Treasuries for the Wind: Achieving Zero-Carbon Britain

He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries. Psalm 135 v.7

I have an innate suspicion of novel environmental technologies. Too often they seem to be an excuse for inaction: nuclear fusion or carbon capture and storage lurk just around the corner, their concepts inexplicable to the educated general reader (me), giving us the small excuse we need to fail to plant trees, to fail to insulate our loft.

So when in a Friends of the Earth debate yesterday Paul Allen, head of Zero Carbon Britain mentioned something called “syngas” as a key component of his proposal for a Zero Carbon Edinburgh, I was not going to take it on trust.

The Technology

The concept is simple: on a windy Scottish day when electricity from turbines threatens to overwhelm the grid (the mountainous blue ‘surplus’ in the graphic below), switch on a syngas plant; use the electricity to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane; and fill up the nation’s gas holders. Even I understand the chemistry of that. A similar process can also make liquid vehicle fuel.

It sounded too simple. Why isn’t it being done already? A couple of us in the audience pressed him, but the debate was heading in a different direction. So today, with the help of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience in Dundee, I did a bit of investigation.

It does work. It is not a perpetual motion machine. It’s known as power-to-gas, and two years ago Audi opened a pioneering 6MW facility in Germany.

Perhaps it’s too inefficient? Perhaps a whole windfarm in a gale would only heat one boiler in a draughty Victorian villa? But no, Wikipedia helpfully informs me, the conversion rate is 50-60% efficiency, far greater than the “efficient” gas turbine power stations, which achieve less than 40% making the conversion in the other direction.

That wasted electricity could create significant quantities of gas, from atmospheric CO2.

The Economics

So why does every big wind farm not have a power-to-gas facility, so that instead of seeing half their turbines switched off on a windy day so as not to overload the grid, we would see a gas holder filling up?

The brain-sprain for traditional energy economics is: electricity is inefficient and expensive, fossil gas is inexpensive and efficient, so who in their right mind would take hard-won electricity and turn it into gas? We use gas to make electricity! It’s like spinning gold into straw! But this is the economics of the fossil economy.

In the climate change economy, the fossil gas must stay in the ground, at any cost. And in the renewables economy, heaps of electricity is free: that big blue surplus. It’s wasted; is is not even created: the wind turbine stands idle.

But once this brain-sprain is overcome there is a more specific economic barrier. Feed-in tariffs have been vital in creating investment in renewables infrastructure. They have worked by guaranteeing a steady income to renewables generators even when the grid doesn’t need it. This has been great for investment in renewables, but when power-to-gas came on the scene, there was no incentive for wind farmers to invest in such technology, because you were still paid for keeping your turbine switched off.

Make the feed-in tariff for large new wind-farms contingent on including a power-to-gas facility, and the economic problem is solved.

The Politics

But it takes more than technological and economic theory to get a new environmental technology working. There’s the politics.

People object enough to wind farms. Think what they’ll say if they become wind farms with gas holders!

People come to expect subsidies. What will investors do if they have new conditions attached?

Yet what are the alternatives? Will fracking fossil gas, to generate electricity when the wind is not blowing, be more politically popular? I am delighted to say it will not, and I will be as opposed as anyone. The fossil carbon must stay in the ground. Incentivising North Sea Oil? This has iconic Scottish status, but as an energy source it is just as finite, and more importantly just as environmentally disastrous.

On the contrary, doesn’t the possibility of developing a power-to-gas and offshore wind offer a superb opportunity to transform the north of Scotland from an oil dinosaur into a world-leading renewables powerhouse? Aberdeen a granite rival to Dubai in embracing new, sustainable energy technologies? Much of the expertise and infrastructure used in the north sea oil industry — such as platforms, and getting to them — are transferable.

The political barriers are small. The political advantages of power-to-gas in a renewables economy — for economic boost, for an iconic Scottish industry, for social justice for the oil workforce, for the environment — are so enormous that I don’t know whether the Conservatives, SNP, Labour or Greens should be most excited by it.

The Culture

By far the biggest barrier to environmental change is the cultural one. Nobody has yet found an ethical way to change a society’s behaviour. Yet this is where power-to-gas is the biggest winner.

The big problem with many renewables scenarios is they involve transformation of our personal infrastructure: electric heating, electric cars, smart-grids that charge us a premium for doing our laundry on non-windy days. If our aim is a speedy transition to zero carbon Edinburgh, or Scotland, or Britain, what hope do we have of persuading everyone to replace their central heating, buy a different type of car, when we cannot even get the nation’s lofts properly insulated?

But with power-to-gas this is not necessary. Our old friend, gas (ah, that nice blue flame), comes into our boilers and our cookers via a carbon-neutral cycle, synthesised by the power of wind. Our transport can still run, not on acres of valuable land intensively farmed for biofuel, but on fuel synthesised by wind. Our heritage streets can be lit with gaslight, if we like.

And for that matter — it’s easy to forget this sometimes occurs around here — it also works with solar, on those days when we aren’t using any electricity at all because we are all outside, basking.

Investigate it

I am no expert. I only heard of power-to-gas yesterday. There may well be important disadvantages or barriers to using surplus renewable electricity to synthesise methane from water and carbon dioxide, which I have not discovered. I would be grateful to hear if you know of them, so that I can update this article.

But there are also times when, in the cataclysm of lobbying, interests, campaigns, partial views, it is simply that no-one has yet put together the jigsaw of technology, economics, politics and culture together to see the workable policy.

I’ve tried to put that jigsaw together. This article gives some more detail on the technology and the economic issues. The zero-carbon Britain project would be the people to contact for further advice.

My aim is simply to inspire policymakers, investors, you noisy lot in our little Scottish public sphere, to investigate it further, and see where it might go.

Treasuries for the Wind? The old Granton gasworks, Edinburgh, drawn by Ian Lutton (

The Year of Life

My New Year’s Resolution is to be a biodiversifier. It makes a good twitter hashtag too, look: #biodiversifier.

In 2014 we discovered that world populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish had declined by 52% since 1970. If you haven’t read the WWF Living Planet Report which announced this, you should have a look at it. It’s vitally important.

Sometimes biodiversity or ecosystems and their troubles can seem remote from our real life and concerns. Often they are discussed in scientific or romantic terms which cements this unreality. Yet this is a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. The natural world provides our food, our clothes, our shelter, our medicines. It provides the only available alternatives to mineral building materials and solid fuel. Most importantly, in its very diversity, it provides the robust systems which ensure rivers run, pollution is cleaned, even that the atmosphere stays wrapped around the earth and doesn’t burn off into space as happened on Venus.

We might not like to admit it, but biodiversity would survive just fine without social justice, without feminism or gay rights, without literature or the arts, even without peace (the area around Chernobyl is famously biodiverse). The depressing moral reality is, unless humans can change their relationship to nature, can, as an old book says, “work it and take care of it” instead of exploiting and demolishing it, the best prognosis for biodiversity would be a swift war or plague amongst the rogue species homo sapiens that would cull us sufficiently to allow nature to recover.

So, we must change our relationship to nature. We must do it urgently and profoundly. This does not require great leaps in scientific knowledge. We know a tremendous amount about the natural world, and more importantly we are aware of our ignorance and limits: that nature recovers well when we stop interfering, and ecosystem “experiments” (for example pouring carbon dioxide or CFCs into the atmosphere) often carry vast and unpredictable risks.

We need to become biodiversifiers. By protecting forests and oceans; by better land-management and agriculture; by “green cities” which replace traffic, paving and domestic cats with green roofs, sparrow-filled hedges, insect-buzzing parks and gardens; by strong and immediate measures to curb climate change, we need, person by person, nation by nation, day by day, year on year, to create more biodiversity than we destroy.

We need to question our Romantic and “scientific” attitudes which can hamper strategic action to allow nature to diversify. Giving money to the RSPCA and enjoying country walks, but hating spiders, killing greenfly and using fossil fuel wastefully is not being a biodiversifier. Creating seedbanks or maintaining a firm optimism in human ability to solve problems may be important, but unless they are only sideshows to a main event of allowing biodiversity to flourish, they will not prove to be the intellectual legacy of advanced minds but only the last ravings of self-destructive fools.

52% of nature has gone since 1970. How far can we push the experiment until we watch life on earth collapse? Another 50 years? Another ten? Another two? We face a planetary emergency: but it is one in which are by no means powerless. Every one of us, in fact, can and must be a superhero. In 2015 all our attitudes, our charitable giving, our consuming, our political campaigning, the way we use our homes and gardens, should be directed to restoring nature: to becoming biodiversifiers.

But what about the other issues? Maybe in the process a few of those — injustice, intolerance, poverty, mental health, cancer — will begin to sort themselves out. But one thing I’m sure of: without biodiversity, all the things we presently worry about will be the least of our worries.

So my 2015 New Year Resolution is to be a biodiversifier: to allow ecosystems to flourish more than I damage them, and encourage others to do the same. I can’t measure it, but I know the kinds of places to begin. Here are a few and I hope to add more over the year:

  • Buy organic milk to support insect-friendly agriculture
  • Preserve and plant forests via Woodland Trust and World Land Trust
  • Install the most low-carbon heating system I can in my Highland field centre Blair House
  • Use local and eco-friendly materials in the refurbishment of Blair House
  • Fill the window boxes at my Edinburgh flat with insect-friendly plants
  • I don’t own a car but they are necessary to reach Blair House: set up a “mitigation scheme” for myself and others to donate to an afforestation charity on each journey.
  • Use my political connections to help develop and promote policies to make Edinburgh a “green city”
  • “Fast for the Climate” on the first day of each month, in company with people around the world, to show political leaders my commitment to the need for a strong climate deal in Paris this December (More information about this here)

Rethinking my relationship to nature, committing myself to restoring it, understanding its underpinning importance to all the civilization, religion, prosperity and meaning that we know, makes sense of John Ruskin’s famous but strange statement, “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”. If we believe that to be true, as surely we must, today is the time not merely to nod approvingly, but to put our backs into it, and act accordingly.

Eleanor M Harris is on twitter @eleanormharris. If you’re on twitter please get in touch, and make use of #biodiversifier.

Guest Post: Esther, in Advent

On Sunday during a candlelit evensong, Markus Dünzkofer managed to cover the nature of religion and scripture, identity and ‘othering’, the environmental crisis, fear and power, and fasting and partying, all on the basis of a 2000 year-old story. I liked it so much that I begged it as a guest blog post: I hope you enjoy.

A few days ago I was called a “Socialist” on national TV. The person who labelled me thus was rather angered. And one could argue that because of something I had done he was justifiably infuriated. I would say, though, that his conclusions are not mine. But there we are.

I did wonder, though, why he used this particular word: “Socialist”. Was he trying to insult me? And if so, was he trying to link me to the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin? Eventually, I had this thought: Maybe he used the word “Socialist” to imply that despite of being a priest, I am a godless person. Because that’s what Socialists are, right?

Well, if that is true, we have a problem today, because this would make the biblical book of Esther, from which we have heard earlier, “Socialist,” too. The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. It is godless. And yet, is divine revelation. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you the tale:

The story begins with Persian King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name Xerxes at least I can somewhat pronounce, having a jolly in his palace. In antiquity this often was code for an outrageous orgy. Drunk with power and with wine, hormones and lust raging, Xerxes wants to show off his wife to his equally drunk and horny guests. It doesn’t need much fantasy to realise that the showing-off would have led to other things. Understandably, the queen refuses. Xerxes, however, is so outraged that he casts her out. A man must save “his face and his manhood,” right? So, there is need for a new wife.

Meanwhile, Mordechai, a Jew, who, together with his king, Jechonja of Juda, had been forcefully exiled to the city of Susa in Persia and now, at age 120 is working at the palace in Susa — this Mordechai comes up with a cunning plan. His niece Esther, who he took in after her parents had died and whose beauty captivated many, should be shown to Xerxes as a potential future queen.

And even though there was stiff competition from a number of women from the 127 countries he governs, Xerxes picks Esther and makes her queen. And did they live happily ever after? No.

Mordechai learns of a plot to kill Xerxes. Through Esther he conveys the plan to the king, who hangs the two assassins. Mordechai’s deed, however, is written into a dusty old book.

This is when Haman, the anti-hero of the story enters the scene. Xerxes appoints him prime minister. But Haman is full of spite, envy, vanity, and ambition. And when Mordechai, because of his religion, refuses to bow to him, he completely loses his plot: He convinces Xerxes to order a day of pogrom on which all Jews throughout the Persian Empire shall be annihilated. But the lots he casts to determine the date pick a day almost a year later. This gives the Jewish community time, and they use it to fast and to pray. Not what I expected!

During this interval Mordechai approaches Esther to intervene. And this is where we find ourselves in today’s reading.

It takes some convincing of Esther, though, because she is not out as a Jew at court. Eventually Esther does agree and comes up with a shrewd plan to influence Xerxes, a plan that involves two banquets and copious amounts of alcohol. I will spare you the details and some other subplots, so that the choir can get to their own banquet in time.

But Esther knows what she is doing and convinces Xerxes to change his mind. But it isn’t so easy. He cannot just revoke his original order – what has been written has been written. Instead, he allows for the Jews to arm and defend themselves on the day of the previously appointed Reichskristalnacht.

When others side with the Jews — after all they are now in Xerxes’ good books — it all ends in a bloodbath that would make our contemporary stomachs rightfully churn. It is pretty awful. And no, Haman and his house don’t survive. Ironically, Haman ends up on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. The end.

We could have a long discussion about the heinous ending of this biblical book, and maybe that will be the content of the sermon in three year’s time, when we will read the text again. Let me just say so much:

This is not a historical account but a historical novella that builds on numerous experiences of pogroms during the Jewish exile. Mordechai’s age is but one indicator that makes the story factually unbelievable. And there are others. Historically, there was no massive bloodshed. It’s all a hyperbole.

We have to remember, though, that the story was written from the perspective of the oppressed, of an enslaved people. This it is a scenario far away from the comforts of our 21st century mostly middle-class comfort. Achieving justice back then did look different from the ways we pursue liberation from oppression. Yet, this is not cop-out. The book of Esther still entices us to confront oppression, even at the price of one’s own safety. If injustice is not named, even at times named provocatively, then those, who shy away from naming it, enable that very injustice – even if they are only bystanders.

But enough of this part of the story, because today I would like to focus not on the end of the book of Esther, but on two principles we find within the book: the principles of faithfulness and identity.

From the reading the book of Esther it is clear that Mordechai is held up as a model of faithfulness to the covenant that God made with Moses: He doesn’t bow to Haman, because that would violate the first and second commandments, which orient our worship to God alone.

But one might ask: doesn’t exactly this refusal to bow to Haman get Mordechai into trouble? Isn’t Mordechai’s faithfulness the reason for the impending genocide? Well, you would say this only if you forgot that God’s plan for salvation is already in place. And through the faithfulness of the Jews, through their fasting and praying, God’s plan of salvation can take its course.

Fasting and praying. These are not necessarily activities we would choose. But I wonder how fasting and praying would empower our personal life and the life of our faith community? And I wonder what our planet would look like if we were to engage in more fasting and praying?

This reminds me of this year’s Lent, when we here at St John’s walked through the book of Jonah and challenged the church and society to repent from its unfaithfulness to God’s plan on matters environmental. And? Did we listen? Are we — like the Jews in the book of Esther — fasting and praying for God’s salvation and liberation both for us personally and for the planet? Are you?

And then there is Esther herself. Initially at court, she does not reveal her true identity for fear of rejection. And when she is faced with Mordechai’s charge in today’s reading, she fears her own death.

There is that little word: “Fear”. Fear of being known. Fear of confronting the powers of this earth. Fear of upsetting the applecart. Fear of being rejected. Fear of disappearing in the midst of strife. Fear seems to be everywhere.

I know what I am talking about, I have been afraid. I have feared the consequences. I have been so scared I could neither move, nor act, nor think, not pray, nor sleep. Richard Holloway once said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of the Gospel.” It is indeed a darkness that needs to be pierced.

When Esther reclaims who she is, when she embraces, who God made her to be as a woman and as a Jew in the midst of a misogynist and anti-Semitic environment, then God’s light is revealed. Identity is not a threat to our society, regardless of what that identity might be. What will eat up and destroy who and what God made us to be is fear:

  • Fear of the other, especially when the other is different.
  • Fear of losing comfort in order to support those, who have less.
  • Fear of having to give up something in order to save the planet.
  • Fear of looking like silly lunatics, when witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in prayer, in action, and in word.
  • Fear of celebrating our identity.

Fear is a powerful foe.

We are in the middle of Advent. And during Advent, we hear prophets raising difficult and provocative and maybe even fear-inciting questions. But the church must be faithful: she must be faithful to this prophetic tradition and continue to raise questions. And sometimes this might cause a stooshie.

We are in the middle of Advent. And in Advent we wait for that divine light that came into the world and that still pierces the darkness, the darkness of fear and any other kind of darkness — even the darkness of death. Our true, God-given identity is connected to embracing this light. And our identity is not connected to labels we throw at each other, nor to names by which we incite fear or exclusion — and this goes for all of us.

Our Jewish siblings commemorate the events of the book of Esther with the annual festival of Purim. And according to Jewish tradition, one should drink on Purim until you can no more make a distinction between arur Haman, which means “cursed be Haman”, and baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai”. Quite an alcoholic feat!

In the heavenly banquet we will also be drunk. We will be drunk with God’s love, so drunk indeed that we will longer distinguish between Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, young or old, outsider nor insider, gay or straight, believer or doubter.

All will be children of God — even supposed godless clergy.


Markus Dünzkofer is the Rector of St John’s Princes Street and is on twitter @homouusian.

You can find out more about the global interfaith initiative to “fast for the climate” at

Sarah Boyack’s 100 ideas

I’ve just been reading Sarah Boyack’s ‘100 ideas for a new Scotland’, the culmination of her leadership campaign.

There are three threads which run through all these ideas:

  • a commitment to compassionate social justice – the political ideology which makes them as ‘Labour’
  • a commitment to evidence-based policy-making
  • a commitment to listening, subsidiarity and internal devolution

They are all, moreover, formed within Sarah Boyack’s oft-restated framework of social, economic and environmental justice, a ‘Borromean knot’ in which all the elements are equally important and interdependent (if you take one out, the other two fall apart)

Social, economic and environmental justice within a framework of compassionate, evidence-based, devolutionary policy-making is more than merely a vote-winning manifesto. It is a manifesto with the potential to transform politics.

Sarah Boyack is an exciting politician because she does not stand for the old Marxist ideas of mid-twentieth century Labour Party, nor the old Blairite ideas of the late-twentieth century Labour Party. This is creative, relevant, twenty-first century politics. I’m not the first person to say she is the most serious Labour thinker around.

I was born in 1978, in the uncomfortable crack between Generations X and Y, and have grown up amongst contemporaries disillusioned by the irrelevance of political debate. I am a prime example: despite being a historian of political culture and an environmentalist, I never got involved in politics until this year.

This is the vote that a politician like Sarah Boyack could win: not scraping support from other parties, but engaging new alienated and young voters. We are longing politicians and manifestos which ring true, which are about building a better society, which are full of honest, informed, relevant content. We don’t want point-scoring; we don’t care about media image; we couldn’t care less about ‘historic’ loyalties or ideologies; and above all we are sickened by the cynical politics of ‘othering’ which is raising its miserable head all over Britain and on all sides of the spectrum.

Whoever wins the Scottish Labour leadership elections this week, I hope Sarah Boyack’s 100 ideas and extensive elaboration of them on her blog and elsewhere will form a serious contribution to Scottish Labour’s manifesto, as well as influencing British Labour policy. She is, after all, a collaborative and not a confrontational politician with long experience, and should hold a senior position in any coalition or majority Holyrood government of which Labour is a part.

So I commend her 100 ideas document to you, whatever party you support. It’s far more than a ‘to-do’ list: it is a discussion-starter, an example of an approach politicians across the spectrum might adopt. It’s far more than a leadership-contest gimmick: it’s a phoenix in a political landscape with too many dinosaurs.

You can read Sarah’s 100 ideas for a new Scotland here.


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.

I’d like Sarah Boyack for Scottish Labour leader, please

When I joined Labour a few weeks ago in the wake of the referendum out of a desire to be part of the new engagement in Scottish politics, I’d no idea I’d get this involved this quickly. But I’m so delighted that Sarah Boyack is standing for Scottish Labour leader that I’m writing my first party-political blog post.

Sarah Boyack is probably top of my list of reasons for choosing Labour when I decided to join a party.

I’ve seen her portrayed as the mid-point on a spectrum of views. One reason I support her is that she understands what those who suggest this do not: that politics, is – must be – more than just series of battles on one-dimensional spectra.

Sarah Boyack is the four-dimensional candidate in this contest. Even in her short statement announcing her candidacy, it is clear she understands the ecology of politics in the world of 2014:

“We need to move the political debate on to how we use power. […] to make sure that power is used in the interests of the people of Scotland. […] Our mission must be to deliver social, environmental and economic justice.”

Never mind historical baggage. Never mind left-right opposites. The four complex processes which a political leader in the twenty-first century needs to understand are society, environment, economy and power, and Sarah Boyack knows this.

“We need to reach out not just to those who have traditionally supported us but to build a coalition to tackle social and environmental injustice and to create a more equal, prosperous economy that works for people.”

Sarah Boyack’s aim is not “the voter’s interests” or “economic growth”, but “justice” and “prosperity”. This is no compromise, cynical, vote-winning aim. This is high-minded, idealistic politics: the vision of a politician whose satisfaction comes not from winning power, but from making the world a better place. She writes more on this in an article on the Labour Hame blog today.

Are her words rooted in practice? Yes. Sarah Boyack’s career has been shaped by Holyrood: the parliament designed for coalition and collaborative discussion instead of Westminster-shaped confrontation; the system designed to stay close to voters, with ecological not reductionist politics. Her work as Environment minister was acclaimed by environmental groups, and her introduction of free bus travel is one of Holyrood’s best example of political power not as a blunt instrument, but as powerful lever for good.

Does she have the vote-winning charisma required of a party leader? My perception is that she combines this intelligent understanding of power and high-minded idealism with a memorable approachability and charm which comes across in person and on camera. I hope the media will show us much more of it.

Does she have the strength for it? Or will she be squashed or corrupted, as we see happen to politicians again and again? Well, who can tell this of any candidate? She has experience of office and of defeat. Her idealism today is not naivety: it has survived intact the messy politics of Holyrood’s history. I think Sarah Boyack has a pretty large supply of toughness and integrity.

Am I biased? Yes, of course I am. Sarah Boyack has been the most important personality in persuading this disaffected voter that politics could be relevant, could be collaborative, could make a difference and could be more than a confrontational, partisan and elitist debating society. Of course she is the kind of person I want shaping the new political landscape of Scotland. Any individual is unrepresentative, but I believe I’m typical of many in my generation who have always been passionate about political issues but cynical about party politics and politicians. In Sarah Boyack, Labour has the chance to elect a leader who could win back many more of us back.

After I wrote this blog I saw Lesley Riddoch’s fuller article which discusses all the candidates and concludes that Sarah Boyack provides the opportunity for Labour to “find its moral core”. Yes, that.

I invited Sarah Boyack to present our church with both its two (choir-led!) Eco-Congregation Awards: taking environmentalists in cassocks in her stride…

Meterology, Alan Hemming, and Forgiveness

This guest post by medical ethicist and Church of Scotland minister Professor Kenneth Boyd was delivered as a sermon at Evensong last night. I have heard him preach many times before but this one seemed particularly worthy of a wider audience. I hope you agree.

‘Abundant rain’, promised by the prophet Joel in our first reading tonight, ‘poured down’ on Friday and much of yesterday, right on time, exactly as promised by the weather forecast on the BBC News website. The accuracy of modern weather forecasting, at least for the next few days, never ceases to amaze me. The science of weather forecasting, pioneered in 19th century Edinburgh by Alexander Buchan, Secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society, has been of great benefit to humanity: it has saved countless lives by its warnings and it has assisted better planning of all sorts of future projects. It has of course limitations, as the forecasters themselves also warn: better and more accurate systems still need development to avoid tragedies like that on the Japanese volcano last week, or the fatal consequences of many of the extreme weather events increasingly related to climate change; but the scientific precision of modern meteorology is undoubtedly something to be grateful for; and an enormous advance, some might say, on the vague promises of ‘the early and the later rain as before’ uttered by the prophet Joel in our first reading tonight.

That said, it cannot escape notice that the scientific precision found in meteorology is also to be found in the science of ballistics, which is concerned with the launching, flight and exact landing of projectiles, and which at present therefore is of great relevance to the armed forces of our own and other nations who are pouring down a different kind of rain as they attack from the air the IS militants in Iraq and Syria. The historical and political reasons for this conflict are greatly complex and in their effects deeply tragic — not least this last week, in the murder of that truly good man Alan Hemming from Salford. But even deeper than the historical and political reasons for this conflict, is that darker side of human nature, against which the human goodness of Alan Hemming stands out in such contrast. The goodness of this ordinary man, simply desiring to help others in need, as he travelled with his Muslim friends, to convoy medical and food aid to refugees in Syrian camps — that goodness stands in stark contrast to the near madness of the desire at all costs to dominate and subjugate others, so cruelly and callously demonstrated by the words and actions of the IS militants. And that near madness in turn also stands in stark contrast to the rationality of the sciences which provide the weapons with which the rest of the world may be able, at least on the most optimistic scenario, to geographically contain that madness.

What these current events remind us of then, is what we still lack: a science of human nature and relationships, a science with which to guide the ballistics of the human heart into the ways of peace, justice and the gladness of which the prophet Joel spoke in our first reading, when the inhabitants of the land ’shall eat in plenty and be satisfied’. How long ago was that written? Nearly two thousand five hundred years ago; and yet after all that time, and even with the more recently rapid advance of so many sciences, the land of Israel and Palestine of which Joel spoke seems no nearer, and perhaps even farther away from that long deferred peace and plenty. Even now, we have no science of human nature and relationships, to put all these things right.

But is that correct? We do, of course, have what are called the human sciences, of psychology and social science for example, and also of historical research and political science; and all of these have important insights to contribute to our understanding of human nature and relationships, insights based on non-partisan analyses, which if we attend to them may help us see through the more extravagant and unsubstantiated claims of politics, the market, ideologies and religions. But of themselves these analytic insights may not be enough to guide us and the world to a better place of peace and justice. As well as these scientific insights, we need a science of a deeper and less academic sort: the word ‘science’ at root simply means knowledge, and the kind of knowledge we need is self-knowledge – which is precisely what our second reading tonight tells us about.

‘Do not worry about your life’ Jesus says, but ‘strive first for the kingdom of God’. What does this mean and is it even possible? To get a sense of what Jesus meant, I think, we need to remember that he also is quoted as saying that the kingdom he spoke of was not a visible earthly kingdom, and that it was ‘within you’ and ‘among you’. The kingdom of God, in other words, is a way of living with and relating to one another and ourselves. It is a way of living and relating that is not disturbed and disfigured by fears and anxieties, especially those fears and anxieties that derive from seeing and valuing everything and everyone mainly or even only from our own point of view. Defending at all costs our own interests as we conceive them, and maintaining at all costs our own self-image, can lead to a very untruthful view of the world, since clearly there are other people in it. And if we find means of power over others, either as petty domestic or workplace tyrants, or as IS militants, we may become infected in different degrees by that near madness I mentioned earlier – the near madness of a secret desire to assuage our own fears and compensate for our own inadequacies by trying at all costs to dominate and subjugate others.

How is the kingdom of God different? Above all because it is the kingdom of forgiveness — a way of living with and relating to one another and ourselves that frees us from the need to maintain those appearances that can lead us into the absurdities of pride or the depths of despair — a way of living and relating that humbly and happily accepts that we are all in this together: God-forgiven first, and then slowly self-forgiven sinners, but thereby also given strength enough and courage enough to get through and wherever possible get over whatever causes our current fears and anxieties.

To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive against all those self-deluding and defensive reactions, moods and habits which render our view of the world untruthful — to strive against them, above all by holding fast to a deeply felt conviction that living goodness is at the heart of all things, including the human heart of each one of us, and that even our smallest efforts to love our neighbour as ourselves contribute to the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

That may still seem a small thing in the great scheme of things, on the war-torn littered beaches of the world, where ignorant armies clash by night. And it will still be the task of generations well beyond our own to enter more deeply into that conversation and communion of faiths which also is needed to contribute, in global terms, to the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven. But the kingdom of God and forgiveness, Jesus says, always is now open to us to strive for; and if we do that, striving for the kingdom of God each in our own different and particular way, as Alan Hemming from Salford did in his, with his Muslim friends, that will be our best way of paying tribute to him and to all the saints of God, who have fallen, fighting the good fight of faith and forgiveness. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Professor Kenneth Boyd. Sermon delivered at Evensong in St John’s Episcopal Church Edinburgh on the 16th after Trinity. Readings Joel 2, 21-27; Matthew 6, 25-33.

Friends of the Earth calls on Scotland to ban fracking

After a week in which fracking became a political football in the post-indyref constitutional fallout, Friends of the Earth Scotland have stepped out of the politics to ask people to email their MSP demanding that Holyrood use its existing, sufficient, powers to ban fracking in Scotland outright. You can participate here.

I know I have a rainbow readership of nationalists and internationalists, devolutionists, independents and British-constitution-revivers, environmentalists and business people; but I can think of few of you who would disagree on this issue, for the reasons I allude to below. There are few of you who would fail to join the opposition to fracking for any reason other than a apathetic sense that it probably wouldn’t work.

If you all think that, it won’t. But you won’t, because that’s not how people are thinking any more.

The Friends of the Earth Scotland action page automatically addresses your email to your MSPs when you put in your postcode; but I decided their draft text read a bit like those intercessions we have at church which explain the issues to God as if he didn’t know, so I wrote my own, with a bit more stirring rhetoric. Feel free to pinch any of it.

Dear Jim Eadie/ Neil Findlay/ Cameron Buchanan/ Sarah Boyack/ Alison Johnstone/ Kezia Dugdale/ Gavin Brown,

You are well aware of the complex issues surrounding shale gas extraction: of the imperative need to eliminate climate-changing carbon emissions from all kinds of fossil fuel, of the profound and unclear local environmental impact of this new technology, of the potential for an easy solution to badly pressing financial and energy supply problems, of the extent to which fracking has become a political football in UK constitutional debates, and of the overwhelming public opposition to fracking.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to set aside the pressures from all sides and to do what I’m sure you, like the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland, know what is right: to use the powers Holyrood already has to ban this destructive, short-term, cynical practice outright. There are other, better solutions to energy shortages and budget deficits, and I, for one, will do all I can to support realistic solutions to these real problems.

A ban on fracking will reflect well on the Scottish government, will cause Scotland to be celebrated around the world, and will have tremendous popularity amongst the Scottish people from across the political spectrum. I believe it will also be good for the Scottish economy in guaranteeing the integrity, literally, of the central belt, and in generating demand for creative renewable energy generation, which tends to create local jobs.

I look forward to your response, and to hearing of your participation in cross-party legislation that will ensure no-one in Scotland need ever be frightened of fracking again.

Best wishes,

Eleanor Harris

Do it.

On physics and politics, and how to tell the difference

The tremendous thing about Scottish Independence referendum has been the engagement. The 84% turnout was the finale to weeks of often heated, yet almost without exception peaceful, political debate at every level of society. I walked through the departing crowds of the Orange March and counter-demonstrators in Edinburgh the weekend before the vote, through partisan, working-class yes- and no-voters with badges and flags. They were stickering and de-stickering the Scottish Enlightenment statues so fast they twinkled, yelling “fucker” like it was the only word in the language, as perfectly non-violently as the middle-class partisans’ more passive aggressive outbursts of “doomed” “must” and “frankly insulting”. I hope it has been apparent to people furth of Scotland what huge quantities of excellent generosity and humour there have been alongside the insults.

There was a low moment about a fortnight ago, a dreadful mud-slinging television debate, and the chat the day after from both sides was all about what a shameful embarrassment it was to live in a country where politics had reached such an abysmal standard. But then, the miracle, the divided Scotland united in a determination to raise that standard. Everyone realised that ‘Scottish pride’ couldn’t reside in waving saltires and bashing English Tories. It had to come from listening to your opponents, taking criticism on board, learning to discuss politics intelligently.

And so, crashily and noisily, we did. My complaints about the poor standard of the debate led to me discovering the excellent commentary of Professor Paul Cairney, thanks to whom I now understand the Barnett Formula. Many strong partisans realised that blind partisans were unpersuasive: anyone not already on their side simply stopped listening to them (I had to “silence” one on Facebook).

I weighed in: when some no-voting friends seemed genuinely to believe vandalism was a characteristic unique to yes-voters I made sure to find a counter-example. Although yes-voters (reasonably) huffed at my comparing them to fundamentalist Christians, they also made an effort, when talking to me at least, to demonstrate that they were thinking for themselves, not merely swept along by the rhetoric. Meanwhile, in a geeky corner of twitter, I had met and got into an enlightening discussion with a political theorist Robert Lowry about the mechanics of “groupthink”. Certainly, my own understanding of and engagement in current national politics and political debate — which like most people in their 30s has been cripplingly irrelevant and dull for our entire lifetime — has shot up. This article is a result, and an attempt to keep the momentum which everyone agrees we need to maintain.

The purpose of this article is to draw your attention to the importance of one piece of fuzzy-mindedness which has clouded the political debate and judgement of many highly intelligent people (that is to say, many of my friends!). It is the vital difference between politics and physics. It has been clarified in my mind by coincidence of the Scottish independence referendum, the global People’s Climate March movement, and my reading about the historical theory of post-structuralism, a modern philosophic reassertion of the age-old doctrine of free-will.

If you do the science carefully enough, you can make predictions about physics. Water will always evaporate at a certain rate at a given temperature and humidity. The probability of Ebola mutating to become less deadly and more infectious can be calculated. On certain ongoing phenomena, notably climate change, the science has been done very carefully indeed. This means that 99.99% of scientists can agree that it is linked to human induced carbon dioxide emissions and will result in serious consequences within the next thirty years. It also means that predictions turn out to be right, again and again.

Politics is not like this. It may be true to say that that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to vote a certain way. The most striking recent example I saw of this was a terrifyingly close correlation between membership of Anglican/ Dissenting churches in the 1851 religious census, and Tory/ Labour voting in late twentieth-century elections. If we are really so in thrall to our historic thought-patterns, do we really have any free will? However, while historic events may be explicable in terms like this, they consistently defy prediction. This is the source of the currently trendy, and very irritating, historians’ phrase, ‘the future is not my period’, which guarantees they are rarely invited to comment on political events. While demographics and votes may be linked, elections are always interesting and uncertain because, unlike the evaporating water-droplet, free-willed people can and do vote against expectations. One individual’s stirring speech, one committee’s new policy announcement, one expert’s new piece of intelligence, may unexpectedly sway enough voters to change the result. More importantly, the long-term consequences of any given result — such as Scottish independence or union — is anybody’s guess. All the predictions about independent Scottish utopias, or nightmare broken Britain scenarios, were based on nothing at all, or rather, they were not predictions at all: they were aspirations and fears. The truth is, political arrangements are created by human beings. If human beings get together to make a system work, they can. If they want to break it, they can. This is not the case when dealing with the forces of physics.

This does not mean, however, that politics is simply random. It means that you, the actor, have a power to influence political movements in a way totally impossible in the case of something like the climate. Your rhetoric, your quiet networking, your expert input at the right moment, could have a power out of all proportion to your quantity. Being one person out of ten million, one free-willed person, means a great deal more than being one water droplet out of ten million, if you want to make it so. That’s what I’m trying to do with this article, with my twitter feed. This was Foucault’s lesson about power.

Understanding this difference between politics and physics is vital to empowerment: I would almost say it is the key to your freedom. Unsurprisingly, historians are prone to imagine physics works like politics, while scientists tend to treat politics as if it will be obedient to the laws of physics, leaving both floundering.

My experience of history conferences is of a greater level of uninterest and lack of knowledge in the environmental crisis than amongst my general acquaintance. Environmental crisis is largely about events in the future: the future is unpredictable and therefore not worth worrying about because there is nothing we can do about it. They fail to realise that the predictions of mass extinction, storms, drought and so forth are not guesses to do with free will and human behaviour: they are the predictable consequences of physical actions, which can be predictably changed by changing the actions.

My experience of scientists is that they are prone to overestimate the logical behaviour of human beings. They imagine that people will act consistently and predictably, either acting logically, or (if they are more sociologically-minded scientists) acting according to demographic. They expect to be able to predict the consequences of an action such as a yes vote, and will confidently repeat the predictions of the most reliable-sounding commentator as if they were scientific results.

To me, both appear disempowered by blindness. Why should I claim any greater insight? I do not believe these friends are any less intelligent than me (on the contrary!). But I do have an unusually strong interdisciplinary tendency. I’m trained as a historian, and frankly too inaccurate and impatient to be a scientist, yet I’m strongly drawn to science because in many ways I find nature far more interesting and appealing than people. My observations on these twin blindnesses come from hanging out, a lot, with both scientists and historians, and, applying my general historian curiosity about the workings of human nature to both groups, thinking about how they are free, or unfree, as part of my own quest for empowerment and freedom (for I went to look at, and was inspired by, the Declaration of Arbroath in primary school, as much as the next Scot).

The consequences of this blindness and disempowerment are potentially disastrous. It results in the best historians, the ones who often train political leaders at university, nonchalantly observing as we blunder towards environmental crisis and scientists scream “do something”. It results in scientists weighing in to, or keeping out of political debates without really understanding how human societies work, while historians mutter, “you idiots!” For the environmental crisis, which is about a physical event caused by the political workings of global society, it is imperative that the two groups learn one anothers’ wisdom, and collaborate in action.

So, my intelligent Scottish and beyond-Scotland readers, as we continue to develop our empowered political debate over the coming years, I want you to take a deliberately interdisciplinary approach. I want you to cultivate the simultaneous virtues of confidence in your own power, and humility in your own limitations; to critique others, and to learn from them; to stay involved. And I look forward to being part of this new Scottish enlightenment in which good philosophy leads to world-changing action (because there’s nothing to stop us being inspired by historical examples, of deciding we’d like to make history repeat itself). I look forward to reading this article a year from now and thinking “gosh that sounds stupid: what a lot I have learned since then, and what a lot we have done”.

So what are you actually asking us to do?

This seems to be the most frequently asked question at the talks I give on religion and the environmental crisis. I’m always slightly put out by it, because the whole talk is about what I think people ought to do. I agree people deserve more help than I give them in the talk: I’m just not sure I’m equipped to do it: the talk itself was my contribution and now it’s over to you. However, here is an attempt at a framework based on my talk which might form a useful programme for a group wishing to pursue the idea of looking for hope in the middle of mass extinction.

I think you need to learn, speak, and act.


My talk is challenging and fresh not because I’m on the pulse of the zeitgeist, but because I hunt obscure things in dusty archives — in news that doesn’t make headlines, in ancient wisdom our culture neglects. As I argued in my talk, in the face of mass extinction maybe outdated religious concepts might turn out to be useful after all. The first law of history is ‘we ain’t no smarter than our ancestors’. If you agree we need a change in discourse, the first thing I’m asking you to do is to learn with me. Your brains are as big as mine. If I’m ahead in my thinking it’s only because I’ve been puzzling over this for the past ten years. There’s only one of me and there are many of you. The world needs your brains. Your first task is, get learning.

“When people know what they are facing, that’s when they dig deep, and find that miraculous hope and courage. That’s when they stop being afraid.”

Learn about prophets

“You are Jonah. You must be thrown into the sea. You must find the courage that’s only found when you’ve sunk to the very bottom. You must be vomited up on the beach, and you must go and deliver the message. You must turn into the hope.”

A prophet in Christian tradition is not someone who foretells the future by reading entrails. It is someone whose insights about the present are so clear that they can understand the probability of future consequences. This is what climate scientists do today, as well as those involved in equally important and less controversial environmental research. However, what makes a prophet different from most scientists is the scientist must retain a detached and objective perspective, whereas the prophet commits his or her whole physical life to becoming the message. This often involves great personal sacrifice, but this is the secret of the prophet’s influence: their actions tend to speak louder than their words. A valuable study exercise for a group would to each take one of the prophets in the Bible and see how they go about this, and to do what I did with Jonah. You might be surprised. Try it for Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and Christianity’s greatest prophet (alongside his other roles), Jesus. Have each person report back and then discuss them. What would it mean for you to take these prophets as your role models today?

– We have an environmental crisis going on, and you’re asking us to sit around doing bible study?

– How can a discourse change, can thought patterns change, without thinking and learning? The problem is, you have been used to fruitless, theoretical discussions about the bible, about theories of theology or morality that can never be put to the test or be other than subjective. I’m asking you to read it as a book of practical wisdom that’s relevant for real life now. Oh and quit the fruitless religious discussions.

“Whether you believe in God, or not, or don’t know, today it doesn’t matter, because the situation of Jonah stays the same, and our situation, so spookily similar to Jonah’s, stays the same.”  

Learn about the environmental crisis

“Ecosystems are good at recovering, but faced with increasingly violent assaults from climate change, pollution and exploitation, they cannot recover, and eventually collapse. Not decline gradually: collapse. If this is new to you, I urge you to go and find out about it. The picture has got spectacularly worse over the past few years, and the science has not been widely reported.”

Find out what scientists are saying about the environment: global deforestation, the Pacific rubbish dump, Himalayan glacier melt, what mass extinction means. Read the report on the state of the oceans ( I do commend Twitter not because it’s trendy but because it’s useful for getting at the right information quickly: many scientists use it to provide ongoing succinct updates of what they regard as their most important findings. Find a teenager to show you how to use it, then get in touch with me (@eleanormharris) and I’ll point you in the direction of useful resources.

– But Twitter sounds difficult and strange and scary!

– You asked me for hope. I’ve looked for hope and found it in you. Do you expect it to be easy? If you think Twitter sounds difficult and scary, I think you will have difficulty being the hope of the world. As Jesus said (when he wasn’t saying ‘don’t be afraid’), if you can’t be trusted with trivial things, whose going to put you in charge of more important ones?


“Either we transform our eating, or we starve. Either we transform our travelling, or we stop forever. Either we transform our living, or we die. Not modify: not reduce a bit: not next year: totally transform, now.”

I didn’t mean this metaphorically, and I wasn’t exaggerating.

It is often objected that your individual effort won’t make any difference. This is true of the individual who is merely doing things to salve their conscience, or as the result of an individual advertising campaign. But it is not true in your case, because you are prophets, and an essential part of being a prophet (as you discovered earlier) is that they are completely personally committed to their message.

“Get out of this church and demonstrate that humanity can be more than just a rogue species”

Here are two suggestions:

First suggestion:

  1. Go through the gospels and find all the passages where people ask Jesus what they should do.
  2. Make a list of his advice.
  3. Take it.

Second suggestion:
1. Make one list of all the things you do which contribute to mass extinction, by using unsustainably produced resources, polluting, or damaging ecosystems. Do this in discussion with a group and with the help of on-line resources.
2. Make a second list of all the ways you can think of to create an environmental handprint, that is, to increase biodiversity and counter mass extinction.

3. Which do you think is currently bigger, your handprint or your footprint? Challenge yourselves and one another to live so your handprint is bigger than your footprint, to leave the world more biodiverse than you found it.

Try both. How do they compare?

Handprint Ideas

tree planting and reforestation
wildlife gardening, window boxes for bees, green roofs and ‘no mow’ grass areas
using consumer power to persuade producers of food or wood to encourage biodiversity
install solar panels to generate electricity without contributing to climate change
find out about biodiversity and land use (grazing, crops, housing, recreation like golf courses and grouse moor), and support policies that improve biodiversity
give to charities and invest in projects that conserve or restore biodiversity (for example, money saved reducing your environmental footprint, or you might consider your pension and other investments)
support the global education of women: it’s the quickest, cheapest and fairest way to slow population growth and increase sustainable practices locally


“You have to be the prophets, who proclaim the message.”

Prophets speak. I got your interest by speaking. Discourse change leads policy change and happens, sometimes quite quickly, when the message of a few voices is taken up by many. My talk used the model of Jonah’s message spreading around Nineveh then being taken up as policy by the king. You think I’m naturally good at speaking: I’m not. I’m naturally inarticulate and prefer hiding in history archives, which is why I wrote my talk out word-for-word and spent much time rehearsing it. If you think what I said is right and important, it’s up to you to find ways to tell other people: not just in talks, but in conversation, by letter, by postcard, in sermons, in ten-foot-high letters on a wall, on Twitter (scary!!). I can send you the text of my talk if you like, but it would be much better to write your own. In your group, make a list of practical ways you could be prophets, and speak to the powerful.

– But speaking out is not my thing: it’s difficult and scary!

– Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of looking a fool. The only fear allowed round here is `fear of the Lord’.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs 1.7

“You’ll realise as the story unfolds that `the Lord’ represents everything that happens which isn’t human decision or will: objective scientific knowledge; the tugging voice of conscience; the uncontrollable forces of nature.”


Use your initiatives. I don’t know much and I’m not in charge of anything. I only have one brain and you have many.

If you’re reading this without having heard the talk, do invite me to come and give it. I’m told it’s thought-provoking. Clergy and non-churchgoers seem to find it most interesting, which is interesting!

And do keep in touch. Comment on this blog. My email is Do that scary Twitter thing.

There’s a discourse that needs changed. You are the prophets. Go and make more.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. 2 Corinthians 5:11

“Nothing will ever be the same. Don’t be afraid. Turn into the hope.”