Reassurance is fine as long as it’s well founded. And in the midst of fears about gas supplies and the panic buying of food Gordon Brown is hardly likely to scream that we are all doomed. It is, after all, his job to tell us that all will be well. But will it? People were shocked at the scale of social breakdown when Hurricane Katrina revealed a long-term, creeping erosion of civic resilience. Are we just waking up to the fact that several wrong turns have left our essential supplies much more vulnerable than they need to be?
In 2004 Britain ceased to be able to meet its energy needs domestically. Since then our dependence on imports, particularly of natural gas, has risen dramatically. The situation can only worsen as gas is subject to the same iron law of depletion as oil, and its moment of peak production lags not far behind.
Similarly, Britain’s ability to feed itself has been in long-term decline, and food prices are reportedly rising in the cold spell. It was only two years ago that droughts in Australia caused a crisis in world grain supplies; in April 2008 food crises affected at least 37 countries and there were related riots in many. As climate change and volatile oil prices destabilise global agriculture, we are becoming more dependent on food and energy imports just as the geopolitics of both make it less likely that the world will generously meet our needs.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the fuel protests, when supermarket bosses sat with ministers and civil servants in Whitehall warning that there were just three days of food left. We were, in effect, nine meals from anarchy. Suddenly, the apocalyptic visions of novelists and film-makers seemed less preposterous. Civilisation’s veneer may be much thinner than we like to think.
Part of the problem lies in the infrastructure that emerges from a market system focused on narrow cost savings. The result is easily disrupted just-in-time supermarket food supply lines, and a risky assumption that anything we need can easily be bought on global markets. The latter becomes problematic when in response to global shortages, governments around the world understandably choose to meet their domestic needs first. In Britain, not only are our strategic fuel reserves low by international comparison, our strategic food reserves are history.
One response to the vulnerability revealed in 2008 has been the rise of the so-called land grab. Several wealthy countries and companies have targeted up to 20m hectares of productive farmland in poor countries for acquisition and control. In Madagascar, public outcry led to the government’s fall.
As a child I was quietly haunted by Doris Lessing’s book The Memoirs of a Survivor. Society had broken down, and people were on the move, displaced amid an increasingly brutal disorder. The presiding government was useless but just about able to “adjust itself to events, while pretending probably even to itself that it initiated them”.
Events are revealing that many of the things we take for granted, like bank accounts, fuel and food, are vulnerable. If we value civilisation, the litmus test for economic success should not be short-term profitability, but resilience in the face of climatic extremes and resource shortages. When Gordon Brown meets Cobra, the civil contingencies committee, this week, item one should be the transition to a more sustainable food and energy system.