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Socialism Today 121 - September 2008

Monbiot’s nuclear retreat

THE WELL-KNOWN green campaigner and Guardian columnist George Monbiot has shocked green-lefts and radical environmentalists by coming out in support of nuclear power. In an article in The Guardian on August 5 he wrote in relation to global warming: "I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen…".

Not surprisingly Monbiot’s new position was quickly welcomed by the CBI, the bosses’ organisation, since big business and its political mouthpiece in New Labour have been moving towards the nuclear option for several years, because it represents a cheaper alternative than renewable energy to burning the fossil fuels that cause global warming. The ruling class did not need George Monbiot’s endorsement to press on with new nuclear power stations, but it will make overcoming opposition from the left and the environmental movement much easier. Also, labour movement activists will find it much harder to argue for renewables inside unions such as Unite and the GMB that currently have pro-nuclear policies.

Monbiot put forward his new position in an article welcoming the protest at Kingsnorth in Kent to prevent another coal-fired power station being built by E.ON, the power company. In it he identified coal burning as the chief threat to the environment and correctly pointed out that the market permit-trading system that is supposed to encourage firms such as E.ON to adopt clean coal technology will be totally ineffective. As an alternative to this free market approach, he proposes that a low mandatory cap should be set for carbon emissions and, with this in place, "it [the government] could leave the rest to the market". The logic of this position is that since the cheapest alternative to fossil fuels that doesn’t produce significant greenhouse gasses is nuclear power, this would be ‘the market’s choice’, which explains why immediately afterwards he writes with regard to nuclear, ‘let it happen’. Admittedly, Monbiot does hold out the hope that the inherent environmental advantages of renewables will prevail over nuclear, but he recognises that New Labour will only go down this road if forced to by mass pressure from the environmental movement. How his endorsement of nuclear will help build this movement he doesn’t explain.

Ironically, it is possible that even George’s nuclear ‘lesser evil’ will not get off the ground, since the developing economic recession will make big business think twice about spending money on new nuclear power stations, at a time when profits are being decimated. In these circumstances, they would find ways round any legally enforced carbon emission caps that governments may implement under mass pressure, as they usually do with regulations that are not in their interests. They would be aided in this by the fact that greenhouse emissions will fall sharply anyway due to the economic downturn, although this will of course be temporary, the duration depending on when the next upturn takes place.

In a subsequent reply in The Guardian to George Monbiot’s piece, Arthur Scargill, the former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, accused Monbiot either of selling-out his environmental credentials or of amnesia, in forgetting the facts about nuclear power. Scargill quite rightly pointed out, as has this column for many years, that there is no way to store safely the toxic waste that is a by-product of nuclear power generation or to prevent disasters such as at Windscale in this country in the 1950s, Three Mile Island in the USA in the 1970s, and Chernobyl in the USSR in the 1980s. As an alternative, Scargill proposed that an integrated energy policy should be adopted that puts at its heart a massive increase in coal production, in conjunction with renewable energy, with coal being burnt in a sustainable manner using clean coal technology, based on carbon capture and storage.

Significantly, Scargill does not explain how his integrated programme will come about (or for that matter consider the potential safety issues with carbon storage). The problems in introducing carbon capture are, however, starkly revealed in George Monbiot’s article, where he quotes from an email to the government from E.ON that makes clear the firm’s adamant opposition to implementing clean coal technology, quite obviously because of the extra cost. New Labour, needless to say, immediately and supinely acquiesced to the company requirements, as the email correspondence somewhat amusingly shows.

The failure to openly address the insurmountable barrier to sustainability created by the capitalist market system makes Arthur Scargill’s contribution abstract and utopian and also, in my opinion, lies behind George Monbiot’s retreat on nuclear power and embrace of the market, albeit with regulatory features. Monbiot has often said that capitalist competitive markets are to blame for environmental destruction, but fails to follow this deduction through to its logical conclusion, ie the need for democratic, socialist planning. In a meeting last November in London to build for the climate change demo, he again reiterated his anti-capitalist position, but crucially then added that he thought replacing capitalism will be a long-term undertaking, whereas action needs to be taken now to tackle global warming, so some other approach is needed in the short run. What this approach should be wasn’t spelt out explicitly at the time, but he said he supported internationally applied mandatory enforceable ceilings on carbon emissions. But this immediately begs the question of how in a framework of a rapacious antagonistic international market system such ceilings could be enforced, when the much more market-friendly Kyoto process proved to be impotent. His championing now of regulated markets and nuclear power fills some of the gaps in his speech last November, but he still has not addressed the question of what agency could enforce an international limit on emissions and how this could be done.

George Monbiot’s postponing of an alternative to capitalism to the distant future is a result both of his scepticism of the ability of the organised working class to change society, and of a fear that any replacement to capitalism will be totalitarian in character.

For example, while correctly drawing the conclusion in one of his columns that the left should champion environmentalism, he argued this on the grounds that "the corporations have so effectively crushed the global workforce, much of the pressure for change now comes from outside the factory gates... The limiting factor for corporations, in other words, is no longer labour, but the ecosystem and the regulations which protect it". (The Guardian, 6 April 2004) At the time of the European Social Forum in 2003, he concluded that none of the alternatives to capitalism that were discussed "could be applied universally without totalitarianism" and, as a result, "should we not... concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit?" (The Guardian, 18 November 2003) He also pointed to the shortcomings of the command system in the Soviet Union and the alleged failure of the revolutionary left to address this.

It is not possible to deal in any detail in this column with the broad issues that are raised by George Monbiot in the above paragraph, beyond saying that the questions raised about how capitalism can be overthrown have been explained many times in this magazine and elsewhere, including drawing on the lessons of the Russian revolution. Similarly, the reasons for the subsequent degeneration of the revolution and the establishment of a totalitarian state have been analysed repeatedly, as have the ways this could have been avoided, and can be avoided in the future. The editorial marking the hundredth edition of Socialism Today included an answer to George Monbiot’s social forum comments (Socialism Today No.100, April 2006).

But the point here is that the direction of Monbiot’s thinking over the past few years is clearly seen by such comments, and his embrace of nuclear power and market forces today is the logical outcome of this.

Pete Dickenson


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