The happy death of petty idiocy

David Powell
4 min readDec 12, 2020


oh turns out the computer has a ‘yes’ button

I’ve spent a considerable amount of my miserable life sat in airless rooms with bureaucrats and ministers during which they explained to me, with a ‘I hope this is helpful’ expression on their face, why something they were doing which was obviously mind-smackingly stupid was not in fact stupid at all but totally fine and above board and all perfectly in keeping with the Way Of Doing Things.

I’d go in there with a briefing about why e.g. given the mounting climate emergency it makes no sense at all to hack away at tax rates to drill every last drop of North Sea oil (even if to do so means the possibility of cutting tax so low that the likes of Shell are morally getting it for free), and ask them to e.g. stop doing it. And these meetings would always go the same: yes yes, Mr Powell, I can see why you might conclude that and thank you so much for coming in, but the thing is [insert 20 minutes of Whitehallese, bedrocked by sad looking numbers tortured out of Microsoft Excel, and grouted with just-enough-PPE-to-perform terms like ‘rational’ and ‘efficient’ and ‘equilibrium’], so do you see, and I hope this is helpful?

Honestly I’d sit in this kind of meeting thinking I was going mad. Quite often I would find my conscious soul leaving my body entirely and flapping around like a pigeon in a corner of the ceiling, thinking about what it was going to eat when it got home and how ridiculous humans are.

I’d go back to the office and say to colleagues:

yeah so I just met e.g. Vince Cable to ask him not to use UK taxpayers’ cash to help drill Brazil’s oil

and they’d say

wow OK great, what did he say

and I’d say

he says it’s all OK because if our companies don’t drill it then Johnny Foreigners’ will, and you can’t trust Johnny Foreigner with the climate but hooray for our brave boys and also he showed me some columns in a spreadsheet and smiled at me kindly

and they’d say

OMG what a plonker

and I’d say

I dunno you know, maybe he’s right, is he right? after all the spreadsheet does -

and my colleague would smack me about the face and bottom with a telephone directory;

and I’d remember that overworked people in ill-fitting suits justifying the destructive and patently absurd by pointing to what a spreadsheet says you can do is one of the major reasons we’ve ended up frying the planet in the first place.

Properly surreal business, the world of how bureaucrats treat carbon; in which whether or not we are acting on the climate emergency is treated not as a profound moral question of the age but an accounting exercise to be gamed, so that fat piles of cash can continue to be made without significant impediment. Where obvious buckets of economic support to UK fossil fuel industries, which had the specific intentional and designed effect of increasing production or consumption of oil, coal or gas, were defined away into thin air and defended straight-facedly despite the clanging obviousness of the petty and mendacious jiggery-pokery at work.

And a properly surreal business to be sat calling for a thing to happen which you knew in your guts, you absolutely knew, would happen one day because to continue doing otherwise is at root so utterly bonkers and dissonant, but to have to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fkn bullshit anyway. For years and years.

SO LOOK: today the UK government finally announced that OH YOU DON’T SAY it is inconsistent for it to be using taxpayers’ cash to drill other countries’ oil, and they’ll stop it forthwith. And those who have campaigned doggedly rightly celebrate, and Boris and chums soak up the big-boy-pants plaudits and get to help themselves to another brandy. And galling though it is to see governments hailing themselves as Jesus Christ Almighty simply for no longer doing the climate equivalent of punching kittens in the face, I’m happy to give credit where it’s due and I’m sure the kittens are too.

Now most people look at announcements like this and think, wow, that’s good, and it is good: and so is China’s commitment to net zero and the marginally increasing odds that we might not completely ruin the conditions for life on Earth and so on and etc. And I do end 2020 in a surprisingly optimistic mood, which I’m sure won’t last.

But do remember that behind every good policy announcement, a thousand tiny tiresome trivial rules have had to be smashed. It’s no longer politically acceptable to not do obvious stuff just because it’ll make someone have to reformulate their rows and columns. For those of us who may have wondered whether it was us who were the crazy ones, being wanged on at by a functionary that an obvious thing was not actually obvious, the biggest reason to be cheerful is that, phew, we were right all along.

It always was completely and utterly loopy to say that we weren’t doing things like subsidising fossil fuels when in practice even a cocker spaniel in a suit could see that we were. That didn’t used to stop us doing it anyway. But now, one by one, these petty instruments of delay are falling, swept away by the unstoppable power of the case for actually bloody doing something about getting our economies off fossil fuels and not just getting a spreadsheet to make it look like we were.

That’s how you know you’re winning.



David Powell

I write about climate change and the state of the mother-humpin’ planet.