Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Community in the Oil Dearth Era?

It's quite reasonable to grieve for the imminent loss of cheap oil, but the question remains, what are we going to do once it is gone? I am not a "peak oil doomer", and while looking into the uncomfortable realities of scale of renewables, biofuels etc. against the backdrop of current energy use, I have attempted to preserve some optimism. What I am saying is that we will have to live differently rather than not live at all. The extreme "survivalist" view is of a fellow sitting up all night with a shotgun, guarding his individual crop of vegetables, which does not strike me as being very sustainable, but I can envisage a community of male and female fellows each playing their own role in running a sustainable collective venture.

I am reminded of this basic premise by the article referenced below, entitled: "You are now entering an oil-free zone." This is, pretty much as you might think, a description of a small low-energy community - specifically, Totnes in Devon (the first such example), and then Falmouth and Stroud, as so named "transition towns" and the first transition village, Forest Row in Sussex. Significantly, Bristol and Brixton, in London, with its large Afrocaribean (initially Jamaican) community, are bringing the concept to larger urban conurbations. I say "significant" because the deconvolution of cities e.g. London with its population around 8 - 10 million (depending on where the borders are drawn) will pose the ultimate test of human adaptability and will to change in the direction of community living. The latter should be observed closely as linchpins of the entire process and measures of its likely success, or otherwise.

Life without oil is almost unimaginable or uncomfortably threatening when one does imagine it. Without oil-based plastics I would not be typing this, nor would there be the means of instant publication provided via the internet. Possibly this article and others of more local interest could be distributed via a small press in the form of a local newspaper. That said, I hope we do manage to hold-onto the net as otherwise we may simply disappear into a vacuum of small, isolated communities, which would be a thoroughly retrograde business. The notion of the "transition" town has been accredited to Rob Hopkins - not "Bob Hoskins" the actor, but the permaculture guru. The specific intention of these projects is the preparation for life post-oil.

I have commented on permaculture in previous postings both here and on scitizen.com ( a kind of on-line "New Scientist") where I write a monthly column. It's essential precept is energy efficiency, and so it should not fall victim to Jevons' paradox, where more available and hence cheaper energy (Jevons was referring particularly to coal and the steam-engine) ironically encourages the use of more energy and hence resources. In the utopia of permaculture, just sufficient energy and time are expended to fulfill the needs of a group of people in an immediate community, with the result that there is more time to devote to other activities, and one implication is that those living under such circumstances become more spiritually aware and imbued. It's a nice thought, especially as the world's financial markets take a down-turn on the roller-coaster ride they now offer and what meagre investments one has managed to squirrel-together over the years have plummeted in value during the past week.

The underpinning assumption for the transition town is that oil supplies will fall by around 3% a year beyond the peak in world-production, expected to arrive within a mere few years, which sits incongruously with such projections as an increased output from 84 million to 116 million barrels a day by 2030. It is also predicted that air-travel will have tripled by that same date, hence the necessity for a third runway at Heathrow airport and the demolition of a village that is inconveniently in the way of this development. What will they be putting in the fuel tanks by then, I wonder?

Transportation will be the major victim of peak oil, since 70% of all the 30 billion barrels currently produced in the world goes to fuel various forms of transportation, mainly its 700 million road vehicles. Fuel prices are already increasing and will continue to do so thus forcing vehicles of the roads. The net result will be a less mobile population and accordingly our focus will be increasingly on the local rather than the global, and thus we have potential transition towns brought into fruition in the light of what has been learned during the transitional period.

There is a political element too, in that as Hopkins points-out, people are getting fed-up with the government's lack of action in the face of peak-oil. Arguably there is an intention to avoid mass panic, but a gentle approach might well avert this by raising a kind of "Dunkirk Spirit", although that does impinge on matters of national identity which are now more complex that they were in 1945, partly in the pursuit of oil, as some ague. So how, as individuals, might we urge our own local communities into "transition"? I am thinking of the village of Caversham where my family lives (population around 9,000) and the larger conurbation of Reading, across the river Thames from us, a town with its population of 140,000.

As Hopkins admits, the answer is not entirely clear, but making the process attractive - the carrot not the stick - is key to making it a success. My own view is that an integration of the old with the new, rather than an overnight jump is necessary. We are not going to be instantly self-sufficient, and nor do we need to be. If we thus cut-back on our use of energy and resources by say a half, mainly through limiting transportation needs and other forms of energy efficiency, we are half way there. In this aim, we should rely increasingly on products and services from local farms and businesses, insulate our homes, grow some of our own food in back gardens and allotments, try to work locally and share our experience, the good and the bad. This by definition is "community".

Related Reading.
"You are now entering an oil-free zone". By Julie Ferry. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/apr/19/energy.ethicalliving


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