In this post, I’m going to finish my present mini-cycle about emerging class conflicts in the countryside, before turning to writing about my new book. So, unlike my book, I won’t be discussing below what George Monbiot gets wrong about the food and farming system. Instead, I discuss something completely different – namely, what George Monbiot gets wrong about domestic energy. But since my focus is on rural class conflict, what’s ultimately important is not so much what George Monbiot gets right or wrong as what his views reveal about some of the larger political winds now blowing.
This is the relevant article in which Monbiot sets out his position on domestic energy. It has a confessional and redemptive structure of a kind increasingly prevalent in his writing. In it, he describes how he installed woodburning stoves in his house some time ago, thinking that this was an environmentally sound choice. But he now thinks this was a mistake – indeed, a shameful one – because (1) firewood is often of questionable provenance, (2) research has shown that woodstoves emit high levels of health-damaging particulate matter, and (3) there are now better heating options available such as air source heat pumps. He thinks that woodstoves should now be banned, with help provided for the very few people who don’t have an alternative source of heating.
Arguably, I fall into that category. About twenty years ago we planted seven acres of trees on our holding (tree-planting is another of George’s bugbears, but anyway…) We did it under a Forestry Commission scheme which insisted on a 3x3m spacing. This means that I now have a lot of small to medium size trees of impeccable local provenance that need thinning, many being of little use for anything other than firewood. We also planted quite a bit of firewood pollards, and the carbon is accumulating in our woodlands year by year. We’re not, in short, short of wood. So when we built our home (which is pretty well insulated, but does need some additional heat) installing a woodstove with a back boiler for winter heating and hot water seemed a wise choice.
We’re not connected to the electricity grid on our holding. Instead, we generate our own electricity with the help of twenty photovoltaic panels, a small wind turbine on the end of a 9m scaffolding pole, four seriously large batteries, and an array of complex electronics that would have made even Michael Faraday’s brain ache. It is by any standards an extremely high-tech and high-capital bit of gizmology that throughout most of the year enables us to live an energy-profligate lifestyle almost as thoughtlessly as any other modern consumer. But on the kind of still and cloudy midwinter days that make you want to warm your bones by the fire, our inverter barely kicks out enough electricity to keep the lights on. The 1-4kW of electric power that I understand is needed to energise a heat pump would be out of the question.
Now, I confess our situation is quite unusual, and I agree with Monbiot that in view of the questionable provenance of imported firewood and the health impacts of wood combustion, in most situations there’s probably a good case for retiring the woodstove and choosing another option. But in some situations, that may not be the case – and I suspect these situations will become more frequent in the future.
The question of how we’re going to energise future societies seems a more intractable one to me even than my normal focus on the difficulties of how we’re going to feed them – and, despite the high-tech ease of it, my off-grid lifestyle dramatizes that to me in a way that grid-connected folk may be less apt to notice. While we can generate enough electricity most of the year to run such things as computers, phones, freezers, washing machines and an electrically-powered delivery trike, we can’t generate enough to run an electric car, an air-source heat pump or a microbial bioreactor. Looking at my high-capital array of electric gizmology that can’t even fully fund a modern end-consumer lifestyle, let alone the multiple layers of industrial production underlying it, doesn’t suggest to me that the world of air-source heat pumps, electric cars and electrically-energised food that the ecomodernists like to project looks feasible.
A neutral observer in the ecomodernist-vs-agrarian-localist debate might opine that a world of woodstoves and homesteads doesn’t look too feasible either. Maybe so. Certainly on the energy front, it seems to me that humanity faces big questions about feasible energy sources. Neither wood nor anything else seems likely to cut it at scale at anything like present levels of consumption. Still, if you took a fifty-acre field in many a wealthy country like the UK and gave it to ten or twenty households to turn into homesteads, I think it would soon be sprouting a lot of trees which would contribute to the energetic and material autonomy of its residents as part of lifestyles considerably lower in energy needs than their urban counterparts. I’d like to imagine that a bureaucrat charged with figuring out economic sustainability for a post-fossils future who was shown around such holdings would think “great, at least that’s a few less people whose energy needs I have to worry about”.
But who am I kidding? That’s not how modern bureaucracy works. It operates more along the lines of Monbiot’s sensibilities – banning things rather than adjusting itself to unusual situations and emerging local possibilities.
Doubtless there are those who would demur at my ‘few less people’ suggestion and mock the diseconomies of small scale involved in piddling off-grid setups like mine. I discussed this line of reasoning in a recent blog post, in which I mentioned this review paper about a 100% renewables transition . A couple of passing remarks in that paper drew my attention, just as a smudge of cloud on the horizon foretelling bad weather can likewise draw the eye. One of these was that district heating and cooling systems are much more efficient than heat pumps installed on individual buildings (p.78198). Another was that integration of off-grid mini and micro grids is essential for meeting energy growth needs (p.78199).
Is it too much to piece together the radical urbanism that underlies ecomodernism from the snippets of energetic and food system concern I’ve outlined so far? Woodburners are bad for people’s health, so ban them. Farming is bad for wildlife health, so minimise that (ref Monbiot’s Regenesis). Domestic energetic efficiency can only be achieved from district systems and grid tie-ins, so concentrate people in urban areas and mandate energy centralization. No surprise perhaps that Monbiot’s associates at RePlanet argue for 90% global urban residence by 2100.
In his recent letter to The Land Magazine, Monbiot critiques what he calls “the conspiracy ideation now deployed against almost all environmental measures”, of which my preceding paragraph could no doubt be seen by some as an example. The Land’s editor Mike Hannis gave a good response on the conspiracy ideation front to Monbiot’s rather wild accusations in relation to the particular issues they were debating, but there’s also a case for a wider view.
‘Conspiracy ideation’ invokes a world of secret alliances, deliberate media falsification, explicit plans to assume control, cackling men in hidden backrooms writing plans to rule the world. That’s not what I think is happening. On the contrary, ecomodernism’s environmental proposals are pretty much out in the open and consonant with the developmental tendencies of modern, high-energy societies: urban, consumerist, high-energy, high-tech and putatively ‘land sparing’. My problem with this is not that it’s conspiratorial, but that it’s wrong-headed and unfeasible.
All the same, there are some odd crossovers occurring in politics, as I’ve remarked here before. In the past, people on the left tended to the view that the private sector in general and private corporations in particular were motivated by self-interest against the wider wellbeing of the people. People on the right tended to the view that governments and bureaucracies were motivated by self-interest against the wider wellbeing of the people. Over time, I’ve come to think that both these views are largely true. But, as I’ve already said, I don’t think they’re conspiratorially true. They’re not some secret message hidden in the plot. They are the plot.
It always seemed a bit odd to me that conservatives and libertarians were so often pro-corporate and pro-capitalist, because there’s nothing very conservative or liberatory about these organisational forms. Increasingly, conservative critiques of corporate capitalism are emerging. But meanwhile, there seems to be a growing connivance on the left at the confluence between big-scale government and corporate agency, a point I discussed here recently. When and how did it become conspiratorial for a left-winger to criticise the collected works of Bill Gates? When and how did it make sense, if Mike Hannis’s allegations in The Land Magazine are correct, for George Monbiot to make common cause with an organisation underwritten by a hedge fund with investments in oil companies and arms manufacturers, and for him to write bonkers sentences like “Even fossil fuels, terrible as their impact is, are less damaging than the public health disaster [of woodstoves]”.
I daresay that woodstoves have caused their fair share of poor health over the millennia, but they haven’t caused the full-on global cataclysm we now face after a few short centuries of mass fossil fuel combustion. Now that we know, thanks to the wonders of modern science, about aspects of the poor health arising from woodstoves, I’m all in for listening to experts about ways to mitigate them in my wood burning practices. I’m not all in for saying goodbye to my stove and moving to the city. At all. Especially since it seems we don’t actually know what burden of ill health is caused by woodstoves. Whereas we have some inkling when it comes to our modern fossil-fuelled urban civilization.
I’m not a hard libertarian. I don’t, for example, object to laws mandating the wearing of seatbelts in cars. When you sit inside a car you make yourself an accessory to a vast collective modern architecture of death that you could never effect as a lone individual. It’s hard to object if the society underwriting this morbid topology adopts a few feeble efforts towards death-mitigation via seatbelt legislation. But to me, woodstoves are different. True, I didn’t manufacture my own one – partly (though not only) because they’re already subject to an absurd amount of legislative jiggery-pokery connected with assuring the powers that be that they won’t be used for burning coal. But while I’m under no illusions about the degree of my dependence on the modern fossil-fuelled capitalist economy, generating warm air and water from woodland I planted myself … and from a woodstove that I could potentially have made myself … and managing the ecology of the woodland as I go, making myself a protagonist within its numerous wild dramas, are parts of a low-carbon autonomy I’ve engineered for myself on which I’ll take my stand over some actuarial notion that an air-source heat pump hailing from God knows where and using electricity from God knows where is ‘better for the environment’ or for my health.
If I thought ecomodernist urbanism had good prospects of success technically and politically, then I suppose I might reluctantly allow myself to be corralled into a city, plug myself further into the grid and alienate myself further from that encompassing ecology. But I don’t think it’ll work technically – not least because (paralleling manufactured food scenarios), there’s an enormous ‘clean’ energy investment required of all these technologies in order to get a return, and no clear picture of where it’s going to come from. There’s an energy investment, too, in my wood-harvesting efforts, but a much lesser one.
So it seems to me better to prepare the ground for the more likely future of distributed, low-tech ruralism to which the failure of ecomodernist alternatives will in any case default. The difficulties with distributed ruralism are intractable enough, so we might as well get started with them now. At least with the distributed approach, the problem of concentrated particulate matter from woodstoves is dissipated, along with many other kinds of pollution problem.
On the political side of things, how to establish a society that generates and tolerably governs distributed low-tech ruralism is a tricky question which I’ve pondered at length over the years on this blog without answering especially satisfactorily. One thing I’ve learned is that a growing minority of people have, like me, landed on the virtues of a small farming or homesteading life due to their critiques of mainstream contemporary society – but our critiques are often radically different from one another, possibly more so than the political differences characteristic among those contentedly plugged in to urban modernity. We homesteading refuseniks get along fine if we keep the conversation to preferred fencing systems, remedies for caterpillar infestations and suchlike, but it can get hairy if we stray into politics.
Still, that’s the measure of the challenge, and into those politics we must boldly go. If George gets his way and they ban woodstoves, that’s a red line for me. I’ll continue harvesting my firewood and burning it in my stove until they drag me away. I hope the smoke curling skywards from my chimney will act as messenger to other refuseniks, burning other fires nearby. A smoke-signalled invitation to a difficult communion between us, yet one that I’m convinced will ultimately be more fruitful than vain hopes for a safely district-heated urbanism and an air-source-heat-pumped humankind.