Make England Great
A peak oil thought experiment
Let us assume the following fantasy scenario. Scientists
discover a way to travel back in time to the 16th century. The time
machine they invent, however, does not take us to our actual past, but
to a Parallel Earth. On Parallel Earth, we are able to visit King Henry
VIII of England as he is beginning his reign in 1509.
Since this is Parallel Earth, not our actual past, we
can tinker with history all we want without any consequences to our own
existence — there are no "time travel paradoxes." The only
things that we can take back with us to Parallel Earth are ourselves
(say, a small staff of about a dozen), some immediate personal effects
(perhaps including things such as flashlights and digital watches), and
as much information in the form of our own knowledge and printed books
as we want.
After mastering the English spoken at that time, we
introduce ourselves to King Henry, tell him of the technical marvels
from the 21st century, and are able to win his confidence and the
confidence of his advisors. Our mission, should we accept it: with King
Henry’s help, to make England great.
There is one catch: on Parallel Earth, there are no
reserves of fossil fuels — no oil, no natural gas, no coal. Oops!
How do you build a modern civilization, with no limits
on technical knowledge from the future, but without the help of fossil
Why Make England Great?
This is a different way of posing the problem of how we
change our society so that we do not rely on fossil fuels, and
ultimately do not use fossil fuels at all. When the question of how to
liberate ourselves from fossil fuels is posed directly, the natural
approach is to reverse-engineer something like our current society, but
without fossil fuels. Our impulse is to say something like, "first,
we’ll get our energy from concentrated solar power, then we’ll
switch to electric cars and trains," and so forth. We start to
worry about side issues, such as — how long do we have until peak oil,
or is it here now? How many years of reduced oil consumption to we have
left? How do we convince our political leaders? These questions are
important, but the really important thing is to look at the basics of
what we want to do in the first place.
The Make England Great scenario forces us to
confront the problem of peak oil in a positive way: instead of trying to
keep something like the current system going by substituting for this
and conserving on that, we are constructing a completely new system from
scratch from the bottom up.
That is actually what we should be doing now, but it is
hard to talk about it. Things at the top of the energy food chain, like
cars and cell phones, get our immediate attention, rather than the
basics at the bottom — like food. And when people do make proposals
about it that might actually do some good, the common response is,
"that’s not practical, no one will listen to us." This in
turn sends us into doom and gloom thoughts, asking how much longer will
it be before there is a total economic collapse or some other apocalypse
to wake people up.
What King Henry Would Do
Here are my thoughts on this scenario. Of course the
first thing would be to talk to King Henry and find out his own
concerns. He is probably concerned about such things as defending
England from Spain, defending himself from internal conspiracies, and
getting a male heir. We will probably be interested in such things as
improving agriculture and promoting industry, science, and medicine.
There may have to be some give and take here.
Taking the long view, we’d want to free labor from
agriculture and make it possible to develop some sort of science and
industry. What about agriculture? Obviously, mechanization is a problem
here; can we build tractors based on wood power alone? And what about
threshing machines? But while we’re trying to figure all this out,
there are some other innovations, such as crop rotation using legumes,
the seed drill for evenly distributing seeds over a wide area, and the
Rotherham plough, which probably do not require heavy mechanization, but
would still make England’s agriculture much more powerful.
Modern medicine, penicillin, and other medical marvels
would certainly be of interest, at least, to the King’s immediate
circle. It is possible that Catherine of Aragon’s first child, a son,
might have survived with modern medical knowledge, thus solving the
problem of a male heir right at the outset, and further boosting our
prestige in Henry’s immediate circle.
Military tools would have to be handled carefully. We’d
love to give King Henry the use of advanced weapons to defend England
against invasion. But the danger would be that we’d give him too much
and he’d get delusions of grandeur and try to reclaim France, draining
the treasury and inhibiting the development of science and industry in
other areas. Population would be an issue in Parallel England just as it
is on Historical Earth. However, education, improving technology, and
birth control should make this a problem which could be dealt with
Bit by bit, over the centuries, with the cooperation of
King Henry and his successors, England could build up a technology so
that a simple but much more livable earth for humans is possible, an
earth in some ways resembling our own, but not based on fossil fuels. We
might be able to jump-start the development of an educated, scientific
class and improve living standards through electricity from
hydroelectric power. After many centuries, by the use of biofuels, it
might even eventually be possible for humans to visit the Parallel Moon.
Why Do We Care?
This scenario is a fantasy. I am not trying to
raise ethical issues per se. It is intended to isolate the
technical and economic issues from the political issues surrounding peak
oil. King Henry has pretty much absolute power, and we’ve got his
confidence. While people commonly bemoan the political hopelessness of
explaining peak oil, I feel that we should plunge ahead anyway with our
plans for a post-peak oil world as if we were going to be handed power
The political game of persuading policy makers of the
overriding reality of peak oil is, if the truth be told, ours to lose.
We probably won't have to do that much except conscientiously keep
putting the truth out there. Peak oil is possibly the only true
political "growth industry" on the planet. "Business as
Usual" will be destroyed in what is, historically speaking, a very
short period of time. This does not guarantee success, but at
least for a while longer, we still have the internet age, and it is hard
to hide a transparent truth for very long.
Of course we don’t know when a critical mass of people
will finally "catch on" to peak oil. Of course we don’t know
how people will react to the decline in their standard of living. Of
course we don’t know how the international situation will play out,
with some countries recognizing, others denying the inevitable. But the
easiest way to proceed is to develop a plan based on a reality which is
inevitable. That will both increase the likelihood that resource
depletion will be acknowledged as an issue sooner, rather than later,
and that we will be able to proceed quickly as soon as this occurs.
Make England Great is a helpful thought experiment
in several respects. It forces us to focus our attention on the basics
first. Instead of worrying about our how we will produce iPods and cell
phones using solar and wind power, we need to worry about the things
that King Henry is worried about: a physically secure environment, with
food, medicine, and basic political security. Like King Henry, we need
to build a new society from the ground up that doesn’t rely on fossil
fuels. So how would you make England great?
-- Keith Akers
June 4, 2009