Earth At Breaking Point
‘Today’s mighty oak is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground.’
Before oil and gas came along, the earth could only support about 1.5 billion people. It simply wasn’t possible to feed any more than that. But that was before oil. Today, our world is awash with cheap oil and has been for over 40 years. In 1950, world production of oil was around three billion barrels per year. Today it is around 30. This has meant that, using oil and gas, we can almost literally make food. This has allowed our population to blaze out of control to over seven billion people and rising, far more than this tiny planet can support. There are more people alive today than have ever lived in the entire history of the planet.
This has created some problems.
The first major problem is the sheer pressure that this has created on our planet, on our environment. You only have to drive around rural England for a short while to see how little land there is left for nature. People no longer live in harmony with nature; we have encroached on it for living space. We have failed to keep our numbers in check, and nature has paid the price. She has been tarmacked over and strip-mined to support our staggering numbers.
This is the second problem.
While this book was being written, an ice shelf the size of London broke free from Canada and started drifting around the Arctic ocean. The shockwaves of this titanic shift were felt by earthquake monitors 250 miles away. If it collided with an oil rig, it would be like a fly hitting your windscreen. That ice shelf formed between 3,000 and 4,500 years ago, and only now has it snapped off. The first cracks started appearing in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until now that it reached breaking point.
Global warming has been directly created by the feast at the fossil fuel table which has created the extremes of weather we are beginning to see, such as the droughts which have wiped out harvests across Europe. As the years pass, the cost of such ‘natural’ disasters is stacking up, especially for insurers.
We have even seen an entire city swallowed up – New Orleans. This was caused by an immense hurricane, which was directly attributable to the excessively high temperatures of the seas. In pre-industrial times, the destruction of an entire city would have been cause for deep concern around the world – panic in fact. Today, it is just another news story, and the actions which caused it continue unchecked. The point to notice here is that global warming is not just due to fossil fuels, but also to an unchecked population, which is a result of fossil fuel gluttony.
THE END OF THE OIL AGE
‘The idea of the lights going out is not a fantasy. People seem to accept that security of energy supply is a right. It is not.’
Simon Skilling, director of strategy and energy policy at Eon UK
The third problem is where fossil fuel and our population meet – ‘peak oil’.
The whole of Western society runs on oil. It’s not just cars, buses and trains which use it, but all plastics and many chemicals and materials are made from oil. If oil suddenly disappeared from the face of the planet, we would be plunged into a new dark age overnight. And oil is already disappearing – we are at, or nearing, the halfway point, which is called peak oil.
We are not talking about oil running out overnight, but a radical increase in scarcity and cost. Since 2004 oil has been rising an average $13/barrel each year. At this rate we will break the $100 mark some time in 2008. This has huge implications – oil is not just used to power cars, but also to grow food. So dependent are we on oil for food production that in the US it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to make one calorie of food. Food is transported over thousands of miles before it reaches our plates, often by air travel. In addition, modern fertiliser is made from natural gas – another fossil fuel.
In addition to our food, oil is required in manufacture of all plastics, computers, high-tech gadgets, medicine, even our water supply. Without oil, and other fossil fuels, western society will be reduced to a shadow of its self.
This is the serious and sharp end of carbon emissions and it is coming soon to an empty supermarket shelf near you. This is the consequence of not bothering. If you want to know more about peak oil, then buckle your seatbelts and head over to www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net and www.peakoil.com
‘You must be the change you want to see in the world.’
This bandwagon’s getting crowded
It’s impossible to pick up a newspaper these days without seeing an article about global warming. In the UK Climate Bill, the government set the ambitious target of reducing carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. Everywhere you look there are articles about businesses embracing green technologies. Even the supermarkets, the stereotypical villains of the marketplace, are now proclaiming ambitious goals, and branding themselves ‘green’. Marks and Spencer are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2012, Asda has set a target of zero waste by 2010, and Tesco has plans to put the carbon footprint on the label of all their products.
But are they really serious, or is this all just greenwash? Are these targets feasible? Or even possible?
Promises that can’t be kept
There are tremendous savings to be made in carbon emissions in just about every area of life, and businesses are no different. In fact, for businesses, there are even more options available because they have the capital to invest and operate on a large scale. But despite the opportunities that businesses and governments have, and these melodramatic goals, there are no signs that any of them will ever be met. Renewable technologies require investment and hardship, and this isn’t happening.
It would require deeply unpopular policies to cut Britain’s emissions by 60 per cent. Air travel would be practically banned and car travel would have to be rationed to a tiny fraction, with the majority of travellers on buses. Supermarkets would be going out of business because no one would be able to drive to them anymore. Millions of houses would be converted over to wood fuel, with thousands of acres of trees being planted to supply the demand for fuel. The evidence would be everywhere in our lives. But it isn’t happening. Instead, the M1 is being widened by an extra lane.
If big businesses were to become carbon neutral, they would have to source a massive proportion of their goods locally, which would mean a radical increase in price, which would put them at a big disadvantage with their competitors. And we are only talking about direct energy here. If you were to count embodied energy, these businesses would not be able to use or sell anything made of plastic or metal or glass. They would have to source any additional computers second-hand! Obviously, this isn’t happening, and it is unlikely to ever happen until the fossil fuel bonanza finally winds down.
If you want something done properly...
The only way we can become carbon neutral in the foreseeable future is on a personal, voluntary basis. Despite all the big speeches, business and government have little intention of going carbon neutral beyond superficial measures to boost their image. They each have interests to protect, and curbing emissions would severely damage those interests. It is up to us as individuals to go carbon neutral.
Many books look at how governments ‘ought’ to act to prevent global warming, or how businesses are behaving irresponsibly to cause emissions, but really it is us who vote for these governments, and us who give these businesses our money. We cannot escape this personal accountability.
BREAKING THE ADDICTION
When you look at how our lives are dominated by oil and other fossil fuels, it can be quite daunting to try and free yourself from this immense dependency. Our whole society is structured so that fossil fuels are an assumption.
So how can anyone become carbon neutral?
There are several books out there with hundreds of suggestions for reducing your carbon emissions. The aim of this book is to teach you the underlying principles of personal carbon emissions, and show you how they can be reduced or eradicated, rather than offering a mixed bag of hints and tips. If the whole subject seems too big, then simply start with one thing, such as food, or heat. Composting and insulation are cheap and very effective.
As the old saying goes, ‘success is a journey, not a destination’. There’s no need to beat yourself up just because you’re still driving to work, for example, as long as you are on the journey to sustainability. What matters is that you have a plan to move yourself towards becoming more carbon neutral. That plan may take years, decades, maybe a lifetime to complete, but as long as you are making daily progress towards your eventual goal, that is what counts.
You may already be well down the path towards becoming carbon neutral. Maybe you already recycle and compost, and now you want to move on to a more ambitious project, such as installing solar hot water, or switching your gas central heating to a wood stove. These are the inputs of going carbon neutral and often involve a substantial investment. It can take quite a while to save up, but that needn’t be an obstacle. For managing personal finance I can recommend no better book than The Richest Man in Babylon by George S Clason.
Maintaining motivation is all important – keep a graph on the kitchen wall where the whole family can see it showing how much money has been saved so far, so everyone knows how close you are to the next step. And remember, when you convert a part of your life away from fossil fuel dependency, it is not an expense, it is an investment. This investment will pay off not just for you, but for future generations as well.
Get the whole family involved in your project. Children can help too – picking blackberries, making jam, recycling, watering the garden – whatever it takes. In fact children are often the most enthusiastic! After all, they are the ones who will have to live in the world that’s left behind, after our thirst for energy has run its course.
GOING CARBON NEUTRAL IN THE COMMUNITY
Beyond yourself and your family, you can look to help people in your local community. Perhaps you’d like to help the local school get a wind turbine, or plant fruiting trees around your local area – helping to absorb carbon and reduce food miles.
There are plenty of people around like you, who would like to change their lives towards becoming more carbon neutral. If you would like to form a group of like-minded people with a view to becoming carbon neutral, then you will be glad to know that there is already an organisation set up to help you do just this.
Global Action Plan (www.globalactionplan.org.uk, telephone: 020 7405 5633) runs a scheme around the UK, helping people set up local Eco Teams. These run for a short period of time, in which each member of the team sets their own goals for reducing their carbon footprint, be it through recycling, reducing car use, heat insulation or anything you like. Meetings are held each month to record measurements and discuss any issues, then at the end of the Eco Team’s time, you can see what difference you’ve made. Of course, some changes are easier to measure than others! Alternatively you could set up your own scheme in your local area, such as a campaign to set up a wind turbine, or a car sharing scheme.
YOUR ACTION COUNTS
Finally, whether it is through concern for the damage caused by global warming, or out of a desire to protect yourself and your family from Britain’s impending energy crisis, reducing carbon emissions can only be a good thing. Many people think that their actions are too small to have any effect, when compared with the scale of coal burning in China, for example. While it is true that a single person’s actions have little power, it is important to remember that you are not a single person; you are a member of a huge, international movement. Saying that a person’s actions don’t matter is like saying a person’s vote doesn’t matter. Every time you buy an item, or travel somewhere, you are making a vote for a certain way of life. When you change your actions, you change your vote. Even the act of saving up for a solar panel is significant, because you are withdrawing money from other areas, and so you are withdrawing your vote.
Your actions do matter.
If you are still in doubt, then answer this: why are the supermarkets suddenly going green? Have they suddenly gained a conscience? I don’t think so. They are responding to the actions and opinions of their customers. It is the actions and opinions of us all that shape the world around us, and it can be quite liberating to realise how much power you really do have over your environment. Small actions now can plant seeds for the future.
CHANGING YOUR LIFE
But most of all, when you change the way you live your life, you make it easier for other people to change their lives. By setting a positive example, you show that it can be done, and this makes it socially safer for others to do so. This in turn sends signals to government as part of a movement, that some people are willing to accept the harsher measures that will be needed to make the shift, such as higher taxes on air travel, or even rationing. It shows that there is a groundswell of public opinion that wants to go carbon neutral, and to power down. It isn’t just your vote that shapes the government, it is your actions between those elections, and those actions matter far more than you probably realise.
It’s your life. Make it count.