Wednesday, 21 January 2015

George Orwell, Democracy and The Freedom of the Press

This day, 65 years ago, Eric Arthur Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, passed away. He was one of the great defenders of freedom of speech and opponents of totalitarianism. His style of writing was always clear and engaging, whether writing about coal mines or toads and he was never afraid of challenging the consensus, a characteristic that many journalists and writers today could benefit from. There are quite a few parallels with Orwell's writings on the Soviet Union and the current energy debate in Ireland and elsewhere. If we look at a recent submission to the Dept of Energy by a wind company for example :

People fundamentally tend to support the consensus view. If a vocal minority succeeds in
dominating local and national media, a consensus can develop, and overall views can shift
radically, regardless of fact. The question is what is the consensus? The extremes views of
energy policy tend to make a disproportionate of column inches.

Why do we need a consensus ? Surely what we need is independent analysis of wind energy and other forms of energy so that people can make an informed view, not abiding by a consensus based on information provided from only one side of the debate  (i.e. the invested interest side). They also seem to have quite a poor view of people's intelligence, implying that people will follow the herd like sheep. People making up their own minds is something not conducive to their interests. One wonders if they would like The Thought Police from Orwell's 1984 to swoop down on dissenters or if they would like to design the perfect human embryo for accepting wind farms as in Huxley's Brave New World

Of course the irony is that it is next to impossible for one of the mainstream papers to say something negative or critical about wind energy (apart from notably The Irish Examiner). Patrick Nyberg found that there was a herd instinct in Ireland and it seems that the wind lobbyists are becoming increasingly frustrated that this herd instinct is not getting behind their project. During the Celtic Tiger, the mainstream media published very little negative articles or comments about the housing bubble and this helped fuel the herd instinct, eventually leading to the large banking collapse.  Orwell once wrote about the sometimes unspoken and unwritten rules with which the Press operate (see here for original). The same remarks can be made about the Press in Ireland today as regards wind (Orwell of course was writing about the British press). I have replaced references Orwell made to "Soviet Union" with "wind energy" -

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Wind energy. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the wind industry, any disclosure of facts which the wind industry would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter the wind industry takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticise the wind industry, at least you are reasonably free to criticise the fossil fuel industry. Hardly anyone will print an attack on wind energy, but it is quite safe to attack fossil fuels, at any rate in books and periodicals.

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on wind energy? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No’, In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure. But freedom, as Rosa Luxembourg [sic] said, is ‘freedom for the other fellow’. The same principle is contained in the famous words of Voltaire: ‘I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Not content with attacking locals who don't accept the propaganda, the wind lobbyists then set their sights on universities, publicly funded bodies and politicians who don't toe the line :

The key to achieving this education and guidance and leadership role is to have credible organisations and authority figures delivering neutral unbiased information, so that people are well informed and can form their own views. Developers’ views unfortunately do not carry much weight, as they are seen tobe biased. Some of this distrust we must attribute to the excesses of the building boom. In ourview, bodies such as the SEAI, DCENR and ESRI should be at the forefront of the public messaging around the fundamental case for wind [This is a strange interpretation of "neutral unbiased information" - admin]. The SEAI’s recent definitive study on the displacement of fossil fuels and CO2 abatement rates per MWh of wind generation is precisely what is required. [see here for an rebuttal of this] There is an unfortunately widening gap between local councillors and national policy and politicians, as seen by local county development plans being changed locally and overturned by the Department of Environment. This tension between national level policies and local interests has always existed, but it should not be so pronounced within the same political parties. Again, an education programme within political parties and at annual conferences could both sides understand the other sides concerns. 

We believe that the economic case for wind has been thoroughly proven, but the message hasbeen lost. A case in point is a headline in the Irish Independent 29th July “Electricity bills to rise as green energy levy soars by 50pc”. In fact the presence of wind reduces electricity prices. The PSO levy is 75% attributed to peat and gas contracts. We understand that the ESRI budget for energy policy research is constrained. With a renewed focus on the affordability of energy policies, we believe an investment in ESRI funding for this area would pay dividends. 

The universities also have a role to play as independent and respected guides of policy. When bad science is trotted out by vested interests, then Irish academics should be not only prepared, but incentivised to step in and set the record straight. Our tax pays their salaries to promote solid science. There is a lot of research and development money channelled through the universities. Some must be spent on blue sky research, but it would seem perfectly reasonable for some of this funding to address more practical issues questions around our energy policy, to help inform the public and policy makers. For example, an Irish specific study on property prices in the vicinity of wind turbines could be persuasive.

This is a totalitarian attempt to control all arms of the State and the media for the benefit of a small number of companies and investors. While they espouse the benefits of an informed debate, its clear the agenda should be restricted to the benefits of wind only. There seems to be a belief that publicly funded bodies whose role is to act in the public good, exist for the benefit of well funded lobby groups. The ESRI, who got things badly wrong during the boom years (remember that stuff about "soft landing") would do well to steer clear of supporting another bubble. 

And it is hard to fathom how anybody could claim that the current energy policies are "affordable". Affordable to whom exactly ? 

In the wake of the Paris attacks, we have heard a lot about freedom of speech. Orwell laid down the benchmark for freedom of speech  "If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it. " So have we moved any further on since the 1940s ? Do our institutions and press listen to that which they do not want to hear ? Well, one can read this article for example and make up their own minds :

And what about that great form of government which, when other nations lack in it, we are so quick to criticize them for - democracy. Well, actually, Orwell's classic tale "Animal Farm" is uncanningly like the wind programme initiated in Ireland and the EU. In Animal Farm, the pigs decide and the animals have to toil building windmills. In our case, we may not have to do physical labour, but already a third of our electricity bills (according to the Irish Academy of Engineering) goes to funding this programme. So we in our own way are toiling to build these windmills. 

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?” - Extract from Animal Farm

Most of the democratic processes, in relation to the renewable energy programmes, have been bypassed at EU level and at an Irish governance level. UNECE Meeting of the Parties ruled, in July 2014, that appropriate levels of public participation were not met when the Irish government adopted their National Renewable Plan :

(a) That the Party concerned [the European Commission], by not having in place a proper regulatory framework and/or clear instructions to implement article 7 of the [Aarhus] Convention with respect to the adoption of National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) by its member States on the basis of Directive 2009/28/EC, has failed to comply with article 7 of the Convention;

(b) That the Party concerned, by not having properly monitored the 
implementation by Ireland of article 7 of the Convention in the adoption of Ireland’s 
NREAP, has also failed to comply with article 7 of the Convention;

(c) That the Party concerned, by not having in place a proper regulatory 
framework and/or clear instructions to implement and proper measures to enforce article 7 of the Convention with respect to the adoption of NREAPs by its member States on the 
basis of Directive 2009/28/EC, has failed to comply also with article 3, paragraph 1, of the 

The provisions of the Aarhus Convention and EU/Irish Environmental Law are not some box ticking or red tape exercise that gets in the way of progress. They are there to ensure that independent experts and the voice of the public (who are both the financier and host for these projects) get their say. This is even more pertinent for environmental projects as it is enshrined in Irish legislation that the citizen owns the environment, not the State. 

The position taken by EU and Irish officials to those who question the purpose of their projects has been plain anti-democratic. In some cases it has gone to the bizarre. One EU official when questioned about the carbon emissions savings from a renewable project responded:

“If we were to take instead of a 110 m high wind turbine a 110 m high 
metal statue of Mickey Mouse, you would not be expected to do a detailed 
carbon assessment on that, so why do you expect a detailed carbon 
assessment for the wind turbine?" (from UNECE records)

The bottom line is that such information does not exist.

When these compliance issues are taken up with the Irish authorities, the response is often, that this is not the correct forum and that one needs to take a case in the High Court. In otherwords, make it up as you go along. The document below, prepared by Pat Swords, a chemical and environmental engineer, documents some of these failures of the Irish authorities to deal with substantive and compliance issues :

The pigs have decided whats best for all of us and its no use complaining. So do we have a fully functioning democracy in Ireland or indeed the EU ? Well, there's more chance of Ireland winning the World Cup than Irish citizens getting a fair hearing at EU level. Democracy only exists for those who the EU officials favor, just like in any dictatorship throughout history. But the whole point of democracy is that it exists for everyone and not something to be applied arbitrarily. Indeed, the EU are still fighting UNECE's decision above. So we have a crisis of democracy and the outcome is uncertain. It's not exactly 1984 but it's one step closer.

1 comment:

  1. There are several instances of deliberate lying and misrepresentation of data on climate change. This is one example.