Note to Bernie Sanders: Something is More Than Rotten in the State of Denmark, and Peak Oil is Coming to Take it Away

Denmark is often lauded as a social utopia, but what might the end of cheap and plentiful energy-dense fossil fuels have in store for such platitudes?

Being from an English-speaking country where books abound, I'm well aware of the likelihood that I enjoy access to more books on the topic of peak oil (and related topics) in my native language than a person of any other native tongue. This of course has nothing inherently to do with the English language itself, but goes with the territory of being the language of a people with a large population who are significantly industrialized and stratified in their specialties to the point that there is a large enough educated class and agglomeration of bibliophiles for books to proliferate on any and every topic.

That being so, I've often wondered how other countries fare when it comes to books on peak oil, how (un)aware they are of various correlating topics, and how they'll fare if even a minority of them fail to understand the reality and effects of depleting energy supplies. Take India and China for example. Although neither of them speak a monolithic language the way countries such as the US, England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand largely do, they do each have larger populations than all of those five English-speaking countries combined. However, due to a later adoption of industrialization, a much smaller implementation of colonization, as well as various cultural and political differences, it's probably safe to say that neither of them likely has much of a selection of books on peak oil in any of their native languages.

If those hunches of mine are correct, then I imagine that there's even less of a chance of there being books written about peak oil in Vietnamese, Swahili, Sami, etc. There could of course be translations of English titles, although they wouldn't necessarily relate directly to the local societies and ways of living.

That being said, there are several other countries that although they don't have the population and economies of scale of English-speaking ones, they are industrialized enough to partake in the circumstances that allow for books on topics such as peak oil to be written natively in their own languages – I'm talking the Germanys, Frances, Japans, etc. Perhaps very few of these books actually exist, but even if none do, for the time being there nonetheless exists access to enough resources, and so the societal structure, to allow for texts to be relatively easily translated into their respective languages – to say nothing of the sizable percentage of people able to read the original texts in English if need be.

The German version of Extracted

Having said all that, it's occasionally popped into my head that perhaps the people of countries that have fewer literary possibilities available (I'm talking the Burkina Fasos, Burmas, Ecuadors, etc.) are conversely closer to the land due to their less advanced states of industrialization. Unfortunately that's way too much of a romantic notion, the reality being that significant parts of such populations are scraping by with just enough to eat, all the while harvesting industrially grown crops of bananas, cacao, coffee, coconuts, etc., for the predominantly disassociated-from-the-land people in the more industrialized, more colonizing, richer nations. (Hello!)

That's all speaking in general terms, but getting into specifics, the one country that I've been particularly curious about in regards to peak oil is none other than Denmark. That's partially because my father was born and raised there (and of which I've visited a few times), but an even greater interest and curiosity comes from the fact that Denmark is often championed as being the best country to live in, the happiest country in the world (a position it recently reclaimed), and above all, the most socially progressive nation in the world (until a few months ago perhaps).

In fact, just recently you may have heard the United States' Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders extolling Denmark by pointing out that

I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

So what's so special about Denmark? As stated in one recent article out of the countless others out there, Denmark (and the other Scandinavian countries – Sweden and Norway) routinely ranks near to, if not at, the very top of the OECD's international well-being ranking, which looks at such factors as

material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction.

The US, however, doesn't score very high on these rankings. Why might that be?

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favourable to the interests of their foxy [in charge of the hen house] class. They bamboozle the people by insisting... that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

So far as the article states, Denmark and company apparently don't really have these problems.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams – to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

However, these "dreams" that Scandinavians are "freer to follow," to go along with their universal welfare states, are only partially a function of governance styles, distribution, and higher tax rates. For rather than Danes simply "using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone," it is actually the surplus energy of high enough EROI levels that have made all the spoils and indulgences possible in the first place, whether they be hoarded in polarized and unequal societies (such as the US), or divvied up more equally in rather egalitarian societies (such as Denmark).

When it comes, for example, to Norway, it has a nationalized oil and energy industry (Statoil) whose profits are returned to the country's coffers rather than going towards big salaries and bonuses for executives. The money from this "oil fund" is then funneled into social endeavours as well as other energy ventures such as geothermal research, wind power, and hydroelectric plants, the latter being the primary source of energy in the country.

But with peak oil upon us and EROI levels continually dropping, the conditions that allowed for the flourishing of industrialization – be it either in places like Denmark or the US – will begin to disappear. In a best case scenario, and as energy surpluses continue to dwindle, familial responsibilities will smoothly revert (I did emphasize "best case") away from dependence on the state and/or large scale private enterprises, and back to families, their friends, and the communities and institutions that they live amongst.

In fact, and regardless of how those transitions occur, those times may be arriving sooner that we think, what  with Norway now pondering tapping into its $875 billion sovereign wealth fund that it's amassed over the years from its sales of oil. Although Norway was able to weather the recent global financial meltdown unscathed, it's been less able to deal with crashing oil prices, its unemployment rate now at its highest level in eleven years. Although Norway hadn't planned on accessing its sovereign wealth fund for a few more decades (supposing that all those ones and zeroes would even buy them anything in a few decades), its spending could soon outstrip its oil income.

Don't expect much when drilling for oil in Lego Land (photo by Jens Christoffersen)

And Denmark? Although I haven't visited in more than a decade and don't know anybody there who I imagine I could speak to specifically about its recognition of peak oil, I did fortuitously come across a podcast a few months ago with Jason Heppenstall of the blog 22 Billion Energy Slaves, Heppenstall being a Brit who spent several years living in Denmark. As he put it (24:40 mark),

[Denmark is] a very wealthy country. Almost everyone is middle class. There are no really really rich people, and there are no really poor people. Everybody is kind of somewhere in between. Because they have a very fair taxation system, and it is also a cultural taboo to be rich. Which, really annoys the Americans that I know living there.

So far so good, and that pretty much reinforces the common conception of Denmark that many of us have. However (21:57),

in Denmark the culture's a little bit different, people don't tend to speak about much of importance really. If you try and talk about things like that people will just give you a polite smile and then sort of kind of slowly shuffle backwards and move out of the room. Normally, they like to talk about what's on at the movies or what was on television or something. Maybe I'm being a bit unfair.

But I did get the feeling that nobody really wanted to talk about anything that was difficult there. Which is ironic because Denmark, in my opinion, is one of the only two countries in the world that actually acknowledged peak oil back in the 1970s. That's the reason everyone goes around on bicycles there and they have super-insulated houses.

So what happened then? Well, probably a lot more than what can be said in a final few paragraphs, but Heppenstall did have this to say as well (25:05):

So, there's all these things all the time about Denmark is the best in the world at this, Denmark is the best in the world at that, they're the happiest people, blah blah blah. And these things are echoed in the Danish media day in day out. So there's almost like a kind of hypnotizing, brainwashing process. And, the people there they lap it up, you know, they just love it, they love being Denmark, they love the fact that they're the top of this league table or that league table. And they honesty don't – can't – see any problems coming on in the future. Almost everyone I know who lives there, Danish people I'm talking about, thinks that the future is going to be just absolutely brilliant. Fantastic, everything's going to be flying cars and all the rest of it. I mean I dare mention the fact that if sea levels rise Denmark will cease to exist anymore. That's impolite to mention that in Denmark.
Denmark, if the polar ice caps were to completely melt away (source)

Regardless of the fact that if the polar ice caps were to completely melt away that a sea of herring would overtake a pickled Denmark, this attitude Heppenstall speaks of doesn't really seem to be all that different from where I grew up, Canada, the nation of oh-so-proud-to-be benevolent peacekeepers. Like every other people, the Danes have a hankering for the smell of their own refuse, but coming from a similarly lauded country  whose citizens also often look to the government to solve an exorbitant amount of their problems (not that I have any problem with social safety nets), I'll comfortably cede to Heppenstall the benefit of the doubt that Danes really do have an exorbitant fascination with the stench of their own effluent, and that they unfortunately don't have some kind of advanced awareness and approach to the predicament of peak oil that the rest of us can look to. (But how about that Danish design, eh!)

Putting all that together, and as admirable as his platform (and character) may be, I can't help but wonder then if perhaps Bernie Sanders has been listening a bit too much to those sweet sounding Danish echo chambers, and that those prized social safety nets may have underlying problems of their own that ought to be addressed.

That is, since socialists and New Dealers and the like laud industrial civilization just as much as their opponents do, what's going to be their safety net when the end of cheap and plentiful energy-dense fossil fuels makes industrial civilization increasingly untenable?

Update 02/06/2016: Perhaps I stand corrected. This piece is currently getting a lot of hits from Denmark, and the Peak Oil Primer and EROI Primer are being clicked on at a much higher rate than usual – by Danes. Gotta give them credit where credit is due for being curious.

Update 03/06/2016: Perhaps I stand somewhat corrected again. The Danish rush lasted a couple of hours before it got nipped. Probably some social media thing that quickly got put in its "proper" place.

Note #1: For those interested in Denmark and its peak oil situation, shortly after writing this post I read Jason Heppenstall's post "Staring at the Sea," a thorough and excellent overview of why he chose to move with his family from Denmark to England, elaborating on all the Danish nuances and relations to peak oil that I've long been curious about but would never be able to convey myself. It's worth checking out.

Note #2: And on the topic of peak oil translations, I've been rather surprised to see a few of my articles getting translated into other languages, and so have created pages linking to the various translated pieces (so far French, Italian and Croatian). And for those so inclined, feel free to translate any articles along the Creative Commons license this site is under, and to please notify the email address down at the bottom of this page (just above the Creative Commons logo/link) so that the link to the translation can be added to the appropriate list.

A former filmmaker, now jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion and the renewal of culture. .