tag: Sustainability

Mar 2011

An aggressive response to tyranny

Over in the UK the climate and energy secretary, Chris Huhne, has given a speech in which he warns of a “possible 1970s-style oil shock“. Meanwhile here in Ireland, as Labour and Fine Gael continue their coalition negotiations, rising oil prices look certain to provide the new government with its first serious challenge, even as the IMF/EU “bail-out” drags us into bankruptcy.

On the subject of the “bail-out”, German chancellor Angela Merkel insisted a couple of days ago that there was little room for renegotiation. There’s a hint that interest rates might be reduced very slightly, but it would be a token gesture and one that will have no real impact on Ireland’s future (though you can bet that Enda Kenny will be hailing it as a massive success… it’ll be his “Peace In Our Time” moment and it’ll happen right at the start of his leadership). Instead, the financial institutions of Europe, backed by the most powerful governments, are demanding that the Irish people pay for the reckless behaviour of private institutions over which they had no control. It’s beyond the merely unjust and enters the territory of tyranny. An aggressive response isn’t merely appropriate, it is damn near obligatory.

But what should that response be?

The first thing that should be done is the Irish Central Bank should begin printing large numbers of new banknotes. Or rather, old ones… the Irish punt. These should be held in reserve in the event we need them. The government should then send a negotiating team to Strasbourg, Paris and Frankfurt and explain that the Irish people will not accept the tyranny being imposed upon them. We have run up a large sovereign debt and will repay that, as we should. However, we simply refuse to force private debt onto public shoulders. The choice then lies with Europe…


They can accept our position, in which case Ireland will endeavour to reduce the public deficit — which will still involve hardship for the Irish people, no question about it — and repay the sovereign debt in euros. Meanwhile the institutions of capitalism which made disastrous bets on the Irish property boom will have to accept their losses. As is morally and legally right.

Or they can reject our position; in which case we will unilaterally default on the bank debt anyway, and repay our sovereign debt in punts.

I’m not suggesting that the transition out of the euro would be painless. Far from it. It would be bumpy and involve a hell of a lot of obstacles. But I genuinely believe that the alternative — accepting the legitimacy of transferring private debt into the public domain — will be far worse. I also believe, were we to adopt the aggressive position I suggest (a position that merely mirrors the tyrannical position being adopted by Europe towards us, let us not forget) there’s a better than average chance that Europe will acquiesce to our demands. A unilateral decision to default on the debt and pull out of Europe will ultimately, especially in these rather skittish times, do plenty of damage to the European project, as well as to Ireland.

Again, let me stress that I take no pleasure in suggesting this course of action. If you’ve read my piece on The Maastricht Treaty, you’ll know that I am very much in favour of the spirit of the European Project. But it also seems to me that so long as Europe is being run in the interests of financial institutions rather than the citizenry that an oppositional stance is required.

And the oil price?

Ah yes, the added wrinkle. The price of oil is on an upward trajectory again. Instability in the Middle East and North Africa is certainly contributing to this, but that’s far from being the whole story. The truth about exaggerated reserves in OPEC nations is finally beginning to filter out, while other countries are also seeing a faster than expected fall in both reserves and production capacity. On top of that (and not entirely unrelated to it), global food prices have now reached record highs.

Both of these developments suggest a clear strategy for the incoming Irish government who will simply not be able to rely upon the economic growth forecasts it is basing its already absurdly optimistic figures on. Firstly, the Irish agriculture sector needs to be expanded. This should not be rocket science for a country that was primarily agricultural up until very recently. Given that rising oil prices will make the mechanisation of farming more expensive, farmers should be given incentives (perhaps in the form of employer tax breaks) to hire additional labour.

At the same time, significant incentives should be provided to companies to set up wind and wave energy projects. These incentives could include things like employer tax breaks (again) and even tax-free profits for the first year after the farm repays its set up cost. On the one hand, yes, this would be loss to the treasury (though I prefer to see it as a non-upfront investment in the project) but the gains — in terms of employment / getting people off the dole and training them, plus the long-term advantages to the national infrastructure — will more than pay for this.

Our government should be doing all of this, as well as announcing a national emergency strategy that is ambitious and infused with real vision. It should commit itself to an Ireland that can feed and power itself, without recourse to imports, by the time it leaves office. Which is definitely not to say that Ireland should be looking to remove itself from global trade. Merely that Ireland should accept that in a world where the global markets in food and energy resources have become impossibly volatile and are likely to put even the wealthiest nations under strain, that as a small, fertile, sparsely-populated island we are in an almost unique position to take control of our own destiny. And far from trying to weather the approaching storm, we should be looking to disembark the leaky ship of international capitalism and take shelter before it hits.

Of course, our government hasn’t got the intelligence, the vision or — let’s face it — the balls to pursue such plans. Will the next one? I can only hope so.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2011

Wikileaks on Peak Oil

If you’re even vaguely familiar with my blog, you’ll be aware that I bang on about Peak Oil quite a lot. One of the things I repeat again and again (and again) is that since the mid-1980s we have been comprehensively lied to about the size of global oil reserves. I won’t go over the issues surrounding overstating reserves again, as I covered them quite recently (the second of those “agains”), but I will stress the incredible importance of this issue. Official reserve estimates predict production capacity will be unable to meet demand in somewhere between 20 and 40 years. Almost everyone who has tried to look beyond those official estimates comes to the disturbing conclusion that production shortfalls will be upon us pretty much any day now.

Petrol prices

Today, as more Wikileaks cables were made public, comes confirmation that Saudi Arabia has been overstating reserves by as much as 40%. This is one of those cases where being proved right brings no satisfaction, but rather a deep sinking feeling. Especially since it’s worth pointing out that there’s very little doubt that this revelation also applies to every other member of OPEC. It’s very grim news indeed and pretty much puts an end to any chances of “a return to growth”.

Given that, in practical terms, economic growth is now a thing of the past*, we need to focus on three things. And we need to do so urgently.

  1. What resources remain need to be poured into sustainability projects. Renewable energy infrastructure, localisation of food production, radical scaling back of consumption;
  2. The replacement of a growth-centric economy and debt-driven financial system with a system that can cope with — even thrive in — an environment where economic activity is minimised rather than maximised;
  3. We must actively pursue ecological wisdom as an absolute priority — both in the obvious sense of environmental protection, but more importantly in the sense of understanding and acknowledging our place within the natural systems of our planet. The world is barrelling towards a crisis, and if we do not wake up to our grievously flawed epistemology, we simply will not survive it.

* which is not to say there won’t be anomalies and brief spikes on the downward trend.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

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

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

Aug 2010

Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s governing coalition (Kingsnorth: Back from the dead?). Actually, you know what? I’m just going to start referring to the current UK government as a tory government. The presence of the Liberal Democrats*, just like the involvement of the Greens in the government here in Ireland, is an irrelevance; a technical footnote rather than a meaningful truth. The only impact they have on the government is to allow the dominant party to float policies they always wanted to, but that might be unpopular with their own hardline supporters. So here in Ireland, for instance, we’ve had a carbon tax ostensibly as a result of the Green presence in cabinet. In reality, Fianna Fáil wanted an alternative revenue stream to help with the crippling deficit and were delighted to find one they could blame on someone else.

So let’s start again…

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s Conservative government. Prior to the election they had unambiguously stated that under their administration, any new power stations would have to meet a strict Emissions Performance Standard (EPS).

This would mean the carbon emissions rate of all electricity generated in our country cannot be any higher than that generated in a modern gas plant. Such a standard would mean that a new generation of unabated coal power plants could not be built in this country.

More than that, this pledge wasn’t merely a campaign promise (a term which, let’s face it, has become little more than a euphemism for “bullshit”), it actually made it into their Programme for Government (PDF file).

We will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.

As Merrick says, that’s clear, definite and unequivocal.

Three days ago, however, they admitted their pledge to introduce an EPS was basically just a lie to make them look more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Despite the unambiguous nature of their promise, they have shelved the EPS and will no longer be introducing legislation to implement it. Instead they will “open a consultation on the idea in the autumn with the results being presented to parliament as a white paper in the new year.”

Be under no illusion, that’s just a diplomatic way of abandoning the idea. It’s the modern political equivalent of holding a press conference and shouting “suckers!”

Of course, you could argue that anyone who believed a tory government would really implement a strict EPS kind of was a bit of a sucker. Sorry. But the fact is, it was pretty obvious that this policy would be unpalatable to any right of centre government in current circumstances.

Climate Change: nothing to do with us

See, the title of this post — Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change — expresses a very real tension that now exists at the heart of modern civilisation. As we lurch towards a looming energy crisis precipitated by the global peak of conventional oil production, many of the steps we might take to cope with that crisis will directly conflict with many of the steps we might take to deal with Climate Change (note: I read an analysis just this morning which suggests that “during 2011, OPEC’s spare capacity may be completely eroded”. This is a serious problem indeed, and will torpedo any economic recovery politicians and economists tell us is underway right now.)

Examples of this conflict are too numerous to mention, but include widespread deforestation to clear land for biofuel production, the draining of peat bogs and marshland for the same reason, increases in coal use (and the mind-bogglingly damaging coal-gassification process) to make up for shortfalls in oil and gas, the exploitation of oil shales and tar sands (also an incredibly damaging resource from an ecological perspective) and so on. All of these attempts to mitigate the energy crisis will result in the acceleration of anthropogenic climate change.

Yet we are ploughing ahead full steam with them. More than that, politicians who made explicit promises to restrict the damage that coal burning might do, for example, are abandoning those promises without even trying to deliver on them.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. In the case of coal-burning power plants in the UK, the government has realised that new electricity generation needs to be brought online within the next few years. The only alternative would be to mandate higher energy efficiency and ultimately a reduction in consumption. It is simply easier, politically, to contribute to Climate Change than it is to speak unpopular truths to the electorate. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that politicians will always choose the easy option above the right one. It’s almost a job requirement.

See, Climate Change is too intangible a problem to be blamed on any single government. And they know this. Power cuts, on the other hand, will always be blamed on the government of the day. So Cameron (and his counterparts in damn near every other party… let’s be under no illusions here, Labour would do precisely the same if they were in power) much prefers to contribute to an ecological disaster that can’t be pinned on him, than try solve a political one that can.

It’s a measure of the moral cowardice of the man and of the entire political establishment.

An energy crisis is looming folks. It’s very real, and it’s not far away. But we seem willing to burn down the entire planet rather than accept a change in our outrageous over-consumption. And this is despite the fact that our over-consumption doesn’t even seem to be making us all that happy.

* I’m well aware that I reluctantly endorsed a Lib Dem vote in the May election on the single-issue of electoral reform. In retrospect, I was wrong. A vote for the Liberal Democrats turned out to be a vote for an undiluted Conservative government and I would never knowingly endorse such a thing. Sorry about that.

AFTERWORD: those wonderful people over at The Onion have recently published a very funny, albeit darkly funny, article about our oil use. Check out: Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2010

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

I have a lot of time for Slavoj Žižek. Which isn’t to say I agree with everything he’s ever said or written, but by and large I feel he is possessed of a rare wisdom and insight, coupled with a wicked sense of humour. Aside from anything else, I don’t think I’d have made it through Lacan’s Écrits if I hadn’t paved the way with a couple of Žižek books (Looking Awry and his excellent primer, How to read Lacan). I’d also highly recommend Žižek’s epic A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a three hour documentary that functions both as an analysis of the medium of film and an introduction to psychoanalytic theory.

Anyhoo, I recently stumbled upon this short animation (from the excellent RSAnimate) which condenses a recent lecture he gave on the dangers of so-called “ethical consumerism”. The original lecture can be viewed here (and is well worth a half hour of your time). But I’ll just embed the condensed version for those of you with shorter attention spans (the pretty pictures will help hold your interest 😉

UPDATE: Incidentally, if you watch the original, is it just me or does Žižek give the impression of having just taken a massive hit of cocaine?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

May 2010

Airtricity SmartSaver Green Plan

I’m not the sort of person to provide free advertising to corporations. Nonetheless, I’m willing to make an exception in this case. A couple of years back, I switched my electricity supplier from the ESB to Bord Gáis. They were cheaper and they claimed to generate 10% more of their power from renewable sources. At the time, my research into alternative suppliers didn’t offer a better solution.

Then, at the beginnning of this year, I stumbled upon Airtricity’s Smartsaver Green Plan (click on the relevant tab on that page). Because I’d just begun a new billing period with Bord Gáis, I couldn’t switch straight away, but I put the wheels in motion. Then, a couple of months ago there was a bit of a muck up with the paperwork and the switch was delayed again (in fairness to Bord Gáis, it seems like it was an honest error by Airtricity rather than them trying to keep hold of me).

Anyhoo, the upshot of it all is that I’ve just received a letter from Airtricity informing me that I’m now, finally, on their system.

If you know anything about how national power grids work, you’ll know of course that I can’t claim the actual electrons being sucked into my home to power my appliances come directly from windfarms. However, what Airtricity guarantee is that over a year, their windfarms will add 100% of the power I use to the national grid. Barring a decision to go off-grid and self-generate (the ideal route, perhaps, but also somewhat impractical for me right now) this is the best solution available from an environmental perspective.

So well done to Airtricity for their 100% scheme. If we’re going to shift our society towards sustainability, this is the kind of thing we’ll need to be doing. I urge my Irish readers to make the switch.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

May 2010

Unpopular Ideas #1

The general election campaign is coming to an end over in the UK and the public will soon place an ‘x’ in a little box on a sheet of paper… this act — performed every four or five years — is modern democracy in action. Government by the people. Apparently.

This particular election is being contested by three main parties plus several smaller ones. And although there is a real possibility of the smaller parties gaining a couple of seats in parliament this time round, the British electoral system is heavily stacked in favour of the larger ones (of course the “local” parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all win seats in Westminster, but I’m concentrating here on parties with a UK-wide presence… my knowledge of Scottish and Welsh politics is severely limited and Northern Irish politics have little bearing on the UK as a whole, mired as they still are in local sectarianism). Indeed with the recent surge of the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls, it’s possible that the Greens, UKIP, Respect and others will be even further marginalised by the consolidation of power on the centre-right.

And let’s not be under any illusions, all three (Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems) are centre-right parties. None of them propose real change, none of them — despite claims to the contrary — can be considered progressive, except by twisting the definition of that word until it means almost its precise opposite. All three are dedicated to free market capitalism even as they pay lip service to public service. All three promise a “return to growth”, betraying not merely a sorry lack of imagination but also a dreadful ignorance; one so extreme that it’s difficult not to suspect it’s willful; of the current situation regarding energy resources and global sustainability. None of them will even use the word “sustainable” except, oxymoronically, as a prefix to the word “growth”.

The single most important issue facing British — and global — society has been utterly ignored by those campaigning to run the UK for the next half-decade. So whilst a very real, very serious and very physical problem has begun to manifest around us, anyone watching this election campaign could be forgiven for concluding that the only issues facing the modern world involve the social graces of those seeking election and the artificial construct known as money. Currency, debt, money… it’s essentially a human-created system for which we have written (and if we choose, can re-write) the rules. Energy, food, natural resources… these on the other hand are the building blocks of the physical systems by which human life is maintained. Our mistake is to have overlaid the former on top of the latter, and then somehow forgot we did so; so that we have fallen into the trap Korzybski tried to warn us about… that of confusing the map for the territory.

“Getting the economy moving again” has become the mantra for all sides in this election campaign. And one of the ways they intend to achieve this is via a radical shake-up of the welfare system. While I agree that the question of how society supports those without an income is going to become a huge one over the next few years, the ideas being considered in the current political mainstream are wrong-headed in the extreme. Based — as they are — on a mistaken belief; that maximising employment is a good thing.

However, considering what we know to be true about the short-to-medium term sustainability of energy resources (see my recent three-parter on Peak Oil if you don’t know what I’m talking about), this brings me quite neatly to the first of my ‘Unpopular Ideas’. Namely that:

Unemployment is a good thing

I’m aware that this sounds vaguely “wrong by definition”, like suggesting that racism or beating up old ladies is a good thing. We have been conditioned to accept certain premises by the very structure of the society we’ve created. And those ‘structural premises’ are difficult to shake off. If, however, that society is fundamentally flawed (and unsustainability is perhaps the biggest flaw that any society can suffer from)… guilty of what Gregory Bateson calls “epistemological lunacy”… then we are obliged to re-examine those initial premises.

… the premises work only up to a certain limit, and, at some stage or under certain circumstances, if you are carrying serious epistemological errors, you will find that they do not work any more. At this point you discover to your horror that it is exceedingly difficult to get rid of the error, that it’s sticky. It is as if you had touched honey. As with honey, the falsification gets around; and each thing you try to wipe it off on gets sticky, and your hand still remains sticky.

Gregory Bateson | Pathologies of Epistemology

Nonetheless, we must try to rid ourselves of the stickiness before we make too much of a mess. Because when our continued survival (perhaps not as a species, but certainly as a civilisation) depends upon those premises being corrected, then it’s surely a matter of urgency for us to do so. And one of the first of those premises that gets called into question when re-examining society through the filter of decreasing energy resources, is the notion that people should be encouraged to be economically active; furthermore that such economic activity should be maximised.

See, I’m not claiming — by any stretch of the imagination — that being unemployed is a good thing in our current society. Our society, after all, is specifically designed to make unemployment relatively uncomfortable in the hope of minimising it*. What I’m suggesting is that we need to re-imagine our society as one that views economic activity as a necessary evil; itself a process to be minimised. We need to reshape society so that the basic needs of all members are met, while consuming as little energy as possible in meeting them.

Energy, after all, can be defined as “the ability to do work”. Indeed, in physical terms, the SI unit for work (the joule) is identical to the SI unit for energy. So, as I said recently…

…with less energy available, there will be less work. This is not predicated upon an ideology or desired policy, but on the basic laws of physics. And we need to get used to it.

A recession is another word for a decrease in economic activity. And because we have built a world that is unable to tolerate such decreases, we strive to avoid recessions and to quickly overcome them via a “return to growth”. It seems to me, however, that we should perhaps view our current recession in a more positive light. We should perhaps find a way to use this slowdown as a springboard towards a powerdown. As unemployment rises, we should be looking at ways to accommodate this as a positive thing, rather than viewing it negatively through the lens of our old premises and searching for ways to reverse it.

I’m not suggesting that our society — in its current form — is capable of sustaining a continuing decrease in economic activity and the subsequent large-scale unemployment such a decrease will bring. I’m instead suggesting that a continuing decrease in economic activity is completely unavoidable, and society must be remodelled in such a way as to turn this to our advantage.

* That said, I do know several people who consciously choose to avoid work… placing time above money and avoiding all that messy materialism that becomes so addictive once you get a taste of it. By and large they tend to be happier than most of the people I know who work. Given a basic, functioning welfare state, unemployment generally becomes a serious burden only when thrust upon the unwilling.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

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.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2010

Peak oil revisited (part 3)

[Part 1] | [Part 2]

As we’ve already seen, we are approaching a singular discontinuity in human affairs. We’ve built an advanced technological civilisation that relies heavily upon a resource that will soon decline in availability. At the same time we developed an economic system predicated upon growth.

Economic growth is more or less synonymous with an increase in the total amount of work being carried out*. Energy is defined as “the ability to do work”. This physical definition is vital to our understanding of what happens in a world with progressively less net energy available for use… put simply; less work can be done. Feed a person 2,000 calories per day but force them to expend 2,100. Eventually they will die.

Similarly, if you have an economic system that depends upon growth for survival, a consistent and ongoing reduction in available energy will eventually kill it. The trick, therefore, is to develop a system that does not require constant growth. We need a radical shift in how we perceive economic data. Here, as we sit in the midst of a recession, we are bombarded by constant assurances from our politicians that they are working towards a “return to growth”. This is — almost universally — seen as a good thing. We should, however, be greeting these pronouncements with horror and anger. As unemployment rises we need to begin looking at ways to take advantage of a reduction in work rather than ways to reverse the trend. Put simply, with less energy available, there will be less work. This is not predicated upon an ideology or desired policy, but on the basic laws of physics. And we need to get used to it.

Instead of seeing a mental picture of an upward-trending graph when we hear the word “growth”, we should be seeing a mental picture of a malignant tumour.

The Problem of The Market

Like many of us, in my youth I tried on a number of different belief systems to see which one made most sense to me. I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing of course, so when I was a Roman Catholic… I was Catholic forever. Later on I found The One True Path and it was Marxism. A little while after that, libertarianism became the Obviously Right Way of viewing the world. And so it went. I have much sympathy for those who never went through this process, and who still find themselves stuck in the first rut they fell into, whether through indoctrination, laziness or a lack of imagination.

My free market capitalism days didn’t last very long though because they came along when I was already beginning to view the world in ecological terms. This isn’t so much a belief system as it is a mode of perception. These days I call it my “ecological filter” and it was very much in its infancy for me then. Even now, two decades later, I still find myself surprised at how it mutates and evolves, changing me and my beliefs as it does so. In fact, it’s probably only in the past six or seven years that I’ve even begun to understand this way of viewing things. It always felt right to me of course, but it wasn’t until I encountered the work of Gregory Bateson that I actually understood it.

Even back in the early days, however, even as I was professing a belief in it, I found myself recoiling from free market economics. It didn’t sit right with me. Part of that was as simple as aesthetics. A world with material profit at its heart seemed ugly and cold to me. I recall attending a lecture by a fairly renowned economist who responded to a question from the audience by suggesting that the way to protect endangered species was to ensure “they were more profitable alive than dead”. This complete willingness to bypass ethics and base life or death decisions on profit margins appalled me. Just like the Marxists I’d once flocked with, the free marketeers seemed content to apply economic models in situations which — to me at least — were completely inappropriate.

Economic value is but one way of measuring value. What’s more, it’s not even the most valuable.

The Essential Disconnect

Our modern economic system, however, has successfully employed a variety of strategies to ensure that all other measures of value become subservient to the economic model. The most effective of these strategies is what I call ‘The Essential Disconnect’. And nowhere is this more apparent than the palm-oil plantations of Indonesia.

Rising crude oil prices (i.e. market signals) coupled with perfectly legitimate concerns about Climate Change** led many governments to mandate the use of biofuels as a percentage of our total liquid fuels consumption. Despite the generally low percentages involved, this created a huge demand for vegetable-based oils (a low percentage of a massive number can often be quite large). In response to this demand, the major palm-oil exporters of which Indonesia is the largest began to ramp up production. This resulted in the kind of deforestation programme not seen since the height of the Brazillian slash-and-burn years. It is estimated, for instance, that the island of Sumatra — the largest in the Indonesian archipelago — will be entirely deforested within the next couple of years.

The Essential Disconnect is a twofold mechanism which both hides the consequences of palm oil production from those who consume it, and downplays the importance of those consequences for those who do hear about them. Few of us ever actually see the destruction of the Sumatran forests, and those who do are trapped by a worldview that fails to recognise the significance of that destruction. Our economic system effectively insulates the consumer from the consequences of their consumption.

Which is why a peak in global crude oil production coupled with a global free market in natural resources poses such a great threat to us. Rather than forcing us to re-evaluate our economic system, the first response provoked by peak oil in a free market will be to try to meet demand despite a drop in supply. So we don’t see a drop in private car use, we see the rapid deforestation of areas far away from the car owners. We don’t see huge investment in energy reduction measures, we see plans for a bunch of new nuclear power stations. “Consume less” becomes the last resort rather than the first.

Which wouldn’t be such a big deal if those first attempts to plug the supply gap weren’t so destructive. If they didn’t involve the suicidal destruction of the very environment of which we are an integral part. When the markets start to feel the pinch of peak oil they will react by demanding more palm oil, more coal burning, more uranium mining… As Bateson never tires of pointing out: “the organism that destroys its environment, destroys itself”.


This essay ended up being a good deal longer than I’d intended. Sorry about that. It started out as a response to a comment on a previous post and grew almost without me realising. I hope, however, that at least one person learns something they didn’t know about peak oil and resource depletion while reading it. Even if they don’t come to the same conclusions as I’ve reached, I can’t help but feel that the more people thinking about this issue, the better.

[Part 1] | [Part 2]

* of course, you can still have a certain level of growth without an increase in work by increasing the efficiency of existing work, but that eventually reaches a ceiling beyond which higher efficiencies are not possible.

** there is a sad irony in the fact that — for a variety of reasons — the biofuel life-cycle does not appear to significantly reduce ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions. Indeed, there are instances where biofuel production actually produces greater emissions than petroleum. So we find ourselves destroying our native ecology for no good reason.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion