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Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

Photo by wools via Flickr

We used to get along well with oil, in a lonely sort of way. It has played a major role in the advancement of much of our civilisation, providing energy and materials. But now our progress does not have to depend on it. Emerging from the recession provides the ideal time to redirect our progress.

Black Gold
Over 4000 years ago we used asphalt, present in most crude petroleums, as a fairly benign glue to build the walls of Babylon. And the industrial revolution was a bright spark in the history of human innovation: our technological advances have revolutionised how, where- and even when- we live. It wasn’t long before Thomas Midgley, Jr. developed both leaded gasoline and CFCs, certainly in the top five recent environmental disasters. We learned to use oil to provide energy, fuelling our cars, and help in the creating of plastics, pesticides, fertilisers and solvents. But, despite our addiction, we now need to use the alternatives.

Taxing the Bad
This month the Office of National Statistics posted employment figures (the lowest in over ten years; see below) and an estimate that the UK has, behind the other G7 countries, emerged from the recession with growth of 0.1%.

The graph above, from the Office of National Statistics, shows the employment rate for September to November 2009 was 72.4%, the “lowest since winter 1996-97 and is down 0.1 on the quarter”. Average regular pay (excluding bonuses) was up 1.1% over the same period to £424/week. This was the lowest annual growth rate since records began in 2001.

The 0.1% growth of the economy has been used for two opposite viewpoints on fiscal policy: that the government should cut our budgetary deficit by slimming our net spending, and that our spending levels should be maintained in order to secure the economy’s recovery. Neither addresses our addiction to oil and fossil fuel-based consumerism. Fiscal stimulus should be ploughed into building clean and renewable energy sources, creating ‘green’ jobs and preserving our natural environment. As many have advocated, including the economist Paul Krugman, the tax system would be an effective way to transition our economy to a cleaner future that would actually help the economy and the environment. Tax the ‘bads’ (fossil fuels, aviation, environmental degradation) and nurture the ‘goods’ (employment tax credits, subsidise renewable energy).

In times of darkness and uncertainty we should turn to someone who knows better. So, I close with some help from the Tick: “Everybody was a baby once, Arthur. Oh, sure, maybe not today, or even yesterday. But once. Babies, chum: tiny, dimpled, fleshy mirrors of our us-ness, that we parents hurl into the future, like leathery footballs of hope. And you’ve got to get a good spiral on that baby, or evil will make an interception.”

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

A lorry abandoned in the snow.

Man has lost the ­capacity to ­foresee and forestall,” wrote Albert Schweitzer. A colossal banking crisis and a big freeze in the middle of what was meant to be a mild winter don’t encourage confidence to the contrary.

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.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.