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The Fire and the Flood: Energy, Inundation and the Future of Scotland (April 2011)

This article was first published on Bella Caledonia.

What we think and say now is quite different from the autumn of 2010; in a different world from the Copenhagen agenda of late 2009. An overdriven encomium to Western capitalism like Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: the West versus the Rest loses credibility through its almost complete neglect of the social and environmental impact of its hyper-marketism. What confronts us is subject to factors beyond human control – tectonic overlap and slippage in the ‘Ring of Fire’ round the Pacific – promising near-apocalyptic results.

Not only this. Uncertainty of a politico-economic sort threatens us from North Africa and the Middle East. It has now extended to the Pacific, and not in the way we imagined. Nor have the responses been predictable. The fall of the CDU-FDP coalition in Germany’s most prosperous industrial state stemmed, according to Chancellor Merkel, from the ‘Japan factor’. But it was also the reaction of an informed electorate – Dahrendorf’s ‘Bildungsburgertum’ – in a society which in 1991 was as essentially ‘mid-Atlantic’: individualistic, ‘media-savvy’, automobilised. Yet from the 1970s it had worried increasingly about this lifestyle and its implications for ‘constitutional patriotism’, social stability and security – something that, alas, distinguishes it from the United Kingdom.

On the south shore of the Mediterranean a political change akin to 1989-91 – and more powerful than the Yom Kippur crisis of 1973 – is gripping, state by state, the sources of much of our hydrocarbon. Its outcome is unpredictable. The likelihood of Peak Oil has already been accelerated by offshore disasters like Deepwater Horizon, unfeasibly extending technologies pioneered in the North Sea during the UK’s last industrial hurrah. Now, to the continuing Afghan, Iraq and Iran crises is added a general instability, with the consuming West in a quandary. Does it (or can it?) back the usual authoritarian, corrupt ‘safe pairs of hands’ approved of by the Israel lobby? Or can it gamble with managing a transition – at least to democratic insecurity, possibly to energetic Islamism?

II Hydrocarbon on Ration

Forty years ago oil was $ 1.25 a barrel: at over $ 120 the effect is visible in the Greater Springfield of mid-West USA, where Homer Simpson’s oil-fuelled welfare (automobiles, heating, air conditioning, malls) steadily costs more – eroding middle-class wealth by 3-4 % in the last decade. Now the $ 200 or $ 300 barrel of Peak Oil is rolling towards us, and a structural crisis in transport and environment along with it. This may be soluble in urbanised, high-density Western Europe by social engineering: combinations of public transport, car-sharing, home-working, walking and biking, but in the US the trauma is moving from rustbelt to sunbelt. What’s bad for General Motors has all-but-killed Detroit. Now it menaces Denver and Phoenix.

This must hit the cost and utilisation of countless current investment/ infrastructure projects, which assume ‘sustainable’ (moderate) fuel-price increases, and underestimate carbon-dioxide production. Though a retreat from ‘the great car society’ is visible, a strong lobby remains in place, anxious and – so far – able to prolong its existence because of its centrality to ‘housing and shopping’ or – Jeremy Clarkson-style – petrol as testosterone. Add to this the cost of our information society, discreet because so much of it is off-grid. Compare a fuse-box of the 1960s with the contemporary Cape Canaveral sort and see why electricity consumption has increased fourfold since then. Has civic intelligence grown proportionate to the earnings of the Murdoch channels? The practical costs in capability inflicted by cultural debasement haven’t been calculated.

III Reinsurance?

Political upheaval on the southern shore of the Mediterranean threatens one major piece of ‘geotechnic’ reconstruction: Munich Re’s € 500 billion Desertec project of solar generation and desalination, coupled with transport, urban and agricultural improvement in North Africa. Can this now meet its deadline for first power-flow, set for 2015? Difficulties here may increase the chance of technical progress in North Sea renewables, just as the nuclear alternative has been problematised by the Japanese tragedy, whose origins are far different from the man-made warming of the Polar regions. The possibility of continuing and worsening tectonic problems in the ‘ring of fire’ augurs destruction through earthquake and tsunami. Against this there is no proven precaution or antidote, in a world where 50% will live in coastal areas by 2050.

How much has this altered the parameters of risk: to the economy in general, and public investment? A project like the ‘iconic’ Second Forth Road Crossing will face increased fuel and carbon costs, both to build and to use. It will probably also be subject to increased wind-speeds and greater moisture. Few road-only projects on this scale are these days being planned in Europe. The Bosphorous tunnel (under construction) and the proposed Gibraltar-Tetuan link are rail-only, the Messina and Great Belt bridges rail-and-road.

Tectonic problems raise issues on a quite different scale of magnitude. The impact of something like a tectonic shift of ten metres is vast, and one such event will trigger another, as the plates adjust. Such is the geological nature of the Ring that, as Profs Iain Stewart and John MacCloskey reported on BBC Horizon on 27 March, inundations like Fukushima might well become the rule, not the exception – and this time the afflicted reactors were flooded, not shattered. Does prudence not require – at least – closedowns for assessment or rebuilding in such a case?

What are our precautions – in and out of the ring? Refusing planning permission? Drafting special building regulations to create distinctive barriers and building types, proof against seismic shock and flooding? What are the implications for fuel costs, house prices, industrial training? Look at the coasts of Britain and see an increasing number of communities sited on flood plains, exposed to disasters – particularly when flood and surge meet – which will either mark them for generations, or make insurance uneconomic. Aon Benfield, the American risk specialists, reckoned pre-tsunami that insurance in Japan underestimated the areas at earthquake risk (the danger zone was well south of the region actually hit). Disaster insurance in Indonesia – indeed in the Indian Ocean zone as a whole – covered scarcely 4% of property value.

IV The Kraken Wakes

Below the thunders of the upper deep
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
The Kraken sleepeth:
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep …

No-one does pessimism like Black Tennyson. Our renewable sea energy drive may take thirty years to brake carbon growth, during which time inundation (only sketchily covered in the Stern Report, October 2006) will worsen. It hasn’t started at the best of times. Waste and dereliction problems have already marked the forty years of deepwater oil extraction. This has seen the sea chalked off as a ‘new frontier’, but its experience is likely to be even more depressing than that of the ‘old’ land frontier. Marine species have been hunted down as ruthlessly as the buffalo, the economics of coastal communities tossed about like the native Americans. From ‘black fishermen’ in the Shetlands banking millions through fraud to ‘new-age’ pirates off Somalia grossing $ 12 billion a year and deep-sea-drilling gambles, the rule of law has been trashed.

The situation is also one where the seas, sensitive to climate and geological fragility, might reject human exploitation in general, and even the interventions meant to secure them. ‘Heating the deep’ – the fate of the cold water conveyor under conditions of Arctic meltdown is one such threat, perhaps bringing in its wake accelerated climate deterioration – ‘Labradorisation’ – in the UK. But the situation could be worse elsewhere, where flooding, hurricane, the El Nino effect, could wreak cumulative damage. There is, at the very least, a need for international research into the overall situation, to identify its likely most vulnerable points in advance of development.

What, globally, are the regions least at risk? They are likely to be those offshore but also close to industrial Europe: a plus for Scotland … maybe. The continent’s industry – unlike its globalised successor, dependent on the 100,000 ton-plus megaship, whether tanker or container-carrier – is mostly landlocked, or accessible only by navigable rivers with capacity for 1000-2000 ton ships. These rivers have problems that are likely to intensify. Erratic and unpredictable water-levels are likely as run-off intensifies from roads and built-up areas and Alpine glaciers dwindle (the same thing might apply to the Ganges water-system). Repeated droughts, rotting trees, are already turning the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon-generator.

V Strategic Investment?

Scotland might head a low-carbon rescue column, enhanced by its powerful sea-systems (Germany’s Wattenmeer and Baltic are, comparatively-speaking, shallow puddles). We have accessible and safe harbours, now open via the new North-East Passage north of Siberia – cutting 7000 km off the trip – to Japan and China. We have a four-decade experience of ‘offshore energy’, a compact urban culture, overall high quality in our earth-sciences, marine and electrics research. But economically we are weak, our workforce either scattered to a’ the offshore airts or inappropriately trained, suffering from a finance collapse engineered by transactions involving outlaw behaviour, rampant individual greed, and ‘regulatory capture’ which have yet to be properly and publicly investigated.

Can we proceed on our own? Or with enough strength to negotiate with such powerful associates as Norway, Germany and China? If we can, is this reflected in the current investment priorities, as opposed to the programmatic claims, of the Scots and the UK governments?

Do we require two giant aircraft carriers (one at least built only to keep the London Government out of a court battle with British Aerospace, our most notorious PLC)? Or a Trump golf course built to trap in haar the elusive megarich whose villas and condos seem an awful long time in coming? Or a second Forth Road Bridge – to be commissioned when Peak Oil at $ 200-plus will condemn the car? These are background factors we must explore to assess investment possibilities, and risk. Oil remains essential to sea and air transport, much of land freight, and most of the chemical industry. Further than that, in urban areas, it must be conserved. Rational mixes of public transport, walking and cycling, working from home, can do this, and give the labour force a flexibility it has lacked for decades. London, interestingly, seems to have learned this lesson: its City-to-Docklands central business district is post-automobile. We have not.

VI Avoiding Necropolis

Things can, and almost certainly will, get worse; not least because of the flashy conservatism of Western best-seller history: the sort of people that Gordon Brown, alas, assembled in June 2008 to meet George Dubya. In Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest – a silly book by a calculating but unreflective ‘Scotchman on the make’ – what strikes one isn’t Ferguson’s flashy ‘killer apps’ but parallels with the angst-ridden 1890s. Herbert Spencer, the Ferguson of his time, hymned American ‘robber baron’ millionaires of the Gilded Age as Social-Darwinian victors. More sober, H G Wells in The War of the Worlds, 1898, created the metaphor of a London invaded by Martians, armoured by their metal tripods, living off the flesh of their victims until struck dead by microbes lethal to their existence ‘slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, had put on the face of the earth ….’

Wells had almost certainly read National Life and Character (1893) by the Anglo-Australian statesman Charles Henry Pearson. Pearson argued that the West’s expansion was unsustainable despite its technology and economics: not only would the microbes win out in the tropic zones but industry would be colonised by the yellow races, who lacked the individualistic impediments to mass efficiency. The Germans Max Weber and Werner Sombart developed Karl Marx’s similar speculations about ‘The Asiatic Mode of Production’. Neither Pearson nor Sombart is cited by Ferguson, but in this conspectus Wells’s Martians weren’t exotic cannibal aliens. They were us: as palpable as Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (1904): up the Congo and wrecking place and people.

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1982), published after the debacle of the 1979 referendum, is often seen as the start of a new Scottish nationalism. Gray is an extraordinary autodidact: the sort of ‘savant’ that Scottish society seems to will itself to produce out of complex family structure, ethnic interrelationship, visual genius: among them the Thomas Carlyles, Hugh Millers, Hugh MacDiarmids. Lanark is a critique of industrialisation and alienation, its coda the saving of industrial Unthank from fire and flood – not by an elite but by the democracy of ‘Makers, Movers and Menders’. This triad recalls Scotland’s greatest post-industrial thinker, Sir Patrick Geddes, who would these days be as candid a friend to Alex Salmond as he was to Chaim Weitzmann and Jawaharlal Nehru.

We proclaim the need for a geotechnic future – Geddes would approve – but the burden of an old politics, technological myopia and a facile media seem together to be propelling us to another destination: not geopolis but megalopolis. What we are driving towards has produced its nemesis: its hydrocarbon life-blood thinning, its environment taking revenge. The reprieve of Unthank is viewed by Lanark from Glasgow’s Necropolis: Geddes’s and Gray’s literal end-station. The last weeks have shown us that no margin for failure exists.

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