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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 fuels?

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 successfully.

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 anyway.

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