Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fuel Oil, Whale Oil and Snake Oil

Not that I’m obsessed with Ms Klein, but consider this passage from her Said Lecture as published in the London Review of Books:
....the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coal mines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills.
Yes, oil spills are very bad, but before we had a world-spanning petroleum industry we had whale oil.  Commercial whaling, on which whole economies were built, was a very nasty business to whale and whaler alike.  Its replacement with petroleum was a big improvement in almost every respect.  If it were not for climate change we could delete the “almost”.

Coal mining has also been a miserable business, but so has every other form of mining, in every part of the world and for all of human history.  Unfortunately, no bronze or iron age without bronze or iron.  And the use of wood as the principal fuel source for heating and industry was unsustainable as populations rose, and it consigned a whole class of people to extreme poverty.  There’s a reason the most pitiable characters in traditional stories are woodcutters.

Climate change is real.  The advantages of fossil fuels are real.  That’s why we have a problem.  You have to rewrite a lot of history to claim otherwise.


Sandwichman said...

Klein says A about X but she doesn't say B about Y. B is true about Y, therefore...


ProGrowthLiberal said...

Over at Thoma's place - commentator Anne is obsessed with Naomi Klein. Anne adores her. Regardless of how much economic gibberish Klein puts out attacking well founded positions by economists, Anne thinks Klein gets it right and the economist is somehow mean spirited. Fair warning when if Thoma links to this.

Peter Dorman said...

S-man, these judgments are all relative. The issue is not whether an oil well or a coal mine is pristine or not. We know they're not. The question is whether, climate aside, fossil fuels were a step forward compared to what they replaced. I'm saying the answer is clearly yes, for both consumers and producers. The fight against fossil fuels does *not* automatically coincide with the fight against local environmental damages, bad working conditions or poverty. The notion that all-issues-are-really-one-issue and there-is-only-one-right-side is a rejection of the need for politics in any normal sense. It forecloses debate in a flood of moralism. And it happens to be not true, which means, among other things, that a political strategy based on it has dim prospects.

I just want people to acknowledge that there really are multiple legitimate values at stake. It's not the evil fossil fuel companies vs all decent and right-thinking people. (And yes, we need to get off of fossil fuels asap.)

jamzo said...

i understand fossil fuels as an improvement as a source of energy but i dont think it can be said that fossil fuels were an improvement in the extent of "sacrificial people and places"

Sandwichman said...

"The notion that all-issues-are-really-one-issue and there-is-only-one-right-side is a rejection of the need for politics in any normal sense."

You are referring, then, to "economics"?

Sandwichman said...

Seriously though, Peter, Klein is pretty lightweight Kumbaya activist-journalist. What do you say to Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy? Andreas Malm's "China as Chimney of the World: The Fossil Capital Hypothesis? Alf Hornborg's "Footprints in the cotton fields: The Industrial Revolution as time-space appropriation and environmental load displacement"?

My point in raising these analyses being that it is not just a matter of "society" replacing one kind of dirty ol' fuel with another but one of the strategic deployment of energy sources to serve the purpose of accumulation of capital. And I'm referring to "capital" in a technical sense, not as a dirty word.

Peter Dorman said...

Thanks for these references; I wasn't aware of any of them, but now I am. As far as I can tell (after 5 minutes of browsing), none of these authors makes Klein's point that fossil fuels are and have always been especially destructive in every respect and are only utilized because opposition is repressed by the overlords.

I strongly agree with what I think is the underlying inspiration behind all three authors, and many others, that energy sources and social structures are deeply interwoven. Who owns what, and how production needs to be organized in order to take advantage of what, always plays a big role in what transpires. (A general theory of what.) And that doesn't go only for fossil fuels. One of the points I like to make about my own region is that the reason Boeing located in Seattle was because of the serendipitous combination of aluminum sources and -- especially -- cheap hydropower. Now that other materials are used for aircraft production and energy is a much smaller component, Boeing is systematically disinvesting. The whole operation would be in China by now if it weren't for the fear they would lose their national security clearance (so to speak).

Anyway, this post was really just a postscript to the previous one. I didn't want to go off on a tangent. My interest is in the anti-modernist aspect of fossil-fuel bashing when it ignores the miseries of pre-fossil living and working standards. If Kropotkin or Gene Debs or someone had really changed the course of history a hundred years ago, would fossil fuel development have ceased?

Sandwichman said...

Fossil fuels are great, no doubt about it. That is why we should never have pissed them away in a short couple of centuries. But it is a little late for hindsight. It would be more fruitful to ask if there was anyone two centuries ago with foresight.

The Luddites, it will be recalled, objected to "machinery hurtful to commonalty." That last word is usually misrepresented as "commonality." The two words mean pretty much the same thing except that commonalty had a more specifically political connotation as opposed to the more generically social connotation of commonality.

For all their troubles -- and trouble-making -- the Luddites have been falsely accused of being, well, "Luddites" -- ignorant and superstitious opponents of progress who stupidly assumed there was only a fixed amount of work to be done.

Aside from the fact that the latter claim was a bold-faced lie, it was effective in drowning out the substantive objections people raised about the imposition of machinery on the community (and the commonalty).

It seems to me that environmental degradation has always required a considerable degree of political disenfranchisement as a prerequisite. Maybe that's just post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning but it will have to do unless someone can come up with a better explanation.

Peter T said...

"It seems to me that environmental degradation has always required a considerable degree of political disenfranchisement as a prerequisite."

There's plenty of places where peasants or even foragers have wrecked the environment, all by themselves. On the other hand, really systematic wrecking that can evade the local consequences for long periods requires political disenfranchisement. Trouble is, the local consequences are now global - we look likely to run out of planet before we can re-set the politics.

Peter Dorman said...

Fossil fuels have a special role in climate change -- no doubt about that. Klein wants to argue they have a special role in everything else that harms or oppresses people. One implication of that claim is that non-fossil energy sources are less oppressive, and that's what I pushed back against in the OP. Whale oil was worse, and so is chopping down lots of trees. So no, fossil fuels aren't special. Life before oil and coal was pretty harsh for most people, and there's no point in romanticizing it. On top of that, if we try to avoid any environmental damage at all, we won't have many options, will we? So the goal should be to balance benefit against cost and to minimize the costs as much as possible. Life without sacrifices? Not conceivable.

Unrelated but relevant question: should we build deep tunnels like the Lincoln Tunnel in NYC or the Channel Tunnel between England and France or the Mt. Blanc Tunnel between Switzerland and Italy? People get killed building them! Even with best practices it's extremely dangerous. In effect, some people are sacrificing themselves for the larger community. An end to Excavationism?