Symbolic protests, cracked heads and lumpen loads

Kingsnorth Power Station (photo © 2007 Francis Sedgemore)

The photo above is of the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, which is sited on the Hoo Peninsula separating the Thames and Medway estuaries in Kent. This is one of my own pictures, taken from a nature reserve and twitchers’ paradise near Rainham, with the wonderfully-named “Horrid Hill” in the middle ground.

Readers in the British Isles will no doubt be familiar with Kingsnorth, as it is currently the focus of the “Climate Camp 2008” environmental direct action protest. The camp is but a few days old, but already there have been violent confrontations with riot police, whose more ploddish colleagues have confiscated “War on Terror” board games as damning evidence of the campers’ malicious intent. There have even been allegations that police planted weapons in a wooded area near the camp, and then accused the campers of preparing for battle.

The campers are a mixed bunch of middle-class enviros of various political hues, deep greens and black-clad ‘anarchist’ youth: the same crowd whose attention last year was on Heathrow Airport and the proposed third runway. Now they are calling for Kingsnorth to be closed down, and have vowed to do this over the coming week. I have mixed feelings about the matter.

There are many clashing voices disturbing the peace of the Medway estuary. On the one hand we have radical environmentalists rightly pointing out that “clean coal” is a flue-pipe dream, and calling for more drastic action against anthropogenic climate change. Energy efficiency and electricity generation from renewable sources is what we should be talking about, say the activists.

Then up pops former mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill, vanquished by Margaret Thatcher, urging the campers to protest instead against nuclear power. Scargill wants to see the mines re-opened, and for Britain to achieve energy self-sufficiency with the help of its ample coal reserves.

Local residents of the Medway region have lived with Kingsnorth for many years, and many of them cannot see what all the fuss is about. The two gigawatt station provides not only electricity for Londoners and others in the south-east of England, but good jobs for those who live on the Hoo peninsula and further afield. Some local people are said to support the climate camp, and are calling for a managed transition to a post-carbon economy that provides employment opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

It is a very complex issue, despite what the more polemical commentators say. And one of the more vocal voices in this debate is that of Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot. I disagree with George on many issues, but at the same time I have enormous respect for him as one of the best environmental journalists around. His work tends to be thorough and well-researched, and he provokes intense debate around some critical issues.

Fresh from a visit to the climate camp, Monbiot set a cat among the pigeons last night with his appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, along with veteran environmentalist Jonathan Porritt and former energy minister Brian Wilson. What did Monbiot do? He declared in his Guardian column that climate change was of such great importance that nuclear could be an answer:

“I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen… We can no longer afford any rigid principle but one: that the harm done to people living now and in the future must be minimised by the most effective means, whatever they might be.”

Stopping coal-fired power stations is now Monbiot’s top priority.

Such blatant environmental heresy was presented by Newsnight’s Gavin Essler as a possible split within the green movement. The actual question asked was:

“Going nuclear: will it tear the green movement apart?”

A response to this was provided by climate camp spokesman Isabelle Michel, who reminded us that the most important issue is energy consumption. Politicians and consumers appear blind to this, their most important consideration being that of maintaining levels of energy use, if not increasing them as part of the dogma of conventional economic growth.

There is no split in the movement, says Michel:

“These are difficult questions, and the environmental movement is diverse. We are working through them together, collectively, looking at the difficult questions. Actually, it’s a really good sign that there is not a ‘party line’, where everyone says and believes the same thing.”

In this confident and articulate woman my journalistic antenna detects a PR professional. But that’s by-the-bye; the message is sound, even if it is delivered in eloquent media-speak.

After Essler interrogated a weary looking Monbiot in the studio, Porritt and Wilson were brought in by video link to stir things up a bit. On one level I am with Monbiot. But my head agrees with Porritt, who regards Monbiot’s approach as “completely erroneous”, and words as “loose”. Like the climate campers, Porritt sees energy efficiency as top priority. Then come renewables, and after that you can argue about the rest, he says.

Following Porritt came Wilson, whose abusive comments about Monbiot would qualify the Argyll heidbanger and friend of retired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for a Cunt of the Year prize:

“I’m delighted to award George Monbiot the gold medal for slow learners. A lot of people reached exactly this conclusion a long time ago, and I’m not sure that he’s such a monumental figure that he’s going to cause that many ripples.”

Sticks and stones, and all that. But citing Gaia scientist James Lovelock’s support for nuclear power, banging on about supposedly settled debates of old, and talking of “repenting sinners”, shows Wilson for the New Labour attack dog he is. Monbiot’s influence in the energy and environment debate is without a doubt greater than Wilson’s.

It was welcome, then, to have Essler bring Porritt back into the discussion. Unlike Wilson, Porritt’s criticism of Monbiot was both courteous and well informed. For example, he pointed out that few in the environmental movement are in fundamental opposition to nuclear energy. But for Porritt the devil is in the detail, and the arguments for nuclear simply don’t add up:

“If you actually unpack all of those caveats [as listed by Monbiot], and once you’ve got a chance to reflect on them, you’ll realise that in those caveats is basically an impossible route for nuclear. They could never meet all of those conditions. What most environmentalists would actually say is that if the industry and scientists can come up with solutions to those problems – particularly the risks caused by proliferation, security risks, risks associated with nuclear waste and decommissioning – if scientists can get real breakthroughs in those areas – then of course we have to be open-minded and think about the role that nuclear might play. But the truth of it is right now – and George knows this as well as anyone, which is why he’s so off-line here – is that they are nowhere near meeting any of those conditions over the next years, decades.”

George is indeed well aware of the detailed issues involved. So what is he up to? It smells like pure politics to me, and bugger the evidence. If Monbiot is attempting to de-polarise the popular debate, then I have to wonder if this the right way of going about it. I’m not convinced that it is.

So far I’ve covered the symbolic protests and cracked heads in the title of this piece. That leaves “lumpen loads”, by whom I mean the more passive and environmentally unconscious consumers of electricity generated at Kingsnorth and elsewhere.

Security of supply is uppermost in the minds of politicians. As for consumers, they are largely oblivious to the details, and for them the only thing that matters is to “keep the lights burning”. Many consumers have little or no idea of their own energy use, other than in terms of the effect on their bank balance.

How many kilowatt hours does your household consume every quarter; do you know from where your electricity comes; what are the generating capacities of your local power stations; what is the overall load in your region; what do you know about the way in which the national grid works?

Knowing the answers to these questions and more is essential if one is to have a proper understanding of the situation, so that personal decisions are informed. Is it reasonable to expect that people take these things onboard? Yes, I think it is. To be ignorant of such matters is to be removed from the hard realities of existence and survival.

In his Newsnight appearance, Monbiot said that he would like to see a smart, global energy grid, so that electricity from diverse and often intermittent renewable sources could be mixed and matched to regional needs. I used to think in this way, but have since changed my mind.

Not only is a global grid a bad thing, in my opinion, so too is the existing UK National Grid. I would rather see this broken up into independent local supply and distribution chains, so that electricity consumers and local communities are forced to consider in detail their energy needs and use, and plan appropriately. Mine may seem like an extreme position, but this is a blog, after all, so I’m allowed to be provocatively contrarian in order to make a point. It goes with the territory.

For a short while after leaving Denmark I lived in the Shetland Islands, which are not connected to the UK grid. The islands rely instead on a 67 megawatt diesel oil generator and a number of wind turbines to service a population of around 23,000. Shetlanders are keenly aware of their energy situation, and their environmental consciousness is relatively high. In London, however, from where I deliver these critical thoughts, relatively few people of my acquaintance have any idea about where the energy they use comes from.

It takes a personal epiphany to change the destructive mindset of energy inefficiency. George Monbiot has over the years done much to influence the way Guardian readers at least think and act about the environment. But resurrecting the nuclear illusion is in my view a retrograde step for a campaigning environmentalist. My fear is that Monbiot’s latest intervention will irreparably damage his reputation as a serious commentator in the debate on energy and climate change.

Update: I’ve just received a call from a friend who happens to be involved with the Kingsnorth climate camp. My friend is suggesting that I might like to visit the camp later in the week, and I’ve agreed. Perhaps I ought to take a sturdy tin hat, just in case. If I do visit Kingsnorth, then I shall no doubt report on the experience for this blog.