Some reflections on the approaching energy crises on
the 20th anniversary of the miners’ strike.
A WORD OF WARNING: What's presented here is necessarily unfinished and incomplete seeing few people are discussing the totality of the grave and impending energy crises. It could be construed as simply iconoclastic, even sentimental, for there is no way of knowing if the argument presented can be considered largely right or wrong for at least a decade. At the moment energy is on a wing and a prayer and the techies' mind set is always reassuring i.e. in a few years time it will be possible to drill 3 miles down in the oil-rich Atlantic; it will be possible to extract oil from the shale measures etc. But will we hack it in time....? The following is merely a modest contribution to a debate that has hardly started and we continually have second thoughts about what is stated here.
(Written: Spring 2004)
"Energy is eternal delight
But war is energy enslaved
All futurity seems teeming with endless destruction never to be repelled.
For this is the night of time."
(William Blake c.2004)
Domestic and industrial energy costs in the UK have never been cheaper but the situation cannot last. Electricity prices in particular are bound to rise. It must always be born in mind the amount of electricity generated by gas turbines in the U.K. is increasing and by 2010 could reach the staggering figure of 90%. The synergy of gas and electricity in the U.K. today, with ever more companies supplying both, masks the fact that gas is easily the primary energy source.
The break-up of these two hitherto state monopolies is just one of the momentous consequences that followed hard on the defeat of the miners after their year long strike of 1984-85. It marked an end to the ethos of 'public service' that began with the "gas and water socialism" of the late Victorian era (i.e. municipal enterprises paid for out of the rates and managed, at least in principal, by locally appointed officials). Post war nationalisations were in part a statist ratification and extension of the illusions of direct democratic control that surrounded these local enterprises. Though the miners' strike retrospectively can in a simplistic way be seen as a battle for retaining nationalisation, it unleashed far profounder social currents that could not easily be contained by it, and which had been gathering force throughout the 1970s' and before. Paradoxically, one of the unforeseen outcomes of the wave of privatisations was its capacity to hi-jack the search for individual autonomy through class struggle and the consequent questioning of everything that had formerly constituted 'socialism', by substituting "sovereignty of choice" that allegedly put the consumer – and share buying – in control. Packed into a period of 20 years, there has scarcely been a more concentrated and monstrous inversion in recorded history.
The trading of energy stocks is as complete today as it ever shall be.
Companies buy and sell quanta of energy on a short term basis and any surplus will be traded forward on the assumption electricity prices will rise. Gas was fully deregulated (i.e. "opened up to competition") by 1998 and the electricity supply market by September 1999. Though water has been privatised it has not been possible to deregulate it. (Note that the control of water is closely connected in hydroelectric schemes with the generation of energy). The absence of a national grid is the main stumbling block but that was no obstacle to Enron, a water company able to prey on the easily duped, and perpetrate the most notorious act of corporate fraud of modern times.
The model citizen that arose to prominence following the defeat of the miners was encouraged to buy shares in the many privatisations that followed. In that way they could 'buy a piece of the action', 'be in control', and 'be free to choose'. And in fact according to the latest figures, by March 2003, 8 million consumers had switched from British Gas to another gas supplier and 11 million to a different electricity supplier: in sum 37% of gas and electricity consumers. The job of state regulators has been to guarantee 'fair competition' and provide a price comparison to "churners", a term used by utility companies to describe the movement of those consumers who choose to switch suppliers.
Though the state regulators monitor power companies they do not control them. But the more the supply of energy approximates to the ideal of perfect competition the queasier a small but growing number of energy strategists are beginning to feel.
Two days prior to the 20th anniversary of the miners' strike a TV programme IF detailed the catastrophic consequences of a disruption to the natural gas pipe line from Russia in the year 2010 when the UK will, on present trends, be almost wholly dependent on Russian natural gas. The timing of the programme can scarcely have been left to chance and though only one energy expert dared argue for an increased use of coal, the absence of an overall energy strategy was repeatedly emphasised. But what does this euphemistic "energy strategy" mean if not a return to an "economically pro-active state" (no one dared mention the taboo term "nationalisation"). It was obvious that energy companies, locked in fierce competition with each other, could not support the cost of building new power stations. A clean coal fired power station able to trap sulphur and nitrous oxide and the all important C02 emissions could easily cost £500 million. These critical objections were smothered by a knee jerk consensus which only goes to show that ruling circles in the UK are still bingeing on the excesses of Thatcherism and more zealously committed to the god of globalisation than even the American ruling class, which is still able to show caution where energy supplies are concerned (see further on).
Only the direst national emergency is now likely to result in a shift away from free market dogma. But when it does energy needs will play a major role not only here but elsewhere. An energy famine will close the era of globalisation and with luck will help usher in a return to a kind of woolly peoples' internationalism. Then there will be a rapid rearguard action and a rewriting of history in which quite possibly the defeat of the year long miners' strike and the almost total destruction of the coal industry will be seen as vindictive and short sighted and damaging to the business community at large. Though of course couched in terms of the national interest, it will not forever be able to conceal the class question and the onslaught on capitalism that was at the heart of the miners' strike.
Since the industrial revolution the future of the UK's energy needs has been the future of coal. Apart from anything else the Thatcher government of 1982-87 was indeed favoured in its battle against the miners in having on hand vast reserves of North Sea gas a by-product of North Sea oil extraction. This was the origin of the "dash for gas" and it was entirely fortuitous and providential such a raw material was at hand. Since 1970, UK domestic consumption has more than trebled. The reserves of natural gas are now almost exhausted as over 80% of the accessible total has gone and what little is left will be consumed at an even faster rate than previously as the country becomes ever more dependent on gas. In the oil/gas fields of the North Sea compressors have been used to accelerate extraction. But as luck would have it there was now a free market Mother (fucker) Russia to make good the shortfall. And not only Britain but a good part of Western Europe will have to rely on a very long, and vulnerable, pipeline from Russia. Twenty years ago this would have been unthinkable and though raw materials (e.g. vast supplies of timber) were traded from the Soviet Union to have become energy dependant on a so-called 'communist' state would have been out of the question.
Meanwhile the free market has all but triumphed worldwide and the kind of knee jerk response that accompanies it: free market = security of supply. The number of economists who continue to believe in this rubbish is astonishing. But dissident voices are increasing and with that a creeping back door interventionism that dare not speak its name. The fear is growing that the UK is overly dependent on a single source of energy and that the "dash for gas" is now suicidal folly. A more balanced approach is needed and this is where the "future for coal" once more comes in.
The last coal fired power station to be built in the UK was in the 1970s'. This is an extraordinary fact in itself given the manifold increases in the price of oil following the setting up of OPEC in 1973. Though the effect of oil price rises was felt at the petrol pumps and throughout industry it was not the case domestically. The now fabled three day week and the disruption of power supplies were entirely attributable to the earlier, 1972 miners' strike. The situation could not have been more different in Denmark where the country was 90% dependent on oil. After the oil shock of the early seventies Denmark rapidly shifted to reliance on coal to supply its energy needs and quickly introduced wide ranging energy conservation measures before turning increasingly to renewables. The response in France was to build nuclear power stations which still continue to provide nearly all of the country's energy needs. Germany began to follow suit but even before the impact of Chernobyl there was wide spread protest and Germany is to close all of its nuclear power stations by 2015, a commitment it will find hard to wriggle out of.
The fact that no new coal fired power stations were built following the two UK miners' strikes of the early seventies suggests that already the need to defeat uppity miners at all cost was becoming the first priority, even under the two Labour governments of 1974-79. The idea was beginning to take hold that the only successful course of action was a root and branch destruction of the industry and all of its subsidiaries. Extemporising became the order of the day and luckily later in the decade North Sea gas came on stream. An energy policy that favoured coal would only have resulted in yet more power to the miners elbow.
Though it was known that CO2 was increasing in the atmosphere, climate change was not yet an issue and it was only from the mid 1980s' onwards that it became pressing. Prior to that it was the sulphur content of coal, the cause of acid rain that was the main focus of international concern. Though now there can be no doubting the catastrophic consequences of a build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no doubting either the ideological uses it has been put to in the U.K. In ruling circles in the UK if power stations were to be converted into crematoria it would be more acceptable than burning coal! This is not because coal is a dirty fuel first and foremost but because in Britain's post war history there has been no event that was more traumatic and consequential than the miners' strike of 1984-5. Even the slightest capitulation amounts to abject surrender and because of that energy policy is hoist on its own petard and the room for manoeuvre small indeed. The devil has been recast as a coal miner.
So coal has become the great unmentionable and in the next few years most coal fired power stations will be closed down and the last few remaining pits flooded for good. Britain for the foreseeable future will be completely dependent on Russian natural gas and pitiful supplies of electricity from renewables especially wind power.
But wait a minute. What's this about coal creeping up the energy agenda once more? On Feb.24th 2003 the Labour government published a White Paper entitled Our Energy Future - Creating a Low Carbon Economy. It is hoped that by 2020 a fifth of the UK's energy needs will come from renewables - which takes a heck of believing. However there is another very telling clause supporting cleaner coal technology and N.B. "establishing an investment aid scheme to help existing pits develop new reserves". This White Paper was widely hailed by the Greens as a breakthrough because it "turned Britain's energy policy on its head" The first priority was no longer security of supply (can we get enough oil?) or "social justice" (are prices too high?) Priority no.1 was to be the protection of the atmosphere which was to be achieved by producing a low carbon economy. There was no mention of nuclear power which to the Greens was a further recommendation. So now the Greens, interestingly, are beginning to discreetly whisper the word "coal". What could have occasioned this change especially as they were very unsympathetic toward the miners' strike? In fact in an article in the New Statesmen some three years after the defeat of the miners claimed it was necessary to defeat the miners in the interests of a safe renewable energy and the need to meet the EEC's planned reductions in CO2 emissions. In order to understand this surprising u-turn we need only run through the other energy options to see why.
Generically (but with the occasional rare exception) ecologists have tended to look askance on revolutionary interpretations of history involving rupture and mass conflict ultimately deriving from Hegel and Marx. Right from the start of the contemporary ecology movement in the 1970s it has been dogged by accusations of class bias. This was nowhere more evident than in a 1970s TV production called Survivors in which humanity was all but destroyed by a virus. It is at heart a story of how the English middle class set out to rebuild civilisation and middle class snobbery. The main clash is between a trade union leader, Arthur Wormley, and his band of louts (who could be Arthur Scargill and "his" flying pickets because this was the moment of successful miners' strikes) and an aggressive right wing woman (an anticipation of the new feminism) seeking to re-found free enterprise on earth first principles. However this naked class prejudice amid the Habitat eco-kitsch, had to give way to less insidious and obvious forms of class bias. Yet it continues to surface with unfailing regularity. The Greens latest proposal to tax aviation fuel will mean thousands of ordinary working people will be unable to holiday abroad whilst the jet set will continue to enjoy their "enviable" life style. But if they were to add all holidays are a holiday in another peoples' misery it would make all the difference in the world. But the unending misery of capitalism in all its forms forever seems to elude their grasp.
Really the Greens are the heirs of the 18th century Enlightenment, which also goes some way to explaining their often insufferable optimism as though the battle has been won already. Reason they believe will finally prevail and this abstract rationalism prevents them from grasping that vested interests based on private property drastically forbids the implementation of reason on the scale that is now essential to survival. Indeed this limitation prevents the Greens from seeing the obvious and they themselves become a victim of irrationalism, especially over essential questions like the state, capital and labour and what is meant by the commodity economy. Despite the Greens apparent stance of non-negotiability one invariably finds this is not the case and throughout, there runs a deep vein of compromise. Hence critiques of consumption are drastically narrowed down, tending to concentrate exclusively on the question of sustainability, particularly the energy consumed in producing commodities. When it comes to consumerism, real needs and false needs never enter the frame. The sole criteria is that of guilt implying consumerism is fulfilling and does just what it says it will do for you on the label. It is a temptation we must resist because it is energy sinful – not that it is empty as well as wasteful. Hence the readiness to strike deals with the unsustainable, destructive fury of today's commodity economy and a willingness to embrace the lesser of intrinsically damaging energy "solutions". In not being "class aware" in the broadest, most expansive sense of the term, the Greens are never green enough.
By the year 2030 at the very latest oil will be running dry and the end of natural gas will be in sight. Well before that date there will have been numerous energy spikes vastly increasing the costs of energy based on these raw materials. Come 2010 the oil producers will be in control and a seller's market will have commenced reviving memories of the OPEC cartel in its heyday. And that is the best case scenario minus any extra disruption to supply caused by "oil wars" and "energy imperialism". America's oil production peaked in 1971 and from that date the country became increasingly dependent on oil imports until it is now almost totally so. Securing the Gulf became an urgent object of foreign policy eventually to be enshrined in the "Carter Doctrine". The merest hint of trouble was enough to set off alarm bells in case oil supplies were disrupted. Islam was encouraged to disrupt a growing class unity cutting across national and religious boundaries (even in Israel) and as a foil against the Soviet Union – but only to turn against its western benefactors. Due to the Iranian Islamic 'revolution' of 1979, 5.6 million barrels of crude disappeared overnight. A year ago it was hoped to construct an OPEC busting redoubt in Iraq, which, if the oil were allowed to flow freely, could supply a tenth of global consumption. However the "Baghdad cake walk" as we are all now increasingly aware is anything but a walk-over and the Saudi regime has to daily perform a juggling act making concessions to western oil interests and 'radical' Islamist sects to stay in power. (The house of Saud incidentally is responsible for the sumptuous Sunni mosques springing up all over Bradford whilst the mosques of irked Shias – and they are very open about their anger - still retain their makeshift, half-built, scruffy look). Nor should the potential for serious conflict in the future between America and Russia be ruled out. In 2003 BP started work on the 1000 mile Azerbaijan pipeline from Baku via Georgia to Turkish ports on the Mediterranean. Russia wanted the pipeline to be rerouted through Russia so, in retaliation, began to destabilize the region.
(Footnote:This is not just a question of securing hydrocarbon energy supplies. Russia is rich in raw materials (its new oligarchs, like the oil baron Khodorkovsky now languishing in jail and stripped of his assets, have made their billions from the daylight robbery and export of raw materials) that are coveted by an increasingly raw materials starved, manufacturing West. The domination and eventual carve up (regional privatisation) of Russia is a distant US strategic geopolitical objective. It will lead in the long run to the increasing militarisation of Russia as a defensive measure against external predation. A new version of the cold war is to be expected with Russian military nationalism, military renationalisations and expropriations combined with Kremlin autocracy castigated as the enemy, in place of the spurious erstwhile "communism".
The local wars that are fought today over raw materials like in Burundi are amongst the scariest ever. We recoil before images of pre-teen, nobody's child, killing machines carrying Kalashnikovs, drugged up to the eyeballs with drugs supplied by local warlords and slaughtering without mercy in their tattered sportswear gear. It also has its resonance in the overdeveloped world in the guns / drug culture which foreshadows a uniquely different militarisation, a subjective militarisation of "I" "I" "I" "I", of narcissistic monologue and hierarchy, of dissing and bullying, one that "realizes" art as the war of one against all and which the military per se could well conscript to contain the social breakdown which is likely to ensue from an energy driven ecological catastrophe on a colossal scale.)
Oil has justly been called "the tears of the devil" and the political cost of guaranteeing security of supply (war after war after mind-numbing war) may be just too high even before the last drop of oil has been pumped out. The global market economy is built on limitless, cheap reliable fuel – mainly oil – and free marketers are the victims of their own propaganda if they think the situation is going to continue unchanged for the next three decades. Interventionism will begin to shuffle back and in fact we are already beginning to see it in the interconnected domains of transport and energy. In the UK there are energy subsidies for renewables, indirect capital grants to householders wishing to install a wind turbine, coal subventions and the de-facto nationalisation of Railtrack. But all this is as a ghost on the political scene but a ghost that will eventually materialize into flesh and bone. And on that date the political opportunism of the anti-globalisation movement will be apparent for all to see.
Short of a miracle there is no way renewables will quench capitalism's insatiable thirst for ever greater quantities of energy. And by pretending somehow they will, the greens are doing themselves no favours. If they were to say renewables can never hope to satisfy the expanding energy needs of capitalism but that they could come into their own in a post capitalist society, they would avoid falling into the trap that has been set by the nuclear lobby. In order to avoid this, the Greens would have to insist that life must change with renewables as the energy basis of this changed relationship between the human species and the rest of nature. If not, then their opportunism will eventually be exposed as a hollow sham, and all that they will have achieved is to help deliver the world in to the arms of a second instalment of nuclear power, requiring many thousands of new nuclear power stations.
Innovations in the efficacy of photo voltaic cells can be expected but like the dreams of nuclear and cold fusion it is advisable not to hold your breath. Besides little is known about two of these three possibilities (cold fusion is still fakir science - see the Fleischmann/Pons experiment of a few years back) and there is also the question of unwanted waste. It seems likely that nuclear fusion would have its own safety and waste problems, like what to do with the unstable, radioactive, element of tritium which has a half life of "only" 12 years, which is admittedly a fraction of that of plutonium. Moreover temperatures to equal that of the sun would have to be repeatedly generated. On the sun hydrogen particles subject to enormous heat and pressure collide with each other and some stick together in a reaction called thermonuclear fusion. This fusion produces helium and nuclear energy just as Einstein predicted in his famous formula where a small loss in mass is converted into a large amount of energy. This formula that has cast the darkest of shadows across modern times both in terms of its warlike and "peaceful" uses leads us to suspect the only benign fusion generator is the sun! And as for PV power the manufacture of photo voltaic cells for use, for instance, in PV tiles, is a hi-tech industry using exotic and hazardous chemicals like baron and arsenic. Their mass production will involve many dangers not least for the work force and, at the end of their useful life; they have to be safely disposed of, which could be a major headache.
Apart from hydrogen there remains the nuclear fission option – which frankly is not an option even though the nuclear lobby is massively gearing up for a comeback. Despite producing no greenhouse gases, nuclear energy really is the dirtiest and ultimately most costly of all fuels. There are enormous problems connected with waste disposal and decommissioning costs are huge. There are also 'extra economic' costs related to security which are largely shouldered by the state. A garrison state is also an expensive state and goes against the grain of a cost paring free trade liberalism. We have entered the age of permanent state manipulated terrorism without any historical parallels (though the Italy of the 1970s' was the laboratory - see Sanguinetti's Terrorism and the State - available from BM Chronos) and today's spiralling atrocities would be as nothing compared to a well aimed missile or plane hitting a nuclear reactor. And given the escalating scale of the terrorist counter attack against the terrorist war against terrorism, better not put temptation in temptations way. Fast breeder reactors produce surplus plutonium which could well finds its way into the manufacture of a small nuclear device which will then be exploded in order to 'save' humanity. Plutonium is also exceedingly toxic and has a half life of 24,000 years. One thousand millioneth of a gram has been known to cause cancer in a dog and a 100 megawatt nuclear power plant manufactures 250 kilos of plutonium a year. None of this bears thinking about - and for that reason the nuclear option probably will.
And as for the energy potential of hydrogen, please read the lengthy note at the end of this section. Ecologists were quick to welcome it as an alternative, non carbon based energy source – but then paused for thought. Hydrogen is a secondary fuel and like electricity has to be produced from a primary energy source. One could get the crazy situation of a carbon (CO2) creating power source being used to manufacture hydrogen, which then provides 'clean' electricity whose only waste product is water. (There are however several serious catches and you are advised to read the section on hydrogen) The only exit from this absurdist roundelay is to imagine a situation in which renewables like wind/ wave/tidal energy provide the power source for the electrolytic production of hydrogen which when supplied to a fuel cell would then provide the desired green, clean energy!
It is for the technical reasons set out above that coal began to stage something of a comeback in the thinking of the Greens and crucially in other quarters. And it is beginning to concentrate the minds of governments worldwide especially in those countries with known recoverable coal reserves and who have become increasingly energy dependent. In the USA 20 new coal pits have been sunk in recent years and Bush's energy secretary, Spencer Abrahams, advised Bush and Blair to build 'clean' coal fired power stations. Given just how reactionary and essentially militaristic Bush's energy policy is, such a statement is arresting. It does suggest a faint but growing tendency towards improving energy self-sufficiency, more autarchy and even isolationism, not just in America but elsewhere, with energy and transport to the forefront of this return (if not in every case) to state interventionism. A retreat from present day globalisation may easily become a reality and it is at this juncture a revived coal industry becomes possible here, but this time, wonder of wonders, supported by the Greens.
Living plants are able to exchange CO2 for oxygen during photosynthesis but the thought of creating a gas guzzling techno-plant capable of exchanging vast quantities of CO2 for oxygen belongs in the realm of sci-fi. Though clean coal is something of a misnomer, CO2 can be converted in to liquid hydro carbons for reuse in an ever diminishing combustion cycle where the waste gas is consumed until all used up. It is a very expensive process but to date is the closest one will ever get to genuinely clean coal. What is meant by 'clean' coal today is coal from which green house and other polluting gases have been sequestered. It is possible to do this with the sulphur and nitrous oxide content of coal and the technology is now available to sequester CO2 through a variety of processes (separation membranes, fluidisation). However it is costly and would considerably add to the price of electricity produced from coal. Though that is an important consideration for energy strategists, the real problem is where to dispose of the CO2 gas. And it is this question that still makes coal an unsafe fuel. Unsurprisingly the response to global warming by energy consortia, car firms, etc. has been to go in search of a techno-fix holy grail which will allow things to remain as they are. The gravity of the crises need never then be acknowledged. Carbon sequestration relaxes the pressure on energy companies, industry and the state to reduce fossil fuel use. Just think about it: for governments it is a far easier option than attacking energy consortia, the car industry, suburban sprawl and a way of living (or rather dying) permitted by the reckless use of fossil fuel. But to believe any other response is possible, except within quite narrow margins, is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of state power. The modern state is built on the victory of the bourgeoisie and has been fashioned to its own tastes. A "state of the whole people" is a myth but with the Greens and left social democrats an apparently unmovable one and which constitutes the basis of their teeth gritting harmony.
Oil companies have for some years been experimenting with the possibilities of pumping CO2 underground using a technique known as "enhanced oil extraction", which in plain English means the determination to squeeze every last remaining drop of oil from out of near depleted oil fields.. However, as Hitler well knew, concentrated CO2 is lethal and any geological fractures could release vast gas bubbles of the stuff into the atmosphere. During the 1980s' a couple of thousand people in Africa died as a result of a CO2 gas escape which, without warning, suddenly burst from the bottom of a lake. The same goes for pumping the gas into saline aquifers where it would eventually form carbonic acid which could then corrode the encasing rock and possibly vent the CO2 into the atmosphere. It is also possible to bury CO2 in the deep ocean where it dissolves and hopefully remains stationary. A joint research team from BP, Ford and Princeton is studying this process. But how stable is dissolved CO2 especially when faced with deep water turbulence or with potential changes to ocean circulation currents as a result of climate change? Experiments involve trial and error and unforeseen consequences are the rule rather than the exception. But the scale and the consequences of this type of experiment are such there is no room for error at all. As a climate scientist said: "If we tinker with the whole world, we only get one chance". The technofix approach to global warming is predicated on a narrow sequence of cause and effect. It may work for cars and aeroplanes but not where nature is concerned. A strictly linear approach is even too cramping for geological time scales involving scarcely to be imagined interactions between living tissue and inorganic matter. What is desperately needed is the humility to stand before nature and ask many, many questions involving a multiplicity of likely causes and effects before even daring to hazard a solution. This approach is totally alien to today's technologists limited as they are by the businesses they work for, their preparatory studies and the way they live. The scientist of Gaia – the paradox of a living earth - has become the latest convert to the philosophy of nuclear power like his illustrious forbear, the astronomer and physicist, Fred Hoyle, in the 1970s'. It is extraordinary these how two scientists (especially Lovelock, because the failure of nuclear power is now even more obvious than in the 1970s') who have added so much to our understanding of the way life was created and sustained on a tight rope stretched over an abyss of certain annihilation, cannot for the life of them imagine how human life might be completely transformed. It says more about the limitations of science today than the inherent limits of science. And finally we must never forget it will take decades for the world's climate to return to normal even if the reckless emission of greenhouse gases were to cease tomorrow.
At the end of the day it would seem coal is favoured by The Greens because despite everything it is the most attractive of less attractive alternatives that are presently available and can be modified. So it becomes a matter rather of the devil you know ---------. And one must remember the recoverable reserves of coal, in comparison to oil and natural gas, are practically inexhaustible.
There is yet another aspect which has barely been touched on by anyone. And that is coal's uses as a raw material besides that of energy. Prior to the discovery of the uses oil could be put to, coal extracts and the by-products of coal were the basis of the nascent pharmaceutical industry. These by products included dyes, medicinals, flavours, perfumes, synthetic rubbers, resins, synthetic liquid fuels, plastics etc. As a youth I well recall in the heart of the Durham coalfield a plant which produced a tough, but brittle, coal-based plastic called bakelite. The modern factory dominated the skyline and the choking fumes spread for miles. To us youngsters there was only one thing worse than going down the mines and that was to work at Bakelite! Given that the chemical and physical processes that produce coal, oil and natural gas are closely related it is not surprising that coal can be made to yield a broad spectrum of products comparable to those obtained from petroleum. At the very least the exhaustion of oil will mean coal's former uses will be investigated further, amongst which a coal-based plastic is a possibility. More organic forms of plastic that for example use sugar and cellulose as a base are known about. However bio-degradable plastics possess one major disadvantage: they have to be grown and the acreage of arable land that would be needed to satisfy capital's appetite for plastic would be awesome. If satisfactory organic substitutes were found it would go some way to solving the problem of the safe waste disposal of plastics as no-one can yet say what the possible toxic effects eventually will be from the millions of tons of "non-degradable" plastics (that will overtime degrade) now interred in the soil.
The same goes for the chances of organic fibre substituting for the steel or plastics used in the making of car bodies and which feature prominently in advertising campaigns as part of industry's effort to clean up its image. The purported 'greening' of technology particularly in the motor industry is especially noticeable.
A Daimler Chrysler car ad recently appeared showing a car shape cut into a field (a very large field, please note) in the manner of crop circles. Underneath it says "There's nothing strange about building cars from natural fibre" adding in smaller type "why not use natural fibres in our car parts, we thought. That way they will be stronger, lighter and more energy efficient to produce. And because the environment can regenerate itself, it'll help some natural resources too. And you see a virtuous circle forming?" Actually- no! The deceptive patter begs an awful lot of questions. How much natural fibre would be needed to make a car body? Would the fibre be genetically modified and how much energy intensive fertiliser would be needed to grow it? And would the car-crop be then sprayed with round-up or some equally deadly herbicide/pesticide? The end result could easily be worse for the natural environment than the present extraction and smelting of ore. Another Daimler Chrysler digitised ad. shows a Humming Bird supping water from a car exhaust like it was nectar from a flower. The caption reads "Just what the environment needs from a car. Water." And then again in smaller type : "If nature had one wish, what do you think it would be. A car that doesn't produce exhaust? We thought so too. That's why our hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles emit only water". Not true. What about leakage of pressurised hydrogen which could end up contributing to the destruction of ozone or the as yet unknown effects of the build of hydrogen in the atmosphere should soil cease to absorb it? (See piece on hydrogen). With Daimler/Chrysler the sales pitch is aimed at the exclusive end of the car market but a few years back an ad appeared on TV advertising GM cars. No car was to be seen instead there were moving images of empty country roads, uncut hedges, trees and flowers and in the background the sound of songbirds. It lasted some three weeks before it was pulled. The chimerical absorption of manufacturing within nature had gone too far and was threatening sales.
In 1957 the "Association of Desk and Derrick Clubs" was set up to raise the level of awareness of the extent of our dependency on oil and how good that is and must remain so until the rivers - not oil wells - run dry. It was an educational body largely run by women intent on capturing the minds of children and re-founding them on a petro-chemical basis. So what follows is a children's A-Z of oil products via some kind of Joycean flow with few commas or full stops.
A is for: adhesives air conditioners ammonia antihistamines antiseptics artificial teats artificial limbs aspirin. B is for: balloons bandages basketballs bin liners blenders boots bra's buttons C is for: cameras car batteries car bodies carpet tiles cassettes CD players celluloid chewing gum clothing cold cream combs/brushes compact discs credit cards condoms cunts (plastic) D is for: dentures deodorant dice diesel fuel dinnerware dishwashing liquid disposable nappies DVD dyes dolls and sex dolls E is for: electric blankets electricians tape F is for: fishing lines fishing rods floor wax food storage bags footballs furniture G is for: garbage bags gasoline gloves glue glycerine golf balls guitar strings H is for: hair colouring hair dyes hang gliders hearing aids heart valves replacement house paint I is for: ice chests infant seats inks insecticides insect repellent insulation J is for: jet fuel K is for: kerosene L is for: life jackets linoleum lip balm lipstick loudspeakers M is for: medical equipment mops motorcycle helmets motor oil movie film P is for: polish N is for nail polish nylons nylon rope O is for: oil filters P is for: pacemaker paint brushes pantyhose parachutes perfumes petroleum jelly photographic film photography piano keys plastic chairs plastic cups plastic fans plastic wrap plywood printer ribbon porn phalluses (mass produced) R is for: refrigerator seals roller blades roller blade wheels roofing paper roofing shingle rubber bands rubber boots rubber cement rubber glam wear S is for: spectacle frames saccharine safety glass shampoo shaving cream shirts shoe polish shower curtains slippers soft contact lenses stereos sunglasses surfboard surgical equipment sweaters syringes T is for: tape recorder telephone tennis racket tents thermos flask trousers tyres toilet seats toothpaste toys transparencies tupperware U is for: umbrellas upholstery V is for: vitamin capsules volley ball vibrators W is for: washing up liquid water pipes water skies waterproof clothing wax paper. And now, children, can you think of any oil based product for XYZ remembering that xylophone begins with an X and Zebras are animals. And when you go to chemistry class ask teacher how many of the above products could be made from coal?
Coal's second coming should not obscure the fact that coal still supplies around 30% of the world's energy needs. And even though the by-products of coal could one day be substituted for the petrochemical industry (let's call it a carbo-chemical industry) the new miners are likely to be rather different from the old because of increased mechanization, verging on near automation. The old mining industry had a totally different image to that of oil. There were never coal barons to match those of oil – a "Dallas", as it were, of the coalfields set in, say, Barnsley, filled with glamour, stretch limos' and starlets. The mere thought of it is ludicrous. And it was undoubtedly the class struggle that was unleashed wherever there were numerous coal mines that was, in this respect, decisive. In comparison to the oil industry the coal industry had been well and truly tamed – yet another reason why steps had to be taken to finish the coal industry off completely in the one country where it really had been brought to its knees. The extraction of oil was never that labour intensive – at least not in comparison to the coal - and only when the work did become arduous and the conditions dangerous, like on the rigs, did class struggle explode, as happened in Nigeria recently and to a lesser extent in the north sea (c/f the Piper Alpha disaster in the late 1980s').
Nonetheless, the oil workers' strike weapon or more is formidable as has been demonstrated on more than one occasion. There has been little enduring publicity on this and memory has been quickly suppressed. We can never forget the example of the oil workers' shoras (a form of workers' council) that ushered in the Iranian revolution of 1979 before the uprising was hijacked by fundamentalist Islam. Oil workers' shoras also played their part in the aborted Iraqi revolt against Saddam after the first Gulf war in 1991 Though not having the same impact, the huge oil workers' wildcat in the north sea was also the biggest oil workers' strike in history and ironically was influenced by the previous UK miners' struggle especially the contribution of oilmen's wives and girlfriends in occupations of rigs and off-shore facilities etc.
Oil's solidarity is spread thinly unlike that of coal. The bonds of solidarity between an oil extraction worker, a refinery worker and one in a petrochemical factory are tenuous. Trouble in one sector does not tend to spark off another. But in the mining industry as it was prior to 1985 in the UK there was close contact with other sectors of workers in the steel mills, the electricity generating industry, and on the railways. The former had earlier been part of the triple alliance but to which was now added a new, unpredictable and lethal wild card – the power workers. Something of this closeness is apparent from the photos. With a retreat from globalisation that an energy crisis would bring, a recombination of sorts is still possible.
The coal industry now has an image problem because of CO2 but it does not have a logo problem. Coal cannot be branded like Shell. There is a fundamental honesty about coal stamped on it by the struggle of the coal miners. It means what it says and what you see is what you get. The "coal interest" has never destabilised foreign governments or provoked conflicts other than class conflicts. In saying this one has also to be aware of the one huge exception proving the rule. The conflict between basic mineral resources (iron ore in Germany and coal in north east France) was a major contributory factor in the two inter-imperialist world wars marking the first 50 years of the 20th century and which later provided the raison d'etre of the present European Common Market.
There is an ersatz to the petrochemical industry one does not find in coal. It is shot through with fakery and the mimicry - of wood and wood grain especially -as it breathes ever more artifice into a polymerised chain reaction that becomes daily more convincing, deceiving even the trained eye. Buying influence like no other industry, the aim now of the petrochemical industry is total reproduction including the reproduction of nature. Short of a revolution, the goal of a virtual reality cannot be relinquished, because if it was, the reality of our shattered lives would be only too obvious. There were pit disasters in which people died but there was never a "plastic death", an entombment above ground in the products of the petrochemicals industry. The baton has to be passed on.
Coal as a raw material was never identified with artifice. It was the fuel which made mass artifice possible in the 19th century through the smelting of iron. However it was never directly employed in the production of artifice other than as a curio – a coal candlestick or carved crown - but that is set to change as it takes over from the petrochemicals industry.
Formerly coal miners were tertiary power workers. However they are destined to be reborn as also the tertiary artisans of coal. As most of Britain's coalfields were located in the countryside, the miners had a more direct relationship with nature than any other group of industrial workers. Their passion for nature tended to preclude art because that meant staying cooped up at home – and they already spent enough time like that underground. They wanted to be out and about. I know this was true of my own family. It also led miners into a direct conflict with farmers and the landed aristocracy in particular, made worse by the fact that the coal owners were also squeezed by the landowners into extracting maximum productivity from the miners. Lord Londonderry was hated in the Durham coalfield and calls for the nationalisation of the land meant almost as much as the nationalisation of the coal industry – though of course it meant something very different to working miners than it did to the politicians and union leaders who promoted these slogans. Though not rigorously worked out by any means it meant a new relationship to industry and nature, a relationship that is already loosely present in Shelley. It is ironic to think that coming generations of "miners" will be indirectly - and only indirectly – drawn in to the most sophisticated industrialised deception ever attempted, one that endeavours to do better than nature.
The Hydrogen Economy: kill or cure?
The hydrogen fuel cell was invented as far back as 1839 by a barrister with an interest in science. It remained a scientific curiosity unto well into the 20th century and essentially came of age when NASA used energy derived from hydrogen cells for domestic fuel in the Apollo space craft's. Flammable liquid hydrogen is used, of course, as a fuel in rocket propulsion.
The flammability of hydrogen was first noted by the great alchemist Paracelsus in the 1500s'. In 1781, Henry Cavendish proved that water was the reaction product of hydrogen and oxygen. The name "hydrogen" derived from the Greek meaning "water producer" was given to the element by Antoine Lavosier (1743 – 1794). He quite lost his head over it, little suspecting it might well save the bourgeois order he fell victim to.
Hydrogen is the lightest of all elements and occurs in an un-combined form in only the minutest fractions in the normal atmosphere, some one to two parts of hydrogen in one and a half million parts of air. The abundance of hydrogen in the atmosphere increases with altitude because hydrogen's low density enables it to rise to great heights – where it can be very damaging to the ozone layer (see further on).
Hydrogen is by far the commonest element in the universe. The sun is about 75% hydrogen by weight. All the matter in the universe and ultimately life itself comes from a chain reaction from which the periodic table of the elements is derived involving first and second generation stars. Fred Hoyle was the first to detail this process, appropriating the title of the world's most popular tune, to describe humanity – unforgettably - as "stardust".
Though hydrogen is the commonest element in the universe it is not the case on earth and we earthlings, if we are to use it, must first make it. So from the outset the hydrogen economy is dependent on the production of hydrogen which is primarily an endothermic process requiring heat. (This contradictory fact has been touched on already in the section on coal and nuclear power). The largest production of hydrogen is through the catalytic action of steam on hydrocarbons. There is also the water-gas process in which steam reacts with coke at 1000 C. to eventually give hydrogen. The third largest source is through electrolysis procedures where an expenditure of 130 kilowatt hours is needed for the production of 1000 cubic feet of hydrogen. Under such conditions 7 gallons of water would be electrolysed. These facts alone must surely convince hydrogen zealots of the high temperatures that will have to be sustained over a long period of time if enough hydrogen is to be produced.
Vast quantities of hydrogen are used in the production of inorganic chemicals like ammonia and nitric acid and space agencies like NASA, ESA, and the Russian Soyuz, etc. use huge amounts of liquid hydrogen to power rockets. So a considerable hydrogen producing industry exists already but it is as nothing compared to what will be if a global hydrogen economy were to become a reality.
The hydrogen fuel cell is not a battery. It does not store electricity. However like a battery it is an electrochemical device that converts chemical energy directly into electrical energy. The reactants hydrogen and oxygen (hydrogen acts as negative electrode, oxygen as a positive) have to be continually supplied to the cell for an electric current to be produced. It is from the need to have a continuous supply and particularly to store hydrogen under pressure that extremely grave consequences arise, never mind the bizarre contradictions involved in the manufacture of this "potentially clean" fuel.
The hydrogen economy is still a futuristic pipe dream and besides it is no longer turning out to be the devolved, co-operative, inherently anti-capitalist, panacea it was once cooked up to be. (See the ravings of its chief apostle, Jeremy Rifkin in the book, The Hydrogen Economy: his technicist approach reminds me of Lenin's dictum:"electricity will bring the revolution"). It could even lead to an increase in green house warming as one of the side products is methane gas (which is even more potent than CO2) if the hydrogen needed is made from natural gas. If made from the gasification of coal, essential to the production of coke for example, CO2 emissions would increase by 5% worldwide. Moreover leakage from fuel cells in cars and power stations could increase ozone depletion. Leaked hydrogen could end up in the stratosphere (because it is the lightest of all elements) and react with hydroxyl radicals to form water vapour which would provide a reaction site for halogens such as chlorine to deplete stratospheric ozone (Science Vol. 1300. p147). Higher up in the troposphere (15km from the earth's crust), hydroxyl radicals could be destroyed which is tough shit for the planet because HO is an environmental cleaning agent which removes all manner of pollutants, including the potent green house gas, methane. We also don't know what the likely consequences of increased amounts of hydrogen in the atmosphere will be. It is reckoned 77% from the troposphere is consumed by the soil (Nature Vol. 428 p.918). But if the amount of hydrogen increases then the amount of soil uptake could decrease proportionally. And if the climate gets wetter the soil would be less able to absorb the hydrogen and shut-off would occur. The Midi in France burned up during the summer of 2003, but come the autumn it nearly capsized under the kind of deluge and flooding typical of global warming. "The wild card is how, in the future, will the climate and the hydrogen sink change" (New Scientist. 15th Nov 2003). The hydrogen economy could turn out to be the worst of all possible worlds: not only will we continue to fry and then drown but we'll all have progressive melanoma as well.
One cannot help thinking the propaganda enveloping the hydrogen economy is similar to that which heralded the birth of the nuclear economy e.g. limitless supplies of electricity too cheap to meter to accompany the brave new social democratic "utopias" that emerged from World War Two. Now that times have changed the hydrogen economy will provide the bedrock on which consumer capitalism can rest indefinitely because in one essential aspect (energy) it might be sustainable. A limitless vista of guilt free consumption opens up and capitalism is reborn as a green child. At least that's what's implied by the propaganda but already the brute power of factual research is beginning to undermine its claims. Cal. Tech. has estimated 10% to 20% of hydrogen could leak from fuel cells that would increase industrial emissions by between 60 million to 120 million tons per year if just the 1993 fleet of cars were converted to hydrogen use! Though the fossil fuel companies bestride the world like a colossus and, in a terror campaign not unworthy of Stalin, have intimidated the US energy dept into altering facts on global warming, they are unlikely to have sunk their teeth into the Californian Institute of Technology with the same ease. So these estimated figures must be taken seriously. Sure, there is a possibility that hydrogen entrepreneurs will eventually be able to solve the pollution problems attendant on the creation of a hydrogen based economy but all that belongs in a far distant future....
And when the hydrogen economy eventually does come on stream, hydrogen use is likely to be restricted to cars, lorries and public transport. Several European cities have already introduced hydrogen powered buses with the bus depot serving as a hydrogen refuelling station. For the most part "publicly owned", it is a boon to the local state which in the face of an uncaring, selfish world can blazon its progressive credentials. But the real aim of the hydrogen economy is the private car market which must be maintained whatever the cost. If the private car were to disappear, practically the whole of life, not least the urban and rural landscape would change. And that the rulers of this planet cannot countenance.
One thing that we can be sure of and that is, come what may, the energy of the future will be overwhelmingly electrical energy which includes energy derived from hydrogen. Energy crops providing bio fuels for transport use or the short rotation coppicing of willows such as now occurs on the Plain of York and that are then fed into local power plants, will never replace electrical energy. The electrical industry is an industry entirely founded on science: it has no history as an energy source prior to the understanding and utilization of electromagnetism. The growth of electricity generation after 1880 is also that of growing monopoly power in industry and banking, controlled in the last analysis by the State. It is naïve in the extreme to think these power companies will readily relinquish their grip on power and that new forms of energy, like hydrogen and renewables, will of themselves put power back in the hands of the people. For this to happen it will, at the very least, require the abolition of State power. But the Greens, like social democrats, share at least one mistaken conception: and that is the dangerous ideology of the "peoples' state", above that of classes and capitalism, and which can be made to work if only the right people are in power. It does, however, mean that the foundation of any future collaboration is already in place and ready to join forces to suppress genuine revolt, should the retreat from globalisation suddenly accelerate in response to an energy crisis.
Wind/ Wave /Tidal power.
Throughout the ages and well into the industrial revolution water power was the chief form of mechanical energy. It must never be forgotten either that the factory system and the division of labour into repetitive, specialised tasks (a consequence of mechanisation) was driven in its early stages by water power. This energy was sustainable and it is to be hoped Greens blush bright red when they reflect on it because the exploitation it implied was brutal in the extreme. As kids in W. Yorkshire we always found there was something indefinably ominous about a disused mill race and dam and that clung to the place, even allowing for the racing sluices and the silent depths of the mill pond covered in a motionless green slime. And in the ancient world rebellious slaves were regularly worked to death, or broken on mill tread wheels. A fixture of the penal system until the 20th century, the technology was certainly sustainable but more because slaves were as expendable as donkeys.
However there is no denying renewable forms of energy exert a powerful grip on the imagination today. They acts as a stimulus to further experiment and can attract all manner of people from plumbers to computer technicians and that goes well beyond the confines of energy self-sufficiency and any individual cost saving that might accrue. It can involve taking another look at discontinued technologies to ascertain if, in a moment of inspiration, any further improvements are possible. There is more than meets the eye to this remodelling of the past. Despite TV programs like Salvage Squad and the steadily growing number of magazines devoted to this mechanical antiquarianism, hidden within it is a shadowy critique of contemporary society that aches to find a more meaningful application.
But the reality of renewables is very different and sufficient to dash the spiralling enthusiasm of the most brilliant 'amateur'. They are rapidly becoming big business and none more so than tidal power. So far there are only two major tidal barrages that generate electricity: one is near St Malo in Brittany, the other is in Nova Scotia. However several have been proposed around Britain's shores and the one in Swansea Bay is now under construction. The State had long been interested in the scheme and in 1977 the DTI in a joint venture with the big engineering firm Atkins and Parkers proposed a scheme for the barrage. But that was back in the days of unashamed economic interventionism and by 1983 the State had disappeared from the scene. Then another joint venture had been formed by Atkins (the engineering company) and Wimpey (the building company) to promote the scheme. Revealingly their brief was to "assess the commercial viability of a privately owned and operated barrage selling power to the public grid system". However come 2004 and the State is back in the frame once more and once again it is the Atkins engineering company, now the biggest in the country, which is to take charge of the engineering and construction side.
The "installation costs" of building a tidal barrage are huge. A Severn barrage has been estimated at £10 billion. But once built the operating costs are low. However as the actual height and time of high tide can vary considerably and may not coincide with the peak demand for electricity, there has to be, as the jargon has it, "system reinforcement". And in the 1970s' and 1980s' any "generating deficit" was to be made up by Hinkley Point nuclear power station! In 2005 that function will fall, presumably, to gas generated electricity. The same problem also applies to wind power which is even more intermittent than wave power and also requires back up. Existing coal fired power stations that are on standby and operating below their designed output emit more CO2 as a result and so what is gained on the swings is lost on the roundabouts. It can be countered of course that this heavily ironic malfunction can be overcome if only there were more wind farms, which assumes that wind speeds from region to region, will always vary sufficiently. A way out of this conundrum, which completely does away with the unintended CO2, has been proposed. And that is if – wait for it – wind power is used to produce hydrogen!
Tidal power has generally involved an upper and lower basin or pool, each with intake and discharge openings and gates. The upper pool is allowed to fill during rising tides, then to discharge in to the lower pool, which has been simultaneously emptied. The lower pool is then emptied once the tide has ebbed sufficiently. The turbines and generators are housed in horizontal units built into the dam and can be run in either direction, by the incoming and outgoing tides. Apart from the long term impact on estuarial eco-systems and wild life - not to mention the constant silting up - these mega projects for megawatts are, if Roncy is anything to go by, thoroughly soulless and monotonous possessing nothing of the romance of jetties and lighthouses. And when has a dam or barrage not carried some kind of a roadway for gas guzzling bits of tin on four wheels?
Ocean waves are a tertiary form of solar energy (as is wind power) in that unequal heating of the earth's surface generates wind and wind blowing over water generates waves.If modern tidal power is still in its infancy, wave power both on shore (the conversion of breakwaters and old jetties) and off-shore is fresh off the drawing board.Tidal power has many historical precedents (The Domesday Book records many examples of just such schemes) and similar principles still apply. Water turbines are the modern successors of simple water wheels which date back 2000 years and the system of sluices for channelling outflow is much the same today as yesterday. But wave power does not have a history. Until the invention of electricity the mere thought of ever converting the oceans off-shore energy into a utilisable source of energy was entirely out of the question. And besides there was no need to because of the availability of fossil fuels for the thermal generation of electricity. But once it was recognised what the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere could do, wave power came of age. It ceased to be a private hobby or the bath tub musings of a visionary inventor and became a business opportunity instead. The drunken boat sank beneath the waves.
The Labour government is launching a £200,000 campaign to encourage private companies to invest in wave power as well as constructing a wave hub off the north Atlantic coast of Devon and Cornwall into which manufacturers of floating generators can plug their machines. It is a bit of "pump priming", a concealed subsidy - and demonstrates the discreet changes that are beginning to take place away from leaving the supply of energy entirely to market forces.
Yet wave power still retains something of its numinous beginnings. In addition to electricity it also generates a buzz, despite its business wrappings. There is something appealing about the childlike simplicity of its basic principles which can be simply demonstrated (and is) with the aid of a plastic bottle which has had a hole cut in its side and a straw. These pumping devices are called oscillating water columns (OWC) and this pneumatic power is converted to electricity by turbo generators. There are two types: in-shore and off-shore – an off-shore requiring OWC buoys which can be moored in water depths up to 200 metres where energy levels are greatest.
Claims that off-shore installations could also act as artificial reefs for once may not be mistaken. And, despite the jargon, "the retro fitting of power modules" into breakwaters and coastal defences can never be as deadening as a tidal barrage. A wave harnessed for its energy is the same wave that thrills us as it breaks over a coastal defence.
A new found respect for the oceans is rapidly forming. It is a respect born of fear that has nothing in common with the ancient fears of seafarers. The ocean has been tamed by oil tankers, aircraft carriers and cruise liners only for its might to return in a much more formidable guise. Over the past twenty years much has been added to our understanding of ocean currents – in particular the role of the global conveyor belt which wends up through the Atlantic to the polar region then sinks and turns south rounding the Cape into the Indian ocean where it wells up then moves on into the eastern Pacific where it rises once more off Japan and Siberia. "Our" Gulf Stream, which is part of the global loop, exceeds by a factor of 25 the combined flow of all the world's rivers. It is vital in maintaining W. Europe's temperate climate and no one knows for sure what would happen if this global current were to switch off because of melting ice caps and increased inundation. At the very least there would be a drastic altering of weather patterns across possibly the entire globe.
Though the global conveyor belt energises weather systems, other currents are stirred by the wind to create a system of currents that echoes the patterns of prevailing winds. It is these currents, which have enormous power, that potentially could be harnessed to generate electricity as could "tide squeeze" currents between islands from the Shetlands down to the Channel Islands.
Lautreamont in The Songs of Maldoror saw in the "old" ocean a "symbol of identity" that hid in its depths "future utilities for man" – and he did not mean fish either. Perhaps he was even anticipating the exploitation of marine biology by the bio-sciences and bio-companies. But as Lautreamont also says "you [the ocean] do not easily let the avid eyes of natural science divine the thousand secrets of your oeconomy" (sic) - thus creating a new word combining the ocean and the economy: an oceaneconomy. The ocean, particularly in a violent storm, has long been a favoured sign of the natural sublime but one we can rise above on account of our natural intelligence. Lautreamont no longer buys this argument: "Man says: "I am more intelligent than the ocean. It's possible even quite true; but the ocean is more formidable to him, than he to the ocean." And so we are faced with the grim paradox that a dramatic increase in the understanding of how oceans work is closely accompanied by an overall abandonment of reason, which, within a matter of years, could easily result in the altering of ocean currents through global warming and create maximum chaos and devastation – though not the overthrow of capitalism. The beautiful rationality (ultimately) of wave power also floats on a sea of madness and once these currents are "switched off" they cannot then be just "switched on" again.
This clean power (but increasingly dirty business) supplies almost one third of the world's electricity though for some reason estimates vary falling to as little as 2%. But less than 20 years ago only 6.7% of the world's energy was hydropower. The increase has come mainly in China, the former Soviet Union, Latin America and India, which may explain why western dominated statistics are not keeping pace with the reality. It also indicates energy supplies are becoming steadily centralised. From the 1940s to the 1970s many small US hydroelectric facilities were closed down because of high maintenance costs – only for some to be reopened after the increase in fossil fuel prices following the setting up of OPEC in 1973. The building of dams arouses great hostility especially amongst peoples whose homes and land are about to be submerged under water: it is reckoned some 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by big dams. The obligation to resettle some disguises the ruin of the many, especially those living downstream who are prepared for and dependant on seasonal flooding, fresh water fishing and so on. Big dams are a major factor in the sweeping of indigenous tribal and peasant communities off the land and into the kind of megalopolis increasingly typical of the "underdeveloped" world. As mini-grids are shut down everywhere, there is, throughout the world, a steadily growing dependency on national grids and centralised power networks.
Also dams are not just there for hydro-electric power. They are multi-purpose creations and are used for irrigation, flood control, as well as reservoirs that vainly aspire to slake capitalisms' thirst for ever more water. The industrial use of water is set to double by 2025. In Iceland several dams have been projected in collaboration with a Norwegian hydro company solely for the purpose of the energy intensive smelting of aluminium from bauxite imported from Australia. Iceland like Norway is one of those countries that have been able to project a clean energy image, meeting most of its energy needs from geothermal sources. However the mania for energy burns everything in its path. Dams are also destined to become in the future a bargaining counter of colossal political weight as the earth dries up and water wars break out. For two decades India and Bangladesh have quarrelled over the right to extract water from the Ganges during the dry season. Turkey's Grand Anotolian Project, a vast irrigation and hydroelectric damning scheme on the Tigris and Euphrates, threatens to deprive downstream Syria and Iraq of water. Egypt fears the appropriation of Nile water by upstream Sudan and Ethiopia. And the list is growing – unlike the supply of tap water.
|ON THE BRINK OF DISASTER?
These two contrasting though similar photographs of the same southern Chilean glacier were taken merely 15 years a part..........
This is easily the most visible form of renewable energy and in hilly districts in the UK it is now rarely possible to turn a full 350 degrees without catching sight of a wind farm or at least a lone wind mill. In 2000 there were 15,000 wind turbines in Hawaii and California and their combined power rating of 1500 mega watts is roughly equal to that of a conventional steam turbine power installation running off fossil fuel or nuclear fission.
A turbine is a machine that converts the energy stored in a fluid (water, gas, steam, wind) into mechanical energy. A wind turbine extracts energy from the wind by the rotation of a propeller that then drives an electricity generator. The older term windmill is often used to describe this device although electric power generation, not milling, has become its primary application. The aerodynamic blades owe far more to aeroplane propellers than to the windmill sails Don Quixote attacked though the claims made in support of wind turbines are every bit as farfetched. In 1984 the total output of all U.S. wind farms exceeded 150 million kilowatt hours. This does sound huge but in fact it only amounted to 1/100,000 of total electric power generated in the US.
From around the mid 19th century windmills were used for pumping water in rural areas until some bright spark realised they could also generate electricity. In fact the old fashioned metal windmills have become a comforting icon of America's rural past. After the oil price shocks of the mid 1970s interest was rekindled but it was global warming that provided the final spurt of enthusiasm.
Initially wind power was seen as free energy, a myth that has continued to cling to renewables. As a raw material, wind, like waves and sunlight, come for free. As an energy source no human labour is involved. Wind, waves or sunlight cannot be hewed like coal or drilled for like oil. Its energy can only be captured, untouched by human hand, in its raw form. As far as the raw material is concerned the pricing mechanism is therefore imposed. The fact that it is manipulable probably recommends it to Greens who want a half-way house mediated by the state between the cost of production and price. And on the level of price, through the aid of government subsidies that distort the cost of production, they proclaim a victory. In essence this is what they mean by anti-capitalism. By being half a commodity the rest doesn't matter because the state is in control. And that's what matters. The production of clean energy ultimately destroys market mechanisms. Because if one takes into account installation costs, the cost of connecting to the national grid, the laying of underground power lines from very out of the way places, maintenance costs, the price of wind turbines is two and a half that of thermally generated electricity.
Is it not a mistake to call it part of the green industrial revolution? Does it not serve ends that are very ungreen like supplying power to highly polluting industries? Is the greening of industry even possible? Is it not a contradiction in terms like the workers inheriting industry on the basis which capitalism has laid down? Few ecologists dare speak of the major revolutionary changes that have to take place if life on this planet is to become viable.
Wind like wave energy is seen as generating local employment and spearheading a new industrial revolution (wind and wave power will require a considerable degree of maintenance) in areas noted for their outstanding natural beauty and which are as remote from the conventional notion of industry as can possibly be and have therefore become the havens of the well off. Their specious defence of romantic, unspoilt beauty masks hostility to industry per se and a dislike of the industrial working class even a green industrial working class.
Objections to wind power have centred on the undeniable fact wind power, unlike wave power, is not a constant source of energy and that therefore thermal generators are needed on the days when wind speed is low. Existing coal fired power stations that are on standby and operating below their designed output emit more CO2 as a result and so what is gained on the swings is lost on the roundabouts. However new build clean-coal fired power stations could reduce this hazard. And besides the national grid has admitted that if wind energy were to rise to 20% of total energy output the problem of intermittence would be overcome presumably because surplus capacity in one part of the country would compensate for deficit elsewhere.
The renewable energy sector loves to point out, as part of their opportunist effort to gain acceptance, that the goal of energy supply should be national independence and that henceforth the country need never be dependant in future on "unstable countries" for oil and gas in particular. The same argument could well apply to a regenerated coal industry in the not so distant future. Behind their talk of planetary politics the localism of the greens ("think local act global") often masks a hankering after nation state autarchies and their internationalism is at best superficial and has more in common with global bodies set up in the wake of Bretton Woods. They are also keen to emphasize that the raw materials of renewable energy are free – wind, wave and the sun - and therefore are not commodities. Hence in theory it is possible for a greener capitalism to escape the business cycle because a commodities spike, particularly an oil price rise, has always heralded a recession. It is not easy to see how the "natural communism" of wind, wave and the sun can ever be valorised and so far the megalomaniac ambitions of capitalists have fallen short of claiming ownership. Water and the earth we live on - yes - but not the air we breathe though it is conceivable that purer air could one day be bottled and sold. Typically it shows how limited the Greens notion of de-commodification is and which could, given half a chance, actually aid capitalist reconstruction. Alison Hill the head of communications at the British Wind Energy Association, also believes that wind power has a capacity equivalent to several times the countries energy needs, though she does not specify just how much of the landscape would be covered in wind farms and if wind generators would be attached to office blocks and urban high-rise.. The advocates of wave energy claim that the tidal surges of the Bristol Channel are sufficient to generate 20% of the country's energy needs.
The Greens hailed the Feb. 2002 white paper on energy as breaking at long last the link between energy generation and cost. Henceforth cheapness would not be the sole criteria. The opponents of renewables point to the fact that wind power for example is expensive at about twice the wholesale price of electricity. The electricity has also to be fed into the national grid and that means running power lines from the sometime almost inaccessible country locations of wind farms, which further adds to the cost. On the other hand the price of thermally generated electricity in the long run is bound to rise – in which case opposition to EEC legislation, i.e. the Renewables Obligation and Climate Change Levy, will decrease. There has recently been a significant increase in wind power energy ads in "quality" newspapers requesting customers to switch to wind power energy companies. Their marketing strategy is directed at middle class consumers with a bad conscience who are prepared to pay more and self consciously use recycled paper, envelopes etc. And their ecological footprint tends to be greater than most if one takes into account air travel. For the first time the state is subsidising a domestic wind power generator that can be attached to roofs and chimney stacks. However the savings are far from dramatic at around 30% of average domestic use. For the moment it is little better than an expensive toy and only likely to appeal to people with money to spend and a point to prove. Solar ceramic roof tiles are even more expensive and only the well-off will be tempted to go in for a re-roofing job with no guarantee of success. At this point the energy question starts to encroach on eco- housing, eco-build and the greening of cities. There is a "green calculator" software package for the construction industry called "Life Cycle Analysis of Design". Unlike other databases that calculate economic costs it calculates environmental ones, in particular the amount of energy and water consumed in the production of materials like cement, bricks, steel etc (New Scientist. 31st Jan.. 2004). It would be helpful at some point to go into how eco-build has taken over from the autocratic modelling of pointless urban utopias like play cities. At once more pragmatic and corresponding to a very pressing social need, eco-build does not even pay lip service to the question of mass praxis that redefines social space and the built environment. Also, unlike the play cities, it no longer connects with the revolution of modern art and the modern art of revolution and everything that implies. Instead of deepening critique with a wealth of scientific information, it only succeeds in narrowing down the totality of the transformation that is so desperately needed.
Technologically, architecturally and scientifically the ideology of living in harmony with nature masks the reality of the end of nature as a cyclical, more or less predictable, continuum. Climate has never remained stationary but it has generally changed sufficiently slowly to allow living things to adapt and evolve. But even in the best case scenario what is likely to happen will be just too fast for human plant and animal populations to adjust to. But as mankind nears extinction we are subjected to an increasing amount of imagery and word play (and not just through advertising) that suggests a return to nature. This techno romanticism grotesquely parodies the genuinely liberatory technology of all things made anew which may just one day come about.
Rather than calling it the "greening of technology" which would be a spurious claim and easily exposed as a lie, it is better served by calling it the arielization of technology after the figure of Ariel in The Tempest. Accompanied by a background of sound both musical, non-musical and somewhere in between (this advertising "noise" is an eerie travesty of the stage directions in The Tempest) we are meant to metaphorically take flight or become one with nature on contact with the "new" consumer technology whether it's a car or a bottle of water: we become pilots of the elements and techno-nature sprites, setting wrongs to rights and vindicating the mistakes of the past. Words become an integral part of the image and like in The Tempest the metaphor is abbreviated and resonates on different levels, for the new technology is also social engineering on a grand scale. Though suggestive of a new word order that would accompany a genuinely liberatory technology, it is one big lie. The latest diesel ads depict a breaking wave (an oil gusher in this day and age would never succeed in selling the poison) on which is boldly imprinted "Diesel Energy: New Wave of Diesel". Britain's biggest energy producer, "Powergen", sponsors TV weather reports in which only wind turbines are featured. Underneath their gently rotating blades there is to be seen a figure of fun, a new age clown, a guru wannnabee with a base ball cap who variously throws straw into the wind only to have it blown back in his face, sits cross-legged awaiting enlightenment or clumsily attempts to fly a kite. Each episode is meant to impart a live feeling of playful optimism running through the atmosphere, analogous to that of an electrical current Hence the layered words after each weather report: "Positive Energy – from Powergen" or "Positive Energy: Power in your hands – from Powergen".
(Though not directly state managed this artful advertising therapy ecospeak lends itself, especially in the hands of the Bush administration, to shameless newspeak. In response to the wild fires that swept American forests recently and which released yet more CO2 in the atmosphere, the Bush administration came up with the "Healthy Forest" initiative which is in fact a cover for the logging of old growth forests. And his "Clear Skies" project though suggesting a cleansing of pollutants from the atmosphere permitted, on the contrary, more emissions by repealing key provisions of the clean air act.)
Romantic technology is made to appear as if it had grown. Rather it is designed by nature and not invented or made by man. It enters our life like an airborne seed and the language that glides with it is the opposite of the unmediated pile driving of the paleo industrial era of 80 years ago - no "Triumphs of Invention", no "Wonders of Transport" or "Conquests of Engineering" implying a definitive conquest of nature. And should you think this is exaggerated well just take a look at an interview with one William McDonough, an eco architect, in New Scientist (March 20, 2004). To the question what would your new world look like? he answers "Why can't I design a building like a tree? A building that makes oxygen, fixes nitrogen, sequesters carbon, distils water, builds soil, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro climates, changes colour with the seasons and self replicates." Such claims are just asking for it and when we learn that he designed the GAP offices in California they are gone like morning mist. The "principles" on which the GAP offices are based he learnt from analysing a Bedouin tent made from goats' hair. The "factory" producing the raw materials walked on all fours and ate everything in sight. GAP devours human beings both as consumers and producers and to dare to suggest the largely manufactured raw materials that went into the building of the Californian offices were just as ecologically sound as a Bedouin tent is outrageous. Materials can be "reincarnated" (i.e. recycled) just as human beings can be re-produced. Knowing this he bonds more firmly with the cycle of life and his child. When asked where does he most like being, he answers "I like being on my back with my child on my stomach – in the woods, in the city, wherever. So long as we're both laughing". Typically this utilitarian eco-conservatism blinds him to the fact neither will be laughing for long and if they do continue to laugh it will be like Rimbaud's "the hideous laugh of the idiot".
Historically nature has been an antidote to tragedy. To understand the cycle of renewal is finally to transcend individual suffering absorbing it in the reality of the evolving species. Once history was seen to have an end (the end of pre-history) history and nature complimented each other as never before. Only a non repressive future could annul the horrors of the past and natural renewal was an inevitable part of that process.
The much lauded End of History appearing in the late 1980s and coincidentally complimenting the fall of the Berlin Wall had little to say about nature other than as a conservation side issue. Since this announcement the bourgeoisie has increasingly promoted the fullness of nature as if that too was part of the end of history but in order to deny the end of nature. And yet on its own admission the fullness of nature has inescapably included the destructive superlatives of The Perfect Storm, Superfire the force five Twister and more recently, The Day After Tomorrow, etc. We tend to remember the titles but not the movies but whatever the case we are meant to sit still and remain impassive at our own execution, the perfect audience - until the moment the torrent, or fire, bursts through the screen.
What is true of aspects of Hollywood (and hence art) is increasingly true of science where we are confronted with even greater mind unravelling paradoxes. Global pessimism and a blanket anti-humanism scientifically spun as "post humanity" or "enhanced humanity" (Stephen Hawking's term) coexists with genuine capacity for wonder and a baffling contentment with the status quo. Worst of all, these extreme contradictions are passed over in silence as if to say there is no contradiction and only our lack of scientific comprehension makes it appear so: "much weirdness but no contradiction" as Martin Rees said of Godel's theory of time travel deduced from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. After writing Our Cosmic Habitat which, amongst other things, cogently argues from a providential physics, the case for a biophillic universe, Martin Rees ("Sir" Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal) then goes on to write, post 9/11, Our Final Century in which he states that the games up here on earth and that the only out for humanity (i.e. an engineered "post humanity") is to leave the earth for another planet and start afresh. In these books sci-fi "fact" and a cosmic ecology reflect a more mundane reality. Neither are sci-fi or ecology in the commonly accepted sense of the term (implying storytelling and conservation measures) and yet they share their common presuppositions: acceptance of the world as it is and the social relations it engenders – those of capitalism. At no other point in history has the prospect of imminent annihilation and a smug complacency complimented each other as they do now. But such is the bewildering level of contradiction in today's world. A concern for the welfare of humankind that once might have inspired The Rights of Man has been reduced to that of the survival of the few – and with little complaint. The hazardous seeding of the universe with human life will be predicated on the death of mankind here on earth. And the popular ideology that will legitimate it will be science fiction and futurology.
In The Final Century the right honourable Sir Martin has much to say about energy. He is unambiguously against nuclear energy because it is vulnerable to terrorist attack. However he would like to see energy economies in rocket propulsion fuels even going so far as to propose a nanotube lift which would do away with the rocketry necessary to escape the earth's gravitational pull. The future of space travel and exploration is, he thinks, that of private capitalism as distinct from state capitalism which initially put people into orbit but whose usefulness has now passed. Of course he does not employ such crude terms but that essentially is what he means. In fact it is highly unlikely any venture capitalist could possibly fund a nanotube lift into space. And if it ever does come about it will be a state venture and in that sense the economics would be no different to the wave hub presently being constructed in the Bristol Channel with private enterprises and the very rich renting use of the space lift. And who is to be saved in this our final century? Why the very same rich, silly! – the same, one might add, who are largely to blame for the terrorism in the world today. So in fact the chosen few would be carrying the weapons for their own destruction with them. But such reflections are beyond Sir Martin's undialectical imagination.
Sir Martin's fellow student, Stephen Hawking, has little to say about energy in the sense in which we are using the term here except as a flippant aside typical of the suave humour designed to relieve the tedium of the lecture hall and raise a smile amongst a captive student audience. In his book The Universe in a Nutshell he says "if the population growth and the increase in the consumption of electricity continue at their current rates, by 2600 the world's population will be standing shoulder to shoulder and electricity use will make the earth glow red hot". He has done the maths so he knows. But we are left in doubt as to the basic premises. Was he extrapolating from the current demands of the average American citizen as Fred Hoyle did in his 1970s book Energy or Extinction in which he arrived at a total energy flow requirement of 400 million million kilowatt hours should "we seek to raise the standard of living of everybody in the world to the American level". That this "standard of living" or, better, dying, had recently been questioned and attacked as never before had obviously escaped his notice. This dismal lack of a social imagination and of a responsiveness to genuine social movements may yet prove to be the undoing of the scientific community - or rather the general absence of one.
In a few years time the energy question will come to occupy centre stage and everyone in the world will to a greater or lesser degree be conscious of it. The life or death of the human species will hinge on it. However there is no doubting that if present upward energy trends are to continue Hoyle's book would have been more appropriately entitled Energy and Extinction not Energy or Extinction!!!!!!!!
Rancy in Brittany. Tidal barrage generating electricity across an estuary. A road runs across the barrage top
Sellafield Nuclear Power Station, Cumbria
Footnote: IGCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)
This UN panel is now in a state of despair, the victim of its statist illusions.The Kyoto protocol has largely proved a sham and has done little to reverse CO2 emissions, especially since America has not signed up to it. Secondly there is a growing fear climate change may happen more quickly than conventional models of climate change predict. Unable to even begin to find the subject of global change that could halt global warming or even pose the question other than in terms of global state craft and political good will, members of this panel are starting to take a serious interest in mega engineering technology to combat global warming. So in Jan 2004 a conference was held in Cambridge UK to discuss the proposed technologies. It is interesting to note that until recently climate scientists dismissed the idea out of hand of engineering the way out of the problem on the grounds of costs and, more importantly, because the potential ecological impact of such schemes was unknown, and probably unknowable, until in place.
But predictable political inertia, surprising only to politically disingenuous people who make up such panels like the IGCC and who take the ideology of democracy at face value, has driven them into becoming reluctant futurologists. Space age engineering ventures beckon on a scale that may easily dwarf the dimensions of Starship Enterprise and that have all the crass simplicity of a Schwarznegger movie script wherein the world is saved by tea time. The most outlandish of all the schemes suggested so far is a diaphanous mirror a 1000 kilometres across, parked between the sun and the earth to reflect solar radiation back into space. Other schemes include reducing the earth reflectivity, its albedo, by putting shards of metal into the stratosphere or improving the reflectivity of white clouds by increasing their size with the aid of “cloud condensation nuclei”. But all these proposed schemes will do is actually encourage greenhouse gas emissions which some even see as a bonus because plants will grow faster One of the proponents of reducing the earth’s reflectivity was Alfred Teller, father of the H bomb, and who notoriously shopped Robert Oppenheimer. Hounded by the American secret service and his own conscience, the scientific disillusionment (and not to be confused with disillusionment with science per se) of Robert Oppenheimer who helped develop the A bomb and worked on the physics of black holes before they became an established scientific fact, may well repay a much closer look than has previously been the case. That climate change scientists are now ranged alongside such people as Teller is not comforting news. After having explored all options it may look like an act of desperation only we know they haven't begun to explore the only real option, that of the social overthrow of capitalism. And if for the moment they are definitely not capable of that, then a paralysing despair may well have a more fruitful outcome than the gimcrack remedies now being proposed. It could act as a springboard to adopting an entirely different strategy one that goes over the heads of governments to appeal directly to the mass of the people, because it is they who will be the first to directly experience the consequences of global warming.
Of all the possible options stripping CO2 from the atmosphere will likely be the one most favoured by the IGCC for the simple reason that methods of capturing and burying CO2 are better developed. But it will mean aligning themselves with previous hate figures like Julio Friedman, a former geologist from Exxon Mobil, and his grandiose plans for thousands of zero emission fuel plants that would burn cheap fossil fuels but capture the CO2 from the stack. From small scale beginnings he sees it becoming a billion tonne industry within a decade. Other suggestions are for a hasty burial at sea. Ken Caldeira of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and a close associate of Teller’s at the laboratory have suggested encasing it in giant plastic bags on the floor of the deep ocean or injecting it under the floating ice of the West Antarctic icecap!
Up to this point, as knowledge about climate change grew and grew, the warnings coming from the IGCC were ever more apocalyptic. It seemed to peak with the direst warning yet: that average temperatures were set to rise 8 to 10 degrees over the next 100 years. It was however left to others to draw attention to the fact that temperatures arose by a mere 8 degrees for the period of the Permian Extinction, the greatest mass extinction of all time.
The moment of the IGCC most devastating insights became that of their most craven submission. As a consequence they risk becoming a laughing stock, a parody of their ineffectual former selves though attentively listened to by those without power. Worse than that even: they are seen as belonging to what they once opposed. There is no madness more insidious or more likely to wreck destruction on an individual or body in the long run than this degree of capitulation.
We can see this in the case of James Lovelock of Gaia fame and who now believes “the cure to man-made climate change lies in engineering not in abandoning it”. If this means macro engineering on a scale grand enough to modify the planet's climate, well, so be it. In fact he wants a “Hippocratic oath for macro engineering”. But all mega-build projects today obscenely claim green credentials whether it's James Stirling's “Gherkin” in the city of London or the proposed plan to build a 12 mile long bridge across England`s most continuous on shore wild life haven in Morecambe Bay. The structure would be the world's first “green bridge” according to its promoters because it would incorporate sub-sea technology to harness tidal energy.
Lovelock is well known for designing exquisite instruments like his almost thimble size Electron Capture Detector for sniffing out trace elements which was to be crucial to the advance of environmental science. To go from Tom Thumb instrumentation to the Gargantuan in the name of reading off and then protecting, it is to be hoped, earth systems, is an indication of how Lovelock is morphing into an unrecognisable pastiche of his self. His conversion to the cause of nuclear power as the only effective way of combating global warming reinforces the impression of panic, as if Lovelock has weighed the anchor of his sanity and is now all at sea. He argues that the radioactive zone around Chernobyl is now one of the richest eco systems in the region. The wildlife doesn't worry about the radiation and natural selection will get rid of the inevitable mutations in plants and animals that would neither know nor care. He goes on to say he would quite happily accept the full output of one of the big nuclear power station and then he "would get free heat from it" and use it to also to "sterilize the stuff from supermarkets, the chicken and whatnot, full of salmonella". And he is not joking. As admirable as the Gaia hypothesis is - the paradox of a living earth that redraws the frontiers of life by merging the organic and organic – such comments are merely a lunatic homologue of the inspired brainstorm behind his original conception.
STUART WISE: Completed Spring 2004
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