Saturday, September 28, 2013

How Many Energy Slaves?

Sometimes life is a bit of a blur. I have good intentions to write a blog post a week but what with moving house, working on my woodland, doing freelance work and having kids I have been struggling of late. Anyone who has been following the electronic scribblings on these pages for the last three years or so might have noticed that I started off unfocused, writing mainly about random stuff, went through a period of writing focused relevant articles that even got aggregated by other sites, and have now come full circle and started writing randomly again. 

Apologies! My only excuse is that, in the great scheme of things, writing a blog for free comes fairly low down in the pecking order all things considered, when other things jostle their way to the front of the queue. Nevertheless, now that the heat of summer has dissipated and the cool September sea mists have begun to roll in off the Atlantic it is perhaps easier to be more reflective and calm again, which is the state of mind needed to effect any kind of lucid communication in this day and age.

That said, this week’s post is more of a news roundup than a fully rounded piece. You know how it is, you get an idea and think I must write  something about that, but before you do something new turns up and you add it to the mental pile. Before you know it, you’ve got a kebab skewer of ideas for a blog post and no idea which piece you should bite into first. So, without further ado, I’l dish out the chunks of fried meat, one morsel at a time.

Most people, when they move to Cornwall and drop out of mainstream society become impressionist artists, soapmakers, carpenters or, ahem, woodlanders. Not so Chris Abbot, whom I have come to know via the local Transition Penwith group. No, instead of setting up a little shop selling curios to tourists, or carving mushrooms out of logs, Chris decided to set up his own intelligence agency. 

He says it is the ‘world’s first civil society intelligence agency’ and it’s run from a small building down here at the tip of England. Okay, so Open Briefing hasn’t exactly got the CIA isn’t quaking in its boots just yet, but with several analysts with backgrounds in intelligence on the staff rostrum, it’s not a bad source of unbiased information about how our civil liberties are being systematically stripped away. Did I say unbiased? Well, of course it isn’t - it’s biased towards ordinary folk, rather than the military industrial complex.

I saw Chris last week when he popped around to pick up some citrus trees I had brought back from Spain. He looked tired and said he had been working hard on new report about drones. That report, entitled Remote Control War: Unmanned combat air vehicles in China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey has now been released. 

Read it here (or a summary here) but don’t expect it to put you in a good mood. 


Yesterday saw the release of the IPCC’s report on climate change. There were not any real surprises in there, and if anything it has been toned down substantially so as not to rock the boat too much. I gave up hope in governments doing anything to tackle AGW several years ago when I was at the Copenhagen COP15 Climate Conference. It is now starkly clear that we either leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground, or we sign the death warrant of most human civilisations

The message seems to be getting through in some quarters, with most UK newspapers reporting on it as their main item. My jaw hit the floor however when I read the Daily Telegraph - the go-to newspaper for aggressive climate science denialists - write an article with the following:

It is surely past time, therefore, to take matters out of the hands of the zealots – on both sides. No one can deny that mankind is pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates, or that this will inevitably have a warming effect on the climate (the reason for the current “pause”, scientists believe, is that the heat has been stored up in the deep oceans, as part of a natural cycle).

Did my eyes deceive me? Had I actually just read that? An anguished howl immediately went up from the rabid, frothing at the mouth climate science deniers in the comments section. 

Today, however, there is no mention of the IPCC report on The Telegraph. Perhaps the editors got a call from the tax-avoiding, big oil protecting, independent media bashing, liberal hating Barclay brothers ... who happen to own The Telegraph.


Still on the climate, the report states clearly that we are on course for a +5C warming by the end of the century on a business as usual (BUA) basis. BAU, in my opinion, won’t happen due to resource constraints, but assuming we can continue to plunder every gram of carbon based fuel from the Earth’s crust we will. 

Who’s to blame? All of us, of course. Some more than others. In fact, some a lot more than others. But blame isn’t a particularly useful response. To that end I’ve decided to plant 500 trees a year and have already started. This is happening on my land at Fox Wood, with 500 acorns due to be popped into soil-filled bags in a couple of weeks. I’ll be writing more about it on that blog in due course.


In other developments, I have long been threatening to write a book. That threat is now starting to be put into effect. I don’t know how long it will take me but I already have an idea, chapter by chapter, how it will pan out. In writing a book about the end of our industrial society one faces several challenging questions, such as:

Who is it for?
To what level of depth do I go into?
To what extent should it be empirical and full of references to statistics?
Should it be ‘a good read’ (i.e. with splashes of humour) or should it be po-faced?
Should it be self-published or should I seek a publisher?

I have managed to answer a few of those questions myself. The book, primarily, will be aimed at people in over-developed countries, and there will be a particular focus on Britain. After all, that’s where I live and am from. Why are most peak oil authors American? It is just not on the radar over here. I have some theories as to why that is so.

The book will be a primer. I don’t intend to go into much depth about the metaphysical underpinnings of our crises, although can’t entirely avoid that. I won’t be proposing any geo-engineering solutions, perpetual energy devices or happy endings (other than at the individual level). I can promise that it will have a dose of humour, however, as I don’t seem to be able to write the kind of dry fact-dense prose which features in most other books dealing with similar subjects. 

This doesn’t mean I won’t be having a crack at the following:
  • Highlighting Cartesian/Baconian thinking as the departure point from which humanity began to get too big for its boots
  • Drowning the civil religion of progress in a bucket of cold water
  • Caricaturing the techno utopian fantasists as dangerous imbeciles
  • Standing up the the ‘bloke in the pub’ talk about nuclear fast breeder reactors and the like
  • Demolishing the myth of free market economics
On a more positive note, I’ll be focusing on what people, either as individuals, families or small communities, can do to prepare themselves for the future that is already upon us. The tentative title is When the Lights go Out: Surviving in the Age of Broken Promises.


Writing a blog about the abstract concept of the end of the age of abundance probably has its advantages, although I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Last week, however, was a bit different when 22 Billion Energy Slaves reader and doomstead diner Harry Lerwill turned up in my local tavern the Dolphin Inn. Harry had come over from California with his other half Barbara and found himself in the neighbourhood hunting for ghosts (the Dolphin has three). It was good to sink a couple of pints of Cornish ale and chat about economic collapse. Anyone else in the area feel free to drop me a line.


And finally ... how many energy slaves?

The title of this blog was gleaned from a comment made by petroleum geologist Colin Campbell. It refers to the number of human slaves equivalents we would need, working 24/7, to supply the same amount of energy that we currently get from easy oil. 

One or two people have commented that if we were to include everything else we get from fossil fuels, taking tight oil, shale gas, coal etc. into consideration, the true number would be closer to 200 Billion Energy Slaves

Alas, if I changed the title of the blog I’d probably lose a lot of links and readers. Saying that, anyone with a more mathematical bent than I is free to send in their calculations for how many energy slaves we actually would need if ALL non-renewable sources were taken into account. I would hope that it would include the reasonable assumption that slaves cannot work for more than 12 hours a day. 

I’ll send a box of Cornish fudge to whoever sends me an email (jasonhepp at gmail dot com) with the most comprehensive answer before the end of October. 

Monday, September 16, 2013


No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to my recent lack of posting on this blog - the best I can plead in this regard is that I have been very busy driving around Europe collecting my scattered belongings from previous lives - no, in fact it refers to the Channel 4 docu-drama of the same name which aired recently.

I sat down to watch it on my laptop with a mug of hot coffee and an hour and a half later I was traumatised enough to start composing this blog post on the same device. Let me explain. Blackout deals with the ‘fictional’ scenario of an electricity blackout hitting the UK. We are not really told what caused it other than it was a cyber attack by a person/organisation/state with a grudge. It’s shot in the kind of Dogme panicky first-person Blair Witch Project perspective, and apt to give you nightmares because every scenario that is depicted is eerily plausible. The acted parts are intertwined with real footage, mostly filmed during the mass riots that broke out in London and across the country two years ago. You might almost say it is prescient, but we’ll have to wait and see with that.

We get to follow the misfortunes of several people caught up in the ensuing chaos, including a twenty something brother and sister involved in a traffic accident, a mother and her young daughter who try to make an emergency dash to Sheffield and end up being at the mercy of a tagged offender (untrackable now the system has run out of power), a couple of freeloading hooligans on a rampage of shoplifting, theft and arson, and a young middle-class family in London, the father of whom just happens to be a wannabe survivalist who has a video blog which he uploads to YouTube much to his wife’s annoyance. 

The story starts with life as it is today. Everyone is shopping and travelling and social media posturing and is completely wrapped up in their own world. When the blackout strikes, there is an initial mood of hilarity - a great excuse for a party. The survivalist character is in his element, and his wife films him firing up his emergency generator and filling water bottles from the radiator system. “You look happy,” she says, to which he replies “I am.”

Alas, his happiness isn’t to last. On day two of the blackout, the smells of his preparedness barbeque attract unwanted attention from some dodgy young Asian men who invite themselves round and start asking questions about how they are coping. One of the children gives away the fact that the family owns a generator. Things get worse from then on. 

Up north somewhere, the two hell raisers start their vodka-fuelled trail of destruction as they try to get back home, stealing cars and eventually causing a huge accident with a fuel tanker. By day three anarchy has started to engulf the cities, with wide scale rioting and pitched battles with the police. David Cameron (yes, it’s very realistic, even he’s in it as himself) launches an emergency plan and fuel is trucked into key strategic locations - most of which seem to be central government offices. The hospitals are overwhelmed and losing power having got through not just the emergency backup generator, but the backup backup generator, and have now run out of fuel. The ICU equipment, which is battery powered as a last backup, slowly goes flat and the docs and nurses have to make split decisions over who to save and who to abandon. It doesn’t help that people are pouring in through the doors with carbon monoxide poisoning and burns (house fires rage out of control from people using candles).

By what must be day five or six, total despair reigns. People are either trapped in the cities, or else can’t get into them due to police roadblocks. Nobody can contact one another and the only sound from ‘the authorities’ is an Orwellian sounding radio message read out by a pleasant-sounding woman saying “We apologise for any inconvenience and are trying to restore order as soon as we can” - while the masses starve, loot and generally freak out.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some genuinely warming moments where people look out for one another. I won’t give any more away than I have done already. But the real message of this film is as simple as it is scary. The message is that the security of our modern lives is a flimsy facade and that behind it lies a rotting haunted house full of demons that the bright lights of the 21st century keeps at bay. With the flick of a switch all of the things we take for granted are gone. In a moment a middle class family can be transformed into a besieged group fighting for their very survival in their own home. Cars cease to function, money is useless, and those who took the precaution of filling up their petrol tanks can expect to get robbed for their efforts. People get sick, families erupt into firefights of blame, there are no communications, no food and no drinking water. People descend, rapidly.

This is how the programme describes itself:

Feature-length 'What-If' drama exploring the effects of a devastating cyber-attack on Britain's national electricity grid.
Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness.
The film plots the days following a nationwide power cut, as experienced by a cast of ordinary characters struggling to feed and protect themselves and their families. These eyewitness accounts reveal the disastrous impact of a prolonged blackout on hospitals, law and order, transport, and our food and water supplies.
The programme casts members of the public from user-generated footage, weaving real-life archive with scripted drama to tell the story of how Britain could descend into chaos and anarchy without power.
I dunno, what’s with all the expert advice? It’s almost as if somebody wants us to consider that the fictional scenario depicted could be a distinct possibility. Did I say could be a possibility? Bear in mind that 50% of the film is actual footage of the country erupting in violence two years ago - and the trigger for that outburst is still being debated with much head-scratching. And I like to remind people here that the UK energy regulator has been forecasting semi-controlled power outages beginning in 2015/16 for at least two years now. Jeepers, I even came up with my own fictionalised account of how it could happen several years ago.  The only factor the film missed out was what happens to the nuclear stations in the absence of an electricity grid to keep them stable. 
A friend of mine was doing a long-haul road trip through Germany and Denmark with me last week and he was telling me about living in New York during the ‘great blackout’ of 2003. “The first night was fun, with everyone having impromptu parties,” he said. “But when the second night came and there was still no power then a sense of dread began to descend. Suddenly it wasn't fun any more.” Quite. 
I’m not one to get off on doomer porn but I do have a worrying intuition about how some people will behave if there is ever a serious interruption to the nation’s electricity supply . My gut instinct is that there would be widespread anarchy in some of our larger cities for a while, although I doubt this would last once all the (now useless) plasma televisions have been looted and the rioters run out of energy due to lack of food. And the supposedly lawless inner city areas are not lawless at all and there are any number of community elders to give their wayward youths a clip round the ear (or, in some cases, a dose of Sharia law). Once the initial surge of looting, chaos and pitched battles with the police/army has burned itself out an order of sorts will be restored, especially if the power comes on again. 
I can only wonder about how the situation would be outside the large cities. Sure, there is likely to be some trouble, but there is only so much looting and arson you can get away with if everyone in the town knows who you are and where you live. Food might be a larger problem. And medical care.
Any such episode will be one of the ‘thunks’ on the downward steps of our peak energy curve, and the psychological impact of it will be long lasting. In its wake we can expect the authorities to consolidate their power, and for various political miscreants to appear out of the woodwork with ‘solutions’ to ensure that such a catastrophe doesn’t happen again. Normality will be restored, until the next time.
And a catastrophe such as a prolonged power outage would get people scared enough to agree meekly to a whole raft of measures imposed by the government to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again. We’ve gotta keep those lights on! It’s not hard, for example, to imagine people protesting against fracking being branded ‘traitors’ and arrested. First they came for the anti frackers, then they came for the anti nukes ...
Interesting times.
On a side note, I had an interesting time driving around Spain during August. I would briefly like to report that Spain is in a weird and eerie state of limbo. The south of Spain, from appearances, has never had it so good. Business is booming in the village where I used to live and everywhere is now immaculate and clean. New shops are opening up, even if there aren’t that many customers. My former neighbour’s daughter, a newly university-qualified teacher, has now been unemployed for three years and breezily says she doesn’t ever expect to find a job in this life. She’s not bothered by this, although her father grumpily confided that it would have been better if she had learned to pick olives, like him.  He’s doing great now the price of food has gone up, he says.
However, on the way back up north I found myself driving around the massive new periphery motorway that encircles Madrid. Madrid is now engulfed by huge yards the size of multiple football fields where one can pick up rusting construction equipment on the cheap. Imagine hundreds of bulldozers, diggers, cement trucks and the like all parked in long neat rows with scarcely a human in sight. I saw them in the daylight on the journey south - along with several horizon filling ‘urbanizations’ of roads laid out in the arid earth with streetlights, ragged developers’ flags and not much else. 
Okay, so it was about midnight on the way back up north, but it is a bit eerie to not see another car for over twenty minutes on a brand new highway surrounding a major first world capital city. It was a toll motorway, but all the barriers were open. I later read that the volume of traffic is now so low on the new toll routes that they lose money if they have to pay people to man the toll booths. They might simply close them. 
Further north still my GPS satnav led me to a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Almost out of fuel at 2am I discovered the station, like so many roads, had a large sign on it saying ‘cerrado’. It looked permanent. I sighed and pulled in - I had almost run out of fuel and didn’t fancy doing so in the dark. I got out and lay on the weed-broken tarmac in my sleeping bag and watched shooting stars until I fell asleep. At about 4am I was awoken by the sounds of a pack of wild dogs which seemed to be coming ever closer. I shivered and got back in the car. 
I made it to Santander on the north coast and spent most of a day there waiting for the Plymouth ferry. 99% of the vehicle traffic was British holiday makers with big SUVs and shiny new caravans with names like Ambassador and Elite. We had to wait in a large concrete compound under the hot sun, and a huge cinema-sized screen was placed at the front with Sky news on. It was a continuous loop of news all day - Let’s Bomb Syria and Michael Douglas splits from Wife - both given equal billing.
I escaped the compound and explored Santander on foot. I liked it, but it was like a city gasping for air. Every third or fourth shop seemed to be shutting down. Many of the remainders were ‘We Buy Gold’ shops, or tacky Chinese junk pop-ups. Later on we sailed away from it in the dark and it disappeared into the night on the horizon and that was that. Cocktails were served in the bar and a lousy cabaret singer from Newcastle came on and tried to be all Shirley Bassey. That’s it, my Spanish adventure over.