from 17 july 2005
blue vol IV, #17
London, July 17th, 2005
report by Tim Barton of the European Social Ecology Institute
James opened proceedings with an introduction to PowerSwitch. The point of the organisation, which has been going since the autumn of 2004, is to raise awareness of our energy and climate future. Their work seeks to get people to see the implications of energy scarcity and global warming, whilst trying to avert a typical 'doom and gloom' response from the public. James is aware of the difficulties in this - as he says, "There will be no miracle".
A major target is critical mass - the organisation will seek, hand in hand with other Peak Oil organisations and individuals, to publicise Peak Oil (henceforth 'PO') in an attempt to reach the much wider audience that successful change requires.
Although this is a great challenge, already some inroads are being made, including PowerSwitch's gaining the interest of a number of Members of Parliament. There is now a joint committee in the planning stages, with advocates from both the Labour and Liberal Democrats.
Indeed events have moved so well that this is the second conference since last autumn, and already a larger one in Central London is planned for this autumn (The End of Oil... and its consequences for the economy, food supply and climate change, a on-day conference, sponsored by PowerSwitch, Sustain, CRed, and East Anglia Food Link, to be held on October 11th, chaired by Dr Ian Gibson MP, with speakers including Michael Meacher MP; Chris Skrebowski, editor Petroleum Review; Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University; Andrew Simms of the new economic foundation; and Richard Douthwaite, author of When the Wells Run Dry).
James kept his introduction short and introduced the first public screening of:ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. He has also worked in the Petroleum industry for many years. Colin introduced ASPO and PO. The DVD runs for just over 30 minutes, and sets out the basic argument using a series of talking heads. It is aimed at the UK market.
A reporter from FromTheWilderness got the ball rolling with tales of CIA interest in the PO whistleblowers. Whilst this may be true, it seems an odd way to try and widen public awareness (the presumed point of the documentary), as we all know the public are shy of conspiracy theories if they are presented upfront.
There follows film of Colin making presentations on PO in Switzerland; a montage on US arrogance and overuse of resources; and pieces on 9/11 and Dick Cheney, which sought to link (pretty successfully) the PO idea to these recent events in US foreign policy. The consequences of this link between oil resource depletion and US militarism were predicted to include the spread of the current Mid-East crisis throughout the region, and then into the oil rich parts of Africa and South America.
After this a brief run-down on the nature of the crisis is given, using statistics on, for example, North Sea oil. The oil fields in the North Sea were discovered over a period of time, the peak year of discovery being 1973. After this less and less was discovered, presumably as less and less was there to discover. By 1999, i.e. 6 years ago, the UK's North Sea oil was deemed to be past peak, and has had a 6% per annum reduction in production since. The Norwegian’s have also reached a similar predicament, and a Norwegian oilman presented his views of Hubbert's Peak and the rundown of his industry. It appears that the US situation is worse, in that their discovery peak was 1920 and their production peak 1970. Colin's view is that a global peak in production will be hit by 2010, with a 2.3% per annum drop off from there.
The consequences of this scenario are likely to include a much more volatile market, with extreme fluctuations in price at the top of the market. Indeed, Colin contends that this is already occurring in the markets, indicating that peak is indeed more or less upon us. Global economic shockwaves are inevitable, and will be exacerbated by the US and Europe, whose populations have a Grow Or Die ethic and whose consumerist culture is driven by oil.
Thus, at this point in the documentary, a market analyst is enlisted to give his opinion. He was quite bullish, expressing the view that whilst share prices would drop, companies that responded quickly, perhaps investing in alternative technologies, should experience a stock price rise.
Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review, spoke about who would get fuel during a crisis. Not surprisingly he expected the lion's share to go to the military and the police. He predicted that the price would run away and lead to states going bankrupt unless fairly vicious controls were introduced (presumably on people as well as on markets).
Although, inevitably, many of the conclusions are negative, the documentary offers the belief that awareness and engagement will soften the crash. Financial institutions are waking up to the problems, and indeed are well ahead of the public on the risks, but oil companies still, on average, appear to be working on a 'business at usual' footing.
A syndrome of political denial is also noted, perhaps motivated, in the main, to avert panic. The MP's, therefore, that do listen and respond to the issue tend not to be front benchers. Those that do, also seem quite aware that the Iraq War prefigures the global instability to come, as the economy's lifeblood runs low.
Colin notes Darwin on the survival of the fittest, and remarks one "can win a battle but can you really win a war?". I read this as meaning that a predator species is bullish and gets into fights, and it is no matter how much foresight he may or may not have. The implication may be that a species that avoids battles and is more cautious about his resource use could win the war despite what one might expect. He was not crystal clear on this view, however, and I for one am uncomfortable with rhetoric involving the extreme views often imputed to Darwin. So, at this point, I'd have appreciated some clarity.
Colin puts over the concept that PO is 'imposed by nature' rather than being an industry conspiracy to massage prices. He thinks such a perception important, as when prices rocket it is important that the public has some sympathy rather than resentment - the latter makes more conflict inevitable, and such would hamper efforts to cope with the crisis.
To hammer the PO problem home, the DVD is rounded off with a reminder that the biggest impact of a fuel crisis will be on those with the most profligate lifestyle. Next to America, that is us.
Overall, this DVD is a good introduction to PO for the lay public. As noted, my main reservation is the inclusion, at the very beginning of the film, of views on the close surveillance of those who seek to publicise PO. They would perhaps be better placed near the end, given the likelihood that some viewers might zone out as soon as a conspiracy-theory flavour is put over. Nearer the end, having heard the arguments, they may be more receptive to, and more ready to give credence to, the idea that the men-in-black are paying attention to ASPO (i.e.: it makes perfect sense that they would, if you understand the nature of the PO crisis, which, for those not already converted, will include the viewer of the DVD only once the main argument has been made).
Norman is an ex-post office worker who has relocated to a rural idyll near Taunton in Devon, in the south-west of England. A major motivation for him in doing this is a desire to not be in an urban area when the system crashes. He believes this to be inevitable, in the UK, at least, in a PO scenario. He has based this pessimistic view, in part, on the events in the UK during 2000, when there was a fuel strike, with refineries blockaded and no fuel reaching the pumps across the nation. The speech he made is available in full here on blue, see.
He began by noting the world population of 6.5 billion people. He then talked about the systems that are needed to feed them, and the interdependent nature of the elements of the system. Relevant to this is large scale distribution, using networks that are characterised by automation, mechanisation, and computer reliant co-ordination. All of this infrastructure is sensitively dependent upon fossil fuels - indeed, such modern infrastructure post-dates the 1850's oil rush in the US, as it was simply not possible to develop a global network of the type we now have without an energy source like oil. Ditto power provision, banking and telecoms, all critical infrastructures that are interdependent and reliant on oil - PO will be a body blow.
Norman's view is that a fuel shortage will cause these to crash very quickly, and that such a crash equals a recession, if not a depression, at best in the short term, at worst long term. He is slightly optimistic regarding electricity networks in the UK, as we are more dependent on coal and nuclear powered stations to supply the grid than many countries. However, transport infrastructure is in peril. It is here that his background as a post office worker is relevant to the views he has come to hold - during the UK fuel crisis of 2000 he saw the transport infrastructure begin to crumble in just a few short days. He also noted that health care and food distribution systems began to crash during the crisis as well - and the strike was over in a mere 13 days.Private vehicles on the road dropped by 25% in that time. Public transport by road began shutting down, especially in the capital, with several bus companies saying that on the Friday they would close for business (the government stepped in just before the Friday). Diesel based rail services, the only ones on many provincial lines, were being cancelled. Industrial production was down, indeed some companies had by the end of the week begun laying off staff, as staff couldn't get in (or out again), parts were not available, and finished product could not be shipped out. The Japanese 'just in time' industrial model (JIT), that many UK firms have adopted, accelerated the collapse of distribution networks.
Projected over a longer period Norman expects to see power-plant energy generation to be hit, even if they are not burning oil, as parts will fail and will not easily be replaced. He expects non-electronic money movements to be stopped up as well, having a massive affect on markets.
The public response would be panic buying, exacerbating the crisis. Supermarkets, too, use the JIT system. During the 2000 fuel crisis supermarket shelves emptied of staples within a couple of days, bread and milk first. Petrol stations experienced long queues on the basis of early rumours, so they were depleted even faster than expected (and it was expected, as UK fuel reserves are low). The Times newspaper ran the headline "Panic Buying: 4 Meals Away From Anarchy"! And we were. My experience matches Norman's - during the strike the three major supermarkets were out of milk, bread, and beans, not to mention toilet paper, in less than two days; all the petrol stations in town were out of unleaded almost immediately, and were charging the earth before that. I was lucky - we had a small food and fuel stock, and as the rumours hit I went to a small rural petrol station I knew and filled up relatively cheaply even as those who didn't know their own county stayed in town for fuel, and, erm, stayed in town.
Norman's view is that early action is needed - indeed, action now, before the next time - but that the political system is not geared up to deal with long-term, or even medium-term, decisions, in large part as a function of the fact that politicians have their eye on the short-term horizon (the next election) and are unwilling to make themselves unpopular by bringing in controls before a crisis exists. No doubt the 'war on terror' is very convenient in this regard, as illustrated by their using it to justify sending a pamphlet to every UK household telling us to keep a food supply of at least three weeks stock 'in case of attack'.
Norman rounded off with a pessimistic metaphor, the lifeboat. He has run for the hills already and advocates us doing so too. Unsurprisingly, he drew a little flack for that. My take on Norman is that his description of the problem is spot on, but his prescriptions for dealing with it are suspect. He does, though, very much represent Everyman - the 'average' British 'tabloid reader' would do the same things, and we desperately need to educate that response out of people unless we wish to merely succeed in pouring petrol on the flames (well, not petrol, we won't have any...).
Tully Wakeman, on Oil & World Agriculture
Tully came from East Anglia Food Link, and spoke on our reliance on energy for food. He began by reminding us that all our food is, in effect, converted solar energy, and that the efficiency was very low, at a maximum of 2%. He described the post-50's trend in agriculture of using fossil fuels to create artificial fertilisers in order to boost food production, quoting the statistic that the average US citizen requires 400 US gallons of oil per year just to feed him or her (this figure including the fertilizer; irrigation; transportation; packaging; and kitchen preparations such as cooking and refrigeration).
He further noted that this 400 gallons per head equated to one third of all energy used, and claimed that a 30% reduction could be achieved just by going organic. He also advocated composting of much of the 'waste' that most of us unthinkingly chuck away.
Another tactic suggested was halting 'aquifer mining', as our water tables are dropping, and, even if they were not, are under threat from sea level rise. Irrigation costs are set to rise inexorably, so doing something now is a necessity.
Tully's message is that our food system is a bubble, and, like any other market in such a condition, is primed for collapse. Our unsustainable farming practices merely cause the bubble to keep expanding, and already we are seeing the signs of stress, in, for example, an increase in global grain shortages and a decrease in yields. He says that population growth has outstripped harvest growth.
A decentring of urban populations, onto small-holdings that farm organically, is a major part of Tully's solution to a crisis we cannot avert. Crops would be locally produced; there would be no packaging; local transport (probably rail) via local hubs would create local markets for the public to go to with minimal need for extra transportation; there would be more allotments and gardens with livestock. Re-skilling is an urgent priority, in gardening / farming, and in pre-industrial techniques of living off the land. He also advocates a protectionist national economic policy, to stop prices and availability of food being driven by the markets; that CAP push harder for growth in fertility of soils in Europe; and that we make our target food self-sufficiency (as individuals and as a nation). His optimistic end note was that we could "feed the world" if we started now.
He did not speak about wider ecological issues resulting from the increase of extra-urban land use, so I cannot comment on his position on the question, but am interested in the answer (I doubt he has not thought about the sustainability of an ecology that does even more damage to biodiversity, but his idea of spreading urban populations more thinly across the land well might do such damage).
The first of two presentations by David Fleming was on Uranium depletion. He made a good case for nuclear power being a seriously bad idea on a technical level.
Whilst Uranium is abundant in nature, it is rare in high enough concentrations to mine without using as much or more energy to get at it as can be extracted from it in a power plant. This negative energy balance makes it financially non-viable to build many more nuclear power stations. They take 10 years to build and Uranium reserves are already dwindling. Current energy from nuclear plants equates to 2.5% of global energy supply, and it is David's contention that even at this low rate, we have enough ore for another 40 years power generation from this source.
Also, the 'costs' of nuclear power have been 'subsidised' by industry through the expedient of simply not dealing with nuclear waste. This puts off till tomorrow some extremely high costs (not just financial, as the wastes are dangerous - generation wastes will kill you if you stand unprotected next to a chunk for 2 minutes). If you factor in the costs of building a plant (I gather the first 20 years of energy produced merely covers the input from the build) and of decommissioning, then there is no way that the industry can pay for it at all.
As the Uranium supplies dwindle, it becomes a sellers market, so costs spiral. Much ore is available only from politically unstable areas, so that military solutions are likely to be adopted by certain nations in order to safeguard access. And the cheap and quick nuclear plant building plan that the US is expressing an interest in is likely to lead to more accidents, less skilled staff, and dodgy security - the latter making nuclear terrorism even more likely. To avert these outcomes would make the costs of building, running, and decommissioning new plants even more prohibitive. Yet still the US government talks up nuclear.
David also appreciates the problems of large-scale energy production for communities, both from the perspective of stripping financial assets from the masses to the top of the capital pyramid and from the perspective of denying local control over energy provision. Local control is increasingly important as the national grid becomes less reliable.
The second subject that David spoke about was DTQ's or Domestic Tradable Quotas. This is a kind of cross between an investment trust mechanism and rationing. It struck me that it may require war economy type measures from government to force public acceptance, but this is likely to occur anyway, so may not be an obstacle to DTQ's.I quote from the website, on this complex issue:
David's DTQ concept is designed to create long term stability in the energy costs market via a kind of electronic rationing. It embodies the long view and uses currently existing institutions. I am no technical expert in money matters, so can't comment on the efficacy of such measures, but I do have a distrust of instrumentalist approaches that rely on current state and market systems, as I see those very systems as being a part of the problem.
Chris ran through the various energy sources that the UK economy relies upon. Primarily these are natural gas; petroleum; coal; and nuclear, with renewables a long way behind.
Electricity supply is a binary source - you have a useable stream of energy to your home, or none at all, there are no half-measures. So, supply interruptions have massive consequences. PO is not going to be an immediate and direct problem, as much energy for electricity production does not come from oil fired plants, though, of course, less direct infrastrutural problems will impact electrical supply too.
A run-through of energy that feeds into electricity production goes like this:
Chris expresses the expectation that domestic supply will begin to suffer fluctuations right now - it was only the nature of current domestic contracts for provision that averted fluctuations and brown-outs and price hikes last winter, all of which did hit industry. 50% of current supply levels are seriously in question within 10-15 years (yet demand still is rising!).
Rosamund has contacted us and asked for some amendments (below in red, my responses in blue)
This speaker was concerned about global population overload. A straight-line projection from the 6 billion we have is 9.1 billion by 2050 and would give us 134 trillion population by 2300. This is of course unlikely to occur, to understate things a lot! Her contention is that we must reduce UK population - to, I think she said, 29 million by 2050 in order to weather the PO storm and be self-sustainable (with a relatively egalitarian distribution of resources). The global population equivalent would be 2.7 billion, i.e. less than half current levels. Currently we are on track (straight line projection) for more, far more, as we have 60 million now and an annual net increase in UK population of a quarter of a million. Her contention is that we have overshot energy capacity already. (See Earth and OPT Population Policy Projection sections on our website - www.optimumpopulation.org) Corrected text: A long-term "constant-fertility" population scenario published by the United Nations in December 2003 extrapolated population growth at 1995-2000 fertility levels to show that this would result in a world population of 134 trillion by 2300, an outcome agreed by both UNPD and the Optimum Population Trust to be impossible. With fertility rates falling, UN projections indicate that the 6.5 billion people already on Earth may reach 9.1 billion by 2050. OPT's contention is that we must reduce UK population gradually, to no more than 56 million by 2050, with a possible further decrease to 30 million by the 2120s in order to...[this is reported correctly in your para 3].
My assumption in all this is that her idea of 'sustainable' is allowing a non-stone age style of living, perhaps even one close to what we have now, and if I am correct, then the carrying capacity of the planet is higher in proportion to us lowering our standard of living. She is unclear, but does at least talk about contraction and convergence - she points out that this would require a one world organisation and that previous examples, e.g. the UN, do not engender optimism. Instead she advocates a national solution, utilising 'local' contraction and convergence, and population, targets. Comment, for possible correction? What did you think I was unclear about? Would be happy to clarify, or you can see the detail on our website - I only had 15 minutes for the talk., To which I respond: My assumption as to your meaning is in the first sentence - it is an assumption, as it may not have been what you meant - that is what I meant when I said you were unclear. I appreciate the time constraints. The discussion sections suffered from this too, as James acknowledged and intends to address in future meetings.
A target for the UK of 0.25% reduction per year in our population would get us to 56 million population by 2050. The main elements of growth she identified, that we might seek to control, were births (she didn't like the idea of one child per family, citing China, where I thought the problem was that of gender genocide rather than one child per family per se, but advocated educating for a change in attitude to convince people to opt for small families), and migration (where she advocated a balance method - let no more in than out) - although she talked about aging populations she didn't list living longer as one of the problems we may seek to control. Question, not a correction: "...she didn't list living longer as one of the problems we may seek to control." How would a government control 'living longer'? Shoot people once they get to 75?, To which I respond: the context included the fact of longer life due to 'better' medical technologies that may arguably extend the quality of life but not always enhance the quality of it, so, no, shooting people or some other Logan's Run style approach is not what I was suggesting.
She made it plain that she was speaking about the unspeakable, but that we must bite the bullet. She expressed surprise that she didn't experience as much hostility to her ideas as she had done elsewhere. I think that as the PO movement gains numbers this will get nasty, though. Already the BNP are pushing PO. Rosamund illustrates clearly enough why they would see mileage in involvement. I am not sure of Rosamund, her affiliations and so on, but will give her the benefit of the doubt for now - mark my words, whilst she may be trying to be objective about a real problem that we are 'all in denial about', the racists will come crawling out of the woodwork real soon, so let's be waiting for 'em, chaingun at the ready! Correction: I would appreciate it if you could you cut the sentence beginning "I am not sure of Rosamund, her affiliations and so on..." You could state the facts instead: OPT is an independent environment and population campaign group, is not 'affiliated' to any other organisation, and is funded by its individual members and charitable trusts.
A breathe of fresh air! After some of the previous material, especially the population debate, some positive ideas were very welcome.
Julian has done his history homework - on Credit Unions, Friendly Societies, etc - and also has looked at current updates of those organisations - Credit Unions, LETS, and complimentary currencies. These he sees as recession alleviation tools.
He talk about the community deficit we have (which I think is mostly down to Thatcher and the Trade Unions in the UK - they blame each other, but they both created the breakdown of working class community we have seen here since the early eighties). He noted that although community trade organisations and networks are depleted, they will return, driven by financial crisis, as they arose in the past through poverty - bottom up strategies for economic survival are a great example of 'necessity is the mother of invention'!
A sustainable and self-sufficient future, then, would see the rebuilding of Co-Ops and credit unions. The former have a long tradition of success, through shared activity and profit; mutual responsibility; and localism, and many thrive today (like Suma Wholefoods for example). They were, in Julian's view, the norm in pre-capitalist times. Credit unions, and building societies, are unpopular when times are good and credit is easy, but thrive in harsher times when the localism and mutuality allow borrowing by the non-credit-worthy without the money disappearing into offshore accounts.
Julian also presented on Complimentary Currencies, that run alongside a national currency, usually on a regional basis, but internationally too, through, for example, internet communities. As national and supra-national currencies are backed by greed, monies are sucked away from the bottom and up the pyramid, such that the small number of rich have the great majority of the wealth and the masses have nowt. Currency backed by human co-operation, and trust in that through some connection (neighbours; affinity groups; etc), tends to remain local. Many complimentary currencies are like this. They circulate too, no hoarding, as usually they will be devalued in a deliberate way if held, to encourage spending. Modern ones do not need coin or notes, acting more like credit cards.
It was pointed out, by someone in the audience, that, surely, a successful complimentary currency was backed by some local resource - one example that Julian had used was a German mining town who ran the ore as the backing for the currency - and that, therefore, areas with no wealth could not run a currency. However, it is skills, as well as material wealth, that can be traded - I fix your computer or your bike, you give me some of your spuds or do my sewing - so most communities can run some organised mutuality currency.
Norman had, I think, left by this point, but he might have liked it. Clive was a friendly giant of a guy, quite humorous, who had embraced the need for preparedness. I note his demeanour, as some might expect a paranoid and shifty loon to be obsessing about survivalist hoarding. This was not the schtick at all - he even, when asked, admitted to keeping 6 months food hoard, rather than the 3 weeks that the government (and he himself) advocate as a minimum, not so he has more of a buffer, but in case his friends pop round. It was also one of the most interactive of the presentations, with Clive actively soliciting comment from the floor.
Clive's reasoning is straightforward, and predicated on the same lessons that Norman took from the 2000 UK fuel crisis, plus the Hirsch Report, that says we need at least 20 years to prepare reserves and infrastructure for PO, which is a lot of use, given an ETA of 2010-15 for the first major PO shocks. These shocks will lead to curtailment of personal freedoms (if the Labour government doesn't tell you not to leave your home, the price of aviation fuel will sure mean you don't go on holiday to Spain, or even drive to another UK city very often, if at all); all prices will rise, leading to unemployment, inflation, high interest, recession and probably war economy style measures (the government already expects the army to occupy supermarkets during the next fuel strike) - these are simply the lessons of past experience.
Clive expects the need for planning to be of three types - for short term shocks (solution - food stocks); for lower energy provision (warm clothes, self-sufficient heating and insulation); and for financial provision (where possible get out of debt). He puts all this into a nominal 10 step plan for PO, which he admits is just his own thing, but take from it what you will:
As I say, Norman might have liked the survivalist aspect to all this, but much of this is doable common sense, and can be done in your community (the suggestion to move is really for those who live, like most of us, in a place that is not a community really, just a bed at night - after all, many of us do not live where we grew up, or in some other close-knit environment).
If you don't think PO is a problem you certainly won't have read this far anyway. But if you have and are still wavering, try and get a copy of Dennis Pirages' Global Technopolitics, or if possible something even more up to date, that discusses resource depletion and ghost acres - in many ways, oil is the tip of the iceberg, though a hugely important resource. Many other resources are also running very low, including a reasonable number of the rare metals that are used to make the machine you will have read this on.
I rather enjoyed the conference, although there was less discussion of positive measures and alternatives, especially on the political level, than I'd have liked to hear. A couple of people there evidently wanted each speaker to touch on how they saw their 'this is the nature of this aspect of the problem' being resolved, but most speakers did not do more than illuminate the problems. This was a necessary task in itself, and so was a great start. But hopefully more solution based speakers can be rostered next time? Everyone got along, despite disparate views, and the only real low point for me was that it overran so that I had to go before having much of a jaw with people, due to another commitment. Maybe next time...
James Howard points out that much of the material from the conference, including PowerPoint presentations, will be available on the PowerSwitch website. This website has forums too, so you can join in. And don't forget the October conference in London! If you are in the US, there are many equivalent meetings, and have been for longer than here. If you are elsewhere, enquire, and if nothing is going on, download the materials and have your own conference!
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