Book Review: The Burning Question

by Alice Bell

‘Keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of the green movement in recent months. A new book by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke explains why.

First published: 19 November, 2013 | Category: Corporate power, Environment

The Burning Question: We can't burn half the world's oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke (London, 2013: Profile Books).

We used to worry we might run out of oil or gas. That’s one of the reasons why we talk of ‘peak oil’ and refer to various energy choices with the word ‘renewables’ and non-renewables, rather than focus on low or high carbon. But this is a relatively old frame for the problem. Now we're more aware of the problem that we might actually try to burn the oil and gas we have. Moreover, new or improved technologies such as fracking mean we can access materials we’d previously thought unobtainable, or at least too expensive to bother extracting. And we can’t burn them. Or we can’t burn them if we care about climate change.  

You might be forgiven for forgetting this, seeing as how little climate change gets mentioned in media coverage of energy. But it’s a key issue; many would argue the key issue.

So, now, instead of ‘peak oil’ we increasingly hear the term ‘stranded assets’ to talk about fossil fuel reserves we could use in as much as they are there for the burning, but we shouldn’t if we want to avoid even more global warming than we’re currently set towards. We are probably going to have to get used to talking about this because it looks like it’s going to dominate a lot of the debate about taking action on climate change. Just as action on CFCs was mobalised around the then new idea of a ‘hole in the Ozone layer’ in the 1980s, ‘keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of aspects of the green movement in recent months. Bill McKibben’s article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math became a viral hit last summer, with a wave of campus activism of following it.

It is also what Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke’s new book The Burning Question is about. An explanation of a slightly different concept of ‘peak’ oil, and how we should consider fossil fuels as stranded assets. As their sub-title puts it ‘We can’t bun half the world’ soil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?’

The book has received a host of warm reviews and comes baring endorsements from George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson and Al Gore. It even made the list of books MP like to tell people they are reading over the summer, heartening maybe considering most of the other titles were simply about other politicians. I can recommend it too. Berners-Lee and Clarke provide a great overview of why this stranded assets issue is both important and so intractable a problem. It reflects a mature and evidence-based approach to energy policy. It has some strong, explanatory prose and is refreshingly short, with a tightly plotted, clear structure. Titles like this could all too easily be one of those great tomes you feel you should read but, textbook-like, really can’t be bothered to get much beyond the first chapter. But something about the coherent, lively prose and the sense of urgency sitting in the background keeps you going. I should also add that this book isn’t hectoring. It’s passionate and urges action, but any more strident campaigning is largely left offstage.

Berners-Lee and Clarke give their readers a host of useful metaphors and some clear graphs, both of which are simplifications in their own ways – giving particular lenses on the larger issue – but both incredibly useful too. In a field whose discourse often places contingencies and uncertainty above all else, it was refreshing to read such clear prose. Some may well find the book too simple and clear in places, and it is worth remembering that most ‘simplification’ tend to include some personal take on the issue. Such personal takes might not be bad – indeed, they can reflect a lot of prior thought – but not everyone will agree what the essential points are. The book offers the idea of reframing peak fossil fuel for climate change I started with, as well as an image of saving energy as like ‘squeezing a balloon’ to explain the often esoteric ‘Jevons paradox’, repeating Myles Allen to talk about ‘loading the climate dice to flood, or that if we talk about being addicted to fossil fuels, we should start looking at the dealers, not users (a line I’ve since seen Naomi Klein use in talks). These are all great explanations, but they won’t please all.

Still, Berners-Lee and Clark are very open about the complexity, reflecting a sense of climate as a multi-layered ‘perfect storm of money and power, science and politics, technology and the human mind’. The book offers you the big picture and then if you want detail, look to the endnotes. They leave the various ends untied for you to unravel if you so wish. We maybe spend too much time thinking about how intractable climate change and energy policy are. Yes, it is complex, but lots of things are complex. It’s also riddled with a lot of uncertainty, but again so are many other things. A strong sense of the complexities and uncertainties at play are crucial for scientists to help them think about new ways to learn more but is not exactly useful for getting things done. Clarity is rarely scientific. It washes over all the contingencies and possibilities of thorough work. But if it’s not your job (or simply favourite hobby) to work through the details of the issue, they become a barrier for involvement. Where as simplified versions of many other areas of science and technology are readily available as introductions for non-experts, there is somewhat of a dearth of explanatory materials for climate change. All in all, I felt this book is welcome as a contribution towards filling that gap.

One of the reasons it isn’t hectoring in its style is arguably because it doesn’t really advocate any strong suggestions. For all that the book is subtitled “We can’t burn half the worlds, oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” but that question was left rather unresolved. It offers frames and questions and information which may well help us towards better conversations to deal with this question, but it is a long way from providing some itself. I also finished the book unsatisfied that they didn’t seem to want to dig into deeper political issues or really challenge the systems at play.

They do ask us to think about ownership of resources and the book ends with an answer to the question “What can I do?” which I’m personally quite strongly behind. Namely, rather than just small individual actions at home like recycling, remember you are part of a global social system which runs the larger infrastructures at fault and put pressure on politicians and business leaders to change.

Many of us feel that we’re too insignificant to make a difference, but the social and political ripple effects of our efforts may be more powerful than we’d expect. After all, human society is every bit as much a complex system as the climate itself. Everyone is influenced by everyone else. And most of us are only a few degrees of separation from someone in a prominent role. Every helpful action or comment lubricates every other; every unhelpful action is a brake on progress

Nice sentiment. But this point is a scant three pages long. It may well be all that point needs – say it, then put the book down and get on with it – but I’d have liked a bit more reflection on how power is expressed and might be unpacked to run throughout the book, and think this conclusion could well have been extended with some examples.

The discussion of stranded assets – which comes largely via the Carbon Tracker Initiative - frames the debate very much within financial systems. This is useful, and helps open a new and important area of activism. At the very least, it focuses public attention on a form of social infrastructure which all too often gets to fester away unnoticed. Similarly, McKibben likes to juxtapose the difference between the huge challenge of changing the financial system with the even bigger one of changing nature. This is an important juxtaposition, I think; one that has sat behind much environment politics for decades and is only likely to become more obvious in years to come as we debate it more in the context of new technologies such as geoengineering and more philosophical frames like the anthropocene. Why should money, not nature, be the limiting factor? Money is just something we made up to help us make society run more smoothly. Why should we let this make-believe tool rule us to the extent we endanger our planet? When did we get more scared of this thing we made up called economics than the planet we were born to?

Still, there is something about the emphasis on the idea of stranded assets that leaves me uneasy. I don’t think we should necessarily give in to seeing the planet in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think the issue is as simple as that. People sometimes talk about a new industrial revolution – a green one – which will transform the way we live to a more sustainable future. It’s another one of those simple analogies which can be very useful. But as ever, beware of the spin on reality it takes. Because it’d have to be a very different form of industrial revolution from previous ones. No one will make gazillions of pounds from find new technologies we didn’t realise we wanted/ needed. It’s not about making markets. If anything, it’s about closing them. And that’s a hard sell (so hard we use the word ‘sell’ as a way to even talk about it). Because it is not just about changing finance rather than the planet, it’ll require a host of cultural and social changes too, and the rarefied graphs of Much of the Burning Question, like McKibben’s insistence that we just need to ‘do the math’, is in danger of loosing a sense of that, even if they also offer some really important starting points.

The Burning Question offers a very clear introduction to questions of energy and climate change but, as with any expression of clarity, it’s a slight spin on things. If you think it’s the way we do capitalism which is at heart of the climate change problem, you’ll probably enjoy its more normative points. However, if you have larger economic questions and more revolutionary aims in terms of the sorts of changes required (for more than just the climate) you’ll probably find its prescription a bit of a sticking-plaster. Much I’d recommend this book, I can see why politicians felt comfortable being seen to read this book: It doesn’t really challenge them much.

Alice Bell is co-editor at New Left Project.

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