There’s probably little other than deafening silence in the US news media but across Europe the press has been eagerly covering the various Extinction Rebellion protests. For those of you who aren’t sure what this is all about, here’s a quick summary:
The vast majority of real scientific evidence now indicates that we humans are degrading our planet at an alarming rate. Not only are we pumping greenhouse gasses into the air and effecting radical climate change but we’re denuding the oceans and razing the forests. We’re exterminating other species at a rate not seen since the last major extinction event 65 million years ago. Only right-wing commentators and vested interests continue to pretend this isn’t happening.
Extinction Rebellion is a series of non-violent protests that seek to raise public awareness of the issues in the hope that politicians will respond by doing something about the problem. Like all large-scale protests, those participating get to feel good about “standing up for what’s right” and meeting like-minded people. Plus, who doesn’t want to see themselves on the evening news?
The problem is that protests don’t have a great history of accomplishing anything in the face of powerful vested interests. Remember those folk protesting outside the White House in the mid-60s chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” Didn’t reduce the duration of the VietNam war by even ten minutes. Remember the Occupy movement? Didn’t change a thing. Remember the endless CND protests in Europe in the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Utterly ineffectual.
The list of pointless futile feel-good demonstrations is very long and the list of effective mass demonstrations is exceedingly short and confined entirely to societies that were autocratic and fundamentally unstable.
While Brexit and Trump and the other manifestations of brainlessness may indeed push most of the West into being autocratic and fundamentally unstable, we’re not there yet and so the Extinction Rebellion protests are highly unlikely to do more than provide the mass media with yet another opportunity to boost ad revenues.
The biggest flaw in the feel-good demonstration idea, however, is not its futility. It’s the fact that those protesting against climate change and ecosystem destruction don’t have any meaningful solutions to propose. They are like small children protesting against the need to go shopping that day without presenting any viable alternative that would accomplish the goal of securing food for that evening’s dinner.
While the fundamental observation of the protesters is correct (that we can’t carry on as we are) they seem disinterested in presenting feasible alternatives. The Utopian argument of the protesters can be summarized as: “everyone’s got to change right now, tens of millions have to accept unemployment for the greater good, trillions of dollars have to be spent immediately on unproven technologies, but we want all the good stuff resulting from capitalism like medicine and communication and food and clothing to be unaffected because we like and need all of these things.”
What politician anywhere in the world is going to tell voters that their jobs will be sacrificed for the sake of the planet? It’s simply not ever going to happen. Not ever. So the protests are pointless because their goal is impossible and they present no means by which to reach the outcome they think they want.
In other words, Extinction Rebellion and photogenic young schoolgirls are a total distraction. They enable people to feel that “at least someone is doing something” while in reality nothing whatsoever changes.
The problem is, we really do need radical change.
We need also need, however, to accept the simple fact that it is highly immoral, not to mention utterly impossible, to sacrifice tens of millions of others in order to achieve a worthy goal. We cannot plunge tens of millions of people into unemployment and poverty because we believe this is necessary for the health of the planet. What we need is a set of actions that will be effective yet as painless as possible. In other words, we need to look at the issue of environmental impact in the same way as we’d look at any other project: go for the low-hanging fruit first, to achieve the greatest number of quick meaningful wins. After that we can proceed to tackle harder problems.
So where is the low-hanging fruit?
The office was the 19th century’s answer to the need for centralized data processing. Gather everyone into an office so they can shuffle papers back and forth among each other. For the last twenty years, thanks to the Internet, we’ve not needed offices for more than 70% of all white collar work. Yet we still waste billions of dollars of energy and people’s time forcing them to commute to-and-from the office. This is not only stupid but economically disastrous. So let’s begin there.
By taxing organizations that don’t decentralize (we can determine the appropriate metrics for this so as not to induce stupid behavior) we can quickly reduce the daily commute. In the USA alone, ceasing the mindless commute and shutting down unnecessary offices would save at least 3.5 million barrels of oil per day. That’s nearly as much as the total output from fracking. We would also dramatically reduce CO2 output, because those cars and busses would no longer be belching fumes while crawling along jammed highways. We would further reduce CO2 output because all those offices would no longer require their lights and elevators and energy-intensive HVAC climate control systems. Ultimately we’d save even more because we’d stop building office blocks.
Worldwide, reducing pointless commuting would save over 8 billion barrels of oil per day, which is two-thirds of the entire output of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer. That’s a lot of CO2 reduction.
Electricity generation is still dirty in most countries and renewables are nowhere near being ready to step in and fill the breech. Furthermore, the need to store electricity for use during non-productive periods such as the hours of darkness (for solar power) and low wind (for wind-generated power) and calm seas (for wave-generated power) implies a lot of pollution because batteries are dirty technologies. They require nasty chemicals to be extracted and purified and processed and shipped around the globe to where they’re required.
Even so, it’s clear that we need to invest heavily in developing better renewable energy technologies while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of energy storage technologies. These are tractable problems that can, with enough money and talent, be solved to a reasonable degree.
Nuclear technology isn’t as clean as its proponents claim because of the total cost of building, operating, and decommissioning nuclear power plants. In addition the lethal toxicity of the waste products and their half-life of tens of thousands of years means that the technology is unsuitable for short-sighted error-prone apes like us. We’re simply too unreliable and too stupid to be responsible stewards of nuclear technology so we have to forego it regardless of any claimed short-term environmental benefits.
Fortunately there’s a practical solution to hand. We’re still using a Victorian approach to energy generation and distribution but today’s technologies free us from those constraints just as the Internet frees us from having to commute to the office every day.
Micro-power is a practical solution that solves many problems. Putting solar panels on family homes and apartment blocks can significantly reduce overall power requirements. Ultimately many buildings can become fully self-sufficient in power. As a result we won’t need the billions of dollars of distribution infrastructure we currently require, which means failures in power supply will not cause large-scale blackouts for hundreds of thousands or even millions of people at a time. Furthermore, once we’ve shed the outmoded distribution grid we’ll need less power because we will no longer have the 5% energy loss that inevitably occurs when you pump electrons across long distances. While 5% may not sound much, across the developed world it’s the equivalent to another 2 million barrels of oil daily. According to the World Bank, energy losses in developing nations are far higher, up to 24% of total output in some countries. So globally, we can probably save up to 4 million barrels of oil daily. Meanwhile we’ll be creating lots of jobs to replace those lost in mining and other forms of extraction, because someone’s got to install all those solar panels and energy management systems.
Here, from just two feasible and implementable changes that don’t require tens of millions of lost jobs, we can save up to 12 million barrels of oil per day.
There is equivalent low-hanging fruit when it comes to environmental degradation too, but I’ll save that for another article.
The point is that we need solutions, not protests. So long as we allow ourselves to be distracted by feel-good for-the-cameras empty noise we will continue to lag in the area where it really matters: the formulation of do-good policies that are more than empty words and unachievable dreams.
We need to start plucking the low-hanging fruit because we’re rapidly running out of time.