• Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know How To Do

    Where fracking’s concerned, you tend to hear a lot about the supposed failure of those against it to grasp the extent of the energy crisis; an alleged refusal to deal pragmatically with the situation that helps set conditions whereby we are unable to ‘keep the lights on’. And with oil and gas prices ever on the up, it’s not necessarily an easy point to answer. Leaving aside the dubious nature of fracking’s return on investment (production rates at shale gas wells tend to drop by 90% after the first year) the real choice may not be so much a case of either fracking or the almost proverbial lights.

    As the wider energy picture goes, we’re currently in thrall to maintaining energy at levels we’ve grown accustomed to after decades of cheap oil and gas. Being constructive about this, we have to draw distinctions between that which is unequivocally essential to a decent standard of living and that which is wedded to the system that surrounds us which evolved or was pushed on the back of market forces and a surfeit of cheap fuel.

    For a model of what a world beyond the system might look like we in the West could do well to cast our mind back a stretch, when domestic economies thrived and a higher degree of both self sufficiency and largely localised economies were not just endemic but were ingrained in the fabric of day to day life by necessity. Such radical shifts of perspective can help guide us back to ways of life that probably carry the hallmarks of what living lightly on the earth can look like. The challenge of course is that the influence of cheap energy has pervaded so many facets of modern daily life that shifts to something different will not go without what at times might seem like a somewhat gruelling readjustment. But for the time being it may be enough to hark back no further than even the levels of energy use common in the eighties; greater efficiencies will probably be forced upon us in time but lives in greater balance might not look so different to what we consider normal today, if we can only step off the wheel of an ever growing appetite for all kinds of consumable goods.

    Meanwhile we should be seeking to do away with some of the worst systemic abuses. Take a couple of examples from the extreme edge of the current industrial model: when smelting aluminium, one plant can routinely take up the energy normally required by a small city. Or consider the manufacture of concrete whose composite ingredients have to be baked at temperatures exceeding 1400 °C. Or the huge wastes involved in globalised transport itself. Or pretty much any manufactured product filling a need that two decades ago we never knew we needed.

    The list could go on and is as far away as possible from the notion of things made within sensible energy limits. Probably, on an industrial as well as a personal basis, the real changes and squeezing out of inefficiencies will come with the day when tradeable energy quotas – a flexible rationing if you want to be blunt – become politically possible to implement. You would hope with the current seemingly deteriorating climatic stability that that day may be finally upon us. If handled properly such rationing could be an antidote to the general inequalities so apparent in today’s imposed austerity (which would mean it might be best left to another government after all).

    Meanwhile fracking, together with other forms of extreme energy extraction - the tar sands currently turning vast tracts of Canadian wilderness into a Mordor-like waste being the obvious example - are the death rattles of business as usual. The facts that the expected replication of the economic boom America has witnessed apparently as a result of shale gas extraction may not necessarily be repeated here, and that varying geology means that not one exploratory shale gas well has so far proved economically viable in Europe are bitter ironies as to the folly of the process’s adoption. And charging ahead with any kind of industrial expansion cannot in any sense still been as a good idea, or one that somehow doesn’t mean huge ecological havoc. The potential – and so far unchecked – tragedy of coupling our future with gas is that it effectively tears up all hope for climate mitigation and threatens to lock us into a deathly spiral of emission-led degeneration. It’s optimistic at best to lend credulity to the touted idea that the 40 gas powered stations now due to be built will be kept in reserve while we make a greater move to more renewables.

    To anyone with even a remote grip on the situation, the dash for gas and tax breaks for shale gas extraction in the UK can hardly fail to inspire either fury or despair. That these policies cannot go unchallenged is as clear as ever: the necessity of a huge groundswell of protest is perhaps the only real check remaining that can hope to make these plans unworkable. It shouldn’t be like this. People shouldn’t have to risk arrest, incarceration and possibly criminal records just as policing bills should not have to be incurred. But with half the cabinet refusing to listen to reason, and their influence apparently having won out it seems the only hope left. Perhaps it’s naive to think it could have ever been another way. But poisoning something so fundamental as our water represents a breach of public trust on a monumental scale.

    If the move towards contraction (as well as embracing renewables with the alacrity they deserve) seems a tall order, the current situation is surely forcing us to raise the game: if climate change ever seems relatively distant and difficult to gain any kind of proactive purchase on, if peak oil seems at times nebulous or difficult to quantify, fracking presents us with a wake up call unique in its immediacy. That that wake up call now pits us against those in power is hardly our fault. Meanwhile there is a huge need to find our way forward into a world where the vast amounts of energy we’ve grown used to can no longer be taken as a given. It’s for us to articulate what life might look like away from its profligate use: it’s every bit as much a crisis of the imagination as it is one of procurement. It’s just incredibly vexing that our ‘representatives’ are responding in just about the worst conceivable way.

    This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in 'Lewes in Transition'.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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