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.


  1. What do you think the social impact will be? Denmark as I understand it is a tolerant and quite liberal society, but this is due in part to economic prosperity. In the face of poverty and physical hardship, will this change?

    I know in Canada the whole liberal attitudes prevalent nowadays (particularly towards immigrants) could easily change in the face of sustained economic hardship. In tough times people go back to older conservative attitudes and with it intolerance towards certain demographics.

  2. Hi Jeffrey - apologies for the slow response!

    Yes, Denmark has the reputation of being a tolerant and liberal society - but like most thing, there's more to it than meets the eye. We've just had 10 years of a right wing government, backed by a fringe anti-immigration party. I think during those ten years the country pretty much shed its image of being tolerant.

    Of course, this is a vast simplification. I've spend years trying to decode Denmark and have written a fair bit about it on my other blog

    Basically put, Denmark is a deeply conservative country with a liberal veneer - at least until the good times end!


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.