An inconvenient man

Transcript of a conversation between Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, and Mayer Hillman

Matthew Taylor (MT)
I want to get on to this stuff about you and your peculiarity. I don’t mean that in a negative way but you are very different in the way you live your life and embody your principles. Let’s start with the environment. Do you feel more hopeful now given that the sorts of views which you held, and very few other people held, 20 years ago are now held much much much more widely.

Mayer Hillman (MH)
I’m encouraged by that but I’m also dismayed that we’ve left it so late now that I am very aware of the fact that the climate scientists out there are lying for political reasons, which they shouldn’t do. I’m talking about people who say we have only got a few years left before the irreversible process of climate change is set in train. It’s already set in train and I can, so to speak, at a primary school level of understanding justify that statement by reference to the fact that if we grandly reduce our carbon emissions, world temperatures and sea levels will start falling from their upward trajectory. So we’re on a hiding to nothing. We are already on the trajectory towards the destruction of this planet and all we can now do – and I think it is in truth what we must do – is to prolong life on earth as long as possible but in the full knowledge that we will hit the buffers within a few hundred years if we behave ourselves and if we don’t behave ourselves then it’s this century which will spell out the worst for most.

MT
Is that pessimism based upon a pessimism about humanity or is it simply that we have now just passed the point of no return and even if we were to find a way of emitting no carbon at all tomorrow….

MH
Well you may have seen the reports coming out of northern Siberia a couple of years ago. Fred Pearce reported in the New Scientist about the methane emissions from the melting of the tundra release of those emissions on an area the size of Spain and France combined – as you know methane is a much more lethal greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – and that whole process is now accelerating. The momentum built into the system is now way out of control. The proof of it can be seen best in the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, not in the yearly production but in the accumulation of these CO2 emissions which are now about 40% higher than they were at the beginning of the industrial revolution and are rising at an accelerating rate because the carbon sinks are now beginning to return what they have absorbed, which has been calculated to be about 50% of the emissions, from the burning of fossil fuels. In the language of Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute, it’s the equivalent of a bath filling – you can turn the tap down but it will go on filling unless you turn the tap off.

MT
I can understand entirely that you are suspicious of those who talk of technological solutions because that sounds like a way of avoiding our responsibilities in the here and now, but do you rule out the possibility of technological innovation, to use that metaphor, being able to remove the plug from this filling bath?

MH
Absolutely, because what you’ve missed out in that statement is the timescale and the cost. In my Penguin book, How We Can Save the Planet, there’s a chapter given over to technology, there’s a chapter given over to the psychology of denial. In the technology chapter, I’m not expressing a view, this is what I find so frustrating when I’m talking to people, it’s not a view or an opinion, it’s based on hard research, looking at the evidence and seeing what conclusions one can reach from this. Even if one says, let’s see if we can get half of our electricity from energy renewables such as wind turbines, how many would we need? What would it cost? I haven’t seen anybody reporting, for instance, on the fact that wind turbines have got a fixed life, and if you ring up the British Wind Energy Association as I did three years ago to enquire how long will wind turbines last if they are properly maintained , they said about 20 to 25 years. So a programme of constructing offshore wind turbines, or onshore wind turbines, they’re about £2m for each would require about 30,000 wind turbines, each delivering two megawatts, which would then produce sufficient electricity to meet a third (correction) of our electricity needs and our electricity needs are only a third of our fossil fuel use…

MT
There are no other areas of technology, for example, biofuel – I know ethanol is of limited value – but more radical biofuels…swift grass…?

MH
I was just reading a paper on that very subject this afternoon. People are searching out for something that will get us off the hook, some sort technology that will ride to the rescue, like carbon sequestration, but here when you talk about biofuels and see reports about them, on what land would these crops be grown? There are two basic locations: number one is being done with palm oil in Sumatra by pulling down rainforests – and you know the objection to that. And the other one is replacing food crops, which is being done in Mexico now – well not replacing necessarily but feeding the American market because the American policy is now to have 5% of petrol provided from biofuels. Where do you get them from? Well the cheapest place to get them from is Mexico where this is their staple diet – corn, maize – and the price of it is going up remarkably as a consequence of this. This is market forces, this is global capitalism. Who are the ones who suffer? It’s poor people and the Third World yet again. And why? To get us off the hook so that we can maintain our energy profligate lifestyles. I find myself, although as you’ve probably picked up I’m a practising atheist…I want to find myself wanting to talk in moral terms in a very impassioned way. How dare we treat our fellow human beings in this way? I keep thinking of that word legacy, you know, the legacy that is entailed in us maintaining our energy profligate lifestyles. We have to think of going down the nuclear route which means a radioactive waste legacy for tens of thousands of future generations while the decaying process goes on. They’ve got to look after it but do they have a say in the decision making? Not a bit of it. Will it cost them? Of course it will. Are there risks attendant upon it, with geological faults or whatever, over those tens of thousands of years? Yes of course.

Another element of legacy is the issue of oil. Do you not keep on reading statements made that there is probably only enough oil now for the next 30 years. Whenever I see that I think to myself, enough oil for whom? Oh, of course for us. What about the claims of future generations on these finite resources? Are they totally irrelevant? Where’s the morality of referring to the fact that there’s only enough for 30 years? And almost certainly one could state that future generations will have more important uses to put that finite resource to than going off on a weekend to so and so for a bit of fun.

MT
You are a brilliant and accomplished policy maker. Policy making is all about trade-offs. It may well be of course that there are real issues around what you do about nuclear waste. But surely if nuclear power can make a big contribution, as one of the many things you have to do…My view about climate change is that you have to pursue 20 strategies simultaneously, you can’t just pursue one. If something amazing happens in terms of fusion or if something amazing happens in terms of the development of a new crop which you can grow in deserts and wastelands which can actually be good for the African economy at the same time as providing much more effective biofuel, well let’s look at all these options at the same time as bearing down on consumption.

MH
I think the consideration of that trade-off may well come, but I don’t think we should be talking about the trade off until we are assured of government and the international community adopting a strategy which will ensure as much survival as we can. That is of course the Contraction and Convergence framework of the Global Commons Institute.

MT
What seems to be quite interesting in the environmental space now is that relatively small interventions – look at low sulphur fuels for example, relatively small incentive combined with technological innovation creates a market from nowhere which becomes dominant. Look at the way in which the 4×4 has gone from being a status symbol to an embarrassment in a pretty small space of time. It does seem that these things are speeding up and that the combination of appropriate regulation, market-driven innovation and consumer-driven innovation – which is why you and I support personal carbon trading, because it will drive innovation in the market…

MH
Far more effectively than anything else can…

MT
That’s why I want to go back to the question at the beginning about your pessimism. I’m not labouring this because I’m an enormous admirer of yours, but there are people who say that you glory in pessimism and that you glory in hair-shirtism. Do you recognise this criticism that you feel it’s not real unless we’re suffering?

MH
I can recognise that people can reach that fallacious view because I know how I’ve arrived at it. I’ve had sufficient years of experience to know that that is a goal that can’t be achieved and that all I’ve observed throughout my life is gap widening and on moral grounds I abhor gap widening. And I’ve observed it as you may have read about my research which group in the population have suffered most from our car culture? It’s children. The freedoms that my brothers and I had as children were phenomenal yet my father was a very cautious person. There was never any talk about us not being able to get out of the house on our own. We were free agents and we wouldn’t be the people we are had we had that circumscribed life that children nowadays have because of the car culture that has led to the loss of pavement activities and the danger from traffic and this whole culture of thinking that parents’ responsibility is to ensure that their children live as far as possible in a zero-risk society.

MT
The way you talk about it is almost as if it happened due to some malevolent force, and I think sometimes things happen through accident. Cars give people new opportunities. Now, when the car culture developed, we didn’t know…when people redesigned Birmingham, which was destroyed by the car and has now been rebuilt by re-lowering the motorways, those planners were idealists, they didn’t think, let’s bugger the pedestrian and put the car first.

MH
It’s exactly 51 years ago, as a very young town planner, that I designed a new town because I recognised that the car had major down-sides to it that few were aware of. It was pedestrian-oriented. You could have a car but you wouldn’t want to use it because the town was designed with a central area along its spine, with short walking distances to the spine, and along the spine a public transport system. It was never built but some of the concepts behind it were adopted later, for instance in Cumbernauld in Scotland and in Hook New Town.

1963 was a turning point in my life. Colin Buchanan came out with a report commissioned by the then Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. It was called “Traffic in Towns”. Its point of departure was that the car is such a marvellous invention that we ought to spread its ownership and use as widely as possible. That would cost a lot of money but would entail a lot of changes in order that the environment was not destroyed in the process. Basically, the theme was, it’s worth it because of the freedom that the car bestows. It was this aspect that most concerned me. I said to my two partners – we’d started in private practice in 1954 – ‘I’m sorry, I’m leaving the practice, I’m leaving the profession. This needs to be challenged, this view that the car provides ‘freedom’.

MT
Do you think that an important part of the argument for tackling climate change in terms of people changing their personal lifestyles is for people to have a different account of what the good life is?

MH
Oh yes, absolutely.

MT
So, if we lived sustainably, we’d be happier?

MH
Absolutely. Happiness should be a function of an easy conscience, that you can sleep at night knowing that you haven’t harmed anybody or anything. Well, here we are engaged in energy profligate lifestyles, which we now know make us complicit in the process making life worse for people, particularly in the Third World and on a trajectory towards the serious loss of habitable regions of the earth…

MT
I understand this argument. I want to go back to the first thing you said – happiness is going to bed knowing you haven’t done any harm. Well that’s basically, happiness is non-existence. If we didn’t exist we wouldn’t do any harm. Do you not have a more positive account? Is happiness not about good food, good company…

MH
Firstly, I don’t think it would be reasonable for government, if it were to measure the pursuit of happiness, in which I hope it is going to get involved, to adopt policies which can be seen to be damaging to the future environment. You can’t just say, that will make me happier. In Hampstead, we live opposite three independent schools. Parents see their academic record and say I’m prepared to pay to get my child into that school. What is wrong there in my view is that society has enabled those parents to reach that decision without paying any regard whatsoever to the externalities of that decision how will this affect other children, how will this affect the environment, and so on.

MT
The question I asked you was about the good life and within two minutes you’re once again erupting with rage against the selfishness of middle class parents.

If you look at the latest research on public health, what people found is that for years people used athletes as role models to encourage people to improve their health and fitness. What they realised is it doesn’t work because what it sets you is an unattainable target and actually what you should use is ordinary people who make small steps, the phrase is ‘small difference, big change’ or whatever the phrase is. Isn’t the danger that for you the moral bar is so high, so unattainable to those of us who have human foibles.

MH
Look, I’ll surprise you. I almost resent the fact that you’re sort of ascribing to me this pinnacle of morality in terms of behaviour because it doesn’t fit. I just do my best and I don’t find it a burden and I don’t find it a challenge, it just seems to me the only way one can reasonably do things and have a clean conscience.

To be honest, I can’t see how anybody can disagree with my perspective on these matters, I really don’t.

MT
This is the Fabian Review, this is an interview which is read by people who are involved in practical politics. One of the metaphors I used to use about the Left myself in the 80s is that there are certain people on the Left who stand on one side of the road, and the public on the other side of the road, and they just shout louder and louder. There’s another view that you cross the road, you take the hand of the person on the other side and you try gently, step by step, to encourage them across.

MH
Oh, I don’t know that I would accept that. I think you will recall that when we first met in my home to talk about your pro-social behaviour study, I thought to myself, I go along with that entirely, except in this one significant respect climate change. And it is in that context that I feel that even if I were a politician I would be able to persuade the public, for the following reason. Nearly everybody when challenged will at least agree in theory on fairness. The analogy you may heard me make is again with 1939 when Neville Chamberlain did not say ‘we’re going to be short of food because we’re going to war with Hitler, would you all eat a little less and grow vegetables in your garden’, what he said was ‘everybody will have the same-sized ration book’. There were no demonstrations in Trafalgar Square.

What this reveals is that when the chips are down, the public instinctively accept the concept of fairness. This is where I feel government has failed us is not spelling this out in relation to climate change and what it entails. Scientists have established the total quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that the planet can support without the climate being seriously destabilized. If you divide this by the world population, you get to a figure of just over one tonne per person per year. If you exceed the one tonne, which we all do to varying degrees, there can be only two outcomes – either we’ve got to stop other people, principally in the Third World, from having their one tonne of emissions and that’s people in most parts of Africa, or when the chips are down we don’t really care about the future of the planet. There isn’t a third outcome. Spelled out in that way, I’m very confident indeed that if I were a politician, I’d be able to sway the public to sign up by stating, most people care about the planet being inherited or being passed on to their children and grandchildren in a reasonable state, sharing it out is the only way, will you sign up?. But it’s not done in that way. Why? You’re guilty of it, lets be aggressive, you say ‘oh yeah but technology may be able to rise to this, why do you reject nuclear?’ What I’m saying with regard to nuclear, I’m not rejecting it, is let’s get the Global Commons Institute framework Contraction and Convergence in place first – agreement that greenhouse gases must be reduced substantially, with that process inevitably leading to the target of equal per capita shares.

MT
So what’s your view on Al Gore?

MH
Hypocrite

MT
So his hypocrisy outweighs the fact that his film has shifted so many hearts and minds. Isn’t there a utilitarian argument?

MH
No. He’s moved things along but what worries me is the end of his film which spells out two factors as the way ahead. Number one is that ‘it’s all our responsibility’ and again to dismiss that one is the equivalent of my 1939 argument. ‘Prime Minister, what can I do against the threat of fascism?’ Answer, ‘precious little on your own, until war has been declared’.

MT
Yeah hang on, but you can exercise your responsibility by electing a government that does that. I mean he’s not simply saying, it’s voluntary individual actions, what he’s saying is we have to be willing to accept the actions which governments may take on our behalf.

MH
Yes, if you want to put that construction on, it’s probably right. But it wasn’t as I would have done it and since we aren’t prepared to do it sufficiently on our own, and you’ve heard me make this point from the floor in this place, it’s to kick the voluntary approach out of the window which is that sufficient people will not reduce their emissions sufficiently. Sufficient people will not on a voluntary basis reduce their emissions sufficiently, in sufficient time. So what do you do about that? The answer is that it’s got to be government that intervenes and requires us to do so. Now if Al Gore had put that construction on it, ‘it’s all our responsibility and therefore since we know the public will not be prepared to act on this voluntarily to a sufficient degree in sufficient time, government has got to do it. The other concern I have with the Gore film is that, like Blair and Bush, he exaggerates the role of technology to get us off the hook: if only we invest far more in it. Well of course there is phenomenal scope, but to imply that it is sufficient to allow us to go on maintaining our energy profligacy is just a cheap skate line of reasoning.

MT
If human beings aren’t able to take the action you think they should take, does the human race deserve to survive? If we end up in 150 years boiling up, is it Gaia taking its just revenge on us?

MH
That implies we’ve all got an equal responsibility for preventing that happening, which we don’t. All my ire is not at individuals, though you may think that. Take the following example: you have fallen in love with someone in another country which then entails flying backwards and forwards to it. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to put forward the proposition for coping with this by pointing to the fact that with carbon rationing you’ll still be able to do that but it will cost you an increasing fortune to do so. If that’s what you want to spend your money on buying the surplus ration of those who are able to live within the ration you not only can have a clear conscience but you are contributing to the virtuous circle which is contained within the concept of a tradable carbon allowance. The energy thrifty are rewarded for their thriftiness by the energy profligate, but the energy profligate don’t get away with it because the cost of them maintaining their profligacy rises exponentially as the ration is reduced and the availability of the surplus diminishes…

MT
You don’t need to convince me of carbon trading…that’s why we’re doing the work next door. And just to say we’re doing the work on voluntary schemes in order to lay the basis for ultimately being able to make the case for this to be compulsory.

Can I just ask you – and I don’t know whether this is appropriate for Fabian Review – I know you’re an atheist

MH
A confirmed one…

MT
Do you think you would be the person you now are and do you think you would have lived the life you’ve lived if it hadn’t been for your strong Jewish upbringing? Did that make you the man you are?

MH

I can answer your question by saying that our two sons had no religious education at all and I think they have the same sort of moral approach and purpose in their outlook and in their lives.

MT
If someone had come to you and said we have a plan to kill the following 30 people heads of oil companies, politicians who deny climate change etc. And we want you to give us some money to help us, as a green terrorist organisation, kill off these people who are standing in the way of this. For you, is this like the French Resistance, is that something in the end you’d have had to say, yes, (word logically substituted), actually…because that fits your view doesn’t it?

MH
[hesitates] I shouldn’t have to pause in answering your question, should I? No, I wouldn’t simply because I strongly believe in the value of human and animal life, being a lifelong vegetarian, I do believe that life is, in a non-religious sense, sacrosanct and that one hasn’t got a right to deprive somebody of their life however awful they are. I wouldn’t mind seeing them serving time in some awful environment.

MT
Finally, in the end do you think we’ll wake up in time? I know you say not in time possibly to…but do you think human beings will change their behaviour in the way that they have to, regardless of whether or not it will be enough. Do you think they will?

MH
Human beings will do so because they’re obliged to do so, they won’t do it on a voluntary basis. That’s at the heart of my line of reasoning.


Published in the Fabian Review, Spring 2007

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