Lightbulb moment: Prof David Mackey brings clarity to the climate change debate
OPINION:What chance do the people with the answers have in the face of the white noise created by amateurs?
BEING ESSENTIALLY useless at life core skills – decorating, mending things, car stuff – means I have a troubling relationship with expertise. When I buy a car I demand the owner show me the engine and then stand with my hand on the bonnet staring in at it, nodding; the rigour of my inspection never moving beyond the big question of “has it got one?” When a plumber came to fix the boiler he had to follow me around the house as I tried to find it, opening cupboards full of breakfast cereal and children’s clothes.
As such I’m familiar with the look of amused contempt on the faces of skilled people and I counter it by adopting the mannerisms of the distracted intellectual, wearing corduroy and taking off my reading glasses to polish them on my shirt tails. It’s a pose that is secretly saying, “yes, your re-wiring has saved me from near certain electrocution, but when you want 800 words on Irish cricket, don’t come crying to me”.
This makes me both vulnerable to expertise and deeply suspicious of it, and it’s this flawed attitude I bring to the issue of climate change. When faced with saving the world, trust in expertise is all we have.
My personal scientist of choice is Prof David Mackay, who I interviewed for this magazine last year. Mackay published a book called Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, first on the internet and then in print form, using £10,000 of his own money. The Economistcalled it “the Freakonomicsof energy and climate”, because of the remarkable clarity it brings to a very complicated debate. Mackay has reduced all forms of power consumption and production to a single unit of measurement – kilowatt hours per day (kWh/d). As a guideline, 1kWh/d equals one 40-watt lightbulb, kept switched on for 24 hours. Drive a car for 50km and you consume 40kWh/d, or 40 lightbulbs kept on all day.
On Mackay’s website (withouthotair.com) there is a short film that should be required viewing in every school and college in the country, where he compares everyday energy usage and gently undermines our “eco gestures”: turning off a mobile phone charger, for example, is not helping much as it uses as much energy as driving an average saloon car for one second. Mackay’s work is gaining an international reputation.
But his voice, as brilliant as it is, is just one of thousands converging on the topic of climate change. The tragedy of the environmental debate is that at the exact moment we need professional expertise to show us the way, the media has become dominated by amateurs. What chance do the people with the answers have in the face of the white noise created by the bloggers, Twitterers, phone-in ranters and that most powerful amateur of them all: the celebrity.
In his book The Cult of the Amateur, journalist Andrew Keen argues that the internet does away with the intermediaries and the structures that used to exist between the author and the audience. “We must not be deluded into thinking that we’re going toward Utopia, a flat world where everyone has a voice and where there is some sort of equality and levelling of power,” says Keen.
On the contrary, celebrity is the most powerful tool it is possible to own in today’s media marketplace and the climate change movement’s celebrity choices have been terrible. Zac Goldsmith? There’s nothing I like more than being told how to organise my rubbish by the son of a billionaire.
This highlights another dilemma. Because the issue is so important, celebrities are not waiting around to be asked, they are offering themselves up free, to fight the good fight. This is not a good thing.
Normally, the deal is simple. A company selects a famous face to front their campaign and pays them a shed load of cash not to say anything. Tiger Woods is the greatest corporate frontman ever created, and until his car hit a fire hydrant we didn’t know his views on anything. As media channels proliferate, the value of being famous is rising exponentially and for film stars and rock gods, climate change is an easy gig. What can go wrong? Being in favour of saving the world is not a hard position to adopt. It’s like coming out against road accidents or throat cancer. But despite being well meaning all they are doing is taking up space, filling it with amateur opinions.
David Mackay has something remarkable to say and is qualified to say it; his life has been spent finding part of the solution. But unless he can get a part in the next Ocean’s Eleven film, he’s not going to be heard.