Peak Salt

As a society we are of course generally myopic in our outlook rarely pausing long enough to consider the ultimate destination towards which we are hurtling. So apart from the perceived lack of leadership, preparedness and action demonstrated by Government, local authorities and state agencies in coping with severe weather related phenomena, what were the other lessons that we could learn from the latest unusually extended cold snap? One lesson might be that the availability of a common but little used non-renewable natural resource (i.e. rock salt) had the unwelcome ability to bring the entire country to a standstill. People were unable to get to work; schools and universities were closed; elderly people were trapped in isolated rural dwelling houses; medical and emergency services could not access those most in need; and countless social, civil and sporting events were cancelled or postponed. Commercial life suffered with ISME estimating that some €350 million per day was lost to small businesses. In short, the normal functions of our society and economy ceased because people could not get around.

Fast forward ten years as recently predicted by the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook and one wonders how society will judge the Government’s preparedness for the increasing scarcity of another slightly more commonly used non-renewable natural resource – oil. For what this most recent weather crisis has clearly illustrated is the complete dependence of our society and economy on oil based private vehicle transport. These events could be considered by our enlightened policy makers as a prescient harbinger of things to come if we continue both to burn fossil fuels and to structure our economy and society around them. However, somehow I think we will continue to stick our heads in the salt.

The Hirsch Report commissioned by the Bush Administration concluded that the inevitable peaking of the world’s oil resources was a liquid energy crisis and not an energy crisis. Ireland is exceptionally vulnerable to a liquid energy crisis and price inflation due to our almost total dependence (97%) on imported foreign oil for transport of which we consume approximately €5.5 billion per annum. The main driver of this dependency is the mismatch between where people live and where they work, recreate and access services together with our hugely profligate dispersed settlement patterns.

Yet while on one hand Government policy continues to profess the virtues of sustainable settlement patterns to, amongst other things, reduce our dependency and address our international commitments on greenhouse gas reduction, on the other hand the widespread implementation of the malleable Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines for Planning Authorities continues to facilitate local planning policies in allowing the proliferation of socially and politically popular non-rural generated one-off houses. Since 2004, over 77,000 new one-off rural houses have been granted planning permission.

So when the oil begins to run out and becomes ever more expensive where will we be? What is for certain is that we will have a dispersed housing stock over of 400,000 maladapted oversized dwelling units which will be largely inaccessible to all publicly provided services. While a certain proportion of the population living in these dwelling houses will be absorbed into an inevitably more labour intensive and expansive agriculture sector, the costs of delivering high-quality services will be persistently expensive and unsustainable to the public purse. A policy choice will then need to be made as to whether we abandon these dwelling houses?

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