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"Systems and interdependencies and their effect on Peak Oil"

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    And Their Effect on Peak Oil by Norman Church (Copyright notice)

    "It has never happened!" cannot be construed to mean, "It can never happen!" - might as well say, "Because I have never broken my leg, my leg is unbreakable", or "Because I've never died, I am immortal". One thinks first of some great plague of insects - locusts or grasshoppers - when the species suddenly increases out of all proportion, and then just as dramatically sinks to a tiny fraction of what it has recently been. The higher animals also fluctuate. Some zoologists have even suggested a biological law; that the number of individuals in a species never remains constant, but always rises and falls - the higher the animal and the slower its breeding- rate, the longer its period of fluctuation.

    As for man, there is little reason to think that he can, in the long run, escape the fate of other creatures, and if there is a biological law of flux and reflux, his situation is now a highly perilous one. During ten thousand years his numbers have been on the upgrade in spite of wars, pestilence, and famines. This increase in population has become more and more rapid. Biologically, man has for too long a time been rolling an uninterrupted run of sevens.
    - George R Stewart, Earth Abides (1949)

    Setting the Stage

    The Worlds' population is now around 6.5 Billion. In order to grow the great quantities of food necessary to support this many people, large-scale distribution, automation, mechanization and co-ordination of countless systems is required. A reduction in the quantity of oil will severely disrupt our food growing capacity and means of distribution; we will be facing chaos and mass starvation of hundreds of millions worldwide.

    Every major component of our modern infrastructure is supported by dense networks of systems and equipment, each of which relies on computers and/or computer systems to perform its functions. These computerized systems manage everything: transportation, power generation, manufacturing, telecommunications, finance, government, education, healthcare, defence.

    Our reliance on technology has created a world whose efficient functioning is dependent on computer systems. Whatever happens in one part of the network has the potential to impact any other part of the network. We have created not only a computer-dependent society, but a planet whose interdependencies extend far beyond our imagination. The level of technological support and the interconnectedness of these systems are truly awesome.

    The movement of food into our local supermarkets reveals a sequence of interdependent systems. As consumers, we demand delectable, fresh produce - but few of us are aware of the intricate systems that make it possible for a mango from Peru to arrive on our tables in mid-winter. Most U.K. food markets get in fresh food shipments every two to three days. Whether it's brought in by truck, train, or ship, instantly we're back in the system networks, with the addition of new levels of complexity from the many systems that relate to food production, storage, and sales.

    All of these systems rely directly or indirectly on fossil fuel energy.

    The Three Core Systems

    Three core systems must remain in operation in order for the rest of society to function.

    These are power, banking / finance, and telecommunications. The failure of any of these three sectors will cause the failure of the other two within a matter of days or weeks (at most), which will then result in the failure of civilization as we know it.

    The loss of power would render banks and phone companies useless. The loss of telecommunications would render power companies and banks useless.

    And the loss of banking would eventually render power companies and telecomm companies useless (although this may take longer). The modern urban world could survive without fractional reserve banking, although a horrendous depression would result in the transition to an alternative means of payment.

    Our nation's critical infrastructures (including energy, telecommunications, transportation, water systems, banking and finance, emergency services, agriculture, etc.) have become increasingly interconnected and interdependent. This creates an increased possibility that a rather minor disturbance could cascade into a national outage and can affect many other systems. (I'll come back to this a little later when I discus the implications of the 2000 fuel price protests.)

    Critical Infrastructures, such as the transport and health systems, telecommunications and the internet, are defined as infrastructures that, should they fail, could have a serious societal consequence. Clearly, they are of some importance!

    Many of these systems are part of a complex web of interdependencies: many of them depend on each other, and vice versa. So, when one is damaged it can have effects on others. What's more, second and third order (and beyond) effects can trickle down the line and have unintended and unforeseen consequences. This situation is clearly undesirable. It's also poorly understood.

    The electronic storage and flow of information is now the life blood of modern industrialized nations. They have literally replaced generations of managers, workers and the skills they possessed. Computers made possible the modern "just in time" means of delivery and stocking of inventory, which made the system very efficient, but also subjects it to supply chain problems as there is little, if any slack for error. Since businesses store very little inventory, any disruption in the delivery of goods and services can have immediate negative effects.

    There is simply no possibility of reverting back to manual systems (i.e. pen & paper) when the systems go down, as there are no manual systems to revert back to; the infrastructure of 30 years ago has been replaced. The paper systems are no longer there, they no longer exist.

    The fact that each infrastructure element of modern society is threatened by the Peak Oil problem is not well established. It has not been thoroughly investigated or publicized, nor has the effect of the interdependencies of these systems and the overall probabilities of society staying up or going down.

    It is in the interdependencies, in fact, where I believe the soul of the Peak Oil problem lies.

    That these interdependencies have been largely ignored by the press and the public is perhaps the most alarming realization of all. Almost nobody has a realistic understanding of the bottom line odds we really face... For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline.

    If we think we are food secure here in the UK and in other industrialized countries simply because we have fuel in the car, then quite frankly, we are delusional. Despite the appearance of an endless bounty of food, it is a fragile bounty, dependent upon the integrity of the global oil production, refining and delivery system. That system is entirely dependent on the thread of technology.

    It seems ironic that technology, with all the benefits and progress it enabled and promised, will also be the cause of our undoing?

    These critical infrastructures are not only vital to our health, welfare and safety they are also essential to economic and national security. These systems are increasingly interdependent and interconnected.

    Any problem or fault in any system can cascade and cause other systems to fail. (Domino Effect)

    To show what can happen I now want to take a quick look at what actually happened during the 2000 fuel price protests.

    Impact of September 2000 Fuel Price Protests on UK Critical Infrastructure

    My thanks to the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) for the Incident Analysis they produced Impact of September 2000 Fuel Price Protests on UK Critical Infrastructure in January, 2005


    In September 2000, British farmers and truck drivers launched a dramatic campaign of direct action to protest about fuel duty. Their campaign followed a similar one by farmers, truckers, and fishermen in France, which resulted in concessions from the French government.
    The protesters blockaded fuel refineries and distribution depots, and, within days, created a fuel crisis that near paralyzed and brought the country to a virtual halt. The media, politicians and the general public were astonished by the effectiveness of the fuel protest.
    Why did this protest have so much impact?
    And what sort of impact did the protests have on the UK?
    The impact of the protest was much deeper than anticipated because it struck at a particularly vulnerable point of the economy - the oil distribution network, which is organized along just-in-time delivery principles. This, combined with anticipated shortages by fuel consumers and consequent panic buying, magnified the impact of the protests on practically all sectors.
    The disruption in the energy sector created a chain reaction among other sectors such as transportation, health care, food distribution, financial and government services due to their interconnectivity and interdependencies. The financial impact of the week-long fuel drought was estimated at close to 1 billion
    All in all, the fuel price protests in 2000 demonstrated the direct and debilitating effect of the interruption of the fuel supply on other sectors underlining the interdependencies between the energy sector and other sectors.


    Protests were triggered on September 5, 2000 when it was announced that fuel prices were to rise again following a rise in the price of crude oil.

    The Channel Tunnel was blockaded in protest on September 6.

    On September 7, the first oil refinery, at Stanlow, Cheshire, was blockaded.

    Protests spread rapidly with more refineries blockaded on September 8 resulting in nation-wide panic buying of fuel on September 9.

    On Sunday, September 10, the protests had closed Britain's largest oil terminal at Kingsbury, West Midlands, and huge queues at petrol stations were reported.

    By Tuesday, September 12, protesters had blocked six of the UK's eight refineries.

    Over half of Britain's petrol stations were shut.

    The protest ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

    On September 14, the Stanlow blockage ended and on September 15 the first fuel deliveries were reaching some petrol stations, although it was estimated that 90 percent of petrol stations were empty of fuel.

    It was 10 days from the start of the protests to first fuel deliveries reaching petrol stations again.

    It was only 7 days from the first blockade at Stanlow until the first tankers ran again.

    During the course of the protests the government stated that workers from the following industries and services would be eligible for priority access to fuel which tankers had been delivering to 298 petrol stations across the country.

    Emergency services
    Armed forces
    Health and social workers
    Food industry
    Agriculture, veterinary and animal welfare
    Essential workers at nuclear sites
    Water, sewerage and drainage
    Fuel and energy suppliers
    Public transport
    Licensed taxis
    Coastguards and lifeboat crews
    Airport and airline workers
    Postal, media, telecommunications
    Central and local government workers
    Essential financial services staff including those involved in the delivery of cash and cheques
    Prison staff
    Refuse collection and industrial waste
    Funeral services
    Special schools and colleges for the disabled
    Essential foreign diplomatic workers


    Energy Sector
    The fuel price protests exposed the interdependencies of practically all sectors of the economy on continuous fuel supply and resulted in direct and indirect impacts on businesses.
    Direct impacts of the protests included the widespread disruption of the energy sector caused by the blockade of oil refineries and fuel depots, and the interruption of the transportation sector as a result of drivers going on strike, "go-slow" demonstrations on highways and roads as well as the fuel shortages in petrol stations. Several sectors, including health care, food distribution, finance and government, demonstrated their dependency on energy and transportation sectors.
    Protestors organized a national blockade of oil refineries and distribution depots.
    After five days of protest, six of eight refineries were blocked, and tankers could not leave oil refineries and fuel depots to transport fuel to petrol stations where it could be distributed.
    This system relied on tanker deliveries to individual stations, up to three times a day, (JIT System) depending on the volume of fuel sold at each location.
    As such, the availability of fuel at stations was highly vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain.
    By September 12, that is 6 days since the blockade of the first refinery, about half of Britain's petrol stations were shut down, and those with remaining fuel stocks started to ration purchases.
    The impact of fuel shortages quickly spread to other sectors (such as transportation, health care and government).
    Electrical Power Grid

    The Power Grid is obviously the most critical system modern civilization requires for survival.

    Failure of the grid need not be direct or immediate; Major breaks in the supply chain of power companies' suppliers such as coal, railroads, manufacturing or the banking system pose serious long-term risks as well.

    Large coal powered electrical generating plants rely on the railroad system to deliver an average of 3 large trainloads of coal per day. Petroleum shortages through failures of the transportation industry will cut back availability of fuel for trains to run.

    Then we will have to eventually deal with a severely contracting economy and division of labour occurring with a collapsing banking system which would eliminate its ability to pay suppliers, employees. Then power companies would have to deal with bankrupting suppliers and manufacturers that enable it to keep operations running. In essence, it is the eventual systemic failure of modern industrial society through the domino effect that threatens a long term grid failure.

    If the grid goes down for the count, it will be a monumental task to get it all restored in a timely manner, as all other sectors of the economy that supply the grid will also be suffering catastrophic failures as well.

    Fortunately we did not see any problems with the power grid as a result of the protests.

    This may have been because 23% of our electrical power is generated by Nuclear power stations, with 34% being generated by coal fired power stations that had plenty of coal stocks. (Remember the miners strike in 1974) Natural gas accounts for 37% of power generation.

    Electrical generator supply in UK:

    Nuclear 23% Coal 34% (Coal Stocks at power stations) Oil 2% Natural Gas 37% (Gas still being pumped) Hydro/ Wind 2% Biomass 1% Other 1%


    Our modern society depends on a complex web of voice, data, and video services that enable telephones, radios, fax machines, computer networks, televisions and other information appliances. Major national and international enterprises, such as emergency response, national security, finance, transportation, health care, government, energy distribution, and others, are critically dependent on reliable, 24 hours a day, seven days a week telecommunications.

    The telecommunications sector is part of the critical "golden triangle" which includes the banking and electrical power systems.

    The failure of one will collapse the other two within a matter of weeks.

    All are heavily computerized, interdependent and at substantial risk.

    This transfer of information is critical for our survival, and would severely collapse our economy without it. The modern social division of labour rests on our ability to trade and transfer money "from a distance".

    The inability of banks to communicate means instant loss of liquidity, and eventually, failure.

    Manufacturing processes require the communication system to order parts and services. Since companies rely on computer enabled "just in time delivery" inventories are no longer stored with little room for slack.

    If there are wide-spread power failures, we will be unable to keep the communication lines operational, thereby bringing the rest of the economy down with it.

    The power industry also requires functioning communication lines between plants for automated power production - the ultimate catch-22.

    There were no known reports of problems in this sector, except for a few who could not, or did not want to get into work. This was probably because there was no effect on electric power.

    Financial and Banking Sectors

    Limited information exists concerning the impact of the fuel protests on banking and financial services.

    The sector was dependent on the transportation industry for the movement of money and financial notes.

    Disruptions to the transportation sector during other incidents have affected the ability of banks to supply automatic teller machines (ATM) with cash, resulting in ATM service outages. However, the banks stated that there were no serious interruptions in daily operations.

    They did not have to resort to any drastic action after securing a place on the government's priority fuel list for the armoured vehicles, which transport money around Britain.
    The vehicles are needed to transport cash and cheques between bank branches and to and from retailers to put into banks and cash machines.

    Health Care

    The National Health Service (NHS) was principally impacted by its reliance on the transportation of staff, patients and supplies.

    The disruptions in fuel supply affected the ability of some medical staff to use their usual means of transport to get to work, which resulted in some medical staff shortages.

    Hundreds of petrol stations across the country set up piecemeal local rationing schemes, often supervised by the police, and tried to conserve limited fuel supplies for medical personnel.

    These measures were ineffective and several hospitals around the country were forced to cancel routine operations and to limit admissions to emergency cases only.

    By Wednesday 13th/ Thursday14th September the following had been reported.

    Ambulance services were disrupted by shortages of fuel and limited to calls from patients in need of serious assistance. One media report noted that ambulance services in Surrey could not respond to emergency 999 calls while they waited to receive extra supplies of petrol.

    It was also reported that some hospitals were unable to remove hazardous clinical waste from their facilities, creating a public health risk, and that the Royal Hull Hospital had run out of stitches for operations.

    In the south-east of England, hospitals said patients were cancelling appointments because of transport difficulties. Hospitals in Portsmouth were running short of drugs, particularly for renal dialysis.

    In the south-west, hospitals reported increased numbers of 12-hour trolley waits for patients and some trusts said they had only two days supplies of linen left.

    Cornwall health authority said it had three days of food left, 36 hours of laundry and oxygen was becoming scarce.

    United Bristol healthcare trust cancelled cardiac operations because staff could not get in to work. Across the region, beds were not becoming free because patients were not being discharged.

    In the West Midlands, Hereford, Worcestershire, Shropshire and Staffordshire declared the situation a "major incident".

    North of the border, the Scottish ambulance service was preparing to refuse to respond to all non-emergency calls.

    North Mersey warned that community nursing would not be available by the end of the week.

    Across London, non-urgent outpatient appointments were cancelled. Guy's and St Thomas's stopped discharging patients living outside the capital.

    In the north-west, Wigan ambulance service ran out of fuel.


    One GP in Northants was planning to conduct her house calls on horseback when her petrol supplies run out.

    On September 13 the government placed the NHS on "red alert" for the first time in 11 years.


    Modern industrial society requires a dependable means of transportation for the basics of business, food, commodities and manufactured goods.

    The petroleum industry supplies fuel for planes, trains and automobiles. The oil companies depend on the Maritime industry to ship oil in super tankers.

    The transportation sector was disrupted through direct and indirect means.

    The direct impact of "go-slow" demonstrations resulted in temporary traffic delays on major highways and city roads. Striking truck and taxi drivers caused disruptions by removing their vehicles from the service.

    The most severe impacts were caused by the sector's reliance on fuel, with both private and public transportation systems being interrupted by the lack of fuel.

    Reports suggest that 29 percent of private motorists were forced to stop driving because they did not have fuel.

    In turn, public transportation systems were strained by fuel shortages and an increase in the number of passengers.

    The London Underground experienced overcrowding as the number of users increased up to five percent on the three-million daily norms.

    Some train services in London were cancelled after fuel depots ran dry.

    Several London bus companies were forced to substantially cut their services because of the lack of fuel and because drivers could not get to work.

    In Gwent and the Rhondda Valley, buses were stopping at 7pm and half of the services were cancelled.

    In Cheltenham and Gloucester, services were down by 12% and Oxford inner city buses were cut by half.

    Rural areas of Lancashire will have no buses this weekend.

    In Edinburgh, the main bus operator cancelled all services after 6.30pm. and the company warned of total cancellation by the following day

    Transport For London told the government the capital needed 10 tankers of emergency fuel per day to keep buses, traffic lights and underground emergency response units running.

    But no fuel reached London buses yesterday and between 20-25 garages were expected to run dry today.

    (These comments all refer to statements made on 12th/ 13th September)

    A spokesman said London buses could come to a halt early next week.

    Virgin trains said the cross-country Aberdeen to Penzance diesel service had enough fuel to last until midnight tonight.

    Passengers with pre-booked tickets either failed to receive them because of postal delays, or could not get to the station because of lack of petrol.

    Virgin trains ran late from Edinburgh because drivers could not get to work due to blockades and First Great Western were yesterday booking hotels for staff without petrol for the trip home.

    Most London taxi fleets were yesterday carrying account holders only.

    Manchester firms were not pre-booking and predicted an average wait of one hour.

    Industry Sectors

    As expected, British businesses were severely affected by the lack of fuel and reduced transportation.

    Negative impacts included disruptions in the transportation of staff and consumers, and, again, the just-in-time shipment of supplies, parts and finished products due to interconnectivity, and reliance on business partners for services.

    Industry leaders noted that large parts of the economy, including steel and motor manufacturers, faced the threat of shutdowns, cutbacks and closures had the fuel crisis lasted any longer.

    Car manufacturers were within a week of shutdown by the time supplies started flowing again.

    Defence and aerospace industries were also within a week of "serious problems," and steel makers had been on the brink of a 40 percent reduction in output.

    Some companies started reducing the size and scope of their operations.

    The London Chamber of Commerce warned the crisis was costing British business 130 - 150 million a day.


    The biggest issue with manufacturing is the domino effect. Modern manufacturing was badly hit as it runs on a "just in time" policy with products being made to order rather than stockpiled. Companies have been starved of raw materials and, in many cases, have ceased production as deliveries are not going out and there is no storage room.

    Shipment of parts requires the operability of the transportation system to bring supplies to the factory.

    This means that railroads, trucking and airlines and their suppliers must be free of disruptions.

    Unavailability of fuel would stop shipments to factories.

    Electricity generating plants also require the manufacturing sector to build generators and replacement parts for routine maintenance.

    Lost orders, overtime demands, stranded staff, bank charges and production cutbacks hit the beleaguered companies as the pumps ran dry.


    Out-of-town outlets and many high street stores were badly affected by the shortages, with people reluctant to go out in cars.

    Government Sector

    Postal services were gradually reduced over the course of the protests. The Royal Mail reported serious delays, and it was warned that its postal deliveries were being "seriously threatened".

    Guaranteed next day delivery was suspended, and a plan that prioritized deliveries was implemented to ensure that social security payments were not disrupted.

    On a personal note, I spent many long hours at work dealing with movement problems.

    At one stage, just before the protests ended Royal Mail were sending some lorries on round trips of over 100 miles to fill their fuel tanks at other depots.

    A spokesman refused to specify how long the Post Office would be able to maintain deliveries of post and parcels from its 36,000-strong fleet of vehicles. "Fuel stocks are very low," he said.

    The Post Office is reducing its services to a bare minimum, halting second deliveries and stopping Sunday collections because of the depletion of its fuel supplies.

    It needs 30 tanker deliveries a day to maintain its 36,000-strong fleet of vans.

    To stretch the little fuel that is has left, the Post Office said its aim was to continue to provide as near to normal service as possible. But it would make just one postal delivery and collection a day and completely suspend Sunday's collection.

    The Post Office's main priority was to ensure cash reached its 18,000 network of post offices to allow social security benefits to be continued to be paid. It will also aim to keep its rural Postbus service running.


    At least 77 schools across England and Wales have been shut since Wednesday, most of them in rural areas as transport was not available for children and teachers.

    Councils struggling to keep schools running are telling teachers to report to their nearest school if they are unable to get to their normal place of work.

    Bus operators with school run contracts were being told to take children to school only if they had enough fuel to be able to take them home again.

    The approximate number of schools in the UK is 33000, therefore only about .235% (less than one in just under 430 schools were closed.) But it was early days.

    Food Distribution

    Two factors reduced the availability of food for distribution during the fuel crisis.

    First, disruptions in the transportation sector prevented the shipment of food goods from producers to vendors.

    Similar to fuel distributors, supermarkets rely on daily just-in-time deliveries rather than maintaining large stockpiles of goods.

    Rather than tie up money in carrying 'dead' stock, supermarkets, like petrol stations rely on a system of 'just-in-time' delivery - depending on daily and sometimes even more frequent deliveries to keep their shelves and underground tanks stocked.

    Fine if the Lorries and tankers keep on coming. Disastrous if they don't for two or three days.

    Each day of the fuel protests further affected food deliveries, depleting the small reserves kept by any supermarkets.

    The second factor influencing shortages was increased demand and panic buying.

    On October 10th 2004 The Times printed an article Britain 'four meals away from anarchy'

    MI5 uses the "four meals" rule to assess the threat levels from attacks on strategic installations, such as computer networks and power stations; natural disasters; or widespread strikes and civil disobedience. It does not seem to consider fossil fuel depletion in its thinking.

    There is evidence that the breakdown of order could be caused partly by the first pangs of hunger but more likely by panic.

    It is likely that the people affected would immediately buy up all the food available. As supplies ran out, the public might try to break through cordons or start competing violently for available food.

    It is estimated that after as little as four missed meals, a "law of the jungle" would take over, in which citizens resorted to looting or violence to find food.

    Some experts claim Britain's food supply network is diverse enough not to collapse quickly in the event of a major disaster; others point to the speed with which the distribution system briefly came to a halt during the fuel price protests in 2000.

    Worry over possible disruption to food supplies was one of the issues the government tried to address in its booklet "Preparing for Emergencies: What You Need to Know", circulated to all homes in Britain in the summer of 2004, which advised households to stock up on tinned food and drinking water to guard against the possibility of a disruption to supply.

    - This article was also referenced in a presentation by Lord Toby Harris at Chatham House on Monday 21st March 2005, titled Protecting Critical Networks, the Responsibilities and Role of Central Government.

    The uncertainty of how long the fuel protests would disrupt food supplies caused consumers to alter their normal purchasing behaviour and attempt to acquire more goods than usual.

    The grocery chain Spar noted that its food sales had increased by 300 percent. (Putting added strain on supply lines)

    The sight of empty shelves triggered some consumers to stockpile goods in sufficient volumes to endure a prolonged food supply shortage.

    The supermarket chain Safeway was prompted to introduce rationing of bread and milk at its stores as customers continued to clear the shelves of staple items.

    Panic buying continued in shops and supermarkets across the country as it emerged that fresh food could run out by the weekend.

    Food distributors Eddie Stobart, based in Carlisle, said that 700 of its 1,000 trucks had now run out of fuel.

    The company carries out 1,000 deliveries a day to supermarkets and said it could no longer guarantee food deliveries.

    It appears that it did not affect production of fertilizers and pesticides etc. to any major degree.

    Probably because the protests were quick and short.

    Let us look at what could happen, particularly with food a little deeper.

    What about deliveries, both to the neighbourhood supermarket, and to the fast-food outlets that some citizens have come to depend upon. Fresh food, by its very nature, has to be replenished and re-stocked on a frequent basis. Many other forms of food are frozen, and thus could presumably be stockpiled to provide ongoing supplies of food for months or years. But both the fast food outlets and the supermarkets operate on razor-thin profit margins, which require keeping low inventories and using a "just-in-time" delivery mechanism to restock on a daily or weekly basis. Dropping back briefly to frozen goods, these require electric to run the freezers.

    While you might not be able to determine the inventory levels at your local MacDonald's or Burger King, you can certainly investigate the situation at your supermarket. Chances are you'll observe daily restocking in many departments, especially in the fruit-and-vegetable area, as well as meat and dairy products. Most of the non-perishable items, including those packaged securely in cans, boxes, or plastic containers, are re-stocked once or twice a week.

    Next, take a look at the inventory levels. As part of your normal shopping, you may have occasionally encountered the out-of-stock phenomenon, but it's fairly rare in stores. It's far more common that you'll take one loaf of bread off a shelf filled with what might seem, to the casual observer, an infinite quantity of loaves. But it's more likely to be a few dozen loaves or perhaps a hundred at most.

    The same is true for most of the other items in the store; most of the store's inventory is right in front of you, on the shelves. Now ask yourself a simple question: what happens if you and a few dozen of your neighbours all decide to buy a loaf of bread on the same day? And what if you decided to buy a month's supply of cereal, instead of a one-week supply? The answer is pretty simple: the shelves would be bare, except for items like pickled eggs and marinated pig's feet. However, in today's economy, it doesn't matter, because the shelves will be restocked tomorrow. And because everyone takes it for granted that that will be so, there's no need to get a month's supply of cereal; it's more convenient to buy enough to last for just a few days.

    So, the bottom line is that precise inventory management, and a well-honed delivery infrastructure, are crucial for maintaining the well-stocked supermarket we take for granted. The same, by the way, is basically true for the fast-food outlets: most of them operate as franchises, and are obliged to replenish their supplies from the franchise-owner. This allows the franchise-owner to achieve economies of scale (by purchasing millions of pounds of beef at a time), and also allows the franchise-owner to maintain control over the proprietary nature of the junk food (e.g., the secret formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken, invented long ago by the fabled Colonel Sanders). Each franchise keeps careful track of the quantities of food sold, not only to maintain a reasonable reputation of providing hot, fresh junk food, but also to optimize the steady process of re-stocking by the franchise-owner.

    A loss-of computer-networks (LOCN) problem can easily disrupt the delivery and inventory-management process. Inventory management is still done without computers in some establishments - you may have noticed grocery clerks manually counting the number of boxes of cereal on the shelves - but more commonly today, it's computerized. The same grocery clerk is involved, but now he carries a hand-held scanner that reads bar-code labels; sometimes the clerk keys in a few entries to indicate the quantity of goods left on the shelf. In theory, this should not even be necessary, because the cash registers at the checkout counter are connected to a central computer, too, so that inventory-management reports can be printed out in the store-manager's office. However, the manual process is still important to keep track of spoilage, breakage, theft, and other forms of loss that might not be detected at the checkout counter.

    Keeping track of how many boxes of cereal were sold, or how many Big Macs were consumed, is only the beginning of the inventory management process; what happens next is a forecasting computation to determine the likely number of days before the existing inventory will be completely exhausted, and whether the reorder-quantity should be larger or smaller than usual to account for fluctuating trends and patterns. Indeed, this process has become enormously more sophisticated in recent years, with massive computer computations involving something known as "data mining" to look for trends that might not have been obvious to the human eye.

    Thus, we worry that inventory management systems, delivery-scheduling systems, data-mining systems, and much of the "intelligence" that ensures the proper stockpiling of the proper items at the proper time may blow up if a LOCN (loss-of computer-networks) occurs due to a lack of electricity generating. Thus, one could expect a moderate amount of chaos and confusion while all of this is being sorted out. Of course the more outages and the longer they are the more problems.

    But this may not turn out to be the biggest problem. Assuming that the inventory-control computer systems are working, there is still the issue of transporting food items from the farm, the fishery, the bakery, or the slaughterhouse to the store. This requires a vast, intricate network of ships, planes, trains, and trucks - all synchronized to deliver the right amount of food items while they're still fresh. At this point, transportation problems could quickly "ripple" into food-delivery problems. And transport problems would be affected by fuel shortages.

    In his recent article Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food Supply, Richard Heinberg rightly states that Agriculture is at a Crossroads.

    He states that Arable cropland that has gradually increased due to the clearing of forests and brush is now decreasing because of the salinization of irrigated soils and the relentless growth of cities, with their buildings, roads, and parking lots. Irrigation has become more widespread because of the availability of cheap energy to operate pumps, while urbanization is largely a result of cheap fuel-fed transportation and the flushing of the peasantry from the countryside as a consequence of their inability to buy or to compete with fuel-fed agricultural machinery.

    Topsoil that was generated over thousands and millions of years at a rate averaging an inch per 500 years is now decreasing at an alarming rate, due mostly to wind and water erosion.

    At the turn of the last century, 70 percent of the population lived in rural areas and farmed. Today less than two percent of Americans farm for a living. This change came primarily because fuel-fed farm machinery replaced labour, which meant that fewer farmers were needed. Hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of families that desperately wanted to farm could not continue to do so because they could not afford the new machines, or could not compete with their neighbours who had them.

    The genetic diversity of domesticated crop varieties is decreasing dramatically due to the consolidation of the seed industry. The world's largest vegetable seed corporation has eliminated 25 percent of its product line as a cost-cutting measure and the largest three field seed companies now account for 20 percent of the global seed trade.

    A total of 2,029 million tons of grain were produced globally in 2004; this was a record in absolute numbers. But for the past two decades population has grown faster than grain production, so there is actually less available on a per-head basis. In addition, grain stocks are being drawn down. The shortfalls of nearly 100 million tons in 2002 and again in 2003 were the largest on record. This trend suggests that the strategy of boosting food production by the use of fossil fuels is already yielding diminishing returns.

    Global climate is being increasingly destabilized as a result of the famous greenhouse effect, resulting in problems for farmers that are relatively minor now but that are likely to grow to catastrophic proportions within the next decade or two.

    In the USA 85 percent of fresh water use goes toward agricultural production, requiring the drawing down of ancient aquifers at far above their recharge rates. Globally, as water tables fall, ever more powerful pumps must be used to lift irrigation water, requiring ever more energy usage. By 2020, according to the Worldwatch Institute and the UN, virtually every country will face shortages of fresh water.

    Over the past two decades pesticide use has increased 33-fold, yet, each year a greater amount of crops is lost to pests, which are evolving immunities faster than chemists can invent new poisons. Like falling grain production per capita, this trend suggests a declining return from injecting the process of agricultural production with still more fossil fuels.

    Now, let us add to this picture the imminent peak in world oil production. This will make machinery more expensive to operate, fertilizers more expensive to produce, and transportation more expensive. While the adoption of fossil fuels created a range of problems for global food production, as we have just seen, the decline in the availability of cheap oil will not immediately solve those problems; in fact, over the short term they will exacerbate them, bringing simmering crises to a boil.


    The fuel price protests in September 2000 revealed how everyday life could be affected by disruptions of fuel supplies.

    It also emphasized the importance of understanding the interdependencies between the fuel energy sector and other sectors. It became apparent that the reliance of the transportation sector on the fuel supply industry increased the debilitating effect of fuel supply deficiency on other sectors. Thus, the failure in the related sector triggered a direct impact on a number of other sectors due to their dependence on transportation.

    An economic system sustained by fossil fuels, can continue only as long as the fuels themselves last. To many, this is self-evident. That human life in today's modern and complex society has become utterly dependent on hydrocarbon-based industries has been understood, at least at the scientific level, for many years. But others, including most of the planet's powerbrokers, seem to deny resources shortages exist.

    The global community while conscious of the increasing price of fuel for its motor cars seems blissfully unaware of its wider dependence on fossil fuels. Communities in the first world, unlike in past ages, take it for granted they will have enough to eat. The notion food supplies may dry up through lack of fertilisers is not recognised in most first world dining rooms.

    A sharp increase in the price of oil or a reduction in oil supplies could present a far more serious threat to food security, and is likely to, as oil enters its depletion phase. Food production and distribution, as they are organized today, would not be able to function. Moreover, the alternatives, in the form of sustainable agriculture and local food supplies, which minimize the use of crude oil, are currently unable to respond to increased demand due to low investment and capacity.

    There are many benefits to organic farming, including reduced fossil fuel energy consumption and greenhouse petrol emissions. However, these are often overshadowed by the environmental damage of long distance transport. Organic products that are transported long distances, particularly when distribution is by plane, are almost as damaging as their conventional air freighted counterparts. Highly processed and packaged organic foodstuffs have an added adverse environmental impact.

    The problem is that, overall, human beings have developed a tendency to deal with problems on an ad hoc basis - i.e., to deal with "problems of the moment".

    This does not foster an attitude of seeing a problem embedded in the context of another problem.

    In an economy based on multi-levels of interdependent systems, isolation means instant death.

    Every large institution, government, corporation and each of their subsidiaries are all interconnected and reliant on one another. The potential domino effect and resulting economic disruption can be clearly imagined.

    The greatest danger in the path of a crisis solution is the tendency to delay the necessary action. "A problem postponed is a problem half solved", Churchill is quoted as saying at the height of the Battle of Britain. He was confronted with apparently imminent defeat, and as long as defeat could be postponed, there remained a chance of winning or at least surviving. However, not all disastrous situations are so clear-cut. Too often the conditions are more subtle, and while postponement of a solution to the problem indeed delays, the effort of facing up to the unpleasant choices, time so gained only compounds the problem which becomes increasingly difficult to solve.

    Such an approach is taken with some logic by too many officials elected or appointed for a limited time. If one invests time and resources in a crisis solution that will bear fruit only after one's term of office is over, the likelihood is that one will get no credit and all the blame; the credit will go to the successor during whose term the benefits accrue, while the blame will be put on the early period during which, in spite of all the resources committed, the solution did not materialize. The fine thread connecting early action and much later fruit is too often lost.

    The tendency therefore prevails to postpone consideration of the problem until one's term in office has ended and it becomes somebody else's worry. In personal life, however, we know better. We learn, sooner or later, that the choices we face are invariably limited and diminish with time. The opportunity one misses at a given time can be regained only at substantial cost at a later date, if at all.

    In the life of nations, on the other hand, we assume that something, somehow, sometime later, will turn out to save the day. Indeed, it is felt too often that the future will certainly bring increased choices and new opportunities. That is undoubtedly a legacy of an era in which the steady march of progress was taken as an article of faith. In subscribing to such a religion one tends to overlook that there is absolutely no evidence that similar progress will occur "automatically" by necessity. While the optimism is based on past successes, the past must be taken only as a guide for the future. The past is not the future, and what has happened in the past is not to be assumed to be likely in the future.

    The problem is that, even though we may be rather aware of the disaster to which we are heading, we cannot get off the conveyor belt we are on. We cannot go back in a controlled fashion to what we know for sure will be a somewhat harder, somewhat meaner society. We have to move forward because, whatever our fears, the future is still uncertain. In any case, the whole logic of the system depends upon the belief that things will go on getting better indefinitely.

    To confront that belief deliberately, here and now, would surely only bring forward the crisis of disappointment. We must therefore press on with our ambitions, though our capacities may be falling behind. We must go on accumulating our burdens. In putting off the day of reckoning, however, we ensure that the shock when it comes will be devastating indeed. We ensure that it will be the kind of shock that on many past occasions, and in every part of the world, has precipitated the descent into a dark age - a dark age that wipes away our mistakes, resets our expectations to zero, and allows the journey to begin again.

    Perhaps most interesting is that this situation has only existed for a few decades, and the very technology that gave us the ability to run a high division-of-labour civilization is precisely the same technology that now threatens to take it away.


    A big ship is safer than a small life boat; therefore, you should only man the life boats and leave the big ship if you are pretty sure that it will really sink. Even a big ship in trouble is far more stabile, has more resources, and can better stand a storm, than small life boats.

    My viewpoint would be, that we are on a ship that may potentially get in big trouble, but that is still not yet sinking, it is not even really damaged yet. If you leave the ship now, the ship will sail on, leaving you behind, all on your own. The big ship may collide with an iceberg and sink, but it is far better prepared to sail through a heavy storm than a small life boat.

    Let's keep working the analogy.

    "Manning" the lifeboats is at least one step before "deploying" the lifeboats. If and when it becomes clear you should abandon ship, you want to be near or on a lifeboat. The other choice will be standing at the back in the crowd pressing to get a seat on a boat precisely at the moment it becomes clear to everyone that the lifeboats need to deploy and the ship needs to be abandoned. Hope you are a good swimmer!

    So for me, "manning" the lifeboat means taking what small, hard earned wealth I possess now and either purchasing some property alone or with others. This property needs to be usable to at least provide subsistence agriculture. Where I live, these kinds of properties are already rising in value faster than other real estate. As a lifeboat it need not ever float completely on its own until the ship crashes and starts going down. If the ship is only listing and struggling, we will still be tethered and floating alongside.

    Will this little lifeboat be able to float on its own? That could be the hard test. Waiting until it is desperately needed to float to begin learning how to sail and test its sea worthiness would be an extremely stressful and risky plan in my way of thinking. So my suggestion to anyone else who is planning to have a little boat similar as me, take all the "sailing" lessons you can now with your own agricultural efforts, however big or small. Gather all the hard earned advice you can from the old seafaring salts.

    If others take this course of action then may be, just may be, my lifeboat tethered together with other lifeboats might just manage to come through the storm.

    What I'm sure about, is that for my family and those close to me, I don't want to have our only choice to be "swimming lessons". And waiting for those lessons to begin at the time when we need to be exiting the ship and leaving shark infested waters for the nearest rock or shore.

    "Again, in that day each little tribe will live by itself and to itself and go its own way, and their differences will soon be more than they were even in the first days of [humankind], according to the accidents of survival and of place... In the distant years after these first years, the tribes will grow more numerous and come together, cross fertilize in the body and in mind."
    - George R Stewart, Earth Abides (1949)

    "My father rode a camel; I drive a car; my son flies a jet; his son will ride a camel."
    - Saudi saying
    - Norman Church
    Copy of a presentation given by Norman Church at the Peak Oil Day 2005: Peak Speak - JULY 16th 2005

    BedZed Pavillion, BedZed Hackbridge, Surrey, SM6 7BZ

    Copyright Norman Church, 2005
    We reproduced this article for reference reasons only.