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A contradiction at the heart

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Two protests took place in Britain yesterday.  One involved a piece of petty bourgeois performance art in which “Just Stop Oil” protestors glued themselves to an artwork at the National Gallery in order – via some unknown mechanism – to bring an end to the oil age.  The second involved a more economically grounded disruption of the motorway network by truckers and farmers who have seen their standard of living crushed by rising fuel prices.

Ordinarily these kinds of events would quickly pass as the establishment media found other, more salacious issues to distract us with.  There is though an unlikely coincidence between the two protests insofar as both involve oil.  The first concerning a frankly insane demand that the UK economy cease using oil and oil products immediately, the second being concerned with the economic damage being wrought by unaffordable oil… which might suggest that the Just Stop Oil protestors should be careful what they wish for.

There is a contradiction here too.  Whereas the Just Stop Oil protestors are energy-blind and assume that oil is just another cheap and replaceable economic input, the truckers are all too aware that oil is the irreplaceable life-blood of a modern industrial economy.  And this is reflected in the tactics employed by the respective groups.  While gluing oneself to a famous painting is a classic example of what is sometimes called “virtue signalling” (insofar as it does nothing to achieve the stated aims) the truckers’ protest is a tried and tested approach to gradually strangling an advanced economy.

We know this because truckers and farmers took the same action in September 2000, when the price of diesel rose above £1.00 per litre for the first time.  Three tactics were deployed in those original fuel price protests.  The first of these was the rolling roadblocks repeated yesterday.  These brought a small degree of disruption and public annoyance but caused little alarm in government circles.  The second was more disruptive, with trucks and tractors blocking city centres around the UK, including London itself.  However, it was the third tactic – blockading Britain’s oil refineries – which proved decisive.  Within days, fuel deliveries had declined from 3,000 to less than 300 a day.  Just one-in-ten filling stations still had fuel, which was rationed with key workers given priority access.  Fuel rationing seriously disrupted the economy, with workers unable to get to their jobs and with essential goods stuck on lorries and vans which could not make their deliveries.  In a forewarning of the supply chain chaos caused by lockdowns, critical infrastructure began to fail in a chaotic and unpredictable manner.  For example, in an economic version of Liebig’s Law of the minimum, UK hospitals had to cancel operations due to a shortage of surgical suture.  Panic buying resulted in nationwide shortages of staples like bread and milk, causing supermarkets to impose rationing.  Publicly, the New Labour government refused to give in.  But behind the scenes there was an air of panic as the government sought the Queen’s permission to use emergency powers legislation to break up the protests.

One thing about yesterday’s otherwise harmless truckers’ protest which will have sent a shiver through the corridors of Whitehall was the mention of “Stanlow” as a target by the protest’s leaders during news interviews.  The Stanlow oil refinery was the first to be blockaded in September 2000, suggesting that once again the protestors are looking at an oil blockade as a means of forcing the government to make big cuts to fuel duty.  And this time around, the UK economy is in a far worse state than it was then.

There is already a diesel shortage in the UK – and, indeed, across the western states.  And this will be exacerbated by recent western attempts to do without Russian oil (which accounts for around 30 percent of European consumption).  This is one reason why transport corporations – particularly rail and airlines – have provoked strikes as a means of saving on both fuel and wage costs.  A full blockade though, will eclipse the disruption caused by the lockdowns and the strikes, and may even spell the death knell – in a way that gluing oneself to a painting never could – for a UK economy which is already teetering on the edge of collapse.

In the event that fuel protestors go ahead with a blockade of Britain’s refineries, they will pose an existential threat to environmental groups like Just Stop Oil, which have deliberately avoided disrupting the supply of oil products precisely because such an action, if successful, would expose for all to see just how dependent our way of life is upon our finite supply of oil products.  Just as Green Party support – especially in Germany – for cutting natural gas imports and leaving Europe dangerously exposed to power outages this winter risks a serious public backlash, so a fuel blockade similar to that of September 2000 will lay bare the reality of the limp, inadequate but eye-wateringly expensive Net-Zero transition to non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) and electric cars.

Even if we are supposedly entering an age of home working and cloud computing, as envisaged by the WEF crowd, and cheer led by groups like Just Stop Oil, we still depend upon diesel-powered trucks, ships and planes to provide an endless supply of replacement hardware to the data centres that allow it all to happen.  And in the event of a blockade of the oil refineries, even at our end of the fibre optic cable, the trucks that bring food to the supermarkets and goodies to the Amazon warehouse will soon be at a standstill.  Even this would be a mere foretaste of the hardships of a world without oil and oil products.  Imagine, for example, a world in which dental anaesthetic no longer exists.  Or a world in which artificial light and heating is a privilege of the very rich.  It is a world in which most people will live and die within a two-mile radius of the place where they were born.  Remember that toilet paper shortage at the beginning of lockdown? Well, without oil, we will be back to leaves, reusable sponges, or just using our left hands.  And forget leisure time… without all of that diesel powered agricultural machinery, nine out of every ten of us will need to work the land just to feed everyone…  No wonder “green” groups avoid mounting sustained blockades of oil refineries.

In one sense though, they are quite correct.  We do need to transition to a world without oil.  Not only for environmental reasons, but also because the energy cost of energy is rising to the point that we will have no choice but to adopt a less material way of life.  It is also likely that NRREHTs will have to be deployed if we are to hang on to at least some of the benefits of modern life such as clean drinking water and a degree of advanced medical care.  The point, however, is that without some form of energetic safety net, our already weakened economies are in no shape to cope with the existential shock of a sudden long-term loss of access to fossil fuels proposed by the various “Green” campaigners.  This is why I have argued for a “brown new deal” in which we use the remaining fossil fuels to re-localise, dematerialise and simplify our economies in a manner which doesn’t result in the premature deaths of perhaps six out of every seven of us from starvation and hypothermia, as would happen if fossil fuel supplies ceased immediately.

The Just Stop Oil campaigners think ending fossil fuel would be a good thing.  The truckers use it as a weapon because they know it is a bad thing.  The rest of us, meanwhile are about to experience a taste of a world after fossil fuels in the coming bleak winter as a combined result of the lockdowns, the economic war with Russia and possibly as a result of blockades as well.  And when it is all over?  Well let’s just say that it may be another decade before a politician dare mention net zero during an election campaign.

As you made it to the end…

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