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Narrative shift

In early August, American essayist John Michael Greer made the prediction that climate activism was about to lose a great deal of its lustre:

“Well, it’s about to happen all over again. I’ve been wondering how soon a certain marriage of convenience in contemporary cultural politics would come messily apart, and now we’ve seen one of the typical warning signs of that impending breach. Those of my readers who are concerned about environmental issues—actually concerned, that is, and not simply using the environment as a convenient opportunity for class-conscious virtue signaling—may want to brace themselves for a shock.”

The warning sign that caught Greer’s attention was a spate of articles about “ecofascism” – “a fringe of a fringe. In terms of numbers and cultural influence, it ranks well below the Flat Earth Society or the people who believe in all sincerity that Elvis Presley is a god” – which appeared across mainstream media in response to criticisms of Google’s jolly in Sicily earlier this year:

“There were three hundred attendees, all of them from the oxygen-deprived summits of today’s economic and cultural elite. Getting them to and from the event required no fewer than 119 private jetliners as well as an assortment of fuel-guzzling luxury motor yachts—of course the planes and yachts also brought an army of personal assistants, domestics, and all the other human bubble wrap that’s needed to keep those fragile pieces of merchandise we call “celebrities” safe from any untoward contact with the sharp edges of the real world…

“That is to say, counting up all its direct and indirect energy costs, this one conference had a carbon footprint rivaling the annual output of some Third World countries…”

The ecofascism articles were merely the beginning of the process whereby the celebrity and tech crowd disengages itself from the climate movement.  A process that Greer argues we have seen several times before.  For example:

“That’s what happened, after all, in the early 1980s. Environmentalism up until that point had a huge cultural presence, supported by government-funded advertising campaigns—some of my readers, certainly, are old enough to recall Woodsy Owl and his iconic slogan, ‘Give a hoot, don’t pollute!’ —and also supported by a galaxy of celebrities who mouthed pious sentiments about nature. Then, bam!  Ronald Reagan was in, Woodsy Owl was out, John-Boy Walton and John Denver gave way to Gordon ‘Greed is Good’ Gekko and ‘material girl’ Madonna, and the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth had corporate executives on their boards of directors, and did everything they could think of to deep-six the effective organizing tactics that got the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a galaxy of other environmental reforms enacted into law.

In the same way, support for the peak oil movement dried up in 2012, leaving genuine activists on the side lines, and obliging organisations to broaden their appeal by encompassing the whole gamut of ecological, energy and economic problems facing an increasingly energy-deprived civilisation.

The charge of “ecofascism” against anyone who dares point to the hypocrisy of the global elite flying around the planet on private jets to tell everyone else that they have to change their lifestyles to save the planet was always a cheap shot.  The hypocrisy is real enough.  And protest movements and electoral backlashes against the kind of climate policies that inevitably impoverish the poor while shovelling even more millions into the pockets of the elite point to the limits of this form of virtue signalling.  As Greer points out, however:

“There’s a simple solution to that difficulty, though:  the celebrities, their pet intellectuals, and the interests behind them can drop environmentalism like a hot rock.”

The first sign of this was seen in October with the less well-tolerated reappearance of the Extinction Rebellion movement on the streets of cities around the world.  Whereas the authorities took a very light touch approach to the protests in April – which conveniently corresponded with the Easter holidays, and had something of a carnival air – October saw police forces begin to get heavy-handed and the courts begin issuing blanket injunctions of the kind previously employed to break up the Occupy protests.

The media narrative began to change as well.  The original narrative – in short, that climate change was happening; governments in collusion with oil companies were impeding progress; and that the rapid deployment of wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars was the solution – began to face a more critical examination.  It is notable that none of the concerns with wind and solar was new.  Salt water damage to the leading edge of offshore wind turbine blades has been evident for years, as has the impact of wind drag when turbines are deployed in arrays.  But until now such concerns have been downplayed by those promoting the myth of the hi-tech, zero carbon utopia.  Nevertheless, October saw a series of media stories about how these problems dramatically impact the capacity and life expectancy of wind turbines.  Then in November there was something of a moral panic about our inability to cope with all of the solar panels and wind turbines that we will somehow have to recycle.  Christina Stella at NPR for example, points out that:

While most of a turbine can be recycled or find a second life on another wind farm, researchers estimate the U.S. will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that doesn’t include newer, taller higher-capacity versions.

“There aren’t many options to recycle or trash turbine blades, and what options do exist are expensive, partly because the U.S. wind industry is so young. It’s a waste problem that runs counter to what the industry is held up to be: a perfect solution for environmentalists looking to combat climate change, an attractive investment for companies such as Budweiser and Hormel Foods, and a job creator across the Midwest and Great Plains.”

The story itself turned out to be much easier to recycle; turning up all over social media and in local outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, as did a similar story about the problems faced in disposing of redundant solar panels.  And as with issues about salt erosion and wind drag, there was nothing new here beyond the latest attempts to find a cost-effective solution.

At the same time, though, we have witnessed the first tentative steps by the global oil industry to stand up and fight a defence of its own actions.  Andy Critchlow at the Telegraph made the explicit call for them to do so – pointing out that global oil markets are driven by demand, not supply.  That is, if climate campaigners want energy companies to stop producing oil, they need to stop consuming it.  Irina Slav at Oil Price takes up the challenge – pointing to four ways in which oil has benefited us (by which she means those of us fortunate enough to live in affluent western countries):

“Climate change is a real and present danger, but with all the noise around the topic it has become easier than ever to forget that despite the negative side effects of the industry, crude oil has actually improved human life exponentially—in more ways than we can count…

  • We live longer
  • We are healthier
  • Everything is more affordable
  • We can fight climate change in a connected world…

“Put simply, if there was no oil, nobody would have heard about Greta Thunberg; not because there wouldn’t have been a problem for her to talk about, but because there would have been no social networks for her to spread her message.”

It is no accident either that these rear-guard defences of the oil industry have appeared alongside that other undead canard of techno-utopian mythology; nuclear fusion.  As with the stories about recycling turbine blades and solar panels, there is nothing new here.  Indeed, there is even a hat tip to the long history of failure:

“For decades, its potential as a near-limitless source of totally green, emissions-free, radioactive nuclear waste-free power has been touted as the next frontier of energy with the potential to save the planet. But it has also become a bit of a joke, as we have never gotten anywhere close to making commercial fusion a reality despite all the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. Until now. Maybe…

“The problem with existing nuclear fusion projects is not that they can’t achieve fusion. The issue is that they require an enormous amount of energy that even surpasses the massive amount of energy that the fusion itself emits. This means, of course, that they are totally inefficient and commercially unviable. This is not for lack of trying.”

Indeed.  Commercially viable nuclear fusion was supposedly 25 years away before I was born.  It is a fairly safe bet that it will still be 25 years away on the day after I have gone.  Nevertheless, nuclear fusion is back in the news because governments are once again throwing money at it as our last best hope of filling the gap left by fossil fuel depletion in the coming decades.

Taken collectively, these initial critiques of wind and solar; defenses of oil; and promotions of futuristic atomic power may turn out to be the beginning of the shift that John Michael Greer anticipated in august.  Instead of the difficult and austere future promised by the proponents of supposedly “green” energy, we can look forward to a narrative shift toward a mythical high-tech future powered by fusion plasma driving technologies as unimaginable to us as our oil-based technologies would be to a medieval peasant. 

And climate change? 

I wouldn’t be surprised if a new round of stories about the latest developments in hi-tech geoengineering appear in the mainstream media in the near future.

As you made it to the end…

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