On the approach of winter

For the night is dark and full of terrors.

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

I often use this blog to point out the turning-points of the cycle of the year. Here in the northern hemisphere, we are approaching the autumn equinox, the point when the nights start to be longer than the days and winter is tangibly approaching.

This year, we can look forward to a particularly difficult winter. Many people are already finding it difficult, if not impossible, to afford to heat their homes, cook their food, and fuel their vehicles. (With the rising electricity prices, this point applies just as much to EVs.) In the UK, businesses are particularly struggling, as there is no cap on their energy costs as there is for domestic users. Not that the domestic price cap is going to be much help, given that it is now being revised on a three-monthly basis, and by “revised” I do of course mean raised.

But the UK is not alone in this predicament. The whole of Europe is suffering to a greater or lesser extent. Expensive energy impacts major industries such as aluminium-smelting and glass production. It also disrupts “inevitable” globalisation because the long-distance transport of both manufactured goods and raw materials will no longer be cheap enough to make it viable. Suddenly it no longer seems like such a bright idea for the West to have offshored all that manufacturing to the other side of the world.

Not that those manufacturing countries will have it easy either. For one thing, their export markets are going to be hit hard. Indeed, that is already happening. China has been taking measures to improve its food security; it would be foolish to claim this is because China is run by paranoid idiots, although there’s no doubt some truth in that – most countries are, it would seem. But we might remind ourselves that China has had hard experience with famine not so long ago. They don’t entertain our blithe illusions that “it couldn’t happen here.”

Food riots, for example, happen in other countries. But the underlying causes of food riots are already here for many Western countries. When food is too expensive for most people to afford, or simply not available, you will get popular unrest. That’s how the French Revolution started (the so-called Flour War); see also the turbulence in Sri Lanka lately, not to mention Peru, and on and on. Everybody needs to eat. There’s nothing magical about liberal democracies that makes them somehow immune from this.

Fuel shortages are another classic issue. We’ve seen fuel protests on and off in the UK since the turn of the century – the 2000 tanker drivers’ strike seems to have been wiped from our collective memory, but it came pretty close to bringing the country to its proverbial knees. Something very similar happened in Spain this year, causing the government to bring in fuel subsidies in something of a hurry. That fixed the immediate issue, but how long such a massively expensive measure can be maintained is an open question.

And who, of course, is going to rule out the possibility of more extreme weather events this winter? I would be surprised, indeed, if the UK escaped without some major flooding, due to our endearing habit of building housing estates on flood-plains. After the summer we’ve just had, anything might happen.

There are structural problems behind all this. It is certainly true that the war in Ukraine has placed additional stresses on the global system, but the fact is that these crises have been coming for a long time now. We are starting to run into hard limits imposed by physics and ecology. This could have been, and was, foreseen a long time ago.

Nobody wanted to know back then, of course, any more than they want to know now. We want business as usual to continue forever, because it’s we know and are (more or less) comfortable with, and because it’s always been that way and therefore is just the way things are. There again, RMS Titanic was perfectly buoyant before it hit that iceberg. I’ve written before about the curious lack of imagination that seems to cripple our collective and individual thinking.

There is a hoary old gardeners’ joke about the best time to plant a fruit tree – seven years ago. But the second-best time to plant a fruit tree is of course now. Even if you don’t have anywhere to plant a tree, there are other steps you can take. Insulating your home would be a good move, for instance. Any energy-saving measures you can put in place, likewise. Buy candles and spare boxes of matches. There are plenty of ideas out there – this blog post is a good starting-point, and the comments contain some good stuff too. There are things you can do.

This is what fuel security looks like.

None of these problems can be fixed in the short term. Some of them might be ameliorated, although it seems unlikely that those notionally in charge are either willing or able to formulate useful policies. A new world must and will be born, but don’t expect anyone to administer an epidural.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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