The Great Turn-Off

In his 1915 poem In Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’, Thomas Hardy wrote of young love and the agricultural routine as the unchangeable backdrop to war, the things that ‘will go onward the same, though dynasties pass’. The first verse features a man guiding a horse, still then the unassailable essence of farm power on the move.

In the year after Hardy’s death, Stalin announced the Great Turn, the introduction of a planned economy in the Soviet Union, with tractor power the dominant image that has come down to us of industrialised agriculture driven by oil. The Soviet Union was already the Ford Motor Company’s largest customer, a relationship that began under Lenin. The struggle for control of oil-fields was a recurrent theme of the Second World War and has never wholly submerged since.

The world that for Hardy seemed eternal was gone within a generation. In its place we have our own certainties. So certain in fact that Peak Oil deniers will, with a straight face, assert that cars are now such a necessity that governments simply won’t allow them to disappear. Voters wouldn’t stand for it. They will stamp their feet until the laws of physics are repealed. So petrol will run out? Then we must invest in a new network of electric vehicle charging points throughout the land, and the quicker the better. Right. So where’s the electricity coming from?

A report from energy regulator Ofgem last week identifies an increased risk of blackouts in the UK from 2015 as generating capacity shrinks, with no safe, sustainable alternative in sight. We have become so used to the idea of an energy-rich world that the idea of having to prioritise in an energy-poor one is quite novel. Locally and regionally, public transport is going to have to play a larger role, with a growing share of scarce electrical power.  Yet at present we are still building major new roads and high-speed rail lines in the weird belief that the way to kick-start regeneration is to enable folk to leave faster.

Energy politics is where it’s all at from now on. There’s so much we ought to be doing, especially in the field of conservation. To quote Jonathon Porritt, in an interview he gave to the Wessex Chronicle in 2009, “it worries me enormously that debate in political circles is ALWAYS about one supply option versus another supply option. Should we have clean coal, or nuclear? Should we have nuclear, or renewables? Imported gas versus biomass? It’s just unbelievable how quickly politicians turn to the supply side of the debate, whereas by far the most important thing, BY FAR, is energy efficiency. If you don’t press the energy efficiency button and keep pressing it and pressing it and pressing it, then there is no amount of renewable energy that can then be brought forward in such a way as to keep the lights on.”

We hear none of this from any of the London regime politicians. They want us to believe that the party will go on for ever. They think that flogging a flatlining economy is going to get growth galloping again. So we can pay off debts that were created out of nothing, and so don’t deserve to be repaid, and most certainly not at the expense of mining our environment. Instead of deciding together what we can sensibly turn off now to ease our future pain, they want more population, more development, more consumption, less effective planning restraint, less concern for things of the spirit, less sense that we have any responsibility for the longer-term future.

And folk actually vote for these creatures.

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