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Bentham and butterflies

Rampisham Down, in West Dorset, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But it soon won’t be. In a decision of dazzling stupidity, the local planning committee has said that it can be covered with over 100,000 solar panels. It accepted that renewable energy was a Good Thing and, in effect, that the loss of biodiversity occasioned by the panels was a price worth paying for the sun-farmers’ contribution to the battle against climate change.

Environmentalists, normally on the side of alternative energy, have been loud in their denunciation of the decision. A good example is Miles King in the Guardian: He observes: ‘….stopping biodiversity loss is as important as stopping global warming.’

Well, no it’s not. The crassness of the decision at Rampisham doesn’t alter the stark fact that  if global warming isn’t stopped, we won’t have any biodiversity of any kind to preserve. The planners were crass because there are plenty of other, better places to put the panels. But their view of the big picture is correct.

Ethically what is in issue is whether we can/should expect species X and Y to die for the common good. That itself entails a view of ourselves as overseers of the world which looks embarrassingly like the Biblical model of Man as steward of creation. Yet it’s the only one that works. The world has been raped by wielders of that model: it’s up to wielders of the model to un-rape it. Un-raping, here, involves human restraint and renunciation. But also, and very unfortunately (since we’re so late in intervening), it involves saying to a particular species or habitat: ‘We’re going to force you to die for others.’ Like most altruistic acts, this is likely, in fact, to redound to the good of the altruist – at least if the altruist is identified as the species rather than the individual. There is not only a right to demand this price of a non-human species: there is a stewardship duty to demand it.

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16 Comment on this post

  1. thanks for your thoughts Charles. You seem to have accepted the idea that tackling climate change is the paramount activity humans need to carry out; and all other requirements are subservient, or irrelevant. How did you come to take up this position?

    Scientists have identified nine challenges which humanity need to tackle, together, in order to prevent our own extinction. Climate change in but one of these. Who elevated it to first among equals?

    Your suggestion that unless we tackle climate change “there will be no biodiversity” is facile. Of course there will be biodiversity. Species have existed on the earth under far more extreme conditions than anything the climate scientists have predicted in their worse case scenarios – Oxford must have palaeologists – go and talk to them. Ask them about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or Snowball Earth. Life survived before us for 4 billion years, and will survive after us for however long. We appear to be causing the 6th Great extinction, all by ourself: that’s pretty awesome for a species that has only been around a couple of hundred thousand years. That does not mean all life on earth will be extinguished – life has an almost mind boggling ability to survive the most inhospitable conditions.

    What we as a species need to appreciate is that the earth is our life support system. Oikos means house in greek as I am sure you know. Our house (the earth) has been neglected and abused by us, especially over the past 200 years. Now we are worrying about the heating and aircon, which has clearly gone wrong. but if we neglect nature and the other 7 challanges, we will have nothing to eat, no clean water to drink; and the toilet will stop working.

    1. Apologies – I meant palaeontologists, not palaeologists. Have you thought about having an edit option for comments?

  2. Your argument is based on a false premise. The present policy of smothering the countryside with solar panels and wind turbines will do little to reduce CO2 emissions but will make a lot of landowners and bankers very rich. It is claimed that the renewable energy capacity that is being installed throughout the world by these good folk will replace the amount of fossil fuel output that is being decommissioned. This is untrue.

    Traditionally electrical generation is measured by installed capacity (IC is the maximum electricity a power plant can produce when in continuous use per annum) because fossil fuel and nuclear power plants can produce electrify near to their IC. What these plants actually produces because of breakdowns and maintenance is about 0.8 of the IC which is call the capacity factor (CF) or load factory. Solar and wind production obviously have very much lower CFs. (Solar panels in northern Europe have a CF of <0.1 and on-shore wind turbines 0.3 but this is an inflated figure that is not based on real data from working WTs.) But all the official government and EU data that are released give the IC of solar and wind in precisely the same way as they give the IS for fossil and nuclear plants. This is little trick is the kind stuff the Soviet Union would do to keep the masses thinking that all was well and I am amazed how easily we Europeans have swallowed it.

    Local planning authorities (LPA) are not permitted by the legislation to mention any of this and certainly cannot refuse planning permission on the grounds that a PV or wind farm produces very little unreliable electricity. Nor indeed are they permitted to mention that most large single wind turbines have been deliberately made less efficient (900Kw turbines are “de-rated” down to 500Kw) in order that developers and landowners can be paid higher subsidies. It is therefore often the case that the only way communities and LPAs can stop these follies is to find a rare bug or bat near the proposed site.

    I have been strong advocate of renewable energy since the 1970s (my house bristles PV panels, is enveloped in insulation and has carbon neutral heating), but I believe our present policy of forcing LPAs to install masses of hopelessly inefficient technology is dishonest. There are not, as you claim, ‘plenty of other, better places to put the panels’(if by that you mean ‘on agricultural land‘); good sites are limited and we should be placing PV panels on buildings not fields.

    There should be an immediate moratorium on the installation of these technologies, and the public should be informed of their limitations and how they are being made even more inefficient to allow developers and landowner to extract excessive subsidies. We might then develop a proper policy that can address the problem of climate change.

    Finally, let me apologise for this little explosion of anger but I am not alone in getting somewhat tired of being labelled a climate change denier because I strongly disagree with a renewable energy policy that is not going to significantly reduce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately the law does not allow me to have my objections recognised so I am forced to hunt for bugs and bats to stop this madness (yes I know, I should hunt for them in my head). Speaking of which, I must go as I have to do some hunting to stop some de-rated wind turbines being erected a few kilometres from Dartmoor.

  3. Charles – I was so much in a hurry to go hunting (no luck unfortunately), I forgot to say that to reduce the number of species that have to make the ultimate sacrifice we should not only control human population grow but actively reduce it. In wealthy countries rather than pay people to have children we should tax them. In poorer countries we should perhaps encourage people not to have children by paying them and providing pensions. If we demonstrated a little stewardship over our own population we could dramatically reduce species extinction and global warming. We cannot demand species extinction because we want to hold onto our anachronistic beliefs about procreation. Instead of ’we’re going to force you to die’, why not ’we’re going to force you not to produce human life’.

    1. Keith: thank you. Yes, reducing the rate of rise of the human population is clearly part of any intelligent response to climate change. The greatest sacrifices should be made by humans (and particularly those in fat, rich countries), who have created the problem.

      1. It’s not obvious that reducing total fertility rates from ~5 to ~2 is actually much of a welfare loss/burden. But reducing it below that number may well be – people clearly derive satisfaction from having children. And those children then work to keep the lights on when we are old an insecure.

        Keith’s argument that we should tax people for having children probably ignores the fact that children are already costly – it costs roughly $200k to get a kid to 18, I think. Plus, the presence of that child – when mature – has positive externalities for others (see above). So there actually is a case for subsidising other people’s children.

        But even if you stabilised or reduced human population you would still need to shift from CO2-emitting to non-emitting technologies. You stop the warming only after you stop the emissions (google “cumulative emissions” or “trillionth tonne”). That’s a physical science point. But obviously it doesn’t follow that you should carpet somewhere in the northern half of the northern hemisphere with solar panels. (Europe seems to be hell-bent on exploring lots of weird and expensive ways of reducing emissions – especially where these involve solar panels – rather than shifting towards obvious answers like nuclear power or investigating comparatively incremental technologies like carbon capture and storage).

  4. Charles,

    Regarding your comments about our race’s responsibility as stewards of the environment, I believe you over estimate our ability. Undoubtedly we make a huge impact on the environment, but that does not make us stewards. Nature has has ability to correct itself and in part still remains beyond our control. To make a decision whether species X should live or Species Y assumes a god like ability of judgment. Its a decision I would never entrust to a single man or even a group.
    To further my point assume our race did take on a steward like role. And we decided that life is a terrible thing, its full of pain and sorrow, so we decided to end all life. Do you think its within our power to destroy all life on earth, every last cell? I’m doubtful. In some dark corner of the earth life would survive and nature would continue without us. But maybe with the miracle of science we do destroy life and nature. What would stop life from restarting again? On Earth or any other planet?
    My point is we don’t control nature, we affect, and are part of it, but it is a thing beyond us. We don’t have complete control over natures course. We only have complete control over our own action and therefore can only be our own stewards.

  5. Miles: thank you. No, climate change won’t make the planet sterile. Of course there is life in boiling submarine water, and in the heart of the Sahara. But the middle of the Sahara isn’t as biodiverse as a rainforest. Biodiversity will certainly be a casualty.

    1. thanks Charles. I am glad you accept that some form of nature will survive whatever we do to the planet, and it’s simply not a case of climate change resulting in no biodiversity anymore. You seem to imply from your comment that a rainforest is more valuable than a desert or boiling submarine water.

      It is worth considering whether the biodiversity of the rainforest really is more valuable than that in the heart of the Sahara on in boiling submarine water. This is inevitably a normative judgement. I suggest (tentatively) that a microbe in a black smoker does not regard itself as less valuable than a chimpanzee. And let’s assume that there is no divine being (or beings) around to decide which of the two are more valuable and therefore which one is worth “saving” more, or worth making extinct more quickly, for whatever whim of the gods. In which case that judgement, that evaluation rests with us, if anyone.

      Many people do feel that a chimpanzee is worth saving over a microbe on a black smoker; and that a rainforest is worth saving more than a desert. Why value a chimp over a microbe? For many reasons: perhaps top of the list is because they look and behave more like us – they hold up a mirror to humanity. Some might also argue that those species supposedly “higher” up the hierarchy of nature are more deserving of salvation. But this is rather an old fashioned dare I say Whiggish view of nature, which places us at the top of the pyramid. There is absolutely no evidence that we are at the top of the pyramid, or even that there is a pyramid.

      The microbe may provide a new antibiotic, or a new way of capturing carbon that we hadn’t dreamt of, or its unusual chemistry might lead to the development of a whole range of new innovative industrial processes – it has to be said it’s unlikely that the Chimp will offer these prospects. In which case does that make the microbe more valuable than the chimp? Continuing down this path leads inexorably to the valuation of nature in purely utilitarian terms – what services can nature provide us humans with? And that may be as far as we can go, given that we are animals with moderately large brains (at least in terrestrial terms) and the capacity to enhance them with technology. I am not an advocate particularly of ecocentric approaches, which places all life on the same level and introduces inherent value or intrinsic value – notionally from the outside, but actually of course from still within the system.

      So – do we need rainforest? do we need lowland acid grassland such as that at Rampisham – do we need chimps and do we need microbes at the bottom of the ocean? I suggest we do need all of these things. I don’t think we need the rainforest more than the desert, or the chimp more than the microbe. Yes the rainforest supports more species than the desert, but that really is just physics operating; and while we may be doing sorts of awful things to the planet, we aren’t yet in a position to alter the laws of physics. The species of the rainforest have no greater call on our efforts than the species of the desert, or of the deep sea. To the extent that we have a responsibility for ensuring their survival into the future, this responsibility applies to pretty much all of nature, with a few notable exceptions of those species which are lethal to us and which we therefore have to expunge, or imprison (eg small pox).

      Biodiversity is already a casualty of the human species – and it seems that regardless of our collective efforts, the casualty figures will continue to rise. If we are going to alter the course on which we appear to be stuck, we will have to completely change the way we value nature – and I’m not talking about ecosystem services and natural capitalism.

      1. Miles wrote: “If we are going to alter the course on which we appear to be stuck, we will have to completely change the way we value nature – and I’m not talking about ecosystem services and natural capitalism.”

        We don’t need to “completely change the way we value nature” to solve climate change (though there may be problems where your claims is more reasonable). The most promising ways of addressing climate change are through investing in new and existing non-emitting technologies. Waiting for utopian solutions and revolutions is, as far as addressing climate change goes, just a waste of precious time.

        1. Investing in most of the existing non-emitting technologies does little or nothing to prevent climate change. We need to take time to develop policies and technologies that acually work and stop rearranging the deckchairs on the Titantic.

          1. Depends a bit on the sector – transport is obviously pretty difficult without new technologies. But things like hydroelectric generation of electricity (and wind power, and solar, to lesser extents) can be used as substitutes for fossil-emitting CO2 sources in the electricity sector. If you close a coal plant and build a hydro dam, you lower your emissions in the long-run.

            What sort of new policies and technologies do you have in mind?

  6. Nicholas: thank you. Yes, we’re a part of nature, and we affect it. But either tragically or gloriously (and we’re certainly in a tragic phase at the moment), our ability to affect it is far greater than any other species. I’d prefer humming-birds or bottle-nosed dolphins to be in charge, but that’s unlikely to happen in the short term. Since we have greater power than any other species, our responsiblity is concomitantly greater. I’m surprised that this is controversial.

  7. Policies and technologies – that would take thousands of words. In brief for northern Europe and the UK in no particular order, as I said above, we need to stop enriching developers, banks and landowners by allowing near uncontrolled construction of hopelessly inefficient PV and on-shore wind farms. PV technology can be built into buildings that should have much higher standards of insulations and energy saving technology which should be retro-fitted into older buildings. The tax system should be slowly switched to taxing property which would make more homes available from the existing stock and raise revenue from larger houses, thereby encouraging people to live in smaller efficient spaces. Combined large scale heat and power electrical generation along with geothermal generation should be developed. Unfortunately there is very little hydro-power available in UK with the exception of he Seven estuary and other tidal power schemes which should be built within ten years (some hope). Small scale ground and air source space heating should become the norm. The switch to LED lighting should be greatly accelerated. Large combustion engine motorcars should be very heavily taxed and prohibited. As above, having children should be discouraged by removing benefits and increasing taxation. Research on energy conservation, production (especially fusion generation) and storage should be immediately increased ten fold and continue to be increased as trained scientists and engineers become available. Finally, climate change scientists and governments should be far more rigorous in their science and the information they provide. Sloppy science and misinformation creates scepticism and poor decision-making.

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