Blog: A slightly extended version of my latest column for Recharge:
By building on the explosive growth of clean energy in recent years, and triumphs of multilateralism led by the Paris Agreement, a renaissance of civilisation can realistically be envisioned in the decades ahead. So I have argued in my writing since 2013. But how quickly our world can shift on its axis. While my analysis remains feasible, a potential disruptor of it is on the rise in society. A new class of aspiring despot is seizing political ground in America and Europe. This is happening just as it becomes clear that misuse of fast-emerging new technology, notably artificial intelligence and robotics, holds the potential to create the perfect infrastructure for police states.
To ensure such an authoritarian assault does not sweep away liberal democracies, it will be essential for the business world to engage in resistance more than it has been so far. More business leaders must come to the view that fighting for a civilization appropriate for doing good business in is now a matter of responsibility to shareholders, never mind citizens. For their part, shareholders and citizens must pressure companies more, via their investment and purchasing power, to confront the new despotism and otherwise act in favour of appropriate civilization. Increasingly the business case is clear. Ratings agency Fitch has argued that the Trump presidency poses a threat to the global economy, for example.
Nowhere is this imperative for engagement clearer than in the renewables industries. If renewables companies elect to keep a low profile, and in doing so become complicit in a creeping normalisation of Trumpism, the task of aspiring despots everywhere becomes easier. For their part, rightist populists can be sure that the fossil-fuel diehards that tend to support them will be neither quiet nor inactive. We already see this in the cast of White House appointees, and their early actions in power.
Early indicators of resistance are encouraging. A hundred tech companies joined US states taking Trump to court over his Muslim travel ban. Among them were Tesla and major renewables users Apple, Google and Microsoft. Thousands of their employees rallied against the ban in Silicon Valley. Individual companies have spoken out. Siemens employs more than 50,000 people in the US, and has invested more than €30bn there over the past 10 years. But still its CEO felt compelled to criticise Trump’s unpresidential “noise”, attacks on the press, and proposed Mexican wall, making the obvious point that “America has become great because of immigrants”. Individual investors have also spoken out. Trump bludgeoned through the North Dakota Access oil pipeline with an executive order. But major investor Nordea simply banned its fund managers from investing in it.
Others must speak out and use their money like this. There is safety in numbers, and great danger for all in taking the easy option of silence. Down that road lies diminished talent pools, shrivelled business prospects, wasted investment capital, and much worse.
Some readers may think I am overstating a bit of demagoguery in modern politics. But people in the heart of the Establishment share my view. Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Editor at the Financial Times, is among those warning how easily Trump the demagogue can morph into Trump the despot. George Soros calls Trump a “would-be dictator”.
Consider the worrying people the President has appointed around him. Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist, is a far right thinker with an apocalyptic vision of the future who now finds himself and his nationalist, anti-Islamic, views on the National Security Council. He is backed by a “weaponised AI propaganda machine”, as journalists at Scout call it, demonstrably able to manipulate beliefs on an industrial scale. One of the figures Bannon is prepared to cite, as he did in a speech skyped into to a fringe Vatican conference in 2014, is a long dead Italian philosopher named Julius Evola, a man revered as a godfather by many Italian fascists. Evola broke with Mussolini and his supporters because he considered them too tame. His vision involved a bourgeoisie-smashing new order of white supremacists that he called – wait for it – the Solar Civilization.
These days, so much of real life is stranger than the inventions of fiction. And how strange it is indeed to read the tenets of the fascist philosophy of a man known to and cited by the chief strategist of the President of the United States. This is how fast we are all having to relearn the narratives relevant to anchoring our world views in 2017.
The Solar Civilization indeed! That is a most wholly unsuitable label for a hate-filled fantasy of racial purity.
I call upon all citizens in the renewables industries – leaders, employees, and investors alike – to articulate a clear vision of what a true Solar Civilization would look like. And then to fight for it hard in the year ahead.
Teaser photo picture: Google employees protest against Trump immigration policies.