Guardian: An Answer in Somerset
evnuk at gaia.org
Thu Aug 26 12:50:52 BST 2004
An answer in Somerset
The Age of Entropy is here. We should all now be learning how to live
Tuesday August 24, 2004
'Never again," the Texas oil baron and corporate raider T Boone Pickens ann=
ounced this month, "will we pump more than 82m barrels."
As we are pumping 82m barrels of oil a day at the moment, what Pickens is s=
aying is that global production has peaked. If he is right, then the oil geo=
logist Kenneth Deffeyes, who announced to general ridicule last year that he=
was "99% confident" it would happen in 2004, has been vindicated. Rather mo=
industrial civilisation is over.
Not immediately, of course. But unless another source of energy, just as ch=
eap, 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=
A surplus of available energy is a remarkable historical and biological ano=
maly. A supply of oil that exceeds demand has permitted us to do what all sp=
ecies strive to do - expand the ecological space we occupy - but without enc=
ountering 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 kin=
dness 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 migh=
t be a miracle cure. Photosynthetic energy, supercritical geothermal fluid d=
rilling, cold fusion, hydrocatalytic hydrogen energy and various other hopef=
ul 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, b=
ut none of them is cheap, and none offers a comparable Eroei.
If it is true that the Age of Growth is over, and the Age of Entropy has be=
gun, and if we are to retain any hope of a reasonable quality of life withou=
t destroying other people's, then our infrastructure, our settlements, our i=
ndustries and our lives require
Given that our governments balk even at raising fuel taxes, it is rational =
to seek to pursue our own solutions: to redevelop economic systems which do =
not depend on fossil fuels.
For several years, I've been involved in one of these. Now that it has pass=
ed its 10th birthday, I think it is fair to say that it works.
Tinkers' Bubble is 40 acres of woodland, orchards and pasture in south Some=
rset. It was bought by a group of environmentalists in 1994, and a dozen peo=
ple moved in, applied for shares and built themselves temporary houses.
They imposed a strict set of rules on themselves, which included a ban on t=
he use of internal combustion engines on the land. They made a partial excep=
tion for transport: the 12 residents share two cars.
Otherwise, the only fossil fuel they consume is the paraffin they put in th=
eir 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 ve=
ry small cows and a very large horse.
Almost everyone predicted disaster. The Independent even claimed that the p=
roject 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 lo=
cals, mistaking the settlers for new age travellers, went berserk. There was=
plenty of internal strife as well. The work is tough.
They fell 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 st=
anding orchards, and is open to the public.
Their stall has won first prize in the local farmers' market. They have lea=
rned, 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. Pe=
asant farming, the settlers have found, is effectively illegal in the UK.
The first hazard is the planning system. The model is viable only if you bu=
ild your own home from your own materials on your own land: you can't live l=
ike this and support a mortgage. So the settlers imposed more rules on thems=
elves: their houses, built of timber, straw bales, wattle and daub and thatc=
h, would have the minimum visual and
But the planning system makes no provision for this. It is unable to
distinguish between an eight-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 too=
k it to the high court and the appeal court and tried to take it to the Lord=
s, in every case without success.
But when they reapplied, the council, which had woken up to the fact that h=
omeless 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 regu=
lations in the UK. There are those which the big corporations campaign again=
st; and those which they tolerate and even encourage, because they can affor=
d them while their smaller competitors cannot.
This is why it is legal to stuff our farm animals with antibiotics, our veg=
etables with pesticides, our processed food with additives and our water tab=
les with nitrates, but more or less illegal to use any process which does no=
t involve stainless steel, refrigeration and fluorescent lighting.
The clampdown on small food businesses, on the grounds that their produce m=
ight contain bacteria, has been accompanied by a massive rise in food poison=
ing cases since the 1970s: large- scale production and long-distance transpo=
rt provide far greater opportunities for infection. Tinkers' Bubble, which h=
as never poisoned anyone, is now forbidden to sell any kind of processed foo=
d or drink: its
cheese, bacon, juice and cider have been banned.
But the settlers have learned to live with these constraints, just as they =
have learned 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 w=
ouldn'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.
Our Bubble may burst
Wednesday August 25, 2004
It is generous of George Monbiot to put Tinkers' Bubble forward as a
viable alternative in an ailing oil dependent society (An Answer in Somerse=
t, August 24), but, as one of its residents, I feel his plaudits are prematu=
It is too early to say that our project works. We are only halfway to our a=
im of every resident earning a modest living from activity on the land. The =
farm is still inefficient in some respects, and not as productive as it coul=
One reason is that we don't use fossil-fuel powered machinery, but there ar=
e others: the problems of making decisions in a community; planning constrai=
nts that force us to live hidden in woods at the top of a very steep hill; l=
ack of expertise; lack of ready
infrastructure; and so on.
A more critical eye might conclude that our mode of agriculture could
never "feed the world". But there they would be wrong, for there are hundre=
ds of millions of peasants who feed themselves using technologies more primi=
tive than ours; and they have
done so for generations, which is why they are better at it. If society is =
lurching towards an energy famine, then these are people we need to learn fr=
om, in our search for what Howard Odum has termed a "prosperous way down".
Simon Fairlie <chapter7 at tlio.demon.co.uk>
Tinkers' Bubble, Stoke sub Hamdon, Somerset
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