Yearly Archives: 2012
I’ve been busy elsewhere… Work… Moving city/home, and going on holiday. Hence, no posts recently. I’ve some catching up to do. Full service will be resumed in the New Year.
If environmentalism is a religion, it needs its religious festivals. The problem for environmentalism, however, is that celebration is anathema to its values of asceticism, austerity and restraint. Noting the idea that some religions were more successfully propagated in part due to their ability to adapt to new cultures, absorbing their festivals, rituals and mythology, I wondered if we can see the same thing happening with environmentalism.
George Monbiot, of course, is the person to ask… This is how he sees Christmas, and the giving of gifts:
They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For 30 seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.
I’m getting a cordless drill for Christmas (I hope). I’m old and sad enough to be excited by it, too. But George’s concern is with presents without such utility…
But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine T-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog. No one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.
It’s this anxiety about what other people do, and the desire to control it which is at the core of environmentalism. Whereas the spirit of Christmas — albeit perhaps somewhat removed from its origins — is generosity, the environmentalist reformulates it as a ‘festival’ of restraint…
Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.
This concept of ‘utility’ is intriguing. The novelty items Monbiot describes — yes, some of them ridiculous — have no obvious practical use, and so they seem to speak, under environmentalism’s rubric, about the authenticity of relationships between people, not just between an object and people.
The Christian festival now is celebrated outside Christianity. And much of its religious significance has been lost. But it is nonetheless a festival that owes something, at least to its origins. We take time off work, which we spend with families and friends and reflect on the year that has nearly passed — including the events and circumstances that prevent such enjoyment for some. And of course, it is a celebration of material indulgence, too, drawing the ire of environmentalists. The kitchen is well-stocked, and a feast is prepared, which can last for days. Chocolate suddenly becomes as abundant as pennies. Beer and wine flow.
Nobody needs another cake at Christmas, much less another poem, another kiss, or another joke — these things come at Christmas in the form of Christmas cake and Christmas pudding, books as presents, mistletoe, and in Christmas crackers. But then, nobody even needs Christmas. Christmas itself has no ‘utility'; all the presents that are exchanged could just as well have been bought as and if they were needed, at any other time of the year. If ‘utility’ is a useful concept to understanding the rights and wrongs of Christmas, we might do away with almost all of that over-indulgence… of eating, drinking, and gift-giving. Why have a large turkey with all the trimmings for Christmas lunch, rather than a round of egg sandwiches? Why have a tree, with lights on it? Why exchange bits of card that say no more than ‘Hello’? Why wrap gifts in expensive paper? Why take time of work at all? And where’s the ‘utility’ in spending time with friends and family? Why not spend Christmas day at work instead?
All these things are surely as frivolous and unnecessary as the exchange of novelty items.
There’s another understanding of ‘utility’, which is lost on Monbiot. Utility doesn’t merely refer to use-value, but also to human ends, no matter how arbitrary they seem to the cold-hearted ecological rationalist. What if the exchange of seemingly useless items nonetheless served some other purpose? What if buying something ‘useless’ really did show someone that you care? Isn’t this ‘utility’, per the claim of utilitarianism? The seemingly frivolous gift gives only a moment’s pleasure, perhaps, before it is sent to landfill or perhaps the recycling centre. But this is utility, nonetheless, in its purest form. In a world of abundance and without scarcity, it would be impossible to talk about what is and is not ‘necessary'; no thing would have ‘utility’ in the sense that Monbiot uses it.
But we don’t live in such a world, of course. And that makes the once-a-year indulgence all the more important. It gives us something to look forward to — especially children, who have little grasp of the concept of ‘utility’. These moments are what we spend our working lives working for. They have no ‘objective’ meaning. Joy, fun, indulgence and celebration are not ecological concepts, however, and thus they do not fit onto the Ecologist’s calendar. Accordingly, the festival of Christmas is re-written by the environmentalist as a dark tale…
People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smartphone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and by the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.
Let’s call the Monbiot version of Christmas ‘Mismas‘. I don’t need to describe it, other than to say it’s austere, hollow, and founded on a myth. Gone is the celebration of life for its own sake. In its place is a reflection only on how bad people are for the planet, and how much better it would be if there were fewer of them.
There was another article this month, which is the antidote to the Mismas myth.
Why 2012 was the best year everNever in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity
The words belong to The Spectator magazine.
That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.
On his own blog, the version of the story Monbiot publishes there carries the title ‘The Gift of Death‘. But the Spectator would seem to read the world’s vital statistics differently. And indeed, they are much more convincing.
To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30,describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.
Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.
To the ears of Monbiot and his ilk, this optimism no doubt sounds like an argument that we live in some kind of cornucopian fantasy. But this speaks most loudly about Monbiot’s inability to listen. He can only hear an argument in defence of abundance as an argument for environmental destruction and death based on some mathematically impossible concept of ‘infinite growth’, no matter that the claim he makes finds little substance in reality. On Monbiot’s view, your desire to give your kids Christmas presents with no obvious use-value next Tuesday, is directly responsible for the murder of a child in eastern Congo — you put joy on your child’s face with bloody hands.
Such is the way environmentalism toxifies relationships between people. It replaces the Christmas spirit of celebration and generosity with guilt and disgust. The complexities of war are reduced to simple moral stories of a zero-sum-game in which your child’s win is another’s death. Your frivolities are another person’s tragedies.
But that simply isn’t the world we live in, either. And nobody is arguing that the world as it stands is a cornucopia and without problems — some of them environmental. As the Spectator points out:
Nature can still wreak havoc. The storms which lashed America’s East Coast in October proved that. But the speed of New York City’s recovery shows a no-less-spectacular resilience. Man cannot control the weather, but as countries grow richer, they can better guard against devastation. The average windstorm kills about 2,000 in Bangladesh but fewer than 20 in America. It’s not that America’s storms are mild; but that it has the money to cope. As developing countries become richer, we can expect the death toll from natural disasters to diminish — and the same UN extrapolations that predict such threatening sea-level rises for Bangladesh also say that, in two or three generations’ time, it will be as rich as Britain.
And the picture is similar throughout the world
The average life expectancy in Africa reached 55 this year. Ten years ago, it was 50. The number of people dying from Aids has been in decline for the last eight years. Deaths from malaria have fallen by a fifth in half a decade.
That’s no comfort for the people who do live in war or poverty, of course. But it defeats Monbiot’s claim to speak for such people. Environmentalism offers them nothing. Nothing at all. Environmentalism will not end or prevent a single war. It will not stop a single instance of someone’s poverty. But it may well provoke or deepen such problems. And this forces the question about about the ‘utility’ of Christmas to be asked again. Even the most vapid celebration of Christmas that it is possible to conceive of, stripped of all its meaning by the excesses of consumer society, is preferable to Monbiot’s joyless Mismas.
Happy Christmas, if it’s what you celebrate. And a Happy New Year.
One of the most persistent and peculiar ideas that has been given life by environmental thinking is its conception of ‘efficiency’. Environmentalists like to believe that nobody has ever thought of efficiency before, and that it cannot be found without them. One problem with ‘efficiency’ is of course that once you reach a certain level of it, there are no more gains to be had. Greens discover that something is only X% efficient, and imagine that it had never occurred to anybody — least of all engineers and designers — to make X as close to 100% as possible. ‘Look!’, they urge,’we can reduce the energy use of this object by 100-X%’. But there’s efficiency and there’s efficiency. Efficiency is determined by our priorities. ‘Efficiency’ appears to be a straightforward and objective idea, but it turns out that our priorities are ideologically loaded. Environmentalism takes common sense, and by a sleight of hand, produces a nonsense.
Consumer Focus, says their website, ‘is the statutory consumer champion for England, Wales, Scotland and (for postal consumers) Northern Ireland. We were formed by The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress (CEAR) Act 2007.’ Which is to say they are a QUANGO: they look like an independent organisation, but they are doing a job the state wants them to do. In the case of Consumer Focus, their remit is to ‘operate across the whole of the economy, persuading businesses, public services and policy makers to put consumers at the heart of what they do’. Well, we’ll see about that.
Consumer Focus (CF) have just published a report, in which they say ‘Energy efficiency investment is one of best ways to boost the economy – new research reveals‘.
A new report from Consumer Focus shows that investing money raised through carbon taxes in a major energy efficiency programme is one of the best ways to create jobs and boost the economy, while also tackling fuel poverty.1 The report2 – ‘Jobs, growth and warmer homes’ – is published today (Friday 9 Nov).
The research shows that significant Government energy efficiency infrastructure investment could:
- Generate up to 71,000 jobs and boost GDP by 0.2 per cent3 by 2015 and create up to 130,000 jobs by 2027.
- Lift up to nine out of ten households out of fuel poverty, reducing energy bills in all treated homes by at least £200 per year
- Cut household energy consumption by 5.4 per cent by 2027 and quadruple the impact of the government’s energy savings schemes – Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation
- Cut overall carbon emissions by 1.1 per cent, including household emissions reduced by around 5.6% by 2027
You can download the entire report here. It expands on these claims about CF’s research:
- Economic benefits: Investing the money in improving the homes of fuel poor households has a better outcome on growth and employment than the alternative options modelled.
- Social benefits: Between 75% and 87% of the households that would have otherwise been in fuel poverty are removed from fuel poverty, improving the quality of millions of lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society and reducing health care costs.
- Environmental benefits: UK CO2 emissions fall by more than 5% compared to baseline by 2027, contributing to the UK’s legal commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 2050.
These are some big claims. 130,000 is a lot of jobs. And £200 is a lot of money to the 9.1 million households that CF believe will be living in fuel poverty in the near future thanks to rising bills. CF’s solution — this miracle — is to take the increasing carbon taxes that will be paid on top of bills, to subsidise the improvement of those 9.1 million households with 95% of this revenue. This is the preferred scenario of three considered by the CF’s report.
We are interested in the EE-All scenario. Here are the projections for 2015:
So far, this is all seems fairly innocuous… You take a little bit of money from the consumer at the point of purchase — the polluter pays, after all — and you give it to the people who can’t afford the commodity that the consumer purchased, to make their lives a bit nicer. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Let’s take the easiest claim to deal with first — that the fuel poor will be £200 a year better off as a result of their homes being made more efficient. As you can see from the above tables, the revenue taken from carbon taxes rises from £2.8 billion in 2015 to £6.8 billion by 2027. Interpolating between these points gives us the following result.
So the Treasury will be taking £57.4 billion in carbon taxes between 2015 and 2027, and CF want to spend 95% of that (£54.9 billion) on doing up poor people’s houses, to save them £200 a year on bills.
Not all the homes are treated at once. This is a 13 year programme, as you can see in table 3.8 above. This is shown in the following graph:
So totting up the million or so households that save £200 in 2015, 2016… 2027, all the way up to the 9.1 million households who don’t get to enjoy their £200/saving until 2027, we get the following:
Of course, the likely response here is that the efficiencies created will persist. This is true, but those 9.1 million households saving £200 a year each, or £1.8 between them won’t have realised the benefit of the remaining £42.9 billion for another 23 and a half years — 2050. This doesn’t seem like a good deal to me, if the intention is to improve people’s living conditions and make their money go further. More to the point, energy bills have risen substantially more than £200 in the last decade, as they are predicted to continue. Should they double again — as seems to be a possibility — a £200 benefit may not be sufficient to take people out of ‘fuel poverty’.
But CF claim that their idea will bring other benefits, such as jobs. A whopping 130,000 jobs. These 130,000 jobs grow as follows:
Over the course of the 13 years, 1.3 million full time years are worked. So the benefits are equivalent to 100,200 full time positions over 13 years. At a cost of £424, 390 per job. Or, if we take the 13 year equivalent jobs, £548,064 per job, or £42,159 per year. Each job treats 90.8 homes over the period, or 7 homes per year — one home per job every 52 days.
Although the Christmas of 2027 will be a snug and cosy time for the 9.1 million homes who’ve had all that work done for free, with £12 billion saved up for presents, it will be a less happy time for 130,000 workers who will, just a week later, lose their jobs. Because, while it may be true that the insulation on the homes may persist (but won’t yield a net benefit for another 23 years) jobs do not last in the same way.
The green understanding of jobs is as peculiar as its understanding of ‘efficiency’. The jobs that are created are understood by CF to produce extra GDP — to produce wealth. But they don’t, they produce a big transfer of wealth, certainly. But they only marginally increase the efficiency of the UK’s energy supply by a tiny fraction for a comparatively huge workforce. These benefits are, according to CF:
- Cut household energy consumption by 5.4 per cent by 2027 and quadruple the impact of the government’s energy savings schemes – Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation
- Cut overall carbon emissions by 1.1 per cent, including household emissions reduced by around 5.6% by 2027
Here we see green ideology at work. Cutting household energy consumption by 5.4% by 2027 is seen as a worthwhile end — the real priority in the environmentalists’ conception of efficiency. But there is no real good served by reducing consumption for its own sake outside of the environmental perspective. As I point out on this blog, in order to take environmental imperatives like ‘reducing consumption’ at face value, you have to presuppose a great deal. Most people in the world would not regard cutting their consumption as a Good Thing. On the green view, walking is more ‘efficient’ than using a car. But if we take ourselves and our needs seriously, walking for the sake of reducing consumption is highly inefficient: I can get to where I want to be in minutes in a car, but it might take all day to walk there.
So let’s find a compromise with the greens. They will abandon their asceticism if we can find a way of reducing CO2 emissions from consumption. In other words, we have to find a way of reducing energy bills for 9.1 million people by £200 a year, and cut the UK’s carbon emissions by 1.1% for the £55 billion they want to spend on improving people’s houses. Can it be done?
Well, according to DECC, the UK emitted greenhouse gasses equivalent of 590.4 million tonnes of CO2 in 2010. So we’re looking to cut 5.9 million tonnes. This should be easy enough, because 204.3 million tonnes of the UK’s GHG emissions come from the electricity supply. If we assume a kilowatt hour (kWh) produces a kilogramme of CO2, we would need to cut 5.9 billion kWh from our CO2-emitting energy supply, and produce it from zero-carbon generators. There are 8,760 hours in a year, so 5.9 billion divided by 8,760 equals 673,516. We’re looking to replace 673,516 kW of CO2-emitting electricity generating capacity with non CO2 emitting capacity. 673,516 kW is 0.67 GW. So we need to find a .67 GW generator. My choice is nuclear.
Prices of nuclear power stations in the UK are hard to come by. There weren’t any for sale on eBay. But the US Energy Information Administration has some info on costs. (I will not apologise for the inaccuracies that will necessarily follow from merely converting the costs of US nuclear power to £UK, because, as will become apparent, the CF took far less care in making their argument.) Clicking on Table 1 of this US EIA’s page takes you to an Excel file, which says that the ‘overnight cost’ of a nuclear power plant is US$5,335 (2010) per kW. At today’s exchange rate, that’s £3,354.5. So .67GW of capacity would cost us £2.3 billion. But that isn’t quite enough, in fact, because no power station produces energy 100% of the time, and we need to ensure that we find 5.9 billion kWh a year. So let’s assume that our nuclear plant only produces 80% of its capacity. We need to add another 25% to the price… £2.8 billion.
The cost/benefit analysis of buying a nuclear power station vs following CF’s report is not looking good for them. But something which might tip the balance in their favour are the ongoing costs of operating the nuclear power station. Again, the US EIA has the answer. The fixed ongoing costs for nuclear are $88.75 (2010) per kWh and the variable costs were $2.04. So that’s £55.8 per kW and £1.28 per MWh. £55.8 x 841,895kW = £46,977,741. £1.28 x 842 x 24 x 365 = £9,440,000. So, the annual cost is £56,417,741.
We’re now in a position to compare the two strategies: the CF’s programme of taking carbon tax revenue from the rich, and using it to make poor peoples’ homes more efficient and produce less carbon vs my idea of building a nuclear power station.
The CF want £55 billion over 13 years, or £4.23 billion a year.
I want £2.8 billion capital cost, and £56.4 million a year thereafter.
Let’s make the point more clearly. In the first year, my idea costs £1.43 billion less. For the remaining 12 years, my idea costs $4.17 billion a year less. The difference over the entire 13 years is £51.5 billion. That’s enough to give those 9.1 million households £200 a year for decades. But if we’re in the business of giving stuff away, there’s a better idea. Why not spend that entire £55 billion on nuclear power stations and give the electricity away? According to the US EIA’s prices, that would buy us 16GW of nuclear generating capacity, or 140 TWh (assuming 100% load factor) — which would lower bills substantially. According to DECC In 2011, the UK consumed 365 TWh of electricity, 108 TWh of which came from coal. So our new nuclear plants could completely replace all coal! Why aren’t CF jumping up and down for nuclear?!
There’s a catch, though. CF wanted to create 130,000 new jobs. Would 16GW of nuclear generating capacity do the same?
According to the UK’s Nuclear industry Association, there are 60,000 workers in the UK’s nuclear sector. Let’s imagine that they are all working in electricity generation. Last year they produced 69 TWh of electricity from 10.5 GW of net capacity. Assuming the same capacity factor (75%) for our new nuclear plant, that would give us 105 TWh and 91,304 jobs. (Less the jobs it took away from the other generating sectors, of course.)
So, CF might now say, ‘ahh, but Ben’s idea creates 40,000 fewer jobs than ours’. This may be true, but look at what those jobs create. The CF’s 130,000 jobs create a negative amount of electricity — 5.9 TW hours. My first plan produces the same amount of positive electricity for a fraction of the price, and the second produces nearly 20 times as much for the same price. Moreover, whereas the CF’s plan produces 130,000 low-skilled, low-paid, jobs for 13 years, my nuclear power plan creates 91,304 of the most highly skilled jobs on first-world salaries. In labour efficiency terms, then, the CF’s plan dilutes the overall efficiency of the electricity generating sector by adding 130,000 jobs. If the search for efficiency wasn’t subject to the law of diminishing returns, household electricity demand could be reduced by 100% by a workforce of 2.4 million. Meanwhile, under my plan, my 90,000 jobs, which create 105 TWh, almost supplies the entire domestic sector, which has an annual consumption of 112.8 TWh. My 90,000 jobs are infinitely more productive than the CF’s 130,000 jobs.
It gets worse for the CF now we come to examine the environmental benefits. Their plan displaces 5.6% of household emissions by making 9.1 million homes energy efficient. As you will remember, this is equivalent to 5.9 million tonnes of CO2, because a kilowatt hour produces a kilogramme of CO2. My plan therefore reduces UK emissions by 105 million tonnes of CO2. That reduction effectively completely decarbonises the entire UK domestic electricity supply.
So how will this benefit people living in fuel poverty? Well, the ongoing plant costs under my scheme cost £1,099,180,017 — roughly a £ billion per year for the entire domestic sector. Between 25 million homes, that is about £43 per home per year, not including the cost of develiery. We’ve met the upfront capital cost of £55 billion through carbon taxes over 13 years. Now we can sit back and enjoy the cheap energy. According to OFGEM, 54% of a £470 electricity bill is ‘wholesale cost’. So that’s £253. And since we’re no longer producing any nasty CO2, we can remove the £47 charge for ‘environmental costs’ the government add to bills. The average bill now looks like this: £43 wholesale electricity cost, £84.6 for distribution, £23.5 transmission charges, £9.2 VAT, and £32.9 ‘other costs’, coming to a total of £193.2 per year. We’ve reduced the average electricity bill by £276.8 for everyone, not just the fuel poor. That’s taken many people out of fuel poverty — especially if they use electricity rather than gas to heat their homes. But if we’re still feeling generous, perhaps we could give some extra relief to the remaining fuel poor.
So, in summary, by focusing our efforts on production, rather than on the green conception of ‘efficiency’, we could substantially reduce or even eliminate fuel poverty, reduce bills for everyone, eliminate CO2 emissions from the domestic sector, produce 91 thousand very high quality permanent and productive jobs for the same money that CF want to use to reduce CO2 emissions by just 1.5%, reduce bills only for 9.1 million homes by only £200 a year, and to create 130,000 13-year full time, low-skilled jobs.
Of course, the real test of whether I win or not would depend on a much more careful treatment of more accurate numbers. I offer the above only to offer a sketch of ball-park figures from the data I have available. I would be grateful for any ideas about how to improve it. I do not offer the above as an argument for a particular choice of technique. Instead, the intention was to show how ‘efficiency’ is highly sensitive to what we focus on. ‘Efficiency’ is not always a worthwhile end in itself, and much more good might be done by other policies. What I believe the above does do, is raise a question about Consumer Focus.
Why are ‘reducing demand’ and ‘improving efficiency’ in the consumer’s interest? The argument above is that the parameters of ‘efficiency’ have been narrowed to these measures of performance at the expense of arguments that might better improve people’s conditions. These parameters of the policy discussion have been narrowed by the government, and by the party-political consensus on climate and energy policies. The idea of producing more electricity more cheaply is anathema to that consensus. Consumer Focus, being an organisation mandated to act in the consumer’s interest by statute in fact serves the interests of the government, and its preferred policy agenda. And indeed, when we look at the staff of the organisation, we see that it is filled with people who guarantee that the parameters of any research this superficially ‘autonomous’ organisation produces will remain narrow enough to prevent any criticism of government policy. Take CF Board member, Sharon Darcy, for instance…
Sharon is a Board member of the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) and housing association The Hyde Group. She is a member of the Ofgem’s Low Carbon Network Fund Expert Panel and Consumer Challenge Group for monopoly price controls. She is a member of the Ofwat Customer Advisory Panel and Future Regulation Advisory Panel. Previous roles include Member of the Council of energywatch, Chair of Sutton Borough Citizens Advice Bureaux and member of the London and Southern Committee for the Consumer Council for Water. Sharon Darcy – Declaration of Interest – Feb 12 (PDF 116KB)
And it turns out that her declaration of interests include the fact that she campaigns for the Liberal Democrats, and is a consultant to other quangos. That’s not to say Darcy had any hand in this report, nor in specifying a brief in such a way as to deliberately set out to find in favour of a certain agenda. But what it does ask, is where does the CF consider the consumer’s argument for more, and for cheaper energy? It doesn’t. It can’t. The idea that there are better things in the world than ‘efficiency’ doesn’t occur to Consumer Focus, who nonetheless claim to champion the consumer’s interests — it decides them for the consumer.
This demonstrates the danger of political consensus. Not just between parties, but between all political institutions and civil society. Consumer Focus’s press release said, for instance:
Consumer Focus, and a coalition of organisations (The Energy Bill Revolution), argue that a proportion of funds generated by carbon taxes, should be used for targeted energy efficiency schemes. The new report details a range of funding options from using 35 per cent of carbon tax revenue to 95 per cent and how this could cut fuel poverty by 75 per cent to 87 per cent depending on the level of investment.
A look at the Energy Bill Revolution’s ‘who’s behind it’ page shows a vast constellation of NGOs, think tanks, companies, Quangos, and other organisations, who seem to have put their collective name behind this research in the name of ‘Warm Homes, Lower Bills’ — their slogan. Yet it would seem that through their narrow vision, they fail to consider better ways of delivering it than blowing £55 billion on a nonsense scheme with highly dubious benefits. You can guarantee that the research suits them though.
If civil society cannot challenge political consensuses and cannot interrogate the thinking behind policies, it becomes a mere echo chamber for the government. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that, indeed, rather than championing the public’s interest, statutory and independent organisations are nothing more than outsourced PR agencies for Number 10 and government departments. The consequence of this hollow political arrangement is inevitably colder homes and higher bills. There is no surprise that those are the two effects of the last two governments’ policies.
I’ve been a bit busy for blogging lately. It happens. One of the things I’ve been working on is this film produced for the EFD group, starring UKIP chairman, Steve Crowther.
The Lost Horizons website is here.
One of the criticisms that the film got elsewhere (amongst much more support, I should add) is that it reflected some ‘Nimby’ concerns. I have to say, I don’t recognise this criticism at all.
I’ve never been particularly moved by arguments against wind farms about protecting the countryside. I think turbines are ridiculous machines that need policy to make them ‘work’, and I think they’re unsightly. But I’m an urbanite, quite content in concrete carbuncles (though I certainly enjoy the occasional stroll and stay in the great outdoors). That’s not to say I don’t care about what happens in the countryside or to people who live there. It is a sufficient argument simply to observe that so many people don’t like turbines, and that to make any significant contribution to the energy supply, so many turbines will be needed. Of course, however, sometimes things need to be built where people don’t want them to be built. But the value of wind farms is so questionable, I don’t believe the ‘greater good’ argument counts in the wind energy debate. Few people would be over the moon about a new coal-fired power station being built near them, but as is pointed out in the film, just one such power station could do the job of all of those wind farms. A power station like Drax can produce double the amount of electricity that all of the UK’s onshore wind turbines can produce. Such are the benefits of centralised power generation and a distribution grid. It means we don’t all need to burn stuff in our houses. Clearly, the current and previous governments have been more terrified by the possibility of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth protesting as turf is cut for a power station than they are concerned with meeting the UK’s energy needs.
The ridiculousness of wind turbines is simply the manifestation of ridiculous policies, which are in turn the product of a ridiculous form of politics. Over-emphasis on wind farms, I believed, missed the point of what happened ‘upwind’. Then I began to meet lots of wind farm campaigners a few years ago. I’ve now met many. To date, I don’t think I’ve met a single ‘Nimby’.
Nimbyism is a reactionary impulse, concerning a given development, regardless of the wider benefits that it will bring. In fact, however, each of the people I have met have asked precisely the question that is necessary to overcome selfishness — what is the greater good that wind farms are supposed to serve. People discover for themselves that the benefits are not as claimed. The depth of knowledge that wind farm campaigners demonstrate about their subject — knowledge of the law, of policy, of generating electricity and of climate science — is phenomenal. Criticism of policies and policymakers cannot be waved away with such a cack-handed pejorative as ‘nimby’. And far from protecting their own, many wind farm campaigners sacrifice a great deal of time and resources.
But what about nimbies? If we cast our mind back to the roads protests of the 1990s, it was the environmentalists who teamed up with nimbies against the development of roads. It’s a curious thing that as the environmental movement grew, the establishment absorbed it. It heeded protests not just against roads, but against power stations too. Being a nimby is good when the nimby is against a road or an airport, and bad when it’s against a wind farm. An absurd level of self-contradiction was reached a few years ago, when the then government’s plans for ‘eco-towns’ was being challenged by nimbies, their complaint being that the proposed developments weren’t sustainable enough.
Perhaps this all points to the inadequacy of the word ‘nimby’. If you don’t want to live near a road, power station or wind farm, surely that’s as good a reason as you need to challenge the argument for their construction near you — to ask why it was necessary, rather than take the claims that it is necessary at face value. And it should motivate better arguments in favour of such developments. But the debate about the UK’s energy supply has never happened. Policies were dictated at the UN and EU, and the MPs who represent us in Westminster deferred responsibility to technocrats in quangos like the Committee on Climate Change, which were stuffed full of believers. Rather than confronting opposition to wind farms, DECC ministers like Ed Miliband decided it would be better to engineer values, to make being against wind farms as ‘socially unacceptable’ as not wearing a seat belt.
Meanwhile, many anti-wind campaigners actually still share much of the green agenda. I’ve had long discussions with many of them about it, in which nobody has tried to force the point by making the other ‘socially unacceptable’. Many campaigners are concerned about climate change. But the installation of wind farms has opened their eyes to the strange politics that lies behind their construction, and to the alarmist excesses of the environmental movement. Wind energy companies are meeting a political demand, not a demand for electricity. These are the things wind farm campaigners talk about. The wind farm debate is about much more than what happens in people’s backyards. Hence, resistance to wind farm developments is portrayed as preoccupation with one’s own interests. To admit otherwise would be to admit to the debate that there is a problem with UK and EU policies, and the politics behind them. There is no such thing as a ‘nimby’ in the wind farm debate.
I usually try to avoid looking at the seriously nutty end of environmentalism. Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘Dark Mountain Project‘ is one such collection of madness.
The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes.
New stories are needed for darker, more uncertain times. Older ones need to be rediscovered. The Dark Mountain Project was created to help this happen. We promote and curate writing, storytelling, art and music rooted in place, time and nature. We aim to offer up a challenge to the foundations of our civilisation. We know this is ambitious, and possibly foolhardy. But we think it is also necessary, and we hope we can act as a catalyst and curator in helping to begin the process.
The tragedy of the ‘Uncivilisation’ (their word) project is of course, that once you reduce the entire world, its past and its future to mere narratives, the unavoidable conclusion is that your own dysphoria is also merely a narrative, and as such completely disconnected from reality. The Dark Mountain is a dystopian fantasy of escape from… its prequel… a dystopian fantasy, which is dystopian by virtue of a prophecy of doom.
Speaking of prophets of doom peddling silly narratives of dystopias and utopias, this nutty chap has far more clout than the average eco-warrior:
“We become unbalanced as individuals if we become cut off from nature”, claims Professor Jeffrey Sachs, senior UN advisor, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, world expert on poverty, amongst many other things.
It is one thing, of course, to say that we depend on ‘ecosystems’ for material sustenance. It is quite another thing entirely to claim, as Sachs does, that we are nourished in some other way by nature.
I disagree with both things, however. Sachs begins his story with what appears to be a common sense view — that we depend on ecosystems, which in the environmental perspective,
clean and transport our air and water, pollinate crops, fix nitrogen, and so on. But the term ‘ecosystem’ mystifies what are natural processes. And the extent to which we depend on natural processes is a function of our wealth, fundamentally. It is simply been more economic to situate ourselves near natural water courses than to pipe it hundreds of miles. And it is similarly cheaper to use solar power to grow crops than to put them under lights. But that will surely change one day, when using artificial light becomes more productive than using ‘free’ sunlight. It would be ‘natural’ for me to use a horse, rather than a car. But my car is far, far cheaper than a field, the labour necessary to keep the field in good condition, and so on. It is not inconceivable, then, that we might one day replace all of our dependencies on natural processes with dependence on systems of our own making, save for that which are part of our own biology. There is no virtue in things, simply because they are ‘natural’.
The concept of ‘ecosystems’ is nebulous — they have no clear boundaries or identity. But they are presupposed to exist, as complex, fragile, and tangible entities. Even more nebulous, then, is the claim that our lives depend on them, rather than natural processes, the boundaries and limitations of which can be understood. Sachs gives the game away when he says we become ‘unbalanced’ as individuals when distance is put between ourselves and ‘nature’.
We are programmed to have… We evolved in the savannah. … People all over the world are attracted to the same kind of vistas, the horizons, being on a hill overlooking a lake. These are things that make life pleasant for us. And interestingly, all societies tend to share some of those basic traits because they’re really hard wired in our evolutionary experience as a species.
This ‘web of life’ stuff now descends to armchair evolutionary psychology. Now, I probably like being on top of a hill as much as anybody else. But can I really talk about it being anything more than a subjective experience? And even if I can say that the enjoyment of natural drama in landscapes seems to be universal, does it really say anything about the urban vista, such that too much of it produces an ‘unbalanced’ individual? I happen to have found the view of New York from Brooklyn Bridge as awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen in nature. Only the February cold — exposure to nature? — moved me on. More importantly, can it really be claimed that this capacity for a subjective, but universal experience has any consequences for our understanding of development?
Sachs was apparently asked ‘How can we balance quality of life and sustainability?’ His answer is predictable.
Humanity in many cases at a local scale has blown it by over-farming, depleting nutrients in soils, taking too much ground water away. But in past history, when the local environment was wrecked as it often was, people moved. Migration was the safety valve. There is no safety valve [?] that way now. We’ve filled the planet with seven billion of us and there’s no place to move. There’s no other planet, there’s no alternative. Either we save the planet, save the millions of species under threat or we’re going to wreck things and its so odd. This is our generation’s time. This wasn’t the generational choice fifty years ago. It won’t be the generational choice a hundred years from now because it’s going to be too late if we haven’t gotten this right by then. This is our time, this is why I think sustainable development is this generation’s major challenge.
Did you see what he did there?
Or rather, did you see what he didn’t do there? He didn’t answer the question: ‘How can we balance quality of life and sustainability?’
What we got instead was hand-waving in the form of cod evolutionary psychology, claims about ‘ecosystems’, and the promise that we’re all going to die. He is very keen on emphasising the imperatives of environmentalism, but is not so keen on explaining what they mean.
Central to these claims is the concept of ‘balance’ alluded to in his discussion about people being deprived of nature becoming ‘unbalanced’.
It is of course, an instance of the naturalistic fallacy. In Sachs’s perspective, the good life has been dictated by nature. It restores ‘balance’ in individuals. Ditto, the iron logic of nature determines what is right in wider terms — of ‘balance’ in society. This is, I’ve argued before, nothing more than a search for a basis on which to build a form of politics which does not need to take a mandate from the public — the demos. The role of political institutions in this form of politics is — at face value — to manage the relationship between humans and natural processes.
In reality, however, it is a naked attempt to create authority for a political elite. This is shown most vividly by his inability to answer the question. And it is shown again in a second video, in which Sachs is asked “Is it possible for all the world’s nations to be developed, or must there be winners and losers?”
The answer is ‘no’. Sachs imagines low and middle income countries enjoying the lifestyles that the richer world enjoys. It would mean ecological disaster. The only way it is possible, he says is through a concept he calls ‘decoupling’…
… using sustainable technologies that allow for economic progress, especially in the poor and middle-income countries without damaging the environment because those technologies decouple the progress from the use of primary resources or from carbon emissions.
Solar power is the answer, he suggests, citing recent falls in the price of PV cells on the world market. Yet those falls are, as we all now know, the consequence of over-production in the East, not advances in production of them, after markets were created for them by absurd levels of subsidy, especially in Europe. And even more so in Germany… a first world country in which 800,000 people a year cannot afford to pay their electricity bills and so get cut off thanks to its renewable energy policies — especially solar — causing ever rising prices. Not even Germans — whose GDPPP was $ 38,400 in 2011 — can afford solar power!
The developing world will just have to wait for the technology it would seem. Which isn’t really an answer to the question, Is it possible for all the world’s nations to be developed, or must there be winners and losers?” The losers will have to remain losers until Sachs’s pipe dream becomes a reality, meanwhile the coal, oil and gas that they might enjoy now, or in the very near future will remain in the ground. A man, in such a position of influence as he — with the ear of presidents throughout the world, and as former adviser to the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Development Program, and as the author of many projects seemingly intended to realise ‘sustainable development’ — really ought be able to answer the question.
Instead he unwittingly gives the lie to the claim that sustainable development is necessary — ‘sustainability’ is in fact hostile to the very concept of development.
Perhaps Sachs believes his own verbiage. But I see no reason to take at face value what has very little scientific basis. It is not simply bad science, bad politics and bad faith — these things justified on mystical concepts of ‘balance’, and ‘ecosystem’. It is woo-woo, passed off as planet-saving insight. Shame on Sachs.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12981/</em>
In his speech to the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, leader Ed Miliband declared he was going to ‘do something different today’, to ‘tell you my story. I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country.’ Such self-conscious attempts to give identity to hollow political leaders of tired political parties in empty political contests are now a ritual in British politics.
Every political leader in recent years has overstated his vision as a new vital force. Yet each attempt to do so belies the narrowing of political discourse, the hollowing out of ideas, and the terminal vacuity of today’s political poseurs. The spectacle of Miliband delivering a personal statement was nothing new at all. Like many political leaders before him, he was forced to talk about himself because he had nothing else to say.
Miliband is not the only leader to have emphasised his humble origins to claim that it gives him insight into a divided Britain. Nor is he the first to try to revive Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idea of One Nation politics. John Major also sought to reverse the Conservative Party’s decline by reinventing Disraeli, claiming in 1996: ‘Decent homes, rewarding jobs, a good education, shares, quality of life. Giving more people those opportunities is what One Nation Conservatism is all about.’ Five years earlier, and just prior to an unexpected election victory that produced a government hobbled by constant in-fighting, he, like Miliband now, paraded his humble roots. For Major, that meant Brixton and grammar school rather than Miliband’s Hampstead and a comprehensive school, as this 1992 Conservative Party campaign video shows.
The two fundamentals of Miliband’s speech are the same as Major’s. Twenty years separate them, but both consciously eschew the socialism that we might imagine their backgrounds would make them sympathetic to. Both claim that their origins give them insight that people from more privileged backgrounds cannot develop. Both claim to be able to unite Britain. And both emphasise merely basic educational standards as the means to economic recovery. Miliband wants to offer ‘that 14-year-old who is not academic’ a ‘gold-standard vocational qualification, a new Technical Baccalaureate’, which is ‘a qualification to be proud of’. It is as if nobody had thought of it before. Yet Major said in 1996: ‘Some children will choose to learn vocational skills. I’ve had enough of people who look down on those children and treat them as second best… So practical skills are being put on an equal footing with academic subjects… The old divide between universities and polytechnics has gone.’
The observation that very little separates political leaders is not new, of course. But the motifs repeated over the past three decades of Britain’s political history are stark, and begin to offer a clue as to what might be going on.
At the Conservative Party conference in 2009, David Cameron’s Big Society idea was being hatched. He would put ‘Broken Britain’, he said, ‘back on her feet’: ‘Do you know the worst thing about their big government?’, he asked of New Labour. ‘It’s not the cost, though that’s bad enough. It is the steady erosion of responsibility. Our task is to lead Britain in a completely different direction.’
But the idea that the state had deprived people of ‘responsibility’ was something Tony Blair, of New Labour, had emphasised just five years earlier. In 2004, he announced a strategy that he claimed was ‘the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country.’ He added: ‘It marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order… It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960s revolution, that didn’t always happen… Here, now, today, people have had enough of this part of the 1960s consensus…. That is the new consensus on law and order for our times.’
Even that was hardly new, though. At the Conservative Party conference more than a decade earlier, John Major had taken issue with people who believed that ‘criminal behaviour was society’s fault, not the individual’s’. Major, too, emphasised responsibility: ‘Do you know, the truth is, much as things have changed on the surface, underneath we’re still the same people. The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain… It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.’
But even a decade before Major’s speech, Margaret Thatchertold political interviewer Brian Walden: ‘I think we went through a period when too many people began to expect their standard of living to be guaranteed by the state, and so great protest movements came that you could, by having sufficient protests, sufficient demonstrations against government, get somehow a larger share for yourself, and they looked to the protest and the demonstrations and the strikes to get a bigger share for them, but it always had to come from the people who really strived to do more and to do better. I want to see one nation, as you go back to Victorian times, but I want everyone to have their own personal property stake.’
For Thatcher, ‘one nation’ meant harking back to Victorian Values. Major similarly sought to get us Back to Basics. Blair thought that this could be achieved through his Respect Agenda. Cameron ordered the creation of the Big Society. Each leader promised that they could encourage personal responsibility, which would in turn transform British culture, end dependence on the welfare state, and reverse economic woes.
In spite of such ambitions, however, governments have found it increasingly difficult to let people actually take responsibility for themselves. The welfare state has not diminished, and endless policy initiatives find new ways to intrude on private life. As early as 1997, the then Labour government conceived of a ‘Quality of Life Barometer’, which would measure the government’s performance in improving individuals’ subjective sense of wellbeing – a project now more fully realised by the Lib-Con coalition’s Happiness Index. Political leaders who emphasise personal responsibility don’t even trust the people to look after their own emotional lives, let alone smoke or drink in public or find their way out of dependency on benefits.
Miliband’s grand projet – One Nation – doesn’t even bother to rebrand the nineteenth-century idea with a new name. Nor does he even attempt to give it substance. Instead, he merely offers a list of grievances, attached to his personal history. ‘That is who I am. That is what I believe. That is my faith’, he urges.
Today’s politicians have become increasingly hollow pastiches of their predecessors, echoes of long-passed political moments that ring around a public space as empty as the vision of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Unable to conceive of new political ideas, they recycle a diminishing pool of insipid slogans that they wave at the country’s very real problems. The constant refrain of ‘One Nation’, ‘personal responsibility’, ‘sense of wellbeing’, ‘rebuilding Britain’ and the rest belies the paucity of ideas about actual development. Instead of building things like roads, industry and homes, modern leaders emphasise instead restraint, austerity, and external crises that are beyond our control – the global economic crisis, climate change and terrorism – which might let them off the hook.
Instead of answering the question ‘Who am I?’, the answer to which may be spun and invented to suit any given moment, it would be far better if politicians answered a far more difficult question: ‘What will I do?’ The fact that they have no new answers to that question is the real message of the party-conference season.
I have an article up on Spiked today about the emptiness of contemporary political grandstanding…
In his speech to the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, leader Ed Miliband declared he was going to ‘do something different today’, to ‘tell you my story. I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country.’ Such self-conscious attempts to give identity to hollow political leaders of tired political parties in empty political contests are now a ritual in British politics.
Every political leader in recent years has overstated his vision as a new vital force. Yet each attempt to do so belies the narrowing of political discourse, the hollowing out of ideas, and the terminal vacuity of today’s political poseurs. The spectacle of Miliband delivering a personal statement was nothing new at all. Like many political leaders before him, he was forced to talk about himself because he had nothing else to say.
The 50th anniversary of Rachel Carsen’s book, Silent Spring has produced a lot of discussion on the internet. Much of this has been rehearsed, ad nauseum.
But 50 years is an opportunity to reflect on the failure of environmentalists past and present to successfully predict the future. Instead, it would seem to me, they project their miserable view of the world and of people onto both. Half a century of failed predictions has not caused any reflection within environmentalism. The non-manifestation of their prophecies has only caused them to defer the date of Armageddon; their excuse codified in just four words: Not if, but when….
But it is not just the failure to predict the future that causes environmentalism bad PR; explaining the present is a problem for them too. Over the last 50 years, economic crises notwithstanding, life has continued to improve in absolute and relative terms. As I have been discussing on Twitter following claims that hundreds of thousands of deaths can be attributed to climate change each year, for instance, there are far fewer deaths from seemingly ‘natural’ causes now than previously. In the case of infant mortality, there were 10,000 fewer deaths of under-fives in 2008 than in 1990. And there are 20% fewer deaths from Malaria now than ten years ago. Not even the certainty of climate change has produce the moral capital — body bags — that environmentalists claim.
The character of life — not just the avoidance of death — has improved, year on year. People lifting themselves out of poverty means determining for themselves the life they want, free from the necessities of subsistence lifestyles.
In short, we were promised a Silent Spring, but now we have noisy winters — human life thriving where once it would have been virtually impossible, or at least characterised by hardship. The chemical, thermal, and biological Apocalypses have simply not materialised. In spite of these historical clues, however, environmental mythology persists.
When Silent Spring was just 30 years old — way back in 1992 — my favourite film maker, Adam Curtis produced a series of films for the BBC: Pandora’s Box — A fable from the age of science, which explored the complexities of humanity’s relationship with science. One episode deals with the change in attitude towards chemists, and the rise of political ecology. Curtis notes that the chemist is at first celebrated as a hero, as the use of pesticides transforms agriculture. Of particular interest is the narrative that emerges during this era, that puts a Darwinian slant on technological developments. But even more interesting is the transformation of this story in the wake of Carson. As ecologism emerges, so the environmentalists claim to champion Darwin.
The conclusion of the film is extraordinarily prescient. And it speaks to the argument I have made here often, which is that the debate about the environment in general, and climate in particular descends to science. But science is fickle. We imagine it to unmoved by the chaos of the social world, and that scientists can channel pure objectivity to otherwise irrational beings, to be instructive to matters of public policy. Curtis doesn’t take sides in the eco wars, but shows how in many cases, this can be a dangerous misconception of science. The environmental movement was given birth to by lawyers exploiting public anxiety, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Mythology developed around the seemingly scientific and objective claims of early environmentalists. The story of Carson told by environmentalists is one in which scientific observation led to sensible policies and the formation of an objective perspective on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. But Carson’s legacy is instead a far more complex story, in which her ideas and their consequences are owed much more to social, political, economic and cultural changes than her defenders will admit. This turbulence besets even our best attempts to understand ‘what science says’.
One of the more blunt points made on this blog from time-to-time is that mediocrity explains a substantial part of environmentalism’s ascendency. It is a rot within public institutions of all kinds that can explain their greenish hue. To take one recent example, the liberties taken by climate change psychologist, Stephan Lewandowsky demonstrate the intellectual poverty that now thrives within the academy. This manifests as activism, poorly disguised as research, which expresses nothing but cynicism, not just towards climate sceptics, but the wider public. Another, more visible example is the ailing broadsheet newspaper. In particular the Guardian and Independent. Their shrill alarmism is owed in no small part to their journalists simply being incapable of making any sense of the world. This disorientation finds comfort in catastrophic storylines, that provide it with simple moral categories that in any other era would be laughed at in a B-movie plot.
But mediocrity is most troubling where it grips our political, democratic institutions. Political parties have over the last few decades lost their ability to connect with the public, and struggled to identify themselves at all, let alone as distinct to the others, leading, it has been argued on this blog, to a banal political consensus on climate change emerging over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. It at first seemed like a way to connect with the public — through fear, and through the growing network of NGOs. But also, it emerged because the possibility of being responsible for saving the planet is far more attractive a proposition to the vacuous politician than is responding to a disconnected constituency’s wants and needs.
If there is a face that epitomises all this mediocrity, it is this one:
Leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband has written an ‘exclusive’ for the Green Alliance Blog, called ‘Government must lead the way to a more sustainable capitalism’. Says Miliband,
The world economy is struggling to recover from a crisis caused by inadequately regulated financial activity. Governments are dealing with deficits that are too high and growth that is too low. And, long before the credit crunch, people in the middle were struggling with squeezed living standards. For too long, economies have encouraged wealth creation focused on short term returns which failed to reward productive behaviour and skewed distribution towards the top. It is a problem that requires a fundamental re-examination.
This economic chaos is one arc in Miliband’s story. The other, predictably, is the environment…
But there is a further, deeper crisis underlying this. This is the crisis of the global environment which is now rebounding on the real economy. Resource scarcity is affecting prices, for example failed crops in one part of the world lead to rocketing food prices in another part. Energy prices have continued to rise despite the global slowdown. These are resource scarcities right at the heart of the global economy.
Let’s take the first arc first. I am never sure about claims that this is a ‘global’ economic crisis. There is plenty of growth elsewhere in the world. China’s GDP growth is still at around 10%. The Indian economy grew by 6.9% last year. And we have already talked about nearly a third of the world’s population. The world economy in fact grew in 2011, by 2.7%. Check out this Google app, which shows how the UK economy compares to the rest of the world.
When politicians put their own crises into a global context, we have to ask where they are passing the buck to. In the first case, they blame forces beyond their control. And then the remedy, of course, is ‘regulation’. Miliband rose through the ranks of the Labour Party whilst it was in power, and, it seems, while markets were inadequately regulated, and while ‘people in the middle were struggling with squeezed living standards’. He was closer to the squeezers than he now admits, in his claim to be able to protect the squeezed with… we know not what, because he gives us no adequate explanation of what ‘adequate’ regulation amounts to. He emphasises instead that the deeper crisis is in the environment, which is now ‘rebounding on the real economy’.
Here, Miliband confuses commodities for resources. His claim is that high food and energy prices are owed to resource shortages. But a failed crop is not an instance of a ‘resource shortage’. A crop is not a ‘resource’. One food commodity, for instance, which has seen considerable price increase as a result of the US drought is maize, much of which was grown for biofuels. It would be madness, wouldn’t it, if resources were really running out, to use them for fuel. As Daniel Ben Ami points out…
It is still tragically true that there are about one billion people in the world who go hungry. Solving this problem demands not only improvements in food production and distribution but economic development more generally. For instance, for those without electricity it is much harder to store food to stop it rotting. Roads are also often needed for efficient transportation.
… the fact of relative scarcity pushing food prices is a question of capacity to produce it — hardware, labour, and social matters — not simply matters of material resources. Just as Miliband kicks the question of the UK’s economic fortune into the ‘global’ long grass, he waves his hands at the problem of the scarcity of commodities driving up prices to make it a matter of dwindling ‘resources’. Taking these two points together, then, it would seem that Ed Milibands economic illiteracy, and his failure to take responsibility for extant problems or their solution is owed to the fact that he simply has no idea how to create wealth. Our economic situation appears to be a global problem. The problem of high prices seems to have a natural origin. But it is only in Milband’s head — his ideology — that dwindling resources causes rising food prices. We could grow more food. And we could stop wasting money on biofuels.
And the same is true of energy prices. We could dig more coal, pump more oil and drill more gas, to bring more of each on stream. But this would not necessary produce any easily determined change in price. It is a mistake to claim, as Miliband has, that price is a function of scarcity. And neither is it true that reduction in demand will necessarily produce a drop in prices. This is especially true in the case of commodities such as oil, which are in many cases produced according to quotas. And on all other timescales, the price of energy commodities is driven by many factors, such as speculation about the political situation in oil producing economies. Here, for instance, is a chart produced by WTRG Economics showing the price of oil, with world events superimposed over them.
The events following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan did more to increase the price of oil than anything else. Yet greens are the first to claim that the War on Terror was about securing supplies of cheap oil, and that prices rose because of scarcity.
And is it even true that energy prices are rising? Here are a couple of neat little widgets that show a slightly more complicated story than Miliband presents. As they show, we see nothing now like the prices we saw in 2008.
The presentation of a crisis is intended to do one thing. Miliband continues…
The truth is that the economic and environmental crises have a lot in common. They have a common cause: markets without proper regulation; a common victim: working people who suffer the consequences of a problem they did not create; and a common solution: strong and active government that does not leave people to their fates.
Miliband has no idea how to create a strong government. Hence his recourse to scaremongering. He has no real understanding of the economic crisis, nor of any possible solution. Any bloke at the pub could tell you that ‘markets without proper regulation’ caused the UK’s economic problems. But the solution could be any number of things. His following words are just as hollow:
It’s at these moments of crisis that we need to think about what kind of society we are and what kind of country we want to become. Britain needs an economy that is more resilient, more genuinely competitive, more focused on the long term and one that people feel is fairer, an economy that works for working people. Not only do we need growth, we need growth that is inclusive and sustainable. It is not a choice between creating jobs and saving the planet. We have to do both.
Notice here, that Miliband’s appeal for resilience, for identity, and for unity — this national introspection — belies, again, his inability to forge a political project that can create these things. A political leader, on the other hand, with the ability to mobilise the voting public with any kind of political vision, would not be so conscious of what is lacking. Asking us ‘to think about what kind of society we are’ means that Miliband is as confused about it as any of us. If it were otherwise, it would not need saying. Pointing out that we need ‘an economy that is more resilient’ draws our attention to the fact that Miliband doesn’t have a programme for creating it. If it were otherwise, he would need say no more than the name the programme to which we would already be committed. The emphasis on ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘sustainability’ reveal no more than Miliband’s anxiety about the future, and his impotence to deliver ‘inclusivity’. If it were otherwise, Miliband would say what it was that would make things ‘inclusive’, and make the future more certain. These concepts are political ideas with no objects — slogans that are no more tangible than the concepts themselves. When people build stairs, they do not start by making promises to make us taller. If Miliband is a carpenter, he has made a hollow promise. Being committed to elevation is one thing. Realising such an ambition is another. Attaching oneself to hollow slogans, and vapid political concepts is easy. And that is why Miliband needs to emphasise crisis.
When I was secretary of state for energy and climate change the mission to create jobs through clean energy and low carbon manufacturing was at the heart of my plans. At a time when the British economy is desperately in search of new sources of growth, the potential for a green industrial revolution is huge. This is the time to stand proud and declare that we want lead the world in the low carbon, resource efficient technologies of the future. The countries that make the leap first will be the successful economies of this century, exporting technology around the world to cities seeking cleaner air and lower emissions.
Here is a chart showing UK unemployment.
But is this, as Mandelson claims, an industrial revolution? A genuine industrial revolution should make it possible to produce things more efficiently, creating greater dynamism within the economy. But this green “industrial revolution” yields no net benefit. What are called opportunities are generated at a net cost, absorbing money and labour that might be better spent on producing real industrial development, or public services such as schools and hospitals. Stagnation is spun as progress. For example, it is China’s industrial dynamism, not the UK’s, which has created markets for reclaimable materials. It is only by intervention and legislation that the UK is even able to collect plastic bottles, never mind reprocess them.
“Are these new jobs in these new industries going to be wealth-creating ones, or are they simply going to be reliant on funding which has to come from somewhere else? You can’t just create new jobs in a sector which is politically appealing without there being knock-on effects further on in the economy,” says Tom Clougherty Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute.
You don’t need to be a free-market advocate or climate sceptic to see the point. The green sector can’t yet stand on its own two feet. If we want to create more jobs, it might be more sensible to invest in sectors that are capable of producing wealth, rather than merely absorbing it.
Miliband’s ‘green industrial revolution’ did not happen. The number of people out of work continued to rise. Any claim that the green sector is producing growth makes its case by obscene omission. As I pointed out earlier this year, claims about the green sector are hopelessly one-sided.
The UK’s exports to the global wind power sector are a measly £500 million, compared to its domestic market of £4.1 billion. It’s almost inconceivable that most of that market doesn’t substantially reflect a similar ratio. And those 31,400 jobs… Given that the wind sector was subsidised, just through the ROC’s scheme, to the tune of £609.6 million that same year, we can calculate that each job was subsidised to the tune of £19,414.18. That is a problem that the REA simply do not have an answer to. The growth in the sector can only be called ‘growth’ if, in the meantime, can find the £19,414 for each of the existing 31,400 employees in the sector, and the same for each job in the sector that REA and Innovas claim will be created between now and 2020.
Miliband and his successor — no less a zealot — Huhne, have failed to make the UK a net exporter of green energy technology. And throughout the EU, where the regulatory frameworks that Miliband is so keen on, and which have created the seemingly perfect conditions for a ‘green industrial revolution’, renewable energy manufacturers are shutting down in the face of competition from the East. In China, wind turbine factories are powered by coal-fired power stations, which are being built at a rate which means their consumption of coal increases by the UK’s entire annual consumption every seven weeks. A UK-based ‘green industrial revolution’ was, from its conception hopelessly implausible. And so it remains. All it does it increase the cost of energy to industrial and domestic consumers, putting any chance of an actual industrial revolution further and further into the future. It gets worse…
But this will require a much more active role for government. Almost all the technological revolutions that have spurred new waves of growth in the past have sprung from government activity. Investing in the infrastructure for a low carbon economy will both kick start the growth that is currently missing and make our economy resilient to price shocks in an age of scarcity. It is governments which set the low carbon targets and correct market failures; and the degree of support for policies shown by governments is a major part of perceived risk for investors. To attract the investment we need, governments must cover that risk and commit to a clear goal of decarbonising the power sector by 2030, as the independent Committee on Climate Change has recommended. We need to create instruments that will give the private sector the confidence it needs to invest in new low carbon sources of energy. This is, in principle, what the Green Investment Bank is for, but investors will not be fooled by a bank without proper powers.
Even if it were true that ‘all the technological revolutions that have spurred new waves of growth in the past have sprung from government activity’ — which it isn’t — it does not follow that ‘government activity’ will produce either a ‘technological revolution’ or ‘new waves of growth’. But it can produce their opposites. It can absorb the potential for technological revolutions, and it can absorb wealth. Were a government to get behind the design of some perpetual motion or ‘free energy’ machine on the internet, for instance, the laws of physics would remain the same, in spite of official support for it.
The mistake Miliband makes is to conceive of ‘green energy’ — which, let us remember, may not ever compete with nuclear, coal, or gas, and cannot yet stand without subsidy — as a ‘technological revolution’. It seems to be axiomatically true to me that less dense sources of energy can never produce as much useful energy as more dense sources of energy. Therefore, there is no possibility of any kind of ‘technological revolution’ in renewable energy. Even if renewable energy could be produced as cheaply as oil, coal, or gas, it will not be ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that it could not produce a positive qualitative transformation of society as did the arrival of, for example, the steam age. Consider the facts: the use of coal, diesel, petrol, oil, and uranium created new possibilities: for travel, for leisure, for work. The very character of life was altered by the production of energy. Renewable energy cannot allow us to move beyond the things that constrain us now. It may, one day, given some kind of miracle, offer merely a continuation of what we enjoy now.
What is far more likely, however, is that renewable energy will limit the possibility of development. This is because renewable energy, being ‘ambient energy’ is only available at any moment in limited quantities, whereas despatchable forms of energy are produced from existing resources. You can’t stockpile wind or sunshine. And even if you could store it in some other form, you do so at significant added expense, with added hardware. For any conceivable advances in the production in renewable energy and energy storage, there are at least as many conceivable advances in the exploitation of coal, gas, oil, nuclear fission and fusion and so on. For the foreseeable future, no such development in renewable energy can expand the possibilities for us here on Earth. And so Miliband’s bizarre logic manifests as bizarre technology: in order to make renewable energy feasible, mandatory ‘smart meters’ will be installed in our homes, capable of turning off our appliances, and even interrupting the power supply completely, so that the grid can cope with variation in supply — when there isn’t enough wind. (Assuming, of course, that we don’t face blackouts sooner than the smart meter rollout).
The development of technology that turned oil, coal, and gas and uranium into useful energy brought heat and light to homes, and made possible journeys across distances that to the ordinary person were all but inconceivable. The wind turbine and smart meter will turn your fridge off. That is the reality of Ed Miliband’s ‘green industrial revolution’. It is a ‘revolution’ only in the sense that a coup d’état that throws out a democratic government in a thriving economy, to turn it into an austere dictatorship is a ‘revolution’. It is regression.
The point then, is that green energy, however a noble idea it is, cannot produce ‘growth’. Period. Yet Miliband believes that, once our lives are powered by solar panels and windmills, all will be well with the world…
Making markets work more efficiently can be our ally in supporting both our long term national interest, and also the current financial interests of individuals. That is why we also need to reform our energy market. Just six companies supply more than 99 per cent of consumers’ electricity and gas. They also generate two thirds of the country’s electricity. This stops the market from being open. One result is that when wholesale prices go up, so do people’s bills. Yet when wholesale prices come down, too often bills do not. This is caused by a lack of transparency in the market and the fact that having just a few large dominant firms means the price is never forced down. The market needs to be opened up to new entrants. We are looking at ways to encourage all energy companies to sell the power they generate into an open pool, so that any retailer can buy it, thereby encouraging more competition.
Miliband moves from the idea of ‘efficient markets’ to energy market reform as though it was not a nonsequitur. The ‘Big Six’ and the current government’s demonisation of them has been discussed here before. No doubt energy companies are out for themselves. But Miliband’s paints a misleading picture of robber-barons. In fact, the recent OECD/IEA study which is cited as proving that fossil fuels are more heavily subsidised than renewables (but which in fat demonstrated precisely the opposite) casts doubt on Miliband’s claim that the UK energy market is not open:
The United Kingdom has been a pioneer in deregulating and liberalising energy markets through price decontrol, the closure of inefficient coal mines, the removal of subsidies, privatisation and the introduction of competition and open access to electricity and natural gas networks, regulated by an independent regulatory body. Today, there is virtually no state ownership of energy assets and all markets are competitive.
In today’s Britain, are there many sectors where there are as many as six competitors? Do we get as much choice about where we get our water? Our mobile phone? Our food? There are more energy companies than there are supermarket chains in my home city. And are they really ripping us off? The analysis produced last year, suggests otherwise.
The profit margins of energy retails are far less than Miliband claims. The reason there are only six big players, then, might be owed to the fact that the margins are so small, and the market competitive. It is hard to see how new players might make any profit.
Miliband, like the DECC ministers last year, aims to channel popular discontent with rising energy prices. This cynical move is moreover an attempt to remove himself from blame for having caused them. Not directly, as we may think, by building windfarms, but by the opportunity cost created by over-emphasis on them and other renewables. The current and previous government did not have any ambition to make energy cheaper. This was revealed recently by Ed Miliband’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and the Environment, Barry Gardiner MP, who is quoted by Energy Live News,
The Government wants people to believe their electricity will become cheaper. It will not. It will become much more expensive.
As an aside… I called Gardiner out for claiming that subsidies for fossil fuels were greater than for renewables on Twitter. In fact, I called him a liar. Some might say that this was strong language, but he was himself accusing people of lying so it didn’t seem out of place to point out that his claims were the lies. He threatened me with legal action, and demanded I remove the tweets. I didn’t, and have not yet heard from his lawyer.
Gardiner admits that renewable energy is more expensive than conventional generation. He knows it. And since he is so close to Miliband, we must assume that Gardiner has told him. If he hasn’t, what exactly is his Special Envoy for Climate Change and the Environment telling him?
It has long been understood that emphasis on emissions reduction will come at a price. Miliband and his successors have tried to fudge the issue with partial studies produced by dodgy think tanks and renewable energy lobbying groups, and by blaming the energy companies. The simple fact is, however, that if Miliband had made cheap and accessible energy a political priority at home and internationally, then it would be all the more a possibility. The buck stops with the man who took the job of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He knew prices were rising. His government made a commitment to reducing the cost of energy and the levels of ‘fuel poverty’. But rather than calling for more coal, oil and gas to be extracted he made it harder for these things to be used. He offered incentives to invest in more expensive forms of producing electricity. He pushed for higher emissions-reduction targets. He disincentivised the production of cheap energy. And now he has the nerve to say,
Energy bills are now one of the biggest costs that families face, but the complexity of the various tariffs on offer, currently over 400, means that 80 per cent of people are paying too much for their energy. Elderly customers often find it hard to shop around and make the market work for them. That is why a Labour government would ask the energy companies to charge all customers over the age of 75 the cheapest tariff for gas and electricity, enforceable by law.
This is nothing more than grandstanding. Why should only the over-75’s enjoy the protection of the law? Is it okay to rip off a 74 year old, but a crime to charge him over the odds the very next day? And what kind of promise is guaranteeing the ‘lowest possible tariff’ while he has done everything in his power to make electricity more expensive? It is a classic Labour Party move — to give with the one hand while taking much more away with the other.
We need growth to serve a purpose: raising aspirations, improving the quality of life, and passing on a better inheritance to the next generation. Sustainability is about the politics of hope and the human endeavour to create a better legacy. People are aware of the risks and opportunities facing us. Over half a million people signed a petition against the government’s plans to sell off our forests. Even more have joined the Fish Fight campaign lobbying for an end to the disgraceful practice of discards and calling for a sustainable fishing industry. Millions tuned into Frozen Planet to watch Sir David Attenborough’s plea to save the Arctic, a cause whose time has come.
All these things are, on Miliband’s view, a demonstration of the demand for ‘responsible growth’ — words that he can barely even say. ‘Rethponthible Growth’ is demanded, it would seem, not by demonstrations of public will at the ballot box, but a petition about forests and fishes, and a TV programme about polar bears… Scaremongering in each case. Even if more than half a million people in the UK care so deeply about such things, Miliband’s claim to represent the public will in this respect is defeated by the fact that nobody has been able to express a desire for an alternative to the party-political consensus on climate. Much less has the political establishment allowed its environment and energy policies to be criticised.
Miliband’s idea of ‘responsible growth’ seems to imagine that a regime of deliberately ‘irresponsible growth’ once reigned. But not even ‘growth’ is a problem the UK enjoys, responsibly or irresponsibly. Rather, the ‘responsible-‘ prefix is a caveat to any promise he makes to deliver anything positive at all. It’s a bit like ‘sustainable development’. ‘Sustainable’ is in fact interchangeable with ‘not’. Thus, ‘sustainability’ is a celebration of more primitive lifestyles, of lower living standards, and of regressive political ideas. Milband speaks about ‘improving the quality of life’ as though it had never been conceive of before, and that it was done without oil, gas or coal; without machines and wealth. Concepts like ‘human endeavour’ and ‘hope‘ come easily to vapid poseurs, who have only online petitions and a TV programme to draw from, but who struggle to get people to vote for them, much less out into the streets.
It’s all just so insipid…
This is something that goes to the core of Labour’s values of fairness, equality, and social justice. The great Attlee government was not just about the National Health Service and creating a post-war economy. It was also the government that legislated for our National Parks and to protect the diversity of our countryside. From ancient woodlands and wildlife rich wetlands, through to community orchards and local parks, there are some things that provide a value that cannot be captured by the free market. Times have changed, but the principle remains the same: markets have limits. The campaign against the forest sell off showed that the public gets this, as did opposition to the government’s planning reforms. Rather than being a barrier to growth, I see the environment as a source of inspiration and opportunity to create long term sustainable jobs; globally competitive businesses; reduce inequalities and the fairer distribution of resources and wealth.
… So trite…
The environmental crisis poses a big challenge to our politics because it is marked by a distance between the generation that needs to act and the generations that will feel the greatest benefit. Bringing about change requires government to play a greater role in making markets work to deliver the best possible outcome.
… And so very, very hollow…
Of course, if government was the only agent for change, a shift towards a more responsible, sustainable capitalism would be far harder. I will not deliver change alone but by building a coalition of business leaders from companies large and small, politicians, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, investors, employees, consumers, citizens, and trade unions. Such coalitions come along rarely in politics but when they do they make real change possible, driving out old orthodoxies and establishing new ways of conducting our lives together.
‘I will not deliver change alone…’, says Miliband, just in case we were really wondering how he was going to execute his master plan. The ‘coalition’ he imagines, however, screams loudly about its own impossibility. If Miliband could really mobilise so many movements and individuals, they would surely be standing behind him already. This crowd is a fantasy. The actuality is a scene as empty as the concepts he’s claimed to champion throughout his article. But let’s imagine anyone turns up to join this coalition. Who will they be? The companies he will seem to recruit will not be unlike the ones who now seem to have embraced the green agenda: they are either drawn to the subsidy tit, or forced there by endless environmental regulation. The NGOs will be the same old self-serving and cynical outfits who variously flirted with Cameron, Brown and Blair, but who had tantrums when the progress of the policies they demanded were slowed by democratic processes. The trades unions, if they turn up, will be remembering Milibands ‘these strikes are wrong‘ mantra, and will recall his urge to them to ‘put aside the rhetoric’ (oh, the irony). The citizens who do turn up will be a tiny slither of the mid-thirties percent who voted for him of the low-sixties percent who bothered to vote.
The job of politicians is not just to put forward some of the ideas that can contribute towards creating a more responsible and sustainable capitalism, it is to help build the coalition for change that will support and make these changes happen in practice.
The problem for Miliband, though, is that he can’t even put forward ideas at all, let alone ideas on which a coalition can form. ‘Responsible and sustainable capitalism’ is an idea which is transparently formulated in an atmosphere devoid of imagination — convenient, off-the-shelf prefixes are attached to a frank admission that he has no alternative, nor even any analysis of the problems he is seeking to address. It’s a clumsy attempt to connect with the idea that ‘something is wrong’, which is an idea that everybody has. Every conceivable solution to the problem that everybody senses is captured by the notions of ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’. Imagine your car has broken down. The problem is neither going to be identified nor remedied by your desire that the fix be ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’. Analyses of problems and their solutions requires more depth. Miliband proposes precisely nothing.
Miliband attempts to turn his own political and our economic problems into problems that are ‘environmental’ in character. The economy and the environment are synonymous on his account. He imagines that the entire country shares his values, and will thus get behind him, to join his ‘coalition’ because he watches BBC nature documentaries.
The ‘environment’ features so prominently in his thinking, partly because it is a prefabricated story to which he can turn, but also because lacking an understanding of the human world, the idea that a bad economy is the result of a bad environment is the easiest way for him to account for economic problems such as rising commodity prices. The environment is the cause that will rescue the nation from its loss of identity, its loss of values, the economic crisis, and the problem of widespread disengagement from politics. But commodity prices do not reflect simply resource scarcity, and people’s values cannot be estimated by their television viewing habits.
The phenomenon of Miliband is mediocrity gone supernova. But let’s not single him out. He epitomises the problem that afflicts many public institutions, and so makes visible for a moment the nothingness that passes for politics in today’s UK. The political establishment’s absorption of environmentalism is primarily, a response to its own vacuity, and to the problems caused by its own vacuity. Stories about crises take the place of ideas and vision. Nebulous conceptions of the natural world serve in lieu of an understanding of the human world. It is fitting that a cipher should stand as the leader of such a hollow political party, in such a turgid political contest as the one that exists between them and the coalition.
<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11068/</em>
The growth of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over the past 50 years has been extraordinary. Starting from humble beginnings and means, organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which are both celebrating their fortieth anniversaries this year, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which opened its first office 50 years ago, now command budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. But while the organic champagne may be flowing in the green camp, what does the rest of the world have to celebrate about the rise and rise of the Big Green NGO?
Greenpeace emerged when tensions between East and West dominated global politics. In September 1971, a boat full of activists set out from Vancouver in Canada to interrupt a US nuclear weapons test. A founding member of Greenpeace told the world: ‘We call our ship the Greenpeace because that’s the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world… We do not consider ourselves to be radicals. We are conservatives, who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations.’
The first Greenpeace mission failed to stop the escalation of the arms race, but it gave the organisation its trademark style of direct action. Big-scale stunts would ensure media attention for decades to come, but they also epitomised environmentalists’ shrill and uncompromising tone. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, NGOs grew in prominence and number, but it wasn’t until the Cold War drew to a close that NGOs really became global players.
Some have sought to explain the ascendency of the NGO as the regrouping of various left agendas after the disintegration of communism. Founding member turned critic of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, fuels this perception, claiming that ‘pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited’, thus they ‘moved into the environmental movement bringing with them their eco-Marxism and pro-Sandinista sentiments’. While there may be some truth to this claim, its significance is questionable. Moore seems to forget that his erstwhile comrades had identified themselves as ‘conservatives’. There were few organisations or individuals in the USSR, never mind in the West, that could be accurately described as ‘pro-Soviet’ at the time.
Moreover, environmental issues had been established on the international agenda long before the collapse of communism. Former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland began compiling her UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report in 1983. Our Common Future, published in 1987, became the blueprint for ‘sustainable development’ and proposed the ‘marriage of economy and ecology’. The NGOs we know today are the chimera produced by this ugly union.
Brundtland noted that NGOs had ‘played a major part in the environmental movement’ and were pioneers ‘in the creation of public awareness and political pressures that stimulated governments to act’. Accordingly, she saw in NGOs the potential to drive the sustainability agenda, in spite of public and governmental indifference. NGOs should be better funded and given access ‘to participate in decision-making’. They could ‘provide an efficient and effective alternative to public agencies’, in both the design and delivery of international and national policies.
Brundtland preferred that undemocratic and unaccountable NGOs keep national governments in check. They were handed the kind of tasks that the voting public might have once been expected to decide on through the ballot box. Concerns about ‘eco-Marxists’ or the left generally gaining power through the backdoor not only miss the point of Brundtland’s contempt for democratic politics – they also miss the real context of the NGOs’ ascendency: a post-political (or ‘post-ideological’) era.
Far from pitching governments against NGOs, this mode of politics has come to the rescue of politicians. In an era when suspicion of ‘ideology’ and of the public abounds, political leaders have been eager to prove their sympathy to the causes embraced by NGOs. Here, for instance, is David Cameron – then the opposition leader in the UK – holding a press conference about his energy policy at Greenpeace’s London offices.
It would be a mistake to imagine that the Brundtland report was the singular cause of the elevation of NGOs and the decline of democratic politics. But Brundtland nonetheless epitomises the desire for an organising basis for political institutions that transcends ‘ideology’. Soviet tyranny had come to an end, but so had faith in the idea that liberal democracies could be sustained by popular mandate. Scientists, with their immunity from ideology guaranteed by the objectivity of science, and NGOs, with their unimpeachable moral perspective, would determine the priorities that ought to drive policy and rescue the political establishment from its disorientation and disconnectedness.
Far from transcending ideology, however, the compact between institutions of power and NGOs created a new kind of politics, as revealed in their treatment of the issues they claim to be concerned with. With regards to the depletion of fish stocks, for instance, Greenpeace emphasises the need for regulation and the creation of international agreements and agencies to prevent over-fishing. But, as Rob Lyons has argued previously on spiked, a more sensible approach would be to find better ways of producing fish for ourselves, rather than depending on nature to produce limited amounts. The sustainability agenda, however, does not permit our independence from natural processes. After all, overcoming natural limits would deprive the arrangement between NGOs and the state of its moral basis: the limits of the natural world become the organising principle of the human world, as though the facts themselves had spoken to us and told us how to live.
But facts do not speak to us. They are interpreted through prejudices and are coloured by harrowing images of ecological degradation and suffering – the NGO’s primary mode of advancing its agenda. The NGOs’ mode of engagement is confined to the realm of emotions. Donating assuages individual guilt, and by hitching themselves to the NGO, otherwise redundant politicians hope to demonstrate that they are responding to the world’s problems. It is all very ‘ethical’ – if ethics is about nothing more than mere gestures intended to convey the existence of a moral conscience – but there is little discussion about what kind of world the NGOs and the UN’s approach to development is striving to create: in other words, the politics remains obscured. NGOs turn naive sympathy and emotional self-indulgence into political power.
This is seen most acutely where development and environmental agendas converge. In the West, and in wealthier countries, NGOs’ influence over the political agenda is mediated, of course. But where economies and political systems are less robust, the NGOs’ power is greater. On the basis that pastoral societies are ‘sustainable’, development and aid NGO Oxfam has determined that it should campaign for the preservation of ‘traditional society’ in the developing world. Oxfam’s head of research, Duncan Green, recently argued that, despite there being no obvious connection between climate change and the drought in the Horn of Africa, ‘smallholder agriculture and pastoralism… have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of east Africans’.
In 2008, a paper published by Oxfam about the virtues of pastoral society revealed the organisation’s limited faith in the possibilities of development. ‘Forward-looking traditionalists’, it said, could enjoy the fruits of modern industrial society, but only to the extent that ‘satellite and mobile phones would enable herders to check on market prices or disease outbreaks’. Never mind the ambitions that any person enduring life in ‘pastoral society’ might have about accessing communications technology like the rest of us do; Oxfam has decided his interests are best served by a lifestyle that no Oxfam worker in the UK would tolerate at home.
It is difficult to estimate the actual power that NGOs wield. There is no adequate definition of an NGO, no formal or legal definition of their relationship with official power. Nonetheless, Greenpeace, which claims to have 2.9million supporters around the world, has had an indubitable influence over the remaining 99.96 per cent of the world’s population. The Greenpeace website boasts about victories over plans to build airports, dams, mines, oil wells, factories and power stations, and in securing national and international regulation or bans on chemicals and industrial processes, fishing, the disposal of toxic substances, the exploitation of natural wilderness, genetically modified crop production and experimentation, and so on.
Green NGOs have assumed increasingly political roles, as para-governmental agencies, as PR campaign agencies for government and intergovernmental institutions and their policies, as outsourced research and lobbying outfits, and by assuming to be ‘above’ politics. Literally, in the case of this rooftop protest at the Palace of Westminster:
NGOs – unaccountable, undemocratic, unchecked and self-appointed organisations – occupy space created by the political establishment’s increasing distance from the public. However, they do nothing to bring either national or global politics closer to us. In fact, they make it more remote. There is no formal way to challenge the influence, agenda or ideas of NGOs. They claim to best represent the facts, the issues the world faces, and to represent ‘stakeholders’ and the ‘voiceless’, but have begun to displace the public from politics. Hence we see them straddling the Houses of Parliament, demanding that MPs ‘change the politics’. But nobody ever voted for Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth or Oxfam.
NGOs seem to have been established to challenge the problems the world faces and their influence is legitimised on that basis. In reality, they have ended up securing the foundations of existing political institutions, helping them appear responsive to ‘the issues’ while bypassing the will of the voting public. NGOs have escaped criticism because to take issue with them is equated to taking issue with polar bears, starving babies, trees and other voiceless ‘stakeholders’. However, these only serve as a fig leaf, behind which the politics really were changed, just as Greenpeace demanded.
This is a guest post by Geoff Chambers and Alex Cull.
“Ten Billion”, described as “a new kind of scientific lecture” by scientist Stephen Emmott and director Katie Mitchell played at the Royal Court theatre in London for three weeks in July and August, and at the Festival d’Avignon in France. It was a huge critical success, and in a post-show discussion Emmott said that he had been bombarded with offers from film makers to turn it into a tv documentary, and claimed to have received thousands of requests from the public to have it shown to schools and to politicians.
So what’s in it? Only a few thousand people lucky enough to have seen the show know, since it was shown at the Theatre Upstairs, which only seats ninety, and, contrary to normal Royal Court practice, a playscript has not been published.
Since the critics seem to be unanimous about its importance, and the stage show is likely to be transformed into a tv film which will be watched by millions, we decided to try and piece together the contents from quotations in press reviews, rather like that lost Satyr Play by Sophocles, known only from fragments found on scraps of papyrus wrapped round a mummified crocodile.
Besides the reviews by theatre critics, our main sources were two filmed interviews, one by the director Katie Mitchell given at the Avignon theatre festival, the other a question-and-answer session by Professor Emmott after a performance at the Royal Court. Both these, plus an item on Radio’s Today programme, have been transcribed and are available at Alex’s site:
The title “Ten Billion” refers to Emmott’s estimate of the likely world population at the end of the century. Most of the reviews speak of “overpopulation”; Whatsonstage talks of the “exponential” population expansion and Time Out talks of Emmott’s prediction “that the global population is spiralling out of control”.
The reviews were full of superlatives. The Times’ critic calls it “utterly gripping, terrifyingly lucid”; Time Out: “monumentally sobering”; Billington in the Guardian: “one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre”; the Financial Times: “one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage”; the Mail on Sunday “certainly the most scary show in London”. Almost all of them cite Emmott’s conclusion: “We’re f*cked”.
Here are some of the key “facts” (or “f*cts”) cited by Emmott and picked up by critics. (It is of course impossible to check whether the critics have quoted Emmott correctly, since no record of what he says exists):
1) A google search uses as much electricity as boiling a kettle.
2) It takes 3,000 litres of water to make a hamburger, (that’s 10 trillion litres of water annually to sustain the UK’s burger industry).
3) It takes 27,000 litres of water to make a bar of chocolate
3) Animal species are currently going extinct at a rate 1,000 times their natural level.
4) Bangladesh will be under water by the end of the century.
Taking them one by one:
1) A cup of tea is worth a Google search
The New Scientist has an interview with Emmott in which the Google/kettle anecdote is repeated and in which Emmott says:
the goal was simply to inform and give people an opportunity and a framework for thinking differently about the nature of the problems that we face. You might say it’s quite stark, but 99 per cent of the talk is just the science and the facts.
The article has an update pointing out that Google disputes this figure, saying it’s a hundred times too large. So who to believe? Google, or the Microsoft professor of Computational Science at Oxford? Or should we split the difference?
2) How moist is your hamburger?
The figure of 3000 litres of water to make a hamburger dwarfs average daily consumption of 150 litres per day. Even if you accept the concept of “virtual” water, (incorporating water used in the manufacture of products consumed) as explained in a Guardian article — according to which the true figure for UK water usage is 30 times greater than the official amount — you would need 10% of total water usage in the UK, including “virtual” water, just to keep us in hamburgers – an unlikely result.
Googling “3000 litres of water to make a hamburger” leads us to sites like waterfootprint.org, which cite the peer reviewed articles (e.g. Mekonnen & Hoekstra: A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products) which are the ultimate source of these figures. The high water content of hamburgers is explained by counting the rain falling on the grass or other crops consumed by the cow. It could be pointed out in defense of the Big Mac that even if you abolished livestock rearing and went back to hunter gathering, the same amount of rain would still fall on the same amount of grassland, and your voleburger would still have the same water footprint, though presumably without mustard and mayonnaise. It really doesn’t matter whether Mekonnen and Hoekstra have done their sums right; it’s not science – just a Reader’s Digest-style factoid to bring out to impress your dinner party guests over the home-grown roquette quiche.
3) Homeopathic chocolate
27,000 litres to make a bar of chocolate, cited by reviewers here and here also seems a bit steep. The Urban Times website quotes 27,000 litres per kilo as the water footprint of chocolate, (perhaps Emmott likes big chocolate bars?) and adds:
there is a simple reason behind the large water footprint. The natural habitat of the cocoa bean is the lower storey of the evergreen rainforest and the plant requires vast amounts of water to thrive. It needs rainfall of between 1,500mm and 2,000mm per year with consistent levels throughout the year. Compare this to the 650mm per year as an average in London.
By converting some of their rainforest into cocoa plantations, countries like Ghana can transform natural resources such as their ample rainfall into valuable cash crops and become wealthier. One day the may even become wealthy enough to hold dinner parties where they can worry whether the stuff they import from Europe has been ethically and sustainably produced.
3) Animal extinctions a thousand times the background rate.
Wikipaedia says “the rate of species extinctions [not just animal species] at present is estimated at 100 to 1000 times “background” or average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth” and cites J.H.Lawton and R.M.May, Extinction rates, OUP. Given that new species are being discovered faster than current ones are going extinct, any figure is bound to be highly suspect, even one as vague as that cited by Wiki. Has Emmott simply taken the higher of two vastly different estimates for overall species loss and applied it to the tiny proportion of species which people care about – the four-legged ones?
Willis Eschenbach points out that, according to the Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms, of the 61 mammal species known to have become extinct in the past 500 years, 58 were island dwellers, hunted to death by European colonisers. He says:
Of the 4,428 known mammal species (Red List 2004) living in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Antarctica, only three mammals have gone extinct in the last 500 years.
Clearly, any idea of animal species loss being multiplied a thousandfold by climate change, or anything else, is nonsense.
4) Is Bangladesh disappearing?
A quarter of the land surface in this huge river delta is flooded every year. Thousands die, but, as the 2008 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan explains in some detail, great progress is being made to limit the damage and loss of life. This progress is due to the impressive economic and social development the country has experienced:
Since Bangladesh achieved Independence in 1971, GDP has more than tripled in real terms , food production has increased three-fold, the population growth rate has declined from around 2.9% per annum in 1974 to 1.4% in 2006 and the country is now largely food secure. Over the last 20 years, growth has accelerated and the country is on track to become a middle income country by 2020. In four out of the last five years the economy has grown at over 6%. Between 1991 and 2005, the percentage of people living in poverty declined from 59% to 40% … Child mortality has fallen substantially and gender parity in primary education has been achieved.
If you google “Bangladesh surface area”, the first few results all cite a World Bank report which gives the surface area of Bangladesh as 144,000 sq km, unchanged since 1961. The round figure and the lack of change over 50 years look suspicious. Could it be that the Bangladesh government is too poor or too incompetent to measure its own surface area?
Not so. A few minutes’ research show that it’s the World Bank which can’t be arsed to get its facts right. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ 2010 Pocketbook gives a figure from the 2001 census of 147,570 sq km. -considerably more precise, and 5% up on the World Bank’s vague out-of-date estimate.
The impression that the area of Bangladesh is actually growing is confirmed by the experts working on land reclamation. From:
“The Bangladeshi rivers carry silt unlike any others and an intervention is all that is needed to create new land,” said S.R. Khan, a government water engineer. “Bangladesh is the only country in the world that can physically grow.” [...] “Our understanding is that the process of siltation, particularly when you are supporting it through creating dams, that the process is much faster than the increase in sea levels,” said Alphons Hennekens, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Bangladesh.
* * *
The key prediction, contained in the title of Emmott’s piece, is that the world’s population is due to grow from its current seven billion to ten billion by the end of the century.
According to the 2010 revision of the UN’s World Population Prospects this figure will be reached on 18 June 2083. It represents a radical increase from that given in the last full report, “World Population to 2300” published in 2004 which predicted:
world population peaks at 9.22 billion in 2075… [A]fter reaching its maximum, world population declines slightly and then resumes increasing, slowly, to reach a level of 8.97 billion by 2300, not much different from the projected 2050 figure.
The 2010 update is not a proper report like the 2004 document, but a bunch of graphs for internet browsing, and is therefore much more difficult to evaluate. There is, however, a set of FAQs in the 2010 document which explain the upward revision as being due largely to a revision of estimates of fertility rates. My BS detector shot off the dial when I read in FAQ3 that the figure of ten billion is due to be reached on 18 June 2083, (what? during Wimbledon?) and that FAQ9 cites a reversal of declining fertility rates in Estonia and the Channel Isles among the reasons for the upward revison – but that’s another story. Even if one accepts the revised figures, there is no basis for describing population growth as “exponential” or “spiralling out of control” or even “overpopulation” as many critics did. Were they citing Emmott, or did they make it up? There’s no way of knowing.
Of the checkable facts cited by critics quoting Emmott, only the Ten Billion has credible official support. But even this apparently solidly based projection came under fire in the discussion after the show, when a member of the audience mentioned:
… a lecture at my own institution by Professor Sarah Harper, who’s professor of demography at Oxford, and she took a much more reassuring view than you … of population growth. She said that changing lifestyles in every part of the world, with a few pockets of exceptions in Africa, would lead us to conclude that the portrait you portray of relentless expansion of population is not the case. I’m confused now, having heard your wonderful talk tonight.
No, I’m not quite as optimistic as Sarah, but – and I do share most of her views. Er, but I didn’t actually say we would be 28 billion, I said if the … rate continues at the current rate – and even I don’t think it will – we would be 28 billion, and she would say the same. She might argue that it could be 22 billion, but neither of us would disagree that it’s twenty-something. I just happen to not be quite as optimistic as Sarah about lifestyle changes and how soon they will occur and their consequences in the short term.
Man in audience:
She ended up by saying “It’s a wonderful world for young people”, the complete opposite to producing guns…
So Emmott agrees with fellow Oxford professor Harper – even though she thinks “it’s a wonderful world” and he thinks “we’re f*cked”.
The reference to guns concerns an anecdote which greatly impressed the critics concerning a scientist colleague of Emmott who, when asked what he intended to do to prepare for the future, said “make sure my children know how to use a gun”.
Emmott was at pains to dispel any idea that his colleagues were given to violence. He explained:
I was quite surprised when this guy in my lab said this, because he’s very, very level-headed. And he said so because, you know, we have a lab of forty people working in this area, and you know, everyone shares the same view as he does, and it’s simply on the basis of a) the science, and b) if we’re heading for trouble, of some sort…
Now there’s nothing surprising about someone saying something daft and dramatic in the course of a casual conversation. What is surprising is Emmott’s assertion that the forty people working with him (all top brains doing avant-garde science, according to Katie Mitchell) “all share the same view”. Of course, there’s no more reason to believe this assertion than any of the others offered by Emmott as scientific truth, given his tendency to be out by a factor of ten or a hundred in his estimates. But supposing he’s right. A lab of top flight scientists employed to do Blue-Sky thinking on behalf of the British and American governments, all thinking the same.
Isn’t that rather worrying?
Postscript: In the post-show discussion, Emmott claimed: “an interview that I did about this talk generated just thousands of blogs and comments within you know, a handful of days…”
We’ve done a lot of googling, and come up with 94 comments to an article by Robin McKie in the Observer and 23 to the interview in the New Scientist. Can anyone come up with any more, or is this another example of an Emmottic – a statistic that requires a downward revision of several magnitudes?