Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the cusp of a New Year

Will we be sucking our Spanish lemons in 2012?
Well, I'm sat here at the kitchen table with a cold beer in front of me, Wagner playing faintly on the stereo and a chicken roasting in the oven. The rest of the family are in the lounge watching something unspeakable on the telly and, outside, darkness has fallen and the impatient are already letting off their fireworks.

So that was 2011 - I wonder what 2012 will bring. There are many worrying signs that a lot of the things most people take for granted will evaporate in a puff of pixie dust in the next few months and we all have our own pet worries about what will happen. My personal worry demon is that a euro (currency) crash will freeze up the banks and I won't be able to sell our house in Spain. If that happens it might mean that we need to move back into it - which would be no bad thing as it's a fantastically sited smallholding in a beautiful valley. But we're not finished paying off debts yet and, in my view, Spain isn't the most stable place to be when things go pear-shaped. To do so would mean that we may still be at the mercy of the increasingly merciless Spanish banks.

No, ideally we'd like to sell up and move on, 'investing' in some woodland and a another ramshackle ruin to do up in a place that's more aligned with our own culture i.e. England.

But a worse scenario would be that we do sell the house just before a bout of hyperinflation or a currency crash and end up holding a few peanuts rather than a piece of land with a house on it. One thing's for sure, Denmark isn't as immune to economic problems as it likes to think it is. With a new socialist government now in control of the country with the largest public sector (as a share of the economy) in the world it will certainly be worth keeping an eye on the next bond auction to see if the markets decide to inflict some punishment. Watch this space.

Nevertheless, I'm thankful that we have it as a bolt hole down in Spain in case things do turn nasty. We have a good network of friends and neighbours down there and people have been practising living on next to nothing for the past few years. At present our house is cared for by José, a Mexican immigrant, who is the ideal house sitter.

What's more, I'm more than grateful that we own a property somewhere and have a bit of land attached. To many, if not most, these kind of things are now beyond their reach. If only the UK property bubble would finally pop and planning restrictions would be relaxed to allow people who want to work the land the chance to actually live on it that would be a great step towards securing some tentative measure of self-sufficiency in that overcrowded island.

I will not, of course, be entertaining any fantasies of Mayan prophesies or any such thing in the coming year. Not that many people over here in Europe pay heed to such things, but the slight worry is that people who do believe the world will end in December next year will have a hard time adjusting to the fact that it hasn't - and if they are armed and dangerous then so much the worse. It will be 'interesting' to see how that one pans out.

This being New Year I do have a few resolutions to make. I'm not about to share all of them but the main gist is that I'll be giving up a couple of things that frankly I should have given up quite a while ago. The chicken that is in the oven is a farewell parting to a regular meat diet, and there will certainly be far fewer cold beers in front of me during the coming year as well. Another resolution is to publish the book I've been writing for two years - yes, publish.

It's about my time living in Spain, running an enviro newspaper and trying to live sustainably. I found a publisher (no easy task these days) but the more down the line we got the more they wanted me to make it more light-hearted and remove any mention of peak oil or any other 'conspiracy theories'. Well, the book is light-hearted enough but I've decided not to grace the publisher and will explore other options, including self-publishing. It's been more or less finished for about 9 months, living on a flash memory stick that is an advert for Hamburg Airport (complete with a plastic airplane in a liquid bubble). It's high time it came off the memory stick and into the real world.

My final resolution is to live more by the precepts that I've always felt drawn to - and that means being a bit more formally spiritual. As a first step I'm starting Tai Chi classes in January and want to get going with a daily meditation session. Aside from that I've been reading John Michael Greer's Druid Handbook, as well as downloading course material from a British druid order. I'm not sure it's for me - I come from a solidly atheist background - but my mother was a spiritualist and I'm pretty sure I've inherited her genes. I'll give it a try and see if it feels right.

Anyway, the chicken is starting to look crispy and the beer bottle is now empty so I'll bid any readers I have a Happy 2012 and hope that you have a peaceful New Year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Rock and the Spike

Agpalilik - it came from outer space ...

Last summer I came across quite a remarkable find. It happened on a day out in Copenhagen when I was taking my youngest daughter to the National Gallery to see what she would make of the paintings there. Not far from the gallery we happened to be walking down a busy street past the entrance to some grand old red brick building when something in its courtyard caught my eye. There was a large skip stacked up with abandoned office furniture and black bin bags, but it was something next to the skip that caught my eye. For, sitting there on some steel beams was what appeared to be a large red-brown meteorite.

There was nothing to stop us from going to have a closer look, so we did. Sure enough, it was a meteorite, and what's more it was heavily pockmarked and appeared to be made of iron.

A door swung open and a lady wearing a white lab coat came out into the courtyard. Having spotted us from inside the building (I now realised we were at the Geological Museum) she had been eager to tell us more about this large lump of iron sitting unceremoniously in the courtyard. The meteorite, it turned out, was part of the Cape York Meteorite, which smashed into the Earth some 1,000 years ago in Greenland. Named Agpalilik – aka 'the man' – the meteor weighs about 15 tonnes and had a section cut away, revealing the core.

It looked a bit sad and abandoned in the yard next to the skip but when it had been discovered it had caused great excitement. Inuit legend told of the arrival of this celestial gift and it took European explorers a number of years to locate the smashed fragments, the largest of which weighed 31 tonnes and required the construction of its own railroad to transport it to the coast and away to the United States. The fact that they had been pilfered must have caused the Inuit some distress because, historically speaking, these unassuming lumps of solid iron had a profound effect on the development of the local Greenlandic population.

It was the American explorer John Ross who stumbled upon the meteor, having discovered to his amazement that local Greenlanders had iron tips on their hunting weapons despite there being no mineral deposits in the area. At first the locals refused to show him the location of their stash of iron – a veritable gift from the gods that had allowed them to utilise iron age technology in a harsh environment. Eventually though Ross was able to bribe a guide by offering him a gun and was led to the impact zone. Three of the fragments were then shipped off to New York, where they remain, and it wasn't until the 1960s that 'the Man' was discovered and carted off to Copenhagen. By this point in time the Greenlanders had access to all sorts of modern conveniences and were less defensive of the meteor which had once brought them so much good fortune.

After we left I had time to reflect on our accidental discovery. The meteor, for the Greenlanders, had been not unlike our discovery of oil and other fossil fuels a couple of centuries ago. Both were gifts from out of time and space that had landed in our laps more or less randomly and radically changed the way we did business. In the case of crude oil, once we had learned a few good uses for it, nothing would ever be the same again. In that sense we are, as a species, opportunists, or less politely, scavengers. A Martian, viewing our activities over a long period of time, might reasonably conclude that as a species our job is simply to burrow into the planet's crust, bring various minerals to the surface that we find 'useful' and process them into forms that are at odds with the finely crafted balance of the biosphere i.e. 'pollution'.

And thinking in the long term is very useful when it comes to comprehending peak oil. Reading the various online arguments raging about whether we have reached peak extraction of this or that energy resource is a bit like not being able to see the wood for the trees. The point is not whether we have reached it in in 2006, or 2010 or even 2025 – it's that we are currently bumping along the plateau of a very tall and steep-sided mountain that, when viewed from a distance is a mere blip in human history.

Consider the diagram of the energy spike. We are, at present, right at the top of it. Most of us can't imagine that simple truth – we have been climbing to that summit since our grandfathers' grandfathers were babies. It takes no more than a couple of generations, three at the outside, for something to become normalised into human consciousness. In this case what we have come to believe is unassailable it is the idea that the planet we live on will continue to provide us with virtually limitless energy to power the lifestyles we feel we have become entitled to.

Our energy plateau. Image courtesy of Transition Towns

How do we safely get down from that spike? Alas, there are no easy options but one of the worst thing we can do is to go on believing that the energy mountain will keep getting higher and higher. Already our global energy system is showing signs of breakdown. The mega fields, such as those in Saudi Arabia, show no sign of being able to meet rising demand and the price of a barrel of oil is still hovering at around 100 dollars. Enthusiasts of shale gas come up with wild figures for its supposed productivity, although most operators report that the finds go flat after a year of operation (champagne bottles don't fizz for long) and in any case the other energy inputs and water requirements make the extraction difficult, expensive and environmentally destructive.

Those of us who are expecting some kind of collapse need look no further than the news headlines. As John Michael Greer posited in this week's Archdruid Report – this is what collapse looks like. It's going to be a long and rocky road down from that spike, and we'll find ourselves lurching from one crisis to the next, punctuated by periods of stability and calm, and we should ask ourselves how exactly are we going to prepare for it?

After all, it is one thing theorising and conducting online debates about catabolic collapse, but quite another to actually do something useful about it. My own steps have been modest but at least I hope they are a step in the right direction. We have started making and selling our own soap as a means of making some money from a product that people will still find useful for years to come (we can hope). I have also amassed a collection of practical books on everything from house building to home wine making that I spend evenings reading. My wife, luckily, already has a set of useful skills in that she is a qualified upholsterer and seamstress. She can take old unwanted furniture and restore it – and she is good at knitting.

Of course, these are first steps. We are looking at buying a piece of woodland and learning charcoal making skills. Woodland at present is very cheap on account of it being there 'only' for recreational purposes. I'm learning all about coppicing and other woodland crafts and, thankfully, several years as a conservation volunteer in my 20s means that these things are not alien to me and I can swing a bill-hook with confidence.

But there's a lot to do and learn and intuitions says that time is getting somewhat short. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else about what steps they are taking.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

King Cnut and the Rising Tide

Storm surges have left parts of Denmark under water this week

I know it no longer gets as much media attention as it used to but global warming has been back in the news again lately with the COP17 meeting in Durban. Of course, you could be forgiven for not noticing it as it hasn't received as much press coverage partly because of lowered expectations that anything can be achieved by world leaders but also because the anti global warming talking heads have convinced enough people that it's a non-issue cooked up by greedy scientists and megalomaniac one world order socialists.

So it's all the more ironic that almost two years to the day after the Copenhagen talks ended Mother Nature has served a reminder of just who runs the show. A few days ago a powerful storm swept down from the North Atlantic, passing over Denmark as it continued south. The resultant storm surge saw sea levels rise quite dramatically around the coastlines and a number of areas were flooded, including Copenhagen's picturesque Nyhavn tourist area. Not since King Cnut has anybody seen anything quite like it before and, strangely, even though the storm was over several days ago sea levels remain high. I took the picture at the top of this post on a walk to my nearby beach this morning and you can see the rocks that act as sea defences are still, well, defenceless (and yes, that's an oil fired power station and incineration plant in the background).

Rising sea levels are of particular concern here because it is a pretty flat low country. Where I live is one metre above sea level, so even if the more modest predictions come true then where I am currently typing this blog will be part of the Baltic Sea before too long. Of course, readers of the Spectator would rubbish this claim, if they'd taken any notice of this week's cover story which claimed sea rises are, yes, a scam.

And there lies the dark irony because it was at the COP15 talks here two years ago that the world learned that political leaders are particularly useless when it comes to acting for the common good of securing (and acting upon) a deal to phase out hydrocarbons. A powerful binary has been created that says we can either save the planet or save the economy. Of course, even my six-year-old daughter could point out that the economy is part of the planet and not the other way around, but politicians and business leaders insist that this isn't so and we need to 'fix the economy' before we can 'fix the environment'. We are told this relentlessly. Just in the last week, by way of example, we have had in the news:

  • UK chancellor George Osborne telling us that protecting the environment places a 'ridiculous' cost on businesses.
  • A plan to apply a small tax on airplane departures will apparently damage the economy.
  • US Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich mocking President Obama for delaying the Canada to Texas oil pipeline, implying he was a flake for heeding environmental concerns above economic ones.

So, if you believe all this, we can either have an economy with jobs or we can have a habitable planet. Relatively few question the assumption that we can have a third option - an economy without growth that could provide for us reasonably well without distorting the biosphere. But that's not up for discussion at present because all politicians can talk about is this magic thing called 'growth'.

We all know what growth is, of course, but most people don't realise that it has only been the aim of economic policy-makers since the end of the last world war. Before then we were quite happily going along without any explicit attempt to fuel it. But with the de-hitching of the money supply from anything of value (e.g. gold) and letting financiers write their own rules, we've seen an explosion of fractional reserve banking and consumers being led by the nose into unsustainable high-debt lifestyles. Why has this happened?

Italian Peak Oil writer Ugo Bardi has a pretty good answer. In his recent essay 'Why is Economic Growth so Popular?' he points out that with a ready abundance of cheap energy at hand the path of least resistance is always to exploit non-renewable resources in the short term at the expense of the long term. If the economy hits a sticky patch on its upward trajectory the political pressure is there to offer stimulus packages to the most exploitative and short-termist industrialists in order to get the ball rolling again, whatever environmental damage it causes.

And that's part of the reason any top-down conferences on what to do about the predicament of global warming will always end in failure. National governments, who for the most part are elected by individual voters, can only ever retain their power by maintaining their unholy pact with the voters, who by and large demand a higher standard of living. I can't personally think of any election won on the promise of 'less jobs and a lower income for all!'

I was there at the COP15 two years ago and witnessed the wheels coming off first hand. I had convinced the publisher of the newspaper where I worked that we should print a daily newspaper covering the conference. He refused at first, but when it got closer and he became aware of what a big deal it was he smelled money in the air and agreed to let me go ahead with it – provided I was 'neutral' in my editorial tone (of course I wasn't, but his English skills were not too hot and so …). We were just a small newspaper normally, run from an office in an ex-slaughterhouse in the red light district area of the city. Our audience was normally comprised of disgruntled expats, multinational employees on hardship postings out in the wilds of Jutland and the pampered diplomatic classes, whose functions we were expected to attend and photograph. All in all it was not dissimilar to the fictional Rome newspaper in Tom Rachman's excellent book The Imperfectionists. So it was quite a change to suddenly find ourselves at the centre of the then biggest media event on the planet.

It was a surreal couple of weeks. The city suddenly became more multicultural than it had ever been, with huge numbers of protesters from all over the world, including in their numbers plenty of indigenous folks from far mountain kingdoms and perpetually shivering tropical islanders in their thin polyester suits. Our normally placid office became a round the clock hive of activity with swarms of journalists and distributors traipsing in and out. We worked feverishly, sending the final proofs to the printers close to midnight and picking up 20,000 copies way before dawn broke so that the army of distributors on bikes could get them out to every corner of the city.

We interviewed everyone from Nobel Laureates and landless Amazonians to film makers and film stars (yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger was there, advising us that the only way out of the impasse was to give more power to big business). I got to meet and talk to some of my then environmental heroes, such as Bill McKibben and a pre-nuclear George Monbiot, and I'll never forget the phone call from the Israeli Embassy saying that Shimon Peres wanted to talk to us about his new electric car scheme. One day, introducing myself to a tired-looking man hunched over a laptop at the next desk whom I assumed to be a streetwalker feeding off our WiFi connection, I found out I was talking to the editor of Politico. “Are you always this busy?” he asked.

But all this is not just to walk down memory lane and air a few choice anecdotes. I remember the distinct mounting excitement among invited delegates that Obama was going to fly in at the end and strike a historic deal that would save us all from damnation. I wasn't so sure. The news leaking out of the conference centre was not good and the over zealous Danish police had spent two weeks cracking down hard on peaceful protesters, leading to a frustrated feeling of betrayal in the air. The night before the end of the conference we received a leaked email detailing a plan to railroad a deal through that favoured the big industrialised nations at the expense of the smaller ones. So, predictably enough, when Obama did finally arrive on his big blue plane there was simply no way the US and the Chinese were going to sign anything that remotely committed them to a binding deal. Obama was shunned by the Chinese, and the only thing that prevented him from looking a total fool was the Danish hosts' fig leaf of a treaty aka the Copenhagen Accord.

The conference had ended with a whimper and the clean up crews got straight to work erasing every trace of the fact that the city had been occupied by an unruly army of people whose cause for optimism had been crushed. Polar bear suits were retuned to rental shops to be dry cleaned and a wheelie bin outside our office was full of signs that said 'Stop Global Warming!'.

The two years since Copenhagen have lead many campaigners to despair. What is the point of protesting if you just end up in a 'free speech zone' kettled in by the police and ignored by the media? What hope, they ask, do we have if neither individuals nor government are prepared to act?

It's a good question and I'm not claiming to know the answer. Maybe we can hope that consumerism dies and is replaced by something more connected to the natural cycles of the Earth. Stranger things have happened in history – but even so, consumerism is a relatively recent phenomenon and, malevolent as it is, an end to consumerism won't mean an end to resource over-exploitation. Some believe that a return to a monastic way of life could be our saving grace, but my pessimistic side tells me that's not likely to happen any time soon.

But perhaps there's a silver lining in the dark cloud that is Peak Oil. The direst predictions of environmentalists such as James Hansen all assume that we will be accelerating our extraction and use of fossil fuels far into the future. Peak Oil tells us that we can't and won't. Indeed, the more one looks into the idea of the decline or collapse of industrial civilisation the more one can see that the forces which power our most rapacious technologies are running out of steam and running out of supporting resources. Furthermore, given that many energy sources, such as coal, have a high level of fossil fuel subsidy in the form of oil, could we soon see these becoming unproductive? Is that why China is importing so much coal right now?

Whatever, given what we know of the likely climate and energy situations we know that we will be hit hard. The question is, do we as individuals let ourselves be knocked down by it, or do we try to roll with the punch? The choice, unlike the fate of global climate deals, is up to us.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Running on almost empty

Greenpeace tried to defeat Cairn Energy but in the end it was Arctic geology that won

Two stories in the past couple of days days illustrate the way two very different political dogs can bark up the wrong tree. The first was from Denmark, where I currently live, in the form of the government setting out its 'roadmap to the future' with regard to energy. When most people think of Denmark they think of wind mills and bicycles. The country has been the poster child for sensible sustainable development since the 1970s, and the latest vision for the future would seem, at first glance, to be a continuation along that path.

The plan, as it stands, is to be entirely free of fossil fuels by 2050. Denmark is an oil producer and exporter, albeit a small player, and imports large amounts of coal to fuel its power stations. Renewable power makes up for a significant minority of energy and the rest is imported from Sweden. So how, one might ask, can it shake off the shackles of carbon? Well, no prizes for guessing that it will be smart grids, more wind power and sophisticated electricity storage systems all the way.

The climate minister (yes, Denmark has one), Martin Lidegaard, when he had finished conjuring up this hallucinatory future did concede at the press conference that the pesky actual details of how this was to be accomplished were not exactly apparent just yet. Smart grids, for example, are still in the chin-scratching phase, electricity storage seems to boil down to vast banks of low-tech batteries and nobody is even asking where the country will get all the rare earth minerals for building millions of new wind turbines. Perhaps they could strike a deal swapping them with China for designer furniture …

So it was a relief to turn to the UK and see that for the Conservative/Lib Dems coalition business as usual was being touted as the only business worth a damn. Chancellor George Osborne, in his Autumn Statement, airbrushed energy and environmental concerns away, announcing a grand new road building plan that would tarmac a fair bit of the remaining non-tarmacked bits of Britain. In a tough talking speech, the young millionaire told the rest of us to expect at least six more years of austerity measures before things get better. And the way to make things better and restore the nation to a path of growth, he seemed to be saying, was by building more roads and airports while slashing funds for renewable energy and environmental protection and letting big polluters and energy hogs off the hook. It wasn't the kind of speech that would go down well in Denmark.

And yet both of these politicians on different shores of the North Sea, in their own different ways, are pinning their chances of re-election on the prospect of growth on a finite planet. Okay, so the Danish version is a bit more fuzzy and warm and at least acknowledges that energy shortages and global warming are issues to be taken seriously, but do either one of them take into account their respective countries' abilities to pay for these grand projects?

To refit the whole of Denmark with smart this-and-thats, pay thousands of PHDs thousands of work years to come up with systems that attempt to bend the laws of thermodynamics and basically keep the whole show on the road is likely to be so expensive that bankruptcy looks a preferable, and altogether more likely, option. After all, it's not as if any country in Europe can particularly afford to squander large sums of money on anything at present and Denmark's North Sea oil bonanza has been declining at an terrific rate and is expected to hit zero in just six years (2018). Six years - that's practically tomorrow! (And Britain isn't far behind with production expected to fall to 1/3 of its peak by 2020.)

George Osborne is equally broke but in a state of denial. He thinks that growth can be restored if we all just man up and try really hard. Never mind that most of the manufacturing industry has been packed up, the service industry relies on consumer spending, consumers have no cash to spend and the much vaunted financial sector is under attack from both itself and everyone else. Where, exactly, is this growth going to come from?

Another story caught my eye today that ties the above two together. The darling drillers of the denialist press, Cairn Energy, who sailed to Greenland with a drilling rig have found, after three test wells and up to a billion dollars of trying … not a drop of oil. The British company, who had to be protected by the Danish navy from Greenpeace protesters, have finally given up and will be towing their rig to somewhere oil is easier and cheaper to get at. Unfortunately places such as those are getting harder to find on the map, and Cairn, whose share price has shot up about 1,000% in the last decade, can expect it to go back down to Earth again pretty soon.

The above is not to poke fun at politicians or oil companies, although God knows they deserve it. Rather it is to illustrate the likelihood that for the next few years and decades we will get to hear increasingly futile promises from politicians whose aim is to restore the energy bounty that we have had in the post war years. That they are no more able to deliver on those promises than I am able to conjure bananas from thin air is by-the-by, but most people will want to believe them and that is how they will retain political power.

But that energy isn't coming back, no matter how much blather is spouted in parliaments and how much City traders manage to talk up the share prices of exploration firms. Simply put, we've picked all the low hanging fruit and what is left will cost more – a lot more- to extract. And when I say 'more' I'm not just talking about money, I'm talking about energy, which is not the same thing.

The best thing for any rational person to do under such circumstances is stop believing the snake oil salesmen and get to work on the task of making their own lives more sustainable and resilient to future shocks in the energy – and by extension food - supply. It's not exactly straightforward to do so and once you embark on the process one realises quite how dependent one is on the fruits of three centuries of industrial materialism, thaumatergic marketing and cheap energy. But the sooner one can make a start the better, and that's what I will be talking about in future posts.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

22 Billion Energy Slaves

Hubbert's Peak. Poster courtesy of
Welcome to my new blog. The title refers to the ex-oil geologist Colin Campbell's remark that the amount of work we get today from fossil fuels is the equivalent of having some 22 billion human slaves working for us round the clock 365 days a year. That's a lot of service we are getting but the shocking thing is that in the coming years and decades most, if not all, of these slaves are going to go away. What we are going to do as those slaves head off into retirement is the core theme of this blog.

Yes, Peak Oil. It's a term that is being bandied around increasingly these days and, basically, it refers to the fact that humanity has extracted around half of all known accessible reserves of oil and other liquid fossil fuels from the Earth's crust. Unfortunately, not many people take this fact too seriously - after all, if we've used up the first 150 years' worth doesn't that mean we don't have to worry about them running out for another 150 years?

If only. We are right now standing on the bumpy plateau of the oil production curve - or Hubbert's Peak as it's known - names after the late American geophysicist M. King Hubbert who sketched out a bell curve for US petroleum production, which posited that supply would peak in the late 60s or early 70s. His theory proved remarkably prescient, not just for the US but for all major oil fields, and the US did indeed experience a peak and has been in decline ever since. By the same reasoning Hubbert predicted that world oil supply would peak in 1995. He might have been off by a few years, and nobody can agree when or even if the peak was reached, but the International Energy Authority now states that conventional crude oil peaked in 2006.

A potted history of Peak Oil can be summarised as follows:

- In 1955 Hubbert predicted it but was ignored and even vilified.
- In the early 1970s oil shocks sent the industrial world into a panic and emergency measures were introduced to conserve energy
- In the 1980s people who were sick of energy rationing voted in politicians who promised a return of the good times - namely but not exclusively Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Raegan. These politicians pulled out all the stops and, combined with new (and very timely) discoveries in the North Sea and Alaska the industrial world was drowned in cheap oil ... for a time.
- Now, in 2011, with a peak having been reached we suddenly find ourselves in the position that emerging giant economies such as India and China, with a voracious appetite for fossil fuels, are demanding their share of the energy bonanza. That's why oil has gone up from around 10 dollars a barrel to the current price of over 100. Nobody knows how high the price will be in two, five or ten years, but 200 dollars a barrel does not seem unlikely.

Why should any of this matter?

Unfortunately it matters a great deal. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that what we must face up to in the coming years will be the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced and there will not be a single one of us whose world will not be turned upside down. Those 22 billion energy slaves will be going away, and there aren't any other kinds waiting in the wings to take over. With a tiny handful of exceptions, every one of us alive in the rich world today was weaned on oil. Our food is grown with it, it powers the way we move around and everything from clothes and medicine is made with it. We might as well call ourselves Homo Petroleus.

It's normally at this point in a discussion that someone politely (or impolitely) points out to me that, don't I realise, the slack from oil will be taken up by renewable energy, nuclear power and other things, like coal.

One of the points of this blog is to detail why that won't be happening.

It's a difficult thing to acknowledge but what we face right now is nothing less than the end of the industrial age. Some people might say 'great' - but we shouldn't romanticise the pre industrial age. For the great majority of us the rest of our lives will consist of one crisis after another as political and financial institutions fall, energy crises rear their heads and ecological catastrophes loom. It won't be pretty and, given that several billion of the world's population rely on fossil fuels for their food production, we can count on there being a lot less of us around in the future.

While recognising these facts is likely the most important thing you can ever grasp, it is equally important not to equate it with some kind of apocalypse. Yes, things are going to get ugly, but it will be a long process. Civilisations generally take a couple of hundred years to die. Ours is unlikely to be exceptional - although we often think it is. But with the right preparation it will be perfectly possible to at least manage our energy descent in a way that keeps us alive and, if we're lucky, comfortable.

These are the kind of hard to stomach facts that I will be presenting in this blog. But one shouldn't despair. The kind of steps I am going to be suggesting generally involve taking charge of your affairs and thus empowering yourself. All of us have been bombarded with the psychological detritus of the industrial age since we were born and learning how to switch off its influence is like lifting a huge load off your shoulders.

A bit about me. I'm 40 years old, a father of two and although I am British I currently live in Denmark. I studied economics at university and went on to become an energy trader but then jacked in the corporate world to become a journalist in Spain, where I started my own environmental newspaper The Olive Press. Since then I have been the editor of a newspaper in Denmark and have been a freelance correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. I have also been an active participant in the Peak Oil blogosphere (so dispersed are its adherents at present that's the main forum for communication) and have studying the implications of what is in store for us for the past couple of years. There are a number of key figures in the Peak Oil scene and most of them are American. Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Peak Everything, is a favourite of mine, as is another hard hitter Dmitry Orlov, who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union firsthand.

There are other names of course but my principal influence, which I will fess up to right from the start, has been and continues to be the Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, John Michael Greer, whose book The Long Descent simply blew me away. His weekly Peak Oil blog The Archdruid Report has become an addictive cerebral dose of analysis and food for thought and is read by thousands. Incisive as his essays are, he has always maintained that his analysis springs purely from his own American perspective and acknowledges that other cultures may interpret his ideas in slightly different ways. It's in this spirit that I'm presenting this series of blog posts - or dispatches - from a British perspective. We have our own political system and ways of doing things that can, at times, be quite different to the US. It's going to be quite a journey because the one thing that becomes apparent as you start to explore Peak Oil is that immediately a host of other disciplines and subjects present themselves. Indeed, one might expect a contemplation of Peak Oil to be a never ending procession of production charts and geological analysis. It isn't.

To gain a thorough understanding of the challenges that are beginning to force themselves upon us it will be necessary to explore everything from economics and physics (especially the Laws of Thermodynamics), to religion, architecture, social theory, psychology and ancient history. There will also be large doses of philosophy, analysis of current affairs and DIY. It's going to be an interesting exploration and I hope that you, the reader, will share it with me. There is little time for preparation (that should have started 30 years ago) but I aim to produce one post per week, or more if time allows.

To round off this post I'll give you a little hint of the urgency of our situation. In 2009 the august and dry International Energy Agency failed to mention the term 'Peak Oil' anywhere in its 600 page annual report on the state of the world's energy supplies. In the 2010 report is casually mentioned Peak Oil for the first time and stated that it had already happened. In the 2011 report, which came out a few days ago, comes with a number of dire warnings suggesting that if we don't change our ways quickly then much of humankind will have been wiped out by the end of the century. If that sounds alarmist then that's because it is. If a report could have a flashing blue light on it and an air raid siren then you can guarantee that this one would.

But did you read that in the news? No, I thought not.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Peak Oil and Denmark's response to it

H.G.Wells said that he felt hope for the human race every time he saw an adult riding a bike. If he were alive today (or perhaps came to visit in a time machine from one of his stories) he’d no doubt be horrified to see people driving around in SUVs and Humvees. Bring him over to Copenhagen though and I’m sure his spirits would be restored.

Why? Well, everyone knows that Denmark is famous for its bicycles. It’s probably fair to say that this is the best country in the world for getting around on two wheels – and for once, no exaggeration is needed – and when I leave one day, as I inevitably will, it’ll be the bikes that I’ll miss the most.

Consider this. According to the British motoring organisation the RAC, the average annual cost of running a car in the UK is £5,689 (or nearly 50,000 kroner, or 6,500 euros), including the cost of depreciation, insurance, fuel and tax. I’m sure the figure would be far higher in Denmark, where all of these factors cost more – especially the well-known 200% motor vehicle sales tax.

If I did a similar calculation for running my bike, which I bought from a supermarket for about 1,500 kroner (180 euros) a few years ago, the figure would be ridiculously small. For a start I don’t have to pay tax or insurance, so that’s a zero figure, it runs on fuel I would otherwise have ‘put in the tank’ anyway (peanut butter and jam sandwiches and pasta, mainly) and its value is so low that I don’t have to worry about depreciation or it getting stolen. What’s more, there are no parking fees, no road tolls and I’d have to be really unlucky to get a ticket. In fact, the only thing I really have to spend money on are repairs, which usually amounts to a few hundred kroner a year to replace tubes, the chain (which gets rusty due to all the salt they put on the roads in winter) and brake blocks.

So even if I assume that I spend 1,000 kroner a year keeping my trusty ‘Stallion Classic’ on the road, it is still over fifty times cheaper than running a car.

And Copenhagen is certainly the best city to ride a bike in. When I lived in London for five years I would cycle through thick traffic every day with nary a bike lane in sight. This culminated in a year where I worked in the West End but lived way out beyond the northern suburbs, making it a 24 mile round trip every day through some of the most ferocious traffic imaginable. My basic premise was that everyone was out to kill me – and London’s lunatic black cab drivers almost succeeded on two occasions.

So when I moved to Copenhagen, with its 350km of dedicated bike lanes, its little traffic lights just for cyclists, its millions of bike parking spaces and a law that’s on your side if you’re on two wheels, I thought I’d pedalled into paradise. I quickly realised that there was no separate bike culture here, bikes were simply part of the culture. That meant no more squeezing into Lycra or buying flashy mountain bikes. Instead it meant getting kitted out with a rusty old clanger with a comfortable seat and just sitting back to enjoy the view. I loved it so much that I even spent a summer working as a bicycle rickshaw driver, although I gave it up when I realised this simply meant transporting drunk (and usually very heavy) Swedish businessmen to the red light district and ‘waiting outside’ for them.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me to find out that some foreigners moving here didn’t take advantage of this. Indeed, what came as something of a shock was to discover that some people couldn’t actually ride a bike at all and regarded doing so as something for children! How had they been getting around all these years? (I know, I know).

So why do so many people in Denmark cycle?

Well, it’s not to do with wanting to protect the environment, as some people think. The truth is that Denmark, being mostly flatish, has been ideal for cycling ever since bikes became popular in the 19th century. This all began to change with the advent of cheap motoring, and by the 1960s the roads were given over mainly to cars, buses, trams and trucks. But the oil price shocks of the 1970s showed the dangers of becoming over reliant on motorised transport and, while practically every other nation hit the snooze button and rolled over Denmark got to work on building an infrastructure that reduced its reliance on oil. Driving cars was banned on Sundays (for a while) and bike lanes were built across the land. People were housed in highly insulated apartment blocks within cycling distance of urban centres and bike repair shops sprang up on every corner. The resurgence of the bike age had begun.

What did other nations do by comparison? Massive highway projects, tax breaks for motorists, suicidal rezoning plans ensuring that today’s dormitory suburb is tomorrow’s exurban nightmare: the list goes on.

The fact that Denmark realised that oil was running out and actually did something about it sets it apart in this respect from other nations. While the rest of the western world got swept up in the gimmickry of Thatcher/Reaganite politics (whose particular political good fortune was the discovery of large amounts of oil in the North Sea and the Alaskan North Slope) Denmark stuck to the task in hand of preparing for a world without much oil. That’s why almost half of short journeys today are by bike.

So it wasn’t particularly out of an environmental concern (although this was a pleasant side effect) rather than a concern about the prospect of Peak Oil. This is a fascinating subject in itself, and one that I will be devoting much more of my time and writing to in the future, but the key point I want to make here is that in a system that has become overly complex and reliant on finite resources (i.e. oil), the most sensible decision you can make is to limit the complexity and return a rung down the ladder to a more stable and tested technology – the humble bike.

And there lies the genius of Denmark’s sticking to its guns over oil depletion. The price of petrol could rise to 100 kroner a litre tomorrow, but most of us would still be able to get to work. Contrast that with the US, where people commute from far away suburbs driving on motorways in cars that have woefully low fuel efficiency. Things are almost as bad in Britain, where it has been reported that 1 million people gave up driving their cars in 2010 because the cost was becoming too high. It’s almost certain that this figure will rise in 2011 and each successive year as the price of oil marches steadily upwards over the coming years. Who looks silly now?

Einstein would approve of the Danish approach, after all, he said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The weakest link

These days there is a lot of speculative talk about the vulnerability of some of our most crucial systems to cyber attacks - and rightly so. According to proponents of catabolic collapse, a society that lumbers itself with too much complexity reaches a point when the resources needed to maintain these complex systems become too great. Have we reached that point now?

Complex systems, such as national energy grids, are usually characterised by an over-reliance on computers and a fragmented chain of command, meaning that the overall integrity of the system can be easily compromised by a single attack on the weakest chain in the link.

In today's Independent there is an interesting article about just how that could happen, and apparent evidence that malicious hackers have already penetrated the computerised systems that the US electricity grid relies on. In the good old days, to wage war on another country one of the first things one would have to do is drop bombs on their electricity generating infrastructure from airplanes. These days an attack could be mounted on the energy supply at the stroke of a key in a basement in Delhi or Shanghai. It carries with it the benefit that the targeted country would have no idea (or no proof) of who carried out the attack, enabling a kind of pseudo war where national governments, lone individials and shadowy agents fight it out in a kind of Inception scenario, while the rest of us sit around by candle light.

Below is a short story I wrote a few years ago. In it a lone rogue energy trader manages to bring down the UK electricity grid. It is, of course, totally fictional - but it could happen. I got the idea for the story some years ago when I was working as, yes, an energy trader for a large company that shall remain nameless (no, it wasn't Enron). My job was to manipulate the gas supply to power stations, selling it to other companies if the spot price was right, and turning off the supplies to generating plant, hospitals and other heavy users, such as steelworks.

The idea started as a thought experiment and, at times during those long night shifts, I did experience moments when it seemed touch or go whether the lights would remain on, due to various technical, procedural and human-motivated problems. The problems - so far - were always solved, sometimes in the nick of time, but usually because of the valiant efforts of engineers on the ground. By removing the means to fix problems from these hands-on people and handing it to energy traders and complex computerised systems it seems that we are heightening the risk of the system collapsing.

Anyway, this story is being published on Ether Books - an app that lets you read short stories on your iPhone or other mobile device.

The Toffee Hammer

It’s the stuff of nightmares. What happens when a lone energy trader, acting on an anarchic impulse, is given enough power to bring down the entire UK electricity system? You think it could never happen? Think again ...

It's just gone 3am and we're moving into the dead zone. Systems come off line around this time and even the most conditioned night shift worker, his body struggling against its evolutionary programming, feels the urge to stretch out and lie down on the carpet beside the desk. Most large-scale industrial accidents happen during the night. Think Exxon Valdez. Think Chernobyl. Think BP. That's why I call it the dead zone, and I plan to make full use of it.

The office, which rises above all others in this greenfield business park, is like a cathedral of light. At least, that's what the designers would have you believe. In truth it looks more like a shopping mall. Several layers look down into a palmed central atrium that is ordinarily filled with men and women tapping away at their laptops and sipping fake spring water from plastic bottles. There are noise pollution reducing ceiling tiles and enough seating for a thousand suits. At night, when you have this vast building to yourself, you can hear the little hydraulic motors pushing the rods that open the roof windows as they whir and click. Natural air-conditioning, say the architects. Cuts down on energy loss.

It is in this spirit that I have planned my parting shot. Tonight I'm going to be doing My Bit for the Environment. I wish I could claim some kind of moral high ground on this point but, you see, I just can’t. Don’t ask me why, I just like to see stuff get fucked up. When I was a kid playing rugby for the school the teachers said ‘the bigger they are the harder they fall’. This is going to be one mother of a fall.

Tonight, I am Gas.

The phone rings and it's Electricity. 'Yo, Mobes,' I say.

'You got anything planned on Gas that I should know about?' he asks.

'Er. Nope. We thought we were short day ahead but I managed to get hold of some. What's going on down your end?'

'Nothing. Dead really. I was just checking, you know. Grid are on tenterhooks tonight. Keep calling me to check we haven't got no outages or nothing. Paranoid, they are. Chill out, I tell them.'

'That’s Grid for you.' I say. 'I'll be down in a minute. Just got to do something. You fancy tea? I'm making.'

'Cheers. See you in a mo.'

I put the phone down. Moby's enquiry, decoded, means that he's planning on getting some shuteye soon. Officially, of course, The Company never sleeps. Not us, the sentinels of the ship in the night, on lookout over the grey waters of the corporate seas so that the day-working drones can sleep peacefully in their cabins. But what else is the dead zone for if not snatching forty winks?

I clip the phone to my belt and stroll down to a refreshment station. As I walk I glide my hand along the smooth banister of blonde ash. Once, on one such night shift, a huge pane of glass exploded, seemingly of its own volition, and came showering down on the darkened atrium. Engineers took some of the other panels away and discovered that a single tap with a dessert spoon in the right spot could turn these sheets of expensive glass into heaps of worthless diamonds. The whole roof had to be replaced at enormous expense to The Company. A smarmy man from Accounts later told me this was a Good Thing because it was writing off assets and it got them out of a tax hole.

I realise that what I'm about to do is extremely bad. For a moment, as the teabag darkens the hot water and I'm popping the pills out of their wrapper, I experience a spike of fear. It's a kind of negative epiphany and I see the misery I'm about to cause as clearly as if I'm standing and looking at a picture in a gallery. I steady myself against the black granite top (which has travelled all the way from a mine in Zimbabwe to be in this cathedral) and breathe in deeply ten times. It clears and I crumble the sedatives into the hot tea that will soon be sloshing around inside Moby's stomach.

I make it as far as the Electricity trading floor without spilling Moby’s special tea. He munches on a Twix as he imbibes, just as I expected him to, dipping it in his tea until the chocolate coating has melted. Officially, in corporate competition terms, we are enemies. OK, not enemies, sparring partners. Sometimes I get confused between the difference. It's corporate strategy, you see. Keeps us on our toes, so the theory goes. Whatever. So even though we drink from the same corporate goblet we are two tribes, set against each other in a way that the free market game designers deem to be a healthy relationship. The more complex those clever folks can make things the better. You see, by making the rules of the game soooo complex they’re always one step ahead of the Big Bad Regulator. Because that is what life is to them, a game. Plus - get this - they can pay themselves what they like because they can always prove to dim-witted folk that they are Adding Value.

Ordinarily Moby is a regular bod. Balding Aston Villa supporter, golf addict, adored dad and secret Shakin' Stevens fan. But tonight, in that seat, he is Electricity. At his fingertips are an array of power stations that burn enough fossilised plant life to power the needs of a fifth of Britain. His office is smarter than mine. Plasma screens surround him and shine down like adoring fans and his telephones look almost presidential in their importance.

Tonight he wants to talk about The Game. I have no interest whatsoever in football, but in five years he hasn't noticed. I nod and agree when it seems I am called to do so, and frown when it seems appropriate. I listen to his theories about money corrupting the game and agree that this is indeed the case if he says so. He sips and gulps his tea and munches on that Twix.

He is the first one to yawn. Really, he doesn't need me putting pills in his tea to make him sleep. What I don't want, though, is him waking up until they barge into his office all panic stricken and sweating. I stand up and say that I'll let him have the nightly gas report just as soon as I've finished typing the figures in [decoded: I won't bother you again]. On my way back to my own desk, three floors up and a couple of hundred meters away, the phone on my belt rings. It is Clive at EnPowerCom. He cuts straight to the point.

'Mate, have you seen day-ahead?'

'No,' I say.

'It’s trading at over two quid! Arctic front on the way down according to Forecasting.' Clive hails from Australia. That's practically all I know about him. Apart from the fact he's a humourless capitalist automaton, of course.

'Shit,' I say. 'Don't tell me you're short?'

'Can't say, mate. Look, you wanna stick something on?'

'OK Clive. I'm not at my desk at the moment I'll see what I can do and call you back.'

'Arighty,' he says.

Actually by now I am at my desk and I can't believe my good fortune. With gas prices this high there is serious money to be squandered. Also, I'd just had a great idea on the way back from Electricity before Clive rang. At the computer I type 'cult' and (I pick a country out of the air) 'South Africa' into a search engine. Bingo. Google rewards my mischievousness with a news story relating to a group of people who believe an end of times prophesy only a few months hence. I quickly locate their website and am staring into the pacifically crazed eyes of their leader in no time. I send him an email.

Hey Robin,

Everything is in place. Gonna be up at Findhorn for a while with Dagon until this dies down. Shd be able to make it over for u know what. Love out. JB.

I snigger a bit as I’m typing, and have a premonition of the police sitting round looking all serious and trying to figure out what the hell I am talking about. It’ll throw the hounds off my trail for a bit at least. I print it off, screw it up and throw it in the wastepaper basket. No, too obvious. I fold it out and take it to the recycling bin next to the photocopier. They'll easily find it there.

Now to that trade. I look at my watch. 3:42. I'd better get a move on. You see, I should explain. Back in the day, gas and oil and coal was simply sucked out of the ground by companies working for the government and supplied to people’s homes at a set price. How lame is that! These days it’s all just a bunch of numbers and people like me can buy and sell it a million times before it ends up heating your baked beans. Before I became an energy trader I had no idea you could have such fun gambling with little numbers on a screen. Especially when the numbers belong to other people and you can never lose.

I'm a whiz with a calculator and numbers. Didn't used to be. In fact I failed my maths O'Level. Twice. And here I am, an energy trader! Sometimes the irony gets too much for me. Tonight The Company has about ten million therms for me to play with. Enough gas to heat the Royal Albert Hall for a couple of centuries. I toss a coin. Heads I give away one million of it, tails I give away two. Tails it is. I roll my chair over to the trading terminal and input the trade, counting off the six zeros. I make sure that only EnPowerCom can see it. Just before my finger clicks the cursor on 'VERIFY?' I experience another jagged moment of doubt. I am, after all, only human. Right now, my next mouse click could spell a jail term. I’m thinking self preservation here, rather than anything more altruistic.

I allow myself a moment to rationalise. Tonight is my chance. I've been in a state of readiness for months. Everything about tonight is right. Arctic weather is set to put the country in a deep-freeze. Moby - a man who takes glee in his colleagues calling him Homer Simpson - is currently asleep on the carpet with his monitors showing increasing signs of alarm. The spot price has gone through the roof. And to top it all, tonight is the departmental Christmas party. Apart from one tipsy phone call from the boss I haven't been beeped, emailed or Tweeted by a single one of my team. By now they'll all be squeezing the last few drops of spirits out of the free bar and bemoaning the fact that their extremely generous remuneration packages don't match up to those at EnPowerCom. Now is my chance.

I let go of the unclicked mouse and roll my chair over to the desk. I go through my drill again. My checklist is right there in front of me. I can already tick off 'No. 1 – Moby/Electricity'. Next to it lie my passport, a Company envelope containing a thick wad of 500 euro notes (don’t ask), my car keys (petrol tank full - check, recently serviced - check) and a postcard from the sun-kissed land that I am relying on to nurture me through any post-operational guilt. My hands begin to shake alarmingly and I feel the urge to vomit. I try to make it to the toilets but I can't and instead have to make do with a big plastic bin next to Mr Goldberg's desk. I stand upright again and wipe saliva from my chin with one of his Mansize tissues. That wasn’t in the plan.

I stride over to the trading desk and boldly click 'VERIFY?'. It asks me 'Are you sure?' Of course I’m sure, I’ve got a hedge fund that says The Company’s share price is going to tank. Call it my pension, if you like.

Things are going to have to move very quickly now. I pace up and down for a few seconds to help me think and then come back to look at the trade I just put on. Its lunatic price screams out at me - like one ninety-nine sticker on a new Mercedes. Or in this case, about a hundred new Mercedes. It floats there on the screen like a crust of bread in a trout lake. Snap! Suddenly it's gone. Fuck, I say quietly to the empty trading screen.

Now is the time for some class acting. I need to be out of the building within an hour. I will steal away in the heart of the dead zone. I ring Clive.

'Clive. Shit, man. How do I say this? That trade. Look, I'm sorry but it looks like I put on the wrong price.' I am blessed that Clive can be relied upon to be a professional bastard. He responds with cold silence.

'Clive? Can you hear me? That trade. I need you to reject it. I put the decimal point in the wrong place. I was multiplying instead of dividing.' I know our conversation is being recorded at both ends. I need to sound honest to buy a little time for when they're freaking out and trying to figure out if I was acting with malicious intent. I doubt it'll fool them for long, but maybe long enough so they don’t watch the ports for a couple of days.

'Look mate,' he says 'We're really busy at the moment. Can you take this up with my boss when she gets in?' He sounds irritated and triumphant all at once. He’ll get a big bonus for my ‘mistake’.

'Oh come on Clive. You owe us a favour. I'll give you a good price. Just bin it and I'll put it on the system again.'

'Sorry mate. No can do. It was automatically accepted by our system.' There's a pause while he tries to think up a plausible excuse. 'It's basically non-reversible.'

Oh come on! Non-reversible. Ha! 'Oh shit,' I say. I suck the air in through my teeth and then say, 'Thanks a lot mate,' trying hard not to sound like I really mean it 'I'm gonna have to get onto Commercial Ops about this. Just so you know.' I slam down the receiver and then do a quick drum roll on the desk with a couple of rulers. I have just given away a fortune to a rival firm. Fistpump.

Another tick on the checklist and I'm moving onto the next task. The telex machine is in a cupboard on an upper landing. I begin to make for it when I am suddenly reminded of an urgent task. I run down to Electricity. Moby is nowhere in sight but his snores emanate from somewhere in the dark cavity under his desk. The shiny dome of his head can just be seen glinting in the shadows. I turn the ringer volume down to zero on all the phones and get the hell out again. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Back to the telex machine. You'd have thought that such an antiquated piece of equipment would be banished from a technological haven such as this. It sits there with all the sophistication of a Blake's Seven prop, encased in thick grey plastic and baring its greenscreen face shamelessly. Its very presence is an offence to the technologist’s eye, which is why it's hidden away in a small room inhabited by blocks of A4 and The Company’s fleet of spare staplers (black, stylish). Oh how it pains the IT department that men on oilrigs are suspicious of any new invention that doesn't have rotor blades or a drill bit. I tap in the numbers and put a start time of 4am on it. Technically I'm not supposed to put a dead zone time on it but these blokes will bend over backwards to be helpful. Decent chaps. I watch as the little green characters file sideways off the screen and drop off onto a piece of dusty paper that the printer sneezes out for me.

The call comes almost immediately from Onshore Control - a monstrous city of pipes and pumps crouched on the edge of Lincolnshire where all things gaseous are received from the North Sea to be cleaned, processed, measured and handed over to me and my chums to be flogged. 'Yes, that’s right, a zero nomination,' I confirm. 'The pressure's too high in our pipeline and Nox is going on outage for maintenance at oh five hundred.'

Perhaps I should explain. The Company had bought its very own pipeline to avoid the charges levied by the government controlled pirate stooge that is British Gas. Let’s face it, it was a punt. One of my jobs is to stick gas in it and make sure it’s all tickety-boo. Put too little in and it’ll shut down and three nice shiny gas-fired power stations will suddenly have nothing to run on. Put too much in and, well, half of Lincolnshire would be flung up into the stratosphere. Of course I would never do that. Nobody can say I lack scruples.

He sounds like he wants to believe this but says he never heard anything about it in the handover. I tell him there was a fax sent to his manager a week ago. I'll send a copy just as soon as I've finished all the control work that I'm doing, I say. Not being comfortable with paperwork himself (he is a man of action, happiest when striding around the complex with his diagnostic toolkit in hand) he agrees that I should send it later.

I go back to my desk and roll the chair over to the pipeline screen. It gives me some satisfaction to watch as the lines, which until this point had been ambling along quite nicely at a safe pressure, suddenly jump off a cliff. The phone rings again. It's Control at Nox (Jesus, who gives these power stations such stupid names?). 'Yes of course I know about it,' I reassure him. 'I'm just offloading some gas, reducing the pressure a little.’ He is doubtful. He needs to know more about my motives and who cleared them. ‘Who's your boss?’ he demands. I am forced to brandish the big gun of capitalism and wave it in his face. 'Look,’ I say in a plaintive kind of voice. ‘A fantastic commercial opportunity has arisen, I'm duty bound to pursue it otherwise I’ll have to explain things to the director, and I doubt he’ll be in a good mood the morning after the Christmas party.'

I then spend five minutes detailing my fictional commercial opportunity, firing little bullets of financial jargon into the ground around his feet. I put on a patronising air that I hope, conveys to him that I am a young New Economy type earning shitloads for fiddling with spreadsheets and he, poor soul, is but a middle-aged relic who once dared to think that his job would stand him in good stead until retirement age. I can be a shit sometimes when I want to be. He still isn't convinced but knows when to concede defeat and goes away grumpy. I can just imagine him now, doing an impression of me to his dour-faced colleagues. 'A fantastic commercial opportunity has arisen.'

He'll earn brownie points during the enquiry for putting up some resistance. I'm happy for him.

I tick off ‘Pipeline crash - trip Nox’. It gives me satisfaction to know that most of the groundwork has now been done. I page the duty engineer. Then I'm quickly onto the interruptions list. I already have the phone number at hand.

'GoodmorningKilmarnockCallCentreSolutionsLorrainespeakinghowmayihelpyou?' She talks as if it weren't 4:06 on a Wednesday morning. I tell her what I want her team to do. She sounds a bit shocked, as if I have proposed something improper. 'All of your customers?' she says.

'Yes, that's right' I reply, as blithely as I can. 'We've got big supply problems this end and we need all of them to switch over to alternative supplies within two hours or else face the penalty charges. You've already got the list but I'll send you a confirmation one just as soon as I can.'

'OK, we'll do our best. What did you say your name was again?'

'Jacob Black. Energy Trading. Call me back if you have any problems.'

I put the phone down. Within ten minutes I could have anything up to two hundred angry industrialists, airport managers and hospital chief engineers on the phone. Now I was beginning to rattle cages.

Come on Dave. I paged him ten minutes ago now. I really need him out of bed and driving in the opposite direction to where he's actually needed. A faint pinging noise drifts up from downstairs. Shit, I forgot to turn off the alarms in Electricity. I run down to the office again and Moby is still playing his part in all this from under the desk. Three of his screens are flashing up warnings of one sort or another and I quickly turn off all the speakers. The only sound now is that of his snores.

As I'm on the way back Dave rings. He's not impressed at being woken up. 'Dave,’ I say. ‘Sorry to get you out of bed. Alarm's been going off for half an hour now down at Number Two.' Number Two is a fenced-in concrete square with a modest growth of pipework in the wilds of Cheshire.

'That bloody alarm should've been fixed yesterday,' he says. I imagine him running his hand through his beard and frowning.

'It was Dave. That's the only reason I'm calling. It's probably just an owl or something but you know I've got to get it investigated otherwise Matthew will have my balls at the team meeting.'

Dave grumbles and hangs up. I can just see him getting into his van and cursing the day I was born. I make a note of the exact time. I'll do Mouse Click Number 2 in twenty minutes. No, better make it ten.

A frisson of panic ripples through me. Is this what it feels like to wield intoxicating power? I've started a chain of events. There's no going back now. I stuff my few possessions in my small backpack and place it on the floor so that it's ready for me when I leave in twelve minutes.

Two of my phones are ringing at once. I answer them both at the same time, trader-style, and listen. One is the station manager at Nox. He's demanding who he's speaking to. The other is the director of a steelworks up in Sheffield. He's probably sitting on the edge of his bed in his striped pyjamas with his concerned wife lying there. All I hear is 'What the hell?' In stereo. I decide to lay the two phone receivers on the desk together so they can talk to one another while I consult my list.

We're halfway through the dead zone and I need to be out of the building in a matter of minutes. I can imagine Dave speeding down country lanes, flattening rabbits and muttering to himself. He's probably playing Country & Western - I've heard he's into that. He’s the only engineer in the area who could possibly reverse the situation I’ve just put into play and I’ve sent him speeding off on in the wrong direction.

I can smell the bin where I was sick so I move it out of the way into the photocopying room. When I get back I'm so caught up with my cunning thoughts that I don't even hear him coming up behind me.

'Good morning Mr Black.'

My blood freezes.

Shit shit shit. Godric Hemmings. Manager of Strategic Initiatives and workaholic extraordinaire. It's 4:23, which must be a personal record for him.

'Morning Godric,' I am forced to say, turning to him. He's standing there all groomed and businesslike with his briefcase in his hand and his lunchbox under one arm.

'Everything going well in Gas?' He surveys my messy workspace with the phones off the hook and the screens with red alarms flashing silently. 'None of your fucking business,' I want to shout.

'Fine,' I say, 'You're early.'

'Ah,' he says, happy that I've noticed. He wants to score extra brownie points for being in so early when the rest of the office will be in late with hangovers. 'Should be an exciting day what with all this cold weather. I saw the day-ahead prices. What's it trading at now?'

I can't afford this conversation. 'About two-twenty when I last looked. Look, I'm dead busy at the mo.' I nod at the phones from which a distant cursing can be heard.

'Rightyho. Fill me in ASAP.' And with that he walks off. Shit shit shit. This wasn't in the plan. I know what he's going to do next. He's going down to Electricity to ask the same inane questions to Moby. I have to stop him. I have to.

I begin to follow him with no idea what I'm going to do next. Silently I pad along the carpet and watch as he jaunts along, his cheery whistling filling the dead zone air around him. And now I'm lucky. He pauses on the landing, goes down a flight of stairs and turns left into the gents. The door eases slowly back into the frame behind him and I'm left staring at the large handle and wondering where I can find something to wedge through it. I rush into a nearby cubicle and tear around like a madman, looking for a door jam. The only thing I can see is an easel with a large flipchart on it. That will do. I rip off the charts and run back to the toilets, ramming the steel legs through the oversize door handle. It jams quite nicely but I don't have time to wait around and see how effective it is.

Now I'm really getting panicky. I've got to get Mouse Click Number 2 over with but there's still about eight minutes to go.

My hands are shaking as I look at the checklist. There are a couple of luxurious optionals that I skip over. Nice touches but I would have needed more time. At least two phones are ringing in other departments now. I can hear them from afar and I know what it means. People are concerned. People are being got out of bed. People are on their way.

I try to concentrate but my thoughts are as slippery as eels when I try to grasp them. I've got to do Mouse Click Number 2 now. But there's still seven minutes to go. If I do it too early, there will still be time for Dave to turn around and drive like Michael Schumacher to save the day.

A loud crash comes from one floor down. Godric is having a good bash at getting the door open. It occurs to me that he'll use his mobile to phone Security any minute now. Or he could just set off the alarm. That'd be just the kind of thing he'd do. There's no time. I have to do it now.

The system diagram is already up and waiting for me on the screen. Valve 3 is wide open and doing its job. I even know what it physically looks like, having seen it with my own eyes on an interdepartmental daytrip designed to dissolve some of the mistrust between the suits and the hard hats. It's a brute, as far as valves go. If you stand next to it and let your eye follow the pipeline across the sands to the west, you can just make out the box-like form of Anglesey 2 - big enough to power half of Wales. The valve can be closed remotely by the Controller - tonight that's me - but must be opened manually by the Duty Engineer - that's Dave. When it shuts there'll be enough gas pressure in the pipeline to keep Anglesey 2 running for about twenty minutes max. Hopefully, Dave will be at least half an hour away at that point.

But I've got to do it right for it to be effective. I need the network to be virtually on its knees before I deliver the coup de grace. And there it is. Thank God. On the screen, Nox suddenly falters. Its power output trebles and then fizzles to nothing. I know that at this very moment its two colossal generators will be shrieking madly and shedding expensive bits of metal into their turbines as they plunge into a catastrophic uncontrolled shutdown. It will take months to fix. I have to act right now.

I'm terrified to think of the power I have in my index finger as it hovers over the left hand mouse button. I remember my aunt at Christmas when I was a boy showing me how to size up a slab of nutty toffee and select the spot where you will strike it with the little silver hammer that comes in the packet. Just a sharp tap, that's all that is needed to shatter it into small pieces so that everyone can have a bit. It's all in the wrist and knowing where the weak spot is.


ENTER CONTROLLER PASSWORD - p a s s w o r d (yes, it really is)


Just as I push down the mouse button, irreversibly changing my status from lawful citizen to wanted man, an eardrum-shattering pandemonium clatters around me. Godric must have twigged something was up and set off the fire alarm. I grab the bag and I'm up and running. I make it to Electricity in no time at all and lunge at the computers, pulling out cables and pressing 'off' buttons.

There is a grunt and Moby peers out from under the desk, his eyes like a newly born child. I stare at him momentarily. Honest to God I'm sorry about what I've done to him but there's no time now. No time.

As I'm running down the stairs Security is on his way up. He's all muscles and goatee beard and aggro.

'Did you set that off?' he barks.

'There's smoke in the canteen. I think it's one of the ovens,' I say, and he's off.

Now I'm in the nebulous car park and I'm sprinting to the car. A thousand useless lights bathe the tarmac in eerie circles and I'm breathing the icy air and fumbling with the key. There's no problem with the car, it starts first time. I have to drive up a verge to get around the security barrier. It'll all be on the CCTV. Speeding away, the cathedral of light retreats in the rear view mirror. I round a bend and now it's just me and the country lane. Other lights are coming towards me. One set. Two sets. Six sets in all whoosh past me and the road's barely wide enough for two vehicles. I turn my face away from the glare as they approach, my knuckles white on the steering wheel.

I don't stop until I've burrowed deep into the countryside and my pulse rate begins to feel normal again. I pull into the entrance of a field and kill the engine. Apart from the ticking of the cooling motor there is silence. I get out and climb over the gate and there's frozen earth beneath my feet as I walk up to the ridge. From here I can see the sickly orange fuzz of Birmingham seeping across the land and radiating upwards like poison into the sky.

I wait. A minute. Another minute. Almost twenty minutes pass before the flickering starts, gently at first and then more pronounced, like the gentle faraway pulses of a summer storm. And then the moment arrives as silently as snow. The city winks out of existence. The stars reassert themselves and not even the moon is present to bear witness to my crime. I walk back slowly, stumbling a little in the darkness and sit in the car with my eyes closed, feeling the blood running through my veins. When I open them again I see the curious green eyes of a fox glow at me from the darkness. They blink once, twice and then they're gone. I start the engine.


Associated Press. 20 December 2010. For immediate release.

Supplies have finally been restored to residents in Wales after last week’s freak electricity outage. The power cut that left most of England and Wales without electricity for several days is estimated to have cost the UK economy over twelve billion pounds and the lives of several hospital patients following the failure of backup power systems.

The outage, which was thought to have been caused by a voltage surge in the transmission line that runs between France and England, took system controllers by surprise and resulted in power stations toppling off line around the country in a domino effect similar to the situation which occurred in North America during the summer of 2003.

A French government spokesman strongly denied that its electricity grid was the cause of the problem, with one official blaming the outage on ‘policy [in the UK] that places critically important infrastructure in the hands of unaccountable corporations.’ UK electricity industry chiefs reacted angrily to his remarks, citing French protectionism.

In a statement the prime minister David Cameron issued a thinly-veiled attack on the French government, calling upon them to 'admit culpability' and hinting that the UK may consider seeking compensation through the EU. Cameron went on to praise the work of the engineers who worked around the clock to restore supplies, calling their efforts 'Herculean'. Many of the emergency engineering teams which eventually restored the system had to be flown in from Germany and Poland.

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, used Tuesday's session in the Commons to call for a full inquiry into the causes of the catastrophe.

© Jason Heppenstall 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Baltic Blue

Down on the beach at Amager Strand yesterday, looking east towards the wind park and Sweden. This is an ethereal ice sculpture that someone has made from the melting sea ice.

Or perhaps it's a Danish 'greeting' to Sweden?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Our house as an ecosystem

Up until about two and a half years ago we lived in southern Spain. We bought an old farm house and tried to live sustainably. Unfortunately we were hit by the downturn and ended up taking paid work in Denmark. Who knows, we might return one day. Here's a chapter from a book I have written that deals with that period.

Greenpeace was founded when I was about an inch long and happily growing inside my mother's womb, blissfully unaware of the perils of the world I was yet to be born into. When I finally emerged in 1971, if I'd been paying attention I'd have noticed that the world was in turmoil. The Vietnam War was at it's height and just a few days before I popped out half a million Americans marched to demand its end. Around the same time a new group called Friends of the Earth was also arising out of a growing awareness that the species I had just been born into was wrecking the planet. Oil prices were sky high, by the standards of the day, and it wouldn't be long before shocks in its supply made people aware for the first time that the human world we had created ran on oil.

Many men had long hair and beards around this time but my father certainly didn't. Back then Britain still had a substantial manufacturing base and my father spent his working life building cars and trains. It's difficult to imagine anyone less like a hippie than my father, but nevertheless the energy conserving ethos of the age was instilled in him and I grew up in a household where we had central heating but it was rarely turned on. During the coldest months of winter we would wear woolly jumpers, and sometimes even gloves, and not being able to see your breath meant that it must be summer. And it wasn't just my father who was like that, his generation was the last one to remember the rationing of the war and the long decades of stagnation and deprivation that followed. Because of this collective memory, and in response to the oil shocks that hit the 1970s, a movement grew up that called itself the appropriate technology movement. Their aim was as simple and sensible as it was laudable: to stop focusing on quick but expensive technological fixes to the oil crisis and develop simple and more cost effective ways to ensure everyone had enough energy to meet their needs.

In intellectual and activist circles the movement was a big success. People rushed to sign up for courses in composting, insulation and animal husbandry. Others built their own wind turbines and solar heaters. The movement went mainstream and even Jimmy Carter, the president of the United States, installed solar panels on the White House. In Britain a sitcom, The Good Life, about a couple who turned their suburban London home into a smallholding and shocked the neighbours, was watched by millions of people every week. I grew up thinking it was normal for people to help birth lambs in their bathrooms.

But then something happened to put a stop to all this fun. The oil price spikes of the 1970s had been caused by supply problems in the Middle East, especially Iran, but by the end of the decade these problems were retreating in the rear view mirror. Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and had the incredible good political fortune to coincide her ascendency with the discovery of massive oil deposits in the North Sea. Across the Pond, her partner in crime Ronald Reagan opened up all the spindles on every oil platform he had influence over and the age of cheap oil was upon us. This new era was born on a gusher, and all of a sudden nobody was watching The Good Life, they turned over to watch Dallas instead. The antics of rich and greedy oil barons like J.R. Ewing were far more compelling than watching Richard Briers wrestle with the ethical dilemma of killing a chicken for dinner. The raison d'etre of the appropriate technology movement vanished in a puff of black oily smoke and its acolytes were chased from public view, their ideas banished to the collective Siberia of the mind.

To make matters worse, around my eighteenth birthday the economist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed 'the end of history', meaning that the industrial western model of a consumerist democracy had trumped all other forms of social and economic organisation. Triumphalist free marketeers blew their trumpets from Kuala Lumpur to Berlin heralding a future of endless consumerism and corporate dominance. Mankind had reached an evolutionary pinnacle and idealism had no further part to play, so the wisdom went. I was at a loss. Cheap and plentiful oil had killed the Zeitgeist I had been raised with.

Until now. I stood in front of my house and wondered what I could do with it. In ring binders on my desk I had printed out thousands of sheets of scanned pages from how-to manuals typed out crookedly on old typewriters in the days before citizens had been re-branded as consumers. These were the Dead Sea Scrolls of the appropriate tech movement, abandoned in haste and left lying all but forgotten in dusty corners of public libraries and old boxes stored in the attics of the formerly idealistic.

The basic thing to recognise, I read, was that our home and the land it was on was an ecosystem. And like any ecosystem it was defined by its energy flows and materials. The material bit was easy to figure out as you could see it: walls, doors, trees, soil, lazy cats and the numerous buzzing bees, to name but a few aspects. And material things, if you were clever about managing them, went around in cycles. That was the whole art of permaculture, a contraction of permanent and agriculture: the way to use natural systems to provide yourself with food, wood etc., without diminishing the system. If I wanted any advice on this we were lucky to have one the founders of the philosophy, Patrick Whitefield, as one of our neighbours. Orgiva is that kind of place.

No less of a challenge though was the concept of recognising and harnessing the ambient energy without having to rely on dirty fossil fuels. Although I hadn't been aware of it at the time, the same year we moved into our house, 2006, was also the year of peak oil, according to the International Energy Agency. Whole books have been written about peak oil, and many more will be, but in a nutshell it is the moment when half of the world's reachable fossil fuel reserves have been exploited. 2006 was this moment and henceforth it will be rising demand and diminishing supply, meaning that price rises of a steepness we have never seen before are inevitable.

The harsh glare of the Andaluz sun seemed a most obvious source of energy. I learned that the sun was most readily available for two types of energy; to produce electricity using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and to use its rays to heat water in a tank. It seemed crazy that the roads of Andalucia were thick with trucks carrying butane gas bottles - most of it originating in Algeria from where it is shipped to Spain - when the sun could heat up water easily and for no charge. I had no idea how much a solar water heater might cost, but guessed at a couple of hundred euros. I was wrong. The figure was several times that. I couldn’t see how, what I assumed to be a very basic system could cost so much.

Further research turned up some interesting DIY projects that would cost almost nothing. Old radiators, cleaned out and painted black, could be installed easily as could old decommissioned boilers placed on the roof and painted with some light absorbing paint. Indeed, David and Aspen had made a perfectly functional and stylish shower block with nothing but coils of regular black plastic irrigation tubes on the roof. The possibilities extended in every direction with a bit of imagination.

Turning to PV, the options were far more complex. Our cortijo already had a solar system installed, albeit a basic one. A single Franco era panel sat on the roof generating enough power for a couple of feeble light bulbs. The old man we had bought the house off couldn’t see why we should want any more than this. A family of tailless geckos had made their home in the inverter box on the wall and a single truck battery bubbled and hissed away in the corner of what was to be Sofia's nursery. Our house needed to be brought into the 21st century.

The problem was I had virtually no understanding of electricity. I knew it could electrocute you if you stuck your finger in a light bulb fitting and I knew it was comprised of electrons that whizzed around violently banging into other particles. I bought a book that explained PV and electricity to its readers as if it were a kindergarten story. Amps were analogous to packs of huskies pulling sledges and electrical resistance was something to do with sticky snow. It was at my level.

Fully clued up, so I thought, I went off to talk to a solar installer about huskies and sledges and everything else I had learned. The professional engineer from Germany seemed a little puzzled at first but soon saw I was in need of help. He noted down everything that we might want to run in the house, when we might want to use it (e.g. TV and computers at night, sewing machine and iron in the day) and went off to do some calculations. When I next saw him he told me exactly what PV system we needed and where we could get hold of it. It was less painful than I had previously imagined.

Just to be sure I asked another expert and was told something completely different. Another one still came up with a third choice substantially different to the other two. I attempted some of the calculations myself but soon gave up. The task was proving more frustrating than I had anticipated. Surely it couldn't be that difficult? I spent several weeks in this state and a kind of solar paralysis came over me. I didn’t like to talk about our 'electricity situation' because I knew that whoever I mentioned it to would tell me something contrary to the prevailing latest advice. My own calculations were equally as confusing. Scraps of paper littered the dining room table with things written on them like '9 * lghtblbs * 4.5 hrs (avg) + TV (200w?) + 1hr wshng mchn (gen bckup?) = (assmg 8hrs fll sun frm 4 pnls 110w each)…etc'. Worryingly, whenever I mentioned sacrifice to my wife she raised a concerned eyebrow and said things like “Remember we’ve got children,” or “Perhaps we should get a grid connection as, you know, backup.” I was adamant about the grid connection. Plans were afoot to bring the grid to our patch of hillside – which seemed ridiculous to me seeing as everyone was living perfectly fine without it.

And then I got a phone call from someone who said he could help me. I arranged a meeting down on the coast and two weeks later was the proud owner of a solar system put together by an enthusiast and imported from the four corners of the globe. The panels came from Japan, the batteries (monster ones weighing over a hundred kilos each) from Canada, the inverter (the box that sits on the wall and converts battery energy to useful electricity) from Switzerland and the other parts from the UK.

The six panels themselves were high powered ones that sat in two arrays of three on our roof and the inverter was a meaty 4,500 watts – enough to power all the mod cons found in a regular grid-connected house. For backup I bought a petrol powered generator for times when perhaps several consecutive cloudy days have depleted the batteries or we were running every single appliance continuously. In these instances the backup generator would switch on automatically when the inverter detected a low level of battery power without even a blip in the supply. The supply itself was pure sine wave, which meant there would be no annoying hum on audio and video equipment, as could happen with non-sine wave inverters.

The total cost of our ‘overkill’ system was around €12,000. This came out as average when compared with other estimates we had been given, which ranged from €4,000 (a complete DIY job) to €22,000 (a rip off). Given that we would have had to pay €8,000 for a connection to the grid this meant that we had spent an extra €4,000 – with the added bonus that all electricity would be free and we knew that we would be generating very low levels of CO2 (although not zero when one took into consideration the production of the materials and the long distance shipping).

Next on the list of considerations was internal heating. No heating existed apart from a large open fireplace and a blackened hearth in the kitchen. But before considering what type of heating to install I learned that the best way to think about things was to start by asking what kind of temperature would be acceptable and working backwards from that. This might have sounded like a simple question but it may well be the cause of numerous marriage break-ups. Michelle, being Scandinavian, liked to bask in indoor heat. To her anything below 25C was ‘chilly’. I, however, was naturally attenuated to cooler conditions and could wear a tee shirt in conditions that made Michelle turn blue. So, after some horse trading, we agreed that a temperature of between 18 and 20 degrees centigrade was ‘reasonable’ in winter.

How to achieve this target temperature? The first thing we had to consider was insulation. There are many types on the market, some being highly artificial, such as polystyrene, and some being more organic, such as wool and straw. The most important factor to consider with the insulation was the u value. This is simply the measure of the conductive properties of the material – a lower u value means less heat can escape (or get in during summer). Use can again be made of the sun by installing a large south-facing window and building an interior stone wall behind it and painting it with very dark paint. This is an ingenious and simple method for catching heat because the winter sun, being so low in the sky, only falls on your wall during the season, when it’s most needed. The solar rays are absorbed by the heavy stone in the day and the heat radiates out slowly throughout the night, heating the house in the process. During summer the sun is too high to hit the interior wall and you are spared being roasted inside your own home. A similar effect could be had by painting an exterior wall black during the winter and whitewashing it again during the summer.

For ourselves, however, we opted for a regular wood burning stove, primarily because much of the fuel could be sourced from our own land. The key thing here was that wood should be burned at a high intensity to get as much heat from it as possible – a smouldering log was a wasted log, it turned out.

When we had our basic systems sorted out it occurred to me that all we had done was bring the house up to a level of amenity that we had been conditioned to expect from our society. After all, other people had been living there for centuries without any of the infrastructure we had just gone to great effort and expense to install.

This gave me pause for thought about the meaning of technology. Mere mention of the word 'technology' to most people conjures up visions of the latest smart phone, or perhaps technicians working in a laboratory trying to find ingenious ways to fuse atoms. But when it comes down to it, it is the basic technology of everyday life – clean water that flows easily out of taps, interior lighting when it is dark, and a means of disposing of our sewage – that people have forgotten about. To me, that's what technology boiled down to, and it'll be the kind of technology that people will miss the most if it is no longer available.