activism energy

Don’t give up on the energy transition

A couple of years ago my wife and I climbed Mount Snowdon. We left the car in the car park and set out along the Ranger path. There was a point where we’d been walking for about an hour and it felt like we hadn’t started yet. We had to walk to the mountain before we could walk up the mountain. Then we spent a long while winding back and forth in the foothills, the mountain still looming ahead of us as if we hadn’t gone anywhere yet. So we gave up and went to the pub.

No we didn’t. We pressed on to the top of course. But I mention this because it feels like a lot of people are at a similar point in the energy transition.

We’re a decade into a 50 year process, and some people are looking around and going ‘this isn’t working. We should give up and go back.’

They look at electric cars charging on coal power, or early renewable energy projects reaching the end of their lifespan. They see greenwash from big corporations, empty words from governments. They remember big claims that came to nothing, hopes for international cooperation overturned. They see renewable energy creating new problems while addressing old ones. And in their movies and books they say ‘we’ve got nowhere. We might as well not have bothered.’

I get this. I feel heartsick on a daily basis at the cars and the planes and the waste, the apathy and the resistance to minor changes to our lifestyles. And if I lived in the US or Brazil, I’d be in therapy right now.

But if you give up an hour up the Snowdon Ranger’s track, you end up back at the hostel early with nothing to do. You miss out on queueing for your selfie at the summit, and shaking your fist at the tourists who got the train to the top.

If you give up a decade into the clean energy transition, the fossil fuel incumbency wins. The world burns. Civilization collapses.

We can’t afford to look around and mope about what hasn’t gone well. Sure, mistakes have been made. Integrities have been compromised. There have been false starts and disappointments. We have to learn from them and do better next time – but there has to be a next time. We have to go forward from here.

If we look back, it looks like we haven’t come very far. But look ahead. There are others further along the track – countries that are already at or near 100% renewable energy. Or where electric cars are now outselling petrol, or where the Green New Deal is actually happening. Places where flying is no longer aspirational, cities that have chosen not to grow their airports. Economies where consumption and energy use have peaked. There are governments declaring that they’re more interested in wellbeing than economic growth.

All of this is fragile, yes. The way ahead is hard and there’s no point pretending otherwise. More mistakes will be made. Some people are going to give up and turn back. But you’ll see what you look for. If you look for reasons to turn back, you’ll find them. Look ahead. There are people further up the track. If they got that far, we can too. Look, some of them are waving at us.

Take a moment. Have a square of chocolate. Have a handful of raisins and some water. And let’s go on again.


  1. Yes, Jeremy – Kevin O’Brien in “The Violence of Climate Change” draws on the example of Martin Luther King Jr to steer a course between over optimistic expectation and the clouds of pessimistic resignation and despair by imploring climate activists to deal in virtuous hope. “To resist the structural violence of climate change requires hope that the arc of the moral universe can bend towards justice.”

    PS If you send me your address I will post a copy of “Towards Oikos” which covers simliar themes of inequality and climate change.

  2. We should pause for a moment and consider the role of corruption in some detail. Transparency International and its global map of degrees of corruption was mentioned above. It is a global coalition against corruption, which publishes a “Corruption Perception Index”. The latest figures are for 2016. Let’s get straight to the point: No country gets close to a perfect score in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016. Over two-thirds of the 176 countries and territories in that year’s index fall below the midpoint of the scale: 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The global average score is a paltry 43, indicating endemic corruption in a country’s public sector. Top-scoring countries are far outnumbered by countries where citizens face the tangible impact of corruption on a daily basis. But corruption hurts all countries, in every region of the world. Top of the index was Denmark (score 90), followed by New Zealand and other Scandinavian countries …. UK (81), USA (74) …. Greece (44) is one of the worst European countries …. And Peter Rookes’ heavily studied pair – India (40) and Malawi (31) did not fare well ….. but bottom of the pile was Somalia (10).
    Denmark and New Zealand may well be countries also well placed to come out of Covid-19 lockdown with a sustainable form of a green new deal – if so it would be good to copy them.

  3. This seems very apposite: appreciated!
    I’m struck by parallels with the Englers’ analysis of social change movements, which can often be very disillusioned and discouraged just at the point where they are breaking through. We surely need to ‘fix our eyes on the goal ahead…’

    1. Thanks – I haven’t come across Engler’s work. I’ll have to look that up.

      One thing that I’m curious about is the role of identity. A lot of greens have seen themselves as outsiders, and so when corporations or billionaires start talking their language, it feels wrong. Sometimes it will be co-opting a movement of course, but it might also be a sign of success. Ecological thinking has to become mainstream to make a difference at scale, and I’m not sure if that’s appreciated in some quarters!

      1. Yes I also feel that’ a key issue. The final chapters of ‘This is an Uprising’ (Mark and Paul Engler) discuss this dilemma; at what stage to ‘lock in’ gains, and to what extent to keep ‘agitating on the outside’. I found it very helpful. I’ve noticed trends to either end over the years, each with their own pitfalls and progress points. I guess it’s the kind of dilemma prophets and reformers have faced always, and we need to get much wiser, more purposeful and systematic, at dealing with it..

  4. ‘Perseverence wins the race’ and ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’. However, we must do what we can to do whatever we think is right regardless of anything else going on Just hope that governments will see the light before it goes out.
    It would be good to see all the highlighted blue good news articles you indicate abbreviated into one article of hope Jeremy. Cheers for all and carry on climbing! You & Co. are always to visit our small wildlife and conservation area when next near-by. You have my email.

  5. Loved this, it feels like we’ve definitely finished the approach and started on the energy transition mountain itself, gaining height. I climbed Snowdon with my kids a few years ago using the cake method – every half an hour we stopped and had a cake. A bit consumerist but it worked for us.

  6. I’m more concerned from the backlash when people work out green growth within the transition is unlikely and that degrowth is part of the picture.

  7. Since I mentioned governments in my comment above I’d like to add this quote from my hero yesterday:

    “……and the many other plagues spread by corporate and billionaire power.

    Thanks in large part to their influence, we have governments that fail to protect the public interest, by design. This is the tunnel. This is why the exits are closed. This is why we will struggle to emerge.”

  8. I’ve been working on a concept using a set scales with optimism and realism on either side. We need both optimism and realism to keep moving forwards on creating positive change… Too much optimism leads to inefficient advocacy or personal break down where too much realism leads to parallelisation or futility, but a mix of both keeps us resolute and buoyant 🙂

    1. Yes – that reminds me of a Donella Meadows quote, where she says we need “the courage to admit and bear the pain of the present, while keeping a steady eye on a vision of the future.”

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