On Tuesday 25 July 2000 an Air France Concorde took off from Paris Charles de Gaulle bound for New York with nine crew members and one hundred passengers on board. It never made it. I loved Concorde and must express my sorrow for those who lost so much that day. But my memory of Concorde was far happier. Sitting in Heathrow one day I was witness to an earth-shattering roar as Concorde took to the air. The terminal windows vibrated and everyone turned around and watched. It touched everyone. It didn’t matter how regularly people flew, no matter how nonchalant they may be, they fell silent and watched….
I don’t know why this memory popped into my head last week but it started a train of thought about just WHY is it that we loved Concorde. Just Google it and see how many web sites exist by fans of this aircraft. It is funny. It represented something more than an aeroplane. It was more than just technology. It was art. It was a dream. It was an amazing human accomplishment from the days of cheap oil. A folly we could never afford in the second half of the age of oil. In the modern era of neo-liberal free-market economics it remains an aberration. It should never have even existed. It was born of a pact between Britain and France to build the world’s first (and so far only) Supersonic Transport (SST) plane.
In November 29, 1962, an agreement was signed in London by Julian Amery, Minister of Supply, and Geoffroy de Courcel, the French Ambassador to Britain, by which the two governments undertook to finance the development and building of a supersonic airliner. Everything would be shared – costs, work, and proceeds of sales. The agreement locked the two nations in such that neither could pull-out unilaterally otherwise they would bear the full cost of the project. The result was something amazing.
The story of how we managed to have Concorde turn into reality is really one of that political treaty. In fact Concorde was a money-pit. It cost every tax payer in both countries so much money that it had to be written off. The taxpayer ended up subsidising every passenger by £3,300 a flight. Financially it was a disaster but that isn’t how people see it.
It occurred to me that there was a lesson here for the modern era of Climate Treaties. Firstly it wasn’t a global agreement. Secondly each nation saw it as realising a dream. Thirdly each nation had to contribute their brightest and best to achieve that dream. Fourthly each nation was locked into the agreement so there could be no political fudges at the next election. This was about ideals and getting ahead in the market. It was about being the best – about one word; PRESTIGE. And the best thing about Climate Treaties? They will never be anything like as expensive as Concorde.
Concorde cost 12 times more than predicted. That is some achievement. Currently only the defense and nuclear industries have ever clocked up such a profligate waste of public money by promising so much and delivering such poor value. BUT STILL – that isn’t how we remember Concorde. Nuclear reactors may cost 20 times what the original estimate and all they leave is a legacy of toxic waste. That is what you remember about nuclear isn’t it? No dream. Only nightmare.
Such is the power of the dream. Such is the power of the myths we construct our civilisation around. Forty years on we would never subsidise a civilian passenger plane project in the way we paid for Concorde. Who knows what we will believe in another forty years? Maybe in forty years we will look back at an era of cheap fossil fuels and endless economic growth as a period of utter folly. In fact I would probably lay money on it. And I am not a bettering man.
In the end the dream of supersonic passenger flight came literally crashing down. The next generation of “concordes” on the drawing boards of Airbus Industries will be powered by hydrogen. You’ll get to New York in 90 minutes without a drop of fossil fuel being consumed. In theory. However, in The Independent Newspaper last week there was a letter from the head of the Royal Institute of Mechanical Engineers (of which I was once a Member) stating his view that this was a pipedream. A fantasy. He wrote that in forty years we will be far more occupied with the engineering challenge of getting from London to Birmingham without fossil fuels than about getting to New York.
I for one am happy that we built Concorde. Flying on Concorde was an incredible luxury. It made no sense in the real world of market economics or in an era of expensive oil. This is a reminder of just how we need to view the future of mankind on a planet with a changing climate. There is simply more at stake than money. If man was only a machine to make money we would never have vision. I would be delighted if today’s politicians had that sort of vision to see a post-carbon world as a PRESTIGE matter. If they could only dream of THAT world and how much better it would be, we would have our modern post-carbon concord (dictionary: “harmony, agreement, goodwill, friendship” Latin origin “concordia”).
When I say “Concorde on Fire” I don’t mean it literally or pejoratively. I mean it in the sense that we often describe someone being “on fire” as in “performing at their best”. For it is an economy performing at its best – and a people dreaming at their best – that will stop us all from burning. Literally.