How not to be cynical

My architects and I are currently trying to work out how to insulate, heat and ventilate my Glen Doll field centre Blair House effectively, affordably, and greenly. It’s a far greater challenge than we expected. We’ve had recommendations from contractors, done our own research, and consulted the excellent Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, and are still only half-way to a plan.

One contractor put a persuasive argument for LPG: ‘It’s easy to install, very cheap, and if you want to be green, it’s far more efficient than electricity, far lower carbon emissions than oil.’ Most consumers would be at the mercy of an apparently expert argument like this. But I happen to know that there are two main sources for LPG in the world today: Putin, and fracking. And I do not wish my field centre to be warmed courtesy of Putin and fracking.

Putin and fracking. Yesterday (24 November) BBC business news reported that the falling oil price is damaging the rouble and costing Russia up to $100bn a year, a sum which makes the western sanctions of $40bm look comparatively affordable. But why are oil prices low? According to the BBC business analyst, ‘abundant global supply, partly due to the US shale boom’. While I try to heat my field centre in the glens, Putin and fracking are making geopolitical economic waves.

Low oil prices. This morning (25 November) DJ Shaun Keaveny on BBC 6 Music had a little rant about energy prices: ‘When are we going to see our bills come down, eh, big energy companies? Oil prices have gone down by, what, $24 dollars a barrel is it? The benefits are supposed to trickle down, you remember?’ Then he switched to the voice of the big energy company, far off from the microphone as if shouting across a field: ‘Eh what? Can you just … Sorry I didn’t quite catch … Sorry what language are you speaking?’ ‘Oh, forget it!’ I like Shaun because he has at least one foot in the switched-on social-satire comedian school of the likes of Marcus Brigstocke and Hugh Dennis. He makes one of the joining-ups: energy companies are buying at a price that reflects abundant oil, yet charging consumers prices that suggest scarcity.

Pretend scarcity. This brings us to fuel poverty, which connects this global tangle to the hottest political issue of my immediate society: the social injustice being perpetrated by the present British government by policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Yet it is easy to see that addressing this injustice alone will do nothing to lower fossil fuel consumption or avert climate change.

Today, 25 November, Obama’s climate change envoy Todd Stern is quoted in the Guardian as saying that fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. This is very nice. But how does it fit with the fact that almost everyone in the world, from Vladimir Putin to Shaun Keaveny, is being affected by the abundant fossil fuel coming from the US shale boom?

Not least affected by the oil price fall is the Scottish nation (note the emotive identity-term). Today the BBC reports that the UK Chancellor George Osborne is under pressure from a powerful Scottish business lobby to subsidise North Sea Oil, because the fall in oil prices, caused by the US fracking boom (it’s like a nightmarish re-telling of The Old Woman and her Pig), has caused a loss of confidence in the industry and share prices to fall: which, if oil is the backbone of the Scottish economy, is bad news for Scotland.

The announcement on 20 November that Ineos, whose biggest operation is at Grangemouth in the heart of Scotland, is to invest £640m in UK shale gas exploration, elicited a storm of commentary last week. ‘With much tougher planning rules, more ambitious climate targets and a review of both health issues and licensing underway, Scotland is the last place any company should apply to frack,’ said Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. The Scottish Green Party, who allied with the SNP to campaign for Scottish independence, agree with Friends of the Earth in regard this fracking threat as an imposition from Westminster and call for a devolution of powers on the issue.

This narrative of Scotland as a tough wee country where sharp-eyed politicians and people stand together and tell big, rapacious companies where to get off is persuasive. Scots on both sides and from all walks of life, including me, have been inspired by the political awakening, the participation, the intelligent debate, sparked by the independence referendum debate; and it is easy to draw smug contrasts with the apathetic voters of England, thoughtlessly allowing UKIP and frackers to walk all over them.

Yet I fear this confidence in Scotland’s newfound political strength is a delusion, because it ignores the geopolitical economic situation. There is tremendous pressure on Scottish politicians to strengthen the backbone of North Sea Oil with a shale boom of our own: the gas, we believe, is there to be fracked. Ineos is ready with the funds to frack it. Unless couthy wee Scotland turns its people’s and politicians’ attention from blaming Westminster to this wider global context, it risks being swept along, waving its anti-fracking plackards, in this destructive game of fossil fuel, fuel poverty and climate change. Not so sharp-eyed. It is blinded, I am afraid, by a nationalism which cuts across the political spectrum: by the desire to protect our own interests, in a world where groups protecting their own interests is the very root of all the problems.

In the last few weeks, after a lifetime of political non-involvement, I have joined Scottish Labour and then weighed in to the campaign to elect Sarah Boyack as its leader. This is not a sudden random enthusiasm. Rather, it is because in Sarah’s copious and lucid writing on a huge range of policies, I am seeing, for the first time, a leading politician who genuinely understands these connections and complications. Another political player thinking in these terms on a global scale is World Bank Climate. It gives me great hope because it has the economic understanding — so often the element that has been lacking in discussions of environmental politics — to see how a transition to a carbon-free economy could be made to work.

Their image above is part of a great infographic which joins up climate, human prosperity and biodiversity which I commend to your attention: it is a whole other joining-up piece of thinking which I am counting on readers of this article to understand already.

The technological view of the global energy question is, literally, very sunny. The Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) at the University of Dundee, collate evidence from a whole range of sources that solar power is on track to become world’s largest energy source by 2050, like this one from Computerworld. Yet without the political and economic framework to back it up, the effect of the oil price fall that is taking place just now shows that the solar boom will not avert climate change. Abundant cheap energy from another source is a necessary condition for a prosperous, oil-free global economy, but not a sufficient one. Oil will still be drilled and burned not because it is needed for energy, but because it is central to entrenched business and, more problematically, national interests.

What I believe is missing from the World Bank Climate analysis is the political element. If the world were to agree to make a transition from oil to solar, as technologically it could Russia, Scotland, BP and Ineos risk being put in the position of cornered tigers.

John Simpson asks on the BBC today, Could we be facing a Cold War Two? I’m struck mainly by the fact that Simpson doesn’t pick up on the US shale effect on Russian oil revenue I mentioned earlier. He is one of a generation of historians and journalists who grew up with the luxury of not having to be constantly interdisciplinary. He is perhaps less exhausted than me, the young historian with threads flying everywhere, but in my opinion is an example of a commentator identifying, but failing to analyse, the problem.

I could use the metaphor of being caught in an oily web, with a quote from one of my favourite authors Walter Scott, ‘O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!’ We are deceived into thinking we can enjoy the benefits of cheap oil, deceived into believing Russia’s activity is simply unreasonable political hostility, deceived into thinking fracking is all the fault of the Tory government, deceived into thinking North Sea Oil could ever have been a backbone of a future Scottish economy. But it seems to me to be one of the tritest things Walter Scott ever said; and in any case, spiders are one of my favourite animals.

So let’s change the metaphor around. The oil economy has become a plague of horrible, disease-carrying bluebottle flies, like the ones that poured out of my fireplace by the hundred recently when a dead bird fell down the chimney, the most horrible week of my bed-sit life. What we need is some heroic spiders to weave us a fine, shining web of good policy, economics and renewable technology that incorporates everyone’s interests — poor person, western consumer, consumer energy supplier, oil-producer, national governments — into the one global interest on which we all deeply depend.

How will these wonderful policymaking spiders work? First, they need to banish thinking in terms of goodies and baddies. Who are the baddies anyway? Are they Putin, Ineos and the consumer energy suppliers? Or are they Shaun Keaveny, who wants to be able to afford to forget to switch his central heating off? Or the Scottish Green Party, threatening the viability of the Scottish economy? Or Todd Stern, talking about keeping fossil fuel in the ground while the oil price tumbles as a result of his country’s shale. Or us, who, for all our complaints of injustice and austerity, know at the back of our minds that the oil economy has got us into a position which we would not change for a slum-dweller of Mumbai, or a villager in Liberia? Going down the blame road leads so rapidly to moral absurdity, it’s not worth even trying. Clearly, there is no ‘other’. We are all in this one environment, economy, society together. We all have to live together, as very close neighbours, whose real lives link together in the headlines of one week.

The decarbonising of the economy is usually described by the gentle word ‘transition’, but what we are really talking about is a massive change, and massive change is terrifying. Think instead in terms of interests, threats, opportunities. Think who will suffer, who will be frightened by it, and understand why they are likely to strike out, and think how the change can be managed so they are brought with it, not treated as the wicked ‘other’ and left out in the cold. In the sunny solar economy there’s no need for that to happen to anyone.

So, if I were a wonderful policymaking spider, I would want the climate negotiations in Paris next December to make the final link. I would focus on making a list of the losers in a transition from a fossil to renewable economy — Russia, Scotland, BP, Ineos and so on — and focus on finding a way to transform each of them from cornered tiger to proud spider. All of them possess mighty assets: engineering expertise, financial capital, political territory, and political weight. I would offer them almighty incentives to convert these powers from the fangs, muscles and claws of a cornered tiger, into the powerful creativity of the renewable-economy weaving spider. This is where the subsidies should go.

Our spiders will need heroic courage and vision, and they will need to be working at all levels of society.

Much of the responsibility for this education falls on environmental campaigners like Friends of the Earth, who have led the way in environmental thinking so well for so long and now need to lead the way again, in dropping the discourse of blame and ‘otherhood’ in favour of a web of shared interests. I am a strong supporter of Scottish Wildlife Trust, who appear to me ahead of the game in this regard right now and have had a lot of criticism from more traditional environmental organisations for their willingness to work with business. I believe far richer policymaking would result if more organisations followed the same strategy.

Business leaders need to understand the web, and have the vision to adopt new technologies. Investors (that’s you, assuming you have any kind of pension, insurance, or savings) need to support them in that vision (the campaigns run by, for example, Operation Noah, for fossil fuel divestment, and the opportunities presented by World Bank Green Bonds for renewable investment, are perfect examples of this)

Voters (that’s you again) need to understand the web, to see the relationship between their energy bills and their fracking threats. Politicians need to understand the web, credit voters with the intelligence to understand it too, and credit businesses with the vision to share in their web-weaving and not to fly out of their country. Political party-members, too, need great courage to elect such leaders. There are two responses to a politician who treats voters as intelligent. There is the cynical response: she is a wise fool: the public won’t get it. Or there is the optimistic response: people tend to become thing they are treated as.

The cynical response is so prevalent in our society that those who step out of it look like clowns. It is not helped by the fact that the word ‘cynical’ is often used to mean ‘realistic assessment of the magnitude of the problems we face’. People often call me cynical for daring to raise the spectres of climate change and mass extinction in stark terms, but I hope this article does something to refute this charge. The cynics in the Labour leadership debate, in my opinion, are those who want to choose a leader not for the qualities of their policies, but for their capacity for running a campaign that will defeat the opposition. The hope is that, somehow, Labour will then pull out policies (tax-rises, perhaps) to deliver social justice in spite of the voters’ stupidity. It’s same cynical narrative of stupid (apathetic or nationalist) voters, evil others (Tories or nationalists), and smart politicians in suits playing the games to get themselves into power. It’s the same old politics again: it’s politics that has kept me in politicial retirement up till now, and, in this geopolitical carbon mess, the politics that could destroy us all.

I prefer the optimistic response. Again, optimism a much abused term often used to mean ‘hoping for the best’: the optimism of overtaking round a corner with your eyes shut. This is partly to do with a muddling between social and scientific methodology which I have written about elsewhere In the political context, optimism is the philosophy that good multiplies itself. If people are trusted with responsibility, like sixteen-year-old voters, they will rise to it. If people are given the opportunity to act unselfishly, like by giving to food banks, they will take it. This philosophy is in the ascendant in Scottish political culture just now, and policians need to seize it and believe it. Voters do not want someone in a suit telling them they will make them rich: voters want a solid plan for building a better society.

The Whig Henry Cockburn described the corrupt power networks in Edinburgh in the 1790s, which led him to spend his life working, successfully, for greater political freedoms. The debate was as polarised as debates on terrorism today: anyone suspected of wishing to increase the electorate, educate the people, or negotiate with America or France rather than shelling them, was regarded as a guillotine-wielding atheist, determined to overthrow all the morality and social order of Christendom. Cockburn told the story of a political reformer Joseph Gerald, transported for sedition in 1794. His defence pointed out to the judge Braxfield, pillar of the existing Scottish social order, that being a ‘reformer’ could hardly be sufficient evidence for ‘sedition’ since all great men had been reformers, ‘even our Saviour himself. ‘ “‘Muckle he made o’ that,” chuckled Braxfield in an under voice, “he was hanget.” ‘

It is easy to say ‘we need heroic vision and courage’, ‘we need a different kind of politics’, and ‘we must banish cynicism’. Yet when we spell out what that means in practice, as I have just done, we realise the scale of the task, the miracle, that is to be achieved. ‘Credit voters with intelligence? Credit businesses with vision? Reimagining Mr Putin as a good guy? Hahaha, good luck to you my sweet child!’ I can hear my readers saying. Well, my intelligent reader: that is what banishing cynicism looks like.

Whenever I hear those phrases I think of Gerald, being transported for life, thinking of Christ as a reformer; and Braxfield, pointing out that Jesus was ‘hanget’. That’s what courage versus cynicism looks like. Just as we need to get rid of goodies and baddies, we need to get rid of the super-structure of our political discussion in which we glibly accuse one another of cynicism or unrealistic idealism, without really understanding what those terms mean.

Yes, a carbon-free economy is possible: very possible indeed. Yes, achieving it will require a truly miraculous transformation of attitudes, a truly unworldly lack of cynicism, a truly self-sacrificial level of courage. Yes, it starts with you. You have to choose between being a Gerald, prepared to be hanget like Christ; or a Braxfield: cynical, and sending Gerald to Australia.

Yes, all of us would rather be quietly doing anything, anything with our lives than this: but cometh the hour, cometh the heroic spider.

Eleanor Harris is a postdoctoral historian from Edinburgh studying nineteenth-century religion and society, and author of a novel, Ursula, about ethics and the environmental crisis. More at or tweets @eleanormharris.