If desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspirer as genius, as Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, then the winter ahead will be marked as a time of intense inventiveness. Even in the absence of the apparent global recession into which we are hurtling, the astronomical increases in the cost of energy will devastate lives. In more ways than one, we’re going back to a past many of us have never experienced.
A pub in Cornwall, south-west England, now turns out its lights on Mondays, with pints served by candlelight to avoid laying off staff. In Brussels, some restaurants last week went further — not just using candlelight, but drawing attention to their plight by turning off their ovens for several days and serving diners only drinks and food that didn’t require electrical appliances.
As grim as energy bills have become, they’re still rising — and we’re being shielded from their true scale by government intervention for which we will ultimately pay. Gas prices are projected to be higher next summer than they are now. This summer, Europe was able to almost fill its reserves, with much of the gas coming from Russia. Next year, there may be no Russian gas flowing this way.
Last week’s sabotage of gas pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Germany shows how perilous our position is. Dependent on a tiny number of vulnerable undersea interconnectors, the old certainties are collapsing. Deliberately attacking such infrastructure was once seen as unthinkable; now it is happening when it matters most.
If Russia really wanted to hurt the west, it has other more deniable ways of doing so. Hacking power plants or European electricity grids — as Russia has been doing in Ukraine — could add even more energy instability. Saboteurs no longer have to even enter the country to destroy crucial infrastructure.
The coming months are likely to see unrest in parts of Europe. Desperate people can do desperate things, and Russia’s ability to use social media to encourage discord has already been demonstrated.
Even without any meddling by outside forces, the political consequences of the financial reality are troublingly clear. Inflation in Latvia is running at 21.5pc; in Estonia, it’s 25pc. Across Europe, prices are soaring. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said last week. “Inflation is a poison for democracies, history has shown that.”
The UK’s Office for National Statistics found that half of British people were struggling to pay their energy bills. That is extraordinary. And, yet, it implies that half of people aren’t struggling to pay these bills. They don’t want to pay a fortune for energy — but if they must, they can.
Herein lies a challenge to our economic system. Modern capitalism has been founded on the premise that consumption is good; whether we really need something is irrelevant. Often this harms the environment and offends common sense — buying an item of clothing to wear a handful of times and then ditching it is, on multiple levels, absurd.
Yet consumerism has fuelled the prosperity of the society in which we live. Adopting its logic, if someone can afford to continue using lots of energy wastefully, that is entirely up to them. Indeed, consumerist ideology would see that as positive — they are consuming more and so helping to create more money for the economy.
In a winter where people are certain to die because they can’t afford heating, such a mindset is repugnant. It’s obscene not just because continuing to use energy as we did before this crisis is unseemly when others are struggling, but because doing so is actually increasing prices even further for those at their wit’s end.
Gas and oil are a finite resource. That’s true in absolute terms — there’s a limited volume of fossil fuels and when they’re gone, they’re gone. But more relevant to this winter is that it’s true in terms of current supply.
Even for those who support increased fossil fuel extraction, such drilling involves years of work. It won’t resolve this crisis. Prices have soared because scarcity has driven demand. In that context, what we use increases the price for others. Our ability to influence global markets is minuscule. Switching out lights in empty rooms, turning down the thermostat, installing LED lights, or not travelling when it’s unnecessary is the equivalent of moving a grain of sand on a vast beach. It feels insignificant, and it is.
However, just as handing food to a starving man will not end the famine around him but is the right thing to do, so we have a moral responsibility to use energy judiciously. To be profligately wasting energy just because we can afford to do so would be grotesque. It would be the equivalent of throwing food into the sea in front of a starving child.
A poll last week for The Economist found three in five Britons support their government requiring households to reduce their energy usage. Doing so by law would be almost unworkable — and probably undesirable. But law ought not to be the only thing that compels us to do what we know to be right.
For some reason — perhaps because it fears appearing patronising or drawing attention to the vast wealth of many Tories who will get through the winter in warmth — Britain’s government has been reluctant to even suggest to the British public it would be a good idea to use less energy.
Fiscal conservatives would say the market ought to prompt better behaviour — if we’re paying for it, we should alter our ways and conserve more. For many people, that’s true. But in a deeply unequal society, what is affordable to the individual is unaffordable to society. Squandering energy ought to be as socially unacceptable as driving after five pints.
We can’t slash the cost of gas, oil or electricity, and we can’t eradicate the hardship ahead for so many. But we can do something — and, small as it is, we should do it.