The Wild Wild Wind

July 16, 2013

About a year ago Chris Townsend wrote a defence of his opposition to wind farms in the wilderness, a defence notable for its lack of venom and the mindless shrieking about imagined technical issues that infects too much of the opposition to wind power. I unfortunately did not read the article at the time, but came to it late via a tweet last week.

It is so different from much of the bile that pumps from the spout of the Telegraph and the like that it deserves a proper response, even now. To summarise, Townsend argues from a position that has a long history within the environmental movement, dating back to Thoreau and the Transcendalists: that of wilderness being essential for human flourishing. By imposing our own practicalities on the wild – to whit, by concreting it over – we conceal something potentially grander and hence impoverish ourselves. The viewpoint of man is necessarily limited, and by assuming our needs are primary we miss out on manifold other forms of interpretation. An example that Thoreau uses is that of squirrels, which around here are frequently dismissed as tree rats, but from another perspective can be seen as the ‘planters of forests’.

The wilderness allows man to have access to this manifold of interpretation and in contemplating it we are free to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. This approach could be seen as having much in common with Kantian aesthetics, albeit on a much broader scale. By introducing symbols of man’s practicality within the demesne of the wild we break this manifold: an interpretation is forced upon us and shocks us out of our contemplation. Townsend claims that wind turbines play this role, and are an intrusion into the wild.

I wish to argue the opposite, but before I do so we must better understand why the wild is able to play the role that it does. Firstly, it is ostensibly impractical. The wild has no easily perceived use, and only through contemplation and investigation can we see the role it can play. Secondly, it is chaotic. It is not constructed according to a single coherent design, but rather the complex interaction of many forms of life, and forces much larger than life itself. Thirdly, this impractical chaos lends it beauty. The aesthetic of the wild as outlined above is an aesthetic of happenstance and of engagement: beauty lies in the capability of the wild to open new ways of seeing the world.

With the above in tow, it is not clear that man made objects are necessarily excluded from the wild if it can be shown they can manifest the features given above. I claim that wind turbines can. It is frequently claimed by opponents of wind power that they are impractical, being less controllable than the huge coal furnaces they’re more used to getting electricity from. This is true: compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines represent a surrender to nature. But in that surrender there is mystery: they force the user to consider new ways of powering civilisation, ones which are more in line with the forces that determine the shape of the wild. They are chaotic – certainly in output – but in interaction across the country bring a unity of output not of a single design, but of many. In the contemplation of this new world in which the wild moves into civilisation, rather than the other way round, they are certainly beautiful.

The train journey between Carlisle and Edinburgh now goes through what can only be described as a wind farm landscape. It is beautiful. When passing through it, one cannot help but contemplate how our world is changing, and how our very understanding of the previously hermetic worlds of the Wild and the Civilised are changing with it. Thoreau believed that man, through art and literature, could create the wild itself. In placing more of our civilisation in the hands of natural forces, we are bringing the wild home.

We, as a country, have decided to make tackling climate change much more expensive. This is the logical consequence of today’s news that onshore wind, the cheapest form of low carbon power, is to suffer much heavier restrictions on where it can be built. Given that the need to tackle climate change has not gone away, the options left to us to reduce the impact of our need for electricity are much more expensive.

But there’s a bigger problem than this, and that’s the message it sends about our future as a country. The new restrictions on wind turbines will make it more difficult to build them in areas where wind turbines already exist, on flatter land and near old buildings. But the key change is this statement by Eric Pickles:

“the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”

While this sounds reasonable, ‘environmental protections’ does not refer to the natural world, but rather to views. How opponents of wind power have got away with conflating the natural world and the views of people who’ve retired to the countryside is baffling, and a failing on the part of its advocates. Previously, while aesthetic impact was taken into account, it only resulted in a refused planning application when there was an impact on genuinely astonishing views, like national parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Now it seems likely that rather than permitting national needs to occasionally override the concerns of people who’ve bought houses in the countryside, much more of our country will be locked in stasis.

People tend not to like change, and people especially don’t like change if they’ve retired to the countryside. The majority of objections to wind farms come from retirees and incomers to communities, rather than lifelong countryside dwellers. Eric Pickles’ statement realigns the UK to serve this interest group. While people of course deserve their retirement, turning the countryside into a care home is not the way to run an economy.

We have a proud heritage, and we could have a proud future. But changes like this, which place more power in the hands of people with little interest in the future, make it more likely that that future will be as a museum for Chinese tourists. This is not the legacy the Coalition should leave.

Timmy doesn’t like wind turbines, or, indeed, anything of the other solutions to climate change which are subsidised. This is fair enough; it’s entirely coherent for any classical liberal to dislike any prospect of rent-seeking that appears to impose costs on the rest of society. In a post on Forbes yesterday, he endorsed a letter from an engineering professor to the Telegraph which criticises ‘premature’ technology deployment – i.e. the deployment of technology before it reaches a level at which it can compete successfully with established tech.

Solar panels, he points out, are frequently described by their advocates as likely to be cost-competitive with coal plant in at most ten years’ time. If this is the case, he argues, then why do we need to spend money subsidising their production? Surely we could just wait ten years and reap all the benefits of clean energy without having to shell out millions of pounds of bill-payers’ money? In fact:

“Another way of making the same point is that instead of deploying subsidy requiring energy production systems now we should be, assuming we are going to do anything about climate change, be putting those resources into the R&D of renewable systems so as to get them to economic efficiency that much the faster.”

On the same day as this post went up, Timmy put the following up on a post about the NHS:

“For there’s something we learned in the short 20 th century, that period betweem 1917 and 1991. Market based systems improve total factor productivity better than centrally planned systems.”

Put simply, markets are the best tool we have for procuring something that we want more cheaply. If we want good quality healthcare that’s free at the point of use, then the cheapest way of ensuring that is by permitting competition within the NHS. If we want cheaper wind turbines and solar panels, we need a market. We need a bunch of people who want to buy these things, and people who compete to sell them to them.

I feel confident enough in this to make the following prediction: solar panels will be cheaper in ten years’ time if we fund a market in them than if we spend the same money throwing boffins at the problem. This is because the market will pay people to spend money on boffins too, boffins with stronger incentives to make the solar panels better.

Now, you can argue whether the current market we have in green energy is the correct shape to properly incentivise  increasing productivity. What you can’t do is say that we should have a thing and then say that the best way to get that thing is to fund experts to think really hard about the problem, and then say the exact opposite about another thing. I’m quite frankly shocked that Timmy has decided to eschew his own economic knowledge for that of engineer on this point.

Shilling for Shale

September 26, 2011

Economic blogger Tim Worstall has been getting very excited about shale gas. Cuadrilla Energy, a company set up to explore for unconventional gas in the UK, are reporting the discovery of 200 trillion cubic feet of the stuff under Lancashire. Tim is positively cock-a-hoop at the prospect of sufficient reserves of fossil fuels to allow us to without ‘damn windmills’ entirely.

I read Tim’s blog on a regular basis, for its amusing deconstruction of left-wing economic tropes, and I am disappointed that Tim hasn’t applied his usual economic rigour here. Shale gas appears to have become something of a magic bullet for certain sections of the Right, but as Tim would normally be the first to say, if your magic bullet is made of platinum and a thousand regular bullets do the same job, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

Tim appears to be putting himself in a box with some rather mad fellow travellers, like James Delingpole and Christopher Booker, perhaps to get a similar Telegraph gig. Let me try to summarise this shared position:

  • Renewables are bad, because they require space in a countryside that must be locked into a sepia-tinted version of the 1950s for the rest of time, are very clearly associated with hippies and filthy left-wingers, and above all are expensive. Tim is currently only espousing the last of these points.
  • A far better way of securing our energy sources is to rely on unsubsidised fossil fuels, which human ingenuity will guarantee cheap and plentiful supplies of for the foreseeable future.

It’s this question of cost that’s at the heart of the current debate, and rightly so – we need to decarbonise our economy, but we need to do it in the most cost-effective way possible. The key question, therefore, is how much shale gas actually costs, rather than how much Tim, James and Christopher think it costs.

To do so we’ll look at some research carried out by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. The OIES is partly funded by those well-known opponents of the oil and gas industry, the oil and gas industry. The paper we’ll look at is called ‘Can Unconventional Gas be a Game Changer in European Gas Markets?by Florence Gény.

The paper can be summarised as ‘No, Europe is different, and it’s not clear that shale gas is as profitable and productive in the US as its advocates claim’. The section relevant to our question here is from Chapter 4:

“Although gas production has continued to increase in 2009 and 2010 despite lower prices than in the previous years, there is a big question mark about current well economics. Many public sources estimate that the average price required for shale gas wells to be economic is around $6/mcf. Averages are a very poor measure to use in the case of shale plays, as every play is different, and within plays, core areas and non-core areas yield very different results, but the fact that by late 2010, gas prices had not reached $6/mcf for two years suggests that the commercial viability of many wells drilled, and so the financial solidity of many independents, could be very weak. We believe it is only a question of time before costs drive up prices, or drilling slows downs significantly and production falls. However many independents get financial protection against low gas prices through hedging strategies, so the cash impact of non commercial drilling is mitigated.”

The reduction in the price of gas in the US appears to have been caused by a broader range of drivers, not least the economic downturn and a significant increase in the number of gas processing plants, which convert unprocessed gas into dry natural gas suitable for injection into the gas grid. It’s not clear that shale is the primary cause of lower gas prices – or indeed whether shale gas suppliers can make money out of it when gas prices are low. Certainly, one of the strongest advocates of shale gas production in the US, Chesapeake Energy, made a significant loss in 2009, although they appear to have since climbed out of the hole, primarily by selling off shale gas assets. Cuadrilla doesn’t appear to have ever made a profit, although as a start-up that’s not really a consideration.

What does this mean for ‘damn windmills’? We can plug the $6/mcf figure into the costings report produced by Mott Macdonald for DECC last year. It models a range of gas prices. $6/mcf translates to about 37p per therm. The lower boundary of prices in the Mott Macdonald report is 34p per therm. Looks good for shale, right?

Well, no. The prices in the Mott Macdonald report are ‘burner tip’ prices – i.e. the cost to generators per therm at combustion. The $6/mcf price is the wellhead price, which is typically around $1-2 below the wholesale price. Factoring in the need for shale gas suppliers to make a profit, the burner-tip price of shale gas is going to look a lot more like DECC’s medium case. Under this case, onshore wind turbines will be the cheapest source of electricity by the end of this decade, when the carbon cost of gas is factored in. The latter won’t be a consideration for those who find the very concept of science an affront to their all-knowing egos like Delingpole and Booker, but for Tim, who acknowledges science as a worthwhile field, it will be.

If Tim had written ‘damn tidal mills’ he would’ve been correct. Different types of renewable energy generators will become economically viable at different times. A combination of onshore wind and combined-cycle gas turbines will be the cheapest way of replacing the quarter of our electricity generators that are being shut down over the course of this decade. I don’t mind admitting that, as a fervent supporter of capitalism, I’ve put my money into this solution. I too believe in the power of human ingenuity to provide solutions to our energy problems; I just don’t think it only applies to fossil fuels.

I would also point out that because of the long lead-time on making new sources of energy economically viable, subsidies can be a sensible policy option. For example, in 1980, the US Government brought in ‘The Alternative Fuel Production Credit’ to provide incentives to invest in non-traditional sources of energy. One of those was shale gas.

I work for the wind industry, and a very jolly industry is to work for too, I must say. Over the past year I’ve become concerned that the jolliness associated with my industry might take something of a knock thanks to the development of shale gas. What is shale gas, I hear you ask? Well, it’s the gas you get when you drill down to shale beds such as those found around old gas & oil plays, set off a big explosion that fractures the shale, and pump down water and other chemicals to force out the gas that was otherwise trapped in tiny pockets in the rock.

Various people have questioned its environmental credentials, not least pointing out that it has similar lifecycle emissions of CO2 to unabated coal. That hasn’t stopped haters like renowned dandelion Christopher Booker from claiming that this is the end of all wind farms, as it’ll make gas cheap enough to rely on into the next century.

Right now, OfGem is predicting that a gas-focused policy for building new generation plant would raise consumer prices by 52% by 2016, as a consequence of this new dash for gas pushing up demand. Comparatively, an energy mix that includes wind raises prices by only 23%, as the use of wind to displace a third of gas generation lowers demand and hence lowers fuel costs. The argument of the gas-lovers has been that shale gas is a ‘disruptive’ technology that will mitigate this price increase.

This is the sort of magic bullet beloved by the anti-wind lobby, who are grasping for any excuse to not build renewables. Doubtless there was a round of cheering in the hollowed-out dead volcano that houses the headquarters of Nimbyism when the committee for Energy & Climate Change decided to give the go-ahead to shale gas exploration in the UK. At last, they must’ve thought, here’s a technology that will give us energy security without having to build the blasted wind turbines!

There’s a small problem with this, and it lies in the report of the Committee, which estimates the UK’s shale gas reserves as totalling nearly a year-and-a-half’s worth of current UK gas demand.

Check that out.

A year and a half of slightly cheaper gas.

‘Disruptive technology’ my arse.

Now, let’s be fair – there may be other shale gas plays in the old oilfields of the North Sea. There’s a bit of a problem there, which is that extracting gas out at sea is more expensive than on land, mitigating shale gas’s price advantage. There’s another, slightly bigger problem, which doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone yet.

Perhaps you remember that wonderful attempt to keep our old coal and gas plant working in this carbon-conscious age, known as Carbon Capture and Storage. The idea is that you capture emissions from fossil fuel plant at the point of emission and then store them in old oil and gas beds, making gas and coal zero-carbon. However, if at the same time you licence other companies to blow enormous holes in those same oil and gas beds while looking for shale gas, then I’m prepared to bet that the process suddenly becomes pretty bloody carbon intensive, to the point where every Geordie will be able to get a free bubblebath in the North Sea.

It’s certainly true that other countries’ shale gas reserves are more ‘disruptive’ than ours and will have an impact upon imported liquefied natural gas wholesale prices. However, I suspect that the impact of such a relatively limited native supply means that you’ll still want to use the wind when it blows, rather than burning necessarily unabated shale gas.

Tim Worstall is simultaneously wrong and right:

“We don’t actually give a shit about which technology provides us with low carbon power. We care only that we get low carbon power. So, of course, incentives and subsidies should be simple and unique. One system for all.Onshore wind should get the same deal as offshore wind, as solar PV, as tidal, as wave, as nuclear, as hydro. For what we actually want to have is that low carbon power in the most efficient manner possible. So set that one incentive and may the best system win.”

He’s absolutely right that we should aim to ensure that every single type of power generation gets the same deal for its power, to ensure that we move towards a low-carbon grid at the lowest cost possible. Unfortunately, the Government’s reforms to the energy market probably won’t achieve that. It’s because the electricity market is hellishly complicated, because balancing the electricity supply is hellishly complicated.

Let me give a (very) brief overview of how it works. The National Grid, every half hour, announces how much electricity it thinks it’s going to need in half an hour’s time. Generators then bid a certain price to supply that power, and NG picks the cheapest ones (not always, because of something called the merit order, but generally). They agree a contract that says in half an hour’s time they’ll supply that amount of power. This happens 48 times a day, every day. In the event that National Grid gets it wrong, it either has to pay generators a premium to produce less or to produce more. Somehow, this all works, and our lights stay on – we’ve never had a total grid failure since the National Grid was set up, although NG engineers are still required to train for what to do in the event of a wonderfully dramatically named Black Start.

Demand varies throughout the day, by around 20GW, or around twenty Sizewell B-sized nukes. Obviously, when demand is higher, the price that generators can bid with is higher. And herein lies the problem with the Government’s preferred option for supporting low-carbon energy.

It’s based on something called ‘Contracts for Difference’. Basically, a low-carbon generator agrees a long-term contract with the Government to supply a certain amount of energy over a given period, say, a year. They’ll still sell their electricity on the wholesale market as above, but they’ll have it ‘topped up’ to an agreed level if it goes below a certain rate. It effectively sets a guaranteed price floor for low-carbon generation.

This is great for nuclear, because nuclear is always on. At night, when demand and prices are low, their generation is topped up. During the day when prices are high, they can extract a premium. However, it could very easily bone variable renewables, like wind, because they have no control over when they produce electricity and could find that the majority of their income comes at night, on the lower rate. This privileges nuclear even if wind is cheaper at the point of production.

Now, Tim might want to come back and say that’s great, because it’s a clear incentive for nuclear plants to produce more during the day, getting us our low carbon electricity more cheaply. The problem is that nuclear is incapable of responding to that market signal – you can’t ramp nuclear up and down with incurring significant expense, which to make economic would require another incentive payment for flexible response. The Government is also considering something called ‘capacity payments’ which are broadly payments intended to deliver that sort of flexible response services, but they’ll be pitched at a price which would only be worthwhile for gas, rather than nukes. It’s an example of a Government intervention in a market which requires further Government intervention in the market after they cock up the first intervention, and this is what Tim Yeo is getting at.

If you want low-carbon electricity, then you can pay a premium for it or tax carbon-intensive generation more heavily. The Government is doing both, but cocking up the former.

I’m in Wales taking the role of an expert on windpower for a consultation by National Grid on grid extensions for new windfarms. You’ll probably be thinking, “Wow, thrilling stuff!”, and you’d be right to think that – especially if you live here.

This development will have a significant impact on the lives of people around it, and no-one is pretending otherwise. The purpose of the consultation is to minimise that impact via the feedback of local people. My role is to put the broader case for the expansion of windpower to give attendees an understanding as to why this work is being carried out.

During the course of this, I’ve noticed something interesting, something I would describe as a potential market failure. The biggest opposition to the proposals comes from a demographic labelled ‘white settlers’ – people who’ve moved out to rural areas, normally from England and normally after retirement.

They’ve bought property out here for various reasons, but the ones I hear cited most often are the quiet and scenery, both of which will be impacted by new pylons and the construction work around them. They say this will affect the price of their property.

The interesting thing – and what I’d describe as a market failure – is that if this does occur it’ll do so without impacting the actual bearer of that value – namely, their house. It will remain the same collection of bricks and mortar as it did when they bought it. The actual property right they bought – the right to their house – has nothing to do with the environment in which it is situated and yet the market behaves as if this is the case.

There are a collection of legal rights associated with living in a particular place, around noise and pollution and so in, but they are attached to persons, not to property, and so have a quite different status. You don’t buy the right to a quiet life by moving out to the country, but the market behaves as if you do.

While some may simply shrug and say ‘Caveat emptor’, that’s not an appropriate response – people feel genuinely betrayed that their purchase hasn’t entitled them to the environment they expected. Is there a possible solution?

I would argue that we need to separate out particular rights relating to amenity explicitly, and confer on them the status of a community right attached to a property. You would not be required to purchase that right if you bought a property, but you would then have no recourse if that right were transgressed by an external party. Developers could then purchase, say, the right to an average level of background noise as a consequence of a particular development, or lease it over a period of construction. This would offset the impact on property values that would otherwise occur, assuming a market rate were paid, and smooth the process of gaining consent for a development.

While it may be objected that such a system would be unbearably complicated, those objecting have clearly never encountered the planning system. We need a mechanism to ensure that the relationship between property rights and nearby development is transparent and equitable, and as a good liberal I’d say expanding the scope of property rights is the way to do it.

Astute observers of the press (for a very broad definition of ‘astute’ that includes anyone who reads the Sunday papers) will have noticed that the Royal Family is line for a very literal windfall from the enormous expansion of offshore wind that’s planned for the next couple of decades.

The Crown Estate, the nice chaps who administer the land owned by the Sovereign, own all of the seabed up to 12 nautical miles off the UK’s coast. This has never really been an issue in the past, as the only really economically relevant use of the seabed has been oil pipes and Telecom cables. They have mineral rights, but not hydrocarbon rights.

However, if you want to put anything on the seabed, you have to pay the Crown Estate for a licence to be able to do so – the same sort of rent a landowner receives for having a pylon on their property. Since all the cables bringing in that juicy offshore wind electricity are going to go across the Crown Estate’s section of the seabed, they’ll have to pay for it.

One of the classic Liberal campaigning issues has always been land reform, because of the rent-seeking activity of the people who owned the land. Indeed, the Georgist song referenced in the title of this blog post refers to it; land value taxes having been something we’ve been pushing for over a century. Labour are very recent converts by comparison. The argument is, broadly, that no-one should be able to profit without actually doing work – in other words, if you’re just extracting rent without doing anything useful with the land itself, you should pay for it.

The Crown Estate’s licensing arrangement is classic rent-seeking; they’re charging for access to property they’re not using themselves. This land is going to become increasingly valuable over the coming years, as more and more uses for our maritime holdings become apparent. This affords us an opportunity to institute a bold experiment in land reform and LVT: I propose we sell off our nautical estate and institute a Seabed Value Tax.

The idea is to make some initial capital to help pay off our debt, while ensuring a constant revenue stream to help reduce the deficit. This will initially be low – most likely significantly lower than the current licensing costs of the Crown Estate – to encourage investment in maritime infrastructure. However, as these new industries expand over time, a SVT will help ensure that owners of undersea property will seek to make best use of it.

One objection that could be raised is that the seabed is a more crowded place than you would think – oil pipes here and there, international transmissions cables for communications and electricity, anchorage sites, shipping lanes, marine conservation zones – in fact, almost every type of infrastructure you would find on land has some sort of marine counterpart. The Crown Estate facilitates discussions between those with different interests with respect to the seabed, ensuring that – for example – no-one tries to lay cables across pipes. Selling off all its nautical estate would make it more difficult to co-ordinate these activities. However, similar issues on land are handled by legislation and agreements between parties, rather than a central body. There is no reason to think that something similar would not work underwater.

If this proposal is taken up, I suggest that the page of the Liberator song book that contains the words for the ‘The Land’, which is sung so gustily at Conference’s Glee Club, is replaced with the words to ‘Under the Sea‘…

Speaking as a professional greenie, the anguish from my fellow greenies over the undercapitalisation of the Green Investment Bank is puzzling. The argument appears to be that the enormous amounts of capital required to build our new low-carbon infrastructure cannot be sourced from traditional sources of investment – the figures given by Ernst and Young indicate a £450bn requirement with only £80bn of funding available from utility companies, project finance and infrastructure funds.

A Green Investment Bank would be able to create financial products for particular areas of infrastructure development; for example, you could buy an ‘Offshore Wind Bond’ and receive a rate of return depending on the success of offshore wind development projects. These would be funded by capital from the GIB. This would make it relatively easier for these products to access capital, making the financing of these projects much quicker and cheaper. Ordinary people would be able to do things like invest in Green ISAs, knowing that their money would be used for projects that would help us move towards a low-carbon economy.

Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? There’s a bit of a problem, and it’s because you’re creating what will be in essence a State-backed bank that will be issuing bonds with what will be in all likelihood a rate of interest exceeding that of gilts, £370bn of them, to be precise. Interest rates on gilts have been relatively low because there’s been significant demand from institutional investors for safe state-backed finance products. Add £370bn into the market and all of a sudden interest rates on gilts will go up as demand drops as a consequence of the increased supply of Government-backed debt. This is, you know, the very thing the cuts are intended to stop.

That’s not even looking at the fact that infrastructure projects have a relatively long lead-time, meaning that unless the bank is severely restricted in the bonds it is able to issue in the short term, it’ll suddenly acquire massive amounts of liabilities that it will have to service at cost higher than that of gilts. These costs will be passed onto project developers, raising their cost of capital. Indeed, the only people likely to make money out of this idea would be – yes – the bankers, and people providing financial advice, like, say, Ernst & Young.

The way to secure investment in infrastructure projects is to provide grants for nascent technologies and long-term revenue support for technologies on the cusp of commercial profitability – and to provide a stable policy environment with respect to their development. With this in mind, the fact that the RO system remains untouched following the Spending Review and that £200 million of new grants for manufacturing infrastructure and technology demonstrations has been announced, it would seem the sector is in a pretty good place. Institutional investors want to make money, and they will invest more in project finance if there’s a clear rate of return. Breaking them out of the habit up relying on Government-backed debt to do this is not helped by a GIB.

“You’re a mentalist!”

– Alan Partridge

An article on the Guardian’s ‘Cif Green’ section today actually makes the claim that:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

I would like to dispute this, if I may, and in doing so discuss further the rise of the group I would like to call the Environ-Mentalists; those who believe that our current industrial civilisation has doomed itself and all that’s left is to sing sad songs in the dark, like a race of angst-ridden teenagers.

Let’s first look at the land area hunter-gather tribes require to provide nutrition. This study of a tribe living the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to indicate that the maximum this lush & bountiful environment can sustain is a population density of one person per square kilometre – and this is factoring in a certain amount of agriculture. Making the very charitable assumption that every part of Earth is equally able to support hunter-gatherer humans, a land area of 148,300,000 square kilometres implies that 97.5% of the current human population of 6 billion would have to die to make this ‘dream’ a reality. It’s good to know that Caroline Wickham-Jones appears to view slaughter beyond nightmares with such casual disregard.

To be fair, I didn’t supply the entire quote:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible.”

Which does make clear that she doesn’t believe we should necessarily slaughter almost everyone on the planet, merely that the ‘changed circumstances’ that allowed that population to come about are an irritation in this sense.

But what are those changed circumstances?

“Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies; increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.”

This woman is an archaeologist who believes that specialisation causes ‘wisdom’ to be lost. Just gape in astonishment at that statement; and ponder what ‘wisdom’ was lost when we stopped living in caves.

The Dark Mountain Project

Wickham-Jones isn’t the only one who believes that our pesky industrial civilisation is holding us back from running through the trees dancing and singing; we also have the astonishing chaps at the Dark Mountain Project who – honestly – believe that a civilisation isn’t defined by the machines they use or the goods they produce, but rather by the myths and stories associated with them. They’re trying to start what they term an Uncivilisation, which aims to be a collective of writers, artists & thinkers who will preserve these myths through the disruption and collapse of climate change. It’s all wonderfully romantic, but it contains a danger that the movement’s ostensible leader demonstrates in this article. His call for a return to the deep green of the older ecology movement is very enticing, but ultimately leads to the same conclusions as Wickham-Jones: billions must die to make it a reality.

On the other side, you have the anti-environmental ludicrousnessesses like James Delingpole, who are so wedded to such an individualistic epistemology that they’re willing to sacrifice science on its altar. Caught between the extremes of misanthropy and misology are the rest of us, whom I’m going to call the Industrial Environmentalists.  This includes the likes of George Monbiot (despite his recent paen of despair). We believe that humans do impact on the planet, on its atmosphere and on ecosystems – but that this can be overcome, not by giving up civilisation but by using the ingenuity that gave rise to it in the first place. We believe that ecological damage and global warming are major concerns – but concerns we can overcome through the application of reason and industry. And, if possible, we’d like both extremes of the debate to start talking to each other rather than us, so we can get on with saving the planet and our civilisation while they cancel each other out.