What’s driving us?

by Robert Oakey

Some of you may wonder why we have left the comfort and stability of our Lancaster life and replaced it with an uncertain nomadic existence. Why have we given up a nice warm house for a different bed every few weeks? Why did we give up steady jobs for sporadic temporary work or no work at all? So what is it that has driven us on this precarious and alternative path?

By way of an answer to these questions here is a broad summary of Climate Change, Peak Oil and the Economic System. As I write I try to make the links between these factors that define our situation. There are links to a few short films that explain or develop the points. It gives me clarity of thought and I hope will introduce or develop these ideas for family, friends and anyone else who cares to read it. The point is that underpinning our actions is not just a foray into a notion of an idyllic rural lifestyle that assimilates some vision of a romanticized pre industrial agrarian paradise but to find a viable alternative that makes more sense and in which we feel fulfilled. What we are seeking is no different from anyone else really – stability, safety and some comfort for our future. We want to find an existence that will be resilient to the uncertain future that’s round the corner.

Climate Change

Climate change, that thing our media and politicians’ have conveniently forgotten all about these days. Levels of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, have increased today (January 2013) in the atmosphere to 395.55ppm, a level not seen for 800,000 years. Fluctuations in global surface temperature appears to be linked (and here) to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere therefore increases in CO2 leads to increases in surface temperature, reduction in sea ice and more critically reductions in land ice leading to sea level rise – the science is all here at NASA (and here) – I’ll let you join the dots.

As we all know it is our use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) that is responsible for releasing all this extra CO2 in to the atmosphere. In a ‘nut shell’ for 60 million years conditions were just right on many parts of the Earth for vast forests to thrive and in the oceans life was also abundant but when these trees and sea life died and were buried, the carbon they extracted from the atmosphere and oceans when they were alive was locked away in the sediment. This material was covered with more and more sediments and pressure and temperature turned it into coal, oil and gas. To put this into context as far as oil is concerned, we have used half of what took the best part of 60,000,000 years to form in a little under 150 years.

Peak Oil

There is of course a link between increases in atmospheric CO2 and our use of fossil fuels – it’s no coincidence that CO2 started to rise at the onset of the industrial revolution and since that time our societies and industries have been addicted to the cheap power afforded. As new technologies including the world wide web has developed. Rapid change has transformed our industrialised societies to a global world that operates in a free market. Rapid transfers of money, goods and labour can take place and the post industrial world is defined by rampaging consumerism. The mechanics of the free market are lubricated by ‘stuff’. All that gloop that fills the shopping malls, our media bombards us with stories of how we can’t live without the latest. It all requires unsustainable amounts of energy. The Story of Stuff is essential viewing and in 20 minutes demonstrates why the old adage ‘waste not want not’ is redundant in the free market. It is subverted to waste, waste and waste some more and NEVER EVER fix anything! Unfortunately today we in the ‘developed’ world are consuming two and a half worlds’ worth of resources – we are now exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet and in a finite world, have reached the limits.

World oil production peaked in 2005 and has been bumping along pretty much level ever since at around 75-82 million barrels per day. And this is a problem because to continue our expansion and be able to enjoy life as we know it oil production must increase.  This, however, is not going to happen, even if we could get all the oil out from under the Arctic (now the ice has melted), or from tar sands or shale oil deposits. These hard to reach, hard to extract unconventional or tight oils are expensive to extract requiring a higher price before they are profitable – the same high price that is holding back the world economy today (see this short 2-3 minutes clip from the Post Carbon Institute). It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if it takes almost as much energy to extract the stuff relative to its calorific value then there’s little point in extracting it at all, even if there is a 100 years left. Besides, even if we could effortlessly extract all the remaining oil we would be sowing the seeds of our own destruction as the CO2 released when we used it would send us well past the tipping point (this excellent 11 minute animation explains Tipping Points very well).

Economic System

But it is way more complicated than that too. Because interconnected with peak oil and climate change is the world’s economic system which has grown rather alarmingly over the last 80 years. And, now that we have reached the physical limits to growth (peak oil), the financial world is beginning to crack.

Unfortunately our financial World has been built to expand, like a balloon – always seeking to better itself, to increase its net worth. But from time to time the bubble bursts, for example the Great Depression of the 1930’s, or the South Seas Bubble of 1711-20, where stocks in the South Seas Trading Company went from £1,000 to nothing and a once great trading empire was obliterated. Trouble is this time the balloon is bigger, it’s global and most of the 7 billion people in the world rely on it – whether they know it or not. Because of the intricacies of our financial systems this expansion occurs with ever increasing amounts of debt. Here’s an easy to follow 12 minute animated film on the subject – What the Economic Crisis Really Means  – It’s compulsory viewing!!

Just for interest the UK’s mounting debt problem is a little over £1.13 trillion and climbing possible to £1.5 trillion by 2016. The annual interest paid on that debt is around £45 billion; more than the country currently spends on ‘defence’. That’s £17,794 for every man, woman and child in the country; that’s just the UK! (In the USA it’s $15.5 trillion and in Japan it’s $11.1 trillion (converted US dollar). In the whole world it’s $150 trillion!) This week Moody’s downgraded the UKs AAA credit rating. Another symptom of the bubble bursting. But our economy still appears to be growing because the FTSE100 shares index (a measure of our economic success) has this week (27/02/13) risen to 6275 from a low last June of 5290 (a rise of just under 19%). It has climbed throughout a double dip recession and we may well enter a triple dip recession come April. How is that possible? Where does the confidence in the economy come from when we’ve been bumping along at or around zero growth for the past three years? That’s where quantitative easing comes in. By buying it’s own debt, in the form of bonds, the government has artificially propped up the stock market.

The bubble is bursting (see this article on deflation in the EU) and as it does our societies will struggle to maintain the status quo – it forces the question how soon will life as we know it change? Look to Greece, Spain, Cyprus and other EU peripheral countries, to see where we might be headed.

We, along with many others have started to think of how we can exist more simply for our own well being and hopefully for the greater good of future generations.

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