URSABLOG: Enviromental Cynicsm


I sometimes wonder whether a world-weary cynicism is an inevitable part of getting old, and nowhere is this more obvious than when considering the environment. Don’t get me wrong: I am by no means a climate change denier, and I do think that us humans are harming our environment, but it becoming increasingly apparent to me that there is a growing industry whose function is to manipulate our concerns and emotions for profit. They use guilt porn, presenting us with images or narratives that goes straight to our instincts: with very little cost to ourselves we can gain the self-satisfaction that comes from allaying our conscience and allowing us to feel morally superior over others less enlightened than us. We can do this without actually doing anything positive, and it stops us from thinking too deeply about the problems, and our place in the system that perpetuates them.


On my Instagram feed this morning appeared a classic example. Jack Harries, a handsome, photogenic, eloquent west Londoner, is pictured gazing earnestly over equally photogenic exotic scenery from a helicopter, explaining to us why he is an advocate for environmental justice. The irony of a mini documentary on a documentary maker seems lost on him, as he tells us he believes passionately in his cause, and how his unique but normal background growing up in a liberal, creative household gives him the right to travel the world on our behalf so that we can then reduce our carbon footprint, or whatever it is he wants us to do. I could not watch it until the end, for fear that I might throw my iPhone against the wall and cause more unnecessary waste in the landfills of countries far away.


My frustration stems not from the fact that he thinks he is so unique – he recounts in breathless detail how he watched tadpoles grow when he was young – but that he thinks he has the right to tell us we are not doing enough. Needless to say he has no solutions of any substance, except showing us stuff that he has had the privilege to film. No doubt he sleeps the sleep of the just. Instagram takes this, promotes it in itsAdvocatesfeed, and shows us that they are hip and with the kids too. Of course this stuff is not meant for bald men in their fifties, it’s meant to raise awareness with the young, but as most decision makers are in their fifties (or over) it seems a bit of  waste of time, especially as the young seem to be fully aware of it already. But by posting or sharing something online their work is done. Actually doing something about it is someone else’s job.


The work of the older generation, whilst equally earnest seems to be futile too. This seems to be in the form of setting targets for emissions and so on so that technological innovation, or something, can deal with when it is finally invented in the breathless start-ups that spring up like mushrooms. My cynicism suggests that there is far more money being invested in sharing the guilt porn than there is in the technology required to fix it.


One of my pet hates at the moment are the new e-scooters that have popped up all over Athens and in other cities around the world. These are promoted as cool, environmentally acceptable alternatives to more harmful forms of personal transport, like motorbikes and cars (and public transport). Cool they are not: they are ridiculous and look like an accident waiting to happen. They clutter up my environment, left on the streets, outside my building, everywhere. They are not even aesthetically pleasing. All this could just be the complaints of a grumpy old man, but they are also not that environmentally friendly either. They need electricity to power them – where does that come from? They need to be picked up and recharged every night, by petrol powered vehicles mostly. And they are not particularly sustainable either: the lifespan of an average e-scooter is only three months. And what happens at the end of that short life? Arrangements have to be made for disposing of the parts, including the very environmentally unfriendly battery. There arereports of scooters ending up in landfill sites, dumped in streets, or thrown in rivers. The point of e-scooters in the end is to make money of course, but like bike sharing apps etc., these tend to be fads, driven by environmental marketing that do not end up making that much money and are forgotten as we return to our normal habits. The scooters themselves do not disappear as easily.


I haven’t kept in touch with much Brexit news recently except the obvious, so I am unaware of the fate of the shipping minister Nusrat Ghani in the recent change of government. A couple of weeks ago however she announced the Clean Maritime Plan where all ships ordered for employment in UK waters from 2025 should be designed with zero-emission capable technologies. I thought for a moment that this meant all ships calling in UK ports, but this cannot be the case, unless it is the final plan to isolate Britain completely after Brexit. Here is a prediction: there will be a rush of orders before 2025 to get around these rules, and then these ships will get older and older, and run on their own weird economics. It will be Jones Act part 2, and a sign of our isolationist times. 


The shipping industry as a whole is not immune from guilt porn either, but we experience it in different ways. Maritime Strategies International are reported to have published a report – I haven’t seen it because I won’t pay for something that will immediately turn into waste – where under their extreme Reduction (their capitals) scenario, fossil fuel demand will plummet: coal consumption will fall 80%, oil consumption by half, and gas demand by ‘about’ a quarter. Leaving aside the perennial problem of being unable to see into the future, their predictions of overall demand for dry bulk carriers falling by 14% (such an exact figure) by 2035 would lead a capesize bulk carrier earning less than 50% of their median earnings. Values would fall by 40% too.


“Discussion of these potentially disastrous demand-side dynamics is almost totally absent from the shipping industry” the report notes. There is a good reason for this: it’s mostly rubbish.


If the industry has a problem predicting the earnings for capesizes in the next few weeks – see my recent attempts which appear to be failing as we speak – then how can we predict so far into the future?


Predictably the immediate responses to the report – not from anybody in the real industry it must be said – are equally as fantastical and show an ignorance of ships and the market.


Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) said: “As MSI’s research shows, the maritime sector is heavily exposed to the transformation underway across the global energy sector. Investors will expect companies to do more to pre-empt and address the implications from reduced demand for fossil fuels.”


The incorrect assumption that most ships are owned by listed companies prevails; there is little room for the activist investor to dictate investment policy in shipping. But Ms Pfeifer is the CEO of the IIGCC, so she may be forgiven for ignoring this particular inconvenient truth.


Marie Cabbia Hubatova, research analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund, added: “The shipping industry will itself need to move away from using fossil fuels to move their ships. Luckily the production of alternative fuels from renewable energy around the world can provide fuel for shipping, and development opportunities for any country producing the shipping fuels of the future. Shipping as a guaranteed, predictable source of energy demand can unlock investment into untapped renewable energy resources around the world.”


Unluckily for an industry grappling with the challenges of IMO 2020 we are well aware of what fuel moves ships around now, and the distinct lack of any alternatives available, let alone their production, any time soon.


But that’s ok. Rich, dirty shipowners will have to find (and pay for) the solutions for the problems legislated by ill thought out targets set by governments glued to their Instagram and Twitter feeds trying to satisfy the desires of their electorates without having any idea about how to actually do it. If you have noticed any similarities with Make America Great Again, or Brexit, or whatever, then who am I to disagree? But in the cynicism of (I hope) my middle years there is some comfort for all of us. None of the problems that the advocates for change have addressed will be resolved as simply as they imagine, and they certainly won’t be resolved by simply posting guilt porn online. The solutions will make new problems of their own which will in turn need fixing to maintain the illusion that we are the ones that control our fate. This ultimately futile activity will give us plenty of work to do, and ships will continue to do their work taking the stuff around, whatever that stuff is.


Oscar Wilde said that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Although this could be a good description of a shipbroker, I hope I am not really a cynic, just someone who appreciates the limits of idealism. The limits of environmentalism are defined by the environment, and our place in it. No amount of wishful thinking, or guilt porn, can ever change that. 


Simon Ward