Ecolonomics is my 'irregular' long-form essay blog. "Long-form" because, in contrast to current fashionable trends for 'brevity' in all things, the papers posted here are long, detailed, and contain a long list of references. This blog is about knowledge, not news.
The problem with reality is that it tends to crash people's expectations rather than support them. Today it seems as if the detailed investigation of policy issues, and the facts which exist to substantiate common perceptions of them, has been generally rejected because it gets in the way of enjoying the endless 'party' of consumption.
In short, is media over-simplification "taking the epistemology" out of knowledge?
As we move towards a society where spin and media management increasingly define the everyday debate on public policy, "reality" – investigated through the assessment of evidence and the theoretical/interpretive scientific framework which defines how the natural world operates – is being relegated to a fringe activity. The resultant tangled web of partial truth and FUD that drives the spurious arguments surrounding ecological sustainability that we see in the media today.
With the Ecolonomics journal, I'm seeking to do the exact opposite!
The issue at hand is human ecology, and the problems with the way the 'popular debate' interprets these issues. For a lengthy outline of what I see that issue as, I suggest you see my thesis on ecological futurology.
The only way to address uncertainty is to chase the evidence – which is what I attempt to do in each edition of ecolonomics.
Ecolonomics no.17: The 'Fracking' Election – Why the 2017 UK General Election is a ground-breaking test of British environmental policy
I have been researching the issue of unconventional gas and oil in the UK since 2009 – shortly after the Government's 13th On-shore Licensing Round awarded many of the petroleum exploration and production licences (PEDLs) which are being drilled around Britain right now. Over that time the Government has steadily 'lost control' of the issue by a combination of public resistance, industry failure in the US and elsewhere, and changing economics. Today though, the response to the inherent problems of the Government's oil and gas policy represents not only an unprecedented twist in this long saga, but also an unprecedented break in UK environmental and town planning policy. What the Conservatives propose in their election manifesto is to make the development of on-shore oil and gas, below the criteria of what constitutes a 'major' operation in The Infrastructure Act 2015, "permitted development". It's important to unpack this seemingly subtle change to understand its true impact – and why it is so significant.
UK PEDLs/contituencies map
North West PEDLs/contituencies map
North East PEDLs/contituencies map
South East PEDLs/contituencies map
South West PEDLs/contituencies map
Ecolonomics no.16: What, is peak oil dead? Then show me the body! (of statistical evidence)
A decade ago my first 'solo' book, 'Energy Beyond Oil', was published. The text examined peak oil theory, but more widely the issue of ecological limits and energy and resource depletion. In some respects the content was prophetic; between then and now we've had record high oil prices, followed by an economic recession. What the book didn't foresee was the rise of 'unconventional fossil fuels'. In the wake of the economic crash, "fracking" and other forms of 'extreme' energy production were hailed by some as a saviour – liberating society from the 'limits to growth' mentality which was implicit within peak oil theory. This message had a strong resonance with the pundits who, around the same time, were dismissing the basis of peak oil theory, and ecological limits generally. Now, in 2015 – as Boëthius' consolatory history wheel turns full circle – on the back of fracking's collapse has the statistical evidence for 'peak oil' finally become apparent?
Ecolonomics no.15: Extreme energy and public health – How the Government engineered the denial of the health impacts of unconventional oil & gas
I've spent the last few weeks writing a "complaint". The subject of that complaint was Public Health England's (PHE) recent report, Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposures to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction – draft for comment. As the title suggests, this was a report produced by PHE to identify the public health implications of shale gas.
Ecolonomics no.14: 'Fracking' our food and farming system: "Extreme agriculture" and the politics of denial
As we approach the ecological limits to growth, and the measures to maintain "business as usual" become even more extreme, so these technofixes have as much to do with the denying those limits as they are intended to provide more food. The problem with the debate over fracking is that it has become highly insular. It focusses on drilling, or pollution; and fails to make the wider connection to the issues of lifestyle and resources which – arguably – represent the deeper motivation behind the political support for extreme energy sources. The same is true of the current debate over farming. We argue about one form of agriculture versus another, or one type of consumer product or another; without reference to the wider patterns of lifestyle which predetermine the form of that discussion. In contrasting fracking and food, I hope to highlight – through the commonality in underlying causal factors – the wider analysis which we need to being to the ecological debate.
Ecolonomics no.13: Hype, hearsay and hyperbolæ – shale gas and the UK energy economy
Out of the house, onto a bus and away to a distant hill; I've run off for the day to escape my work, but it seems to have followed me. I took the first out-of-town bus to arrive at the bus station; not caring where it went, just wanting to quickly go to the countryside so I could walk home again. Disembarking at Farthinghoe, a small village between Banbury and Brackley, I get out my sheaf of local maps and arrange them to idle my way home. Whilst doing so I find that I'm "in the zone" – an area currently under review for the licensing of oil and gas production using the hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", method.
Ecolonomics no.12: "Promulgating the Web's calorie controlled diet" – web design, environmental impact and the much ignored ecological efficiency of the Internet
I'm feeling pretty awful; for the last few days I've been laid low with a bug that just won't go away. As I sit, trying to find something to do, it occurs to me that I could catch-up on some of the really tedious, dead-head chores that I've been putting off for a while. If I feel so awful, how more awful can it be to do those things that I never feel like doing in any case? I begin by trying to write a long-overdue beginner's guide to the Linux command line interface – I get as far as designing a rather entertaining logo before realising this requires far too much brain power for my current state of mind! Then I remember the "design statement" for the Free Range Activism Web Site. That requires measuring lots of web pages to demonstrate, statistically, why the design system for the FRAW site is, ecologically, better than mainstream design methods. Hmmn, yeah, downloading lots of web pages, categorising their component parts and then spreadsheeting the results for later analysis. OK, as occupations go it's the digital equivalent of watching paint dry, but right now I feel that I can do that!
Ecolonomics no.11: "Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one" – peak oil, nuclear power and the ecolonomics of existential material reality
Another edition of ecolonomics so soon after the last? It's been one of those fortnights. The response to my last ecolonomics has been somewhat greater than usual – over 3,000 copies have been downloaded. I've had a lot of email too, not just mulling over my critique of George Monbiot but also looking at the whole context of what I said; which is good, because that's why I wrote it. I'm writing so soon after the last (in terms of size) "double issue" because of the events that have happened since then – events which put the content of the last edition in a whole new light.
Ecolonomics no.10: When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
Given his previous opposition, George Monbiot's shift towards a blithe acceptance – if not full support – for nuclear power, in spite of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, has left many environmentalists feeling a little betrayed; I've even had a few emails today, due to my long history of working on energy and nuclear issues, asking me to vociferously "take him on". I don't see the point of a personalised attack, or what purpose it would serve to advance the debate – although it might act as a conduit for people to vent their fear and angst at the seeming collapse of the ecological alliance against nuclear power. Right or wrong, George's opinions are rightly his own. However, if he is representing "opinion" as some sort of "fact", using his "green icon" status to lend credibility, then that's an entirely different matter (I'm not entirely sure if he is, given his rather diffident views on the whole nuclear issue of late). What matters then are the facts; George is free to interpret these as he wishes. Although, in that context, I'd expect him to apply the oft-quoted phrase from John Maynard Keynes; "When the facts change, I change my mind." So, looking at the whole nuclear issue, what "facts" have possibly changed to make us, or George, believe that nuclear power today – in contrast to last week, last year, or even thirty years ago (when I was presented with the arguments at school) – has any better chance of solving our various ecological problems?
Ecolonomics no.9: When You're Windows are Broken don't be Surprised if you Feel the Cold Draught of Distress
The phone rings; against the background noise of a call centre a young man says, "I am phoning about your Windows computer". I reply casually, "I don't have a Windoze computer" (I always make an effort to nasally sound the 'z' consonant). He apologises and rings off. Later his simple statement begins to bother me; why would anyone assume an automatic connection between the concepts "Windows" and "computer" when clearly Windoze is one of the worst operating systems that you can load onto a computer in order to use it creatively?
Ecolonomics no.8: Mandelbrot's systems within systems, the layers of the universe experiencing itself subjectively
It's been a long time since I've written an 'ecolonomics' – it's been one of those years. Last time I had time to take a pause from work was February. From the Spring onwards I've had the busiest period of work for quite a while. Trouble is, when you're writing creatively for your work it's not something you want to do when you're taking time-off. I've also suffered a serious lack of 'wind-down walks' this year, which also hasn't helped my compositional mood. Realising that Autumn was nearly over I went for a walk before an approaching storm stripped the trees of their leaves. As I reflect on the walk, and the related activities in the few days since, I find myself returning to one theme – why can't people accept the reality of the world we live in, and, to deflect from this unwelcome reality, why do they spin incredible stories to create a delusional sense of well-being?
Ecolonomics no.7: Sating the arboreal spirit in the "desert of the real world"
If Christmas is a time for peace and love why do people get so stressed out by it? We are expected, and usually expect ourselves, to accomplish certain tasks and undertake certain actions in order to satisfy the self-imposed rituals of what we call "Christmas", but in turn the modern conceptualisation of "Christ's Mass" twists these celebrations into an secular fallacy of consumption. You can opt-out of Christmas because you care about the environment, or carbon emissions, or just because you can't be bothered, but for whatever reason this doesn't address the fact that the modern Christmas "doesn't do what is says on the tin"; accept that fact and you might find a route around the enforced mania of consumption that the season imposes, perhaps to find a more ecologically conscious way to mark the turning of the year.
Ecolonomics no.6: "A man sits down to write a letter but instead he writes a book, the book begins 'Dear Sir'"
So many things that need to be said but often we can't; not because we lack the terms or evidence to describe them but because such a message isn't something that "our leaders and betters", and sometimes even ourselves, wish to hear. Like the game Chinese whispers, the message of the human ecological crisis has been edited and sub-edited to the point where the commonly used terms that describe the problem, and likely solutions, have little relevance to the original diagnosis; in particular, what started as the concerns of environmentalists in the 1970s, regarding the impacts of human society on the planet, have now been reduced to mere "carbonism" – a reduction of the complexity of human ecology to an issue of carbon or climate change being our principle problem, and a belief that we can solve the global climate crisis through simple, deck-chair re-arranging measures such as "low carbon technologies". The fact is we might have the capacity to address such problems realistically, and we might conceive of alternative ways of ministering to society's needs, but the unfortunate reality is that those in charge of the public debate do not wish to contemplate what this truly means to the lifestyles of the world's richest citizens. In possessing that knowledge do you, yourself, internalise the significance of that deduction into a programme of action, irrespective of what that means for you personally; or do you skip over the problematic evidence because it might adversely affect the "Western lifestyle" that we enjoy, and therefore cannot be considered a "politically realistic" way of characterising the problem?
Ecolonomics no.5: "We're all planetary hospice workers now"
The current economic crisis may, according to some pundits, be over but the trends that forced it into being are still operating in the background – and will return once the global economy takes off again. Amidst the pressures of our everyday life we focus primarily on the surface features of existence; we have so little time to peel away the surface of what is presented to us, and delve into its deeper meaning. If we did what terrors would that hold for a society inhered by the economic dogma that emerged from that previous great crash into the conference of Bretton Woods sixty-five years ago. The global economic framework that was developed in 1944 has delivered us into the world we inhabit today, but the assumptions upon which that system was based are no longer valid; such bad news might not be pleasant, but sometimes it is necessary to state such a truth in order to move on.
Ecolonomics no.4: The "green-Prometheans"; better, but still a futile gesture?
An intellectual debate where a whole set of questions or positions are excluded from public examination is not a real discourse, it's a distraction to deflect criticism from the ideological viewpoints that constrain society. From the structure of building codes through to global climate negotiations, governments and lobbyists put emphasis on markets, or the marshalling of large resources – both vestiges of early industrialisation – to solve problems; but what if the true solution lay beyond this boundary? What if it's that very same structure of globalised markets and the growth paradigm that underpins their operation were to be the problem that we must solve? If the problem is the structure of modern society, and especially the global economy, how can "mainstream ideas" possibly solve the underlying trends driving the destruction of the Earth's ecosystem; more to the point, if these ideas work within this system to what extent will they perpetuate it?
Ecolonomics no.3: The Trap – Technology, the Virtual World, and Hacking the Meanings of Society
The predominant view of how we radically change society is by "taking over"; revolutions – be they political, technological, intellectual, or merely the sophistry of the marketing profession – represent the succession of one dominant culture by the next, and are the means by which we take one way of viewing society can supplant it with another. But in a society where our relations are increasingly virtual, and we put our faith into mechanistic systems to handle our lives – not through conscious understanding but by attaching abstract meaning to technologically mediated interaction – is that view of changing society still valid?
Ecolonomics no.2: Thoughts stirred by an afternoon on Garreg Hir... and wind turbines
An afternoon walking in the hills of mid-Wales, inspiring thoughts on the problems with the debate about energy; people are not talking about the real "energy problem", and instead engage in a totemic debate that creates the pretence of action whilst ignoring the more unwelcome truths about how we consume in our "modern society".
Ecolonomics no.1: "I'm not keen on blogging, but...
Firstly, my apologies to those wanting the everyday 'blog-o-sphere'-type brief, digested or vacuous information constructs within these pages; I don't tweet, I don't do sound bites, and I don't insult my own or my reader's intelligence by spouting views in isolation from the ideas that define them. My medium is the word, the argument and the reference, and in these pages I'm going to push that medium as far as I can.