Do Me a Frackin’ Favour!

Attended a presentation last night by John Cossham – entitled in his own slides, as well as the organiser’s pre-publicity as – “What is Fracking?” It’s against my better nature that I have been egged-on to write anything about it at all, my adage being public praise / private criticism, if you can’t say anything positive, keep schtum.

Despite his early caveats about lack of expert knowledge and his wider “green” agenda, he entirely fulfilled the archetype of campaigner seemingly against one catchy attention-seeking meme, but who is really campaigning against all conflated bad stuff, and the “fracking” meme is just the hook. On that score he did not disappoint. This kind of mis-represented “protest” is a pet-hate of mine. It stinks. And it was a very frustrating experience.

So, what follows is pretty negative, so please treat it as a diatribe against the archetype, not ad hominem against the person.

I engaged him in conversation at the break – dialogue beats public criticism as I say. Having suggested he was “on the fence” regarding nuclear power, I assumed we might have a great deal in common in terms of actual “decarbonisation” strategy. And in fact we did! Sadly the Q&A continued the same “anti” campaigning rhetoric. No hope of constructive progress that way.

Firstly less than 1% of the talk (inc Q&A) was about fracking.

Most of it was a confused mass of anti-industrial / anti-capitalist as well as anti-hydrocarbon rhetoric with few if any facts or arguments. (I could say a lot more on hydrocarbon recovery, it’s a messy business I’ve been around for several decades. People have died for the life we lead today. They made a film: There Will be Blood, or if you prefer Piper Alpha or Deepwater Horizon.)

Sure, he walks his own talk as a pioneering low-carbon-footprint citizen, and tending one’s own garden / seeking change in oneself is as old as Buddhism, but it is hypocritical to then go out and spread misinformed and unhelpful nonsense. Better stick to the garden. Actually a Buddhist would go out and spread the meta-learning process, not the pseudo-knowledge content. Far from the fashionable ageist meme of “it’s a legacy problem for the younger generation”, the responsibility of us ageing “hippies” is to apply all our wisdom and experience to achieving the best future for us all. Many unborn generations. We all have skin in this game.

So it might seem wise to have some strategy on how we navigate our way through? I think so.

Our break-time chat seemed to suggest we both did. A strategy to maintain “civilisation” whilst guiding ourselves through a mass of massively complex actions and solutions to problems, to some brave new world. Anyone who suggests the best strategy is we “all” just down tools hasn’t thought this through. All is an awful lot of people – billions – with many different views of their world, not all friendly, especially if key resources like water get scarce, and they will. And whilst gardening is great mental health therapy in a rat-race world, a life comprised entirely of shitting and gardening, exactly the same as all our neighbours with no “industrial” divisions of labour, would be massively stifling of human creativity. Humans without civilisation. We’d die of boredom.

But the most glaring hypocrisy is the espousal of the “best thing for the cosmos is human extinction, the sooner the better”.

We humans are special in the true sense of the word. As a species we are custodians of the most advanced pattern of intelligence in the known cosmos. That pattern involves the whole biosphere, whether we believe (literally) in Gaia or not. We represent a very special – unique – set of influences and responsibilities on how AGW and the rest pans out. We owe it to the cosmos for our good fortune to be who we are, young or old.

That’s kinda it as far as the main point I want to make. Our responsibility as humans to seek the best outcome for the cosmos. We owe each other clarity on that.

These are a couple(!) of additional technical points (only one of them about fracking, naturally).

Fossil Hydrocarbons extraction and upstream processing. (Messy business, let’s ensure where we do need to do it we do it the best way possible, and where we are most in control of how it’s done. Nothing is totally free of risk. Much more to to be said. See also “Fee & Dividend” keep-it-in-the-ground and other carbon / trading tax incentives.)

Fossil Hydrocarbons usage as “Fuel” – Energy, yes, with energy into electricity generation, and electric power into practically every human activity and industry, not least the web itself, and energy into portable motive power. Hydrocarbon for electricity generation (coal, oil or gas) is pretty much already on it’s way out, and a good job too. Hydrocarbon for portable motive power is getting towards massive reductions as rechargeable electric vehicles grow, though some sectors will demand high-energy-density liquid fuel for some time I’d guess.

BUT Fossil Hydrocarbons also drive chemical and materials technologies into every other aspect of life, pharmaceuticals, polymers, coatings, films, textiles, computer components, you name it. Even electric cars are made substantially of hydrocarbon. Despite ongoing battery technology evolution, batteries have a massive embodied-carbon footprint. There’s some ways to go to switch to zero dependency, however much we – individually and strategically – embrace reduction and efficiency.

Basic economics of trade says that some efficient and clean hydrocarbon exploitation in one context may be a relatively eco-nomical way of reducing or displacing our overall carbon footprint. Life’s complicated. The cosmos is THE most complex system.

Fugitive Emissions : and leaks and spoils generally. Yes, general problem that always needs to be addressed. Ground and water pollution. Economic losses too. And HC’s and CO2 have different greenhouse potentials and half-lives. Natural routes to surface as well as man-made (see “keep-it-in-the-ground” and CCS, etc). His example: leaky, ageing, Victorian gas distribution piping. Sure those nations leading the industrial revolution need to take responsibility for our own particular legacies, but gradually such piping is being replaced or lined with modern plastic piping, higher pressure permits smaller bore for greater distribution too. (NORM’s too … alarmist.)

Shale Depth : Good understanding of the geology is key to any safe extraction of natural resources. Reservoirs exist at many different depths in different relations to areas of population. We need to get cause and effect the right way round in the UK fracking examples. The deeper examples proposed are precisely to keep the risks furthest from land, water and populations.

Nuclear : (I’m for modern intrinsically-safe, smaller-scale modular, nuclear options. Economically and politically, the existing industry is crippled by the massive investments and timescales involved IMHO. Much more to be said.)

Industry and Capitalism : Tremendous confusion and conflation of industry with capitalism. The globalisation of massively capitalist businesses is a problem (many problems) for us all, but that is not a case against industry in general, nor in favour of zero capitalism. As one questioner pointed out, we all have capital or various kinds, the question is really about how we manage its concentration vs localisation. But G20 protests? Eat the tories? Get a grip! See eg PostCapitalism and any non-autistic modern economics

Hypocrisy : Hypocrisy, far from being an evil, is actually an essential part of human affairs. Its very important we can hold conflicting ideas across multiple contexts. It’s very important we can change our minds with time across levels and contexts. Anything other is ideology. When dealing with massively complex and interconnected issues – fracking? do me a favour – we owe it to ourselves to keep each of the considerations carefully distinguished in our decision-making dialogue. Lazy conflation of bad stuff is a disservice to us all.

Objectivity : Objectivity is a myth. Making careful distinctions is not the same as being objectively well defined – but that’s an even longer metaphysical story.

Humanity : Most of our problems are human – how we humans behave, change our behaviour and make our decisions together. All technical problems have (eventual) solutions, even if proven technology cannot yet exist as a solution for every problem. Where there’s a will there’s a way or a way round.

Optimism : I’m not an optimist. I can see plenty of failures on the horizon – even near term. But prediction, especially about the future, is very difficult. I’m a positivist (socially, not logically). That is we should aim to do the best we can. Putting people in optimist / pessimist boxes is unhelpful. How we handle uncertainties – upsides and downsides – is a specialist technical topic.

AGW Denial : no way. It’s real, It’s common sense. All I deny is the masses of rhetoric dressed as pseudo-science (for or against). Polarisation is the most unhelpful contribution to solving any problem.

Presentation  & Argument : For a contentious topic – particularly a broad multi-connected topic that cannot possibly be covered in a single time slot – presentation with Q&A can sometimes be entertaining, but it’s the worst form of event for either increasing knowledge or progressing arguments. Dialogue is essential.

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[Post Note :

On humans being “special”. Obviously we inhabit an immensely interconnected cosmos, and all inter-dependent species in the biosphere have abilities for population and innovation and population of their niches, but it is irresponsible and helps no-one, least of all the cosmos and our fellow inhabitants, to deny the special position and scale of human influence and purpose.

I will have to obtain Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony”. Given his subtitle “How Culture Made the Human Mind” it seems mean not to include Dennett in his index of references?

There’s probably more in this from David Baddiel too.]


Also published on Medium.

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