks to progressive city planners. And a scheme for part of the medieval city of Regensburg, using renewable energy and solar architecture, could become a model for other cities in the world – and it’s getting European Union funding.

[image, unknown] Issue 284 Contents

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 284 magazine cover This article is from the October 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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