MichaelCD - The Blog.

The thoughts of Michael Cadwallader. Coffee loving, history book reading, Cheshire man.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Growth, Liberalism, Peak Oil and The Future

For years survivalism has fascinated me. I have many books on the subject, from SAS Handbooks to Ray Mears' bushcraft books. Most of these focus on a survival situation, where someone is stranded from civilisation without adequate supplies of food, water or shelter. Maybe there is some ancestral Welsh pessimism within me, for my Taid was perhaps the most cautious person I have known. He would pack the car full of rope, spades and a first aid kit. But I have always wondered if there will ever be as situation, where this sort of knowledge would be important.

There is also a sneaking admiration within me, for the culture of self-reliance, which embodied the early Americans and early armies. I have also questioned; 'was that sort of life actually more rewarding?' Now don't get me wrong, I am certainly not a back to naturist. I, Unlike William Morris in News from Nowhere, don't believe that the Medieval world was some sort of utopia. I certainly don't believe that the Victorian World, which I so admire, was a utopia. But, I have to admit that a future of endless, greenless, monotonous suburbs, filled only with housing and Tesco's superstores, leaves me decidedly cold.

With this in mind I recently purchased, When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self Reliance and Planetary Survival. This book encompasses the survival techniques that I am familiar with from previous books. But it also offers advice and guides to self-reliant living, with sections on simple metal-working, crop growing and construction of home electricity generators. The most interesting part is, however, the introduction, which focuses on 'worse case scenario' outcomes in the future. There are a three 'big issues' which could lead to an unstable future. Global warming could leave us under water or in a desert, depending on where on the planet you live. Oil shortages could lead to wars and the break down of civic society. Earthquakes could become more prevalent within the US, as the pressure dissipated in the San Francisco earthquake has been building up for the last 100 years. Of course it's highly unlikely that they will all happen within the same time period. And
obviously, it's an important prerequisite of the book to suggest that there is a good chance of catastrophe. But, it would take a supreme optimist to deny that we will not have to deal with any of these in the near future.

That section has got me thinking on those different scenarios. Firstly global warming. I am concerned about global warming. I - unlike rabid free-marketeers - definitely accept that man has contributed towards the problem. Nonetheless I suspect that the sensationalist headlines fed to the media by publicity hungry scientists are over the top and unhelpful. It's my opinion that the planet will soon receive some respite, as it's very likely that the end of the days of cheap oil and transport, are upon us. This is both the great danger, and opportunity, for the future of Western civilisation. And this is what I really want to examine.

There is an obsession with growth, which as Rick Darby points out has become quasi-religious. We are not the only ones to think it's folly. Last year I read Joseph Kunstler's The Long Emergency and was introduced to the concept of Peak Oil. I discovered the Oil Drum UK blog devoted to Peak Oil. There's a quote from Kunstler in the blog entry:
Americans ought to regard the word 'growth' with trepidation.

When invoked by presidents and economists, it is meant to imply ideas like 'more' or 'better.' It's a habit of thinking left over from the exuberant phase of the industrial age, when there was always more of everything to get. Nowadays, though, as we enter the terminal years of cheap energy, the word 'growth' invokes a new set of ideas.

For instance, 'impossible.' With the price of oil edging toward $70-a-barrel now, and likely to flirt with $100 by the end of the year, the effect will be higher costs for virtually all products and services, and tremendous stress on every socioeconomic organism from the family to government at all levels to the Ford Motor Car Corporation. The only 'growth' we might expect under these conditions is the growth in our exertions to stay where we are, and the truth is that many of the weak will simply fall behind.
The cornucopian and Libertarian view is that technology will come through in the end. They, therefore also believe that there will be no disruption whatsoever to society, even when oil becomes scarcer. They use Malthus' overblown warnings about population control as an example of how wrong some of these predictions can be. They also talk of 'more efficient ways of extraction' and new biofuels. And yet, none of this seems particulary reassuring to me. In fact, it seems just like the sort of arrogance which has characterised many societies before they fell.

There are also many people who don't seem to be either aware of Peak Oil, or believe that it will have any impact. For instance, in the excellent Western Survival blog, Mark suggests that conservatives who believe in 'retreat to the countryside' are barking up the wrong tree:
We can't afford to be adopting a rural, agricultural model of society just as the Chinese are abandoning it. We have to be the people who are financially astute, who are running the financial world.
But, Kunstler shows that it's coal which led Britain to be the world leader and oil that has fed American growth in the 20th century. China's growth is fuelled both, by it's own coal resources and middle-eastern oil. Oil that will be hotly fought over. Currently China may have a massive factory workforce and India can pump out all the graduates it wants. But if the oil runs out, they are destined like us, to a future of cutbacks, and renewable energy. You could also factor in the dire state of the world water resources, and see how much of this is currently used by industry. China, will be one of the nations which suffers from this the most. From these factors, the only conclusion I can reach is that heavily industrialised nations - including China - are headed for a fall, unless they return to some sort of localisation.

This conclusion has got me thinking about what will happen in the near future, during and after energy crises. Chris Vernon talks about us needing a large voluntary reduction in energy demand. But I simply cannot see a government going to the country suggesting they cut back their energy use. If they went to the country with reduction in it's manifesto, what is stop the opposition ruthlessly declaring that there is no need for such reductions? Isn't it infact their whole nature to win power, without viewing the long term picture? Kunstler agrees here:
The desperate defense of our supposedly non-negotiable way of life may lead to a delusional politics that we have never seen before in this land. An angry and grievance-filled public may turn to political maniacsto preserve their entitlements to the easy motoring utopia - even while reality negotiates things for us.
My belief is that the mainstream politicians are simply not capable of responding to a crisis like of that magnitude. A few weeks ago a lady on Question Time summed up New Labour as reactionary. In that, they are constantly hurtling around reacting to whatever the media says is the current big issue. Perhaps the phrase 'Magpie politics' would be the best summarisation of this way of governing. Because, unlike a King or a Dictator they cannot focus on the long term, why would they? For they could be voted out in 5 years. All they are interested in is winning the next election. This was graphically illustrated to me, when I questioned a Conservative party supporter, on why the party had ditched a perfectly good policy. He told me that although he agreed with the policy, he also agreed with ditching it as "it was too easy for New Labour to rubbish with rhetoric". So if fighting for what you believe will be good for the country becomes too hard, don't bother. As it gets in the way of the sole purpose of politics. To be elected.

So, we can forget about governments. But what about people? Are people self-reliant in the modern world? Not in my opinion! What about the hundreds of thousands of people on welfare. Is it really that easy to go from being someone who has not had to show one ounce of self-reliance or work ethic in their whole lives. To someone who has to face hardship, with hard graft? Will they not simply ask the government 'to do something about it'? Yes, because government has taken the place of their parents and turned adults into children. The events of Paris last November, were the graphic example of how this could happen.

At the moment Liberalism holds all the cards. It enforces worship of it's state religion - diversity - ruthlessly. It pushes opposition to the margins and stifles debate. And, unfortunately that doesn't seem likely to change in the near future. But liberalism as a doctrine would be totally discredited by a turn of events like those described above.

All this leads to my conclusion, which I see as encompassing all these scenarios and arguments. It's my sincere belief the world population should be a manageable 1 billion. But, this simply isn''t possible with our current economic and governmental policies. As Martin Kelly points out:
The fuel of the system you inherited is people. Only more and more people can sustain a government with a structure like that of America today. Not the sort of people you want to grow naturally, like children, but fully-gown consumers and taxpayers.
The current system is a car crash waiting to happen. It needs more and more 'consumers', it needs to produce more and more products. It's a never ending cycle.

I read an article by Stephen Baxter in this months BBC Focus magazine. He think it's time to plan for a future of localism. These sustainable communities will be able to deal with shortages of oil and electricity and food will be produced locally.
In fact, he believes that we can marry the old tried and trusted villages and fuse them with the best parts of the modern world. He foresees a future of taxi cum buses called 'pod buses' and of everyone generating their own electricity, selling it back to the grid if they have a surplus. It seems a little idyllic. Nonetheless, the return of localism and regionalism could be a chance for a change.

As I see it, the plus side for us conservatives, will be a chance for true conservative communities to grow and develop; within their own framework and rules. Perhaps in the place of the current system would be regional government which would enable conservative areas to pursue their own policies. This is opposed to our current situation where we have; an all powerful liberal hegemony; an extremely centralised state; and heavily socialist regions like Scotland, Wales and Northern England can force their policies on the South-East of England.

All of this, is of course speculation. But the one definite, is that there will be interesting times ahead!


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