Thursday, 31 July 2008

Heretical thoughts...

When you read a story like this, does it give you hope - or does it make your heart sink?

A liquid fuel made from plants that is chemically identical to crude oil but which does not contribute to climate change when it is burned or, unlike other biofuels, need agricultural land to produce sounds too good to be true. But a company in San Diego claims to have developed exactly that – a sustainable version of oil it calls "green crude"...
For the purposes of argument, let's suspend scepticism about journalistic hype - and imagine that a technical breakthrough could allow us to continue living today's lifestyles at a "sustainable" level of CO2 emissions.

Frankly, such a prospect makes my heart sink - in a way which could only confirm the worst suspicions held by the likes of Spiked Online about the Green movement and its hidden agendas. There's a kind of truth in those suspicions: environmentalism that justifies itself in terms of scientific necessity is often underpinned by deeper convictions about the unsatisfactoriness of our ways of living.

It would be better if more of us were clear about such convictions. If we don't make the argument, we will find ourselves hostages to a version of "sustainability" which insists on attempting to sustain our current way of living at all costs. Among those costs may be:

  • The cost of going down in flames, because it turns out that this way of living couldn't be sustained - when we might have found other ways of living.
  • In the event that serious action at national and international level does achieve massive emissions reductions, the cost to our freedom of state-controlled attempts to maximise economic productivity within ecological limits.
  • Finally, in the unlikely event that a technical breakthrough saves the day, the cost of the lesson not learned. Even if we could "fix" climate change, without a change to our approach to our surroundings and our activities, we would sooner or later hit up against an even more intractable problem.
Is the answer to stop talking about climate change - and talk instead about the deeper political and ethical problems with our ways of living?


Dan Aktivix said...

Awesome - I was going to write something similar, but much less sharp and to the point. Brilliant summary. There is more to say on the impact of technology on social change, but to respond to this post directly:

Having dipped my toe into the transition towns movement, I sense a huge amount of 'peak oil as figleaf'. Many people bemoan the coming end of civilisation with a certain amount of millenarian glee. It is - for exactly the reason you say - a dangerous gamble. It also leaves open the possibility of (for example) the BNP having an argument for their involvement in e.g. transition towns. (Scroll down for his 'trees' letter...)

Of course, that doesn't invalidate the whole enterprise, any more than the Tories supporting localism generally. But you're absolutely right to worry about pinning an environmental case on the disappearance of viable fuels. It ain't necessarily going to happen: the appearance of various green alternatives in an economically predictable result of increasing fossil fuel prices. Michael Klare, writing in Red Pepper, thinks none of these will come along in time to stop catastrophe, but that's kind of beside the point.

It occurs to me, writing about it, there's a similarity between this kind of green argument and scientific Marxism: both (that is, some Marxists and some Peakoilists) exude absolute certainty about the trajectory of historical forces, if not their final destination.

(Well... that's not fair. Some in the green movement do. Others, rather, are more concerned to enact a societal precautionary principle that builds a future based on the fact that we can't rely on either a) cheap energy forever or b) cheap energy disappearing.)

Just to waffle a little about my own underlying beliefs: the more I think about it, the more I believe everything comes down to control. It's a theme I keep on returning to. Again, this is something implicit in both the transition towns movement and also permaculture: people have control over their own resources. Clearly, large energy companies / states don't want to take their hand off fossil fuels until they have the other firmly on some other replacement that they can control.

Interesting, to me, is the difference that technology makes. It's a worrying idea - that technology can make such a political difference - seeming, as it does, to reduce human agency. But it's hard to escape. A parallel example to energy is music: a global battle for control is taking place on all fronts: IP enforcement, laws for service providers, firmware restrictions in the machines themselves. None of it is working, because of the technology itself. I'm sort of hoping the same might happen with energy eventually. We'll see.

Craig Barnett said...

It seems to me the very worst thing that could happen is if we did suddenly discover a miraculous new source of cheap energy. The result would be a further massive acceleration in our consumption of other finite resources (water, soil, minerals, biodiversity, forests etc etc).

For me, there is a wider perspective than peak oil and climate change, which is made well by Joanna Macy. The underlying problem is our civilisation's relationship to the world; the way we treat all of life as raw material to be used and consumed as quickly as possible.
There is a spiritual sickness among people who are formed by a culture like this (anyone noticed an epidemic of depression, self-harm, despair and anxiety lately?). But there are also material limits to continuing to operate in this mode.

No society can expect to consume finite resources at a constantly accelerating rate indefinitely. Whether it is peak oil or climate change or something else, there are physical limits to ecological systems that can't be ignored forever. The faith that technology can somehow transcend all such constraints strikes me as both bizarre and dangerous.

Personally, I think the Transition Towns movement offers the most hopeful sign I have yet found for a constructive response to the overwhelming 'signs of the times'. There also appears to be some fruitful opportunities for linking up School of Everything with the TT emphasis on 'the great re-skilling'.
Holding you in the Light,

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks for the comments, guys - and sorry not to reply sooner.

Dan - I think there's definitely an element of wishful thinking in much Peak Oilism. It's not that the facts don't support the theory, but (if they're honest) many people want the theory to be true, over and above the facts. (I recognise this tendency in myself.) In the same way, whether or not the facts support centralisation of energy production, governments tend to want them to do so - for exactly the reasons you talk about, relating to control.

My sense is that these kind of questions can't be answered by facts alone - any answer involves an arrangement of facts, and in the arranging qualitative choices are made, whether these are recognised or not. The domain of politics, if we live in something other than a technocracy, should constitute a conversation about these qualitative choices. However, our political institutions tend to be founded on their own unstated qualitative choices which unbalance such a conversation. Hmmm...

Craig - Good to hear from you - and I agree with all you say. And I too hope that SoE can come together with Transition Towns. Naming the spiritual sickness of our times, without romanticising the ways in which people have lived in other times and places, feels like the closest thing I have to a vocation. More on that another time, though!

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