Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

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Electric dreams

How the “hippie tycoon” Dale Vince – a pioneer of renewable energy – plans to turn football and our motorways green.

In the hills above the tiny Cotswolds town of Nailsworth, on a road named Another Way, is an unusual football stadium. As you enter the New Lawn ground, the first thing you see is a pair of Nissan Leaf electric cars plugged into charging stations; on the reception counter are flyers for the Vegan Society. This is the world’s only meat-and-dairy-free football club, where players and fans enjoy Quorn fajitas, veggie burgers, cheeseless pizza and tea with soya milk.

Look out from the main terrace at the Forest Green Rovers club and you’ll see more curious sights. An array of 170 solar panels is positioned atop the south stand. Behind a corner flag is a large tank for storing water that has been recycled from beneath the organic pitch, which is fertilised with seaweed. Even the advertising banners stand out: the most prominent bears the white skull-and-crossbones logo of Sea Shepherd, the marine conservation charity.

It might all seem quaint and worthy, the vanity project of a hippie tycoon. But Forest Green Rovers are a serious club. The team of full-time professionals sits in the playoff places near the top of the National League, the fifth tier of English football. If they keep that up, they stand a good chance of winning promotion to League Two, for the first time in the club’s 127-year history. But the longer-term goal is to make it all the way to the Championship, just a step from the
Premier League.

That is why Forest Green Rovers are moving ahead with plans for an extraordinary new stadium near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the firm that built the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, it will seat 5,000 people, with a capacity to expand to twice that. And it will be constructed almost entirely of wood. “That’s never been done before, anywhere,” said Dale Vince, who rescued the club from near bankruptcy in 2010 and is now its chairman. “It will be the greenest stadium in the world.”

We met in early November at the Stroud headquarters of Ecotricity, the renewable energy firm he founded in 1995, which runs 19 windfarms and two solar parks. Vince, who is 55, is not your typical corporate boss. He was wearing brown boots, ripped jeans and a black T-shirt. His hair is shaved on the sides, with a small ponytail on top, and his sideburns are long. A silver ring hangs from the tragus of his left ear.

Vince’s office is scantily furnished with two beanbags, a standing desk, a small, round table in the middle and a large, green Union Jack on the wall. If you didn’t read the newspapers, which drew attention to his wealth last summer while covering a legal battle with his ex-wife, you would have no idea he was worth more than £100m.

It is a fortune that has allowed him to spread his green dreams into areas beyond football. Before the 2015 general election, Vince gave £250,000 to Labour, £50,000 to the Liberal Democrats and £20,000 to the campaign of the Green MP, Caroline Lucas. But he may yet make the biggest difference with transport. Ecotricity has built what it calls the Electric Highway, a network of 296 charging points at motorway service stations which has made it possible to drive from Land’s End to John o’Groats in an electric car. Vince says he is trying to accelerate the demise of the internal combustion engine. “Our government is not the most ambitious on green issues but by 2030 it wants all new cars to be electric or hybrids. We think it could happen sooner.”

 

 

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Vince grew up in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in a two-bedroomed ­bungalow. His father was a self-employed lorry driver who worked hard yet worried about being able to pay the bills. “That’s why I decided to drop out and live like a hippie,” Vince wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2009. “I didn’t want a career or a mortgage.”

He left his local grammar school at 15 and four years later became a New Age traveller: his first home was an old ambulance. He toured Britain and Europe, and along the way he got married, painted, learned to bake bread – and had run-ins with the police. He was part of the Peace Convoy, a confederation of anti-authoritarian travellers, and in summer 1985 he took part in the “Battle of the Beanfield”, when police trying to prevent a free festival at Stonehenge clashed with protesters. Some travellers were beaten and vehicles were smashed.

Vince, a tinkerer, built a small windmill on top of his van to power the lights. In the early 1990s, while living on a hill in Gloucestershire in a former army truck, he had an epiphany: what if he could harness the wind on a much bigger scale and change the energy industry? He decided to “drop back in” to society to set up Ecotricity, which claims to be the world’s first green energy firm. The model was simple: the company would produce as much renewable electricity as it could, buy in any extra fossil-fuelled power it needed, and use customer revenues to construct more windfarms until the operation was fully green.

“I built my first windmill in ’96, after a five-year battle with all-comers – Nimbys, bigots, planners, big power companies, you name it – and went to Kyoto in ’97,” Vince wrote on his blog, Zero Carbonista. “The rest is just more history.”

That windmill is still turning: its blades can be seen from the top of a stand at the New Lawn. And like the football club, which has doubled its home attendance in six years, Ecotricity is thriving. It has nearly 200,000 customers. Accounts filed at Companies House show turnover for the year ending April 2016 of £126m, up from £109m; pre-tax profit was £6.7m. Vince is the sole shareholder but the company does not pay dividends and he draws a salary of less than £150,000. The converted 18th-century fort where he lives with his second wife and their son is worth more than £2m, but he says he is not motivated by money.

Despite Ecotricity’s success, the firm faces several challenges, including the implications of Brexit, which Vince opposed. “We have not left [the EU] yet, but the pound has slumped and banks are thinking of leaving,” he said. “The process of leaving will be tortuous, and the idea that we can trade better outside the EU – that’s nonsense.”

A more immediate problem for Ecotricity is regulatory. The last Labour government introduced attractive incentives for companies and homeowners to produce renewable energy, especially wind and solar power. These subsidies amounted to billions of pounds – since 2002 Ecotricity has received £36m towards building windmills costing over £100m – and have helped make Britain a world leader in green power. In 2011, 9 per cent of Britain’s electricity came from wind, sun and other renewable sources; in 2015 the figure was 25 per cent.

But since the Conservatives won a majority under David Cameron in 2015, breaking free from the restraints of their coalition partners, the eco-friendly Lib Dems, the government has made it harder for green projects to secure planning permission. It has also reduced financial support for the industry. In December 2015, days after helping seal the Paris climate-change accord, which called on all countries to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, the government announced a series of cuts to subsidies for renewables, which are paid for through business and household energy bills.

“They [the Tories] have smashed renewable energy with a sledgehammer,” Vince said. “And they’ve done it in a deceitful way, saying it was for the good of the industry. They’ve practically shut down solar and onshore wind in the UK. Bringing forward new stuff now – I don’t see it happening.”

At the same time, the government is promoting fracking, a controversial process that involves blasting water and chemicals into rocks to release trapped gas. Fracking has been suspended or banned in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Wales because of environmental concerns. Official surveys show that fewer than one in five Britons supports fracking, yet in October the government overruled councillors in Lancashire and approved plans to explore for shale gas there. “[Fracking] is a big risk to take for a gas that we cannot afford to burn if Britain is to hit its carbon-reduction targets,” Vince said.

His proposed alternative is to produce “green” gas from grass grown on marginal farmland. Ecotricity will build its first grass-to-gas mill in Hampshire next year, and Vince says that in theory the green fuel could be used to heat almost all homes in Britain within two decades. His vision is unlikely to get much support from Theresa May, who, after taking office in July, abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change and transferred its functions to an enlarged department responsible for business. “It’s ideological when it comes to green stuff,” Vince said. “The left embraces it and the right does not.”

That is why, in February 2015, he donated funds to Labour, the first time he had done so. What does he think now, with Labour trailing so far behind the Tories in the polls? “Jeremy [Corbyn] is a lovely man. He believes that he can lead the party to a general election victory. But if I were him I might be inclined to stand aside. The party seems so riven, and that is a real problem. The Tories are having a free-for-all.”

He believes that Tony Blair has a role to play in restoring the fortunes of the left. “I am against Trident and nuclear energy, and for social justice. But I’m also a practical person. What Tony Blair did with Iraq was disgraceful. But there was more that was right. I think Blair did a fantastic job, and rumours of his return excite me.”

Ask Vince what he would do if he were Energy Secretary and he reels off a list: ban fracking; rip up the Hinkley Point C nuclear power contract; spend “a billion dollars” on promoting energy efficiency; tax polluting power companies; perhaps renationalise the energy industry, from producers to suppliers. He would also give green vehicles a big stimulus, as has happened in Norway with marked results. Thanks to tax breaks and incentives – exemption from VAT and public parking fees, freedom to use bus lanes – plug-in cars now account for over a quarter of new car sales in Norway. “It’s economic signals that change behaviour,” Vince says.

 

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As a boy, Vince was astonished at how many cars there were on the road. Surely the fuel they were burning couldn’t last for ever, he remembers thinking. But the oil companies kept discovering reserves, so there was no incentive for manufacturers to develop green cars. In 2008, when there were fewer than 2,000 electric vehicles on the road across 40 of the world’s most developed countries – and barely any at all in the UK – Vince and his engineers decided to take the initiative.

“I’m a bit of a petrolhead and also a tree-hugger, which is a dilemma. I could not get an electric car at that time, so we bought the shell of a Lotus Exige on eBay and turned it into a supercar,” he told me.

The Nemesis, as it was called, broke the British land speed record for an electric car in 2012, clocking 151.6 miles per hour. By then, however, Vince had realised that building cars was a different proposition from generating energy. Instead, he had started rolling out the infrastructure that he hoped would hasten the take-up of electric vehicles.

“We wanted to break the chicken-and-egg scenario,” he said. Few people owned electric cars, so there were barely any motorway charging points in Britain, which in turn discouraged people from buying the vehicles. Ecotricity started with a three-pin-plug point at a service station in 2011. It took eight hours to charge a Nissan Leaf, a small, five-door family hatchback that at the time had a 73-mile range. “We knew it was not good enough, but that a massive increase in technological capacity was coming.”

Today, a Nissan Leaf, the world’s bestselling electric vehicle, can drive for 80 miles on a half-hour power-up at a service station, which isn’t a full charge. Most new electric cars can run for between 100 and 150 miles before they need to be plugged in. “Range anxiety”, which has been a deterrent for many potential buyers, is fading away. “In a few years’ time you’ll be able to drive 400 miles on a 15-minute charge,” Vince said.

The Electric Highway has encountered some bumps along the way. Early on, Ecotricity entered into an agreement with Tesla, the Californian electric car company run by the technology billionaire Elon Musk (who also plans to colonise Mars). But in 2014 Ecotricity claimed that Tesla had gone behind its back, negotiating with service stations with a view to installing its own chargers. Ecotricity sued Tesla, which then countersued; the companies reached an out-of-court settlement in June 2015. (Vince was involved in another settlement a few months later. His former wife, whom he divorced in 1992 when they had no assets, had claimed nearly £2m of his fortune, and was awarded £300,000.)

As with his early embrace of wind power, Vince’s bet on the Electric Highway looks a smart one. According to the International Energy Agency, there were 1.26 million either fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road at the end of 2015, more than three times as many as in 2013. The IEA forecasts that by 2040 there will be 150 million plug-in cars in service. With petrol consumption accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all oil consumed, that has huge implications for the petroleum industry – and the planet’s climate. In November, Shell announced that overall demand for oil could hit its peak in as little as five years.

Ecotricity had allowed drivers free use of its motorway plug-in stations since 2011, but in July it introduced tariffs for the first time. A half-hour charge now costs £6. The move angered some motorists; but Vince, who says the Electric Highway should cover its costs this year, is unapologetic. “We don’t have to make money in everything we do,” he said, referring to the football club and the car-charging network – but however altruistic his motives might be, he is also a businessman.

Green cars remain relatively expensive in the UK – the cheapest model in the Nissan Leaf range costs more than £20,000. But prices are falling and choice is growing, with more than 40 electric or hybrid models on sale in the country.

“The stumbling block was the range of the cars and the cost. What’s happening is one is going up and the other is going down,” Vince said. “The technology is on the cusp of mass appeal. You will see the government jump in before long and claim credit for that.”

As for Vince, he doesn’t even own a car. On a beanbag at the office in Stroud are the helmet and jacket he uses when riding in to work on his KTM motorcycle. And yes, it’s electric.

Xan Rice is the features editor of the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain