Jon Cruddas's lecture on "the role of the state in the good society"

"We in Labour need to build our own story of the big society. Cameron’s version was too abstract."

This is the full text of Labour policy review head Jon Cruddas's lecture to The Centre for Social Justice.

Thank you to CSJ for inviting me. I am a great fan of your work.

From early years intervention, work on gangs, exploring the experience of poverty, tackling problems in family life.

This is the detail of ordinary everyday life and it's something that has too often been missing from our politics.

In the last thirty years British politics has been about the market and the state and not about society. But people live in society. Society is about our connection with others that provides us with meaning in life, a sense of belonging and identity. A market without society, a state that dominates society are the enemies of our wellbeing.

The subject of my lecture tonight is the state and the good society.

The kind of state we want must be shaped by the kind of society we want to create.

What does society mean for the British?

We’re rebellious. Non-conformist. Willing to challenge power.

We are loyal to the institutions we’ve grown up with: the NHS, the BBC, the monarchy.

We believe in the equal dignity of every fellow citizen.

Treating our neighbours as friends not strangers; a belief in duties and obligations to others.

We have a strong sense of getting back what we put in. Willing to help others when they do the same.

Not just rubbing along but being connected by reciprocal relations and mutual obligation.

But my general sense is that England in particular is divided between two traditions.

Between utilitarianism, which tends toward thinking of us as rational, calculating individuals.

And what I will call a one nation politics that recognises it’s our relationships with other people that matter most.

Between a politics of maximising self-interest

And a politics of sociability

Fundamentally, I believe that people aspire to the common good – to work hard and to look after their families.

But something has gone wrong.

Too many young people leave school without a job, without training, without a sense of what they want to do in life

Too many people are depressed, and lonely.

Too many people feel angry that the institutions that affect our lives - the banks and energy companies are anti-social. And often public services too.

Too many feel alienated, ignored or humiliated

We are in danger of becoming a disconnected society, a people who feel a sense of loss and a politics driven by anger and grievance which bleeds away compassion and our shared humanity.

Let's think about this crisis of authority

Those with authority have broken their covenant with society.

There is a lot of good leadership in both the public sector and business.

But too often leaders of our institutions imagine their job is to administer the system not listen to people.

If  there’s a crisis, the answer is always the same – it’s someone else’s fault.

The banks were interested in profiting from  their complicated mathematical systems not building relationships with their customers.

The energy companies put profits before their customers. They blamed the system for the high prices but we know now the prices were fixed. It’s a moral failure not just market failure.

The problems in many of our public institutions have the same cause.

Our institutions view people as units of calculation.

Most of the people who work in our schools and hospitals, job centres and local authorities are driven by a sense of duty and a desire to care.

But too often they are forced to act like machines where these human virtues are crowded out.

They are forced to treat the contact they have with the people they serve as a series of isolated transactions.

They have not time to build up relationships.

Take social services. In some places, 80% of care budgets go in assessing need not paying people to care.

Friends and family who want to help aren’t supported, even though it’d cost the taxpayer less if they were.

The system doesn’t support people’s relationships with each other. It views us all as isolated individuals with rigidly defined needs.

Take our education system.

Too many of our schools judge ‘improvement’ by nothing other than the number of pupils getting 5 A*-C at GCSE. Teachers want to instill the joy of learning. But they are told to follow the system and teach to the test.

Curiosity and a connection to the world outside the classroom gets ignored. Even our ‘good’ schools see education as a set of hoops to jump through.

Arguably, young people are disengaged from education because we take this transactional view rather than a belief in creating wise, virtuous citizens.

Even our brightest students often leave school with no sense of what they’re going to do afterwards. Few have a sense of vocation or of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Those who are driven and committed often just see education as the means to earn a high salary. Those who aren’t can end up feeling alienated from almost everything in their lives.

We need exams. But we need an education system that teaches self-discipline and gives children a sense of passion and purpose. We need schools that don’t just teach transferable skills but can help develop students’ sense of what they are going to do in life

It’s the same problem with banks and energy companies.

Leaders too often think their job is to administer the system, and don’t take responsibility when things go wrong.

We’ve taken a wrong turn.

I would suggest that the real dividing line in British politics now is not between statists and free marketeers, or between centralists and localists.

It’s between two different ideas of what society is.

It’s about the difference between utilitarianism and one nation politics- actually it is a debate within all the major parties.

Let me outline what I mean by these two ideas.

Utilitarian politics

The utilitarian view treats people as isolated, calculating individuals.

For utilitarians, our satisfaction is something that can always be quantified. It was Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, who invented the word ‘maximise’.

It’s a view that says the good things in life can always be given a monetary value. “Welfare”, happiness, joy are things that have a price.

University education is measured by the average salary of their graduates. 

The quality of our environment, our forests and our landscape are given a cash value.

The quality of care we give to an elderly person in need is defined in a number on a spreadsheet.

Bentham would have approved of all these things.

Where everything is quantifiable in terms of its derived utility. We lose the sense of doing something because it is good and right. And we lose the ability to challenge our leaders when things go wrong.

But it’s not just about the market per se. As the utilitarian market needs a strong state.

Utilitarians say people don’t know what their own interest is. They believe in an elite that makes the rules. Who push  people to ‘maximise’ their satisfaction – as the elite defines it.

So we end up with too many predatory markets and a bossy class of distant administrators, whose job is to force people to act ‘rationally’.

We are left with a form of capitalism that dispossesses people and fails to provide millions with a decent livelihood.

The state doesn’t protect people against risk. It sets guidelines and targets. Coerce, cajole, manage, nudge, direct –never care, support, build, lead.

Whether it’s the state or the market, utilitarianism tries to manage people with huge impersonal systems where no one’s in charge.

One thing sums up this attitude for me: a refusal to trust people.

Utilitarians are suspicious of what happens when people get together, when they have freedom to put across their point of view, when they argue, debate, negotiate.

They think our different interests and perspectives mean we can never agree our maximum derived utility. It tends toward a rejection of the idea of a shared common life- rather the aggregation of individual transactions.

So there’s no place for workers and managers, teachers and parents, health workers and to sit down and agree how they can work together for the common good.

They tacitly reject the notion of one nation. We’re just a country of 60 million competing, individuals, out to ‘maximise’ our utility.

As a result, utilitarian politics tends to diminish institutions that bring people together. Such as trade unions, school governing bodies, professional associations.

It’s about being neutral and ‘fair’. It insists on equal treatment – in theory. But it’s an idea of equality with no room for people. It has at times dominated each of our major two political parties and exiled other competing traditions

We’re left with endless freedom of choice but no power. We end up with very little to love, to cherish, to protect. We advance our self-interest, but have corroded our sense of what’s good. And we don’t have the institutions or organisations to fight for what’s right.

And there’s no one left who’s willing to take responsibility for doing what’s right.

This utilitarian project has been challenged by another tradition that started long before Disraeli.

One Nation

One nation politics starts with our interests. But it says we can only find fulfillment with others.

For me, the inspiration is Aristotle, not Bentham standing over there in Gower Street.

We try, in our lives, to pursue what is good. That involves virtue, friendship and love, not just calculation. Human society, as Aristotle put it ‘comes into being for the sake of living, but is for the sake of living well’.

This is miles away from the system design of Bentham’s Panoptican

Human satisfaction depends on the way we live together with the people around us. A common life, indeed a political life, provides the basis of our personal fulfillment.

Our purpose must be to create and protect this common life against the tendency of both big business and bureaucracy to dehumanise.

In Britain, the idea of creating ‘one nation’ was born in the early nineteenth-century, in response to fears about the effects of the industrial revolution. The new factories and industrial cities saw the growth of poverty, dirt, disease, dispossession, dislocation as well wealth and opportunity.

One nation politics didn’t resist change, but wanted to civilise, to humanise the process of transformation.

One nation politics is about organising people in institutions that conserve what’s of value in the face of dislocating change.

It began as a radical project.

It started as a call for reconnection not revolution.

E. P. Thompson showed how English radicals drew from long-standing ideas about the obligation of rich to poor to argue for their inclusion in Britain’s political and economic institutions.

But you could never trust the powerful to look after the interests of the powerless. The answer was always the same: people needed to organise together.

The campaign by Chartism to give working people a place in the constitution. Put into practice with the Chartist Hustings and the Peoples Parliament.

The patriotic radicalism of William Cobbett

The ‘villages of cooperation’ built by Robert Owen to create a new world of  reciprocity and mutual obligation

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

These are founding moments in the history of the Labour movement.

They were driven by the sentiments created by our history of sociability, not by abstract right or narrow economic interests.

They argued that our factories and councils, courts and parliament, needed to be held to account by voices from every part of the nation, not just the propertied elite.

There’s always been a strand of the Labour movement that’s been more about sociability than social science.

Sometimes it’s been hidden; often in the last century exiled. At times we’ve imagined socialism could be created by slide-rules or spreadsheets – the technocrats, the Benthamites have had their day- often described as Fabians. There were moments when we came close to losing our soul.

But in the early years of the twentieth century, the Labour movement was about creating a responsible society, driven by collective self-help. It was about nurturing a common life in the face of the dehumanising force of industrial capitalism.

In 1948, G.D.H. Cole could argue that the ‘social-service state’ the Labour government created was something founded on ‘democratic mutual aid and organization of the community spirit’, not top-down provision.

The 1945 government was less about state socialism, and more about the creation of a responsible society built in the everyday world of Haileybury House in Stepney and the 1920s ILP radicalism of Clem Attlee's East End.

It made mistakes. It believed too much in the spirit but not practice of democracy. It didn’t give people real power as much as it should have done. Labour believed too much in the voice of the technical expert, and not in the power of ordinary people.

But the 1945 government built institutions that brought people together: the National Health Service, the National Parks, the Festival of Britain. It was one nation politics in practice.

It’s not an argument I’ve time to make here: but my hunch is that it’s the Conservatives who’ve been the real centralisers.


I’ve argued tonight that the crisis in Britain today is about the way our institutions are run.

The leaders of our institutions have broken their covenant with society.

We’re in danger of forgetting that people are motivated by more than individual self-interest. We’re at risk of creating a society in which no one takes responsibility, and no one has a genuine sense of authority.

This coalition government isn’t going to fix things, because it’s been taken over by the utilitarian approach. It is a tragedy for modern politics and not just the Conservative Party.

David Cameron’s leadership bid for the Conservative Party was a challenge to Labour for getting too technocratic and top-down in the way we governed. His ‘ big society’ and the ‘post-bureaucratic age’ were good ideas. Personally, I still support them!

His pro-social speeches were about compassion, community and responsibility. The same as Tony Blair until 2000.

Cameron started to push the Conservative Party back onto the common ground of one nation politics. That’s why people liked him. I liked him.

It was a bold move. But it failed. The big society needed good economic times. The 2008 financial crisis sunk it. The party is now dominated by its right wing – unpatriotic in pushing the Conservatives off the common ground.

Without effective leadership, I fear the raw utilitarians are becoming the loudest voices.

Instead of wanting one nation they are creating a divided country.

Their idea of progress and modernisation is cold and calculating.

They think the Tories will win next election with a combination of big infrastructure projects, marketisation and an intensification of free market ‘modernisation’.

It was their voice that dominated the Conservative response to Ed Miliband’s one nation conference speech.

The charge was led by Michael Gove, in a speech to think tank Politeai last month.

Gove used his critique of Ed’s speech to attack the tradition David Cameron is part of. The speech marks a break in modern-day Conservatism, the abandonment of one nation politics and its replacement with an unrelenting utilitarianism.

Gove makes one important point. He talked about the way our public culture doesn’t have room for experiment and failure.

But for there to be experimentation to work, you need to trust people, to allow different ways of doing things to happen. We need, in other words, institutions where people have a say, where there’s warmth, love, compassion. Where public sector workers and users have the time and confidence to support one another, to innovate, take initiatives, improve productivity.

I’m not saying we should forget about efficiency and productivity. In these tough financial times, we need to be efficient and productive.

But efficient transactions happen when people trust each other, when there’s personal contact. Tough conversations go better when people are honest and have a good relationship with each other. Efficiency happens when people are part of a team that is motivated by a sense of common purpose.

It’s about a leaders’ authority coming from the way they respond to being challenged.

But instead of getting people together to support each other, Gove tells a classically utilitarian story: we need more market and more government, more competition, but also more state.

Look at what’s happened in the ministry Gove runs:

We’ve seen compulsory phonic testing for six year olds.

We’ve seen restriction in the choices schools make over the curriculum.

We’ve seen a relentless focus on one way of measuring a pupil’s progression – the English Baccalaureate. As Alison’ Wolf’s excellent review of vocational education argue, good maths and English are essential for all young people.

But that’s not what this government is saying.

-Instead, they’re telling us there is only one way to be success in life: A-levels and a university degree from a Russell Group institution.

With the economy on tilt, and preparation for life after school so poor, it isn’t working out like that for even the brightest children in our schools.

Gove says: we can’t trust parents to hold teachers to account. We shouldn’t support teachers in finding their own ways to develop their students. They need, minute by minute, to be directed by regulations from a distant administrator.

It’s hardly surprising that one of Gove’s own advisors, John McIntosh, said last month that teachers were giving ‘robotic’ lessons’ because they’re trying to follow pressure from Ofsted.

In short, we in Labour need to build our own story of the big society. Cameron’s version was too abstract.

It was based on a simplistic distinction between state and society. It was all about creating active citizens without changing the way the state or market worked. It failed to recognise that it’s the way our institutions work which stop people getting involved.

There was no effort to reform public institutions or businesses to reflect people's sociable instincts.

The result was a kind of sham localism. A localism bill that gave ministers more power over local government.

Police Commissioner elections for a post no one knew about, with no effort to involve people in the conversation about local policing.

A public ‘right to challenge’ local authority service provision which gives local residents the power to trigger a compulsory competitive tendering process if they don’t like the way a council runs a service. From then onwards the market, not people, will decide.

This government is more interested in administering the system than reforming institutions so people can hold them to account. Cameron’s big society had no democracy.

So I suggest, with some sadness, that the Conservatives are increasingly ruled by an interest, an instinct and an ideology that is out of touch with the sentiments of people in this country.

The interest is finance.

It means we’re stuck with the same short-term, financially-driven approach that got us into this mess in the first place.

The instinct is that you can’t trust people.

The Conservatives don’t trust what happens when people get together, when they associate, talk, organise. Their idea of authority comes from a sense of hierarchy, not of dialogue and democratic accountability. It’s a view that leads to an extraordinary concentration of power.

The ideology is neo-classical economics, and the mad belief that all preferences can be priced, and market exchange result in ‘optimum’ outcomes.

The trouble is not that the market isn’t free enough. Faceless systems whether they’re created by the market or administrative rules, leave no space for authority that can be held to account.

What is to be done?

The Labour policy review is developing ideas about how we change the way we govern. For example, am emerging debate about the relational state and about relational welfare and about self-regenerating communities.

But I think we need to challenge the terms of argument in a more fundamental way.

We need to start talking about restoring the covenant between those who lead our institutions and the British people. To rebuild the vocation of political and managerial authority in our public sector.
For me, public leadership is not the technical task of delivering ‘outcomes’.

It’s the moral practice of getting people together. It’s about unlocking the capacity we all have to work collectively for the common good. It’s the same at every level, from the Prime Minister to the teacher in a primary school.

It’s about relationships and reciprocity.

It depends on a relationship with the people who work for you and who you serve. The back and forth of conversation, the personal touch, the ability to listen not just communicate ‘key messages’.

It’s about a sense of reciprocal obligation. The right to receive carries an obligation to help others in return.

The salaries we pay our public sector leaders aren’t the market price we pay to buy their skills. They are a consideration paid in return for their commitment and duty to those they serve.

We’ll only have public institutions with deeper relationships and a stronger sense of reciprocity if we change the way we hold their leaders to account. The power of the citizen, not the regulation written in Whitehall should be the force driving the improvement of our public services.

I’m not saying targets, exams, national guidelines aren’t sometimes useful.

But too often, the managers of our schools, hospitals, job centres see themselves as accountable to distant systems and processes. As a result many have lost the art of practical leadership which allows them to respond to the real voice and needs of the people they serve.

It creates a sense of disempowerment and loss of responsibility amongst the people who should stand up and take charge.

Our policy review is looking at ways to make the organised voice of citizens the driving force behind public sector improvement.

We’re drawing on the work of think-tanks and academics, but also people with practical experience of organising to create a common life in our public and private institutions.

Like London Citizens, with their work in fighting for the living wage and building relationships to make our neighbourhoods safer places.

Like Locality helping a new generation of community leaders

In the Labour Party, Iain McNicol and organisations like Movement for Change are building community organising into the party.

And the social enterprise Participle, with projects like Circle and Backr which create social networks so older people can find help and those out of work find jobs.

We want workers on the board of private companies, service users and workers to be involved in the governance of public institutions.

But its not just boards and governing bodies. The authority of our public sector leaders needs to be more visible, better able to publicly respond to challenge.

The leaders of schools and hospitals need to be skillful at conversing with the citizens they serve, able to tell a clear public story about their purpose, not just adept at managing data and filling in forms.

We need to renew the autonomous sense of virtue and vocation amongst public sector professions. Professionalism is about having pride in the quality of one’s work and having the confidence to be open to citizens’ challenge.

So we could see the leaders of public institutions held to account before annual assemblies. If we were bold, we could have public confirmation hearings for new public leaders. We could give local service users the power to challenge someone they think shouldn’t be in post.

It’d connect with the sensibilities of the British people; loyal to institutions that support us, but rebellious when people in power get ideas above their station.

We need to give local authorities more power over public spending, so they direct a greater proportion of public funds in response to democratically decided need. But we need to make sure councils don’t just become another out of touch bureaucracy on a small scale.

Their role should be to broker conversations between citizens and local institutions, weaving the different interests together in a place to create a single story about its future.

As a movement and as a government the criteria we use to judge whether to do something will be whether it brings people together; whether it will unlock the energy of people who want to care and work for the common good.

How do we build intermediary institutions that become the heart of their communities, where people meet, relate and create a common life.

That might mean shifting resources to fund public institutions which provide support in kind – free childcare, schools that become community centres, job-centres where people with skills volunteer to help nurture the talents of the unemployed.

Putting power in the hands of local citizens, users and workers means we need to take it away from the centre, reducing the scope of Whitehall to instruct and cajole.

Labour can only be a movement about association if it becomes the party of deregulation.

But we won’t deregulate to hand more power to the market. It’s about giving freedom to people to get together and work for the common good on their own terms, not compete. We should cut red tape to strengthen the power people have to hold institutions to account.

All this means a new style of national political leadership. It’s about telling a story about the destiny of our counties, towns and cities, then persuading citizens, and institutions to get involved.

There’s always tension and argument. Our politics needs to be more comfortable with disagreement than it is now. But, it must be driven by the faith that, if they are treated as dignified human beings, if they are giving a voice and real power, people can work together for the common good.

Politics is about the tension between hope and despair. Despair is made convincing by the utilitarianism of our political language. It leave little to live for.

Hope will come from our rediscovery of our sociability.

It will take a return to our rich traditions of volatile, inspirational cultures of non-conformity and creativity. Over centuries, English, Scots and Welsh radicals resisted efforts by the central state to mould society in its image. Our politics needs to take nourishment from that spirit.

We need a renewal of authority. But it can’t be based on the enlightened reason of a technocratic elite. It needs to be rooted in a new covenant between those in power and our vibrant, creative society. For Labour it is literally going to be a journey of self discovery- about what we have been and what we might be again.

Labour policy review head Jon Cruddas. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

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Moonshots for the Earth: are there technological fixes for climate change?

As the world gathers in Paris for the latest UN climate change conference, are there technological solutions for global warming? And where are the tech-utopians working to find them?

This article originally appeared in The Long + Short

At the end of August, as the northern hemisphere’s hottest summer on record drew to a close, a group of inventors, designers and engineers assembled in a grand stone castle an hour’s drive west of Paris. Château de Millemont was hosting a five-week ‘innovation camp’ for the pioneers behind 12 new projects, chosen for their contribution to achieving a world without fossil fuels. POC21 (Proof of Concept) was set up as an active, grassroots foil to cop 21, the 21st UN Climate Change conference in Paris, which begins at the end of November.

“Global emissions have doubled since the first UN climate summit in 1995,” says the POC21 video, amid images of environmental catastrophe, so “Let’s move from talking to building a better tomorrow.” The objective was to create workable open-source technology in the fields of energy, food and waste – life, basically.

Products that made it to the final 12 included a pedal tractor, a smartphone-controlled greenhouse and an antibacterial water filter. Daniel Connell, one of the chosen inventors, travelled to Paris from the UK for the event. He was picked because he’d created an impressive cost- and resource-efficient wind turbine design. You can make it for about £20 out of aluminium sheets, a bike wheel, rivets, washers and nuts and bolts.

“It’s entirely built from recycled or upcycled materials, and can be assembled by anybody with basic hand or power tools,” says Dominik Wind, core organiser of POC21. “While this makes his design a perfect fit for the people that need it most (the poor, the marginalised around the globe), it’s also the perfect design to build upon: it’s the basis to start from with more customised, possibly also more complex and more expensive iterations.”

Connell has been creating prototype technologies and tutorials for solar and wind designs while moving around the world over the last 10 years, traversing Canada, France, India and Spain. A 3D animator by trade, he is self-taught – he describes the Solar Flower, a DIY solar energy collector he created, as “my degree” – and set out to make an existing design for a wind turbine cheap and easy for people to use. “Technically, it could be $5 if you just pay for the rivets and get plates and a bike wheel for free,” he said.

A seasoned squatter, Connell made his project possible by sifting through scrap heaps, fixing up bikes and living on a few pounds a day so he wouldn’t have to work and could devote his time to the wind turbine. Connell’s ethos is inspired by the self-sufficient communities he grew up in as a child in New Zealand, and that country’s culture of ingenuity and making stuff. Since POC21, his product has improved and he’s showing it to students, retirees and other people who want to get off grid via workshops.

Connell is one of a number of green inventors working to ease the world’s transition to climate change. As wildfires spread, countries sink, species go extinct, floods and drought increase, seas rise, storms devastate, glaciers melt, crops fail, pollution decreases life expectancy and the potential for conflict grows, eyes look to the inventors, geniuses and entrepreneurs who surely can figure out a way of saving the planet.

When Pope Francis, in an unprecedented speech earlier this year, rejected market solutions for climate change, attacked “unfettered capitalism” and made a forceful moral plea, it raised the question: if individual behavioural changes aren’t realistic or enough, can’t technology provide a route out of the problem? Where is that technology? And is ‘techno-utopianism’ realistic in the context of the climate crisis?

Major companies are already divesting from fossil fuels – most recently the Rockefeller Foundation, the Church of England and Norway’s £900bn sovereign wealth fund – as burnable reserves run out and the climate change threat becomes more apparent; but local attention is also turning to how to transition to a greener world.

In the bowels of an east London theatre on a foggy Sunday afternoon a month or so after POC21, a panel discusses whether Hackney Council should divest its pensions away from fossil fuels. “There is an energy transition happening,” says Carbon Tracker’s Luke Sussams. Dr David McCoy, an expert in global public health, says, “We face an existential threat in terms of eco collapse… My 14-year-old daughter’s future does not look good.” He explains how global warming will affect disease patterns and prompt conflict over scarce resources. Yet there is some optimism about green developments in electric cars, renewable energies and Tesla’s new battery technology.

Bill McKibben, the campaigner and author who brought global warming to public consciousness with his 1989 book The End of Nature, and more recently the founder of international pressure group, is positive and excited about innovation in the green world. “The price of a solar panel dropped 75 per cent in the last six years,” he said, speaking from his home in Vermont. “The world’s engineers are doing their job; and doing it extraordinarily well.”

The move to renewable energy is under way. An Apollo-style research programme to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels recently won the backing of Sir David Attenborough and high-profile businesspeople, politicians and economists. Even Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has warned that the “vast majority of reserves are unburnable” if global temperature rises are to be limited to below 2C. But others think that it’s not enough, and consider geoengineering to be the grand techno-fix.

First presented as a big-idea solution to climate change in the 1960s, geoengineering proposals range from the seemingly fantastical – brightening the clouds; stirring the seas to change their temperature and cool the Earth; turning the ocean into a gigantic bubble bath to reflect the sun; covering the deserts in mirrors and sending parasols into space; mimicking the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo – to the more mundane: removing carbon from atmosphere and storing it somewhere else.

Although a number of scientists and researchers – including the Royal Society, which held a geoengineering ‘retreat’ in Buckinghamshire in 2011 – think geoengineering is an option worth considering, no one is actually doing it yet. Well, apart from Russ George, the businessman, entrepreneur and “DIY rogue geo-vigilante” who dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific ocean, triggering a 10,000-sq-km plankton bloom (plankton blooms suck carbon out of the atmosphere). Though the efficacy of his actions is still unclear, George was criticised for eco-terrorism, and was said to have contravened UN conventions.

The big problem with DIY geoengineering, and any geoengineering for that matter, is its potential for danger: we don’t know what would happen. David Keith, a professor of engineering at Harvard who developed a giant air-sucking wall to capture carbon, told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter, “It is hyperbolic to say this, but no less true: when you start to reflect light away from the planet, you can easily imagine a chain of events that would extinguish life on Earth.”

On the other hand, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) doesn’t seem, on the face of it, like playing god with our weather systems or trying, fruitlessly, to find a dimmer switch for the sun. A company called Skyonics claims its Skymine process can capture harmful pollutants and turn them into marketable products such as baking soda and bleach.

But to what extent can sucking carbon out of the air work? Sabine Mathesius, a climate modeller at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, wanted to see what CDR could achieve if five gigatons (an enormous, hypothetical amount) of carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere each year. Simulations found that the impact of this level of removal would not be significant at all, especially in terms of protecting the ocean, which is acidified by human-produced CO2.

“In the beginning I was surprised,” she said. “Like many people I also hoped that geoengineering could be a way to undo the harm we did with our CO2 emissions. But if you see how much CO2 we can get out of the atmosphere with the current technologies and what we are expected to emit in a business-as-usual scenario, you can already see that the impact of CO2 removal cannot be that big.”

CDR could be used as a supporting measure to avoid the worst scenario if emissions are reduced at the same time, Mathesius concluded. “What is not possible is just emitting the CO2 as usual and further expanding our industries and then using CDR to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Reducing emissions is the cheapest way to keep the CO2 levels low; and also the easiest way.” More promising technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture or artificial trees, would also require fertile land or would cost astronomic amounts, Mathesius says. So where then would she place her hope in terms of a techno-fix to solve climate change? “Clean energy to make it easier for people to emit less CO2.”

Carbon capture and storage gets short shrift from McKibben. “If you step back and think about it for a minute, it’s silly,” he says. “You can do it, obviously, but can you do it at a cost that makes any kind of sense? You can’t. No one’s been able to yet. You’re way better off just building the windmills in the first place. All it is is a solution designed to try and appease the power of the coal industry and offer them some kind of future.”

Those looking into this techno-fix are quite clear that solar radiation management or carbon capture is no substitute for reducing carbon emissions anyway. Bodies such as the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) and the Royal Society contain wary caveats, that geoengineering is not an alternative to reducing carbon consumption. McKibben calls them an “absurd set of ideas where people throw up their hands and say, ‘There’s no way we can solve this problem, so instead let’s fill the atmosphere with sulphur’.”

On the last day of April, Elon Musk entered the stage at his Tesla Design Centre in Hawthorne, California to thumping dubstep, whoops and ripples of applause. The billionaire business magnate nodded to the crowd of adoring fans and set out his vision for a complete transformation of how the world works. His 20-minute speech explained how a new invention – the Powerwall battery – would advance a complete overhaul of the world’s energy infrastructure. “This is how it is today… it sucks,” Musk began, gesturing to slides depicting factories belching out smoke.

The solution to getting from fossil fuel hell to a renewable-powered future, he explained, was his new product. Because “existing batteries suck,” he had developed the Tesla Powerwall: a wall-mounted, household battery on sale for $3,500 (£2,300). His statements were punctuated by cheers and screams from the crowd, especially when he revealed that the whole event had been powered by solar and Powerwall.

Musk believes that transitioning to electric cars and solar energy will contain the worst effects of climate change. His electric cars are improving all the time; the mass-market model is expected to be ready before 2020. Tesla open-sourced all its patents and technology in 2014 to encourage other people to advance the electric vehicle industry; and lots of major names in the automobile world have followed with designs for electric cars. “We need the entire automotive industry to remake, and quickly,” said McKibben. Musk has also proposed the Hyperloop, a new transport system he describes as “a cross between Concorde, a railgun and a hockey table”.

Advances in batteries radically change the picture of renewable energy, electric cars and transport systems; and important improvements are happening. At the end of October 2015, a group of Cambridge scientists made a major breakthrough with a rechargeable super-battery that can hold five times more energy as those we’re used to and can power a car from London to Edinburgh on a single charge.

Improved battery storage will change everything for green energy enthusiasts like Daniel Connell in the next few years. “This is why, apart from [a lack of] political will, we don’t have renewable energy: because storage levels don’t reach grid level. But before the end of the decade they will,” he explains.

One of the projects chosen for POC21, the French eco-castle retreat, was a design by a team from Berlin. Sunzilla, a diesel generator without diesel, fuelled by the sun, can be assembled by anyone. Germany is leading the way in the energy revolution with its energiewende, driven by Green politicians and the support of local citizens. In 2014, just over a quarter of German energy came from renewable sources; in 2050, the goal is 80 per cent. The German Green Party politician Ralf Fücks, author of a new book called Green Growth, Smart Growth, is a techno-optimist with faith in society’s ability to find a way out of the ecological crisis, although he cautions against the hubris of large-scale techno-fixes. Investment in green technologies and renewable energies are more realistic, he writes, than carbon capture and storage.

Fücks speak slowly, carefully and with an obvious delight in the natural world. “Spider silk is a wonderful substance,” he says at one point. “It’s more flexible than rubber and more solid than steel and we now have the skills to discover [its] molecular composition.” He cites the smooth skin of the shark and the self-cleaning surface of the lotus blossom as examples of biological productivity we can learn from and use for our own purposes, while decreasing CO2 emissions.

But biomimicry is in its early stages, and renewables have already crossed to the point of no return, as Fücks puts it. On the plus side, though, costs for solar and wind power have decreased considerably over the last five years.

Fücks sees opportunities for young entrepreneurs and startups in a world without global celebrities such as Bill Gates or Richard Branson. The environmental reform of industrial society, in his view, demands a combination of big and small. There is room for more Elon Musks.

The world of food is fertile ground for big ideas and green tech innovation. Last summer saw the publication of new technology proposals to turn the waste shells of prawn, crab and lobster into nitrogen-rich chemicals for use, say, in pharmaceuticals, carbon sequestration and animal feed, which would avoid industrial production using fossil fuels.

Farmers, too, are innovating worldwide. In Devon, Rebecca Hosking is using new land management techniques to make a contribution to fighting climate change. She uses a grazing method that purposely locks atmospheric carbon back into the soil. Instead of ploughing, her long-grass grazing technique keeps carbon in the roots, ploughing release-carbon from soil into the atmosphere. The more organic matter there is in the ground, the more it can trap in the carbon.

“Once you lock it in, and as long as you don’t plough or let your grassland dry out, then the carbon stays in the soil,” she says. “You know that climate change is happening, we do our bit and suck out as much carbon as we can.”

This method, which French farmers are also keen to implement, is similar in the way it works to a new, low-methane, genetically modified rice. SUSIBA2, the new rice, uses smaller roots, and produces less methane, one of the chief greenhouse gases. Scientists have also developed a feed supplement for dairy cows that could reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent.

Global warming is posing serious challenges to water supply; and we all know that the melting of glaciers is one detrimental effect of climate change. Cue another climate hero: Chewang Norphel, an 80-year-old retired civil engineer, has made 12 artificial glaciers in the last 30 years to provide water for the people of Ladakh, India. The Ice Man, as he is called, realised he could divert water through canals into frozen ice sheets, which would melt in spring and provide water for irrigation, agriculture and general local use. “Getting water during the sowing period is the most crucial concern of the farmers because the natural glaciers start melting in the month of June and sowing starts in April and May,” he told online news portal the Better India.

Ocean farmers are also growing kelp again to encourage a move away from environmentally costly meat-based diets. Indeed, 3D ocean farming proponents GreenWave quote a study that found a network of seaweed farms the size of Washington state could provide all the dietary protein for the entire world population.

Pope Francis’s recent address sounded a note of caution around technology as a solution to climate change. “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience,” he said.

Bill McKibben believes the key is solving the “structural systemic problem rooted in the balance of political power on our planet.” To make a difference, he says, an individual must “join with other people to build the kind of movement that can change those balances of power.” In Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, she writes about the Hollywood action movie narrative that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us are going to be saved: “Since our secular religion is technology, it won’t be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.”

But, while some techno-fixes recall the Greek hubris myth of Icarus, there is work to be done and hope to be found. Around the world, people are working to improve 3D printing technology and the usability of tutorials to explain how to make Connell’s DIY wind turbine or the German Sunzilla. Demand Logic, a company based in London, is using data to sweep big, commercial buildings in the city and work out where energy savings can be made.

Of the UN Climate Conference in Paris, McKibben says it will be most interesting to see whether countries will come up with the money to help poor countries leapfrog technologically. But he maintains that engineers and innovators are focusing their efforts in the right place, speeding up the transition from fossil fuels. Despite the Pope’s cautionary note, the industry of technology is crucial in the shift to a newly balanced planet. McKibben praised the good, cheap solar panels we already have, but said they could be much more efficient and easier to adopt. “There’s no shortage of crucial and interesting work for architects, engineers and financiers, and none of it requires telling yourself science fiction stories, the way that you have to if all you can think of is, ‘Let’s put a giant piece of film in space to block the sun’.”

This article originally appeared in The Long + Short, Nesta's magazine of innovation, new ideas and how the world is changing. Follow them on Twitter, @longshortmag.