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Britain at risk of lock-in and a cascading collapse

Two concepts familiar to readers of The Consciousness of Sheep are in the mainstream media today.  The threat of a cascading collapse has been raised by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Less well publicised is the warning from Roger Fouquet of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE that Britain is at risk of becoming locked-into unsustainable energy systems as a result of government drives for cheap (in the short-term) energy.

Lock-in refers to the process of increasing fragility that all developed economies move toward.  For example, as the Committee on Climate Change report notes, British agriculture and British food consumption have become phase locked into the global economy.  Our indigenous agriculture is at best capable of meeting just 60 percent of our food consumption.  However, even this could not be achieved overnight because a large part of our production is geared to the export market.  As a result, Britain relies on imported food from around the world – including from regions that are increasingly vulnerable to drought.  In the field of energy, the current dash for gas on the back of apparently cheap US shale gas (and the magic thinking that similar quantities of shale gas can be profitably extracted in the UK) threatens to lock us into a gas-fired electricity generation infrastructure that may well become too expensive to operate as we – in competition with the rest of the world – come to rely increasingly upon imported gas.  As Fouquet cautions:

“Once an economy is locked-into an energy system, the government rarely has opportunities to redirect it, so it is crucial for long-term prosperity that an economy gets on the ‘right’ path before it is fully locked-in. Not only will this have economic benefits, but it’s likely to reduce the costs of meeting global environmental regulation that will, no doubt, eventually be pressed on even the least developed economies. So industrialising economies may want to avoid locking themselves into this antiquated energy system altogether.”

The benefit of renewable technologies – though much more expensive to deploy – is that the “fuel” (wind, tide, wave, sunlight, waste biomass and geothermal heat) is free.  Whereas gas and nuclear, while relatively cheap initially, lock us into dependency on finite supplies of uranium and natural gas whose price will inevitably rise as supplies dwindle.

Cascade occurs when the fragility created by lock-in is actually fractured by an external event undermining one of our critical infrastructure systems.  The Committee on Climate Change use the example of a severe flood taking out a bridge that also carries electricity and telecommunications cables.  In addition to the disruption caused by the flood itself, this would result in disrupted communications, transport and electricity supply.

In fact, the Committee on Climate Change understate Britain’s vulnerability to a cascading collapse.  This is because our critical infrastructure systems have become interlinked to the point where disruption in any one system will inevitably result in a cascading collapse of all of them.  The only question is the time it will take.  For example, in September 2000 a series of fuel protests and blockades took around five days to cause the early stages of a cascade, whereas in 2008 the risk of the interbank payments system crashing threatened a more or less immediate collapse as shops and websites would no longer be able to process electronic payments, while cashpoints would no longer dispense cash.  Without a means to pay, drivers would be unable to refill their vehicles, bringing the transport system to the brink of collapse.  Without the steady daily influx of money (cash flow) businesses would be unable to operate – including key companies providing utilities like electricity, gas and water… and on it goes.  Note that most of Britain’s power stations are located on coasts and riverbanks; making them vulnerable to the kind of floods that climate models suggest will become all too frequent.  Were a large power station – or perhaps several power stations – to be forced to shut down as a result of flooding, this too, would result in a more or less immediate cascade.  Without power, payments systems fail, water and sewage pumping is limited, hospitals are forced to use emergency generators, communications gradually fail, fuel pumps no longer work, transport infrastructure (traffic lights, railway signalling, etc.) gradually fails.

The important point here is that climate change is just one potential trigger for a cascading collapse.  The real problem is that we have gradually locked ourselves into our current, highly fragile infrastructure. Despite the façade of competition, there is only one electricity grid, gas supply grid, inter-bank computer system, water and sewage network, communications system and transport infrastructure.  This leaves us vulnerable to a host of potential threats – natural and man-made – that can take out any one critical system.  In this sense, an outbreak of a pandemic disease that disables key personnel is more of a threat than a terrorist attack on a transport system.  A severe flood is unlikely to be as serious a threat as a banking collapse.  While a gradual but remorseless rise in the price of energy will condemn us to a slow motion but equally devastating collapse.

As The Consciousness of Sheep makes clear, the only genuine response to our current vulnerability is to build greater resilience into our critical infrastructure despite this involving a large degree of duplication, redundancy and inefficiency…

As we have repeatedly warned: collapse is cheap and easy – sustainability is costly!

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