4:   Living with the Age of Entropy

Is a life without fossil fuel possible?

George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd August 2004

"Never again", the Texas oil  baron and corporate raider  T. Boone Pickens announced this  month, "will we pump more than 82  million barrels."(1) As we are pumping  82 million barrels of oil a day at the  moment, what Pickens is saying is  that global production has peaked. If  he is right, then the oil geologist  Kenneth Deffeyes, who announced  to general ridicule last year that he  was "99 per cent confident" it would  happen in 2004 (2), has been vindicated. Rather more importantly,  industrial civilisation is over. 

Not immediately, of course. But  unless another source of energy, just  as cheap, with just as high a ratio of  "energy return on energy invested"  (EROEI) is discovered or developed,  there will be a gradual decline in our  ability to generate the growth required to keep the debt-based  financial system from collapsing. 

A surplus of available energy is a  remarkable historical and biological  anomaly. A supply of oil that exceeds  demand has permitted us to do what  all species strive to do expand the  ecological space we occupy but  without encountering direct competition for the limiting resource. The  surplus has led us to believe in the  possibility of universal peace and  universal comfort, for a global  population of 6 billion, or 9 or 10. If  kindness and comfort are, as I  suspect, the results of an energy  surplus, then, as the supply contracts,  we could be expected to start fighting  once again like cats in a sack. In the  presence of entropy, virtue might be  impossible. 

The only question worth asking is  what we intend to do about it. There  might be a miracle cure. Photosynthetic energy, supercritical geothermal  fluid drilling, cold fusion, hydrocatalytic hydrogen energy and various  other hopeful monsters could each  provide us with almost unlimited  cheap energy. But we shouldn't count  on it. The technical, or even theoretical, barriers might prove insuperable.  There are plenty of existing alternatives to oil, but none of them is  cheap, and none offers a comparable  EROEI(3)

If it is true that the Age of Growth is  over, and the Age of Entropy has  begun, and if we are to retain any  hope of a reasonable quality of life  without destroying other people's,  then our infrastructure, our settlements, our industries and our lives  require total reconstruction. Given  that our governments balk even at  raising fuel taxes, it is rational to seek  to pursue our own solutions: to  re-develop economic systems which  do not depend on fossil fuels. 

For several years, I've been involved  in one of these. Now that it has  passed its tenth birthday, I think it is  fair to say that it works. 

Tinkers' Bubble is forty acres of  woodland, orchards and pasture in  south Somerset. It was bought by a  group of environmentalists in 1994,  and a dozen people moved on,  applied for shares and built themselves temporary houses. They  imposed a strict set of rules on  themselves, which included a ban on  the use of internal combustion  engines on the land. They made a  partial exception for transport: the 12  residents share two cars. Otherwise,  the only fossil fuel they consume is  the paraffin they put in their lamps.  They set up a small windmill and  some solar panels, built compost  toilets, and bought a wood-powered  steam engine for milling timber, some  very small cows and a very large  horse. 

Almost everyone predicted disaster.  The Independent even claimed that the  project had collapsed, after one of its  reporters turned up on market day  and found the houses empty. There's  no question that it was hard. The first  winter was spent wading around in  two feet of mud. Some of the locals,  mistaking the settlers for new age  travellers, went beserk. There was  plenty of internal strife as well. The  work is tough. They fell their trees  with handsaws, heat their homes with  wood, cut the hay with scythes and  milk the cows, weed the fields and  harvest the crops by hand. 

But they have come through. They  have made friends with the locals,  who are coming to see the project as  an asset: the land is biodiverse, still  has standing orchards, and is open to  the public. Their stall has won first  prize in the local farmers' market.  They have learnt, often painfully, to  live together. Because it doesn't  depend on heavy machinery, this  farm, unlike most, isn't in hock to the  bank. One hundred and fifty years  after he published Walden, Henry  David Thoreau is alive and well in  Somerset. 

Needless to say, an army of bureaucrats has been deployed to murder  him. Peasant farming, the settlers  have found, is effectively illegal in the  United Kingdom. 

The first hazard is the planning  system. The model is viable only if  you build your own home from your  own materials on your own land: you  can't live like this and support a  mortgage. So the settlers imposed  more rules on themselves: their  houses, built of timber, straw bales,  wattle and daub and thatch, would  have the minimum visual and environmental impact. But the planning  system makes no provision for this. It  is unable to distinguish between an  8-bedroom blot on the landscape and  a home which can be seen only when  you blunder into it. The residents  applied for planning permission and  were refused. They appealed and  won, but then the government  overturned the decision. They took it  to the high court and the appeal court  and tried to take it to the Lords, in  every case without success. But when  they re-applied, the council, which  had woken up to the fact that  homeless people were housing  themselves without costing the  taxpayer a penny, changed its mind  and let them live there. 

Then the environmental health  inspectors struck. There are two sets  of regulations in the United Kingdom. There are those which the big  corporations campaign against, and  those which they tolerate and even  encourage, because they can afford  them while their smaller competitors  cannot. This is why it is legal to stuff  our farm animals with antibiotics, our  vegetables with pesticides, our  processed food with additives and  our water tables with nitrates, but  more or less illegal to use any process  which does not involve stainless steel,  refrigeration and fluorescent lighting.  The clampdown on small food  businesses, on the grounds that their  produce might contain bacteria, has  been accompanied by a massive rise  in food poisoning cases since the  1970s: large-scale production and  long-distance transport provide far  greater opportunities for infection.  Tinkers' Bubble, which has never  poisoned anyone, is now forbidden to  sell any kind of processed food or  drink: its cheese, bacon, juice and  cider have been banned. 

But the settlers have learnt to live  with these constraints, just as they  have learnt to live with all the others.  They haven't yet solved all their  problems, but they have shown that a  life which requires scarcely any fossil  fuel consumption is still possible. It  wouldn't work for everyone, of  course, but it works. And one day,  unless we demonstrate some willingness to respond to the impending  crisis, those who live this way could  discover that despite the obvious  privations their lives are more  comfortable than ours.


1. T. Boone Pickens, 9th August 2004.  On the Kudlow and Cramer Show,  MSNBC.

2. Bob Holmes and Nicola Jones, 2nd  August 2003. Brace yourself for the end  of cheap oil. New Scientist, vol 179, issue  2406. 

3. EROEI tables can be found in Richard  Heinberg, 2003. The Party's Over: Oil,  War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.  New Society Publishers, Canada.