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19 Dec 2006

Two Reviews of ‘Heat – How to Stop The Planet Burning’ by George Monbiot #1. by Robert Morgan.

heatGeorge Monbiot’s book ‘Heat’ has the feel of a landmark book to me. It is one of those books that people will look back to as somehow defining a particular moment in history, as a real line drawn in the sand. Here at **Transition Culture**, what with it being Christmas and everything, you don’t just get one review but two. We did contact the publishers to see if they would give us a couple of copies to give away in a competition, but they never got back to us. Humph. Oh well. Tomorrow you will get my review, but for today, here is Robert Morgan of Green College’s excellent review.


**A Review of “Heat” by George Monbiot by Robert Morgan, Green College.**


George Monbiot’s book “Heat – how to stop the planet burning“, has attracted considerable attention in the sustainability and peak oil movements, and is particularly topical with the recent release of the Stern Report on energy use and climate change. Monbiot’s aim in this book is to show that we can prevent the worst effects of global climate change by cutting our greenhouse gas output, without totally dismantling our techno-industrial society. The good news is that, at a certain level, he succeeds in this aim. The bad news is that the extent and timescale of the cut in carbon output required is, according to Monbiot’s analysis based on recent work by climate scientists, of a totally different order to that demanded by Stern. The Stern Report, already hammered by almost every business interest, calls for a 60% cut by 2050. Monbiot demands that the UK and other developed, fossil-fuel guzzling nations reduce their greenhouse gas output by no less than 90% by 2030. In other words, nine-tenths of our greenhouse gas output must be eliminated in little over 20 years.

Monbiot shows on a technical level how this can be done, but the means he proposes will not make pleasant reading either for environmentally-conscious middle-class suburbanites or many deep-green renewable energy enthusiasts. This is because Monbiot is not afraid to look critically at the extravagant claims of the renewable energy lobby. Indeed, in many cases he clinically destroys them. Solar panels? The UK’s economically-feasible photovoltaic energy resource is estimated at a tiny fraction of our current power consumption. At times of peak power demand on winter evenings, output is zero. Micro-wind power is dismissed even more abruptly. Strong, consistent, turbulence-free winds are needed to produce reasonable amounts of electricity and that’s exactly what you don’t get around rooftops in urban areas. The biggest turbine you could attach to a typical house without tearing off the wall might produce 5% of its current electricity usage.

So how does Monbiot achieve his 90% reduction? Partly by a range of technical fixes and policy changes, most of which are clearly feasible but require enormous acts of will and national coordination which can only come from central government. Along with them would come the imposition of changes to everyday life that would sweep away many features and institutions we have taken for granted over the last few decades. The biggest casualties would be two with the most powerful lobbies, whose wares millions of us have become addicted to – supermarkets and aviation. In Monbiot’s future, much food would be grown locally, but that is not all. Supermarket buildings themselves are hugely inefficient in terms of space and energy usage, and they must go. Instead we would do most of our shopping via on-line ordering and have the goods delivered to our doors from warehouses, which even now use a fraction of the energy per kilo of product.

So Tesco might survive, albeit in reduced and greatly altered form. Not so the airlines. No huge improvement in aircraft engine efficiency of the scale required is even remotely in view. Moreover, Monbiot shows that aircraft engines have a global warming impact 2.7 times as great as that caused by their CO2 output alone. Under Monbiot’s scheme, each person would be allowed to generate 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per year – you could call it a ration if you like. A return London – New York trip would have 2.7 times that impact. To save up enough credit from such a scant allowance would effectively make it a once-in-a-lifetime journey. The trouble is, such a vast reduction in passenger flow would bankrupt most airlines so that fares charged by the few survivors would rise ballistically. Except for top government officials and the ultra-rich who could afford the fares and to buy up other people’s carbon allowances, air travel would effectively cease. No weekend golf trips to the Algarve, no family holidays in Majorca and no green beans from Kenya on the Christmas dinner table. And as Monbiot says, this is not just something that applies to other people. It applies to everyone, it applies to you too.

So which electable political party is going to stand on such a ticket any time soon? The truth surely, is none, not unless some catastrophe befalls us that can be unambiguously attributed to global climate change. By that time we would presumably be too late to save ourselves, our fate already sealed as we would have passed one of the feared global warming “tipping points”? and have to cringe in horror as the climate sped out of control like a boulder rolling down a hillside. As for the present, most people happily extrapolate the shape and structure of the world they see around them, seamlessly into the future as a continuation of the last 50 years of stability and steadily rising wealth. So basically one has to say that all this just isn’t going to happen in the centrally-directed fashion Monbiot proposes. In fact he almost acknowledges this in the last few pages – government policy on such momentous issues in not based on the multitude of reports it commissions, the policy is simply to commission a multitude of reports.

All this is not to criticise Monbiot. Admittedly, in a few places he is selective in which experts and data he chooses to believe. Peak oil is dismissed in a few lines and he unwisely takes the word of notorious energy cornucopian Peter Odell, that global gas production will not peak until 2090. Otherwise, Monbiot’s rigour is unrelenting, almost frighteningly so as there is no sacred cow of environmentalists that he is unwilling to despatch to the abattoir. Wind and solar electricity have already been dealt with. Biofuels also get the treatment. According to Monbiot, a hectare of arable land could produce maybe 1.5 tonnes of fuel. Running all our cars, buses and lorries would require 26 million hectares. There are less than 6 million hectares of arable land in the UK. Even if vehicle fuel efficiency improved by a factor of four, that would still leave nowhere to grow any food. Here, like most other places, there is no escape from slashing our energy use in everyday life, in almost every way.

Given that no government is going to impose these changes in the timescale required, what are the realistic options? As with most things Green, the lead must surely come from the public themselves. Many more people must take decisions in their own lives to reduce energy use, to resist temptations to buy energy-hungry appliances, to leave on the shelves goods that have swallowed countless kilowatts in their manufacture and delivery. So delete airline websites from your Favourites list. Make the “country of origin”? of most your food Britain, not Venezuela. Better still, grow some food yourself – doing so will also improve your health, which could be quite an advantage in a likely future energy-starved world as the NHS won’t be around in 20 years to dish out heart bypass ops. In the home, insulate, insulate and insulate again; then turn the thermostat down. Don’t wait for such action to be forced on you by energy costs alone, as prices high enough to compel such measures would cause millions of the elderly in older houses, to literally freeze to death. Do it yourself, now, out of choice.

The scale and speed of change required, dictates that there are no easy options. We are playing Russian Roulette with the earth’s climate and have probably pulled the trigger once already. By following Monbiot’s regime we could avoid pulling it more than once more. Business as usual probably equates to five clicks, if not the inevitably terminal sixth, but “Heat”? is a council of hope, not despair. It does not shy away from the problem, it proposes a solution. Change must come, and it must come through the choices of ordinary people, longing to be shown why they should take action and what they, of their own volition, can effectively do. Most importantly of all, reading about things that ought to be done will change nothing. Only action by the public will have any effect. This time, “the public”? is not just “other people”?, it is you. Yes, you. You , reading this. You.

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1 Comment

David Weight
25 Jan 1:23pm

I have read Monbiot’s book and your review. I would like to have seen comment on what I think is perhaps the strongest of George’s ideas. Namely, the switch the hydrogen fuel, produced by electrolysis from renewable energy, which may be transmitted using Direct Current.

Any thoughts? I am hoping to push this through a CIBSE energy working group.