Are you sitting comfortably? The tale of the hedgehog, the fox, the owl and the ostrich.

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 24th August 2021 by Jillian Anable.

BBC online has recently released a series of short video think pieces under the topic ‘How easy is it to predict the future?’ It asks some very pertinent questions such as: ‘Is trying to predict the future a waste of time?’ or ‘Are artists or scientists better at future predictions’ and, my particular favourite, ‘Are you a hedgehog or a fox?’ In the latter, statistician David Spiegelhalter introduces us to a famous essay published in 1953 by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin in which he divides writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs who have one overarching view of the world through which they interpret all around them and are able to focus on one activity at a time; and foxes, who are alert to changing circumstances, have no overarching philosophy and keep their eyes and ears open to new threats and possibilities. In later experiments, foxes were much better at predicting than hedgehogs and hedgehogs are particularly poor at subjects at which they were expert – they were just too confident in their forecasts and too reluctant to admit to biases and to quantify uncertainty.

It would be too easy for me to use this categorisation to lambast the transport profession and repeat my critique that we have collectively failed on so many of our fundamental raison d’êtres (air quality, climate change, urban realm, equality of access). A cheap shot would be to suggest that hedgehogs are not an endangered species in this profession. They have successfully colonised Whitehall corridors and consultancies by seductively wielding Webtag and four stage models and avoiding extinction by crawling up into tiny balls when challenged!

To make this accusation and suggest that we need more foxes would miss the point of the current juncture we are now at. This is because we are no longer in the business of forecasting. Climate change is not a forecast. It is here, now. And the time window in which to be a bit more fox-like and incorporate uncertainty into our decision making has now passed. To quote a recent tweet from fellow Greener Transport Councillor Glenn Lyons “We’re in a professional world where we look 60 (or 100) years into the future & produce a benefit:cost ratio to 2 decimal places while we have less than 10 years to seriously address decarbonisation to avoid runaway climate change that may change the course or all life on earth.” Actually, it is worse than that. The IPCC report published last week packs some huge punches, but one fact that cannot fail to cause a very sharp intake of breath is their calculation that we only actually have 5.5 years at current emission rates before we have blown the odds of staying below 1.5 degrees. This is a full decade earlier than they were saying just three years ago.

To achieve deep cuts in emissions within 5-10 years does not require forecasts, predictions or probability estimations. This is because, as I proposed in an article last week with Professor Phil Goodwin, there are only two futures that meaningfully count – essentially we either constrain carbon to the required levels by the end of this decade or we fail to do that and we are then in totally unchartered, unpredictable territory of runaway climate change.

The consequences of working on the basis that we will know within this decade whether we have succeeded or failed to buy ourselves some more time to avoid runaway climate change is that there is no forecasting, only backcasting – like the wise old Owl, we know where we have to get to (a 60% reduction in emissions from the surface transport sector by 2030) and there are very few ways of getting there so quickly. Electric vehicles, indeed most technical solutions, are virtually irrelevant over this time scale, especially when they are elbowing their way into existence at the same time as the incumbent technologies are allowed to grow even fatter. This is like going on a diet while eating successively bigger cakes. So, apart from banning from sale the most polluting vehicles way earlier than 2030, and tinkering with speed reductions and vehicle occupancy, the only solutions open to us over this timescale involve reducing the amount of travel. And, the beauty of the two futures framework is that it renders traffic reduction uncontroversial because it is guaranteed. Either of these only two futures that are available to us involve less traffic, albeit over different timescales – the former because it is required to deliver deep cuts in emissions by 2030; the latter because climate impacts will require increasing disruption and diversion of resources into expensive adaptation infrastructure and population movements could add to congestion and constrain mobility. If we succeed in reaching Net Zero emissions, however, traffic growth could be an option again down the line.

However, even if the wise owls succeed in chasing away the hedgehogs and the foxes, how will they cull the flock of ostriches that have overrun our governance structures and have only buried their heads in one very different, impossible future? The DfT’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan still adopts what Goodwin and I call the ‘untenable future’ as the benchmark against which hard decisions are made – ie one where smooth economic growth without radical changes in weather, structural changes in employment, population movements and horrendous drains on resources to accommodate these trends is used. This is one of many ‘Discourses of Delay’ used in the plan that has the effect of leading to the false conclusion that the required mitigation measures will be too costly and overburden vulnerable members of our society. Indeed, the TDP is a perfect demonstration of almost all of the twelve delay discourses identified by Lamb et al., including ‘technological optimism’, ‘all carrots and no sticks’,’ individualism’ and ‘policy perfectionism’. But most worryingly of all, the TDP does not even attempt to hide its disregard of the timescales by saying that the progress against the plan will be undertaken in five years from now. Five years! I refer you back to the IPCC message above.

We desperately need a parliament of wise owls to oversee the DTP on at least a yearly basis. Failing any formal appointment of such a body, I look forward to working with Claire Haigh and my fellow Greener Transport Council members to unofficially (but authoritatively) take up the mantle.

About the Author

This post was written by Jillian Anable. Jillian is Professor of Transport and Energy at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds.

Jillian Anable