From The Times ;
March 14, 2008
Is peak oil theory only for fascists?
Which British political party has the following observations about peak oil on its website?
"One person's apocalyptic view could be interpreted as an opportunity by another. Britons are resourceful, innovative and can be pretty bloody minded in a crisis. We can knuckle down, roll up our sleeves and get on with life even without all the labour saving devices, the shopping malls and the twice-yearly trips to the Med or Florida."
The Greens? The Lib Dems? Think again. The British National Party has a pretty good grasp of peak oil. "We are the only political party making this an issue at the moment," the party boasts.
This does seem rather amazing, considering that the oil price now is higher than ever before - even taking account of inflation. Having recently shot through the psychologically powerful price of $100 a barrel it's now nearly a tenth as much again. Everybody is wondering how to explain the international financial and economic turbulence, but few seem to have considered the possibility that markets have finally recognised that oil is finite, and that global supplies may have peaked.
Here's another quote. "When the BNP does win political power, peak oil will not be something we can postpone. In fact it may well be an important catalyst that helps us to win political power because we are the ones talking about it now. Voters might not like us pointing out that the wolf is approaching the chicken coop but they will identify us as the ones who kept speaking about it, bringing it to their awareness and understanding."
You may prefer that the BNP did not "own" this important issue. If so, what do you intend to do about it?
You could lobby mainstream political representatives to take it more seriously. But you could also - perhaps more fruitfully - find like-minded people in your neighbourhood and take matters into your own hands by starting the move towards creating a resilient, self-sufficient community.
If you are wondering how to do that, I very strongly recommend that you get hold of The Transition Handbook, which was published last week.
It's an astonishing work, which genuinely manages to present a positive, inspiring picture of a future without (cheap and plentiful) fossil fuels.
The book was written by an Englishman, Rob Hopkins, after several years of work, starting with a spell as a teacher in Kinsale, Ireland.
“I had never heard about peak oil,” Hopkins says. “But then I showed students a film, The End of Suburbia, which I’d never seen, and at the same time Dr Colin Campbell from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil came to talk. I have to say it was as traumatic and shocking for me as it was for the students. One of the other members of staff said to me, ‘What has happened to your students, they’ve been walking around looking grey all week!’
The film, and Campbell, made clear that no aspect of life will be the same after cheap oil runs out.
“When we got over the shock we set about looking at Kinsale. We examined how the town might look in 20 years if it adapted to peak oil instead of pretending it wasn’t happening.” The project lasted for seven or eight months. “We came up with a plan, a vision of how the town would be, and then backcast it to see how to get there, year by year.”
Returning to England, Hopkins launched helped to create a similar “energy descent” plan in Totnes, Devon, and the Transition Town movement was born.
It’s grown incredibly fast. Individuals and groups from hundreds of places across the UK - and around the world - have registered to become Transition Towns, with more coming on board all the time.
The first, Totnes, Lewes, Glastonbury and Stroud, were full of middle-class hippy types (or as Hopkins puts it, “places that traditionally have been laboratories for alternative ideas”). But in Bristol it’s the poorer districts that have been most dynamic. In Wales, the impetus has come from the agricultural community.
“If we don’t do anything,” says Hopkins, “there are all kinds of grim scenarios. But I like to think of those as like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future – just one possible scenario.”
The environmental movement, he believes, has been guilty of putting people in a place of despondency and guilt. Transition Towns are positively trying to move towards something.
“Realistically, only a very small percentage will think that that life beyond abundant oil could be preferable to where we are now.” Does he believe that? “I don’t think it will be a dark age but the most extraordinary renaissance.”
As Hopkins sees it, we need to engineer a certain degree of wartime mobilisation. “But how do we bring that about, when it’s not going to be initiated at government level? A lot of the drive will have to come from communities.”
The idea that solutions to civic problems should be provided by communities is popular with all the main parties at the moment.
“This is an issue that goes completely beyond party politics," says Hopkins. "At Transition Town Totnes we talk to the Women's Institute and the Conservative Association as much as we talk to the usual suspects. Our Conservative MP, Anthony Steen, has been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.”
The concept that is central to transition towns is building resilience. “We have been doing work with people who remember the 1930s and 1940s, people who say it would have been insane to eat apples from New Zealand. Back then, all the food came from near the town. We don’t have that resilience any more. In the lorry strike of 2001 we had only three days of food in Totnes.
“This is about doing things that come in under the radar. We’re building a parallel public infrastructure. We have the Totnes pound, which we launched recently. We have circulated 4,500 in one month. You don’t have to subscribe to peak oil and climate change to think that is quite sweet and fun.” (Not long ago, Hopkins gave a Totnes pound to Prince Charles, who cheerfully approved.) “But what it does is put in place something that is absolutely essential, because it stops wealth leaking out of the community.”
More than 70 shops have agreed to trade with this parallel currency.
“When we launched the Totnes pound 160 people turned up, and they all got one for nothing. So at the beginning of the evening they were all waving their money in the air and laughing and exhilarated. I thought, here are people who are concerned about peak oil and climate change and they’re having a great time. The possibility embodied in those notes is exhilarating. We have only really started to scratch the surface of presenting these issues in a way that makes people feel optimistic.
They also planted nut trees throughout town. “Nobody can object to that, but it raises awareness about food security and local food. And we are not standing in town with placards talking about ‘them and us’.”
It sounds impressive. Perhaps I should move to Totnes?
Not a good idea, says Hopkins. Until recently, people like him believed the most responsible thing to do was to move out, build a house and grow your own food. “But when I found out about peak oil I came to question that. We had built our own house, and were growing our own food, but I thought, this was only going to be sustainable if I am prepared to sit at the gate with a shotgun. What do I do with my carrots if the village up the road is cold and hungry?”
A little lugubriously, I point out that if cities don’t get their act together on climate change, even people with remote smallholdings will be wiped out by great fireballs of methane shooting across the sky.
“We have to move towards collective solutions,” Hopkins agrees cautiously. “Peak oil is a call to those of us who have been out in the highlands to come back and help because the skills are very much in demand now.”
He points out that individuals and groups in major cities such as Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool have shown considerable interest in joining the transition network. Bristol has already launched.
“Bristol has 800,000 people. Will it work on that scale? We have no idea, we’ve never done it before. It may be that in five years we will say it only works in market towns. But everybody who tries to run with it is contributing to the research. This is the biggest and most important research project in the UK at the moment.”