Energy and sustainable development: the view from me

'Environment' came into my life in the summer of 1968. My late beloved wife Cleone and I had a visit from my Canadian friend Bob Hunter, full of excitement about happenings on the west coast of North America. By 1972 I was editing the UK's first environmental magazine, attending the UN Stockholm Conference, and, with Cleone's backing, joining the staff of the UK wing of Friends of the Earth, to team up with Richard Sandbrook and other inspiring colleagues.

Nuclear physicist turned energy campaigner

Although I began as an environmental all-rounder, I soon found that my training as a nuclear physicist made me the first 'energy campaigner' for UK FOE. With Amory Lovins, I helped to initiate the first popular controversy over nuclear power policy in the UK. As we challenged the then extraordinarily powerful nuclear lobby, we began to develop an alternative view of a desirable and attractive energy future. I've lately been pleased to find writings of mine from the early 1970s, already arguing for decentralization of energy systems, for smaller scale, for more emphasis on improving end-use, and for a move away from fossil and nuclear sources to renewables - all themes that are still central to my thinking, commentary and advocacy today, and today all happening, if still too slowly.

The power of campaigning

Campaigning, however, involved direct confrontation with government decision-makers. When I hear people today bemoan the futility of such confrontations - 'what good does it do? they always win' - I recall that the then Central Electricity Generating Board in 1973 proposed, in all seriousness, to order 32 1300MW pressurized-water nuclear plants by 1982. FOE attacked this as lunacy, and managed to provoke a media and political outcry that eventually stopped the plans all but completely. Only one PWR station was ever built, only two decades later.

The futility of campaigning

However, another confrontation was less successful. FOE were deeply concerned about the plans of British Nuclear Fuels to build a vast new reprocessing plant, THORP, to recover plutonium from UK and foreign reactor fuel. To us it made no sense technically, economically, environmentally or politically; and for some three years we campaigned to stop it. We forced a public enquiry into the plan, that took place in 1977; and by common consent we presented an unanswerable case against it. In response, the inspector, a High Court justice named Roger Parker, simply ignored our case, and delivered the verdict the government required, in favour of THORP. Ever since then I have realized that rational argument alone cannot carry the day in energy or any other policy dispute, when powerful interests are marshalled against it.

The ultimate challenge for campaigners: vested interests and short-termism

That is now clearly the case concerning climate change. We know, rationally, that our use of fuel is threatening the stability of the planetary systems we depend on for the survival of human civilization. The only sensible response is to reduce our use of fuel. We know how. We stop wasting it, by upgrading our buildings and other user-technology; and we move gradually but steadily away from fuel-based electricity to infrastructure electricity such as hydroelectricity, wind and solar. I have now been arguing this case with ever more vehemence for some years. But powerful interests - corporations and entire countries - draw their revenue from the sale of fuel. They are doing everything in their considerable power to thwart any measures that threaten their short-term interests. In doing so they are endangering not only their own futures but the futures of all of us and our descendants.

Pull the levers, change the rules, turn the climate

The only remedy I see is for us collectively to withdraw our consent from such activities, to render them less and less legitimate, as is now happening - also too slowly, alas - with the tobacco industry. We have to change the groundrules, with all the levers we have available - legislation, regulation, taxation and public pressure. We have to make selling fuel less and less attractive as a business. We have to make using fuel recognizably undesirable, if not indeed antisocial. We have to make upgrading user-technology and infrastructure, and investing in infrastructure electricity, the real energy businesses of the future. That requires high-profile campaigning, publicity, and education of the public, the media, the lawmakers and the boardrooms. To rescue the climate of our planet we have to change the climate of public opinion. More than four decades on, I'm still trying.

November 2012

About the author

Buckinghamshire, UK

Walt Patterson is Associate Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Development Programme at Chatham House in London, UK, and a Visiting... (Read more)

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