Tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery? (The painting was protected by glass, but the protestors are being prosecuted for damaging its frame.) You can agree with the goal, ending our global addiction to fossil fuels, but wonder at the methods of achieving it. And not just because, environmentally speaking, beef consommé would carry more symbolic charge. Nor because such protests provide another excuse for the authoritarian provisions of the Public Order Bill courtesy of Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and her predecessor Priti Patel.
What is the Just Stop Oil activists’ theory of change at work here? It seems unwise to alienate those who maybe agree with your goal or who are open to persuasion, those who enjoy what John Stuart Mill called the ‘higher pleasures’ of viewing great art or are tired and infuriated Londoners trying to get to work. Yet, such newsworthy public protest is understandable. Just Stop Oil attempted to block UK oil terminals and shifted tactics after injunctions brought risk of court convictions for contempt. Parliament, they argue, has failed to date to combat climate change effectively, a reason some environmental groups conclude that only direct action can save the planet. But civil resistance needs to educate, recruit and internationalise rather than just disrupt and irritate. Some shared understanding of precisely who, where and what needs worldwide resistance, what those seeking to curb carbon emissions are up against, would help.
Few of us, for example, grasp the dynamics of the oil/fossil fuel juggernaut, both the profit-seeking private sector and income-generating nationally owned oil companies; the magnitude of their operations and infrastructure, the geopolitical significance of fracking, now in the news, the future of shale deposits, the energy demands of the massive economies of the Asia-Pacific. The Canadian Professor, David A. Detomasi teaches a course on this subject at the Business School of Queen’s University’s Toronto campus. His Profits and Power: Navigating the Politics and Geo-Politics of Oil, (University of Toronto Press), offers enlightening figures.
We are accustomed to flattering self-portraits painted by private sector oil companies showing themselves mutating into responsible energy companies The ‘supermajors’ for example Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron presenting themselves as if they were the commercial wing of the Green movement. Detomasi’s figures are revealing. The costly advertising messages only weakly relate to reality. Whatever the official investment targets, in 2018 only 1-5% of overall expenditure went on increasing the proportion of renewables within their energy offering. Targets for renewable investment have since risen. But few believe they will be achieved. In contrast, in 2016 exploration and drilling expenditures were: ExxonMobil $19 billion, Shell $25 billion, Chevron $26 billion – and this was down considerably on 2014. And the six largest supermajors are only responsible for about 15% of global production. The national or nationally-directed giants, Saudi- Aramco, Rosnet, and those of Iran, Kuwait and China produce the majority of the world’s oil.
For the period 2016-2019, total ‘upstream’ expenditure by oil producers globally, including the national companies, supermajors and smaller players is estimated as $400-500 billion dollars. These are not sums you’d expect if serious reductions in production and use in the 2020s were planned. They appear more indicative of a future in which deadly amounts of fossil fuel will be found, shipped, sold, refined and used. And this can be seen as the response to the Paris COP21 conference’s legally binding treaty to limit greenhouse gas warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably 1.5C, signed on 12 December 2015 by 196 countries.
Profits and Power is a telling title for Detomasi’s book. He is indicating that oil companies’ behaviour will continue to be determined by calculations of costs and returns on barrels of oil extracted and sold. Global annual oil production rose from 64.8 million barrels a day (mbd) in 1980 to 99.2mpd in 2019 with the USA alone consuming 20% of the total, 20.5mbd, and the EU less per capita but 14mbd. India with a current population of 1.4 billion consumes 3.7mbd a figure set to increase to 10mbd by 2040. Power comes out of oil barrels as well as guns.
Oil profits depend on ease of extraction and, of course, demand. Overproduction glutting the market lowers the price. Government reserves and income influence the amount of oil being extracted. Saudi-Aramco, sitting on fields discovered in 1948 whose oil is still relatively easily extracted, is calculated to be worth today two trillion dollars, the second highest market capitalisation of any company in the world after Apple. So Saudi Arabia is the most able to ride out global reductions in oil price and can safely cut production to push up price. Highly efficient oil companies such as Chevron make profits even when oil price slumps; in the fourth quarter of 2014, after months during which the oil price had halved, Chevron recorded a $3.5 billion profit.
Tax revenues from oil production and consumption are politically significant whatever the government. Taxes on Russia’s oil and gas revenue have been accounting for over a third of Putin’s federal budget. For every $1 dollar increase in the global oil price it has been calculated that c. $1.9 billion flowed into the Russian exchequer, with at least some of it going into offshore bank deposits of Putin and his oligarchs. He is now being forced to raise taxation with unpredictable consequences in a population already showing signs of war weariness. This is another powerful player in the complex global behemoth against which Just Stop Oil pitches itself calling for a complete halt to licensing, development and production of fossil fuel exploration in the UK.
As Putin has demonstrated it is the power of oil-rich governments, trapped in the ‘oil curse’ of corruption and failure to diversify that is the major problem. The USA is amongst the top three producers with 33 of its 50 states rich in oil and gas plus some drilling in the Gulf of Mexico providing wriggle room. President Biden has felt able to throw his weight behind the latest COP climate change conferences. Cheap and flexible fracking – easy to shut down and restart - almost halved US oil imports in the last two decades and this has facilitated the swing in foreign policy focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific. It has given the US Democrats a degree of immunity to Putin’s energy blackmail that currently besets Europe.
By way of a conclusion Detomasi presents climate change not as an existential threat to human civilisation, a qualitatively different level danger, but just one of many forthcoming problems confronting a world economy dominated by oil and gas. Doubtless the dominant view from the oil industry, an informed one, but clearly not the assessment of climate scientists.
Governments and States through their economies and national oil companies are heralding the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This does not exculpate the supermajors. They too are going to have to change quickly and move fast and with far more determination and money. They need to demonstrate to the world that commitment to renewable energy sources is not a path to bankruptcy. Meanwhile a substantial UK windfall tax on their profits should go straight into a sovereign wealth fund to protect the poor from debilitating energy costs with funds set aside for subsidising research on renewables and carbon capture.
So far the desperate young people of Just Stop Oil have been getting arrested in their hundreds with discrepant effects on public opinion. Perhaps the world faiths can find a better way to persuade us all that we must change our habits of consumption, shun fossil fuels and end blinkered promotion of indiscriminate economic growth. The global religions are in a unique position to transcend the lethally narrow vision of national interest and national security that prevails, and have much to say about both profits and power. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si provided a foundational document for fundamental change. But it needs serious attention and political action not dismissal as naive and utopian.
See TheArticle 21/10/22
This week in South Africa Albert Nolan OP died peacefully in his sleep. Many will remember him as a hero of the struggle against apartheid, a humble Dominican priest and theologian awarded the national Order of Luthuli by President Thabo Mbeki in 2003. Many more will know his name and have read his 1976 best-seller Jesus Before Christianity about the historical Jesus. I will remember him as an inspiration and spiritual guide when I was Southern Africa Desk Officer at the Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR) during the 1980s when both civic resistance and state repression peaked in South Africa.
Albert, despite a traditional academic training in the Angelicum, the Dominican Pontifical University in Rome, believed that theology should be open to everyone, that it should come from the grassroots and be about discovering where and how to find God in an unjust world. He was later to put his religious journalism into practice as the editor of Challenge, a popular Catholic paper in South Africa. When Albert was Provincial for Southern Africa, the Johannesburg Dominicans abandoned their priory in a posh part of town, so the where of theology was a decrepit building in the ill-named Mayfair, home to down-and-out whites and surprisingly multi-racial. The estate agent couldn’t believe his luck when he was given a description of the building the Dominicans were looking for and got rid of an unsaleable property. And the how was by integrating faith with political commitment.
Albert Nolan chose the right religious name (he was baptised Dennis); like St. Albert the Great, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, he was an inspiring teacher and mentor. The Catholic Student Society chaplain at the largely Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch, he became National Chaplain of the Catholic Federation of Students in 1973. As well as listening and responding to youth seeking how to live in an unjust and divided society – ‘you have to take sides’ was his advice - he was able to compare notes with his counterpart in Peru, fellow priest Gustavo Gutierrez , the father of Liberation Theology and later a Dominican.
Leading up to and into the State of Emergency in South Africa (1985-1990), a time of massive repression and of mass resistance by the United Democratic Front drawing together African National Congress (ANC) front-organisations, church institutions and independent civic bodies, Albert nurtured a group of young Catholics committed to the liberation struggle. By listening to their difficulties, their fears of imminent arrest, their doubts about having children, their problems in handling the violence both of the state and anarchic youth, he was able to encourage a spirituality that both discerned the signs of the times and helped them develop a moral framework within which they could actively resist apartheid. At the Mayfair Priory praying the Magnificat was almost a bidding prayer as each in their different ways was in the business of ‘pulling down the mighty from their thrones’.
For Albert apartheid was ‘sin made visible’. I can hear him saying it now in his strong Cape Town accent. I can also hear his gentle humour coming through hair-raising stories of things nearly going wrong. He was a wonderful companion and pastor. In 1983 he was elected Master-General of the Dominican Order by his confrères. His response was to request that he be allowed to decline so that he could remain in South Africa and fulfil his commitment there. This was put to the vote and agreed so that he had the shortest time in office of any Dominican Master-General.
At the time of his election Albert was working in the Johannesburg Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) begun in 1981, a small ecumenical group that included Rev. Frank Chikane, later the general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches who became President Mbeki’s Chef de Cabinet. The name Contextual Theology did little to protect it from the repression which was certain had it been called the Institute for Liberation Theology. In June 1985 ICT published and distributed the Kairos document, a radical biblical and theological comment on the political crisis in South Africa and a challenge to the Churches to take sides, signed initially by over 150 mainly black Christians. The South African National Security State was taken completely unawares. Many more signatures followed publication and as the document was read out in township churches there was a palpable sense that congregations felt ‘this is what we believe’.
Sweden concluded that leaving support for the ANC solely in the hands of the Communist Party of Soviet Union and the East German Stasi bode ill for the future and was secretly getting money into South Africa to boost non-violent forms of resistance. Much the same group as the ICT, including Albert and the great Dutch Reformed Church dissident pastor, Rev. Beyers Naudé, performed the invaluable and unusual role within South Africa of guiding this funding of the internal movement of the ANC whose base was outside South Africa in Lusaka, Zambia and to a lesser degree in Maputo, Mozambique. For example one of the major requests of the ‘Christian ANC’ group was funding to strengthen leadership amongst black youth. At the time arrests of youths for ‘necklacing’, that is killing suspected collaborators with flaming tyres around the neck, was decapitating the youth movement and creating anarchy in the townships.
Albert saw the movement against apartheid bringing together the different races and Christian denominations as a glimpse of the ‘kingdom of heaven’. He saw no conflict between faith and political commitment and there was something beautiful about the way he and those around him lived out that integrated vision. We should learn from him. May be rest in peace.
When you approach the Ionian island of Ithaca through Yathi’s beautiful natural harbour and moor alongside the undistinguished road leading into town, turn left and tucked away on a high plinth you’ll find a small bust of Odysseus. Given the tourist trade an understated homage to Homer - assuming there was an individual Homer. And Odysseus probably ruled the once-an-island Paliki peninsula on neighbouring Kephalonia. But wherever home for Homer’s hero might be, Greece can make you feel the lack of a classical education, especially if you have never turned a page of the Greek classics. Like the old FT advertising slogan, no Odysseus, no Iliad, no comment.
In the words of Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) - son of Rugby’s reforming headmaster, a major poet, and himself a school inspector - classical education must convey the best that has been thought and ‘’of the best, the classics of Greece and Rome form a very chief portion and the portion most entirely satisfactory”. For some that belief in a classical education lasted another century. In the 1950s my own single-sex Grammar school, with an eye on Oxbridge requirements, taught us Latin. After several years of careful teaching I still believed that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were fiction. Well, in mitigation, I did know Virgil’s Aeniad was an epic poem and I do remember the opening storm at sea. But by the mid-1950s with discoveries such as DNA science was more exciting than the classics.
Better late than never, I recently set to and read Bernard Knox’s excellent introduction to Robert Fagles fine translation of the Iliad, a doorstop of a Penguin classic, and, with their aid and encouragement, dipped into Homer’s glorious poetry. You can imagine a well-feasted Greek gathering, enjoying the rhythms of the verse as the story unfolds. Perhaps with news daily of war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, it was not the best of times to plunge into the gory details of the Greeks’ - Achaeans’ - war with Troy. But the gore, the relish for graphic depictions of butchered bodies in the Iliad, came as a surprise. Homer’s contribution to the classics, at least for me, was not as Arnold would have it “most entirely satisfactory”. A screen-play by Homer would not be family-viewing.
Homer describes a world in which honour and warrior heroism, illustrated and demonstrated by savage killing and savagely being killed, were the true measures of a man. Was this what middle and upper class boys at Rugby and the other English public schools were absorbing at the turn of the twentieth century? Is this why they volunteered as officers in the First World War to slaughter and be slaughtered? Is this where the Greek values of honour and courage led? Or was Homer giving a terrible warning forgotten or ignored in a paroxysm of 20th century patriotism?
Of course there is, and was, vastly more to the Greek contribution to classical education, according to Arnold, than Homer: Saint Paul, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus and the lyric poet Pindar for example. Yet, the Iliad offers insights into the motivations for war beyond male honour, rivalry and personal jealousy. The purpose of war was booty whatever could be taken - Priam, the King of Troy’s treasure. Loot. And, amongst valuable kinds of property, women. Helen was to be restored to her husband and true owner. In agricultural society, the two necessary elements of production were the fertility of women, new generations of labour in the fields, and the fertility of the land itself. Women were ‘prizes’, desired in every sense, the spoils of war for Achilles and Agamemnon to quarrel over.
What has changed? Whether for Trojans, Myrmidons and Achaeans to possess, or for Soviet troops to rape entering Germany in 1945 or, from 2011-December 2017, for ISIS to use as sex-slaves, women are still treated as booty. Rape is a constant in war. Despite declared national, imperial and ideological causes of war, and despite the rules of law in bello that evolved and were finally formulated in the Geneva Conventions, the original purpose of war has burst out down the ages: control of land and women. And sadly some forms of religion, with their own justifications for controlling women, can make matters worse just as Homer’s Gods could play a malign role.
Homer single-mindedly celebrates warrior virtue, heroism in combat, whilst he portrays war as a raid on property. What survives of Homer’s portrayal of warfare is war as control of territory and celebration of warrior heroism. The ease with which we laud from safety the heroism of Ukrainians in defence of their country, should make us uneasy watching the dying, the killing, and the war crimes in what is in many ways our proxy war. We are like ancient Greeks listening in comfort to epic poems of faraway savagery.
The Truss government recently invited a plane-load of journalists to witness military aid sent to Ukraine being delivered to a destination they could not divulge for security reasons. Not exactly gripping breaking-news. So why? Boris Johnson shone briefly on the world stage when sending arms and himself to Ukraine. Does the heroism of the Ukrainian people somehow rub off and refurbish political profiles and the stories politicians tell? Not a story-line Homer or his Greek audience would have countenanced.
See TheArticle 13/10/2022
'Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased. 'Karl Marx ? No, Adam Smith setting out his theory of value in The Wealth of Nations first published in 1776. It became the core text of classical economics, resetting economic theory as the early Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented change and growth in production. To understand why our national wealth is now endangered, we could all, particularly the Chancellor and Prime Minister, do with a crash course in today’s economic theory.
Nowadays, labour is envisioned as partnering capital in the production of wealth. Capital combines with labour to drive economic growth, increasing prosperity, or even causing the reverse, recession, the measure being rise and fall of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), national output per head. Though GDP itself is an inadequate gauge missing out many forms of productive work such as bringing up children and the cost of its destructive consequences. Today both strikes and loss of market confidence demonstrate that the anarcho-libertarians who control the levers of government in England have no idea how to promote a successful combination of capital and labour and the improvements in productivity it can create. They are, in fact, astonishingly bad at capitalism.
Both Government and Opposition, present growth - accompanied by social justice in the case of the Labour Opposition- as the elixir of stability and prosperity, but at the same time as a natural process, like respiration and locomotion. If it’s not happening it must be because something is stopping it happening: labour is refusing to modernize and impeding growth, high taxes are blocking investment in Britain, or we are losing productive minds. In one mighty bound Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and Prime Minister Liz Truss will set free the entrepreneurial spirits too long constrained. Wealth will trickle down onto the poor, cold and hungry. But recent polls indicate the public are more than agnostic about this particular article of misplaced faith. And to avoid losing his job the Chancellor has had to reverse one of his hand-outs for the richest, abolition of the 45p tax rate.
Economic growth, of course, is an important feature of economic policy not an automatic function of the economy. We choose to measure and make our living in a particular way and certain consequences follow. Since World War II the part played by natural resources in growth has become increasingly apparent and with it the realization laissez-faire freedom for economic activity both depletes and destroys our world. The Club of Rome’s – ac group of business and thought leaders - 1972 The Limits of Growth, which sold 30 million copies in 30 languages, gives some indication how long we have been aware of the problem. The climate change crisis with its floods, hurricanes, droughts and out-of-control fires, the quest for rare earths for modern technology, all emphasize the consequences of unregulated growth. When you have emptied a tube of toothpaste you can squeeze as much as you like, nothing comes out; you need to get another one. But when we squeeze the planet there is only the one available and, in the words of the Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect for Promoting Integral Human Development and close to the Pope’s thinking behind Laudato Si, all that we have experienced in the last few years ‘implores us to leave behind the mentality of ‘business as usual’ and the search for incremental, unidimensional economic growth’. The days of perpetual growth powered by carbon-based energy, relying on extraction, are numbered.
Amongst those who want urgent action to prevent climate change destroying human civilization and biodiversity there are two schools of thought. There are those who believe growth must gradually be put into reverse and, less radical, those who hope massive and focused development of renewable forms of energy will reinvigorate both productivity and economic growth. Those who advocate reversing growth have no plausible answer to how this could be compatible with social justice and would not prove to be political suicide. Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, now UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, focusing globally on the private sector and Sir Keir Starmer with his proposed £8 billion GB national energy company fall into the second category. Both promise ‘green growth’ which hopes to sustain our standard of living and to a greater or lesser extent avert the mass migration of more than a billion people to the temperate zones as the heat and rising sea levels make life impossible. Realistically both approaches imply larger or smaller falls in our standard of living if they are to cut emissions enough. So both are threatening politically, requiring in Pope Francis’ words that scarce political virtue: ‘courage’ to bring about what he calls the necessary ‘financial paradigm shift’.
You might wonder why this government seems to think that promotion of indiscriminate economic growth is a necessary policy shift rather than a doomsday formula supposing the rest of the world were to follow. Key elements of the banking world, including the IMF and European Central Bank, and the US military, are fully aware of this threat - see Geoff Mann’s ‘Reversing the Freight Train’ in London Review of Books 18 August 2022.
Is our government in denial? Or does it hold privately a libertarian version of eat drink and be merry whilst assuming some technological innovation will spare our children and grandchildren? So more fracking, at all costs more gas, and ‘temporary’ expansion of exploration and production of North Sea oil. You might conclude that the five-year election cycle encourages the idea that the future can take care of itself.
We need to think about what people want out of life. A secure future for their children is top of the list. But it’s now looking as if, in the name of growth, we’ll dump massive debts on future generations in this country whilst increasing the release of carbon dioxide thus helping to make the planet uninhabitable. We just can’t leave economics to Government and blinkered growth-worshipping economists. We all need to become more economically literate and not think of wealth just in terms of what is measured by GDP. The Human Development Index (HDI), intended as a measure of a country's development and produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), includes life expectancy, education and distribution of income. It expands the meaning of wealth of nations to include important things people and societies value that are left out of GDP. It is moving in the right direction.
The Truss Government’s obsession with economic growth, given what we know about climate change, is misguided in economic terms and morally wrong. It is a government led by people clinging to an outdated ideology who achieved their ambition to strut upon the stage, confident and arrogant, but not up to the job, the natural nemesis not just of their Party and its ageing membership - who alone voted them into power - but of the little England they fashioned. Please God we don’t have two years to wait before they are gone.
See TheArticle 05/10/2022