Fat, Oil Rich, and Comfortable : but not for long

Halfway through the latest leaders debate, I got an uncomfortable feeling of detachment. It was when they were asked about passion in politics. For some years, there has been soul searching about the declining turnout rate in elections, and widespread feeling that “they are all the same”. The problem I think is that nothing much is wrong in our lives. There is nothing really big to argue about, no sides to take.

A thousand years ago it was the Church versus the Empire. Five hundred years ago it was freedom of belief. A hundred years ago it was the liberation of the working man. In my youth this titanic struggle was still rattling the world if not shaking it. But thats all over. Socialism is a spent force. We are all rich fat and comfortable; we have TVs, fridges and iPhones; so whats the problem ? If miners are not starving, and no children are being sent up chimneys, and we have universal healthcare (ahem…), nobody cares too much. Even if you feel that voting is a civic responsibility, its hard deciding. You can’t decide by asking “am I one of them or one of us ?”. You have to look at all the damned policies and take an average.

What really matters now ? The rising tide of irrationality ? Well thats scary, but I think we’ll be ok. Climate change ? Well, yes but … as I argued here , maybe its irrelevant because civilisation will collapse soon anyway when the oil runs out . Old chum Alan Penny wrote a strong rebuttal of my pessimistic mutterings, but now I am getting worried again…

As explained in a recent Guardian article, in a Financial Times blog, and this posting in Counter Currents, the US military and the UK government are starting to understand that peak oil may be an imminent reality. This article argues that the US Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, has felt this for some years. So it seems that privately the powers that be are starting to take this very seriously. But publicly ? Why isn’t Nick Clegg saying “OK, relax on Trident. We got bigger problems…”

A crunch may be coming. Not only will oil run out, but uranium too, and phosphorous, and so food.

As Tolstoy said, what then must we do ?

Reading list
Peak Oil

The Oil Drum

Peak generation

Peak oil on wikipedia

17 Responses to Fat, Oil Rich, and Comfortable : but not for long

  1. John Womersley says:


    actually what we must do when confronted by a challenge like this is very clear: we must continue to invest (at the appropriate, i.e. probably higher, level) in the facilities and the grants that will support scientific and technological innovation in areas like energy, and most importantly we must invest in the young people who will go on to make these innovations. And that includes attracting them to pursue scientific careers through the excitement and inspiration that is offered by fields such as particle physics and astronomy.


    PS it was Lenin, not Tolstoy, wasn’t it?

  2. andyxl says:

    John – interesting that you think the quote comes from Lenin, as I did too, until I checked. Its the name of an essay by Tolstoy in 1886, about how to respond to the misery of the Russian people. He wandered into the poorest district of Moscow and gave away his money. But the inspiration for the title actually comes from Luke 3:10, where the followers of John the Baptist want to know how to get to the Kingdom of Heaven :

    And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise”

  3. Albert Zijlstra says:

    Dear Andy

    The text failed to mention people who have two telescope allocations, or even more extreme, two postdocs.

    Interesting, apocalyptic blog. But not a topic, perhaps, that as yet gets scientists up in arms. It is difficult to know the answers when the data (oil reserves) are secret. But I wonder, could astronomy be carbon-neutral? IAU symposia on
    YouTube? Can the ELT, like HST, run on solar power? Can we cover the SKA dishes with solar panels? Can the internet run on wind power? With distributed computing, it should be possible to do our calculations wherever there is enough wind – I like the image of my data being pushed down high-speed fibres by wind mills.

    Both the accessible solar power and the total geothermal power are similar to current energy needs. There is hope.


    • Ross Collins says:

      “The text failed to mention people who have two telescope allocations, or even more extreme, two postdocs.”

      Our future president of the Royal Society is all for _some_ people having two postdocs:


      • Albert Zijlstra says:

        This is definitely against the spirit of the text. Of course, those views were not popular in the past either. The Baptist was, after all, beheaded for them.

        The choice depends on what you think is the purpose of a postdoc. If it is to produce the highest impact science for the UK, it makes sense to place the
        postdocs with the best scientists. If it is for them to develop into the top scientists of the next generation, you wuld place them with the best
        supervisors (not always the same people as the top scientists). If their purpose is to keep University departments financially viable, the postdoc
        should be distributed. In astronomy, deprtamental viability is probably the dominant need. So much (too much?) of the research funding to departments is
        tied to postdocs. In renewable energy, the need is probably more towards the first aspect.


  4. Brendan says:


    Gordon Brown said something quite telling in the second debate the other night. All nations, he said, are realising that oil is going to run out and renewables aren’t going to cut it.

    He’s quite correct. I think we can safely say we’ll see most nations going to do the following: clean coal to handle a messy switch over to nuclear power. We’re already doing it, in fact….

    Then of course we should try hold on to uranium stocks as best we can, use them as efficiently as we can, and hope we can get fusion working or a massive, insanely expensive program of renewables. Whether or not we end up doing that is another matter, and should probably be the real worry…

  5. Tom Shanks says:

    “Socialism is a spent force.”

    Given the banking crisis, I was thinking more that it was Capitalism that might be the spent force. Politics may get more interesting when ordinary people have to pay for the excesses of the rich.

    “A thousand years ago it was the Church versus the Empire.”

    I, of course, am a Guardian reading liberal. But the liberal viewpoint also has its contradictions. The last thing a Guardian reader would want is to think that their rational moral philosphy needed a religious base. But in my maths classes I was always told that any rational system needs an initial set of axioms. And if there are no underlying axioms then who is to say that one person’s rational morality is better than anyone else’s? This argument for a religious base for rational morality goes back to Kant. Anyone for joining the new Christian Socialist party?

  6. andyxl says:

    Tom – are the axioms arbitrary ? Lets have the Spaghetti Monster Socialist Party.

    Capitalism is not a spent force. It is a dangerous animal because wounded and threatened.

  7. Tom Shanks says:

    Unfortunately, the problem for anyone starting from the Guardian leader writer position is that the Spaghetti Monster Socialists’ axioms may be as good as anyone else’s. If there is no absolute axiom then who is to say that they’re not?

  8. Alan Penny says:

    I have been having the same concerns as Andy about Peak Oil.

    Since I wrote my post two things have happened. The establishment (International Energ Agency) is more pessimistic about the amount of oil. And I am getting less optimistic about the political will to solve the problem. My post posited that there was enough oil to last until renewables/nuclear/efficiency could replace it. But judging by the world response to the much worse danger of global warming, it seems likely that the response may be too little, too late. We may get into wars for resources.

    I have been dismayed that the two most important dangers facing this country – global warming and resource limits – have had almost no coverage in the Prime Ministerial Debates. It’s as though we were in 1936 and nobody was talking about the Nazis. In fact, it’s worse since in 1936 we had already started on the rearmament that lead to us and France having in 1940 more and better tanks and aeroplanes than Germany.

  9. andyxl says:

    Alan – nicely put, but surely we already have gotten into wars for resources. I wouldn’t say the Iraq war was undertaken to steal their oil; but it was I think undertaken to try to put a Western-friendly regime in place. We are happy enough to pay for our oil, but want to make sure the tap keeps running.

    The most shocking thing I read about the failed climate change talks was that it wasn’t just China blocking things, but Canada, nice liberal Canada, because they have the Alberta tar sands

  10. Martin E. says:

    Andy: YOU have an iPhone?!?

    If you want astronomers to use less energy check out: http://low-energy-astro.physics.ucsb.edu/index.php/Main_Page

    Today the Obama administration approved a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts. Old hat to the UK and Denmark, but a Big Deal to the US. Maybe we are beginning to move. Let us hope so.

    re: basis of morals – if you think like a logician you won’t understand biological or sociological phenomena, of which morals is the most remarkable example. [Cryptic, I know, but it takes pages to explain & you really don’t want to hear it.]

  11. Martin E. says:

    Top clarify at Andy’s request: Lenin published “What is to be done?”, but in 1901, way after Tolstoy. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/
    and they ought to know!

    ps Re Scientific Hero: Tolstoy also talked about this, at great length, but in a History context. War & Peace is all about how Great Men are not important to History. [and it has a jolly good love story, but who reads that part?]

  12. […] most vociferously. They would, wouldn’t they? Moreover, as Andy Lawrence pointed out on his blog recently, the oil is going to run out soon […]

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