What are the role of elites in bringing about positive change? A curious, yet pointed question that sharpens as I flick through How to Spend it, the Financial Times' glossy luxe magazine devoted to the whims of elite consumption and concerns — everything from Prada to philanthropy. I'm charmed and appalled; their ideal reader.
My answer comes quickly. According to Jenny Dalton in "the Generation Game," green tech is now the "new glam" amongst hip urban taste-makers in London. Architects like Alex Michaelis claim that "an alternative energy source is the most fashionable thing to have at home this year." This is something we've already picked up on as Alana Herro wrote in another post. No longer the domain of the green geek, rising political stars like David Cameron, the UK's charismatic Conservative Party leader, are leading the pack by installing a domestic wind turbine in his home. Turbines are only part of the picture though. A whole range of household green upgrades and systems are becoming popular in UK's metropoles.
Geothermal heat, for instance, is being championed by the likes of Richard Branson, Elton John, and of course, the Queen! After a basement conversion process, geothermal heat can be pumped into a home or building via a borehole in the ground.
Morpheus Developments now have luxury townhouses that offer the whole package: solar panels, rainwater harvesting, lambsweool insulation, and alternative energy technologies. (Also see A very British eco revolution in the Telegraph.) Even the House of Parliament is considering using the tidal power of the Thames to diversify its energy supply.
Before we all get too exited, these household items are still beyond the reach of most pocketbooks. To buy a Morpheus eco-townhouse requires several million pounds. More affordable but still a stretch, a Windsave WS1000 wind turbine system is about £1,498 (approx. USD $2,800) and a photo-voltaic system will be about the same price, though I'm sure these prices differ from market to market. London is also a special place, flush with excess cash and the super rich, the result of the booming stock market, high property prices, and a thriving and innovative urban design industry. The hope, of course, is that prices will go down following other technology waves, and that the bugs and kinks get worked out with these early adopters.
Driving this trend are obvious concerns about the environment, which are top of mind in Europe these days, not to mention the chic reflection these concerns give to one's self-image. Green is the new the status symbol, a bemusing contrast to the granola and hemp days. Ensuring self-reliance is another factor, though not often expressed in public. People with means are now taking seriously some of the more challenging future scenarios where access to stable energy sources can no longer by assured. These people want to be prepared for these "what ifs?" and relish the thought that their foresight might be rewarded in greater personal resilience (and the peer perception thereof). London is on an island, after all.
But most of all, people are buying these gadgets simply because they are cool and fun to play with. When a new energy technology gets introduced into the mix, new users quickly becomes transfixed on their meters for days watching the ebb and tide of energy flows. This is good news because we all want green tech to be intrinsically rewarding, the first step towards mass market uptake. The danger is that this is only a fashion, something that comes and goes —- and worst of all becomes discredited in the process either for being trivialized as a fad, too costly or technically clumsy, all fair critiques of any technology in its early stage of adoption. I'm not a gear-head, so for the likes of me, this stuff better work. Also, I can see where the ability to be "off the grid" becomes the energy equivalent boast of being in a gated community or having the money to go to the right schools, the privilege of the likes of Sir Elton.
In the meantime, eco-entrepreneurs are making hay as much as they can. As Michaelis says in the article, "You've got to use something being tagged fashionable to your advantage, especially when it's about something as important as this. I do get annoyed when people use superficial tags to talk about it but as long as it's working, I really don't care." Not a time for purists, pragmatism wins again.
What's clear is that elites — like, loathe, or ignore them — have always played a decisive (if unpredictable) role in shaping and leading public tastes and trends, even shifting lifestyles. We just don't talk about this too much, because any discussion of elites offends our individualism, egalitarian sensibilities, or sounds too much like a boring political theory conversation verging on the conspiratorial. Yet as a practical strategy this is something savvy marketers have known for a while and are exploiting in the fashion world. All it takes is for Jennifer Ainston or Kate Moss to sport the latest winter parka — and voilà, the product has hit the big time. Are we seeing the same pattern now with green home design and building? What are the opportunities and limitations of this approach? And how we do we get this trend to stick and scale beyond a faction of London's green elite?
I recall Bruce Sterling saying something about the Viridian Design movement, that it shouldn't pander to the urge to be fashionable because we're in this for the long haul. It may not be possible to completely ditch short-term pragmatism, but it's always interesting to ask, "Over what timescale does pragmatism cease to be pragmatic?" If rich elites using green tech as status symbols reduces our environmental impact, then in one sense their motivation doesn't matter. In the longer term, though, their motivations are further consolidating everything that's led us up Shit Creek.
Going green is all very well. However buying and maintaining a tiny windmill that powers nothing more than a toaster is not going to change the world. The energy consumed creating the gadget and transporting it to sit on top of your house will never be recouped by the amount of power it will generate over it's lifetime.
If you really want to go green you should be reducing you energy consumption or investing in local Combined Heat Power schemes. CHP.
I completely support the pragmatic approach. When the elite start doing something, the general populace follow. It's a perfect scenario for getting access to people who (metaphorically) don't know how to spell 'environment', let alone understand that it's what keeps us alive.
I belong to a green group in Newburyport Massachusetts, and our rmotto is "Think big, start small"
In this light, I Kw might not power a toaster, but it will power 60 15W fluorescent light bulbs, and even more LED lights.
If you think of this in terms of the huge reduction in CO2 production projected from every household changing one bulb, the investment in the future can be huge. Many people will regard the $3,000 or so as a contribution to the future of the planet, rather than looking for a monetary pay-back.
The danger is that they may think that they have now done their bit and do not have to think of conservation.