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Extreme Energy and Reason

The topic of 'extreme energy' should be a relatively easy one to dispense with for any reasonably informed Transitioner. Extreme energy, as defined by the UK's first Extreme Energy Gathering, who by virtue of their killer name should know, “is the process where energy extraction methods grow increasingly more intense over time, as easier to extract resources are depleted.“ They list several technologies that inflict damage to the biosphere in one form or another - fracking, coal bed methane, opencast coal mining, incineration, etc. Therefore, the informed Transitioner would reasonably conclude, extreme energy is bad. End of story.

But it's not nearly the end of the story. Arne Naess, suggests there are always benefits in questioning and going deeper. This is especially true in this case since, in many ways, the issue of 'extreme energy' represents the historical force against which the transition movement is the dialectical antithesis. To dive deeply into this issue would touch upon the full range of other issues most Transitioners concern themselves with, and a few more besides. We can't dive too deeply here - this is just a blog post - but there's much more to this word 'extreme' and what passes for reason is not so clear.

This week, we'll have a couple of posts about fracking, so let's start there. The recent history of fracking in the UK should be well known to most of our readers here – after earthquakes in Blackpool caused by the first exploratory drilling a couple of a years ago, there was a lull until the government determined that fracking could continue. The so-called 'Dash for Gas' began again in Balcombe, where it has been vigourously opposed. Opinion polls show that about 40% of the British public are opposed and 40% are in favour. Meantime, the central government has asked all local planning authorities to waive many rules and considerations that would keep them from approving applications for new fracking operations.

While many clear-minded Transitioners were heading to Balcombe in a show of solidarity, one Transition initiative made news by stating that they couldn't oppose domestic fracking if the overall impacts were less than imported gas from the Middle East. You can read more from their website and from Rob Hopkins' blog, both of which, including the comments, praise the virtues of reasonable discussion. We tried unsuccessfully to get someone from Dorking to contribute a post this week, and in doing so, learned that not everyone involved in Transition Dorking is happy with either the statement nor the way it went down. And it should be pointed out that those behind the statement have their hearts in the right place, want to reduce carbon emissions to zero, want to live in a better world.

I have no idea how the debate went down in Dorking, but I do know that energy is a domain often dominated by Very Serious People. Discussions about energy policy, reasonable or otherwise, can require some understanding of physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and so, can easily be dominated by those who demonstrate their expertise and assert their authority. Is this what happened in Dorking?

Everyone has had the experience, whether debating energy or economics or just about anything else, when a middle-aged man, (doesn't have to be, but often is,) declares their authority by reciting their CV - Phd, 30 years industry experience, and so on. “Trust me, I know what I'm talking about.” All perfectly relevant, except when it isn't. Appeals to authority can be a sign of laziness or bullying or simply a cry for personal validation.

In fact, in debating any complex issue, there are all sorts of psychological factors that often play more important roles than do facts or logic. Values, for example. Fear and identity, too. Perhaps contrarians rise up to assert their controversial positions in an attempt to bolster their own self esteem or self image, attract praise and affection for their special talents. (Except when they're right, of course.) Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially a story about yourself and your tribe. Positions linked with identity, for example, can be strengthened by 'motivated reasoning', the process of cherry picking facts that support them, regardless the preponderance of 'objective' evidence to the contrary.

We don't have a fracking problem in Totnes, yet. But TRESOC, the local community-owned energy coop recently tried to put up a couple of relatively large wind turbines and failed to get planning permission. Around the country, only about 35% of planning applications for onshore wind installations have been approved over the last year or so. In contrast to fracking, onshore wind enjoys robust approval of the British public, with 68% in favour and only 11% opposed. And recently, the government has made it more difficult for wind projects, even though government targets for carbon reduction and renewable energy are nowhere close to being met.

For some, onshore wind is 'extreme energy'. The same dynamics are at work – values, fear, identity. While a highly motivated minority worked their tails off trotting out attorneys disguised as experts, misinformation disguised as facts, and lobbying furiously with ideologically aligned politicos, there were Transitioners here who found themselves opposed, too. At the end of the day, 'a reasonable discussion' was never going to happen, whatever the facts, however tight the technical arguments. There is simply too much wrapped up in identity and the idyllic view of 'the countryside'.

How to combat other forms of energy extremism? Now, large solar pv farms are sprouting up on otherwise good agricultural land. Incinerator ash may be dumped at a site upriver from here in Buckfastleigh, where it will inevitably end up in the Dart. Even after Fukushima, there are still Very Serious People wandering around making the case that if done correctly, nuclear is quite safe. It won't be long before Very Serious People are dominating the debate about this or that geoengineering project. I imagine that even in the neolithic deforestation of Britain there must have been some – maybe the shaman priests – who thought it extreme. Or maybe they were the ones doing the chopping.

A better question, perhaps, is how to combat extremism?

Passive trust in experts and authority is what got us into this mess. Developing our own ability to think clearly and independently, cognisant of deeper psychological influences, will be necessary to get us out of it. Because we can do something, should we? When do values trump logic? Whose values? Certainly, ignorance of facts is a disadvantage when making a case for or against. If we're to be effective changemakers, we must be energy literate, as well as ecologically, economically, climate science, and so on. And probably we should be versed in psychology and rhetoric, too. (Who has the time?) And while all this may be necessary, it isn't sufficient, for we must also find ways of building bridges with others whose views of what's 'reasonable' and 'extreme' will be coloured by their values, fears and identity, too.

Images: Anti-fracking campaigners at Cuadrilla drilling site in Balcombe, West Sussex. Photo source: sheilabythesea via Flickr Creative Commons.; a classic appeal to authority; the proposed Tresoc wind turbines.

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