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.

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