What happens when the oil runs out?

Posted on: 20 October 2010 by Michael Wale

We are over reliant on fossil fuels, particularly oil. The black stuff is at the heart of our industry and our way of and the economy is inexorably tied to its availability.

oik wellsRichard Heinberg has a question for the world: “What will we eat when the oil runs out?” As a leading academic and oil analyst he does not deal in doom - only fact.

“Our global food system faces a crisis of unprecedented scope," he argues. "This crisis, which threatens to imperil the lives of hundreds of millions and possibly billions of human beings, consists of four simultaneously colliding dilemmas, all arising from our relatively recent pattern of dependence on depleting fossil fuels.”

We met in a room overlooking London’s Lincolns’ Inn before he was due to give the Soil Association staged Lady Eve Balfour annual lecture at Westminster’s Central Hall. Eve Balfour was one of the founder’s of the Soil Association just after the Second World War.

A relaxed Heinberg told me about a brilliant young farmer from Zambia whom he met at United Nations a few weeks ago, who is re-introducing organics in her country

"She told me that the farmers there were growing more crops for bio diesel rather than food because countries like Britain are mandating the growth of bio fuels. We can produce these bio fuels in Britain and the United states but the crops from which you make bio fuels grow better in tropical countries. Tropical countries will face more food shortages. We could see millions of people starving just to supply the richer countries with the fuel to drive their cars.”

He warned continually during our conversation about the decision to grow crops for bio fuels, instead of finding natural alternative like electricity that could be provided by wind turbines. Already 40 per cent of Denmark’s power comes from wind farms, and much the same is happening in Holland. But Britain is dragging its feet and not facing up to the point when the provision of oil reaches its peak and begins to decrease. Already its record price has raised both the cost of living through rising food costs and the cost of animal feedstuffs.

Returning to his point of the four dilemmas, Richard Heinberg explained that the first was the direct impact of higher oil prices on increased costs for tractor fuel, agricultural chemicals, and the transport of inputs and outputs. This in turn increases demand for bio fuels because of the surging price of oil, resulting in farmland being turned from food production to fuel production.

The third is the impact of climate change and extreme weather events caused by fuel-based greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change and fossil fuel depletion are the central crises of our time

Finally comes the degradation or loss of basic natural resources (topsoil and fresh water supplies) as a result of high rates, and unsustainable methods of production stimulated by decades of cheap energy.

As a solution the world’s reliance of an ever price increasing supply of oil and fossil fuels, Heinberg argues that there must be agricultural reform. He backs the removal of using all fossil fuels from agriculture and concentrating on organic farming in its various forms. He wants a reduction or elimination of reliance on mechanized farm equipment. All the methods rely upon an increase in human labour. He admits that critics of organic growing have always argued that chemical free and less mechanized forms of food production are incapable of feeding a burgeoning population. But he argues that the latest research shows that organic methods can actually increase production in developing countries.

He suggests the rest of the world take a close look at Cuba, where in the late 1980’s farmers were highly reliant on cheap fuel and petrochemicals from Russia. In 1990 as the Soviet empire collapsed, Cuba lost those imports and faced an agricultural crisis. The average Cuban lost 20lbs in weight and malnutrition was nearly universal. Several agronomists in Cuban universities had argued for a transition to organic methods. The Cuban authorities took their advice, broke up large State owned farms, giving them to small family farmers, encouraged farming co-ops, and brought in oxen to replace tractors. The Government introduced widespread organic education, many people adopted vegetarianism. Today food production in Cuba has returned to 90 per cent of pre-crisis levels.

“If the rest of the world does not plan for a reduction in fossil fuel use in agriculture, its post-peak-oil agricultural transition may be far less successful than was Cuba’s,” Heinberg warns.

I guarantee Richard Heinberg latest book, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Decline in Earth's Resources, will change your outlook on our future, and what actaully needs to be done.The book is published by Clairview Books and costs £11.99 from all good bookshops. Alternatively you can purchase it from Amazon for £8.39

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