Wednesday 6 September 2006
I have vivid memories from my student days of picketing Didcot power station during the miners’ strike in Britain in the mid-Eighties. It was freezing cold, with six inches of snow on the ground at 6am in the morning. Coal miners from the Rhonda Valley lined up face-to-face with a phalanx of police dressed in riot gear, who were determined to keep us from approaching the lorries driving into the power station. Our aim was to shut down the coal-fired station in solidarity with the striking miners – but the power-station workers paid no heed and kept generating through the worst of the dispute.
It makes a stark contrast to last week’s Green demonstrations outside the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire. Looking like a collection of festival-goers without tickets to the main stage, the assorted campaigners seemed to bemuse the awaiting police who resembled a lollypop ladies’ convention in their fluorescent jackets. Despite a few scuffles and some off-beat antics, it looked like a jolly day out in the sun for most of the protesters.
There was another difference that struck me. At Didcot in the Eighties, we wanted to shut down the station and turn the lights off in order to rattle the government and defend the miners. Today’s environmental campaigners, motivated by suspicion of modern technology, want to turn the lights off permanently.
Listening to a TV interview with one of the self-appointed guardians of the planet, I was stunned by his response when asked what his alterative would be to the loss of seven per cent of the UK’s generating capacity if Drax was closed down. He said it was something ‘we would all have to live with’. I was reminded of a religious sermon with a vicar chastising the congregation for sinning before God. In this case it was the sin of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that offended our moral guardians.
I suppose it is hardly surprising that this has happened. The government’s recent energy review has made clear that its priority is moving to a low carbon economy rather than increasing our energy production capacity (1). As trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling said, ‘At the heart of our policy will be the incentives we give business and individuals to reduce carbon emissions.’ (2) The government even justifies developing nuclear power as a way of reducing carbon emissions. The protests against coal-fired power stations look like little more than an extension of the government’s own policy.
We could say that the eco-lobby has become the militant arm of the government’s own attack on energy consumption – which might explain the rather cosy relationship between the protesters and the police at Drax. Environmental campaigners have just taken the government’s agenda one step further and actually tried to attack the source of carbon dioxide production. It seems environmental activists have no qualms about attacking the very fabric of modern society in their quest to ‘save the planet’.
But there is something risky about this, even from the point of view of the environmental movement. Targeting electricity generation is not the same as taking on vivisection, nuclear power or genetically modified crops. By taking on coal-fired power stations environmentalists are now questioning the actual existing fabric of our energy infrastructure without which modern society cannot function. It is not so much fears of new technology that are driving the protests, but doubts about whether already-existing technology is a good thing.
Electricity is an underrated marvel of the modern age. Our capacity to generate vast quantities of electrical energy has only really existed for a century or so. Electrification was the big advance of the early twentieth century in the modern economies of the world. We can easily forget how our lives are dominated by the easy availability of electricity. When there’s a power cut our lives pretty much grind to a standstill as people go in search of musty candles and hidden boxes of matches.
It is therefore unthinkable that we should turn the clock back to a time before the national grid. Yet this is what some eco-warriors are seriously considering. Of course, it would be unfair to say they have advocated the abandonment of electricity generation per se; they want us to turn to alternative sources of electrical energy. The government, too, wants to go down the alternative route. The decline of natural gas supplies has driven the government to consider new rounds of nuclear power stations – which no serious green would agree to – and an expansion of alternatives including wind farms and tidal power.
But there is something unconvincing about being told to use wind, solar or tidal power as an alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power. With every statement advocating alternative sources of energy there is the proviso that, even with massive investment in alternatives, there just won’t be enough capacity to match current consumption of energy.
We are really being offered another alternative – actually to reduce our demand for energy. During previous energy crises, when fossil fuel supplies looked in jeopardy, we were told to share baths, turn off the lights, cut back and economise. But that isn’t quite what today’s campaigners have in mind. They don’t just want minor reductions in waste and increases in efficiency. They actually want us to reduce our energy use considerably and adjust to a new world of less.
In the past, this was called austerity. Governments that try to impose austerity on society need a pretty pressing reason to do so, as it usually isn’t very long before it results in political conflict and either a reversal in policy or the removal of the government. However, today we are told to accept austerity in the name of saving the planet, and it is supposedly radical greens – taking their cue from government dithering about energy production – who are at the forefront of pushing the New Austerity.
It is a strange inversion of history that today’s young radicals are telling us to give up on modernity and look forward to a future which is not so bright – literally.
(1) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2006
(2) UK Energy policy shapes up to new Global Energy landscape, DTI, 11 July 2006
reprinted from: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/1610/