Apr 2010

Peak oil in Ireland

A few years ago in a longish piece about Nukes in Ireland, I discussed a report commissioned by the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Compiled by the advisory body, Forfás, I described it as “the Buzz Aldrin of peak oil studies” as it was the second major government study (in English) of the peak oil situation. The first such study was The Hirsch Report carried out by the US Department of Energy. Both came to very similar conclusions.

In the intervening four years the recommendations of the Forfás report have been roundly ignored by the government that commissioned it. Of course, governments commission a lot of studies and reports and can’t be expected to follow every recommendation in every one. But when presented with strong evidence from your top advisors that the entire country will go down the tubes unless something is done quickly, it takes either a criminally negligent or deeply moronic set of politicians to sweep that evidence under the carpet in the hope that ignoring it will help matters.

The report suggested that the crisis would start to seriously impact Ireland within ten to fifteen years. It suggested that radical measures needed to be taken immediately as it would take at least that long to prepare for peak oil and that even a ten year lead time was cutting it very fine indeed. The Hirsch Report, remember, suggested that twenty years was the bare minimum to implement a mitigation strategy that had any chance of working.

Sadly, the reality is, credible warnings were sounded and it is now simply too late to deal effectively with peak oil without significant damage being done to the fabric of global civilisation.

Which isn’t to say that nothing can be done. But each day we delay we make that damage all the worse. Each day we live in denial and insist that our strategy must be to achieve a “return to growth” rather than a wholesale restructuring of our economy, our systems of production and distribution, is a day closer to complete systemic collapse.

We are here already

For all intents and purposes we have already passed the global peak in oil production. We’ve reached the tipping point. Which is presumably why that title, Tipping Point, was chosen for yet another Irish report into the peak oil problem. Subtitled Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production: An Outline Review, this time the study has been produced by Feasta (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) and it makes very grim reading indeed. If you don’t fancy downloading the full report, a brief summary can be accessed on their website. As I say though, it’s grim stuff.

The Irish Times today reports the study under the headline: Ireland ‘among most vulnerable’ to peak oil. The point I’d like to make — briefly as it’s getting late — is that although there’s a certain truth in that; it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Ireland’s vulnerability to peak oil stems from the fact that modern Ireland is more dependent upon cheap oil than most places. We are the third highest per capita oil consumers in Europe, thanks largely to our heavy use of oil to generate electricity (Dublin’s primary power station is an oil burner). We have squandered billions in recent years on road-building programmes while our public transport systems remain an embarrassment. The “knowledge economy” our government is so proud of building may have funded a decade-long orgy of consumerism but will ultimately turn out to be a betrayal of the people of Ireland. We allowed our traditional agricultural base to decline while hurtling towards a world where the ability to produce real actual food will be infinitely more valuable than being Google’s European base of operations.

And yet, despite the inevitable upheavals that approach us, Ireland does have a few things going for it. We’ve got a couple of aces up our sleeves. Albeit no thanks to the people who actually run the country.

Firstly is the fact that we are one of the few countries in the developed world that has not exceeded its notional carrying capacity. In other words, should there be a collapse in global trade — as predicted by the Feasta study — Ireland could become self-sufficient in food production. Certainly it would take a huge effort to achieve this, and given the kind of people we’ve tended to put in charge of national policy there’s every chance we’ll screw it up completely. Nonetheless, this island has the ability to produce enough food to prevent widespread hunger. The same cannot be said for many of our neighbours.

Another advantage we possess is our broadly socialist culture. Yes, it’s taken a severe knock in the past twenty years as successive governments sought to emulate the neoliberal travesties that rose briefly to international prominence on the back of an over-abundance of cheap energy. Nonetheless, I genuinely feel that the basic vision of de Valera (the most influential political figure in the early years of the Irish state) is still there. Sure, it’s buried beneath a thick layer of dust. And yes, it was always uncomfortably bound up with the darkness of Irish Catholicism. But de Valera’s basic vision of a socialist-leaning nation built upon agricultural self-sufficiency and a firm rejection of the entrenched power of private capital hasn’t been dead so long that it can’t be revived.

Here on this small wet island we possess the raw materials to keep body and soul together. And terrible though it may be to point it out, this actually puts us in a minority of nations. Whether we actually do keep body and soul together though, remains very much in the balance. But our national culture — the collective psyche of Ireland — shouldn’t be as unreceptive to the steps required to achieve this as might be the case elsewhere.

See, a transition to sustainability will happen. There’s not actually a choice in this. We can no more choose another option than we can legislate gravity away. The only question is how much destruciton and suffering will be involved in that transition. And that will largely be predicated upon how quickly we wake up to the need to act. The more preparation we carry out before the oil supply starts to significantly dwindle, the less damage we’ll suffer as a nation — and as a global civilisation.

Posted in: Opinion