Episode #89 Power to the People: an Energy R-Evolution for the 21st Century with Howard Johns
How are we going to create the power that we need in a world where fossil fuel use has to end? How can we end the central control of power and keep safe our data in a world where data-mining is a pernicious – and lucrative – as coal mining? Howard Johns has spent all his professional life finding answers.
Howard was a climate activist on the front lines until he realised that he needed ways to say ‘yes’, instead of ‘no’.
Accordingly, he set about building solutions, eventually founding Southern Solar a national solar energy company, and Ovesco a locally owned renewable energy cooperative. At the same time he chaired the trade body representing the UK solar industry, finding himself once again a campaigner around energy policy in the process.
A believer in solutions, Howard is convinced we have all the technology and money we need to implement the climate and energy solutions we need. It is now time for lots of people to get involved with making it happen.
Manda: My guest this week is an energy engineer, an entrepreneur, a business leader. He has been an advisor to several governments and ministers of state. And he’s the author of the book Energy Revolution Your Guide to Repowering the Energy System. Howard Jones, as you’ll hear, started off climbing up trees in the way of bulldozers, trying to be part of the solution. And then he realised that instead of saying no, he needed to find ways to say yes. And he has become one of the world’s foremost experts in how we change our power from the way that it is to the way that it needs to be. And power, in all its senses, is at the heart of the changes that we need to make. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Howard Jones.
Manda: So, Howard Jones, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you for joining us on this sunny afternoon. How are things down in the southeast, wherever it is you live? I can’t remember, is it Hastings?
Howard: I’m in Sussex, so just outside Lewes. Afternoon. Thank you very much for having me on on this podcast. Yeah, it’s actually a bit of sun today here as well, which is a real relief, isn’t it, after all this crazy rain that we’ve been having?
Manda: Yeah, but we needed the rain. Speaking as a farmer, we were getting really worried that we weren’t going to see any. So it was rather too much. But that’s the world that we’re heading into is too much sun followed by too much rain. And we need to build the soil up to become a sponge and then we’ll be a bit better.
Manda: So you are many things. You’re the author of The Energy Revolution. You set up Southern Solar, you set up OVESco. You used to be a climate activist. You are, as far as I can tell, still a climate activist. But instead of climbing up trees, you’re creating things. You’re saying yes instead of saying no. Can you situate us a little bit? Give us a sense of how the Howard Jones of today grew out of the Howard Jones that you used to be?
Howard: Yeah, sure. I guess. Well, I mean, my climate awakening was quite early compared to most in that I studied energy and environmental engineering at age 18. And one of the first, we had a lovely professor who was lecturing us about climate change at that stage. So that was the early 90s. And I was completely blown away by it. And I was totally captivated from that age on. And so my whole adult life really has been an exploration of how we can have impact in terms of our, you know, reduction of the impact of humanity on all the planet. I guess at first, you know, what comes when you have these realisations is rage and powerlessness. And what came pretty quickly for me was activism. So my first my first act of defiance was ethical shoplifting, mahogany from Harrods, which was which was great fun. We took it to the local police station and reported it stolen from the indigenous peoples of Brazil. There was an amazing woman, Angie Zalta, who’d researched the supply chain of Harrods and found out that there was all this illegal mahogany in there, basically. So the police were rather bemused when we turned up with all this stolen goods from Harrods. But it was an amazing thing. Anyone who’s put their body on the line in defence of something they believe in will know that it’s an amazingly powerful and alchemic thing to do as an individual.
You know, when you’re faced with this immense problem to just say, I lie down in front of this or I put myself in front of it. So for me, that was a very important step. And I was evicted from a tree on an open cast mine site, probably like three or four years on from that first foray into activism. And again, you know, it was a really powerful experience for me that I was nearly dropped out of the tree and I was on the ground before, you know, as the tree hit the ground, I was lowered to the ground, sort of thing. But I guess what I realised with that was that, you know, when you’re in opposition, it’s very hard to make progress, you know. And I realised that, you know, yes, we had an amazing time. The road protests and that whole movement was incredible. It was an amazing experience, people from all walks of life. And it felt like there was this united force, moving through us basically, a bit like what’s happened with Extinction Rebellion recently, you know, people just said, enough, we’re going to do something. And that was so brilliant. But what I was left with was that actually the majority of people just thought I was mad for that whole period. They just thought I was mad. You know, from when I started ranting about climate change, they just thought, you’re crazy.
And probably the alienation between me and the average person was pretty high at that point when I’m like there, long haired, living in a tree. Most people just thought I was completely unhinged. And actually then I realised, you know, that this is a problem that everyone is part of. We’re all part of this story. And so unless we can build things that people feel that they can be part of the solutions, we’re never going to change it. You know, if we’re in opposition with what’s normal, then you’re just going to create a divide, you know, and so from the sort of closure of that open cast mine site or rather the opening of it, we lost the battle on that one. And they built the line, and cut down the last old growth oaks in that valley in South Wales, which was you know, the seed bank for that community, really. But, yeah, coming out of that, you know, I just realised that we have to build solutions and we have to build things that people can say yes to. So I had various roles, actually retrained as a plumber and electrician so that I could work out how to build solar systems. In in 99, I tried to build my first you know, I was doing practical jobs, you know, retrofitting people’s homes by trying to build my first community energy company in 99 in Brighton.
And again, people just thought I was completely mad. And I ended up it was a complete disaster. And, you know, I fell out with the people I was doing it with. And, you know, it all went completely wrong, I guess, in 2002, then I had a very clear sense that I could do something around solar. And so then set up my first successful business, which was Southern Solar, which I grew from me. I doubled it every year for 10 years. So sort of exponential growth, to a team of 120 people, you know, doing hundreds of installations every month all across the country. And that was an amazingly positive and powerful journey, sadly ended with taking the government to the high court three times. And I found myself in the activist seat again. I did six weeks straight while I was on at least one broadcast media out that day, if not five. And I was on the front of the FT and the Independent on Sunday, and you name it. And I ended up then, you know, being absolutely in loggerheads with the minister after being an advisor to the previous minister. Then I was suddenly the protester with the conservative minister at the time and was ritually marched out of Whitehall and told never to come back. And sadly, then had to close Southern Solar. And, you know, it was a really very challenging and painful period.
Manda: Was this then the transition from the last Labour government to the Tory government when they came into power and just shut down community solar?
Howard: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Manda: Do you know why they did that? Because as far as I understand it, it wasn’t just you, there were 18000 jobs lost overnight, and for all that, the Tories have a lot going for them or not going for them, crushing jobs doesn’t always seem to be part of their remit. Why did they do that? Because you were clearly doing well.
Howard: Well, it’s a very interesting question, and there’s probably not a clear answer. The clearance, the narrative from their side was this is going to cost the country billions of pounds.
Manda: In feed-in tariffs?
Howard: Yeah. So the back story is that quite a while before we had a Chatham House meeting and suggested that perhaps they needed to change the support structure slightly to make it less generous, and so to take a bit of heat out of the market. And sadly, that hadn’t been acted upon.
Manda: That was in the Blair era?
Howard: No, that was that was with the Conservatives, actually. Yeah. So the Conservatives just inherited a system which they didn’t run properly, really. I mean, the gut feeling was that sadly, the minister who was responsible really loved it and was on our side. But the surrounding team hung him out to dry and basically just tried to shut the scheme overnight. And that’s why we ended up in a massive battle. As it was they didn’t shut it overnight. They reduced it to a sensible level. But unfortunately, what that did was shut down the industry and we lost 5000 companies in about six months. So it was brutal. In the background, in the sort of 10 year period, there have been lots of other great stuff going on. I mean, so the Transition movement for me was a brilliant thing that kicked off. So Lewes, my local town, was the second Transition Town. Suddenly I found myself in a group of people saying, well, why don’t we just set up a company that we could own that would have, you know…
Manda: I tried, I tried!
Howard: I’ve arrived, I’ve arrived! And I was just 10 years too early, you know, and here I am now, and people are saying, let’s do this. And I’m like, OK, well, I actually now I’ve got a blueprint, and here’s the plan. So we just got on with it. I wrote the business plan and managed to set it ,we first started managing a grant scheme for the local council. And then I saw the opportunity to build the first community owned sort of solar rig. It was all happening at the same time. So we knew the feed in tariff were going to be cut. So when we launched the OVESco as a thing in the town hall, we stood up and said, this is what we’re trying to do. We had three weeks to raise three hundred and thirty thousand pounds and build the project, and we did it. So that was great fun. It was a bit hair raising at moments, but it felt to me just a really important matter of principle, just to demonstrate that community could come together to take tangible action. And that wasn’t just linked to whether you could afford to do it yourself, on your home. Because part of what’s powerful about community energy and, you know, engaging people in these stories is, you know, again, it’s that, can you see yourself in it? Because essentially people are only going to make a change if they can see they’re part of the story. And so partly that was what was so important for me with the OVESco, was to demonstrate that model. And then, you know, and then see it spread.
And I remember one of my, I guess one of my peak moments from that story was I was in Canada and I was talking at a conference there on the sort of European solar market. And I saw, oh, there’s a stream of community energy. Brilliant. How exciting. I’m going to find out what’s going on. And I sat down in the auditorium to listen. And there were some great stories there. But the thing that knocked me off my chair was that the first because stood up and said, oh, you know, our community energy company. Well, we heard about this story in England, and then she held up the OVESco share offer – and we decided just to do it. We thought it was such a good idea. And I was just like, wow, they hadn’t even contacted us, do you know whaty I mean?
Manda: They just read it, and they’d gone off and done it.
Howard: And again, that was so my intention, to create something that captured the imagination, that people go well we could do that, you know, why don’t we just do it, you know? I mean, I have loved that journey, but I guess I feel like the challenge with community energy is that it’s often community led, which means that it’s not resourced properly, and we don’t achieve scale because of it. You know, we have an infrastructure problem. You know, basically, we have infrastructure that requires us to pollute the planet and create masses of carbon emissions for us to just be OK. Heating our homes, driving our cars, growing our food and lots of stuff, particularly our homes and our workplaces.
Now, the only solution is to fix the infrastructure, you know, and to do that is going to cost trillions. It’s going to involve every home in the country and, you know, all over the world. There’s 27 million homes in the U.K. There’s only one million solar systems on homes right now. So if you think about every time you stick, you know, a few kilowatts of solar electric on someone’s roof, basically you rob the existing infrastructure of a kind. Effectively, they become a they become a drain on the utilities rather than a rather than a profit centre. And so the long winded answer to why that happened. Is that really OK? The utilities, in fact, when I wrote the book, I interviewed lots of different politicians about, both in Germany, UK, in different parts of the world. Lovely woman, Laura Sandys, who works in energy now, whose father was the guy behind the Clean Air Act. And he was very supportive of renewables industry. He was an adviser to the ministers. He said to me, we know how much utilities know their business model is over. They know they’ve got 10 years at best, but they’re playing for 20. And the way you pay for it is you control the political process. You know, that is the truth of what’s going on.
Manda: So this is we’re sailing towards the edge of the cliff and we know we’re going to fall off the edge of the cliff, but we’re going to slow the ship down a little bit so that we can carry on partying. But that’s going to make the fall off into the cliff more inevitable, basically.
Howard: Yeah, well, and again, you know, this is the whole stranded assets thing. You know, if you think about the business models of the utilities, their business model is: I own this big lump of power generation. Now, I’ve invested 100 million into building it. Now, the business model is you guys at the end of the pipe, at the end of the wire, you were going to pay for this for the next 25 years. So if you suddenly start deserting me, I can’t pay my investors back. You know, I can’t provide the returns to shareholders. That’s pension funds. You know, this is the problem. This is why there’s inertia in some ways.
Manda: So what do we do about that? Let’s take a little Segway away from power, which is you’re saying, but whatever we do, whatever we talk about in this podcast, it comes back to the current economic system is maintaining the status quo, is perpetuating the catastrophe, is making sure that we’re not changing fast enough. Have you had thoughts, I mean, you must’ve clearly thought very deeply about all of this, about how we could change the economic system? Because it may cost trillions to change the infrastructure, but it’s not like the money is being burned in a field. It’s going to people who then pay tax. You know, it circulates in the economy, unless it’s leaking out into somebody’s offshore account in the Panamas, it comes back to the government. It’s not going away.
Howard: Yeah. No, I think to be honest, in some ways you have, I mean, yes, basically, we have all, in my opinion, we have all the resources we need in terms of money: it’s in the wrong place. We have the technology we need, already there. It just needs deploying. What’s lacking in part is the collective social imagination to put structures in place that enable this transformation. You know, yes, it is stuff I’m working on. I still wouldn’t say I have the answer. I feel like I’m getting closer to having a piece of the puzzle moving forward. But, you know, I think there’s some really exciting things happening in our culture at the moment in that it’s apparent that, you know, things are breaking down. Not just climate, but actually what we accept is breaking down. What we think is OK has changed. What we think is possible has changed, but also people’s sense of place. You know, following this crazy two years where we’ve been told by nature to sit in our bedrooms and think about our behaviour. And people have been doing that, know and actually they’ve realised that there’s more, you know, there’s other things that really matter. You know, when suddenly seeing your nearest and dearest is a great day, the frame has changed, you know. So I think we’re in this really exciting place. I mean, I’ve been really heartened, particularly by the student climate movement globally. And I think for me that, you know, if we can somehow, basically we need a climate movement: the solutions movement. You know, so we start, you know, like me, start with the anger. You put your body on, you know, you lie in the road to stop the traffic. When you get up from the road and you try and think about, OK, what do I do next? I can’t lie on the road every day.
You know, what we need to do is build a bunch of templates of businesses that basically roll out solutions at scale. Now that’s energy, that’s regenerative farming, relocalization of food supplies, that’s rewilding, that’s replanting forests, that’s providing health care to people that don’t have it around the world. You know, it’s core stuff. I was talking to this amazing woman recently who’s super prize-winning. But basically she saw the refugee crisis happening and she just said, just something in my core, I just said, I’ve just got to go. She flew to Turkey, just on her own back. She had no idea where she was going. And she ended up setting up refugee camps. Now, I had a conversation with her about, OK, there’s going to be a lot of climate refugees. Now, what we should be doing is turning those refugee camps into the pinnacle of human achievement, so that people want to be there. You know, we have the technology. You know, we know how to grow food locally in an organic, sustainable way. We know how to generate power where we are. We could make those places really comfortable, and inspire people around the world with the fact that actually, there is a much better way to live. And you know what? The people who are most vulnerable have started to do it. And I think that’s the sort of depth I’m coming from. I feel like we need to build structures that fix problems here, that basically have reciprocity built into them.
Manda: Say more about that?
Howard: So I don’t want to buy anything that doesn’t plant a tree, that doesn’t fund rural electrification, that doesn’t do something good somewhere else. Because I thinkpart of why our society has gone wrong, and you know, I’ve done a lot of work over the years with shamanic practises, and that sort of stuff. And when you’ve worked with some indigenous folks, what you see is that they start with gratitude, and they end with gratitude, and they start with giving. And they are so generous, actually, with their giving. And I feel really honoured to have had the opportunity. But I feel like there’s a simple switch we could make in our society, and that is if we embedded some giveaway into every transaction that we made, I think the energetic of the planet will change. And I think we will solve the issues very quickly, actually, because I think we’ve got this infrastructure problem. You know, it’s the infrastructure problem that will create the biggest army of workers that’s ever been seen. And they won’t just be an army of workers building crap that people don’t want, you know, pre landfill construction. There won’t be an army of workers throwing stuff away. There’ll be an army of workers with a purpose. And the purpose will be writing this pathway for humanity, you know, and for me, that’s a really hopeful, hopeful thought. You know, it’s funny because I’ve been doing these talks to students recently, because what I witness is that, you know, people are getting out on the streets and actually they’re in despair.
And you know, being out on the streets is, you know, that’s the pinnacle of it for them, because they feel powerful in that moment. But out of that moment of anger, a moment of empowerment, a moment of collective action, they’re in despair. They don’t know what to do. And so I’ve been doing these talks to students called From Extinction to Restoration. So, yeah, I talk through the dark stats of the moment, the Greenland ice shelf and the, you know, freak weather patterns and everything else that’s going on that’s so apparent, even more apparent this year. Then I talk to them about the opportunity. So all of the structures that we’ve built have to change. You know, there is no two ways about it. They’re going to change, and they’re already changing. You know, it’s a question of where do they want to put their energy? You know, where do they see themselves in that story? What’s the thing that ignites them? Yeah. You know, do they want to get involved with replanting the Amazon rainforest? There’s so many areas you could work on. And the question is how we make that viable for people to do that. You know, so I mean, there’s some brilliant examples out there.
I supported a lovely woman, Claire, who runs Tree Sisters. She’s out planting. Well, I did some events with her a while back. I think she was at about two and a half million trees. And she’s now got 20 million trees planted and modelled all around female empowerment, which, of course, it’s one of the key things for climate solutions, is how we empower women. You know, that’s going to be one of the biggest things we can do. So female empowerment and planting trees are like the top in the top three, I believe, of project drawdowns, recommendations as to what we should all do. So, you know, it’s great. But there’s another one, like Health and Harmony, there’s a charity that have been working in Sumatra. You know, all those horrendous pictures or films you see of orang-utans being pulled out of trees. So the community there spent 10 years there, and they’ve now they basically provided health care for the people there in exchange for their chainsaws. So they stopped cutting down the forest, and then they trained them in organic agriculture, and they basically started then paying them to replant the forests. They’ve planted thousands of hectares already. So that’s the sort of model we need to build. You know, that’s working with local people, that’s respecting, you know, indigenous knowledge, particularly calling forward indigenous knowledge, and using the repair of our culture and our infrastructure to fund that, basically. And that’s what I’m hoping we can do collectively moving forward.
Manda: So there are so many ways we could go with this. I can feel an entire series of podcasts. I am really interested in, it seems to me there’s a dichotomy. Everything that you’ve described at the moment is functioning within the current economic system. So Tree Sisters, the refugee camps, the reforesting in Sumatra, presumably are all being funded somehow within what is essentially an extractive model. And we have a government that that very recently put out some kind of item in the Telegraph that the way to solve climate change is for people to not rinse their plates before they put them in the dishwasher. There is a degree of disconnect somewhere between those who get it, and those who just absolutely don’t. And part of the problem we have is that the ones who really don’t are still holding most of the reins of power. And while we are replanting, people are replanting the Sumatran rainforest, other people are still busy bulldozing it, because bare land is worth more than trees.
Howard: Well, and because wood pulp is making cheap clothes. Viscose.
Manda: Yeah. Or even being shipped to the UK, to go into our non coal energy production. So, you know, there are cycles within cycles. And so how do we, and you said we want to start with moving towards the indigenous concept of giving and gratitude, and switch everyone to a system where we give away with every transaction. And I’m remembering tramping around the streets of the West Midlands ahead of the 2019 general election, which was one of the most grounding experiences, as well as deeply discouraging of my life, of how do we connect with people for whom the end of lockdown meant they were able to get on a plane to Spain again? Or simply people for whom, they’re holding down three separate jobs because that’s the only way to pay the rent, because we have no rent controls. How are we going to reach the people who aren’t the ones who are currently throwing themselves out onto the streets and risking 10 years in prison because they are so desperate?
Howard: It’s a really good question. I think you have to go and listen. You have to go and talk to them. You know, you have to go. And actually, I mean, we need to provide solutions to the problems that they’re facing, you know, on some level, on some deep level, you know. I mean, I guess, you know, when I look at that and I think of it, why are they in poverty? In part because they’re living in a house that’s really poor quality. They’re spending too much on their energy. They don’t have decent nutrition in their lives. You know, these are things that we could so solve. And actually, they could be a win win for many aspects. I guess, you know, you started talking about the economic system. And on the one hand, yes, we need to shift to a circular economy, one that’s not extractive. Yes, definitely. I guess my concern with that talk of massive transformation of our economic system is our economic system and our political system are very much coloured by corporates that we all fuel, actually. And seeking massive transformation in those, or rather postponing action whilst we try and get massive change.
You know, we know we’re halfway to the point where the atmosphere is going to dissipate and water will leave this planet. You know, three degrees, I think is where you get to that point, isn’t it?
Manda: I didn’t know that. Can you talk us through that?
Howard: As the, you know, the runaways start to happen. You know, this stuff. I mean, I studied all this stuff back in the early 90s. And so if we get to this point, then the permafrost is going to melt, and that’s going to release loads of methane.
Manda: Which is happening. Yes.
Howard: It’s happening. So the inertia is something that people don’t understand. The inertia of the climate change that we’ve unleashed is something we don’t understand. The planet is going to keep warming. If we stop all emissions tomorrow, the planet will keep warming for, and we planted a trillion trees, the planet’s going to keep warming for 50 years at least, if not a few hundred years. You know, if we carry on as we are we’ll be racing to four and a half degrees before we know it. And at that point, as I understand it, and basically the atmosphere will dissipate because plants create the atmosphere. So if we start getting massive desertification across the planet, then the atmosphere will go. And following that will be water. And you end up with the desert planet, basically. So that is the sort of worst case scenario, isn’t it?
Manda: It really is.
Howard: And again, when you look at when you look at, you know, this sort of regional impacts and, you know, there’s this concept that if, you know, like human body, you know, if you get more than 30 percent burns, you’re likely to die. Now, if we scorch enough of the planet, then basically it’s likely that the ecosystem will go into self-destruct mode because of those reinforcing feedback loops. So things like the Amazon rainforest, you know, if you deplete a certain proportion of that, then it will start to basically be unviable because it creates the rain. You know, the Amazon rain forest, the water that comes out of the Amazon, it travels like 150 miles out into the ocean, and the rain that’s created by the trees there travels around the world. So the moment you start having, you know, that tipping point in the Amazon, then you shut down, the water retreats from the land, basically. The trees keep the water on the land. You know, they create that freshwater cycle for us, you know, so it’s very simple. It’s a set of physical properties that we’re working with here. You know, we either replant the forests or it’s going to go the wrong way. We just have to do it. It’s simple as that.
Manda: Why do the people in charge not get this? Because you obviously worked with a minister who did. The people currently in charge are not light years away. They’re in the same party. And yet one has to assume they just don’t get this, because otherwise they would be acting in ways that they’re not.
Howard: I think that, again, it’s about what’s palatable. You know, when you’re faced with an immediate threat, we know now that you could just print money and just do what the how you like to try and combat that threat. But what is not happening with climate is that the general population, yes, they are worried about climate change, but they do not see this as an immediate threat to their lives.
Manda: Yeah, OK, we’re back to the frog in the pot, even though that’s not actually true. But it’s a useful metaphor.
Howard: Exactly. So it’s that stuff, basically. And because politics is so short term, you know, if you reference back to indigenous cultures, you would have had the strutting leader, but behind them, you’d have had the elders, the council of elders, the grandmothers, generally grandmothers who would have appointed that chief and who would have had, who wouldn’t have wanted to intervene. But if they did intervene, he would have done what they recommended, you know, and that’s what’s missing. Again, someone said that the American political system was based on the Iroquois teachings, basically, and their law, the Great Law of Peace. And they missed, in the electoral colleges, the bits where you select the candidates was actually meant to be the council of elders. And they basically got that wrong? So not only did they have slavery in at the start, which was obviously completely wrong, they had this missing piece.
Manda: And they took the bits that suited them, and they ignore the bits that they didn’t want.
Howard: Exactly. Exactly. But I’m no expert on that stuff. But, you know, again, politics without wisdom is always going to be short term. So I think, my gut feeling is the only, you know, there is going to be an emergence of a new way, I think, and I think it will be, I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going on around self organising structures globally. So the Tao concepts, I’m involved with one of those, which is a regenerative currency idea, which is called Seeds, which is worth checking out. And that’s, you know, basically saying, well, look, you know, central banks just print money. Why can’t we just create value, and use it for regeneration?
Manda: Yes, because the day the guys with all the dollars stop, when dollars stop being powerful, then they stop having any power. It’s… Jeff Bezos becomes an ordinary guy. If if dollars are of no value, suddenly.
Howard: They’re collective spells, aren’t they? And they are very much an abstract construct that we have created, in part, that creates misery. It creates planetary discomfort, destruction. You know, it’s like we’ve created this spell that’s become all powerful. It doesn’t exist. You may have a few notes in your pocket, but it tangibly doesn’t exist, doesn’t have any root in value in terms of like the natural world. But we all believe in it, and we allow it to inflict intense pain on most of the world. You know, it’s a dream we’ve come up with, we can change dreams. But the question is who’s going to lead that? And I guess my sense is that the leadership is going to come from people. It’s going to come from grassroots movements. It’s going to come from, you know, us tweaking the current system, because I don’t think we’ve got time to sort of totally rebuild a new one. I think we can start that. We can build these lifeboat communities and ideas like that. But I think what we’ve got to do is, OK, how do we put some good back into capitalism first and foremost? Because capitalism, it is a very powerful construct. You know, it’s OK if we want to retrofit 27 million homes, actually, if we can get the right framework there, then capitalism could be a brilliant way to drive that. The question is, do we do it? What harm do we cause in doing it, what are the what are the externalities that might be caused by doing that?
Manda: Because often they’re not obvious at the time. You only realise what the externalities were after the impact this happened.
Howard: No, completely. Completely.
Manda: But even so, we have to try.
Howard: We’ve got to give it a go.
Manda: Do you think, we talked about this a lot when I was at Schumacher doing the Master’s in Economics. How to get the soft landing. Because what you’re trying to do effectively is change a Boeing 747 into a helicopter in midair. And that, generally speaking, is not a good idea. But how do you get the soft landing that isn’t a crash out in mid-air? And all of the avenues we went down as sort of ideas, we get to the point where if this succeeds, the people with power are going to try to shut us down. We have to get them on board somehow. And you said quite near the beginning when you were talking about sitting up trees and you had a sense of tribe with your fellow researchers, but total alienation from everybody else. And that what we need to do is create a system that brings everybody on board. And quite clearly, that’s true, because if we end up with an us and them, whatever the us is and however much we think it’s right, we lose so much human creativity in the battle between the us and them that we’re going to head off the cliff. So have you any sense of seeds? You seem to be involved in so many inspiring things, of seeds that will bring the existing structure along with us rather than creating competition? Does that make sense as a question?
Howard: Yeah, totally. Well, I mean, the classic one here is so we have this infrastructure problem. I guess to me, I think what we have to do is build structures. I mean, we need it. So like, I love activism. You know, it’s such an important thing in our community, you know, because it creates the edge. It creates space for a different conversation to happen. And that is so important, you know, and so, blessings on all the people who’ve put their their lives on the line over the years and quite literally across the Amazon. You know, we know every week there’s another activist who’s killed around the world. You know, massive gratitude for me to everyone who’s ever gone out on a march with a banner, even. You know what I mean, it’s so important. But essentially, the movement we need to build now cannot be one that alienates people. It needs to be an inclusive movement, and it needs to be an inclusive movement based on practical solutions that impact people’s everyday lives. You know, my community energy work was, you know, in part, to try and have a go at that. Now, again, you know, I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved, but for me, it just, it wasn’t big enough, you know. We need to bring millions of people together around the world in a way that’s transparent, that we can have very clearly negotiated contracts of trust between the different parties, the different actors, because essentially climate is all of our problem. Now, those of us that animate about it are very upset about lots of stuff, worried about our children. People in the middle maybe aren’t. If you’re a pension fund manager, you are worried about climate because it’s going to screw your returns, because your pension fund is invested heavily in the fossil fuel industry. Now they are going to have to finish their businesses, and there’s nowhere to put that money right now. But, you know, we can go on about divestment, but unless we generate the volume of investments are secure enough for them to put that money in…
Manda: They won’t divest.
Howard: They won’t do it.
Manda: They can’t. OK, so we can create an energy system that is a viable alternative for them. That’s what you’re saying.
Howard: Exactly. You know, that’s the whole thing. Now, obviously, like in my day job at the moment, I work for a listed equities fund, so doing exactly that. So we’ve got pension fund money, and we invest it in large scale renewable product projects, basically. And I manage those. So I have about one 1.2 billion dollars worth of solar projects across the UK and Europe that I manage. We’re in a moment of rapid growth, which is really great fun. So just opening offices in Italy, and trying to build this thing up. But in reality, large scale renewables, there’s just not going to be enough of them. Because there’s no point trying to replicate the existing system. The existing system is really wasteful. Most of the energy we put into it is lost through the windows as waste heat. It’s lost in inefficient processes.
Manda: It’s lost just from the production, the generation to the house. You need genuinely distributed networks, don’t you.
Howard: Exactly. So. So, yes, large scale renewables is brilliant, let’s do it. Now it’s a great place for pension funds to stick their money. But we need also to work with people to knock the waste out of the system. And that is going to be working with everyone. That’s every home. You think North America, 128 million homes, is it? UK, 27 million homes.
Howard: This is a monstrous project that is going to need, you know, probably five decades and multigenerational work to pull it off, basically.
Manda: Give me a picture of how it looks, kind of what we’re heading for. So let me ask some questions. I’m assuming local generation, if we want transparency, accountability and absolutely incorruptible ledgering, then we need block chain of some sort in there. We need some kind of AI, really big AI, to manage the ‘Fred down the road has solar panels. My washing machine needs as an amount of his energy, and I need to pay him a small fraction of money for that.’ We need big AI to be able to do that. And then we need the actual infrastructure of the sun doesn’t always hold in Britain. It’s shining a lot in the Sahara, but we get quite a lot of wind. How do we manage all of that? And maybe we have, I don’t know, bioreactors in there somewhere in the middle. So, and storage. We’ve got to somehow work on the storage, because otherwise the nuclear people get to say that nuclear is the only option, which can’t be the case. So let’s take ourselves five generations down the line. What does the world’s energy creation and consumption look like then?
Howard: It’s localised. It’s localised. It’s local networked grids, you know, in areas where, you know, so let’s say take sub-Saharan Africa. We’re never going to run a big grid into sub-Saharan Africa, but we might stick in where people are doing it. You stick in a container. You run a small grid around it. You light up 10000 thousand people, just off one container, you know, maybe a couple of hundred thousand pounds worth of gear. You know, that is happening now. So at the moment, that’s a risky project. Your pension funds don’t want to stick their money into that, because they’re not sure how they’re going to get their returns, even though the guy who’s doing it can tell them. And you could you could go and invest in companies doing that at the moment, because the pension funds, they want to invest 100 million at a time, not a couple of hundred thousands, you know, because they’re managing multibillions. So, you know, essentially what it will look like is that we will, how we are now is loads of external inputs come in to make our lives happen. And we have no thought for the fact that the gas we’re burning has been mined, you know, extracted in Qatar and shipped around the world as a liquid, turned back into a gas when it got here. And then we’re burning it, you know, just without even thinking in a power station where two thirds of the energy is being wasted anyway.
Manda: It’s going straight up the chimney.
Howard: Yeah. I mean, we’re in a gas boiler where two thirds of the energy is going out through the window on the roof anyway, you know. So how it looks is that we stop that leakage. Is that we basically create a structure where we don’t need external inputs in the same way, and maybe we only need external inputs in a sort of balancing mechanism. You know, so maybe there are certain times of the year where we really need the offshore wind farm to basically power our communities. I guess, you know, those of us of a certain age have lived through the internet arriving, and the massive transformation we’ve seen in that process now. You know, when I was a kid, you went to the library and that was amazing because you could find out all this different stuff, and you could go and look up how to make explosives. And now you have the Internet. And it’s just there. And the important transition or transformation that we’ve all been part of with the internet, it’s happening here in this moment, is that you have become a creator. You have got a platform that you would never have had before. Now, it’s the same with energy, and I think it’s going to be the same with many other systems. So, again, as computers travel through all the different parts of our lives, they will transform how we run things, basically.
And they are at the early stages of that with energy. But essentially, you’re completely right. We’re going to have, you’ll be a generator, and you’ll use a lot less energy than you use now. And potentially you’ll be able to trade energy with your neighbour, or you may have an ability to just gift your energy, or gift the financial benefit from the energy you’re not going to use to a project somewhere else. You know, maybe, you know, there’s a refugee camp that’s trying to raise a hundred thousand pounds and you’re on holiday, you switch it so it’s going to just donate that that the value of that energy to that project. You know, that’s the sort of thing I’d like to see. And I think that’s yeah, that’s where we’re going. If you think about transport, at the moment we have these cars sat around, again, highly wasteful, 30 percent efficient electrification of transport is really sensible. But there’s a huge bunch of questions around it. And the more we can share resources around transport… firstly, let’s not commute to work every day. We’ve shown we don’t need to in the last two years. Let’s actually rethink how we operate our businesses and also stuff so we don’t have these crazy rush hour rubbish where everyone’s… but, you know, your car is sat 97 percent the time.
Manda: Yeah. So we just start leasing cars. You don’t need to own a car anymore, if you can just lease it.
Howard: Yes, maybe it will be self-driving cars, or maybe at first it will just be cars that are on our App. You know, there’s 10 in your community. You know, it’s two streets away. And you can, you know, log on, get it for an hour.
Manda: And it doesn’t have to be Uber. It doesn’t have to be a company sucking the money out of the community. It can be a community owned project.
Howard: It could. It could. I mean, I think there’s some brilliant start-ups out there doing this stuff. So one of my favourites at the moment is Sonos Motors. It’s in Munich, and they have a car that you’ll be able to buy in England, I think, later this year called the Scion. And it’s an electric car, but it’s panelled entirely in solar panels. So it does about 25 miles a day just off the sun. But the thing that I really like about it is that it comes with an app so you could stick outside your house and you could make it shareable with your neighbours. Just straight off. You’ll have an app to be able to coordinate how you share that resource. So if you think about the impact of that, let’s say we go to that in 10 years, 20 years time, we only have 10 to 20 percent of the cars. And actually, we need to only have 10 to 20 percent of the cars because we haven’t got the resources to build a billion cars. We haven’t got the time and energy to waste on that vanity, frankly. We’ve got to be much more pragmatic about this stuff. So we only have 10 to 20 percent of the cars now. What does that do to the urban space? What does that do to our streets? It frees them.
Manda: Yeah, kids can start playing.
Howard: Suddenly you can have space where kids can start playing. We could grow food. We could plant an orchard in central London. That is the future. And what does that do for us? So we’ve got extreme weather. What does trees due to a street? It reduces the temperature. You know, it reduces the extremes. It reduces the extreme cold. It reduces extreme hot. It also absorbs water. So if we’re faced with a time where going to have more extreme weather and, you know, all these multiple impacts, there’s so many things that could move in the right direction if we get this right. But what we need to do is basically talk to people about what’s coming…
Manda: And create visions of how it could be that feel better than how it is now, not a desperate reduction.
Howard: And firstly, get them on, you know, what’s the first step we could all take collectively?
Manda: So what is the first step we can all take?
Howard: I think a movement globally to mass retrofit our homes, and to basically fund other people to have access to basic needs like water and electricity, and other communities don’t have it. A great rebalancing movement is what’s required. And I mean, it’s something I’m dreaming on at the moment. But I hope to be able to do something at some point in the very soon, in the very near future, to start making that a reality. But, you know, I think it’s a very exciting time because we do have many of the things we need, you know, like just even a few years ago, like the social organisation structures. I mean, for all the darkness around things like social media and, you know, those platforms, they’re immensely powerful if we get the right stories being told. And if we can get the right agreements and trust between the individuals involved in this, then I think there’s no reason why we couldn’t move the dial on these things very, very fast, basically.
Manda: Yes. Are you familiar with the conciliators project? Daniel ASchmachtenberger and Justin Harris?
Manda: Justin Harris is the guy who wrote – sorry, made, The Social Dilemma. He used to be in Google’s ethics division until he realised it wasn’t an ethical, set up the Centre for Human Technology. Schmachtenberger, I think, is probably the Einstein of our time. He’s extremely bright. And they created this project, which is only going to run for five years. It’s a self limiting project to look at exactly how to do that, how to make social media a force for actually bringing people together instead of actually actively dividing them. So I’ll send you the podcast, too, that’s linked to, I think you’ll find it really inspiring. So when you have that dream up and running, we’d really like to invite you back to the podcast to talk about it, because everyone who listens to this, part of what we’re here for is to give people a sense of agency. And what can they do? So already anyone who isn’t retrofitting their home, they can go out and start at least looking how to do that, and looking how to help their community do that. I noticed that OVESco, which has been doing a while now, has something on their website where you if you think your own community can perhaps be part of that, you can connect to them and they’ll help you to build local power in your own community, because we could be doing this now.
Howard: No, totally, totally, totally. I mean, it’s wide open. It’s wide open. I would say. You know, I think there are a whole bunch of barriers. And I think, you know, what’s needed is, again, I sort of feel a quite a sense of responsibility in that I’ve had this amazing journey, you know, and I feel very, very lucky with all the gifts. And, yes, I’ve had some hard moments, but I’ve had an incredible, exciting and fun journey. And I’ve been given lots of knowledge along the way around different things. So I really see it as a responsibility to try and make it easy for people to join this story in some way. You know, and that’s partly why I wrote the book back then, because it just seemed that there are so many examples out there. And you know, what I had the privilege of doing was speaking to some of my heroes all over the world and getting their stories, you know, because essentially people see, you know, see these movements that happen as great, amazing things, and those people must be incredible. But they’re just like you and me, frankly, most of the time, they just happened to decide to give it a go and were successful, you know, and they failed along the way. And, you know, but again, it comes back to that thing of, you know, we need to paint the picture so that people can see themselves in the story.
At the moment, climate’s just this great scary thing. And, you know, you’re just waiting for your house to be flooded, you know, and there to be famines. And, you know, it’s because we’ve got great at telling apocalyptic stories about our society, you know, and again, I think that’s one of the things I think we’ve got this sort of myopic view. I think it was the amazing Native American woman, Pat McCabe, who said, you know, this story, that we’re the destroyers of nature. It’s new, it’s new. It’s what, possibly 500 years old, maybe it’s 2000 years old, maybe it’s, you know, maybe it’s coming with Christianity in some way. But it’s certainly been most powerful through the industrial revolution, you know? And yes, we have been. But that isn’t the only story humanity’s walked with. You know, there’s been millennia where humanity have walked with the story that we are, you know, we’re tending the garden, that we are co creators of this amazing abundance, you know, and actually, I think the fundamental thing is people need to realise that that story is still there and we just need to recognise.
Manda: And you’ve worked with people for whom it’s still alive. That’s the thing. There are still people on the planet today who work with, we are part of this, not set against it. And exactly what Accidental Gods is for is to help people reclaim that connexion. So we’re heading towards the end. I have one avenue that I’d like to go down, which might be too much of a rabbit hole, but let’s try it. We were talking about the idea that refugee camps could become places to show the best of humanity. We could create the kind of circular economic, synergistic utopias that we believe are possible. Have you, in all the thinking that you’ve done, thought through how we could help them to create the political systems to run those that wouldn’t simply end up being, this is a place where the women are raped whenever they try and go and get water, which is what happens in refugee camps.
Howard: Yeah, I mean, I should say I’m completely naive when it comes to the reality of refugee camps, and I have no direct experience of that. So I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak about it. And there are many others who would be. But what I can say is that I can see there’s an emerging movement around decentralised organisation. And I think that that will be very much part of the story, is that essentially democracy in its current form is not effective, is it? You vote once every four years and you vote between two colours, basically, they’re pastiche, really, and the issues that you really care about, you don’t get a say on. Whereas if you go, if you start looking at the decentralised organisational model, using the technology we have, if you can, if you’ve got trust tokens in there so that you can track who’s having what impact where, and who’s saying, you know what I mean, you could basically use that as an organisational system to determine what we want to do as a collective. So I’m already seeing those sorts of things emerging. So again, that the currency Seeds that I mentioned earlier, has one of those behind it, has a constitution behind it, which has been developed by all the people who are involved with it, and has been voted on by all those people.
Manda: I need to talk to someone from Seeds, don’t I?
Howard: Yeah, I can get one of those guys to come and talk to you.
Manda: That would be really good.
Howard: And again, it’s an attempt. You know, again, I don’t think, I feel like we’re going to have to invent something new here in some way. And people are having a go at that. And whilst there’s bound to be a lot of failures and things don’t work, I think it’s the time for that, it’s the time for thinking differently and just trying stuff, you know, because we’ve got nothing to lose at this point. We’ve got everything to gain by every little breakthrough we make, you know, in terms of relating to each other in a more effective way, making decisions in a more holistic and inclusive way, you know, and then delivering this transformation that we so desperately need. You know, to me there’s so much opportunity. You know, it’s it’s almost like the World War and the Industrial Revolution and the eighties boom all wrapped up in one. But there’s a purpose behind it. And it’s called survival. And it’s called preserving the wonder and beauty of this planet, you know, and that’s the mission of it, you know, and actually reaching the state of connexion that we can be proud of. You know, I think it’s unfolding, Manda.
Manda: That is so beautiful and so inspiring and feels like a really good place to end. Unless there was anything else that you wanted to say.
Howard: No, it’s been lovely to go out there with you and talk it all through, because it’s, you know, it’s what gets me out of bed every morning. And I do feel super inspired by the opportunity of the moment. And I feel like, you know, I know a lot of people feel a lot of despair. And I walked with depression for many years, but I feel the most hopeful and most excited that I’ve ever felt, you know, so it’s good to share that with people.
Manda: Thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s been such an inspiring episode. Thank you.
Howard: Oh, thanks for having me.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Howard for the depth and heart and integrity and intelligence of all that he has done and is doing. He’s an extraordinary example of the change that one person can make when they realise what needs to be done and find ways to do it. And last week, we said that if you do one thing, change how you find your food. This week, if you do one thing and you haven’t already done it, change where you get your power from. Shift to one of the renewable energy providers. And if you can shift to one who actually makes the energy rather than the one that buys it, and packages it on, and then if you have the bandwidth, if you have the means, if you have the time and the energy and the contacts, see what you can do to create community energy production in your local area. Because the more that we can shift to a distributed local network rather than the centralised network we have now, the faster we move to renewable, genuinely regenerative energy production.
On the event’s page, we have two events coming up in September on the fifth at five o’clock, we’re having a book club with Ece Temelkuran, who is with us in podcast Seventy-Four, author of Together and of How to Lose a Country.
Ece is one of the sparkiest, most fun people we have ever interviewed and should be coming to talk to any of you who come along to ask the questions that you’ve always wanted to ask of an internationally celebrated author. It’s free. You just need to register on the website, at the events page at Accidental, Gods dot life. So do come along. And then two weeks later on the 19th, we’re having one of our Accidental Gods gatherings. Six o’clock to nine o’clock UK time, which is currently British summertime. We’re exploring a mind as deep as the sky. This is three hours of diving deep into the work that we’ve been doing since we began. The ways of finding authenticity and integrity, the ways of connecting to the more than human world, such that we can ask the question, what do you want of me? And here the answer in ways that feel real to us. And all of that comes back to how we use our thinking space. The places that we have access to, the ways that we can mould our thoughts, to mould how we feel, to mould who we are in the world, what we do, and how we be in the sense of into being. So whether you’ve been working with us from the beginning or haven’t worked with us at all. I want to find out what it’s like. Do you come along? It’s a zoom call. You don’t have to go anywhere. You just have to find a place to sit and to be in reasonable quiet. And that is it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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