It is truly shocking that I haven’t posted since last year! I want to link to my good pal’s excellent blog on his life in transition in northern Portugal and also a link to an article, called Seven years on the plateau, which I wrote recently for the Transition Network’s Social Reporters site. I will write again, as soon as life stops intervening!

Posted in Transition | 4 Comments

Am I going crazy, or is it the world around me?

Back in July, I worte an article for the Scientists for Global Responsibility newsletter, which was published recently. It was yet another attempt to put into words why the focus on reducing carbon (not that we’re actually doing that!) is not the right one. Since then, I’ve read volume 1 of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. You may remember I mentioned Derrick in a post back in September 2010. I got so much more from the book than from the clips on the internet.

Given that the book runs to 451 pages (and that’s just volume 1!), I have neither the time nor the mental resources to summarise it but suffice to say, industrial civilisation cannot, and has never been, sustainable. I think I’ve known that for some time but had never put it as such. Like most other environmentalists, I hoped that there was a way to have one’s cake and eat it too. Granted, I never really understood the term ‘sustainable development’ (‘sustainable growth’ is just bollocks!) but I really did believe that if only people understood energy better, then we’d all wake up and get ourselves on the right track. Wrong!

Now I know there will be some of you who just stop reading there. That’s cool, you’re not alone. But Derrick asks this, “Do you believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” Note the word ‘voluntary’. We’re not talking about people choosing a different car or to reuse carrier bags here. We’re talking about western culture choosing to stop exploiting natural resources at an unsustainable rate. We’re talking about oil and mining company executives saying, “OK guys, we’ve had it good but the party’s over. We’re going to stop wasting money exploring for more oil because it’s time to wake up to its finite nature and the falling energy returns. We’re going to leave it in the ground and look at how to feed 7 billion people without fossil fuels”. And the corporate bankers are going to choose to hang up their Armani suits, donate their obscene bonuses to the Transition Towns movement, put on a pair of overalls and start planting allotments on all their private grounds. You get my point. This will not happen.

Note also the words ‘our culture’. I’ve also been reading indigenous writings and a bit of anthropology. The problems we are creating are not a function of humans. Homo sapiens is quite able to live sustainably – indeed we did for hundreds of thousands of years but then something happened. Not settling down and planting a few crops to supplement the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but owning land. Owning land for the first time usually involves killing, enslaving or ousting those who lived there before you arrived. If no people lived there, then you’re free to do what you want with all the other species who lived there – eat them, burn them, build houses out of them, or just get rid of them because you can’t eat, burn or build houses out of them. Western culture dominates the world and while it sounds paradoxical, western culture is global. It’s the culture which dominates industry and trade. No longer does it matter whether you are in Asia, America, Europe or Africa, the chances are you are dominated by western culture. You might be one of the few who does not live by it, but if you are living on resources required by western culture you’ll soon know all about it.

If you’ve got this far, well done. I’m not asking you to agree with me, just to think about these issues. Some might be saying, “well, I knew Meikle would lose the plot eventually”. Maybe I have. Maybe I’ve gone insane. But if sanity is to accept the culture imposed on me without question, to believe that the global industrial complex will choose to stop destroying the environment, that technology will save the day then all I can say is ‘wibble‘.

PS The Transition Initiative website has a series called ‘Stories from our social reporters’ and a good friend of mine wrote an excellent article there recently on this very topic of sanity.

Posted in Civilisation, Growth | 21 Comments

What would the slogan be?

So, the world is protesting against increasing social and economic injustice – about time! But what are we protesting for? I visited the Occupy Edinburgh site at St Andrew’s Square on Thursday (20 Oct) – there are some good photos here. If anyone reading this finds themselves in Edinburgh, do go along and say hello – 2 minutes from bus station and 4 minutes from Waverley. While handing out leaflets, I was impressed by how many passers-by were supportive – they wouldn’t have crossed the threshold to the camp but were happy to talk and the phrase “it’s great what you are doing” was heard more than once.

While having a chat about anarcho-primitivism (as you do!) I noticed a guy walk past and look at the wee marquee where free food and hot drinks were on display. He walked on but then came back and said to me, “I’m homeless”. He said it in such a way that I thought he was asking if it was OK to come in. I welcomed him in for a cup of tea and said, “you don’t need to have a house to be welcome here”. I then heard someone say that the Mosque kitchen was providing free food that night. A woman called Hannah from Friends of the Earth Scotland came over and said they had international activists over for a conference or some such and how could they help. Oh, the coming together of people – it makes me want to greet just typing this! People of all faiths and none. People homeless and dispossessed. Students and workers. People talking about history, politics and energy (OK, the latter was me!) We really are the 99% – possibly 99.9% – certainly the vast majority.

However, I have mixed feelings about this year of protest. From Tunisia and Egypt to New York and London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and 900 sites around the world, people know that something’s seriously wrong with the system we live in. But if everyone who is concerned about the social, economic and environmental injustices being carried out in the name of progress, civilisation, development (call it what you will) got together, what would the slogan be? The problem is that most people simply don’t have the capacity (time &/or will) to analyse how we came to this situation where a mere 0.5% of the world’s adult population are millionaires (i.e. their net assets exceed $1 million), while billions live in poverty. They know the cost of living is rising, while house prices and wages (if they still have a job) are falling. But it’s hard to get people to engage with the idea of radical change because we’ve been sold the myth that capitalism is the only way. It isn’t. It was imposed by those who thought capitalism was a good way to seem to spread the wealth amongst everyone while it actually accumulated in the assets and bank accounts of the few – the old trickle-down bullshit! That said, some certainly did have the interests of the masses at heart, such as John Stuart Mill, who I’ve written about previously.

But you only have to look around to see that the gap between rich and poor is wider now than ever. Almost half the world live on less than $2.50 a day if this report is correct. Since 2008, half the world live in cities, having been forced by war or economics to leave their land. We have indigenous peoples being displaced as we harvest their forests and mine their ores. We have our insatiable appetite for fossil fuel energy seeing us switch to tar sands and other non-conventional fossil fuels (with their lower energy returns) while CO2 levels rise year on year. I could go on but will spare you – even I can’t find a humorous side to this.

It’s taken me nigh on 20 years to understand that the problem is civilisation itself and I really don’t know what to do with this belief (other than adopting my default setting of hoping I’m wrong!). We take resources from around the world, forcing people off of their land, forcing them to live how we think they should (“Here, buy this.” “No, you can’t do that.” “If you don’t believe this, you’ll be eternally damned.”) to feed the desires of those who can afford to buy. The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland continues to this day. Over half of the global population now live in cities, yet I just don’t see how cities can feed themselves from their own land – that is, without importing resources from other people’s land, not to mention the wildlife which once lived there before the monocultures came. That said, I do believe we should try and the Transition movement is key to this aspiration. But we also need to get real about the limits to growth and consumption. And equality – where’s the Make Millionaires History campaign?

We have to see ourselves as part of nature rather than thinking we can control it and this is hardest message of all because it only features in the world-view of indigenous people – those who understand that their survival depends on protecting those resources, not exploiting them in the name of progress. This kind of talk then leads those who disagree to complain that we want to ‘go back to the Stone Age’ or live in caves. But perhaps the Stone Age was the last time humans lived sustainably? I struggle to grow a bit of veg and do not know how such a transition could happen. But I do believe that we are right up against the limits to growth and that we must not be afraid to talk about such issues.

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Limits to Growth, which argued that unchecked consumption and economic growth on our finite planet would lead to disaster. Put simply – we’re using too much stuff and it has to stop or there will be trouble. But that’s not a message anyone wants to hear – we’ve been sold the myth that the future will always provide more than the past; so long as we work and spend, our kids will do better than we did if we just trust the system. Now that myth is wearing thin and what replaces it is up to us – our collective actions will determine the future. The streets are full of protest but I’m not sure what we want.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A mountain of gold

Nearly four months, eh? I don’t know why I find it so hard to write but I had time and inclination today, and surprised myself by bashing an article out on West Papua. I’ve been meaning to write something on West Papua for weeks as it’s been on my mind a lot lately and yesterday I discovered Bella Caledonia. Bella is a new Scottish blog, named after Bella Baxter, a character in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992), should you wonder. They seem an eclectic bunch looking for new contributors, so I took the plunge and rather hurriedly submitted the article below (which they kindly posted) but I had to share it here too. So it begins…

Have you seen Avatar? I was a bit reluctant, mostly thanks to the hype. Hype’s never good. I remember seeing the Age of Stupid at a Climate Camp and was so disappointed. Not sure why and I enjoyed it more the second time I saw it. I guess I’m not your average audience. So, back to Avatar. I eventually saw it on DVD and enjoyed it but when it finished, I started to rant to my poor, long suffering husband about indigenous peoples. “You don’t need a bunch of blue animated beings fighting mining companies for this story – it’s happening across the world” and so on. Then, to my husband’s smug delight, we looked at the extras, which included a documentary by James Cameron, writer and director of Avatar, on the plight of indigenous people. That should have been compulsory viewing at the cinema, in my view. It turns out that James Cameron is committed to helping indigenous peoples around the world who, like the fictitious Na’vi in his film, are “caught at the tectonic interface between the expansion of our technical civilization into the few remaining preserves of this planet.”

And so to West Papua. I vaguely remember hearing about West Papua in the dim and distant, probably when I could afford to subscribe to excellent magazines like New Internationalist. Then, a few months ago, I was reminded again when I read a book called Wild, by Jay Griffiths, in which she recounts her travels amongst various indigenous tribes. Yes, that does seem to be a popular thing to do these days but I liked Jay’s perspective: justified anger, a bit of anarchism and a good dollop of missionary-bashing. I should add that she writes like a dream! Anyway, one chapter was about West Papua, the western half of the world’s second largest island, New Guinea, north of Australia and this time I paid attention. I even went to an event in Hampshire to try to meet Jay, but that’s for later.

I found a blog called Freelander which gave a good summary of the history. Prior to 1961, West Papua was a Dutch colony, but in 1952 the Netherlands recognised the West Papuans’ right to self-determination in accordance with Article 73 of the United Nations Charter. Indonesia felt differently and claimed the territory for itself. However, it declined the Netherlands’ invitation to stake its claim before the International Court of Law. A West Papuan government was set up in May 1961, tasked with the preparation of the country for full independence in 1971. Seventeen days later, Indonesia launched a small paratroop invasion. The invaders were arrested by the West Papuans. In January 1962, Indonesia provoked a small naval battle, but again the fledgling West Papuan state survived. Unfortunately for the West Papuans, however, Indonesia had some powerful friends.

In the ‘New York Agreement‘ of 1962, the US forced the Netherlands to surrender West Papua to Indonesia and the Australians to reverse their policy of supporting West Papuan independence. The Agreement, conducted without the presence of a West Papuan representative, effectively transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. Indonesia assumed control of West Papua in 1963. The New York Agreement stipulated that an act of self-determination, involving all adult West Papuan men and women, would be held to determine the final status of West Papua. Indonesia finally got round to organising the referendum in 1969. Its policies in the intervening years were described in 1968 by a US Consular official, who said, “The Indonesians have tried everything from bombing them [the West Papuans] with B-26s, to shelling and mortaring them, but a continuous state of semi-rebellion persists. Brutalities are undoubtedly perpetrated from time to time in a fruitless attempt at repression.” Civilisation – don’t you love it?

A mountain of gold
The referendum was held in 1969 and it was a total sham. Called the “Act of Free Choice”, the UN sanctioned this ‘vote’, which was made by 1,025 handpicked electors who had been coerced into unanimously choosing to “remain with Indonesia”. I know it was 1969 (oh, that would never happen now) but how did they get away with that? The UN Representative sent to observe the election process produced a report which outlined various and serious violations, which were “duly noted”. There were also testimonials from the press, the opposition of fifteen countries and the cries for help and justice from the Papuans themselves, yet West Papua was handed over to Indonesia in November 1969. The inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, across the border, achieved full independence in 1975, while in 1973 West Papua was re-named Irian Jaya, “Victorious Irian”, by the Indonesian President, General Suharto.

Just a minute, let’s back up there a bit. What did the US have to do with this? Well, it’s complicated (if you read this and this you’ll know more than I do) but basically in the 1960s, the US did some bad things to keep on side with anyone who might team up with the Russians. The US was worried that Indonesia might align itself with the Communist bloc (it had just a few years earlier assisted General Suharto in massacring up to a million suspected Communists), and in any case it didn’t want to jeopardise the exclusive 30-year mining license (extended by another 30 years in 1991) that Indonesia had sold to US company Freeport-McMoRan to extract West Papua’s valuable natural resources just a few years earlier in 1967. Yes people, there’s resources to be had. But Papua New Guinea has resources – according to the US Department of State, minerals and oil make up 82 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s GDP and it has gold, copper ore, crude oil, natural gas, timber, fish, oil palm, tea, rubber, all of which will be duly plundered unless we stop using other people’s resources. But does it have a mountain of gold – I mean a real mountain of it?

John Pilger writes, “The silence of the “international community” is explained by the fabulous wealth of West Papua. In November 1967, soon after Suharto had consolidated his seizure of power, the Time-Life Corporation sponsored an extraordinary conference in Geneva. The participants included the most powerful capitalists in the world, led by the banker David Rockefeller. Sitting opposite them were Suharto’s men, known as the “Berkeley mafia”, as several had enjoyed US government scholarships to the University of California at Berkeley. Over three days, the Indonesian economy was carved up, sector by sector. An American and European consortium was handed West Papua’s nickel; American, Japanese and French companies got its forests. However, the prize – the world’s largest gold reserve and third-largest copper deposit, literally a mountain of copper and gold – went to the US mining giant Freeport-McMoran. On the board is Henry Kissinger, who, as US secretary of state, gave the “green light” to Suharto to invade East Timor, says the Dutch report”. You see? Avatar in the here and now, only without the Hollywood happy ending where most of them survive.

The issue of West Papua is creeping up the international agenda, as campaign groups, Papuan leaders-in-exile and concerned people all over the world alert their leaders to the injustice that is happening there. But the inertia is unbearable and any support we are giving now does not alter the fact that since 1973, Freeport-McMoran has operated the world’s largest gold mine in West Papua. Not just located there, destroying forests, polluting watercourses and spewing out filth, but actually mining the ‘head’ of the West Papuans’ sacred mother mountain – the place where they go to visit the “dream shrines”, where they ask the ancestors for a dream to guide them on their path in life. That might sound a bit out there to some but despite being a committed atheist, I have no problem in accepting indigenous belief systems which are linked to the land and nature. After all, they often make way more sense to me that the crap many of us so-called civilised types believe – from the religion of God to the religion of consumption. If you’re going to worship something, the sun’s as good as anything!

Benny Wenda
So, I went to Hampshire, to the Dark Mountain Festival (that’s for another post) and while I failed miserably to meet Jay Griffiths, it was not a disappointment. I was only going to say something banal like how much I enjoyed her book. I did make it to the point of hovering around her as she handed out Free West Papua leaflets, waiting for my moment, when a guy came up and introduced himself saying, “I’m going to West Papua to make a film…” At that I wandered off. Then, later that day, I had the good fortune to meet Benny Wenda, a West Papuan tribal leader and an international lobbyist for the independence of West Papua from Indonesia. He was a speaker at the Festival, along with Jay, but I couldn’t see where he went after his talk. So it was amazing to meet him at a train station, along with a fellow exile. In 2002, Benny was granted political asylum by the British Government following his escape from custody while on trial in West Papua for the heinous crime of demanding freedom for his people, for demanding that women and children live free from rape, for demanding the right to fly their flag. Benny is a leading figure on the international scene for the independence movement of West Papua and has been a special representative of his people in the British Parliament and United Nations. His biography is harrowing – but that does not mean you shouldn’t read it.

Benny Wenda is a founding member of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP). This cross-parliamentary group was launched at the Houses of Parliament in London in October 2008, and was attended by British parliamentarians as well as politicians from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Vanuatu. The group is actively developing support from politicians around the world, and its overall aim is to assert enough political pressure on the United Nations to implement a re-run of the “Act of Free Choice”. If the West Papuans ever do get freedom from Indonesia, I hope they don’t fall for the neoliberal bullshit which has smothered so many other bids for freedom.

As well as the UK launch, IPWP also had launch events in the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and in Papua New Guinea. Since meeting Benny, I have been in touch with my MSP and would like to think the Scottish Parliament could do more to help. I’d hate to think that the Scottish Parliament was just making a hollow gesture by hosting the IPWP event. You’ve had your event, now what? If I hear, I’ll let you know.

I don’t know what we can do to help, but being aware must be the first step. If you can, support the Free West Papua Campaign, set up by Benny Wenda. If you have money, send them some. If you have time, get involved with some letter writing or watch some videos with friends – Forgotten bird of paradise and The secret war in Asia are a good place to start and you can watch both in less than an hour.

That’s it – that’s the article. As I said at the start, it was a bit hurried but it’s the story of West Papua that’s important. So as a reward for getting this far (even if you skipped to the end, you still got here), I’m also going to share 15 minutes of wonderful humour courtesy of David Sedaris. Hope you like sardony, if that’s even a word.

Posted in Democracy, Growth | 2 Comments

A broken model

I tweeted earlier (@powerdowngirl) about a Jim Puplava interview with Chris Martenson. While listening (about 20 minutes in) on the topic of money system debt, Chris describes the situation in such a way that I felt compelled to transcribe just that bit. I do understand time constraints and the whole interview is almost an hour long so below is just 2 minutes on why consumption and investment are NOT the same things. Given I’ve not finished listening myself, there may well be other gems of wisdom waiting for me as Chris is the author of the excellent Crash Course, which links energy, economy and environment and is well worth a look. It is split into small chapters, so can be dipped in and out of. I strongly recommend Chapter 17b on Energy Budgeting if you’re still a bit confused about net energy.

Anyway, despite record low interest rates and billions of dollars pumped into the global economy via quantative easing and other incentives to spend and consume, we’re not seeing the sustainable growth required by our financial systems. Chris asks, “If we really were going to spend that much money in deficit, what are we spending it on? Are we spending it on consumption or investment coz it’s a world of difference between those two and frankly almost all of that money has gone straight to consumption, not investment. And by investment (I mean) taking the natural gas that we think we have in relative abundance for the next 10 or 20 years, put the pipelines in, do things with that gasoline, figure out how we’re going to invest in the next round of energy technology, you know, these are things that would be investments and we’re not investing with this money we’re just trying to get back to consumption.

And so here’s the model. I think it’s a broken model  but that’s my opinion. But the model here is that consumers are supposed to consume and the way they do that is they take on debt and we need them to consume more than they are actually earning. We love that model. Remember you had your home and it was rising in value and you could (re-mortgage), spending it, that drives the economy and everybody’s happy. Maybe we have credit cards, we’ve got student loans, we’re borrowing for cars, that’s the model we had and the consumer, rightly and as predicted, just started to retract when the recession hit. That’s a good normal behaviour. What’s abnormal in this story is the Government stepping in saying ‘oh, I see you guys were overspending and now you can’t, let me take on the overspending role for you guys’. That’s a broken model.

Somebody lost the narrative in this story which says that in a time when consumers are undergoing normal consumption and they have to retrench from that, the Government can fill that tiny gap. When we’re overconsuming and the Government says ‘not only will I fill that but I’ll double you’, that’s where we lost the way. So yes people who look at these deficits and are concerned that they are unsustainable, as you mentioned, they’re absolutely right on. They are unsustainable but it’s worse than that. It’s how we are trying to sustain something that’s fundamentally, any grade school kid could tell you is unsustainable. We’re trying to sustain the idea that we can live beyond our means forever. The thinking caps have been taken off and we’re just reacting at this point and clearly when that story breaks, and it will, because things that are unsustainable have a way of building up until they stop, in that stopping moment we might find that it’s actually fairly unpleasant consequences and it’s something that I worry about and I know other people are worried about“.

Good, innit? So why do so few people get this? Anyone up on psychology? Because that’s what the next human breakthrough will be – psychological, not technological. Our next real breakthrough will be to understand (or should I say re-learn!) our place in this world, the importance of scale and rate of change, the abhorance of waste and, most importantly, the urgent need for cooperation to replace competition as a way to live. We need a new model and this time, could it please be one which works for all life, not just one elite sector of one rather smart primate?

Posted in Growth | 6 Comments

Ignoring the signs

Imagine a world like ours (let’s call it Thera), with intelligent life forms, opposable thumbs and extractable fossil fuels. After some time, the top predator developed a complex global society and ran the show for its own ends. Yes, there were wars and inequality but when a group of leading scientists published a paper entitled, ‘The peak production of non-renewable natural resources’, everything changed. These beings had an economic system much like ours but unlike ours, it had never been decoupled from their environment. There was no writing out blank IOUs to Mother Nature here. They had never lost the knowledge that everything comes from nature – natural resources were priced in accordance to environmental impact and pollution only occurred by accident as the penalty was to close the business, discredit and bankrupt the bosses and return to the local community those assets not used in the clean up. “Eco-fascist”, I hear some shout. Maybe I am, if eco-fascist means finding it indescribably stupid to damage the natural resources which sustain us. Here on Earth, if someone questions the loss of biodiversity due to intensive farming, they’re accused of genocidal tendencies. And GM food? Hell, we need that to feed the starving millions! Really?

Anyway, least I digress, back on Thera the news that many important natural resources were, in fact, not limitless resulted in the ratification of a global treaty on resource use within 10 years of the paper’s publication. It was obvious to global leaders that if the current systems of trade and travel relied on a resource which would not be available 100 years into the future then the sooner the change started, the cheaper it would be. Yes, cheaper. These weren’t a bunch of tree huggers like me, who marvel at the beauty of moss and those tiny shiny beetles, who get excited mid-April when the swallows will return, who recycle fervently despite not really believing it will make a difference – it’s the principle. Thera’s global treaty defined a 100-year timeline for the switch away from all non-renewable natural resources. By the time the 100 years was up, they had used a quarter of their available fossil fuels to build resilient local infrastructure for energy and food provision – the remainder was left in the ground. They had realised that most goods would have to be produced locally, with international trade for essentials which could not be. Transport was radically altered – the personal vehicle was almost a thing of the past and while people travelled relatively little, mass transit ran regularly but rarely. These beings knew that future generations are as important as those living today.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, over 50 years have passed since M. King Hubbert gave a talk in San Antonio in which he predicted that US oil production would start to decline by the early 1970s. Up until minutes before Hubbert began, executives at the head office of Shell Oil (his employer) were on the phone asking him to cancel the talk. Hubbert’s presentation is widely regarded as the opening of the great debate about the finiteness of our oil supply yet are we using less fossil fuels? No. Are we planning how to use what’s left of the cheap (affordable) oil to invest in a future infrastructure which might conceivably work in a world without cheap energy (remember folks, every renewable device other than those carved by hand from freshly hand-sawn timber and dragged to site by horse or human has a fossil fuel input)? No. We’re going to more desperate measures to keep the oil flowing.

Net energy and growth
When I caught on to the significance of ‘net energy’ in the energy crisis (not that I’ve posted on it much), I suppose I thought that if more people understood the basics of energy, and realised that we’ve had an unprecedented abundance of cheap energy for the last 150 years, then there might be a shift in attitudes. I’m not sure why I thought that. Most people don’t want to talk about carrying capacity and human population growth; in fact, some get quite irate should the subject dare to be mentioned. It seems that we’d rather delude ourselves into believing that everyone can have a better standard of living, without our own standard of living decreasing, and with no acknowledgement that our standards of living have come about from centuries of exploiting natural resources. I don’t doubt that we could run human affairs in a ‘fair-for-all-species’ way – of course we could, if that’s what we all chose to do.

However, most of us don’t really get to choose much. We didn’t choose the system we’re in now, did we? That was dreamed up by various economists over the last two centuries and remains embedded in the fiction of rational markets. How can markets be rational when they are run by and for people with money to invest and dollars in their eyes? People mostly dislike risk, which is why we buy insurance or pray for deities to keep us safe; it’s also why economists pretend that they can model the market, the rational market kept on the straight and narrow by an “invisible hand”  which will create the best possible outcome for the most people. C’mon, Adam Smith said it in 1776, it must be true! We do not like risk but if the stakes are high enough we might be prepared to take a greater risk than normal.

The reason we are in the mess we’re in is not because people don’t understand energy and where it comes from. It’s because people don’t take responsibility for their ecological impact. Before this sounds like some misanthropic rant, it’s not.  Most people simply do not understand ecological impacts because they are not economic impacts – they don’t affect people directly, therefore they can be forgotten about or at least put way down the priority list. If you stood to make millions from exploiting natural resources, would you do it? If you’d been unemployed for 3 years and got offered a job driving a dump truck in a local quarry, would you take it? There are many reasons why people destroy the planet.

We can’t believe that globalised industrial civilisation, which provides so much comfort and convenience, might come crashing down. “Don’t say that, you’ll scare/annoy/disempower* people” (*delete as necessary). Well, it’s gonna get pretty scary when we hit the inevitable ‘limits to growth’ (there’s another seminal report which we could have used as a wake-up call – published 40 years ago come 2012 and yet it’s still a concept few can bear to contemplate). Which is worse – a disaster totally out of the blue or one which you knew was coming and at least had some time to prepare for? I think we all should ask ourselves, “at what point will I struggle to make ends meet – how dear must food and fuel get before I am forced to give up things I like? At what point will I work and eat locally – when it’s the cheapest option or the only option?” For most people, behavioural changes which benefit the environment only happen when there is no other choice. It’s the same for fossil fuels – my fear is that we will only leave them in the ground when their extraction is no longer profitable and by that point, who knows what state the economy will be in or how many tipping points will have been passed. Even if the economy imploded suddenly and completely, ending global trade altogether, I’d bet those living locally would work out how to use whatever remaining fossil fuel reserves they could access. We’re talking life and death here. Would you die of cold rather than burn some gloopy goo you’d found oozing from the ground? Yeah, maybe, if you didn’t have a match or Ray Mears to rub some sticks together.

The anti-growth message is the hardest of all to get across because we have set our economic system up in such a way that it can’t function without growth – growth is essential to repay debt. Really considering the implications of zero or negative economic growth means radically altering the way we view the Earth’s resources, each other and all species. Gone would be the days of one percent of the world’s adults owning 40 percent of all global assets (or whatever the figure really is).

The fervour with which some cling to their beliefs crosses all divides: religious vs. atheist, pro-nuclear vs. anti-nuclear, leave it in the ground vs. drill baby drill. The trick is to know when not to waste one’s time or effort in trying to change the opinion of others. Yes, the planet’s a-burning and there are lots of (often conflicting) solutions out there from the ‘will-we-ever-learn’ geo-engineering schemes to more in tune with nature permaculture, which while being much more ecologically convincing leaves me with an amusing mental image of unlikely suspects tending their gardens and a whole new meaning to ‘drill baby drill’.

As ecological economist Herman Daly pointed out, ‘since the earth itself is developing without growing, it follows that a subsystem of the earth (i.e. the economy) must eventually conform to the same behavioural mode of development without growth’. Apparently this sensible statement is in his book ‘Beyond Growth’ but I can’t access the book online and the quote seems to originate from Andrew Simms, which is good enough for me!

Energy and water
Some of those who believe peak oil to be a distraction are the ‘gigawatt guys’ – you know, the ones who spout forth about the number of gigawatts which hit the Earth each day – if only we could harness just a fraction of that energy, we’d be OK although they sometimes seem to forget that the required infrastructure demands considerable investment of money, energy and raw materials. A big part of the solar future is to come from concentrating solar power (CSP), large solar devices built in deserts across the world. It makes sense – deserts are not usually used for agriculture given the lack of water so there should be no ‘food not fuel’-type conflicts. But, wait, what exactly is CSP? While some systems focus sunlight onto photovoltaic cells to generate electricity directly, most are solar thermal devices. What all thermal-based energy production has in common, whether involving solar concentrators, fossil fuels or nuclear is that they all use heat to boil water and produce super heated steam. The steam then rotates a large turbine activating a generator that produces electricity. Hmm, so where will the water come from? Previously untapped underground aquifers? Like we haven’t screwed enough of them up! Or perhaps irrigated desert lands, replacing crops which themselves require a lot of water?

According to a 2006 report to Congress on the interdependency of energy and water (see table on page 65), a coal fired plant consumes 300–480 gallons of water per megawatt hour (not including cooling water which is returned to the source warm – I’m sure that alters the local ecosystem but for better or worse I don’t know); a nuclear plant uses between 400 – 720 gallons/MWh; and a solar parabolic trough plant uses 760 – 920 gallons/MWh. Considering the large number of solar plants being proposed (e.g. in Arizona) the question of the amount of water needed to produce solar energy is an important one. Efforts to increase water efficiency in solar energy operations involve modifying the conventional cooling tower, which would greatly increase building costs and could decrease the efficiency of the plant. So, once again, I would like to see people restrain their excitement at ‘the next green solution’ and consider all the arguments, not just the energy, not just the land, not just the water, not just the raw materials involved but the whole system.

Peak everything
I’ve probably spent more time than I should have trying to come up with the perfect argument for those who still see peak oil as a mere distraction compared to its limelight-hogging twin, climate change. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: they are intrinsically linked, not just to our use of fossil fuels but also to our attitude to natural resource use in general. We exploit, we use, we profit, we waste and we assume that something better will come along – it always has before, right?

With respect to climate change, our attitude has been to maximise fossil fuel production and consumption, while also destroying forests, peatlands and other natural carbon ‘sinks’ which might have stood a chance of absorbing a good chunk of the resultant CO2 had they been left intact. But they weren’t and now we even talk about making artificial trees  (various types). As for peak oil, it’s only posing a problem because of our short-termism – inhabitants of Thera were open to the idea that they’d miscalculated how to live and they changed. They heeded the signs.

So, why is peak oil important? Because peak oil is about the end of cheap oil, which means the end of cheap everything – transport, food, goods, everything which requires oil as an energy source or a raw material will become more expensive. Oil used to return almost 100 units of energy for every unit invested in its production – you’d poke a stick in Texas or Saudi Arabia and the stuff would come a-gushing. Not anymore. Now it’s all hi-tech, semi-submersible ‘accidents-waiting-to-happen’ operating deep offshore and tar sands (don’t get me started on that one!) Oil is the single most valuable source of energy, particularly transport energy. Without cheap and plentiful liquid fuel, global trade grinds to a halt. I do not believe that ‘we’ don’t know this. If we can’t wake up to what peak oil means, we won’t wake up to peak anything. We’ll live in hope of electric cars and biofuelled aeroplanes, of some hydrogen economy, of a sustainable world which will never happen. We have to end growth economics and I think that’s the biggest ask of all.

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Fuelling the future by force

You know when you open your emails and click a link someone sent months ago, which has another link to the original article, which you look at, wondering why, but then you see something really annoying? Well, that’s just happened to me. It’s happened before. In fact, it happens a lot. Today, it’s the idea of 21st century warfare being powered by biofuels.

OK, so the story was from a newsletter sent back in October, about a new publication which I misread as being called “Fuelling the Future by Force”. Whoa, that’s a bit blatant! What do we have here? Click. The report, which is actually called “Fueling (sic) the Future Force” (easy mistake!) is one of several recent reports (such as last April’s warning from the US Joint Forces Command and the leaked German military report) which refer to the military thinking about ‘peak oil’ issues. It’s no surprise. If I’m worried about and making plans for the inevitable rise in fossil fuel prices and its impact on our globalised, just-in-time, energy-guzzling way of living then I’d bet my last penny that the military was. After all, oil exporting countries will, I’m sure, stop exporting their oil willingly, especially to us infidels, long before they stop pumping it out of the ground. If the West wants continued access to oil, and the emerging economies also want access to it but there’s less to go around and the countries whose oil it is want to hang on to it, there’s gonna be a fight.

Anyway, the report was produced in September 2010 by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank which, despite sounding alarmingly like the Project for a New American Century (what did happen to that refreshingly open plan for continuing American global supremacy?), allegedly has strong links with the Obama administration. CNAS recommends that the Department of Defence (DOD) transitions entirely away from petroleum by 2040 and suggests biofuels. Turns out there have been several successful tests of biofuels blends in military aircraft at Elgin and Edwards Air Force Bases and no doubt others.

So “Fueling the Future Force” states, on page 3, that “To ready America’s armed forces for tomorrow’s challenges, DOD should ensure that it can operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040”. It goes on (page 7) to inform the reader that “There is an array of reliable, renewable fuels that should be considered as alternative supplies to petroleum, including multiple generations of biofuels”. Given that “up to 77 percent of DOD’s massive energy needs – and most of the aircraft, ground vehicles, ships, and weapons systems that DOD is purchasing today – depend on petroleum fuel” (page 2) this is indeed some task! But never fear, they’ve done it before and they can do it again. Page 6 reassures us that “Transitioning away from petroleum dependence by 2040 will be enormously difficult, but fortunately the U.S. defense sector has made several energy transitions successfully in its history. In particular, it moved from coal to petroleum to nuclear power in its ships”. Now that’s what really annoyed me. The net energy-enhancing switch from using coal to using oil for fuelling ships (which happened about 100 years ago, when we were just on the cusp of vast oil discoveries around the globe) provided more energy more cheaply. It was an economic winner which just required some technological innovation to realise. We’re great at technological innovation when energy is plentiful. However, today’s supposed switch from oil to biofuels for aviation is not the same thing.

You see, the problem is that very few people seem to realise (or if they do, they don’t speak out about it much) that the energy returned from oil is colossal compared to that returned from biofuels once you take the energy inputs into account. Most of us understand ‘net profit’ but we fail to make the logical leap to ‘net energy’ because we have been swimming in cheap energy for over 100 years thanks to, mostly, oil. There has to be a positive surplus in both cases or things start to go awry. The jury’s out on whether some biofuels even have a positive energy return but an excellent report on all things EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) reminds us on page 51 that “it is important to recall that industrial societies emerged in the context of energy returns in the double digits- 50:1 or more, meaning fifty times as much energy yielded as invested”. According to this study, soybean biodiesel currently returns 93 percent (note that 100% more is just a doubling or 2 times as much) more energy than is used to produce it (1.93:1), while corn grain ethanol provides only 25 percent more energy (1.25:1).

It takes energy to get energy into a useful form and with biofuels there’s the additional dimension of growing the stuff. So if biofuels are really going to replace the energy used by the US military complex then how many acres of land would that take? Well, that would depend from what the biofuel was being extracted. Page 4 reveals that, “The Air Force and Navy flight-tested camelina-based biofuel blends in the past year”. Hmm, camelina? It turns out that others with a keen interest in flying have also tested this non-edible, easy-to-grow plant. So, how much land? I’d really like to know….

“Fueling the Future Force” does acknowledge (page eight) that, “Other environmental costs of fuel production can include heavy water use and diverting arable land to fuel production, both of which can trigger negative side effects if not managed properly”. But nowhere does it mention how much land would be required, which seems quite an obvious question, or how much energy we would actually have compared to today’s fossil-fuelled military. I fear we will be fuelling the future by force after all, as we always have.

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