Wash, Wash Me Green.

June 21, 2012

There are many things which make the sensitive, cultivated observer want to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. (In practice, since the planet cannot support seven billion hunter-gatherers, this means going up in a tower with a high-powered rifle and picking off competitors at random — a practice the Creator heartily recommends to everyone.) Many of these things are expressed in the contents of the media, whose advertisements are packaged as editorials, but whose editorials are not acknowledged for the advertisements which they are. In any event, the phenomenon of greenwashing is most particularly striking and strident. The Creator was glancing over an advertisement for a foreign-owned corporation called Pick’n’Pay. The advertisement showed a shoal of fish fluttering through cool, green, deep water. A pretty picture, much prettier than the corporation, but unfortunately the picture had lettering on it — which the fish, mercifully, could not read. The lettering explained that Pick’n’Pay was a GREEN corporation, because the World Wildlife Fund had given them a certificate to that effect. (The WWF will give anyone a certificate saying anything, in exchange for money to keep the WWF afloat; saving the planet is strictly a secondary side-effect of the enrichment of WWF’s managers.) Pick’n’Pay also revealed that various Stewardship Forums had given them certificates saying that they were GREEN. (Of course, the revelation did not include the fact that these Stewardship Forums are industry bodies upon which Pick’n’Pay sits like La Tricoteuse at the foot of the guillotine.) And, lastly, that Pick’n’Pay only sources its fish from fish-farms where there are definite, time-bound improvements taking place. What, precisely, does this last bit mean? That the fish are getting company-sponsored date-stamped bow-ties to wear? That the manager of the fish-farm expects his ranch-style house to be completed within six months? It could mean either of these things, or none. It probably means nothing. It might mean pitifully trivial changes. It might even mean that fish-farms are becoming slightly less noxious cauldrons of toxic, parasite-ridden, micro-organism sodden fish-shit. But that is unlikely, because it would not be profitable. Greenwashing is unpleasant because it’s a particularly insulting form of corporate propaganda, but there’s much more to it than that. The Green movement arose out of the ecology movement which arose out of the authority-questioning leftism of the 1960s, and therefore greenwashing is a frontal assault on the liberties which the West won in the 1960s and the South Africans won through their subsequent struggles. The Green movement is also supposed to be based on science — and although many Greens know no more about science than would go through the eye of a rather small needle, there are a lot of Green scientists out there including most of the ones of any actual integrity and ability. In other words, the Green movement is an attempt to expose the environment-destroying ways of capitalism, and the way in which environment destruction is justified through appeals to greed and selfishness, to a dose of reality — you can’t eat gold, and you can’t use your new Apple toy if you’re dead. So greenwashing is a way of using the Green movement to legitimate the destruction of the environment; it says, “Support our environmental destruction and thus save the environment!”. It is no wonder that the Mail and Guardian has an annual special greenwashing competition with a supplement lauding the greatest greenwashers. To those who are utterly cut off from reality, it seems like a splendid thing; if you sound like a good person, you can become a good person (in the same way that continually smiling ensures that you will become happy). Of course, it is all made easier if you control the press and can ensure that nasty smelly dissident actual Greens are kept well offstage most of the time. But not all the time. The task is to allow the Greens to do all the basic work of establishing a particular idea in the public mind, and then move in, shoulder the Greens aside, appropriate the idea to your own purposes and then broadcast your interests through your use of the idea, while denouncing anyone who asks questions as a covert enemy of progress and the human race. A perfect example of this is the contemporary electricity generation situation. We are faced with two problems; we are running out of oil, which will lead to massive transport problems as cars, buses and trucks become obsolete. We are also stuffing the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, which is leading to global warming, causing huge problems with wild weather and which will ultimately cause an agricultural crisis as various historic food-growing areas become unsuitable to the purpose. The Greens have been perennially complaining about these two problems, and have been calling for the pursuit of sustainable policies to resolve them — namely, a massive expansion of renewable energy, both to ensure access to electricity and to reduce the production of carbon dioxide, and this to go hand in hand with a massive expansion of electrically-based public transport (possibly associated with electric personal transport, at least in urban areas and over short distances). These are blindingly obvious points, and have been blindingly obvious for more than thirty years. Obviously, a large part of the response to this is to deny that we are running out of oil and to deny that we are stuffing the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, or to claim that this has nothing to do with wild weather and will not cause an agricultural crisis — in other words, simply denying both reality and scientific interpretations of it, all the way down to basic physics. However, another response is to say that all these problems are real, but that the solutions to the problems are very different from the solutions which the Greens want. “Clean coal” means burning coal efficiently (grinding it to powder and holding the burning mass suspended on jets of hot air in the furnace). The smokestacks from “clean coal” power plants emit white smoke rather than black, and the whiteness can be reduced by adding sulphur precipitators to the smokestacks, removing much of the sulphuric acid. (This ends up with immense ponds of poisonous acids, but never mind that.) However, this apparent cleanliness has a problem; exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide is being puffed into the atmosphere as before. Here, the “greenwash” solution is to make the destroyers of the environment look pretty — like painting secret police headquarters in Day-Glo colours and calling it Freedom Campus. (Recall how the Bureau of State Security — BOSS — changed its name to the Directorate of National Security — DONS.) It is possible to take all that carbon dioxide and “sequester” it, by taking it out of the smokestacks, compressing it to a liquid and pumping it underground. Carbon dioxide, however, is a small molecule and would have little difficulty migrating out of any conceivable pressurised underground reservoir. In any event, only a tiny fraction of carbon dioxide could be captured unless you want to make everything too expensive to run. So the whole “clean coal” bonanza, which was part of Barack Obama’s solution to the American energy crisis, is a lie as well as a greenwash. “Natural gas” sounds awfully green, since it is natural, unlike that nasty gas which comes from somewhere other than nature. However, this stuff is simply short-chain hydrocarbons — a few carbon atoms in a row with hydrogen atoms stuck to them; basically fuel oil that never quite made it. The line is that burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal, and therefore burning natural gas is good. The problem with this is that burning natural gas may be more efficient than burning coal (you can burn it in a gas turbine, which is essentially a bloody big jet engine, and which turns the dynamo directly instead of going through the whole steam-turbine procedure as you have to with coal) but it still generates carbon dioxide because of all those carbon atoms. Incidentally, because gas burns at a higher temperature than coal, it produces nitric acid instead of sulphuric acid. Fun stuff to breathe. A subsidiary problem is that the littlest of all the natural gas components is methane, which happens to be the most severe greenhouse gas available in large quantities, and the one most likely to boil off when a tank or pipeline is ruptured or a seal is imperfect. So natural gas has a built-in tendency to promote the greenhouse effect, but one which is unmeasurable because it is determined by how inefficient the industry is. Another subsidiary problem is that natural gas is only available in large quantities in relatively small pockets of shale, and in order to access these pockets you have to break up the shale to allow the gas to flow, using pressurised water a procedure known as hydrofracturing. Doing this, of course, you shatter the strata, enabling any gunk you please to flow from layer to layer. In theory, this could lead to very nasty hydrocarbons (particularly the cyclic ones such as benzine, which exist in modest quantities in natural gas) to get into the groundwater. It’s impossible to pump all the gas out, so some of those hydrocarbons must stay around, and it’s also impossible to put the strata back together once you’ve shattered them. Nobody knows how much damage this will do to the long-term access to water in areas where hydrofracturing takes place. (It would be possible to do research into this, but that would cost money, and if the answer were what almost everybody fears it is, the whole green image of natural gas would turn shit-coloured.) And then, of course, there is dear old nuclear power, always the big bugaboo of the Greens from the 1970s and their big triumph (though the Green triumph over nuclear power was rather like the TAC’s triumph over Thabo Mbeki, taking credit for someone else’s victory). Nuclear reactors themselves emit no carbon dioxide or methane. Therefore they are green power of the highest order. Let’s build loads of clean, safe, carbon-friendly nuclear reactors! Of course, this requires one to ignore the mining and refining of the uranium (which uses loads of energy, most of which comes from hydrocarbons or coal) and the enrichment of the uranium (which uses vast amounts of energy again). If your whole electrical economy runs on nuclear power, then nuclear energy might be carbon-friendly; otherwise, you’re just burning carbon to create nuclear fuel — which could be seen as the ultimate greenwash. Also, exactly like coal and oil and gas, U-235 is non-renewable. You dig it out of the ground, burn it and it’s gone, leaving you with a lot of unsightly radioactive waste. You can make plutonium with it, which is based on U-238 which is enormously more common, but somehow people seem nervous about a substance which is not only extremely poisonous but is also used for nuclear weapons. You can even use U-235 reactors to make U-233 from equally common thorium, although that’s turned out to be more difficult than was originally thought. But the point is, all these “green” solutions to the energy and resource crisis represent ways of digging irreplaceable stuff out of the ground, destroying it to produce energy, and by doing so, generating large amounts of extremely dangerous waste products which you have no means of dealing with and therefore are obliged to pretend that they aren’t all that dangerous, on the “Toxic sludge is good for you!” principle. And that’s the Green movement in a nutshell. In our next lesson, kiddies, we will learn how to make delicious chocolate pudding out of human ordure.