Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's in a name?

Hello. The more observant of my readers will notice that the name of this blog has changed. Don't panic - it's still the same thing but I decided to change the name of it. I apologise for this.

Originally I didn't know what to call it but settled on the Peak Oil Dispatch because a) I thought that one day I could invite guest writers and turn it into a regular, perhaps even printed, publication (a habit of mine) and b) The initials were P.O.D. - which I liked.

I wasn't all that keen on the name, truth be told, and when I discovered all the other sites out there with similar names I began trying to think of a new one. I've come to realise that when it comes to peak oil there are two types of site.

1 - Those that focus on the raw numbers and report on every new discovery of fossil fuels. The patron saint of these kind of sites is M. King Hubbert, the late oil geologist of the peak fame.


2 - Those sites which take a much wider view and take the fact of peak oil/energy as a given but instead try to address the repercussions of our ecological overshoot. The patron saint of these kinds of site is William Catton.

This kind of site is of the latter variety, and is named after Colin Campbell's remark that today's fossil fuels provide us collectively with the equivalent energy of 22 billion slaves, working for us around the clock and never complaining.

This site doesn't aim to count slaves, argue in favour of a new type of more efficient slave or pretend that the slaves are not dying off. Instead I think it's better if we talked about what we are going to do as the slaves go away and figure out mindful ways to make that transition as least painful as possible for ourselves, our families and communities.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Worms of War

My worm compost bin. Let's fight our oil addiction one annelid at a time

Wandering down to my local shop yesterday evening I happened to pass a petrol station and found myself having to look twice at the prices. Regular unleaded fuel was now up at 13.20kr per litre – or just over 9 US dollars a gallon if you like. This must be an all time record. In fact, it doesn't seem that long ago that they had to replace all of the display boards across the land to cope with an extra digit as it nudged past the 10kr mark.

There’s a weary inevitability about these high fuel prices – in fact they are one of the very few signs that something is awry in a country that shows no outward signs that it is affected by anything in the outside world. But 13.20kr is a very high price to pay, compared to what motorists are used to – so what’s driving this price rise?

If we look in the papers they tell us that the oil price has risen because of Iran’s pronouncements on everything from nuclear technology to blocking the Strait of Hormuz. This could have something to do with a price spike but (and here I again had to look twice and rub my eyes) the Daily Telegraph hit the nail on the head on Saturday with this article. The article points out that it’s all a simple case of supply and demand; with demand for oil from the rapidly industrialising countries far outstripping the supply from faltering oil fields and making the west’s 1 percent drop in demand look measly by comparison.

Yes, the Daily Telegraph – bastion of head-in-the-sand cornucopian right wing ideology is promulgating peak oil like it’s some whizzy new idea that’s just been thought of. With clockwork predictability, of course, the bite back from readers began immediately if one dares to scroll down to the comments section. People’s reaction to peak oil is rarely useful and here was no exception. I’ll save you the bother of reading it and summarise it as such: Build more nukes! Let’s get fracking! Let’s start a war!

On that last suggestion the leaders of the Conservative Party, who can be counted on to be among the ‘Torygraph’s’ loyal readers, need no encouragement. Perhaps emboldened by success in Libya and other sandy places, there have been reports – subsequently denied – that we are planning strikes on Somalia.
Somalia? Why Somalia? We then learn that lawless Somalia is a viper’s nest of Islamic insurgents and if we don’t bomb them now they’ll end up bombing us in our own homes down the line a bit. If this sounds all a bit too familiar it will come as no surprise to anyone that this morning’s Observer has revealed detailed plans by the British government to explore for oil beneath the blood soaked sands of this poor war torn Islamic country. In return we will be offering ‘humanitarian aid and security assistance’. Sound familiar?

Those among us burdened by a pessimistic nature might suggest that it’s not harrowing images of starving children in the Horn of Africa, or worries about some future army of Jihadists (currently wearing nappies) that feeds the concern of foreign secretary William Hague, but harrowing images of rioting Britons and peeved oil company directors. The venture is described as ‘high risk’. Indeed.

The truth is that, as the Telegraph article points out, major oil fields are in decline and new discoveries are few and far between. Saudi Arabia, for example, actually reduced its output last year, despite climbing demand. Equally as important is the fact that newly discovered oil fields, more often than not, tend to be buried beneath several miles of water, thick ice, or restive Islamic states. This is the new reality, and our leaders are acting like heroin addicts willing to attempt burglary in broad daylight just in order to steal enough jewellery to get their next fix.

So where does that leave us? The hapless citizens ruled over by besuited crackheads who are willing to use our dwindling tax money to deploy armies overseas just in order to secure the next feeble high risk supply of oil?

Well, we could of course use less oil. It is, after all, because of our craving for the stuff that politicians are able to pull out all the stops and fight wars in our names, using ‘humanitarian aid’ or ‘regime change’ as fig leafs to hide their naked ambitions. By suggesting this, of course, the standard response is to suggest that if we don’t get to the oil and burn it for our own convenience, somebody less worthy will instead.
This is not a good excuse.

To use a very tired old quote from Mr Gandhi one must ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ By this he didn’t mean sitting behind a laptop and theorising about how we’d all be better off if one set of scoundrels were kicked out of government, he meant actually, you know, doing something.

There are an infinite number of ways in which we can all reduce our reliance on oil and, individually, unstitch the strands in our collective addiction to oil. There are two important things to bear in mind when uncoupling yourself from one aspect of oil addiction – which is another way of saying modern life.

a      You don’t need to be too hard on yourself. One step at a time is sufficient, starting with the low hanging fruit. I doubt there is a single person alive who does not benefit from oil in some way.

     Know that you efforts will have an effect. Every action has an effect, even if we don’t see it. Even by recycling a single bottle top you will have had more effect on limiting oil consumption than the collective efforts of the United Nations over the past twenty years.  

When considering in what way you can reduce oil dependence and, by extension, help protect the biosphere consider whether you action is a linear or a cyclical one. The Earth, and life upon its face, has been evolving for four billion years or so and during that time a harmonious balance was reached that was only disturbed every few million years or so by meteor collisions and things of that nature.

We are the latest cataclysm to hit the web of life. Since we invented tools and agriculture we have spread like Japanese knotweed over the planet and are now threatening to suffocate it, to our own detriment as well as all the other species. But the difference between us and Japanese knotweed is that we have the ability to be intelligent, and to make decisions which will cushion the population crash that inevitably follows one species becoming too successful. We might be beyond the point now where a population crash can be avoided – most conclude that the planet cannot support more than about a billion of us naturally – but we can at least try to align our behaviour patterns with the Earth’s biodynamic rhythms if we are to reduce the amount of damage we do as our supply of effectively free energy peaks and then declines.

Here’s a small example.

The canteen where I work orders food from the four corners of the world, most of which is then eaten by the employees. A good proportion of it is left over and it is then thrown out, either to be buried in landfill, where it will produce methane and increase global warming, or be incinerated, which will produce pollution.
Consider how the food came to be in that canteen. Think about how land around the world was stripped of its natural vegetation in order to plant up fields and how the crops grown in those fields used sunlight to grow, and how the farmers used oil based fertilizers and pesticides to enhance and harvest the food. It would then have passed through several processing stages and, in most cases, enjoyed a ride on a fossil fuelled plane or boat and then a truck or two, before it arrived in Copenhagen, ready for our consumption – only to be discarded and tossed into a thick black bin bag.

In nature this would never have happened. Any ‘food’ that occurred would either have lived, died and rotted on the spot, to be returned to the soil, or would have been consumed by some other organism that would have digested it, used its energy, and returned the nutrients to the Earth sooner or later, where it can be used again. That is a biodynamic cycle.

Now, unless my work colleagues have composting toilets, which I seriously doubt, there is nothing I can do to stop the food they have eaten ending up as effluent in the Baltic Sea. But the food that is left over can be removed from this linear process and allowed to rejoin a biodynamic one. Every day I take home as much of it as I can fit in my laptop bag (I’d love to see the face of a would-be thief if he thought he had stolen an laptop bag and instead was faced with bags of pasta, beans and meatballs). I feed a lot of it to my family but there are still substantial leftovers and this ends up in my wormery (supplied by Wiggly Wigglers), which is situated out on my balcony – hidden from view in case any of my neighbours is bio-phobic.

The worms do a great job of turning masses of fruit, cooked meals, mouldy bread and other delights into top grade compost, which I then bag up and grow tomatoes in in the summer. I always have plenty of compost left over (living without a garden at the moment is truly trying) so I try and give it away to people with gardens. This being Denmark, the idea of using ‘worm poo’ does not appeal to most – they would much rather have sterilised substrate in thick polythene sacks from a garden centre  - so I quite often end up ‘dumping’ the compost under bushes, where it will continue to be returned to the soils, enriching them and creating little pockets of diversity. In their own small way my worms are waging war on the war mongers.
This is what the worms produce. Notice the plastic Coke bottles in the back ground - which are actually mini oak tree incubators.

Whenever I mention this to people I tend to be told that I am ‘eccentric’ at least and ‘mad’ at worst. But all I am doing, in a very small way, is taking a linear activity (using fossil fuels and expensive purified to power pumps that dump digested food into the sea where it will cause damage) and turning it into a biodynamic one (turning the food into useful compost for other organisms to use). Nobody seems to complain about eating my tasty cherry tomatoes and when I explain where they came from I am occasionally rewarded with a faint glimmer of appreciation.

So, thinking in a cyclical nature and recognising what is linear and therefore unsustainable is a basic first step to understanding how we can all reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and make our transition to the steep slide down the far side of the peak a bit more bearable.

And on that note I am going to begin preparing the seeds for what I hope will be this year’s bumper crop of canteen-waste apartment-cultivated cherry tomatoes.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Not a Doomer, a Peakster

Yes, that's us. The Earth, photographed from a distance of 4 billion miles by Voyager, is the dot in the centre to the right. Do we look like masters of the universe?

Wikipedia will tell you that peak oil is the theoretical point at which half of the world's oil reserves have been extracted. This is literally true, but it's not the whole story. Many people in the peak oil blogosphere spend inordinate amounts of time and mental energy trying to figure out how much oil or gas is left in various fields around the world and how much time we have left to do something (i.e. how much time we have left to do nothing).

To me, this is not what peak oil is about. I know, for example, that one day (God forbid) I am going to die. I don't spend much time trying to predict the exact date of my death, instead I just get on with living in the time allotted to me. My demise is not so much a problem that can be dealt with, but a predicament that I must live with. In the same way it seems to me that to focus so much on how much recoverable fossil fuel there is in the ground seems to be missing the point.

But I haven't always thought like this.

For me, the penny dropped in around 2009 when I read Thomas Homer Dixon's The Upside of Down. Here, for the first time, was someone talking about the ecological crises we face from an entirely different angle. Instead of evil corporations and politicians Homer Dixon took a broader view, looking at the history of empires, using Rome as an example of how civilizations begin to feed off themselves and eventually collapse. It occurred to me for the first time that I might be part of a civilization in decline.

Amazon.com, the next time I logged on, kindly said that if I liked Thomas Homer Dixon, I'd probably like John Michael Greer too. I put The Long Descent in my electronic basket and, a few days later, the book that would change my life forever arrived in my postbox. I eagerly read the jacket – at the top it read 'A harrowing but ultimately hopeful vision of the aftermath of the age of oil'. I read it cover to cover in a day.

Whoa! The book was a banquet for the mind – a true epiphany The concept of catabolic collapse was probably the most radical idea I had ever heard of. Of course, I had heard the term peak oil bandied around for years but it had always remained at the abstract level. Reading The Long Descent I suddenly found myself staring into a chasm, and it was far more frightening than any environmental apocalypse scenario I had considered before. Just who was this John Michael Greer and what gave him the right to such genius? I Googled him, expecting to uncover a picture of a mild-mannered but crumpled-looking academic with a neat centre parting standing in front of a Powerpoint presentation. Instead I was presented with a man with a long beard and wearing white robes standing in a megalithic stone circle like some real-life Merlin.

I was stunned. I found out that he was an American archdruid and had written books on spirituality, magic and science fiction. He did not seem to be possessed of a normal mind, so sharp and penetrating were his insights. All of the other non-fiction authors I had read to date paled by comparison.

But I was hungry for more, and sent off for more books. Richard Heinberg was next with The Party's Over and Peak Everything. Then came others. Michael C. Ruppert, Dmitry Orlov, James Howard Kunstler, Sharon Astyck – I devoured them all.

And every book I read seemed to spread out tentacles and demand that I read the works of other great minds. E.F. Schumacher, whose book Small is Beautiful was one of the core texts here (as is his Guide For The Perplexed), and eventually I got onto William R. Catton's Overshoot – the first book to seriously address human ecology back in the 1980s.

All of these writers addressed one simple fact – the peaking of world oil supplies, happening right about now. But what they went into in ever greater detail is the consequences of that peaking. Whole new worlds opened up before me. I found myself reading and thinking about this stuff practically every waking minute (and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it too). The realisation that we would not face a nice orderly transition to some other kind of fuel that would allow us to keep everyday life looking more or less like it does at the moment had hit me in the gut like a three hundred pound gorilla charging at me. The implications!

Up until then, my general reaction to the term peak oil was: so what? As anyone raised on a diet of environmental liberalism I despised oil for polluting the seas and heating the climate. Wars were fought over oil, river deltas poisoned and real-life J.R.Ewings existed just because of this sticky black goo. The sooner it was all gone then the sooner we could all drive electric cars powered by wind turbines!

But I had been missing the point all along.

I realised that I had become a peak oil Cassandra. Up until then I had always assumed I was an environmentalist. I felt I had been an environmentalist from the age of about six when I gazed at a shiny new plastic bucket in our garden and worried to myself that it seemed so … unnatural. From that point onwards I followed the familiar arc of learning and, attending a meeting with Jonathan Porritt when I was 18 made up my mind that, whatever I did in life, it had to involve saving the world somehow.

I failed miserably on that last bit, and despite doing all the greenie things such as recycling, experimenting with vegetarianism, working as a rainforest volunteer etc, etc, the gap between what I believed in and what I should actually be doing continued to widen. The great consumer culture boom that began in the 1980s was like a tsunami that carried everyone along on it and it was only possible to profess environmental views in polite society if it were done in the context of middle class green consumerist tokenism. Cognitive dissonance led to gnawing guilt and in the year 2000 I quit my well paid job as an energy trader – a job which I just seemed to have floated into like a stick being swept along on a river - and set off around the world for almost two years with my wife, living out of a backpack. Along the way I spent quite some time in Laos, and saw first hand how a nation could be stripped of its natural resources in the name of development.

When we came back we started a family and moved to Spain where I set up an environmental newspaper and renovated an old farmhouse with a view to becoming an organic farmer. This was all well and good and I appeared to be finally walking my green talk, but what I still did not appreciate was the fact that my whole way of life and the system we lived under was still vastly subsidised by fossil fuels. I laboured under the idea (propagated in my newspaper) that at some point people would 'wake up' and become environmentally conscious. I guess you could call it naïvety.

How do you explain to someone who considers themselves non-religious that the modern religion they have been indoctrinated with is scientific materialism wrapped up in the idea of progress? It is a bit like trying to explain the concept of wetness to a fish. I considered whether I was religious or not. Having been brought up to all intents and purposes an atheist, how could I possibly consider anything else?

But peak oil had taught me a lot about the way the world works. To plunge into the peak oil universe is to begin to grapple with everything from thermodynamics, macro economics and human ecology to mythology, sacred geometry and the true meaning of religion. I looked at the word religion again – it comes from the Latin and means 'a reattachment' to the universe that we are a part of. Anyone who seriously considers themselves as a separate entity from the universe should go on a long walk somewhere remote and have a good think.

I began to think in terms of energy and matter. We all live on a globe floating in space around a sun. All of our energy comes in the form of relatively weak and diffuse rays from that sun and the fact that we are gobbling our way through fossilised sunlight in the form of oil with no regard for the next generation or the life support systems of the planet that we have evolved to live on – the only planet we will ever live on - is a cause for some concern (to put it mildly). Since our grandfathers' grandfathers were babies we have used this windfall of energy recklessly to convert materials formed by nature into materials that only have value to mankind. Everything we have produced, from cars and factories to hand crafted violins and beautiful works of art is a form of pollution from the Earth's point of view. Every time they tell us on the news that the economy has grown a bit, that effectively means that the natural world has shrunk a bit.

But point this out to people and you will usually be met with a blank look, or worse. To suggest that the vast store of fossilised sunlight we have been gorging ourselves on for generations is coming to an end and that our societies, economies and psyches are utterly unprepared for it is to invite being called a doomer. Another thing one quickly learns via peak oil is that when confronted with perceived bad news we quickly revert to our base social primate 'see no evil …' selves.

If you want to find out for yourself try telling a few people the following points and check their reaction:

  • In the future we won't have most of the medicines we rely on today
  • In the future we won't build bases on the Moon or Mars
  • In the future there will be no new energy sources that rival petroleum in their ability to power a vast industrial economy
  • In the future there will be no point in having a pension
  • In the future very few people will travel to foreign countries

In most instances the people who don't laugh and tell you to get a life will suggest instead that you should read up a bit on 'what's really going on'. A vast solar array covering the Sahara/Nevada Desert will power all of Europe/North America. New Thorium powered nuclear reactors will come online shortly and give us all the electricity we desire at virtually no cost. We'll grow algae in the sea and use it to make biodiesel. A big mirror in space will beam down energy straight to our smart grids. 

In any case, there's no need to worry because the Arabs have masses of oil but they are hoarding it for themselves. The planet is actually full of oil but the evil corporate controlled media is keeping it a secret from us. 

Those clever guys in the labs will think of something!

Quite often people won't be quite so polite when you suggest that humankind is subject to the same kind of limitations as other species and to say so is to invite foaming mouthed rhetoric spewed out angrily.

If you know people who say these things what they are doing is projecting their belief system onto you. They don't need any evidence that we are destiny's darlings (to borrow a phrase) or that the entire planet seems to have been formed just so that we could evolve into our present form and spend our time playing Angry Birds on our iPhones. They don't need any evidence because this is what most people choose to believe – and if enough people all believe something all together doesn't that make it come true?

Alas, no. We have but one planet and we are but one species amongst millions on its surface. Individually we are microscopic and insignificant. We have a great capacity for destruction, but also a great capacity for creativity. We have never really got over our monkey mindedness, which is a shame because that would have been quite useful in our current situation. “What's a smart species like us doing in a predicament like this?” asked the Italian peak oil writer Ugo Bardi a few weeks ago.


Still, if all of the above sounds like bad news, then there is good news as well. Like all people in a state of denial (and I am including British environmentalists George Monbiot and Mark Lynas here), it can be tough to face up to reality. But once you have done so things become easier. To study and become viscerally aware of the implications of our looming energy descent naturally leads to questioning about what we can do about it. This is the good part, because it involves empowering yourself. Growing your own food, building stronger relationships, quitting the soul destroying cubicle job, insulating your home and stepping off the debt treadmill are just some of the overwhelmingly positive things we can all do. You can get involved with your local Transition movement and get a hold of Rob Hopkins' Transition Handbook. You can brew your own beer, make your own soap, write your own songs and decide never to watch the X Factor again.

These are some of the things that I focus on on a daily basis. An awareness of peak oil  - lets call ourselves peaksters - provides us with insights into the nature of our predicament – it's going to be a rough ride down the far side of Hubbert's peak, but we can either rise to the challenge as individuals, families and groups, or we can keep our heads in the sand and allow ourselves to be buffeted around by the forces of chaos as the entire system we have built our lives into begins to come apart at the seams.

The choice, as they say, is ours.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dry me a river

The River Derwent in Derbyshire dried up last year (photo nicked from The Guardian)

Worrying news in this morning's Observer that Britain may well be facing a super drought.

This follows 2011 being the driest year for almost a century, meaning that levels in underground aquifers are critically low. To make matters worse the Environment Agency is being forced to pump a lot of the remaining groundwater into ponds and rivers to prevent them drying up, with obvious catastrophic results for wildlife.

The last time anything even remotely similar to this happened was in 1976 and I clearly remember the giant forest fires that broke out in the New Forest, and the aftermath of a blackened smouldering landscape. I really hope we are not going to face a repeat of that this year.

But it's not just the wildlife that is going to be decimated if it doesn't start raining hard soon (and continue raining hard for several weeks) - farmers are looking at the possibility of widespread crop failures in East Anglia and the south east - England's breadbasket regions. They could, of course, switch from crops which use a lot of water - such as potatoes - to crops which use far less, as the article makes clear. But the farmers - locked into the logic of the big agribusiness model - have long term contracts to supply the nation's supermarkets and are not able to switch crops just like that.


So it seems that climate change could be poised to hit Britain hard unless we introduce flexibility into the all-too-rigid systems controlled by the supermarkets. Of course, to do so, would also mean that we'd have to look at land reform. At present it is perfectly possible to build a giant supermarket on a greenfield site, but practically impossible to erect a small dwelling for use by a family interested in farming the land in a holistic manner.

Perhaps England could follow the lead of Wales, where it has been made easier for small scale farmers to obtain planning permission for dwellings on their productive land. This sane decision means that Welsh people will have far greater access to fresh, local food. It'll be interesting to see if a transition to thins kind of thinking will come in 'through the back door' at the local authority level in England. After all, local authorities are supposed to have plans that address Agenda 21.

But all this won't make it rain. I fear for the wildlife in the nation's rivers. Once a river dries up it's one hell of a job - and an expensive one too - to nurse it back to health. Those who are 'peak oil aware' will be well familiar with this kind of predicament whereby an over exploited natural resource is placed on life support by  unsustainable means (in this case pumping groundwater into rivers using diesel driven pumps). With escalating oil prices these kinds of non-solutions will become more and more expensive until they are untenable, and one more thread in the Earth's precious life support systems will have been cut.

My quote of the week comes from a review of Craig Dilworth's book Too Smart For Our Own Good : "What's an intelligent species like us doing in a predicament like this?"

That's a good question.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Amnesiac

Greetings. I've been pondering the subject of this blog post all week and, to be honest, there are so many things to talk about I'm not sure where to begin. For a start we have Ugo Bardi's eloquent post about Nature printing a bona fide peak oil piece, which seems to suggest that the idea of natural ecological limits - so long a taboo subject - is garnering popular acceptance.

There have been plenty of other things passing through my mind over the past week as I braved the Siberian cold that has frozen Denmark solid and shows no sign of going away just yet. One unfortunate effect of this is that my poor earth worms, who do a pretty decent job of digesting our organic waste and turning them into fertile soil out on the balcony of our apartment (against all health and safety rules, I should add), have frozen solid! I felt sorry for the poor blighters and have wrapped up their plastic home in an old branded fleece. I hope they will be okay - I have also shoved in some straw in the hope that the heat it generates as it decomposes without much oxygen will add a little warmth - but I will learn their fate when the thaw sets in, I suppose.

Apart from this I have to say that I was a bit down in the mouth to find out that a short Sci Fi story I submitted to John Michael Greer's call for entries to a peak oil SF compendium failed to make the grade. My story 'The Amnesiac' is set about 100 years hence on Ibiza, of all places. I got the idea for the story when I stayed in an old farm house there about five years ago and subsequently wrote a whole book - which was rejected by around a hundred publishers and agents (I still have the letters somewhere). At the time I stayed on Ibiza, the island was famous for the decadent nightclub 'Amnesia' which drew people from all over the world to its rave parties.

I dug the old files out for this competition and trimmed it from 70,000 to about 8,000 words - no small task. If it was a film there would be cuttings all over the floor. Looking at it again, I'm not surprised it didn't make the book - it was, after all, written primarily as an SF story and it is only coincidental that my own brand of SF tends to feature only dysfunctional technology and focus instead on social, political and other not so exciting matters.

Anyway, for anyone happy enough to read this blog, here is my story in full. I'll probably publish it on Ether Books soon - where you can find a couple of my horror stories also (for a small fee) - but in the meantime for any POD readers here it is for free. I hope you enjoy it.


Update June 2012

My story is now in a competition and to view it you need to download an app for Ether Books (Apple devices only). For more instructions see here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How will Denmark react to peak oil?

The view from my kitchen window this morning in Kastrup, Copenhagen

This morning I awoke before the sun had risen and, having made myself a cup of tea, turned on the local news to see if anything interesting had happened. The newsreaders were in a state of mild excitement because the night had been the coldest in 26 years. Yes, outside my window it was a nippy -18C, with parts of the country experiencing lows of -23C (-9F).

This, of course, is seriously cold. High pressure has been the dominant atmospheric force this past week, making for beautiful clear blue skies, frozen lakes that you can skate on incredibly sunsets. At least in Denmark, that is. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe the cold weather has caused chaos, and several hundred deaths as homeless people have frozen where they lay. Denmark, of course, doesn't have any homeless people, and the only people who end up freezing to death are usually young drunks walking home in rural areas.

But all this cold weather has got me thinking about what would happen if the hot water, which is piped underground from power stations to most apartment blocks around the country, faltered and failed. Denmark, it must be said, likes to burn stuff. They are generally not fussy about what is fed into power stations, as long as it is flammable. Danes use plenty of coal in their energy mix, and some of it comes from far off places like South America, but the other combustibles of choice are oil – which Denmark still has some of – and post consumer waste i.e. trash.

I've written before about Denmark's enchantment with garbage, which has led it to become the biggest producer of trash in the EU, and the effect this has on the national mentality with regard to over packaging and then throwing stuff out (almost everything in my apartment has been thrown away by someone else). But what about when the trash runs out? We know that North Sea Oil is in steep decline, and we know that transporting coal long distance will become more and more expensive, but what about all the trash? Peak garbage anyone?

Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of an introduction to one of my favourite pastimes of late, a mental what if? game that I call Fantasy Collapse. Anyone familiar with Fantasy Football will already have an idea of what I'm talking about - you pick a team, or in this case a country – and predict how well it is going to do over the season (or coming decades) based on your projections. If one of your projections is realised you earn some points, with the winner being the one with the most correct predictions.

Obviously, this isn't the kind of game that many people would be interested in playing, so I just have to play it in my own head, with my only 'opponent' being Danish government spokespeople. So, for example, whenever one of them pops up and says that Denmark will soon have a countrywide smart grid that allows the entire national fleet of vehicles to run on wind power, I will make an opposing prediction that this will be a spectacular failure. Instead, I'll predict that when Denmark runs out of domestic oil it will turn to its friend Norway to keep the black stuff flowing (they have far more reserves) for a little while longer – and any talk of there being a smart eco grid will be drowned out by voices crying out to allow for more oil exploration in Greenland.

Clearly, this game takes time to play, but here are some of my tentative predictions for Denmark in the coming 50 years, divided up into several categories.

Electricity. As mentioned above, Denmark is pretty stuffed when it comes to getting an uninterrupted supply of energy at the levels it is used to. Oil and gas are fast running out and Germany may well want to keep hold of its coal when it phases out nuclear fuel. Denmark is part of a pan-Scandinavian electricity grid, however, and Sweden and Norway have plenty of energy reserves – Sweden in the form of nuclear power and Norway in the form of hydroelectric. If thorium reactor technology ever gets off the ground – which I sincerely doubt – Norway is poised to be in a position to use it, given that it has the world's third largest reserves of the stuff. Denmark's own, quite admirable, use of renewable energy is already hitting the stumbling blocks as the rare earth minerals used in a most renewable energy technology become, er, rarer.

To summarise: Denmark will still have a current in most of its wires, but it had better keep on the right side of Norway and China.

Heat. Obviously, this is closely connected to the above. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that a useful amount of heat is very hard to produce using renewable energy in a country often blanketed in thick cloud. For six months of the year solar water heaters will probably prove to be very useful investments, but during the winter months my guess is that the country will become more reliant on burning one particular resource of which Scandinavia has a lot: wood. Sweden, as most people know, is liberally endowed with pine forests. The only problem with this is that those pine forests tend to be quite far away from Denmark, which geographically speaking is a transition zone between northern Germany and Scandinavia proper. Transporting wood, or any fuel, over long distance considerably cuts into its EROEI (energy return on energy invested – the effectiveness of any particular energy source divided by the energy expended in extracting and producing it). At one point in time, when gushers gushed and oil erupted easily from wells in accessible areas, its EROEI was up to 300. This has now fallen to the woefully low level of around 7:1 in Saudi Arabia and 4:1 in Venezuela and the figure for wood is likely to be a fair bit lower. Needless to say, a further reliance on using areas of the Earth's surface to feed the insatiable demands of a system designed for and predicated on an abundance of cheap oil is not likely to be pretty, in ecological terms.

To summarise: invest in thermal underwear and insulation.

Housing: Danes love flats. They just can't get enough of them and there is constant talk of a shortage of available 'housing' i.e. apartments. On the plus side, apartment blocks are a very efficient way of storing people. With an average size of 80m2, most apartments here are highly insulated and in good condition. They are perfectly adequate for a couple or a small family, but when the numbers rise over, say five, things can get a little cramped. Many are communal projects, with people sharing kitchen and cleaning facilities, so these are long-sighted and likely to do well. Where flats show shortcomings, however, is the above mentioned umbilical reliance on heating as provided by large thermal power stations burning stuff. It's a serious weakness, because if they fail for whatever reason, people will have no way of heating their apartments (I have never seen an apartment with a chimney). It is of course possible that apartments could be retrofitted on a grand scale to incorporate wood burners which vent into the very ducts now used for ventilation – this would at least be a step away from efficiency and towards resilience.

Another failing is that if everyone lives in flats they have no productive space to run small businesses or grow food. Modern apartments are designed for people in a rush who have a job to go to and supermarkets where they can purchase their food. A modern Danish apartment, which is likely to be highly minimalistic in its décor and furnishings, is a kind of just-in-time way of living. There is hardly any space for inventory or food storage – and it relies on complex and globe spanning supply chains functioning like clockwork to keep it that way. Take any of these prerequisites away and people will soon learn the limitations of this mode of living.

Once the office jobs dry up and the benefits of living in a city become a lot less attractive, I imagine a lot of people will return to their rural roots. Right now a largish 140 year old stone fixer-upper farmhouse with barns, a cobbled inner courtyard and a few productive acres costs as little at 750,000 kroner (130,000 US dollars) – here's an example of one - , whereas a small flat in Copenhagen can set you back the best part of a million dollars – here's another to compare. Rural property is practically the only thing that is cheap in Denmark – the country where a cup of coffee costs around 8 US dollars.

But one bright spot for Danes is the fact that so many of them own a second home in the countryside – or even in the cities. Whole areas are set aside as 'colony gardens' and the idea came in more straitened (and possibly sensible) times to allow the urban workforce access to a patch of land. There is one such area very close to my flat, which you can see on the Google maps image below. At present, most of the plots have small wooden houses on them, which owners are allowed to stay in for a certain number of weeks each year. Gardens are mostly given over to flowers and lawns, but there's no reason why they couldn't be quickly turned over into productive spaces and extra accommodation in a crisis.

Colony houses seen from above in Copenhagen. These could easily be turned into productive allotments if need be.

In summary: buy a farm in Denmark before everyone else gets the same idea. Which leads me onto ...

Food: Denmark could be self sufficient in food. There are only around six million inhabitants living on very productive soils. That's a lot of space. Of course, a lot would need to change in the way of what is considered as food. At present, a huge amount of pork is produced here, which is obviously something that could be cut. The nation, as a collection of islands, is surrounded by seas which for the time being still have fish in them – (although it was once said that you could dip a bucket into the Baltic here and it would come up full of herrings – these days I've never even a live one). People who claim that Denmark is a small country have no idea of how small they themselves are. I once calculated that everyone in the world – all seven billion of us – could stand comfortably on the Danish island of Zealand – which is not particularly large.

Organic food is very popular here, in fact is some ordinary supermarkets it makes up about 50 percent of what is on offer. Danes hate chemicals and have an instinctive fear of poison which many other countries don't seem to have. Another promising thing is the popularity of Bonderøven (which translates as 'farm arse') – a prime time TV show about a man with his family who eschews modern living and has gone back to a pre-industrial way of living off the land.

In summary: back to the land!

Transport: Denmark will not have too many problems when it comes to transport. Practically all options exist and it is well known that the country is one big cycle network, constructed in the wake of the oil shocks of the 1970s. Cars are unpopular here (and taxed at 200 percent of value) so the kind of psychological attachment prevalent in the US and, to a lesser extent, Britain is absent. What's more there is a good train network and boats are likely to make a big comeback as a means of getting around (and Denmark, a maritime nation, still has a great attachment to boat building which goes back all the way to before Viking times).

In summary: smallish, flatish and with a sturdy network.

People: In any country its primary resource is its people. That's what makes a country an abstract human construct rather than just a chunk of geography. I have both doubts and hopes about the way Danes will react to the long descent. On the one hand nobody seems to have swallowed the whole religion of progress hook line and sinker more so than the Danes – so there will be psychological problems to overcome as well as physical. People criticise the Danes for being aloof and condescending and for seemingly thinking themselves as somehow immune from the world's ills. Needless to say, this kind of attitude is not very useful when confronting the predicament we all find ourselves faced with. What's more, high standards of living in Denmark have left many people soft in mind and body and with no real idea of how to fix things if they break down or get by on limited resources.

But … I like to think that Danes might be a bit like large hobbits, with hidden capacities for endurance. The concrete social cohesion makes for a smoothly functioning society and it has often been suggested that Denmark is not a nation but a tribe. People pull together and there is none of the internecine conflict that renders other nations paralysed and unable to act in the face of crisis. Traditionally, Denmark has been an introverted nation, little interested in the wider world – and this attitude served them well. It is my guess that they will return to this attitude, which is the antithesis of the attitude required by globalisation, but hey ho.

One further prediction along these lines concerns religion. Denmark has been notionally Christian since Harald Bluetooth erected the Jelling Stones in around 970. I say notionally because it seems to me that the old gods remain. They still teach children the myths and legends in schools and my daughters have more than one little friend called Thor. What's more, Christmas isn't really Christmas here – it is Jul (meaning 'wheel' the old pagan festival celebrating the turning of the year at winter solstice) and you'll never see images of Jesus or anyone like that around this time. Thus, it would not surprise me in the least if social cohesion was strengthened in the coming decades by a return to the old Norse gods. Let's face it, their mythology is more interesting.

One of the Jelling Stones, proclaiming Denmark to be a Christian nation ... but is it?

To summarise: Scandinavians can probably tough it out.

Okay, I could talk about other aspects of Fantasy Collapse, mentioning how Denmark might cope with climate change (let's not forget how low lying some areas are), military invasions (Russia being a prime contender) and the likelihood of a return to a new Golden Age of the arts – but that will have to wait for another post.