Here’s an element of sustainability that should be a major election issue

Do you keep a three-month stockpile of food in your house, including a freezer with frozen foods, or perhaps you are a keen permaculture gardener with a well stocked backyard?  Is there a stockpile of petrol in the backyard (this might be illegal where you live)?

Do you depend on having an essential prescription filled by your local pharmacy when you run out?  If you had a sudden medical emergency, would you assume that you could receive immediate treatment in a hospital that was well stocked with pharmaceutical supplies?

According to a report  on Australia’s Liquid Fuel Security, prepared by Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn (Retired) and released by the NRMA in February this year, if Australia’s oil supply was cut off:

  • dry goods could run out within nine days;
  • chilled and frozen goods could run out within seven days;
  • retail pharmacy supplies could run out within seven days;
  • hospital pharmacy supplies could run out within three days; and
  • fuel available to the public could run out within three days.

This is because Australia is one of the few developed nations that lacks a standard stockpile of fuel reserves.

The report highlights the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and fuel.

NRMA Motoring & Services Director Graham Blight said 85 per cent of Australia’s transport fuel comes from overseas crude oil or imported fuel.

This is a major sustainability issue, not just at the national level but also at the individual household level.  We can’t do much about the national issue, apart from raising it as a factor in the current election campaign.  However, at the household level it is one that we can prepare for.

If you haven’t got a large pantry (or even if you have) what about setting aside another cupboard – maybe clear some shelves in your linen cupboard, or get rid of the junk in those bottom drawers to make space – and set up a stock of dry goods, with each category arranged in use-by date.  You’d be surprised how far off the “best before” date is for a lot of dry and canned foods.  You can then rotate these into your pantry as needed and make a note on your shopping list to fill the gap in your stockpile the next time you go shopping.

How about starting a permaculture garden in the backyard; or joining a community garden; or asking if you can start a garden in that unused lot down the street.  And start growing staples first, not exotic herbs or fruits that you seldom eat.  That way you have a garden you not only can rely on in an emergency, but also one which makes an ongoing contribution to better nutrition.

Of course if you are in a suburban situation it is unlikely you will be able to grow significant quantities of a wide range of foods, but you might be able to link up with other gardeners to exchange excess produce of one type for something that you don’t grow.

From a permaculture principles point of view, the problem contains solutions – the fact that we have had a series of shortsighted national governments resulting in no liquid fuel reserves – contains the solutions to a whole lot of issues (emergency shortages, inadequate fresh foods in our diet, need for more outdoor exercise, not enough community linkages).  Addressing all of these through stockpiling, growing some of our own food, and establishing links within the community also increases resilience.

[Update Edit 9/8/13:]

For an idea of how little it can take to tip countries into an emergency situation based on the lack of liquid fossil fuels have a look at this report by Kathy McMahon in August 2006, on her blog Peak Oil Blues.  She provides a detailed account of the impact on the UK in 2000 when oil supplies were cut off by public action.  It all started when some French fishermen blockaded the English Channel as a protest against high fuel prices.  They were joined by truckers and farmers who were similarly angry about fuel prices and blockaded refineries and distribution centres throughout Europe.

England was possibly the most affected country and within nine days of the first protests:

  • Enormous lines appeared at gas stations as panic buying spread across the country on day 4;
  • Over half of Britain’s gas stations were closed by day 6, 90% by day 9;
  • Food stores experienced the same wave of panic buying, forcing supermarkets to close or impose rationing;
  • Hospitals suspended all but emergency care and began to run out of blood and essential supplies;
  • Mail delivery and public transportation operated on reduced schedules;
  • Heavy industries — auto manufacturers, steel plants, aerospace plants and the like — began planning immediate cutbacks, layoffs and closures as they ran short of fuel, parts, raw materials and workers who could get to work [quoted from: Transition Voice]

This summary gives only an indication of the nature and extent of the impact.  For a more nuanced description read Kathy McMahon’s material.

Reading her material should lead you to greatly expand the list of measures that you need to take to be ready for interruptions to the fossil fuel supply.  Such interruptions will not necessarily come about through the actions of terrorists, and certainly will occur well before the oil actually “runs out” (it never will, but the price will become prohibitive for all practical purposes).
In nine days, from 5 September to 14 September 2000, a small number of angry people brought one of the major developed economies to its knees.  This needs to be remembered when governments are considering their policies in relation to peak oil.  It is not safe to assume that people will “adapt” to rising fuel prices brought on by diminishing supplies.  As Kathy McMahon says:

“We are facing a life or death situation that creates both an intellectual and emotional strain. Even this brief look into the British Petrol Sedition tells an interlocking and devastating tale of what an oil shortage looks like. It tells a frightening tale of the power held in the hands of a small number of emotional, angry people who feel that their very livelihoods are being challenged by high oil prices and want their governments to do something about it.”

I am grateful to Tom Lewis at Transition Voice who re-posted from original article at The Daily Impact (which includes a podcast version), for bringing Kathy McMahon’s excellent article to my attention.  Her article is fully referenced, so it constitutes a rich vein of material on the topic.

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