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Wednesday, 27 April 2005


Some believe that the decreasing oil production portends a drastic impact on human culture and modern technological society, which is currently heavily dependent on oil as a fuel, chemical feedstock and fertilizer. Petroleum underlies just about everything we do. Over 90% of transportation relies either directly or indirectly on oil. Some envisage a Malthusian catastrophe occurring as oil becomes more costly and increasingly inefficient to produce. No other known energy source is as cheap to extract, as easy to transport, and as full of energy as oil. Cheap conventional oil is one of the primary factors making our affluent, comfortable modern way of life possible. It follows that when oil is no longer cheap, our way of life will be disrupted to the point of unsustainability.

Since the 1940s, agriculture has dramatically increased its productivity, due largely to the use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers, and increased mechanisation.

This increase in food production has allowed the world population to grow dramatically over the last 50 years. Pesticides rely upon oil as a critical ingredient, and fertilisers require both oil and natural gas. Farm machinery also requires oil. Some have speculated that a decreasing supply of oil will cause modern industrial agriculture to collapse, leading to a drastic decline in food production, food shortages and possibly even mass starvation. Not only does modern agriculture use fossil fuels for fertilizers, and machinery, it depends heavily on transportation, groundwater pumping and irrigation.

No other energy source can match conventional oil for versatility, portability, ease of storage, net energy yield, and so on.

The Worlds' population is now around 6.5 Billion. This was only made possible by fossil fuel operated means of production. In order to grow the great quantities of food necessary to support this many bodies, large-scale distribution, automation, mechanization and co-ordination of countless systems is required. The sophisticated connectivity of modern society makes it possible for the division of labour and mass food production.

This also makes it very fragile.

Moreover, costlier energy will exacerbate our already-worsening water problems by making it costlier to purify and recycle contaminated water and to drill for, pump, and transport ground water.

Peak 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.

The power grid is at risk. If it goes down for any significant period of time (weeks or months), the resulting chaos and economic collapse would ensure our demise as a modern civilization.

International trade will drop to a fraction of current levels. After all, when the fractional banking system and means of payments dissolves, how will shipping companies get paid?....

How can their ships get refuelled and maintained when distribution fails? ...

Where can they get repair parts and tools when automated factories fail?....

Who will buy the products being shipped when most modern economies fail? ....

What will their employees do when they don't get paid?.......

Isn't it Ironic that technology, with all the benefits and progress it enabled and promised, will also be the cause of our undoing? No one is immune either, we will all be affected. There will be many lessons to be learned through the pains of collapse.

The effects will be grimmest in agriculture. As cornucopians always brag, modern agriculture is fantastically more productive than traditional farming. What they overlook is that it gives hostages to hydrocarbons.

The Tangled Web of Infrastructure Interdependencies

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 and routine disturbance (whether caused by natural forces, mechanical failure or sabotage) can cascade into a regional outage and can affect many other systems.

An example of interdependencies can be illustrated by looking at a simplified relationship between the electric power and natural gas infrastructures. Electricity provides the power for compressors, storage and control systems in natural gas production. Natural gas, in turn, provides fuel for the electric generators. The web of interdependencies among our nation's critical infrastructure is far more complex of course, but one can see even from this simple example how various infrastructures affect others.

Our increasing reliance on information and telecommunications technologies has increased the interdependencies, which now transcend individual public and private companies. Infrastructure linkages also vary significantly in scale and complexity on local, regional, national and global scales. Interdependencies can be physical, cyber, geographic or logical. They may be loosely or tightly connected, with a linear or complex relationship. The effects of disturbances in one infrastructure can cause immediate, short term or long term effects in other infrastructures.

Currently, gaps exist in our capability to analyze and understand the full interconnectedness of the country's infrastructure - limiting our ability to plan for disturbance response, determine appropriate assurance and protection plans, and encourage cooperation among infrastructure owners, government and other key actors. But it is critical to do so, as numerous government agencies, economic sectors and the public at large all have an important stake in preserving the stability of our infrastructure systems.

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! What muddies the equation somewhat is that infrastructures are 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.

We are now in a world and that is heavily dependent on computers. They have been integrated into society, and intertwined and networked to a degree that staggers the mind.

The electronic storage and flow of information is now the life blood of modern industrialized nations. Countless systems in every economic sector require dependable storage, calculation and transfer of data to control critical business and governmental functions. 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 subjects it to supply chain problems as there is little slack for error.

Since businesses store very little inventory, any disruption in the delivery of goods and (electronic) services can have immediate negative effects. There is simply no possibility of reverting back to manual systems (i.e. pen & paper) when the computers go down, as there are no manual systems to revert back to. The infrastructure of 30 years ago has been replaced.

In order to understand the problem, the subject of systems must be addressed. The international economy is a complex web of interconnected systems, where every component depends on one another to function. This chained interdependency extends to all regions of the economy. The Peak Oil problem threatens all these systems with partial or complete failure.

So to recap.

The three core infrastructure sectors

The three core sectors must remain in operation in order for the rest of society to function. These are banking, power, 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.

For example, 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). If banking, power, and telecommunications fail, the affected nation (or planet) suffers mass famine, unprecedented internal turmoil, and eventually returns to a pre-1900's or earlier civilization.

But this definition is incorrect for local, personal planning. The local iron triangle is power, water, and telecommunications. 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. But a modern city could not exist without power and telecommunications (which depend on each other) and water and sewerage treatment facilities. This item alone could render all other items irrelevant. If water treatment facilities fail, the affected cities are wiped out. People either leave or they die. And dead people can't work at the banks, the telecomm companies and the power companies. Without water, no city survives. But by far the greatest of these is power.

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.

This networked interdependency of the economy is not as resilient as it may appear. In fact, it is more fragile as there more nodes to fail in a complex modern industrial economy. As long as there are no major shocks everything runs smoothly. When there is an outside shock (like the 2000 fuel protests in the UK) the resulting economic dislocation cascades through every sector causing immediate and staggering losses. The sudden rise in oil prices will raises business costs, which in turn lead to cut backs, lower profits and layoffs. Some companies will go out of business, causing a downturn in the general economy which then feeds on itself in a downward spiral.

Then we must deal with business failures and disruptions of suppliers to which the death of only a few would severely hamper or completely halt any large and complex corporation's ability to produce a product or service. So even if company 'A' is able to function, it will have to deal with suppliers who may not be able to deliver because of other system failures and disruptions. Losses are enormous if company 'A' cannot temporarily deliver its product and therefore collect sales revenue. By the time it finds and co-ordinates other suppliers, if it can find them, to keep its production or business running, it may already be too late; it will have gone bankrupt. (See current new items on the Rover collapse).

Aside from failures within industries and suppliers, organizations must worry about outside factors which enable it to conduct business. This means water, electricity, heat and fuel must be freely flowing, and a means of payment, financing and capitalization (banking and stock market) is operational.

Let me take a more detailed look at the various main sectors that make up our systems.

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' pose serious long-term risks as well.

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.

Subjective assessment:

Petroleum shortages through failures of the transportation industry, which will cut back availability of fuel for transport 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 we fail to succeed in keeping up the grid, power companies, suppliers and all portions which make this sector operational for 6-8 consecutive weeks or so despite these efforts, we can assume it may not go back up due to destruction of capital base and deterioration of physical infrastructure. It can then be assumed that modern civilization would collapse.


Our modern society depends on this 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. What does this mean?

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.

We are an international economy with increasing interdependencies. Every day untold billions of dollars are transferred between countries by means of satellites and under-sea cables which are control by time sensitive computers.

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 a company cannot deliver its product due to serious supply chain disruptions, it will go bankrupt.

If there are wide-spread power failures, they will be unable to keep the communication lines operational, thereby bringing the rest of the economy down with it. But the power industry also requires functioning communication lines between plants for automated power production--the ultimate catch-22. If the Banking system collapses, so does our means of payment.


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

Since the economy is very interdependent, transportation relies on the availability of fuel, electric power, banking and telecommunications systems which will also be suffering failures. Without power everything begins shutting down after a few days. But if the trucks and trains stop and products can no longer be delivered, electrical power will eventually go.

Air travel is also critical to our economy and for world trade.

The transport industry is not only at risk from the economic implications of an international banking crisis, which affect profitability and ability to conduct business; it requires availability of parts and fuel from countless suppliers.

The trucking industry has become increasingly more reliant on information technology and electronic data interchange in the everyday conduct of business transactions. The process of just-in-time inventory management has drastically reduced reliance on long-term warehouse storage. Consequently, trucking companies have in a sense become mobile warehouses that rely on a dependable stream of up-to-date information in order to effectively service customers.

The petroleum industry supply of fuel for planes, trains and automobiles is at risk. The oil companies depend on the Maritime industry to ship oil in super tankers. These in turn rely on the petroleum industry for fuel. A catch 22 situation.

Trucks and rail transport the bulk of our commodities including chemicals, wheat, corn, coal and manufactured goods. The industry relies on suppliers that could shut down operations. If trains and trucks are halted and cannot ship food for the cities, it will rot in the fields, resulting in famine. If coal and oil cannot be delivered to electricity generation plants, the power grid could be affected. If the power goes down, so does our ability to fly, drive, drill and refine for oil and coal and virtually everything else.


The biggest issue with manufacturing is the domino effect. Modern manufacturing operates on a "just-in-time" fashion which has virtually eliminated inventories.

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 such as petroleum must be free of disruptions. Unavailability of fuel would stop shipments to factories. All of the above requires the electrical Power grid to function. Electricity generating plants also require the manufacturing sector to build generators and replacement parts for routine maintenance.

Modern manufacturing is the epitome of complexity and the division of labour. It is largely the basis of our value added wealth, and to disruptions which will certainly prove fatal.

International Trade.

These sectors all interact and require one another to make up the larger system known as Modern Industrial Society. Large scale failures in one component create a choke point which hampers the function of the larger system. Completely eliminate any one or more of the above sectors and the system itself collapses... like a house of cards. Most importantly the "Iron Triangle " of power, banking and telecommunications, the economy and infrastructure would be strained to the point of systemic failure, and would also collapse.

Cities are also living systems. Urban centres are the pinnacle of modern civilization and the result of mechanization and increased division of labour, burning of fossil fuels, progression and adoption of technology that enabled mass food production and freed millions from the burden of farm life. They depend on a constant, tremendous input of goods and critical resources. City dwellers depend on food shipped from the surrounding rural areas which is produced by only about 6% of the population. The fuel to transport, grow and harvest crops is found and refined elsewhere. Minerals and resources used to build urban structures and the vehicles used to transport them are brought in from elsewhere. In addition, agricultural regions depend on cities to manufacture needed machinery, tractors and supplies.

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. If one goes down, the rest are dragged down with it. The potential domino effect and resulting economic disruption can be clearly imagined.

From this analysis we can deduce that any 'system' reacting to or involved (directly or indirectly) will fail and breakdown. Hence, we are facing not only a collapse of the current monetary, banking and capitalization systems, but most functions of urban systems as well.

A collapse of global trade on par with or exceeding the 1930’s is bound to occur. The infrastructure, subject to decay and neglect, will deteriorate. A halting of most complex manufacturing processes can be expected due to the domino effect with disastrous consequences. A severe displacement in the division of labour must necessarily occur thereafter, with extremely high unemployment levels.

We are facing a system-wide collapse of the world's economy. Many countries and governments will fall into complete disarray with no remaining infrastructure. The situation is compounded and multiplied by global failures of electric power, telecommunications, finance, transportation and government services.

The modern computerized & automated global food chain which is dependent on all the previously mentioned systems for growing, processing and transporting will be greatly impaired, resulting in wide-spread food shortages, hunger and a possible reduction in population.

If the national Power Grid overloads and goes down from serious failures of electrical utilities and their suppliers for several weeks or more, the resulting chaos may keep it down. If this occurs, all of the above is irrelevant. We would witness the total collapse of civilization as we know it.

Let me look at three industries in a little greater depth.

Fossil fuel limits & hidden dependencies: Petrochemicals, Plastics, Fertilizers,. . .

Our global economic system and societies are sustained by finite fossil fuel resources. Yet instead of conserving the vital resources, fossil fuel use continues to increase. Many are aware of the increasing price of fuel for motor cars, but most people seem unaware of our wider dependence on fossil fuels for food production, plastics, pharmaceuticals, synthetic rubber, textiles, automobiles, packaging, building, construction, electronics, general manufacturing etc.



Currently, petrochemicals are the first link in a chain of industries that ultimately use hydrocarbons as raw materials. This industry is at the head of a supply chain that generates a vast range of goods. The industry converts large quantities of the lighter hydrocarbon fractions, mostly natural gas, into a few basic chemicals. To drive its chemical reactions, it needs not only hydrocarbon energy, but also the very stuff of hydrocarbons, carbon and hydrogen as raw materials.

Plastics, pharmaceuticals, synthetic rubber and textiles are a few of the many industries that rely on a supply of raw material from petrochemicals and in turn from fossil fuels.

Synthetic fertilizers are another major user of hydrocarbon feedstock. All these industries are threatened by a future raw materials supply crisis. We are rapidly moving towards Peak Oil, followed by declining natural gas availability, and finally to coal depletion. [1]

In considering the post-hydrocarbon era, we need to examine the effects of increasing shortage, or even complete absence in the supply of hydrocarbon feedstock to vital industries. What will be the effect on the industries themselves? How will absence of these industries affect the world’s population? Can these industries be restructured to increase the chances of surviving the final energy crisis?

Plastics third biggest consumer of petroleum

Perhaps the leading example of the ubiquitous nature of the hydrocarbon-based industry chain is plastics, the third biggest consumer of petroleum products after energy and transport. [2]

About 10% of total world refinery output, or around 650 Million tons per year, is used by the plastics industry for its feedstock and energy needs. Countless numbers of manufactured products are either made from plastics, or contain plastic components. Very few consumer products in today’s market-place contain no plastic parts at all.

Plastics are an enormous vertically-integrated industrial-economic entity, in terms of revenue, physical infrastructure, people employed, use of energy and resources, and linkages with various upstream and downstream industries. Some of the world’s largest companies, Dow Chemicals, Dupont and Monsanto for example, produce the basic chemicals that are its building blocks. Downstream from these producers of bulk plastics are manufacturers of more complex plastics and manufacturers of plastics products. A large support industry serves manufacturers of plastic products, producing machinery for the plastics industry, such as plastic extrusion machines, plastic injection moulding machines and their associated dies. The plastics industry produces a wide range of intermediate and final goods (manufactured products used by other industries, or by final consumers), for a multitude of industries including automobiles, packaging, building and construction, electronics and general manufacturing.

Whatever the plastic, the feedstock and the industry’s energy requirements are at present exclusively derived from oil and gas. Unless another source of feedstock can be found, the plastics industry, in its present form, can only continue as long as world oil and gas supply lasts. It is probable that it would not last this long as it would be forced out of business by increase costs due to the rise in petroleum prices.

Plastics and the post-oil era

Economists, when challenged about shortage of resources say substitutes will always be found, therefore the growth economy can continue indefinitely. "Technology will provide" is their standard mantra. The faith of economists in technological solutions is touching but naïve and not shared by technologists charged with the task of producing technological solutions. To date no effective, cheap or large-scale alternative has been found to substitute "something else" for oil and gas feedstock, though suggestions have been made.

One problem with placing too much faith in technology is that nature will always provide an event greater than the specified design criteria, at some point in the future. That "some time" could be tomorrow. Another problem with technology is that it sometimes fails-after all, it is designed by human beings. Mistakes can be made in design, materials, or construction or even in the operation of any system.

One touted remedy is to simulate the traditional feedstock of hydrocarbons by sourcing the hydrocarbons from growing plants, which are themselves essentially hydrocarbons. Limited research has already been conducted into genetic engineering of plants designed for feedstock to the petrochemical industry. [3]

But the world’s arable land is now fully occupied producing enough food to feed a world population still growing at about 70 - 80 million a year. As Mark Twain once remarked about land, "they ain’t making any more of it." In fact, the amount of arable land in the world probably peaked some years ago, and is now declining through a combination of commercial development, erosion, water shortages, water quality problems, desertification, spreading salinity and acidity, and various other consequences of man’s disastrous impact on the environment.

Additionally, researchers conclude, the amount of land needed to grow feedstock replacement biomass would be prodigious. Estimates from different authorities vary, but as a solution to the post-oil energy problem, the biomass solution cannot, on the most optimistic assumptions, provide the complete solution.

For example, a rough average figure to drive the present transportation system of the U.S. from ethanol made from biomass would require plantings of an area about twice that presently under crop. [4]

The underlying problem for biomass solutions to fossil fuel depletion is the intrinsic energy inefficiency of nature’s photosynthetic process. Only about one percent or so of incident solar energy ends up in the plant. Even tomorrow’s genetic modifications offer little prospect that the growth rate of plants will increase a million-fold! On balance, the proposal to grow plants for making plastics is probably no more workable than similar proposals to grow biomass for bioethanol and biodiesel fuels. We must seek our feedstock for tomorrow’s petrochemical industries elsewhere. So where do we look?

Reduce demand - culture change

The two principal chemical elements that go into making petrochemicals are hydrogen and carbon. These elements are present on the planet in large quantities in various forms. An essentially limitless amount of hydrogen in oceans can be separated from oxygen by electrolysis providing sufficient energy is available for the process. The obvious immediate sources of carbon are coal, carbon dioxide of the atmosphere and carbonate rocks.

But making petrochemicals from these sources is much more difficult than making them from hydrocarbons, which bring carbon and hydrogen to the petrochemicals industry in a particularly convenient form. Carbon and hydrogen in hydrocarbons are already chemically combined with each other, storing in their chemical bonds energy supplied by the sun of a distant time and perhaps the heat energy of compression and radiation acquired from millions of years locked in the crust of the earth. In the post-oil and gas era, a plastics industry is theoretically possible, but will be a great deal more difficult, and require much more energy per unit of production. Thereby would probably not be cost effective given the interdependence of our systems.

In view of the supply side problems of this industry, the demand-side merits attention. Potential certainly exists to reduce demand. Much of the massive amount of plastic now manufactured is wasted as throwaway packaging materials. One option, and by no means the complete solution to surviving the future shortage of feedstock, is to throw away less of the product. Another option is to recycle more. Comparing waste disposal habits of California and Finland suggests a great deal of waste can be avoided simply by a culture change. In California recycling rates for plastic containers peaked in 1995 at about 24% and declined to 18% by 1999. [5] By contrast, Finland in 1997 achieved a recycling rate for similar materials of 64 per cent. [6]

Synthetic Fertilizers and the post-oil era

The chemical principle for fertilizing plants is "fixing" nitrogen, which means supplying nitrogen to the plant in a form plants can readily absorb. [7]

The synthetic fertilizer industry, like the plastics industry, has one simple, basic ingredient from which most of the products of the industry are derived. This ingredient is ammonia.

Ammonia (chemical formula NH3) is made by synthesizing nitrogen and hydrogen at high temperature and pressure using the well-proven Haber-Bosch process. The Haber-Bosch process was first introduced in 1910, and is still standard technology for ammonia manufacture. As for the petrochemical industry in general, the role of hydrocarbon in the synthetic fertilizer business is to provide both energy to the process as well as material, in this case hydrogen. The other element needed to make ammonia, nitrogen, comes from the atmosphere, where it is effectively in unlimited supply.

After synthesis, ammonia is converted into chemical compounds that are the final products of the fertilizer industry – urea and ammonium salts (such as sulphate and nitrate). Urea is made by reacting ammonia with carbon dioxide. Ammonium nitrate is made by reacting ammonia with nitric acid. Ammonium sulphate is mainly sourced as a by-product of various other chemicals. The final products, ammonium salts and urea, are white crystalline substances that readily dissolve in water. Fertilizer products can thus be carted around as granular solids, in bags or in bulk. At point of use, they can be mixed with water and sprayed onto the point being fertilized. Alternatively, they can be applied in granular solid form. Easy application is one of the keys to the success of the synthetic fertilizer industry.

During the 20th Century the global population, rose 500% from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. (Now about 6.5 billion). Agricultural production of the 20th century’s "Green Revolution" rose by about the same percentage, thereby postponing the Malthusian day of reckoning for most of us. [8]

A significant part of the gains of the "Green Revolution" have been achieved through synthetic fertilisers made from hydrocarbons. "Modern agriculture" Professor Albert Bartlett once quipped, "is the use of land to convert petroleum into food."[9]

As signs that the hydrocarbon era is ending become less deniable, synthetic fertilizers will become more expensive and less available, thus posing a threat to agriculture by existing methods.

So what are the alternatives?

One solution is to make synthetic fertilizers by current technology out of other feedstock other than hydrocarbons. Nitrogen can be taken from the atmosphere as it is at present and can continue to be used indefinitely in the Haber-Bosch process. But hydrogen, presently supplied in natural gas, is more problematical. Hydrogen is available in virtually unlimited supply as one of the two constituents of water. But any process to separate H2O into hydrogen and oxygen is energy intensive. Since 75% of the world’s energy is currently supplied by fossil fuels, and with no convincing energy alternative in sight, the last thing the post-hydrocarbon world needs is a new industry that requires major supplies of energy.

If synthetic fertilizer is going to be too difficult to make, what are the other possibilities?

Opinions are divided on the answer to this question between those who deny the problem exists, those who think no solutions are available, and those who advance possible solutions. In the third category, ecologists such as Edward Goldsmith point out that modern versions of tradition agriculture from small farms using minimal fertilizers and with low energy inputs are already more productive than large scale corporate farms practicing monoculture.[10]

From this it would follow that societies based on multi-cropping subsistence farmers, such as many in the third world, may well survive the coming energy crisis in better shape than those based on monoculture operations that rely on fertilizers, fuel for farm machinery, and still more fuel to transport products to distant markets.

Goldsmith and others also point out that the short-term gain of a Green Revolution based on synthetic fertilizers has come at a long term-cost of a depleted environment. Synthetic fertilizers damage the soil and wider environment in various ways, thus jeopardising agriculture of the future for the sake of high yields in the present. Goldsmith recommends today’s movement to large scale monocultural farms be reversed in favour of smaller mixed farms.

Regrettably for this viewpoint, the "small is beautiful" idea is not currently in vogue with the powerbrokers of the planet. In fact the proposed solution to future problems of agriculture proposed by Goldsmith undermines some of the most cherished beliefs of economics. It favours small over large. It favours non-specialisation of crops. It requires proper accounting for environmental cost. It argues for self-sufficiency. It argues against trade, in particular globalisation. Perhaps most significant of all, it diminishes the role of corporations in agriculture.

Countries like the US and Australia have made an enormous commitment to broad-acre farming of single crops based on application of hydrocarbon sourced products – synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The US and Australia are two countries that have shown themselves to bastions of denial on issues such as global warming. With its concomitant threat to its ideological beliefs of free markets, concentration of ownership and globalisation, fierce resistance by governments and vested interests to any paradigm shift in economics and agriculture can be expected.


The cornucopian fossil fuel bonanza is now in its closing stages. 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, 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.

Society urgently needs to develop a plan to deal with this threat to food security and the other problems of giving up on fossil fuel dependence. It also needs to buy as much time as possible by making remaining supplies of fossil fuel last as long of possible. With the policy of growth economics prevailing worldwide, this is not happening. Under market-driven capitalist economics, maximising growth by maximising consumption is the principal economic objective. Resources are rarely considered in making economic and political decisions.

There was a time, back in the 1960s or 1970s when engineers considered wasting valuable resources by burning natural gas for space heating was almost a criminal activity. Natural gas was then, and is now, the essential feedstock for the petrochemical industry. It should, the argument ran, have been conserved for vital industries that keep us alive.

The view that the market is the only thing that matters is sustained by economists with the proposition that future undefined, as yet undeveloped technologies will overcome resources shortages. It is theoretically true alternative energy sources and feedstock sources could be found for petrochemical and other fossil fuel dependent industries. But developing alternative methods of producing the essential products of modern life, in particular fertilizers, takes time, money, energy and expertise.

The window of opportunity to develop these technologies narrows every day no action is taken. In an economic milieu obsessed with consumption, the future of fossil fuel-based industries, energy, fertilizers, plastics, insecticides and pharmaceuticals, is just one of many issues slipped under the carpet by the powerbrokers currently running the planet.

To appreciate more fully the interdependency of our systems the below is an edited version of the Impact of the September 2000 fuel protests in the UK.

Impact of September 2000 Fuel Price Protests on UK Critical Infrastructure

Executive Summary

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 had resulted in concessions from the French government. The UK protesters blockaded fuel refineries and distribution depots, and, within days, created a fuel crisis that paralyzed and brought the country to a virtual halt.

The impact of the protest was much deeper than anticipated because it struck at a particularly vulnerable point of the UK economy -- the oil distribution network, which had been 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 in the UK. 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 UK fuel price protests in the fall of 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.


Energy Sector

The energy sector was the most severely affected sector by the fuel price protests because access to gasoline was used as leverage by protestors in bargaining with the UK Government.

Protestors organized a national blockade of oil refineries and distribution depots. After five days of protest, six of Britain's eight refineries were blocked (11), and tankers could not leave oil refineries and fuel depots to transport gasoline to stations where it could be distributed. Gas stations did not have large gasoline reserves, relying on a system of just-in-time delivery, and were unable to distribute fuel in the absence of tanker deliveries (12).

This system relied on tanker deliveries to individual stations, up to three times a day, depending on the volume of fuel sold at each location. As such, the availability of gasoline at stations was highly vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain. By September 12, about half of Britain's gas stations were shut down, and those with remaining fuel stocks started to ration purchases (13).

The impact of fuel shortages quickly threatened to spread to other sectors (such as transportation, health care and government) through significant fuel interdependencies -- the cascading effect on these sectors will be described in the following sub-sections. Recognizing the real and potential impacts in these areas, the Privy Council authorized the Department of Trade and Industry to order oil companies to deliver gasoline to 298 priority stations across the country (14).

The government further stipulated that a number of industries and services were eligible for priority access to fuel at these locations. When the fuel blockades were lifted on September 14 and tanker deliveries recommenced, the limited supply was allocated on a priority basis to these essential services until at least September 16. The UK Petrol Retailer's Association said that re-supplying empty stations presented "a massive logistical problem," and fuel companies warned that it would be weeks before the situation at gas stations returned to normal (15).


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 gasoline, 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 gasoline (16). 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 norm. (17). 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 (18). Even when fuel deliveries started on September 14, bus companies across the country restricted their passenger services to conserve dwindling fuel stocks and warned that these measures could stay in place for several days (19).

Health Care

The National Health Service (NHS) was principally impacted by its reliance on the transportation of staff, patients and supplies. The disruptions in gasoline supply affected the ability of some medical staff to use their usual means of transport to get to work, which resulted in medical staff shortages (20). Hundreds of gas 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.

Ambulance services were disrupted by shortages of gasoline and limited to calls from patients in need of serious assistance. Ambulance crews in some areas were instructed to keep their speed below 34.2 km/h on all non-emergency responses to save fuel (21). Many operators instructed their staff to respond only to emergency calls. One media report noted that ambulance services in Surrey could not respond to emergency 999 calls while they waited to receive extra supplies of gasoline (22).

There were conflicting reports about the extent to which shortages of fuel impacted the ability of vehicles to transport supplies to hospitals. Government, Ministry of Health and some media sources tended to stress that the protests were having a negative impact on the NHS. Reports emphasized low reserves of food stores for hospitals in the West Midlands, medicines at pharmacies in Portsmouth and blood stocks in the Eastern NHS region (23). 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 (24).

On September 13, the Prime Minister told protesters that they were putting "lives at risk" by depriving essential services, and the government placed the NHS on "red alert" for the first time in 11 years (25). This measure instructed all local health services to implement emergency readiness plans, which enabled them to cancel regular services at a moment's notice in order to treat emergency cases only. The NHS remained on red alert and normal health care services did not resume for several days after the lifting of the blockades (26).

While there is some debate as to the extent of the impact on health services, it is clear that the NHS incurred organizational and financial costs as a result of disruptions in the transportation sector. The cancellation of elective and non-emergency surgeries and procedures created a significant backlog, which would take the NHS a significant period of time to process. Additional financial costs involved housing accommodations for essential staff in hotels, expenses for cancelled and rescheduled procedures, and for using outside suppliers for essential goods. The Department of Health said that it was impossible to quantify the cost of the fuel crisis, but experts contend that it ran into millions of pounds (27).

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 gasoline distributors, supermarkets rely on daily just-in-time deliveries rather than maintaining large stockpiles of goods. This mode of business proved to be highly vulnerable to transportation disruptions as there was very little stock to meet consumer demand when the supply of just-in-time goods was interrupted. Each day of the fuel protests further affected food deliveries, depleting the small reserves kept by supermarkets.

The second factor influencing shortages was increased demand and panic buying. 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 (28). The sight of empty shelves triggered some consumers to stockpile goods in sufficient volumes to endure a prolonged food supply shortage. Hence, by September 13 panic buying had commenced across Britain, some shops were bare of bread and milk, and a number of supermarkets began rationing food purchases (29).

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 (30). 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 (31).

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. The London Chamber of Commerce estimated that 10 percent of the economy's daily output was being disrupted by the protests (32).

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 (33). Some companies started reducing the size and scope of their operations. The London Chamber of Commerce warned the crisis was costing British business $250 million (more than CAN$ 562 million) a day (34).

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


The fuel price protests in the United Kingdom in September 2000 revealed how everyday life could be affected by disruptions of fuel supplies. As dramatic as they were, the British fuel crisis of 2000 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 a degree of 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.

The September 2000 fuel protests also illustrated the vulnerability of sectors, resulting from a lack of flexibility inherent in existing production and distribution networks, not only in the energy sector but also transportation, food supply and health services. (36)


1. Professor Albert Bartlett has written extensively on supply versus demand for coal and other energy sources. Refer "Arithmetic, Population and Energy", http://www.hawaii/gov/dbedt/ert/symposium/bartlett/bartlett2.html

2. By mass of hydrocarbon material, about 60% of the demands of the plastics industry are for energy and the balance is for feedstock


3. Dove, Alan."Experts Disagree Over Color of Biomass."Nature Biotechnology May 2000: 490.

4. Some 695.9 Million acres of corn growing land would be needed total cropland currently used in USA is about 395 Million from Professor David Pimentel -

5. Reducing Plastic Waste Tops 2001 Legislative Agenda


7. Lesser chemical elements such as phosphorous, sulphur and potassium and others are also important in fertilizing plants.

8. About 25% of the global population who are undernourished have already encountered their Malthus

9. Quote from Prof. Albert Bartlett (see 1)

10. Edward Goldsmith "How to feed people under a regime of climate change"

11. Phil Hathaway, The Effect of the Fuel "Protest" on Road Traffic", 2000,


12. How Protesters Fuelled a Very 21st-Century Crisis. Guardian Unlimited on Line,17 September 2000,,7369,369436,00.html


13. EuropeFuel Protests Grow, UKFaces Emergency. Reuters, Copyright 2000,


14. Fuel Crisis Post Mortem Begins. BBC News Online: UK, 16 September 2000,


15. Patrick Goodenough, UKGas Protestors Claim Moral Victory. CNS News on Line: Foreign Bureaus, 14 September 2000, <>


16. Alan Travis, Few Motorists Ran Dry, but Ministers' Talk Rang Hollow. Guardian Unlimited on Line, 19 September 2000,,7369,370183,00.html


17. In Brief. Guardian Unlimited on Line, 15 September 2000,,7369,368682,00.html


18. Post, Banks, Food Supply Now at Risk. Guardian Unlimited on Line,14 September 2000, <,7369,368262,00.html>.

19. Rationing Keeps NHS Afloat. Guardian Unlimited on Line, 15 September 2000,,7369,368702,00.html


20. Fuel: How the NHS Could Suffer. BBC News Online: Health, 12 September 2000,


21. Countdown to Crisis: Eight Days That Shook Britain. BBC News Online: UK, 14 September 2000, <>.

22. Fuel Crisis Bring Chaos to NHS. BBC News Online: Health, 13 September 2000,


21. Countdown to Crisis: Eight Days That Shook Britain. BBC News Online: UK, 14 September 2000,


22. Fuel Crisis Bring Chaos to NHS. BBC News Online: Health, 13 September 2000,


25. Patrick Goodenough, UKGas Protestors Claim Moral Victory. CNS News on Line: Foreign Bureaus, 14 September 2000, <>


26. NHS on Red Alert. BBC News Online: Health, 13 September 2000,


27. Cost of Dispute Could Top £1bn, Say Firms. Guardian Unlimited on Line, 15 September 2000,,7369,369147,00.html


28. Post, Banks, Food Supply Now at Risk. Guardian Unlimited on Line,14 September 2000,,7369,368262,00.html


29. Rationing Keeps NHS Afloat. Guardian Unlimited on Line,15 September 2000,,7369,368702,00.html


30. Post, Banks, Food Supply Now at Risk. Guardian Unlimited on Line,14 September 2000,,7369,368262,00.html

31. Rationing Keeps NHS Afloat. Guardian Unlimited on Line,15 September 2000,,7369,368702,00.html

32. Post, Banks, Food Supply Now at Risk. Guardian Unlimited on Line,14 September 2000,,7369,368262,00.html


33. Fuel Campaigners Warn of More Protests. BBC News Online: UK, 12 May 2001,


34. BritainGrinds to a Halt as Blair's Pleas Are Ignored. Guardian Unlimited on Line, 14 September 2000,


35. Blair Moves to End Growing UKFuel Crisis. CNN on Line: 2000, 12 September 2000, <>


36. The full version of the article: Impact of September 2000 Fuel Price Protests on

UK Critical Infrastructure, can be found at:

Complied by Norman Church

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