Transition Culture

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

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28 Apr 2008

The Art of Falling Apart: do we ever learn from our mistakes? (Grangemouth, peak oil and catastrophic hard drive failures)…

blackOur personal lives can sometimes imitate what is happening in the wider world to an alarming extent. On Friday morning I sat down at my computer to write you a very amusing piece about olive oil (which you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for…), only to find that my computer had seized up, and refused to start. The Microsoft Windows Screen of Death (left) loomed large. I dashed to my local computer repair man, whose first question, on noting the symptoms, was “have you got everything backed up?” Ah. Hum.

Now this is an interesting question. I did do a back up once, about 7 months ago, after I nearly lost all my data before, due, similarly, to a damaged hard drive (I get through them…). I had spent the intervening 7 months thinking “I must back up all my data”, but never quite getting round to it. My answer to his question therefore was a hesitant, dejected and somewhat guilty “no”.

He disappeared into his computer fixing lab and returned 10 minutes later like a doctor with a clipboard and a grim face to tell me that it looked very much as though I had lost everything, that the hard drive was irretrievably damaged, and that there was no hope. This was a major disaster.

Family photos, reports, articles and so on, all gone just like that. Then he said there was one possible way of trying to get the data off, but it rarely worked, and if you tried it and it didn’t work then that was it. I had nothing to lose at this stage, so he tried.

Amazingly, miraculously, it worked. Slowly, a file at a time, the data started to be dragged back from oblivion. It was like a near death experience, like a voice saying “come away from the light, you still have living to do!”, or somesuch. I still needed a new harddrive, but thankfully I still have my photos and so on, despite their almost having slipped out of the grasp of my fingertips, gone forever, I have them again, safe. It was a very stressful and highly salutary experience.

gmWhile I was sitting, sweating and kicking myself in a small computer shop in Ashburton, workers at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland were voting as to whether they should strike over their pension rights or not. Grangemouth receives more than 700,000 barrels of crude oil from North Sea every day which comes to it through the Forties oil pipeline in the North Sea, comprising one-third of the UK’s oil supply. Grangemouth then refines this oil into a range of products, the most abundant, and the most relevant to this story being petrol, diesel and aviation fuel (Euan Mearns at Oil Drum Europe’s excellent overview of Grangemouth can be seen here).

The strike means that, for safety reasons, the plant has now closed, and once closed, it will take more than 3 weeks to get it operational again. According to the Independent, this could cost the country £50 million a day, although Mearns puts the figure closer to £90 million. The price of oil surged to nearly $120 a barrel, another record, in response. UK Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks, admitted that the Government couldn’t guarantee that oil supplies to the UK would remain uninterrupted.

“I hope the vast majority of people are sensible about this. They might have to be patient. People will have to be sensible and rational”.

By Friday evening, reports were coming in of long queues at petrol stations in Scotland, and on Saturday morning, there were even longer than usual queues here in Totnes, the other end of the country. By Sunday, the pipeline had been closed down, and the Government had swung into action, with imports of substitute fuel being brought in from a range of places. It appears that the UK is on the verge of an interesting couple of weeks. Chances are the disruptions won’t last for long, it is not a long-term supply challenge, but it could well be a very difficult few weeks, with rising prices both on the international markets and at the pump, panic buying, and the possibility of disruptions to industry (the pipeline also supplies gas), in spite of reassurances that there is plenty of fuel provided people don’t panic buy.

ghHowever, this was not the only warning sign on the oil front last week. It was a week with deep implications for the UK’s energy security, things moving far faster internationally than many had expected. Firstly, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Reuters that the reason for Saudi not increasing its oil supply for many months now is not, as many have long suspected, because actually they can’t, but because they have decided to leave it in the ground for their grandchildren.

“When there were some new finds, I told them, ‘no, leave it in the ground, with grace from god, our children need it”.

Great news for Saudi grandchildren, terrible news for the wider world with its extreme thirst for oil and a rapidly decreasing range of places to get it from.

Then the news began to emerge that it also looks rather as though Russian oil production, currently outstripping that of Saudi Arabia, appears to also have peaked. The world’s two greatest oil producers, in effect, telling the world that if they want to see increases in production, they can no longer look to them. In terms of liquid fuels this, along with the Grangemouth crisis, was as clear a message as the UK could wish for that it is still perilously reliant on the unreliable, that any sense that there was nothing to fear in terms of supply is a certainty based on foundations of sand.

Then Norway, from whom the UK obtains about 20% of its natural gas, began to make it clear that any increases in UK demand would not be coming from Norway. A sobering article in the Observer included the following;

“…Executive vice president Thor Otto Lohne of Norwegian pipeline company Gassco said that long-term contracts to supply mainland Europe meant the UK could not always rely on Norwegian gas exports, regardless of the price we were prepared to pay. ‘The UK is a secondary priority. Like it or not, that is a fact,’ he said.”

If any final insights were needed, Fatih Birol of the IEA told the Journal of the German Council on Foreign Relations;

“one day it (oil) will definitely come to an end and I think we should leave oil before it leaves us. This should be our motto. We sounded the alarm bells in Nov. 2007 and this Nov. with (this year’s World Economic Outlook report) the bells may well shrill much louder. … It is up to the governments, we have warned them”.

Of course in 2000 the UK had a warning, with the lorry drivers’ strike which revealed that the UK was perilously reliant on just-in-time food supplies and on cheap fuel. It focused the mind for a short time, and then life went back to normal. My first near-loss of data didn’t actually lead to my backing up data, so the question is whether this recent episode of so, so nearly losing all my data will mean that I begin religiously backing up my files. Similarly, will this oncoming spell of potential fuel shortages, disruptions to deliveries and to industry and of record prices hasten the rebuilding of resilience in this country?

Ultimately I suppose, the question is “do we ever learn from our mistakes?” Quite clearly when it comes to data backups, I haven’t, yet. When it comes to our utter dependence on cheap liquid fuels, we’ll see. Ted Trainer puts it like this;

“If a significant petroleum crunch occurs, as is very likely, that will concentrate minds wonderfully. We are so extremely dependent on petroleum that any significant increase in scarcity or price will surely jolt people into the realisation that radically different social arrangements wil be turned to. Without petrol it will be glaringly obvious that only localised economies will make sense”.

As the price of oil rises, I find myself like a racehorse owner cheering his horse home. High oil prices are a good thing, a certain degree of disruption to supply is a good thing, as it begins to shake us out of what James Howard Kunstler calls “the consensus trance”, highlighting the fragility of our situation. This is a good time for this to happen, a good time for a trial run (as it were). We are not in the depth of winter, so some degree of fuel shortages are unlikely to be life-threatening. Let’s hope that this time, as a nation, we begin to see the need to, as it were, back up our data.

You’ll have to wait now for the olive oil post! The Art of Falling Apart is the name of a Soft Cell album which seemed appropriate here.. yes, I know, if I had a Mac they automatically back things up, don’t rub it in…

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Stephen Watson
28 Apr 8:17am

Indeed – to all that.

Yesterday on the BBC ‘Have your say’ site many people were saying “How can we allow these strikers to hold the country to ransom with their pay claims …” or something like that. I made a post asking them to think about this differently – what if this had been an explosion, fire or mechanical failure at Grangemouth? Ask yourself how we’ve created such a fragile system that a group of people can ‘hold the country to ransom’ by stopping work in a single place?

As you’ve said Rob, maybe it will give at least some people pause to ask how we’ve managed to live in this house of cards so long that it hasn’t all come down around our ears so far …

28 Apr 11:31am

It is hard to see a solution to this problem. Rob’s posting just goes to show that resilience is important, and one way to get it is to set up multiple redundant systems. They cost more, but as our ancestors knew, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. Even though the chances of failure are very low, we have so many complicated systems that one of them fails often. Because our oil and food systems are interlinked, we must set up a resilient system to avoid a domino effect when one part fails.

This is why the transition movement shouldn’t advocate doing everything locally, as bad weather, plant and animal disease or floods can destroy our local food supply. We need a balance among multiple systems, local, national and international, to get effective resilience. The problem with this is that one system will always be cheaper than the others, so it is always profitable in the short term to use the cheapest and abandon more expensive parts of the system. Does anyone know an existing effective solution to this?

28 Apr 1:42pm

Having spent years in IT and now in Permaculture, I can sympathize with both scenario #1 (hard drive failure) and scenario #2 (reactions to disruption in our petroleum fuelled world). As Rob points out in both, it sometimes takes more than one failure or disruption to motivate most people toward substantive change. The first event is perceived as an “anomoly” while the second is seen as part of a bigger problem and that action is needed, etc etc. Sometimes, however, that action is still directed at someone else rather than at making change in one’s own life or community…but…we shall see!

Sadly, here in the states, I think many people still view current spikes in fuel and food prices as the anomoly and that “someone will fix it.” Others, however, are seeing the bigger picture.

28 Apr 3:28pm

Get a memory stick. Carry it with you always. Store everything vital on it. Back the stick up to your computer’s HD (and not vice versa). Or get another stick and back up to that one.

If you store things on your hard drive, and try to remember to back it up to something else, bad things like this will keep happening.

That said, congratulations on getting your data back!

Graham Burnett
28 Apr 6:40pm

Hey Rob, if you are getting a new hard drive maybe this is a good time to quit your Windows habit as well…. see my ‘solution’ in the current Permaculture Magazine and check out

Lucy Skywalker
28 Apr 8:58pm

it’s amazing how the Open Source Internet community have really grasped the global citizenship awareness – the need and joy to do something useful, however small, but part of something big, and for everyone…

Paul Mobbs
28 Apr 10:23pm

Why not switch to free software? I used Windoze until 2001, then I just stopped because Linux is so much better. E.g.; I’d work hard on something for a few hours, get a bluescreen, and lose my thread — and have to stop. With Linux things are so reliable (it’s modular system) that I can now work until I fall off my chair.

The other thing about Linux is that my 8-year old Pentium-II network machine is fully compatible with my latest 1.7GHz Pentium 4 — with Linux/free software obsolescence isn’t an issue, so everything is usually backwardly compatible (and in fact, Linux works better on older/recycled computers).

Linux also uses around a half to 2/3rds of the energy of a Winoze system because it’s not throttling the processor at full power for most of the time. Make a big difference when running it on PV panels in the office.

29 Apr 11:25am

The Saudis should be investing their oil money in solar power stations to supply Europe with electricity, as ‘Peak Sun’ won’t happen for a while. They should start now, before the Saharan countries beat them to it.

Rob could consider backing up his data in a few places online, and avoid worrying about the OS altogether. The Net was designed to be a resilient system.

Jason Cole
29 Apr 5:08pm

“The Microsoft Windows Screen of Death (left) “

No that’s not it. It’s blue with a little bit of white text at the top – the BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death).

That aside, “will this oncoming spell of potential fuel shortages, disruptions to deliveries and to industry and of record prices hasten the rebuilding of resilience in this country?” – I think not. I was recently in South Africa, and they’re often having electricity off for 2 hours at a time; but they will still leave 100W light bulbs on at midday.

The only thing that appears to make a difference to people is visible metering.

Eoin O'Callaghan
29 Apr 7:13pm

Really good post Rob… now I am going to go and back up my hard drive and with very gentle mouse clicks!

30 Apr 4:15am

Andy lamented the tendency for the cheapest option to make all others non-viable and asked ‘does anyone know of an existing effective solution to this?’
Resilience theory (see the Resilience Alliance website) observes that in social-ecological systems the moment of greatest efficiency is also the moment of greatest brittleness. A system that is marvellous at doing one thing well under precise conditions becomes broken as soon as the conditions change. What stops the whole thing from crashing down is that the adaptive cycle is at different stages for each level of scale, and that breakages at one scale can be influenced by ongoing functionality at other scales (this influence is termed ‘panarchy’). A big problem with globalization is that it assumes one scale – the global – should govern all. So the brittleness of increasing efficiency becomes universal. The proposed solution to this is to change the management paradigm from ‘control of predictable change’ to ‘adaptability under unpredictable change’. Buzz Holling suggests the following:

“1. Encourage innovation through a rich variety of experiments and transformative approaches that probe possible directions. It is important to encourage experiments that have a low cost of failure to individuals, the environment, and careers, because many of these experiments will fail.

  1. Reduce inhibitions to change, which are common when systems get so locked up.

  2. Protect and communicate the accumulated knowledge and experience needed for change.

  3. Promote discourse among all parties involved to try to understand where we are going and how to achieve it.

  4. Encourage new foundations for renewal that build and sustain the ability of people, economies, and nature to deal with change, and ensure that these new foundations consolidate and expand our understanding of change.

  5. Allow sufficient time. This pulse is a global phenomenon, and it could potentially affect all levels of the hierarchy, all the way up the chain, from the individual/family to national and global systems. “

30 Apr 3:03pm

Thanks to ROG for the link to the Resilience Alliance.

There seem to be 2 complementary solutions to the tendency for the cheapest option to make all others non-viable.
1) A venture capital system that finances experiments in transition approaches. For example, it could finance an experimental farming of a new crop, and take a percentage of the profits. This could operate along the lines of micro-loan schemes already used in developing countries, and could be financed by micro investments by transition scheme organisations and participants. This would encourage innovation.
2) An insurance system that builds up a reserve of things a community needs. This would manage risk.

These would overcome the tendency for the cheapest option to make all others non-viable because venture capital and insurance are existing successful models that are already used in the current economic system, where competition is mainly on price. But how to raise the initial capital?