Is this the right room for a protest?


The purpose of a newspaper’s leader articles is to make points that the relevant editors might think could otherwise be missed, and this piece entitled:

Noisy protest drowns out the truth about fracking by James Quinn in the Sunday Telegraph is no exception.

So what about it has forced me to put finger to keyboard?

Well, for me at least, I see two points that the article raises in the final paragraph, both arising from my developing practice in Systems Thinking, where I’d beg to suggest that we’ve got our thinking very mixed up now, or even just plain wrong.

Who executes our energy policy?

Starting, like the hit parade of old, at the bottom and working upwards, Quinn makes the point that if we protest too loudly about “fracking” then the potential investors will be likely to look elsewhere for returns on theirgas ring investment.

I should point out here that I’m not blaming Quinn at all, he may well be  just putting over a message for editorial balance. Quinn himself points out that the message will not be popular, so I don’t think we should put him in the stocks and pelt him with wet sponges …. yet.

However, I find it a little unpalatable that we have a domestic system to provide our homes with energy from shale gas that is determined by how good the returns are for private investors. I’m thinking here of Checkland’s “3E’s” test:

  • does getting private investors to develop new energy sources actually work (Efficacy)? Well, yes;
  • is it an Efficient way to get energy? I’d say that there are definitely multiple perspectives on this one, technologically it may be, but the economic efficiency could be open to dispute; and
  • it is an Effective way to get energy? Well we don’t know yet as any long-term emergent issues such as possible water table pollution or geological effects haven’t been publicly identified

Later on Checkland added two more Es: Ethicality and Elegance. I’d need to take advice from our eldest son, a geophysicist, on the technical elegance of shale gas extraction by “fracking”, but the ethical and commercial elegance do raise some doubts in my mind.

In the Open University alumni discussions, we frequently talk about economic factors influencing systems. Closed systems are made open by investor demands and expectations driving purposive decision making and activities, which makes it harder to determine the outcome of those systems.

I have no issue with commercial ventures operating to get return on their investments, and I do not expect them to suffer poor returns when executing on public policy.  However, decisions about the future of our energy supply system appear to rest on what makes a good short-term profit instead of taking into account the wider set of influences, and the message is that we must stay quiet on the downsides of what these companies may be doing, otherwise we’ll all have to suffer from energy shortages in future or eat from the public purse to address the short-term “needs”.

Is 40 yea1rs long-term?

In this questionpylonn lies my  second point of concern. We are being told that our UK energy delivery capability will diminish soon as our electricity generating capacity comes towards the end of it’s life, combined with our increasing demand for power.

We could build new gas-fired generating capacity, but our gas requirements are being fed from overseas which makes us economically, and politically, reliant on the gas producing nations. Shale Gas promises us, potentially, 40 years or maybe more of autonomy.

Yet what happens in 40 years time? Can I realistically live out my life being kept warm and lit up whilst heading towards an energy problem that will affect my children, and their children after them.

This whole solution feels like it allows our UK government (of whatever persuasion)  to put off having to make any real decisions. We were told by the incoming coalition government that we would have to endure austerity for the benefit of our longer-term future, and yet I wonder if the spending decisions in these “austere” times aren’t going to get us into longer term trouble. If the choice is a great transport infrastructure arising from HS2, yet no power to make the trains run on it, or more importantly to keep any future generations warm then I’d suggest we need to reprioritise.

Ray Ison, Professor in Systems Thinking at the OU, often speaks out for what he terms “a new economics”. I can’t help but agree that we need to reformulate how we deliver public policy with the right priorities and the right opportunities for everyone involved in making it happen.

The question is how much longer can we live with what we have now?


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