Hating fossil fuels is such a luxury belief

The eco-aristocracy has no idea of the horrors that would be unleashed by phasing out oil and coal.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture Politics UK

I hope you little people, even in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, will spare a thought for the literary elite. They’re suffering right now. These poor scribes face a moral conundrum of epic proportions. Should they attend the Edinburgh Literary Festival even though its lead sponsor is a firm that dabbles in fossil fuels? How stressed they must feel by this ethical stickler. Please keep them in your prayers.

This is the news that the cultural nobility are having a fit of the vapours over the fact that the cash for their favourite festival comes from Baillie Gifford, an investment firm that puts money into corporations that profit from fossil fuels. More than 50 authors have penned an open letter threatening to boycott Edinburgh next year if it doesn’t give itself a thorough moral cleansing and oust any filthy business whose exploits include digging for coal or drilling for oil.

It is beyond ridiculous. We’re in an energy crisis. There are people out there wondering if they can afford to boil the kettle for a third time today, and what is the literary establishment doing? Wringing its untoiled hands over energy production. Flamboyantly condemning fossil fuels, which provide 80 per cent of the world’s energy. We won’t fly first-class to your leafy festival until you disavow all fossil-fuel business, cries the literary clerisy, hilariously unaware of how silly, spoilt and hypocritical they sound to the rest of us.

Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Gary Younge and others signed the letter condemning Edinburgh for working with corporations that make ‘huge profits from global disaster’. They even make an ultimatum. Baillie Gifford must stop investing in fossil-fuel companies, they demand, and if it refuses, then Edinburgh should ditch it. It is a scandal, says one angry author, that a literary festival rubs shoulders with a firm ‘funding the destruction of our only home’ – ie, Earth.

We need to stick a pin in this hyperbolic rot. No one is destroying the Earth. What the comfortably off knowledge classes refer to as the ‘global disaster’ of digging for fossil fuel is actually what makes life possible. Every nice thing in these writers’ lives – their well-lit, well-heated apartments; the cars that pick them up; the flights they take to festivals; the hospital treatment they receive; the $2,000 Macbooks on which they write indignant letters about coal and oil – are gifts of the fossil-fuel industry; are possible thanks only to the ‘exploitation’ of nature these people so primly condemn.

You want to see ‘global disaster’? Okay, stop digging for fossil fuels. Stop mining nature’s reserves. Modern enrivonmentalism’s prophetess of doom, Greta Thunberg, has withdrawn from this year’s Edinburgh festival over the Baillie Gifford funding, and she’s on record saying we need a ‘rapid’ phaseout of fossil fuels. Incalculable horror would follow such a course of action. And I don’t mean Zadie Smith occasionally having to raise a hanky to her nose as she walks the streets of polluted Manhattan – I mean poverty and hunger across the globe. The idea that you can switch off the source of 80 per cent of humankind’s energy and everything will be fine is almost comically unworldly.

Baillie Gifford has been unnecessarily defensive in response to Greta and Co’s brickbats. Only two per cent of our clients’ money is invested in businesses that carry out fossil-fuel activities, it meekly pleads. The truth is that it has invested hundreds of millions of pounds into fossil-fuel companies – including a coal-and-oil giant in India called Reliance Industries, and Brazil’s state oil company, Petrobras – and there is nothing wrong with that. These companies produce heat and light for millions; they employ tens of thousands. What do our novel-writing friends propose should be done with the Brazilian and Indian working classes who would lose their livelihoods overnight if we ‘rapidly’ phased out fossil fuels? That they retrain as meeters and greeters for the Edinburgh Literary Festival?

What we’re witnessing over Edinburgh is an orgy of moral distinction. That these flouncing writers appear not to have given a moment’s thought to how society is meant to survive without energy from fossil fuels is actually not surprising, because their fossil-fuel freakout is about them and their own moral purity, not such trifling matters as how humankind might keep the life-support machines switched on. Their protest is little more than a public demonstration of their own eco-rectitude. The question of how literary festivals are meant to survive without private funding and how Brazilian coalminers will feed their families without a wage comes a distant second to these luvvies’ need to tell the world, ‘Look how ethical I am’.

It is a perfect snapshot of the showy anti-modernism that motors the green movement. Today’s eco-aristocracy – whether it’s these writers, or the plummy activists of Just Stop Oil, or Greta Thunberg and her equally well-to-do mates standing in the way of oil tankers – loves nothing more than to morally distinguish itself from what it sees as the poison and corruption and stupidity of mass society. ‘We’re so much more aware than the rest of you’, they say, without having to say it.

In this sense, the posturing literary set is actually carrying on a long tradition of elitism. In his great work, The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey explored how late 19th and early 20th-century literary snobs were forever looking down their noses at industrial society and mass production. These writers sneered at tinned food and mass newspapers. They deplored ‘the collectivism of the industrial world’, with its ‘herding’ of people into ‘enormous mechanised masses’. They dreamt of a pastoral future in which ‘the mines are closed, the houses knocked down, the orchards replanted’. They yearned for an ‘innocent, pre-industrial existence’. Sound familiar? The preening protest over Edinburgh is but a modern twist on an age-old literary loathing for industrial society and the businesses and masses who make their living in it.

Everyone needs to get real. Without fossil fuels, without the heat and light we untrap from those long-buried organisms, there would be no literary festivals. There would be no anything. It is on the backs of the men who toil for gas and coal that writers are able to stay warm, stay connected, travel. Industry and literature – let’s celebrate both.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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Topics Culture Politics UK


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