Feudal Energy

by | Sep 1, 2011

A recent article in the Telegraph aimed to expose:

The aristocrats cashing in on Britain’s wind farm subsidies
Growing numbers of the nobility are being tempted to build giant wind farms on their estates by the promise of tens of millions of pounds being offered green energy developers.

It’s an interesting article that attempts to put numbers to what most have suspected for a while. However, due to the incoherent and chaotic nature of the government’s energy policies, nobody can really put a precise figure on the sums involved…

The Duke, who is worth about £100 million, will reportedly earn as much as £2.5 million a year from the deal although a spokesman, who declined to discuss the actual amount, said that figure was not accurate. One industry expert said a more realistic figure was in the order of £720,000 a year.

Only £720,000. Oh, that’s all right then.

It would take me the best part of 30 years to earn, before tax, and by actually doing work, what the Duke would get a year, from sitting around on his noble posterior. The government oblige electricity suppliers to take a certain, rising proportion of their electricity from renewable generators, at a premium, determined by government, to ‘incentivise’ the renewable energy sector. In other words, the government guarantee the Duke’s income.

Where have we heard of that sort of thing before? Well, it’s been going on for centuries. But for the last few of them, at least, it’s been regarded as a bit of a bad thing, belonging to the past.

When you think about it further, is there any form of ‘renewable’ energy which does not reward the landed classes in the same way? They are each land-intensive. Solar power, at scale, requires significant tracts of land. Business Green — an online news service — reports that,

The government has rejected claims that its planned increase in biomass and biofuel use to meet clean energy targets will result in the displacement of people or competition with food crops in developing countries.

At issue here is the UK’s absurd target-driven renewable energy policies. These are justified on the basis that they ensure ‘energy security’, by decreasing our dependence on foreign and ‘unstable’ economies (i.e. Russia and MENA), and ‘unsustainable’ substances. Yet, these ambitious targets cannot be met by domestic production of fuel crops.

The UK currently burns or co-fires around one million tonnes of wood, but the government has highlighted the importance of biomass in 2009’s Renewable Energy Strategy and this year’s Renewables Roadmap. Planning permission has been granted to more than 7GW of biomass power plants, which the IIED said is likely to increase demand to 60 million tonnes a year, five or six times the nation’s currently available resources.

It is something of an irony that it is the International Institute for Environment and Development which have criticised UK policy. It demonstrates first that the concept of ‘sustainable development’ is racked with contradictions, and that it allows for the expression of some fairly ancient bad ideas.

The IIED report states,

As governments in the global North look to diversify their economies away from fossil fuel and mitigate climate change, plans for biomass energy are growing fast. These are fuelling a sharp rise in the demand for wood, which, for some countries, could outstrip domestic supply capacity by as much as 600 per cent. It is becoming clear that although these countries will initially look to tap the temperate woodlands of developed countries, there are significant growth rate advantages that may lead them to turn to the tropics and sub-tropics to fill their biomass gap in the near future. Already there is evidence of foreign investors acquiring land in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia to establish tree plantations for biomass energy. If left unchecked, these trends could increase pressures on land access and food security in some of the world’s poorest countries and communities

The IIED are naive. It is their emphasis on ‘sustainability’ which increases the value of land. It is inconceivable that increasing the value of land won’t benefit those who already have title to it, and won’t otherwise cause the cash rich to rush towards it. Imagine if the vacant plot of land didn’t say For Sale, but instead advertised free money, to those who don’t need it: no risk, no work, guaranteed income. The sustainability agenda has created a virtual Inclosure Act for the 21st Century: as our dependence on land increases, so too has its value, but so to has our ability to access it has been reduced. ‘Sustainability’ is a de-facto dispossession.

It was the use of fossil fuels which finally created the possibility of a comprehensive break from dependence on land, and the feudal political order that this dependence created. For instance, one of the consequences of using fossil fuels is the effective amplification of land: with machinery and industrial techniques, the productivity of land increases. Fewer and fewer people need to live on the land, and are able to live in cities. It’s not all good, all the way, of course. There are ups and downs. The point is that, had none of it happened, we’d might still be living in bondage to the Lord of the Manor; liberal democracy struggles to thrive where people are worked from dawn to dusk, each and every day.

Yet even those who seem to extol the virtues of peasant lifestyles, while trying to defend fluffy liberal values, seem to understand the principle that renewable energy schemes create a mechanism to transfer wealth from the less well-off to the better off. As the IIED acknowledge, renewable energy policies may turn out to be anything but ‘sustainable’ for the poor. And even George Monbiot agrees:

Buying a solar panel is now the best investment a householder can make. The tariffs will deliver a return of between 5% and 8% a year, which is both index linked (making a nominal return of between 7% and 10%) and tax-free. The payback is guaranteed for 25 years. If you own a house and can afford the investment, you’d be crazy not to cash in. If you don’t and can’t, you must sit and watch your money being used to pay for someone else’s fashion accessory. […] If people want to waste their money, let them. But you and I shouldn’t be paying for it. Seldom has there been a bigger public rip-off; seldom has less fuss been made about it. Will we try to stop this scheme, or are we a nation of dupes?

What did he expect all those years? What did he think he was asking for, when he campaigned so vociferously against energy companies? Did he not realise that merely abolishing Big Oil only creates an opportunity for Big Land? Did he really beleive that national and international bureaucracies and treaties would create an equitable and robust challenge to the dominance of people with more cash, on behalf of the less well-off? Did he really beleive that the interests of Big Oil were at odds with yours and mine? Of course not

And we find ourselves in an extraordinary position. This is the first mass political movement to demand less, not more. The first to take to the streets in pursuit of austerity. The first to demand that our luxuries, even our comforts, are curtailed.

But it never was a movement, of course. There never were more than a few hundred of the UK’s 60million+ inhabitants, out on the streets ‘demanding less’ at any one time.

This is the establishment’s answer to the inequalities and hardship that have been created so far by the UK’s energy policies:

Reducing household energy use is the only real way to offset high energy prices from the wholesale market, National Energy Action has said.

Speaking to the BBC Wake Up to Money podcast, Peter Smith, campaigns and policy manager for the organisation, explained that it is inevitable that wholesale energy prices are fed into peoples’ energy bills.


“The only thing that householders can do at the end of the day is reduce that volatility through looking at the volume that they consume and that means looking at energy efficiency as a long-term solution to try and mitigate these problems,” he remarked.

The above is from the Energy Saving Trust, a £60million a year UK government-funded organisation, designed to ‘help’ people to use less energy. The advice they are quoting is from National Energy Action, which ‘develops and promotes energy efficiency services to tackle the heating and insulation problems of low-income households‘. In reality, however, rather than addressing the interests of the energy-poor, the NEA is joint funded by the state and corporates with an interest in energy efficiency. This is not unlike feudal lords, gathering themselves into an organisation intended — at face value — to represent the interests of serfs. Their advice — to reduce household energy use — is equivalent to ‘can’t they eat cake’.

Let’s not imagine that all this policy-making is just an accident of some slightly ill conceived idea about ‘nature’ and some dodgy science. This is not about slightly altering the ways we do things; minor adjustments to our lifestyles. Let’s see it for what it is: as a political idea. It changes the fundamental relationships between people. To see it as anything else is to roll over. It’s no use just saying that this science, or that measurement is bunk — the idea which we should challenge is that the science justifies the politics, whether it is bunk or not.


  1. Rich

    I followed your link and then found this: http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Resources/Energy-saving-news/Water-saving/Women-waste-50bn-litres-of-water-shaving-legs.

    I wonder how much they waste shaving their arm-pits too. Or washing their hair. Clearly, to save the planet for the cheeldren, women have to go!

    And I don’t care that they say, “The news feeds on this site are independently provided by Adfero Limited © and do not represent the views or opinions of the Energy Saving Trust”, it’s their choice to reproduce this crap so they should take responsibility for it.

  2. geoffchambers

    As well as being the silliest sustainability article ever, the news item mentioned by Rich above reveals the cultural agenda behind the political agenda behind the politics. Ecofreaks go for women wth hairy legs.
    Monbiot already hinted at this important discovery in his celebrated dispute with Back-to-Nature-Boy Paul Kingsnorth, when he accused the latter of wanting to create a pre-industrial eco-utopia, a fantasy world peopled with “men in torn jeans and women in fur bikinis”.
    To which a commenter noted: “George has obviously never been to Streatham on a Saturday night”.
    Ben, I think there’s a pronoun missing from the last sentence.

  3. geoffchambers

    On the subject of “belief in the science”, a fascinating reinterpretation of the Famous Milgram experiments in which subjects were persuaded to administer apparently painful electric shocks to subjects, is discussed here

    “… recent advances […] suggest we follow leaders because we see them as representative of an identity that we share. In the Milgram paradigm the critical question is therefore whether participants identify with the experimenter as an authority who represents a scientific endeavour in which both are involved, or whether they identify with the learner as a fellow member of the general public.
    “… the proportion of people who go on to 450 volts in the different variants of Milgram’s paradigm is extremely well predicted by the degree to which participants identify with the science and the scientist as opposed to the public and the learner.
    “From this perspective, people do not deliver electric shocks because they are ignorant of the effects but because they believe in the nobility of the scientific enterprise… People don’t inflict harm because they are unaware of doing wrong but because they believe what they are doing is right. We should be wary not of zombies, but of zealous followers of an ignoble cause”.

    Milgram has always been interpreted in terms of the concentration camp guard. Here is a serious study (to be presented at a British Psychological Society conference in Cambridge next week) suggesting a comparison with the eco-activist, not to mention the entire political establishment.

  4. Lewis Deane

    You’re right, again, of course. And the ironies here are aplenty. While our parliamentary coteries twiddle there whatsits with nonsense about ‘Lords reform’, their policies, and themselves, because of their self serving meaninglessness, gladly fall backwards into the arms of what we once thought was a long ago, steaked in the heart, ‘landed gentry’. But the term is ahistorical since, by definition, this is not an aristocracy of old but something, perhaps, less ‘grand’ and certainly more venal. (I, being an ‘aristocratic radical’!).
    You say: ‘Let’s not imagine that all this policy-making is just an accident of some slightly ill conceived idea about ‘nature’ and some dodgy science.’ Indeed, you might be turning a ‘confederacy’ into a ‘conspiracy’? But, historically speaking, this is just a phase, the hand over of, and failure, of the power of the west? For a while, (a century or two) if we continue in this fashion, then let the west or European civilization, take a back seat. Maybe only then might we learn what we have lost. As someone once said, I see mankind through the wrong end of a telescope.

  5. Lewis Deane

    And I don’t think the ‘nihilism’ of our present civilization is a new discovery. It’s consequences are present and painful, are new, but not its diagnoses. Or, rather no diagnoses really fits: One can talk about how the rational decisions of individuals equate to an irrationality en masse, one can talk about the corrosiveness of the presents anti-natural Christian pre-history or, even, how technology has liberated forces of self-destruction that we didn’t realise were there (Heideggar!Sic). But, in the end, we must just ride the tide and have faith that mankind will, once more, find it’s way out. Not, as I suggested before, by embracing a new ‘orientialism’ but rather, because the forces of ingenuity are stronger than we think. Take the US: Whilst everyone has been writing them of they have, over the last year, just cornered the market in the new, mobile technologies! Who would have thought? Surely, ‘Green’ ‘technologies’ are the dying and desperate last expression of a European Imperialist class that we imagined was dead but, now, we see, we haven’t completely killed. Let’s kill it and let’s become completely American!

    • Ben Pile

      Lewis – Indeed, you might be turning a ‘confederacy’ into a ‘conspiracy’?

      I say it’s political, whether by accident or design.

  6. Lewis Deane

    Only teasing! Life and history is far to complex. But I think, maybe, we are seeing a concertenation, an aglutent concentration and, therefore, ‘consciousness’, of a new class, an awareness of who they’re ‘allies’ are? I mean Monbiot is an interesting case, be cause he is not nor never could be part of this ‘new’ class. Somehow, I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for him. I believe, for all his bluster and belligerence, he is genuinely confused and honestly aware of it. I think we should watch and, perhaps, be astounded, how he develops over the next 5 years or so!

  7. geoffchambers

    Lewis Deane:
    I agree about the idea of a new class, though I’m not sure about the “concertenation, or aglutent concentration”. It’s the newly university-educated middle class élite, the “chattering classes”, who have expanded from 1-2% of the population to 20 -30% in a generation or so. As long as they formed a tiny proportion of the population, they were obliged to consider the opinions of the vast majority. As a sizeable minority, they are busy constructing an autonomous world view, accepting no authority except that of “the science”. Monbiot (for whom I also feel some admiration) is a typical spokesman of this new class.
    I’ve adapted this idea from the French demographer Emmanuel Todd. There’s an American sociologist called Robert E Phelan who comments sometimes at Bishop Hill and Wattsupwiththat who says much the same thing.
    This sociological approach is meant to illuminate Ben’s essential point that the politics comes first, and that “the science” cannot be used to obscure the fact that political choices are made for political reasons, and must be opposed by other political points of view.
    But the political vacuum which Ben identifies needs explaining. Unless we are to assume that politicians suddenly became tired and lazy in the late 20th century, or adopt a Spenglerian theory of civilisations getting old and decrepit, we must look to the social sciences for an explanation, and it’s a nice irony that it is precisely in the social sciences that the new diploma-rich classes are most firmly entrenched. Has anyone done a sociological study of the belief systems of the 10-20% of the population who believe, on no evidence beyond what they read in the Guardian, that we are destroying the planet? I doubt it.
    The new interpretation of the Milgram experiments I mentioned above suggest an interesting line of research. The paper is here
    Milgram is hardly a household name, but his experiments had a huge effect. In the seventies, soon after the Eichmann trial and the Vietnam war, it was natural that a generation keen on challenging authority should take to heart the apparent message about the danger of obeying orders. Here was science apparently warning us about dangerous tendencies within ourselves.
    The authors here suggest that the experiments have been misinterpreted. it is respect for the authority of science which persuaded subjects to willingly do harm, not any tendency to blindly obey orders.

    “when two experimenters issue contradictory demands (thereby undermining the capacity for either to represent a scientific consensus) obedience falls to 0%”

    “Milgram [provided] four prompts … (1) ‘Please continue’, or, ‘please go on’; (2) ‘The experiment requires that you continue’; (3) ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’; and (4) ‘You have no other choice, you must go on’. .. the question of whether or not people obey this fourth prompt is decisive in establishing the validity of those interpretations of Milgram’s studies that see them as a demonstration of how people follow orders (and of their inherent propensity to do so)”.
    “Burger(2009a,b) … discovered that on every single occasion that the experimenter issued the fourth prompt, participants refused to continue. One way of interpreting this finding is to suggest that when the experimenter imposes himself over the participant, this serves to emphasize their lack of shared identity, it dismantles the group relationship between them, and hence produces disobedience”.
    “There is a powerful irony at play here. For, as we have noted, Milgram’s studies are widely remembered as showing that people obey orders. However, upon closer inspection, it appears that one thing that they show unequivocally is that, when requests are framed as orders, people do not obey..”

  8. Alex Cull

    @Ben, a good, hard-hitting article. It also chimes with something Matt Ridley wrote a few months ago about the increased use of “biomass” putting more pressure on forests and wildlife than the use of fossil fuels.

    “Fossil fuels have well known disadvantages, but this is one of their easily overlooked benefits. By substituting oil and coal for horses and firewood, we have relieved the pressure on greenery to supply our needs. By using gas to make fertilizer, we can feed ourselves from a smaller acreage, leaving more acres for other species.”

    @Rich, re Thames Water, I’m in agreement with the Guardian’s Leo Hickman. Instead of fixating on women’s legs, Thames Water’s Sustainability Director might perhaps do well to focus on the hundreds of millions of litres of water the company appears to have been losing each day from leaky pipes.

    @Geoff, @Lewis, re Milgram, I don’t think the connection between eco-activism and the “zealous followers of an ignoble cause” flagged by Reicher and Haslam, is something that is likely to occur to many on the eco-activism side of the debate. In the commentary following the Guardian article there is mention of the Nazis and the Tea Party, also “fractional reserve banking and corporate control” and the downside of living in an “indoctrinated, industrialised society”, but nothing about those well-meaning young people who want to shut down power stations. As for the British Psychological Society conference in Cambridge, I suspect this is not going to be one of the avenues pursued; when it comes to all things eco, the psychotherapeutical establishment tend, as we know, to suffer a curious lack of self-awareness and critical thought.

  9. George Carty

    @Alex Cull

    I don’t think the Matt Ridley article is emphatic enough.

    There are currently 7 billion people on Earth, but without the use of farm machines (which replaced working animals which themselves consumed a large fraction of agricultural output), together with artificial fertilizers produced via the Haber-Bosch process, we would only be able to feed 2 billion people.

  10. Alex Cull

    @George Carty, I think you are right, and this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it, that the modern world has no reverse gear, much as those who talk about transition, “degrowth” and an “energy descent” want to find one. I find it very hard to imagine that the world’s population, at the size it is now, could switch to some sort of static, full-scale permaculture-like mode of living, even if they wanted to, which most, I suspect, do not.

  11. geoffchambers

    Ben says:
    “Let’s not imagine that all this policy-making is just an accident of some slightly ill conceived idea about ‘nature’ and some dodgy science. This is not about slightly altering the ways we do things; minor adjustments to our lifestyles. Let’s see it for what it is: as a political idea. It changes the fundamental relationships between people”.

    Environmentalists know this. They fully intend sustainable energy to “change the fundamental relationships between people”. Their mistake is to think that the fundamental change – because it was they who willed it – will be in the direction that they want. This demonstrates the political naivety of a movement which is far bigger and more diffuse than the tiny Green Party. They are influential enough to impose their general ideas on the political process, where they are picked up by those who hold the real political power and used for the benefit of the new paymasters of the Green movement. So big business invents Greenwash, oil companies invest in renewables, and the landed gentry take up power generation.
    Monbiot plays an interesting role as the green canary in the coal mine – always the first to spot that things are going wrong, and the last to understand why. Without climate catastrophism he’d be just another dotty utopist with a cunning plan to put the world to rights. He manages to straddle the yawning logical gap between his democratic principles and his authoritarian plan for organising our lives down to the last ounce of carbon only because of “the science”. His kind of politics can’t exist in the real world of concession and compromise. He splits any movement he joins, passing through the political aether like a neutrino through butter (thanks T Pratchett). Only something more powerful than politics can allow a loose cannon like Monbiot the space to exist. He thinks he’s found it in the Truth of Science. His entire world view is now based on trust in the superior wisdom of Hansen and Pachauri, as others trust Trotsky or L. Ron Hubbard. And the entire political class agrees with him.

  12. George Carty

    Aren’t many environmentalists people who recoil from the complexity of the contemporary world, and yearn to return to a simpler way of life?

    @Alex Cull,

    I once commented on another blog that I had a “ni shagu nazad” attitude to energy production. That means “Not a Step Back!” and was also the Red Army slogan at the Battle of Stalingrad. Is this just ME engaging in the pastiche politics, or is it a reasonable analogy to compare Greens who want a way of life incompatible with present population levels, to genocidal Nazis?

  13. geoffchambers

    George Carty asks: “is it a reasonable analogy to compare Greens who want a way of life incompatible with present population levels, to genocidal Nazis?”
    is a comment by one Shaheer, on the recent comment by Al Gore:

    “I don’t think that climate deniers are like racists. Racists were bad, but not genocidal maniacs.
    Oh well, oil, water, and soil depletion means we need a population reduction. There are simply too many people with too many demands for food and prosperity”.

    According to his blog, “Save-Society”, Shaheer has no followers – yet.

  14. Alex Cull

    @George, @Geoff, when in a pessimistic mood, I’m apt to think of this debate as some sort of war without end. However, a lighter-hearted view would be that it is a “long game”, one that might call for persistence, a measure of detachment and a leavening of humour. Let’s see how long the Shaheers of the world can stay the course.


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