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Imperialism in bright green

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The human ability to disconnect from and deny geopolitical reality lies at the heart of the “green” net-zero project.  Most obviously, those – like the current UK Prime Minister – who claim victories along the road to the Nirvana of net-zero must maintain blindness to the way in which the UK economy is integrated into a global industrial civilisation.  As a result, such measures as closing British coal mines and coal-fired power stations can be translated into lower national carbon emissions figures, even though all that is achieved is the outsourcing of UK emissions to other, less developed states elsewhere on the planet.  Aiding this sleight of hand is the international convention that we do not include emissions from shipping in anyone’s national data, giving the appearance that there is no difference between goods moved tens of miles by truck or train, and goods transported by ship from the other side of the Earth.

Nor is it only governments and politicians that get away with this dubious accounting trick.  Activists simultaneously demand the construction of thousands of wind turbines – manufactured on the other side of the planet – while denying the need for the materials from which wind turbines are made, deployed, and maintained.  Consider, for example, the recent outrage over the decision to extend the Aberpergwm anthracite mine in South Wales and the proposal for a new mine in Cumbria.  Both are intended to supply UK steelworks which, among other things, will produce the steel which is essential to the construction and deployment of thousands of wind turbines.  Activists have reacted as if wind turbines might otherwise magically construct and deploy themselves with the aid of the net-zero fairy, or – even less plausibly – utilise experimental low-carbon, hydrogen-based steel production processes currently a couple of hundred times more energy-expensive than conventional steel-making (which means that for cost reasons, we will continue to import coal-fired steel from Asia rather than hydrogen-powered steel from the UK). 

It should be obvious enough that wind turbines are heavily dependent upon steel – and on petrochemicals for the blades and rare earths for the motors.  But again, most activists and politicians miss the fossil fuel-dependent steel and concrete in the base which prevents them from keeling over in high winds.  As energy expert Vaclav Smil explains:

“Wind turbines are the most visible symbols of the quest for renewable electricity generation. And yet, although they exploit the wind, which is as free and as green as energy can be, the machines themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels.  Large trucks bring steel and other raw materials to the site, earth-moving equipment beats a path to otherwise inaccessible high ground, large cranes erect the structures, and all these machines burn diesel fuel. So do the freight trains and cargo ships that convey the materials needed for the production of cement, steel, and plastics. For a 5-megawatt turbine, the steel alone averages 150 metric tons for the reinforced concrete foundations, 250 metric tons for the rotor hubs and nacelles (which house the gearbox and generator), and 500 metric tons for the towers.

“If wind-generated electricity were to supply 25 percent of global demand by 2030 (forecast to reach about 30 petawatt-hours), then even with a high average capacity factor of 35 percent, the aggregate installed wind power of about 2.5 terawatts would require roughly 450 million metric tons of steel. And that’s without counting the metal for towers, wires, and transformers for the new high-voltage transmission links that would be needed to connect it all to the grid.”

The point is that a great deal of what is counted as “net-zero” is merely an accounting trick to mask the exploitation of people in other parts of the planet to produce cheap goods for consumption in European states like the UK.  And steel-making is but one way in which this new “green” iteration of age-old imperialism is maintained… Our inflated currencies are exchanged for their cheap labour and lack of regulation.  We get the benefit of clean(ish) air at their expense.  Consider, for example, the impact of the copper-hungry Green New Great Reset on the people of Chile.  The Escondida mine in Chile is the biggest in the world.  Collahuasi and Andina in northern Chile are the third and fourth largest respectively.  El Teniente in the Andes is sixth, Radomiro Tomic in the Atacama Desert is eighth, and Los Bronces in the Andean Mountains is nineth.  Suffice to say that without Chilean copper not only can there be no net-zero, but in very short order there would be no modern civilisation of any kind.

Mining corporations such as Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Codelco and Mitsui may make a handsome return from their holdings in Chile and may greenwash their activities by reference to electric cars and wind turbine motors.  But the conditions for Chilean workers and the communities in the mining regions fall far below anything which would be considered acceptable in Europe.  Nor do Chilean people’s problems end with the impact of copper mining.  In order to power the extractive industrial web which pulls ore from the ground, grinds and smelts it to create the copper ingots which are transported to the ports for export to Europe, Asia and North America, massive new coal power stations are being built to power it all.  And it goes without saying that pay and regulation are far lower than anything that would be accepted here.

And so, once again, it is our ability to exchange our fast-devaluing currency for cheap labour and poor regulation – hallmarks of imperialism – which provide the – relatively – cheap materials on which the proponents of the Green New Great Reset base their net-zero fantasies.  Moreover, the proposed means of accounting for at least some of the damage done – carbon offsetting – has issues of its own.  The reason – beside the obvious – that we are being sold net-zero carbon rather than plain and simple zero carbon, is so that big corporations can continue their polluting activities while paying someone else to ostensibly absorb the carbon emissions elsewhere.  On a global scale, this is a larger version of the airlines’ sleight of hand whereby green-minded – some might say naïve – passengers can pay an extra fee and have someone plant a tree to absorb the carbon dioxide from their share of the flight.  But rather like the original biomass projects, which used waste wood from the timber industry to generate electricity, it has issues when it is scaled up.

In the UK, for example, the latest wheeze from the corporate finance crowd in the City of London is to buy up as much land as possible – and thereby devastate rural communities and local farming – by planting non-native forests in order to sell – for high returns – carbon credits to global corporate polluters.  Since this is largely unregulated, and given that the returns from UK farms are so low that sale of land for tree planting is likely to become the norm – particularly since the UK government has ceased the EU practice of subsidising food production in favour of subsidising “public funds for public goods,” which includes various greenwashed projects like inappropriate tree-planting.  For an island of 67 million people which barely produces 60 percent of its calorie consumption – much of it in the form of beef and lamb for export, while grains, fruit and vegetables are imported – again, often from parts of the world where pay and regulation is even lower than that for the army of Eastern European pickers who bring in the British crops – or at least, who used to prior to the pandemic – for less than the minimum wage.  So once again, imperialism – this time food exploitation – lies at the heart of the net-zero project.  As Waithera Sebatindira at Vittles puts it:

Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. The imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism. Let’s not look any further

“When Sankara said ‘let us try to eat what we control ourselves’, his statement went beyond advocating localism and encouraging middle-class migrants to rethink their desire to make seasonal Diana Henry recipes. Rather, he was making a point both about Burkina Faso’s dependency on food aid and about how Burkinabè wages make their way into French pockets rather than enriching the country itself. So, in addition to laying off the not-so-fresh berries, I decided to engage with Sankara by reaching out to activists across a range of African countries to learn about what food imperialism looks like today and if much has changed since his speech in the 1980s. What I learnt is that the struggle for independence is ongoing in Africa, and that the terrain of industrial farming is where many of our battles are being fought.”

The more agricultural land in Europe is turned over to carbon-offset tree-planting, the more dependent we become on large-scale monocrops grown for export in Africa at the expense of indigenous farmers, communities and nations.  But again, most politicians and activists are entirely wilfully blind in connecting the two.

In the longer-term, the wilful destruction of UK and European agriculture and manufacturing in pursuit of the corporate profits gained from exploiting poorer workers in unregulated and under-regulated regions of the world will come back to haunt us.  The main reason that the states on this small peninsula and offshore islands at the western end of the Eurasian landmass emerged as the rulers of the world between 1500 and 1944 was because they were energy and resource rich.  But those resources were finite, and Europe and the UK are now energy and resource poor – as anyone facing an energy bill or trying to fill up their car this winter can attest.  And while the alchemists in the central bank and the City can use confidence tricks to bolster the apparent value of the currency in the short-term, sooner or later we are going to face a reckoning as the value of the currency falls back into line with the material – “real” – wealth of the economy which underwrites it.  When that happens – either through inflation or a hard crash – we will no longer be able to rely on the exploitation of people and countries elsewhere to maintain our imperial way of life.

Greta Thunberg once famously asked, “why should we study for a future which is being taken away from us?”  One answer is that if she had taken the time to properly study energy based economics and geopolitics, she might have learned that while the climate change which she rails against is real enough, the solutions being put forward by corporate interests depend upon the immiseration of the majority of the planet’s population in order that a tiny elite and its technocratic enablers can cling to a way of life that they openly admit is unsustainable. 

The truth is that net-zero and the Green New Great Reset is nothing to do with moving to a sustainable way of life.  It is merely one final imperialist blowout before global industrial civilisation is done.  Après ça, le deluge…

As you made it to the end…

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