|Although I consider him to be an enemy of the people by being a key architect of the privatisation of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), I was delighted to hear Andrew Lansley say this about tobacco sales : “We don’t work in partnership with the tobacco companies because we are trying to arrive at a point where they have no business in this country.” Finally, after over ten years of hard work by a rainbow coalition of healthcare providers, local government administration, campaigners, social activists, educators and charities, it is possible for the UK Secretary of State for Health to tell the tobacco industry their products are not wanted here.
The deep question is : why didn’t the UK Government just ban the tobacco companies outright at the start or tell them to diversify out of selling cancer sticks in order to keep their retail licences ? Well, the simple answer is that companies like British American Tobacco (BAT) are privately-owned capitalised companies, with many pension and other major funds heavily invested. The UK Department of Business, Trade, Enterprise, Industry, Information, Skills, Services and Manufacturing or whatever it’s been variously called over the last few decades, simply couldn’t tell shareholders to pull their investment out of death-by-inhalation stocks.
Everyone sees a return on investment in the industries of death generally, such as the arms trade, the junk food industry, and petrochemicals (ask yourself : how many people have suffered and died because of diesel particulate-provoked asthma ?) It takes a certain amount of time to reach the logical conclusion that wars do not need to be fought, making armaments redundant; for healthy food to become seen as essential to beat off diabetes and obesity epidemics; and for urban transport to be electrified to save lungs and hearts.
No, you just can’t ban an entire product range overnight because, finally, the science has broken through the doubt barrier and shown beyond reasonable scepticism that tobacco smoking causes cancer, emphysema and other serious and fatal conditions. No, you have to go at it step by painful step, reducing availability, changing the rules on presentation at the point of sale, putting up signs in public places.
And it all takes time, this gradualist approach. The tobacco industry may now wind down to a dribble in Britain (although it will continue to do well in Asia and Africa), and peoples’ savings for retirement will have soon all moved out of fag ends into something else.
Yet, we don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to the climate change and energy crisis. We simply don’t have the 25 to 50 years it could take to adopt a gradualist approach to energy sector change. Anything that takes longer than 10 years to begin to displace carbon out of the energy economy is too slow to be useful.
People are slowly beginning to wake up to the fact that their money is invested in climate change, and are making demands on their pension fund and bank account managers – but this is all happening too slowly – despite the keen interest in ethical investment.
The energy sector has got to change – and change fast. Changing the energy sector so radically and so quickly is not something that can be done by applying small changes to the costs of energy – particularly as the wider costs of energy are so volatile anyway. Gradually introducing renewable energy technologies with subsidies and grants and special tax breaks is not going to displace carbon fast enough.
Governments may not like the thought – but maybe they will consider starting to ban things – and not be shy about being explicit. However, this kind of action will generate significant resistance and dissent.
How then to rapidly alter the world’s entire energy sector ?
Start telling the truth about how the energy sector is scraping the bottom of the barrel in a number of fuels and fields ? Could this approach cause a run at the investment bank ? Could it tip the balance in energy systems deployment towards the less-intensive options – green energy – the only possible area of growth in the energy sector – which becomes the only possible logical conclusion ?