Oil and the United Kingdom: towards extinction … or hope

August 23, 2021

Download this review as a PDF here

TERRY BROTHERSTONE reviews Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by James Marriott and Terry Macalister (London, Pluto Press, 2021)

Even Alok Sharma – Boris Johnson loyalist, former Tory cabinet minister, now president of the COP 26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November – says he recognises it: the planet is in the last-chance saloon. Indeed, the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn, the clock – to borrow George Orwell’s opening to 1984 – has already struck thirteen. “Human activity,” reported The Guardian,“is changing the Earth’s climate in ways unprecedented in … hundreds of thousands of years”: some potentially disastrous consequences are “inevitable and ‘irreversible’”.

Only the worst effects can now be alleviated, and that only by decisive action drastically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without a serious move to end reliance on fossil fuels, human society as we know it faces extinction. And, argues this book, Britain is a nation the modern existence of which has been shaped by oil. What hope is there for the future?

The publication of Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation is timely indeed. That James Marriott and Terry Macalister had fun researching it resonates in their writing, but it must have been hard work too. It took them about three years longer than planned, when the instability that afflicted Britain in the years following the 2007-09 financial crash prompted their project. The effects of austerity; the near-miss 2014 Scottish independence referendum that raised the now immanent possibility that the 314-year-old union with England could end, and with it the fragile constitutional underpinnings of the United Kingdom; “Brexit”; growing fears of climate catastrophe … it all made the nation look unprecedentedly insecure.

A protest against new oil field development in Scotland. Photo by Craig Maclean

Experts in their different ways in the central socio-economic role of oil in the modern world, Marriott and Macalister decided to investigate the part it had played in holding the Britain of recent decades together – and is now playing in tearing it apart. They would travel the country, researching its post-World-War-II relationship with the industry. Then, as they were reaching their journey’s end, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the final blow to what to them – children, as they introduce themselves, of the years in which oil replaced coal in the engine-room of British prosperity and sustained the underlying certainties of the country’s political economy and social life – had seemed an “era of optimism”. They “had spent [their] lives writing on the oil and gas industry and its impacts around the world”, and now wanted to understand “what was its role … in Britain’s turbulence?”

Marriott and Macalister make an ideal pair to ask the question, and they have devised an entertaining, instructive and original way of starting serious debate about answering it. The delay in their publication plans, moreover, means that their book has arrived at an opportune moment. The protest movement is gathering momentum, notably in London against the Science Museum’s acceptance of Shell’s “greenwashing” sponsorship for its “Future of the Planet” exhibition and, in Scotland, against further North Sea oil exploitation, in the first place of the Cambo field, west of Shetland. And planning is well underway for major demonstrations at the COP 26 summit that the smooth and well-travelled (although never-quarantined) Sharma is scheduled to chair in Glasgow in November – described by Kevin McKenna in The Herald (Glasgow) recently as an exercise in entrusting “our climate recovery … to the sector chiefly responsible for creating it … the planet’s chief pollutant: global capitalism.”

Macalister, now Senior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge and a freelance journalist, was for some years Energy Editor at The Guardian – a position in which he clearly formed working relationships with key figures in the oil industry, access to whom adds important insights to Crude Britannia. Interviewees include senior politicians such as Michael Heseltine and “Green Deal” Corbynite, Rebecca Long-Bailey; and chief executives such as Royal Dutch Shell’s Bernardus (or “Ben”) van Beurden, and John, Baron Browne of Madingley. Browne was British Petroleum’s chief executive from 1995 until 2007, and his shape-shiftingly image-conscious, but never less than ruthless, career punctuates the story at key moments. His 41 years with BP ended following the revelation that he had lied about his personal life in a sworn court deposition. Now a cross-bench peer, he emerges as one of the key business figures in the “new Labour” years. His ultimately unsuccessful attempts to rebrand BP as “Beyond Petroleum” with a sun-god logo, dovetailed well with premier Tony Blair’s short-lived “third way”, capitalism-with-a-human-face ideology.

Read the rest of this entry »

The contested present, versus the populationists’ ‘ghastly future’

May 25, 2021

The false narrative that population growth is a key driver of ecological crisis “accus[es] and put[s] the onus on” people in the global south who bear the brunt of that crisis, Jevgeniy Bluwstein and others write in Frontiers in Conservation Science, an academic journal, this month.

They argue that, instead of drawing a straight line from rising population and affluence to ecological disaster, scientists “should help expose the structural causes and drivers of inequality, overproduction and overconsumption”.

Bluwstein and his colleagues are responding to an article that re-presents a populationist narrative, in a new version for the 2020s, “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”. Its authors include Corey Bradshaw, an Australian ecologist, and Paul Ehrlich, a leading advocate of “too many people” arguments since the 1970s.

Protests against a new mining project in Chile. Photo from No A La Mina web site

Bradshaw, Ehrlich et al outline three linked crises – biodiversity loss, the sixth mass extinction and climate disruption – and suggest that scientists’ social responsibility is to “tell it like it is”: to adopt “a good communication strategy” to undercut human “optimism bias” that ignores expert warnings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Luddism for the age of robotics

May 5, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job, by Gavin Mueller (Verso, 2021)

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller.

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry” (page 127).

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Alfa Romeo strikers march in January 1972. The placard reads “the Working Class Goes to Heaven”. From Libcom

Allowing Walmart or Amazon to “swallow the globe” would entrench “exploitative models of production and distribution”, and channel resources to reactionary billionaires, he writes:

Letting technology take its course will lead not to egalitarian outcomes, but authoritarian ones, as the ultra-wealthy expend their resources on shielding themselves from any accountability to the rest of us: postapocalyptic bunkers, militarised yachts, private islands and even escapes to outer space (page 128.)

Given the persistence – in trade union hierarchies and even among leftist writers – of technocratic dogma (fantasies about electric cars or geoengineering, for example), Mueller’s book is very welcome.

He grounds his “decelerationism” not only in texts, but in workers’ struggles to confront, confound or control technologies in the workplace – starting with the Luddites in early 19th century England, who smashed machines that were used by employers to cut pay and tighten labour discipline.   

Read the rest of this entry »

China’s CO2 emissions are soaring. But in Monthly Review’s world, they are ‘flattening’

April 13, 2021

Lord help us. While China’s coal use keeps rising, and its government plans for that to continue, there are still “Marxists” out there trying to convince us that China is leading the world to a clean, green “ecological civilisation”.

It’s the editors of Monthly Review in the United States that I’m talking about. They have just published (on line here) an exchange between Richard Smith, me and themselves about this.

My involvement in this started when I had a go at one of Monthly Review’s editors, John Bellamy Foster, on this blog. I wrote that:

□ Foster’s optimism about the Chinese Communist Party leading a “world ecological revolution” was misplaced;

□ His claim that China has made “significant steps toward a more sustainable development” was empty, given the way that the Chinese government has in the last 20-odd years – with full knowledge of the global warming danger – overseen the greatest coal-fired economic boom in history;

□ “Talk of [China’s] massive promotion of wind and solar technology’, without discussing it in this context [of the gigantic coal mountain], is a monstrous delusion”.

The underlying problem is that we live in different worlds. In the MR editors’ world, the Chinese government is part of the solution. In the world I live in, it’s part of the problem.

The exchange in Monthly Review on line has not shifted my view. And here are a few more thoughts in response.

■ The MR editors refer to “evidence provided in our March Notes from the Editors that China is flattening out its carbon emissions”. There is no such evidence. There is a link to Climate Action Tracker, which wrote:

In the last few years, there had been hopeful signs that China’s CO2 emissions were flattening. However, CO2 emissions rose in 2018 and 2019, and we estimate 2020 GHG emissions will increase by 0.8% in our upper bound and decrease by 7.7% in our lower bound compared to 2019 levels, with most of the drop due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Climate Action Tracker’s guarded optimism has not been borne out. Chinese statistics, released since that summary was written, show that CO2 emissions rose by 1.5% in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

So China may be “flattening out its carbon emissions” in MR’s world. But in the real world, they are still going up. The main driver is China’s “dirty recovery” from the pandemic, according to China energy researcher Lauri Myllyvirta of Carbon Brief.

China’s president Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated that CO2 emissions will peak by 2030. Many, but far from all, analysts think this target could be reached. But the problem is the target itself, and the Paris agreement of which it forms part. It allows for a frightful amount of climate damage.

This graph, from an earlier post, shows China’s coal consumption (red line), compared to its renewables consumption (green line)

■ The MR editors once again portray China’s coal dependence as a primarily external factor. They couldn’t bring themselves to mention e.g. that China generated 53% of the world’s coal-fired electricity in 2020, or that it approved 46 GW of new coal-fired plants last year. (That is, China just last year approved construction of half as much coal-fired power generation again as Poland’s total). Instead, they underlined:

[China] now has the world’s largest high-efficiency (“clean”) coal power system, with “ultra-low emissions technology” incorporated into 80 per cent of its coal-fired plants, which are more efficient in reducing emissions than coal plants in the US.

Even the sharpest-eyed MR readers might have thought that those “emissions” were the same “emissions” the article had talked about all along – CO2 emissions. They are not. They are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions.

In the short term, it’s brilliant news that these will be blocked by ultra-low emissions (ULE) technology. That helps to reduce the number of lives cut short by air pollution. And of course it is true that new, more efficient plants use slightly less coal to produce the same amount of electricity.

Read the rest of this entry »

China: Xi Jinping’s coal stokes the climate fire

January 15, 2021

China’s national and provincial post-Covid recovery packages will put three times as much cash into fossil fuel projects as into renewable energy.

China is “focusing its recovery on high-carbon energy and infrastructure, as it did after

One of China’s vanity projects: a puffer fish statue in Jiangsu province, which provoked social media outrage when it was unveiled

the 2008-09 global financial crisis”, says Carbon Brief, who analysed the spending plans. Dozens of new coal-fired power stations and climate-trashing coal-to-chemicals plants are among the key items.

The plans make a mockery of Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s claim to the United Nations in September to be aiming for “carbon neutrality before 2060”.

This chasm between words and actions makes Xi a “climate arsonist” still more dangerous than Donald Trump, Richard Smith, a US-based China researcher, writes in a recent article. Smith fears that Xi is “abandoning the transition to renewables”.

In a book published last year, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, Smith argues that China’s combination of bureaucratic dictatorship and capitalism has exacerbated Read the rest of this entry »


China and the “left”: what planet are these people on?

January 15, 2021

As China’s ruling elite connives with European and American politicians to promote false climate “solutions” via the international talks, its defenders on the “left” claim it is aiming for an “ecological civilisation”.

A common approach is to foreground geopolitics: to present the trade war between the USA and China as part of the battle between capitalism and “socialism” and to sideline the class struggle in China.

The Chinese elite’s role in driving forward unsustainable capitalist expansion, so obscured and downplayed by its defenders on the “left”, is analysed by Richard Smith in his book China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, which I discussed in a linked post, that you could read first.

In this post I contrast Smith’s approach to that of John Bellamy Foster, a writer on “ecological Marxism” and editor of Monthly Review, and comment on a review of Smith’s book by Andrew Burgin, a UK-based socialist activist. It’s in the form of five questions.

 

  1. Does the Chinese elite’s support for renewable electricity generation show that it is leading the way to an “ecological civilisation”?

The Chinese coal-fired boom of the last 20 years has made a substantial contribution to the climate and ecological emergency – and yet prominent “ecosocialists”, without Read the rest of this entry »


Belarus: ‘without organisation, without struggle, the oppressive unfreedom will never disappear’

August 14, 2020

The revolt against the authoritarian regime in Belarus has spread from the city streets, where thousands of protesters have been battling with police, to the workplaces. On Thursday 13 August workers at large enterprises – including chemical and food factories, and construction and transport companies – downed tools in protest at the monstrous surge of police violence and arrests. People are quitting the state-supported trade unions. Films and photographs of workers’ meetings, at which participants denounced police violence and the fraudulent election results, are spreading like wildfire across social media. Womens’ organisations are taking to the streets – against a president whose fury was provoked, especially, by the support for Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, the woman who dared to stand against him for election. Here are two appeals by independent trade union organisations that were published yesterday. Please share and re-post. GL.

Open Appeal by the Belarusian Independent Trade Union to workers

Dear Belarusians,

The authorities’ actions – in falsifying the election results, breaching human rights, instigating mass arrests and beatings of peaceful protesters and passers-by across the whole country – could all lead to irreversible consequences for Belarus. We are hearing ever-louder

A factory meeting in Minsk earlier this week

announcements from the European Union and the United States, that they are ready to impose various sanctions, including economic ones, on Belarus as a state that is trampling cynically on the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

Closure of the western markets for our products and services would be a catastrophe for our enterprises. The impact of this would be borne first of all by ordinary workers, who are in a bad enough situation already.

To defend ourselves and our freedom of action at the workplace, we propose the following pattern of simple collective actions:

1. Quit the state’s social organisations, such as the [government-supported] Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions, [the pro-presidential civic-political association] Belaya Rus and the Read the rest of this entry »


China’s coal-fuelled boom: the man who cried “stop”

April 30, 2020

Download this article (and the linked one) as a PDF

“We can no longer act on nature with impunity.” The “classic” model of economic development “poses a threat to humanity’s very existence”. China needs a new development model, based on renewable resources used effectively and sustainably, that will be built on the old model’s ruins.

Deng Yingtao, a high-profile Chinese economist, made this call to action thirty years ago in his book A New Development Model and China’s Future.[1] Its message was ignored by the political leaders it was addressed to. In this review article, I will consider why.

In the 1990s, the Chinese Communist party leadership prioritised expansion of export-focused manufacturing industry. The industrial boom really took off in the 2000s, fuelled by mountains of coal – the classic unsustainable resource.

In every year since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world put together;

Steelmaking is one of China’s coal-hungry industries

more coal than the entire world used annually in the early 1980s; and more than twice what all the rich countries together used annually in the mid 1960s, during their own coal-fired boom.[2]

The primary beneficiaries of this economic model are not China’s 1.3 billion people. The big fuel users are in China’s giant east-coast manufacturing belt – which produces, in the first place, energy-intensive goods for export to rich countries: steel bars, cement, chemical products, agricultural fertilisers and electronics products. Household fuel consumption remains extremely low.

This level of fossil fuel use can not go on, not in China and not anywhere else, without courting the most horrendous dangers brought about by global warming.

Deng Yingtao made a compelling argument against going down this road, BEFORE the decisions were made.

In the Introduction to his book, he pointed to the yawning gap between rich and poor countries; the multinational companies’ rising power; and the damage done to the global south by capitalist boom-and-bust.

The “classic” development model had led to “a world economy dominated by the developed West Read the rest of this entry »


The money mountains are tumbling down

March 24, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak is triggering an economic recession far deeper than the one that followed the 2008 banking crash. Chunks of the money mountains are breaking off and sliding into an abyss.

While we struggle to get used to the lockdown, worrying about friends, family and vulnerable people in our communities, the flesh-eating hyenas who control the world economy are struggling to protect their fortunes.

Here is a quick summary of the way it looks today in the Financial Times. (I’ve included links to the articles, although many are behind paywalls – sorry for that!)

Forecasts of economic recession. Macquarie bank, in a note to investors, said:

The global economy is in deep recession. […] Quantifying the magnitude of the near-term hit with any certainty is not possible [but] the partial data to February show that the hit to China is without precedent.

Macquarie’s models suggest that the Chinese economy probably fell by 20% (seasonally adjusted annual rate or SAAR) in the first quarter of the year, and that the rest of the

“Capital”. A poster published in the Soviet Union in 1923

world economy will sink by 15% SAAR in the second quarter – that is, “the worst quarterly contraction in the modern era”, compared to “the weakest quarter during the Great Recession” of about minus 9% SAAR.

The shock in the second quarter is likely to be broadly spread across the major advanced economies, with differences likely drive by the respective stimulus packages and government approaches to containment.

Another note, from Morgan Stanley, focuses on how its clients can profit from the recovery, once it starts:

While it’s not possible to call an absolute bottom with precision, we think it’s close on many metrics. […] Aggressive monetary and fiscal policy measures, degrossing to date, and optimism about the impact of social distancing have us leaning more positive. Even in the worst possible outcome – a depression – there is historical precedent (1930) to think we can rally sharply from the recent downturn.

In the US, for the second quarter of the year, Morgan Stanley forecasts a 30% drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP); Goldman Sachs reckons it will be 24%.

Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs’s chief US economist, said that the coronavirus “has pushed Read the rest of this entry »


Comparethepolitics.com. A consumer’s guide to post-election inquests

January 7, 2020

A guest post by BOB MYERS

Many people will have been bitterly disapointed when they found that most consumers had bought the Eton toffs’ slogan “Get Brexit Done”, rather than the product on offer from Labour. And I agree, it is utterly nauseating to see the public school aristos put in charge of the tuck shop, and stuffing goodies into their slavering mouths faster than their arseholes can evacuate their waste.

When Jeremy Corbyn beat the remnants of Tony Blair’s privatising war junkies, and became Labour leader, thousands of people were excited by the prospect of what Corbyn himself described as “a new kind of politics”.

However, Comparethepolitics.com has looked at the election, and found little or no actual

Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens, Greece / Creative Commons

evidence of “new politics”. While the products on sale may have had very different labels, the contents were identical in one vital respect.

Both set out to sell their products to a passive audience sat in front of TVs, mobiles and toilet paper dressed as newspapers. Both said: “Vote for me to solve your aches and pains.”

Where was the “new” politics?

Now Labour Party leadership hopefuls are rushing to the Guardian to tell their middle class readers that they know what the working class really want and need.

The hard truth is that the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 by the Thatcher government saw the almost total destruction of the British working class.

Of course there are workers: workers on ever deteriorating wages, workers on zero hour contracts, workers living homeless on the streets, workers doing two or three jobs to get Read the rest of this entry »


%d bloggers like this: