Thursday 19 November 2009

Peaks, Valleys, Ups And Downs

The picture above is part of the Pennines, a haven of nature and beauty and a National Park. You might imagine it was ever thus. Well it wasn’t and the lumps and bumps ought to catch the eye. Until a few generations ago it was an important mining and industrial area with a substantial population which had a history back to the Bronze Age, and was one of the reasons why the Romans invaded Britannia. Mixed in was extensive sheep farming which gave rise to many related industrial activities, albeit home and workshop based. The Wool Trade was once the backbone of the English economy.

The old population has almost all gone driven out by poverty and climatic disruption of the past. As someone who has Highland forebears who left for Clydeside at the time of the Clearances, it brought me up short when I read that in the same period more left the uplands of Yorkshire alone, forced out by both economic conditions and clearing landowners. They had no skilled writer like John Prebble to record and popularise their experiences and were long forgotten until local historians started asking about what happened and where the people went.

This part is the Peak District, once it peaked in economic terms, and today we are talking about other peaks. George Monbiot, writing this week, describes himself as a “madman with a sandwich board.” But like most of us who are barking mad, or just mad and barking loudly, now and again he says something coherent, unlike those at Westminster. He has said that if there is Peak Oil in terms of oil supplies, then under present conditions this means Peak Agriculture.

Quite simply either there is Peak Oil or there is not. If there is, and the only way from here is down, it is not just that motoring costs will go up, along with personal synthetic fragrances that are dominating the advertising slots on TV (wow get the benzene hit for early Alzheimers), cosmetics, home heating, plastic goods and the rest to our general inconvenience, but there is something more important. It is a complex story, but to pick out one item, most farm pesticides and fertilisers are based on petrol-chemicals as is the world’s food supply and its transportation.

As the world’s population and its demands seem to be increasing at a greater rate than oil supplies, even if Peak Oil has yet to be achieved then there is a problem. If we have used the world’s soils so hard that increased farming productivity will be limited, then there is a problem. If we are at, close to, or have passed Peak Oil then we have a much bigger problem. I am told by a very reliable source that food prices in the stores have begun to rise quite sharply, although for a variety of reasons.

From the text I would guess that George has been rummaging around some of the same sources that I go to for information. There is a major debate in progress that is becoming very bitter about how much oil there is, how much might be extracted, what costs will arise, and critically what will happen to the price of oil and all the petro-chemicals critical to our needs, never mind the wants.

We know that our wise and all seeing government once decreed that food security was not a problem. But they are all in the middle of London which is one of the most plentifully supplied locations on earth with almost all and any foods that are available on the planet. However, if they took time out to spend a happy day taking in the scenery on the M20, M2, and M25 they might realise that a great deal of it is being flown in or brought in by ship and trucked around by thousands of vehicles each day. Also our politicians are almost all voted in by an urbanised electorate who cannot tell one grain crop in a field from another, and some of whom are unaware that meat comes from animals.

Already there is concern amongst some experts about the effect of rising food prices on nutritional standards in the UK. For those on pensions and benefits this is going to hit hard, because their increases are determined by indexes in which food is a minor part. It may be that some of our population is already malnourished (apart from those in hospitals) and the problem of actual hunger for an increasing minority may not be far away.

Worse still is the unholy mess that Defra, the government department for defrauding farmers, is making of English agriculture. Not only has England become more reliant on imported food, but the level of disruption and financial crisis visited on farmers is threatening to cause a catastrophic fall in production. At the same time large areas of land are being given over to biofuels. Also, the local networks of producing and distribution, still functioning not too long ago, have been almost eliminated by the concentration of food supply into a limited number of supermarket chains.

It is already a problem in the USA, where tens of millions are now short of food and struggling to feed themselves and their families. There is ample comment on this and related matters, and the shortages are beginning to spread through other nations in the America’s. There is the fear of a political collapse in Mexico. In Africa there are known with severe problems, it is not known by how much it is increasing in other places. China has begun to buy up land there and there are suggestions that another Scramble For Africa has begun that promises to be as ugly as the first.

In China and elsewhere in the East the potential for serious problems are almost everywhere you look, so much of supply and distribution seems already to be under strain. Those who have an interest in ancient history know that the surface of the earth has remains of many peoples, communities, and civilisations that ended long ago. They have been found and are still being found not only in the hills and deserts but in the waters below the seas. It was not only climate change that ruined them, but also political turbulence, as often as not to do with food supplies and wealth.

GK Chesterton said “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the Peak”. Has anyone a spare sandwich board to lend me?

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