How are we getting on with Thatcher's ruling that the creative forces of capitalism alone could save the environment. Confusingly, says Pallab Ghosh.
The most subtle skill in the art of government is to identify dangerous forces as they gather, and then to absorb them so that their power becomes your own. Such political Tai Chi was used with particular effect on the green movement in the late 1980s. At the time, of course, the Greens threatened to overturn one of the basic tenets of received government thinking: that the nation's best interests were served by untrammelled market forces.
Industry, after all, pours acid on forests, chokes the waterways with its effluent and exudes its poisons into the air. Industrial activity also accelerates the greenhouse effect, and so threatens the survival of our own and other species. Adam Smith's invisible hand, it was alleged, had its invisible thumb on Mother Earth's throat.
Margaret Thatcher halted this anti-industrial fervour by stating that only the creative forces of capitalism could generate the technological solutions necessary not only for the preservation of life but for continuation of a way of life: it was possible, she said, to do it without sacrificing western growth. With the first raft of environmental legislation now bedded down, UK industry is faced with the responsibility of delivering on that promise. When Chris Patten, as Environment Secretary, drew up the Environmental Protection Act, he ensured that businesses should have a leading role: "Governments can help," he said, "but the onus is on industry to grasp the opportunities."
According to a report by the Centre for Exploitable Science and Technology (CEST), Britain will spend £140 billion over the next 10 years on pollution control. CEST also claims that world purchases will top £2 trillion by the end of the decade: gravy-a-plenty to get the creative capitalist juices going.
There are presently 950 British pollution control firms. Most use traditional clean-up technologies, which entail treating industrial waste after it has been through the production process - so-called end-of-pipe solutions. These solutions involve chemically or physically separating the toxic parts of industrial waste from the rest.
Such methods are relatively cheap but they provide only a short-term remedy. End-of-pipe solutions do not in the main eliminate pollution; they repackage it. Factories end up passing their concentrated waste down the line to disposal experts, which bury or burn it. Soaring disposal costs, coupled with tighter regulation, will rule out this type of pollution control in many applications. Industry must therefore devise entirely new manufacturing methods that are less wasteful, and environmental considerations have to be taken into account at every stage of the design process.
A car designer, for example, will have to make parts easily detachable so that more of a vehicle can be recycled at the end of its life. The plant engineer will have to think how to reduce or even re-use the waste from making the car. And the car company will have to set up a returnable deposit scheme to encourage the buyers to return it.
Recycling, however, is only an exercise in damage limitation. In the long run the processes at the heart of our manufacturing methods will have to be replaced. Alternatives will eventually have to be found for chlorine-based chemistry, for example, and for certain types of organic chemistry. But there is currently no major research and development initiative in Britain to bring about the kind of scientific advances that industry will need, if indeed they are to be had.