Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Comment on the Green demonstrations outside the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire

Today's environmental campaigners, motivated by suspicion of modern technology, want to turn the lights off permanently. Listening to a TV interview with one of the self-appointed guardians of the planet, I was stunned by his response when asked what his alterative would be to the loss of seven per cent of the UK's generating capacity if Drax was closed down. He said it was something `we would all have to live with'. I was reminded of a religious sermon with a vicar chastising the congregation for sinning before God. In this case it was the sin of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that offended our moral guardians....

But there is something risky about this, even from the point of view of the environmental movement. Targeting electricity generation is not the same as taking on vivisection, nuclear power or genetically modified crops. By taking on coal-fired power stations environmentalists are now questioning the actual existing fabric of our energy infrastructure without which modern society cannot function. It is not so much fears of new technology that are driving the protests, but doubts about whether already-existing technology is a good thing.

Electricity is an underrated marvel of the modern age. Our capacity to generate vast quantities of electrical energy has only really existed for a century or so. Electrification was the big advance of the early twentieth century in the modern economies of the world. We can easily forget how our lives are dominated by the easy availability of electricity. When there's a power cut our lives pretty much grind to a standstill as people go in search of musty candles and hidden boxes of matches.

It is therefore unthinkable that we should turn the clock back to a time before the national grid. Yet this is what some eco-warriors are seriously considering. Of course, it would be unfair to say they have advocated the abandonment of electricity generation per se; they want us to turn to alternative sources of electrical energy. The government, too, wants to go down the alternative route. The decline of natural gas supplies has driven the government to consider new rounds of nuclear power stations - which no serious green would agree to - and an expansion of alternatives including wind farms and tidal power.

But there is something unconvincing about being told to use wind, solar or tidal power as an alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power. With every statement advocating alternative sources of energy there is the proviso that, even with massive investment in alternatives, there just won't be enough capacity to match current consumption of energy.

We are really being offered another alternative - actually to reduce our demand for energy. During previous energy crises, when fossil fuel supplies looked in jeopardy, we were told to share baths, turn off the lights, cut back and economise. But that isn't quite what today's campaigners have in mind. They don't just want minor reductions in waste and increases in efficiency. They actually want us to reduce our energy use considerably and adjust to a new world of less.

In the past, this was called austerity. Governments that try to impose austerity on society need a pretty pressing reason to do so, as it usually isn't very long before it results in political conflict and either a reversal in policy or the removal of the government. However, today we are told to accept austerity in the name of saving the planet, and it is supposedly radical greens - taking their cue from government dithering about energy production - who are at the forefront of pushing the New Austerity. It is a strange inversion of history that today's young radicals are telling us to give up on modernity and look forward to a future which is not so bright - literally.


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