Monthly Archives: April 2012
Back in October 2010, I wrote an article for Spiked,
It is no coincidence that, as it was preparing to moderate its statements on climate change, the Society has been seeking to intervene in the debate about population. In July this year, it announced that it would be ‘undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures’.
Climate change has served as the encompassing environmental narrative. It was used to connect the human and natural worlds, and to provide a basis for many political institutions that, without a climate crisis, would simply lack legitimacy. The forcefulness with which claims about climate change were presented and their abstract nature made climate-centric politics ever less plausible. However, if players in the climate debate are beginning to sense the exhaustion of the climate issue, they are able simply to slide into the population debate.
The perspectives of environmentalism do not begin with science, but with the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world. This outlook goes unchallenged because of a perception that environmentalism is a pragmatic solution to purely scientifically-defined problems, and a belief that it can be answered in purely scientific terms. This encourages a sense of passivity, a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’.
A longer version of the argument is on this blog, here.
Shortly after the Royal Society announced it was to revise its advice on climate change, it announced [PDF]:
The Royal Society is undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures over the next forty years and beyond. The aims of the study are to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study will be global but it will explicitly acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics and the impact of policy interventions. We aim to complete the project by early 2012.
The timing is no accident. The character of the public discussion of environmental issues is changing. While it is welcome that there has been a marginally more sober reflection on the climate, there is little to celebrate. The scientific academy has sensed that it in today’s world, it wields political power. As the call for evidencesuggests, the Royal Society has already decided that population is a problem, and the size of the population ought to be managed by political power, not by the individuals it consists of.
We invite feedback on the following questions. [... ]
- What scientific evidence is available to show how fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation will affect or be affected by population levels and rates of change, at both regional and global levels, over the next forty years and beyond?
- How fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation are influenced by and influence environments, economies, societies and cultures?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of different population modelling methodologies?
- What are the key interconnections among population change, environments, economies, societies and cultures? How do these relate to any of the examples listed in the second bullet point of the terms of reference above?
- What are the key linkages among population, technology and consumption.
- What are the best (or worst) examples of how policy has been effective in managing population changes?
- What other issues should our study addresses?
The implication of these question is the same idea that operated at the core of the RS’s climate perspective. The idea of our dependence on ecosystems is still the premise of its neomalthusianism. The climate story emphasised the damage that climate change would do to these systems, resulting in calamity. A weaker form of the same climate story serves as an adjunct to the population story. Neomalthusians can now acknowledge the uncertainty of the climate science, but make the claim that the degree to which climate change is certain is a function of population. The more people, the greater the possibility that climate change is a problem. Climate change has been the principal narrative which connected human society to the natural world, but now population has become the ‘master’ issue. It connects fears about biodiversity, climate change, resource-depletion, pollution, and so on. We can jump up and down with joy when climate science is shown to have been exaggerated by politicians, or is embarrassed by the excesses of a researcher. But it won’t have been the result of attempts to understand the phenomenon of environmentalism, and environmentalists will simply regroup under the population issue, as we predicted they would.
The Royal Society has finally published its report on population, ‘People and planet‘.
This project was a major study investigating the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet.
The final report People and the Planet was published on 26 April 2012.
Rapid and widespread changes in the world’s human population, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption present profound challenges to human health and wellbeing, and the natural environment.
The combination of these factors is likely to have far reaching and long-lasting consequences for our finite planet and will impact on future generations as well as our own. These impacts raise serious concerns and challenge us to consider the relationship between people and the planet. It is not surprising then, that debates about population have tended to inspire controversy.
This report is offered, not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet. It raises questions about how best to seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring – and how to avoid the most harmful impacts.
The aims of the study were to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study was global. It explicitly acknowledged regional variations in population dynamics, and the inequality that exists in consumption patterns around the world.
The report concludes with several key recommendations:
1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.
2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.
3. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues. Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.
So when did inequality, poverty, reproductive rights, and the issue of what levels of material wealth people should be entitled to become matters of ‘science’?
(It’s a rhetorical question).
As discussed previously — follow the links to the articles above — the Royal Society’s sideways step from climate alarmism to Malthusianism is also a step backwards. Before climate change became the dominant narrative of political environmentalism, the principle issues were ‘limits to growth’ and ‘the population bomb’. Those vehicles failed to give the environmentalists’ political project the profile it needed. Malthusianism was, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, too easily rebutted. And in the dark days of the cold war, we seemed to have bigger problems to face. The end of the cold war arrived, and the brief era of optimism ended with climate change. It filled the nuclear-winter-shaped hole. But now there is widespread acknowledgement that climate change has been over-stated, the institutions which have sought to attach themselves to the issue have had to find a new story. And the new story is an old story. The Royal Society’s report is not at all ashamed of its origins in the work of Malthus…
The relationship between population growth and economic development has long been debated. Malthus in the 18th century was interested in the economic effects of rapid population growth and the relationship with the capacity of the earth to sustain it. These concerns resurfaced in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that an era of unprecedented, rapid increase in the populations of the developing countries had started. Since Malthus, other authors have highlighted the potentially negative impact of continued population growth (eg Coale and Hoover 1958; Ehrlich 1968, 2008; Turner 2009) while others have argued that technological advance and institutional development could counter negative effects of rapid population growth on development (Kuznets 1967; Boserup 1981; Simon 1981). It is clear from this debate that economic development and the demographic transition are linked in complicated and reciprocal ways, and that different challenges and opportunities are presented at different stages of the transition.
In terms of the effect of population factors on economic growth the common view is that rapidly increasing populations have a negative effect on economic growth and employment, due to declines in natural resources and other forms of capital per head. The nature of the relationship between population growth and economic growth will depend on the rate of population growth; a slow population growth rate, of say 1% per annum might have an advantage over a negative growth rate, whilst higher growth rates, of say 2% or more, are unlikely to have a positive impact on economic growth. The rate of capital accumulation is also important; without major accumulation of capital per capita, no major economy has or is likely to make the low-to middle-income transition. Though not sufficient, capital accumulation for growth is absolutely essential to economic growth (Turner 2009).
It can be no coincidence then, that Paul Ehrlich was made a fellow of the Royal Society last week. The Royal Society has embraced Malthus, just as it has embraced the malthusian.
And in doing so, the Royal Society abandons its claim to be a scientific authority. It has embraced a particular ideology… a nasty, anti-human perspective on the world. It can no longer say Nullius in Verba (on the word of no one). It’s perspective is no longer fixed on the material world. The object of its ‘science’ is now the human world, and control over it.
And it took just minutes after the publication of the report for the environmental alarmists to seize the opportunity.
Earth faces a century of disasters, report warns
Economic and environmental catastrophes unavoidable unless rich countries cut consumption and global population stabilises
It’s John Vadal, in the Guardian, of course.
World population needs to be stabilised quickly and high consumption in rich countries rapidly reduced to avoid “a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills”, warns a major report from the Royal Society.
Contraception must be offered to all women who want it and consumption cut to reduce inequality, says the study published on Thursday, which was chaired by Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Sulston.
The assessment of humanity’s prospects in the next 100 years, which has taken 21 months to complete, argues strongly that to achieve long and healthy lives for all 9 billion people expected to be living in 2050, the twin issues of population and consumption must pushed to the top of political and economic agendas. Both issues have been largely ignored by politicians and played down by environment and development groups for 20 years, the report says.
The authors declined to put a figure on sustainable population, saying it depended on lifestyle choices and consumption. But they warned that without urgent action humanity would be in deep trouble. “The pressure on a finite planet will make us radically change human activity”, said Pretty.
“The planet has sufficient resources to sustain 9 billion, but we can only ensure a sustainable future for all if we address grossly unequal levels of consumption. Fairly redistributing the lion’s share of the earth’s resources consumed by the richest 10% would bring development so that infant mortality rates are reduced, many more people are educated and women are empowered to determine their family size – all of which will bring down birth rates”, said an Oxfam spokeswoman.
There are perfectly good arguments for equality, for access to contraception, and for many other things which offer the possibility — albeit contested — of improving the lives of humans. But not in this report. Not in Vidal’s articles in the Guardian. And not from Oxfam, either. None of these organisations and individuals can make an argument for anything progressive while they pretend that it is ‘science’ which is speaking, and not them. Science has nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of inequality, the rights of women, and the material entitlements of people. And only a fool could think that science could make such an argument. The plight of poor people, and people who live without the freedom to determine their own future are not the concern of people who hide their politics behind ‘science’. In their narrative, the Royal Society make instrumental use of the poor, to make a political argument for their own ends. Just as Malthus did.
Green ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, all you had to do as a politician was strap yourself into a sandwichboard and proclaim that the End is Nigh, and your minions would deliver you a standing ovation and the press would celebrate you as a planet-saving super hero. But times are hard for today’s establishment environmentalists. And it’s must be even harder for the zealous green hacks who were swept up in the moment.
The Guardian’s Damian Carrington is an interesting phenomenon. I’ve yet to see him pen anything which isn’t — to use the technical term — bullshit. He, like many other environmental hacks, claim to be on the side of science and reason. But when science and reason contradict him, he’ll ignore it. He’ll take an outlier statistic on Arctic Ice, for instance, and claim that it is a harbinger of doom, no matter what other statistics tell him. And when whining that fossil fuel companies get more subsidies than renewable energy companies, he’ll conveniently recast lower VAT rates as ‘subsidy’, and forget to work out what the subsidies are, in equivalent terms. Waaah! Waaah! Waah! It’s not FAAAAAAAAIRRRRR! seems to be the thrust of Carrington’s inner narrative, which leaks out onto the pages of the Guardian.
And so it is today with his whinge that the Prime Minister isn’t bowing and scraping to the environmental diktats issued in the Guardian.
It is an extraordinary betrayal and abject failure of leadership. Cameron pledged to lead the “greenest government ever” and was elected with photogenic huskies and a “vote blue, go green slogan”. But after two years in No 10, he has given no speech dedicated to the issue at the heart of his Tory decontamination strategy.
In fact, David Cameron was not elected. And neither were his party. He had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That’s not the same as being ‘elected’.
Carrington seems to believe that the PM is failing to deliver his promise to embrace the climate issue. But what Carrington doesn’t seem to realise is that the promise wasn’t sufficient to win the election for Cameron. Nor did it do much for the campaign of the junior party in the coalition.
And it’s not as if the government has abandoned its climate and energy policies. The coalition created an extraordinary system of benefits to renewable forms of energy, including the absurdly high tariffs for solar PV. And its renewable energy programme continues, untroubled by criticism.
The speech on Thursday, at a clean energy ministerial (CEM) in London and attended by energy ministers from the world’s 23 biggest economies, was set to break that silence, as I reported on 4 April. In a government document I have obtained, the event is described as “PM keynote speech to CEM participants”. Cameron’s contribution will now be five minutes of introductory remarks to a roundtable, followed by a Q&A with the ministers.
Carrington’s concern then, is that Cameron won’t be making a big speech at a meeting of energy ministers. Boo hoo.
Perhaps this is an attempt to embarrass the PM into giving a speech, as a kind of gesture. But what would it signify? Would it make the Guardian environmental team any happier? It seems unlikely.
Why does Cameron’s U-turn matter? Because a section of the Conservative party, led by chancellor George Osborne have been openly hostile to green initiatives, talking of “putting our country out of business” and burdening businesses “with endless social and environmental goals”.
The reality is the polar opposite. The green economy already contributes 7% of GDP and employs 900,000 people in the UK, more than teaching. Moreover, it is that rarity in these austere times: a growing sector in which the UK has a competitive advantage. The coalition has brought forward a series of good policies, from the green investment bank to the green deal, yet the investors who will fund the nation’s transition to a clean, sustainable green economy desperately need wholehearted backing from the top of government.
The claim that the ‘green economy’ contributed 7% of GDP and employs 900,000 people is completely implausible. Even the report from the Renewable Energy association published today and discussed the previous post only claims that 139,000 people work in the green sector — and that is likely to be a huge overstatement anyway, and forgets that each of those jobs is heavily subsidised. Carrington inflates the figure six times.
Moreover, this claim seems to portray the treasury and Osborne as simply being pig-headed about the green sector. No doubt there is plenty to criticise them for, but the idea that they would give up on a profitable sector of the economy — rather than one which demands a great deal of subsidy and regulatory interventions and complex international political manoeuvring and which doesn’t enjoy widespread public support — is simply absurd. Carrington seems to be suggesting that Osborbe and the treasury don’t like the green sector simply because it is green.
And with such a tendency to invent statistics (or at least to not treat statistics with due caution), it is hardly a surprise that the PM is seeking to distance himself from the green agenda. Here is a brilliant satire, which is from the USA, but which no doubt reflects reality in the UK too.
This sketch from the West Wing reflects the incoherence of the environmental movement and it’s tendency to pull itself apart, to produce in-fighting and to fail to settle on anything. Ultimately, nothing will please it. That incoherence is now firmly established in the UK’s climate and energy policies. Like Carrington, the special interests line up to bitch and crow, but cannot ever agree, cannot find meaningful support outside the establishment, and cannot tell the difference between failing to to assert their own will and the end of the world. Like the distribution of sweets (candy, to my readers from the USA) amongst toddlers, there is no possible outcome which does not leave each of the parties feeling ripped off, because none of the parties have the faintest understanding about the concept of quantity. All they can see is stuff they want but do not possess. It’s not FAAAAAAAAAIRRRR! WAAAAAAAAAAAAH! WAAAAAAAH!. Even after the toddlers have stuffed their faces, more and more and yet more (subsidies and other special favours) is demanded until sheer exhaustion provokes the final, epic tantrum.
It’s been a funny old day…
As mentioned in the previous post, in answer to the launch of the UK’s National Oppostion to Windfarms (NOW), the UK’s wind energy lobbying outfit, Renewable UK (formerly the British Wind Energy Association hastily arranged for a survey of public opinion regarding wind energy. The results of the poll are published online.
1. To what extent are you in favour of or opposed to the use of wind power in the UK?
Strongly in favour of: 28%
Tend to favour: 38%
Neither favour or oppose: 22%
Tend to oppose: 5%
Strongly opposed to: 3%
Don’t know: 4%
2. To what extent do you find the look of wind farms on the landscape
acceptable or not? Please give your answer on a scale of 1-10 where 1
means completely unacceptable and 10 means it’s completely acceptable.
1. Completely unacceptable: 6%
10. Completely acceptable 20%
Don’t know 4%
I’ve had a few pointless discussions with the pollsters, Ipsos Mori throughout the day. They say their client doesn’t want to show the raw data from the survey.
Polling is a curious thing. It is not clear whether pollsters aim to measure or make public opinion, or perhaps just to flatter whoever pays them. No doubt they like to think of themselves as objective, but too often, the prejudices of the polls authors — if not the commissioners — are plastered all over the poll. Loaded questions and shallow analysis, as we discovered after an Ipsos Mori poll way back in 2007.
Today, there were two more polls on precisely the same subject, this time from Yougov, who were somewhat more forthcoming. The first poll, for Friends of the Earth, asked this question first…
It has been suggested that the government should introduce legislation to make energy companies reduce their use of foreign gas and coal and increase the power they get from Britain’s wind, sun, waves and tides. Supporters say that this would make Britain less reliant on foreign sources of gas and coal, and make energy supply and prices more stable. Opponents say that this would require too much public investment, and there are more important things to spend money on at the moment. To what extent would you support or oppose this policy?
Well, it’s a slightly more honest question than Ipsos-Mori’s.
Here are the results…
Strongly support 33%
Tend to support 52%
Tend to oppose 11%
Strongly oppose 4%
It does look bad for critics of renewable energy. It would seem that 85% of the UK population were in favour of more support for renewable energy. But the second question in the poll reveals a little bit more…
Approximately a quarter of Britain’s current power stations are coming to the end of their expected operational lifespan, and new power stations will need to be built in the next ten years to replace them. Compared to now, which ONE, if any, of the following types of energy source would you MOST like to see being used more in 10 years time?
Wave/ tidal 26%
Don’t know 9%
Now this is a surprising figure, mainly because it would seem that there is quite widespread hope for nuclear. In fact, there is more support for nuclear than wind or solar. It puts a different light on Ipsos Mori’s claim that 66% of people want to see more wind power. Of course, it doesn’t say that 66% of people don’t want to see more support for wind power. But what it does say is that polls don’t say as much as people who commission polls claim that they say. A more interesting survey might ask the public how much support they believed wind and other renewables already received, and what they thought the appropriate level of support ought to be. It might well turn out that people wanted to see more support for wind power, but weren’t aware of just how much wind energy costs, alongside it’s other problems — such as what to do when that pesky wind isn’t blowing. We might want to ask the public if they would accept smart meters in their homes, which would turn off appliances when there isn’t sufficient wind. That is, after all, the plan.
Then there is the poll for Scottish Renewables. 1041 Scots were told…
Scotland currently uses a mix of coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy to power and heat our homes and businesses. Renewable energy sources include onshore and offshore wind, hydro, bioenergy, wave and tidal energy.
And then they were asked to what extent they supported the following statement:
I support the continuing development of wind power as part of a mix of renewable and conventional forms of electricity generation:
And the public said:
Strongly agree 39%
Tend to agree 33%
Neither agree nor disagree 11%
Tend to disagree 8%
Strongly disagree 7%
Don’t know 3%
Again — and aside from the obvious cueing in the question — the question is meaningless. One can ‘strongly agree’ with the statement that ‘I support the continuing development of wind power as part of a mix of renewable and conventional forms of electricity generation’, but think that the ‘continued development’ may just mean a small percentage of total capacity being provided by wind. It doesn’t actually test the individuals commitment to any meaningful quantity. The survey does, however, attempt to test the individual’s commitment to renewable energy:
I support the target of generating 30 per cent of Scotland’s energy needs from a mix of renewable energy by 2020:
Strongly agree 42%
Tend to agree 35%
Neither agree nor disagree 12%
Tend to disagree 4%
Strongly disagree 4%
Don’t know 3%
But it still doesn’t test the individual’s knowledge of renewable energy. And it doesn’t ask him or her to say how much more money they’re willing to spend on their bills to ‘save the planet’.
Some interesting comments on this point emerged from the analysis of the polls.
Today Friends of the Earth is using St George’s Day to launch a new Clean British Energy campaign that calls on the Prime Minister to use his speech at the Clean Energy Ministerial on Thursday to demonstrate his backing for low carbon energy.
The group claims increasing the UK’s reliance on domestic renewable sources would not only help decarbonise the energy sector, but would also enhance energy security and create new green jobs. Government figures show just under £4bn of investment in renewables over the last year yielded nearly 14,000 new jobs.
“The public has given a clear vote of confidence to clean British energy from our wind, sun and sea – it makes no sense for the government to pursue an unwanted, costly dash for gas that’s causing our fuel bills to rocket,” said Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth’s director of policy and campaigns.
Excuse me? vote? Nobody voted for anything. And the polls didn’t ask the public for their views on the alleged ‘dash for gas’. They weren’t asked about fracking. And they weren’t asked about what they thought would be providing backup for wind farms. It wasn’t explained to them that increased reliance on renewable energy sources means having to provide backup. There was no public debate, preceding the poll, allowing the respondents to check the facts and figures for themselves. To say that the poll represents a ‘vote’ is a somewhat arrogant interpretation of the poll.
But let’s not be bitter about it. The fact must be that critics of the emphasis on renewable energy have not done as well to convince the public that renewable energy isn’t what Renewable UK and Friends of the Earth claim it is. Of course we haven’t: critics do not have the resources to establish professional lobbying firms, to hire PR experts and polling organisations. And critics of the government’s policies do not enjoy the ears and favours of the government and the large energy companies.
And on that point… A Yougov poll earlier this year found that…
Recent research from a report by YouGov SixthSense has found that over eight in ten (84%) UK consumers agree that energy suppliers maximise profits at the expense of customers. And over half of consumers (59%) agree with the statement ‘energy suppliers treat people with contempt’.
Perhaps the public just haven’t yet made the link between energy policies and energy prices. Give them time.
One organisation trying their best to deny that link is another renewable energy lobbying group, the Renewable Energy Association (REA). The REA is publishing a report today, excitingly called, Renewable energy: made in Britain. Jobs, turnover and policy framework by technology (2012 assessment). According to the REA’s press release:
New research by the REA and Innovas reveals that the UK’s £12.5 billion renewables industry supports 110,000 jobs across supply chain, and could support 400,000 by 2020
Hmmm. I’m sure I’d heard of a similar claim being made before…
Just three years ago, I wrote in an article for the Register:
Good news emerged from the recent Low Carbon Summit hosted by bailed-out £10bn loss-making bank, RBS. Peter Mandelson got covered in custard, and the government announced a new industrial strategy.
Apparently 400,000 new “environmental sector” jobs will be created by 2017, according to Gordon Brown, who reckoned 1.3 million people would by then be working in “green” jobs. According to Mandelson, “The huge industrial revolution that is unfolding in converting our economy to low carbon is going to present huge business and employment opportunities.”
The claims are slightly different… 400,000 jobs were predicted for 2017 in 2009. Now the claim is for 400,000 jobs by 2020. And the curious thing is, it’s the same firm of analysts who produced both claims. Innovas provided the REA with the data (ho ho ho) from which they project the 400,000 jobs claim. And they provided the (then) Labour government with the same analysis. And as I pointed out back in 2009, the only reason for the growth in the green sector then was the increasing subsidies available to it. In one sector, the promised growth of 25,000 jobs came at the cost of an estimated £30 billion needed to make it conform to new environmental regulations. That’s not growth: it’s not a spontaneous development of a new industry, the possibility of which has been created by some new technology. It is instead merely the transfer of money, created by laws.
There is yet more of this kind of doublethink, just in the press release…
Our analysis shows that meeting our renewable energy targets would displace fossil fuels with a value of £11 billion in 2020 (£60 billion cumulatively to 2020). Failure to meet our targets would see most of this money leave the UK economy through imports of oil, gas and coal – money better invested in supporting domestic growth in domestic jobs. [...]
The report exposes the portrayal of renewable energy as being excessively subsidised in comparison with other energy sources as utterly wrong. Analysis from the International Energy Agency shows that globally renewables receive just one sixth of the subsidy of fossil fuels, while analysis from Ofgem and the Committee on Climate Change reveals that renewable energy policies have only added a fraction to energy bills compared to increases caused by spiking wholesale gas prices.
The possibility of an emerging gas sector in the UK doesn’t seem to have been considered by REA’s report. And if they are so worried about exporting cash from the UK economy, how might they explain all the money spent on renewable energy hardware, such as wind turbines, which are manufactured overseas? Indeed, the core substance of the REA’s report (they were kind enough to let me have an advance copy) is an analysis of each sector’s size, number of employees, turnover, the size of the global market, and the value of each sector’s exports. But no mention of the value of imports, which must surely be subtracted from the balance. Here for instance, is a table of the stats offered in the REA’s report, for a few of the sectors covered.
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.
This innumeracy is carried forward in the comments about the subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry. It may well be true that, in absolute terms, the conventional fuel sector enjoys more subsidies than the renewable sector. But when the subsidies for each are compared in terms of a unit of energy, a very different picture emerges. As I have pointed out previously,
in 2008, the world produced fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, peat) equivalent to 10,065 million tonnes of oil (Mtoe), but only 90.2Mtoe of energy from renewables (geothermal, solar, electricity and heat, wind). So although renewables only enjoyed a tenth (or so) of the subsides that fossil fuels received, fossil fuels accounted for 112 times as much energy. In other words, on a Mtoe basis, the renewable sector received nearly 13 times as much subsidisation as the fossil fuel sector.
Moreover, in the UK, the ‘subsidies’ that REA claim are given to the fossil fuel sector, are in face simply lower rates of VAT (which apply to green energy too). Thus they aren’t subsidies at all. The same cannot be said of the kind of benefits that renewables enjoy.
It’s only by statistical sleight of hand that the REA can make it’s claims. And worse, the statistical analysis on which it depends is hidden behind non-disclosure agreements and claims to be ‘commercially sensitive’. I tried, back in 2009 to have a look at Innovas’s data, but they refused to let me see it in any depth. The REA’s analysis isn’t worth a penny. It has been sold a dud — the same dud that the UK government bought in 2009.
And on to another report. Greenpeace has commissioned Bloomberg New Energy Finance to produce a report ‘on the generation investments of the Big 6 utilities’. There is nothing at all interesting in the report. But there is something very interesting in the press release accompanying it.
Shocking new analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for Greenpeace, shows that most of the Big Six energy utilities haven’t been investing money from customer bills in a way that brings energy prices under control and secures a clean energy supply for the UK.
The government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, and the energy regulator Ofgem have both pointed the finger squarely at the rising cost of gas as being by far the biggest contributor to increased bills over the last eight years.
Ofgem found that of the £150 increase in the average dual fuel bill between March 2011 and March 2012, £100 was due to the rising wholesale cost of energy, largely driven by the increased price of gas.
We’ve already shown how gas prices (as well as pay for the energy company bosses) have rocketed over the last decade.
This worrying trend is set to continue. The chief executive of Ofgem recently argued that gas could be increasingly expensive to import as countries around the world compete for supplies.
This means higher bills for everyone, unless we can reduce our vulnerability by cutting our dependence on gas.
It also means higher emissions. The government’s climate advisers recently wrote to the energy secretary warning that a new ‘dash for gas’ puts at risk our ability to achieve the carbon emission cuts set out under the Climate Change Act.
But lobbyists for the gas industry want to make us even more reliant on burning gas for power generation.
The new research by Bloomberg has found that since 2006, £13 billion has been spent by the Big Six energy utilities on 14GW of new electricity generating infrastructure, and over half of this has been new gas plant.
Greenpeace ignore the effect of policy on the investment decisions made by the big energy firms. First, there is the fact that gas is the balancing partner of choice for wind, because only gas-fired power stations can ramp their output up and down to match demand. Second, several of the UK’s coal-fired power stations are due to be retired early, thanks to the effect of cold winters (oh, for as much global warming as there is irony!) causing these installations to exhaust their emissions permits faster than anticipated. And third, relatively moderate voices in the UK energy sector such as energy economist at Oxford University, Professor Dieter Helm and CEO of the National Grid have argued that gas is essential to the UK’s continuing to produce electricity while meeting its (ridiculous) climate change targets. It’s no use blaming fracking lobbyists, nobody seriously believes that you can take coal, oil and gas (and nuclear) out of the mix, and have a functioning economy.
There are two things going on here. First, NGOs like Greenpeace have campaigned long and hard against cheaper energy. Cheap energy is anathema to environmentalists. Now that campaign has turned into material reality, Greenpeace are trying to distance themselves from it, to pretend that higher prices have been caused by energy companies profit-seeking, not by the policies they have sought. Second, there is a material possibility of abundant and cheap natural gas production in the UK. And the words ‘shale gas’ and ‘fracking’ are conspicuous across all these reports and surveys by their absence. They don’t dare even utter them. Their claims about renewable energy providing jobs, by protecting the UK from volatility in the global market would shatter if the global market began to respond to shale gas discoveries. The UK’s energy policies are themselves resting on the hope that fossil fuel prices will rise into the 2020s and beyond. If they do not, then the UK will be left with a legacy of commitments to expensive policies, subsidies and infrastructure.
As an aside… Here is celebrity Dragon investor, Deborah Meaden, letting the fracking cat out of the energy policy bag. I am surprised to discover that it is possible for idiots to turn themselves into multi-millionaires. But then, free money from subsidies is a great way to get rich, if you’re already rich.
Finally… The flip. Amidst all the reports that have been rushed out this week, as part of a counter-offensive against anti-windfarm campaigners and to influence EU-wide policy-making going on in London this week — all of which is premised in one way or another on alarmism — James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, has changed his mind somewhat.
“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.
Lovelock’s book was the first book about the environment I ever read. I was barely ten or eleven years old. I doubt I understood much of it. But what was possible to understand was the alarming message it told. The article about Lovelock’s re-consideration contains the following passage which I think is most revealing.
Keya Chatterjee, international climate policy director of environmental campaign group WWF-US, said in a statement that it was “hard not to get overwhelmed and be defeatist” about the challenges facing the planet, but suggested alarmist talk did not help persuade people to act to reduce climate change. “While the problem is becoming increasingly urgent, we’ve found that focusing on the most dire predictions does not resonate with the public, governments, or business. People tend to shut off when a problem does not seem solvable,” she said. “And that’s not the case with climate change because we can still avoid its worst impacts. We know that we already have all of the technologies needed to slow climate change down. We only lack the political will to go up against vested interests,” she added.
Lacking any faculty of self-reflection whatsoever, it looks like it will take a while for the likes of Chatterjee to understand Lovelock’s new argument. And the point will be lost on her that far from not resonating with ‘governments or business’, alarmism appealed immensely, which is why we now see such intransigence from business lobbying firms and the government, served by international NGOs. She’s right about one thing, though, the public weren’t interested in the panic-mongering (only ten year old boys were). And with such a compact between government, business, and NGOs, what the public really thinks, isn’t important.
Today sees the launch of the UK’s National Oppostion to Windfarms (NOW). The launch of a group of citizens, working autonomously and without support from political parties or big business is usually the sort of thing Guardian ‘journalists’ like to celebrate. But Leo Hickman — the newspapers ‘ethical’ specialist — instead serves up a bit of a hatchet job.
The Guardian has seen emails exchanged between Nawag members sent over the past few months discussing the planning for Now. One exchange was about a suitable anthem for the group. Jerusalem and Blowin’ in the Wind featured as favourites, but one member suggests alternative lyrics for the Dad’s Army theme tune, Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? including a reference to the recently installed energy secretary Ed Davey: “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Davey/If you think this country’s done/We are the Now Group/We will stop your little game/No more wind turbines/That blight our hills and planes.”
Hickman, who likes to lecture others about ‘ethics’ — especially ‘journalistic ethics’, and the ‘ethics’ of leaking emails from UEA — doesn’t seem to mind intruding on email discussions between individuals who campaign in their spare time, from their own pockets, and in their own front rooms and village halls. And what did he discover? Oh! The unmitigated evil! What a scoop! Clearly a plot by criminal masterminds!
Er… No… A discussion about which song best represents them. No trivia is too petty for the Guardian. We saw your emails, ner nerr ner nerrr nerr.
Moving upmarket a bit, Businessgreen — which claims to be a ‘web site offering companies the latest news and best-practice advice on how to become more environmentally responsible, while still growing the all-important bottom line‘ but which is more concerned with whining about subsidy cuts than offering news and advice — reports verbatim on Renewable UK’s response to the creation of the new group. Renewable UK, of course, are the re-branded British Wind Energy Association, which is to say they represent the interests of the wind industry. Is there any reason to think that Big Wind are any nicer than Big Oil?
The wind energy industry has today hit back at the launch of a national anti-wind farm group with the release of a major new survey showing that over two-thirds of people are broadly in favour of wind farms. The survey of more than 1,000 people, carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of trade group RenewableUK, found 67 per cent of respondents are in favour of using wind power in the UK, with 28 per cent “strongly in favour”.
Ipsos-Mori have not published the results of their survey yet. I rang them, to see if I could get a look at the report, since the Guardian had also covered it, and Renewable UK had put out a press release announcing the findings of the survey. Nobody could take my call, so I left my number. I later got a call back from a press officer who believed I was calling from an anti-wind farm campaign. It’s true that I think wind turbines are silly… Very silly. And it’s also true that I’ve written and spoken about wind energy being a symptom of incoherent and weird politics — I’m speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival about wind energy — but I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a ‘wind farm campaigner’. This is just about the only post on this blog that I can think of which is about wind energy — amongst nearly 500 posts.
I wanted to know, however, what it means to be ‘in favour of using wind power’. Wind power might be very good at some things — pumping water, or providing energy in remote locations, beyond the reach of the grid. I don’t even object to wind on aesthetic grounds — What concerns me are policies, politics and economics, and their influence over choices of technique. And so I wanted to know to what extent people are ‘in favour of wind power’ — would they be in favour if it meant a doubling of electricity bills? Very few people are interested in how electricity is produced — they are interested in things like climate change, because they think all the polar bears will die; or they are interested because their electricity bills have risen. Those issues lead to concern about how electricity is produced. We will have to wait to see what Ipsos Mori discovered. Meanwhile, I’m not taking Rewnable UK’s claims at face value, and I don’t think it means anything to say that N% of people are ‘in favour of wind power’. Indeed, the person from Ipsos-Mori was able to confirm that the survey didn’t go to any depth about the strength of support for wind energy policies. So it means no more to say that people are ‘in favour of wind energy’ than it means to say that people are in favour of anything: strength of commitment is not measured by asking ‘do you like X’?
So much for the survey. I find it curious that such a powerful organisation as Renewable UK should be worried about a group of civilians that they organise opinion polls to be published to coincide with the launch of the campaign, and recruit their pals in the media to pen hatchet jobs and puff pieces. The Businessgreen article continues…
However, in a detailed rebuttal RenewableUK accuses the group of using partial and non peer-reviewed research to back up its claims, while noting that a host of wildlife and conservation groups, such as Friends of the Earth and the RSPB, support well located wind farms.
The trade group categorically rejects charges wind power is too costly and has little economic benefit, arguing that the sector direcly employs over 10,000 people while independent studies have shown onshore wind farms are now “slightly more expensive than conventional plant with an expectation of increasing competitiveness”.
These statistics caught my eye. 10,000 people working in the wind sector? It seems an extremely high number for such little output. Indeed, according to Renewable UK, who publish data on wind energy installations throughout the UK, there are 339 on and offshore wind farms in the UK, with a total capacity of 6587 megawatts. If we assume that their combined load factor (the ratio of the capacity to the output) of 0.25, the net capacity of the entire UK fleet is 1647MW. And so if there really are 10,000 employees in the wind energy sector, each employee produces a capacity of just 165 kilowatts — enough for about 16 electric showers. This calls for a comparison with conventional electricity production.
According to it’s 2008 annual report and accounts [PDF],
Drax is a power generation business operating principally in the commodity markets of power, coal, biomass and carbon. We purchase coal, biomass and carbon allowances from both UK and international suppliers. We currently generate around 7%of theUK’s electricity and trade power in the electricitywholesalemarket of Great Britain.
Using statistics from Renewable UK and the Drax Group’s report, I created this table…
Green cells are known, yellow cells are calculated from the others, and pinkish cells are assumptions.
The results are stark. The Drax group produces 7% of the UK’s energy, but has just 712 employees. Thus, it takes just 100 people to produce 1% of the UK’s electricity. The 10,000 personnel seemingly working for the entire wind power sector are roughly the same in number as would be necessary to operate the entire UK’s generating capacity, were it all like Drax’s.
The entire wind energy sector has 14 times as many employees, but only produces just over a third as much as the Drax group. If we’re only counting jobs, it may well be true that the wind sector is a big employer. But on that basis, we might as well simply just pay people to say that they work, but give them meaningless tasks to fulfil: set one group digging holes, and another to fill them in again. If we assume that energy sector workers are paid the same, within and outside the wind sector, each megawatt hour produced by the wind sector costs £49.65 in salary, but the Drax group produces the same energy for just £1.44.
The figures begin to look different when we add the cost of fuel for the Drax group’s operations. 2008 was a year of high energy prices, which is the reason for choosing it as the measure. But still, wind energy comes out as significantly more expensive. And that is before we add the costs of subsidies.
Renewable Obligations Certificates to the value of (approx.) £694 million were given to wind farm operators in the year 2010-11. Adding that figure to the total means that each MWH of wind energy now costs £97.77 — three times the cost of the energy produced by the Drax group.
Of course, this is not a fully equipped, like-for-like comparison, but is not presented as one. There will be some jobs in the wind sector which are in the manufacture of widgets, gizmos, and so on. But then, why are they included in Renewable UK’s analysis of jobs in the renewable sector? And the fact that Renewable UK offers this analysis to make the case for continued government support, across the EU and the world, should not be forgotten. It is now possible to get a rough idea of how the wind sector is able to have such a huge workforce, and why energy operators are keen to expand their renewable energy investments.
This is how Renewable UK say the employment in the sector breaks down [PDF]:
Renewable UK depend on continued preferential treatment from government to sustain their members’ interests. The problem for those companies is that there has not been a public debate about energy policy in the UK. Only polling companies ever ask the public what they think, and they only ever ask questions which elicit meaningless answers, rather than demonstrate a no-regrets commitment to any given policy. The strength of public support for green energy has not been tested where it counts: at the ballot box. Few politicians have been brave enough — so far — to ask questions about the direction of UK energy policy. That democratic failure is now beginning to be manifested as material problems experienced by real people, and political friction within the UK, and across the EU.
Renewable UK are terrified that a spontaneous movement of people will deprive them of the uncontested favour that they have enjoyed from the current and previous government. They are worried that the voices of thousands of individuals from across the UK — without substantial resources — will form a single voice, which will inevitably attract the attention of politicians and the media. They are worried about what the continuation of their undignified PR campaigns will look like, when people realise it’s a case of big energy companies versus ordinary people, with genuine grievances. It’s a simple mathematical matter: the more people who find themselves unhappy with energy policies and rising prices, the more people will lend their support. And the more people there are, the harder it will be to mock comments from stolen emails, and to dismiss their concerns as unfounded.
The way in which the environmental movement splits over the issue of splitting the atom for energy is a fascinating phenomenon. I have compared this in-fighting and factionalisation — with some poetic licence, of course — to the Reformation of Western Christianity. On the one hand, we have those who say that the Church’s doctrine besets its attempts to do God’s (Gaia’s) work. On the other, those who want to remain with the tradition.
The issue is only superficially about choices of technique — nuclear versus renewable sources of energy. Like the Reformation, the schism is generated by the turbulence going on around those engaged in the battle, and is more an attempt to navigate political and social chaos for temporal ends than it is an attempt to get souls into heaven. As argued here often, environmentalism, to the extent that it has been absorbed by the political establishment, is much more a response to the political climate than it is a response to a crisis developing in the atmosphere. The crisis is in politics, not in the skies.
Apart from a few gratuitous insults on either side, the dispute that has rumbled on for a few years has so far been largely technocratic and conducted with political and personal respect. In the latest skirmishes, the four former heads of Friends of the Earth (FoE) politely wrote to the prime minister advising him to drop nuclear power on cost and other grounds; whereupon the hacks also wrote to No 10 saying this advice undermined government climate change policy. Over the next month Porritt, Burke & co will issue four or five more intellectual blasts, and will convene a press conference, and we can expect the hacks to respond.
Until now it has been a classic “fundi” and “realo” split with the pros’ (the realos) desperation to address climate change set against the antis’ (the fundis) conviction that nuclear takes too long, is too expensive and won’t actually work.
But now, the dispute is getting personal and much closer to the political bone with the fallout potentially damaging the whole idea of “environmentalism”. First we have Lynas suggesting that nuclear protesters are not really environmentalists at all, then Monbiot doubted Burke’s commitment to the environment – despite his 40 years’ active service. Now, in an extraordinary exchange of emails between Monbiot and Theo Simon – who is one half of the renowned radical protest band Seize the Day – all opponents of nuclear power are said to have made their arguments “with levels of bullshit and junk science”.
Imagine that… Environmentalists, getting technocratic and accusing each other of peddling bad science, and of not adhering to the principles of environmentalism. And imagine that, Vidal, accusing other campaigners and journalists of being ‘hacks’, and hurling ‘gratuitous insults’at each other. (But no doubt, that same invective is acceptable, when used to diminish critics of environmentalism.) If it shows us nothing else, it shows the intellectual dishonesty at work here. Neither pro- or anti-nuclear environmentalists seem able to reflect on the substance of antipathy towards nuclear energy.
Vidal offers a synopsis of the exchange between the now pro-nuclear George Monbiot, and the anti-nuclear campaigner and musician, Theo Simon. Vidal quotes Simon:
We need more than ever to champion a vision of the kind of creativity which a democratic revolution would rapidly liberate. Nuclear … can give no ultimate assurance of it’s safety or its costs. Neither can it demonstrate the kind of long-term resilience which may prove necessary if runaway climate change does, in spite of our efforts, develop. Resilience is to my mind something which we should be designing into our energy production plans now, as the future is so uncertain for our children. Nuclear requires a stable and continuous technocratic society to exist for centuries.
I always find it amazing when environmentalists invoke ‘democracy’. It is even more surprising to hear an environmentalist complain about nuclear energy needing ‘a stable and continuous technocratic society’. Environmentalism has entirely failed to develop into a democratic movement, and indeed far more often than not demands that political action to ‘tackle climate change’ should happen in spite of popular opinion, and in lieu of a mass political movement or democratic contest to legitimise any such action. And, of course, the action that is demanded is almost without fail the construction of large, powerful, far-reaching political authorities at the supranational level, beyond the reach of democracy. What are these global bureaucracies, if the aren’t an attempt to build a ‘continuous technocratic society’? Environmentalists are hopelessly naive, and seem incapable of reflection on their own ideas. Vidal concludes:
We are starting to get to the heart of what it means to be green today. One vision can justify a corrupt and odious state if it can make an odious technology work to overcome a terrible danger. The other argues that there are far better ways to achieve the same end without the resulting damage to society and the long-term dangers that the technology entails. The questions raised are profoundly difficult and need to be debated, but personal attacks are inflammatory and really help no one.
Vidal makes an interesting claim. It’s not simply that nuclear power is environmentally dangerous, it’s that in order to overcome the danger, it is necessary to build state apparatus which are inherently prone to ‘corruption’ and ‘odiousness’. He paints too polarised a picture of the debate forming within the environmental movement, and paints one half of it too rosy. Amongst the other impulses driving environmentalism and its opposition to various other possible choices of technique are things like this little gem:
Giving society cheap, abundant energy… would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.
The quote is from neo-Malthusian, Paul Ehrlich.
I wonder, then, what makes Vidal believe that nuclear power leads us inevitably towards a corrupt government, and what makes Simon believe that it takes us inevitably towards ‘continuous technocratic society’?
First, there is the obvious contradiction, mentioned above. Simon is not as against ‘continuous technocratic society’ as he protests. Take for instance, his claims in his letter to Monbiot:
In my opinion, the boundaries drawn around my behaviour by the duty of care and the precautionary principle that stems from it are in line with the biological interests of my species and with maintaining the integrity of the biosphere. In other words they are as inviolable as the 7 planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (and used by Mark in “The God Species” as the springboard for his own reactionary ideas). That means I have to create ways to live within them and still thrive. That means, like it or lump it, I’m going to have to do it without nuclear.
You can read my review of Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species’ at Spiked. Meanwhile, Simon continues…
At COP15 I concluded that capitalism (yes Mark, I’m an unashamed anti-capitalist!) could not respond effectively to the challenge of climate change, because it’s primary motive will always be profit and competitive advantage, even where planetary well-being is concerned. At the very least, a large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives are needed, and this in turn requires a big degree of political control being exerted over capital, which may or may not be possible. It’s that uncertainty which is the difficult bit. I don’t think that you believe we can find the political will or the social base for a meaningful green revolution to occur in time to reduce UK emissions by other means than re-embracing nuclear. I also think that you have forgotten that you yourself are a subjective factor in determining the political landscape, as am I. What is necessary is to encourage and empower a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding. Your current commitment to nuclear in Britain cuts across that agenda, and to paraphrase your email to me, potentially undoes all your other good work.
I’m not interested here, in arguing either way, whether or not Simon’s desire for state intervention can be legitimised through a democratic process. It seems painfully obvious, however, that the ‘left’ has failed monumentally in absorbing environmentalism, to build ‘a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding’. Hence, the ‘left’ (if it includes those parts of the political establishment which have gone green) has turned away from democracy, to emphasise instead technocratic approaches to climate change — including attempts to engage the public with its objectives by ‘communicating climate change’, which invariably involve scaremongering. Simon has the ‘large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives’ he wants. He just didn’t get them by building ‘a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding’.
There is an extraordinary technocratic flavour to Simons argument. It talks about balancing ‘biological interests’, and justifying state interventions on that basis. I would suggest that this is the fundamental mistake he makes. Individuals aren’t equipped to make decisions about their ‘biological interests’ at the level of ‘species’, only global bureaucracies informed by ‘the worlds top climate scientists’ are. And so in reducing politics to a matter of biological survival, Simon creates the basis for the ‘continuous technocratic society’ he claims to object to. Let me suggest then, that it is not nuclear power, but renewable energy, and demands for austerity and asceticism from the environmental movement that give rise to technocracy. Even Mark Lynas’s revision of Ehrich’s Malthusianism, and ‘limits to growth’ still locates the basis for political authority (i.e. technocracy) in the necessity of survival, in the face of a (mostly imagined) environmental crisis.
So let’s be blunt about it, you’re either going to get an odious state regulating the nuclear energy industry, or you’re going to get an odious state regulating whatever environmentalists want to regulate, lest your desires, ambitions, or interests threaten to trespass beyond ‘planetary boundaries’. After all, it is desires, ambitions, and interests which, in a democratic society, are negotiated in politics. Environmentalism sweeps them to one side, and suspends normal politics, to emphasise the need for survival. Your own sense of your own interests — whether they are best served by socialism or capitalism — is diminished, on the basis that the issue is the interests of the ‘species’.
Simon’s prose is incoherent, absurd, and contradictory. The pro-nuclear green argument isn’t much better. It only offers a future in which the lights stay on for slightly longer. It doesn’t allow a public debate about which technique is best, nor what the priorities for our energy policy should be. We don’t get to decide between, perhaps a bit of environmental damage on the one hand, and energy that is affordable on the other. We don’t get to discuss what institutions or regulatory frameworks are necessary for the operation of various techniques of producing energy. And we don’t get to argue about what we want to use energy for.
Vidal and Simon end up with their dystopian views of ‘odious’ and corrupt governments presiding like monoliths over the rest of us because it is the vision they desire, just not precisely the vision they are arguing for. That is to say that they presuppose the inevitability of technocratic and undemocratic society because they desire a society run along technocratic, not democratic lines. They complain about technocracy and democracy, because they confuse their own will for ‘democratic’ will, and the decisions they make for the decisions that panels of experts would make; forgetting that what makes institutions either democratic or technocratic is the way they function, not the decisions they produce. And for their part in all this, the pro-nuclear environmentalists have not overcome this short-sightedness and failure to reflect on their own ideas and ambitions. Environmentalism’s Reformation won’t make any difference to those of us who don’t share their faith.
For years, I have been an aspiring journalist and labouring under the misapprehension that the job of the journalist is to question authority, and that the worst possible trait in any journalist was credulity.
Okay, I wasn’t actually. But sometimes, you just have to wonder just how ready to repeat utter nonsense you have to be to get a job at a major international news organisation…
Richard Black (yes, him again) writes,
UK children are losing contact with nature at a “dramatic” rate, and their health and education are suffering, a National Trust report says.
Traffic, the lure of video screens and parental anxieties are conspiring to keep children indoors, it says.
Evidence suggests the problem is worse in the UK than other parts of Europe, and may help explain poor UK rankings in childhood satisfaction surveys.
The trust is launching a consultation on tackling “nature deficit disorder”.
There’s nothing ‘new’ about this. As even Black reports, the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ was coined back in 2005 by a Richard Louv. It is no surprise at all that the epidemic of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ has been lying dormant and unnoticed since 2005 — it was a silly idea, which failed to fly even at the moment of greatest environmental hysteria. Society has suffered a relapse, not because of the disease, but because the National Trust and BBC environmental correspondents’ brains are suffering some kind of encephalopathy. This is the result, I would argue, of too much — rather than too little — exposure to the idea of ‘nature’. It becomes the explanation for everything. And I do mean everything. You can explain crime, disease, being slightly pissed off and even naughty children through cod psychology and pseudo-scientific theories about ‘nature’ and our supposed ‘optimum’ relationship with it.
Here’s a copy of a presentation I gave back in 2006 on the subject of environmentalism and mental health. I thought the debate had moved on. Perhaps I was mistaken.
Who is Putting the ‘Mental’ into Environmentalism?
In the past, environmentalists have explained pollution simply as the presence of substances known to disrupt biological processes in the environment, such as DDT, or the sulphur from burning coal. Now, a variety of studies and campaigning organisations are claiming that a more fundamental, yet far more complex relationship between humans and nature is being damaged in ways which cannot be explained by mere biological chemistry. According to these ideas, the tendency of urbanisation and modern life to distance us from “nature” makes them toxic pollutants, with consequences for the psychological development and mental health of individuals, the survival of communities, and the functioning of society. But are these claims really all that new, and are they really emerging from scientific insight and research? Or are they simply attempts to frame contemporary anxieties using superficially plausible scientific language, in order to justify environmentalism’s political ideals?
In March this year, the Royal Commission on Pollution (RCEP) published its twenty-sixth report, “The Urban Environment”, which cited urbanisation as a risk factor in mental health.
The way in which urban living affects mental health and wellbeing is poorly understood, sparsely researched and perhaps unexpected… but there is no avoiding the conclusion that urban living can damage the mental health of some people. This is likely to relate to a lack of social capital…[i]
Neither the paucity of research nor the failure to meaningfully identify a causal relationship between urbanisation and mental health seems to have given the report’s authors cause to consider the idea that their conclusion is not quite so unavoidable. One might expect that having realised social factors confound our understanding of mental health, they might conclude that addressing social problems ought to be a priority. But instead the authors offer us the idea that, ‘One way of helping to mitigate these effects would be the provision of good quality green spaces…’
The gift of parks to those who lack ‘social capital’ is ‘environmental justice’, according to the authors. But what a remarkably degraded sense of justice this is. The opportunity to while away days in parks is seen as a palliative to failures of social justice; to treat just the symptoms of ‘lack of social capital’ as though it was an illness. But it is deeply patronising to say that these are problems of mental health rather than politics, and that these might be mitigated by better access to green spaces, rather than solved by a change in circumstances. The idea seems to be that social problems are inevitable – natural, even – and that government is impotent to address problems such as low income and unemployment. The result is that the poor have their behaviour and heads examined while the political “environment” escapes scrutiny.
If the definition of pollution operating in this report has been broadened to allow the RCEP to study social and design factors in urbanisation, it follows that the definition of health must have been broadened also. Indeed, the report takes its definition of health from the 1947 World Health Organisation’s constitution,
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity[ii]
But is this definition of health, used to steer the WHO in the 1940s, fit for the purpose of evaluating urban planning policies and their effect on the mental health of individuals in 2007? The authors appear to think so, and yet seem conscious of the fact that this use of the expression “health” isn’t ordinary, and needs some explanation:
Thus good health is defined in much broader terms than simply the prevention of illness… We will consider physical wellbeing in terms of optimal physical health and fitness for an individual. Mental wellbeing is interpreted in terms of a number of positive outcomes represented by factors such as high self-esteem, subjective wellbeing, life satisfaction for an individual and a sense of place.
It is only after finding the broadest possible definition of health that the report can create links between mental health and urban planning. While there may be legitimate uses of the WHO’s definition, the RCEP only appear to use it where it suits them; the effect of insufficient provision of green spaces is seen as a health issue, but the more general lack of opportunities for the poor is not, even though the WHO give plenty of scope for it.
It’s not just the poor who are vulnerable to the poisonous effects of modern life. In 2005, futurologist Richard Louv wrote, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, in which he argues that children suffer from a lack of unstructured, unsupervised, outdoor play. So far, so good… But so near yet so far, because Louv goes on to argue that children are being damaged, not just by anxieties about safety, but by lack of exposure to nature.
There is the “biophilia” hypothesis … that suggests we are still hunters and gatherers and biologically we have not changed. That hypothesis says there is something in us that needs natural forms, that needs association with nature in ways that we don’t fully understand. I think we instinctively understand that there is something about being in nature that you cannot get on a soccer field.[iii]
In spite of Louv’s protest that “It’s not good for human beings to live with fear all the time”, and that “in this society we are increasingly living in fear…” he replaces the fear of strangers and injury litigation with something new to panic about. Where the RCEP tell us that a place is unhealthy if fresh fruit or vegetables cannot be bought from anywhere within walking distance, Louv makes a similar argument on the basis that our biology makes us hunter-gatherers. To be healthy, we have to mimic hunter gatherer society. This is more than mere lifestyle advice. It becomes an argument about the direction that society ought to take, and how people ought to live. Claims that the problems of modern life are the consequence of a degraded relationship with nature reveal an ideology, because the inescapable conclusion is that we adjust society accordingly.
This idea is not new. Aristotle’s ethics drew from his idea that everything in the universe has a function, and therefore a purpose within an order. By investigating human nature, we could determine how best to achieve this function, and so how we ought to live – our purpose. But while this view celebrates our capacity for investigation as perhaps the highest form of existence, it also makes us mere objects of nature, and leaves humans without the freedom to determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, or to overcome nature in our own interests. In more recent times, this teleological system of ethics was criticised. Why would there be a morality in nature? Who or what gives it purpose? Regardless of this criticism, Louv warns us about what happens when we deviate from the natural path:
[Nature-deficit disorder is] the cumulative effect of withdrawing nature from children’s experiences, but not just individual children. Families too can show the symptoms — increased feelings of stress, trouble paying attention, feelings of not being rooted in the world. So can communities, so can whole cities. Really, what I’m talking about is a disorder of society — and children are victimized by it.
It is no surprise that a perspective on the world that views modern life as a rampant virus, and demands that our lives be a pastiche of prehistoric society shares something with ancient philosophy and looks for ethics in natural orders. Louv gives us a very broad description of a malaise, and blames modern life for modern problems without interrogating the idea that the problems exist in the first place, or adequately defining them.
Equally lacking in objectivity is a report from the mental health charity, Mind. Published in May this year, it extols the virtues of “Ecotherapy” – literally, exercise in the countryside. And like Louv, it argues that exposure to nature restores essential historical, sensory, childhood, mythological, social and spiritual connections and offers us the chance to:
[Get] away from modern life, relaxing (as a contrast), time alone or with family, a time to think and clear the head, peace and quiet, tranquillity and freedom, privacy, escape from pressure, stress and the ‘rat-race’, recharging batteries.[iv]
Again, it is the rampant virus of modern life which is underpinning the argument much more than the coherent identification of what it is that has actually been lost or damaged. And again, it is expressions such as “self esteem”, and “sense of well being” which are used as though they had any scientific meaning.
Bold claims are made about the value of “Ecotherapy” to alleviate “mental distress”, which are substantiated by two studies that Mind commissioned theUniversity of Essex to complete. The first of these is a survey of just 108 people who went either gardening, walking, running, cycling, or took part in some conservation work. The second study compared the responses of twenty people after being for a walk in the woods, and after a walk in a shopping centre. A whopping 90% (or 18 people) felt they had higher self esteem after walking in the woods, and 44 percent (that’s 8.8 people) felt they had lower self esteem after the shopping centre.
The discovery that people enjoy waking in the countryside more than hanging out in shopping centres is hardly a scientific breakthrough. Yet Mind continue to make a great deal out of their questionable statistics, never explaining what the subjects of the survey were suffering from, how self esteem in an otherwise normal person relates to self esteem in a person with serious mental health problems nor why self esteem, and ‘feelings of well-being’ are indicators of good mental health. Does low self esteem lead to mental illness? Is low self esteem a mental illness itself? If modern life really does cause mental illness, then does it follows that the only course of action is to escape modern life?
In July, Dr William Bird looked “at the evidence linking wildlife-rich areas and green space with mental health”. The report starts with the statement that
Past generations have intuitively understood this relationship, perhaps better than we do, yet the evidence needed to quantify the health value of the natural environment is still evolving.[v]
In other words, there is no evidence. Yet just as the RCEP used a broadened definition of health, Bird too uses the WHO to provide him with a definition of mental health which escapes the problem of lacking an objective measure of health,
There is no health without mental health. Mental health is central to the human, social and economic capital of nations and should therefore be considered as an integral and essential part of other public policy areas such as human rights, social care, education and employment.
And just in case we start to worry about the lack of evidence or lack of objectivity, Bird reminds how serious the problem is,
Mental ill health affects 1 in 6 of the population and is strongly associated with life events, lower social class, being socially isolated, long term illnesses and financial and work problems… The cost of mental ill health is £12.5 billion to the NHS and £23.1 billion to the economy.
But again, instead of suggesting that these social problems ought to be the focus of any approach to making modern life better, Bird goes on to uncritically outline several theories which explain nature’s role in mental health, such as the biophillia hypothesis in Louv’s book. Among the absurd claims is the idea that “even looking at a natural landscape can help our brain recharge and resume direct attention”. But this is not a convincing argument that we are “genetically programmed” to find images of nature restorative. Yet this theory is used to justify the argument that politics should find a “balance” between the individual, community, and the environment,
After 10,000 generations, mankind developed a position where […] values were balanced… As we became urbanised our values shifted away from the environment. More recently over the last 20 years, we have shifted our values again away from community and environment and towards the individual. Valuing the individual at the expense of the environment and community is not only a less sustainable way of life but favours healthcare that treats disease rather than promoting supportive communities and environments. To regain a sense of wellbeing it is argued that we should change our values and reconnect with the natural environment and community in which we live and work.
Like the other reports, Bird advances an environmental agenda as a cure to the ills of modern life – poor self-discipline, hyperactivity, ADHD, anxiety, stress, crime, aggression, poor concentration, poor cognitive development, community incohesion, impulsive behaviour, irritability, and aggression.
By disconnecting from our natural environment, we have become strangers to the natural world: our own world. This has challenged our sense of identity and in some more subtle ways has had a significant affect on our mental health.
Bird is not the first person to have used pseudo-scientific theories to connect humans to nature in order to explain a host of contemporary problems, of course. Naturalistic accounts of society’s problems are neither new, nor untested, and are themselves deeply problematic. Any rational attempt to create a naturalistic framework to look at the world through will appeal to science, and across these four reports, there are an abundance of uncritical references to research, which are all too easily questioned: cod science, which does not deserve the confidence the report’s authors have placed in it. Although these reports claim to offer advice that will liberate us from the failures of modern life, such ideas about human nature end up trapping us within a narrow definition of what it is to be human and an even narrower vision of the future in which possibilities are limited by our biology, rather than expanded by our capacity to understand and overcome problems.
These naturalistic ideas don’t simply shut down debate, they preclude politics. If humans are merely ‘programmed’ gaps between their biology and the environment, which only seek their immediate comfort, and can only exist within a narrow range of environmental conditions, then there is little direction for society to decide upon. Science has done it for us. Our values, mores, ethics and ambitions can be best determined by weighing ‘evidence’, and peering into microscopes. But is this really science, or does it owe more to a desire to generate an unchallengeable consensus for its own sake, than offer any real insight into humanity?
The ambiguous measures of mental health in these reports turn normal, but negative feelings and beliefs into symptoms of diseases. Consequently, everybody suddenly becomes mentally ill. But self-esteem, sense of well-being, life satisfaction, and sense of place, aren’t indicators of mental health. Any well adjusted, healthy person will experience negative feelings, not just as a consequence of an unhealthy life, but also a healthy one. People do not change their circumstances by being ambivalent about them, yet ambivalence is precisely what the medicalisation of normal emotions encourages.
An important distinction exists between “mental distress” in a person who is not mentally ill, and a person who is. The former is likely to have some insight into why he is distressed, whereas a person suffering from mental illness is far more likely to be confused about his or her experiences. It is this insight which allows healthy people to connect their feelings to their circumstances, and to seek to address them. Yet if people are told that they are unhappy because they lack exposure to nature, they may act on this advice at the expense of addressing real problems. Of course, it could be argued that Ecotherapy wouldn’t necessarily stop an individual looking for other ways to explain their dissatisfaction. But Ecotherapy, Louv, the Royal Commission report, and environmentalism more generally all claim that it is modern life itself is problematic. This view permeates both the establishment, and criticism of it, leaving few opportunities for improving problems which exist in modern society, other than by rejecting it, reinforcing the individual’s impotence. The predominance of environmental and therapeutic ideas limit the expression of the desire for change. And if anything is likely to cause “mental distress”, it is the very real impotence that these orthodoxies generate. If it is true that modern society creates unique problems – and few people would argue that it doesn’t – then rejecting it will only allow old problems to resurface. Meanwhile, people who are told to go for a walk to achieve a “balance” with nature won’t be engaged in any serious, collective attempt to improve modern society as much as they will be wishing it would just go away.
The definitions of health – especially mental health – and environment in these studies is so broad that they are useless for anything other than the purpose of approaching social problems as though they were diseases. Symptoms are fitted to diagnoses for the sake of realising the remedy – the environmental agenda. Rather than identifying anything essential which connects us to nature, these broad and ill-defined symptoms, and ambiguous diagnosis that society is “sick” do nothing more than emphasise the social as “natural” or biological, to allow naturalistic, and pathological accounts of feelings of dissatisfaction, malaise, and disorientation.
These approaches mirror the incoherence of the environmental movement. Spurious appeals to the importance of myths, identity, place, community, sustainability, balance, and holism surround a broad, subjective, and scientifically meaningless definition of health both in these reports and any environmental manifesto that they could be lifted from. There is no irony to Mind’s report’s sub-heading – Ecotherapy – the green agenda for mental health. This campaigning uses health and the idea that bad design causes deaths as moral weapons to drive a political agenda.
For many people, doing something well away from the city is a relaxing, sometimes social, sometimes private, positive experience. But this is leisure, not therapy. Leisure undoubtedly allows us to reflect on our lives, and to “connect” with things which interest us in a way which is not possible during the working week. By being prescribed, going for a walk in the woods becomes a chore like brushing our teeth. Instead of investigating the world as a personal experiment, it becomes a medicine. Worse yet, being told to go for a walk is like being a dog, let out to pee when it suits it’s master, when in fact we are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves when it is time for a walk in the woods, but what people lack is the means, not the brains, to enjoy spare time.
And what role does nature really serve in this process? Is it really the essential factor of a healthy life? Is it really nature we seek, or just something different to everyday life? Cities are relaxing if they’re not the city you live in. The countryside is not relaxing if it’s where you work. As Mind tells us – ‘Farmers and farm managers are the occupational group with the fourth highest risk of suicide in Englandand Wales’[vi].
“Getting away from it” is not escapism. It is change which allows us to consider new possibilities for our lives, to make the most of our “nature”, and so to change it in turn. It is not “natural”, but logical that spare time allows for such reflection. In a society which is increasingly hostile to change, and hostile to the affluence which permits spare time, and which treats nature as an eternal truth above the excesses and failures of politics, the possibilities for change and improvement accordingly diminish, naturally.
[i] The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution – The Urban Environment. http://www.rcep.org.uk/urban/report/urban-environment.pdf
[ii] Constitution of the World Health Organisation, 1947 http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hist/official_records/constitution.pdf
[iii] Do today’s kids have “nature-deficit disorder”? http://dir.salon.com/story/mwt/feature/2005/06/02/Louv/index.html
[iv] Mind – Ecotherapy. http://www.mind.org.uk/NR/rdonlyres/D9A930D2-30D4-4E5B-BE79-1D401B804165/0/ecotherapy.pdf
[v] William Bird/RSBP – Natural Thinking. http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/naturalthinking_tcm9-161856.pdf
[vi] Mind – Suicide Factsheet. http://www.mind.org.uk/Information/Factsheets/Suicide/
This video comes via Junkscience.com.
George Marshall, who presents the video, is from the head-shrinking school of ‘climate change communication’, and a campaigning colleague of Adam Corner, whose
propaganda ‘research’ was discussed in the previous post. He believes that values are transmitted socially, and thus the way to ‘speak to a sceptic’ is to effect a kind of charm… And Lo! See how they suddenly see the world through your eyes.
It’s very silly of course, because, as has been discussed here previously, even if there is an extent to which values are socially-transmitted, to imagine that somebody holds a view because of the circles they move in, presupposes that they haven’t engaged with the issue rationally. To effect a chummy demeanour, simply to convince a family member, acquaintance, or colleague with whom you don’t have a great deal in common, simply out of some kind of evangelical zeal, is to approach them dishonestly. Like so many attempts at ‘communicating climate change’, Marshall’s instructions are to make instrumental use of people, to turn them into means to an ends. Most genuine friendships are ends in themselves. Friends do not treat friends as means.
What is more, if it is true that values are socially transmitted to the extent that Marshall believes, then what is true of sceptics is true of ‘warmists’.
But the thing which most struck me about Marshall’s lecture is that he himself simply refuses to engage with sceptics. Try leaving a comment on his blog; it won’t get published, even if it’s nice and polite. He tells the world to stop calling people ‘deniers’ and to call them ‘dissenters’, but his own blog is called climatedenial.org. Doesn’t that hint at the fact that Marshall isn’t being upfront?
Hopefully, Marshall’s strategy would back fire. For if his flock of evangelical environmentalists do somehow manage to suppress the anger and hostility that seems to characterise many of them (it’s not climate sceptics who have been closing down debate all these years), maybe they will be forced to actually listen.
Here are some more of Marshall’s video lectures on ‘denial’.
I love the bit in the video, where Marshall is trying to explain how climate change denial is ‘socially constructed’ (but presumably climate change alarmism) isn’t), and uses an example of someone losing the plot at a dinner party, to accuse his friends of destroying the planet. Marshall then tries to understand the reaction to the outburst psychologically, rather than as a polite way to respond to somebody who has been a bit of a prick.
It’s interesting to see Marshall tie himself up in relativistic knots here. Political ecologists were the first to absorb scientific evidence of climate change, he says, because their ideologies were the most amenable to it. Thus, the climate story got absorbed into the broader environmental narrative of doom. It looks like honesty, but it presupposes that everything he believes in is ‘science’.