Last week, air pollution in London soared to heights not seen since 2011. The usual suspects were named and shamed, including traffic fumes and a lack of wind. But joining them was a surprising culprit. "We think about half of the peak was from wood smoke," says Timothy Baker, part of a team at King's College London that monitors air pollution. The trendy log-burning stoves producing much of this pollution are marketed as a source of renewable energy that can cut fuel bills while helping reduce global warming. But recent findings suggest they pose a serious threat to the health of their owners, and are also accelerating climate change in the short term. If nothing is done to discourage log burning in homes, it could become the biggest source of air pollution in cities like London. .... Children are especially vulnerable .... Where theres's smoke, Michael LePage, 'New Scientist', 4 FebruaryThis is just one example showing how our governing institutions cannot deal with broad, long-term social and environmental problems. We have in mind something that sounds like an unarguable benefit: 'renewable energy', say, and target it, explicitly or implicitly. But we fail to take into account the broader, longer-term ramifications. There's no clarity about the distinction between means and ends. Something like 'renewability' - which is anyway a function of our ever-expanding scientific knowledge - is not an end in itself. At best, it's a means to certain ends, which are rarely specified, or specified in such vague terms ('sustainability') as to be subject to bureaucratic or corporate manipulation. The bigger picture is lost: in this instance, the health of vulnerable people and children is sacrificed on the altar of 'renewability'.
It's not good enough. We need to be reward the achievement of goals that are meaningful to ordinary people. 'Physical health' would be a good starting point. Defined in terms of objective criteria, such as longevity or Quality-Adjusted Life Years, a benign and far-sighted government could target the health of its citizens for improvement, and contract out the achievement of such a goal to bodies motivated to, and capable of, keeping up with relevant scientific advances. Our existing institutions and systems of government cannot do this, but Social Policy Bonds targeting health could. I have written about such bonds here. As society grows more complex and the linkages and time lags more intricate, so the scope for problems such as the increased air pollution described above or self-interested deception expands. We need a system that keeps the big picture in mind, and that starts with articulating what, as a society, we want to achieve. Our existing institutions, hard working and well intentioned as they doubtless are, have little incentive to advocate for goals broader than their remit. That worked in times and circumstances when the relationship between cause and effect was easy to identify and address. In today's society, that no longer applies. New organizations with an interest in seeing the big picture are necessary, and a Social Policy Bond regime would see their creation.