Indirect Action

Predictably, the UK’s first shale gas fracking plant has become the site of ‘direct action’. Once again, a small number of protesters have decided to inflict themselves on the rest of the world. The Guardian reports this morning that,

Protesters from the UK’s anti-fracking network Frack Off have invaded a test drilling site in Lancashire and occupied its drilling rig.

A group of nine people ran on to the site operated by Cuadrilla Resources at Hesketh Bank near Preston before dawn and used climbing equipment to clamber up the metal structure. They have fixed themselves on top and said that they plan to stay as long as possible. Other protesters are expected to hold a rally at 3pm outside the site.

This is the MO of the small number of environmental activists in the UK. Previously, they have trashed crops and attempted to shut down power stations and airports, and even parliament itself.

Isn’t the point of a protest to demonstrate popular support? Yet few of these instances of direct action ever muster more than a few dozen people. The environmental movement’s attempts at conventional forms of protest have resulted in disappointment — no more than a few hundred will turn out. Thus, to elevate their campaigns, environmental activists turn to spectacle: dangerous stunts that guarantee media coverage. For decades now, this has been the way environmentalists have attempted to engage the public. Yet they are more isolated than ever, and have completely failed to share the values and ideas which inform their actions.

For instance, there may be perfectly legitimate reasons to protest about the development of fracking. People living nearby may feel that they are inadequately protected from any possibly accidents, and that the fracking company will not be held sufficiently liable for any damage they cause, and may be encouraged to take risks. Hell, who could object, even to a protest about carbon emissions? But these are not the complaints of the fracking protesters. Their website reveals the real object of their criticism:

The actual problem we face is that civilisation has too much energy, not too little. This addiction to fossil fuels has driven a binge of extreme exploitation of our environment and our social structures, that is threatening our very existence. Fancy technological schemes to try to continue our present orgy of consumption and waste indefinitely are inevitably doomed to failure. Only a transition to a much less energy intensive way of living can save us from complete disaster.

It is civilisation itself — not hydrological fracturing — which annoys the protesters.

They should tell the 5 million households in the UK who live in ‘fuel poverty’ that ‘civilisation has too much energy’. They should tell the families and friends of the 2,700 people who die each year as a consequence that there is a ‘a binge of extreme exploitation of our environment and our social structures’. They should explain to the 1.6 billion people in the world who don’t have any access to electricity that ‘a much less energy intensive way of living can save us from complete disaster’. The Guardian quotes protester, Colin Eastman:

Conventional fossil fuels have begun to run out and the system is moving towards more extreme forms of energy like fracking, tar sands, and deep water drilling.

The move towards ‘extreme energy’ is literally scrapping the bottom of the barrel, sucking the last most difficult to reach fossil fuels from the planet at a time when we should be rapidly reducing our consumption altogether and looking for sustainable alternatives.

In the UK fracking for shale gas is planned alongside, not instead of, extraction of conventional fossil fuels like coal.

It’s a myth that conventional fossil fuels are running out. ‘Extreme forms of energy’ are being developed because civilisation is getting better at finding more abundant sources of energy. That’s what civilisation is: it creates the possibility of better and better ways of living, of more freedom and greater material progress. The Frack Off campaigners are intolerant and nervous of it. Their claim is that we are inviting ecological disaster, but this belies anxiety about disorder in the human world: on their view, nature serves to discipline our sinful, profligate selves. Civilisation means finding new things, rather than existing in a kind of social stasis, in back-breaking ‘harmony’ with nature.

The moral argument for more energy — for ‘extreme energy’ needs to be reclaimed. Cheaper, and increasingly abundant energy is a good thing because it increases the possibilities of human lives. Being restricted to Nature’s Providence is a bad thing, because it limits the possible freedoms humans can enjoy. Most people realise it, and only a few are prepared to climb drilling rigs to campaign against civilisation. Yet they’re the ones who get in the papers.

15 thoughts on “Indirect Action”

  1. Most people have a hard time thinking about dynamic systems and tend to model the world as static based on the status quo. Therefore, rather than seeing resources as a function of human needs and capabilities, they see them as being a set amount that has existed since the beginning of time. Wealth to most is a zero sum game rather than something to be expanded. With population officially reaching 7 billion much commentary has reappeared about overpopulation and carrying capacity displaying substantial ignorance of the dynamic nature of carrying capacity and humanity’s ability to alter it.

    These demonstrators are unfortunately a more extreme version of a common problem.

  2. The “running out” argument is stupid, even if true.

    If you strike a gold mine, you don’t refuse to dig it up “because it’ll only take 20 years to mine”. Gold is either economical to mine or it isn’t. The amount in it is irrelevant, except in that context.

    By the logic of the protesters, the North Sea oil should have been left there too. Actually by that logic I shouldn’t pick up $20 lying on the street, because it isn’t a long term solution.

    But then economics is not their strong suit.

  3. Economics is not their strong suit.

    Indeed look at this article against shale gas in the Independent

    The Co-op believes investing in shale gas will take away funds which could have been invested in renewable energy.

    Shale is expected to generator energy at a price equal or lower to current alternatives. Thus it would be a net contributor. It would create, not detract, from funds.

  4. The Independent article linked by TDK is entitled: “Can we really manage all the risks …?”
    and the Co-op bases its opinion on a report which it commissioned from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. You couldn’t make it up.

    Mooloo: “… by that logic I shouldn’t pick up $20 lying on the street, because it isn’t a long term solution”.
    Exactly. It may be a solution to MY problem (a need for $20), but it isn’t a solution to theirs, (my need for $20) which is quite different.
    My need for stuff is my problem, which I try to solve by getting it. But my need for stuff is also their problem, which they try to solve – how? By trying to persuade me that I don’t need it, that my wants are not my real needs and that there’s something wrong with me for equating the two, and that there’ll be something wrong with the planet if I try to equate the two.
    (I’m trying to bring PeterS’s somewhat obscure pschoanalytic musings into contact with the subject of Ben’s central theme).

    (PS could someone spell out exactly how do italics, quotes etc with the stuff at the bottom of the page. I don’t dare try unassisted for fear of it going wrong)

  5. Shale oil and gas probably will mean less funding for alternatives in the short term since it eliminates the economic pressure to develop them, but it does mean more time and overall levels of funding over the medium and long term. Secure supplies has the added benefit of making it much harder to deploy technologies that aren’t ready or dead ends.

    Of course it won’t prevent people like the protestors from attempting to foist their version of hell utopia on the rest of us.

  6. More frakking protests here: http://transitionculture.org/2011/11/02/when-transition-meets-fracking-and-wins-the-story-of-transitions-cowbridge-and-llantwit/

    “It’s a myth that conventional fossil fuels are running out.” You may be right- and I agree with your analysis of “extreme” forms of energy- but how can we be sure either way? Seems to me the oil industry and reserves etc are hard to validate/evaluate. Just wondering if have you any literature of data you can point to to clairfy? Thanks!

  7. Delingpole says it all at
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100115390/why-does-the-bbc-so-hate-britain/
    under a heading no-one under the age of 60 can understand – a picture of Lord Haw-haw saying “….And now our environment correspondent brings more news of the evils of shale gas”.
    If only Dellers didn’t go out of his way to annoy the 99% of the population who are not to the right of Mrs Thatcher; if only the rest of us had his talent for being funny and serious at the same time.

  8. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Even a hundred years (for how quickly history moves on – to quickly for me!) this, surely, would have been greeted as that, again, extraordinary gift that nature, that if you search her with intelligence and technical skill, will always produce. Instead, we have a bunch (or rather seven) middle class smellies attempting to tell us that we should be guilty for attempting to bring warmth, cheap warmth, to the millions. Where have we got to, where the left advocates a tax on everything (fuel, fat, sugar, alcohol) that the poor needs. Are they just middle class snobs who enjoy the parvenu joy of putting there in the face of there grandmothers and fathers? Or, are they, sans psychology, just viscous? Like to day, and completely of topic – Professor Steve Barnett putting himself forward as a new chief beaurocrat ‘against’ the ‘excesses’ of the press for which I sent him a note (I can’t help quoting myself – sorry)

    Steve Barnett,,

    What is important, today, is to defend that which we take for granted.
    Such things as our ‘freedom’ of movement, of behaviour, of speech The
    casualties of this freedom are not a fault of the law but a fault of
    our behaviour and our morality. If you believe that human beings are
    completely viscous and cannot be trusted, then you follow your line
    and you can become a chief beauracrat, somewhere – then, follow the
    consequences – in all essential aspects, our citizens, the citizenry,
    must be led by self-appointed (no doubt deserved) ‘experts’ and either
    we have the illusion of democracy or no democracy at all. What are
    you, a ‘half-democracy’ man, grubbily grasping for a a new lucrative
    place in the nomenclature, or, like the young man I imagine you once
    were, knowing fear and terror is the essence of freedom. Allow the
    state to ‘regulate’ expression? What viscous nonsense.

    Yours sincerely

    Lewis Deane.

  9. Ben,
    I am growing old and I’m growing jaded – can’t there be a time when we can hear good news – I know it’s par for the course and no ones fault that the world seems to be reversing back in a hand basket in time – but it’s up to us to change the direction – not ‘forward’ not backward’ but in our own direction! -can’t we say, or greet for once, what is good in life – for instance, today, the Russian simulation of going to Mars! Ben, no one can object to that but I bet some one does! And that’s the point – blue meanies everywhere! O I am just drunk and tired and bored.

  10. Given that at least half of the world’s population can only be fed thanks to the (energy-intensive) Haber-Bosch process, those who call for massive reductions in our energy usage are also calling for massive reductions in human population.

    Which is why my response to such people is “Ni Shagu Nazad!” (“Not a step back! – slogan of the Red Army at the Battle of Stalingrad…)

  11. “failed to share the values and ideas which inform their actions”.
    I wonder what these values and ideas are; isn’t the ambiguity of environmentalist politics part of what drives this blog.
    You can’t dismiss ecologism as a coherent political theory in one argument and then claim that it is not being adhere to in another.
    Anyone can build a straw man and then burn him to the ground…..

    It seems so obvious to me that industrialisation, specialisation and increasing division of labour is the best way of solving the problem of environmental degradation, including climate change. You cannot be “sustainable” without these uniquely modern “human” factors. To suggest otherwise is to condemn many, many people to abject poverty.
    Ok, Power stations are the most efficient way of supplying energy yet they they are targeted merely for the act of producing carbon. If we all used open fires for heat and used localised generators for electricity we would be surrounded by poisonous gases, and we would produce triple the carbon we produce now. I don’t drive a car and I am not an environmentalist, yet know people that are, and they heat their whole house using wood. Hypocrisy is rife among middle class environmental romantics.

  12. James –I wonder what these values and ideas are; isn’t the ambiguity of environmentalist politics part of what drives this blog. You can’t dismiss ecologism as a coherent political theory in one argument and then claim that it is not being adhere to in another.

    Of course I can. We can say the same of the occupy movement. It’s ambitions are nebulous, and often contradictory. And like the environmental movement, the occupiers often enjoy words of support from the establishment: billionaires, Obama, and even some writers in the business press. Yet it has not agreed on any values to share, and has attempted to overcome this problem by making a virtue of its incoherence, its ‘leaderless’ character, and it being a ‘place’ in which to formulate ideas. The extent of the possibility of sharing values then, is for others to say ‘tsk, yeah, capitalism’. These responses are highly individuated and emotional.

    Of course, within any part of either movement, you get numbers of people with slightly better formulated ideas. In the fracking protest, there’s this antipathy towards civilisation. But the anti-frackers couldn’t share this message; they instead had to amplify the possibility of danger from the fracking process.

    I wouldn’t claim that the anti-civilisation message was coherent. Yet political ecology in the broader part seems to consist of a range — I usually call it a constellation — of ideas, prejudices, impulses, which variously converge, but nothing concrete or robust every emerges, its contradictions are rarely overcome.

  13. “The actual problem we face is that civilisation has too much energy, not too little. This addiction to fossil fuels has driven a binge of extreme exploitation of our environment and our social structures, that is threatening our very existence. Fancy technological schemes to try to continue our present orgy of consumption and waste indefinitely are inevitably doomed to failure. Only a transition to a much less energy intensive way of living can save us from complete disaster.”

    A good way to find the value in a statement is to return it to belonging to its author. This de-merger (which the author will resist) makes it possible to stand back and see if what is being said has any relationship to reality – or if it is driven by fantasy. If the author was made to own this statement it would read…

    ‘The actual problem I face is that civilisation has too much energy, not too little. This addiction to fossil fuels has driven a binge of extreme exploitation of my environment and my social structures, that is threatening my very existence. Fancy technological schemes to try to continue their present orgy of consumption and waste indefinitely are inevitably doomed to failure. Only their transition to a much less energy intensive way of living can save me from complete disaster.’

    This more honest statement of the author’s beliefs concern his (or her) surroundings and how convinced he is that something about them threatens his ‘very existence’. His ‘actual problem’, he claims, is that ‘civilisation has too much energy’. But, as access to energy is itself a primary civilising factor in society, the threat the author believes he faces must come from his surroundings containing too much civilisation (in his view, being civilised equates to nothing more than ‘binges’, ‘extreme exploitations’, and ‘orgies’). If so, the author might be more focused and accurate if he expresses his belief as…

    ‘The actual obstacle I face is civilisation. Civilisation is bad because it threatens my existence. Either ‘me’ or civilisation is doomed to failure – only its failure can save me from complete disaster.’

    Here, it’s possible to see where the author is coming from. Becoming civilised would be a ‘complete disaster’ for whatever the author believes himself to be. In other words, the dragon must slay St George for these beliefs to be sustained. The value in this common belief (to the author) is measured by the number of people colluding in their own variations of it – rather than it having any usable value to the civilisation it targets.

  14. ‘The extent of the possibility of sharing values then, is for others to say ‘tsk, yeah, capitalism’. ‘

    I don’t know what it is, but the intellectual flabbiness of our era astounds me.( Perhaps, historically, I do know what it is – but the explanation would take a couple of tomes!) If you asked anyone of these ‘protesters’ ( the inverted commas because they have no real ‘thing’ against which their protesting, they just ‘feel’ it’s wrong and – it’s fun to protest – narcisistic caneille!) what their protesting against and for what, you would just receive, I am certain, a reply that was childish, incoherent and, if you questioned them further, illogical and meaningless. Don’t people want to think? I mean put in the effort, the moral effort, to examine what they think, if they are going to affect or wish to affect this or that change? It baffles me.

    Worse, it reminds me of those anti-social and irresponsible Romans that abandoned ‘civilization’ for Christianity – most out of ennui. But a world had to be thoroughly rotten inside for those Romans to become their anti-natural counterparts, the Christians. I don’t believe we’re there yet – at least not globally – the productive energy and inventiveness is still their. But to release it, perhaps there must be a bursting asunder.
    And, by the way, give me any slight tremor (I live near Blackpool) as long as we get this fracking thing producing!

  15. “political ecology in the broader part seems to consist of a range — I usually call it a constellation — of ideas, prejudices, impulses, which variously converge, but nothing concrete or robust every emerges, its contradictions are rarely overcome”
    I agree. The “constellation” consists of well worn political theory, hybridised with environmental concerns. Inevitably all the same problems and contradictions of the parent ideology remain. There is no real synthesis and they are nothing more than the sum of their parts. If that.

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