01 April 2009

A Hard Rain's A'Gonna Fall

We turned the lights out at home last Saturday, for Earth Hour: sheer tokenism, I suppose, and no inconvenience because we were watching TV and it illuminated the room pretty well. But overall the exercise saved a fair amount of carbon emissions, so it had some practical value (just a drop in the ocean). Or did it?

Energise!, the book by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky which I mentioned in my blog yesterday about the Oxford Literary Festival, questions the received wisdom about global warming and energy. To my simple mind, it seems that it looks exclusively at the supply side, while the rock stars and failed politicians (but Al Gore didn't really fail, did he, just fell victim to a few hanging chads? Having lost an election by one vote, I can sympathise with him) look at the demand side. It strikes me that both are important.

By considering energy supply, the authors are able to relieve humankind of the guilt that made Earth Hour work. James, who said he does the populist energy bit (while Joe, the academic scientist, does the hard climate change bit: I remarked in my introduction that they had chosen shirts that reflected this, James in bright stripes, Joe in dour charcoal), referred to dinner parties at which the conversation turns on what guests have done to offset their carbon emissions. "I planted a rainforest in Indonesia to offset my travel to this dinner party ...". And in my own mind I added: "... but illegal loggers chopped it down ...". Perhaps Carol Drinkwater could make a persuasive case for planting olive trees on the advancing margins of the Sahara in Algeria instead - she explained that this is already being done.

James suggests that human beings made the mistake of making too many - somethings - I didn't catch what, because I instantly knew what the problem was: too many human beings! The pressure on scarce resources - even if those resources are not going to run out in the foreseeable future - comes from the size of the human population. I have often thought, when reading or hearing of some species perhaps on the edge of extinction, or perhaps present in what are considered good numbers, how small are the populations of so many other species compared with human beings. It's hard to think of population growth as an unqualified Good Thing (especially concentrated on the south-east corner of England).

Hmmm. It wasn't my job yesterday to argue with the speakers, and I plan to do them the courtesy of reading their book - but I think a lot of it will go against my own thoughts, and perhaps make me very angry. We don't have to feel guilty - unless we have something to feel guilty about. I don't feel particularly guilty about using my car, or even flying sometimes, partly because where appropriate I use a train or bike, or walk or run. My aim is not to be selfishly profligate about it, and I fear this "no guilt" argument, which perhaps (let me read the book) simply rejects opposing points of view, fails to acknowledge that there is a middle way where supply side and demand side can meet.

James finished his presentation with a quote from Steinmetz, perhaps providing a justification for rejecting the opposite viewpoint: “There are no foolish questions and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions” ((omitting the first six words). How am I to moderate a question and answer session after the audience has just been told that? However, my speakers indicate that they would like to engage in a debate about the "Green New Deal": but the audience doesn't really oblige.

Two other random thoughts, one remarked on by several people in the marquee where the event took place: the lights have been blazing throughout, and there is no visible way to switch them off. At the end, the heating fires up too, though it's warm enough with the sun on the white walls.

And secondly, the idea of burying carbon, extracted from the chimney of power stations, intrigues me. Nothing new about capturing the carbon and burying it: but will we later be digging the stuff up again to burn? Perhaps it should be buried conveniently in worked-out coal mines. The idea of mining for metals in landfill sites also comes to mind as a result of another comment. An entertaining and enlightening (but I don't necessarily think enlightened) hour, and two delightful speakers to look after (which is what I was there for, after all) - but I'll make up my mind when I read the book, I think.

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