Extinction Rebellion Backlash

I’ve held off writing anything specific about or against Extinction Rebellion (ER) and have made just one observation re Greta Thunberg (GT) – good luck to their consciousness raising efforts on climate change, I prefer to work with than against anyone. (Did also make an observation on meeting Rupert Read of ER last year.)

Where to start with what’s wrong with that?!?

But as their profiles get greater – the “direct action” style protests and mainstream reporting of their actual statements – who’s to blame and what solutions are – they are NOT the people whose words we should be listening to.

Young? Let’s blame the previous generations.

Ordinary people? Let’s blame the rich, the establishment.

It’s pure identity politics. Fascism in a word.

The ER movement is direct action – professional anti-establishment activists. The pedigree runs from CND, Greenpeace and Greenham Common, via Occupy, Anti-Fracking and Mr Compost. It’s anti-social and devoid of solutions, once the “awareness” point is made – unless your real agenda is anarchic anti-establishment motives generally of course? Careful what you wish for in supporting such movements.

Even if we could agree a valid target – oil companies maybe (see later)? – ER are NOT even targeting them. They’re targeting general public disruption. The only awareness they’re raising is how angry and irresponsibly annoying they are. Awareness of climate change as an issue on the public agenda is done already. What we need now is shared understanding of and commitment to solutions.

As an engineer for 40+ years in process plant and transport facilities, probably 40% of that business has been in what people call “fossil fuels” – oil and gas related at various stages in its processing life-cycle (*1). I know what I’m talking about. In fact back in the 80’s when looking at extended supply chains across the business activity of all sectors – all goods and services – over 70% could be seen as driven by the motor car, one way or another.

However, efficiencies – environmental and operational – have been central for at least 30 years. At this point, it’s important to make the distinction between the historically developed world where consumerism drove business growth to adopt carbon industries, and those developing in Asia, Africa and South America that have been steadily climbing larger populations up the same curve. It’s a crude split, obviously, but it affects which end of various spectra solutions need to be applied to have the desired effects.

Anthropogenic Global Warming / Climate Change / Environmental Impact are a given in scale and significance. The debate and action required is less clear and mainly subject to the trading of rhetorical insults.

Oil & Gas is bad? Let’s target the big Oil-Co’s?

(Let’s take the demise of coal as a given – but note China and the like in Africa and elsewhere. But the other fossil fuels? And elsewhere I’ve written in support of smaller modular intrinsically safe nuclear power.)

My position is pretty clear. The suggestion that simply “stopping” all O&G production and use on any timescale, 2025 or whenever, is completely misguided. I support Citizens Climate Lobby – leave it in the ground or pay a fee & dividend carbon tax. – puts the incentives in the right place.

The thing is that as alternative clean energy sources grow (and reduced consumption through efficiencies and behaviour), the proportion of Oil & Gas that goes into “energy” – motive or generative – is falling fast. So called fossil fuels are mainly a source of polymer, chemical, pharmaceutical and construction materials generally. Sure, disposable single-use plastics and littering generally are an absolute disgrace – I think we need to look at the geographic and social sectors most to blame for this (*2). I’ve personally been aghast at this and tending my own garden (in the buddhist practice-what-you-preach sense) for 40 years having seen the damage in east and south-east Asia particularly. The car industries car of the year 2019 is an all electric model. But even electric cars are 40% plastic, even aluminium and steel require energy and carbon. Hi grade steel-making coke comes from oil (and coal). Aluminium extraction has a huge carbon footprint on the electrical energy used in its extraction. Engineering plastics and resins are used – everywhere. And so on. We need fossil feedstocks for a long time to come, even if we stop wasting them as fuel. In fact the real imperative is to stop wasting them, for the core environmental reasons.

The second thing, as well as not 100% banning oil & gas, is being intelligent about where to support it and where to discourage it. My policy is “close-to home” – the opposite of reactionary knee-jerk nimbyism. We should encourage extraction where we have most control to the highest environmental impact standards. eg in my case: UK onshore fracking and UK offshore for example. But not in places where lazy out of sight out of mind practices of waste, human and environmental damage can prevail.  Wherever it happens, the damage is shared by the rest of us on the planet. We need to extract some of it. Let’s do it where it does least damage and where actual externalities are properly recognised in funding and taxation. It’s already happening.

Conservatism and change?

Besides oil & gas being targeted as the bogey-man, there is the more general urgency vs conservative establishment angle here.

The direct-action / activism movement has wider motives that are also misguided IMHO. It’s basically an evolution vs revolution choice.

Sure, some of the Oil-Co’s have been amongst the most conservative and resistant to change. Rex Tillerson’s Exxon is the classic example, but BP, Shell and Statoil for example have been diversifying and divesting at enormous rates. And sure, defence of conservative positions involves rhetorical propaganda that involves “lies” in objective contexts. But so does the “rebellion” case. Whether it’s ER or GT or David Attenbrough, their scripts are propaganda too – on behalf of their (half-right, zero-carbon) case. (I’ll unpick some of these another time, if there is demand.) My point is that once its a “fight” between opposing forces this is the natural consequence. Whichever side “wins”, all real occupants of planet earth doomed.

No, what really matters is understanding the place of conservatism in evolution. The world is full of static patterns, many of them meta-patterns of how things have evolved to work. Reactionaries naturally seize dynamic opportunities for change, indeed immediate individual experience is the main source of all change. But the balance matters. Dynamism without static patterns isn’t change, it’s chaos. In fact in eco-scale bio-evolution, static patterns – species – are what we need. Change is built-in only where it affords the species new opportunities. Conservatism demands high fidelity and fecundity. Many efforts to preserve best copies of what already works, with relatively few significant mutations.

Calls to action – great.

Throwing babies out with ignorant bathwater – no thanks.


(*1) Full disclosure. I’m semi-retired and today little if any of my income or financial security depends on Oil & Gas business any more than the wider economy for more than a decade, even though as I say I would defend the proportion that did in the decades before. I do support some small UK O&G investments – putting my money where my mouth is – in controllable  projects closer to home.

(*2) A little story. These days we live in a property bounded on three sides by a graveyard. The biggest bane of my life is the plastic tat people use to ornament and tend to the graves of their ex-loved-ones. Firstly the graveyard is littered with it, and secondly one windy day and the hedgerows for miles around are infested with it. I spend more time wandering around with a sack collecting it up for disposal than I care for. I haven’t quite quite got to the point of ripping it directly of the graves at source, but one day soon! (But, as I say, I have long experience of seeing rivers, open-drains and beaches in far-flung places choked with discarded plastic – bottles and bags. No one in our family has ever so much as dropped a piece of litter! I have a longer term initiative that says we should actually incinerate more of the hard to recycle plastic waste – seriously – but that’s a longer story.)

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