In 1839 Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, prior to that figures from Shakespeare to Thomas Jefferson expressed the same idea. They were all early acknowledgers of a shifting power base, from those with a capability for violence to those with a mastery of words.
Gone are the days where problems can be solved by a slap with the glove and duel to the death. No single factor has caused this transition but undoubtedly the growing complexity of the world has played a big role. It is very hard to fight a way through a refugee crisis or a credit crunch.
The perplexing situation of the UK government to still even be contemplating the Hinkley Point nuclear project is not so the UK can snuggle up to the Chinese Red Army. It is because of China’s increasing political and corporate power.
Throughout its ascendance the pen has been the realm and tool of politicians. Whether you like what they are saying or doing, the pen is their weapon of choice. But the power base is shifting. Capitalism is driving deregulation and a power transfer from governments to corporations. As the UK government fights to keep sovereignty from the EU with one hand, it dishes it out to big business with the other. The irony of Brexit is that trade agreements such as TTIP – backed strongly by David Cameron, which will transfer vast power from national governments to corporations – is likely to be a far more important long term issue and distributes wholly undemocratic power but gets little air time.
The corporate take-over of the western world has been well document and, for better or worse, is hard to dispute. With it comes a stark difference, politicians (in theory) act on behalf of their electorate, corporations act to maximize shareholder value. As control moves from governments to corporations, the role of the consumer and their shopping trolley becomes more and more important. Rather than voting with a ballot paper, we increasingly vote with our consumption.
But with power, comes responsibility and this is where it falls apart. A great disconnect exists between cause and effect. Everything we consume has a direct impact on the world around us. If we choose to consume cheap meat it is likely we are supporting animal cruelty. If we choose to fly everywhere, we are driving climate change. A good illustration of how broken reality is occurred to me recently, between mouthfuls of Foie gras someone was telling me how much they ‘loved animals’.
Following a new report, Professor Maarten Hajer, UN expert on food production and the environment, has called for governments to tax meat consumption because of the environmental damage the industry causes. The report shows 24% of greenhouses gases and a staggering 60% of species loss is driven by the meat and dairy industry. It is clear that meat consumption has far bigger implications than just the welfare of the animal eaten. The links are there and need to be made.
Companies respond to consumption, if their goods are purchased they produce more. As the UK government steps back from ever environmental policy it can, the power shifts to corporations. Consumers though, if they choose, are able to wield this. The real danger is when consumption is purely driven by price, or even worse inertia, and capitalism produces a ruthless race to the bottom, with environmental, humanitarian and societal interests given no protection and being torn to shreds.
It is a double edged sword; our consumption can be hugely positive or hugely negative. Many people ask what difference one person can make, so decide they won’t bother to take an interest or change their consumption. The simple response is that if everyone takes this view, then the free-market model that the western world is currently flogging is in the long term a dead horse.
As power bases change, so do the mechanisms for exercising power. The strength of consumers to wield power is increasing but until the cause and effect of our consumption is fully considered, the world is left in a perilous position, because sadly, you can’t have your Foie gras and be an animal lover.
Written by Douglas Drake
Aspiring adventurer, writer and environmentalist. Having sold his soul for a few years, Doug is now pursuing his true passions in life which revolve around animals and the natural world. With a background in business and finance it is likely Doug’s articles will tilt that way.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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