We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Current countdown on the Extinction clock…

April 18th 2003:

Crash course towards massive species extinction, says Defenders of Wildlife.

Nina Fascione, Vice President for Field Conservation Programs at Defenders of Wildlife, quote: “Frankly, it looks like we’re on a crash course towards massive species extinctions in the next 20 years […] We could lose one-fifth or 20% of our species within the next two decades. That’s a very short amount of time”.

As of time of posting, 79 days left to come true.

The Precautionary Principle and “synthetic meat”

Virginia Postrel, whose book, The Future and Its Enemies, is shown on the upper-left of this blog’s page (under the work of Karl Popper and the handgun), recently wrote an article that got me thinking about how the Right has its own form of Precautionary Principle. A few days ago, she wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about synthetic meat. She later thought about the topic some more on her Substack. As she noted, anyone who has spent time in a chicken factory and slaughterhouse is going to be keen on the idea. (I have no view on the nutritional case for or against synthetic meat, although I’d imagine that some poor brute of an animal reared in a massive shed and pumped full of antibiotics is probably not superior to a synthetic alternative. You don’t need to be a veggie to be unhappy about this.)

Glenn Reynolds, who usually strikes me as the sort of chap to be interested in tech innovation, including agriculture, writes this by way of a rebuttal to Postrel. I find his reasoning is mistaken (more on that later), but here are his comments in full:

Well, I too am a meat eater who likes human ingenuity and technological progress. But I can see a couple of problems. One is that “synthetic meat” is a confusing term. It means real meat, grown in a vat instead of in a cow, but it sounds like it might be the non-nutritious “Beyond Meat/Impossible” slop marketed to vegans.

Second, the technocracy is pushing this stuff, and the technocracy is currently in bad odor. There’s a real lack of trust, and once people start to think that the technocracy will do things to them that they don’t like — and often lie about it in the process — the lack of trust spreads from specific subjects to more general matters. Plus, given that most opposition to meat-eating is essentially religious in nature, rejecting it is not exactly a matter of irrationality.

In an ideal world, where we could talk about this sort of thing on its own merits and in a generally good-faith manner — like the world we at least thought we lived in back in the ’90s — things would be different. But we don’t live in that world now.

There are several problems with this in my view, even as one who can feel the force of what Prof. Glenn Reynolds writes. First of all, whether the term “synthetic meat” is misleading or not, the free marketeer in me prefers to let entrepreneurs and consumers, subject to laws of fraud against dishonest marketing, figure this out.

Second, whether the “technocracy” is pushing this stuff is not, in my view, sufficient justification for people to throw shade on this technology. A few years ago, I recalled how parts of the Green movement, particularly those of a Left-wing nature, liked to hate on genetically modified crops, particularly if they were produced by big American firms such as Monsanto (booo!, hiss!). And one could have argued that a reason why they did so was because, if it is possible to feed a much larger population with GM crops, etc than with conventional ones, then those Paul Ehrlich doomsters’ fox has been well and truly shot. Come to that, imagine that really clever carbon capture tech is created, thereby royally screwing the global warming alarmists’ whole argument.

It is possible to see how, depending on where you stand on the political battlefield, that a tech might be an enabler to those whom you dislike. Dammit, I bet one could have said the same about the internet 30 years ago, or the motor car 100-plus years ago. I have even read people denounce private spacefaring because of its sinister libertarian motivations (“All those crazy Heinlein fans in space”).

It may be that those who are promoting synthetic meat are all vegetarians and sinister tyrants, but if there is a case for it on its own merits, then why the hell should I care? There’s a danger of what I called motivated reasoning here getting out of hand. I can, in fact, see a future where people remain meat eaters, getting much of their meat protein from synthetic sources and occasionally spending a bit more to buy the organic, “real” forms, such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, venison, and so on. Is this really such a bad outcome, particularly if some of the worst forms of factory farming die out? As a libertarian chap – and one raised on a farm in East Anglia – preferring to see animal husbandry done with due regard to animal welfare is not, in my book, a “soppy” or for goodness sake, “woke” point.

This paragraph from Postrel strikes me as particularly on point, because it strikes me that on parts, if not all of the “Right” (a package-dealing term but it will have to do), quite a few people have become so riled up by certain developments that they end up opposing technologies and innovations in case it encourages things they don’t like.

The best argument against the development of cell-grown meat is that technocrats believe that anything good must be mandatory, especially if the good thing claims to help the environment. So if someone invents cell-grown meat, government mandates will soon follow. We therefore shouldn’t encourage alternatives to the status quo lest we be forced to adopt them. It’s the same argument we hear from people who believe that saying cities should allow property owners more flexibility about what they build on their land is tantamount to banning single-family homes. This culture-war form of the precautionary principle is as bad as every other form. It’s a prescription for stasis.

Update: Matthew Lesh of the Institute of Economic Affairs has thoughts on cultivated meat, and why the UK should seize the benefits of being outside the European Union to encourage agricultural and food innovation.

Samizdata quote of the day – the King is not your friend

This argument hints at why so many rich, virtue-signalling celebrities argue not just for Net Zero but ‘Real’ Zero, with the banning of all fossil fuel use. King Charles said in 2009 that the age of consumerism and convenience was over, although the multi-mansion owning monarch presumably doesn’t think such desperate restrictions apply to himself. Manheimer notes that fossil fuel has extended the benefits of civilisation to billions, but its job is not yet complete. “To spread the benefits of modern civilisation to the entire human family would require much more energy, as well as newer sources,” he adds.

[…]

In Manheimer’s view, the partnership among self-interested businesses, grandstanding politicians and alarmist campaigners, “truly is an unholy alliance”. The climate industrial complex does not promote discussion on how to overcome this challenge in a way that will be best for everyone. “We should not be surprised or impressed that those who stand to make a profit are among the loudest calling for politicians to act,” he added.

Chris Morrison, Net Zero will lead to the end of modern civilisation

The circuit breaks

In the Times, Giles Coren explains why he has pulled the plug on his electric car.

As I watch my family strike out on foot across the fields into driving rain and gathering darkness, my wife holding each child’s hand, our new year plans in ruins, while I do what I can to make our dead car safe before abandoning it a mile short of home, full of luggage on a country lane, it occurs to me not for the first time that if we are going to save the planet we will have to find another way. Because electric cars are not the answer.

Yes, it’s the Jaguar again. My doomed bloody £65,000 iPace that has done nothing but fail at everything it was supposed to do for more than two years now, completely dead this time, its lifeless corpse blocking the single-track road.

I can’t even roll it to a safer spot because it can’t be put in neutral. For when an electric car dies, it dies hard. And then lies there as big and grey and not-going-anywhere as the poacher-slain bull elephant I once saw rotting by a roadside in northern Kenya. Just a bit less smelly.

Not that this is unusual. Since I bought my eco dream car in late 2020, in a deluded Thunbergian frenzy, it has spent more time off the road than on it, beached at the dealership for months at a time on account of innumerable electrical calamities, while I galumph around in the big diesel “courtesy cars” they send me under the terms of the warranty.

But this time I don’t want one. And I don’t want my own car back either. I have asked the guys who sold it to me to sell it again, as soon as it is fixed, to the first mug who walks into the shop. Because I am going back to petrol while there is still time.

Greenpeace Aotearoa lives in hope

I am not being sarcastic when I say that I admire the way that Nick Young, writing for Greenpeace Aotearoa (the country formerly known as New Zealand), at least has the guts to admit that Sri Lanka’s ban on chemical fertiliser was a disaster. In a piece called “Sri Lanka’s fertiliser ban and why New Zealand can phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser”, he gives his reasons for supposing that despite Sri Lanka’s experience, it will work next time. He is enthusiastic, for instance, about the prospects for the Indian state of Sikkim which has also prohibited chemical fertilisers. He writes,

The key thing to note is that it wasn’t something that happened overnight. And it didn’t happen because Sikkim’s shoppers suddenly decided to buy organic food or because its farmers woke up one day and decided to switch to organic with no support. It happened because the Sikkim Government used policies, public investment and a transition plan to make it happen.

It is strange to me to see someone delight in the fact that the choices of shoppers or farmers, the ordinary people whose lives would be affected most, played no part in this change.

This Guardian article is five years old now, but I would bet that the problems it describes have not gone away: “Sikkim’s organic revolution at risk as local consumers fail to buy into project.” More recently, Pawan Chamling, who as the then Chief Minister of Sikkim did much to put the policy in place, said that the current Sikkim government “has put Sikkim’s organic mission on the back burner”. He writes,

The organic mission has been totally wiped out of the government’s vocabulary and State budget. Not a single penny has been allocated towards organic farming. Even more alarming is that chemical fertilisers are being brought into the state and are freely sold in the market.

Freely sold and freely bought. Farmers making their own decisions. How awful.

Despite everything, I have nothing against organic farming. But the way that Sikkim being “100% organic”, a source of pride and a key part of Sikkim’s identity according to Mr Chamling, withered as soon the government subsidies dried up suggests that the change was never, if you will forgive the metaphor, organic in the first place. It was imposed from the top down. It had no roots.

Jordan Peterson interviews Alex Epstein, author of “Fossil Future”

I urge people, when they get the time, to give this interview of Alex Epstein a view. Epstein is the author of “Fossil Future”, an absolutely brilliant explanation of the case for Man’s use of substances such as coal, oil and gas, and he does so within a context of a pro-human philosophy that has human flourishing, and its rightness, at its base. In other words, he argues that it is not the job of Man to submit to any kind of “Higher Order” of nature – other than to of course understand the laws of nature and the scientific humility that requires – but to master it, thrive and be happy. (Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed, etc.) This cuts against much of the underlying view of many Greens, who argue that nature is intrinsically benevolent (in fact it is red in tooth and claw, and often very unpleasant). And Greens will further argue, such as Bill McKibben, that Man, despite being from the Earth, is somehow anti-natural. I think McKibben even described humans as akin to a disease (his language seems to imply it, such as here), but you don’t hear him saying that about other creatures or species. Man has a nature: he must think, project forward with imagination, to speculate on what is possible, to experiment, learn and transmit knowledge. That’s natural if you are a human. So Epstein has done the heavy lifting of getting into the very guts of what is wrong with the Green worldview, and given a radically different perspective.

Far too often, those who criticise Green ideology dismiss it as “religion” and leave it at that. But many people are religious, and argue that without it, there’s no compass or chart to steer by. So is dismissing Greenery as religion much of a knock-down? After all, it is easy to see when many of the established religions in the West have fallen into decreptitude (with some exceptions) how the vacuum has sucked in enthusiasm for Gaia, and all the rest of it. And some of it has taken a more nihilistic, Man-hating form.

What I like about Epstein is that he understands that only a full-throated, proud assertion of human flourishing and achievement, grounded in reason and empirical evidence, not revelation, is the answer to much of where the Green movement is coming from. Sure, we can point to the absurdities of Net Zero, the hypocrisies of Hollywood activists on Learjets going to Davos, but that is a sideshow to the core issue.

Anyway, give this interview a view. Jordan Peterson does good interviews; I actually prefer them to his monologues, although maybe that is because his Kermit The Frog weepy Canadian voice starts to grate after a while.

The looming fury – when will it come for the Net Zero obsession?

“The politicians have a choice: make greenery consumer-friendly, harnessing technology to preserve the public’s quality of life, or face a calamitous democratic uprising.”

Allister Heath.

For some time I have wondered how bad it has to get, in terms of power cuts, misery and problems to build up for the general public to turn against the net zero cult. Lockdowns depressed me because of their wide public support and the ability of policymakers and various opinion formers to frighten the public. I hope that the evidence of the disasters that lockdowns caused and their costs, all too obvious to ignore, might make it harder for the Green cult to gain such wide support. Remember, lockdowns were justified by slogans such as “two weeks to flatten the curve”. Those advocating for net zero and doing so by calling for more expensive, less reliable energy, as well as demanding things such as small families, far less travel, austerity and the rest are demanding something that stretches into infinity. And all the while they do so when the track record of doom predictions has been spotty, to be polite about it.

I don’t know how soon a public revolt against this will come. Far too much of the corporate world feels obliged to buy into the whole ESG agenda, for example. But from my admittedly anecdotal experience I sense a weariness creeping in. (Here is an example of pushback against “woke” corporate activity, which often overlaps with the Green agenda.) There is more discussion about the cant of it all.

You will be poorer, and you will be happy – a continuing series

“Switzerland could be the first country to impose driving bans on e-cars in an emergency to ensure energy security. Several media report this unanimously and refer to a draft regulation on restrictions and bans on the use of electrical energy. Specifically, the paper says: “The private use of electric cars is only permitted for absolutely necessary journeys (e.g. professional practice, shopping, visiting the doctor, attending religious events, attending court appointments).” A stricter speed limit is also planned highways.”

Der Spiegel, the German publication (via the ironically named US website, Hotair.)

A few weeks ago, California’s government warned that petrol (sorry, gasoline)-driven vehicles would be compulsory soon, while warning of blackouts.

It’s a clown show out there, but who feels like laughing?

For a sanity check, I recommend this book, Fossil Future, by Alex Epstein, to my friends, and occasionally to those I want to torment, in my adolescent fashion. Excellent book that gets to the philosophical guts of what is wrong and malevolent about much modern environmentalism.

Samizdata quote of the day – hypocrisy edition

This is climate imperialism. Rich nations are only agreeing to help poor nations so long as they use energy sources that cannot lift themselves out of poverty.

Consider the case of Norway, Europe’s second-largest gas supplier after Russia. Last year it agreed to increase natural gas exports by 2 billion cubic meters, in order to alleviate energy shortages. At the same time, Norway is working to prevent the world’s poorest nations from producing their own natural gas by lobbying the World Bank to end its financing of natural gas projects in Africa.

Michael Shellenberger

A theme park strategy

It is easy to understand why those who are not fully down with the whole Green alarmist agenda are annoyed at the fracking ban under Rishi Sunak’s new administration. (In reality, local authorities could and would still try and stop it, even if it was legal at the national level.)

A problem with the ban, though, is that it says something about the approach of the Sunak administration: it is in thrall to the Precautionary Principle. Don’t do anything if there is the slightest risk of harm to the environment or if it upsets some local people. And that means that on issues such as house building, new nuclear power plants, roads, Heathrow third runway or a “Boris island” in East London, or anything else, the risk is that nothing much gets done.

Lest anyone think this is a purely Tory issue, it isn’t. A Labour government is unlikely to be like the Attlee/Wilson ones where there was at least a sort of working class affinity with industry. Trade unionists used to be proud of how they worked in mines, factories and shipyards. They got dirt under their fingernails, and they wore this as a badge of pride. Today’s post-modernist Left bemoans developments such as the demise of steel production, but fails to join the dots between this and the deliberate raising of energy prices through “Green transition” policies. Also, much of the modern Left does not reside in the industrial sector, but is more about the public sector. So the problem is one of a wider cultural/philosophical aversion to making things or doing things that are in any way “dirty”.

Meanwhile, countries such as India and China, or Indonesia, suffer no such inhibitions. And we will import energy and other products from nations that are likely to enforce less stringent controls on pollution. And yet the likes of Starmer, and various commentators, will bemoan the demise of UK manufacturing. But if we refuse to build reliable, cheap energy (wind and solar don’t count, being weather-reliant), then our demise as an industrial power will continue. (Fossil Future, by Alex Epstein, is a must-read and corrective to current alarmist nonsense, not least because it addresses the philosophy of the Greens, and provides an alternative. Too few debunkers of Greens do this.)

A few days ago I went to Battersea Power Station, now fully refurbished and turned into a shopping mall and apartment block, with various offices and things like art galleries. I can admire the architecture, the lovely industrial-style touches and the gantries and machinery. But what strikes me as symbolic of modern Britain is that we have turned a power station into a shop, and when the wind doesn’t blow and sun doesn’t shine, and we haven’t enough baseload power, the building will go dark. That’s where decades of evasion and Green ideology have taken us.

We are turning into a theme park.

Update: Germany is keen to be a theme park too. Major chemicals manufacturers, unable to withstand surging energy costs, are moving out, according to this Reuters report

Samizdata quote of the day

“Restoring the fracking moratorium would be an error. To rely on imported gas when we have 50-100 years’ supply under our feet is not a stance rooted in science or economics, but political weakness in the face of militant protest groups and anti-development campaigns. This decision will not help the planet; the UK will become more dependent on gas imports, with higher emissions than local production. It will not help the growth plan; we will be borrowing to pay Qatari and US taxes rather than building an industry.
It will not help the low carbon transition; there will be fewer fossil fuel taxes to fund it and the cost of all energy sources will rise. It will not help our allies in the EU or Ukraine; surrendering further dominance of regional gas markets to Russian tyranny. It seems the Government and Opposition are determined to risk blackouts and freezeouts before taking hard decisions rooted in reality.”

– Andy Mayer, of the Institute of Economic Affairs (one of those evil organisations now safely removed from influencing our “sensibles” in government), talking about the decision of the new Rishi Sunak government to ban fracking. The quotation explains the imbecility of that decision. (I received the comments in an email; there is no weblink that I could see.)

Who needs vulgar industry anyway, when we can import all this stuff from grubby foreigners, daaaahhling.

Update: Ambrose Evans Pritchard in the Daily Telegraphs compliments the frackers of the US for helping to save the West (he’s not exaggerating) but argues that UK fracking is far less sensible as an investment proposition, and he may be correct. However, he goes onto laud the benefits of the UK going all in on Green, renewable energy, and talks about hydrogen, etc. But throughout the entire article, written with AEP’s typical brio, is not one single reference to battery storage capacity. Weather-dependent energy requires storage to deal with the baseload power issue. There may well be solutions in the skunkworks, but an awful lot is riding on this. There might well be a sort of “Moore’s Law” effect on renewables and affordability, but batteries are the key. And making batteries needs lithium, cobalt, and other minerals that come from places that are often not exactly very agreeable to the West. And there are environmental side-effects, including damage to water supplies (often far more serious than anything that fracking might cause.)

Samizdata quote of the day

“The revived fortunes of fossil fuels, especially coal, may explain some of the weakened resolve for decarbonization. Global bank lending to fossil fuel companies is up 15 per cent, to over $300 billion, in the first nine months of this year, from the same period in 2021, according to data ­compiled by Bloomberg. This is Wall Street just doing its job: making money. Banks earned more than $1 billion in revenue from fossil lending during the first three quarters, in line with 2021. Why quit business with a booming sector over a distant climate goal?”

Alistair Marsh, Bloomberg. ($) The US news service has been pushing the whole “Green transition” agenda in recent years in its coverage, at the behest of founder Michael Bloomberg, so there is something darkly amusing watching the organisation concede that decarbonisation has been a big loser for investors in recent months. If you are JP Morgan, BlackRock, Bank of America Merrill Lynch or a small investment house in Massachusetts, you have to explain to clients why you hugely lagged the stock market because of your “Green” decisions.

As the late Richard Feynman once said apropos the Space Shuttle, nature cannot be fooled. That applies to economics as well.