Sunday, 4 November 2012

Meeting Demand, or Meeting Production?

Am I a naive, impractical idealist? It’s a question I often ask myself although I rarely come any closer to an answer. But the events of this week may have helped me see a few things more clearly.
One week ago, climate change activists from the group ‘NoDashForGas’ scaled the cooling towers of a new-build gas fired power station in Nottinghamshire, taking with them a week’s supply of food to sustain them for a long-haul protest on their makeshift, but sophisticated high level campsite.
Why? Partly, because the UK’s plans for numerous new fossil-fuel based power plants will lock us into a dependence upon gas imports (the prices of which are both volatile and increasing), and also for the obvious reason that the plans are a huge blow to reducing the UK’s green house gas emissions. Instead, the protesters claim we should be supporting the growth of sustainable renewable technologies, which a decade or so from now are forecasted to become cheaper than gas anyway.
The protest comes at a crucial time, given the feeble attempts to mitigate climate change in most of the industrialised world, despite (for example) increasing droughts and crop failures already hitting the developing world and accelerating ice melt at the pole. The woefully inadequate attention given to climate change is perhaps most outrageous in the USA where, for the first time in two decades, it has been completely absent from the pre-election debates, even in the midst of massive crop failures and ‘super’ storms occurring in their own back-yard.
But despite all these facts, scrolling through comments on the NoDashForGas facebook page (or those on the Guardian reports) reveals an onslaught of critical and often judgemental responses, substantially diluting the encouragement from their supporters.
Predictably, many critics dismiss the protest without much engagement of their brains. They simply throw some sort of generic insult in the activists’ direction, accompanied with the constructive advice of  ‘Get a job!’, based upon a groundless assumption that they currently lack paid work.
But the more thoughtful arguments are perhaps more disheartening, as they demonstrate the absolute condition that so often preside over energy debates: that demand must be met, at any cost. In effect, we’re allowing our extravagant energy demand to preside over the human rights of millions of people in the developing world, who are set to absorb almost the entire hit of climate change related impacts: droughts, floods, famines and numerous other crises.
Likely future impacts of man-made climate change estimated by the IPCC (2007)

Once these facts are digested, the hideous nature of “meeting demand at any cost” is revealed. It’s an argument akin to a serial rapist saying "OK, I realise what I do isn’t good, but it could take me years to find a girlfriend that will let me treat her like that, so until then, how else do you expect me to get my fix?"
Surely, instead of debating upon how we can meet our energy demand, the humanitarian approach would be to deploy renewables to their maximum potential, and then decide how best we can bring our energy demand down to meet sustainable production. Essentially, rather than meeting energy demand, we should be meeting energy production. This is more akin to setting out for a night out on the town hoping to get lucky, but not getting too disappointed if things don’t work out. Under no circumstances should we be committing horrific crimes if we find no mutually consented way to get our kicks.
Unfortunately, the unhumanitarian structure of this argument is all too familiar. It mirrors that which typically arises when any change to more sustainable behaviour is proposed, such as eating less meat and dairy, or travelling overland rather than flying. In these cases too, a spoilt sense of entitlement raises its ugly head.
But figuring out how this attitude can be changed seems, to me, to be hugely problematic. My attempts typically consist of trying to raise awareness amongst individuals in the hope that they may begin to connect their behaviour with its distant impacts, in the same way I have been encouraged to do so myself by others.
However, the situation imposes upon us by society continuously pushes our attitudes in the opposite direction. Politicians tell us how much we’re entitled to and promise us they will bring us what we deserve to secure their votes, and the advertisements we’re relentlessly exposed to not only encourage us to consume more but embed within us a sense that this is the customary way to behave. Therefore, if it is these structures in society that are the problem, should bringing these down perhaps be the focus rather than encouraging individual behavioural change? I certainly don’t know the answer to that.
So back to my original question, am I a naive, impractical idealist? Considering this last week, I guess my current answer is both yes and no:
No, because I would never expect that war, famine, disease, rape, murder and exploitation etc. could be eliminated, but I see no reason why exploitation on the scale of nations, whose populations are mostly too distant from their impacts to really appreciate them, should exist. I can’t accept that an absentmindedly exploitative society is normal, and that a generally fair and respectful society is a utopian dream.
Yes, because given the concentration of power and social control currently exercised in the West, our doctrine of economic growth that magnifies our individual and collective selfishness, and the shear complexity of the forms of exploitation that have developed, the radical change we need eliminate this nation-scale exploitation may well be an impractical ideal.