Possible worlds

I am on the beach at Portobello, Edinburgh, a short walk from my flat, staring out to sea with my wife, when she points out something that was not there before. It is too far away to identify, but we have an idea what it is, and the idea scares us.

I am thinking, as I often do when something is troubling me, about a scene from a film.

The film is Possible Worlds, directed by Robert Lepage from John Mighton’s play of the same name. The scene is the final one in the film. A couple, George and Joyce, are sitting on a beach, looking out at the water. A light is blinking in the distance. Is it a distress signal? Is someone in trouble? But before they can figure out what the light is or what to do about it, it goes out.

The blinking light is not really on the ocean, but it is a distress signal of sorts. Mighton’s play is about a man who is living every possible version of his life simultaneously. “I am everybody,” he tells Joyce. “I know everything.” It is a film about human imagination, about language, about maths, all tied to a central plot thread about multiverse theory. It has many possible meanings. It is also deeply romantic. In every version of his life, whatever the other variables, George is in love with Joyce. In the end though, these infinite possible worlds exist only inside George’s imagination. George, far from being an omnipresent, omnipotent superhuman, is actually just a blinking light. And then the light goes out.

I love the beach at Portobello. I got married on it. Since I moved to Portobello almost three years ago the beach has become a place of comfort, joy and inspiration. I take my children there at every opportunity; our little flat has no garden so we use the beach as one instead. I spent my 40th birthday camped out there for a whole weekend, singing songs, swimming with friends, building sandcastles and lighting barbecues. But now there is something out on the water, something that wasn’t there before. And the sound in my head is a distress signal.

We live in frightening times, apocalyptic times. I knew that long before I moved here. Global warming is already at a tipping point, and very possibly irreversible. As the polar ice caps continue to melt, the sea levels will continue to rise. The scientific evidence that human activity is causing this is undeniable. Over 97 per cent of climate scientists agree on it. The situation, as Naomi Klein vividly describes in her new book This Changes Everything, is a global emergency. And yet governments, shackled by short term concerns, conflicting national interests, and the lobbying power of big business, seem incapable of agreeing on anything but the most watered down measures to try and address it. As things stand, there seems to be no possible world in which the problem will not become significantly worse in the next few decades. Major population centres will be lost to the ocean. The beach I love may well be one of them. Millions of people could be killed, in violent storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other ecological catastrophes, or the social breakdown that follows.

And yet most of us, most of the time, still continue to live as if none of this is happening. I remember a university friend who feared for the future once telling me she was planning to move to high ground in Canada and learn survival skills; she now lives in the south of England, much of which will be underwater in the worst projections. I’ve known about global warming since I was a teenager, it scared the hell out of me even then, and yet just two years ago I bought a flat five minutes’ walk from the sea, with the idea that I would live the rest of my life there. Since then I have had two children. In the worst-case scenario, these children could be one of the last generations of humans alive, their adult lives nasty, brutish and short. The home they are growing up in could be underwater. What on earth was I thinking? Why would I wish that on them? Well I didn’t, and I don’t. I just sort of hoped it might not happen, or figured that even if it does it will be so far beyond my control as to be not worth worrying about. And I wanted to live by the seaside. So I bought the flat and tried not to think about it too much.

The shape out on the ocean is a ship. Its crew works for people who want to drill below the Forth, off shore and on shore, for unconventional gas. These people want to create explosions, start fires and pump toxic chemicals deep under the ground, all across one of Scotland’s most densely populated coastlines. In this mission they have powerful friends, politicians who will help to change laws so that the people affected don’t find out what’s happening and are unable to object to it. Soon, perhaps, we won’t even be able to protest against it without paying for the privilege. It is grotesque, undemocratic, and, in climate change terms, suicidal.

There is mounting evidence that, even in the short term, these processes could be extremely hazardous for the people who live along the Forth. Are our homes, built on top of old mine shafts and tunnels, at risk of collapsing?, Will our water supplies be poisoned? In Oklahoma, the US Geological Survey has just confirmed, fracking is the cause of an alarming rise in earthquakes. Naturally we who live here are concerned, just as people in Australia, the USA, Canada, Wales, England, Germany, and elsewhere are concerned – resulting in numerous moratoriums being imposed across the world. For this we are sometimes branded nimbys, by people who seem unable to appreciate that the whole planet, in this case, is our back yard, since unconventional gas will push us even closer to a global warming tipping point. Or we are accused of being ‘anti-everything’ when it comes to energy creation. What would we rather have? Wind and wave power? That won’t address energy shortfall and we’ll be left in the dark. Nuclear? How is that any safer for our families?

My wife, among others, has written very persuasively that geothermal energy is a better way forward. Renewables, the Green Party says, would create significantly more long-term employment than unconventional gas. My own response tends to be that it’s no more my job to suggest alternatives to fracking, underground coal gasification and coal bed methane extraction than it is a theatre critic’s job to find new ways to make theatre. I invite scientists, the government and the energy industry to come up with one, because that’s their job, and if the current solution is so full of risk and so clearly unpopular that it has to be forced on a reluctant public by making us powerless to stop it, then, well, it’s the wrong solution – particularly when even articles that are broadly sympathetic to the case for fracking acknowledge “concerns that once a fracking industry is in place it will displace future renewables” – ie: once it’s up and running then environmentally friendly alternatives will be cast aside. And then we really will be in trouble.

In short, think of something else.

George, the central character in Possible Worlds, earns a living by giving advice to big business. The suggestion is that since he’s able to see every possible version of events, he can predict every possible outcome. But this is an illusion – even someone with knowledge of every possible world cannot predict the future. George is just an exceptionally clever man who can do complex calculations in his head. Unfortunately this cleverness will be his undoing, since it brings him to the attention of someone cleverer and less scrupulous – a sadistic scientist who murders him but keeps his brain alive in a jar to test its responses. The responses are indicated by blinking lights. Sometimes the scientist torments George, telling him “I will kill you in every world.” Towards the end, George comes to understand and accept where he is. “I know where I am now. There’s only one world. I’ve been dreaming.”

I have noticed my response to Possible Worlds changing recently. It used to be that I just felt terribly sad for George. It was his relationship with Joyce that engaged and moved me, the infinite ways in which he loved infinite versions of her. I didn’t think much about the scientist. Now I do, all the time, and I am angry, all the time. How dare he exert such power over George, leave him able to think but not act, adrift in an ocean of possibilities that are all just an illusion, and then torture him by infiltrating his dreams and making threats? And why was I not furious about this before? How was I so distracted by a love story?

Perhaps it was the sea, those calming waves that begin and end the film. I have spent much of the past three years recording an album that turned out to be very much influenced by living in Portobello, looking out at the sea every day from my kitchen window. It is an album of quiet music, about love, family, grief, in which the sea – and islands in particular – is a recurring metaphor. It is not, in short, an angry album. I don’t make that kind of music.

But then I hear things like this.

“Typically, the ill-informed opponents of UCG choose to focus on a small number of negative outcomes during the developmental phases of the technology rather than the opportunities that a well-designed and operated UCG project could bring to the people of Scotland in the form of more competitive local industry, new employment opportunities, local tax revenue and energy security. These increasingly extreme groups oppose practically all forms of energy development in Scotland and do not represent the vast majority of the population. They have no democratic legitimacy and should not be allowed to dictate government policy, which works to the benefit of the entire nation. The misleading and increasingly inflammatory language they use is deliberately designed to instil an unwarranted sense of fear and unease in communities for their own political ends, which is a great disservice to those they claim to represent.”

This is Andrew Nunn, chief operating officer of Cluff Natural Resources, describing people like me. CNR estimates there is up to 335 million tonnes of coal under the sea bed of the Forth, and wants to exploit it. By UCG he means underground coal gasification, not covered by Scotland’s current fracking moratorium, but described last year by the International Energy Agency as “not attractive at all from a climate change point of view” since it emits around seven times more greenhouse gases than natural gas, and almost twice as much carbon as a coal plant. UCG has been the subject of two legal disputes in Queensland, Australia. In 2013 a company called Linc Energy was charged with environmental damage, while another called Cougar Energy was fined $75,000 for releasing a cancer-causing chemical into groundwater. UCG has since been halted in Queensland.

Is it extreme, inflammatory, to draw attention to things like these? I don’t think so. But I do think it is inflammatory for Andrew Nunn, a businessman with obvious vested commercial interests, to imply that his views are more democratically legitimate than those of community groups across the world who have chosen to voice concerns publicly about something that directly affects their homes and families. “Their own political ends”? My political ends, in this case, are protecting my children. Oh, and I would also quite like the world not to end.

But there will be a lot of these attacks in the media the coming months, encouraged by businessmen and politicians with vested interests in fracking, UCG and coal bed methane. Ordinary people like me will be labelled extremists, simply for expressing concern that three different unconventional gas technologies, all with separate and distinct safety concerns, are to be rolled out along the same, densely populated area of Scotland, an area whose economy – to leave longer term climate concerns aside for a moment – is heavily reliant on tourism. We will be told we risk leaving the country in the dark, that we will lose the country money and jeopardise jobs (actually unconventional gas will create a negligible number of jobs locally), that the alternative is relying on energy from potentially unstable foreign sources like Russia (well, it’s an alternative, but by no means the full picture). That we are trying to “dictate government policy”, by which Nunn surely means “influence” (and Cluff Natural Resources, with all its money and lobbying power, is not doing the same?). It is a strategy of divide and conquer, and it is as manipulative and ugly as demonising benefit claimants in order to push through benefit cuts.

I’d be a useless extremist. I have never been much good at even moderate political activism. I am too unsure, too willing to give people in power the benefit of the doubt, to give them a fair hearing, even when everything they tell me is setting off loud alarm bells in my head, even when their destructive intentions seem extraordinarily obvious. In my darker moments I tend to direct my anger inwards rather than outwards and sink into depression. In my brighter moments I tend towards denial. I want everything to be ok. I want all worlds still to be possible, so I tell myself, and other people, that everything will probably work out ok, even when I have no evidence to suggest that it will beyond a vague sense of possibility. It annoys my wife, who has a clearer-headed view of why things so often don’t work out ok (and who has also written about this subject). She knows that all worlds are not possible, that actually there is just one world and it is shaped by powerful people who constantly use their influence to shut down alternative possibilities. And I should know that too. And I sort of do.

My wife and I would both like to think unconventional gas can be prevented, and we will be spending much of the next few months attending meetings, writing letters, and sharing what we have learned with other ordinary people like us. But other, more powerful people have invested a lot of money in making it happen regardless of public concerns, and the British government is on their side. Labour has been chasing votes by acting as if it against unconventional gas, but it really isn’t. The party rejected a moratorium in order to push for an amendment proposing some protections, then boasted about a ‘Labour win’ when it was passed, but the amendment was then quietly removed with the help of Labour’s own peers in the House of Lords. As things stand, the new UK infrastructure bill allows fracking under national parks, on the grounds that protecting the British countryside would be “constraining the industry” (which I had always thought was the entire point of environmental protection laws). In Scotland the protests have been effective enough to force a temporary moratorium for further public consultation and research. But this is a temporary measure, and comments like Nunn’s (in response to pressure to close a loophole in the moratorium that means UCG was excluded) suggest we will now be facing the full force of industry propaganda, bullying and blackmail.

I am looking out from our beach at a blinking light. And I get a sudden rush of fear that I am a brain in a jar, that I just believe I have freedom of thought and movement, but actually I am the subject of a terrible experiment by people infinitely more powerful than me, which can only end in the acceptance of my powerlessness, and a light going out.

I refuse to be a brain in a jar.


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