07 September 2009

peak oil in transition

Update: This article was republished in On Line Opinion on 23 September 2009. Many thanks to Susan Prior for her consideration.

A couple of Wednesdays ago, I went to see a film entitled The Age Of Stupid (IMDB link), about the current state of the climate change debate. The movie only played in three cinema complexes in Adelaide, and two of them were in Westfield shopping centres - probably the wrong crowd for a movie about climate change. There's no word yet on whether our local Palace Nova cinemas will pick it up.


After paying 17 bucks to watch what appeared to be a copied Blu-ray disc, and to have an entire theatre all to myself, I came away from the movie with a mixed message. Most of the main characters in the film seemed to have conflicting ethics for their reliance on energy, but few actually showed any remorse. The oil rig worker who stayed in New Orleans throughout Hurricane Katrina sees the obvious connection between his work and his environment, but he has no remorse about it whatsoever. The lady in the Niger delta, having seen the massive pollution and the ravages of war that are brought to their nation by our greed for natural resources, sells petrol in bottles to make a bit of extra cash.

I don't know what the point of the movie was any more, but I still think I know what it was supposed to be. Climate change isn't just an environmental problem: it's a broad social, economic and political problem that will affect all of us to an extent that we cannot fully comprehend, even after seeing a film about it. This one got so close: people do understand that the drive for resource wealth does as much harm as good, but it never actually asked the question of whether it's worth devoting your lifestyle to it. (This point is raised directly by Michael Moore in The Corporation.)

After a decade-long hiatus, climate change is back on the agenda, and regardless of their position on the subject, everyone is back on message. The greenies want to save the planet. Big business doesn't want saving the planet to interfere with employment or economic growth. The politicians want to implement a trading scheme for greenhouse gas emissions, but want to set aside $11,700,000,000 in welfare for the mining industry.

Most importantly of all, everybody has an opinion that they can't wait to tell you about but that they can't live up to. I saw a bumper sticker the other day about doing something about climate change - on the back of a 20-year-old Ford Laser. To be fair, you could see through the brown exhaust fumes that it was at least carrying a full complement of passengers. Everyone gets climate change, and gets it well enough to talk about it, but nobody's doing anything to fix it. An Inconvenient Truth (IMDB link) was a bold step, and we had the impression of having come a long way since Kyoto; one wonders how far we have travelled since.

The previous weekend, I was back at The Food Forest for a weekend workshop on something called the Transition Towns initiative. The goal of transition is to make communities more self-sufficient, and therefore more robust to problems such as economic downturn, political dysfunction, or the disruption of utilities. Think of it as permaculture scaled up to a society level: the idea is to take similar tenets of environmental management and use them to plan entire communities. It stands to reason that climate change is a given in this philosophy, as is peak oil.

There are already hundreds of Transition groups all over the world, and each community is tackling the problems a little differently. It might start as modestly as a car pool or a sewing circle, or it could be as ambitious as a local currency or an activist group to fight against imposing businesses that, one way or another, do not act in the community's interest. Neighbourhoods become more productive and more closely knit, favouring local businesses and activities seeing their own well-being as prosperity in itself.

As much as I find a lot of the environmental debate quite tiring, I found the Transition Towns weekend very uplifting. The difference was that the people who attended this workshop seemed more like the sorts of people who might actually do something to make their lives better. Naturally, such a weekend involves a lot of talk, but it's positive and enthusiastic talk, and those of us who were already doing something were more interested in networking and marketing what was there than the minutiae of establishing something new. Suddenly, the confidence was there among us, the right courses of action were obvious, and everything else seemed irrelevant, distant, archaic.

I wondered, then, whether the environmental debate could truly be taking this direction, and, if it were not, whether this might be an opportune time to turn it this way. It was nearly five years ago that I discovered the peak oil debate, and at the time, it was all doom and gloom. In fact, Matt Savinar's primer, The Oil Age Is Over (sadly now out of print), ends with a discussion about the depression one typically suffers after the penny drops about peak oil. Arguably, though, the debate is still one of doom and gloom today, and the purists among us are only too ready to howl down anything touted as a solution.

We can do better.

I can vouch for the concept of post-peak depression. I remember when I ran out of both questions and answers, and I remember how helpless I felt at the time, as if the only way not to lose was not to play. The best way out of this funk is to do something positive. For me, getting around my oil dependency meant less car travel, working out public transport again, and getting a bicycle. I'm still going with that.

When you consider most problems so fundamentally, the solutions are simple too. If you're worried about food miles, buy local produce from suburban markets. The dominance of large supermarkets and department stores can be mitigated by shopping elsewhere, even if you can't buy everything in the one place. Learn to turn things off when you're not using them, and not to buy things you don't need. Even questions about money - from the siphoning off of local investment by major banks, to the very nature of fiat currency itself - seem tractable when considered the same way.

The point of these individual tasks is twofold. Firstly, you participate less and less in a system that will break off in massive chunks in the coming decades and crumble into the sea. (With that mental image, you and Antarctica are in this together. Secondly, the more you think about this, the more you learn and understand the way things really are in the world. New challenges will come along in our current convention, and current conventional thinking won't solve them; you will need a new paradigm. Either way, you're doing something positive about the world's plethora of problems, and coming shocks won't be quite so shocking.

It's a lot more easily said than done, of course. For example, buying food is easier and quicker than growing it, and there will be no shortage of people telling you so. That said, it's all about believing in what you're doing. If you believe that growing food is important - and with good enough reasons - you should do it anyway. Every person who attended the Transition weekend, I conjectured, probably knows someone who isn't interested in climate change, peak oil, permaculture and the like, but that hasn't stopped us getting together anyway, and it won't stop us trying to do the right thing.

This is perhaps the real key. Just give it a go. Buy a rainwater tank. Walk somewhere that you normally would have driven. Repair something you would otherwise have thrown away. Whatever form a collapse of civilisation may take, you are far worse off afraid or ignorant than you would be armed with options.

Above all, the Transition concept has given me a sense of hope that I haven't had for years. It hasn't assured me at all that we won't see major societal upheaval in the next decade or so, but it has motivated me, with neither fear nor rage, to do something more constructive to prepare for it. Furthermore, it's also given me a better way to talk about to those ordinary people I know who imagine me in sandwich boards telling them how nigh the end of the world is.

I mentioned The Age Of Stupid as merely the most recent Chicken Little, and despite its good intentions, I wonder how much films like this are really helping. Then again, even if people are tiring of hearing about the problems, they need more in the way of solutions than superficial gesture of buying a CFL and a green shopping bag (that is, in all probability, made of plastic anyway). I sense a valid opportunity here, to engage interested people not to panic but to empower themselves, and to make peace (or at least neutrality) with the non-believers who may never notice your conviction. You don't even need to talk about a crash; at least, what you want is to make the world a better place.

Think about a low-energy future. Food without chemicals. Transport without pollution. Austerity without exploitation.

Think about a human-energy future. Motivation without badgering. Urgency without panic. Darkness without fear.

We can do better.