I am getting great mileage out of my Freeplay wind-up/solar radio these days, and it makes a great companion even in the garden. I had a visit from Klaus, a permaculture student and member of Transition Towns Kinsale, who was giving me a hand.

Although I have complained that just because it is solar the actual content on the radio hasn’t improved, Friday’s edition of the Today FM radio news programme Five Seven Live had so much of interest that we were quite enthralled as we sowed some beetroot and Swiss chard.

First, there was a discussion of food miles, embodied energy and the limitations of organic agriculture- the point being made that organic methods produce less food per hectare and rely more heavily on farm machinery and refrigeration, so may not necessarily have less carbon-per-dinner; then there was Bono and Geldorf at the G8 decrying the failure of the “World Leaders” to deliver on debt relief to Africa.

The main news item was the Greens failing to make a deal to go into government with Fianna Fail after six days of negotiations (the stumbling blocks being a few minor issues such as health, education, use of Shannon by US war planes, the continual destruction of Ireland’s unique heritage to make way for more motorways guaranteeing the continual increase in oil-dependency just in time for The Last Oil Shock…).

And then, just when we thought it was safe to start chatting again, our ears were pricked up by the words “peak oil”. It took me a few minutes to realize that the interviewee was none other than journalist and film-maker David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Crash which I have been due review. At the end of the interview, Strahan was asked if this was too big an issue for ordinary people to do anything about. He said, no, a great example of what could be done was the Transition Towns movement as in Kinsale and Totnes, where ordinary people were taking the issue into their own hands and preparing to powerdown their whole towns and communities.

I had a surreal feeling that we were suddenly going to appear on the radio ourselves-

In fact, here is Klaus from the Transition Towns Kinsale Committee, who is sowing seeds in the Zone5 garden as we speak…

The feeling grew as the interviewer asked about the likely effects of Peak oil on our economies in a slightly incredulous voice before reverting to the usual ads invoking us to buy more stuff.

There is something very strange about listening to the mainstream media, even on a solar radio, covering such weighty topics as the potential Collapse of Civilisation and hearing someone as confident and erudite as Strahan explain just how deeply dependent we are on supplies of fuels that will become increasingly unreliable over the next few years. It seems eerily at odds with 99% of the media content.

Book Review:
The Last Oil Shock- A Survival guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
by David Strahan
292pp John Murray 2007

Strahan has produced a thoroughly researched and compelling book to add to the growing pile of publications on the coming energy crises, one of the best I think since Heinberg’s The Party’s Over. The most important and original part of the book comes in the first chapter entitled “Sources in Washington”. Strahan presents evidence based on documents he has recently gained access to through the Freedom of Information Act proving clearly what many have suspected for a long time: Bush and Blair invaded Iraq not just simply “to get the oil”, but as a direct response to knowledge of impending oil peak.

The idea seems to have been to prise Iraq and the wider Middle East for western investment- not only for the sake of profit, but in order to raise oil production.

The invasion was not just ‘all about oil’; it was about peak oil.

Once again, to hear this described on national radio seems very significant- it has always been puzzling to me how even in those sections of the media that have been very critical of the invasion, refuting in great detail the WMD fiasco, there has hardly ever been any questioning of “Why DID they invade, then?” and even if there is some mention of oil, no apparent awareness of Peak. ( A year after the invasion, The London Independent carried 10 full pages discrediting the official WMD story, with no mention anywhere of what what the real reason might have been. )

In common with what you would expect from the genre, Strahan gives a thorough account of the history of the oil industry, and a fascinating section on the life of M.K. Hubbert, clearly a remarkable man, and the official unacceptability of his message during the Kennedy era when Americans were being promised a man on the moon. The murky world of official reserve estimates is delved into and the more pessimistic projections from Campbell et al compared, claiming that apart from the clearly inaccurate forcastings of the US Geological Survey, based on faulty data, other assessments are so close as to provide a near-consensus of Peak before 2020.

Strahan describes in detail just how dependent on fossil fuels modern economies have become for everything from heating and transport to, most significantly, food, and the critical impact this has had on human population growth:

So it is very well for economists to sneer that Malthus has been continually proved wrong by human ingenuity. Ingenious we may be, but for the last century our single big idea has been petroleum, on which we now depend utterly for industrial materials, almost all our transport, and critically for food; every calorie you consume takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce. And now our big idea is no longer big enough, we are forced to adopt the next best alternatives, which all come with stringent conditions attached. the sources that are abundant and energy dense such as coal have the potential to devastate the climate and life on earth. The sources that are renewable and clean are so diffuse as to make the job of replacing oil truly monumental. It is going to get a whole lot harder to keep proving Malthus wrong.

Strahan pulls no punches in alerting us to just how precarious and vulnerable our situation is, pointing out at the beginning of the ironically titled chapter “Interesting Times” that the global crises could have been precipitated by a single suicide bombing attempt on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia in 2006, and describes how the shock waves from peak oil will travel throughout the whole economy, and also its likely effects on global politics:

Russia, quite unexpectedly, turns out to have won the Cold War. It may have been forced to ditch its Soviet ideology, but of the three blocs, Russia alone has both the nuclear weapons and the oil and gas. China and the West, by contrast, are now competing supplicants for Russian resources, giving enormous power to Moscow.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Strahan is able to marshal to support his case, the officials in Whitehall and Washington are keeping the truth from the public at large who still seem all-too-easily lulled into the complacency of the “official ” version of events, that oil may not peak until 2037 or later, and that renewables and alternatives are being developed that will save the economy.

What is to be done? The last two chapters outline quite clear recommendations both for policy makers and individuals to reduce fossil dependency and prepare for energy shortages. These include the radical suggestion that governments should “scrap all airport and road network expansion forthwith; there will be plenty of spare capacity soon enough”. He also calls for, in the UK, the formation of a new “Department for Energy and Climate change” with a cabinet-ranking Energy Secretary, with the remit to achieve “complete independence from hydrocarbons by 2030, by expanding renewable supply where environmentally acceptable and managing demand as necessary”.

This is an ambitious goal, but Strahan does not go into as much detail as, for example, George Monbiot does in “Heat” to explain exactly how this can be achieved. Part of his mix includes a commitment to “one more generation of nuclear”, as he finds the anti-nuclear lobby to take “a curious position, which acknowledges that we face a huge energy deficit, but proposes to make it bigger anyway.”

In this, I find Strahan ultimately fails to address the deeper implications of global energy peak, and the reality that we have to dramatically change lifestyles and the whole ethic of our culture if we are to move into a more sustainable future. For me, the nuclear option is really just grasping at straws in a vain attempt to try to keep an unsustainable culture going for a little bit longer. I don’t feel that the Powerdown Alternative- not just “consume less” but the strategic re-positioning of society to prepare for energy descent- has been thoroughly examined. Imagine what could be achieved if the resources being ear-marked for a new generation of nuclear were to go into localisation programs, education, re-skilling for a low-energy world, etc. Nuclear power will of necessity depend on centralised systems of a massive scale which will be increasingly be inappropriate for the future after peak, requiring lengthy lead-in times and a willingness to leave clearing up the waste to future generations who may have other issues to deal with by then.

Strahan accepts that the three-pronged supply-side policy of nuclear, renewables and efficiency will not be sufficient, and does explore Tradeable Energy Quotas and other schemes designed to lead to cut backs in consumption while at the same time helping to redistribute wealth.

The Last Oil Shock is another powerful voice in the peak oil debate and sets a new standard in investigative journalism for the issue. Perhaps Strahan’s comments on the radio last week concerning Transition Towns suggests that he to is coming round to the idea that communities will have to learn themselves to adapt to the extinction of Petroleum Man.