We are living in the twilight of the hydrocarbon era. It is one which, despite in geological terms, having lasted the merest blink of an eye, has still managed to inflict lasting and potentially irreparable damage on the planet’s ecosystem. In the two and a half centuries since James Watt patented the world’s first steam engine in 1775, humanity has used its newfound mastery over hydrocarbon energy capture for beakly nefarious purposes: all of a sudden, wars got deadlier, colonial exploitation got easier and work got more menial. From the 1950s onwards too, when we realized that the oil would one day run out, we decided that turning the Middle East into a dystopian desert bloodbath was somehow a proportionate solution. All the while, politicians from Beijing to New Delhi to Brasilia to London to D.C. have all willfully blinded themselves to the ruinous environmental consequences such petro-profligacy.
And it is in this deranged twilight that the process of hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – has found itself so at home. Little wonder. The process is not only fittingly end-of-days, but is also a near-perfect microcosm of humanity’s history with fossil fuels: you take a mixture of water, sand and thickening agents, pump it into an underground rock, increase the pressure until the rock shatters and then hoover up the measly drops of hydrocarbon come out. And the best bit is that the only draw backs are that it causes water to catch fire and earthquakes. I repeat, the only draw backs are that it causes water to catch fire and earthquakes. If ever there was a sign that Mother Nature wants you to stop doing something, it is water catching fire and earthquakes.
No one ever buys their first hit of heroine with bank notes stolen from their mother’s purse or proceeds from the sale of a stolen TV, but by the time you purchase your 300th hit, there’s a reasonable chance that’s where the money will have come from. Similarly, at some point during the past 250 years, our fossil fuel addiction has gotten so out of hand that water catching fire and earthquakes started passing for tolerable side effects. We need to take a step back and have a long, hard look in the mirror.
Thankfully, this introspective tipping point appears to have been reached, at least, in Scotland: MSPs this week voted 91 to 28 in favour of banning fracking within the country. The 28 MSPs who voted against the motion – dear reader, you will be shocked to learn! – all came from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. The Scottish Tories, much like their southern counterparts, seem bent on supporting any action that will help usher in the apocalypse, so it is hardly surprising.
The hope is now that Scotland can devote the energy and investment that would otherwise have gone into fracking can now be devoted to developing renewable energy sources. Scotland has a world class education tertiary education sector and an unrivalled pedigree in engineering. Just as James Watt kicked off the industrial age at the University of Glasgow in the 18th century, the moratorium on fracking will hopefully fuel (pun intentional) the revolution in green energy capture. It is also hoped that this brand of common sense is contagious and the rest of the world follows suit. We bate our breath.
Blog by Michael Briggs