I spent a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking evening on Wednesday, with members of the fanSHEN theatre company (www.fanshen.org.uk) who are making a play entitled "Green and Pleasant Land". As they describe it: "this is the story of a search for a happier, more environmentally sustainable future. Audience members will pedal bicycle-powered generators to play pre-recorded sound, all set and props will be recycled and it will tour entirely by bike and train. Subject to confirmation, it will be on as part of Water Fest in Reading this June. This is interactive, physical theatre, aimed toward audiences aged 11 and upwards."
When they approached me to ask for a meeting they said: "We're making the piece in a series of residencies in different parts of England and we really want to meet local people and find out about your vision of a more sustainable future. How do you perceive the present situation, how do you see things changing and how does living in Reading affect your relationship with sustainability?"
It is very difficult to provide a snappy response to "what is sustainability?" because it is not a single question and to try and answer it exposes different layers of cloth. One of the key points that I suppose I had known, but not previously found myself espousing explicitly, is that devising an energy descent plan, which is the vital and underpinning action in the transition to a post peak-oil world, necessarily means "ruining the economy" in the global sense that growth, far from being subsumed in our thoughts and plans as limitless, must run in reverse and recession is inevitable.
Now, having said this, my own instinct is panic! However, if we can't access plentiful cheap oil, the effect will be to put a huge and relentless brake on transport at all local, regional, national and global scales. Put simply, if the price of fuel becomes £5/litre, the majority will no longer be able to put petrol in their car, and will necessarily look for work closer to home. The moment of economic necessity will be the critical fulcrum point when people change their behaviour. Moreover, jobs that people currently commute to may suddenly cease to exist.There will be a massive draw-down on the kind of industrialised farming that uses diesel fuels to run tractors, combine harvesters etc. and synthetic nitrogen fertilisers derived from natural gas, pesticides that are made from crude oil, and mined rock phosphate. There is the broader issue of commodities, all of which depend on oil either as a manufacturing raw carbon source or to provide energy at some stage in one of their processes of fabrication.
Having admitted and identified the source of my fear, I have to confess that, rather like the way the different spices come through one after the other in a good curry, I also feel a definite sense of excitement. I suppose the unknown is always rather like this, a mixture of fear and an underlying tingle in the senses that one is also being presented with a blank sheet, and that there are new prospects to be had. So, rather than an inexorable decline into doom, as the resources for global growth fall insufficient to maintain it, I begin to glimpse the prospects of a new growth at the local and community level. Clearly we cannot switch overnight to an energy-free world, but a realistic energy descent that uses less oil by say 5%/year is an identifiable and direct first step to address the most pressing issue that confronts us. If choice is not persuadable then economics will be the driver of change in this direction, in the fist of rising fuel prices as noted earlier.
The skills of the "old" should be recorded while they can still teach them to us. There will be plenty to do in the future, much of it manual and local, and these new occupations will come to replace the employment that currently is provided by global growth and actions, but which are not sustainable. In this transition there will almost certainly be tremendous hardship and the world population of humans will very likely decline. Whether the brave new world that is indicated will be better than the one we have now, filled with more fulfilled and happier people, is debatable since the nature of humans will likely remain what it has ever been. That said, it is the only world there will be. We should not fear our current economic plight nor be fooled that things will spring back up again to where they were in the good times. They won't, and our only salvation is to grow at the local level.