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  • James Beamish

The Fable of the Bulbs: Why North Sea Oil Extraction is Necessary


In 1714, the Dutch moral philosopher Bernard Mandeville published one of the most infamous texts of the eighteenth century: The Fable of the Bees. In it, he tells an allegorical tale of a prospering hive of bees where each, in so chasing their own self-interest in supplying the vanity of others, produces a prospering society. Tradespeople chase profit in producing houses, decorations, and mirrors for the vain; locksmiths are employed to protect against thieves; whilst lawyers gain their employment by defending criminals from prosecution. Thus, as Mandeville writes, ‘every part was full of vice, yet the whole mass a paradise’.

However, moralists within the hive looked upon the vice which surrounded them in disdain and prayed to the Almighty for an end to such behaviour. Hearing these prayers, the Almighty responded by extirpating vice from the hive. Social collapse soon followed, as there existed no vanity or vice to provide employment and drive the wheels of commerce. The moral of this story, which caused its author to be reviled for two centuries afterwards, is that in order to produce positive outcomes, we must countenance actions which we might consider to be vicious, wrong, or wicked. To attempt to construct a world of pure virtue is to undermine the very virtuous ends which you seek.

Such a moral may be translated from Mandeville’s subject of commerce to the issue of British energy policy; from honey-bees to light-bulbs. In many ways, the British environmentalist movement resembles closely Mandeville’s grumbling moralists in the hive. Upon the announcement that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would grant one hundred new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, environmentalist groups sprung up in puritanical disapproval. Oxfam declared that the move would ‘send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments’, whilst Friends of the Earth described it as ‘pouring more fuel on the flames’ of climate-change. For these groups, the virtue of renewable energy is self-evident, whilst the vice of fossil fuels must be extirpated from the UK energy grid.

However, just like the grumbling moralists of Mandeville’s hive, these environmentalists risk undermining their own cause. The fact is that renewable solar and wind production requires fossil fuel energy generation. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine, and so Britain requires an alternative source of energy generation in order to fill gaps in production. Offshore wind, for instance, has a load factor of between 39 and 47 percent, meaning that it produces less than half of its theoretical maximum output. Appropriate battery storage for such a task simply doesn’t exist, whilst nuclear energy, which would be able to reliably produce energy to solve such a problem, is decades away from being developed to a large enough extent, thanks to decades of policy failure in government and the misguided lobbying of environmental groups.

Therefore, if oil and gas is going to remain a part of the UK’s energy mix for several decades to come, which all serious policy experts agree upon, why wouldn’t we want it to be British? This provides three benefits. Firstly, it actually benefits the environment by reducing the UK’s reliance on imports and hence means we are not using energy resources to ship gas from countries such as Norway and the United States. Secondly, it would provide well-paid jobs to British people at a crucial time given the current cost-of-living crisis and looming recession. And thirdly, it would benefit all energy-consumers by making Britain more resilient to global shocks in oil prices, the dire effect of which we have seen over the past eighteen months. These economic benefits would, in the long-run, actually help Britain in its aim to reach net-zero, by giving greater scope to invest in renewable technology, both from the public-sector, which would benefit from higher tax revenues, and from the private-sector, who would benefit from cheaper energy prices.

British energy policy, therefore, must be based in reality, not on appearances. Though North Sea Oil exploration may be a poor aesthetic choice, in reality it will help Britain achieve its net-zero goals. Toleration of vice, in this case fossil fuels, will help produce virtuous outcomes. The alternative scenario, where the grumbling moralists are heeded, comprises the conclusion of Mandeville’s Fable. The Bees end up fleeing from their prospering hive into ‘a hollow tree’, for ‘so few in the vast Hive remain, the hundredth part they can’t maintain’. Let us not turn the UK into a live-action remake of this baleful tale.

Image: Flickr/ Oil rig in the North Sea

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