Research part one

Of course, The Volatile, Fickle, Unpredictable, Undependable Price of Oil is a factual book.


Oil is often a metaphor for all the fossil fuels and their complex economic and technical relationships.


I really want the first section of the book to reflect the best of popular science and history writing.  Each chapter (there are eight) takes the reader on a journey through history showing, say, how food production developed and the ways we use oil to keep ourselves alive and kicking (or warm, educated and employed).  Then the chapters move on to describe the alternatives to an oily lifestyle. That needs a lot of research.

Moreover, I want to give ‘my readers’ the opportunity to check the source of data and facts, so I am sticking to public domain internet based data.  That said it needs a good provenance, for the most part I have driven back to academic studies, government data and, occasionally, company press releases and web sites.  The research has just got trickier.

Finding the good stuff

It might seem obvious to Google all this stuff.  But it isn’t that easy.  First I have to have an idea.  Let’s stick to food [the chapter is called “Your goose is cooked”].  Based on a half remembered conversation in the eighties I had a vague idea that oil based pesticides and fertilisers only came into use after World War Two.  So I Googled something like ‘pesticides after World War Two’, it wasn’t an uplifting experience, but I did find a page that said only twelve per cent of the UK population drank fruit juice in the Seventies.  Hours of searching later, I tracked down the information I wanted.  And boy was that illuminating.

I had opened the door on DDT, Haber-Bosch and arsenic pesticides.  It is a fascinating history and shows what we can do if we really put our minds to it.

Unfortunately I have not had, or can’t remember, conversations about each of the literally [in the literal sense] thousands of subjects covered in The Volatile, Fickle, Unpredictable, Undependable Price of Oil.  I had to work out what subjects to research by keeping my eyes and ears open.  I am a chartered engineer and my engineering journal has lots of news stories that I follow-up.  There are times when I tear out parts of news papers (which some friends have frowned on), when driving I hear something on the radio and try to remember to write it down when I park.  I started twittering a couple of years ago and now have a routine of checking Twitter, NewsNow and Google for new stories – a friend has just put me onto Reddit and the very first story I ‘red’ has made it into the book.  And that fruit juice statistic, yes, it is in the book.  It is on an archived web page belonging to the Food Standard Agency, so I am happy with the provenance.

Verifying stories, and keeping them up to date

So, how do I make sure a story, or claim, is true?  Well, I search.  Returning to food.  Clearly the French ban on food waste is a great subject for my book.  But what have they actually banned?  Newspaper stories vary and I am only going to reference something I can trust.  Most stories talked about the French National Assembly, so I start there.  Out comes google and I find a site called ‘EU Food Law’, the site is a teaser for a publication that specialises in food policy and legislation.  It costs $3,548.00 a year to subscribe, but luckily some articles are free including one that explains the proposed law (oh yeah, the newspapers were a bit previous with their claims).  It also has articles explaining how the law failed to make the statute books, how public opinion swayed the supermarket, who took up the measures voluntarily, and how the bill was brought back to life.  I find all this really interesting, but I have to cut it down and will write something like:


 

After a difficult birth, French supermarkets are legally obliged to prevent food waste and, if they cannot, donate or reprocess the food.  If that is not possible then it must be recovered for animal feed and, if all else fails, it must be used as compost or in energy recovery.


 

I think this has a few advantages over the original story, first I have verified the story and have a trusted source (they even give the number of the law), second it shows the number of options for using waste food and third, it is clear that prevention is better than cure.

But you will have to excuse me, I have some more research to do.

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