A small but rather sad event was commemorated in August of this year. Eighty years ago, the inhabitants of the St Kilda group of islands were, with their agreement, repatriated to the mainland of Britain.
For those who are unfamiliar with the furthest reaches of the British Isles, I should explain that S t Kilda is in fact, the most remote part of Britain. It is a group of Islands a hundred miles off the north-west coast of Scotland and is distinguished by the dramatic beauty of its scenery and its vertiginous cliffs, the highest in Britain. Home to copious numbers of sea birds, wild sheep and a unique breed of giant mice it once sustained a small human population that had lived there since time immemorial.
Gradually, from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards that population aged and declined and eventually the few remaining members were resettled on the mainland. The reasons for the decline are complex but the development of increasing contact with the mainland played a part.
Visitors in the nineteenth and twentieth century brought disease. The economy changed in that the inhabitants started making goods to sell to the “tourists”. Young men left the island during the First World War and did not return and the population declined. Whatever the reasons, the final straw was the avoidable death of a young woman from appendicitis. Had medical aid been readily accessible her life would have been saved. In its commemorative piece, the BBC World News interviewed her son. He described standing with his grandmother, on the quayside, waving goodbye to his mother as she was taken by boat to the mainland for treatment. He was five. In a dry, quiet voice he recalled that it was the last time that he had seen her.
Moving though this account was, it was the insight that he gave into the collapse of the community that really caught my attention. The problem was, he explained, that there had been insufficient men to do the work.
There is no shortage of natural food resources on the islands. For generations, the inhabitants lived on sea birds and their eggs and in addition, reared sheep. But, as the population declined, there was simply insufficient energy in terms of man/woman power to keep the community fed, clothed and sheltered. It is all very well to look at a place like St Kilda and fondly imagine an idyllic, back to basics, self-sufficient life-style. The reality however, is that to sustain life in such an environment you need the energy provided by a group of workers who individually, can be allocated specialized tasks.
Thinking about St Kilda, I was reminded of the puny attempt at self-sufficiency that I made when living in a forgotten and fairly remote part of Lincolnshire. My cottage was warmed by a wood burning stove. So, I decided to harvest driftwood from the nearby river estuary. Half a day later I had enough to keep the stove going for a couple of hours. This left me precious little time to continue my equally ineffective attempts at growing food or at re-educating my neighbour’s goat into not eating the only productive thing in the garden, an ancient plum tree that bore copious fruit without any form of human intervention. I realized at the end of all this, that two or three people would be required to share the burden of making a potentially viable piece of land into a self sustaining smallholding.
By using petrol driven agricultural tools and vehicles, the number of people required to cultivate land is reduced. I know of a large farm in East Yorkshire where the farmer employs no labourers but manages all the tasks of preparing the ground, sowing and harvesting crops without assistance, by using sophisticated and powerful modern agricultural machinery. Fifty years ago the farm would have employed dozens of full and part time workers. Compared to the time of my grandparents the countryside is now deserted. There is little work in the countryside in which human endeavour cannot be replaced by machines. In fact, agriculture is a huge user of hydrocarbons both for fuel and as the chemical basis for fertilizers. It is estimated that for every one calorie of energy that is grown on a farm in the United States of America, ten are used in its production.
Human beings have always harnessed energy resources and in so doing have increased the complexity of their surroundings. Slaves, horses, animal oils, wind, water, coal, petrol and the atom are all examples of sources of energy that to one degree or another, have extended our ability to shape our social and physical environment. As I sit in the centre of Brussels typing this blog, I am surrounded by furniture and electrical and mechanical equipment, by power sources and food all of which are sourced, produced, manufactured and conveyed to me in ways about which I know precious little. What they have in common is that their presence in my flat is the result of a series of complex production and supply chains all of which have been fuelled by energy gleaned from hydrocarbons or electricity.
Energy is the key to the development of human complexity. Imagine the world before the internal combustion engine. Food would have been gathered close to its point of consumption and daily travel would have extended no further than the comfortable range that a man could accomplish on foot or exceptionally, by horse.
By contrast, the growth patterns of modern suburbs in Britain and the U.S.A. reflect the influence of motorized private or public transport. The development of suburbs and urban centres has led to the creation of complex supply chains for food and other commodities. Today, a city is never more than a few days away from exhaustion of its supplies. Take away the refrigerated trucks that supply its supermarkets and it would starve.
Joseph Tainter in his must-read book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (Cambridge University Press 1988) points out a recurrent pattern in human development. With increasing complexity comes a decline in marginal returns. Societies are required to use increasing amounts of energy to support institutions and production and supply chains which as they become more complex, provide a decreasing margin of real benefit. In terms of the ratio of energy input to beneficial output, the society finds itself running in order to keep still and is ultimately so weakened and overstretched that any stressful event will cause it to collapse. This process can be seen in most aspects of human activity but one example that has a topical flavour is that of the oil company, BP. In the years since 2001 BP has spent $100bn on exploration and production projects but its overall production of oil has remained flat. It is running to keep still. It is interesting to note that the prevailing view is that it should downsize by selling off marginal assets, in other words makes itself less complex, in order to provide a platform for future corporate growth.
What Tainter and others point out is that the collapse of complex societies can occur very quickly. They are not robust. Any diminution in the supply of energy (which would include capital, cheap labour, basic resources and oil) puts them under strain.
For a well argued, compelling, and very disturbing examination of the implications of Peak Oil and societal collapse, read the report of Dr David Korowicz, “Tipping Point” (www.theoildrum.com/files/Tipping%20Point.pdf ). We are presently in the condition described by Korowicz as “oscillating decline”. That is, as soon as the economy starts to grow it will be constrained by the diminution in the supply of cheap energy. This cycle of decline and growth followed by decline will repeat itself albeit that at each stage the drop will be to a lower base level. It won’t be a double dip but a series of dips. This state of decline will be followed, inexorably, by collapse.
There is a strong correlation between increases in the price of oil and recession in the U.S. economy. Of the last six recessions, five have been unarguably caused by high oil prices and the sixth arguably so. As Steven Kopits of the U.K. based energy consultants Douglas- Westwood has recently pointed out, when expenditure on oil reaches the equivalent of 4% of the GDP of the U.S. the economy goes into recession. Today, that would require the oil price to reach $80 a barrel. At present, in the midst of a recession, it is hovering around the $75 mark. As soon as world demand picks up it will breach that $80 figure and the economy of the U.S. will again go into decline.
In the past, after oil prices spiked they quickly dropped back to affordable levels. In August 2008 the price reached $147 a barrel. Speculation helped that meteoric rise in price but the main driver was a simple realisation within the market that demand was outstripping supply. A growing number of experts are now beginning to accept what has long been obvious to the non-expert bystander; the banks caused the bubble by profligate lending but it was the oil price spike that burst it. Lehman’s then collapsed and the economic crisis started. In the wake of Lehman’s collapse the price dropped to $30 but extraordinarily, within weeks it was back in the $70-$80 range where it has remained ever since. In contrast to previous occasions when the oil price spiked it has not, in this recession, returned to an affordable level. The crisis has helped to reduce demand and so stocks are relatively high. Expect however, at the end of next year if not before, as stocks decrease a concomitant rise in price and a connected weakening of the economy of the U.S. and Europe.
The U.S. government has consistently tried to underplay the findings of the Hirsch Report ( www.nyswda.org/LegPosition/HirschReport.htm), just as the International Energy Authority has been encouraged by world governments to produce upbeat assessments of oil reserves (until that is, the recent lifting of the lid by a series of whistleblowers).The information has been suppressed for an understandable, if not necessarily good, reason. Were the general public to be made fully aware of the implications of Peak Oil there would be panic on the markets. Despite this underplaying of the truth there is now a deep feeling of insecurity. Witness the ever-rising price of gold and latterly, silver. The purchase of precious metals indicates the existence of a view that in the long term no currency or bond offers a safe haven. Witness too, the high interest rates which governments saddled with debt are forced to pay in order to raise capital on the bond market. There is a deep visceral fear in the markets. In short, we are teetering on the brink of a sustained economic crisis which, as oil prices continue to rise, can only deepen.
In the face of this dystopian vision the obvious question arises; what can we do to get out of the mess? The equally obvious answer is that we have to put complexity and oil dependence into reverse. I shall write about national responses to a reduction in oil supplies in a future blog and look in particular at the Cuban experience. For now however, my final thought is this. When the islanders of St Kilda ran out of the meagre supply of energy required to run their modest society, they could be taken to a place of safety.
We have no haven.
Robert Urquhart Collins
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