by Judith Curry
George Monbiot has published an interesting essay in the Guardian entitled “Lets face it: none of our environmental fixes break the planet-wrecking project.” The subtitle to the article is “All of us in the green movement are lost before the planet’s real problem: not too little fossil fuel but too much.”
George Monbiot’s Wikipedia page says:
George Joshua Richard Monbiot (born 27 January 1963) is an English writer, known for his environmental and political activism. He lives in Machynlleth, Wales, and writes a weekly column forThe Guardian, and is the author of a number of books, including Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (2000) and Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice (2008). He is the founder of The Land is Ours campaign, which campaigns peacefully for the right of access to the countryside and its resources in the United Kingdom. In January 2010, Monbiot founded theArrestBlair.org website which offers a reward to people attempting a peaceful citizen’s arrest of former British prime minister Tony Blair for alleged crimes against peace.
Monbiot’s views on climate change:
Monbiot believes that drastic action coupled with strong political will is needed to combat global warming. Monbiot has written that climate changeis the “moral question of the 21st century” and that there is an urgent need for a raft of emergency actions he believes will stop climate change, including: setting targets on greenhouse emissions using the latest science; issuing every citizen with a ‘personal carbon ration’; new building regulations with houses built to German passivhaus standards; banning incandescent light bulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights, and other inefficient technologies and wasteful applications; constructing large offshore wind farms; replacing the national gas grid with a hydrogen pipe network; a new national coach network to make journeys using public transport faster than using a car; all petrol stations to supply leasable electriccar batteries with stations equipped with a crane service to replace depleted batteries; scrap road-building and road-widening programmes, redirecting their budgets to tackle climate change; reduce UK airport capacity by 90%; closing down all out-of-town superstores and replacing them with warehouses and a delivery system.
Monbiot says the campaign against climate change is ‘unlike almost all the public protests’ that came before it:
It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.
Monbiot also thinks that economic recession can be a good thing for the planet: “Is it not time to recognise that we have reached the promised land, and should seek to stay there? Why would we want to leave this place in order to explore the blackened waste of consumer frenzy followed by ecological collapse? Surely the rational policy for the governments of the rich world is now to keep growth rates as close to zero as possible?” While he does recognize that recession can cause hardship, he points out that economic growth can cause hardship as well. For example, the increase in sales of jet skis would count as economic growth, but they would also cause hardships such as water pollution and noise pollution.
Well, after reading this bio info and before even reading his essay, the skeptics will assume that Monbiot couldn’t possibly have anything sensible to say. See what you think about this essay. Some excerpts from the Guardian article:
What the nuclear question does is to concentrate the mind about the electricity question. Decarbonising the economy involves an increase in infrastructure. Infrastructure is ugly, destructive and controlled by remote governments and corporations. These questions are so divisive because the same world-view tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business. The four objectives are at odds.
But even if we can accept an expansion of infrastructure, the technocentric, carbon-counting vision I’ve favoured runs into trouble. The problem is that it seeks to accommodate a system that cannot be accommodated: a system that demands perpetual economic growth. We could, as Zero Carbon Britain envisages, become carbon-free by 2030. Growth then ensures that we have to address the problem all over again by 2050, 2070 and thereon after.
Accommodation makes sense only if the economy is reaching a steady state. But the clearer the vision becomes, the further away it seems. A steady state economy will be politically possible only if we can be persuaded to stop grabbing. This in turn will be feasible only if we feel more secure. But the global race to the bottom and its destruction of pensions, welfare, public services and stable employment make people less secure, encouraging us to grasp as much for ourselves as we can.
If this vision looks implausible, consider the alternatives. In the latest edition of his excellent magazine The Land, Simon Fairlie responds furiously to my suggestion that we should take industry into account when choosing our energy sources. His article exposes a remarkable but seldom noticed problem: that most of those who advocate an off-grid, land-based economy have made no provision for manufactures. I’m not talking about the pointless rubbish in the FT’s How To Spend Itsupplement. I’m talking about the energy required to make bricks, glass, metal tools and utensils, textiles (except the hand-loomed tweed Fairlie suggests we wear), ceramics and soap: commodities that almost everyone sees as the barest possible requirements.
Are people like Fairlie really proposing that we do without them altogether? If not, what energy sources do they suggest we use? Charcoal would once again throw industry into direct competition with agriculture, spreading starvation and ensuring that manufactured products became the preserve of the very rich. (Remember, as EA Wrigley points out, that half the land surface of Britain could produce enough charcoal to make 1.25m tonnes of bar iron – a fraction of current demand – and nothing else.) An honest environmentalism needs to explain which products should continue to be manufactured and which should not, and what the energy sources for these manufactures should be.
There’s a still bigger problem here: even if we make provision for some manufacturing but, like Fairlie, envisage a massive downsizing and a return to a land-based economy, how do we take people with us? Where is the public appetite for this transition?
A third group tries to avoid such conflicts by predicting that the problem will be solved by collapse: doom is our salvation. Economic collapse, these people argue, is imminent and expiatory. I believe this is wrong on both counts.
But this also raises an awkward question for us greens: why hasn’t the global economy collapsed as we predicted? Yes, it wobbled, though largely for other reasons. Now global growth is back with a vengeance: it reached 4.6% last year, and the IMF predicts roughly the same for 2011 and 2012. The reason, as Birol went on to explain, is that natural gas liquids and tar sands are already filling the gap. Not only does the economy appear to be more resistant to resource shocks than we assumed, but the result of those shocks is an increase, not a decline, in environmental destruction.
The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines, they’ll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world’s surface. We have enough non-renewable resources of all kinds to complete our wreckage of renewable resources: forests, soil, fish, freshwater, benign weather. Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything down with us.
And even if there were an immediate economic cataclysm, it’s not clear that the result would be a decline in our capacity for destruction. In east Africa, for example, I’ve seen how, when supplies of paraffin or kerosene are disrupted, people don’t give up cooking; they cut down more trees. History shows us that wherever large-scale collapse has occurred, psychopaths take over. This is hardly conducive to the rational use of natural assets.
All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project. I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognise the contradictions we confront. But even that could be a tall order.
JC comment: abandoning magical thinking and recognizing contradictions would be a really good place for the environmental movement to start.