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Yellow vests at the ready everyone!

The defenders of green capitalism have been quick to portray any criticism of their attempt to deplete the planet in order to save the planet as synonymous with a denial of the crisis itself.  This has been made easier, of course, by the hysterical screaming of climate change denying right wing media outlets complaining about the inconvenience of having to walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work rather than being able to use their gas-guzzling SUVs.  There is, however, one aspect of this right wing critique that will come back to bite the environmental movement in the arse if they do not pay attention.  This is the allegation that those bringing disruption to central London come primarily from a privileged affluent liberal class that is able to take a week off work to protest, and can afford the fines that will inevitably follow from breaking the windows and spray-painting the walls of the HQ of one of the most prolific investors in wind farms on the planet.

The criticism is no doubt exaggerated.  There will have been plenty of working class people involved in the protest who will have given up a week of their allowed holidays from work to protest what is an important issue for the vast majority of the British people.  However, the criticism does point us to a hard reality that is often overlooked in these attempts to corral people into one vision of how to “save the world.”  This is that the direction we choose will come with a cost; and this means we need an urgent conversation about who pays.

John Michael Greer gets to the heart of this in his latest post when he describes “progressive privilege”:

“The ascendancy of the salary class… explains why every proposal enacted to help the two less prosperous classes [wage workers and welfare recipients], to benefit the environment, or to solve some other problem, always benefits the salary class more than it does the purported beneficiaries of the proposal. People living on welfare in today’s America scrape by with a wretched standard of living, but that can’t be said of the legions of salaried bureaucrats who administer those same welfare programs. Similarly, the big push to send unemployed wage class Americans to college, there to get job training for jobs that didn’t happen to exist, turned into a disaster for millions of people who were lured into taking out student loans they will never be able to pay off and cannot discharge by bankruptcy. On the other hand, it was a huge success for the salaried employees of universities and banks, who prospered mightily from the scheme and ended up carrying none of the costs.

“This is also why the environmental reforms promoted by well-funded think tanks and corporate media outlets impose costs solely on farmers, coal miners, and other people outside the salary class, while the earth-wrecking behaviors of the salary class—the long commutes in SUVs, the vacations in Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan, the sprawling, amenity-laden, and nearly uninsulated McMansions that use as much electricity as a city block in eastern Europe or an entire town in Indonesia, and the rest of it—get a free pass. Any time you see an environmental protest that focuses on demanding that governments do something, while neglecting the massive carbon footprints of the people involved in the protest, you’re looking at privileged progressivism on the hoof.”

One such “well-funded think tank” – this time a statutory one – is the UK Committee on Climate Change; which has just released another of those “zero carbon by 2050” reports that depend upon a lot of offsetting (nobody is seriously pledging to do away with diesel-powered trucks, machinery and shipping) together with deploying technologies that don’t exist and forms of supposedly “green” electricity generation that is anything but.  One reason why the committee is recommending carbon capture (expensive but possible) and storage (which only exists in theory) and biofuels is the presence on the Committee of one Dr Rebecca Heaton Head of Sustainability and Policy at Drax Group – one of the most polluting electricity generators in Europe.  Brendan Montague at the Ecologist reported on Drax last year:

“Huge areas of hardwood forest in the state of Virginia are being chainsawed to create ‘biomass’ energy in Britain as the government attempts to reach targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in efforts to tackle climate change, an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches has found…

“Footage reveals huge areas of hardwood forest in the state of Virginia  being chopped down and removed to a factory owned by US firm Enviva that grinds up logs into pellets. A large proportion of these pellets are then shipped across the Atlantic to be burnt at Drax in the UK – one of Enviva’s main customers…

“The power station giant claims that burning pellets instead of coal reduces carbon emissions by more than 80 percent.  However, Dispatches conducted a simple experiment at a laboratory at the University of Nottingham to compare the carbon dioxide emitted when burning wood pellets, similar to those used by Drax, instead of coal. It found that to burn an amount of wood pellets that would generate the same amount of electricity as coal it would actually produce roughly eight percent more carbon…

“A key part of government efforts to hit its green energy targets is to switch from generating electricity from burning coal to burning wood – or so-called biomass. It’s a policy that is costing taxpayers more than £700 million per year through a levy on their electricity bills.”

This last point is at least touched on by the Committee, whose membership also includes Professor Keith Bell, co-Director of the UK Energy Research Centre; which has been a vocal critic of the UK policy of adding the cost of tackling climate change to household energy bills – a practice that disproportionately hits the poorest.

In the days prior to the 2008 financial meltdown, the majority of the population – the wage workers and welfare recipients – could tolerate the additional costs imposed on them to support progressive privilege because living standards (albeit debt-based living standards) were rising across the board.  Since 2008, however, policies like adding the cost of building unwanted nuclear power stations to household energy bills have become much less tolerable.  As the UK government’s 2017 energy policy reviewer Dieter Helm explained:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

One consequence – although the policy is misguided (what else would you expect from the current clown-show government) – is the imposition of a price cap on UK energy bills (which is set too high to make much difference).  It has also emboldened the Labour opposition to call for the re-nationalisation of the energy companies if they are elected.  And while not directly related to environmental policy, these developments do point to the limitations of an approach that allows those who benefit most from environmental policy to dump the costs onto the shoulders of those least able to afford them.  As John Barrett and Anne Owen report in an article in The Conversation:

“Our new research shows that the poorest households not only are hit hardest by the levy but also receive less money back in the form of home improvements than they contribute in the first place…

“We found that, in a year, the richest households each consumed on average the same amount of energy that would be produced by 12.7 tonnes of oil, compared to 3.3 tonnes for the poorest households. But the poorest spent a much greater proportion of their income (10%) on energy than the richest (3%). And the energy used for heating and powering their homes – the part that their climate change levy bill is measured on – represented a much greater proportion of their overall energy use.

“This means that adding the climate change levy to household energy bills hits the poorest households hardest. Energy bills account for a much greater share of their household income and more of their energy use is charged. In fact, the levy only affects a quarter of the total energy consumption of the richest households, compared to 53% for the poorest households. As a result, the richest homes use nearly four times more total energy than the poorest but only pay 1.8 times more towards energy policy costs.”

Throwing lavish public subsidies at affluent liberal households so that they can buy electric cars or install rooftop solar arrays (whose environmental benefits have yet to be demonstrated) is already storing up a mountain of hatred among hundreds of thousands of families that rely on foodbanks to stay alive, and whose energy bills increase with every new environmental policy that some out-of-touch economist dreams up.

The Committee on Climate Change’s almost pathetic acknowledgement of the dangers of continuing down this road severely downplay the explosive risks:

“The overall costs of the transition to a net-zero economy are manageable but they must be fairly distributed. Rapid cost reductions in essential technologies such as offshore wind and batteries for electric vehicles mean that a net-zero greenhouse gas target can be met at an annual cost of up to 1-2% of GDP to 2050. However, the costs of the transition must be fair, and must be perceived as such by workers and energy bill payers. The Committee recommends that the Treasury reviews how the remaining costs of achieving net- zero can be managed in a fair way for consumers and businesses.”

A more realistic measure of what is going to happen in the event that the government continues to load the costs of far from proven non-renewable renewable energy technologies onto the shoulders of the poor was seen in France six months ago when Macron – a former Rothschild banker and the living embodiment of everything wrong with neoliberalism – attempted to impose a carbon tax on diesel fuel sales; another policy designed to hit the poor the hardest.  The result was the explosion of protest, vandalism and (largely state-provoked) violence that has appeared on the streets of French cities every weekend since; and that has morphed into a generalised discontent with the centre right neoliberalism that has ruled for the past three decades.

Mainstream economists examining the gilets jaunes protests are mystified.  According to their models – which focus on the financial sector and treat much of the real economy as an “externality” – the French people should have been able to absorb the new tax with relative ease.  From a net energy perspective, however, it is clear that France was (and Britain is) a powder keg just waiting to explode.  As Tim Morgan recently explained:

“Between 2008 and 2018, per capita prosperity in France deteriorated by €1,650 which, at 5.8%, isn’t a particularly severe fall by Western standards. Over the same period, however, taxation increased, by almost €2,000 per person. At the level of discretionary, ‘left-in-your-pocket’ prosperity, then, the average French person is €3,640 (32%) worse off now than he or she was back in 2008.

“This makes widespread popular support for the gilets jaunes protestors’ aims extremely understandable…”

While not so pronounced as in France, the prosperity of the British population (a third of whom have less than £1,500 in savings) has also fallen – in part explaining the surprise vote to leave the European Union in 2016:

“Between 2008 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by 4%, implying that the average person had become better off, albeit not by very much. Over the same period, however, most (85%) of the recorded ‘growth’ in the British economy had been the cosmetic effect of credit injection, whilst ECoE [Energy Cost of Energy] had risen markedly. For the average person, then, SEEDS calculates that prosperity has fallen, by £2,220 (9%), to £22,040 last year from £24,260 ten years previously. At the same time, individual indebtedness has risen markedly.

“With this understood, neither the outcome of the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum nor the result of the 2017 general election was much of a surprise, since voters neither (a) reward governments which preside over deteriorating prosperity, nor (b) appreciate those which are ignorant of their plight.”

It is for this reason that any attempt to tackle climate change will have to be dressed up as a green new deal that promises well-paid jobs and economic growth (the same well-paid jobs and economic growth that has brought the environment to the edge of catastrophe).  Falling net energy dictates the one thing that neoliberalism was designed to prevent – a redistribution of wealth that involves lowering the consumption of the rich (which, in the UK, means just about everyone earning more than the living wage) rather than increasing the consumption of the poor.  As Brian Davey at Resilience points out:

“Apart from for the very poorest we cannot promise a future of rising incomes – after all humanity is already overconsuming the planet’s resources. In global terms anyone earning over £25,000 is already in the global 1% of top income earners.

“So, sorry – what we must promise is a society where people share and look after each other. What we must try to promise is not rising incomes but security…”

What Brexit, Donald Trump, European populism and the gilets jaunes uprising is dictating is that the progressive privilege outlined by John Michael Greer is at an end.  The only choice yet to be made is whether it will allow itself to be voted off the stage of history (in which case we may avoid a great deal of bloodshed) or whether the masses will have to rise up and overthrow it.  But even this is but one dimension of the revolution we are about to go through because, irrespective of the unicorn dreams of affluent liberals, hard, cold physical reality dictates that as net energy continues to decline, there are simply nowhere near enough untapped and accessible resources left on our depleted planet to even scratch the surface of the low-carbon/hi-tech fourth industrial revolution that various green new deals are intended to produce. 

The future that Mother Earth is about to foist upon us will be very different to the one that affluent liberals promised… so cast off your green-tinted spectacles and don your yellow vests; the future is nearly upon us.

As you made it to the end…

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