Shut up about the deckchairs!

In his latest entry, Jonathan Dawson stresses on the need for a collective 'peak moment'

One of the ports of call during the last two weeks that I have been away was the 6th international conference of ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) in Cork. This is the body, founded by former oil geologist Dr Colin Campbell, which more than any other has brought to public consciousness the imminent peaking in the availability of cheap fossil fuels.

'Fun' was hardly the word for it, but it was good to be in the company of people who have clearly understood the pivotal role of cheap energy in creating the highly abnormal and completely unsustainable global society in which we live today. Unsustainable precisely because the cheap energy on which the whole edifice is built is getting more expensive by the month – and is set, bar the odd blip, to do so indefinitely.

Within the peak oil community, the experience of realising this very simple but paradigm-altering truth is coming to be called ‘peak moments’. People at the conference were exchanging stories about their own peak moments, when their focal point suddenly shifted from the pattern of the deckchairs on the fore-deck (the stuff of political and philosophical discourse over the last couple of centuries) to the iceberg of resource (and especially energy) depletion towering over the ship.

It is within the context of this radically altered understanding of what the current moment of history is all about that the eco-village phenomenon comes to make sense. It is lovely to arrive back in Findhorn to see the wind turbines cheerfully twirling to the tune of the brisk, autumnal northerlies; the vegetables being taken from the gardens to kitchens, passing the food-scraps from the last meal making the reverse journey; self-builders working away on their energy-efficient homes; hand-carts coming in from the forest laden with logs being put in for the winter.

However, the point is that these are not primarily the cute and eccentric behaviours of over-privileged urbanites who have chosen to escape the grind of the cities (though there may just be a touch of that as well!)

Rather, the whole experience – here and in a growing number of eco-villages around the world – can only be understood as a profoundly sane response to the imminent energy crisis. (Of course, it is not only eco-villages that have got the message. I return from Cork with serious and intelligent energy descent plans from, among others, the cities of Brisbane and Portland Oregon and the town of Kinsale in County Cork.)

I chose to travel to and from Ireland over land (and sea) which, apart from being enormously more agreeable than flying, also gave lots of uninterrupted time for comfortable reading. On the return journey, I read ‘Making Globalisation Work’ by former World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

Now there is a man, if ever I saw one, who is in need of a peak moment. The book is full of admirable – sometimes inspired – proposals for tweaking the current system to make trade work better for the planet’s poor. However, there is no recognition that the energy needed to continue to ship stuff around the world might not be available - or could be spent without climate-changing emissions.

I have been struck on recent working visits to Sierra Leone and Senegal by just how few private motor vehicles were on the road. The answer soon became clear: the governments were purchasing much of the diminishing oil imports (diminishing because of increasing prices) just to keep the lights on, if only sporadically. Meanwhile, the spark that ignites the flames in Burma is……….yes, a doubling in the price of oil.

As a civilisation, we are in big need of a collective peak moment. Let us embrace the inevitability of expensive energy and use it to our advantage, creating more decentralised and human-scale communities that live well within their means.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.