Fossil fuel fuse and the mother of all unintended consequences
Practiced judiciously, and to jumpstart sustainable energy technologies, and by a sustainable population, the burning of a modicum of the Earth’s effectively irreplaceable millions of years of carbon accumulation could be completely justified. Besides, when it was first appreciated, from 1896 onward, that the burning of coal would enhance the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect, that was thought to be an entirely good thing. Victorians were in the thrall of the discovery of the ‘the ice age’ and frozen-solid woolly mammoths, and were enduring the final cold period of the Little Ice Age. Nevertheless, the fear of being plunged back into an actual glaciation was far from groundless. Surely, if coal-fired industrialisation helped head off the next debilitating glaciation, that was a win-win.
In the 1800s, the cost of staying warm of a winter was considerable. Wood, previously the predominant fuel, including for smelting iron, was in short supply and, according to groundbreaking economist William Stanley Jevons, the cost of best quality of Newcastle coal considerably more than doubled within a century. In The Coal Question, 1865, Jevons was first to alert the United Kingdom as to how utterly its wealth was underpinned by its finite reserves of coal. For Jevons, the only question was to squander or to husband:
We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.
Jevons was right and the United States, with its massive coal reserves, was to eclipse the United Kingdom as the dominant world power. It should subsequently be no surprise that China’s meteoric rise to ascendancy has been coal-fired. But perhaps because oil was soon playing a more conspicuous role than coal, economists lost sight of Jevons’ revelation. Whether influenced by The Coal Question or not, as First Lord of the Admiralty, John ‘the oil maniac’ Fisher worked to have the British Navy to switch to liquid fuel. He eventually succeeded, but only after his retirement, and as a confidant of Winston Churchill, who by then was in Fisher’s old role. The compactness of oil as a fuel that made it indispensable for the British Navy also made it indispensable everywhere else. In time, economists lost sight of the underpinning role of energy, and came to believe that economic growth was primarily down to innovation. Godfather of neoliberalism Milton Friedman’s worldview was so impoverished that he ordained the only responsibility of business was to make profit, and the only responsibility of government was to clear the way for corporate business.
Meanwhile, despite others confirming what Svante Arrhenius published in 1896, it was six decades before scientists began warning that the unintended consequences of burning fossil fuels were likely to be distinctly undesirable. Testifying to the United States congress in 1957, Roger Revelle was one of the first to use the Spaceship Earth metaphor, when warning that the rise of carbon dioxide could turn Southern California and Texas into ‘real deserts’.
A further six decades on, global warming can no longer legitimately be called an unintended consequence, with 97% of peer-reviewed climate science papers published in the last two of those decades stating that warming is anthropogenic. The best that can now be claimed is that, like smoking, fossil fuel use is an addictive and life-threatening habit. What humanity has been painfully slow to appreciate is that that while the climate has naturally changed in the past, the process was literally glacial. Humans and many other species had time to adapt and evolve. Anthropogenic global warming is not the climate change of the past. As many as half of all species may go extinct and only a small percentage of today’s human population will likely pull through. Surviving species will continue to evolve, but not appreciably during the decades and centuries during which warming exacts its cruel toll. It doesn’t help, of course, that a high percentage of Republicans don’t accept evolution, much less global warming.
Neoliberals, worshipping at the alter of Adam Smith’s fanciful invisible hand, have long used the spectre of the so-called law of unintended consequences to slow or block any government action that would stand between them and the maximisation of short-term profit. Ironically, had it worked, the invisible hand of self-interest could be regarded as the epitome of positive unintended consequences. But not only has the unregulated market proved incapable of sustaining itself without trillion-dollar bailouts, it has pursued purposeless growth at the cost of seriously disrupting what was a singularly stable and benign climate.
Regulation invariably brings unintended consequences, but the answer is not deregulation, but smarter regulation. Society, like sport, doesn’t exist without rules. Without rules, a drug cheat will beat a clean athlete, and a fossil-fuel-powered boat will beat a wind-powered one, every time. Granted, there are numerous examples where rules in sport throw up unintended consequences. A current example is America’s Cup catamarans foiling without the benefit of elevators to actively control pitch. Ever since Kitty Hawk, every aircraft built has been fitted with elevators or their equivalent, for the elementary reason that elevators, the moveable parts of the tailplane, determine whether the aircraft climbs or dives—that the Wright Brothers started a short-lived fad for poking the elevator out front, is another story. The AC72 class rule was intended to prevent the new America’s Cup catamarans from fully foiling—with the problematic objective of keeping the racing close—by banning specific active controls, such as elevators. However, it didn’t take long and Emirates Team New Zealand developed a workaround involving active control of each entire daggerboard–foil appendage. By fully foiling downwind, the New Zealanders had the other teams playing catch-up. But having succeeded in circumventing the intention of the rule, the net result was less-controllable foiling, and the death of Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson—the sport had taken a distinctly unwholesome turn.
Neoliberals see such aberrations as proof that regulation doesn’t work. But in the case of the AC72 anti-foiling rule, what should have been invoked, when Emirates Team New Zealand discovered the loophole, was a revisiting of the intent, and for actively controlled surfaces to have been allowed, and not just to minimise the risk of pitchpoling—foiling yachts should also foil upwind. Once again, rather than being the fastest around a given course, the America’s Cup yachts can be comfortably beaten by a number of less expensive and more wholesome craft. The fault, in this case, is twofold. Catamarans with wingsails were always going to partially foil, or ‘skim’. So the goal of preventing a transition from skimming to foiling was moot. It was similar to the questioning of the iconic open-wheel configuration of Formula One cars by the only New Zealander to achieve Formula One world champion status: Denny Hulme. Hulme advocated a number of changes that would have made the racing both safer and, paradoxically, faster. Open wheels are an affectation that cause more drag than the fully faired wheels of cars raced in the likes of the Can‑Am series that Hulme comprehensively won in 1970, three years after his Formula One championship. The same reactionary sentiment that howled down Hulme’s initiative is now, predictably, calling for an America’s Cup return to monohulls.
The notion that individuals, individual businesses, and individual corporations, all acting in strict self-interest ultimately serve the public interest is demonstrably flawed. The Chinese businessmen who watered down milk then laced it with melamine to boost its apparent milk-fat content were acting in strict self-interest, although clearly not in the long-term self-interest of the two that were executed for their involvement, nor the few, of the hundreds involved, who are serving life sentences. Nor was the invisible hand of the market any help to the parents of the six babies who died or the 300 000 that survived often-excruciating and debilitating illnesses—there was no plausible mechanism whereby the parents’ choices of infant formulae was able to dissuade the businessmen in advance from risking the lives and health their children.
As abysmal as the scale of China’s melamine scandal was, it barely starts to compare with the New York swill milk scandal of the 1840s and 1850s that, according to the New York Times of the day, killed up to 8000 children a year. During the melamine scandal, the newspaper pointed out that the combination of a fast-growing capitalist economy and lack of regulation was common to both scandals. Up until the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of (1906), regulation was strenuously resisted, particularly by the whiskey distillers whose distillery–dairies had produced the appalling concoction that was marketed variously as ‘pure country milk’ and ‘Orange County Milk’.
A fundamental shortcoming of the persisting neoliberalism is the denial of any plausible mechanism whereby humanity can democratically determine its own destiny. The ideology has achieved this remarkable state of affairs by three principal means. Firstly, it doubles down on the practice of buying politicians and political parties perfected by the likes of 19th-century milk-swill peddlers. Secondly, it argues that only the free market can be trusted to determine the future, and that any intervention—read deliberate, democratically decided, course of action—is an affront to the natural order, if not to God.
Despite their vocal insistence on a level playing field for business, neoliberals, at every opportunity, use government powers to move play onto terrain favourable to themselves or their cronies. The New Zealand National Party-led government, by subsidising mining giant Rio Tinto and the Sumitomo Chemical Company’s already cut-rate power charges to the tune of $30 million as an inducement to the pair to continue as customers of a state-owned electrical utility being groomed for National’s unmandated privatisation programme, must mark a new international low point in manipulation of the democratic system to an ideological end. Soon, short of a Labour Party-led government committed to de-privatisation being elected, the wealthy will be able to buy shares in a publicly developed power generator at bargain basement prices and reap huge profits once its contract to supply the smelter expires and the power can be sold into the national grid. The only benefit is to private shareholders and to ideology. The government and the people are left worse off, and climate infinitely so, given that low-carbon electricity is essential to public transport. Public anything, of course, is an anathematic to neoliberalism. But the artfulness of neoliberalism is to extol user-pays while plundering the Earth’s non-renewable resources, and flatly refusing to pay for their indirect costs.
Regarding the third means by which neoliberalism has prevailed: As citizens of the last landmass to be settled and colonised, New Zealanders should be more aware than most of the inevitability of globalization. Although it needn’t have been that way, globalization has comprehensively outflanked democracy. The process of world government begun after World War II, supported by Albert Einstein and other luminaries, stalled with the democratic stillborn that is the United Nations. The organisation is about as democratic as a United States governed only by its Senate, and with the senators from the first 13 states having the permanent power to veto senators representing the other 37. Despite its massive operations in Australia, Rio Tinto paid no mining tax there in 2012. Whenever asked to play fair, the world’s second largest mining company promptly threatens to take its business and jobs elsewhere. Not content with getting the cheapest power of any consumer in Aotearoa—four and a half times less than residential users—it has just got a great deal cheaper, thanks to the aforementioned government handout. Only by building a robust global democracy can such blatant corporate godfather tactics be curtailed.
Neoliberals and their Tea Party fellow travellers have become increasingly shrill invoking the ‘law of unintended consequences’. But unintended consequences is a law in the same category of Murphy’s—it is nothing more profound than an adage. Ironically, the neoliberal right loves to emphasise that anthropogenic global warming is ‘only a theory’, and in so doing, attempts to equate ‘theory’ with ‘idea’. A scientific theory is more than a mere hunch. Einstein’s theory of general relativity supersedes Newton’s law of universal gravitation. That is not to say Newton’s law is wrong, but it is limited to where it can safely be relied upon, which broadly is for the likes of building a bullet train that won’t independently take leave of its rails, as opposed to sending the Voyager 1 into interstellar space.
The neoliberal right now owns the ‘law of unintended consequences’, and brandishes it on every occasion that regulation is contemplated. The possibility that regulations may result in unintended consequences is impossible to disprove. Meantime, empirical evidence of the consequences of not regulating fossil fuels is already abundantly apparent. It is a safe bet that neoliberal concern for unintended consequences is disingenuous. It is the intended consequences of reining in fossil-fueled growth that is their concern—the jeopardising of future opportunities to become endlessly wealthy.
The easy appeal of neoliberalism will only prevail until populations are mobilised around something that arouses human passions more than anticipation of the next i-whatever. Inescapably, that something is anthropogenic global warming. The mayor of Highlands is contemplating spending up to US$40 000 for every man, woman and child to rebuild his town three metres higher that the elevation at which Hurricane Sandy devastated it last year. Such engineering projects may buy a few decades of security, but sea-level rise will lock in successive rebuilds before even the very rich will be obliged to seek a slice of the post-ice-sheet shoreline, 80 metres above the present. Meantime, a point will be reached when it dawns that the responsibility of governments lies in caring for the hoi polloi and the planet, rather than endlessly subsidising those whose carbon-dense lifestyles have disproportionately contributed to destabilising Earth’s once-benign climate.
Dr James Hansen suggests that a new political party may be needed to break the two-party impasse in the United States: an American Party. Sadly, in a country lacking any semblance of proportional representation, minor parties, or their presidential candidates, have so far only succeeded in spoiling the running for their natural allies. A far from insignificant climate action role that Aotearoa could play would be to clean up its democracy then campaign to have nominally democratic major powers, such as the United States, stripped of their undeserved status as full democracies. Never mind proportional representation, no country qualifies as a full democracy that has failed to robustly reform its electoral finance laws, allows the majority-of-the-day to gerrymander electoral boundaries, and allows Republican-ruled states to outdo each other with barely disguised assaults on black voter rights.
Last year, the New Zealand Labour Party’s economic development spokesperson, David Cunliffe, presented ‘the New Lynn Speech’ challenging the neoliberalism his party foisted upon an unsuspecting country when David Lange swept from power that worst possible advertisement for government regulation: Robert Muldoon. Rather than follow Cunliffe’s lead, the party hierarchy froze Cunliffe out, then demoted him after he refused to rule out future leadership aspirations. The Green and Mana parties are the likely beneficiaries in next year’s elections, particularly with Mana poised to considerably raise its profile in this year’s, for the Auckland Council mayoralty. As mentioned elsewhere in the Mahurangi Magazine, Mana is the only party competing the mayoralty on a platform that would make a measurable difference to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meantime, with the spectre of the passing of the deeply unpopular GSCB bill this afternoon by a one-vote margin, New Zealanders appear to be indicating that Prime Minister John Key has patronised, and insulted their intelligence, once too often.