Monthly Archives: July 2007

Sustainable UK – what might it look like?

Thing is, there are two, I kind of want to call them ‘attractors’ working here.

Population keeps increasing, oil (and gas etc) supply dwindles as demand increases, there isn’t enough land to use solar/biomass to keep present standard of living.

The other one is that the oil (and gas etc) lasts long enough to totally fuck things up through climate change instead.

We seem to be headed into one or other of those attractors, and it does seem completely inevitable as long as market forces and economic growth continue to take total precendence over any other human considerations whatsoever.

Most of the post-oil solutions that we hear about aren’t too plausible either when you look at them in detail. For example if you work out exactly how much arable land you need for biofuels and compare it to what’s available, and to what’s required for the people we already have to eat food.

There is a sort of steady drip drip in the media of partial solutions that does tend to make it sound like answers are near at hand. This is accompanied by a steady drip drip of PR effort designed to convince us that there isn’t actually a problem. So people don’t know what to think unless they go do the research for themselves.

It’s subject to assumptions. For example, Pimentel (in ‘Food, Energy and Society’) offers the following assumptions for ‘business as usual’

0.5 ha/cap for food production.
1.5 ha/cap for energy systems.
1.0 ha/cap for pasture/biodiversity etc.

On those assumptions, and assuming soil erosion etc is effectively dealt with using known methods, we get 2 billion sustainable global population with ‘EU-average energy use’. Unfortunately we already have 6 billion and rising, so there are obviously some tricky issues to be figured out here.

What does this mean for the UK?

Given that the policy of the leaders of the US and hence the UK appears to be to continue business as usual, at gunpoint where necessary, albeit with some cosmetic programmes here in the UK, I’d really like to understand what that is likely to mean for all of us.

An increasing weight of evidence has been emerging over the last few years, since the Shell announcements, that the production peak for conventional oil is pretty much imminent. Given rising demand and the failure to implement programmes which could control demand, presumably this means a rising trend in oil prices, and energy prices generally. As far as I’m aware this always causes a recession, and if prolonged, is likely to result in an economic depression of unprecedented dimensions.

The UK is particularly vulnerable, because due to ‘free-market’ policies we’ve been following since Thatcher, we’ve trashed our coal mining infrastructure, burned through most of our oil; we’ve also, since WW2, trashed a whole lot of our arable land and our population has grown to about 6x what it was before the industrial revolution.

It appears to me that any transition to renewable energy is urgent, and best accomplished right now, while we’re still relatively well-off in terms of these resources. While we have it, we should be using it to make the transition. If we wait until we’re in a depression, then the transition becomes much harder.

This is pretty clearly not the likely outcome though. So what are we in for?

I’d be very interested in having a more substantial discussion of the likely implications of this situation for people living in the UK, over the next few decades. Assuming that we carry on with business as usual.

We can do Pimentel’s calculation above for the UK. Here are some very rough numbers.

CIA world factbook says there are (I’ve converted from square miles to ha)

24.4million ha of land in the UK and 6.4 million hectares of it is arable land.

Pimentel says that on the assumptions given in his book, you need per cap:

1.5 ha for energy systems (to get EU average levels of energy supply)
1 ha pasture, biodiversity, etc. (because we’re assuming no petrochemicals)
0.5ha for growing food

If we just look at growing food and assuming (as an approximation) you can only do this on arable land, that means that in the absence of oil (as a limiting case) we have a sustainable population of about 12 million, so 1/5 of the numbers we presently have. This is pretty close to the 10m of the census of 1800, before the industrial revolution got started.

We can also be fairly sure that the remaining non-arable land isn’t all usable or available for pasture, biodiversity or energy systems such as bio-fuels. So we can conclude from this that with our present population, whatever the real sustainable figure is, it probably isn’t the 60million we have right now.

We aren’t going to be totally without oil in the forseeable future though, so this is definitely a limiting case, rather than an immediate problem. It does however give you a pretty good feel for how bad things could potentially get.

The gap between these numbers and present day reality is largely plugged by oil and gas, in a variety of different ways. Fuels, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Those are all going to become much more expensive and much less available, producing economic hardship on a very large scale over the coming decades. Once we’re in a major economic depression, as a result of global oil shortages, something I think is likely within a decade or so, then we’re in a much worse position to make any investments in sustainable alternatives.

With our current political system, only pro-capitalist parties can get elected, so if we’re assuming ‘business as usual’ then we’re assuming this is happening in a capitalist context, with major unemployment due to economic depression.

Assumptions are obviously being made to arrive at Prof. Pimentel’s figures. You can find them articulated in great detail in his book ‘Food, Energy and Society.’ What he’s assuming, roughly, is business as usual, only with sustainable energy and agriculture. So he’s not for example assuming big changes in population distribution. This is quite important. In practice, a fairly large amount of the energy used by the average family is spent in putting food on the table, far more than on running cars or heating their homes for example.

The relatively massive energy use in food production arises because of the process that puts food on the table. Pimentel offers a figure of 10 units of oil energy to put 1 unit of food energy on an average US table. This breaks down as petrochemicals used as fertiliser, drugs for animals and pesticide, transport of fertiliser, drugs for animals and pesticide, harvesting, transport of cereals, vegetables and fruit, transport of animals, transport and disposal of wastes, food processing, packaging, transport to supermarkets etc. See for example what’s in your bag of supermarket salad? for a discussion of just some of these process stages in a bit more detail.

If I eat a tomato grown organically 3m from where I’m sitting right now, then clearly these costs don’t apply. I don’t want to spend my whole life growing food however. So in order to minimise these kinds of costs, but maximise the efficiency of food production and hence radically reduce the energy needs of our way of life, I would suggest that one should cooperate with others to grow food close to where one lives. Eco-villages with a population in the 2-500 range are optimal and experience with these models seems to imply an average of say 8 hrs per cap per week spent growing food.

You can do a fair bit better than Pimentel’s assumed 1.5 ha for food, pasture, biodiversity etc, and also reduce his 1.5 ha for energy. You need about 0.25 ha per cap for this system to produce a complete and balanced diet, but you still need some space for energy systems, to heat your home etc. But around 0.5 ha or somewhere around one acre per human, is enough to provide for a decent way of life.

Assuming that acre is decent arable land, that still only implies a sustainable UK population of around 12m though, while we have 60m citizens at present. If you assume only half of it needs to be arable, you get 24m, but in practice, you mostly don’t get land that’s half arable and half marginal and that matters if were talking about something as localised as an eco-village.

I think that you still need to find some way to recover land that presently isn’t viable, in order to sustain our present population in the absence of oil, but assuming big changes in our way of life.

I think it’s in the realms of the possible, but not with ‘business as usual’ assumptions, or population distribution.

Let’s break down where the oil inputs to agriculture go and analyse them a bit. I suggest we separate two cases.

1) The difference between agricultural efficiency using pesticides etc and by standard organic methods. Typically organic gives about 20% less yield (see e.g. this 21 year study ), but is much more efficient in its use of say nitrogen inputs. Nor does it damage the soil, which petrochemical agriculture does. Given that erosion is also a major food security issue, this is pretty important.

2) All the other stuff. This includes fuels for farm equipment, which is mostly replaceable by work animals given sufficient land for pasture. It’s mostly a matter of fuel for food distribution and packaging and waste disposal though.

The solutions to the latter case would appear to me to be localisation of food production so that you don’t need to use lots of oil for fuel, packaging etc.

So we need to look at the localisation model to see how much extra labour would be required. If a vast amount of extra labour is required, that’s presumably where it comes from, as we can get fairly comparable yields from conventional organic vs chemical farms without the need to greatly increase the labour inputs.

The furthest extreme is everybody just grows their own. Even on that basis, organic smallholders who seek self-sufficiency (rather than those farming commercially) generally seem to manage to produce their food with a fairly reasonable *average* day, although this means pretty heavy labour at some times of year, with relatively light labour the rest of the time. You can get a pretty good feel for what’s involved from Borsodi

It makes more sense to share the labour over a locality though. With an eco-village of 400 people, the figure I’ve seen quoted is 20% of working time spent on growing food, which I believe is based on Swedish eco-village results (I’ll check this)

Now to be sure, the resultant way of life is not at all that promoted by the corporate ‘lifestyle’ industry, but it’s about as comfortable as that of village life circa 1910, plus a few low energy impact forms of modern technology. It’s interestingly, rather similar in some important ways to what Kropotkin describes in ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’ although he’s coming at it from a rather different direction and isn’t aware of some of the resource issues.

I would argue that if we keep using unsustainable methods to provide food and energy, no matter how cleverly we do it, we just defer the problems. I think that unsustainable energy sources will probably be needed to enable a sane transition to sustainability, given any believeable projections of global population, food and energy supply vs demand etc over the next century.

I don’t think we have any acceptable choice besides making such a transition, but I think that the political influence of capitalists, religious fanatics and other nuisances will make that transition more difficult than it needs to be and may even succeed in making it disastrous for billions of us.

What needs to be done is pretty clear to me though, global population has to be reduced over time (ideally by family planning rather than by the Four Horsemen), unsustainable energy use needs to be phased out, while we still have sufficient of it to boot-strap the transition to sustainable energy use.

Our way of life has to change to make this happen. It won’t be business as usual, but it needn’t be some hellish dystopia either. It depends how we do it. The problem I forsee is that we’ll wait too long to take the necessity seriously and end up trying to make the transition to a lower energy society after the demand for energy has overtaken the supply permanently, with predictably dire economic results. At that point everything gets much harder.

√•If we mess it up badly enough, instead of reducing energy demand through appropriate technology, improving food security through sustainable forms of agriculture and reducing demand for both food and energy by managing global population down over the course of a few generations; we all just pretend that there isn’t any problem until those Four Horsemen arrive to solve these problems for us the hard way. This appears to be the solution favoured by certain factions within those countries most able to do something about it.

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‘Market Forces will save us’

Some people want to rely on the panacea capabilities of ‘markets.’ Is this a reasonable hope?

Global markets will clearly do something in response to climate change, significant changes in the availability of oil resources, soil erosion and so on. I think you’d have to be working from some kind of quasi-religious certainty to be sure that the response of the markets will necessarily be both entirely beneficial and sufficient to this problem, as some seem to do.

The question from my point of view is not whether the sacred power of markets will make everything turn out for the best automatically. I think that unlikely for a variety of reasons, in much the same way as I think Resurrection and Virgin Birth unlikely. Free market theology aside though, I think that markets will clearly play a significant role in responding to oil and gas depletion, but I think it’s unlikely to be a uniformly positive one. Similarly, as is probably clear from my review of the Stern Report below, I don’t think much of their response to the early signals of climate change.

Political-military rather than strictly economic responses may also occur. Some might argue that they are already occurring, say in Iraq.

The petroleum energy requirements of industrial agriculture suggest that where industrial agriculture is practiced, the demand for petroleum energy is both high and inelastic, with worrying implications for food security as global reserves become sigificantly depleted.

Right now we are in a steady state where we and billions like us mostly live on food grown using high oil-input agriculture. That looks to me very like a system that might fail catastrophically given the appropriate conditions. Those conditions might not be met, but I think the science says that such conditions could exist.

It seems likely, given that it takes ten units of oil energy to put one unit of food energy on our tables, that we’d see catastrophic global food security problems if the supply were to fail suddenly and drastically. So as a limiting case, industrial agriculture would fail catastrophically, if oil supplies were cut off totally and suddenly.

In the real world, energy supplies will probably not be cut off so suddenly and totally, but then the question arises, just how drastic would the onset of oil scarcity have to be, before a catastrophic failure of industrial agriculture is likely to occur?

That wars are apparently already being fought over these resources, suggests to me that extreme conditions might occur.

I think that when people suggest that this is a matter that can be handled by the working of markets, they’re in effect assuming a steady-state case, and that may be right. It doesn’t mean that catastrophic cases can’t arise. Nor does it mean that the ‘civilised’ rules of the markets game can’t get suspended in favour of the use of force to simply appropriate these indispensable resources.

Markets may do something useful about global food security, but they may also do things that are counterproductive.

My problem isn’t with the idea that markets might have a useful contribution to make, they may; it’s with anyone that appears to suggest, that markets are in and of themselves, reliably and certainly the answer to the problem of depletion, where the resource being depleted plays such a fundamental role in the functioning of our societies.

It takes ten units of oil energy to put one unit of food energy on our tables. This isn’t just about people driving slightly smaller cars.

I have a big problem with any doctrine that makes light of the fundamental questions raised by oil/gas depletion or suggests that it’ll be solved by some form of continuing business as usual.

I think some more fundamental approaches may be required, and some of those would significantly benefit from public policy support. For example, fundamental structural adjustments are needed, I suspect, for agriculture to do its job in a world of depleted oil. These adjustments would tend to involve radical decentralisation of our food systems, bringing grower and consumer physically closer to reduce fuel costs. They also involve moving away from input-based agriculture towards one that recycles nutrients, especially Phosphorous.

These changes are at present ones that the agri-chem commercial interests and their representatives in government are likely to passionately oppose. Can you imagine for example, Lord Sainsbury giving his wholehearted support to a food security policy that takes us away from massively centralised supermarket chains (like the ones that made him a billionaire?) Or can you imagine what the very influential oil and chemical giants would make of an approach to nutrient managment that was largely decentralised and not profitable, leaving them out of the loop, despite being more sustainable?

One plausible approach I’ve seen suggested, from a sustainability point of view is Folke Gunther’s ‘Re-ruralisation’. A progressive rearrangement of our population distribution over decades into sustainable eco-villages. Interview about this approach with Dr Gunther here

For the sake of discussion only, let’s imagine that the case for the ruralisation approach advocated in the article I linked is the optimal way, from a greatest good for the greatest number of people point of view, for achieving sustainability.

Given the starting conditions, how do we get to a point in the UK where that strategy is being applied effectively?

I don’t think the magic power of The Market is going to do it, in fact I’d be surprised if market advocates didn’t try to argue that it can’t be a correct strategy because The Market won’t do it.

I can’t see any of the people who profit from centralisation giving support to decentralisation, in fact I’d expect them to be hostile.

Both the farmer and the consumer are getting a better deal at the expense of a bunch of people in the middle, who are mostly involved in the distribution, industrial processing aspects of our current food system, and those oil companies who sell them energy. Also being disadvantaged by ruralisation are property developers, estate agents and others.

So, could this scenario be brought about by market forces alone?

My guess is not.

Imagine for a moment …

Imagine for a moment that it’s the second half of the 21st century. Oil is several $k a barrel in today’s prices and there isn’t nearly enough to go around. The global climate is several degrees hotter than it ought to be. Industrial agriculture very probably broke down catastrophically for a while there due to oil shortages and regular agriculture has been hard hit by freak weather and soil erosion, but people have made their adjustments. Humans are pretty adaptable creatures after all, but it wasn’t a bit pleasant at the time or even remotely painless. Hundreds of millions may die or become refugees.

We know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the boards, syndicates and governments of the Earth potentially knew all about oil depletion from the 1960’s onwards, and climate change from the 1980’s onward. They were told, and yet they did nothing useful about it but instead looked for ways to turn it to their advantage. In the early part of the 21st Century the most powerful country on Earth, staring this problem in the face, invaded the second largest oil producer and then held the price of oil down at gunpoint, still overconsuming blindly until the crash.

When our descendants are grown, and of an age to have influence in their world, this is the world that they’ll most likely have to face.

We’ll have tried our best to give them what might help, I hope, but we probably can’t easily imagine what their life will be like.

What will they think of us for letting this happen? Was capitalism too powerful? Was the media too persuasive? Was our oil-funded miserable ease too ennervating to permit us to do something?

What should we tell them, assuming this situation comes to pass?

No doubt: there won’t be a state pension system to save us if they kick us out on our incontinent arses for letting this awful shit happen.

So we’d better start thinking about what we’re going to say to them, assuming we didn’t actually find any way to prevent this.