Wednesday, April 15, 2009

George Monbiot: Prepare for Peak Oil not Smallpox!

George Monbiot has written a cracking article which I am paying tribute to. I don't always like his take on things but this time he has it just right. He points-out that although smallpox was eradicated in the western world many years ago, the British government has produced a 122 page document of central plans to deal with an outbreak of it, and there are smallpox centres running across the country with listed staff to be drawn on in times of emergency, five Smallpox Management and Response Teams, and a Smallpox Diagnosis and Response Group in each of the nine regions of England. Naturally, all this costs millions even though other than the potential use of the disease in germ warfare, for which both the U.S. and Russia are well-provided, the odds of an outbreak are vanishingly long. However, in respect of probably the greatest single threat to humanity, there is no policy or obvious plans whatsoever, namely peak oil.

He also refers to the strange quirk of the government in its attitude to risk. For example Gordon Brown (actually "Dr" Brown as he has a Ph.D in political history from Edinburgh University) told the City of London bankers (I don't intend this as rhyming-slang) in his 2004 Mansion House speech that "in budget after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk-takers." We have seen in abundance the consequences of this, possibly a minor calamity in comparison with the impending oil debacle.

I am convinced that peak oil is not merely a theory. It is obvious that if western concepts about the origins of oil are true, there was only so much to go round in the first place and we have got through the first half, leaving the second installment far more difficult to wrestle from the earth. The Russian/Ukranian theory is that petroleum is formed within the earth as a mineral product, rather than by the decay of dead flora and fauna. In one respect it doesn't matter who is right, since it is the rate of recovery that is key: even if oil is produced continually, if we can't pull it out of the ground fast enough to match demand the world will descend into a supply-demand gap which I referred to recently as "gap oil". I suspect there are many different origins for petroleum, both abiotic (mineral) and biotic since hydrocarbons are energy minima and are to be expected as thermodynamically stable products of equilibrium.

The precise date when world oil production does peak is a matter of some debate, but I recently heard it was last year (2008). Other estimates are up to 2012 (an interesting coincidence with the end of the Mayan calender), and longer durations offered mainly by the oil industry. The critical information with which to anticipate the event is lacking, namely the closely-guarded figures for the OPEC nations' true reserves - a state-secret. Indeed, we will only know retrospectively when the oil did peak but all evidence is that it can be expected soon.

Thus why are there no clear plans offered by any governments, British or elsewhere, for how we are to run our societies without plentiful cheap oil, without which everything we regard as normal - our entire way of life - will collapse? Perhaps the blueprint will be forthcoming, or maybe there is no longer time to do much except let the "market forces" do their work, in this most significant of human affairs, as in all others. Perhaps, like the Emperor Nero, they are all fiddling while Rome burns?

Related Reading.


Anonymous said...

It would seem that the Government has experienced a sudden fondness for nuclear power, which is being manifested in lots of new nuclear plants being built, without apparently, much thought being done of the long-term consequences.
It is not as if we lack knowledge of problems of decommissioning nuclear plants.
There exist in the UK several sites which are fenced off “forever” because of radiation contamination. It is said that the new nuclear plants will be built on the sites of the old, which, presumably, will be painstakingly decommissioned and dismantled. Does anyone really think that can possible happen? The old sites will be fenced off, in the old way, and new plants built near to, but safely away from, the old. And this process, of “building new upon old” will be repeated every 30 years or so….
The question of the disposal of radioactive residues has never even been mentioned. Why not? Because, presumably the answer is still the same, no one knows how to do it. So our stockpile of radioactive residues will accumulate every generation….
Terrorists will without doubt become more clever at circumventing security with the aim of either stealing the nuclear fuel or rendering part of, or all of, a nuclear plant a “dirty bomb”. So the security contest will become an ever-more high stakes game, and the loser, as usual will be poor old Joe & Jane Blogs, who will be subjected to ever more restrictions on the personal liberties, such as they are now, “for their own safety”.
For these reasons, I, who was once a keen Nuclear Power advocate, have turned against the concept. The consequences for humanity as a whole are to awful to accept.
About the same time I became interested in the Global Warming debate, and examined both sides of the argument, ie, Man-Made or Natural. It would seem to be well evidenced that in the past, the Earth has endured numerous periods of global warming and global cooling. It would also seem to be well-evidenced that the present warming period is not necessarily CO2 led, that is CO2 resulting from industrial combustion has caused the Earth to warm. It appears that records show the warming in the past has actually preceded CO2 increases.
I do not want to enter into any Global Warming debate by saying this. It is simply a prelude to my conclusion.
My conclusion is that, as CO2 lags behind warming, there is no argument against returning to the use of hydrocarbon fuels.
Now it would appear that oil is near to exhaustion.
So therefore the only solution is to develop coal-fired plants, with massive particulate capture facilities but not necessarily carbon capture, which is unnecessary.

Yorkshireminer said...

Smallpox, who gives a dam, but it does make sense to prepare for bird flue, and the precautions would have to be the same. Smallpox is academic but bird flue has the potential to be as devastating as the Spanish flue after the first world war or as great as the Black Death. Lets prepare for Smallpox, there is most likely stringent legislation in place governing Smallpox, and it can be used to cover cases of bird flue this shows that we are alert, keeps the plebs quiet, but in the mean time lets use the time and the cover to prepare for a bird flue pandemic. I gather from what I have been reading about infections in Egypt that the infection rate is increasing while the death rate is falling also that children are more likely to be infected. Make of it what you will.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I think we will have every kind of energy they can lay their hands on... including nuclear. When I started writing this blog I had hoped that we could get rid of nuclear but I think we have left it too late. There will be an energy crunch and then what??

Yes, bird-flu is potentially the greatest killer!

It is as if the most pressing and imminent threats are not addressed, while cardboard-cut-out imperatives are? Perhaps the realities are too great to take-on?

Just read your posting about Norway, Dave... I had heard that story too about the 10 years in jail threat. Democracy, wasn't that what WWII was fought for?