50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-anti-capitalist
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.

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Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:

Eco-Pragmatists:

Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010
http://www.greenspirit.com/index.cfm

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.

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So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

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Monty Python and the Tale of Sir Robin

Simon Singh has received a response from media celebratory and Soil Association chief Monty Don in response to his two questions concerning organic farming.

Apart from completely evading the relevant scientific issues Singh raises, Don makes the following extraordinary comment:

Having known you for nigh on 20 years – albeit with great gaps – I suspect that you are as temperamentally and intellectually suited to immersing yourself in organic, holistic agriculture as I am in particle physics. Your mind just doesnt work that way. That does not make you wrong or me right. Well,OK, I am just being polite but it doesn’t make you bad for being wrong…

WTF?! I mean, really, what is he actually getting at here? And what is the Bigger Picture about “organic, holistic agriculture” ?

Perhaps picking up on Singh’s admission that organics is not really his subject, Don recommends some reading:

Suggest you inform yourself a lot more before taking this any further. If you are genuinely interested in understanding what it is all about start by reading Michael Pollan, Colin Tudge and Rob Hopkins. No specific scientific work so you may not feel comfortable with it but very good cross section of the field.

Let’s have a look at what these three authors have to say on the subject under discussion:

Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is celebrated by foodies, and it is certainly an original perspective and well-written survey of many of the issues in food production.

But in Chapter 9 he takes a look at Big Organic and concludes

So is an industrial organic food chain finally a contradiction in terms? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is…. The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an eco-system that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun. To feed ourselves otherwise was “unsustainable”, a word that’s been so abused we’re apt to forget what it specifically means: Sooner or later it must collapse. To a remarkable extent, farmers succeeded in creating a new food chain on their farms:trouble began when they encountered the expectations of the supermarket. As in so many other realms, nature’s logic has proved no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given. And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most uncomfortable, and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.

Pollan is aware of the limitations of trying to live “sustainably”- he is accutely aware of course of how impractical it would be for him to always eat the hunter-gatherer meal he prepares for himself in the last section, because of the extreme amounts of time and work it would involve; and so ends his book with something of a lament:

..imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the earth.

Ding Ding! Naturalistic Fallacy- sorry, Michael, “nature” does not have “grace” and does not give a wit as to whether we eat or not- we eat by dint of our own ingenuity and hard work, and famines were a constant threat until the advent of industrial food and the globalised food industry. The Malthussian fears of a burgeoning population outstripping food supply have not been realised because of technology. Any move back to nature will not only turn us into peasant laborers but will also put us right back as defenseless against the vagaries of nature and living always in the shadow of hunger.

Colin Tudge, in his 2003 book So Shall We Reap is another prominent critic of modern farming, and while convinced that its “unsustainability” could be our downfall, nevertheless addresses many of the very shortcomings of organics raised by Lynas and Singh, specifically the need for extra land:

Organic farming has much to recommend it, of course, but could it in conscience be recommended to all the world? I find it hard to see how…Manure can be polluting…could organic farmers really double their input of nitrogen, as they would need to do to maintain present agricultural output if artificials were banned? Could they double it again in the next fifty years as world population doubles? Nobody knows but the odds are surely against.

…if yield is lower farming must then occupy more space, spreading into wilderness and into marginal land that should not be cultivated at all.

Tudge correctly concludes that artificial fertiliser need not destroy soil structure or lead to polluting run-off if properly applied- thus “good farming” is always the key- and even points out that we will not run out of natural gas for manufacturing artificial fertliser- he cites a figure of only 1% of fossil fuels currently being required for this- “a small price to pay for half of agriculture’s fertility”- and that it could be easily made from solar power or biofuels(?) if needed. Although Tudge is opposed to GMOs, even he accepts that

GMOs are currently deployed for dubious economic and political purposes but the science that has given rise to them should not be banished out of hand.

Pollan and Tudge are well-known published authors on food and farming, but Hopkins, really?! There must be some mistake. Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins would not I think qualify as, nor claim to be an expert on organics, although like the other two he is of course a strong proponent of it. Unfortunately, he has found the wet summer too much for his own garden which has been overtaken by slugs; at least he confesses to the limitations of self-sufficiency in such circumstances, but shirks the logical conclusion that it is a globalised food industry which leads to true resilience, allowing us to grow the most suitable crops in the most suitable climates and ship in surplus to where there is a shortfall.

In the same post, he challenges the genetic engineers to do something (Hopkins and most of his followers are vehemently opposed to GE):

If those people working on genetically modified crops while also claiming to be working for the benefit of mankind actually want to do something useful, perhaps they might engineer a kind of grass that you could grown in your lawn that would be more attractive to slugs than the things you actually want to eat? Or engineer a slug that prefers the boring stuff that you don’t actually want to eat (like brambles, Woundwort or bindweed) to the stuff you want? Just a thought.

More likely, it might be possible to insert slug-repellant genes directly into the plants, as the Bt pesticide has been successfully engineered into corn and cotton, thus saving vast amounts of sprays. (My comment to this effect was deleted as I am banned from Hopkin’s blog.)

(I should say that as a gardener I found most of Rob’s post quite amusing and I do sympathize, though I have not had nearly as much trouble with slugs as he describes; it’s a great gardening column, easy to forget that this is a writer who heads up an influential international movement that is opposed to modernity and influenced by quacks and other doyens of New Age occultism.)

Transition Towns, like much of the organics/back-to-the-land movements, resembles a Medieval re-enactment society, aiming to turn back the clock to an imagined romantic past of local communities growing their own veg and darning their own socks under lights powered by windmills and solar panels, while fleeing in fear, like Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin, from the very technologies-such as genetic engineering and precision farming- that might actually improve farming and ameliorate both world hunger and some of the excesses of industrial farming.

The idea, you see is to turn everyone back into peasant farmers: organics takes a lot more labour, and for it to increase its tiny market share from just a couple of percent at present to challenge conventional farming would require the wholesale reversal of the main demographic movement from parochial country to cosmopolitan city that defined the 20th century.

So what was that “Bigger Picture” again that Don speaks of? Maybe he found it on this Biodynamic farm he visited in 2002 in the Black Mountains, where a family are using the magical methods of Steiner’s astrology and alchemy to grow vegetables on poor land where “The Soil Association wanted money to even talk to them.”

Don admits BD is whacky:

But there is an aspect of biodynamics that needs to be taken with a dumper truck of salt. This is the essential tenet that cosmic and terrestrial forces can be harnessed for the benefit of soil and plants by the mixing of certain preparations. These range from oak bark buried over winter in the skull of a domestic animal to Valerian flowers buried inside a stag’s bladder. The preparations are used in minute quantities – such as a level teaspoon to 10 tons of compost. Crazy stuff.

but cannot quite dismiss it because the farmers are “models of health and vitality” and the veg is just sooooo tasty. The whole place seems a picture of the rural idyll amongst rolling green pastures with a communal lifestyle and plenty of laughter in the fields, that many organics supporters yearn for.

But he gives it all away in the last paragraph:

Conventional farmers and growers are in a mess. I suspect that the government is incapable of understanding the problem, let alone providing any solution. The answer lies in us as individuals – gardeners or people brave enough to buy a patch of ground ‘no good for growing vegetables’. And if that is accompanied by the burial of dandelions collected at dawn or a chart of the phases of the moon, then is it any weirder than the damaging potions and incantations of scientists, ministers and so-called experts down the years?

You see Monty, the thing about science is, it provides a method for examining these things rationally, using evidence. Thus, there are plenty of other successful small farms using either conventional or organic methods that are just as successful, where the produce is just as good, the laughter just as vibrant, but without the magic, which adds nothing other than the fog of delusion and the propensity to foster the creation of cults. Biodynamics is not as Don seems to think “one step further down the organic road” -unless that road is one leading back into the Dark Ages of witchcraft and goat-sacrifice.

Betweeen Don’s tolerance of superstition, and his apparent sharing of the aims of Hopkin’s Transition Re-enactment Society, we would seem to have something closer to Monty Python rather than any useful contribution to addressing the very real issues of food and farming in the 21st century.

Power Hour: Please don’t turn the Lights Out

I meant to post something about Earth Hour last night when it took place, but ended up sharing dinner with friends- none of whom had heard of it, though its organisers claim it to be the “largest environmental event in history.”

Earth Hour was instigated five years ago by the World Wildlife Fund . The WWF state:

Hundreds of millions of people across the world – in a record 150 countries and territories – switched off their lights on Saturday night for WWF’s Earth Hour, the world’s biggest call-to-action for the protection of the planet.

But as Donna Laframboise explains, Earth Hour is not the result of a grassroots movement but was actually instigated by corporations:

Earth Hour was brought into this world by corporations
Launched in Sydney, Australia in 2007 there was never anything grassroots or shoestring about it. There’s no history of penniless activists toiling in obscurity, working their fingers to the bone, hoping against hope to attract attention to their cause.

Earth Hour is, instead, the brainchild of two large corporate entities – the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Fairfax Media Limited.

WWF’s partners include Coca-Cola and IKEA- hardly the most likely bedfellows of environmentalists who yearn for a return to the simpler life of the pre-industrial, and rather dark, world before fossil fuels began to destroy the climate.

Now I’ve nothing against candle- lit dinners or acoustic music sessions, but as someone who lives off-grid and knows more than most in the developed world about electricity shortage, I really wonder what sort of message Earth Hour is supposed to convey.

I have no mains electricity, instead supplying power for my own lights and computer from 600watts of solar photvoltaic panels charging about 1000Ah battery storage. Through the long dark days of winter, when my demand for lighting is highest and the sun’s beneficence at its lowest, I largely rely on a back-up petrol generator. Not only was my limited solar system far more expensive than mains electricity- about EUR5000 to set up initially- but the amount of power I have available much of the time is tiny. In discussing renewable energy with students, I find it quite hard for people who have only ever experienced the convenience of the mains to understand what it means to live without it. Quite simply, not having power as as and when you need it is a severe limitation, and not one most people would choose I think to live with long-term.

In the developed world, Ireland was a relative late-comer, only completing its programme of rural electrification in the late 1970s, which “utterly transformed rural life in all its aspects – economic, social, and cultural.”

Sitting in darkness for an hour in springtime might feel like a nice way to show concern for the environment, but seems to achieve little in terms of actually reducing energy consumption. Activists who feel this is a worthwhile activity would perhaps do better to try turning the power out for, say, a whole week in the middle of winter, which might bring them a dose of much needed reality. (“Are you allowed to answer the phone during Earth Hour?” inquired my dinner hostess.)

Or perhaps, rather than continue to tolerate the profligate energy consumption of the western liberal democracies that have sired them, they might prefer to move to North Korea in solidarity with Gaia, where every hour is Earth Hour.

Electricity has surely been one of the greatest boons for improving human well-being, something which we in the West tend to take for granted, and electric light more than just a symbol of Enlightenment values. We need electricity both literally and symbolically to resist the reactionary forces that would see us return to Medieval superstitions.

The new documentary made for the powerdown/localisation movement Transition Towns, In Transition 2.0, while not linked directly to Earth Hour, extends the same theme with the soundtrack by Rebecca Mayes and her song “Turn the Lights Out”:

“we were friends in the rawest of ways
no machines, no technology in the way”.

In this interview with Rob Hopkins, Mayes explains the song as “a nostalgic look at childhood, a wish to return to some kind of simplicity”- sentiments that perhaps sum up much of what is deluded in the environmental movement.

I’m sure Mayes is a very nice person and a talented song-writer but this message seems more than a little naive, even dangerous. Nor should the glaring contradiction of using communications technology to record and promote a film that sneers at the very same technology be glossed over.

As an environmental message, Earth Hour is worse than an empty gesture; electricity should be celebrated as one of humanity’s crowning achievements. More appropriate might be a candle-lit vigil, not as “fighting climate change” or some romantic yearning for childhood innocence, but in solidarity with the 2 billion people on the planet who still don’t have access to it. Maybe the corporations behind Earth Hour should re-brand the event as Power Hour, and campaign for the wealthy nations to help extend this most basic foundation of civilisation to everyone.

Can religion help us solve climate change?

After the interesting the debate with @DarkOptimism on doomerism a couple of posts ago, I was intrigued to see him tweeting a link to the latest BigIssue which carries an article by Adam Forrest called Climate Change: A Matter of Faith and asks the question, Can Science and religion work together to save us from ourselves? (pdf download here.)

Many climate skeptics and environmental critics have long felt that these movements are best seen as religious ideologies rather than being based on objective science; but while these charges are normally dismissed as absurd conspiracy theories, here we have an example of activists who not only freely admit to a religious dimension to their cause, but actually advocate the deliberate creation or invention of religious ideas in order to motivate the kind of change they want to see. (Simon Fairlie provides another example of this approach here.)

All the peer-reviewed studies and strategies of persuasion known to Green PR have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live… the green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task

So why has the green movement failed in its stated task of fundamentally changing the way we live? The article, which references Transition Towns and the Dark Mountain Project as guides to a Post-Collapse Society, goes on to quote Stefan Skrimshire, who specializes in Theology and Climate change at Leeds University, who asks:

How do you get people to believe in the end of civilisation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to help forestall disaster?

Hmm difficult question that one. What is odd- or perhaps predictable- about the whole article is that it is based on an absolute presumption, total conviction, that we are facing the collapse of civilisation, and the fact that most people and society at large is snoring is a result of some kind of denial, or the usual human frailties of greed and selfishness. Alistair McIntosh, author of Hell and High Water, points to traditional narratives of doom going back to biblical times, but draws completely the wrong conclusion:

The metaphysical matters, for without it we miss the whole picture…I would like to see the use of [science] tempered with some of the wisdom the pre-modern world possessed.

There are so many garbled ideas and messages contained here that it is hard to find one’s way through. Science is not about telling stories, but about considering the evidence. The Grand Narrative of Environmental Doom being proposed here is laden with the Guilt of Original Sin and Revenge Fantasies. The problem is, environmentalists of this ilk do not value the gains of the modern world, and imagine a romantic past that never existed. There was wisdom of a sort in traditional cultures, but it was not a sort of wisdom that will do us any good now- and the last thing we need is to be dragged back into a superstitious Dark Age.

The reality is, humans have used their innovations and technologies to drag themselves out of the extreme hardships that Nature bequeathed them, and that this has certainly exacted a cost to the environment- but by and large it has been worth it because the past was in fact so terrible. Those who yearn for some kind of idyllic simple life in the stone-age should remember that life expectancy was pitifully short and infant mortality was generally very high.

The way to address environmental problems is to embrace technology and innovation. Simply developing cars with higher mileage, for example, will have a far, far bigger beneficial impact than any amount of “lifestyle change” simply because the kind of lifestyle changes Greens like to proselytize about, were they to actually mean anything in reducing environmental impact, equate to poverty. And poverty in the here and now is far, far worse than some vague and abstract notion about climate change sometime in our grandchildren’s time.

“It is, inevitably a spiritual change and we will be more and more pushed to think about these things.” muses McIntosh. “It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before and we are going to have to strengthen our personal resilience.”

How can climate change sometime in the future, the effects of which are highly uncertain, our ability to adapt largely dependent on wealth and technology (not to dismiss community and “resilience”- those things are important as well) possibly be bigger than anything “we” (humanity? White Western Males with University tenures?) have ever faced before?

When, as an angst-riven teenager just becoming influenced by such post-modern ideas complained to my parents about how awful things were getting in the world some 30 years ago, I was reminded that they had grown up during a World War. I had no concept of what that must have been like. But if WW1 and 2 do not suffice, how about the Black Death? That must have been pretty bad, when some 30-60% of the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of a few years.

There have been hundreds of other plagues, famines, natural disasters and wars throughout history, but science, progress, development and technology have allowed us to mitigate many of the worst effects for much of the world. Not, of course enough- there is still 2billion too many in poverty; we are not going to help them by hand-wringing about how awfully materialistic we have become. Materialism is the result of our incredible success, and with it we have developed liberal values of the Enlightenment, democracy and, hey, we may even be becoming less violent.

Instead of celebrating these astonishing gains, and the fact that we are here to witness them, these noble Green Theologians believe that if they only tell Joe Public the right Story that we will all See the Light and mend our evil ways. Unfortunately, as another ancient myth, that of Pandora’s Box, tells us, there is no going back, we can only continue on our path of progress, and for that we should be surely thankful.

My Peak Oil Story

Just received my copy of the new collection Peak Oil Personalities from Inspire Books.

Compiled by Dr. Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) in 2000,the book includes essays by 25 contributors from both sides of the Atlantic- some of them oil geologists, describing how an understanding of Peak Oil has impacted their lives, and what consequences it will have for society.

I wrote the first draft of my chapter in March 2010; when Colin came back to me nearly a year later to ask if I had any revisions, I felt that my views had changed so much that he should leave me out of the book. Still keen to have my input, Colin persuaded me to just make some revisions to reflect my current thinking on the issue,so here I present the chapter as it appears in the book.

I will write a full review of this fascinating book in a subsequent post, and continue with a critical look at the Peak Oil movement in the coming weeks.

While reading my contribution again makes me squirm a little as I remember the evangelical fervor with which I preached the message of Peak Oil Doom for a few years, I think it still gives an important insight into some of the motivations and thinking behind aspects of the peak Oil movement.

My Peak Oil Story

My views on Peak Oil and its possible consequences for society have changed considerably from when I wrote the first draft for this collection.

I come from a small town in the south of England. My father was a tree pathologist, and my parents were keen gardeners. I certainly picked up a lot of my love for Nature and the outdoors from them, especially trees and woodlands, but also had a keen interest in social issues and politics, opting for sociology for my degree.
I was brought up with a strong conservation ethic, although far from austerity, and clearly remember the power cuts of the early 1970s, which I now understand to have been a result partly of the US peak in oil production around that time and the “First Oil Shock”. My father’s injunction to turn the lights out! and save energy is still with me today.

Sociology opened my eyes to the complexities of human behavior and the injustices of society, but rather than continuing with any political activism, I opted for solutions: learning to grow my own food and become more self-sufficient, rather than continuing to depend on an industrial system that seemed both inhumane and unsustainable, became my main priority.

In 1989, I completed my first course in Permaculture Design in Shropshire. Permaculture fitted my needs and aspirations perfectly: a practical approach that leads to self-reliance through simple, appropriate design solutions and a low-tech approach with the emphasis being on working with nature.

I was, by this time, already convinced that industrial society’s days were numbered: the big question was always: how long before major systems failures? How long before collapse?
In a burgeoning world population, ever-increasing calls for more growth and consumption in the industrial world, pollution, species extinction… it seemed clear that something would have to give. Continue Reading