Last Wednesday evening, hundreds attended Humanists UK’s 2023 Holyoake Lecture, featuring environmentalist and science communicator Zion Lights, seeking to answer the question ‘Can we “just stop oil”? And how?’.
In an expansive and very human lecture, Zion Lights demonstrated our underlying dependence on oil – for materials and not just as a fossil fuel – while demonstrating that there are alternatives that exist today, and that countries such as France and Paraguay have already massively decarbonised their electricity grid. Decrying misinformation about low- and zero-carbon energy generation, and offering an inspiring message that humanity can shape our own future, the lecture was a call to arms for evidence-based environmentalism.
During the talk, Zion dismantled some environmentalist narratives that sometimes demonise energy consumption and technological advancements. Instead, she argued that the pursuit of clean energy solutions should be our primary goal, not the reduction of energy use itself. Drawing from personal family history, Zion underscored the necessity of modern energy for improving quality of life.
She offered a critique of policies like those in Germany, where ideological commitments led to the shuttering of nuclear power plants in favour of renewable sources – a move Zion characterised as lacking a solid foundation in scientific research and practicality. She highlighted that while transitioning to renewable energy is crucial, the immediate and complete abandonment of nuclear power is likely to have negative repercussions, such as increased carbon emissions due to the reliance on more carbon intensive alternatives, such as coal and oil.
The lecture also addressed the disparities between developed and developing nations in terms of energy aspirations and environmental responsibilities. Zion urged developed countries to extend support to poorer nations seeking to elevate their living standards without reverting to fossil fuels. She suggested that developed nations have an obligation to help fund clean energy programmes in these countries, suggesting a form of reparations to enable less developed countries to fund their own transitions.
Emphasising a science-first mindset, Zion dismissed the dichotomy between environmentalism and technology, sharing her transformation from an activist arrested in youth for protesting against fossil fuels to a proponent of technological solutions to environmental issues. She affirmed that technological advances, when leveraged responsibly, are not antithetical to environmental goals.
The overarching message was clear: the environmental movement must evolve beyond outdated narratives and adopt an evidence-based, human-centred, technology-friendly approach if it is to effectively address the looming challenges of climate change.
Following the lecture, Humanists UK’s Director of Communications and Development Liam Whitton presented Zion with the Holyoake Medal, ‘for her contributions to our wider social and political discourse on environmentalism, and for her work to champion and publicise Humanist Climate Action’.
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Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 110,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.
Humanist Climate Action is a volunteer-led network of Humanists UK members and supporters committed to redefining lifestyles and campaigning for policies that promote low-carbon, ethical, and sustainable living in the light of the degeneration of the Earth’s climate and biodiversity. It brings humanists together to facilitate individual and collective action on these issues.
The Holyoake Lecture explores an aspect of politics or contemporary social or political issue, especially as it relates to secularist and humanist issues, including liberalism, democracy, social justice, feminism, anti-racism, LGBT rights, or equality. The Holyoake medallist has made a significant contribution in one of these fields. The lecture and medal are named for the nineteenth century humanist George Jacob Holyoake, who among many other achievements coined the word ‘secularism’ and was a lifelong progressive political activist.