In a week when Malcolm Gladwell had them queueing round the corner to listen to him talk about the merits of american and australian pilots over columbian ones, I sat in a row on my own in a lecture thearte at UCL listening to a deeply moving and expertly delivered exploration of the challenges of the 21st century by Professor Sir David King wishing he had Gladwell's PR machine behind him. There were about 40 people there, most of them UCL academics, the rest a handful of students. I wish more people could have heard (or wanted to hear) what this man had to say.
Sir David King has a calmness that gives you confidence. The content of what he said about the security of energy, water, food and peace, as well as what he said about the two biggies: Biodiversity and Climate Change was no less frightening than what everyone else says. But, unlike someone like George Monbiot the tone was far less hysterical and the mood was far less 'RIGHT ON MAN, LET'S GET OUT THERE AND SHOUT AND SCREAM AT OUR POLITICIANS AND THE GENERAL STUPID PUBLIC!' Sir David has been there, he has advised world leaders, he is a realist, he has his frustrations for sure, but he is incredibly sensible and rational about what can be done, especially about climate change.
Global population is predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050 and that population will have increased aspirations about their standard of living, meaning that our average consumption per person will also increase - more people consuming more stuff. Given this (likely) scenario King argued that a paradigm shift is needed, we need a new way of thinking about how we live. The challenge for the 21st century is clear we are going to have to deal with more people consuming more stuff. At the end of his lecture King stated the following four cultural challenges that need to be overcome to allow a paradigm shift:
1. National perceptions versus global priorities (the Bush administration is the best example of this. King described how Bush had said that his priority was looking after the USA and their economy, energy security and so on. As far as he was concerned the rest of the world could deal with Climate Change)
2. Economism; unfettered consumerism as the instrument for economic growth (he pointed out the economic and environmental unsustainability of this strategy, I would have been deeply disapointed if he hadn't!)
3. Nostalgic romanticism; or the 'angst of affluence' (Paul Collier)
4. Re-gearing science and technology to meet the global challenge. (The appropriateness of scientific work should be re-thought - 'do we really need another Hadron Collider if this one doesn't work?' quipped King.)
These are huge challenges. King pointed out that there is a lot that can and should be done in the short term that does not require huge cultural shifts. For example ensuring our highly wastesful building infrastructure is made energy efficient should be a number one priority and global investment into renewable energy is a must. I had two questions for Sir David King scribbled in my note pad, unfortunatley I didn't get a chance to ask them... I handed them to him on a note, they were (and still are):
1. How can we stimulate a letting go of the materialist, individualist and hedonistic value systems that underlie consumerism?
2. Can I have a job at your new 'Smith School of Enterprise and The Environment' to help you answer my first question and all the difficult questions that surround it?!
I really do hope he has some thoughts on the 'big question.' If you ever see an advert for a David King lecture, please, please go along and ask him!
He does have a book (which is in the post to me right now) that might have some answers!
(This report is a good summary of a similar talk by Sir David, some figures have probably changed. There is also a link to a video there)