Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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15 Mar 2007

Peak Oil and Beyond – Q&A with Heinberg, Campbell and Leggett – Part 3.

dc**Q7. We haven’t touched on personal carbon credits, and I’m wondering – because Jeremy’s been moving in the inner circles of government, and David Milliband’s been talking about them – is this realistic, and what change can they make? I just think that if you could get everybody in to this kind of war spirit, like we all could get involved in doing this, it could actually be really encouraging. It’s a mind set and it’s a PR job.**

Ri. Is David Fleming in the room? I don’t think so. Well it’s too bad David Fleming isn’t in the room because he’s the one really to address this. I think it’s an ingenious proposal – the idea of tradable energy quotas, or carbon quotas, or petrol quotas, or whatever ways it could be administered. Because it actually uses a market mechanism in a way that supports individual behaviour, that actually makes sense. Is everyone familiar with the idea? The essential idea is that everyone would get a free quota…here we go, this is Energy and the Common Purpose, David Fleming’s booklet on the subject, which is currently being revised.

Everyone would get a quota at the beginning of the year – probably in electronic form, in the form of a credit card – and then as you purchased energy, petrol at the station, whatever, you would surrender some of these quotas. You’d still have to pay for the energy resources, whether it was gas or electricity or petrol. If you ran out before the end of the year, you’d have to purchase more quotas on the open market, and of course the price would be determined by supply and demand.

On the other hand, if you were very conservative in your use of energy, you’d have extra quotas before the end of the year and you could sell those and benefit financially, so there would be an ongoing transfer of wealth within the society, from the energy guzzlers to the energy misers, again using a market mechanism to support this kind of rational behaviour. Everyone would know that next year their quota would be smaller. So that would create the incentive for getting rid of your car, riding a bicycle, using public transportation, changing your behaviour sooner rather than later.

**Q8. The power of these sessions – someone just mentioned the words ‘common purpose’ there, and I ask the question, how familiar are you with the organisation Common Purpose, in the UK? Is anybody familiar with it? There are some people in the room. Common Purpose is an organisation in the UK that started out of their concern about the leadership in cities. It’s now spread out in to towns and villages as well, and it works by identifying the next step of leaders in cities. They work across the private sector, the public sector, and the voluntary sector. They get leaders from the police, the ambulance service, the big companies, the small companies, and they are asked to commit a weekend and a day a month for a year.**

**They go away and have a series of workshops, lectures, study groups, to come up and try to tackle the major issues in their cities. It just strikes me, that to take peak oil to Common Purpose might be a really good way of getting this message in to the key places. That is something that was triggered by someone talking about common purpose. I do have a question of my own. Sitting listening to the presentations yesterday, I spent eight years working in Manchester, and was there grappling with the challenges faced…that city and all the other industrial cities in Britain, and across the world suffered, after the collapse of the industrial revolution.**

**What was so interesting about Manchester was, if you look at the facts – the growth of the cotton industry and cotton production, which started in the 18th century – it was a continuous climb of production, despite major recessions in the ‘20’s, ‘30’s, last stretch of the 19th century etc. Production was continuous steep climb for 200 years, and it collapsed in 10. And I think you’ll find that the cities who’ve had to grapple with those challenges, will be much more receptive to actually now start to plan ahead and be receptive to the challenges of peak oil. So the question I ask – are there lessons and parallels to be learnt from that history?**

Ri. Good comment.

**Q9. My name’s James Norman, I’m a farmer. I’m particularly interested in energy. All this is to do with the national and global picture – my particular interest is to do with the energy economics and energy balances at the farming level, because I’m not convinced that the strength of organic farming to produce food in a low energy way has been recognised, even at this conference, which is where the greatest expertise on that subject has been gathered. For this purpose, I’ve worked out my energy needs for all purposes on the farm, including inputs, although I don’t use any external energy input really at all. This comes to about 24 litres per ton of grain produced – I produce grain, at 24 litres of oil per ton, virtually zero for that amount. This means – I worked this out more or less – I should be able to run the farm using 12% of my arable area, or 6% of the total area, growing my own bio fuel.**

**I’m not suggesting this is a general argument for growing bio fuel, I’m suggesting that properly run organic farming is sufficiently energy efficient to be able to have a massive net positive energy balance – in other words it can be self sufficient in energy while still producing, in my case, something like 90% of the food I currently produce. So, I’m not convinced that we need to… this doesn’t mean that we then need to localise food supplies and to engage more people in agriculture and to produce a lot more veg close to where it’s used and that sort of thing. All those arguments are desirable, but the mainstream production – for example, grain and livestock – providing it’s done organically, I think it can be done with energy produced on the farm itself. I’m happy to back up those figures with details if anyone needs them.**

Ri. Well that’s why we’re having this discussion about peak oil at a conference of organic farmers, because they’re the people that have the solutions really. This kind of energy analysis needs to be carried forward more broadly, and with considerable rigour, because the argument needs to be made widely and loudly, that this is the direction agriculture needs to go in, because globally it’s not the direction that agriculture is going…organics are growing, let’s say in the US, by a pretty substantial margin every year, but, for example, Monsanto corporation…before I was writing about peak oil I was writing primarily about genetic engineering and food crops, and I sort of shifted my attention away from that, and then I was brought up short a few weeks ago when I was talking to a friend who actually follows Monsanto as a corporation and how the stock is doing and so on…its stock has doubled, and doubled, and doubled again, over the last ten years.

The general trend in agriculture still is towards centralisation of production of seeds as well as products, further intensification and so on. So the arguments that we’re making here…it may seem as though we’re preaching to the choir in a sense, but I hope we’re in a sense at a gathering of preachers, training the preachers to go forth and give this message about the direction that agriculture desperately needs to go, to a wider audience, and to add impulse as an underscore to the argument.

R. Certainly, the publication that we’re editing that will come out a month or two after this conference, the One Planet Agriculture handbook, will have a balance of looking at what is best practice already within organic farming, and moving beyond that in to distribution and much wider than that, but it definitely acknowledges the good practice that’s already in place…

**Q10. Just on that…as an organic farmer – the gentleman was saying that organic farming can grow its own fuel – as an organic farmer, we need to rotate our fields, and our arable land used to have… we need to have four years of grass and clover before you can go back and plough up for your cereals, and there’s great tracts through the East of England where’s there’s no animals and no grass producing the nation’s cereals…so you’ve got to be careful with organic farming – the country can just turn to organic farming, whole tracts of land which are just growing cereals have to go down to grass, you can utilise that grass to feed more animals… and so it’s not a clear cut message. It’s not easy for organic farming to feed this country the way it is at the moment, from my perspective, because we need four years of grassland where at the moment there’s complete cereals year on year. You might like to respond to that…**

**Q9. I’m not sure whether I’d like to or not! I recognise the answer that the panel gave, which is that organic farming is not being taken up fast enough, and we have to get the message out that organic farming has solutions to these problems. But the point I’m making here, is that I’m not sure it’s recognised within organic farming just how good these solutions are…there’s only been a very limited amount of work done on energy use within organic systems in comparison to conventional systems, and I’m not convinced that we’ve identified best practice – you were saying there’s something on this – within organic farming.**

**I’m saying that this is the solution, and we have to identify that for ourselves first, before we can get the message out to a wider audience. At the moment there is still…the article in The Economist in December put the cat among the pigeons as far as the direction they’re trying to go, a fake professor at Edinburgh suggested that organic farming is actually less energy efficient than conventional farming. This kind of nonsense is still in the public arena, and I’m offering my farm and am prepared to contribute to work to prove that this is not the case…**

**Q11. I’m an organic dairy farmer in Pembrokeshire. I was just pondering your comments, Richard, about the need for land reform, and wondering actually if that was the way forward. I appreciate the comments from yesterday that we need more farmers on our land, and more people to concentrate on food production, but was it the way forward just to reform land ownership? So I’ve been working out in my mind what I thought could happen, and I’ve been to Poland in the eighties and seen the large cooperatives which were failing because nobody had a sense of ownership who worked there.**

**At the same time there were thousands upon thousands of little farms of a hectare a piece which fed the family, but couldn’t feed anybody else in the system. So trying to look at the way forward… farmers are, it may be a contradiction in terms but we’re asked to be more efficient, economies of scale are always quoted to us, hence I’m farming with my neighbour – we pooled our cows, working from one milking parlour to save energy costs that way, and I know other farmers have copied that in our area, but to land reform I thought, well perhaps we ought to go the way some progressive farmers are going, in New Zealand, in mid West America, where they’re creating equity partnerships.**

**Now these tend to be farmers buying up large farms, putting on their manager who would be a farmer, and they’re very profitable I understand. But perhaps, if we can educate the public as to what’s going on with peak oil, we can get people buying shares who are non farmers, but they buy equity shares in farms, large farms. Then if we say, perhaps we want local production – can we have local people buying local land? I don’t know if it’ll work, I think it’s a long way off, but perhaps that’s one way forward. To sell shares – I can’t see it happening on the stock market, but if there were literally land for food, in the future, sales? And finally I just thought, perhaps we all should just look at the Amish as a model, because that seems to be the way forward, or one way.**

Ri. Good comment. As I think was talked about a bit yesterday – we also need more urban farming, more food production in the cities and close to cities. In those cases, very often, there are urban lots or areas that are either owned by the city or by land speculators, and we need to find ways to make those bits of land available to people with the skills and the incentive to produce food. And that’s actually one of the strategies that Oakland is contemplating, as it looks at how it can actually produce 30% of its food by 2020.

**Q12. I’m from Organics into Wales. Talking about the performance of organic farms, I thought I should let you know about two projects I’m working on. One is a DEFRA funded project, which is environmental bench marking for organic farming systems. This is through the organic research centre at Elm Farm. That’s a rather heavy program – it takes a lot of datae collection and its hard work persuading farmers to take part, but I hope at the end of that to have a protocol, whereby if farmers are interested we can do the energy balances.**

**But it’s also for looking at socio-economic, and other sustainability issues. I’m very happy to talk to anybody who’d like to, about that. The other one is the one I call my light and fluffy. I did financial bench marking in farms, and its remarkably difficult to get people to even do that, when you’d think they’d really need to know their cost of production. I thought this environmental bench marking was asking so much that we needed to start right at the other end. So I’ve got with me some questionnaires, which are intended just to start people thinking. They ask questions regarding all branches of sustainability, and includes things like, ‘Do you take a holiday every year?’, and ‘How happy are you with your work/play balance?’, and that kind of thing which is intended to start people thinking.**

**That’s going to go on the web, and then people will be able to look at their answers and see how they are as a dairy farmer compared with a non-organic dairy farmer, or a beef and sheep farmer, or grower. And that, without telling them ‘bench marking’, that will start, I hope, people thinking about how they’re doing compared with other people. And then hopefully we can wean them on to doing the real work of keeping the records, so they can see what they’re doing, and how they compare with other farmers, and try and aspire to improve their sustainability. It’s going to be www.(fitforourfuture?), but it won’t be there till March. But if anybody would like to fill it in, I have to have a population on the database before it goes live, so if any organic farmers here would like to fill it in, then we can put them on and they’ll be the first people to go live – something to compare the work with.**

Ri. I just thought of a metaphor which may seem a bit off the wall, but here goes anyway…I play the violin, and I have many friends who are professional violinists, so I sort of think in those terms a bit, and there have been some studies of job satisfaction among string players. It turns out that orchestral violinists have among the lowest rates of job satisfaction of people in any kind of artistic endeavour, it’s just terrible. People I know who are professional string players in orchestras typify this – they’re always grousing and complaining about a conductor in the first chair, concert master…and yet violinists or string players in general who play chamber music, who play in professional string quartets or whatever, have among the highest rates of job satisfaction.

Here are people doing exactly the same thing – from any objective standpoint they’re playing the violin…so I wonder if the same thing could be true of farmers. It would depend on how the situation is set up – how much autonomy one has, how much of a sense of community one has with others as to how much job satisfaction, work satisfaction one has. So I think it bares some thought.

**Q13. I’m from Yeo Valley Organics. Just to follow up on Sue’s comment about the importance of having data about energy usage on farms, because DEFRA – I don’t know if anybody has seen this – DEFRA, a month ago, published a report called The Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption, and it’s done by Manchester Business School. This isn’t the whole thing because I couldn’t print out all 180 pages of it. But what it says, for example, on organic milk: ‘Organic milk production appears to require less energy input, but much more land than conventional production. Whilst eliminating pesticide use, it also gives rise to higher emissions of green house gasses, acid gasses and neutrifying substances per unit of milk produced.’**

**Neutrifying substances apparently is stuff going in to water filters. So this is DEFRA’s latest information, which strikes back at the issue of are our authorities getting the right information and acting on it? And if that’s what they’re reading, then no. And across organic farming in total…I’ll just read one more sentence. It says: ‘There is no clear cut answer to the question – which trolley has the lower environmental impact, the organic one or the conventional one?’ This is DEFRA! We should be waking up to this stuff!**

**Q14. I’m Tracy Worcester, I’m a campaigner. I just thought maybe having these speakers here for an organic farmer audience, was to actually enforce the Soil Association’s local food activities, because just like that report says, organic food has a huge food mile input, or whatever you call it, because the food is coming in at 80% from abroad. Many of the organic farms are pretty similar in the way that they’re farmed, and surely the way that we’re trying to go perhaps, is to get away from the supermarkets, and provide for the farmers markets, and sort of revitalise peoples’ distrust in organic from god knows where, and to reconnect with the local farmer.**

**And thereby giving more livelihoods to British, local, small scale farming systems, which I would say are far more ecological than the big, and let’s make more room…it’s not just about land reform, which I think is important. It’s first of all about making small scale farming viable from the bottom up, i.e., people going to the local shop and buying the local food, and coming away from the supermarkets.**

Ri. Any questions about peak oil? We have some pretty heavy hitters here in terms of knowledge on that subject so…

**Q15. Sorry, this is not one about peak oil! I’m interested to know, does anybody on the panel have any view point on immigration policy? For obvious reasons…this government has taken the view that it’s much better to let the accession states have easy access here, whereas I think France, Germany, Italy and some of the others have put restrictions on labour movement, or rights certainly from people coming from those accession states.**

**By all the estimates I think any of the presentations made yesterday, the number of people required to work in farms, to feed the world, has got to increase dramatically. And yet even with the most adventurous forms of recruitment, it doesn’t seem likely that you’re going to find an indigenous group to manage that. And therefore it would seem quite interesting to look at how the Soil Association could perhaps persuade government to be a little bit more imaginative in its immigration policy, and effectively, look at knowledge transfer from…we saw the Cuban example, and there are also many others like that.**

Ri. Interesting proposition! Immigration in my country is a politically very difficult question to address, and I’m not sure it’s as difficult here, but in the US, to even start talking about the subject, you might as well just paint a target on your forehead! Enough said.

J. Well that’s ok because it’s not at all controversial in the UK! I’m really regretting getting out of the audience here, because I’ve been sitting here taking… this is the first time I’ve been on one where I’ve been taking notes about things that I haven’t heard before, and learning. But not being a politician, I’m allowed to say, am I not, that I don’t know on this one, I really don’t. I think obviously it’s going to be…hopefully not literally, but possibly literally, a battle ground. The fascists are mobilising fast on this.

18% of us, the British people, say that we would be prepared to vote fascist, the BNP. Of course they dress it up as something else, but that’s ultimately their objective. And this is there, pretty much, single, unifying issue. So you’ve got that on one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, you have completely free immigration, and the fact that bathrooms would not be decorated in London if we did not have a very high level of immigration from Eastern Europe at the moment…so I’m dodging the question – somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, just as we had to grab the political land mine of land reform, and somehow untangle it if we’re going to fashion a survivable, sustainable solution to peak oil, so we will have to come to some sort of rapprochement on the issue of immigration.

Categories: Energy, Food, Peak Oil, Population