Speaking at the All-Party Parliamentary Group
on Peak Oil, Parliament, November 2009
About Paul Mobbs & MEIR:
Phase III, 2004–2017, ‘ecological futurologist’
Hard sciences run the world, mathematics and engineering most of all – politics and economics are, by comparison, just speculation. Bringing the hard analytical reality of ecological limits into the ‘green’/‘environmental’ debate was not an easy prospect, however.
Arriving in Shropshire for a weekend camping workshop on low impact lifestyles
I come from a family of mechanics and engineers. I love engineering. At the same time I've always has a strong ecological dimension to my life, and how I like to live it. Combining the two was to produce a powerful view of human ecology.
From around 1999 I began to look at the issue of energy consumption, and in particular at the ‘ecological footprint’ of consumerism and the latest digital technologies (I was, after all, training people how to use these tools so I felt I should know the details).
What I discovered set me on the course for the last fifteen or so years of my work; ‘ecological futurology’.
If you only viewed the world through the prism of the mass media, you might believe that economics and economists rule the world. They do not. In fact, there are good ‘hard science’ reasons to cast doubt on many elements of contemporary economic theory.
What I meant by term, ‘ecological futurology’, was looking at future trends not through economics – which is what most political commentators do – or through the trends of technological development and innovations – which is what most corporate/technology commentators do – but instead to look at the world defined within engineering and thermodynamics.
Curiously this was how early classical economics viewed the world; it was just that politicians didn’t like the answers that this ‘dismal science’ gave, and so chose, from the 1930s, to listen Disneyland economists instead.
In 1999 a friends asked, “are wind turbines good?”. It was answering that question which, three years later, would lead to a wholly different line of work.
At the time the big debate was about renewable energy and fossil fuels. What that debate ignored – and still ignores today – are the material and physical restrictions on reducing fossil fuel use. That renders certain ‘green’ ideas not only nonsensical, but arguably ecologically damaging.
Preparing the hardware for a low-tech energy workshop weekend, Wales, 2001
Around 1979/1980, when I was eleven or twelve, while on holiday my parents took me to the (then) recently opened Centre for Alternative Technology. It caught my imagination. Shortly after I moved into a garden shed in the garden to live, and went ‘off grid’ using recycled bits and pieces found in skips (I particularly remember the ‘combined heat and power system’ made from a salvaged lawnmower engine and a bank of car batteries).
As a result of those experiences – of actually, ‘doing it’ – my conception of renewable energy has always been based in this physical, engineered approach; it’s about doing the maths of physical models, and then calculating resources needs and impacts of creating those models.
In the early 2000s though, the ‘popular’/‘green’ approach was all about maintaining affluent lifestyles by unplugging one energy source (fossil fuels) and replacing it with another (renewables) – rather than doubting this could be done and suggesting that other, less consuming options might be preferable.
By 2004 that research had become so voluminous it turned into my first ‘proper’ book, ‘Energy Beyond Oil’. Trouble was, no one would publish because it appears to antithetical to the popular ‘green’ debate.
Approaching some publishers did get me noticed though; as a result I ended up writing an article for Chatham House, and later giving some presentations on the issue.
Eventually, after much hassle, I managed to get my book, ‘Energy Beyond Oil’ published in June 2005. Almost fifteen years later and most parts of the book still stand-up in retrospect.
Let’s just say, the content was not well received by some in the green movement. Again, it was ‘the dismal science’ issue; people didn’t want to hear the reality of our development predicament, what they wanted to hear was a comforting tale that, ‘everything will be OK if...’.
I turned the contents of the book into a short presentation and a day-long workshop, also called, ‘Energy Beyond Oil’; and, in quite a Kerouacian sense, took it out ‘on the road’ (or, in my case, out on the bus/train) to visit all kinds of ecological, permaculture, and eco-political groups around Britain.
Of course, by the time the book had been published my work had already progressed further. I had ceased to look merely at the ‘impacts’ of energy use, and instead sought to consider the impacts of our entire lifestyle, and adapting to the ecological resource limits that are bearing down upon human society.
In 2006 I turned this into a new workshop, ‘Less is a Four-Letter Word’, a presentation which evolved over the next three years.
In October 2006, I had an invitation to speak to a new group that had formed quite recently – Transition Town Totnes.
They got in touch because they had read Energy Beyond Oil and though it was exactly the kind of stuff they wanted to know about (I think I was their fifth or sixth speaker). As a speciality for this group, I decided to première the ’Less is a Four Letter Word’ presentation. On reflection, it didn’t go down well.
The reason why the mainstream media and politics like ‘conventional’ futurologists is that they reinforce existing ideas of economics and affluence – and in most cases reinforce those ideas through the examples/technologies they promote. The listener can be content that they already tick all the boxes they need to be happy and secure.
In contrast, even when it is based in scientific research, and the best evidence we have on the environment and development trends, many people still won’t accept any argument that challenges their existing lifestyle – because it seems such a stark contrast to the more palatable reassurances they receive daily through the media.
The ‘champagne glass graph’ – developed in the UN's 1992
‘Human Development Report’; presented here from
Oxfam's 2015 Extreme Carbon Inequality report.
This is the greater issue here:
Half of the ‘bad’ impacts that humanity has upon the environment are caused by only ten percent of the global population; the ones we class as, ‘affluent’.
Curiously it is this same group, more than any other (except the indigenous peoples of the world who sit in the bottom 10%), who are more concerned about the environment than other socio-economic groups – but at the same time are unwilling or unable to entertain the reality of what changing that outcome entails.
Instead I doubled down, and formally changed the description of my work to, ‘ecological futurology’.
The ‘Limits to Technology’ presentation, 2011
(click image for PDF of slides). A PDF of the
annotated slides is also available
In September 2008 I gave a presentation one weekend in Skelmersdale. Monday morning, before I left Skem’, I received a call from someone who had been there; “how did you know?!”, she demanded.
What I had been talking about that evening was energy, and energy as a proxy for the economy, and how that lets us evaluate the conflict between economics, the environment, and debt.
In particular I talked about credit markets, and collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), and the fact that ‘debt overburden’ on the economy requires resource consumption to expand otherwise the whole economic system will collapse – hence why when oil and other commodities get expensive, it can collapse the economy.
Towards the end of the talk I had said something along the lines of, “watch what happens to Lehman Brothers next week”. I thought it was obvious. 36-hours later, and Lehmans had just collapsed.
Relishing my role as camp cook, Free Range Weekend, Autumn 2008
In practice, the fact I had talked about these issues before the event mattered not; as those issues unravelled over the next few months things would turn unexpectedly difficult for my work.
Of course, the problem with being ‘right’ when most people don’t see it coming is that everyone then blames you for the problem; ‘shoot the messenger!’
In the Autumn and Winter of 2008 I began to finalise the text for my next book, ‘Less is a Four Letter Word’. I never published it (perhaps one day I'll update the text and rush it out).
The resistance to the core message of the book – having ‘Less’ to solve our ecological problems – was so vociferous, especially when the financial crisis deepened into 2009, it was clear that most people didn’t want to hear about that.
Why go to the trouble of producing the book if people will not hear that evidence?
(click image for PDF of slides)
A PDF of the presentation
handout is also available
I did briefly cause a stir again, with the Energy Beyond Oil work.
Speaking at the APPG on Peak Oil,
Parliament, November 2009
Late in 2009, I gave a talk to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil, looking at the impacts of peak oil in the North Sea, the economic impacts, and what that would mean for Britain’s energy transition.
At this time I had just started a new line of research – which curiously, given it’s currency in the energy debate only a year or so later, never once came up during the ‘expert grilling’ I had in the Q&A after. In fact, I today realise that I began working on it before anyone else had starting researching the UK-end of the issue.
As 2009 came to a close, it was clear that I could not continue with the ‘Less’ work. For some strange reason people didn’t even want to think about that when they felt they were already living under austerity! Instead it was this new issue which would come to dominate my work over the next decade… ‘fracking’.