So here we are in autumn, the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” according to the poet John Keats. I am going to write today about my first season of growing food on an allotment, but I want to start with a brief and serious warning: there are food shortages coming. The world’s population is currently 7.7 billion, increasing towards 8 billion and more. For the last 12,000 years since agriculture was invented and crops and animals domesticated, and up until about 100 years ago, food production was powered by human and animal muscles. Today most of our food supply is dependent on fossil fuels at every stage, including production of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, sowing, harvesting, processing and transporting to the end users. Those fossil fuels are depleting. Global reserves of phosphorus, an important component of fertiliser, are depleting. Topsoil is depleting. Fish stocks are depleting. Aquifers are depleting, such as the great Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains of America. Mountain snow packs which feed into great rivers such as the Indus are depleting. There will be water shortages making irrigation of crops problematic. Climate change is causing weather instability and rising sea levels. Climate zones suitable for agriculture are slowly moving away from the equator and towards the poles, and arable land is slowly turning into desert, salt marsh or flood zone.

All of these threats suggest a global food shortage in the not too distant future. We probably won’t have enough food for 8 billion, or 10 billion, or however many people we have at the time it happens. Nobody will be spared, although some people will fare better than others, particularly if they are very rich, or live in a rich country. I can’t say when this will happen, maybe in the next 50 years, maybe in the next five, but it will happen, and people need to prepare for it as best they can. My way of preparing for it is by learning how to grow my own food.

I felt obliged to give you that warning, what you do with it is up to you, and now we shall speak of it no more and I will tell you about my allotment.

Most British people will understand what an allotment is, but for readers in foreign parts who may be less familiar with the term, I will explain. An allotment is a piece of land, typically about 30 x 100 feet, which is rented for the purpose of growing flowers, fruit and/or vegetables for the allotment holder and his family. Although some allotments have existed since the 1700s, they were particularly popular during the Victorian era and the First and Second World Wars as a means for poor people to grow food for themselves. In Britain, allotments are often on marginal land, for example at the edge of town or along railway tracks, which would not be suitable for other purposes.

The perfect allotment

In the picture above, please observe the carefully manicured grass, the weed-free pathways and the line of fruit trees standing to attention. This is my neighbour’s allotment. I wonder if he has issues with obsessiveness. Perhaps I should ask him, in a supportive and non-judgemental way, whether he would like to talk about this.

Weeds: a target rich environment

And this is my allotment. Above is a picture of my allotment when I first took it over in March this year: a weed-and slug-infested wilderness.

With the right fertiliser, you too can grow sheds and polytunnels

And here is a picture of my allotment at the end of my first season: a weed- and slug-infested wilderness which now has some polytunnels and a shed on it. In order to explain how I achieved this amazing transformation, I have distilled the lessons learned in my first season into Ten Commandments For Allotment Beginners.

First Commandment: Follow The Herd

Observe what everyone else is doing. If everyone else around you is growing onions, potatoes, rhubarb and raspberries, that is what you need to grow. If they cover their crops with bird netting, go get some bird netting. If they start digging up their potatoes, that is a sign for you to go and get a spade and do the same. Once you have more experience, by all means experiment with doing things differently, but for now there is safety in numbers.

Second Commandment: Plant Stuff In Straight Lines

I’m not talking about approximately straight lines – I’m talking about exactly straight lines to within a few millimetres. This is important because the weeds grow much faster than the crops, and weeding is a lot easier if you know where the stuff you planted is and where the weeds are. When they first start growing they all look the same. Leave yourself enough room to get a hoe down between the rows.

Third Commandment: Visit Your Vegetable Patch Every Day

It’s much easier to keep on top of the weeds with a bit of hoeing every day, than to let it go for a few weeks and find the weeds have smothered your crops. Also, if you spot problems when they first occur, you have a better chance of correcting them. For example, if your crops start to look a bit dehydrated, watering them early will fix the problem, but if you come back a week later and find a row of brown shrivelled sticks where there were once plants, it’s too late. However, this may be a counsel of perfection, because if you have a full time job like I do, you may not have time to inspect your vegetables every day. In which case…..

Fourth Commandment: Plant Your Patch According To Your Time Available

There are two ways of doing this. Some gardening books recommend starting by planting only a small part of your available plot, and gradually expanding it if time permits. I can see the wisdom in that, but I would favour a slightly different approach, which is to use the whole of your available plot but plant it with things which don’t need much looking after. I have a 30 x 100 foot plot, and for my first season I tried to plant the whole thing with vegetables. However, I have a full time job, and I could only visit the plot for half a day a week, if that. This didn’t work out at all well, because while I was planting one part of it, the weeds were growing thick and fast in the part I had previously planted, and I just couldn’t keep on top of it. So for next season I am planning a much less labour intensive plot, comprising: fruit trees on half of it, fruit bushes and strawberries on a quarter of it, and vegetables on the remaining quarter. The fruit trees, fruit bushes and strawberries are perennials, which means they only need planting once and then they come up every year, which is much less labour intensive than continually replanting vegetables.

Fifth Commandment: Take What You Read With A Pinch Of Salt

I have read lots of gardening books, some of which give conflicting advice. For example, permaculture manuals favour the “chop and drop” type of weeding and pruning, which means that when you cut or uproot something you don’t want, you just let it drop onto the soil and decompose where it lies to feed the next generation of plants. Sounds great. However, the more traditional gardening books tell you not to leave dead plant litter lying around because it acts as a shelter for pests: rake it up and put it in a compost heap to decompose. Having tried both, my research suggests that the traditional method is best: put it on the compost heap, otherwise you are just creating a sort of slug hotel. Sorry permaculturalists, but if you think I’m being unfair and not doing it right, please let me know.

Sixth Commandment: Use Lots Of Physical Barriers

I soon discovered that there are lots of critters and wee beasties who are happy to gorge on my stuff all day long, because they don’t have full time jobs like me and they have nothing better to do. I’m trying to avoid using chemicals to keep them off, but that means I need to use more physical barriers. These include bird netting, rabbit proof wire netting, polytunnels, slug repellent tape and so on. This can be a significant additional cost in the first season, but after that you can use the same physical barriers over and over again.

Seventh Commandment: Wildlife Is Great, But Not In The Vegetable Patch

I took one of my kids to see the allotment, he was thrilled to find some slug eggs and wanted to bring them home to see if they hatched into baby slugs. Er, right. I was hoping he would learn about growing things, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Of course I understand that slugs are fascinating, and as one of God’s creatures they have as much right to exist as I do, but not in my vegetable patch or home, thank you.

Eighth Commandment: Get Some Solar Powered Muscle

Hand weeding is very hard work, so to help out with this I have an electric strimmer (line trimmer / weed whacker) and electric lawnmower. The strimmer is designed to be plugged into a mains electricity supply, of which there isn’t one at the allotment, so I run it off a separate deep cycle battery and inverter. The lawnmower has a built in battery. Both of the batteries can be charged from a photovoltaic panel, which is an important consideration if you are thinking of using them in a “grid down” situation, but for now I find it easier to take them home and charge them there.

Ninth Commandment: Organise Your Compost

Composting is a very important part of gardening, because when you grow things, you are taking nutrients out of the soil, so you have to give some thought about how you are going to put them back in again. However, you need to have an organised system. Ideally you need at least four compost piles: a pile of “normal” garden waste, a pile for the nastier stuff like the roots of perennial weeds which need to be either burnt or composted for a long time to make sure they are dead, and two similar piles which you made last year and which should be about ready to be returned to the garden. If you eat some of the plants you grow, then unless you are planning to poop on your compost heap, this represents a gradual loss of nutrients out of your garden, so at some point you have to replace them, for example with fertiliser or farmyard manure. One of the problems with modern industrial farming is that there is a continuing massive loss of nutrients from the topsoil, because most human waste is not returned to the land, so this has to be made up with artificial fertilisers which will some day run out. On my allotment, the weeds grow so vigorously that I have ended up with several massive compost heaps. I just hope they turn into compost before my soil runs out of nutrients.

Tenth Commandment: Grow The Right Amount Of Stuff

This is a very tricky one to get right and it can only be done with experience. You don’t want to end up with so much of one type of food that you can’t eat it all. On the other hand, you don’t want to end up with so little food that it’s pointless: for example, if you have a family of five and your strawberry patch only produces four strawberries at a time, that’s not much good either. Some plants, for example lettuce, produce a lot of food from a small area. Other plants, for example peas, produce a small amount of food from a large area. So for every row of lettuce, you probably need to plant about four rows of peas. An excess of food can be preserved, but that is a lot of hard work and really it’s best to try to get the quantities right so you can eat it freshly picked.

Well, those are some (but not all) of the things I have learned this season. It’s been a steep learning curve, and I haven’t had nearly as much food out of the allotment as I’d hoped, but that’s the reason for practising these skills before you need them. If I had been relying solely on my allotment to feed myself, I’d be dead by now, even though it is probably capable of feeding me in theory. I’ll give you an update this time next year about how my second season goes.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

P.S. The following picture shows the “used tyre” method of gardening as practised by another allotment holder – see discussion in Replies.

You probably wouldn’t want to put one of these on your car


Carbon Capture and Storage – A Fairytale for our Time

“Do you believe in fairies?” asked Tinkerbell

I was browsing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news website recently when the following item caught my eye:

It’s a good news story about how Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), Canada’s largest oil and gas producer, is hoping to reduce CO2 emissions from its tar sands operations to zero by using new technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects. The implication is that if we can deploy this technology on a large scale, business as usual can continue, because we can burn all the fossil fuels we want but leave the resulting CO2 in the ground. What’s not to like about that?

So what is CCS and how does it work? Here is a video by Shell explaining how it works:

In brief, CO2 is captured from the processing plant, pressurized to turn it into a liquid and transported by pipeline 65 kilometers to a number of well sites. The still-liquid CO2 is then injected more than two kilometres underground into a layer of rock filled with interconnected pores. The CO2 becomes trapped within the pores, and the layers of watertight rock above it stop it from escaping. Constant monitoring both above and below ground makes sure the CO2 stays safely and permanently in place. Get that – permanently. Forever. Over one million tonnes of CO2 are being captured and stored in this way each year, and four million tonnes have so far been captured and stored during the course of the project.

That’s the industry side of the story. But is it true? I have several concerns about it, including that little word “permanently”. I don’t see how you can inject highly pressurised, liquefied gas underground at a rate of one million tonnes per year and expect it to stay there “permanently”. The laws of physics and common sense suggest that it is going to find its way to the surface.

They say that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. By the same token, an underground reservoir is only as gas tight as its leakiest part. And if you have a reservoir hundreds of kilometres wide, how many leaky parts are there going to be in that?

So I decided to investigate further. I contacted CNRL and asked for the pressure readings in the reservoir before, during and after the CO2 injection process. If the pressure in the reservoir failed to rise significantly while the gas was being injected, or rose during injection but then fell afterwards, either of those scenarios would suggest a leaky reservoir. It’s like pumping up a bicycle tyre: if you pump up the tyre but it rapidly goes flat again, you know there’s a hole in it.

The CCS facility appears to be a joint operation between Shell, CNRL and Chevron. I contacted Shell first. They suggested I contact CNRL. So I contacted CNRL. They suggested I contact Shell. This initial run-around did nothing to boost my confidence in the project. But eventually, after sending a third firmly-worded email, I got a response on behalf of Shell from Stephen Velthuizen, External Relations Manager for the Scotford Upgrader, of which the CCS project is a part. Essentially what he says in response to my questions about reservoir pressures is this:

  • There is minimal pressure rise during the injection process, from a baseline pressure of 19.5 MPa (megapascals) to 20.5 MPa after injecting 4 million tonnes of CO2. These pressures are equivalent to 2,828 and 2,973 psi (pounds per square inch) respectively. For comparison, a bicycle tyre would typically be inflated to 50-130 psi.
  • He wasn’t willing to give me any figures for how rapidly the pressure decays after the CO2 injection stops.
  • In his own words: “But pressure alone – while an indicator – is not the only way to assess what is happening in a reservoir. One of the many technologies we use to monitor the CO2 is vertical seismic monitoring. By comparing a current vertical seismic profile (VSP) to our pre-injection VSP, we can detect the CO2 plume (through the variance). The VSP can also detect CO2 that has migrated out of the reservoir. The monitoring of many factors allows us to identify if a leak is occurring and take corrective action. We also have deep monitoring wells above the reservoir that provide valuable pressure information to indicate if a leak was present.”

I’d be very interested to hear from any readers who have expertise in geology or the operation of high pressure wells. I don’t – I’m just a simple family physician. But what Mr Velthuizen is saying sounds to me suspiciously like poppycock. I don’t believe a word of it. If you inject 4 million tonnes of gas into a reservoir, and there is hardly any rise in pressure, then surely common sense suggests that there is a leak: not just a small leak, but a massive leak, a leak so big that the gas is leaking out almost as fast as it can be pumped in? Like trying to pump up a flat bicycle tyre which obstinately remains flat? And all that talk about vertical seismic profiles and CO2 plumes sounds suspiciously like misdirection, which is what stage magicians do: they direct your attention to what they want you to see in order to direct your attention away from what they don’t want you to see.

Wishful thinking is a powerful emotion. That’s why the media and the public love a good news story like this and don’t ask too many questions. We really wish we had a magic wand to wave that pesky CO2 away so we can carry on flying our jets, driving our SUVs and eating food from the other side of the world with no consequences. We really wish that CCS would be that magic wand. The problem is that as far as I can tell, it probably doesn’t work.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

Reaching Out to the High Priests

Atahualpa, direct descendant of the Inca Sun God
Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square

Once every couple of years I contact a prominent opinion leader whose views are very different from my own, and attempt to engage them in dialogue with a view to either changing their opinion, or allowing them to change mine. I’m talking about government ministers, church leaders, university professors, those sorts of people: the modern day High Priests of our society, who set the standards for what people are supposed to think, and the boundaries of acceptable discourse. I have had a success rate of zero so far, because nobody’s opinion has ever moved an inch, but I do it out of a sense of moral obligation, probably for the same reason that people glue themselves to buildings in defence of the environment, or volunteer in soup kitchens, or help to clear landmines; it just seems like the right thing to do. You could call it “outreach” or maybe “missionary work”.

I’m not one of those cranks who constantly churns out letters, by the way: I find the process quite disheartening, so one letter every couple of years is enough for me. However, I think it’s good for me, because in order to find out what these people’s views are, I have to read their material which I don’t necessarily agree with. I also think it’s good for them, because I suspect that most of the time they live in an echo chamber in which the only opinions they hear are their own and those of people who agree with them, and it’s good for them to know that there are alternative points of view.

The first time I can remember doing this was when I was about seventeen and I wrote to our local Catholic bishop suggesting that the Catholic church should encourage contraception, because the human population can’t continue expanding forever, and we therefore need some humane way of keeping our numbers in check other than the traditional methods of war, disease and famine. His reply was along the lines of “God said ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, we don’t know how many people the Earth can hold, therefore we should keep increasing our numbers until we hit that limit”.

40 years later, there are so many red warning lights blinking on the dashboard that I think the bishop’s limit has been reached: look at, for example, loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, resource depletion, air and water pollution and climate change. If God could speak to us today, He would probably say something like “Guys, I know I said ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, but I didn’t mean for you to take it literally and wallpaper the planet with people; you can stop now.” Unfortunately, we will never know what the good bishop thinks about it now or whether he has changed his mind, because he has long since met his God and hopefully had that conversation directly with Him.

I have written to a British Roads Minister asking whether he accepts the (widely accepted) view that building more roads will never solve traffic congestion because it just encourages more people to drive more cars more often – a phenomenon known as Jevons’ Paradox. (Result: three evasive replies without actually answering the question).

I have written to the Bank of Canada suggesting that their forecasts of a perpetually growing economy can’t possibly be correct, because over time the economy would grow so large that it would need to consume infinite resources. (Result: three evasive answers culminating in a statement that their economic forecasts only look two years ahead, so what happens after two years is unknowable and/or irrelevant).

I have written to the Professor of Inclusion and Diversity at a prominent North American university, informing him that I had done a Google search for “insane university political correctness”, congratulating him on the fact that his name and department had come top of the search list, and asking him to clarify some of the more, let’s say, unusual news reports in which he and his department had recently featured. (Result: no reply).

My latest attempt in this vein was a letter to Philip Aldrick, the Economics Editor of the London Times, asking for clarification of an opinion piece he wrote recently. Mr Aldrick is a prominent financial journalist who has won many awards including Business and Finance Journalist of the Year, and who is in demand as an after dinner speaker for corporate events. You can read part of Mr Aldrick’s article here (the rest is behind a paywall):

and here is the text of my letter to him:

“Dear Mr Aldrick

I was interested to read your recent Times article “IMF cuts global growth forecast to joint lowest since crisis” (10 April). There is just one thing puzzling me though. The original forecast (before downgrading) was for 3.5% global growth. If this was continued over an average human lifetime (80 years), the global economy would have to grow by a factor of 15, and if it was continued over two lifetimes (160 years) it would have to grow by a factor of 245. I can’t imagine the world producing and consuming 245 times, or even 15 times, the energy and materials it currently consumes, so surely this 3.5% forecast was destined to stop at some point anyway?

This is a very simple calculation – just a compound interest calculation really – and yet whenever economists talk about growth, this logical long term implication is never mentioned. Can you tell me why this is?”

Result: no reply. Mr Aldrick is probably a busy man with his after dinner speeches and opinion pieces and the like, and probably doesn’t have time to engage in correspondence. It would be like expecting a reply from the Pope, or the Buddha, or the Inca Sun God. So, continuing in the religious vein in which I started, I’d like to round off this blog post with a parable, defined in the dictionary as “a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson”. All persons in this parable are fictitious, with any resemblance to any real persons, living, dead or not quite dead, being purely coincidental.

This is the story of Mr Right-Thinker and Miss Wrong-Thinker. They both graduated in the same year with a first class degree in Media Studies from a prestigious university. Both were keen to pursue a career in financial journalism and went to work for the same national newspaper. There was, however, one important difference between them. Mr Right-Thinker believed that business people and economists should always aim for economic growth, and that this growth could continue forever because market forces and business entrepreneurship would always overcome resource scarcity. Miss Wrong-Thinker, on the other hand, believed that infinite economic growth on a finite planet was impossible, and that business people and economists should aim for a steady state economy which neither grew nor contracted, and make products which lasted a long time so people didn’t have to keep buying new ones.

The editor of the newspaper was always pleased with Mr Right-Thinker’s work, because the two men always seemed to think along the same lines. Miss Wrong-Thinker’s work, however, was frequently returned to her for multiple corrections, or not published at all.

Slowly but surely, their careers diverged. Mr Right-Thinker was sent to cover important international conferences on the economy. Miss Wrong-Thinker could not be trusted with such important assignments, so she was sent to cover local council finance committee meetings.

On the international conference circuit, Mr Right-Thinker met many important people such as wealthy investors and businesspeople, top rank politicians, celebrities and newspaper proprietors, who were impressed by this rising young journalist’s financial astuteness. He had a knack of telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. They started to invite him to their private dinner parties, where he met even more important people.

Miss Wrong-Thinker sometimes went for lunch at local restaurants with the local councillors.

One of Mr Right-Thinker’s new contacts put his name forward to be a guest speaker at an international financial conference. His speech was a great success, following which he found himself in demand as a public speaker. Politically astute, he was careful always to please his audience by telling them that they were doing exactly the right thing, and consequently he was always invited back to give more speeches.

Miss Wrong-Thinker was invited to give a speech to the school leavers from her former high school about “How To Become A Journalist”.

Mr Right-Thinker’s career continued to progress by leaps and bounds. His ambition is to become editor of his newspaper when the current editor retires. He continues to earn £5,000 for each speech he gives.

Miss Wrong-Thinker gave up full time journalism, telling herself that she was never much good at it anyway. However, she keeps her hand in by writing a weekly “Wildlife Watch” column for the local paper, for which she gets paid £50 each time. She got married and had two children, and her ambition (rarely achieved) is to get all the laundry and housework done by the time the children come home from school.

You may think that Mr Right-Thinker’s career has been much more successful than Miss Wrong-Thinker’s, and you may be right. However, there is one small dark cloud on the horizon of Mr Right-Thinker’s shining ocean of success. He can never, ever, change his mind. If he admitted publicly to any doubts about the wisdom or practicality of perpetual economic growth, his friends, contacts, dinner party and conference invitations, reputation and income would melt away like snow in the spring, and he would be replaced by someone more “on message”.

Here ends today’s parable. May your God go with you.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

Brexit For Collapsitarians

Whither Brexit?

Here in Brexit Land, political tension is running at fever pitch, and the United Kingdom (UK) is competing with the United States and Venezuela to see who has the world’s most dysfunctional political system.  Almost three years ago, the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), and with the leaving date almost upon us, we still don’t know whether we will actually be leaving, and if so when.  Brexit has been dominating the news media both in the UK and across the rest of the world, and thousands of gallons of metaphorical ink have been spilled in newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts, podcasts, websites and blogs as people try to understand what it all means.  Here is my contribution: a beginners’ guide to Brexit, in question and answer format, written from a “collapsitarian” viewpoint. 

What is Brexit?

BRitain’s EXIT from the European Union.

When will it happen?

A good question.  The date originally set for Brexit was 29th March 2019.  Because the UK Parliament couldn’t agree on what terms we wanted to leave, and rejected the deal negotiated between the EU and the British Prime Minister Theresa May, the EU granted us an two week extension of time until 12th April, which at the time of writing this blog is only a week away.  There are still frantic negotiations going on between the political parties (Labour and Conservative plus several minor parties), between front-benchers and back-benchers, between the Prime Minister and her cabinet, and between Britain and the EU, the outcome of which could be that Brexit is postponed by up to a year, or we leave without an agreed deal on 12th April, or we have another referendum which reverses the decision of the original referendum, or one of several other options.  Right now, nobody knows.   

Why are we leaving the EU?

Because we had a referendum on 23 June 2016 in which the British people voted to leave by a narrow margin (51.9% to 48.1%).

Why did we have the referendum?

Because the former British Prime Minister David Cameron held the referendum in the course of manoeuvring for political advantage, expecting that the electorate would back him and vote for the status quo.  They didn’t do either.  That’s the trouble with democracy: voters sometimes just don’t understand what is expected of them and do the wrong thing, causing endless headaches for the political and financial elites.

Why is the Brexit issue so divisive?

Friendships, families and political parties have been torn apart because some members are Leavers / Brexiteers, some are Remainers, and they find it difficult to find common ground or even have a civilised discussion without getting emotionally overheated.  Feelings are strongly held on both sides.  The main point of contention between Leavers and Remainers seems to be the economy.  Leavers think Remainers place too much emphasis on the economy; Remainers think Leavers don’t pay it enough attention.  In the interests of balance, I am going to try to summarise the main arguments of the Leavers and Remainers.

Leavers: their slogan during the referendum campaign was “Take back control”.  They think that the amount of control of our national affairs which we have surrendered to the EU jeopardises our integrity as a sovereign nation.  EU laws take precedence over British laws, the European Court takes precedence over the British courts, and perhaps the most emotive issue of all, the EU requires us to accept an unlimited number of economic migrants from other EU countries – basically anyone who wants to live and work here can come.  One of the fundamental principles of the EU is that there must be free movement of people, goods and services across the borders of member states.  Leavers are concerned about the impact which unlimited immigration has had, and would continue to have, on British jobs, culture and way of life.  The flow of economic migrants is mainly in one direction: into the UK.  It’s not like there are lots of British people leaving the UK for better paid jobs in, say, Greece or Poland.   

Leavers don’t want to send large sums of British money to the EU to be redistributed to member states which are struggling economically (Greece again comes to mind).  Before it joined the EU in 1973, Britain managed perfectly well by trading with both EU and non-EU countries, particularly the Commonwealth countries (the former British Empire colonies) and can do so again.  There are 195 countries in the world, only 28 are in the EU, the remainder (167) are outside the EU and trade with each other and with the EU quite happily.  Statistically, older people are more likely to be Leavers, one reason perhaps being that they can remember the days pre-1973 and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Remainers point to the economic benefits of remaining within the EU.  Because of the harmonisation of regulations and the free movement of people, goods and services within the EU, it is easy for businesses to export and import goods with the minimum of red tape.  Many businesses operate long supply chains and just-in-time inventories with components being manufactured in Europe and sent to the UK for assembly, or vice versa.  If we left, it would be an economic disaster for Britain, because our access to European markets would be restricted, and there might be customs duties and tariffs to pay on goods moving across borders – if, indeed, the goods are allowed to move at all.  Essential supplies like medicines may become more expensive or unavailable.  If our goods for export don’t comply with EU regulations they might not be allowed into the EU.  Leaving would deny our young people the opportunity to live and work in EU member countries.  Now they can move freely, but if we leave they would need visas and work permits which might not be granted.  The EU (then called the Common Market) was formed in the aftermath of World War 2, and it has helped to maintain peace between European countries for more than 70 years.  Statistically, younger people are more likely to be Remainers, one reason perhaps being that they have never known anything other than being in the EU.  

How many British Prime Ministers have resigned or been voted out of office in connection with Britain’s membership of the European Union?

So far, three.

Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 in connection with her opposition to joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).  Most of her cabinet were in favour of joining the ERM.

John Major lost the General Election in 1997 in connection with Britain’s subsequent exit from the ERM.  Major was a supporter of the ERM but was forced to withdraw from it in the wake of the financial turmoil of “Black Wednesday” demonstrating, in retrospect, that Thatcher had been correct.

David Cameron resigned after the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU.  Cameron campaigned to “Remain” but resigned after the referendum voted “Leave”.

The jury is still out as to whether the current British Prime Minister, Theresa May, will be the fourth to lose office in connection with the EU.

What do doctors’ organisations say about Brexit?

The British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners (both of which I am a member of) have come out strongly against Brexit:

Where do I stand personally on Brexit?

As I already stated above, I have done my best to present a balanced view of the main arguments put forward by the Leavers and Remainers.  However, I am now going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I am firmly in the Leave camp.  This is partly because of my age: older age group, and therefore statistically more likely to be a Leaver.  It’s also because I can foresee significant societal disruption, if not collapse, coming upon us in the next few decades as a result of resource depletion, climate change and the failure of growth-based economic policies, and I think Brexit is more consistent with what we need to be doing, and where history is taking us anyway whether we like it or not.  I find the Remainers’ arguments unconvincing for the following reasons:

Most Remain arguments focus on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU.  The implied assumption is that global trade with its long fragile supply chains and just-in-time inventories will continue as usual, economies of member states will continue to grow at 2-3% per year, and we will continue producing and consuming stuff at an ever increasing rate.  However, I believe that future economic activity will be increasingly constrained by resource depletion, particularly oil, and that far from expanding, the global economy will soon begin to contract, long supply chains will start to break down, and economic activity will become more localised, with producers and consumers in a much closer geographical relationship with each other.  I think this will happen regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU, so we might as well get used to trading with each other locally sooner rather than later.  Or to put it another way, “Collapse now and avoid the rush”.

I am also mindful that every environment has a carrying capacity – the maximum number of individuals it can support.  The British Isles is no exception.  The population of the British Isles at the start of the Industrial Revolution – around the year 1800 – was around 10 million.  Today it is is around 66 million.  Most of that growth was due to abundant fossil fuels which revolutionised our ability to grow and distribute food, manufacture goods and power our homes and workplaces.  Take the fossil fuels away, and the carrying capacity becomes much less, perhaps approaching pre-Industrial Revolution levels.  If we already have 56 million more people than our carrying capacity can support, it would folly to increase that number even more by unrestricted immigration – we need to adopt policies to gradually downsize the population.  However, the concept of carrying capacity is deeply taboo at the moment and is not at all part of mainstream political, economic and media discourse.

I am also unconvinced by the “EU prevents war” argument.  Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the start of World War 1 in 1914, Europe enjoyed 99 years of relative peace even though the EU didn’t exist.  In contrast, the United States went to war with itself in 1861 even though it was supposedly a single political entity.  War is a state of mind, not a trade agreement.

Aren’t Leavers just racists and xenophobes in disguise?

Absolutely not.  It is an indication of the emotional intensity of the issues that name-calling like this occurs in the debate.  There are probably some racists and xenophobes on the fringes of the Leave movement, just as there are in any movement, but having legitimate concerns about immigration does not make one a racist or a xenophobe.

Why is the Irish Border issue such a stumbling block in the negotiations?

Because it’s basically an insoluble problem.  To understand the Irish Border issue you need to rewind through almost 500 years of Irish history, back to 1541 when thousands of English and Scottish Protestants began to arrive and settled mostly in Northern Ireland.  This resulted in communities of Irish Protestants descended from the settlers, and communities of Irish Catholics descended from the indigenous peoples, who had, and still have, an intense, lifelong and completely irrational hatred of each other.  It’s rather like the hatred which has existed, or still exists, between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia, or between the supporters of rival football teams.  

In 1921, in an attempt to keep the two factions apart and keep everyone happy, Ireland was partitioned into mostly Catholic Southern Ireland (now the Irish Republic) and mostly Protestant Northern Ireland (still part of the United Kingdom).  That was when the Irish Border was created.  However, you can’t legislate to make people like or trust each other, and sectarian violence has continued to periodically flare up between the two groups.  A particularly bad patch occurred between 1968-1998 when there were bombings and shootings nearly every day; this period is referred to euphemistically as “the Troubles”.  During this period there was increased security at the Irish Border to prevent armed gangs crossing the border to attack the other side.  Since then things have been calmer and border controls have been relaxed, but ethnic tensions have always simmered below the surface.  If the UK leaves the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would become the border of the EU and would be subject to increased security, which might cause ethnic tensions to flare up again.  However, if the EU is to maintain its integrity, there has to be a border there: hence the problem is insoluble.

Most kids in Ireland go to either an all-Catholic or all-Protestant school, and never get to know each other.  The long term solution would be to teach the kids in integrated schools instead of having segregated schools, so they grow up together and learn not to hate each other.  Then the Irish Border issue would become irrelevant, or at least much more easily solved.  However, this suggestion would horrify most Irish parents and church leaders and as far as I know it is not on the table for discussion. 

What will happen on Brexit Day?

In my opinion, very little.  It won’t be the economic disaster forecast by the Remainers or the economic Promised Land forecast by the Leavers.  Life for the most part will just carry on as normal.  The more serious problems will come further down the line, compared to which Brexit will just be a footnote in history.  For example, the British Houses of Parliament lie 10 metres above sea level.  If the polar ice sheets melt due to global warming, sea level may rise in the long term by up to 58 metres, putting the Houses of Parliament and much of London underwater.  However, while the minds of our politicians are focused on Brexit, sea level rise is not up for discussion.

But that’s assuming there is a Brexit Day – we will know within the next week.  As we wait, you may want to ask yourselves, “What might a society in the early stages of collapse look like?  Might it look something like this?”

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

Sleeping with the enemy

How far should you compromise your ideals in order to gain “a seat at the table” and the opportunity to influence decision makers? This question was explored in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) a couple of weeks ago in an article headed “How medical leaders win friends and influence people (1)”. Normally, I skim this sort of thing over breakfast, file it in the circular file under the sink, then once a year, pretend I’ve read it in order to scrape together enough Continuing Professional Development points to keep my medical licence going for another year. So I duly filed this in the usual place and went to work. However, something about it kept bothering me, so when I got home, I retrieved it from the circular file and thought long and hard about its implications.

I will never hold public office, be the president of a medical Royal College or sit in a think tank (whatever that is). When I die, my colleagues won’t write a glowing obituary praising my achievements and my leadership abilities. My portrait will never hang in the corridors of power. For a start, I find meetings intensely boring and I would rather be gardening, walking in the countryside, playing music or doing almost anything else other than sitting in a meeting. But more importantly, my views are so divergent from the mainstream that my presence in most meetings would be disruptive and would make it hard for the meeting to reach consensus.

For example, I believe that the world’s food and energy supplies will decrease during the course of this century. Most people think they will increase. I believe that infinite economic growth is physically and mathematically impossible. Most people think that it is not only possible, but necessary and desirable. I believe that we should be educating people to expect fewer and simpler medical services during the course of this century, and to take more responsibility for their own health. Most people would denounce this as “austerity” or “cutbacks” and believe that in future we will be delivering more technically advanced treatments such as pharmaceutical and genetic therapies which are tailored to individual patients, and that we will find “cures” for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimers disease and the like. Put me in a meeting with a group of “normal” people and you have a recipe for arguments, frustration and complete lack of progress.

The BMJ article advocates a “soft power” approach. The whole article is available to read online, but I can give you the flavour of it with a few extracts. According to the BMJ, “colleagues who are very vocal and say exactly what they think…just did not get invited to discuss things.” “To do your best by the members and fellows you need to be at the table to be part of the discussion to find the solution.” “Colleagues who criticise a particular politician for coming up with a ludicrous policy get the response you can imagine from that politician…You’re certainly not going to be invited to come and give your views”. “Those who take an adversarial approach may not even get the opportunity to influence politicians”.

In recent years, mainstream environmental organisations seem to have taken this advice on board. For example, in my younger days I can remember organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Party being much more outspoken and in the public eye than they are today, and Greenpeace in particular engaging in many highly publicised direct action campaigns, mostly illegal. Nowadays, they are much less likely to be in the news, and when they are, they are more likely to be promoting positive non-threatening messages about renewable energy and sustainable development. I have no doubt that they are following the BMJ’s advice and engaging with their respective governments in a co-operative way in congenial, non-confrontational meetings behind closed doors.

The problem with this approach, though, is that it works best if only small or incremental changes are needed. For example, suppose you represent doctors and they want a 4% pay rise. The government says it can only afford a 2% pay rise. You have a meeting in which pleasant and civilised negotiations take place, you explain your position, the government explains its position, and you compromise on a 3% pay rise. Problem solved, everyone’s a winner, all off down to the pub for a pint. What’s not to like about that?

However, this approach fails to deliver when major changes are needed. Let’s take, as a hypothetical example, climate change. Let’s say that you believe that we need to stop digging carbon out of the ground and burning it, stop wasting oil on frivolous things like flying on jet planes for foreign holidays, stop building airports and spaceports, and start a major program of reorganising our energy and food supplies on sustainable principles. And you believe we need to do these things now. Right now. Immediately.

If you adopt the BMJ approach, here’s what will happen. You will not be invited to take part in discussions about the subject owing to you being too “vocal” and “adversarial”. Instead, participants will be invited who adopt a more conciliatory, collaborative approach and are willing to make compromises. The meeting or meetings will eventually produce a position statement in which any action or targets are postponed until far off in the future, when those around the table will be long since retired or dead. Agreements will be voluntary rather than compulsory. There will be loopholes giving governments ample opportunity to opt out. Instead of cutting carbon emissions, the favoured approach will be to redistribute the emissions, with high emitting governments having the opportunity to “buy” the right to emit carbon from low emitters. Meeting targets will be dependent on the development of new technologies which do not currently exist in any workable form, but might exist at some unspecified future date. An “echo chamber” mentality will develop, in which all the people at the meetings have similar views (give or take minor variations) and reinforce each other’s views, and people with significantly dissenting views are marginalised as being difficult, disruptive or unrealistic. Consensus is achieved, and the participants leave the meeting with a sense of a job well done.

Does any of this sound familiar?

As I said at the start of this piece, I have no ambition to be offered a “seat at the table” for discussions about the future course of humanity. I will leave that to the great, the good and the wise, and good luck to them. I hope they all have fantastic obituaries. I have, however, written a book “Post Peak Medicine” containing what I hope will be some helpful suggestions for anyone wondering what a post-peak healthcare system might look like, which is available for free download from my website

However, I don’t expect it to be reviewed in the BMJ.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

(1). How medical leaders win friends and influence people. Tom Moberly, British Medical Journal 23 February 2019.

The Winter Solstice, and suggestions for the New Year

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England.  The Druids celebrated Christmas here for 5,000 years until the ceremony was rebranded as the Winter Solstice by nineteenth century neo-Pagan revivalists

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!  At this time, the turning of the year, people often make predictions about what they think may happen in the next 12 months.  I’ve done this myself in the past.  But this year, I don’t feel able to make any predictions.  I’ve been looking at the signs with mounting unease, and I think we are accelerating towards a catastrophe which will be brought about by a combination of resource depletion (particularly fossil fuels), climate change and the collapse of an unstable economic system, it’s a race to the bottom as to which will get to us first, and the race is too close to call.  At this point, I think anything could trigger it, even something quite minor, and there’s no point in trying to predict what that thing might be.

Let me give you a couple of examples.  On 28 June 1914, an obscure Austrian aristocrat called Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in an obscure Serbian town called Sarajevo.  Until that point, probably very few people outside Austria had even heard of him.  That assassination set into motion the war machines of Germany, Russia, France and Great Britain, resulting in World War 1 and the deaths of 16 million people.

On 17 December 2010, an obscure Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire as a protest against harassment by police.  Absolutely nobody outside Tunisia had ever heard of him.  This set off a wave of protests across the Middle East and North Africa, widely known as the Arab Spring, which resulted in, among other things, the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, massive migrations of refugees out of the region, proxy wars between the USA, Russia and Iran, multiple terrorist attacks in the Western world, and the deaths of millions of people.

It would be absurd to suggest that the deaths of Ferdinand and Bouazizi directly caused the deaths of those millions of people.  Those were accidents waiting to happen, and those incidents were like the last grain of sand on a pile which causes it to collapse, or the last snowflake falling on a mountainside which sets off an avalanche.  I think we are entering another period of global instability in which any event, however small, could trigger a crisis.

The nature of the crisis is fairly easy to predict (war, famine, mass migration, the deaths of millions of people etc., same as the last few times), but its timing, and the nature of the triggering event, are not.  It could be a software bug in a Wall Street computer which causes a trading algorithm to start executing “sell” commands causing a wave of financial institution collapses.  It could be a malfunction in a military satnav system which causes a warship or aeroplane to stray into the wrong zone.  It could be the assassination of a minor Saudi royal which triggers a Saudi civil war and an oil shortage.  It could even be a slightly off egg in Donald Trump’s breakfast which causes him to send a particularly offensive tweet.

So this year I’m not going to make any predictions about what I think might happen in the next 12 months.  Instead, I’m going to give you a list of suggestions for things you might want to consider doing in the next 12 months.  In no particular order, these are:

Get to know your neighbours.  Hopefully they are nice people, but if they are not, or if you think they might sponge off you or rob you in a crisis without giving anything in return, you might want to consider moving.

Position yourself so you have some form of direct access to food.  This may mean moving close to, or into, a farming or fishing community, or practising growing your own.  Living in an apartment in the middle of a big city may not be a good idea at this time.

Ditto, fresh water supply.  I understand that in the absence of power for water pumps, there is unlikely to be a water supply above the third floor of most buildings.

Learn to play a musical instrument.  This is good for getting to know people (see “neighbours”, above) and for stress relief.  And boy, are we going to need stress relief in the decades ahead.

Ensure you have a useful, tradable skill which can be practised in the absence of fossil fuels or advanced technology.  I’m thinking basic carpentry, blacksmithing, food production (see above), animal husbandry, making shoes and clothes, midwifery, basic emergency room skills like suturing or setting fractures, basic herbal medicine.  I’m not thinking website or app design, marketing, neurosurgery, financial services or beauty parlour work.

Consider putting about 10% of your savings in precious metals of small denomination coins.

Assemble a collection of books which tell you how to do stuff like make and mend clothes and shoes, grow food, look after animals, purify water and treat minor illnesses.  You can assemble your collection as paper books or PDF files on your computer, depending on your resources and space, but if the latter, make sure you have a way of powering your computer using solar panels.  I can particularly recommend Survivor Library (

Make sure you have a radio which works, or can be recharged, off solar panels, to keep up to date with breaking news.

Pay attention to your physical fitness.  If you are overweight, smoke, drink to excess or take drugs, now is the time to do something about those things, because you don’t want to find yourself trying to deal with a wide scale societal crisis and your own health problems at the same time.

Learn how to make wine or beer: see “stress relief” above, and it’s also a very tradable commodity which you can exchange for other stuff.

Take care of yourself and your own family first before trying to help others.  That may sound selfish, but it’s like the instruction you are given on aeroplanes: “Put on your own oxygen mask first before trying to help others”.

Good luck.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

The new logo

(If you are reading this by email, you might not see the pictures , so may I suggest you visit the WordPress blog itself so you can see what I’m talking about)

I’ve never been much good at visual artwork.   Back in 2010 when I first started the Post Peak Medicine book and website, a reader was kind enough to draw a logo for me, which looked like this:


It’s pretty basic, but it stood me in good stead for the last 8 years, so thanks again, Kimyo from the Hubbert’s Arms forum, whoever you are.

But time has moved on, the logo is starting to look a bit dated, and as I now have a number of publications available for download on the Post Peak Medicine Website, with more in the pipeline, I decided I needed a new and flashier logo to put on all of them and give the website a more unified and upmarket feel.  The fact is, people don’t take you seriously unless you have a good logo.  Big corporations know this, which is why they spend millions designing their logos.

So I decided to have a go.  As I’ve already said, graphic design is not my strong point, and many days passed while I laboured, with much wailing, gnashing of teeth and imbibing of wine and aspirin in the process.  Eventually, out came the new logo which looks like this:

PPM new logo 500x675

Cool, huh?  Now everyone will take me seriously.  Or maybe not.  Anyway, a lot of thought has gone into the symbolism contained within the logo.  The serpent is an longstanding symbol of the medical profession, dating from ancient Greek times.  The wavy lines in the middle of the circle symbolise the basics of peak oil theory: the first curve represents discovery of oil, the second curve production of oil, and the two peaks are separated by around 40 years, after which both curves are in decline.  And “Post Peak Medicine”…well, that speaks for itself.

Big corporations usually have some sort of slogan or mission statement, you know, “Forward Together” or something like that.  I drew the line at that though.  If Post Peak Medicine had a corporate slogan it would be something like “Look out below”.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin