Those who prosper in the fast-approaching post-carbon world will be those who embrace it early and enthusiastically, writes Joyce McMillan.
It was the image of the week, in all its gracelessness; the sight of the UK’s 29-strong delegation of Brexit Party MEPs turning their back on the European Parliament during the playing of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy – the recognised anthem of European institutions – by a group of schoolchildren. Whether most of them knew of the terrible historical resonance of this gesture, used by Hitler’s rising Nazi party of the 1920s to signal contempt for the German Reichstag, seems doubtful, given their apparent preference for a view of history gleaned mainly from old British war movies.
What can be said, though, is that this turning of the back, this visual equivalent of a party putting its hands over its ears and singing la-la-la while Europe and the world try to unite in confronting desperately serious problems, is a strikingly eloquent image of the position of many on the Western populist right in our time. Whatever the 21st century world has to offer – in the way of rapid movement of peoples, ethnic diversity, climate crisis, and a breathtaking rate of technological change – most of their supporters don’t want it, although some of their leaders are arguably among the world’s most adroit exploiters of it. A tsunami of change races towards us; and their classic response of denial, refusal, and the dismissal of warnings as “fake news” or outright lies, is, in its way, a tribute to the scale of the change we face.
For it doesn’t take more than cursory glance around the planetary horizon, at the moment, to grasp that we are now undergoing a transition as profound as the one that marked the shift from horse-power to engine-power, two-and-a-half centuries ago. In that transition, whole social systems broke down and had to be rebuilt, there was a vast movement of population from the land into cities, and power shifted massively towards those who were quick to stake a claim on the fuels – notably coal – that would define the new age.
After the Second World War, when coal began to give way to oil and gas, the world shifted again, towards fuel supply systems with a much wider international reach, dominated by huge global corporations. We entered the age of the automobile, when cities and lifestyles were radically redesigned to accommodate petrol-fuelled private transport; and in many countries, communities directly involved in coal mining suffered cruel social destruction and desolation. And now, we are in transition again; still clinging to the age of oil, to our petrol-driven cars and – in Scotland’s case – to plans for the future exploitation of new oil-fields, but increasingly overwhelmed by evidence that the day of fossil fuels is done.
We’re accustomed, of course, to the negative arguments for this change; to the frightening increase in atmospheric carbon levels over the last half-century, and to the terrifying implications for our climate of levels not seen on this planet for at least three million years, and probably much longer than that.
Yet the paradox is that even if our current transition is taking place under a unique and terrible pressure to act, it still contains within it, like all past energy revolutions, the possibility of a new and exciting future. If the news of what fossil fuels have done to the planet is unimaginably bad, the news from the world of renewable energy is now hugely positive, as country after country and company after company begin to grasp its huge potential. Despite IMF figures suggesting that governments across the world are still subsidising fossil fuel development to the tune of a staggering $5 trillion a year, some reports now estimate that renewables already account for more than a third of power generated worldwide, and they certainly accounted for a third of all UK power generation in 2018.
Last week, the Los Angeles power and water company in California struck a new deal for the generation and storage of solar power that came in at half the price of an equivalent natural gas plant, with company representatives talking of prices that “leave fossil fuels in the dust”; and with questions increasingly being asked about the accounting practices of corporations that continue to rate their underground oil reserves as valuable assets, a recent report from the British oil giant, BP, described the current rate of transition towards renewable sources as historically unprecedented, and conservatively estimated that they would be providing half of all Europe’s power by 2040 – or much sooner, if foot-dragging governments like that of the UK make a decisive shift in subsidy patterns.
And of course, when and if we succeed in reaching that post-carbon future, these new energy sources will bring with them a society quite different from the coal and oil-based ones we have recently known. There will be efforts, of course, to monopolise, industrialise and even mystify the production of renewable energy, just as with coal, oil and nuclear; we will see massive wind-farms, huge privately owned arrays of solar panels, and perhaps even hydroelectric schemes as top-down and industrially minded as Scotland’s post-war hydro board.
The very nature of renewable energy, though, and the absence of the massive extraction costs associated with most coal and oil, means that it should be easier, in the post-carbon age, for individuals and communities to own and generate their own power, so long as they organise themselves to do so. Technologies will change, and attitudes will change with them; motor vehicles will become quieter, less aggressive and less polluting, constant travel may well seem less necessary, and local food production will become more desirable on every level.
It will be a different world, in other words, with very different patterns of power, of resistance to power, and of accountability. And what’s clear is that those who prosper in it, as in every other past transition, will be those who embrace that future early and enthusiastically; and not those who turn their backs to gaze lovingly into the lost world that made them, and gave them that invincible sense of superiority over nature and humanity to which they now cling, come hell or – almost literally – high water.