tag: Big Business



25
Mar 2014

There’s still money in mediocre coffee

For almost three years the façade stood bare. An empty shell of a building where once beat – symbolically at least – the dark heart of the Celtic Tiger. But the ephemeral nature of consumer capitalism means even the mausoleums are fleeting. A pause for reflection. But not too long, there’s still money to be made and we wouldn’t want to dwell, would we? We’ll always have the photo-montage I suppose… a reminder of how banal it all ended.

And so it was that the building that once housed Anglo Irish Bank lay empty for three years. Lurked more than lay. An unhappy reminder every time you were on Stephen’s Green of what happens when you gather all the greed and all the stupidity into one building and bizarrely hand them the reins of power.

But three years is a long time for Stephen’s Green real estate to lie fallow. I mean, decorum is one thing but wantonly throwing money away? Tch tch tch.

And so it was that earlier today someone captured a photo of the new tenants having their façade installed. Someone should tell Zizek, he’ll love this…

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


10
Feb 2014

Bank of Ireland redefine time

Most of us, when we hear the phrase “that will take 24 hours” assume that means one day. The thing “that will take 24 hours” will be done the following day.

Not so the Bank of Ireland. For them, 24 hours seems to equate to “some unspecified time over the next week”. And this isn’t just a case of them being late in a particular instance; this is how the system works. They have redefined 24 hours to mean “some unspecified time over the next week”.

Last Thursday I logged into their online banking system. I clicked the relevant buttons to make a transfer from a deposit account to a current account. This process “should take 24 hours to complete”. So, in a world where bankers aren’t in charge of defining units of time; a world – in other words – where a modicum of sanity prevails; that means the money should be in the current account some time on Friday. Makes sense, right?

Well, it’s Monday afternoon and I’ve just spent 15 minutes on the phone with a nice lady at Bank of Ireland who, through no fault of her own, found herself insisting that 24 hours from Thursday afternoon can actually – under certain circumstances – mean Tuesday morning. It seems that when it comes to time distortion, the Bank of Ireland could teach Doctor Who a thing or two.

Bank of Ireland

Remarkably, during our conversation, she explained that when I make an online transfer between a deposit and a current account, I’m not actually setting the transfer in motion. I’m effectively sending a message to someone in a Bank of Ireland office to do it for me. That’s right, despite the shiny web interface and claim that I’m engaged in an “online transfer”, I might as well be mailing them a letter requesting they carry out the transfer for me.

As I pointed out to the nice lady at the end of the phone, if I’d popped down to my local branch on Thursday afternoon and withdrawn the cash at the counter, then deposited it directly into my current account, the transaction would have taken less than 5 minutes. Instead, thanks to the magic of modern technology, I’ll be lucky if it takes less than 5 days.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


3
Apr 2013

The curious case of Inigo Wilson

This post has been brewing for about a month now. Ever since I received a letter from Mr. Inigo Wilson at the end of February asking that I remove a post from this blog. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say about it or how I wanted to say it, but I knew I wanted to say something.

First, some background…

Way back in 2006, Tory blogger Inigo Wison wrote a piece at ConservativeHome entitled Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon. In response to this piece, Mr. Wilson was suspended from his job at telecoms firm, Orange. Although he was later reinstated, he briefly became a talking point within the blogosphere. The vast majority of people – whether they agreed with Wilson’s “Lefty Lexicon” or not – were critical of the actions of the corporation. I myself emailed the PR department of Orange to suggest that while I felt his article was wrong-headed and borderline racist, he should nonetheless be permitted to express his political views on a website completely unconnected with his employer.

Yes, I found his article pretty dreadful, but I nonetheless defended his right to publish it without censure from his employers.

However, I also wrote a piece on this blog with the title, “Inigo Wilson: thick as pigshit”. Why? Well, because anyone writing such garbage under their own (very distinctive) name while working as “spokesperson for community affairs” for a major corporation would have to be as thick as pigshit if they didn’t expect repercussions.

Palestinians – archetype ‘victims’ no matter how many teenagers they murder in bars and fast food outlets. Never responsible for anything they do – or done in their name – because of ‘root causes’ or ‘legitimate grievances’.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

In my piece, I was quite unequivocal in my condemnation of Orange (and, as I say, I emailed them to say so). However, I was also quite forthright in my condemnation of Wilson. I found his piece pretty obnoxious and I found his suspension from work predictable. Anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world (as have I) and who possesses an IQ higher than that of a brain-damaged bumble-bee, would understand the consequences of publishing such an article while holding the position of “spokesperson for community affairs”. If I read a news story about someone being beaten up by a gang, I will feel dismayed at the action of that gang. However, when I read the next paragraph and discover that the victim was walking through the Broadwater Farm Estate at midnight wearing Arsenal colours and singing “One-nil to the Arsenal” at the top of his lungs…? Well, my dismay at the actions of the gang is not lessened in any way; but nor do I think it wrong of me if the phrase “what a fricking idiot!” springs unbidden to my mind.

No, the attack is not justified. But it is predictable. Likewise with Wilson’s suspension. Which is the point I made in my article… albeit rather forcefully.

Islamophobic – anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

Anyway, thanks to my ‘Mad SEO Skillz'(tm) my post appeared at the top of google results for “Inigo Wilson”. Any time someone typed “Inigo Wilson” into google, they were greeted by the phrase “Inigo Wilson – thick as pigshit” in bright blue bold letters at the top of the page. I wasn’t actually aware of this, never having recourse to type “Inigo Wilson” into a search engine, but clearly Mr. Wilson has been doing a little Egosurfing over the years (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t at one time or another?) and was less than happy at the results.

Which is why at the end of February I received a registered letter from Inigo Wilson (why he didn’t just email me, I don’t know) requesting I remove the “offensive” post.

Back to the present…

It goes without saying that my first reaction to the letter was “over my dead body!” The article that provoked Wilson’s suspension (and the condemnation of about half the blogosphere) has not been removed despite – I am quite certain – numerous requests to do so. It’s still there for all to see. If Wilson refuses to take down something he wrote that offended a whole bunch of people, why should I – at his behest – take down something I wrote because it offended one or two? I suspect that any request to remove “A Lefty Lexicon” would be met with faux-hysterical shrieks of “left-wing censorship!!” and the more hyperbolic of Wilson’s advocates would doubtlessly use the term “Stalinist”.

So yes, my first reaction to the letter was one of irritation. Here’s a guy who under the cloak of “humorous satire” labelled all Palestinians, “murderers” and equated Islam with terrorism. But he gets his knickers in a twist when someone calls him thick. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, Inigo. Why the hell should your capacity for offence trump anyone else’s? And why did you write such an article if you felt that people had some sort of right not to be offended? We’re all hypocrites from time to time, but this was particularly brazen.

But then I went back and re-read my piece, and you know what? I wasn’t impressed with it. It had been dashed off in a few minutes and not only wasn’t it well-written, it actually came across as mean-spirited. Uncharacteristically so for me (in my view). So after some hmming and hahing, I decided to remove the post from The Quiet Road. I just wasn’t proud of it, even if I still completely agreed with the sentiment. And just because I felt that Wilson’s original article was mean-spirited doesn’t absolve me of the same offence. On top of that, and despite my best efforts to avoid it, I did feel kind of bad for the guy. I wouldn’t be too happy to see my name followed by “thick as pigshit” pop up every time anyone googled me. My opinion about Wilson’s article and the whole farrago surrounding its publication haven’t changed, but I’m not comfortable hanging a digital millstone around his neck like that.

At the same time though, I didn’t feel comfortable just taking it down and saying nothing. Letting it disappear down the memory hole. As I say, Wilson has felt no compulsion to remove an article that he knows offended many people (I’m not personally offended by it, incidentally… I tend not to take offence at such things… but I do see how others could be. So in that sense, it’s definitely “an offensive” article). Also, by revisiting the whole thing I ended up re-reading not only his original article, but several others spawned by the brouhaha. For example, there’s the celebratory post at ConservativeHome upon Wilson’s reinstatement at Orange. It concludes with the sentence:

I understand that emails from supporters of Inigo outnumbered emails against him by more than five-to-one… a real victory for the conservative blogopsphere and a real defeat for those Muslim extremists who want to close down debate.

ConservativeHome | Inigo Wilson reinstated

First up, describing it as “a real victory for the conservative blogopsphere” is plain nonsense. I know at least two bloggers, excluding myself, who would be considered “of the left” by conservatives and who emailed Orange to support Wilson’s right to publish his article despite their distaste for it. I doubt we were the only three. But heaven forbid we should expect balance or fair-mindedness from such a partisan source. Also, the notion that his suspension was the result of “Muslim extremists who want to close down debate” is utter twaddle of the highest order. It’s a statement made either by someone who hasn’t the faintest idea how corporate PR works, or who does know how corporate PR works but wants to take a cheap shot at Muslims. I suspect it’s the latter because that’s the kind of nastiness one expects from Tories.

And when I re-read Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon, I found myself irritated by it all over again. Not only isn’t it the slightest bit funny, it’s badly researched, badly written and – as I say – pretty mean-spirited. So while Mr. Wilson will now be spared the “thick as pigshit” soubriquet, his article does not deserve a free ride. Let’s take a look at it…

Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon

The article begins with several paragraphs decrying what he views as a “curious Lefty-inspired patois”. By this he means the vague, euphemistic language of spin that has utterly engulfed political and corporate communication. This isn’t – of course – “Lefty-inspired” at all, but aside from that, I’m in complete agreement with his initial sentiment. The language of “spin” does indeed damage our cultural discourse and should be resisted. But Wilson’s notion that the root of such deliberate obfuscation can be found in left-wing, post-modern academia displays a breath-taking ignorance of the history of propaganda. For that is what this is; make no mistake; it’s propaganda. Over the years the actual techniques change as the culture evolves and the expectations of the audience shifts, so the specifics of the “patois” shift and mutate, but it’s something that’s been going on for years before post-modernism came on the scene.

I’m pretty sure there’s something about it in Machiavelli’s The Prince – for example – though don’t hold me to that as it’s almost two decades since I read it. However, it’s definitely addressed in Gustave Le Bon’s hugely influential text, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (published in 1895… a little while before those dastardly post-modern academics gained such a stranglehold on our civilisation). Le Bon’s trenchant views on the subject of white-European racial supremacy would probably exclude him from the kind of ‘Lefty academia’ that Wilson considers so insidious. Le Bon’s views were dissected and critiqued by Freud when Uncle Siggy wrote on the subject of Mass Psychology. But Edward Bernays was less discerning (as was Adolf Hitler who incorporated a number of Le Bon’s ideas into Mein Kampf).

Bernays is seen as the father of “spin”, and was about as far from being a “Lefty” as it’s possible to get. His books provided the template for the modern public relations industry which is actually where this tendency towards vague language and obfuscation originates in the modern era. Remember his “torches of freedom“? Was there ever a more insidious use of spin?

George Orwell’s glorious “Politics and the English Language” is an early example of criticism of this kind of euphemistic language. In reality, both left and right wings are equally capable of twisting language for political purposes. Equally capable and equally guilty. However, I do find it interesting that the “manual” on how to do it emerged from The Right, and the first well-known attack on it comes from The Left. Precisely the opposite of Wilson’s ill-researched analysis (though anyone who – with a straight face – describes the Blair government as “left wing” probably can’t be trusted when it comes to politics).

In fact, before I go any further, let’s clarify something about modern politics (I’m talking here about western liberal democracies here). There is no longer any mainstream left. It has completely disappeared. That’s not hyperbole. The modern political spectrum has been narrowed to such an extent that it now extends from the “pretty dodgy right wing” all the way to the “centre right”. The Blair government didn’t advocate a single genuinely left wing policy… they weren’t quite as bad as the previous and subsequent Tory governments, that’s true, but the attempts to redistribute wealth from top to bottom were half-hearted tokenism at best. Where were the wholesale nationalisations and massive increases in wealth taxation? Those are genuine left-wing policies, and anyone who felt the Blair / Brown administrations implemented them are just plain wrong.
Modern political spectrum
Modern politics has completely integrated the capitalist conservative model. Every mainstream political party in northern Europe and the United States is a right wing party. Every single one. Southern Europe has seen a (very recent) resurgence in socialist parties in response to the financial crisis. But even there, none of them have actually gained power and those that came close (I’m thinking specifically of Syriza in Greece) still don’t quite make it all the way around to “Socialism” on that graphic… though they are at least pushing that direction.

Personally, I don’t locate myself on that graphic. Anarcho-syndicalism with technocratic leanings doesn’t really fit into the standard left-right model though I obviously find far more allies on the red side of the picture than I do on the blue. But when you have “Labour” parties (in the UK and Ireland) aggressively pushing free-market policies of privatisation, they can no longer be described as “of the left”. To do so merely betrays a lack of imagination, a complete ignorance of political philosophy and a refusal to update one’s belief system in the face of new evidence. It’s essentially a faith-based position.

So Wilson’s introductory section to his Lefty Lexicon is not only badly researched when it ascribes the politically motivated use of obfuscation to “the left”, it also completely fails to acknowledge the realities of the modern political landscape. It is conservatism at its most pure – steeped in the mythology of a non-existent past and seasoned with a generous dash of wish-fulfilment.

And it gets no better. The actual lexicon is – I think – supposed to be funny though I can’t see how it would raise even a smile in anyone other than a blindly partisan conservative. It even finds itself guilty of the very thing it’s supposed to be lampooning – the political twisting of language. For example, we have:

Fascism/Nazism – apparently the ‘opposite’ of Socialism – despite sharing party members, ideology and – in National Socialism – the name.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

The clear implication of this entry is that ‘National Socialism’ is somehow connected with ‘Socialism’ because of “the name”. Somehow I doubt this is coming from a man who honestly believes ‘The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ is genuinely ‘democratic’. But look… it’s part of the name! That must mean something, right? Or does it only mean something when it’s politically convenient? Talk about spin.

Wilson’s piece does contain some valid criticism of the more nonsensical recent examples of vague political language and management-speak. The entries on ‘Consultation’, ‘In partnership with’, ‘Issues around’ and ‘Key’ (amongst others) make legitimate if obvious points. However, he also pours scorn on “Green issues”, the notion of institutional racism and even “human rights”. This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Praising the United States for being the “world’s most productive economy” is akin to praising the former Soviet Union for having the world’s most productive biological weapons facilities. If you honestly think that converting the world’s natural resources into cheap consumer garbage destined for landfill constitutes “productivity” then it might be time to reassess your use of that word.

In conclusion

So yeah. I removed the original blog post as per Mr. Wilson’s request. It wasn’t a good piece. It was slightly nasty, which really isn’t how I want to be. And for that, I’m genuinely sorry (I wouldn’t have removed it if I wasn’t sorry, so you can take that apology to the bank). However, it wasn’t half as bad as the piece that started all this. I wanted to address that piece as well as draw attention to the fact that I’ve removed an article from my blog – something I don’t like to do without explanation (especially if it has generated a comment thread). And that’s all I have to say on the subject for now.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


28
Feb 2012

Corporate donors to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Blessed are the rich, for they shall inherit the earth

Matthew 5:5 | New Testament (Church of England edition, 2012)

Last night in London, police and bailiffs with the blessing of the Church of England and under orders from The City of London Corporation, evicted the Occupy protesters from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The protest camp which has been a fixture in central London for over four months sought to voice opposition to corporate greed. It was perhaps appropriate, therefore, that St. Paul’s Cathedral was the location they chose to voice that opposition. For surely there can be no greater example of the power of corporate greed to twist and pervert the society in which it manifests.

Roughly two thousand years ago, if we accept the version of history upon which the Christian Churches are based, Jesus Christ cast the money lenders and profiteers from the sacred grounds of the temple. One does not need to believe that to be historical fact to appreciate the symbolism of the story, and by extension to understand the stated values of Christianity. Personally I do not consider the bible to be a work of historical fact. However, and I really cannot stress this enough, I am not being critical when I make that judgement. Indeed, there’s a sense – and it’s a very real sense – in which I consider sacred mythopoetry, such as that found in the bible, to be more important than historical fact. It’s absolutely vital of course, to be aware of the differences between the two, but there’s no sense in which historical fact disproves or invalidates myth. They are two separate categories of knowledge and fulfil two very different functions.

Take, for example, the Christian story of The Last Supper. It is one of the most important stories in our culture (in the words of Gregory Bateson, “it’s all made of stories, you know”) and I think it is illuminating; genuinely illuminating; that even as western civilisation has lost touch with its mythology, so we have seen the destructive rise of fast food and McDonald’s culture. I’m not saying one caused the other; I’m saying that within our ecology of mind, a particular pattern is manifesting in a number of different ways. Bateson discussed the Last Supper in one of his lectures…

“Host / guest” relationships are more or less sacred all over the world, as far as I know. And are of course one of the reasons why, to go back to where we started, the bread and the wine happen to be sacred objects.

Don’t […] get it upside down. The bread and the wine are not sacred because they represent Christ’s body and blood. The bread and the wine are primarily sacred, because they are the staff of life; the staff of hospitality… of guests… of hosts… of health and all the rest of it. And so, secondarily, we equate them with Christ.

The sacredness is real. Whatever the mythology. The mythology is the poetical way of asserting the sacredness. And a very good poetical way of asserting it. But bread is sacred whether or not you accept the Christian myth. And so is wine. Unless you’re determined to eat plastic.

Gregory Bateson | Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (approx 50 minutes in)

Anyway, my point is that there’s a whole baby/bathwater thing going on when we embrace secularism without finding an adequate replacement for those positive elements provided by our cultural mythopoetry. There’s no inherent reason for us to stop asserting the primary sacredness of bread and wine when we cease to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Yet nonetheless, that’s precisely what we have done. And I don’t necessarily think the gains we’ve made are adequate compensation for our losses.

Worst of all though, is when the very people who have appointed themselves as guardians of our mythology are themselves its ultimate betrayers. Christ’s casting out of the money-lenders and profiteers is right up there with The Last Supper when it comes to important stories. It would be more than a little trite to suggest that Jesus was the original Occupy protester, but there are certainly parallels to be drawn. And although I have been critical of certain aspects of the Occupy Movement on this blog in the past, it’s always been constructive criticism. I very much share the majority of their goals and any critical comments from me are merely suggestions as to how I feel the movement might be more effective. Precisely because I want Occupy to be more effective.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Matthew 21:12-13 | King James Version

Matthew leaves us under no illusions as to whose side Jesus would have taken in last night’s eviction. And any member of Church of England clergy who believes that Christ would have been wearing a police uniform… or even the robes of the church… is guilty of staggering self delusion. Especially when you take a look at the list of those who offer “financial support” to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Blessed are the rich (just pretend we didn’t say that, OK?)

A few weeks ago I visited the St. Paul’s Cathedral website and clicked on a page called “Our Supporters“. The page contained a lengthy list of corporate (and other) donors… those who had made substantial (in excess of UKP £50,000) financial contributions to the Cathedral. Some time over the past few weeks someone at St. Paul’s realised that this was bad Public Relations, given that they were soon to send the police to remove people from the Cathedral steps… people who were protesting against those very corporations. And so they removed the list of donors, replacing it with a bland statement of thanks to staff members past and present.

Talk about spineless! Here we have an organisation that claims to follow the path of a man who explicitly opposed the very practices they now indulge in (inviting the money-lenders into the temple). More than that, they clearly know it, which is why they have quietly removed their donor list. Unfortunately for them they were not entirely thorough. Although they have completely purged the list from their website, it appeared on the last page of their most recent newsletter (available as a PDF file). And just in case they decide to purge that too, I have reproduced the list in full here. I have highlighted a few names that I think are particularly interesting, though the entire list makes for illuminating reading…

The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral would like to thank all those who contributed to our £40 million campaign to conserve and restore St Paul’s Cathedral in celebration of the Cathedral’s 300th anniversary. We would specifically like to thank donors of £50,000 and over:

Robin Fleming and Family
Sir Paul and Lady Getty
The Garfield Weston Foundation
The City Bridge Trust
The St Paul’s Cathedral Trust in America
The Lennox Hannay Charitable Foundation
The Cadogan Charity
Lloyds TSB Group plc
An Independent Trust Associated with Barclays
City of London Corporation
City of London Endowment Trust
The Schroder Foundation
Goldman Sachs International
Mark Pigott OBE
The Wolfson Foundation
The Garfield Weston Trust for St Paul’s Cathedral
The Worshipful Company of Mercers
The Sunley Foundation
UBS Investment Bank
Mr Richard & Miss Clementine Hambro
McKinsey & Company
Roger Gabb
The Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust
CHK Charities Ltd
David Mayhew CBE
N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd
Sir Brian Williamson CBE
29th May 1961 Charitable Trust
Dr Yury Beylin
Brunswick Group
Mr and Mrs William R Miller CBE
Lennox and Wyfold Foundation
Hugh & Catherine Stevenson
Skandinaviska Enskilda Bank
Roger Carlsson
The Clothworkers’ Foundation
The Headley Trust
Nicholas Oppenheimer
Prudential Plc
Simon & Virginia Robertson
The Capital Group
Lexicon Partners
Slaughter & May
Barry Bateman
Charterhouse Capital Partners LLP
Cinven
Cognetas
Electra Partners LLP
Land Securities
Standard Chartered Plc
JP Morgan Cazenove
J.P. Morgan
Cantor Fitzgerald L.P
BGC Partners
Dulverton Trust
CMS Cameron McKenna LLP
The Freemasons’ Grand Charity
David Barnett
Len Blavatnik
Canary Wharf Group Plc
Lord Cockfield Memorial Trust
The Drapers’ Company
Man Group Plc Charitable Trust
London Stock Exchange
The Worshipful Company of Grocers
Stewart Newton
Sir David Walker
Sir Roger & Lady Gibbs
Sir Robert & Lady Finch
Peter and Stephanie Chapman
Fidelity UK Foundation
English Heritage
Wyfold Foundation
American Express
The Coutts Charitable Trust
The British Land Company Plc
HSBC Holdings Plc
Morden College
Aldgate & All Hallows Barking Exhibition Foundation
Jon B Lovelace
Richard & Ellen Sandor Family Foundation
The Scholl Foundation

And here’s the relevant page of the newsletter:

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


27
Jun 2011

On This Deity: 27th June 1905

My new piece is up at On This Deity.

27th June 1905: The Founding of The Industrial Workers of the World.

It is late June 2011 as I write this. The news media – on the rare occasions it’s not discussing the sex lives of professional sportsmen – offers us a running commentary on an Arab Spring, now turned summer. We’re presented with images of disaffected Chinese workers rioting in Guangdong while dissidents with pixelated faces hold secret meetings in cramped apartments. In Peru an alliance between environmental campaigners and indigenous activists has seen its members injured and even killed in an attempt to prevent an expansion of mining in their region. And here, in the relative safety of our liberal democracies, we find ourselves dismayed by the violence, the oppression and the painful struggle for basic rights playing out on our screens and newsprint. And we often forget – because it’s so damned easy to do – just how recently our own nations experienced similar upheaval. And we don’t realise – as the forces of capitalism once again begin to squeeze the worker, marginalise the army of unemployed and bind entire nations with chains of debt – just how close to a return to those days we are, and just how cheaply our acquiescence in this return is being purchased.

One hundred and six years ago today, on June 27th 1905, a couple of hundred anarchists, socialists and vagabond activists gathered in a hall in Chicago for what would later become known as the First Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like activists in China, Peru, North Africa and elsewhere today they would find themselves targeted by the authorities, imprisoned and even murdered for the crime of disagreeing with those in power. They spoke out. They organised their dissent. Sometimes they withheld their labour. Often they demanded radical change. They united beneath a simple slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all”… a worldview simply incompatible with free-market capitalism; a philosophy which happily externalises all manner of injury in the pursuit of personal gain; a philosophy that dismisses collective responsibility unless there’s a profit to be made commodifying it.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


2
May 2011

Here comes the future

If you know me at all, you can probably imagine that I keep a watchful eye on energy related news stories. And what with google alerts and RSS feeds, that’s not all that difficult to do. Over the past few weeks, however, a difficulty has arisen. Put simply, there’s just not enough hours in the day to keep up with the recent flurry of activity in the sector. In fact, there are considerably more “peak oil”, “renewable energy”, “tar sands” and “gas pipeline” stories right now than at any time I can remember. More even than when oil prices were rising towards $150 per barrel a couple of years back. So what’s the reason for all this activity?

Well, it seems as though the reality of peak oil is finally beginning to sink in. Not that it’s made it onto the front page of The Sun yet… but while the popular media is obsessing about the Royal Wedding, furrowed brows are appearing elsewhere as what was once a fringe theory preached by a handful of lunatics has finally been accepted by those who once derided it.

Ugly as the words may sound and however petty they may make me seem, I’m going to say this once and then move on… I told you so!

Ahhh… it feels good to get that off my chest, even if it implies some terrible things.

Welcome aboard: IEA

IEA logoThe International Energy Agency has been hmm’ing and hah’ing about their forecasts over the past couple of years. Roughly three years ago, even as oil prices rose to unprecedented levels, the IEA was predicting a steady rise in oil production until at least 2030. Careful analysis of their production forecasts seemed to suggest, according to ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and gas) that the IEA was essentially relabelling oil demand projections between now and 2030. Think about that… the international agency that advises the majority of major governments on energy policy was simply asking “how much oil do we want?” and then telling everyone that’s how much oil would be produced. There was apparently no attempt to match their production forecasts to the real-world capabilities of the oil industry. Their projections were based purely on economic data rather than geological or engineering data. And unsurprisingly these projections turned out to be even more optimistic than those coming out of BP, which if you’ll recall are little more than political artefacts designed by OPEC nations to maximise oil revenue.

Recently this has begun to change. And now the IEA is back-pedalling furiously and seems to be sounding alarm bells – albeit rather quiet and diplomatic alarm bells. Dr. Fatih Birol is the Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency. In a recent interview, Birol stated that he believes global crude oil production peaked in 2006. Yes, you heard that right. We passed peak about 5 years ago according to the the IEA.

An Australian TV company made a short film (it’s a shade over 12 minutes) about peak oil which includes that interview. I recommend you take the few minutes to watch it; it’s sobering stuff. I’m particularly gob-smacked by his final remark, right at the end of the film, when asked how urgent the problem is. He responds by suggesting that “time is running out […] I think it would have been better if governments had started to work on this at least ten years ago”. This from a man who was insisting, up until three years ago, that there was no problem!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that the man and his agency have seen the light, but frankly I think a Mea Culpa might be in order given that plenty of people were arguing this very point ten years ago and the IEA was lambasting them as fools while cautioning governments to ignore them.

And welcome aboard: IMF

IMF logoYes indeed. It’s not just the IEA who has suddenly realised “whoops!” During the past seven years or so we’ve had an acknowledgement of a serious problem from the US Department of Energy (see the graph on this page for their latest projections), the US Defence Department and at least two specific branches of the US military. The Irish and Swedish governments both received comprehensive reports detailing the problem (the Swedes acted on it, the Irish built a motorway system and had a property bubble) and about a dozen other non-fringe organisations have sounded caution. A few days ago these organisations were joined by one of the heavy hitters… the International Monetary Fund.

In the April 2011 World Economic Outlook report, the IMF have starkly stated that they expect global oil shortages “within a year”. This tallies with the predictions of the US Defence Department who claimed that we would see “significant supply constraints” by the middle of 2012. The IMF report tries not to sound too downbeat and claims that so long as the oil supply falls gradually it won’t be too big a problem. I have two points to make regarding this claim… first, it won’t drop gradually. Once the reality of the situation kicks in there will be a variety of dramatic responses (producer nations hoarding, rich importing nations trying to buy up available supply on long-term contracts, invasions and wars) which will prevent a gradual reduction in supply. I would suggest that this has already begun in some quarters and we’ve not seen the half of it. Second… even if it did drop gradually, it would still be a big problem.

So although – like over at the IEA – some of this is starting to sink in at the IMF, they still can’t see beyond their free market ideology. And I’m afraid it simply does not work in the arena of essential non-renewable resources. Future generations will view the free market in natural resources as possibly the single most stupid thing ever to have emerged from the human mind. I know some intelligent, decent people who read this blog and subscribe to the notion that a free market in non-renewable natural resources is a good idea. It’s perfectly possible for smart people to have some stupid ideas. And selling natural resources into the open market for profit is a stupid idea.

Anyway you can read more about the IMF’s eleventh hour conversion over at crudeoilpeak.com (IMF warns of oil scarcity and a 60% oil price increase within a year). And here’s a link to the original (and lengthy) World Economic Outlook report (PDF, see Chapter 3).

And joining us tonight: GMO Capital

GMO Capital logoIf you thought the IEA and IMF were surprise guests at the peak oil awareness gig, an even bigger surprise – in its own way – is GMO Capital. These guys are a global investment management firm controlling over a hundred billion dollars in assets. While the IEA and IMF are international agencies that advise governments and proselytize about the wonders of the free market, GMO Capital pretty much are the market. Or a bit of it anyway. In a sense. Oh, you know what I mean.

Anyway, one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read over the past while comes from Jeremy Grantham, the Chief Investment Officer of GMO Capital. Not because of what is says per se, but because of who is saying it. You can read the article at the GMO website (PDF). In essence the article claims that the past 100 years of market-led growth and prosperity is about to come to a crashing end. It’s remarkable stuff considering who wrote it and the audience it’s aimed at (GMO Capital’s investors). Well worth your time to read, or even just skim.

And so it goes

Elsewhere in the news we read about wind farms being paid to shut down because the national grid cannot absorb the power they are producing. The first thing to be said about this is that these payments represent a clear failure in grid management and this needs to be addressed. The second thing that needs to be said is that the BBC should be ashamed of itself for allowing almost half the article to be dominated by the REF. The REF (Renewable Energy Foundation) is a lobbying organisation founded by… wait for it… Noel Edmonds, and has been described as “an anti-wind lobbying organisation”. It’s been suggested that “they actually exist to undermine Renewable Energy – in that respect their name is a deceit”.

In reality we have two choices… we can either embrace a mix of renewable energy solutions (wind, wave, tidal, solar, etc.) or we can resign ourselves to a life without electricity. Whatever George Monbiot and others might claim, nuclear power is simply not the solution to our energy problems. The reasons for this are outside the scope of this blog post, but essentially it is not a sustainable solution, and replacing one unsustainable energy system with another unsustainable energy system is sheer madness. Especially given the massive energy expenditure it would take to do so. We have one more roll of the dice with regards to building a new electricity supply system (the problems of transport and the other uses of petrochemicals still seem insoluble to me, but we can at least keep the lights on and the refrigerators running) and wasting our remaining fossil fuels building a network of nuclear power stations destined to fail is a recipe for disaster.

Instead we need to rethink our consumption patterns. We need to build far more storage into the grid to cope with excess production. We need to massively increase the geographical spread of our renewable energy infrastructure to reduce the “calm day” effect. And we need to ignore the petty grievances of TV presenters with a personal axe to grind. I accept that, aesthetically speaking, wind farms aren’t to everyone’s taste (I think they look great, but that’s just me). But if we want to keep the lights on in a world faced with Climate Change and fossil fuel depletion we need to get past that.

The last thing I want to say here is that I expect to be hearing a lot more about “shale gas” over the coming months. Already China is looking towards it (PDF) as a solution to a decline in global oil supplies (once again, the notion that replacing one unsustainable resource with another, albeit a slightly more abundant one, is being described as “a solution” dismays me). Few things, however, give me the screaming heebie-jeebies as much as the thought of a massive expansion in shale gas production. It may well be the only fossil fuel that’s ecologically worse than tar sands from an extraction and production standpoint. Both tar sands and shale gas production have the potential to massively accelerate fresh water depletion, as well as lay waste to vast areas of the planet.

Fact is, in the face of peak oil we need to start looking at reducing our energy consumption. Every other option leads to disaster.

8 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


24
Mar 2011

On This Deity: 24th March 1989

I’ve got a new piece up at On This Deity

24th March 1989: The Exxon Valdez oil spill.

At four minutes past midnight on March 24th 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Despite not even being in the top 50 global oil spills by volume, the Exxon Valdez disaster quickly came to symbolise the destructive impact of modern industry on the natural environment. The remote location made mitigation and clean up efforts next to impossible (less than 10% of the oil was recovered) and the incredible beauty of the pristine wilderness into which the tanker dumped half a million barrels of crude oil served to magnify the tragedy. Even the more recent Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – though it involved more oil and had a far greater direct human impact – does not compare to the Exxon Valdez spill in terms of the stark imagery it produced, graphically demonstrating humanity’s utter disregard for the planet that supports us.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


24
Jan 2011

Where’s the rest of the oil?

Yesterday an article appeared in The Independent over in the UK with the title, Where’s the rest of the oil? As is the case with so much written in the mainstream media about this subject, it’s yet another piece riddled with misunderstandings, factual errors and untenable conclusions by a business journalist with little or no insight into the oil industry. Not that everything in it is wrong, but there are enough basic mistakes and research failures to cause one to despair that this should have appeared in the “Analysis and Features” section. If this is the best analysis that The Independent can muster, it calls the entire publication into question.

The article begins thus:

When BP first formed an alliance with Rosneft in 1998 to develop the Sakhalin fields in the Pacific Ocean, the UK oil giant estimated Russia’s oil reserves at 56 billion barrels.

When BP agreed its share-swap with the Moscow-based energy group last weekend, the estimate was 75 billion barrels, and development of Rosneft’s licences inside the Arctic Circle could increase production enormously.

Such advances undermine the pessimists’ predictions that the world’s oil will imminently run out. In 1956, when the concept of “peak oil” — the point at which production starts falling — was formulated, US output was expected to fall from the late 1960s. But new discoveries have constantly pushed that date back. BP was estimating world oil reserves at 1 trillion barrels 20 years ago: now, despite record consumption, the estimate is 1.333 trillion.

Richard Northedge | Where’s the rest of the oil?

Three paragraphs in and already three problems; one glaring factual error, one obvious misinterpretation and one example of questionable judgment.

One example of questionable judgment

Firstly there’s the issue of Reserve Growth (first and second paragraphs plus the end of the third). Now, this is something I’ve covered several times before but it’s something that bears repeating as it cuts right to the heart of the oil depletion issue.

Every year BP publish their “Statistical Review of World Energy” (link to 2010 edition). This publication — or collection of publications — tends to get picked up by journalists and economists and taken at face value. This is a terrible mistake on their part and illustrates the “questionable judgment” I mentioned. It reveals a failure to investigate the methodology behind the Statistical Review of World Energy and a blind acceptance of data presumably by virtue of it having a corporate source. One wonders whether these journalists believe everything they see in advertising too… for instance, does Richard Northedge actually think BP have moved “Beyond Petroleum”?

For those who haven’t read my previous stuff on the Statistical Review of World Energy (Energy Review), let me explain why it’s not to be taken at face value. The data within the Energy Review is broken down by country. And it is generated not by some kind of geological analysis but simply by asking the governments of each country to state their oil reserves without any independent audit or verification. This might be an accurate enough method if countries had an incentive to be honest about their reserves, but in fact the opposite is true and the majority of oil producing countries have a massive incentive to inflate their stated reserves. This fact alone should make any journalist hesitate before basing their analysis on the BP Energy Review, even before they take the time to investigate the effect this incentive has had on the reporting of historical reserves.

In the early 1980s OPEC introduced production quotas based upon “proven reserves”. This sounds solid enough until you realise that “proven reserves” actually means “stated reserves” in countries that have not implemented an independent auditing system (i.e. most of them). In effect, the more oil an OPEC member claimed to have, the more it was permitted to sell and consequently the more money it made. If you download the historical reserve data (Excel Workbook) you can clearly see the result this had on the stated reserves of OPEC nations. Check out the page in the workbook entitled “Oil – proved reserves history” and pay particular attention to what happened in the 1980s just after the new quota system was introduced.

Some examples… in 1986 Iran’s reserves jumped from 59 billion barrels (bb) to 93bb. They then remained identical for the next 7 years (implying that Iran somehow managed to discover exactly the same amount of oil per annum as they were producing) before starting to creep up again. A couple of years later, Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves leapt from 170bb to 255bb and has remained pretty much constant ever since. The same pattern can be seen across most OPEC nations. Venezuela doubled its reserves in 1985. Yemen doubled in 1986 and again in 1987. In 1986 UAE trebled their reserve estimates. And in the subsequent 25 years, no OPEC nation has significantly revised their reserves downwards (in fact many of them, as with Iran, simply report identical reserves for years on end).

If you believe that every OPEC nation somehow managed to discover as much new oil as they already possessed in a two year period in the 1980s just at the precise moment they gained a huge financial incentive to overstate their reserves, then may I suggest a certain level of naivety on your part. Particularly as there’s no actual evidence for a massive series of discoveries at the time and no parallel discoveries outside the OPEC nations.

As well as the OPEC nations, in recent years Russia has also found itself with an incentive to overstate reserves in the form of inward investment in oil and gas infrastructure that naturally increases in direct relationship with their claimed reserves. Tellingly, there is also no official independent auditing of Russian reserves.

What this means is that while I cannot say with any certainty that Saudi reserves (for example) are significantly lower than those stated in the BP Energy Review, I can state with confidence that relying on the accuracy the BP Energy Review is a very foolish thing to do. When Richard Northedge says that “BP was estimating world oil reserves at 1 trillion barrels 20 years ago: now, despite record consumption, the estimate is 1.333 trillion” it’s not a revelation of growing reserves but of the complete nonsense of reserve reporting.

An examination of the reporting of those nations with transparent reserve auditing procedures reveals a telling contrast. Norway’s reserves grew gradually in the 1980s, hit a peak in the year 2001 and then entered decline. This completely tallies with what we would expect given a basic understanding of petroleum geology. There are no sudden doublings and treblings of reserves. No decade-long periods of unchanging reserves. Just a gradual rise, a peak and a gradual decline. Only two weeks ago, in fact, Norway announced a further reduction in reserves based upon falls in new discoveries and a downgrading of existing fields. The fact that every nation with transparent reserve accounting demonstrates this behaviour, while nations that lack independent auditing and have financial reasons to lie demonstrate the complete opposite should surely ring alarm bells for any half-decent journalist or analyst.

One obvious misinterpretation

In the third paragraph Richard Northedge writes of “pessimists’ predictions that the world’s oil will imminently run out”. I’d challenge him to provide one example of a serious analyst who makes such a prediction. In reality no such analyst exists. The claim that we are approaching peak oil is not a claim that we are about to run out of oil. The clue is in the name… peak oil. To suggest that those of us who have been banging on about peak oil for the past 14 years are predicting “the world’s oil will imminently run out” is a complete failure to understand what peak oil means.

Peak oil (We are here)

Peak oil is quite simply the point at which oil production peaks and enters terminal decline (see, I told you the clue was in the name). What’s interesting is that it actually occurs at around the point that half the oil has been extracted from a given well, field, nation or planet. So when I say we have passed the peak of global oil production (which I believe probably happened about 4 years ago), I’m not saying we’ve run out of oil. I’m saying we’ve used up half of our oil.

The reason this is important is because once you reach the halfway point, the flow of oil drops off. This is down to the basic physics of oil reservoirs and there’s just not much that can be done about it. It’s also important because from that point forward, every barrel takes incrementally more energy to produce. This is one of the things that so many people fail to realise about “non-conventional oil sources” such as tar sands, oil shales, deepwater and polar oil reserves… just like crude oil from a post-peak well, they require far more energy to extract than the oil we get from a pre-peak conventional well.

Take, for example, a relatively young field in the Saudi desert. From extraction through to the refinery and beyond, we might get a hundred barrels out for every one barrel (energetically speaking) we put in. In energy terms this is known as EroI (Energy Return on Investment) or sometimes NER (Net Energy Ratio). Clearly as the ERoI of a given energy source falls, the less economically useful that source becomes. So peak oil not only means there is physically less oil available, but that more of the oil that is available is going back into producing oil (as opposed to fueling our cars, our factories and our farms).

Because oil is by far the most economically important fuel available to us (and not just in terms of fuel, but also as a raw material for a vast array of products), a reduction in available oil ultimately translates to a reduction in economic activity*.

Now, in fairness to Northedge he does correct this misinterpretation later in the article when he discusses the idea of peak oil in more depth, but the way he expresses himself in that third paragraph does a massive disservice to the entire debate around this vital issue and is sloppy at best, and at worst is biased. Even the word “pessimist” is value laden and has no real place in this discussion. There are low reserve estimates (usually produced by petroleum geologists) and there are high reserve estimates (usually produced by economists and politicians). To suggest that the low estimates are “pessimistic” is to imply that there isn’t a coherent methodology behind them, and that they are at least partly the result of personal disposition.

This is not the case. Indeed the “coherent methodology” is all but denied by Northedge when he writes: In 1956, when the concept of “peak oil” — the point at which production starts falling — was formulated, US output was expected to fall from the late 1960s. But new discoveries have constantly pushed that date back.

One glaring factual error

The concept of “peak oil” was first proposed by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s. He was a respected petroleum geologist working for Shell Oil in Houston and his position gave him access to US oil reserve data. Hubbert first observed the rate of oil production for a specific oil well and graphed this data. This became known as the Hubbert curve and has been verified as accurate hundreds, if not thousands, of times with respect to individual wells. He then extended this model to a given oil field where it was also verified as accurate. Ultimately, taking the data from every US oil field (excluding Alaska) he extended the model to the entire continental United States. The curve predicted a peak in US oil production “around 1970″ (there’s always a small margin for error when dealing with massive amounts of geological data).

What’s remarkable is just how small that margin for error actually was. US oil production in fact peaked in 1971/72 contrary to Northedge’s puzzling claim that “new discoveries have constantly pushed that date back”. That’s just plain wrong and is the sort of thing that any fact-checker should be able to find in a matter of minutes. In fact, US per annum oil production today is roughly half of what it was in 1971 despite the fact that entire new areas have been added (Alaskan and major off-shore fields) which were not part of Hubbert’s original calculation. And the decline has indeed been roughly in line with the Hubbert curve. It’s mind-boggling that a piece of analysis should appear in the business pages of a serious newspaper that contains such a blatant error.

And on it goes

The rest of the article is less contentious, but the tone has already been set. It points out that the current recession has resulted in a significant drop in oil consumption, though fails to acknowledge the high probability that the recession was partially** caused by high oil prices resulting from supply constraints. The article mentions the dramatic increase in reserves during the 80s, though fails to investigate why such a dramatic jump should have happened within OPEC and other nations without transparent reserve auditing, but nowhere else. Right when financial incentives were introduced in those countries to overstate reserves.

The article informs us that “Saudi Arabia has sufficient supplies to meet its needs for 66 years and Iraq has enough for 142 years” without really making it clear that these figures are essentially meaningless given that these nations are responsible for a fairly insignificant proportion of global consumption. In fairness, it does point out that “the US would run out [of oil] by 2018 if it did not import”.

But even that is dreadfully misleading. If the United States ceased importing oil, the economy would collapse immediately, not in 2018. You cannot simply divide reserves by time in this way. That fundamentally misunderstands the nature of oil production, which as I’ve said, occurs at a rate determined by the geological properties of the oil field. It’s not determined by demand. The United States currently consumes about 18 million barrels of oil per day. It produces about 7 million. What precisely would happen if you were to take 11 million barrels of oil per day out of the US economy? Anyone think it would keep ticking over until 2018?

This is why BP’s claim that we have enough oil left for 45 years is a recipe for dangerous complacency. Not only is that estimate based upon unreliable data, but it completely fails to acknowledge the physical constraints involved in oil production.

Then the article highlights recent oil discoveries. Now, there’s no question that 2009 and 2010 have been fantastic years in that regard. But they are anomalies. Spikes on a downward trend. In 2009 we discovered roughly half as much oil as we consumed. And that was the best year in a decade. In 2010, thanks to a major discovery near Brazil, we discovered even more. But it’s vital to get your head around the fact that not only were these bucking a clear trend, but they were largely offshore, deepwater discoveries. The ERoI of deepwater oil is nothing like as high as with the monster fields of the past. And I hope I’ve made it clear that ERoI is just as important as sheer volume.

Based upon these new discoveries, Richard Northedge finishes with the statement that “The day the world’s energy sources run dry is thus being pushed even further away…” It’s a shamelessly misleading conclusion and one that completely ignores the reality of the looming crisis we face as a result of falling oil production. A crisis that the Pentagon (that hotbed of fringe radicalism) suggests will be upon the world within the next 12 to 18 months.

* I’m not, incidentally saying that economic growth cannot theoretically continue in a post peak oil world. It is simply my position that in practical terms it will not continue.

** Please note that I said “partially”. I’m not exactly unaware of the credit crunch, property bubbles and banking crisis.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


8
Dec 2010

The gulf between press release and reality

Remember the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? Remember we were told it wasn’t as bad as “the environmentalists” were making out? And remember we were told that the well had been capped and the problem solved?

Apparently we weren’t told the whole story.

Dr. Tom Termotto is the National Coordinator for the Gulf Oil Spill Remediation Conference. He’s been reading and collating the various studies and reports produced about the BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Last week he released a report that calls into question the notion that this disaster has been successfully contained. Indeed, it appears that even the worst case scenarios being discussed when the disaster was at its most prominent fail to convey the seriousness of the situation.

Now, I’ve just read his report (republished on the Phoenix Rising from the Gulf blog), and have not independently verified any of his facts. I’m stressing this because, while I’ve feared for some time that we are being comprehensively lied to about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (there were numerous discrepancies in the media reporting of the story that rang alarm-bells for anyone with a knowledge of petroleum geology), the conclusions reached by Dr. Termotto are startlingly extreme.

He alleges that large sections of the seabed beneath the Gulf of Mexico have been destabilised by the extensive oil and gas drilling operations taking place there. Furthermore, the Deepwater Horizon explosion created numerous fractures in the already unstable rock strata and now, in his words, “the Gulf of Mexico is slowly but surely filling up with oil and gas”.

On top of that, because of the depth of the oil and gas deposits, they contain high concentrations of radioactive isotopes. To add to the problems, the chemical dispersants — which he claims are still being used underwater near the well head (see image, below) — are making a very serious problem a lot worse. These chemicals are themselves highly toxic, but even worse… they are reducing the oil droplets to a “micronized or nano-sized state”. This significantly increases the likelihood that large quantities of mildly radioactive crude oil is entering the food chain. As Dr. Termotto says, this is turning “an extremely serious regional disaster into an unmitigated global catastrophe”.

Gulf of Mexico chemical pollution

And there’s more. The leaking of gas from beneath the seabed is producing large build-ups of methane hydrates on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Given that the area is seismically active, this has the potential to spark a disaster should this build up be dislodged en masse.

The entire Gulf of Mexico has become an environmental timebomb that threatens the health of the world’s oceans. A complete moratorium on drilling in the area is the only sane response to this information, if it is shown to be valid. However I suspect that in the face of peak oil, neither the US government nor the oil companies are interested in examining Dr. Termotto’s findings, let alone acting on them. The rush for short-term profit is killing our world.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


17
Nov 2010

Food shortages: still a serious issue

At the start of the year I wrote a short blog post entitled “2010: A year of global famine?” In it I linked to an agricultural analyst who suggested that crop yields were down across the globe in 2009 and would continue to fall in 2010. He suggested that we were facing global food shortages.

Today a comment was added to the post by Frank Maloney. I started to respond on that thread, but my comment grew to the point where it merited a post of its own. And here it is!

How’s that whole global food shortage for 2010 working out? Everyone just about exhausted their emergency supply of MRE’s?

The only thing that causes food shortages in modern societies is politics. Look at Ethiopia which has always been a poster child for famine, despite the poverty, cycle of droughts and hunger the region is producing and exporting huge surpluses of food on private farms owned by mid east governments.

Frank Maloney

Wrong! (and glad to be so)

Let me start by saying that the fact food shortages in 2010 weren’t as bad as were feared should be a cause for celebration rather than triumphalism and internet point-scoring. I’m very happy that predictions of global famine in 2010 were wrong. The predictions of worldwide food security issues for this year were shared by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and I suspect they are also very happy to discover that their worst fears were not realised.

That said, I fear we risk a dangerous complacency if we simply dismiss the issue because the worst case scenario for a single year failed to materialise. We should be happy that less people found themselves suffering food shortages in 2010 than had been expected by many analysts, but we should also be concerned by the numbers that did — nonetheless — face famine conditions and very worried indeed by the developments that created this year’s shortages. Because although a global famine did not occur, the situation remains extremely precarious and many — including the UNWFP — see it as a crisis postponed rather than a crisis prevented.

To an extent I agree with Frank’s comment, in that historically the primary reason for famine and food shortages has been political. However I disagree that will always be the case and believe we are already beginning to see it change. This change is being driven by two primary factors; Climate Change and resource depletion. The latter, resource depletion, covers a multitude of direct and indirect problems. Water shortages (also linked to Climate Change), peak oil (which drives up biofuel production — in the US this year, almost one third of all corn produced was converted to ethanol — as well as damaging fertiliser and pesticide production) and a looming shortage of essential nutrients such as phosphorous. All of these threaten to significantly impact the quantity of food being produced on our planet.

Now, there’s no doubt that you can tenuously link all of these things to “politics” rather than “nature”. But in doing so you essentially blur the distinction between the two to the point of meaninglessness. The Climate Change-driven droughts become “a political problem” because we have failed to find the political will to curb our emissions. Peak oil becomes “a political problem” because we haven’t found a politically acceptable way to eliminate non-essential consumption of crude oil. And so on.

But as I say, that’s semantics. Historically, when we spoke of famines as a political problem we generally meant that the shortages in a given area were the result of inequitable distribution due to the political machinations of corrupt (or incompetent) regimes. So while the Russian grain export ban (extended for another year in September) is obviously a political decision, it’s just sheer-bloody-mindedness to insist that the reason for that ban — successive low crop yields due to unusual weather — is also political.

High food and fuel prices

If you take a look at the UNWFP website, you’ll see the phrase “high food and fuel prices” crop up time and time again. Frank Maloney’s comment makes specific reference to Ethiopia, so I checked out the Ethiopia page. Because although the feared global famine did not appear in 2010, we did nonetheless suffer food shortages in several places this year and also witnessed food riots around the world. Ethiopia was one of the places to suffer, with the food security of over five million people coming under serious pressure. This is attributed to “a combination of factors: poor and erratic rainfall over the last two years, the high food and fuel prices that hit the country in 2008 and are persisting and the global financial crisis.” Of these factors, only the last one is unambiguously a political problem.

It is my contention, and I believe this is backed up by the evidence, that the current high food prices are here to stay (which isn’t to say that there won’t be periodic dips in the price, but like oil I feel we have reached a production peak — or perhaps “plateau” might be a better word — and that a long term drop in global food production is inevitable). As I say, there will be peaks and troughs; perhaps the weather in Russia and China will be perfect next year and we’ll see a bumper crop, but it looks almost certain that we’ve entered a new phase whereby Climate Change and resource depletion have placed our global production on a downward trend, notwithstanding the occasional spike.

In the wealthy countries this will mean we’ll have to spend more on our weekly shop. There’ll be some belt-tightening but starvation is unlikely. Here in Ireland, for instance, the combination of high food prices and economic collapse has resulted in a 2.6% drop in food consumption per capita in 2010 alone. For a nation that, by-and-large, has been overconsuming for a couple of decades, that’s not going to create serious hunger. But in the parts of the world already close to subsistence-level, that’s the kind of reduction that can tip them over into famine.

And it’s not the result of political decisions, or at least, it’s not only the result of politics; instead it’s the result of a very real drop in global food production. And there are few serious analysts suggesting that’s not set to continue.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion