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blue vol IV, #25
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End of Oil Conference
London, October 11th, 2005

report by Tim Barton of the European Social Ecology Institute

The End of Oil - Conference on Peak Oil, Food and the Economy was a one-day conference, delivered on October 11th 2005 at the Insurance Hall in the City of London.

This was a major conference examining the peak oil problem & its impact on climate change, the world's food supply & the world economy. Speakers include Michael Meacher MP, Tim Lang & Andrew Simms (of NEF), chaired by Dr Ian Gibson MP. The conference is organised by East Anglia Food Link, CRed, Sustain and PowerSwitch.

The event was chaired by Dr Ian Gibson, MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons.

Speakers included:

Ian Gibson - Introduction to Basic PO ideas
Michael Meacher MP - Peak Oil & Climate Change
Chris Skrebowski - Joining the Dots
Keith Tovey - Hard Choices Ahead
Andrew Simms - Ecological Debt & Peak Oil
Tim Lang - Is There A Plan B?
Richard Douthwaite - The Silver Lining
Food Workshop - led by Tully Wakeman

Below, Tim Barton, from BlueGreenEarth (web editor) and the European Social Ecology Institute, who attended the conference for BlueGreenEarth, gives a report on each of the speakers, and on the Food Workshop (other workshops were organised - on Energy & Climate Change; Transport; and on the Economy).


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Ian Gibson MP (Chair) introduces The End of Oil

The problem, that the world's oil supply is running out, was introduced as follows in the conference press release. Ian Gibson made us all welcome and outlined the reasons for the conference in line with the press release.

"Most analysts agree that once we pass the half-way point in the world's oil reserves, production will begin to drop off as the remaining reserves are more difficult to extract. Some believe that point will come in the next 12 months, others think we have 10 years or more left. But either way, we need to prepare now by reducing our dependency on this finite resource.Oil and gas supply 85% of the energy used in the UK. By comparison, nuclear supplies 4% and renewables 1%. Can nuclear be expanded by a factor of 20, or renewables by a factor of 85? Will coal fill the gap, and at what cost to global warming? Do we have enough coal left to expand its use 12 times over?

"We rely on energy to produce, process and transport food. As energy becomes more expensive, will our food system revert to local production and organic methods? Can the world continue to feed itself at all without cheap energy? What steps should we be taking right now to avert future hunger?

"Does the end of cheap oil herald the end of globalisation? Is the notion of continual economic growth consistent with a shrinking energy supply? Some observers predict a recession of 1930s proportions, but lasting much longer. Others believe the economic system could be reinvented along sustainable lines."

Michael Meacher MP - Keynote Speech on Peak Oil and Climate Change

The government post that is most relevant to Michael Meachers being at the conference was that of Environment Minister. A rare thing in New Labour, Meacher seemed to be in a post about which he was passionate. That is to say, unlike many ministers, he actually cares deeply about the environment.

Meacher opened with a brief overview of the post-Peak Oil future - in the next few years, he said, the scale of change needed "is apocalyptic". Civilisation, he noted, is dependent on oil in industry, in agriculture, in transport and for it's military capability. Removing our dependency on this 150-year-old drug will have "consequences unprecedented in human hsitory". These are strong words, and, I think, on the money. Let's see if his proposals meet up to his rhetoric?

"What is to be done?", he asked, in good leftist fashion. Meacher believes that market forces will exert pressures, but that this will not be enough, and that therefore it is absolutely necessary that government gives the process a shove. He sees the nature of the problem to be defined by resource depletion; need; price; and the environmental consequences of low grade source of oil. Oil decline will equal mass migration, violence, and "possible revolution".

One of the things that can help, in Meacher's view, are instruments such as the Rimini Protocol. There is a conference in Rimini in a week or so (Pio Manzu Conference, Rimini, Italy on October 28-30 2005), which will try to get signatories for this Protocol, "whereby countries cut their imports to match the world depletion rate - this is, world annual production as a percentage of what is left, now running at about 2% a year. Poorer oil-less developing countries would be able to aford their minimum needs, and profiteering from shortage by OPEC would be avoided. Consumers would be forced to avoid waste by improving energy efficiency, and to switch to renewables". Meacher is aware of enforcement issues (he notes the inability of Kyoto, for instance, to deliver a firm 10%+ reduction in CO2 emissions, in an environment where we require at least 60%), though he notes the positive point that some US states have voluntarily taken protocols into their own hands regardless of the attitude in D.C.

What he doesn't address is the inability of the renewables market to become competitive with higher materials and power costs at the development end - all dependent to some degree on fossil fuels. An illustration of the problem is the impact of Katrina on silicon-dependent production companies in the US, both for PC's and for photo-voltaics - the price of the raw materials and the costs of processing have both spiralled upwards and bankrupted a few of the companies trying to promote a transition to renewables (and has had an impact on most, if not all, of them). Ironic, huh? Yes, it's a fact, ladies and gents, that to get from here to there we need more... oil!

However, it is suggested that we reduce waste; increase energy efficiency; and switch to renewables. Ignoring the logistics, it is obvious that this is exactly what we do need to do.

Meacher next moved on to the question of how this should be accomplished. He wishes to promote a transitional economy - this is one that will creep up on the shift to renewables: via, first
  • a shift to gas (to create synthetic fuels; to use as a feedstock for hydrogen fuel cells) - this has the disadvantage for the UK that by 2020 we are expected to 80% dependent upon imports, but may be viable elsewhere;
  • coupled with a carbon tax (sector based; budgeted; emissions trading), and;
  • the promotion of conservation efficiency via taxes and incentives (one example he gives of today's profligate waste, and there are many to choose from, is that "only 15% of the energy in a gallon of petrol reaches the wheels of a car"), and of;
  • R&D spending (aimed at the new fuel cell technology, as well as at increasing efficiency in old technology);
  • leading to - an energy economy that is based on renewables (though likely, in Meacher's view, to be heavily reliant upon hydrogen).

He points out that the US Department of Energy say that 3 US States can theoretically meet the whole of US need for energy by wind power alone; that figures are similar for Europe, primarily due to the UK; and that China has theoretical wind energy sufficient to meet it's current need twice over. He sees solar technologies as having similar potential, and that "even the Ford motor company" say that hydrogen fuel cells will be the main power source for cars "within 25 years". He points out that in all three cases, and that of hydrogen, government programmes that subsidise inefficient and old-school industries, especially nuclear, have been artificially starving the development of renewables. This must stop. However, he is so bullish for hydrogen that I suspect if he had his way hydrogen would merely replace nuclear as the politicians favorite, and I for one am still unconvinced of it's merits.

Meacher envisions us reaching such a hybrid economy by 2030, though is optimistic that R&D could accelerate that. He sees, again, only governmental pressure as being sufficient to drive us "down the only route that can save humanity".

Chris Skrebowski - Joining the Dots

Chris Skrebowski is the editor of Petroleum Review. His maxim is "Plan Early / Plan Often". The solution to our problems is reliant on continual adjustments to policy as new data is uncovered. This is a sensible point, as the inertia in government and corporate circles often militates against change over short timescales. He makes the point that chaos theory (in the shape of the patina of small changes over time) shifts you off target without you noticing, unless you continually monitor feedback between your input to the environment and the environment's responses.

As you might expect from this way of stating things, Skrebowski is of the techno-fix school of thought. He is not, however, guilty of the "magic wand" view of science that some are. Although he points up humanity's ingenuity and adapabilty, he acknowledges that greed and selfish behaviour undermine many attempts to engage positively with our future. We must, he says, "stop the denial culture".

He raised a laugh from the audience by introducing another maxim: "When Noah built the Ark ... it wasn't raining". Obviously a Boy Scout when he was young, the 'be prepared' mentality permeates his approach to problems, and, frankly, that is a very good thing, which more of us should embrace.

There are bottlenecks in the system, if we look at the figures for projected supply and demand - reserves are dropping 5% per year, whilst demand is currently rising 1.5% per year. Knowing this now should lead to action now. A projection of when to expect the two lines to intersect leaves out certain sticky facts. Skrebowski points out that, as supply and demand converge, flow is increasingly sporadic and susceptible to increasingly small blows. He also notes that the market responds to interruptions in flow in a potentially positive way - although "peak oil" is when flow can't meet demand, and we need to be planning ahead for this imminent horizon, supply and demand is a 2-way street: high prices can in fact suppress demand. The recent rise in Brent Crude price of 40% ($50 to $70 in the last year) is pricing some out of the market, which in turn creates less demand for the product, and forces down the price.

I must say, I thought the recent petroleum price drop was not about consumer demand, but was brought about by the bottleneck caused by loss of refineries after the recent hurricanes in the Gulf - if it can't be refined then the large amounts still being extracted in fact have no value, until processing is possible again: the consumer demand hasn't dropped. Skrebowski talks about this but doesn't fully follow it through - I would note, as I think he is in fact onto something here, that if lowered demand lowers price, then this new cheapness would then raise demand, so that the market would not be simply responding to peak oil by "intelligently" and incrementally adjusting to the loss of the material resource, but would force a stacatto stop-and-start of over- and under-production. Yes, this would eventually lead to lower market demand, and a straight-line graph from point A to point Z would drop - but a sensitively drawn graph including data from the 24 points in between A & Z would be all over the place: Why? Precisely because the market is not and can not be "intelligent" - it is the sum of transactions, under no control, and what some mistake for an Invisible Hand, directing the market in a positive manner over which we can be sanguine, is in fact merely the aggregate of mathematical and logical laws, applied to the abstract concepts of value and money, which mirror physical laws, such that the stable point is the lowest entropy point (this can be OK, but chaos theory dictates that while one strange attractor may have a lowest entropy point that is bearable, when the system is hit hard by external physical forces the current state tends to be catapulted out of this stable attractor and into a crash dive until it settles, if it settles, into another lower entropy attractor, whose lowest energy state is that much closer to mass starvation - for more on this see Paul Ormerod's The Death of Economics).

Another point to be made is that it is difficult to be laid back about this adjustment process just because it eventually forces us to get to where we need to be, because a closer look sees that there is a high price involved for many human individuals. We cannot bloodlessly ignore the human costs of blind downsizing forced by circumstance alone. Skrebowski acknowledges the tendency to social injustice inherent in merely allowing blind market forces to negotiate the PO economy for us. He says that this is "not a sensible way to organise things". I took this to imply that he would agree with Meacher in using tax incentives to push costs higher in a controlled way pre-crisis, and using, also, positive incentives to downsizing, such as grants to those who respond by: buying less gas-guzzling vehicles; install solar water heating; invest in more insulation, etc. Obviously these things require cash up front, and so are still socially regressive measures - even if the cost is reduced long term by buying a new-build eco-house or small hybrid car now, those that can make that long-term saving are those who, in income terms, least need to, as they have the cash the poor families would love to have and would need in order to make such savings. Incentives, in the form of income related grants, might alleviate some of this inequality. The bottom line is, I think the principle stands.

Nonetheless, Skrebowski articulates the likely broad dynamics of peak oil in the economy. The petroleum industry is slow to respond to change; it is not finding much new oil; it has few undeveloped resources; there is an equipment and skills shortage where accelerating development is concerned - and this delivery bottleneck will, whether we like it or not, create it's own baseline for future supply even when reserves are still out there. New plant takes seven years to build, and even with a great deal of new kit chucked out there, there would still be an average 10% of reserve per annum production limit for extraction from any oilfield for technical reasons relating to oil pressure etc. Thus we can't grow the market much from now to 2020 even with the increased demands (largely due to India and China). After 2020, resource depletion will further exacerbate supply problems, so, basically, supply will dwindle.

The balance of declining fields over developing fields, based on today's (thorough) knowledge of new reserves, will be equal by 2007-8 at best and from there on it is downhill, as declining fields cease to be replaced by new fields, or, at best, as declining fields begin to be replaced by smaller and lower grade fields. Many of the oilfields that we have taken for granted had their peak flows decades ago, and have been in decline ever since. For example, North Sea oil peaked between 1975 and 1980, and is now producing one-sixth of the volume per annum that it did then; the Alaskan North Slope field has a similar profile; Russian fields reached this peak in 2000-1... Fields in production that replaced these declining fields are, on average, smaller, harder to find, and contain lower grade oils. The heavy tar sands that some pundits say will save us from PO are slow to develop and once developed will not flow quickly enough to meet projected demand.

Skrebowski says that a World Peak is expected between 2010 and 2012 unless new reserves are discovered soon, and there is little reason to expect this to occur. After this, production drops whatever we do. I would note, for any budding optimists out there, that developing the green zone Arctic and Antarctic reserves, and certain deep sea reserves such as those we fought the Falklands/Malvinas War over, will merely defer the crisis, even if they are big enough and accessible enough to make any difference at all - and meanwhile the globe's eco-diversity will be being reduced yet more, time-limiting the species, never mind the 'civilisation', so-called. Skrebowski's own end note mirrors mine - he says that the wars and social upheavals he expects to result from reduced production from right now will no doubt lead to greater supply difficulties such that the 2010-12 date he envisions as peak year may in fact be optimistic.

Given his happy "Plan Early / Plan Often" maxim, and his declaration that the solution to our problems is reliant on continual adjustments to policy as new data is uncovered, as if we might have time to do this, I wonder what he knows that he isn't telling. I say this because he offered no real suggestions as to how we can plan early without a time machine. His own views suggest the 'plan early' horse has bolted (probably during the 1970s). Perhaps he has a ticket on the off-Earth rich mans eco-spaceship, a la Ben Elton's hilarious novel Stark (they don't write 'em like that anymore, or, at least, Ben doesn't)?

Keith Tovey - Hard Choices Ahead

Keith Tovey is a Reader in Environmental Sciences, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He spoke at the conference wearing his CRed hat - CRed (Carbon Reduction) are a group lobbying for a 60% per head voluntary reduction in CO2 emissions.

One of the first things he did was show a graph of global average temperature rise from 1900 to 2000, and onwards. This showed a steady rise in temperature throughout the last century, with a small downward trough that appeared to me to coincide with the Second World War, ramping up again, and in fact accelerating, from 1950 onwards (ie, from the Green Revolution to now). The projection from 2000 to 2050 expects a 2-6 degree rise. He noted the effects that the rises already charted for the last decades have had on the UK climate - many areas had experienced an 80% rise in winter rainfall in the period 1961-2001, with some areas being up to 60% drier in summer over the same period. This renders increased rainfall less useful, and in fact makes it dangerous, as drier land is harder and thus rain tends to run off into rivers, reservoirs, drains, etc, instead of being absorbed into the soil - it is a moot point to what degree modern agriculture has degraded the soil, no doubt affecting absorption, or to what degree concretisation and flood-plain development have exacerbated flooding, as it seems clear that the temperature rise would have had negative effects of this sort regardless.

Tovey sought to predict the trands in energy supply to 2020, looking at percentage of market and cost. For non-renewables he saw nuclear declining fast (though still cheap, at around 4p per kilowatt hour) and gas rising to become responsible for up to 80% of our supply (at 5p+ per kilowat hour). He saw no hopes for fusion power, which supposedly is the ultimate in clean and cheap power, even by 2050, if then. He saw 'clean coal' as being not at all clean as regards CO2 emissions. On the carbon reduction front, he saw little likelihood of reaching even the most modest carbon sequestration targets.

For renewables he gave these figures (my notes are incomplete, but correct for what I got from his fast-moving slides!): 25% growth in Wind Power, at 3-4p/kWh; 5% growth in Hydro, at around 3p/kwh; 50% growth in photo-voltaics, but at around 10p/kWh; 100% growth in energy crops / biofuels, at 4p/kWh (but requiring an area three times the size of the UK to provide for the UK's current energy 'needs'!); 100% growth in wave power (tidal stream) at between 4 & 8p/kWh; 10-20% growth in wave power (tidal barrage), not costed but expensive; geothermal, not a contender for the UK.

To meet demand without coal and nuclear power seems, on his figures, to commit us to gas, as Meacher, too, suggested, and he notes the fundamental insecurity in this for Britain, since it would involve piping gas in from across the Central Asian steppes (ie: through unfriendly states, cf: Iraq war and NATO's Georgian and Azerbaijani excursions, reasons for...), and through sundry other rich western European nations who get first dibs.

Tovey says that this renders increased energy efficiency and renewables as the UK's only real options.

In answer to the expected claims that renewables are unreliable (for example, pointing up the fact that it isn't windy all the time), Tovey itemised some of the ways in which non-renewables require downtime. In the example of Sizewell B nuclear power-station, he noted that when it requires switching, it is entirely off-grid in a binary all-or-nothing manner, whereas wind may die down in one part of Britain, but is unlikely to stop everywhere at once, and does tend to drop slowly rather than just plain stop.

He pointed out some basic facts regarding the UK's energy demands for the near future. There is an expectation, based on current trends, to expect the number of UK households to rise 17.5% by 2025. To stand still, in terms of our current energy usage, would thus require us to use 17.5% less energy per household by 2025. Needless to say, current straight-line projections would see an increase in per household demand. Peak Oil, and other similar finite resource problems, are exacerbating the problem. Thus energy efficiency measures, as well as education on expectations, are an absolute necessity.

Tovey promotes local community as the basis for the necessary change, suggesting that, for example, several households in a neighbourhood should club together to buy solar panels in bulk at cheaper unit cost. As an incentive to goad us to action he quoted the unhappy statistics that a small family car would only drive 1.6 miles on the energy input required to heat an old person's room for one hour, and that the average per capita CO2 emissions per person in the UK are 9 tonnes per annum, or the volume of 5 of those lovely air balloons you see giving sight-seeing tours over the Downs in late summer.

Andrew Simms - Ecological Debt & the Impact of Peak Oil on the World Economy

Andrew Simms is the author of Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations [see review] and is the Policy Director, at the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

His was a flying visit, as he had an unexpected and unfortunate other engagement, but he managed to deliver a performance. His was definitely the most accomplished and self-aware delivery, begining with a quip, at the expense of the previous speaker (but gentle), that his was to be a "carbon neutral presentation... ie: no slides".

Simms noted that in energy terms the poor were being left further and further behind by developing first world economies, and that climate change, instigated by rich nations' greed, increases that gap and disproportionatly harms the poor even more. Belt tightening in the West, when the economy was hit by the oil crises of the 1970's, caused huge economic losses in the poorest countries. A reduction in domestic demand equals the poor getting poorer (home and abroad). The richer (oil exporting) countries do not use their wealth to help poorer countries, and to the small extent that they do, eg, foreign debt relief, the 'help' is massively outstripped by the ecological debt increase those countries experience, mostly caused by the developed countries fossil fuel use.

The suggestion from first world governments is usually to use the growth of the economy as a solution, but there is very little trickle-down despite neo-liberal propaganda, and such growth is still fundamentally fossil fuel dependent.

One of the facts that Simms gave us was that a Tanzanian family's energy use for one year is equivalent to that consumed by an American between New Year and the 2nd of January. This family is using far less energy than a secure life would require, whilst the west experiences profligate lifestyles that use far more resources than our security should require. Thus Simms proposes a policy of contraction of western economies and convergence with poorer countries rising economies (and measures to ensure such a rise) - see our review of Ecological Debt for more on this.

The instruments Simms encourages us to use to achieve this include more sustainable agriculture, and local renewables. He highlights the need for radical action to increase well-being in poor countries.

So far as the developed world is concerned, Simms notes that we don't pay the real cost of fuel, as, for example, pollution costs are not included. These 'externalities', of course, do have a real cost - at the current rate Simms sees the global economy as being made bankrupt by 2067, sooner if current rates of growth rise. A contraction and convergence policy should aim at a 3% overall drop in consumption per year as a minimum, but try telling China that...

Tim Lang - Is here A Plan B? Food Drivers when Oil Runs Out

Tim Lang is Professor of Food Policy, at City University. He told us that he has been a lecturer in Polytechnics for years and that thus he had a certain style - thanks for the warning, Tim! He proceeded to burble and mutter his way through what might otherwise have been interesting, and willfully flicked across slides at such a rate that only those with a photographic memory could get any benefit whatsoever - I think he hoped we'd all buy his books instead.

His thesis is that we'd damn well better have a Plan B, as Plan A isn't working. He also believes that we do have a Plan B. Much of the problem driving the reliance on Plan A is "a culture problem" - the public is unwilling to change: in the words of Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys (my choice not Lang's), Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. Governments are locked into neo-liberal choice theory, where "Tesco and WalMart call the shots".

Lang wants to indicate at what point change happens and how. As the sub-title of his talk suggests, this point is determined by food as well as fuel. Lang sees several potential tipping points at which things go pear-shaped, of while these are a few (his slides changed really quickly):

  • Climate Change
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Pollution
  • Water
  • Soil
  • Oil
  • War
  • Urbanisation
  • Healthcare
  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Supply Irregularities

Today, in an average household budget, only 9% goes on food, compared with 40-50% in the 1950s. The oil-based fuel and fertilizer economy drives increased consumption, pushing down the price of food, increasing yeilds, and cheaply (externalities not included) transports it all over the world. Oil is key to distribution of food, and the current supermarket economy, which latter uses: the "motorway as warehouse"; the JIT (just-in-time) supply model; and few hubs (in the shape of hypermarkets, out of town, requiring increased family car ownership/use for basic supplies). But in fact the energy savings on economies of scale are dropping as fuel prices and manufacture costs rise, and the economic centre of gravity is shifting to India and China.

The method of food growth has a role to play here as well. Although the shop 'cost' of oil-boosted agriculture is lower than that of natural agriculture, the environmental costs are far higher than for natural agriculture, yet are rarely thought about. The Productionist Paradigm leads to Food Wars, and it is Lang's contention that these have been live and dangerous since the Green Revolution (the terrain includes health costs of bad food diets etc). The solutions proposed include various Plan A staples, such as hypermarkets, and come under the rubrik "Intensification", whilst Plan B solutions, such as local production and supply, come under the rubrik "Externalisation". Now, I guess you can imagine why I can't provide many more examples of what comes under each heading? You guessed it - those slides flick past like express train windows...

However, Lang's point is that Plan A is the paradigm, and we are locked into it on many levels - only the rich have the leisure and cash to worry about the ethics of food production, whilst the poor care only about food safety and cost; convenience is more important than quality; yet 'the poor eating badly as a result' is a western phenomenon, as our 'poor' are really quite rich - the third world poor are usually eating less meat, and are healthier (when not so poor they starve); thus the rich eat unhealthily (meat; soft-drinks, etc) and in a land-inefficient manner; marketing always pushes for more growth and thus meat and sweetener use grows world wide... The health costs are growing too, as bad diet related diseases become the main killers in the rich world. The numbers of undernourished people globally is now rising; ironically, the number of hungry (1.2 billion) matches the number who over-consume - insurance companies can no longer pay for health care problems caused by over-consumption.

Yet the Green Revolution is in fact over - maize, wheat, soya and rice production was boosted and rose from 1960 to 1980, but has since levelled out. Productivity per acre is likely dropping, perhaps to pre-50's levels, but with artificial nutrients still added at the same rate as they were when they first boosted harvests. With oil depletion we are left slowly but surely dependent upon the underlying fertiltiy of the land, and increasingly of only our own land - this cannot sustain our (UK) population, which requires three times more land than we have (on current diets) and has had its nutrient base destroyed by modern farming techniques.

Lang proposes these policy levers: Price should reflate to real cost; Rationing and tax on various foods should be introduced, ie, war economy controls should be adopted. To achieve this Lang suggests we need education; new structures; and the political will. He doesn't express optimism. Neither do I, especially if you see the Intensification solution as a non-starter (as Lang, too, does), for surely authoritarianism is no more workable a solution? Ultimately a long-term stable human/social ecology is required or any short term fix won't hold, and authoritarian measures are in no way sustainable. Pushing, for example, for local production and provision over hypermarkets can work, as it can be organised with local involvement and empowerment - in fact, can't work without them. So, unless voluntaristically embraced, I can't see war economy measures working, only causing the mass revolt of the chavs...

Richard Douthwaite - The Silver Lining

Richard Douthwaite is an economist and is the author of the books Before the Wells Run Dry: Ireland's Transition to Renewable Energy (see Before the Oil Runs Dry pages and FEASTA), The Growth Illusion and Short Circuit.

Douthwaite has a simple thesis here - books like The Long Emergency and The Party's Over only show one side of the coin in their negativity (though if we are to 'emerge' from something it will be as something either new [and positive, such as stewardship of the Earth] or old [and negative, such as survivalist feudalism again], so Kunstler may be less negative): in fact the fuel crisis could be seen positively - as the cure for climate change. He probably has point there, don't you think? Not much consolation for those lost in the transition, but a point nonetheless...

The negative attitudes he is trying to see past run deep, of course. He points out that in a media poll of businessmen, asked to answer the question "What will the World be like in 2025?" in terms of the newspapers of the day, respondents all wrote gloomy headlines. So even the enlightenment positivist optimists among us get it.

To illustrate his there-is-positive-in-the-negative point, Douthwaite uses the case of a small village he knows in Ireland. It lies on a small river, a tributary of the Shannon. The stream burbles happily along for centuries and then Man begins to alter it's course to run mills and weirs and drainage/irrigation channels. These operate to give energy to the small local community. At a certain point this takes the ecology and community from a point of mutual sustainability and takes it into an environmentally detrimental paradigm, over-industrialised, over-populated and reliant on imports from outside the community. He is involved in a project that promotes and encourages local sustainability there and elsewhere in Ireland. He returns to this artisan-based locally-sustainable community later in his (rather burbling) talk, after a look at how the industrial paradigm, whose worst effects he sees as having not harmed Ireland much, has caused the present crisis and has left us with wholly inappropriate tools for weathering the coming crises.

Douthwaite says that "The growth paradigm must stop!". He points out that around half of our energy spending next year is projected as being for growth alone, suggesting we all slow down and enjoy our wealth. Also, whether for day to day living or for future and unnecessary growth, transport (moving us, goods, and incorporating manufacture) uses around 50% of our energy. To combat this waste Douthwaite suggests reducing unnecessary growth and localising economies.

One mechanism he suggests that might help involves altering the way in which money enters the economy. Money enters the economy through lending which is growth centered. As the economy runs down people try to repay their loans, and avoid taking new ones, so less money enters the economy, running it down further. An alternative way to create new money is through spending instead of lending. This point needed amplification - perhaps someone reading this piece might feel qualified to do so: if so feel free to send something to us (Email)!

He moved on to a discussion of the ways that harsh times increase social inequality, quoting Ted Trainer, who said, of the market economy, "When things get scarce only the rich get to have them". This was used as a launch-pad for the promotion of measures to alter this allocation of resources in hard times. Predictably the kinds of measures he favours include War Economics - in war, a good government will introduce rationing systems, and the PO world would benefit from a trans-national rationing scheme for energy, to promote fair distribution. He noted the need for a contraction & convergence model, pointing out, as had Simms, that the poor of the developing world (and, nationally, the working class) are most harmed by the consequences of the excesses of the rich.

So, the kind of contraction and convergence tools he favours include tradeable permits for emissions, systematically constricted over time, and thus forcing both lower fuel use and less pollution, but in a way designed to inflict the least damage on the poorest. Without such tools, the "business as usual" paradigm will let "the banks mess it up" - higher prices for fuel should drive a change of attitude from consumers: however, the banks' use of interest rate cuts, and other monetary control measures, artificially keeps end-use "cost" down, so that this transition is indefinately deferred. As energy demand drops and prices drop, the market aims to increase consumption to drive prices back up - as a response to peak oil, this is highly inappropriate and merely drives the crisis faster.

At this point Douthwaite again returned to his Irish community. This time, he invoked the tale of a craftsman there who works wood into sturdy and beautiful furniture. This artisan has seen a serious drop in business in line with the rise of stores like IKEA. The economies of scale that IKEA benefit from allows them to retail functional furniture at a very cheap price. As fuel costs spiral upward, transportation of the wood; and processing of the wood into chip-board and MDF; and shipping it all over the continent, if not the planet, all become more and more expensive. This might even be accelerated by measures that put the costs of externalities, that companies currently get away without paying, back into their budgets. Douthwaite whistfully looks forward to a time when the artisan's locally produced furniture is rendered once more economic as a result of peak oil - herein lies his "silver lining".

This "silver lining" may also be made available with regard to energy - local supply may become cheaper than globalised supply, despite economies of scale. This gives an opportunity to change the Fordist power structures of industry and to create, instead, a better and more sustainable world. The technologies best suited to this are renewable energy technologies, and, back on his Irish tributory of the Shannon, Douthwaite sees a renaissance of the small mills and artisan settlements.

All well and good, but this in no way addresses the issue of carrying capacity for such a lifestyle. In Ireland this may not be an issue: here in the UK, it is more of one, and I can just see the BNP now, claiming that there is a silver lining to the coming population crunch! These are hard issues, and no solutions are forthcoming that can turn back time - "collateral damage" is unavoidable, so perhaps Douthwaite has a point in trying to see a bright side, if the change is inevitable (which, I'm guessing, it is)...

Food Workshop, led by Tully Wakeman

As a prelude to the workshop, a short presentation was made on Organic Farming Yields, by Gundala Azeez, from the Soil Association. She first defined what the term meant:

  1. Natural biological and ecological processes in situ
  2. Not fertilizer-based (for example, one might use a grass-clover ley to fix nitrogen before planting a main crop)
  3. Builds up and maintain organic matter and a soil carbon bank

She followed this with a brief discussion of yields. In Northern Europe organic techniques tend to reduce yields by about 30% (I suspect this figure will decrease as over-farming and monoculture further degrade the soil), but in North America the reduction would be an average of 10%. In the developing world it depends where you are - some regions would experience a 50% rise in yield, a few might even achieve a 150% rise. Advantages of using organic crops and farming methods include a 15% higher dry yield (so less water is used and wasted, if appropriate intermediate technology practises are adopted); increased drought tolerance; nutritional benefits as mineral content is replenished in formerly poor soils; and a reduction in oil dependence (oil being used in the processing of artificial fertilizers, as well as in distribution of the fertilizers and the monocultured crops); potentially, an increase in range of locally available crops and of the local market for such crops (also saving oil).

The prospects for organics were also discussed. Food wastage is currently high; set-aside land is there to be used if necessary; soil mineral treatment is a problem, which organics can address; plant-breeding programmes, which have been aimed at monoculture crop boosting could also be used to instead enhance organics; intercropping could increase the flat yields per acre quoted above (perhaps doubly some yields); and agro-forestry could also encourage the development, or better, re-development, of a wide range of trades as well as producing tradeable goods.

After this, the workshop was primarily a forum for debate, and Tully opened things up by getting the group to ask questions, which he wrote on an A-frame and then encouraged debate about. The kinds of questions asked were as follows:

What percentage of land might we see given over to energy crops?
Where is the skills base?
What are the land ownership and land access issues?
What about local empowerment, especially in regard to the divide between urban and rural populations?
What perennial crops could be developed?
What is our current import dependence?
What countries do we import from, and is it ethical to seek to disentangle from the poorer ones whose economies rely on our trade with them?
How much food wastage is there?
How much food wastage is a function a modern lack of culinary skills?
What degree of dependence on oil fertilizers is there?
Who will farm this labour-intensive practice?
How can we utilise local trade networks?
Can we discuss the water economy?
Should we all become vegetarian, as meat is unhealthy and land-intensivee?
How does Just-In-Time marketing affect our current food distribution network?

This last question saw a very depressive turn to the debate, as the 2000 fuel strike had emptied shelves very quickly, and JIT was seen as the prime factor in this. "How can we get there from here?" questions were passed over as unanswerable. As the workshop wore on, the subject of peak oil as a catalyst for food shortages took a background role to the question of how, in any crisis, we might manage our food needs.

Tully came from East Anglia Food Link - he had presented a talk at the June PO conference at BedZed in Surrey, reported in an earlier piece for Blue. I will reprise some of his argument from that talk here, briefly, as they cut to the heart of much of what was debated at this workshop:

"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)".

Other workshops were organised - on Energy & Climate Change; Transport; and on the Economy. Blue had no-one to report from these, but anyone who was there and wishes to submit material to us is welcome to do so (Email).


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.

–  Tim Barton

For more information on peak oil, see The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas or The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre To join a network of individuals concerned about peak oil go to Good books on the subject include Richard Douthwaite's When the Wells Run Dry, Matthew Simmons' Twilight in the Desert, and Colin Campbell's The Coming Oil Crisis.

The End of Oil, One-day Conference, 11 October 2005, London

This conference will aim to discuss the problems arising from a peak in oil production, and to begin to plan responses to ameliorate those problems.

It is aimed at policy-makers, business people, NGOs and individuals who use energy or eat food.

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