I’ve been bashing Labour for quite a while, and so it’s time to pick on some of the stupidity coming from the Right. I don’t normally have a lot of time for Prince Charles, but his speech to the Low Carbon Prosperity Summit was bang-on. He argued that our long-term prosperity is threatened by a combination of rising temperatures and ecosystem degradation, and that decoupling economic growth from business-as-usual consumption was essential to maintain that prosperity into the future. In a particularly stirring section, he condemned climate sceptics in no uncertain terms:

“I wonder, will such people be held accountable at the end of the day for the absolute refusal to countenance a precautionary approach for this plays a most reckless game of roulette with the future inheritance of those who come after us?”

Of course, such forthright views almost instantly attracted the vitriol of right-wing jester James Delingpole and the at least internally consistent libertarian writings of Dan Hannan. Both of them have lambasted Charles for attempting to send us into a dark age of economic stagnation. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t really bear that out – they both appear to have seen this part of the speech:

“There is, surely, no way round the fact that we have to move away from our conventional economic model of growth, based, as it is, on the production and consumption of high-carbon intensity goods.

“We need to meet the challenge of decoupling economic growth from increased consumption in such a way that both the well-being of Nature’s ecology and our own economic needs do not suffer.”

and thought, “HE’S CONDEMNING CONSUMPTION! MUST STOP HIM!”

No. He’s condemning carbon-intensive consumption, which is different from, well, low-carbon consumption. The clue is his use of the word ‘decoupling’, which is used in economics to indicate the separation of production from increasing pressure on the environment. This is a relatively common position for environmentalists to take – that we can have the benefits of economic growth while safeguarding the natural world as long as we have an appropriate policy framework in place. It is, in fact, perfectly compatible with liberalism, as it typically requires additional payment for externalities. This can take the form of a carbon tax or subsidies for low-carbon electricity generation paid for by energy users.

Both Delingpole and Hannan appear to have convinced themselves that no-one arguing for environmental impact considerations with regard to economic activity can possibly be in favour of prosperity. This is quite a severe case of (a) stupidity and (b) setting up strawmen. It’s also dangerous – reducing the impact of the biosphere to sustain us will impact on our future prosperity, and so it needs to be a factor in our economic calculations. Both right-wingers appear to be advocating a rather naive version of libertarian economics that appears to deny the existence of any possible externality. On the other hand, at least Hannan is emphasising the importance of private property, so hopefully he’ll get around to campaigning against the planning system.

Addendum: Another spectacular example of right-wing stupidity at the Telegraph, where Ross Clark is arguing that since localism is hard we should stop doing it. What a brave man you are, Mr Clark.

An amusing symmetry

January 26, 2011

Hot on the heels of Telegraph ‘blogger’ James Delingpole’s meltdown on Horizon, the Telegraph has taken aim at another bugbear of the pro-science folk: the potential for an asteroid to smash into the Earth and extinguish almost all life. Apparently, we’re all getting our knickers in a twist over nothing, because such an asteroid would ‘create opportunities for life’. This is an argument right up there with ‘Carbon Dioxide is plant food’ in the MISSING THE FUCKING POINT scales.

I look forward to the future division of the debate into the pro-meteor defence and anti-meteor defence camps. You see, Government spending to prevent the extinction of all life remains Government spending, and libertarians just can’t have that. I wonder if the Koch Brothers will sponsor an anti-Nasa thinktank in the near future; heaven knows they’re already opposed to little things like satellite data.

“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.

Part 13 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 13: White Blackmail

Rearden’s wife, Lillian, discovers his infidelity by sneaking back to New York in the early hours of the morning following James Taggart’s wedding, having told Rearden that she was heading back home. Rearden’s paltry effort at deception – telling her he had business in town the next morning and so was staying on at the hotel – allowed her to surprise him when he returned to the hotel in the morning after spending the night with Dagny. Rearden refuses to divulge the name of his mistress, which Lillian assumes cannot be Dagny because Dagny is only interested in business. Lillian refuses Rearden a divorce in order to retain her position as a kept wife of a prominent businessman, and to torture Rearden with the knowledge that he’s broken a contract – which, to a man convinced of the sanctity of contract, is tantamount to demolishing his integrity.

Of course, the problem is that the only proper contract is a business contract involving exchange of value – social contracts like marriage are not exchanges of values, but moral commitments. Luckily, everyone’s favourite genius Franciso d’Anconia is along later in the chapter to point this out to Rearden.

Dr Ferris, he of the State Science Institute, comes along with more threats for Rearden to ensure that he hands over enough Rearden Metal for the Government’s Project X. This time he’s armed with knowledge of Rearden’s illegal business deal (illegal under one of the bizarre new laws Rand’s government of socialist strawmen decreed) with a coal mine owner, Kenneth Danagger. He threatens Rearden with the full force of the law if he does not comply – wait, no, actually, he doesn’t. He just threatens him with ruining his reputation by taking him to court. This is intended to spur Rearden into obedience, and leads to a passage that every libertarian everywhere quotes whenever they’re talking about civil liberties and the state:

“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against – then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way or rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand, it you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

The argument is that the only way a government can control people is by making ill-defined acts illegal and capitalising on the guilt as a form of social control. Remember this argument, because joined together with the more general form of this argument that comes later in this chapter it quite comprehensively demonstrates that either libertarianism is a massive practical joke played on the world by Rand (i.e. like James Delingpole’s career), or she’s ignored the Janus-like quality of this sort of meta-ethical argument.

Rearden of course stands up to Dr. Ferris, and is indicted.

Dagny has been tracing the progress of the mysterious disappearances of the men of industry, and has worked out a formula. The ones to disappear are the one who at any given time the remainder of the structure of the economy rests upon. She intuitively realises that the next person in this chain is Kenneth Danagger, and rushes to his office to prevent him from departing.

She is pipped to the post by a mysterious individual, who persuades Danagger to retire, and leaves his office just before Dagny is allowed in. Dagny cannot persuade him to stay – whatever he’s been told has unseated even his lust for industry.

Rearden, still in his offices late into the night, is surprised by Francisco d’Anconia, who launches into an exposition of why he’s so much more moral than anyone else, because all his actions were aimed at producing the best products for exchange. There’s one passage in particular I want to pick out:

“Did you want to see [Rearden Metal] used by men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity – men such as Eddie Willers – who could never invent your Metal, but who would do their best, work as hard as you did, live by their own effort – and riding on your rail – give a moment’s silent thanks to the man who gave them more than they could give him?”

“Yes,” said Rearden gently

Bask in Rearden’s glory, little people!

d’Anconia goes on to tell Rearden that since his efforts are necessary for life (i.e. non-violent productive activity is what supplies us with food, because humans have never hunted anything ever), his opponents are using their own moral code to guilt him into supplying them with the products of his labour with providing fair exchange. By accepting their code he has caused himself guilt for something that wasn’t wrong, because the only moral value is derived from productive activity.

During this exposition, the tap-hole on one of Rearden’s furnaces blows open, and hot metal comes rushing out. Rearden and d’Anconia rush down and beginning filling the hole by throwing clay at it; d’Anconia is obviously superb at doing so in the way he is with everything else. Afterwards Rearden washes and cleans d’Anconia.

This section is a bit, well, homoerotic. We already know that Rand likes rough sex; it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that she also likes the thought of two titans of industry getting hot and sweaty together.

Analysis

Rand’s strawmen are using morality to control the titans of industry our main characters represent. They do this in order to extract value from them. The Government is criminalising things as a means of social control. The way to overcome this is to identify the correct morality, which d’Anconia presents to Rearden as the morality of the producer; property is accrued according to one’s effort of production for the purpose of fair exchange. This enables life to exist, so anything opposed to it must necessarily be a morality of death and destruction.

The problem comes as soon as one reads the first part of the argument alongside the morality & social structure Rand is supporting. This is that Government exists to enforce contracts and protect property rights and that taking of the products of another without fair exchange is immoral.

This achieves exactly the same social control goals for the rich, as opposed to the poor. It ensures that value is always concentrated in the hands of Rand’s aristocracy of talent, and like poor Eddie Willers, the less able have to be content with what they can achieve from their own effort. It is a morality that rejects others in society as only worthwhile inasmuch as they can produce; it is only pro-life for those lives who demonstrate their own worth. Under this system, Government exists to protect the rights of the rich against the depredations of the poor – and the poor should feel guilt for desiring the goods of another. It’s social control following exactly the same pattern Rand gave above; it merely reverses who’s in charge.

With this argument, Rand has demonstrated that either libertarianism is a joke, or that she is an enemy of freedom. The only freedom one really has is the freedom to author one’s own morality, and Rand seeks to take that away in the name of the rights of the rich. The self-authored life is how morality must function in a liberal society – anything else intrudes on an individual’s freedom.

Part 14 is here.

Lib Dem Voice have put a poll asking Lib Dems to vote on Huhne’s new nuclear stance. The party’s official line is that new nuclear power is not necessary to combat climate change, and is a danger in itself. Since starting work in the energy industry, I’ve realised that’s almost certainly daft. However, a lot of older activists are passionately opposed to nuclear power, and Huhne’s sop to them has been to say that new nuclear plants can be built – but that the state won’t subsidise them.

This is a good policy, although Huhne’s been lambasted from the right for it. We’re shutting down a lot of old plant – both nuclear and fossil fuelled – over the next ten years, and we have an energy deficit coming up. DECC’s Pathways document, released at the same time as Huhne’s Energy Statement, attempts to map out our options to overcome this, while ensuring that we reach our 2020 carbon reduction targets.

Politics: the Right on Energy

The right tends to love nuclear as a solution to carbon targets and the power gap – read the rantings of Roger Helmer MEP for a surprising instance of a Conservative praising the French way of doing things. The reasons given are typically economic – they believe nuclear is cheaper than any of the alternatives. The problem is that this nonsense – as I discuss on the Embrace blog. The cost of installing new nuclear capacity is above onshore wind, and comparable to offshore once the financing costs for nuclear are factored in. It’s therefore not clear that nuclear is cheaper – especially as the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.

Sorry, let me say that again: the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.

That’s quite a subsidy you’ve got going on there. I’m fairly sure the taxpayer wouldn’t have to pay the costs for a wind turbine falling over.

On that subject, the right loath wind turbines in particular, largely because they’re a totemic symbol of the green movement intruding on their rural idylls where they’ve been consuming resources happily for decades without reality intruding at all. Nuclear allows them to shove all that dirty ‘production’ somewhere out of site, so they can continue pretending that an economy based on ever-expanding consumption has no impact on the world. James Delingpole in particular has a weird pathological obsession with them, viewing them as some sort of Martian intruder into the Arcadian landscapes of his youth. In the north, we’ve been digging up our landscapes for centuries to power our industry. To me, views like Delingpole’s are several centuries out of date.

Mechanics of Energy

If we’re looking for the most economic solution to cross the power gap and reach our emissions targets, you can’t just say ‘Wind Turbines!’ or ‘Nukes!’. This is because powering the UK is an incredibly complicated business presided over by the unsung heroes of our day-to-day life, the National Grid. They have to deal with daily fluctuations in power demand of between 20-25GW (to put that in perspective, the biggest generator in the UK, Sizewell B, produces about 1.2GW). To do this, they need two broad types of power stations: baseload plants and ‘peaker’ plants. The baseload supply the electricity that’s constantly demanded – around 40GW. The ‘peaker’ plants supply electricity to meet peak demand – around 20-25GW, as mentioned. Different types of plant are easier to ramp up and down than others – for example, gas can be switched on and off very fast, while it’s unsurprisingly difficult to tone down a nuclear reactor. The French model Roger Helmer advocates uses 80% nuclear, requiring some of their nuclear plants to run in ‘load-following’ mode, which is difficult and expensive to achieve. They have to do this because putting too much power into the grid at once would produce an effect analogous to a power surge in your house, except across the entire country. It has to be carefully balanced – which is why I said National Grid really were unsung heroes.

Even with load-following nuclear plant, the French regularly dump a lot of their excess electricity onto international markets to avoid overloading the grid – there’s a 1.2GW pipe under the Channel they use to give us electricity. They can do this because they’re heavily interconnected with their neighbours, reducing the risk of overload. We’re not. No-one serious is taking Roger Helmers’ position.

Wind turbines are good for peak power – their seasonal & daily output broadly follows demand trends, with a significant amount of variability. However, because they’re variable, they’re less good at satisfying peak demand. Typically they’re balanced with fast reserve plant, like gas.

You should be able to see the outline of a future energy mix from the above, and this is what I suspect Huhne’s policy is aiming at. Nuclear will receive a subsidy in the form of a carbon tax that will make all low carbon sources of electricity competitive. It will receive the mammoth public liability subsidy that no-one likes to talk about. It probably won’t get an additional subsidy along the lines of renewable energy. If it’s economic after all this, it will be built – but those building it will probably be required to set up a special bond for decommissioning, to pay the eventual clear-up costs. Something similar is required of mining projects, and constitutes a good model for dealing with economically useful but environmentally damaging projects.

How then should I vote?

Go for the top option on the poll – nuclear has enough subsidy to be built with the carbon tax and liabilities factored in. Reserve the right to change your mind if a privately-funded decommissioning bond isn’t required. In that event, a massive expansion of renewables is the most cost-effective option.

Isn’t telling people how to vote on a poll illiberal?

Yes. But so are blackouts. They constrain your ability to choose to have the lights on.

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