Kingsnorth: a camp of uncritical conformity

The ‘climate campers’ pose as radical – yet their disdain for consumerism and love of sustainability makes them little different to Gordon Brown.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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Environmental activists have built a climate camp near a power station in Kingsnorth, south-east England, to protest against plans for a new coal-fired plant. Yet Britain’s energy infrastructure is heading rapidly for obsolescence, and the British authorities need to start building coal-fired plants now if we are to avoid a shortfall in energy supply. That is of little concern to the climate campers, however – they would positively embrace a fall in energy supply, and the austerity that would follow.

Britain is facing a double whammy of competing problems in terms of electricity generation. For one thing, the ageing stock of power stations currently in use – particularly the nuclear plants – is reaching the end of its life. The amount of electricity generated by these plants will decline sharply over the next 10 years as the plants are decommissioned.

At the same time, there is a widespread desire to reduce the amount of CO2 being produced. One way this might be done is by increasing the proportion of energy we get from low-carbon renewable sources: wind, solar and wave power, in particular. These may supply – if all goes to plan – around 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity by 2020 (and that’s being ambitious).

But if the nuclear stations, which currently supply more than 20 per cent of our electricity, are not replaced, then Britain will still need to find about 80 per cent of its electricity supplies from non-renewable sources. That mostly means by burning fossil fuels – gas and coal – with all of their accompanying CO2 emissions. Even if the current stock of nuclear stations could be replaced in the next 10 years, there would still be a massive shortfall in electricity supply that must continue to be met by fossil fuels. And the government’s one viable plan to replace the ageing nuclear stations – by flogging the company that owns the plants to French power company EDF – has just gone belly-up.

Whatever happens with nuclear and renewables, we’re facing a severe shortfall in power in the future unless we use fossil fuels. What we need are more power stations that use reliable technology as soon as possible. Reducing CO2 emissions will simply have to wait. As David Porter, chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers, pointed out in the Guardian: ‘If we want diversity of supply – not being overdependent on one fuel, such as gas – and security of supply, we need coal for the foreseeable future.’ Paul Golby, head of E.ON, the company that wants to build the new coal-fired plant at Kingsnorth, was blunter still: ‘The climate campers believe that a combination of wind and wave power and increased energy efficiency will be enough to bridge the gap. But that is simply unrealistic.’

The climate campers’ blinkered attitude is not surprising, since meeting the needs of consumers is not very high on their list of priorities. In fact, some of them seem to believe that an ‘energy crunch’ is just the sort of useful thing that might halt our mindless consumption.

One climate camper, Isabelle Michel, told BBC TV’s Newsnight: ‘One of the most important things we need to do is to learn to reduce consumption. I think one of the reasons for saying that nuclear is necessary and renewables will not be enough is if we look at maintaining the levels of consumption or even increasing the levels of consumption – because that’s the mentality. So we need more, more, more.’ Another protester, Kevin Smith, bemoaned ‘the madness of trying to maintain a world of perpetual economic growth in a world of finite resources’.

This has always been the most fundamental tenet of environmentalism: that economic growth is a bad thing. We humans should reduce our ‘ecological footprint’ and learn to make do with less because resources are finite – and apparently, as we expand our impact on the planet, we are squeezing out other living things that are just as worthy of existence as we are. This is in direct contradiction to any notion of progress, to the idea that through the development of society and technology, we can generate greater quantities of material wealth that allow us to live longer, healthier, more comfortable and potentially freer lives.

Protesters at the climate camp
in south-east England

Despite what the anti-growth greens might claim, it’s not as if we live in a world where everyone has a private jet and dines on foie gras. The current fuel and food prices are reminding many of us of how little spare cash we really have, even in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world. For the billions in the world who live on less than one dollar per day, environmentalists’ demand to ‘reduce consumption’ and ‘halt economic growth’ must sound like a sick joke. Behind environmentalists’ various debates about energy supply, coal, nuclear and renewables, there lurks their central moralistic belief system: humans are nothing special, in fact they are destructive, and it is high time they learned to live on less.

What is particularly sickening, given the pressing needs of humanity both at home and abroad, is that the climate camp in Kingsnorth is being presented as the cutting edge of radical protest. When so little else is happening politically, an assortment of slick green campaigners, lentil-eating hippies, misguided, idealistic students and assorted middle-aged oddballs has come to be seen as the touchstone of anti-establishment politics.

In fact, these climate campaigners are very far from anti-establishment. With sustainability at the heart of every government policy, the government shares most of the ideas espoused at Kingsnorth right now. Telling people to tighten their belts and put up with less is an idea that politicians have been keen to stress for centuries, while reducing our impact on the planet is the nearest thing to a ‘big idea’ that the political class possesses today. Indeed, it is hard to tell the difference between Isabelle Michel’s demand that we rein in consumption and Gordon Brown’s recent advice that we should avoid being wasteful by throwing away our food. From the very top of government right through to the edgy green protest movement, there is a consensus that the greedy, thoughtless masses are demanding too much.

The problem for our political leaders – and the source of charges of hypocrisy from the green movement – is that this sustainability-obsessed outlook must live side-by-side with the need to make society work. And that means addressing practical challenges such as making sure the lights work when you hit the switch, that food gets produced and can be delivered to the shops, and so on. The result of this clash between a low-horizons outlook and the practical need to keep British society chugging along is the kind of administrative paralysis we have seen at the heart of the New Labour government.

If practicality versus ideology is proving a problem for the government, it is starting to generate cracks in the green movement, too. Underpinning green thought is a moral distaste for the vulgarity of consumption, which has an almost religious passion to it: fire and brimstone millenarianism meets monkish self-denial. But even greens want to eat, travel, receive medical treatment, and get an education. And these things require a highly developed society that uses up resources and are a constant reminder of the need for humanity to control Nature.

This paradox within environmentalism is best reflected in the current debate about nuclear power. Those greens who are concerned with climate change above all else can see why nuclear, a low-carbon technology, makes sense in the current ’emergency’; most famously, Gaia theorist James Lovelock supports the introduction of nuclear power as a way of ‘saving the planet’. Other greens, however, would rather see society grind to a halt than allow the construction of one more nuclear power station. So some environmentalists can only put the case for nuclear from the scaremongering standpoint that if we don’t go nuclear the world will end – while others oppose nuclear on the basis of unfounded fears about waste and risk, which illustrates their deeply selective attitude towards ‘scientific evidence’.

These debates paint a pretty unpleasant picture of where society stands at present. Contemporary debate is dominated by fearmongering about global warming and nuclear energy on one side, and anti-consumerist moralism on the other. The end result is crippling indecision rather than a clear-cut vision of how people’s needs and desires can be met now, and how their lives can be improved in the future. If this carries on much longer, we might need to get used to the lights going out.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild described the protesters at last year’s event as not-so-happy climate campers. Tim Black claimed Britain has become a world leader in dithering on nuclear power. Rob Johnston argued that nuclear, not wind is the answer to our energy problems. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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