Sunday, July 21, 2013

Melting Britain

This morning I awoke to the sound of a strange noise coming in through the open windows of the house. To my half-asleep ears it was a whooshing, rustling sound, as if thousands of people were stood around outside the house all screwing up balls of paper with their hands. A clap of thunder brought me to my senses and I leaped out of bed to close the windows, which have been permanently open for the last couple of weeks, just as the sheets of monsoon-like rain began to torrent down from a cotton wool sky.

Yes, Britain is experiencing something of a heatwave at present and has just had the hottest July weekend in years, and this sudden welcome gush of rain looks set to provide only a momentary respite. It only fell for about ten minutes, but it was long enough to wash the dust off the cars and give the local foliage a much-needed drink. However forecasters say that next week temperatures will be even hotter. So far they have touched the low 30s (around 90F), which is more than hot enough for most people here who are more used to damp and soggy weather.

If temperatures do rise to 35C (95F) next week, as is predicted, we can expect to hear many more warnings from the government about the dangers of extreme heat. Already, it is estimated, at least 760 people have died who would still be alive were it not for the heat. Yes, most of them were elderly or in poor health, and were unable to find somewhere to cool off (air conditioning is almost unheard of in Britain). Internet boards are full of scoffing Australians and Texans, saying that 30 odd degrees of heat is practically chilly to them - but then weather is all about what people are acclimatised to (I've seen people from hot countries practically die in Scandinavian winters in which I could get away with wearing a thin sweater). It’d be gallows humour to point out that some of the only remaining cold rooms to be found in the UK are within municipal morgues at present.

Particularly at risk are people who live in high rise tower blocks, which trap heat during the long days. This heat rises and builds on the upper floors, and the nights are too short to allow much of it to escape before the merciless sun is up yet again. It’s just one example of infrastructure that isn’t fit for purpose and was never designed to cope with conditions outside a narrow range of possibilities. Similarly, there are reports of melting roads in Cambridge, outbreaks of grass fires across London and low water pressure caused by people wasting it by keeping their lawn sprinklers on all night.

I am just old enough to remember the summer of 1976, which was the last really hot summer this country experienced. Below is a picture of the five-year-old me (dressed as a wizard) in the Banbury carnival. Minutes after this picture was taken I fainted in the heat and had to be carried away by paramedics (note to self: don’t wear a black wizard gown and hat in suffocating heat). Around the country at that time people were finding their water supplies cut off and lines developed at rapidly erected standpipes on street corners. It was hot alright.

So although extreme weather events are nothing new it is the increased frequency of their occurrences that is the obvious effect of global weirding we are now starting to experience. We’ve just been through the coldest spring in living memory, which followed hot on the heels of the wettest summer. A friend in southern France reports that a month ago it was only 10C there, when it should be more like 30C. Germany has just recovered from mass flooding, the Arctic ice is melting at record rates - one can go on and on about the weird climatic conditions that are now prevailing across the globe. 

So what are we, in Britain at least, doing about this very obvious climate change? Here, unlike in the US, people at least say they take anthropogenic global warming seriously. Despite repeated attacks by various well-funded lobby groups through such organs as the Daily Telegraph, most people believe we are in deep trouble, albeit trouble that is far off enough not to have to worry about just yet. 

But the government doesn’t seem concerned in the least. Not only are there efforts to stop climate change being taught in schools, but the chancellor just announced that fracking companies will face the historically lowest taxes on record for any fossil energy producer. This, we are told, is to kickstart the revolution in shale gas fracking - a revolution that IMO if it goes ahead is likely to lead to the closest we have come to all-out civil war in this country since the 17th century. 

The reasoning behind this is simple enough; to drill enough well heads to produce even a modest flow of gas we would have to drill literally thousands of wells in the northwest alone. This would be in people’s back yards, on farming land and in areas that are naturally beautiful. The only feasible way that this could ever happen is if the government takes control of land and property on a grand scale, and it would need a very large security force to do that. In the process groundwater would be polluted by the fracking chemicals and much of the remaining North Sea energy would be wasted in trying to make this very low EROEI energy look attractive. It's a recipe for disaster, but it's also a price that many people seem willing to pay given the drum-beat of hype that is pouring forth from politicians and the media.

The only real hope in this scenario is that the American fracking sham comes visibly apart at the seams within the next couple of years. The resulting shock will strangle the UK’s nascent fracking industry at birth before it gets a chance to irreparably pollute the aquifers and cause much bloodshed. It’s a race against time.

And let’s not forget that the UK is running out of water. The intensely wasteful use of water in agriculture is estimated to only have a few years left in it and 'peak water' is on the cards. Future warming, such as we are experiencing right now, is putting a huge strain on water resources and scientists reckon that we are only a few years off putting ourselves into a permanent drought situation that will see crops shrivelling in the fields beneath a super hot sun. 

Of course, there are many ways to conserve water - the most obvious of which is to grow crops biodynamically and restore as much moisture retaining topsoil as possible, but I haven’t heard anyone in a position of importance talking about these measures. Indeed, this kind of overshoot is a blind spot for the growthaholics, and shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with business as usual. The solution - as ever - is to import more ‘stuff’ (food, water, oil) from the global marketplace, wherever that is, and that technological solutions will be found for the most pressing of problems. The assumption here is that the UK will continue to remain a wealthy country far into the future and that foreign markets will be able to provide all of the commodities and energy we desire - all at a favourable price - and that technology is the goose that keeps on laying the golden eggs whenever we need it to.

Alas, this kind of non-thinking is delusional and dangerous. We are being promised a future that we can’t afford and only a very small fraction of people realise the severity of the creeping problems which are now beginning to consume us. There is no way out of our predicament while this kind of blindness persists. We are fated to collide with overshoot like a car hitting a brick wall, and all we seem to be able to do is push our foot down further on the accelerator and scream ‘yee ha’ as we do it. It’s not a pleasant thought, but then 22 Billion Energy Slaves trades in unpleasant truths rather that comforting fantasies. If we want to get a taste of how the UK will be in 20 years then have a good look at Egypt.

The heat is on!


  1. Have we reached peak oil yet? This article seems to counter this theory.....

    It seems there is a concerted push to relentlessly extend at all cost, environmental and morally the life of fossil fuels globally to our further long term detriment... Fracking is just another example of this welcomed open arms by the Tories and the US whatever the environmental damage.

    1. To me the term 'peak oil' has always been a bit dodgy. It's a bit like trying to work out exactly when you've hit middle age - the signs may be there but the only sure way to know is when all the data's in and you're actually dead - in other words it's fairly pointless.

      And given our species' remarkable record when it comes to accountancy fraud of all kinds, one has to take most figures with a pinch of salt. Countries exaggerate their reserves, companies exaggerate how much they can produce, and government statisticians add things into the mix which don't rightly belong there, such as biodiesel.

      A more useful term is peak net energy. Are we there yet? Probably.

  2. The US shale gas might fail apart soon.

    Starting to curve downwards. A blind, panicky response.

    Expecting the rest of the world to supply the goods at low prices, habit of empire?

    1. To me, the fact that everyday punters (in the US) are being suckered into investing in it while the major concerns quietly go bust or dump their stock is a sure sign to me that it's going down. The race is on to build LNG terminals so it can be shipped to Japan and Europe at extortionate prices, of course, and keep the show on the road - so much for 'energy independence'.

  3. I think it is far too late to do anything within the institutional framework of our civilization. In essence, we are too addicted to our patterns of thinking and action to do much than continue on in the ways that have led to this. You dance with who brung you.

    I had a personal epiphany recently where I recognized that its all really out of your hands to make the best of what's ahead. There are no questions, there are only wrong answers, but there is a good bit of chance in circumstance. All of our meaning and understandings about the world turn on coin flips.

    I think what makes this whole thing so daunting to people is that we are a guidebook culture. This is how we are trained to think from school on up, we are given frameworks for thought and action and taught how to plug and chug answers. This is the basis of education and self-help. But its fucked in this situation because we can't rely on any constants, there are no guidebooks because everyone is in a unique set of circumstances. A middle aged Londoner with no family has a much different set of challenges ahead than a young family in the countryside.

    Take Orlov's advice to form gated communities that participate in the mainstream culture in a very covert and communal goal oriented way. I am sure for some people that will work fine, some will find it an exhaustive and fruitless endeavor, and many others are going to get hustled.

    At any rate, the point is that everyone has to figure out what they are going to do as it befits their own personal circumstances and relationship with respect to their community, family, and economy. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is probably the best guide book you can have. In all likelihood, no matter what you do, it will still come to pieces for you due to forces out of your control. Then again, you wouldn't exist were it not for forces out of your control, so its the same as it ever was, delusions to the contrary.

    It seems like the peak oil blogosphere is a mass effort to come to grips with this and is proceeding along a 'is this happening? This is happening. OMG, this is really happening! How can this be happening!? Wow, I guess this really is happening.' narrative.

  4. 'Don't Panic' :-)

    I think you have had a pretty good insight there. As a technocracy in which most of us have voluntarily surrendered our powers of reasoning to the technicians and overlords, we must all have a user's manual to tell us what to do in each set of circumstances. Right now we're desperately turning the pages looking for a chapter that hasn't been written yet.

    There's a neat circularity to the logic that you describe - perhaps we should all become Buddhists and let go of our illusions. Our civil religion of progress to me just seems like a lullaby that chants us peacefully to sleep where we dream that we are in control of events. The illusion of control is key.

    Of course, we're not, but it doesn't make it any less worrying - especially if you have young children. At the end of the day we will just have to see what the universe dishes up for us as individuals.

  5. Will it be like a "car hitting a brick wall" or a car driving down an increasingly bumpy lane until it gets grounded, the oil sump is ripped off and those uninjured in grinding to a halt have to get out and walk, Not being used to walking some of the occupants will lay down and die when they realise how far the destination is, and the 6 lane motorway they knew and loved has gone.

    I am coming round to the view that there are three types of people, those in the know who will do what ever it takes for them and their families to survive, those who will do a bit and think it will give them a better chance than average and those who haven't a clue and don't want one. I would put myself in the second category. Few of us are single minded enough to do whatever it takes.

    For me there are a few simple rules that can help for which I thank messrs Kunstler,Orlov and Greer. Don't live within 100 miles of a nuclear plant, don't live on a flood plain or below 25 meters above sea level. Don't live near a big city. Perhaps the biggest, don't rely on the government.

    Grow food, collect your own water, look after your health, try and get by with less. Tune into nature not the tv.

    1. I can tick all of those advice boxes, Phil, thanks to the same gents you mention.

      Regarding the car analogy - in terms of our addiction to fossil fuels, the only way to minimise the pain of them going away, in my view, is to use some of the energy they provide to make a more sustainable society and leave the bulk of them in the ground. Instead we are pulling out all the stops to ramp up their production and to hell with the consequences. As individuals we might find that our own cars run out of gas and we end up walking down the motorway, but industrial society as a whole looks to be speeding towards that brick wall with wild abandon!

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  7. The problem with politicians everywhere in the world is that they take a short termist view to the economy and the result is that extending the life of fossil fuels is an easy option, a bandage to a festering sore which is gonna pop some time - by then it will be too late and there are dire consequences..........

  8. Of course you were dressed as a wizard. Of course you fainted - probably some wizard trance/journeying, a reminder for you now, foreseeing the future.

    Don't count on getting any help from the US Gov on the fracking thing, as gov scientists from the National Federation of Fuckstick Apologists For BAU came out with a big study claiming fracking poses NO risk to groundwater WHATEVER. I figure it might take ten years before the bottom totally drops out of the domestic gas market, plenty of time for those fucksticks in your gov/media to ram-rod trough a fracking BONANZA. About eight aristocrats will get super richer, and no one will ever draw water from the ground again, wherever the frackers have stepped.

    Best of luck. It's already an old story here.


    1. I have always had an affinity for those who can work magic ;-)

      As for fracking, I really, REALLY can't see it taking off here. I just can't. Both Left and Right are against it (Left 'cos it benefits the rich and Right 'cos it messes up their cherishes panoramic views of the countryside). It's very kind of the good people of the USA to be such willing guinea pigs before the whole thing is before it can be rolled out to aquifers worldwide!

      BTW they tried to set up the equipment for the first frack today, and this is what happened

  9. yep, it's a global clusterfuck!

    Like a kindergarten class without a teacher. So the kindergarteners have to figure out how to run the class. Think they can do that? I don't. Where's the candy?

    1. I'm not going to argue with than analogy. Could also work well with an insane asylum - ever seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

  10. yeah, like when they go on the fishing trip. Except didn't they actually catch a fish? I mean they ended up at least competent enough to take a boat out and accomplish a goal. The fuckers making the decisions to continue raping our homo sap friendly environment on the other hand? Unless the goal is to destroy our environment that is.

    They all deserve electroshock therapy. We could chain them up to a big ass lightning rod somewhere in Oklahoma and keep them all fed and watered. Talk about poetic justice. You know all of the big Ag, Big oil frackin' jack wagin' psychopaths.

  11. I'm certain the earth will survive in one form or another, the question remains how many people that'll do the same...

    One of our biggest problems we have in the West is that there are no real counter-initiatives from us, the people, as acting citizens.
    As a species though we do have given up our comfortabilities at times for higher causes that did not pay off in the short run so I can't see why it couldn't happen now. To referr to the working class movement, most of the strikes back in the days did not result in wage increases and/or other demands being met in the short run (often very far from it for the participants involved) but the important rationale behind those actions was that they combined and in time increased the respect on the other side of the table, it boosted confidence and credibility among the participants themselves as an acting force.

    I remember talking to a Scandinavian activist who gave me insight in how it was done when chlorin was stopped in industrial paper manufacturing to bleach paper. Environmental groups there pressured state agencies to use non-chlorin bleached paper; once this was done other sectors jumped on the wagon and did the same.

    Without collectively made decisions within organizations, scream what you want but you'll subject ourselves to other forces, to let the destructive routines go on to prevent the needed 100% change from happening. If there are enough powerful organizations with sharp teeth, politicians may become something more of the ideal they're supposed to stand for.


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