What is the role of elites in bringing about positive change? A curious, yet pointed question that sharpens as I flick through How to Spend it, the Financial Time's glossy rag devoted to the whims of elite consumption and concerns —- everything from Prada to philanthropy. I'm charmed and appalled by what I see.
My answer comes quickly. According to Jenny Dalton in "the Generation Game," green tech is now the "new glam" amongst hip urban taste-makers in London. Architects like Alex Michaelis claim that "an alternative energy source is the most fashionable thing to have at home this year." As Alana Herro wrote in another post, rising political stars like David Cameron, the UK's charismatic Conservative Party leader, are leading the pack by installing a domestic wind turbine in his home.
Geothermal heat is also being championed by the likes of Richard Branson, Elton John, and of course, the Queen! After a basement conversion process, geothermal heat can be pumped into a home or building via a borehole in the ground.
Morpheus Developments now have luxury townhouses that offer the whole package: solar panels, rainwater harvesting, lambsweool insulation, and alternative energy technologies. (Also see A very British eco revolution in the Telegraph.) "Eco-auditors" like Donnachadh McCarthy are finding themselves busier than ever helping busy city people make their homes more green. Even the House of Parliament is considering using the tidal power of the Thames to diversify its energy supply.
Before we all get too exited, these household items are still beyond the reach of most pocketbooks. A Windsave WS1000 wind turbine system is about £1,498 (approx. USD $2,800) and a photo-voltaic system will be about the same price, though I'm sure these prices differ from market to market. London is also a special place, flush with excess cash and the super rich, the result of the booming stock market, high property prices, and a thriving and innovative urban design industry. The hope, of course, is that prices will go down following other technology waves, and that the bugs and kinks get worked out with these early adopters.
Driving this trend are obvious concerns about the environment, which are top of mind in Europe these days, not to mention the chic reflection these concerns give to one's self-image amongst your peers. Green is the new the status symbol, a bemusing contrast to the granola and hemp days. Ensuring self-reliance is another factor, though not often expressed except in quiet asides at cocktail parties. People with means are now taking seriously some of the more challenging future scenarios where access to stable energy sources can no longer by assured. These people want to be prepared for these "what ifs?" and relish the thought that their foresight might be rewarded in their resilience. London is on an island, after all.
But most of all, people are buying these gadgets simply because they are cool and fun to play with. This is good news because we all want green tech to be intrinsically rewarding, the first step towards mass market uptake. The danger is that this is only a fashion, something that comes and goes —- and worst of all becomes discredited in the process either for being a trivial fad, too costly or technically clumsy, all fair critiques of any technology in its early stage of adoption. Also, I can see where the ability to be "off the grid" becomes the energy equivalent boast of being in a gated community or having the money to go to the right schools, the privilege of the likes of Sir Elton.
In the meantime, eco-entrepreneurs are making hay as much as they can. As Michaelis says in the article, "You've got to use something being tagged fashionable to your advantage, especially when it's about something as important as this. I do get annoyed when people use superficial tags to talk about it but as long as it's working, I really don't care." Not a time for purists, pragmatism wins again.
What's clear is that elites -— like, loathe, or ignore them -— have always played a decisive (if unpredictable) role in shaping and leading public tastes and trends, even shifting lifestyles. We're seeing exactly the same pattern now with green home design and building. The question I'm asking is how we do we get this trend to stick and scale beyond a faction of London's green elite?