John Ashton: Fracking in England only possible if it is imposed

There is no need for fracking, anywhere in my country. There is no national interest case. It cannot happen by consent.

Protestors opposing fracking gathered outside  the UK's Parliament, on the day lawmakers discussed new proposals (Pic: Flickr/RonF)

Protestors opposing fracking gathered outside the UK’s Parliament, on the day lawmakers discussed new proposals (Pic: Flickr/RonF)

By John Ashton

There are two kinds of power. There is the power by which incumbencies impose themselves on the people. This is “power over”.

In the world of “power over” there is the inside and the outside, and only those on the inside have a voice.

In the world of “power over” those on the inside build the future while those on the outside can only accept it.

To live in the world of “power over” is not necessarily unbearable, even for those on the outside.

When the wall between inside and outside is not too high; when those on the inside act in the public interest instead of putting their own gratification first.

When there is trust to bind people together and maintain a decent prospect of progress for everyone: then under such conditions the consent of the people can be maintained and the centre can hold for a very long time.

But the world of “power over” has one big weakness, and this is its downfall. The world of “power over” can change at the margins, but it cannot easily transform itself. Incumbencies define themselves by the status quo from which they profit. It is hard for them to contemplate anything else.

In the world of “power over” you can do a bit more within the limits of the possible. But you cannot expand the limits of the possible.

So when there is a need for transformational change, the world of “power over” tends to cling with a zombie grip to the status quo.

First it denies the need for change in the first place. And when that becomes too ridiculous, it falls back to its inner citadel, pretending to embrace change while resisting it in reality.

Anyone who has followed the climate debate will know exactly what I mean.

And then, sooner or later, the centre gives way under the rising stress. Change comes anyway, from the outside, and sweeps the incumbencies away. And when change comes like that, by default not by design, it may not be change for the better.

Who do they serve?

Then there is the other kind of power. There is “power with”.

In the world of “power with”, you build your future together. You build it through the interplay of voices in a public conversation from which nobody is excluded. You build it through a project of collaboration, in a phrase I heard repeatedly in Edinburgh.

In the world of “power with” there is still an inside and an outside. Society cannot function without institutions after all. But there are no barriers.

Those on the inside never forget where they come from and whom they serve. Those on the outside are empowered and won’t let them forget.

In the world of “power with”, the status quo is always provisional. Incumbencies can still become powerful but they must measure themselves constantly against the public interest and open themselves to change, even to extinction, if the public interest demands it.

Only in the world of “power with” can there be a prospect of transformational change by design, brought about through common purpose and justice, woven together into a single story of a shared tomorrow.

Stirring shires

In the world of “power with” the centre always holds because the centre is everywhere. It is in the ground beneath your feet.

“Power with” is more unusual in history than “power over”. The impulse towards “power with” is easily hijacked by pied pipers or demagogues, and the cure becomes worse than the disease.

That could yet happen in Scotland. But right now, more and more Scots are glimpsing the opportunity to build a “power with” society. They are choosing to try and seize it. They are going to bed as subjects and waking up the next day as citizens.

In England we are still subjects. On paper we are subjects of the Crown. In reality we are subjects of our incumbent powers.

But in England too, if you look more closely, something is stirring.

From Lancashire in the northwest, across the Pennines to Durham, Teeside, North Yorkshire, and along the flank of the grey North Sea to Lincolnshire; westwards through the Midlands to the Derbyshire Peaks.

South to the rolling upland of the Weald and down to the Channel coast of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset; and beyond into the West country: across the length and breadth of England something is happening.

In kitchens and living rooms, in public houses and community halls, people who have nothing in common except the place they inhabit are coming together.

People from all points of the political spectrum, from all backgrounds and professions, from the various cultural tribes and social classes for which we English are famous, people of all ages and levels of political engagement are coming together.

People with no shared language or experience are learning to talk and listen to each other, learning to build a conversation about the kind of community they want to belong to in a way that has never happened so widely across England since in the years after Hitler’s War we repaired our shattered country and built our welfare state.

Yes, in England too, albeit in a more fragmented, less reported way than in Scotland, subjects are waking up as citizens.

Community spirit

The prospect of fracking is waking up the English.

When people realize that fracking is heading for their community they inform themselves about it. They discuss it together. And the more they do that the more they feel on the wrong end of a very bad deal.

Intoxicated by what has happened in the US, and perhaps by an idealized memory of Margaret Thatcher’s windfall from the North Sea, our government wants to unleash a fracking frenzy across our country.

And aroused by this threat, like giants of old waking from slumber, in villages, towns and cities all over England, people are finding voices they never knew they had.

And they are using their voices to organize and mobilize so that they can resist the pressure they are being put under to open the door to fracking.

Curious benefits

Fracking is and only ever can be a “power over” process. It seeks to impose itself, like a cuckoo in the nest, on communities whether they want it or not, cloaking the self-interest of those who promote it in a false story about economic and energy security.

If there are benefits, they will be enjoyed by others. If there are costs, they will be borne by the communities themselves.

The offers now being made to communities that open their doors to fracking reveal that those costs are likely to be high. So does the refusal to accept full liability for any damage caused.

So does the practice in the US of using the law to gag those who have suffered harms already, not least to their health, as a condition for compensation, so that nobody can find out what those harms were and how they came about.

There is no place for fracking in a “power with” society. No community in Britain, whatever the inducement, has said or will say “yes” to fracking.

The disruption and disturbance from this intrusive, carpet-bagging industry in our crowded country would simply be too great.

The unanswered questions about the immediate and long-term consequences for physical and mental health are too troubling.

The risks to existing livelihoods, in farming, food and tourism; to the value of your house and your quality of life; and to the social fabric itself – each one of these risks is too threatening.

Rallying cry

Fracking in England will only be possible if it is imposed by “power over”. It cannot happen by consent.

And though I am telling here a story of England, exactly the same is true in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland itself.

Friends of the Earth have been at the forefront of all of this, supporting communities, cross-fertilizing between them, and making sure they have access to the best legal and other advice.

There is no need for fracking, anywhere in my country. There is no national interest case.

The same investment can yield bigger dividends in jobs, prosperity, and energy security if applied to wasting less energy, speeding up the deployment of wind and solar energy, building modern dynamic power grids, and promoting the community energy systems that will themselves help drive our transition to a “power with” society.

And, realizing this, the communities saying no to fracking are beginning to organize also to say yes to efficiency, yes to solar and wind, and yes to  community energy.

And all that, important though it is, is before we come to the question of climate change.

To deal with climate change we need to build an energy system that is carbon neutral within a generation.

To embark on a fracking adventure now would take us backwards not forwards, locking in infrastructure, supply chains and vested interests, and strengthening the forces of high carbon incumbency. There is no place for this in a climate-compatible energy future.

You can be in favour of fracking. Or you can be in favour of dealing with climate change. But you cannot be in favour of both at the same time.

John Ashton was the UK’s Special Representative for Climate Change between 2006 – 2012. This is an excerpt of a speech he gave on June 4 at the Brussels Is Not For Shale conference. Read the full version here

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