Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement, has posted some comments on my recent blog post The Hockey Stick Illusion in which he has challenged the change of course this blog has taken since its inception in 2006. Since Rob is such an influential figure in the environmental movement and he has chosen to bring in such a wide range of issues in a comment thread I feel my response is worthy of a separate post in itself:
Thanks for your comments and continual engagement with z5 which I know you have been following since it began 5 years ago.
You point out that there has been a dramatic change of direction in my views over the past couple of years, taking the blog far away from its original purpose of promoting peak-oil doom and powerdown/transition strategies.
This is true and now seems as good a time as any to address this in the context of some of the issues that you raise.
However, you seem to forget that change of direction means that I am fully conversant with the views you defend, having been at least as eloquent and vociferous advocate of them as you good self for many years; it is therefore curious that you think you can tell me I don’t know what is really going on in the environmental movement or within Transition: I am in fact as you well know intimately familiar with these positions.
I’m not going to try to give fully referenced responses to every point you bring up- some I have already addressed in other recent blog posts and will continue to do so. Each issue deserves many posts and books and ongoing discussion so I am not in any way suggesting this is the last word on any of it.
If you believe that “climate change provides the perfect cover for dismantling modern industrial society which is considered to be inherently “unnatural” and just bad and wrong” then it follows that any policy that addresses climate change is seen as a step too far.
You seem extraordinarily unaware of what the actual issues are Rob- I am beginning to suspect you haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to z5 over the past couple of years as you claim
I would point you towards the work of Bjorn Lomborg on this one. He will introduce you to the concepts of “cost-benefit” analysis, which is the only way to address any environmental issue (compare with your own preference for spurious notions such as “the precautionary principle”- see below). In a nutshell, Lomborg argues that the costs of Kyoto- and worse, the costs of further treaties which are supposed to be an extension of Kyoto- will do more harm than good, while failing to address the climate issue in any case. You crunch the numbers and follow the arguments for yourself- he may have got some of them wrong, but if you think after all these years of promoting Transition as a response to PO and Climate Change that opposing decarbonisation means opposing any attempt to address climate change, you are not even involved with the issue.
Hundreds of activists burning precious fuel flying round the world to endless conferences with only one approach of decarbonisation is clearly going nowhere, as Lomborg explains pretty clearly I think in “Cool It!”. Trying to lay their failure all at the feet of the fossil fuel industry is naive- apart from obvious own-goals such as the 10:10 exploding school children video, the main problem is the dogmatic call for decarbinisation targets. It’s the wrong strategy, it should get itself buried.
Also, it cannot have escaped your notice that many activists are all-to-ready to label anyone who even dares question their views as a “denialist”- not because of the “settled science” but because of their religious/ideological belief that modern lifestyles are wrong. In this case, John Gibbons is fond of quoting Clive Hamilton who is clearly a religious Gaian; Simon Fairlie is another example of religious advocacy – in fact they seem to be everywhere! And yet you defensively claim they are a tiny minority of extremists, with no influence on your good self.
Meanwhile, carbon trading seems to have created a vast opportunity for corruption and selling indulgencies. Enron were big into carbon trading as a central part of their business model,(see here and here) and oil companies like BP are also on the Green bandwagon. Sucking up any subsidies going but achieving nothing.
(It would be remiss of us here to ignore other environmentalists’ boondoggles such as biofuels, possible only a a result of subsidies introduced to placate climate-change activists; why don’t environmentalists make more of a noise about that?)
Indeed from where I stand I see very little happening at a policy level. The commitment is to economic growth first and the low carbon economy third… And indeed, rather than dismantling anything, the emerging low carbon economy in terms of energy is being driven largely by the private sector because it makes economic sense, with governments trying to catch up.
Yes I agree that the private sector is probably more effective at addressing these issues than government- so why not just let them get on with it? If renewables really can take up the slack, then will not market forces- driven by the profit motive- bring them to the fore? It is obvious that Big Oil and Big Coal will be just as happy to make money from wind and solar if that is where the money is- so what do we need treaties for? What do we need activists for? But in the meantime there are good reasons to think that we will be mainly running on fossil energy for a long time yet, and to campaign for forced reductions because of some nebulous idea of climate change sometime in the future seems perverse. Lomborgs’ recommendation is to funnel more resources into new promising technologies now, so that we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels from a position of strength, without destroying the economy and plunging millions into fuel poverty unnecessarily.
Of course, this is not going to work if we have already decided that modern society is doomed and argue, as I did when I started this blog, that there is no possibility of technological breakthroughs and that any such developments would be undesirable anyway because they might increase the human footprint, support a yet bigger population, postpone the inevitable collapse until later. So opposition to shale gas would seem to come under this category- it provides a perfect example of a new technology that might help overcome oil depletion. Your own post on the Gasland film sees it only as a negative- but to check whether your views are ideological or not, ask yourself whether, IF the safety and environmental concerns were addressed and IF it could be shown to be cost-effective without subsidies relative to alternatives, would you then embrace it- bearing in mind that modern society and growth may then be able to continue apace? For the other side of this debate, have a look at Matt Ridley’s report . (Of course I am aware there are bias on both sides- does that mean the neutral position is to condemn out of hand something with such potential?)
The point is, peak-oilers have always maintained that technology cannot help us; now when a promising technology comes along they oppose it for environmental reasons- so which is it?
You say :
“This idea that environmentalists want to dismantle industrial society is outdated and ridiculous I think… some may do…. (Derrick Jensen and others) but not many. I certainly don’t.”
but a quick look at your website and book suggests otherwise:
‘As one man said during a group discussion at the end of a screening of The End of Suburbia that I organised in Clonakilty, “we’ve just seen that the end of the Oil Age will bring about the collapse of industrial society … bring it on!”.’
“We are surrounded by what poet Gary Snyder, in his classic poem For the Children called “The rising hills, the slopes, of statistics” and by individuals telling us that this means the end, that we have gone too far, that it is inevitable that life as we know it will collapse catastrophically and very soon.“
Also this idea that Energy Descent could be more like a party than a protest march, that we will be happier after oil is delusional: coming off oil before there is a suitable replacement will just mean poverty for millions.
And what about your and most of the environmental movement’s attitude towards GE and nuclear? You have told us quite explicitly that your opposition is ideological:
“I don’t have scientific papers to back that up, it is an instinctive revulsion at the very concept.”
I would call on anti-GE activists like yourself and no doubt many other Transition supporters to take responsibility for the harm you may be doing in campaigning against technologies that could really help millions of people.
This view is generally shared by Big Green- Greenpeace, FoE, Soil Association as well as many in permaculture. And many activists do indeed think we would be better off going back to pre-industrial lifestyles, not realising that organics cannot feed the world (or come close) and that no-one wants to be a peasant farmer except for a holiday. How much of this is meant, not for them but for other people- in other words, keeping the poor poor. Let’s make sure that the poor of the world do not follow “western models of development”- yes there are technologies that could help with this- mobile phones allowing developing countries to leap-frog fixed lines with cheaper cell-phones; but if they don’t get access to improved technology in farming they will stay poor. And what about access to the kind of mobility in terms of car and air travel that we have? For us it is a choice; for the poor, international treaties might deny them access to it completely.
Re one-world government: many enviros do of course want this. George Monbiot wrote a book about it some 10 years ago “The Age of Consent”- I was at the book launch in Dublin. I asked a mutual friend of ours who is a prominent climate change/PO activist recently about this, he replied of course we need a one-world government, that’s obvious isnt it? EU leaders like Sarkoczy have also expressed this publicly, so fears about this are not completely crazy Im afraid. If you still support the IPCC and Kyoto-type treaties, then you are promoting moves towards one-world governance whether you have the wit to realise it or not- how else can international agreements on controlling something as ubiquitous as people’ energy use be instigated?
Perhaps you also agree with the spurious conspiracy theorist argument that the entire ‘Green Agenda’ is actually to massively reduce the human population? (check out http://tinyurl.com/69bd6sl for one of the worst-written articles you will see…) which is equally as unrooted in reality.
Your tendency to invoke extreme conspiracy-types does not help your argument. It is an inconvenient truth that the environmental movement has its origins in the eugenics movement; the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth”, Paul Ehrlich’s doom-mongering since the early 1970s about over-population, and now the Peak Oil movements’ cries of imminent collapse form the environmentalists legacy which as far as I can see Transition is thoroughly embedded in.
I think there are good reasons to be concerned about the warped ideologies of much of the mainstream Green movement. The Green Agenda does indeed look like a conspiracy theory, but both Al Gore and former under-secretary general of the United Nations Maurice Strong are both Gaia -worshipers who invoke religious sentiments of the planet over the well-being of humans.
In addition, many in the environmental movement, including yourself and the Transition movement are clearly closely aligned with pseudo-science and dangerous mystical beliefs and groups including all manner of quack medicine and Anthroposophy, which you have shown yourself only to willing to defend or play down. The Soil Association which you are closely aligned with promotes both homeopathy for animals and biodynamics. Another of your allies is Prince Charles, surely someone on the far end of whacko-de-lah-lah who nevertheless enjoys considerable influence and power, having flown around the world in a private jet to promote carbon reductions in other people’s lifestyles. The Organics movement as a whole is guilty of taking an ideological stance against genetic engineering, as well as promoting unscientific studies concerning the supposed health benefits of organic food, and exaggerating its capacity to replace so-called “chemical farming”.
In a class I gave in Kinsale last year looking at how to feed a growing population, I was told by some of the students that they would rather let people starve than permit GE crops to be grown, if that was the choice. Would you endorse such a view Rob? If not I would welcome a strong statement to that effect. I don’t think these views are uncommon; more, that most people havn’t though through what their beliefs actually would result in. I personally know at least two people who have seriously told me that the best thing to do would be to wipe out a couple of billion people. These are not right-wing nutters- on the contrary, they are otherwise perfectly normal family people who would support many things you are doing.
Rob, follow the logic of your own beliefs: if you are against new technologies like GE and shale gas on principle (or Thorium reactors or whatever); if you are opposed to industrial agriculture even though this is what is feeding the world; if you think governments and international treaties are the way to control people’s use of fossil fuels; if you still think civilisation is about to “collapse catastrophically and soon”- what does this mean for the billions of people yet to benefit from the modern advances that you or I can take for granted? and can you really still claim that you are not ideologically in opposition to modern industrial society, imbued as it is with the spirit of Ahriman?
There is only one rational conclusion: we continue doing the best thing we know, innovation, trade and adaptation; or we ban new technologies and consign ourselves- or, more likely, others- to poverty. It is only technology, and yes the economic growth that this allows, that can help us through what will indeed be a hugely challenging energy transition.
All I am doing is following a well-worn path already marked out by many moderate and sensible prominent greens like Brand, Lynas, Moore, even Schellenberger and Nordhaus. Even Monbiot has revised his views on nuclear and recently wrote that the “mineral crunch” (including peak oil) has failed to materialize because of our ability to substitute and innovate. Though you have far more invested in the views you hold than I have, having spawned an international movement, you will to the same degree gain kudos and respect by acknowledging past mistakes and taking on a more rational and pragmatic view yourself. Compared to these brave pioneers mentioned above the Transition Movement looks increasingly Luddite and stuck in the retro-romantic past.
Finally, to address your comments about my blogs bye-line of “On the edge between nature and culture”- I actually think it is more relevant than ever. My blog still focuses on environmental issues, gardening and permaculture, and is still concerned primarily with how human culture fits in with the natural world and how we relate to it. And it is still on the edge in terms of exploring new ideas and being open to change.
with best regards