Danger! Escaped Virus: The Kleptogarchy part 27

Danger! Escaped Virus

COVID-19 had been rampaging around the world for over two years when this was written early in 2022. Worldometers[1] reported that at 11.16 am on January 21st, there had been 343,519,703 cases and 5,595,019 people had died, a mortality rate of 1.63%. Covid-19 is not over, but even so, the rapid development of vaccines should hold the death rate below that of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918-1920. That virus infected about 500 million people, roughly one-third of the world’s population at that time, and resulted in the deaths of 50 million, a mortality rate of 10%.[2] The figures are estimates, because at the time casualty reporting was less comprehensive than today, but it’s thought that the mortality rate from Spanish flu – so called because the first published reports of the malady were in Spain – was over six times higher than from Covid-19. Put another way, between 1918 and 1920 the flu killed 2.78 people in every hundred, while Covid-19 has claimed, so far, just over seven in every TEN THOUSAND. The Spanish flu was around 42 times more lethal than Covid-19 has been so far. The comparison is not intended to minimise the danger from Covid, but to draw attention to changed attitudes to death. As a species, we tend to expect technologies, including medicine, to save us from premature demise, and when a disease shows signs of outwitting restorative measures, people become scared and anxious, states of mind probably exacerbated by the decline in religious beliefs. In China, the Communist Party overdosed on power when in spring 2022 Shanghai authorities locked the 25 MILLION residents in their homes and apartment towers in a bid to stop the spread of Covid. People who tested positive were removed to quarantine centres, at least some of which were unhygienic, uncomfortable and even in the open. Soon videos were circulating of locked-in residents yelling, shouting, screaming, from their windows. They were hungry, lacking medication, terrified of indefinite lockdown without any support. A fire in any of the myriad towers would be catastrophic, far more so than Covid, because in many cases the residents would be prevented from escaping. Authorities were even erecting high metal fences at the base of apartment blocks, to stop people from exiting from doors or windows. The Communist Party appeared not at all concerned about the damaging impacts on residents’ physical or mental health. It was as if the functionaries were given a task, to stop people passing Covid to each other, and decided upon extreme lockdowns regardless of all consequences, several of which could be worse than Covid itself.

Other misfortunes are looming ominously on the horizon, yet until Russia started bombing Ukraine in February 2022, Covid attracted more headlines. It was already with us, after all. We tend to worry less about major catastrophes that are probable but have not happened yet, than about less universally fatal events that are with us right now. The inherent uncertainty of the future is one reason. You might escape a disaster, the disaster might not happen anyway, or if it does you might be dead already. When the question is framed as ‘what is the risk to me personally?’ the answer is probably very different from ‘what is the risk to life on this planet’? If we start with universal risks and make personal risks contingent upon that body of information, our own assessments should be more realistic. 

The refusal of kleptogarchic potentates to reign back their activities in the interests of the planet as a whole has damaging impacts on the health of plants and animals including humans, including the loss of good health as the biosphere sickens. A 2020 study in BMJ Open, investigating through a literature review the effects of climate change on human health, cautions:

“However, the health framing of climate change information is still underused in climate communications, and researchers suggest we should be doing more to make the link between human health and climate change more explicit to increase engagement with the climate crisis.”[3]

The study proposes that

“…future studies should investigate in greater depth the impacts of climate change on mental and broader social well-being. Indeed, some reviews suggested that climate change impacts psychological and social well-being, via broader consequences, such as political instability, health system capacity, migration, and crime, thus illustrating how our personal health is determined not only by biological and environmental factors but also by social and health systems. The importance of expanding our scope of health in this field is also recognised in the most recent Lancet report, which states that future reports will include a new mental health indicator.”

The potentates may conclude that there will always be somewhere safe for them, some unaffected corner of the globe where lives of luxury will still be possible, but like everyone else they are still susceptible to ill health resulting from global heating. The BMJ Open study found that:

“…most reviews suggest an association between climate change and the deterioration of health in various ways, illustrating the interdependence of our health and well-being with the well-being of our environment. This interdependence may be direct (e.g. heat’s impact on dehydration and exhaustion) or indirect (e.g. via behaviour change due to heat.) The most frequently explored and consistently supported associations include an association between temperature and humidity with infectious diseases, mortality and adverse respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological outcomes. Other less frequently studied but consistent associations include associations between climate impacts and increased use of healthcare services, some adverse mental health outcomes, adverse nutritional outcomes and adverse occupational health outcomes.

The term ‘adverse occupational health outcomes’ refers to the serious situation of impaired capacity, physical and mental, to carry out normal day to day activities, including the work of maintaining economies and societies, and indeed of repairing economies to outlaw kleptocratic, super-extractive tendencies.

What happens when heat distress is allied to debilitating conditions such as Long Covid? The UK’s Office for National Statistics reported on May 6th 2022 that 2.8% of the population appeared to be suffering from Long Covid.[4] They self-reported, with major symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell, and lack of concentration. We do not know the length of time that Long Covid can persist, or whether other symptoms will emerge. Could Long Covid be an example of ‘gain of function’, the processes by which scientists aim to make viruses into biological weapons? Did Covid-19 really emerge from a live animal market in Wuhan, China, or maybe from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?[5] Have the Chinese authorities imposed such harsh lockdowns because they are worried about gain of function weakening their own population? I cannot answer these questions, but the knowledge that several nations including the USA, UK and Russia have biological weapon programmes raises the prospect of future accidental and deliberate use.

Even if Covid-19 has not been ‘enhanced’, even if it has spread naturally from one species to another, we do now know that the variants of Covid are easily transmitted, and that global travel increases the speed of transmission. We can expect additional epidemics. Monkeypox, a zoonosis, was first identified in humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1970. At the time of writing, monkeypox was spreading in North America, Australia, and several countries of Western Europe. Humans piling pressure on the natural world, and the heating world imposing stress on all habitats, are potential health emergencies – even before considering the appalling threats of biological weapons.

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/. Worldometers is owned by data company Dadax Ltd.

[2] ‘COVID-19: a Comparison to the 1918 Influenza and How we can Defeat It’, by Shu Ting Liang, Lin Ting Liang and Joseph M Rosen, Postgraduate Medical Journal Vol 97 Issue 1147, 2020, https://pmj.bmj.com/content/97/1147/273.

[3] ‘Health Effects of Climate Change: an Overview of Systematic Reviews’ by Rhea J Rocque, Caroline Beaudoin, Ruth Ndjaboue, Laura Cameron, Louann Poirier Bergeron, Rose-Alice Poulin-Rheault, Catherine Fallon, Andrea C Tricco and Holly O Witteman, BMJ Open Vol.11 No. 6, https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/11/6/e046333, accessed March 29th 2022.

[4] ‘Prevalence of Ongoing Symptoms Following Coronavirus (Covid-19) Infection in the UK’, Office for National Statistics, May 6th 2022.

[5] ‘Coronavirus is a Biological Warfare Weapon’ by Robert Skopec, HSOA Journal of Clinical Studies and Medical Case Reports, December 31st 2020. https://www.heraldopenaccess.us/openaccess/coronavirus-is-a-biological-warfare-weapon, accessed May 26th 2022.

Small Farms Solutions: The Kleptogarchy part 26

Small Farms Solution

“Well, I think the answer lies in the soil”, the comedy character Arthur Fallowfield said in response to virtually any question put to him in the BBC radio comedy show Beyond Our Ken, broadcast between 1958 and 1964. The show starred Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams played Arthur Fallowfield, and we listened after lunch on Sunday afternoons. A lot of the jokes were beyond me, but my dad used to laugh out loud, and I remember Arthur Fallowfield. Now I see the line as an elemental truth. No soil, no civilisation. To rescue our civilisation from the catastrophic danger zone, we have to save, improve, replenish our soils, and that requires a movement back to the land, to undertake regenerative farming, in which organic matter in soils is constantly replenished.

Soil is fragile. Rain caused this erosion in Warmwell, Dorset.
Hotter climate, more intense rains, more erosion. Photo by Rodney
Burton, Geograph Project. Creative Commons licence.

We know that small farms are beneficial to countryside communities. In Whose Land Is It Anyway?, published in 1982, Richard Norton-Taylor wrote “Small farms help to prevent rural depopulation, they allow more entrants into farming, they reduce dependence on large and distant companies, absentee landlords”. He drew attention to government neglect of small farms, pointing out that “British policy-makers equate size, that is to say, bigness, with efficiency”. Despite the policies of ‘big is best’, he suggested that many farmers on expanded acreages “are trapped in a vicious circle: the higher their costs, the more they try to produce; but they are encouraged to believe that the surest way to produce more, so as to cover their costs, is to rely more on (increasingly expensive) chemicals and machines”, while “the long-term interest and health of the land and soil is pushed well into the background”.[1] It was not fashionable in the early 1980s to write about organic farming – farming without manufactured synthetic agrochemicals — but Richard Norton-Taylor quoted a 1981 US Department of Agriculture report on organic farms, which found that they were almost two and a half times more productive than ‘conventional’ farms, per unit of energy consumed.[2]

Chris Smaje’s 2020 book A Small Farm Future makes a powerful case for resettling the countryside, although there is still a widespread view that rural landscapes should be ‘protected’ from development. By 2050, Chris Smaje proposes, home gardeners will be producing potatoes, other vegetables, fruit and eggs for themselves, their families and friends, on 90% of the total garden acreage. A similarly high proportion of green spaces in towns and cities will be given over to horticultural produce plus pork. Market gardens would cover twice their current area, and feature some livestock for manure. Slightly larger smallholdings would grow some cereals and produce organic beef and dairy products. Mixed farms of around 40 acres – a common size before the Industrial Revolution – would also grow field-scale vegetables and fibre crops. Existing rough grazing would be rewilded, there would be some larger specialist farms, especially for dairy products, and to a large extent people’s labour would replace carbon-intensive inputs.[3] 

The great barrier restricting this vision is the price of land, out of all proportion to the value of the produce from it. Land is a financial asset, a means to gain privacy, a status symbol, a cultural repository, a theatre for field sports, a space for military manoeuvres, a mantle over minerals, a landscape for leisure. If society should collapse, land gains even more significance. If there is an economic boom, ditto. Land with a house, or permission for a house, becomes a development site and vastly more expensive still. Farms have been beyond the pockets of most new entrants for decades, and now housing is following suit. In England, 65% of households owned or were buying a home in 2019-20, compared with 71% in 2003-04, and among those aged 25-34, the ownership rate slumped from 59% in 2003-04 to 41% in 2019-20, an average drop of just over one percentage point for every year.[4]

How can land become affordable to people who want to farm it and often live on it too? If there were a dramatic fall in world population, pressure on land would diminish. This happened in England after the Black Death of 1347-1350. The plague deaths led to labour shortages and better conditions for peasants. Historian Paul Slack explained:

“After climbing from height to height, life abandoned the far mountains and sank back to the plain. There was a change in the conditions of existence too. Plague and famine had struck unevenly: more of the poor died than of the rich. More died in towns than in the countryside. This led to a different kind of migration than had occurred in the centuries of expansion. Countrymen moved to towns to fill the gaps left by the plague, though the overall population of towns remained less than it had been. Peasants moved from bad land to good.”[5]

Paul Slack noted that, after the chaos of the plague years:

“All over Europe the wages of the labourer rose. As the pressure of overpopulation decreased, and as cultivation became concentrated on the better lands, so the amount of food per head increased. The price of corn fell and poor men were able to improve their standards, from rye to wheat, and from wheat to meat.”[6]

Deaths improved the living standards of the survivors. When there is less competition for land, the price falls. The process of depopulation is often fatal, literally. As John Michael Greer highlights[7] in The Ecotechnic Future:

“A basic fact of our predicament is the hard reality that today’s human population is fat larger than the world’s carrying capacity. What William Catton[8] called ‘ghost acreage’ – the vast boost to subsistence that fossil fuels give to growing, storing and distributing food – has allowed the world’s human population in the last few centuries to balloon to disastrously high levels. As the industrial age ends, the surpluses of food and other resources and the infrastructure of public health that supported this expansion will end as well, with predictable impacts on the size of the human population.”

The theft of finite resources, and the widespread refusal of corporations and governments to cover the costs of the dangerous externalities which they have deliberately omitted from their balance sheets, have swollen the klepto-system to such a size that it threatens, in decades rather than centuries, to annihilate swathes of the world’s soils, fresh water, floras and fauna, including our not-so-clever selves.

[1] From pages 113 and 114 of Whose Land Is It anyway? by Richard Norton-Taylor, published by Turnstone Press, 1982. Mr Norton-Taylor wrote for The Guardian from 1975 to 2016 and in 2021 was an investigative journalist for Declassified UK.

[2] Ibid page 190.

[3] A Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje, published by Chelsea Green, 2020, from Table 11.1, alternative agriculture Britain 2050 – land use, inputs and products.

[4] ‘Extending Home Ownership: Government Initiatives’, House of Commons Library, March 30th 2021, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn03668/, accessed June 13th 2022.

[5] From ‘Population Crisis’ by Paul Slack in History of the English Speaking Peoples Vol.5 p.713, expanded from the text by Sir Winston Churchill, edited by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor. BPC Publishing, 1969 and 1971. Paul Slack (1943- ) was Professor of Early Modern Social History at Oxford University, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Ecotechnic Future p.41, in chapter 3, A Short History of the Future.

[8] William R Catton Jr (1926-2015) was Professor of Sociology at Washington State University. His books included Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (1980), and Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse (2009).

No Place for the Mega Metropolis: The Kleptogarchy part 25

No Place for the Mega Metropolis

The future world, as I see it, will be a rural world with small cities. It will not be possible to provision large cities. We will see more former industrial centres like Detroit reclaimed by small-scale farming, with nature flourishing as in the Mayan jungle cities in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Drought probably ended the power of the large and complex Mayan cities. As Jared Diamond wrote in Collapse,[1] “the Maya warn us that crashes can also befall the most advanced and creative societies”.

The Mayans outgrew their environment, not all at once but with more and more frequent emergencies which eventually coalesced. Expanding populations cut down forests, exposing soils which were eroded away. Deforestation and drought are intimately linked, as Joseph Stromberg explained in 2012: “Because cleared land absorbs less solar radiation, less water evaporates from its surface, making clouds and rainfall more scarce.”[2]  Applying this conclusion to the Amazon basin, the world’s fastest depleting carbon sink, suggests that President Jair Bolsonaro’s drive to deforest Brazil, and replace trees with cattle and arable crops, is doomed to failure because less rain is likely, and when it does rain, soil will leach into the rivers. On depleting soils, crop yields will fall unless they are smothered in agrochemicals, which in turn will pollute the rivers and adjacent habitats. Lose, lose, rather than win, win.

The Mayan city of Tikal, now in northern Guatemala, was deserted in a time of drought, and wasreclaimed by jungle. Author’s photo.

Jared Diamond studied the Mayan city of Copán, in present day Honduras, and describes how the city’s “population was increasing steeply while the hills were being occupied. The subsequent abandonment of all those fields in the hills meant that the burden of feeding the extra population formerly dependent on the hills now fell increasingly on the valley floor, and that more and more people were competing for the food grown on those 10 square miles of valley bottomland. That would have led to fighting among the farmers themselves for the best land, or for any land…” As the civilisation’s resources waned, inhabitants’ health suffered, a process evident from skeletons recovered from the city and dated between 650 and 850 AD.  By 1250 AD the city was being reclaimed by forest: the people had gone.

Competition for resources led, and leads, to conflict. During fierce conflicts, soldiering replaces everyday civilian occupations including farming, but soldiers must eat, even if it means consuming seed crops. In a decline, problems escalate and the means of resolving them diminish. That has been so through recorded history, and is where we find ourselves now, this time on a global scale.

[1] Collapse was published in the USA by Viking Penguin and in the UK by Allen Lane in 2005 by Penguin in 2006. The collapse of Mayan civilisation is on pages 157-177 of the Penguin edition.

[2] Joseph Stromberg, writing for smithsonianmag.com on August 23rd 2012, ‘Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to Deforestation and Climate Change’, was summarising a study by researchers at Columbia University, published in Geophysical Research on August 25th 2012 and titled ‘Pre-Columbian Deforestation as an Amplifier of Drought in Mesoamerica’. The authors were B I Cook, K J Anchukaitis, J O Kaplan, M J Puma, M Kelley and D Gueyffier. (This was after the study’s mention in the Smithsonian Magazine, which maybe had an advance copy.)

Squeezed Out: The Kleptogarchy part 24

Squeezed Out

Farmland in Eastern England in 2021 cost about £8,410 an acre and in South East England £8,390 an acre, according to the agents Savills. Great Britain’s cheapest farmland was on average £5,460 an acre in Wales, where companies are now eyeing upland farms for tree planting as potential carbon sinks. Savills commented that “Investment in farmland is seen as a hedge against increasing inflation and we may see investors looking to diversify their portfolios with agricultural assets.”[1] Large productive farms in the UK sell for millions of pounds, one of their attractions being the easy exemption from Inheritance Tax at 40%. Within the UK, Europe, North America and across the industrialised world, most people live in cities. The rural population in the UK, for example, all those living in countryside areas and not just farmers, was 16% in 2018, and in the USA 17%.[2] In a locally provisioned world, a revival of small farms is surely essential.

Local authorities in the UK used to provide small ‘county farms’ for new entrants, but most of this land has been sold off as councils struggled to make ends meet. The acreage of county farms in England halved in the 40 years to 2018, an investigation by Who Owns England has found:[3]

“County Farms are farms owned by Local Authorities and let out to young and first-time farmers, sometimes at below-market rents. They’re a vital ‘first rung on the farming ladder’ for newcomers to a sector that has high up-front capital costs: by providing the land and buildings, the public sector is helping get fresh blood into an industry where the average age of farmers is 60.

“Yet the acreage of County Farms across England has plummeted from 426,695 acres in 1977 to just 215,155 acres in 2017.”

The investigation explained that:

“The origins of County Farms lie in the late-Victorian agricultural depression, during which widespread cries for land reform led radical Liberal MP Joseph Chamberlain to stand for election on the promise of “three acres and a cow” for landless tenant farmers. He went on to propose a solution whereby councils would buy up land and lease it out to small tenant farmers on cheap rents. A succession of government Acts in 1892, 1908 and 1925 created County Farms, sometimes called County Smallholdings.”

It all went wrong in the 1980s:

“Fundamentally, the problem is central government cuts to local authority budgets. …the period of decline has coincided with the era of privatisation, cuts and centralisation ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s, and accelerated under the austerity budgets of the Coalition and current government.”

The county farm entry road has become a narrow path indeed.

In Wales, a planning policy called One Planet Development allows people who own or buy land to build a home on it, subject to strict conditions. It is popular with applicants but less so with councillors sitting on planning committees. Here is an example from Carmarthenshire, dating from 2016.

Alwyn B Nixon, Planning Inspector, allowed on appeal a mini eco-hamlet of four homes on 21.5 acres at Rhiw Las, Abbey Road, Whitland. The original planning application, from Rhiw Las Ltd’s Dr Erica Thompson, was submitted under Wales’ One Planet policy for sustainable development in the countryside. Her application was refused by Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee, who went against the advice of planning officers. There was an extra sting in the tail for the planning committee – Erica Thompson reported that the council was required to pay the full costs of the appeal.

One Planet policy allows new land-based live-and-work enterprises in the countryside provided that detailed rules are followed. The guiding principle is to use very small amounts of finite resources, and to rely on renewable resources which planet Earth can continuously provide.

The reasons that councillors gave for rejecting Rhiw Las Ltd’s application included their personal opinions that occupants would fail to make a sufficient living, that they could live elsewhere and work on the land during the day, that it would encourage similar applications, and that it was too far from a village. Committee members then asked the planning department to come up with valid reasons for rejecting the plan. In the end, planning officers extracted three policies from the 2014 Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan and applied them to the One Planet policy in such a way as to make it very unlikely that any One Planet application for a rural location could ever be approved in the county.

At the behest of the critical councillors, planning officers suggested that the proposed site, 3.5 miles from Whitland and 2.2 miles from Llanboidy, was inadequately served by an integrated transport network catering for pedestrians, cyclists and public-transport users, and so conflicted with policy ‘GP1’ of the Local Development Plan. They said there was also a conflict with policy ‘TR2’, because the site was too remote from public transport, and was accessed from a road which lacked a pedestrian pathway. They also cited policy ‘TR3’, requiring public transport to be accessible.

Erica Thompson lost no time in appealing against the refusal, and she was vindicated when the appeal was allowed.

Alwyn B Nixon said in his decision: “It is clear that there is some scepticism amongst local community representatives as to the feasibility of the proposals; also a concern that such development will fail to integrate with the wider community. However, I find that the proposals are supported by a detailed development programme which fully meets the specific requirements laid out in Welsh Government guidance for their consideration of land-based OPD (One Planet Development) in the countryside.”

In response to councillors’ concerns over accessibility and public transport, the inspector concluded that “the development would be acceptably located as regards as regards its accessibility to local facilities and the availability of alternatives for sustainable travel options” and “it accords with the provisions of the development plan, so far as material to the development concerned, in this respect”.

Mr Nixon continued: “I am aware that some opponents of the proposal feel it unfair that development of this kind can be permitted in the countryside, whilst strict controls apply to the location of other housing. Ultimately, however, determination of the acceptability of this proposal rests on an objective consideration of its own planning merits, assessed in the context of the One Planet Development policy”.

Erica Thompson and husband Chris Vernon had formidable intellectual resources to draw on during their battle with the council’s planning committee. Erica, a PhD in physics, is Senior Policy Fellow in the Data Science Institute at the London School of Economics, and Chris, with a glaciology PhD, is a climate scientist and an engineer. If they are convinced of the urgent need to live differently, why is there still so much resistance? Tess Delaney experienced this resistance. She tried to start a One Planet Development in Pembrokeshire. She failed to convince the planning authority, a tale related in her book NOPD. Pete Linnell, buildings and energy sustainability consultant, wrote an appendix in which he commented (p.181):

“Legal remedy is only available to those with spare resources which can be put at great risk by court action. Consequently, those with limited means do not have access to all the options available to secure an OPD consent in the face of determined local opposition.”

Pete Linnell’s analysis also questioned the lack of seriousness with which the planning authority and then the planning inspector treated the management plan prepared by Ms Delaney as a central part of her application. He quoted (p.187) the inspector’s report as stating that:

“Appellant has produced the Management Plan herself, and I cannot rely on the information in it unless it is backed by clear evidence to support the various assertions made. In this respect the Management Plan is deficient in a number or elements.”

Yet the inspector also said:

“Some planting and growing has already taken place in 2018 and 2019, and the Appellant has used the results of these trials to help make projections of future production levels at the end of a 5-year period.”

Somewhat contradictory statements? True, Tess Delaney was not a professional horticulturist, but that is not a condition of receiving planning permission under the One Planet Development scheme.

Tess was defeated. Local authorities have vastly more resources at their disposal than the average resident like Tess. Elsewhere, I have seen expensive resources like lawyers used to silence critics whose assertions were regarded by officialdom as untrue. Protection of the institution (and thus of themselves) has been more important to some senior officials than the rights of wronged or ignored individuals. As a rule of thumb, the greater the wrong, the stronger the effort to deny it!

If we apply this rejection tendency to climate change, we see that people whose current lives depend on fossil fuels, on synthetic chemicals and other heavily carbon-emitting industries, on long-haul transport and tourism and the suchlike, are unlikely to be in the vanguard of any movement towards a zero carbon world.

In Wales, vociferous opponents of OPD remain. They find change an uncomfortable concept, and they include many with a tendency to downplay the dangers of global heating, to prefer sheep and cattle farming over the horticultural basis of many OPDs, and to assume that Life As We Have Known It can continue far into the future.

[1] The Farmland Market, Savills, January 2022, p.6.

[2] Data from the World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS, accessed March 31st 2022.

[3] ‘How the Extent of County Farms has Halved in Forty Years’, by Guy Shrubsole for Who Owns England, June 8th 2018. https://whoownsengland.org/2018/06/08/how-the-extent-of-county-farms-has-halved-in-40-years/, accessed March 31st 2022.

Mammoth Landholdings: The Kleptogarchy part 23

Mammoth Landholdings

The 20 largest landowners[1] in the UK own more than 11% of the entire land area. Just the top five possess over 8%. They are the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, the Crown Estate, the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The major private landowner in 2018 was the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, with over a quarter of a million acres, but the Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen may have caught him up. Mr Povlsen, owner of clothing chain Bestseller and the largest shareholder in fashion company ASOS, is a dedicated rewilder and acquires land to return it to its natural state. There are eight individuals and family holdings in the largest 20, including five ancient dukedoms – Buccleuch and Queensberry, Atholl, Westminster, Cornwall and Beaufort.

Mammoth landholdings are built up through conquests, advantageous marriages, favourable laws, and deference among the landless classes, who are often fed the thought that if only they worked hard and achieved financial success, they too could join the landed gentry. Hard work is not inevitably the route to landed proprietorship. Financial riches accompany birth in or marriage into affluent families, luck in speculation, or genius in invention. Wealth brings land, homes, trust funds, and influence to protect ownership of these and other assets into the future. Social reformers or agitators, depending on your point of view, protested against the privatisation of the countryside, but with very little success. In the 19th century radicals like Herbert Spencer referred to the removal of land rights as a crime:

“It may by-and-by be perceived that equity utters dictates to which we have not yet listened; and men may then learn that to deprive others of their rights to the use of the earth is to commit a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or personal liberties.”[2]

Spencer reasoned that access to land is an inalienable right, a viewpoint that most politicians of the time disregarded. And still do. Communist revolutions in the 20th century led to land nationalisations notably in the USSR, China and North Korea, but control lay not with the farm workers but with the government chain of command. The changes by and large did not benefit the rural proletariat. In China between 1958 and 1961 over 15 million died of starvation, perhaps up to 55 million. Stalin’s enforced collectivisation led to severe famine in Ukraine, where maybe four million died. Cuba collectivised too after the 1959 revolution, but private farmers were able to hold up to 160 acres each, and independent co-operatives involved all members in decision-making. This model would surely have achieved greater prosperity had it not been for the continuing embargo by the United States, starving the island nation of funds for investment.

While wholesale land nationalisation is unlikely to succeed because it is too dramatic, too divisive, there need to be routes into farming for newcomers whose families are not landowners. In the UK, now separated from the European Union, the exorbitant price of rural land is a steep barrier. Land is a tax shelter if it is farmed or has commercially managed woodland on it. Favourable tax treatment generally extends to the farmhouse too, and to cottages even if they are let, provided the letting business is subsidiary to the land-based activities.

The argument for exempting farmland from Inheritance Tax, particularly, is so that farmers can leave their acres and buildings to their legatees without also leaving a bill for up to 40% of everything above £325,000. While favourable to existing farmers, the policy does nothing immediate to encourage aspiring new entrants, whose problems are summarised by the Access to Land Network:

“New entrants in the UK face a range of problems in relation to land that are exacerbated by the UK’s highly priced and unregulated land market. Typically (although not always), the demand from new entrants is for smallholdings as entering on a small scale can allow an individual to test a business model and slowly build markets.

— Land prices prohibit new entrants from buying land

— The lack of a comprehensive land registry means it is difficult to identify owners

— Land in rural areas is often not advertised, so without family or community connections new entrants find it hard to access ‘word of mouth’ opportunities

— New entrants often start out on very small areas of land limiting the potential to earn a sustainable livelihood

— Smaller areas of land are often more expensive

— New entrants tend to look for land in their own locality, due to lack of funds to move, or dependency on alternative (or partner’s) incomes.

— Local authority land in rural areas is managed along very conservative lines so new entrants with alternative plans (organic, CSA, niche markets) are not taken seriously

— Lack of affordable housing in rural areas is a major issue for new entrants (indeed for farmers generally).[3]

Planning law in England, particularly, has a presumption against ‘development’ in the countryside. This presumption, combined with the chronic shortage of affordable homes, limits the creation of new farms. The restrictive regulations also work against farmers who want to retire but stay living on the land, because it is often a costly and complicated process to obtain permission to build a new home for the successor farmer. There used to be old farm buildings suitable for conversion, but few remain. They have been converted for alternative uses under official farm diversification policies.

[1] The compilation of landholdings is from a list drawn up by abcfinance.co.uk and cross-referenced. https://abcfinance.co.uk/blog/who-owns-the-uk/, accessed January 27th 2022.

[2] ‘The Right to Use the Earth’ p.143 in Social Statics by Herbert Spencer, 1865, D Appleton & Co, New York.

[3] ‘The United Kingdom’ by Rachel Harries and Tom Carman, in Europe’s New Farmers, Access to Land Network, September 2018. https://www.accesstoland.eu/Access-to-land-for-new-entrants, accessed April 27th 2022.

Landless Billions: The Kleptogarchy part 22

English nursery rhyme, about 1764. Kleptocrats have been with us for a very long time!

Land is the foundation of resilience. Most people cannot be fully resilient because they do not have any land. One of the few countries where government is trying to resettle people back on the land is Cuba, where individuals can own and bequeath up to 65 hectares as long as they continue to farm it. But there’s a labour shortage, saline water ingress near the coasts, infestations of thorny Marabu shrubs, droughts and hurricanes, and ancient farm machinery held together on a wing and a prayer.

On our planet now, the majority of people are crammed into tiny spaces: by 2020 more than 55% of Earth’s population were squashed into cities, while huge private estates extend over thousands of acres, up to 14,000 square miles in the case of the Anna Creek cattle station in South Australia. No surprise that people in power sanctify personal property – it’s happened through history. Powerful people take land from less powerful ones, as the ‘steals the common from the goose’ nursery rhyme laments. That’s always been the case, and population pressure leads to greater competition. Yet our collective future demands a more equitable distribution of land, so that families can become more resilient and produce more of their own needs.

The history of my own family shows the impact of external events on access to land. The ancestors I know about who lived before the Industrial Revolution were prosperous in the main. In the case of my father’s paternal line, two early deaths changed everything. William Dod(d) was a vintner in the mid 17th century, a Citizen of London, married to Francis Clarke whose brother Cornelius was High Sheriff of Derbyshire after the restoration of the monarchy to King Charles II. William lived in style in Kingstreete, Westminster, paying a rent of £100 a year, equivalent to over £20,000 a year in 2020, for a house with 16 hearths.[1] A labourer in London in 1675 would earn about 20 pennies a day, about £103 a year in 2020 money: inequality is nothing new, nor is precariousness. William died in 1675 leaving three children aged 7, 3 and 6 months. As they were all minors (and women did not count), most of his assets disappeared into the Court of Orphans, which was sliding into bankruptcy. John, the eldest of the surviving children – an older sister, Elizabeth, died in infancy – married Mary Crannage in 1689 when he was 21 and they already had a baby son, William. Their second son Cornelius appeared in 1690, and in 1692 John died. The Court of Orphans had collapsed, Mary was on her own and London was expensive, so the little family moved to a small farm in Essex, Dial House at Birds Green, Willingale Doe. They could be called downshifters, escapees to the country with what was left of their town resources. There Cornelius stayed, farming 45 acres according to a survey in 1734, and his descendants remained for around 150 years until the farming disaster that unfolded after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. From 1815 to 1846, tariff walls protected British grain crops from price competition. Great for farmers, awful for the landless who struggled to afford food. Cornelius Dodd, my great-great-great-grandfather, was a farmer and publican in Essex in 1841 but in 1851, after the repeal of the Corn Laws, he is described in the census as ‘farmer out of business’ and was in Surrey County Prison for debt. He became a brewer, and that is how he supported his family until he died in 1878. His only child William was never a farmer in his own right. William, born in 1827, was a bailiff in 1851, a haulier in 1861, and by 1891 he was a confectioner in Shepherds Bush, London, living with his wife Mary, their youngest daughter Amanda and two of their son William Matthew’s boys. William Matthew emigrated to Australia, but that’s another story.

William’s eldest son Charles was a carpenter, his son Cyril rented a smallholding in Chertsey in 1934, and his son, my father Lionel, bought a farm of his own in 1956, with a loan from mum’s brother-in-law George Stanford, a dairy farmer with a milk pasteurisation plant and a milk delivery business. It was pure luck that mum had a brother-in-law able and willing to provide a loan.

Bad luck killed vintner William in 1675, bad luck saw his assets pass into the ‘protection’ of the Court of Orphans, bad luck left his grandchildren William and Cornelius orphans as babies. Four generations later, it may well have been bad luck that prevented farmer Cornelius from meeting his debts after the repeal of the Corn Laws. But it was good luck for mum and dad that George had the wherewithal for them to buy a farm.

I had another great-great-grandfather who lost his farm in Victorian England. Solomon Crowhurst was born in 1819 in Ash, Kent, and at the 1861 census was farming 34 acres at Hodsell Street, Ash, living with his wife Harriet, children Mary and George, and employing two labourers and a boy. By 1881 he was a servant and ostler in The Vigo Inn, Stansted, near Malling in Kent. He died in North Aylesford Union Workhouse on February 13th 1895, aged 78. No old age pensions in those days; if you had no money and either no children, or children who could not look after you, you went into a workhouse.

Solomon’s daughter Mary Ann married Thomas Warinton, whose astute daughter-in-law Lavinia probably helped persuade her son-in-law George to make a loan to her other son-in-law Lionel.

When did markets in land develop? For thousands of years, humans wandered, seeking sustenance. In the 21st century (according to Christian counting) land is essentially private property. In what is now the United Kingdom, the first codified record of land ownership that has come down to us is the Domesday Book, completed 20 years after the Norman invasion of 1066. King William I seized vast tracts of land for himself and his followers, creating a pattern of landed estates that has characterised English society to this day. By the 19th century concentration of land ownership had become a hot political issue. The 1861 census indicated that there were just 30,000 landowners in the population of 30 million, wrote J V Beckett in ‘The Pattern of Landownership in England and Wales, 1660-1800’.[2] This was apparently incorrect: doubts over the accuracy of the census led to a new survey, the Return of Owners of Land, in 1872-73, which found that just 7,000 or so landowners possessed four-fifths of the total acreage, but also that more than one million people owned some land. Between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, roughly, law had a bigger impact than money on landholdings. Owners often entailed their property on their closest male heir, to avoid the splitting up of estates. In addition, Parliament was controlled by landowners, who enlarged their estates by Acts of Parliament permitting them to enclose land classed as common, i.e. without a recorded owner, but used by local communities to provide food and fuel. Beckett commented that “if the magnates were increasing their acreage someone had to suffer, and the corollary to large estates was seen to be the expropriation of the small owner “.[3] Landowners who did not want to be bothered with day-to-day management let their estate farms to tenants, who formed a substantial stratum of the rural population in England and Wales for around 200 years, some making the switch to ownership when high death taxes led to forced sales. Death taxes peaked at 85% on sums over £750,000 in 1969, subject to a maximum take of 80% of an estate’s total value. Labour was in power, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, and Rupert Murdoch started buying UK newspapers. Elevated death tax rates, high since the late 1940s, encouraged landowners to create trusts and companies as tax shelters, and no subsequent government has tried such aggressive wealth redistribution. Progress towards a more equal pattern of wealth ownership on the island of Great Britain happened between the end of the First World War and the era of Margaret Thatcher, slowly until 1945 and then rapidly, but since the late 1980s/ early 1990s, the process has reversed.[4] Between April 2018 and March 2020 the richest 1% of the UK population owned more than the least wealthy 80% combined. [5]

While many in the 1% can afford to dabble in the land market, most in the 80% cannot. The price of land in the United Kingdom became divorced from its likely economic return during the 18th century, when the rise of capitalism and alternative investments – whether in mines, factories, transport, money-lending, speculative housing, wealth extraction from colonies, and so on – meant that the nouveau riche were looking for estates to bring them social standing. By the 1860s, Beckett concluded, “it was only incomers from the business world who could afford to purchase” the estates that came onto the market.[6]

The differences between families and classes are profound. Members of individual families move up, down and across the social spectrum, from one class to another. Good luck, bad luck, it’s a game of snakes and ladders, more of a game of chance than we are encouraged to recognise. The greater the distance between the most and least affluent, the less mingling there is between the extremes, and this helps families with large landholdings to retain them. Classes are more stable socially than individuals in families. The ruling class, whether composed of kings, aristocrats, plutocrats, oligarchs, theocrats, or any other -arch or -crat, remains. Revolutions may change the personnel and the source of their authority, but in nearly all complex societies, power is a force appropriated by a hierarchy. Soviet Russia was supposed to be a people’s state but the people were still bossed around, and in Stalin’s time maybe seven million to over nine million inhabitants of Mother Russia died because of repression, cruel policies and Stalin’s persecution complex.

[1] Inflation calculator from the Bank of England. Labourers’ wages from ‘The pay of labourers and unskilled men on London building sites, 1660–1770’ by Judy Stephenson, https://www.academia.edu/23668168/The_pay_of_labourers_and_unskilled_men_on_London_building_sites_1660_1770, re-accessed July 4th 2022.

[2] In The Economic History Review, second series Vol.37, No.1, February 1984, pps.1-22.

[3] Ibid p.2.

[4] The History of Inequality: the Deep-Acting Ideological and Institutional Influences, by Simon Szreter, Institute for Fiscal Studies, November 2021. https://ifs.org.uk/inequality/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/IFS-Deaton-Review-The-history-of-inequality-1.pdf, accessed June 13th 2022.

[5] ‘Household Total Wealth in Great Britain: April 2018 to March 2020’, Office for National Statistics, January 7th 2022. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/totalwealthingreatbritain/april2018tomarch2020#:~:text=The%20wealthiest%2010%25%20of%20households,of%20%C2%A315%2C400%20or%20less, accessed June 13th 2022.

[6] Ibid p.15

Energy Return on Energy Invested: The Kleptogarchy part 21

Energy Return on Energy Invested

Fossil fuels still dominate global energy because they appear to have high positive returns on the energy invested in extracting and processing them. Uncomfortably, this is true only because we have not counted the millions of years of geological time that have passed since they were living carbon. These eons of time are among the ‘externalities’ that organisations leave out of their profitability calculations. With each passing decade, oil, gas and coal experience a fall in Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI or EROI) because extractors have to mine deeper, in more problematic places, at escalating cost. Research at the University of Leeds warned in 2019 that the EROIs for fossil fuels have become much closer to those for renewable energy, around six units of output to one of input, down to three to one for electricity generation.[1] Back in the early 1990s estimates for the EROI for oil and gas traded on the world market were more like 30:1.  

“The EROI for petroleum production appears to be declining over time for every place we have data,” researchers wrote in 2014.[2] They listed several examples of EROI, showing that coal and natural gas had the highest figures from extraction to end of processing, up to 60:1 for coal and to 67:1 for natural gas since 2000. For oil, the most recent figures quoted, for 2010, were 10, 11 and 15 to one.

Fuel from biomass, in this table, was scarcely worthwhile, with EROI figures between 0.8 and 1.6 for ethanol and 1.3 for biodiesel. Nuclear was 15:1 to 5:1, similar to electricity from photovoltaic panels. Wind power had an EROI of about 18 to one, relatively high, and hydropower had the highest figure in the list, over 100:1, although that was a figure from the 1980s. Hydropower still has benefits for clean electricity, but droughts impact the quantities of water available.

For flexibility and usability, nothing competes with oil. It is the super ingredient of modern materials and the energy source for the bulk of the world’s mechanised transport. There is nothing as cost-effective that can replace it. The best answer, for the sake of lower emissions and a liveable planet, is to use LESS. The conditions for this to happen include:

  • Local economies that are self-sufficient in essential goods and in services such as health and education.
  • Pleasant living environments where people are content to spend their leisure time.
  • Energy and fuel rationing to avoid excessive capture by the wealthy.

If the law-and-economics philosophy holds sway (see Law and Economics in The Kleptogarchy part 7), rationing would contradict the rights of wealthy people to acquire as much as they want; people will only live in pleasant environments if they can buy them; and if current concepts of market efficiency are paramount, resilient local economies will struggle to develop. The spread of law-and-economics over legal systems, reinforcing the capacity of the presently powerful to resist change, has slowed meaningful action to limit global heating.

According to the Environmental Performance Index 2022 from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network,[3] the top countries for sustainability and environmental protection are Denmark, the United Kingdom and Finland. The leading sixteen are all in Europe. The high standing of the UK seemed surprising, until interpreted in the light of other nations’ lack of progress. The bottom six, as published in the Index, are all in Asia: Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and, bringing up the rear, the giant, environmentally degraded former British colony of India. The six were all colonised by European powers, mainly the UK. The French colonised Vietnam (as well as Laos and Cambodia) and the Germans controlled part of Papua New Guinea. Colonisers exported capitalism as the organising principle, extracting resources for use ‘back home’, and they deployed aspects of their contemporary understandings of Christianity as legitimising concepts, such as work is virtuous, obedience is virtuous, reference to a higher authority is virtuous.

At the other end of the Index, the UK’s apparently praiseworthy position relative to others appears to grant leeway to ‘temporary’ strategies to extract more fossil fuels from the North Sea and elsewhere, but the climate does not appreciate relative positions in league tables, or national borders, all of which are human constructions.

[1] ‘Estimation of Global Final Stage Energy-Return-on-Investment for Fossil Fuels with Comparison to Renewable Energy Sources’, by Paul Brockway, Anna Owen, Lina Brand-Correa, and Lukas Hardt, Nature Energy July 2019, reported in Science Daily, July 11th 2019. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190711114846.htm, accessed April 24th 2022.

[2] ‘EROI of Different Fuels and the Implications for Society’ by Charles A S Hall, Jessica G Lambert and Stephen B Balogh, Energy Policy Vol.64, January 2014, pps.141-152. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513003856, accessed April 25th 2022.

[3] https://epi.yale.edu/, accessed June 8th 2022.

Electric Dreams: The Kleptogarchy part 20

Electric Dreams

All we need to do is switch to electric vehicles! “I’m doing my bit, I’ve bought an electric car,” I have heard people say. Yet although electric cars are not emitting greenhouse gases when in motion, that is not the end of the story. They have large batteries. Emma Woollacott, technology and business reporter with the BBC:

“While traditional lead-acid batteries are widely recycled, the same can’t be said for the lithium-ion versions used in electric cars. EV batteries are larger and heavier than those in regular cars and are made up of several hundred individual lithium-ion cells, all of which need dismantling. They contain hazardous materials, and have an inconvenient tendency to explode if disassembled incorrectly.”[1]

Lithium-ion batteries are energy-intensive to deconstruct, a big problem when governments expect millions of electric vehicles to be on the roads by the 2030s. The components, including manganese, cobalt and nickel as well as lithium, would have to be mined and transported in vast quantities, not environment-friendly activities. Lithium is extracted mainly from Western Australia, also from Argentina, Bolivia and Chile in South America. Nickel centres are in Russia, Canada, Australia. China controls the supply of manganese, and 60% to 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the poverty-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of miners are children. It does not take much imagination to foresee states and corporations trying to tightly control the supply of these minerals.

Cobus van Staden, managing editor of the China Global South Project, wrote in June 2022 that:

“The world cannot mine and refine the vast amounts of minerals that go into batteries – lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, palladium, and others – at anywhere close to the scale for this rapid transition to electric vehicles to occur. The dirty secret of the green revolution is its insatiable hunger for resources from Africa and elsewhere that are produced using some of the world’s dirtiest technologies. What’s more, the accelerated shift to batteries now threatens to replicate one of the most destructive dynamics in global economic history: the systematic extraction of raw commodities from the global south in a way that made developed countries unimaginably rich while leaving a trail of environmental degradation, human rights violations and semipermanent underdevelopment across all the developing world.”[2]

So electric vehicles, with their heavy, dirty batteries, are not as green as drivers might think. On top, there is the charging question, particularly in rural areas where there is no commercial justification for installing charging points. According to a BBC report, a rapid charger costs in the range £20,000 to £30,000, and connection to the electricity grid could be another £10,000 to £15,000.[3]

Electric vehicles for the masses, in perpetuity, are a dream.

[1] ‘Electric Cars: What Will Happen to All the Dead Batteries?’, BBC News, April 27th 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56574779 accessed May 21st 2022.

[2] ‘Green Energy’s Dirty Secret: Its Hunger for African Resources’, foreignpolicy.com, by Cobus van Staden, June 30th 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/06/30/africa-congo-drc-ev-electric-vehicles-batteries-green-energy-minerals-metals-mining-resources-colonialism-human-rights-development-china/, accessed July 1st 2022.

[3] ‘How Easy is it to Drive across Wales in an Electric Car?’ by Tomos Morgan and Becky Dale, May 20th 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61505025, accessed May 21st 2022. The answer? Only with careful planning , and the luck that chargers are actually working. About one in ten fast chargers are out of service at any one time, Morgan and Dale reported.

The Hydrogen Rainbow: The Kleptogarchy part 19

The Hydrogen Rainbow


The UK’s Energy Security Strategy skates over the carbon challenges. One reason may be that hydrogen in many hues has high billing in the strategy. There is ‘blue’ hydrogen for example, derived from splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen produced this way is not low-carbon. The Smithsonian Magazine commented:

“A peer-reviewed study published in Energy Science & Engineering, an open-source journal, concludes “the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60 percent greater than burning diesel oil for heat,” according to the paper.

“In addition, carbon dioxide is a byproduct of blue hydrogen production. While the plan is to capture and store the gas, the question remains as to what to do with that supply in the future. There is also concern about the long-term viability of holding it underground, reports Loz Blain of New Atlas.”[1]

Surely, enough reasons to question the priorities in the strategy?

Hydrogen comes with health and safety warnings. The gas is so flammable that explosions are a real risk. Accidentology Involving Hydrogen, a report from the Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Town and Country Planning in France, summarises:

“The properties of hydrogen such as its tendency to escape due to its small size, wide flammability range, low ignition energy and faculty to detonate make it especially dangerous in confined or semi-confined spaces (high points, recesses of tanks, roofs, etc.) Thus accidents involving hydrogen are 84% fires and/or explosions with serious human consequences. The best strategy adopted in battery charging or electrolysis workshops include opting for unconfined, non-congested open environments or workshops with good ventilation.”[2]

The hydrogen-filled Hindenburg on fire, 1937. Accidents like this ended the short airship era. Photo originally in the Illustrated London News, now in the British Newspaper Archive.

Airships fell out of favour after a run of serious accidents in the 1930s, including the R101 in 1930, the USS Akron and USS Macon in 1933 and 1935, and the Hindenburg in 1937. The R101 and the Hindenburg were hydrogen-filled, while helium buoyed the American airships. The massive 804-feet-long Hindenburg, containing 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen and fitted out like a hotel, was approaching Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6th after crossing the Atlantic from Frankfurt, a journey of some 60 hours when the fastest ocean liners took five days. The explosion and inferno were filmed from the landing ground, and cinemagoers all around the world were soon watching the tragedy on newsreels. There were survivors, 62 of the 97 on board, because the Hindenburg was so close to the ground that people were able to jump out, but the accidents of the 1930s ended airships’ rise as luxurious passenger transport.

Pink, Purple, Red

Nuclear expansion would create test beds for pink/purple/red hydrogen. If you are willing to overlook the inherent dangers of nuclear power generation and storage, then producing hydrogen from nuclear operations is a logical step.

Robert Rapier on Forbes.com[3] explains that if hydrogen is to have a substantial role in the world economy, production has to be large-scale, and that is possible from nuclear power. Hydrogen can be produced from nuclear power in a scalable fashion in two different ways. Firstly, the electricity can electrolyse water to split hydrogen from oxygen, with a claimed similar carbon footprint to hydrogen electrolysed from electricity generated from renewables. The electrolysis process absorbs about 20% of the electricity used, so the maximum output is 80% of the input.

Secondly, steam from nuclear power generation can enable steam methane reforming, called SMR. In this process methane is thermally decomposed to hydrogen and carbon. Robert Rapier reports that a single 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor could produce more than 150,000 tonnes of hydrogen each year. That quantity of hydrogen could be enough to fuel a car over nine billion miles, over 361,000 times the circumference of the Earth.

The huge question hanging over hydrogen is its economic viability. To separate one unit of hydrogen from oxygen by electrolysis requires four or five units of electricity. The energy return on energy invested is negative, even before the hydrogen is contained in fuel cells and transported to users. The Global Association for Transition Engineering explains why diesel is more energy-efficient than a hydrogen fuel cell:

“So whereas in the Diesel Fuel System, the investment of 4 MJ [megajoules] of energy returned 80 MJ of fuel (EROI [Energy Return on Energy Invested] = 80/4 = 20) and some useful other products.

“In the Hydrogen Fuel System, the investment of 66.75 MJ of energy returned 8.4 MJ of fuel (EROI = 8.4/66.75 = 0.126) and some toxic by-product CO [carbon monoxide] and as much GHG CO2 [greenhouse gas carbon dioxide] after the CO is hopefully combusted as diesel fuel system PLUS the GHG CO2 emissions from the energy input.”[4]

Hydrogen fuel cells require more energy to produce them than they provide to end users, such as drivers of hydrogen-powered vehicles. The Japanese are at the forefront of hydrogen technology for transport. A Hyundai hydrogen car, the Nexo, has been advertised, costing just under £66,000 in 2019. In 2022 there are no refuelling stations or service garages at all in Wales, and few elsewhere in the UK except for the London area. The Nexo’s tank takes 6.33kg of hydrogen, costing £10 to £15 per kilo. A full tank is enough for about 400 miles, and so outside London the dearth of refuelling stations is a barrier to the hydrogen car market.

Toyota is another Japanese manufacturer with a hydrogen car, the Mirai, costing upwards from about £50,000, advertised as offering zero-emission motoring. That appears to be its main benefit, because there are emissions associated with manufacturing the vehicles, and the hydrogen has a negative return on the energy invested in its production. Driving a hydrogen-powered car is maybe a form of virtue signalling for wealthy residents in affluent cities, but it is not an answer to global heating.


Green hydrogen is so-called because it results from using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Early days, but development is under way. Wiesbaden, Germany-based Hy2gen was founded in 2016 for this task, “the first international group to produce green H2 at industrial scale”, according to its website. By March 2022 Hy2gen, backed by French investment house Ardian and Switzerland-domiciled investment manager FiveT Hydrogen, had secured €1 billion in funding for its programme to commercialise green hydrogen. The Australian airline Qantas plans to use synthetic hydrocarbon aviation fuel from the mid 2030s. The idea is to separate hydrogen from water with renewable electricity and to mix it with carbon extracted from the air. Qantas’s chief sustainability officer Andrew Parker was quoted in the Financial Times[5]as saying Australia is the ideal place to produce synthetic hydrocarbon fuel because of large areas of land on which solar and wind farms could be installed, to generate the renewable electricity without which the aviation fuel would absorb more energy than it could yield. Synthetic hydrocarbon fuel is likely to be a lot costlier than kerosene jet fuel. According to management consultants McKinsey, current ‘sustainable’ aviation biofuels cost twice as much as kerosene fuel. Green hydrogen and carbon synthesised into new generation fuels, requiring complex infrastructure for carbon capture and hydrogen extraction, are unlikely to cost significantly less than biofuels. Flying will not be cheap.

The sums don’t add up. Hydrogen is not a hallelujah saviour, not for anyone who is terrified by global over-heating. Even if corporations regard hydrogen as open roads into the future, several may become cul-de-sacs sooner than they expect.


[1] ‘‘Blue’ Hydrogen May Not Be a Very ‘Green’ Energy Source After All’ by David Kindy, August 17th 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/blue-hydrogen-20-worse-burning-coal-study-states-180978451/, accessed April 13th 2022.

[2] https://www.aria.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/wp-content/files_mf/SY_hydrogen_GB_2009.pdf, accessed June 7th 2022.

[3] ‘Nuclear Reactors Could Provide Plentiful Zero-Carbon Hydrogen, If Only We Let Them’, by Robert Rapier, April 29th 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2021/04/29/clean-hydrogen-from-nuclear-power/, accessed April 13th 2022.

[4] https://www.transitionengineering.org/pop_the_hydrogen_bubble, accessed April 23rd 2022.

[5] ‘Qantas Says Synthetic Fuel Could Power Long Flights by Mid-2030s’, by James Fernyhough, Financial Times, May 24th 2022.

UK Cop Out: The Kleptogarchy part 18

UK Cop Out

On April 6th 2022, forty-one days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the UK Government released an ‘Energy Security Strategy’[1] focusing on new nuclear power stations, offshore wind, and renewed efforts to extract fossil oil and gas from the North Sea. And on-shore fracking, probably. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in the Foreword:

“And as even the most evangelistic environmentalist would concede that we can’t simply pull the plug on all fossil fuels overnight without the lights going out all over Europe, we’re going to make better use of the oil and gas in our own backyard by giving the energy fields of the North Sea a new lease of life.”

This language frames anyone who objects to fossil fuel extraction as beyond extreme, as on the lunatic fringe of environmentalism, if there could be such a place. The Prime Minister’s statement normalises the message that ‘of course we must continue using fossil fuels’. Yet at the same time as the ‘strategy’ appeared, climate scientists all over the world were demonstrating and getting arrested for warning about the planet’s profit-driven forced march to a wasteland.

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus (white coat, left) protesting about the continued financing of fossil fuel extraction. Photo from Twitter.

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and three colleagues locked themselves to the doors of a JPMorgan Chase Bank building in Los Angeles. JPMorgan Chase continues to finance fossil fuel extraction and between 2016 and 2020 was the world’s largest funder of oil, gas and coal companies, providing them with $268 billion[2] (£209 billion at the average exchange rate for 2020). In comparison, the USA plans to put about $45 billion of public funds into the development of renewable energy in 2023, only two-thirds of JPMorgan Chase’s annual average ‘investment’ into fossil fuels.[3]  Dr Peter Kalmus, educated at Harvard and Columbia, wrote on Twitter on April 10th 2022:

“The LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] showed up with at least 100 riot police. They pushed press and supporters out of camera range before the arrest. Handcuffed in the police van, we passed about 50 squad cars and 2 fire trucks. All for 3 nonviolent scientists and 1 engineer pleading for a livable Earth.”

Peter Kalmus knows the data. He is willing to be arrested for warning humanity. This is a modern-day rerun of the then heretical notion that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, that it circuits our sun, as do all the planets in our solar system. Wind back to Galileo Galilei, the visionary mathematician, philosopher and physicist born in 1564 in the Duchy of Florence. Galileo developed the work of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who theorised that Earth rotates around the Sun. This conflicted with Christian doctrine and angered the Pope, Urban VIII. Galileo was imprisoned, forced to recant, and for the final decade of his life until he died in 1642, was under house arrest. New knowledge is subject to vicious repression when it threatens existing power hierarchies.

There is little in the UK’s Energy Security Strategy to threaten powerful interests. Indeed, the press release published the same day refers to “ambitious, quicker expansion of nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, oil and gas, including delivering the equivalent to one nuclear reactor a year instead of one a decade”.

One reactor a year? The UK has not achieved one in a decade since the 1990s (Sizewell B in Suffolk) and none at all in the 21st century. The ‘small print’ of nuclear power includes short operating lives, the need for ongoing high-level technical expertise and management, the permanent problem (from a human perspective) of waste disposal, and the risks of flooding due to rising sea levels and catastrophic accidents potentially affecting millions of people. All of the 26 Magnox reactors started up in the UK between 1956 and 1972 have closed. The first, Calder Hall 1, operated for 47 years and shut down in 2003. The last, the two reactors at Wylfa on Anglesey, opened in 1971 and closed in 2012 and 2015. The next generation, Advanced Gas-Cooled (AGR) reactors, comprised 14 switched on between 1976 and 1989. Eleven of the reactors on four sites, all operated by EDF (Electricité de France) were still working in 2022, but all are slated to close before 2030. The sole Pressurised Water reactor, Sizewell B, is scheduled to run until 2035 but EDF is reported to be considering an extension of 20 years to 2055, to cost an additional £500-£700 million. Sizewell B generated about 2.35% of the UK’s electricity use in 2020, but in 2021 was shut for maintenance and repairs for four-and-a-half months. Thermal sleeves in the control rod mechanism proved to be worn and had to be replaced.

The UK Government bears about two-thirds of the cost of decommissioning nuclear power stations, which totals £3.2 billion a year in the early 2020s, but every single working nuclear reactor in the UK is operated by EDF, and EDF is owned by the French state.

Nuclear power has a declining share of the UK’s generating capacity. In the late 1990s nuclear plants produced about 25% of the nation’s electricity, but this had declined to 16% by 2020, and in 2021 there was a further fall to 14%. Given the impending closure of most nuclear power stations that are still operating, and the Government’s reluctance to invest public money in new power stations, it is hard to reconcile the optimism in the Energy Security Report with the reality of ballooning costs and scarce funds. There is only one new nuclear power station under construction in the UK, Hinkley Point C on the Somerset coast near Bridgwater, financed by EDF and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC). The construction is costing more than £20 billion, perhaps up to £25 billion, which UK electricity users will have to repay through their bills. When it is operational, some time from 2026, the twin reactors might generate about 7% of the UK’s 2021 electricity consumption, but given the planned shift to electric vehicles and therefore expanded electricity use, Hinkley C would be making only a minor contribution.

EDF has a proposal to build, on the eroding Suffolk coast, a twin reactor power station, Sizewell C, also a £20 billion-plus project, in which China General Nuclear Power Corporation was a minority partner. At the only other proposed site, Bradwell B on the low-lying Dengie Peninsula, Essex, CGNPC was to take the lead and construct two Hualong One pressurised water reactors. The UK’s government got cold feet about CGNPC’s involvement, and in March 2022 decided to end it for Sizewell C. EDF and the UK Government would both have a 20% stake, with the rest to come – maybe – from other investors.[4] It is likely to be a hard sell, because Sizewell C will be short of cooling water, and cannot operate without it.

Water supply at Sizewell is the responsibility of Northumbrian Water, which had proposed an 18-mile pipeline from the river Waveney on the Suffolk-Norfolk boundary, to Sizewell. Yet the Environment Agency warned of a significant risk that no fresh water could be supplied to Sizewell C. Suffolk is a dry county, with no large rivers. EDF argued that the Water Industry Act 1991 required the statutory water supplier, in this case Northumbrian Water, to ensure a supply. How this could be done if no water existed was not explored. It emerged later that the statutory responsibility is to supply domestic properties, not commercial ones. There would not even be enough fresh water available during construction of the power station, and a desalination plant would have to be installed, to be powered by diesel generators and with a heavily negative return on energy invested[5].  

Both Sizewell C and Bradwell B are long-term projects, if they happen at all. They do nothing to provide clean renewable energy that can be safely managed into the future. As for the Energy Security Strategy’s confident assertion of a new reactor every year, there is no evidence to support it. Rolls Royce has a vision of Small Modular Reactors, each delivering a quarter to a third of the power of Sizewell B, for example, possibly for less than £2 billion each, but they are nowhere near commercial application.

Nuclear power does not stack up commercially because of high construction and decommissioning costs in relation to their short operating life, typically about 40 years. When environmental damage and risks, and the heavy carbon footprints of construction are taken into account, nuclear power stations are even less attractive, or justifiable.

Onshore wind power is not part of the Energy Security Strategy, unless local communities ask for them. Offshore wind is in the mix, despite being more expensive than onshore generation, probably because there are fewer voters to object to them. The Westminster government is going all out for offshore wind power, aiming for 50GW by 2030, “more than enough to power every home in the UK”, but according to two analysts, John Constable and Professor Gordon Hughes:

“The combination of increasing operating and maintenance costs with the decline in yields due to ageing means that at current market prices the expected revenues from electricity generation will be less than expected…”[6]

While wind could generate more electricity, problems of wind strength variability and surplus electricity storage remain. Turbines operate safely at wind speeds between 7-9mph and 50-55mph. Storms in a heating world affect wind velocities, which may be more volatile than in recent history. Effective long-term storage for electricity does not yet exist. The Westminster government launched a £68 million fund in 2020 to find reliable storage methods, but £68 million is a drop in the ocean when between April and October 2022 households in the UK are likely to pay about an average of over £85 a month for electricity, in total around £2.4 billion every month, 35 times more than the storage prize fund.[7] And prices were due to rise by a further 80% in October 2022, with further increases expected in January and April 2023.

The Energy Security Strategy also focuses on heat pumps, but without any public investment except “up to £30 million” to encourage firms to make heat pumps in the UK, and a reduction of tax revenues because heat pumps and solar panels are exempted from VAT between 2022 and 2027. The £30 million public investment would buy about a quarter of a single 100-metre super yacht of the type favoured by oligarchs. Heat pumps are effective only in exceptionally well-insulated homes, and are expensive to install – often £9,000 to £12,000 — because water storage tanks, pipework and radiators often have to be changed too.

Back to oil and gas, which should be left where they are under the sea. For the UK’s government, though, “producing gas in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than imported from abroad”, which is a poor reason in a climate emergency when respected scientists are protesting and risking arrest.

Solar power gets a mention, but no money to speak of, only a consultation on loosening planning restrictions.

The Energy Security Strategy features (1) old climate-damaging technologies, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that we are sliding towards the exit from the Last Chance Saloon, and (2) token investments in cleaner technologies that carry problems of storage, or cost, or both. No mention of a mass insulation programme, or of cutting consumption, both of which would be cheaper and safer than betting on a nuclear future. Cutting back will happen when individuals cannot afford heat, power, fuel, travel, but rationing by price is inequitable and a recipe for civil unrest, regardless of the anti-protest law that Parliament has passed.

People with access to money will be able to respond to escalating energy costs by improving their own insulation, in their homes and to their own clothing, and the Westminster government appears to be relying on this:

“On cost, there are many measures for reducing energy bills including cavity wall insulation, which typically costs between £1,000 and £3,000. Measures that improve the efficiency of our homes, on average, reduce bills by £300.

“On aesthetics, upgrades can retain and enhance building’s character with measures being easy to install and beautiful in design.

“On choice, this is not being imposed on people and is a gradual transition following the grain of behaviour. The British people are no-nonsense pragmatists who can make decisions based on the information.”[8]

The wording “this is not being imposed on people” and “the British people are no-nonsense pragmatists” conveys a transfer of responsibility from government onto individuals, to pay for their own energy efficiency improvements if they wish. There is no clear mention of the need to stop fossil fuel use to try and limit runaway global heating. Indeed, the intent in the strategy to develop hydrogen energy depends in part on continuing to exploit oil and gas.

No matter that all oil and gas burned from now on will work against clean energy measures already in place, the Johnson government insisted that it makes the UK more ‘secure’, but an unliveable world has security for nobody. The strategy says:

“Gas is currently the glue that holds our electricity system together and it will be an important transition fuel. We are taking a balanced approach to this unique subterranean asset. There is no contradiction between our commitment to net zero and our commitment to a strong and evolving North Sea industry. Indeed, one depends on the other.

“On decarbonisation, the flexibility of gas has underpinned our world-leading rollout of offshore wind and UK gas has a lower carbon footprint well under half that of most imported gas.

“On longevity, estimates suggest 7.9 billion barrels of oil reserves and resources remain under our seas, and 560 billion cubic metres of gas.

“On profits, the industry is set to invest billions in the development of nascent clean technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture.”[9]

Theoretically the stated reserves are equivalent to 18 years of oil consumption in the UK at 2020 levels, and fewer than eight years of gas. Government appears to view oil and gas extraction as an opportunity to develop carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technologies, stating that it wants “a new lease of life for the North Sea in low-carbon technologies”. Easier said than done:

“There is no doubt the main challenge to CCS [carbon capture and storage] deployment is commercial. CCS requires investment in capital-intensive long-lived assets. In addition to the capture plant, those assets include CO2 transport pipelines and geological storage resources which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to appraise, build, and develop. The service CCS provides, emissions abatement, has no or low value in most markets. Whilst capture technologies are well developed and proven, their application in most industries has been very limited which increases perceived risk. In most jurisdictions, regulations covering the geological storage of CO2 are absent, creating compliance risk. Long term liability for stored CO2 in those jurisdictions generally rests with the operator in perpetuity which can disqualify investment.”[10]

Oil giant Chevron (see ‘Jailing Steven Donziger’, The Kleptogarchy part 6) has the US$2 billion ‘Gorgon’ carbon capture and storage installation, the world’s largest, sited at the liquified natural gas plant on Barrow Island, Western Australia. Sonali Paul, reporting for Reuters, wrote that Chevron Australia had to buy carbon credits to make up the difference between its targets and the actual performance. The plan was for four million tonnes of CO2 to be buried annually, but in 2021 only 2.1 million tonnes was achieved. Scaling up is proving a problem.[11]

Storing carbon dioxide in practice is a lot harder than theory may suggest. Could a switch to hydrogen ease the global heating problem?


[1] British Energy Security Strategy policy paper from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Prime Minister’s Office, April 6th 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/british-energy-security-strategy/british-energy-security-strategy, accesses April 7th 2022.

[2] Forbes.com reporting on Banking on Climate Change 2020 from Rainforest Action Network, Banktrack, Indigenous Environmental Network, Oilchange, Reclaim Finance and the Sierra Club. http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2020/03/Banking_on_Climate_Change_2020.pdf, accessed April 11th 2022.

[3]‘ Quantifying Risks to the Federal Budget from Climate Change’, The White House, April 4th 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/briefing-room/2022/04/04/quantifying-risks-to-the-federal-budget-from-climate-change/, accessed April 11th 2022.

[4]‘ UK Seeks Investors for Nuclear Plant as it Eases Out China’s CGN’ by Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas, Financial Times, March 3rd 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/95524dfc-6503-48c7-85ad-a116bdf2c9ed, accessed May 17th 2022.

[5] See William Atkins’ absorbing article ‘On Sizewell C’ in Granta No.159, April 28th 2022. https://granta.com/on-sizewell-c/, accessed May 17th 2022. 

[6] ‘The Costs of Offshore Wind Power: Blindness and Insight’ by John Constable and Professor Gordon Hughes, September 21st 2020. https://www.briefingsforbritain.co.uk/the-costs-offshore-wind-power-blindness-and-insight/, accessed April 12th 2022. Professor Hughes is in the School of Economics, University of Edinburgh, and Dr John Constable is energy Editor, Global Warming policy Forum.  

[7] About 28.1 million households, typical annual electricity usage 2,900 kWh, at 28p per kWh plus standing change and VAT. 

[8] Energy efficiency section in the Energy Security Strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/british-energy-security-strategy/british-energy-security-strategy, accessed April 12th 2022.

[9] Energy Security Strategy, under Oil and Gas.

[10] ‘Carbon Capture and Storage: Challenges, Enablers and Opportunities for Deployment’, July 30th 2020, Global CCS Institute. https://www.globalccsinstitute.com/news-media/insights/carbon-capture-and-storage-challenges-enablers-and-opportunities-for-deployment/, accessed April 13th 2022.

[11] ‘Chevron Says World’s Largest Carbon Capture Project has ‘A Ways to Go’ to Meet Goals’, https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/chevron-says-worlds-largest-carbon-capture-project-has-a-ways-go-meet-goals-2022-05-16/, accessed May 17th 2022.