Sunday, 8 June 2008

24 hours to save the world

Last Thursday was Environment Day. Those of you who missed it can relax and light up those outdoor patio heaters - you're off the hook till next year. Good thing the environment only needs 24hrs attention per annum, isn't it?

Of course that's dreadfully unfair - the whole point of Issue Days is to get some focused PR and maybe get people to start thinking about what they're going to different. Much like we all Made Poverty History by having just the most fantastic party two years ago - a lot of consciousness raised that day! But if you're sceptical about the effect of these exercises, be of good cheer. For there is another, ineffable but ineluctable process that will, as it always has, guide us into a better tomorrow. I refer, of course, to the invisible choke-chain of the market which cannot help but drag us into a greener, richer world.

So, as I understand it, goes the theory. A theory which is propounded, I find, mainly by people who don't want anybody, especially the government, to actually do anything about the problem. And as if proof of this theory were needed, just look at how the people of Britain have responded to the rising fuel prices. The prediction is that, cuffed and beaten by the invisible hand, we will now turn to cheaper alternatives. In practice, we've merely whined like kicked puppies. I can't find the clip on the Beeb, but there was a news report which first showed honest citizens blaming the government for the cost of their journeys, and then cut to a shot of crowded motorway. But not all that crowded - one lane was completely vacant. No prizes for guessing that the empty lane, next to which hundreds of cars were grinding their way past, was marked "2+ Car Pool Lane Only". Oh yeah, we're feeling the pinch all right.

The point is that we don't really know what our margin of error is here. There is some price of petrol that will get (say) 50% of people to halve their annual transport CO2, but we don't know how high that price is. And until there's clearly money to be made from providing alternatives (because people are spending money on them), there's no incentive to invest in making them. This, pace market fundamentalists (or bello if you're feeling bolshy), is where the government comes in. In one arena, by relatively crudely interfering with the market by e.g. taxing petrol and subsidising alternatives. In another, through behavioural economics, by encouraging people to value greener options more - putting the general case, explaining the benefits of specific schemes. For example, ostentatiously worthy and generally naff as it seems, by having an Environment Day.

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