“…an important thing to understand about any institution or social system, whether it is a nation or a city, a corporation or a federal agency: it doesn’t move unless you give it a solid push. Not a mild push – a solid jolt. If the push is not administered by vigorous and purposeful leaders, it will be administered eventually by an aroused citizenry or by a crisis. Systematic inertia is characteristic of every human institution, but overwhelmingly true of this nation as a whole. Our system of checks and balances dilutes the thrust of positive action. The competition of interests inherent in our pluralism acts as a break on concerted action. The system grinds to a halt between crises…”
– John W. Gardner speaking to the National Press Club, December 9 1969.
I’ve been doing a history project recently on the environmental movement, and the lead up to the first Earth Day in the U.S. on April 22nd, 1970. I thought this was a really interesting quote about institutional inertia in dealing with serious problems. He’s talking in the context of the environmental crisis back then, but his words could just as easily apply to environmental problems and the failure of politicians and leaders to tackle them today.
Today the American political system is seemingly incapable of combating climate change, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration. Back in the late sixties I think activists and ordinary people felt the same kind of frustration at the elite in Washington, unwilling or unable to do something about the pollution of the environment that those that care about climate change and a whole host of other issues feel today.
So I was reading this almost certainly bogus article on how the BP gulf disaster may have disturbed this giant methane bubble under the sea bed and it will burst out and the apocalypse will be upon us.
It got me thinking (in an entirely unoriginal manner) about the end of civilisation. Think of all the people trying to phone each other and say “I love you! I’m sorry I’ve been such a douche and forgive me etc etc” a la disaster movies. All the people with crushes/silently in love would be trying to get the message through before everyone dies in a giant fireball. All the angst and all the scientific discoveries and all the wonders of the world and all that ‘progress’ would just disappear. The human experiment would come to an end, eventually the Earth would recover and some new crappy creature would emerge out of the slime. Is it inevitable that each new creature screws itself over with it’s inventions or in the pursuit of it’s short-term self interest? It’s not looking too good for humans I have to say – our fossil-fueled spaceship is heading towards the reset button of climate change at an alarming speed.
As governments struggle to combat the effects of the economic crisis around the world, there have been calls for stimulus packages to combine tackling the worsening global economy with the ever urgent need to combat climate change. Rather than seeing the recession as a hindrance or obstacle to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it can be viewed as an opportunity. A green stimulus package would be a step towards a sustainable future. A report released by Sir Nicholas Stern and colleagues argues that a green stimulus package could:
“provide an effective boost to the economy, increasing labour demand in a timely fashion, while at the same time building the foundations for sound, sustainable and strong growth in the future” — An outline of the case for a ‘green’ stimulus
It appears advice of this nature is being taken to heart by governments around world. The stimulus packages of the United States, Australia, and England have all included spending of various degrees on green projects, including energy efficiency measures that address the opportunity that retrofitting and improvement of housing stock and government buildings presents. Barack Obama has stressed the need to create thousands of “green collar jobs” to offset the rising number of unemployed across America. These packages recognize that insulation (or weatherization as it is called in the US) and improvement of buildings provides a unique opportunity for investment that has a huge long term benefit.
Ralph Chapman at Victoria University has shown that the benefits (in terms of lower energy consumption, reduced emissions, better health of occupants etc) of insulating houses outweighed the cost by a factor of two to one. It is clear why insulation should be an integral part of any stimulus package.
In the face of such seeming consensus that improvement of housing is a good idea, why does the stimulus package prepared by the New Zealand government only contain NZ$124.5 million of spending on housing? Also, why was one of the first items on the new government’s agenda scrapping the planned NZ$1 billion -revenue neutral- household insulation fund? A decision that is now proving to be an embarrassment in the face of international initiatives and a lost opportunity to tackle climate change. Lets hope the NZ government recognises spending lots of money on new roads is not the most worthwhile investment and that insulating houses and energy efficiency measures will ultimately provide a greater long term benefit.