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Kathy Sheridan: Talking out of both sides of our mouth on Russian oil

There is a disconnect between tearful rhetoric about Ukraine and sacrifices this might require

In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, the drumbeat for an Irish debt default was deafening. Just say no said the drummers, pointing to Argentina’s proud history of saying no since 2002. Last weekend in the face of another imminent default, against negative net central bank reserves and violent street protests, Argentina’s congress voted through its 22nd deal with the IMF.

Of course we could have said no to the European bankers’ demands and the troika’s bailout. There was certainly a moral case to resist at least some of them. But the country was bust. Who was going to pay for day-to-day spending on education, policing, healthcare and energy imports while we got busy planting, sowing, butchering and bartering in our doughty new self-sufficient lives? The sorry truth was that we had left ourselves with zero leverage.

Is anyone still not aware that oil revenue is funding that war? Or that as long as our oil demands prop up murderous autocrats, we are complicit?

The question remains as to how our society would have fared if we had said no.

We get hints of the answer every now and then. Last week as prices soared amid charges of gouging at the petrol pump, emoting politicians recounted tales of terrible car deprivation amid furious demands that the government “do something”. To rural motorists trapped without public transport, this sudden love bomb was almost entertaining in its novelty.

One such discussion was scorching the airwaves when I attempted to drive a 10 km stretch of the N7 in Co Dublin at a consistent 80km/h. No-one enjoys driving at what feels like a funereal pace on a 100km/h road but since 70 to 80km/h is deemed to be the “sweet spot” for fuel conservation, it made sense. The problem was that just one white van man and I seemed to have got the message.

The climate crisis has given us lots of practice at talking out of both sides of our mouths. Putin’s merciless destruction of Ukraine provides another. Is anyone still not aware that oil revenue is funding that war? Or that as long as our oil demands prop up murderous autocrats, we are complicit? The cars crammed onto city suburban streets and front gardens a few metres from bus stops reveal something significant about a) the public transport system and/or b) a disconnect between theory and practice.

Anyway the game of gotcha is easier to play. Within minutes of Minister Eamon Ryan suggesting that slowing down can keep fuel costs down, pundits were gurning as if he had set fire to a data centre; social media was “slamming” him and headlines had him “defending” himself, for citing an indisputable fact.

Ryan’s mistake was to make a suggestion without simultaneously listing all those who might take exception to not being exceptions. Clearly he was not referring to essential hauliers out there lobbying for their livelihoods. He was addressing car drivers: “Everyone knows that the speed of cars affects efficiency and if you go above a certain speed, the cost increases dramatically.” It was “one practical example” he said, where people can make fuel go further. Eamon Ryan makes many irritating assumptions but this was not one of them. It was a gentle reminder of what in cooler hands might be called a life hack.

We are living in a time of war. Whatever the outcome, the implications for our way of life exceed the worst fears of 2008

Why were opposition politicians not at least acknowledging that? Were they so fearful of social media with its usual thoughtful labelling of one or other of them as Marie Antoinette (ie how dare you offer advice and you on your fancy salary etc) that they cower from pointing to the disconnect between the tearful rhetoric about Ukraine and the sacrifices this might require?

We are living in a time of war. Whatever the outcome, the implications for our way of life exceed the worst fears of 2008. And they in turn cannot even begin to hint at the desperate plight of Ukraine – or the millions of starving children in other man-made catastrophes such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia. How is any of this reflected in the current exchanges?

Older people see echoes of other dangerous times, such as the Cuban missile crisis. As a young Ukrainian soldier told Lara Marlowe, the world only began to pay attention to them in February when the “Moscow Russians captured two nuclear power plants and put explosives in them”.

Older people remember how the 1973 oil embargo, triggered by the Yom Kippur war, caused a quadrupling of oil prices, wreaking economic havoc in tandem with escalating mass murder and destruction in the North. By 1975 inflation was at nearly 21 per cent while in the UK – our traditional “safety valve” – inflation soared to 24 per cent, led to the introduction of a three-day week and the bailout of Burmah Oil by the Bank of England.

The 1979 oil crisis following the Iranian revolution was met with strikes by postal workers and by some tankers drivers and terminal workers in Dublin Port. At one point, the country was down to an estimated four days’ supply of oil.

A Department of Foreign Affairs document advised that electric fires should not be used except in “special circumstances” and that all staff “should wear a reasonable amount of clothing – wearing additional clothing will make lower temperatures tolerable”. Imagine if any current minister suggested that people should layer up in the office, never mind at home?

There was an upside to the oil 1970s crises; a huge upsurge of interest in renewables and smaller, more fuel efficient cars.

What will we learn from this one?