A Tonic for the Peak Oil Blues
by Alex Munslow
The term "Peak oil" warns of the end of cheap and plentiful energy. An expanding world population of 6.5 billion suggests a limit for growth will eventually be reached (if it hasn't been already) and no combination of current alternative energy sources will sustain the world's accelerating thirst for power. As oil production inevitably declines and resources become scarce, the world faces a turbulent descent.
We depend on a globalized economy that is completely reliant on ready supplies of this non-renewable resource. But envisioning a life without the luxuries afforded by abundant oil can quickly lead one to denial. It's much easier to absolve our responsibility to some higher authority – the government, the oil companies, technology, God.
The exact tipping point in world oil production cannot be plotted exactly until a clear decline can be seen, by which time it will be too late. Experts analyzing this situation are divided between "early tippers" and "late tippers" – those who think world oil production has already peaked, or is about to peak in the next few years, and those who believe there are decades left. The Hirsch Report, a US Energy Department study into the effects of Peak Oil, claims that without at least a decade of preparation, the world economic, social and political cost would be "unprecedented." Without this "timely mitigation," confronting the effects of Peak Oil and climate change will be like trying to put up a new tent in the dark. If government reports warn us that at least a ten-year transition period is required if we are to survive the energy descent, the burning question is: When do we begin the transition?
In the UK we have seen the emergence of the Transition Town as a preparation for the coming oil crisis. Like most good ideas, it doesn't seem like a new one so much as an idea remembered. Its origins lie in the raised beds of Permaculture, the Australian agricultural design system pioneered by David Holmgrem and Bill Mollison. Inspired by the ideas of author Richard Heinberg and Dr. Colin Campbell of ASPO, a Peak Oil awareness organization, the first Transition Town began in Kinsale, Ireland in 2004. Imagining a sustainable arrangement for life in the post-oil future, permaculturalist teacher Rob Hopkins and students from his Sustainability course collaborated on a town-planning strategy called the "Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan."
Hopkins and his team presented their plan in a timeline of achievable steps taken over several years. At the heart of their strategy was the idea to turn the obstacles of the energy crisis into opportunities for building local resilience and revitalizing the community. Encouraged by great enthusiasm for the idea, Hopkins took the Transition Town vision to Totnes in Devon.
The Transition strategy begins with the formation of a small steering group (designed with its own demise from the beginning). In the early stages, local awareness is generated by a series of lectures, film viewings, and meetings. Compelling Peak Oil documentaries such as The End of Suburbia and The Power of Community serve as tools of mass tribal initiation at these gatherings, awakening people to the challenges of the coming crisis. After the town hall screenings, local audiences are encouraged to discuss the issues raised by the films and suggest ideas and solutions to their own community's oil dependency.
Existing local environmental and community organizations are invited to jointly organize events that respond to these issues, with smaller groups assigned to specific concerns such as food security, waste and recycling, education, housing, transport and local economy. By a combination of serendipity and synchronicity, these roles are generally filled by the appropriate people at the required time. The momentum behind the project builds up over a period of months until the official "Unleashing" event finally launches the plan to the general public.
In order to assist communities working towards these goals, the Transition Network was set up by activist Ben Brangwyn to support and train town leaders as they adopt Transition Initiatives. Through its work across the UK, the Transition Network aims to "unleash the collective genius" within communities, leading to a more resilient and fulfilling lifestyle. Last September there were only two Transition Towns in the UK; inspired by the successes of Kinsale and Totnes, there are already around 90 towns now at various stages of transition, from "mulling it over" to fully "unleashed."
The Transition Town strategy avoids an "us and them" mentality, building bridges between community members and local government. The approach developed to relocalize the Totnes economy was endorsed by the Town Council, and a new local currency called the "Totnes Pound" is accepted by many local businesses and shops. Strategies like this may one day stop the flow of money out of local communities, providing a protective buffer between a healthy local economy and fluctuations in the national currency.
A general objective of Transition Towns is to preserve or reintroduce the importance of farming within a community, working towards local food production with less reliance on transport and chemicals. The benefits to this shift are obvious: local food production sustains the local economy and bolsters the overall well-being of a community. "Seed swaps" are an excellent means of strengthening local farming and working towards sustainability. At these events, heirloom seed varieties are freely exchanged in an effort to revitalize the genetic diversity of crops while bypassing legislations written to protect corporate monopolies. According to UK law, seeds cannot be sold legally unless they appear on the EU National Seed List.
Registration is expensive, so only a few seeds make it on, and these are generally owned by a handful of companies who have dominated the commercial market with hybridized seeds. These genetically modified seeds are designed to produce sterile plants, forcing farmers to buy a renewed supply each season and resulting in the extinction of many seed varieties. Seed swaps side-step the corporate seed industry and thus play a crucial role in reclaiming control of local food production.
Transition Town meetings often employ the self-organizing method of "open space." According to this arrangement, attendees are invited to create the agenda and host their own discussion groups, within which participants freely move about. Whoever shows up to the meeting are the right people; whenever it starts is the right time; and when it's over, it's over. Those who attend have chosen to be there and are willing to contribute. Each group records the conversations, and at the end of the day, the full group reconvenes for feedback and comments, which are then made available via an internet wiki.
Transition Towns provide training and courses to facilitate what has become known as "The Great Re-Skilling." This begins by interviewing the elders of the community. To return to a lower energy future, it is necessary to engage with those who directly remember a lower energy society and re-learn skills that their generation took for granted. To instigate change, it is important to first understand the psychological barriers to transformation. The Transition Town model offers a set of creative tools for communities to engage with the dual problems of both Peak Oil and climate change. It deals practically with the physical manifestation of the problem and can be conveyed very simply to a large number of people at once.
Cheap oil has allowed western societies to cut through the intricate web of beneficial relationships that once held communities together. Transition Town is a grassroots movement of people learning to relate to each other again. Behind the descent plan is the belief that with creativity and imagination, and under a well-designed strategy, the future without oil could be preferable to the present.
From Reality Sandwich @ http://www.realitysandwich.com/transition_town_tonic_peak_oil_blues ,
What is a Transition Initiative?
It's a place where there's a community-led process that helps that town/village/city/neighbourhood become stronger and happier.
It's happening in well over a thousand highly diverse communities across the world - from towns in Australia to neighbourhoods in Portugal, from cities in Brazil to rural communities in Slovenia, from urban locations in Britain to islands off the coast of Canada. Many of these initiatives are registered on the Transition Network website.
These communities have started up projects in areas of food, transport, energy, education, housing, waste, arts etc. as small-scale local responses to the global challenges of climate change, economic hardship and shrinking supplies of cheap energy. Together, these small-scale responses make up something much bigger, and help show the way forward for governments, business and the rest of us.
Really, it's the opposite of us sitting in our armchairs complaining about what's wrong, and instead, it's about getting up and doing something constructive about it alongside our neighbours and fellow townsfolk. And people tell us that as a result of being involved in their local "transition initiative", they're happier, their community feels more robust and they have made a lot of new friends.
The video above is a brief introduction to Transition from Rob Hopkins, author of the Transition Handbook, co-founder of Transition Network and Transition Town Totnes.
What are we "transitioning" away from?
All industrialised countries appear to operate on the assumption that our high levels of energy consumption, our high carbon emissions and our massive environmental impact can go on indefinitely.
And most developing countries appear to aspire to these ways of living too. However, any rational examination of our energy supplies, our economic inequalities, our diminishing levels of well-being, our ecological crises and the climate chaos that is already hitting millions of people tells us this can't go on much longer.
We're saying that the best place to start transitioning away from this unviable way of living is right within our own communities, and the best time is right now.
What are we "transitioning" towards?
Whether we like it or not, over the next decade or two, we'll be transitioning to a lower energy future - essential because of climate change and inevitable because of diminishing supplies of fossil fuels (particularly oil).
There are a variety of possible outcomes depending on whether we stick our heads in the sand or whether we start working for a future that we want.
Transition Initiatives, community by community, are actively and cooperatively creating happier, fairer and stronger communities, places that work for the people living in them and are far better suited to dealing with the shocks that'll accompany our economic and energy challenges and a climate in chaos. And here's how they're doing it...
Here's how it all appears to be evolving
It begins when a small group comes together with a shared concern about shrinking supplies of cheap energy (peak oil), climate change and increasingly, economic downturn. This group recognises that:
- Climate change and peak oil require urgent action.
- Industrial society has lost the resilience to be able to cope with energy shocks.
- We have to act together, now.
- Infinite growth within a finite system (such as planet Earth) is impossible.
- We demonstrated great ingenuity and intelligence as we raced up the energy curve over the last 150 years. There’s no reason why we can’t use those qualities, and more, as we negotiate our way up from the depths back towards the sun and air.
- If we plan and act early enough, and use our creativity and cooperation to unleash the genius within our local communities, we can build a future far more fulfilling and enriching, more connected to and more gentle on the Earth, than the life we have today.
This small initiating group starts learning more about the Transition Model, adapting it to their own local circumstances in order to engage a significant proportion of the people in their community. Some may attend training courses, others buy books, some watch the movie "In Transition 1.0", many search this website for information on how Transition works, or for other people / initiatives / projects near them.
- start awareness raising around peak oil, climate change and the need to undertake a fair and just community-led process to rebuild resilience and reduce carbon emissions
- hold focused events that help groups to form to look at all the key areas of life (food, energy, transport, health, psychology of change, economics & livelihoods, etc)
Each of these groups then starts up practical projects such as community supported agriculture, shared transport, local currencies, seed swaps, tool libraries, energy saving clubs, urban orchards, reskilling classes, draught-busting teams. As they do this work, they draw other people in.
As the initiative becomes more experienced, they often engage in a community-wide visioning process that recognises how crucial is it for us to a) cut fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions urgently and b) proactively figure out the kind of future that works for ALL of us rather than waiting for someone else to create a future that works for just a FEW of us.
These groups are beginning to create formal Energy Descent plans and to rebuild their local economies by starting up, for example, local energy companies, social enterprises and cooperative food businesses.
This co-ordinated local response strives to rebuild the resilience we've lost as a result of cheap oil, to address issues of inequality in terms of access to key resources and also to drastically reduce the community's carbon emissions.
And incidentally, in general these initiatives are not asking for permission to start this work - they're just getting on with it, sharing their successes and failures, their hopes and fears.
Where it goes from there is a path as yet untrod...
What about local and national governments and businesses?
When we emphasise the vital impact that communities can make in this process, we're not saying that national governments are irrelevant or that institutions like businesses aren't important - we know they're all vital. What we are saying is that for most people, their own local community is where they can have the quickest and greatest impact. Our hunch is that when the governments see what communities can do in terms of this transition, it'll be easier for them to make decisions that support this work.
The different shapes of Transition
The Transition model evolved in the UK, quickly moving to other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US. We often wondered whether the model would be flexible enough for other cultures that face different challenges. It seems, from a couple of recent notes from Brazil, that it might be:
"In Brazil, climate change and peak oil aren't issues with the same public appeal of that in Europe. Other Brazilians working with TT probably will also have other subjects of main concern, such as assuring education and health for all, protecting biodiversity and enhancing autonomy of traditional (indigenous or not) local communities."
... and another:
"Just a brief message to say that we have enriching Transition processes going on in Brazil right now. Some examples: in Sao Paulo, transition is happening in Granja Viana, Vila Mariana & Brasilandia; there is a strong group in Joao Pessoa and emerging initiatives in Salvador and Recife; Santa Teresa, Grajau in Rio. Petropolis; in your region there is also a small town Andrelandia starting the process. Most recently, after the big land slides, Teresopolis decided to use the principles in their reconstruction process. In two weeks time I'll be running a Transition Training in Vicosa, organised by the Federal University, for which we have opened places for a group from Teresopolis.
We debate peak oil in the context of presal [Brazilian off-shore oil deposits] and as you know Brazil has also been hit by climate change."
We're working hard to ensure that the very broad range of groups experimenting with the Transition model across the world are able to share successes and failures, adding strength and momentum to the whole movement.
So far, initiatives have started up in over 35 countries around the world. It's a start, and there's a long way to go.
Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact.
We truly don't know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.
What we are convinced of is this:
• if we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late
• if we act as individuals, it'll be too little
• but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
Everything that you read on this site is the result of real work undertaken in the real world with community engagement at its heart. There's not an ivory tower in sight, no professors in musty oak-panelled studies churning out incomprehensible papers, no inflexible plans that MUST be adhered to.
This website, just like the Transition model, is brought to you by people who are actively engaged in transition in their own community. People who are learning by doing - and learning all the time. People who understand that we can't sit back and wait for someone else to do the work. People like you, perhaps...
From Transition Network @ http://www.transitionnetwork.org/support/what-transition-initiative
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