Popularism: the third threat

The rise of UKIP in Britain is an inevitable consequence of hitting limits to growth and after climate change and  peak oil they represent the next threat to humanity.  Obviously UKIP is not so powerful as to bring the destruction of civilisation to the fore and UKIP as a political entity is not important;  but if the horses of the horsemen of our self induced apocalypse had names one would be after your local popularist political party or movement.

In the US it is the Tea Party, in Britain it is UKIP and both have a language of ‘common sense’ that hides a frightening [although confused] agenda. Unlike minor but growing political parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and the Popular Party in Spain with open neo-Nazis sympathies, new popularism politics is more subtle but just as dangerous and as close to fascism as you can get.

Fascism is a term banded about with such easy that its meaning has become obscured to be little more than an insult. It has been reduced to a caricature of totalitarian control that is used as an attack by left, right and fascists themselves against their enemies. If we discard the uniforms, the dictators, the theatre and dramatics of fascism and instead focus on its rise and actual politics the picture becomes disturbing in what seems an inevitable political outcome in governance and one we are slowly drifting towards.

Academics and historians have struggled to define Fascism, the Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start. Umberto Eco’s reasoning and definition appears to be closest to the mark, although there are many opinions to choose from

In a 1995 essay “Eternal Fascism”,[24][25] the Italian writer and academic Umberto Eco attempts to list general properties of fascist ideology. He claims that it is not possible to organise these into a coherent system, but that “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it”. He uses the term “Ur-fascism” as a generic description of different historical forms of fascism.

The features of fascism he lists (original number of features: 14) are as follows:

“The Cult of Tradition”, combining cultural syncretism with a rejection of modernism (often disguised as a rejection of capitalism).

“The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake”, which dictates that action is of value in itself, and should be taken without intellectual reflection. This, says Eco, is connected with anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, and often manifests in attacks on modern culture and science.

“Disagreement Is Treason” – fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action.

“Fear of Difference”, which fascism seeks to exploit and exacerbate, often in the form of racism or an appeal against foreigners and immigrants.

“Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class”, fearing economic pressure from the demands and aspirations of lower social groups.

“Obsession with a Plot” and the hyping-up of an enemy threat. This often involves an appeal to xenophobia or the identification of an internal security threat. He cites Pat Robertson‘s book The New World Order as a prominent example of a plot obsession.

“Pacifism Is Trafficking with the Enemy” because “Life is Permanent Warfare” – there must always be an enemy to fight.

“Contempt for the Weak” – although a fascist society is elitist, everybody in the society is educated to become a hero.

“Selective Populism” – the People have a common will, which is not delegated but interpreted by a leader. This may involve doubt being cast upon a democratic institution, because “it no longer represents the Voice of the People”.

Newspeak” – fascism employs and promotes an impoverished vocabulary in order to limit critical reasoning.

What I would add is that fascism is a response: it is reactionary politics for people who face transition in their everyday lives. It is a ‘common sense’ revolution. Given that 200 years of relatively stable growth on the back of fossil fuels is coming to an end – either because we have peak in extraction or will be forced to leave it in the ground to avoid AGW becoming catastrophic-  people’s reaction will ultimately be one of a state of shock.

UKIP, being the British example, has been little more than a fringe party with the single issue politics of getting the UK out of the EU. Founded in 1993 it has been a refuge for Euro-sceptic conservatives with a tiny support of just 3%, at most, in previous elections, however, since the economic crisis of 2008 [the first peak-oil shock] and the subsequent lack of economic recovery its support has grown with opinion polls giving it 12% and in some circumstances allowed it to overtake the Liberal party. Britain’s ‘first past the post’ democracy has meant UKIP will not benefit from its current share in Parliament but has made headway at a local level and in the European Parliament elections. Whilst the party can be dismissed at the moment the coming years of guaranteed economic decline will most probably lead to them forming a government.

It may well be that an internal rift will cause the party to implode or that it reinvents itself with a new name or the Conservatives split and form a coalition which is besides the point: what UKIP represent is popularism and it is this that will lead to fascism.

In the lexicon of scary words popularist does not rank alongside Hitler or Nazis or Fascism but it is this apparent benign nature that makes it so dangerous. Read the internet comments of UKIP supporters and a central theme is ‘common sense’. It doesn’t take long to find them- they are the Stupid White Men– who see alternative energy, peak oil and climate change as a hoax perpetuated by eco-fascist-loons in an agenda for world domination. At the heart of many of their arguments opinions is ‘common sense’: it makes common sense that CO2 being so tiny cannot be changing the climate, it makes common sense that if migrants are taking jobs then they are not available to nationals, and the EU is a dictatorship that wants to control our nation so it is a common sense solution to no longer be a member.

Humanity has been successful to a degree in controlling the influence of common sense with the adoption of science and critical thinking which has allowed our society to be free of an imaginary sky god controlling our lives via his selected law enforcers, but there is a prevalence in people that somehow we know best.  ‘I know what I know’ can  make us all armchair experts in everything from art to  managing a football team to climate science to the economy to law and order and such self belief is for a black and white world when the reality is full colour.

All political parties use popularism as do the newsmedia as it makes for an easy short-hand political messages, it is attractive by its very nature and is seductive to the voter: it appeals to our vanity. Where UKIP stray into fascism is making the exploitation of popular opinion or for that matter popular myth, a strategy, for at some point it only makes ‘common sense’ that we all can’t talk at once and that we must allow one leader to do the talking for us. That leader has to be like us but different but not like ‘career politicians’ who reside in ‘the Westminster bubble’ [or Washington Beltway which is the same as using the M25 motorway!] those kind of politicians are just self serving and are disconnected from the people they are supposedly there to serve. What is clear from UKIP supporter’s rhetoric is the threat is not just from immigrants and foreigners but the far more dangerous intellectual elite who let them in.

Nigel Farage  is no Hitler whose mythology was able to craft a careful balance between being ordinary and from a  humble background yet be an extraordinary as a leader, but Farage  does have charisma and his bawdy British humour and plain speaking evidently has appeal. The British popularists are more worrying because they are the Nigel Farages and Boris Johnsons who cover their right wing politics with a sense of humour and are ‘agreeable’. Just as criminals fail to carry bags marked swag so do fascists fail to wear swastika armbands.

Fascism is often equated with militarism, nationalism and the cult of tradition, and such a definition could be applied to the US which has an economy driven a by a war machine and a military to match, they also seem obsessed with the Stars & Stripes, their national anthem and an American identity which incorporates everything from the myth of the Wild West to the American Dream. Insofar as some would consider the US to be fascists it is not entirely an accurate picture as there are differences in that America has always been the land of opportunity for migrants. The US is currently the natural home of libertarianism evident with the emergence of the Tea Party movement, it is a philosophy that UKIP has identified itself with but it is a broad church and the politics of liberty includes everyone from anarchists to Republicans. UKIP want to double UK spending on military and like previous far right and fascist politics they have an obsession with law and order and want to double the number of prisons and police. In typical libertarian fashion UKIP have a confused ideology of both freedom for the common man, opposition to taxes and big government yet has policies that wish to impose more centralised control such as their education policy. However, picking individual policies doesn’t make a party fascist.

In the checklist of – is UKIP fascist?-  we have:

Cult of tradition– Check: the Pound, the British people and British values all have a special value.

Are these values and traditions being undermined? Check: the EU has stripped the UK of sovereignty, of self determination and of freedom. Just as the National Socialists were obsessed with the Treaty of Versailles so too is UKIP obsessed with the numerous EU treaties on closer integration. The other great bug bear is Multiculturalism: UKIP make no secret of their hostility to immigration but there is also the idea that ‘Multiculturalism’ has been imposed on the British people as an intellectual plot. In its most honest form a multicultural Britain is simply one where people have choice, of course it is not without problems [few are in favour of forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour killings as a cultural right] but UKIP labels it as having split society. UKIP stand on these single issues as the cause of our decline. Just as fascist Germany laid all the blame on the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles and the Jews who were able to be both lazy and poor and rich and absurdly powerful, so too modern Euro- nationalists are able to scapegoat minorities and single issues.

The cult of tradition also extends to a romanticised view of the craftman, the trader, and the hard working middle classes who are the backbone of morals and society. These people are then pitched against the academics, scientists and intellectuals who are an elite to be mistrusted. Despite supposedly being champions of the people UKIP is more than happy to ditch ‘uncompetitive’ working rights ‘imposed’ by Europe thus return British workers to competing with Chinese and Indians on low wagers and minimal rights. Such inconsistency makes no logic but the great thing with popularism is you can cry out for good change like cutting red tape [and who would be opposed to that] and not have to think the implications through.

Obsession with Plot, Check:- A read of the UKIP energy policy will demonstrate they believe that climate change is a hoax and that Brussels [a.k.a Eurocrats in the EU] is closing down British coal power stations for ulterior reasons. A strongly held opinion exhibited by supporters on comment threads on the internet [the Telegraph is a good place to start] is that there is a conspiracy by the EU – headed by an ironically Fascist Germany- to enslave the British as well as a New World Order of eco-socialism to bring about Agenda 21.

UKIP accepts that the world’s climate changes, but we are the first party to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims. We called for a rational, balanced approach to the climate debate in 2008, before the extensive manipulation of scientific data first became clear. Polls now show a majority of the British people share this scepticism despite protests from another LibLabCon-sensus. UKIP now calls for an immediate halt to unjustified spending on renewable sources that has led to massive energy price hikes and fuel poverty

Conspiracy theory is central to fascism and supporters of UKIP follow this trend. Lord Monckton is a leading UKIP member and believes everything from Obama faking his birth certificate to Climate Change Hoax to the greatest New World Order plot of ‘Agenda 21’.  There are a lot fringe thoughts floating about on the internet including David Icke’s 12 foot lizard people but the similarity between the fringe and the mainstream like James Delingpole [who is now a UKIP supporter] is remarkably close with James being happy to be more open about his conspiratorial beliefs with fellow investigator Alex Jones

The National Socialists [as the Right point out the Nazis had the word socialist in its name] used the faked ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ as proof that there was a master plan to enslave Germany which has been replaced today with  Agenda 21 being reinterpreted as the UN [and the EU and the people hating greens] to be a means to depopulate the planet to enable totalitarian control. UKIP is not so crazy as to promote this junk but its supporters like Monkton are and there is also a hidden story in policy documents. In saying AGW is not an issue and that windturbines and other alternatives are completely useless, that ‘climatgate’ is real, and that 1000s of pensioners die because of the cost of fuel then therefore the EU/climate science/ greens and the government must have some kind of agenda, they open the door for more exotic theories.

The Nazis were active in rewriting science- it was essential to prove that the Aryan people were the master race and condemn others to be sub-human. They used all the latest science [as well as give Darwin a bad name], with a scientific community [free of free thinkers either leaving of their own will or being expelled] that complied with political requests. These atrocities are extreme but in principle UKIP has no problem selecting the ‘science’ on AGW from sources who agree with them. Fascism promotes its own reality- even if it is flawed: Shale gas, nuclear power, and even rewriting economics -where it is possible to reduce taxes and increase spending- are no obstacle.

Fascism has the ability to step outside normal left and right politics as it can become all things to all men. Some interpret the AGW hoax and alternative energy as a means for capitalists to make more money, some interpret it as a means for the state to take more control and tax and others see it as means for communism or fascism or totalitarianism to take hold of our lives. Just like climate fake sceptics who hold contradictory views that can never be reconciled they are united as an opposition. What holds them altogether is an inherent mistrust of government caused by a disconnect from personal determination.

The appeal to the middle class  is a definite check in UKIP policy equating to fascism: Becoming disenfranchised and disempowered is not restricted to the middle-class with any effort made to combat it being a noble cause but fascism exploits it. Fascism like UKIP will seek to lay the blame on simplistic issues and minorities and ultimately fail to solve the genuine concerns of their supporters.

The last few decades of economic stability have ensured that extremist politics  remained a fringe never representing more than a few %. Relative wealth has given the luxury of tolerance but it is when things get bad that people start to feel a personal threat and demand the need for action. UKIP labels the current politics as liblabcon- the old politics that no longer represents the voice of the people, and demands revolutionary immediate action to get Britain back on the rails to success. In the coming years AGW, peak oil and the ensuing end to growth will kick in and threaten more and more people. In Germany the Nazis had less than 3% support but leapt to 37% after the failure of mainstream government to recover from the Great Depression of 1930 and it should be added that the tolerant and cosmopolitan Germany of the 1920s was primarily wealthy because of borrowing.

Unless mainstream politics starts to address the politics of a post AGW, peak oil, post growth world they will fail. Left or right the old economics of either austerity or spending is not going to return us to those heady days of unrestrained oil powered growth. Even then the neo- fascism emerging through parties like UKIP will have appeal, already the groundwork is being laid: those who accept peak oil or AGW are condemned as haters of humanity, haters of modernity who wish to enforce population reduction and return to a primitive enslaved agrarian medieval lifestyle. UKIP offer hope where we can pay less tax and have abundant oil, cheap shale gas and a promise of better things to come. And given a choice who would you vote for- the doom sayers or the optimists?

And of course they will fail- UKIP policies defy any kind of logic and that is where the real danger lies. It won’t take much for a crisis of national emergency proportions to emerge and just as Hitler used the national emergency of the burning of the Reichstag so any failing political leader could also bring about special legislation to limit Parliament  and impose dictatorship within a democracy. You don’t have to look back far into history to see how civil rights have been eliminated by emergency laws to protect us from threat.   By then, getting the bastards out of office becomes even more tricky.

Transition to a low carbon future is humanity’s greatest challenge. We need optimism, and honesty and political giants. What we don’t need is popularism, and that also includes ‘green’ sympathisers who carry on consuming but because they recycle or drive Prius make them immune from reality. Popularism afflicts all parties and blaming Big Oil or Bankers or immigrants or Indians who have ‘too many children’ doesn’t get us very far and in its worst manifestation such as UKIP government would set us back so far we may not be able to recover.

There is one last facet to fascism which is a kind of narrative that leads to a destiny, it is a pseudo religious aspect of  of a once golden age that has been taken away by the enemy [be it Jews or bankers or indeed greens and communists] but destiny will return the people to a new age of prosperity.

How China will eat the World

and please ignore or correct any of my dodgy math. I was just wondering so I set my self a little challenge to look at the figures, of course there are caveats in that the subject of resources is complex and it seems most of the official figures are little more than guesses. So when will China eat the World?

Coal consumption- is somewhere between 3.7 and 4 billion tons in 2012- in 20 years China’s total consumption  will be 160 billion tons.

Chinese coal reserves are between 70- 90 billion tons so that would be gone well before 2033. With  Global reserves an optimistic 600 billion tons there is still plenty of the stuff in the ground- However most of the coal reserves are in the US and Russia – the US consumes 1 billion tons every year so it might want to keep a little back for itself and the 600 billion figure is not proven reserves- that is reserves that can and will be mined but all reserves. Alaska has billions of tons of coal but it is very unlikely it will be ever mined because of the energy costs of building and operating mines as well as ports and towns to support the workers in such an isolated place. Knowing how much of that 600 billion figure is actually usable is a mystery.

Unlike oil or gas where it possible to find new reserves the likelihood of new coal fields is very low. If the World [excluding China] had zero growth in coal extraction and a constant 3.5 billion ton extraction rate each year for 20 years then 70 billion tons needs to be subtracted from the 600,  add China’s 160 billion tons of extraction and that [= 230 – 600] amounts to = 370. If China grew 7% for another 10 years 210 billion tons of coal would be consumed and if the World remained at zero % growth in the same period  it would consume 35 billion tons. Which means that 600 billion ton figure could last 30 years if everyone else stop coal consumption growth- which they won’t.

Oil consumption- China is seeing not 7% growth in car sales but 15%-20%. Currently oil consumption is 9 million barrels a day – about 10% of world production [90 million barrels a day]. Oil figures are designed, it seems to confuse- being in barrels a day rather than tons a year- World consumption is 5 billion tons each year-  of which China’s share is 10% of 5,000,000,000 = 0.5 billion tons.

Motor car growth does not represent all oil consumption growth as about half goes into other aspects of the economy- so lets be reasonable and assume it will be 10% increase each year. In 20 years time China will have consumed 31 billion tons of the Worlds oil reserves.

Current world oil reserves 280 billion tons and if the rest of the world remained at zero % growth about 100 billion tons would be consumed and if we added China’s consumption that is half of all the remaining oil gone in 20 years. And if China’s growth continued it would consume nearly twice as much in the follow 10 years as it did in the previous 20- that’s another 50 billion tons.

However about a third of the total 280 billion tons of oil is Canadian and Venezuelan tar and heavy oils which is the difference between peanut butter pouring out of a jar verses the normal crude that comes out like milk- Canadian tarsands  will last simply because at double the  current rates of extraction =1 billion barrels per year, it will take over 150 years to extract.

China would consume half of all oil reserves in 30 years BUT only if everybody in the world sustained their consumption rates- and I don’t think India would be happy with that- and it came out of the ground in a uniformly growing amount. Oil is  not sitting in a warehouse allowing for instant supply on demand-  as fields decline so their output slows. For China to sustain it’s growth in oil consumption it also has to work out a way to defy physics.

Iron ore- Iron is everywhere and the Earth has a core of the stuff but economic iron ore is less common and with exponential growth of just 2% in world demand the rich sources of the ore would be gone in 64 years. China who is rapidly become the consumer of half of all global resources imports most of Australia’s iron ore which is expected to last 50 years.

Aluminium- there is currently over 130 years of reserves of bauxite [aluminium ore] at current rates of consumption Globally growth in consumption is 5% where as in China it 7%- and again the exponential rate of consumption means that for every ten years twice as much will be consumed bringing the 130 to 30 years at current rates of growth. China consumes 42% of global  aluminium with it to exceed 50% in the next 10 years.

Uranium- current consumption and reserves give about 60 years before new resources must be found. 60 years at current rates of consumption. China is increasing nuclear power by 5x times in 10 years and as there are limits to how much coal it can import within the coming couple of decades so that number can only increase. Power stations are not the same as cars- if power station construction growth is 20% it does not mean they will end up with thousands of nuclear plants in 50 years but if the current number of nuclear power station is doubled over 20 years that uranium supply is not going to last 60 years.

If in some la la land China could grow exponentially at 10% or even 7% each year then China would eat the world in about 30 years, sure some things like iron ore would be abundant but the coal to smelt it and the diesel to power the trucks that mine it would be long gone. Other countries have shown similar growth over similar number of years in history such as Britain and the Age of Coal or the US in the Age of Oil but in each case the finite resources were a lot less finite than they are now. China is hitting some real limits to growth now and these limits are not geographical but those of the Globe, unless it can start exploiting resources in asteroids and other parts of the Solar System thee is a very large wall looming- or cliff. All of this speculation ignores the growth expectations of the Indians or Russians or Brazilians [ and we cannot ignore the rest of the developing world either] or for that matter the growing populations with growing expectations in oil producing countries like Iran Iraq, Saudi etc.

A big caveat to the limits of growth are the ‘black swans’- things that we just don’t think about but should- like water. Nuclear power stations work reasonable well but they need lots of water, so it is possible with abundant uranium [or thorium] to keep the lights on unless there is a drought and the river diminishes no amount of fuel will allow it to run. Unbridled growth in China has brought extreme levels of pollution and at some point middle-class Chinese will demand change.

I don’t envy Chinese dictatorship- it has entered into a doomed arrangement where it offers wealth in exchange for freedom from its people- if the cars are not delivered, if the electricity fails and if the people cannot be bought with consumer goods then it will be the Chinese curse of ‘may you live in interesting times’.

So given these stark limitations what do you think will really happen?


“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

is a statement of fact that neatly ties in with Thatcher’s funeral, the miner’s strike of 1985 and history in the making.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” is said by Al Bartlett and I was recently reminded of his lecture [available in full on his website] by fellow blogger Pedantry on his Wibble blog. The lecture seems to be recorded over a decade ago but Al is still doing live presentations so it would be interesting to see how it has changed in the light of recent human history. The 1 hour lecture is broken up into 10 minute parts so if you have any attention deficiency I would recommend this one.

It is of interest to me because it deals with coal. Specifically he deals with US coal but it can be extended to world coal consumption. Of course this is of great interest because if we burn all the reserves of coal rather than leave it in the ground then we will push Global Warming beyond the ‘safe’ 2c into 4 or 5 or 6c. How safe a 2c warmer planet will be is a matter of conjecture given that just 0.8c we have now is…well.. interesting to say the least and it will be decades before the current heat escapes from the oceans into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels have been the fuel of ALL growth over the last 200 years:- population, rising standards of living, healthcare, agricultural productivity- you name it and fossil fuels have fuelled it and that includes things like debt as well as the larger economy. My guess, and I come with no special expertise beyond reading what different experts have to say, is that we hit the oil peak in 2005/6 and since it has been a plateaux with a downward tendency reflecting the global economy.

In a world that didn’t need to deal with climate change [or choose to ignore it] there is the option to return to coal as a replacement for oil, after all, there is 200 years of coal reserves and surely the  technology is there to make coal into petrol as the South Africans did during apartheid.

One of the first problems in investigating the state of coal [or peak oil] is the complete lack of information. Government agencies and energy analysts may write reports on reserves of the most important founding asset of our civilisation but the quality of the data they draw on is frankly appalling. Saudi Arabia is secretive about how much oil it has in reserves as are other OPEC countries, whereas the top 200 private oil companies are looking to build confidence in investors to sustain its $1.5 trillion debt whilst it spends more for diminishing returns on investment. Countries and business lie.  China has huge reserves of coal and consumes half of all the coal mined in the World but Chinese coal estimates haven’t changed in 20 years despite billions of tonnes being extracted.

China may have enough coal reserves to plunge the World into a 4c nightmare warming, or it might have far less- we don’t know. Given that fossil fuels are the very foundations of modern human civilisation I find it extraordinary that governments  at Global level don’t make it a priority to find out how much there is and how likely we are going to turn AGW into CAGW.

One thing the few studies do agree on is the lack of information concerning world coal reserves but as a primer there are few things that are worth knowing about coal.

Resources and Reserves-

All fossil fuels are spoken of in terms of resources and reserves – resource is all the estimated barrels or tons or cubic feet [of gas] and reserves are what can be considered to be used. When it comes to resource and reserves the reality is that less than half of the resource is recovered. Resources of coal will include seams that only an inches thick, or very deep or inconsistent so even ‘proven’ reserves may stay in the ground.

Coal is not coal

Coal is quite a general term and there several distinct types ranging from lignite to anthracite and in the top end of quality there is graphite  and jet. In energy terms lignite has the third of the energy equivalent of oil and ‘hard’ coal has 2/3rd the energy oil weight for weight, but even this is a generalisation. Coal may be very wet and require drying out, it may be high in sulphur causing acid rain or high in mineral content which is how much ash is left or full of ‘wet gas’ : methane, making mining problematic.

We always exploit the best first

It is that simple- the low hanging fruits are picked first, and we tend to select the ripest- insect free ones first. The best also mean the cheapest with the best return. The undeniable fact is that tarsands, tight oil, deepwater and Arctic drilling are the most expensive oil fields out there and is what scrapping the oil barrel looks like: proof that Peak Oil has happened. In the US the same can be said for coal despite increasing production energy output of the coal mined peaked in 2004. A billion tons of coal now is not the same as a billion tons a decade ago- the industry is forced to mine more to get the same energy back.

The ideal coal mine would have seams 2 metres thick and few geological faults, in reality coal seams can be an inch thick and interrupted by geological faults as well as be prone to flooding and plenty of other issues to detailed to mention, the Miners Strike and the battle with the Thatcher Government was not supposedly about Britain running out of coal but the economics.

The US has the World’s largest reserves of coal  and thankfully has an independent scientific community, the US Geological Survey of the most important coal fields in Wyoming that produce 37% of US coal production reported that the original reserve of 200 billion tons had been reduced to 77 billion by 2006 of which only 10 billion tonnes could ever be recovered.  At current rate of extraction that would mean the field would be exhausted by 2026 and that certainly requires no increase in consumption because as Al Bartlett makes clear modest growth has an exponential effect.

In the US during the 70s [according to al Bartlett’s lecture] there was 500 years of American coal ‘at current rates of production’ but as his graph points out just 3% growth [the average growth in coal extraction between 1970-90] each year [and it may be pointed out that China has exceeded 10% growth in recent decades] American reserves of coal run out in 70 years making the last ton of US coal to be burnt will be in the 2040s. A higher 7% growth rate which has been seen in the past would mean coal mining would come to an end in 40 years [from 1970s] however growth has been restrained in the US coal sector but the reductions in reserve estimates means that 2025 or so is about right. Coal has already peaked in the World’s  largest reserves perhaps a decade ago and the decline, due to the nature and rate of extraction is a cliff not a curve. Unlike oil wells which deplete slowly because of physical constraints as pressure drops or in the case of Saudi the sea water pumped in to squeeze out the last of the oil makes up a greater percentage of the oil/water that is extracted, coal on the other hand can be in full production one year and simply run out the next.

Britain has demonstrated a number of firsts- it was the birth place of the Industrial Revolution, the cradle, if you like of our modern consumer world where a number of factors came together and humanity was able grow beyond the limits set by nature. And initially that paradigm shift was driven by coal. One of the many turning points occurred just a half hour drive from where I live: Iron Bridge was where Abraham Derby started to commercially use coke rather than charcoal to make iron, turning coal into coke had been known for years but he exploited it to make far more iron than anyone before him. Coal was king reaching a peak around the First World War at 300 million tons per year.

Britain also has had gas and oil and just as coal needed to be imported, the junction between our a declining coal and the potential of North Sea Oil and Gas coming on line was the 1970s, a period of domestic strife and recession, marked by the birth of punk in 1976. By the 1980s oil and gas were being exported and it was only in 2005 that Britain was forced to import oil and gas again, there is still some left but the monies from the exports has dried up forever. The peaks and troughs in fossil fuels is reflected in the politics as both Thatcher and Blair benefited from such wealth. This history of fossil wealth failing to enter into the mythology that surrounds Thatcher’s demise.  Now Britain is experiencing its own post- peak fossil fuel decline.

'UK Balance' graph from the APPGOPO presentation, November 2009

British coal is perhaps an insight into how global coal supplies will pan out.

As a kid I remember being told we had 400 or 200 years of coal but the real figures have turned out to be something different.

The proved recoverable coal reserves of the United Kingdom were reported at 45 billion tons with estimated additional resources of 145 billion tons in 1980.

In the following years the “proved” recoverable reserves were downgraded several times: to 9 billion tons in 1987, to 8.6 billion tons in 1990, to 3.3 billion tons in 1992, to 2 billion tons in 1995, to 1 billion tons in 1998, and finally to 0.22 billion tons in the latest report in 2004.

Between  1980 and 2004 1.8 billion [metric] tons [2 billion US short tons] were mined yet the reserves shrank from 190 billion tons to 0.22 billion.

Current UK consumption is 64 million tonnes – China used 3.7 billion tonnes in 2012 [figures vary!]

If one were to approach the UK coal reserves with caution it would be evident that deep mines are more expensive than open cast mining, and that we have a higher paid workforce than China or Poland and our geology is more problematic. This is true but coal has quadrupled in price in a decade and the mines that were not closed down by the Tories  and subsequent privatisation have been profitable- they simply ran out of coal or hit geological problems. Thatcher and Scargill were both wrong:  Arthur Scargill claimed that job losses were not just those of the miners effected but their sons, British coal mining would have been profitable as prices soared but there was never long term future. It was an ideological clash  but the tragedy was the oil wealth was not spent to provide a transition for the communities affected.

There is certainly huge resources of coal in the world whether in Alaska or Siberia or Mongolia but these are distant locations from any market and cannot be pumped like oil but instead needs a huge workforce, infrastructure and distribution network which currently would be run on oil unless the return to Victorian methods. Likewise there are possibly huge reserves in Montana USA that could make up for the steep declines that may hit Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Montana boosts it has twice the reserves of Wyoming but produces only a tenth of output so with global demand for coal being at an all time high why is the coal staying in the ground? One reason, perhaps, is that most of it is under ranchers fields who see no profit in seeing their land strip mined and the other is one of geography- it simply is too far way from major cities and the power plants that feed them. The same could be said of Russia’s huge resource under Siberian forests or Alaska coal under frozen tundra.

China and coal is the most interesting of all- will they cook us with their 10 coal power station being built every week – or what  ever- or is something else going on?

Due to the rapid growth in extraction China’s coal reserves – the third largest in the World- the date of depletion is moving rapidly to the near future. Quite when is a mystery but if the Wyoming reserves, those of the UK, Germany and Poland are any kind of clue then it is likely that estimates for Chinese Coal will range from half as much to just 10% of the assumed amount.

China is fully aware that their current rate of exponential growth is not sustainable and under their 5 year plan [2010-2015] they are looking to cap extraction at around 3 to 4 billion tons. Based on their 1990 reserve figures this would give 40 years of consumption at zero growth with growth in electricity demand being taken up with nuclear/wind/solar and possible shale gas. [Even conservative estimates reckon on peak production occurring in 2020 followed by a sharp decline].  If they have the reserves they say they have then we have to worry about their CO2 emission, if they don’t have the reserves we face a transition from fossil fuels to renewables which will be bumpy and possibly unachievable.

If Chinese coal is 10% or 50% of the estimate reserves we should know within the next 5 to 20 years. whatever the answer to this mystery the phrase ‘stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea’ comes to mind.

Links– and the most comprehensive report on the subject.

Graphs of our changing world.

Interesting Graphs from around the web of a changing world and in particular a changing Britain.

Graph showing utility prices for the last 20 years

Infographic provided by Castle Cover

In this UK gas and electricity price history 2005 marks the point when prices start to climb, inflation is about 5%+ above ordinary inflation and it is expected to get worse meaning household energy bills will double every 7-10 years. But don’t be too hard on the Water Utilities who have been amazingly consistent.

With Electricity going up now is the time to buy solar panels as they have never been so cheap. The halving in price for an average 4kw system in just a few years is unlikely to continue.


2005 a year that marked the point when North Sea oil production declined to the point the UK needed to import oil again.

File:Exports BP 2009 gas m3 GB MZM NONE auto .png

Unfortunately gas production was also in decline around the same time.

UK debt

Debt appears to have replaced North Sea oil revenue.


In comparison to other countries the UK did perhaps, spend the money wisely – Egypt spent a great deal of  its oil wealth subsidising basic food stuffs like wheat and selling fuel for pennies, when the oil declined so did the public compliance with its tyrant.


Since the peak of growth in the late 80s [and despite the short sharp recession of 91 which was as much to do with growth and over inflated house prices that crashed over night] the trend has been down, slowly to the point we are at zero growth as of 2013.

It is all about oil.


It’s all about oil even when we are talking the price of bread.

Trends in crime since 1981Thankfully a decline in growth does not equate to more crime and if anything crime has declined at a similar rate to growth. All reported crime which has remained static, tends towards antisocial behaviour increasing with serious offences decreasing. Some crime has diminished because security is better and stealing DVD players and other ‘luxury’ goods are not worth the returns.

Perhaps the end of growth will also be reflected in a reduction in obesity. Does peak oil also equate to peak fat? the UK figures perhaps indicate that obesity rates are in the decline.

Chart showing UK real disposable income

Real disposable income in the UK is declining fast, wages are no longer keeping up with taxes and inflation. Interestingly the spikes and dips correlate with North Sea Oil production, a pattern that one would expect from major oil exporting countries like Saudi Arabia or one of the Gulf states.  It is often assumed the oil importers would be the first to suffer in a post peak oil world but it appears that the producers like the UK [and Egypt as well as many other countries in the same situation] suffer earlier.

A late find: it occurred to me that total oil production was irrelevant as what mattered is oil exports- Saudi could increase production but if its home use is so great exports would decline, and guess what? from this blog.


Global oil [in exports ]  has declined a staggering 5%, no wonder we are in recession.



Conspiracy nation: 37% Americans think climate change a hoax; 30% fear a New World Order; 27% think Obama is the anti-Christ

I have reposted Watching the Deniers blog because it makes for interesting yet disturbing reading, there are also some nice links. If the numbers are correct and a third of Americans are just plain barking mad then this is obviously disturbing. As humanity enters into a new post industrial age when we have to deal with both AGW and diminishing oil and growth people need to turn to logic and not faith. Yet I fear past experience may signal a future road map where faith whether religious fundamentalism or fascism will stifle the words of reason that need to be so desperately heard.

Watching the Deniers


The prevalence of conspiracy theories within a society or nation can have a profound effect on its politics. Indeed for the last several decades scholars of conspiracy culture have been signalling the growing acceptance of conspiracy beliefs across the globe and their potential to distort political debate.

As Kathryn Olmsted notes in her work, Real Enemies: conspiracy theories and American democracy from World War 1 to 9/11the prevalence of conspiracy theories can lead the ordinary citizen to become:

“… less likely to trust the government to do anything: to conduct fair elections, say, or spend their tax money, or protect their children or the planet. The result is a profoundly weakened polity, with fewer citizens voting and more problems left un-addressed for a future generation that is even more cynical about the possibility of reforms.’ (page 238)

And while there has been a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories, there are some that are particular to what…

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