Business

Analysis: Economics in
conflict with Mother Nature

In many ways, 2012 was a watershed year. As if by cosmic realignment, the world was suddenly awash with new discoveries of oil and gas in the billions of barrels and trillions of cubic meters, all around the globe. The old deadline of fossil fuels running out in decades, not centuries, was buried without fanfare. That’s left many confused, others in dismay. Cheap fossil fuel will make it increasingly difficult for alternative energy to compete, to be commercially viable. On one side of the debate are the climate sceptics, rubbing their hands in glee. On the other, the eco-friendly folks who now know that their hard-to-win battle just got even tougher.

Caught in the middle is more than half the human race, some four billion people living in varying shades of misery. Many of them don’t really know about the debate, concerned more about their own survival today than the survival of their planet tomorrow. Some of them, like fishermen, herdsmen and subsistence farmers are coping with the impact of global warming on their everyday lives. They see the change in their world, they don’t know how to cope with it, nor do they have the inclination to join any debate. The other three billion can make the time, many are in fact actively engaged. These are the three billion best equipped to influence their leaders to make the necessary changes, for the future of planet Earth and the human species, collectively.

The trouble is that this is increasingly a no-win debate, considering that we live in a world dominated by capitalism. Even the few remaining communist nations have embraced capitalism. And we all know, regardless of our ideological stripes, that “exploitation”, “enterprise” and “return on investment” are the driving forces of our global marketplace. If you’re wondering, may I say that I’m equally a communism-sceptic as I am a capitalism-sceptic. If that sounds vague, neither here nor there, I will unabashedly say that I am a fan of most things Scandinavian. I like the way they look at life and the way they try to live it. I would live there, if it wasn’t so cold for so many months of the year. I am a happy Australian, the closest people I know to Scandinavians attitudinally. The weather is beyond compare. On the climate debate, I’m with the majority of Australians. I’m not a climate-sceptic nor will I support a ban on fossil fuels tomorrow. I willingly pay for many kinds of insurance: health, home, car. If I had a pet, it would be insured too. So I believe that we should err on the side of safety, when it comes to climate change. I think that we need to actively promote alternative energy development, while sequestering as much of the carbon from fossil fuels as we possibly can, while we phase them out gradually. Which side of the debate are you on? If you aren’t on any side, shouldn’t you be?

As one Australian prime minister put it, “it is the most important moral question of our time”. He rallied an entire generation with that clarion call. They helped him get elected. When he lost the courage of his conviction, he lost his popularity in the opinion polls. He then lost his job in a backroom drama at party headquarters. That’s how dramatic the environment debate can be, politically.

The evidence shows that it is not on the top of the list of election issues in Indonesia today. But when asked by Roy Morgan Research, voters have it ranked among their Top 5 concerns. While democracy is alive and well, the system actually works differently in the real world.

The nexus between big business and big politics is real, not imagined. Political parties need money to get elected. The scandals reported by the media are making it blindingly clear where it’s coming from. Not for nothing is “corruption” issue No.1 among the voting public. Big business, like big oil and big banking, is more interested in developing today’s energy sources than bank-rolling tomorrow’s alternatives. As a friend and fund manager in Hong Kong put it, “alternative energy is now dead”. He’s probably right. He knows where to put his clients’ money to get the best returns.

I don’t have any money to invest in the fund my friend manages. All I have is words. I believe we need to put some serious money, and equally serious effort, behind developing and commercialising every source of alternative energy. Not for the best returns in the short term but in the long run. As I said before, I buy insurance for myself. I’m willing to pay for insuring the planet as well. I won’t be around when the North Pole disappears, but that’s not why we buy life insurance, do we? I believe that we need to keep the discussion alive. We need to listen to the overwhelming evidence that the overwhelming number of climate scientists are pleading with us to respect. But much of their appeals have been falling on deaf ears. As an experiment, we have created the “Environment Consciousness Index”, featuring the same four questions we ask respondents in three neighbouring countries: Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. As the chart reveals, neighbours with varying degrees of environment-consciousness, have been tuning on and off, over time. The levels are high in all three countries. Despite the “cooling off” in Australia in recent years, consciousness is on the rise again. New Zealand is up too. So is Indonesia. In fact, these three different cultures are all at the same point today. Almost.

There’s hope, yet.

The opinions expressed are my own. The conclusions are influenced by on-going studies conducted by Roy Morgan Research in Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.

The writer can be contacted at Debnath.Guharoy@roymorgan.com

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