Saturday, January 1, 2011

The end of ideology

Time was when energy policy, and much else, was driven by political beliefs. But we have apparently moved into a period when political ideology is dead- replaced by a pragmatic centre left miss-mash. That apparently means that old entrenched ideas can be dumped and fresh new ones embraced- leading to a brave new world, ostensibly driven by ‘evidence’ and rationality. Occasionally there is some mention of ‘values’ as a guide to policy, but in the main the touchstone of reality is a general appeal to ‘modernisation’, with technology as the driver.

So in the energy field, under the new political settlement, high tech nuclear is celebrated- and any opposition seen as antiquated and reactionary, a throwback to when ideology ruled. Renewables too are generally welcomed now as ‘modern’, although often with less conviction. When problems emerge, there tends to a default process- back to nuclear. At best nuclear is offered as a stop-gap while problems with renewables are sorted. But also sometimes as the best long term option- maybe led by fusion.

Not everyone agrees with this new position. Some prefer a more solid foundation for policies than pragmatism and also fear that the rationality being used to buttress modernism is faulty. Indeed it is sometimes even argued that rational ‘technical’ analysis has its limits- we also need a moral and ethical input.

In the past, it is true, there have been strong rational arguments against nuclear power, based on objective technical and economic analysis. That still exists, and if anything, is stronger than ever- costs rise, safety and security issue proliferate, alternatives look increasingly better. But some of this is relative- e.g. it may be reasonable to pay more if it ensures energy reliability. However the case against nuclear is wider than that and may not be so easily subject to rationalist analysis - it’s about intangible and possibly absolute things like whether it is right to burden many future generations with active wastes to deal with.

In the past we expected politicians to reflect issues like this in the policies they chose. So, for all its faults, the old Labour party opposed nuclear not just on technical or economic grounds, but because it was not seen as right and didn’t fit with their values- which included concern for development- and employment -in other energy sectors. That was in essence an ideological viewpoint. You can argue that it was partly based on a political commitment to certain groups of workers - notable coal miners. And you may see that as partisan. But then that’s how politics works. If you don’t like one set of views you lobby for change or if that doesn’t work, try to elect another set of politicians with different views.

What we seem to have now is a set (maybe even three sets) with no views, just a vacuous commitment to an ill-defined belief in progress. Of course some cynics will say that much of this is actually just a smokescreen for reactionary policies- much as ever, ensuring that, for example, the rich get richer and the poor stay powerless. That may well be true. But it just adds strength for the case for return to more honestly ideologically based politics.

Nuclear power is only one issue, but it symbolises many others, as it did throughout the last half of the last century. Indeed it was striking how the often disparate movements and groups during that period- new leftists, greens, hippies, pacifists, feminists and more- shared a similar view: nuclear was at or near the centre of what they opposed, a grey, soulless, centralised, authoritarian, patriarchal, consumerist culture. That view has not gone away. 100,000 Germans took the streets last year (and twice!) in opposition to nuclear- even though its current political champion there is a woman, and we are now all happy (digital) consumers!

For some of us who have been through this before, it’s tiresome having to resist nuclear once again. It’s much more positive to fight for something- like renewables. But it seems it has to be done- pragmatically, nuclear and renewables may be able to co-exist when both relatively small. But that’s not the way things would go, if the nuclear lobby gets its way. Nuclear and renewables are technically incompatible on a large scale, and long term the expansion of nuclear seem to have major resource problems, while meanwhile undermining the rapid development of renewables. So there are rationalist arguments against, which might also be seen as underpinning moral and ethical arguments- e.g. it’s wrong to undermine the development of renewables, the only long-term energy source we have. But we are unlikely to get either argument heard without a new ideology to provide the framework.

Meanwhile though we are stuck with what we have. In its approach to energy, the UK coalition does seem to be trying to soften the ‘market dominance’ approach that has be adopted since Thatcher, and even move more towards strategic planning. It’s also tinkering with subsidies- though mainly to find a way to support nuclear. But companies (and shareholders) won’t accept inroads into profits, and the government won’t tap rich taxpayers and has to avoid loading up consumers with extra costs. So the room for manouevre is limited. All it can do is say ‘we are all in it together’, and hope no one notices that we aren’t.