Tanks Cannot Stop This Crisis, So Let's Stop Building Them

Our brains struggle with big, painful change. The rational, least painful change is to stop wasting money building tanks

What would we be doing now if we
took climate change seriously? Last week the government released a
report on the likely temperature changes in the UK. It shows that life
at the end of this century will bear no relationship to life at the
beginning. It should have dominated the news for days. But it was too
far away, too remote from current problems, too big to see.

the past few months Lord Giddens, one of the architects of New Labour,
has been touting the hypothesis that people are reluctant to act on
climate change until it becomes visible to them, by which time it
will be too late. This thought, which has been common currency within
the environment movement for at least 20 years, has been christened by
this shrinking violet the "Giddens Paradox". It ranks among his other
major discoveries, like the Giddens Postulate (people wear fewer
clothes when temperatures rise) and the Giddens Effect (the Earth goes
round the Sun). But despite his outrageous expropriation, the point
remains a valid one. We will resist taking radical action until we have
no choice, whereupon it will have no effect.

Our resistance to
change is not peculiar to environmental issues. Even when confronted
by crisis, we try to stick to the script. As the coaching theorist David Rock and the research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz note, just one in nine people who have had
coronary bypass surgery take their doctor's advice to lose weight and
exercise more. Part of the problem, they show, is that confronting
change means making use of parts of the brain which require more energy
to engage.

When you drive along familiar roads, for instance, the brain's basal ganglia
function as a kind of autopilot, performing routine functions without
the need for conscious thought. When you go abroad, and have to drive
on the other side of the road, you must make use of the prefrontal
cortex, which burns more energy than the basal ganglia. We perceive
high levels of energy use much as we perceive pain. For good biological
reasons we seek to avoid them. We engage with change only when we have

That's a horribly simplified account of some very complex
processes, but you get the general idea. Change is pain, a change for
the worse is double pain. We pretend it's not there, up to - often
beyond - the point at which it starts hammering on the door.

environmentalists seek to persuade us that we'll love the green
transition. Downshifting, voluntary simplicity, alternative hedonism -
whatever they call it, it's presented as a change for the better. A new green deal
will save the planet, the workforce and the economy. Energy efficiency
will protect the bottom line as well as the biosphere. A less frantic
life will allow us to enjoy the small wonders that surround us.

is both exaggeration and truth in all this, but effective action also
involves a change for the worse: regulation, rationing, austerity,
state spending. "Little by little," the Roman historian Livy wrote
2,000 years ago, "we have been brought into the present condition in
which we are able neither to tolerate the evils from which we suffer,
nor the remedies we need to cure them."

Everything we need to do
has been made harder by debt. Net state debt now exceeds PS700bn. The
RBS and Lloyds shambles will add between PS1 trillion and 1.5tn.
National debt is likely to reach 150% of GDP next year: well beyond the
point at which the IMF declares developing countries basket cases.

introduces two environmental problems. The first is that there is no
money left with which to fund a green new deal. The second is that
we'll be able to pay off these debts only by resuming economic growth.
Greenhouse gases grow because the economy grows. The UK's liabilities
make the transition to a steady state economy, let alone a managed
contraction, much harder to achieve. They appear to commit us to
either growth or default for at least a generation. The debt crisis is
an environmental disaster.

So we are left with only painful
choices. We should be spending tens of billions a year to prevent
climate breakdown, but how? Borrow the money and exacerbate the
crisis? Raise taxes? Cut the health and education budgets? Any of the
above would enhance public resistance to change. The least painful
approach is to cut services that are of no use to anyone.

are plenty of them. The prison building programme would yield a couple
of hundred million a year if it were replaced with non-custodial
schemes. The government could trim a billion or two from the Olympics
budget without much tearing of cloth. The identity card scheme would
be unmourned to the tune of half a billion a year. Nor would we be
deafened by the gnashing of teeth if, as I suggested in May, the
Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform were
scrapped, saving PS1.8bn a year. But this is still the wrong order of
magnitude. Scanning the government's departmental spending limits, one
figure jumps out. It accounts for 12% of state spending; a bigger
budget than any department has except health and schools. Of the PS38bn
this office spends every year, almost all is wasted.

At the end
of 2003, the Ministry of Defence observed that "there are currently no
major conventional military threats to the UK or Nato ... it is now clear
that we no longer need to retain a capability against the re-emergence
of a direct conventional strategic threat". So why is most of this
ministry's budget spent on retaining a capability against the emergence
of a direct conventional strategic threat?

To read the MoD's
spending stats is to read the accounts of a lost world: a faraway land
where threats and funds are unlimited. Its private finance initiative
service charges (PS1.3bn) exceed the entire budget of the department of
energy and climate change. The department for international
development could be funded twice over from the MoD's budget for
capital charges and depreciation (PS9.6bn). Property management sucks
up PS1.5bn a year, consultants and lawyers PS470m, bullets, bombs and the
like, PS650m.

What does it give us? Our wars make us less safe. We
would be better protected from terrorism and global instability if the
UK's armed forces stopped going abroad to make trouble. No one in
office can produce a coherent account of why this money is needed: the
ministry's budget is sustained by the greed of contractors and
nostalgia for imperium long passed. We could cut defence spending by
90% and suffer no loss to our national security. Instead, the MoD has
just dropped its spending on climate change research. This accounted
for a quarter of the Met Office's climate programme.

The last
time we faced a crisis on the scale of the global climate crash, the
rational solution was to build tanks. Now the rational, least painful
solution is to stop building tanks, and use the money to address a real

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