The controversy which has surrounded the potential introduction of ‘fracking’ (blasting sand and water into the ground to release gas trapped in the rocks) has become well known in the last few weeks. On the one side, we have the tories and energy-monopoly corporations who argue for the market: jobs, cheaper bills, and a competitive edge for the economy. On the other side, left liberals protest the technique for potential harm to the environment, including the RSPB, Frack Off! 38 Degrees, Reclaim the Power, No Dash For Gas and Greenpeace amongst others.
Personally, I feel that nothing is justified simply because it may have economic gains (whether environmental or not). Where do we think the profit of fracking will go? I doubt very much that it will be used to offset energy bills (why would the ‘big 6’ turn down the extra profit?), I also doubt that ‘the people’ would actually benefit (yes, £100,000 will be given to the local community plus a miniscule 1% of the profits… but the companies are also receiving enormous tax-breaks in the meantime). As with most appeals to free market innovation, this once again appears to be exploitation for the benefit of the few.
But while I do object to fracking for these reasons, my main concern is the form of the debate which has surrounded it which I would describe as typical of our post-political society. Allow me to demonstrate this by picking apart David Cameron’s article in The Telegraph, followed by a non-direct ‘response’ from Zoe Williams in The Guardian.
This is a textbook piece of political prose in which Cameron presents fracking as the only option – the rational option – justified by the unquestionable consensus that the market and continuous growth based on finite resources is always a good thing. But in particular I just want to pick out three parts of his article:
“This reservoir of untapped energy will help people across the country who work hard and want to get on: not just families but businesses, too, who are really struggling with the high costs of energy”
In other words, we must use free market thinking to get us out of the shit in which free market thinking has landed us (the political equivalent to attempting to pull yourself out of quicksand by your own hair). This quote demonstrates the typical conservative ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude towards ‘families’ and ‘businesses’ who we imagine are suffering because of the supposedly ‘inept’ Labour government. Not that I defend Labour mind you, but even Brown wasn’t solely responsible for the collapse of the global market, and the bail-out of the banks is no different to what the tories would have done in the same position. There’s only one way of doing things, you see, and this consensus is market-orientated.
“Fracking will create jobs in Britain. In fact, one recent study predicted that 74,000 posts could be supported by a thriving shale-gas industry in this country”
Ok, well I don’t doubt that this will create some jobs. But aren’t these jobs based on a finite resource and likely to create another employment crisis once fracking becomes unviable? (Thanks to Finn for pointing this out). Furthermore, 74,000 is a drop in the ocean when compared to the 2.51 million unemployed in this country and the many millions more who are on precarious low-earning contracts.
Notice as well how Cameron appeals to expertise in this sentence when he writes: ‘a recent study predicted’. In other words, this is knowledge speaking (what Lacan calls ‘the discourse of the university’) which acts to remove all responsibility from Cameron: “this isn’t my idea, look at the ‘facts’! Science is telling us and I’m just being rational…”
And finally, this bit actually made me feel a little bit ill:
“When all is said and done, though, one myth still remains – that fracking damages our countryside. I just don’t agree with this. Our countryside is one of the most precious things we have in Britain and I am proud to represent a rural constituency. I would never sanction something that might ruin our landscapes and scenery. Shale gas pads are relatively small – about the size of a cricket pitch.”
This appeal to the ‘green and pleasant land’ rhetoric echoes scenic patriotic ideology from the Olympic opening ceremony, covering up that fact that he doesn’t actually dismiss the possibility that fracking could pollute water supplies or even drain water from the surrounding area (each site requires millions of litres of water in an already drought-prone landscape, with privatised water companies rubbing their greasy claws together in glee). Cameron only dismisses any aesthetic damage.
Secondly, as many of you know I actually grew up in Witney (Cameron’s seat), and I know that saying “I would never sanction something that might ruin our landscapes and scenery” is an outright lie. Over the last few years, the local government in Witney has been trying (and has failed against opposition) to build a link road right across some of the most beautiful scenery in the town!
But its the last sentence of this quote that really got me. In my mind’s eye, I imagine Cameron receiving the first draft of this article from his spin doctor, sipping tea on his lawn in the ever-exclusive town of Charlbury, or perhaps going for a walk and passing the cricket pitch… While the size of the fracking site has been described elsewhere in the standardised ‘football pitch’ metaphor; here, it’s a cricket pitch. Green and English, appealing to national pride from the Ashes, picturesque and traditional…
“For centuries, Britain has led the way in technological endeavour… a spirit of enterprise and innovation that has served us well down the decades. Fracking is part of this tradition, so let’s seize it”
If we compare Cameron’s appeal to tradition and innovativeness to the left liberal response, we see just how shallow our post-political debate really is. Instead of questioning the idea that we should do all we can to (supposedly) boost the economy and appease the market, the liberal response is: ‘yeah ok, fracking has its economic benefits, but we need to be careful, we need restrictions’ or ‘you can frack as long as we think about renewables too, we need damage limitation for the environment’.
Williams first looks at the problem fracking presents for emissions targets (“if we do exploit all the shale resources we have, we will sail past our decarbonisation targets”) using the business logic/rhetoric of ‘targets’ to criticise the actions being taken by businesses (with opposing ‘targets’). The debate is presented in terms of targets instead of politics, as a singular issue instead of a universalised problem, and we are trapped into thinking about the energy debate only in the terms set by neoliberal governance (i.e. in terms of market principles).
She then goes on to agree with the NIMBY (not in my backyard) criticism levelled at fracking protesters (“‘energy from anywhere, unless it’s near me’ is just individualism dress up as environmentalism”) immediately disavowing those protestors as selfish and non-genuine. But what exactly is a non-individualised environmentalism? Surely all appeals to environmentalism in our culture are immediately individualised: organic food, recycling, cycling to work, solar panels on the roof…
We see that the appeal in Williams’ article is therefore the same as Cameron’s: an appeal for common sense reason (read: ‘we must appease the market, we must create jobs, we must continue to consume more energy’) rather than questioning what this reasoning is based on. The problem is that points scoring between politicians and between journalists only allows one type of voice to be heard: the voice of post-political consensus that says capitalism justifies all actions. In other words, rather than questioning this logic, both left and right appeal to it.