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Monbiot takes flight again: fantasy oil solutions and wishful thinking

September 28, 2010

I was going to flay some more skin off Monbiot’s back after his latest diatribe in the Guardian (We can’t use it – so why the heck are we prospecting for new oil?), but before my intense (and possibly self-important) irritation got the better of me, I thought I better consider what it is we’re discussing here – or should be.

What kicked this off is an article in which Monbiot asks what I can only describe as a bloody silly question:

 “Why the heck are we prospecting for new oil anyway?”

Last week I was pretty scathing about Monbiot’s self-confessed transition out of adolescence. Remember this? “We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so. So what do we do now?”

I used to think like that when I was 15, but I grew up. Last week, I implored George to follow suit, because he’s constructing his environmental arguments on the basis that those in power are suddenly, after several thousand years, going to start doing ‘the right thing’ if only we can put forward an argument good enough to turn their avaricious heads away from Mammon’s big evil pot, and towards a brighter future where it’s always sunny, everyone is nice, smiling pixies bring us honeyed morsels on delicate doilies woven by smiling orb spiders singing happy songs and nobody has to work any more because ever-smiling elves do it for us. That’s Murdoch’s dream for us all down to a tee, right?

Anyway, as bad a crash landing as Monbiot appeared to make, it was a landing none the less. Now the bugger’s  taken flight again, arguing from exactly the same kind of indulgent, fanciful and deeply unlikely premises. Here’s a telling paragraph:

“It’s not a difficult issue to grasp. If we burn just 60% of current global reserves of fossil fuels, we produce two degrees of warming. We cannot afford to use what has already been discovered, let alone to find more. Yet no one in either the current or past governments has been prepared to engage with it”.   

Here’s another issue that should not be difficult to grasp: a planet-sized civilisation, imbued with a comparable amount of inertia, is plunging forward on a course set two hundred-odd years ago by Lancastrian mill owners and Scottish engineers. Nothing will stop this engine except the fuel running out but until it does, the owners of this mighty vessel will continue to shove fuel into the boiler’s maw, and will do whatever it takes to assure the supply of fuel is maintained. Nothing can stop this, nothing will change it.

In the west, such a position sets you against unimaginable wealth, and the power that accrues to it. Elsewhere – the developing nations – you are asking those with rapidly diminishing hope of equity to abandon even that, to accept that their uneven progress cannot be maintained, even though the consumerism denied them is the embodiment of every colonial promise ever made, every IOU issued. The consumerist dream of all nations is founded on oil, gas and coal. Asking some poor bugger to give up his dreams isn’t going to win any arguments. It definitely isn’t going to produce any results, as you noted only last week in the article , and which I quoted here. How is it, a week after coming to your senses, you’ve abandoned them again, sacrificed to the kind of naive posturing that one normally leaves in the closet along with the school uniform?


My indignity spent, let’s cut to the chase. What should we be discussing, in lieu of impossible solutions to intractable problems? We should be discussing practical solutions, that don’t require societies to suddenly abandon every value, principle, objective and method – not to mention invoking the likelihood that the lights would also go out during the civil unrest that would ensue if change of this magnitude were to be imposed on us.

I’ve been writing for a while now about change, in the forlorn hope that we might manage it with a little dignity. Truth is, I know now that this world cannot be changed. It isn’t that we are incapable, more that the energy it takes to change is greater than that required for business as usual. I think it is anathema for most of us to be called to expend more energy for less reward, or none at all. Climate change is, for us in the west, about other people. We can predict economic and social problems, but it’s unlikely much of Europe will flood, not because we are susceptible, but because we can afford to defy the sea. What we consumerists must give up in the name of climate change, we give up for others. That never plays well.

So the adult world is set in its ways, and will not give up its indulgent lifestyle willingly. There are no arguments I believe will work, and of course I make this assertion in light of the evidence, the Copenhagen fiasco being a case in point.  

‘Adult world?’ I hope I hear you ask. I have reached the conclusion that there is only one, long-term solution. If we cannot change the way the world works, then we must look to the future generations, because they might be able to make it work in a different way. They can bring finer values, reject the false, the glittering beads and baubles still dazzling the natives. They can be educated to be free of base ignorance, without fear of the ‘other’, without blind prejudice and superstition. Education is the silver bullet, and since we can all be teachers – by example if nothing else – we all get to take a shot. Only education provides a sound mechanism for gradual transition, for evolution instead of revolution. Monbiot advocates revolution, whether he admits it or not. I remind him that all revolutions fill body bags.

This world can’t be saved, only survived and, for many, endured. This generation is failing the future; through education, those who own that future can be prepared to make the most of it. God knows, they’re going to have a tough enough time.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010 11:24 am

    Absolutely brilliant piece Graham! I aspire to put my ideas together even half as well as this!
    I worry that irrationality is still too common in education for any immediate generations to really be free from it, but as you say, by each of us providing as much reason as we can, we can hope it snowballs over time.
    I hope some ideas that achieve some of the low-carbon-future goals actually get through and won’t stop pushing for Transit and Pedestrian Orientated Developments and local agriculture 🙂

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 28, 2010 11:44 am

    Moth, you are a very generous and kind chap. Thanks for your kind remarks. And I should add that, like all generalisations, this one must generate its own exceptions too – the more the merrier. Our problems do not stem, in my view, from getting individuals to change. I think the problem lies with institutions, which by their nature are risk-averse because the larger the body, the more conservative the mindset (another generalisation, but it’s hard to think of many exceptions to this rule either).

    Paradoxically, I am a demonstration of optimism in the light of my own professed pessimism, since writing all this stuff is not the act of a defeated man. I’m just trying to be practical about this, which I don’t think George is managing very well despite the platform he has at his disposal and the good he could do with it.

  3. September 28, 2010 11:58 am

    Only giving credit where it is deserved and as a fan of both literature and environmental science, this is excellently written!
    I agree about the root of change – as you say, why change when change is more energetic than business as usual? Innovation, I hope, might provide a bridge. The funny thing is that we are far from efficient, so baby steps of this nature might be the little stones that together bump the inertia of the beast into something more sustainable.

    I am much the same – the original name of the comic series, “A Warm Fuzzy Forecast” was “A Pessimistic Future,” but I didn’t feel that it fit and certain is the wrong image that I was trying to set. As much as I’m sure human activity will not change until it becomes unavoidable, I hope nudges in the right direction might help.

  4. adelady permalink
    September 28, 2010 4:06 pm

    Institutional inertia? The insurance industry has no problem with assimilating new evidence of risks. Neither does the military – they rely on good overviews of risks.

    It depends on the institution and the general culture. One outstanding example of cultural change happened in the mid-50s – deodorant. It took a mere 10 years to switch the whole of English speaking society over to the idea of using personal deodorants – from none to almost all in a virtual blink of the eye. Those who insisted that such things were only for sissies -knew- that they were out of step with the mainstream. An advertising genius would come in handy just now to bring industrial and political leaders around to what is already the majority view on climate disruption.

  5. September 29, 2010 12:35 am

    The insurance Industry makes it’s money on being up-to-date with risk management and as for the military, it can mean the difference between having an edge up on a potential enemy or not – both would be impractical if they didn’t assimilate new evidence asap.

    You could also use the whole CFC ordeal – there was quite a bit of denial at the beginning, relating to ozone depletion, but as alternatives were quickly found and easy/cheap to convert to, we saw a fairly rapid shift in the end. This is probably the heart of the situation – if alternatives are seen as not producing too much perturbation, they occur. Personal deodorants where cheap and improved one’s personal appeal – who wouldn’t want that?

  6. adelady permalink
    September 29, 2010 11:52 am

    Clearly Tim, you’re out of touch with the “manly” approach to these matters. You’re a bit young I suspect. I can assure you that working in a closed, multi-storey building with a few of these “manly” types around in the late 60s was every bit as bad as you imagine.

    But I still want my advertising genius for current issues.

  7. September 29, 2010 5:05 pm

    Which is worse, the lights going out in a economic meltdown or the lights of half the world’s species going out through severe climate disruption? Sometimes, I wonder whether deliberately crashing our car into the side of a cliff would be a “preferable” catastrophe to falling off the edge of one.

  8. September 30, 2010 3:03 am

    I have to admit, I’m a little tired of my age being a point of criticism. Is it too much to think that, by 30, this would be less of an issues? Also, have I not proven myself to be well informed by my often heavily referenced writing? I fail to see why people are quick to write me off as naive. I may be more black and white than most people, but that’s solely because I prefer to base my understanding on evidence rather that desires, as with the grey realms of politics and religion.

    I am sure that I’m out of touch from the “manly” types of the late 60’s, but I’m equally sure that my ethics, morality and empathy would be near saintly in the 1560’s.

    It still stands that the successful survival of both the insurance industry and the military is based on being as real as possible about related risks. That’s not the same with many other industries or even in personal lives – how many people needlessly die due to cancer only because they continued to put off having something checked?

    Denial is too commonly accepted in the general public and coupled with industry with high profits, you have a near-sighted (if not blind) juggernaut with an amazing amount of inertia under its belt. Change only comes easy when it radically improves the standard of living with apparently little extra costs when compared to the benefits (new tech integration of the industrial/information eras) or the transition is but a tiny bump in the road (converting to no CFC tech). Otherwise it’s seen as impractical, disruptive and ultimately at the detriment of current living standards (even if the evidence states otherwise) – regardless of what prediction are made about the current heading of the juggernaut. A good example of this is that whenever any political party puts forward a radical change to policies, the generic retort by opposing parties is that it’ll cost jobs and the working family. It doesn’t matter what this is, it’ll be at the general public’s detriment. All the noise in the US about the health reforms, or here in Aus over the GST or mining tax etc are of this nature.

  9. adelady permalink
    September 30, 2010 9:13 am

    No Tim you’re not naive. And forget the ethics of the 1560s. Speaking as a woman who grew up and married before 1975, I’d suggest that your personal ethics and standards of behaviour are an advance on the commonly expressed attitudes of many men your age 40 years ago. (That women-on-a-pedestal thing had another side.)

    As for the denial, resistance to any tax measure is fairly predictable. But when it comes to accepting (forget embracing) any changes around attitudes and common practices, I’ve decided that the fevered antics of some people in the denial camp are best understood as the first of the 5 stages of grief.

    That occurred to me when I reflected on my street marching days in 1975, IWY. A few women in the feminist camp were trying to tell women who’d devoted their lives to husband and family were not only wrong but that what they were doing was a waste of their talent and energy. Most of us just said that there ought to be more choice and freedom in women’s lives.

    The big parallel with the current climate issue is what happened when we went to public meetings about one issue or another. The spitting venom from the so-called conservative women was a real eye-opener for me. One minute we were sexless automatons, the next we were lesbian man-haters at the same time as we were promiscuous nymphomaniacs. In any event we weren’t *real* women. Very much like the incoherent, self-contradictory positions adopted by the climate denier camp.

    Very much like. And it all comes back to the denial, touched with the anger, in the first stages of grief. Grief at the loss of your world view being absolutely, eternally right.

  10. September 30, 2010 12:45 pm

    I’ve heard the parallel to the stages of grief.. I’m in two mind about it as there really are many positives in a future beyond carbon – but I guess that isn’t really well known or much discusses, more tax and restrictions, so I might have a different view than the norm.

    It’s great to hear your feminist views. I wish more in my age group had followed your line – that it was all about choice, about freedom, not hatred. You’d be surprised at the venom towards men that exists – largely, I guess, bad personal experiences. I’ve often said that each young woman nowadays should read Mary Wollstonecraft’s, the vindication of the rights of women, before calling herself a feminist. Mary’s book is wonderful as it is horrible. Equality is always at the root here and it should remembered that such labelling or outright discrimination (regardless if it’s male or female chauvinism) is counter-productive.

  11. adelady permalink
    September 30, 2010 2:49 pm

    The grief I’m talking about is the very personal grief of feeling that your grasp on your own life or the world at large is slipping.

    But I do see the pitfall you’re alluding to – that it can be read (by those who are so inclined) as climate change is like coming to grief, a bit like taking a header over the handlebars.

    Oh I think the sort of woman you’re talking about is like lots of other people. I behaved badly? Huh! I’m a feminist. Well, no. You’re just plain rude, obnoxious or inconsiderate.

    Unfortunately, freedom for women includes the freedom to be just as obnoxious as men can be. As it happens, it’s not a virtue for either.

    (I am fully aware of the sociological stuff that shows that tall men have appropriated a whole lot of unpleasant behaviours (especially domineering or bullying behaviours) to themselves as normal – and then accuse short men or all women of being horrible people if they display those same behaviours.)

  12. September 30, 2010 7:59 pm

    A little too grim for me, you lost me Graham when you said ” Truth is, I know now that this world cannot be changed.” Well, obviously the world is being changed, the climate for a start. Perhaps you should put me in ‘Pedant’s Corner’ !!!!

  13. September 30, 2010 10:03 pm

    This world cannot be changed.
    It can, but in the past, the social world, which (I take it) was Graham’s primary reference, has generally changed quite slowly. So I am a pessimist about the chances of making changes at the speed necessary to avoid some seriously bad consequences (from both peak oil and climate change), but am not a fatalist about it. I think that some change can happen that may slightly mitigate the severity of the crises. Not that this means we’ll necessarily get out of them ok, but keeping the planet slightly more habitable for future generations is still a worthy task.

  14. September 30, 2010 10:10 pm

    Re grief: I think that even if we acknowledge that there are many benefits in moving to a low-carbon economy, we have passed the point at which we can easily transition without major problems (either economic or ecological or both), and so preparatory grief is indeed part of an appropriate response to the anticipation of loss. Where this grief stays stuck in denial is not so healthy.

  15. September 30, 2010 10:12 pm

    PS Not just anticipation of loss – losses are already occurring if you look for instance at biodiversity or at the effects of shifting precipitation patterns on African agriculture.

  16. October 1, 2010 12:42 am

    “we have passed the point at which we can easily transition without major problems”
    Quite right, however, the longer we leave it, the more expensive it will become.
    Like yourself, I’m not a fatalist – my drive is more or less that we need to roll our sleeves up and just face the effort facing us. Overcoming the various sources of paralysis (grief may be one, but confusion, denial, fear and many others are playing a role) should be the focus.

  17. adelady permalink
    October 1, 2010 12:52 am

    I think the denial thing is a bit like people who get bankrupted – because they couldn’t face talking to the bank or the finance company to renegotiate their debts. So a financial problem becomes a personal catastrophe.

    Tim’s right. We roll up our sleeves, grit our teeth, swallow our pride and every other cliche you can think of, and just get on with it. It won’t be easy or pretty, but we can retrieve something from the mess we’ve made.

  18. October 1, 2010 1:08 am

    I suspect, as I discussed in a post yesterday, that if industry and local governments held the carrot on a stick, you could overcome much of the stubbornness against change – indeed, there’s a buck to be made AND local governments could actually stimulate local economies and provide increasingly liveable environments while addressing change.

    I worked for a bit in state government and I saw the best and worst of it. Through “greening-up” fleets and offices, state governments have wasted a lot of money. The new SA Water building on Victoria Square is a good example – it’s all glass! People where frying in summer and freezing in winter and could barely see their screens with the sun blaring in much of the day. They tried too had and ultimately failed at their task. ICLEI on the other had has some excellent examples of lowering carbon addiction across councils and the information sharing is part of the success.

  19. October 1, 2010 2:30 am

    Overcoming the various sources of paralysis (grief may be one, but confusion, denial, fear and many others are playing a role) should be the focus.

    Yes! That’s why I decided to do a PhD in ethics looking at some of these things that cause paralysis (or unthinking hyperactivity, BTW). I want to do my bit at working on this very thing (half-way through at the moment).

  20. October 1, 2010 2:44 am

    That’s great to hear Byron!
    I feel that science communication and sociology are ignored in more true sciences. Being training in ecology – especially focused on natural resource management and conservation (making my case even worse) – I’ve noticed that you get a lot of great researchers, but not great communicators (some of this probably strengthens the ivory tower perception).

    Where science provides politically sensitive findings, you really do an injustice to your graduates by not instilling the skills of communication, public/political debate and at least a first year level of understanding of social paradigms and drivers.

    Of course, you could argue the a student of any field could benefit from anything, which muddles the whole process up, however, one first year course in social education and maybe a graduating course that includes practical skills by exposing the students to public/political forums would expose them to the wider non-technical audience and keep them mindful of where their work will fit in and how best to communicate outside the science community.

    We cannot simply rely on science communicators as the middle-person in the situation. There needs to be greater interaction and understanding, both ways, between science and the lay audience.

  21. adelady permalink
    October 1, 2010 10:05 am

    I’m not sure the communication stuff couldn’t be incorporated into courses. Depending on how many papers are required each semester / year / topic, it should be possible in some courses to require that one paper be written as or, more likely, supplemented with a communication exercise.

    An executive summary, an explanation for school teachers, a press release, a dot point list for dealing with questions in a radio interview, a script for a presentation to non-specialists. All useful exercises on their own to comply with the old maxim about being able to express yourself in plain English as a good indicator of your own understanding of the topic.

  22. mark houghton brown permalink
    October 2, 2010 12:14 pm

    Absolutely magnificent post Graham; you are drilling down to where Monbiot should be. I am not a fan of silver bullets personally, probably just as unrealistic as revolutions. I think many strands of response to CAGW will emerge, and a carbon tax would be a huge something that governments can do. It wont be enough of course.

  23. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 2, 2010 2:54 pm

    Ah Mark – you devil! How are you – nice to see you again, and thanks very much for the kind comments. As for silver bullets, they are a bit hyperbolic, but I do love a tidy turn of phrase and it’s pretty accurate in terms of what education can achieve. I agree that many strands of response will emerge but as we can see already, if our education does not equip us to deal with change with confidence in ourselves, individually and collectively, the pattern of responses will be fearful, as I suggest they are already. We always fear that which we don’t understand, right?

  24. mark houghton brown permalink
    October 4, 2010 9:43 am

    Good thanks mate!! You are undoubtedly correct Graham; bizarrely many of us still seem to fear that wind turbines will blight the landscape and devalue property and produce intermittent power, and we fear that electric cars will run out of battery half way to our destination and leave us stranded on the motorway hard shoulder. Indeed my own mother fears that she will be run over by our Prius because its so quiet that she wont hear it, whereas I always imagined that quiet cars were a positive development.
    People also fear big state directed solutions; there’s a kind of fatalism that feeds inertia about effecting change by actually doing something as a community. Thats also bizarre because the Nation Health Service and the public Education system and the Second World War all seemed to do the job at hand even if we took a while to get around to it.
    Which brings me to the issue at hand – urgency, and that we dont have enough of a sense of it.
    Science is telling us we have a problem; we are not responding (adequately).
    This is Monbiot’s beef; i agree its juvenile and immature to expect government to sort out such problems, but eventually they must. It would just be quite nice to have leaders who would actually get out their comfort hole and do a little bit of leading once in a while.

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