How I became an ecologist
Then I became a Christian.
History of the Smoke Stack
Industry didn’t die with the collapse of the Roman Empire (and in fact in Rome industry was mostly agricultural) as during the medieval ages forests were cleared and swamps were drained to create land to grow food. In fact, food was the major commodity of the time, and much of the land was occupied with the need to produce crops. However it wasn’t just crops because iron was extracted to produce swords and ploughshares, coal was dug up to power the blacksmith’s forge, and gold and silver were mined to produce coins and jewellery.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that things began to change. As Klein points out, up to that time industry was restricted by nature. While windmills and waterwheels had been developed as a way to increase the production of flour, they still required strong winds and flowing water to work. This changed with the invention of the steam engine. This invention literally revolutionised industry because no longer was it subject to the forces of nature, but factories could not only be set up anywhere, they could be much larger than was previously possible. However there was a catch – the steam engine needed to be powered, and that power came from a little black rock we all know as coal (which according to some people is good for humanity).
Suddenly the world changed. Factory towns began to emerge, and production began to ramp up. People who used to work the land began to move into the cities where there were well-paying jobs in the factories and suddenly the cities doubled, even trebled, in size. The steam engine was then placed into boats, creating the steamship, and onto wheels creating the train. Furthermore, the engine was refined so that it didn’t need to use the process of burning coal heating water – all the internal combustion engine required was a black liquid that came out of the ground that we all know as oil. The invention of the internal combustion engine then led to another invention – the automobile.
The World Wakes Up
However there was a problem – these labour saving devices didn’t run on goodwill, they required power, and the power had to be created, namely by burning coal. Okay, back then things were built to last, but even as early as the turn of the 20th Century people started to become concerned that industry was beginning to destroy the world. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt was taken on a camping trip to show him the wonders of nature, which lead to him locking away parts of the country as national parks. Yet as the 20th Century rolled on groups started to worry about the impact that our industry would have on the world at large, and in the early 70s, we begin to see the rise of the conversationalist lobby.
While the conversationalists negotiated for limits to industry, with the election of Reagan in the United States, and Thatcher in England, we suddenly saw a massive shift to the right, and many of these groups suddenly became absorbed into the machine of industry, and suddenly we began to see a shift away from preservation to consumption. In fact, it was around this time that the concept of growth of growth’s sake became popular, and goods that in the past that were built to last suddenly became disposable. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist West saw this as a vindication of their system, and suddenly industry saw a world where there were no boundaries – as the economist Francis Fukuyama said: we had reached the end of history.
Yet come the 21st Century something suddenly began to change. Okay, this change had started to emerge during the 1990s but began to ramp up a notch during the first decade of the 21st Century. All of a sudden there was a growing concern about the environment, and climate change in particular. Maybe it had something to do with the Al Gore movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, maybe it has something to do with the election of George Bush to the White House, and a sudden shift further to the right of the political spectrum. Maybe it had something to do with the peak oil crisis, where the price of oil suddenly when through the roof. In any case, in the middle of the decade the environment, and climate change, suddenly took centre stage, and politicians to the centre-left of the spectrum started developing policies to take to the election.
The thing with so-called left-leaning politicians is that they have this habit of tapping into the felt needs of the people, playing on their hopes and dreams to get them over the line. While I am not suggesting that Obama or Rudd weren’t necessarily lying to get into office, it is just that electoral promises and reality are two different things. Rudd had certainly done his bit to move Australia towards establishing a green energy future, however, there was one major thing that got in the way – the collapse of the US banking sector. The problem was that jobs, and prosperity, always seem to trump social justice, and in this case, the climate.
While here in Australia, when a prime minister is elected they are generally able to push through their agenda, in the United States the president has to deal with Congress, and this was something where Obama began to face difficulties. However, as Klein pointed out in her book, the proposed emissions trading scheme that both leaders proposed was in reality little more than another fancy financial instrument of the type that created the crisis in the first place. In fact, Rudd had managed to implement an emissions trading scheme only to discover that the scheme collapsed during the financial crisis.
There was another thing that came out of this whole débâcle (which doesn’t include the scams that arose during the scheme, such as getting carbon credits by not burning off gas, a process known as flaring, when one is drilling for oil), and that is that the scheme doesn’t stop companies from polluting the atmosphere, it just turns fresh air into another commodity that is bought and sold on the financial markets. In reality, emission trading schemes are little more than business as usual, with an added financial cost that inevitably is passed down to the end consumer.
The thing with emission trading schemes is that they are referred to as ‘cap and trade’. Basically, the government caps the number of emissions that are allowed to be produced, and the emission heavy companies can then purchase credits to allow them to exceed their cap. These credits are supposed to be created through emission-reducing projects such as forests and companies lowering emissions. However, as I have mentioned, such concepts bring out the hucksters (and the lawyers) who end up creating carbon credits without actually lowering the emissions. Another problem is that companies end up crying foul because such schemes eat into their profits, so the government ends up forking out more money so that they can maintain their imaginary profit margin (a profit that is generated from a government handout isn’t a profit).
The Corporate Spin Doctor
Corporations are all about producing an image, especially in this neo-liberal world. In fact many companies these days don’t do anything other than producing an image – they aren’t manufacturers they are just middlemen who create a massive price hike on a product to support this image. What they do is that they contract the manufacture out to a third party in a developing country, and simply sell this product at a massive mark up. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pair of jeans that I purchase at The Gap (not that I have ever shopped at The Gap) and the jeans that I buy at Target is not only made in the same factory but are actually the same pair of jeans.
Anyway, when combating climate change became all the rage in the pre-GFC era, a lot of companies suddenly jumped on board, especially if they were an emission heavy industry. Some of the power companies would actually set up solar farms so that they could claim that they were investing in green energy; supermarkets would offer a range of green products; even airline companies would allow you to pay extra to purchase carbon offsets. However this, in my mind, is nothing short of another marketing strategy. Sure, the power company may have invested in wind and solar farms or maybe pouring money into an alternate form of energy such as geothermal or tidal power, but in reality, a bulk of their energy comes from the good, old fashioned, coal-fired power plant. As for the carbon credits that you could purchase with your flight, all I can speculate is that it was either a part of the ETS scam or just a means of upping their profits (in the era of high priced oil, the airline industry’s profits were being cut to shreds).
Yet one thing I started to notice of late is that all of a sudden the environmentally friendly items are beginning to disappear from the supermarket shelves. I used to always purchase the environmentally friendly washing detergent, yet all of a sudden that is no longer available. In a way, it seems that environmentalism, and climate change, was a fad for the prosperous times, and now that those times are past, paying more to be environmentally friendly is simply no longer an option.
“Climate Change is Crap!”
However, even if Climate Change is not caused by industry pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, I always fall back onto the fact that we are still destroying our environment. For instance, we are mining the crap out of the Earth, and as such destroying the once pristine landscape:
Our water sources are becoming undrinkable, which in turn works to increase the profits of the corporate sector by forcing us to purchase bottled water (which apparently comes straight out of the tap anyway).
As for our air, who really wants to spend our entire lives wandering around wearing masks (which is what I saw when I was last in Hong Kong, and even now I am beginning to see it here in Melbourne).
Of course, a lot of us are beginning to put our foot down and saying ‘no, we do not want to live in this dystopian world’, however when we do we suddenly discover that the government isn’t actually on our side. However, I will get onto that thing in a bit because I want to talk about something else that is being spun as the new, clean, green way of the future.
As I suggested earlier, one of the main reasons that there was a movement towards renewable energy before the Global Financial Crisis was not so much that people started to become concerned with the climate, but because the price of oil had gone through the roof. However come 2015 this has changed dramatically, and in fact the price of oil is now hovering around $30.00 a barrel (having at one stage being at a peak of $147.02 a barrel). One of the reasons for this is because industry discovered a way of getting to what is termed unconventional, or shale, gas deposits, and compared to the oil there is an awful lot of gas trapped underground, as this chart demonstrates.
The problem was that the United States had pretty much run out of oil and had to rely upon getting it from foreign sources, particularly the Middle East, where it was located in regions that were either incredibly unstable or were simply unfriendly. The US had made an attempt to remove one of the unfriendly governments only to discover that in doing so the entire country had collapsed and extracted the oil became a lot more difficult. However, a system of extraction known as Hydraulic Fracturing has been developed which meant that all of a sudden a lot more gas became readily available.
However, there was a problem – while burning natural gas was much cleaner than burning oil, the process of removing the gas from the ground wasn’t. In fact, the movie Gasland goes and explores the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and how the water resources that are required to get the gas out of the ground end up poisoning the groundwater and the run of turns the river into an undrinkable mess. Mind you, all forms of extraction are in fact really, really dirty, and even if we ignore the fact that by digging up the ground leaves ugly scars across once beautiful environments, the pollution-intensive nature of this industry acts to destroy one of the major sources of life – water.
I had a friend who used to work in the industry on a site up in Central Australia where there happens to be huge amounts of gas under the ground. Unlike the United States, where a lot of the fracking is occurring around inhabited rural areas, Central Australia is pretty much empty desert. In fact, a lot of the mines in Australia are located out in the remote regions that takes days to be able to get there and areas far away from the inhabited cities as one could imagine. So, the question that is raised is it better that these industries operate out in the desert where there is basically nothing there? Well, as it turns out, deserts are much more than just empty wasteland, as this post on Death Valley attests. While I haven’t spent all that much time out in the desert wastelands of Australia, from what I have seen there is much, much more than just sand.However since there is a huge amount of gas located underground, there are places that are much closer to our cities where wells can be sunk, which makes setting up the wells, extracting the gas, and sending it to the market much simpler. However the closer one gets to the cities the more populated the land becomes, and while mines located in the middle of nowhere tend to be out of people’s minds (and the middle of nowhere isn’t necessarily a desert, but could be a third world country, or even a tropical island), when companies start sinking wells into people’s backyards the locals start to get a bit tetchy. In fact when proposals to sink wells in Australia’s Hunter Valley, a major wine-growing region and a location where executives have their stud farms, a huge protest was raised by the locals.
Rise of the Police State
Yet one raises the question as to the real purpose of the police. The thing is that it seems to be more and more the case that they exist to protect the corporate interests as opposed to protecting the population at large. Despite there being huge amounts of opposition against trade treaties, particularly since the reality is that these treaties tend to benefit the upper one percent as opposed to the rest of us, our leaders seem to completely ignore our concerns. As such when the people go out onto the streets to claim that enough is enough, and that trade is actually hurting the environment, then out come the police to basically silence them.
Granted, there have been many posts from the right that suggest that people who run afoul of the police tend to have done something wrong to get there in the first place, however, there is a fallacy that says that if we are doing nothing wrong then we have nothing to fear. This is a fallacy because the opposite is also true – the best way for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. However the problem arises when the good person who decides to do something and to stand up for what they believe in, runs afoul of the moneyed interests that wish to do otherwise, and in the end, you discover that the law enforcement agencies tend to fall on the side of the moneyed interests.
Trade Trumps All
One of the major things that Klein raises in her book is the conflict between the environment and trade. While countries agree to environmental protections, these treaties tend to be fairly weak and compose only of promises to do something without any penalties for failing to live up to their end of the agreement. However, trade treaties tend to be much, much more powerful – if you breach a clause in one of the trade treaties then you are dragged in front of closed-door tribunals and are forced to pay reparations to the injured parties. As such when governments, states, and even local councils decide to move in a direction that seeks to protect the environment and cut down on needless pollution, companies and foreign governments immediately rush to these tribunals to put a stop to it.
For instance, the government of the Northern Territory decided to introduce a system where bottles and cans would have a deposit, and if you took them to a recycling depot then you could claim that deposit. Such a system had been in place in South Australia since I was a kid, to the point where the scouts would go on an annual bottle drive to collect bottles as a means of raising funds. I also remember that we would have heaps of bottles stored up in the back yard and we would regularly go down to the depot, collect the deposit, which would usually be enough to go and buy more beer and thus start the cycle all over again. However, the beverage companies didn’t like this because it meant that it would eat into their profits so they ran to the Federal Government to got them to overturn the law in the Northern Territory.
The problem that we now face is that in the war between profit and the environment the profit motive always wins. The Biblical statement that the love of money is the root of all evil seems to become ever more true by the day. It is not so much that money in itself if evil – it is simply a means of exchange for goods and services – rather it is the hoarding of money and the desire of many to try and get as much of it as possible. I remember reading this fantasy series where there was this currency known as red gold, and the thing about red gold was that it was incredibly addictive – you simply could not have enough of it so once you had some you had to get more and more of it. In my mind money has suddenly become like that – people aren’t satisfied with enough to live a comfortable life, they have to get as much of it as possible, and even then they want more.
Interestingly, over the years a new phrase has entered into the English language – petrodollars. To me, that phrase is starting to sound a lot like dirty money, money that is obtained by less than ethical means. The term refers to money that is generated by oil extraction, but I would suggest that is should refer to any money that is made through the destruction of the environment. As such it seems to be getting more and more the case that making money is coming about through ever more dishonest means but means that while being in some ways unethical, are still very much legal. For instance generating commission by writing up loans for people that have no way of paying it back, or through convincing people to buy ever more stuff that they don’t need, and by making sure that this stuff won’t last anywhere near as long as it could possibly last.
A Way Forward?
What we need to do is to start here at home – we need to begin to live simple lives, look for greener ways to consume, and turn away from our hyper-consumerist ways. If we are able we can look at switching our sources of energy to greener sources, and looking at ways we can ethically invest our money. However, most importantly, we need to reject that lie that more is better and be happy with what we have and learn to once again enjoy the simple things.