The fracking equipment is moving into place in Salford, and the protestors have managed to delay it a little.
Why protest? What’s wrong with fracking? This is my attempt to explain why the protestors are right.
In favour of fracking
The arguments in favour are well known. We need energy. We are using it up faster than we are finding new sources. Renewables cannot provide enough to keep us going at our current rate, let alone for future projected needs. Like the argument for nuclear power, it is a way to meet requirements – a way to keep civilisation-as-we-know-it going. If we don’t frack, don’t use nuclear power and don’t come up with similar alternatives, the lights will go out.
The opposition has two levels of discourse. At a more specific, detailed level it uses the language of fracking’s supporters. Statistic for statistic it tries to show that within the broad picture of civilisation-as-we-know-it we can manage without fracking. The extraction process spoils countryside and has dangers. It adds to climate change. We could insulate homes more to reduce the need for fuel.
On its own this does not add up to a strong case. We spoil countryside every time we build a new housing estate or railway line. There are some ways we could reduce the use of fuel but the long-term trend is upwards. The dangers are not out of proportion to other dangers; statistically, crossing the road is pretty dangerous but we all do it. More telling still, a calculation that on balance we can manage without is hardly the kind of thing that gets people onto the site on a cold day to stand in the way of machines and risk arrest.
The other level of discourse is deeper, felt more strongly at a gut level, but usually not so well articulated. The people who protest against fracking are often the very same people who protest against nuclear power. What is happening is a growing awareness that there is something seriously wrong with the wider agenda that fracking represents. In this sense fracking is today’s emblem of a self-centred calculating instrumentalism that ignores the wider costs of its selfishness.
The underlying problem
On present levels of consumption, we shall run out of energy unless we frack, or find a technology for digging some alternative energy-provider out of the ground. It does not follow that we must therefore frack. There is an alternative: to use less artificial fuel. A lot less.
In political discourse the prospect is very unpopular. Politicians are quick enough to conjure up images of people unable to heat their homes, but their real motive is that they have accepted without question the agenda of constantly increasing the amount of things we do, without limit. Build more buildings and knock them down, manufacture more machines with ever-quicker obsolescence, wrap goods in more and more packaging which ends up in landfill, travel further and further.
This is precisely the problem. Civilisation-as-we-know-it demands fracking as the latest step in an ongoing story of ever-increasing production. In a finite world, sooner or later it will have to end. When all the shale gas has been used up, what then?
What the protests express is an increasing unease, not just about the fracking process, but about the dominant agenda of our society. To the extent that we need fracking, civilisation-as-we-know-it is uncivilised. By doing less we could do better. Sooner or later we’ll have to. The sooner we face up to it, the less damage we’ll do.