Material World

By Eleanor Hallesy

Helen Thompson on how we got here and how we get to net zero.


‘We are not in Kansas anymore’ has become somewhat of a catchphrase for Professor of Political Economy Helen Thompson over the past six years of unprecedented political disruption. The sentiment reflects the jarring sense of a new era dawning in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump for a political class largely unprepared for the challenges it would bring. In her new book, Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, the catchphrase supplies the title of a chapter analysing the long-term material causes of our recent disruptive politics. Now, as the enormously popular podcast she hosts with fellow Cambridge University politics professor David Runciman comes to an end, I sit down with her to discuss whether politics really is crazier than it’s ever been, and how the politics of net zero will inform the decade to come.


Thompson prefers to take a long view of the day-to-day developments in current affairs. It is an approach that provides a vital counterpoint to the ‘hot-take’ culture of so much political journalism in the age of social media. Sometimes, she suggests, ‘culture wars’ explanations are overdone and underlying materialist causes are not given sufficient consideration. This is not to say we aren’t living through a time of extreme polarisation. ‘We live in a pluralist society where cultural attitudes are concerned and neither side is going to win this,’ she explains. That we need to learn to live in a world of multiple conflicting beliefs is something that we understood better 30 or 40 years ago than we do now. ‘In most Western countries,’ she tells me, ‘the long shadows of the early twentieth century did encourage the need to accept pluralism and conflicting beliefs, and in some sense we’ve lost that awareness.’


Nevertheless, Thompson is clear that the past couple of years haven’t just felt different. One of the reasons she wanted to write Disorder was to give a more longer term, more materialist account of why the last decade has been so politically and geopolitically disruptive. She sets our current predicament in the context of her own lifetime: after the power cuts of the late 1970s came the miners’ strikes — bitterly politically contested and an important part of what Thompson refers to as the ‘emotional wear and tear’ of the Thatcher years. ‘Then at some point in the 90s it turned into what I thought was quite a banal optimism,’ she tells me, ‘a sense that the problems in Western democracies were largely solved.’ This optimism, Thompson argues, continued into the 2000s before the 2008 financial crisis recharged politics. Since 2016 politics has been ‘on steroids’. At times, big political questions can nearly fade out of the national conversation. ‘Partly for my generation it’s that we had that interlude where it didn’t seem like politics was so much part of daily life so it was quite a shock to come back to it in a different way than we experienced it when I was a teenager,’ Thompson explains. ‘That’s one way in which we’re in a distinctive moment in a story.’


Characteristically, Thompson situates the contingent realities of Brexit and its dramatic fallout in a much wider context. Given the pre-existing tensions between national democracy and international cooperation, it was inevitable that at some point it would all come to a head. Going back to the 1950s and 60s, it might have been different if the (then) European Economic Community had developed more as a security federation, with less focus on so-called ‘economic integration’. Even so, she is sceptical that monetary union could have avoided becoming the ‘economic faultline’ we see today. Is it inevitable that the EU will butt up against the democratic politics of the nation state? Thompson thinks not: ‘There is a world in which there is a significant enough sense of European identity that it’s enough for a democratically authorised EU; you can describe what that would look like. In the same way that enough people came to identify enough with a nation [to allow for democratic nation states], the EU could become a European “nation”.’ Thus far, however, that European identification hasn’t happened — at least not enough to facilitate an EU democracy. ‘But that doesn’t say anything about what might be true in 30 or 40 years' time.’


Then, there’s climate change. Under prime minister Theresa May in 2019, the UK was the first major economy to set a legally binding target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2050. To Thompson, a net zero goals means ‘we’re living in an age of energy revolution and that involves changing the material basis of our entire civilisation,’ and there’s nothing comparable in anyone’s lived experience to the scale of the challenge that this represents. What could a route to decarbonisation look like? ‘At the heart of this question has to be the relationship between the US and China. Any attempt to deal with climate situation has to involve cooperation between two largest carbon emitters,’ she tells me. ‘At the moment the story of the rising power [of China] and the falling of the US is slightly overdone. I think the US has significantly more power than is sometimes recognised and China’s in a weaker position in a number of areas than is sometimes recognised.’


The core thesis of Disorder is that energy is — and, at least since the Industrial Revolution, has always been — central to our geopolitics, and that the challenge of sourcing, transporting and paying for it underlies a lot more of what goes on in day-to-day politics than we might realise. ‘We can already see that China has some objective advantages in the green energy competition,’ Thompson says. ‘Green energy itself is going to intensify the geopolitical competition between US and China in ways which potentially shift the balance of power in China’s direction.’ In broad terms, she explains, ‘there is a fear in Washington that Britain was the coal power; the US has been the oil power; and China will be the green power.’ China has already achieved dominance in the metals sectors that will be so crucial for green energy and manufacturing, as all battery technology needs metals. ‘Lithium has probably become the most important metal in the world at the moment,’ she tells me. ‘We can already see there are potential issues about demand for these metals that are necessary to make the energy transition work.’


In recent months, we have seen the first signs of net zero becoming a battleground in UK politics. To my surprise, Thompson doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing: ‘Britain’s adoption of net zero was early. It was done in latter days of May’s administration, late spring in 2019. Brexit was still an unresolved question. While there was a consensus in the Commons about it, compared to the dissensus over Brexit, there wasn’t actually space at that time to have a democratic debate about it.’ There are difficult decisions to be made about how we effect the change needed to reach net zero. ‘We will only get to the point of taking net zero seriously when we have divisions in two parties in Britain about how to go about it and coalitions mobilising around those choices.’


After all, even as we move towards net zero, fossil fuel energy is not completely going away. In what areas of life should we expect zero emissions and in what sectors should we balance out carbon emissions with carbon extraction? Take car ownership, for example. ‘We could plan for electrification (which looks like it’s becoming the case) or we could bank on hydrogen,’ Thompson says. ‘If we go down the electrification route, are we looking at a mass electric car market or a move to mass public transportation? Is it possible to move away from mass car ownership when a lot of Western material aspirations (even fantasies if you look at car adverts) are bound up with it? These are big questions I’m not sure are being discussed enough. This is a good example of why there needs to be a democratic conversation.’


Thompson appears cautiously optimistic in response to the suggestion that some think net zero is already becoming a culture wars issue. Conservative parliamentary party concern around it, she explains, has not started repudiating net zero altogether but has just expressed scepticism regarding its viability. Net-zero politics play out differently ‘in Britain than in the US, Australia, or Canada because we as a country no longer have a significant fossil fuel industry; North Sea oil and gas is declining.’ Compare this to countries like the US, still the biggest oil producer in the world, and the difference is stark. ‘This makes the politics of net zero less dangerous than countries where there is still a very significant fossil fuel industry, where the centre right is linked to it in some way.’ (Through US campaign donations, for example.) In the UK, there is less incentive for a producer-interest-driven opposition to net zero.


Part of the problem, however, is that ‘the green energy transition must take place in the context of a pre-existing set of economic and geopolitical difficulties around oil, gas and — to some extent — coal that would cause problems even if there were no climate crisis.’ There is a risk that the green energy transition will be blamed for dysfunctionalities in the geopolitics of oil and gas, ‘but [this] won’t actually be the reason the oil and gas prices are going up. The more we can understand the two different sides of the present energy predicament and not conflate them, the better.’


The dysfunctionalities of oil and gas markets also present opportunities: ‘Green energy, particularly wind and solar, gives opportunities to European countries to break out from dependency problems based on need for oil and gas.’ The hope in EU countries — and to some extent in Britain, too — is that with the decline of oil and gas we will also see an end to all the problems caused by lacking domestic access to their primary energy sources. This is the optimistic view. But solar and wind are intermittent energy sources, not as reliable at the moment as oil, gas, and nuclear. What’s more, to produce energy, these methods are still dependent on metal extraction. ‘Because energy transition is not likely to be transformative for quite some time, even if net zero is realisable, the politics of green energy are going to coexist with the geopolitics of oil and gas,’ she predicts. ‘Even in net zero there’s a place for oil and gas, so we’re going to get a very complex geopolitics of energy. All these dynamics will coexist.’


In the grand scheme of things, Britain’s approach to net zero is a very small part of the global question. ‘The tension now is that, on the one hand, net zero in this country involves a huge transformation of our economies and everyday lives; it’s going to demand sacrifices and is almost certainly going to involve lower energy consumption,’ Thompson says. ‘But at the international level, what Britain does is a grain of sand compared to what’s going to go on in China and the US.’ Again, a tension arises between democratically legitimised domestic policy and a complex geopolitics that can feel very far away.


Thompson is clear that there’s a place for radical voices in the face of what is required for what she calls ‘energy revolution’, but ‘the politics of sacrifice isn’t enough’: ‘There needs to be some kind of positive story that goes with this. I hate to use the word “adventure”...’ A quest? ‘Quest is a better word. Something that allows some sense of collective purpose.’ There’s a danger, she says, that the radical demands of groups like Extinction Rebellion verge on the destructive.


‘I actually think those aren’t at all helpful,’ she tells me. ‘I hope to see a contest around the means of net zero where there are clear political positions and those positions come from people who think radical change is necessary, including people who perhaps question the obsession with economic growth.’ We need disagreement. But equally, ‘we need to maintain the relatively broad consensus that this is necessary and that it can become doable. And that we can remain committed to it through the difficulties of the doing.’


There are reasons for hope: ‘The desire to escape the rising costs of fossil fuels, to escape the geopolitical weapons it gives Russia, for example, in particular where gas is concerned, these are incentives to try to move away and find alternative ways of finding energy.’ The geopolitics of oil and gas in ‘our current energy predicament’ will also, in itself, ‘drive us away from fossil fuels’.


It is a frequent lament of political commentators that people always want them to predict the future. Thompson is not making any predictions about whether we will succeed in reaching net zero by 2050. But she is pretty certain that whatever happens, we’re not going back to Kansas any time soon.



Eleanor Hallesy is working on a DPhil in French literature, shedding pseudo-light on non-problems.


Art by Nia Large.