Created Sunday 25 March 2018
Transition - Rebuilding a Post Peak Oil World
Personal Dilemma about Peak Oil & End of Growth
For us as architects of modern industrial civilization, the collective belief so far has been “big is beautiful, more is good, individualism is prime, one size fits all and accumulation first then charity”. All this led to a particular kind of social structure, economics, laws, business model and therefore lifestyle.
We have to now first personally believe that small is beautiful, less is good, local is important, community is strength, sharing itself is charity and diversity is paramount.
This amounts to a huge shift in our cultural perspective. Not easy but then we are not talking about ease, are we? We are talking about what is likely to work in an energy declining world.
If the future appears gloomy, it is because we believe that the current way the world works is the only and best option. Sadly, we have been conditioned in such a way that we cannot see beyond the current paradigm of industrial growth. Any talk about the end of growth instantly evokes strong feelings of fear and hopelessness.
So then, what are we supposed to do?
At the end of one my lectures on this subject, a young lady, who acknowledged the argument of Peak Oil and the End of Growth, looked perturbed and said, “But what can I do as an individual? Should it not be up to the authorities or governments to take action?”
I told her that the effort of my lectures was an attempt towards individual realization first. Because growth has been the accepted economic paradigm so far, naturally the government in a democracy acts on what they believe we expect from them. If we ourselves believe in the old paradigm of perpetual growth, then surely that is what they will hand to us when we vote for them.
Therefore, before we expect any national and international response, we should make sure that we are ourselves aware of the impossibility of perpetuating endless growth. Only then can we demand the correct action from our governments and authorities and only then can they respond suitably.
So we cannot wait for governments to realize or act on it. We have to actively, at a personal level, make the shift in paradigm and spread it from one person to the next, till there is a critical mass of belief that the government can be expected to act on.
- 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.
Yes, the response certainly has to be at a community level and based on a new collective belief.
For that, we need to holistically and systemically understand our predicament of energy shrinkage or we will only come up with responses such as “let us change our light bulbs to CFL” and “we must buy the latest energy efficient car”. These, though necessary, are merely quantitative and not qualitative solutions and so do not make a systemic change.
We must remember that we are not talking about running the world the way it is. We are talking about reconceiving it first and then rebuilding a world that works on a completely different set of principles: steady-state instead of growth based; small and local instead of big and global; sharing instead of ceaseless competition; resilience instead of efficiency to increase compulsive productivity. And all this aims to ensure that we are in sync with the larger reality of energy decline.
This is not just a matter of upholding an ethically correct cultural ideology. It is simply about realizing what is going to be possible in a shrinking energy world. This also means shrinking of money.
Charles Eisenstein in his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition explains that the habitual first response to an economic crisis is to hoard money – to accelerate the conversion of all kinds of Earth capital into money. We can see this happening with calls to drill for oil in Alaska, to commence deep-sea drilling, mine the bottom of the sea, tap the last strains of natural gas and so on. 13
Eisenstein explains how the creation of money in this manner has in fact impoverished us all. So, conversely, the destruction of money has the potential to enrich us. It offers the opportunity to reclaim parts of the lost commonwealth from the realm of money and property. We see this happening every time there is an economic recession, which I will illustrate at the end of this chapter with the example of Cuba. People can no longer pay for various goods and services, and so have to rely on friends and neighbours instead. This is a qualitative change. Where there is no money to facilitate transactions, gift economies re-emerge and new kinds of money are created. We forge new bonds and new relationships. And all these are out of the normal purview of quantitative economic growth.
This is going to happen anyway in the wake of economic shrinkage and the ensuing currency collapse, as people lose their jobs or become too poor to buy things. The only option then is to remove things from the realm of goods and services and return them to the realm of gifts, reciprocity, self-sufficiency and community sharing. People will help each other, and real communities will re-emerge. Even if you care mostly about the security of your own future, community is probably the best investment you can make.
Let us now understand and structure this response through an approach called the Transition method.
The Transition Method
Transition, as explained here, is a structured and conscious way of moving safely from our present high energy-consumption state based on fossil fuels, towards a low energy-consumption state of our solar energy budget as represented by the Third Curve.
The Transition concept emerged from work that permaculture designer Rob Hopkins had carried out with students of Kinsale Further Education College on an “Energy Descent Action Plan”. It has now spread to over 840 initiatives in 35 countries around the globe. The move to Transition begins when a small group comes together with a shared concern about shrinking supplies of cheap energy (peak oil), climate change and increasing economic downturn.
The concept that life post-oil might indeed be much more pleasant and fulfilling than today’s lifestyle is at the heart of the Transition movement. This may seem be hard for certain people to visualize or accept but the movement explains that: “by shifting our mindset, we can actually recognize the coming post-cheap-oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant – somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth”.
To prepare ourselves to accept this, we need to come to terms with the following:
- Infinite growth within a finite system (like planet Earth) is impossible.
- Energy decline is inevitable. We need to plan for it.
- Modern industrial society has lost the resilience to deal with energy shocks.
- Environmental collapse, climate change and peak oil are related and require that we start acting together now taking them all into account.
- 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.
We need to be careful that we don’t confuse this with environmentalism because there is a crucial difference between plain environmentalism and the Transition approach.
Most people do not realize that environmentalism usually addresses individual behaviour and so gets trapped in individual issues such as reducing consumption or increasing efficiency or preserving the environment. Using CFL bulbs, sharing cars, saving our forests and rivers are useful but not enough. This is purely quantity related and has nothing to do with quality.
The Transition approach, in contrast, embodies both, the quantitative reduction of energy and consumption and a qualitative rebuilding of aspects of the world that have been lost. The Transition approach deals with the less obvious and tricky aspect of rebuilding the fabric of our world, which was destroyed by the wide-spread use of cheap energy.
In our pursuit for quantity, which is embodied by Perpetual Exponential Quantitative Growth, we completely lost track of something else called “quality” – an aspect of reality that is as real as quantity but hard to measure.
We usually think of quality in a quantitative measuring sense. We grade things as “high quality” or “low quality”. But that is not the “quality” the Transition method is referring to. Quality here means the unique nature of something. 2 apples, or 2 trees or 2 people have different qualities in so many ways. If we did not measure or grade them one against the other, we would recognize the uniqueness of each. Each one is just what it is and that is an aspect of nature and reality beyond measurement. And measurement is a form of control.
No wonder our culture, which we call Civilization, is obsessed with control. Today’s Civilization is built upon extensive measuring and quantifying, which are both essential to gaining control. But Civilization cannot get a grip around something like quality, because quality is beyond control. No wonder we come up with lines like “my daddy is the strongest” as a way of measuring love, or “my country is the best country” as a measure of national pride. We have forgotten that all daddies will be loved without measure and we all love the uniqueness of our place of birth with no aspersions on other places.
Therefore the Transition approach explains that we need to reconstruct a lot of the qualitative aspects of our world that the luxury of cheap oil and growth have wiped out: local economies, local networks, smaller grassroots enterprises, personal bonds, acts of caring and sharing, belief in personal skills and abilities, belief in quality over quantity and many more. None of these can be measured quantitatively. They are simply desirable qualities of a system. When we lose some or all of the above, we effectively lose a vital property of that system called Resilience.
Resilience is a qualitative aspect of natural systems like our environment and our social community and is therefore crucial to their survival. When a system is resilient it has the ability to maintain its capability to absorb change and external shocks. Therefore reviving resilience is the core guiding principle of the Transition approach that is taking root in countries all over the world in the wake of Peak Oil and the persisting economic collapse.
In order to rebuild a resilient post-oil economy, the Transition approach guides people to re-weave the web of our communities. This involves a revival of the qualitative aspects of our lives such as local relationships that were broken due to growth-based economics and rampant globalization. Individualism became the rule of the day so we forgot that we are part of a network that can only work collectively and not individually.
In response to this, the environmental movement is simply concerned with one question, “How can we keep everything going the way it is?” This amounts to simply feeding the Concept Curve with false solutions like solar, wind, nuclear and the whole gamut of oil-based pseudo alternatives. While conventional environmentalism is mainly giving out a message that says, “Why change ourselves if we can simply change our light bulbs?”, this mainstream thought is nowhere near addressing a necessary qualitative change. No wonder the ordinary person feels extremely frustrated with the scope and effect of the environmental movement.
Learning to live within a realistic energy paradigm and its constraints implies letting go of many things, but most importantly, actively recovering the qualitative aspects of our community.
Efficiency vs. Resilience
The Modern Industrial World is based on maximizing economic growth by constantly increasing productivity and output while minimizing cost. This is what we call efficiency.
In attempting to achieve efficiency, our economic system has failed to value nature’s redundancy, seeking to eliminate it instead. Ironically, it is the abundance of nature’s redundancy itself that makes it work so effectively. By failing to respect natural redundancy and seeking to improve nature’s efficiency and profitability in economic terms, the Modern Industrial World has mastered the technique of breaking natural systems apart and manipulating the pieces for short-term gain.
The history of our industrial civilization has therefore essentially been the story of gaining control over nature. Soil was tilled; rivers were dammed; the wild tamed into mono-agriculture; microorganisms trying to reclaim their food were wiped out by broadband chemicals; cattle-eating predators were hunted and eliminated; and pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics were liberally applied to crops to deal with those pesky insects. Little did we realize that the redundancy we eliminated in the name of efficiency limits our options for recovery.
So fittingly, we are facing the backlash of this control-based, profit maximizing, perpetual growth approach reflected in our ecological and subsequent financial collapse. We have to change our approach – resilience has to replace efficiency as an organizing principle of our economy. Efficiency makes the system dependent and vulnerable.
Still in the human-centric and growth-based world of today, our myths of performance, progress and development continue to reign. Our modern food system perfectly portrays how inflexible and frail a system and a society may become if it becomes so highly dependent on oil-based pesticides, farm machines and fertilizers that need cheap and regular oil supply for the production, shipping and processing of food.
Inversely, resilience is a concept that is based on the idea that a system, should be able to stomach a shock from the outside without coming apart. It has multiple paths for recovery and therefore the ability to adapt and change to its new circumstances with multiple options.
That is because nature is an interconnected web. It intrinsically relies on interdependence. Redundancy is innately built into nature and gives multiple paths to bounce out of failure.
The Transition approach understands that when you manipulate the individual pieces of a complex system, such as our community, our soils and our ecosystems, then you change that system in unintended ways that unknown to us make it vulnerable and prone to failure. We have ample evidence of this in the eco-collapse being experienced all around the world.
Another type of loss of resilience is seen in events such as a spate of power grid failures that have rippled across the U.S., empty super-market shelves in mega-cities like New York within 3 days of trucker strikes and piling of garbage beyond sanitary limits in France due to a garbage collectors strike. These are all examples of the loss of resilience in our industrialized, centralized world in the face of a single failure.
This is less likely to occur in India as in many less industrialized societies because resilience is intrinsic to our villages and small towns. Similar failures will have a lesser effect, except in cities that are based more on the centralized model. Yes, many things do need to change and improve in India but not at the expense of losing resilience.
The Transition approach helps us understand and address the importance of resilience and takes steps that allow us to nurture and rebuild it. And the core idea to achieving this is the idea of community.
Before we discovered oil, our world depended on local networks of relationships and connections that we called our community.
Plentiful cheap oil made it possible for us to develop new long-distance, trade-based relationships. Therefore, our neighbours and local community were not so important to us as they did not contribute directly to our trade or business.
In short, we burnt our Social Capital – the bonds in family, community and society between people: love, respect, mutual caring, peace and harmony – for short-term monetary gain. This kind of capital may be invisible but it is the very basis of a community’s health. These days we often live without meeting or knowing our neighbour. Life post-peak oil will require that we rebuild our community connections in order to increase its resilience.
However, achieving this requires more than mere quantitative reduction of consumption that is often emphasized by the environmental movement. We will have to relearn the old qualitative paradigm in the new context of energy shrinkage. No wonder there is a sense of powerlessness and isolation that the environmental approach can often generate, as was voiced by my guest at the lecture. No wonder she felt that she could not generate action, either as an individual or as a community.
This is countered in the Transition approach, because its first goal is to rely on a small group coming together spontaneously to discuss and digest how the impending energy decline and economic downturn will adversely affect their lives and community. Each person can feel that they are not alone in their awareness of the predicaments of Peak Oil and End of Growth, giving each individual and the community a sense of empowerment as people feel part of something larger than themselves.
To organize these groups, the Transition approach takes some valuable lessons from the nature model which is self-organizing. There is no central control. This makes the replication of smaller units of action in communities easier and more vibrant.
Moving from Global back to Local
Focusing on the development of our community intrinsically involves the move back from global to local. Before cheap oil became a rule of thumb, creating the short span illusion of a globalized world, our planet had always been local. Energy decline will inevitably eliminate globalization as an option. In retrospect, the Oil Age will be seen as a span of 150 years which allowed man to move away from a primarily local lifestyle only to come back to it again on the down side of Hubbert’s curve.
The illusion created in our mind today is that global is a step forward and ensures a better life. But leading a life with less energy and a more local and resilient focus can also lead us towards a better quality of life in the future. A solidified and lively local economy would have many perks compared to what is happening today in our global economy. Moving towards a local economy in the face of energy shrinkage has become scary to us because we have always valued growth and have labelled our expanding global economy as development and progress. Anything that goes in the opposite direction of that trend is considered as outright collapse and failure.
Yet, if we consider the Transition Approach to address key aspects to our survival like food, agriculture, local materials and local products, we realize that in fact the opposite is true – the future promises to be more secure and lasting.
Food is certainly the most vital part of our lives. Consequently, food must be local for our community’s safety and well-being.
Contrary to the idea above, our energy-intensive modern food system has become extremely complex, leaving behind a record rate of environmental damage, energy dilapidation and social inequity.
The food situation in India is an emerging tragedy. Being the second most populated country in the world, India is rapidly losing its agrarian nature by chasing the global model of long-distance food. This energy intensive and market-based system ends up creating the illusion of shortage when in fact we have enough to feed all
India, which was fundamentally local in its food requirement, is hastily changing its pattern to grow and ship food for market gain under the illusion that doing so spells progress. From a purely economic point of view, it made sense to chase that greater margin of profit by making food non-local. But of course this was only made possible by cheap fossil fuel energy. All this is soon to be trumped by high energy prices.
The Transition approach stresses the importance of local food because it makes sense in so many ways.
- Eating local benefits the local economy. Would you rather help your neighbourhood grocer subsist or a huge supermarket chain you have no relationship with?
- Eating local is more environmentally friendly. Food that travels long distances requires means of transportation that run on fossil fuels, creating pollution and global warming.
- Locally grown fruits and vegetables are more fresh, nutritious and taste much better. Check it out for yourself by tasting some countryside grown food. Besides, they don’t cause cancer or other illnesses.
- Buying local food keeps us in touch with the seasons. By following the Earth’s seasons, we eat foods when they have reached their best taste and nutritional value, are the most abundant and are cheaper. Also there is a feeling of uniqueness related to a certain time of the year. The sound of the koyal bird in summer connects with the sultry heat building up that finally translates into the joy of eating mangoes. And that too not all the varieties at one go. First the hafoos, then langda, then chausa then daseri and so on as the season progresses. This lends a variation to the year and preserves our cyclic feeling of time.
The other lethal trend is that food has become a commodity to be traded and speculated upon. This has resulted in high and volatile prices for even basic food items. So in fact, rather than serving a fundamental purpose of survival, the commodification of food is catering to the concept of speculation to propagate growth of money.
Modern agriculture is the de facto method practiced around the world. But time has shown how this method is a chemical and aggressively organized assault on our soil to maximize its productivity rate as if it were a factory. All this was made possible by cheap oil.
Cheap oil has corrupted our view of how food should be produced, resulting in aggressive tillage, the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers produced with natural gas and oil, plus extensive irrigation. These toxic and energy intensive practices have destroyed the soil’s health and we celebrated this as the Green Revolution. The sole effect of this green revolution was nothing more than to transform our soil from what was a living colony that worked as a complex web, into a sponge that holds water and needs to be fed with artificial nutrients in the form of fertilizers.
Sadly and dangerously, the obvious failure of chemical farming is being complemented with solutions like genetically modified seeds and foods, presented as the next level of attaining food security. I leave it to the author of another book to dismantle the illusion behind this new madness of GM food and the assault on the fabric of life at the very genetic level.
Here, I restrict my argument by saying that no serious transition can be made without completely re-examining the way we grow our food. It is not just a question of not putting chemicals and calling it organic. It is a matter of learning how to keep the vitality of the soil intact and working with nature rather than against it.
For a start, we are facing the enormous responsibility and work of rebuilding our soil’s fertility and replenishing it with the nutrients necessary for wholesome food production. There are many disciplines that address this: permaculture, bio-dynamic farming, natural farming and others.
Permaculture, for instance, is a methodology for designing sustainable human habitats and modelling them after natural ecosystems. The permaculture model emphasizes a move away from industrial agriculture towards a small-scale, diversified, and localized system of food production.
David Holmgren, one of the originators of the concept, defines permaculture as:
“Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organize themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture”. 14
It makes sense therefore that alternative agriculture models, like permaculture design, should underpin the thinking and planning behind any Transition project.
Local Materials & Products
Supporting local materials and products is crucial to developing community resilience.
Transporting materials and products to distant markets consumes a lot of energy and is costly because it requires the shipping, processing and packaging of goods. It also entails a lot of pollution. When we buy products coming in from long distances, local money is funnelled out towards distant trading centers, which makes a community more economically vulnerable.
Purchasing local products generates local jobs, as well as encourages local business owners to contribute to the community by supporting local initiatives and organizations that empowers the community by making it self-reliant and therefore more resilient to transient changes in the world around.
Peak Oil Awareness
Above all, in order to prepare for Transition, we need a huge amount of deprogramming from the industrial mindset. We have to engage every level of the community in the core understanding of Peak Oil and its ultimate impact on society, leading to an inversion of rules of classical economics which means an inversion of Growth to Shrinkage.
I find it bewildering that while our education system makes us aware of principles, ranging from the laws of gravity to quantum physics, it ignores the most basic aspect of reality – that the Earth gives us resources in a bell curve and that perpetual exponential growth is a dangerous illusion.
We therefore have to slowly work on the painful task of bringing Peak Oil awareness into a wider and wider circle of people to expand the new collective belief.
We have to engage school teachers and college professors in Peak Oil discussions and Transition group activities so that they can understand it first and then divert their expertise towards making the next generation aware of it as part of the regular curriculum.
We have to engage the business and banking community to make them understand the new paradigm of shrinkage. This will lead them to interpret the current difficulties they are facing to achieve growth as a new and normal macro phenomenon and therefore will help them make realistic plans for the future of their businesses.
This will then widen to engaging local officials in the activities of the Transition group so that they are open to accepting new policies that encourage Transition group efforts, like local food initiatives and community building activities. Making “peak” an acceptable four letter word is only possible through a community level acceptance of its reality.
Since I became aware of Peak Oil, I have noticed that at first it was simply ignored and then mocked. But after the 2008 economic collapse, it has started appearing in media enclosed in quotes like “peak oil” to suggest that it is not really a truth but a speculation. We have to overcome this denial and urgently start incorporating Peak Oil reality into our education, policies and development plans. Being coy or evasive about it is not going to change the geology of this planet.
India is yet blissfully unaware of Peak Oil. It is imperative that India wake up to the concept and the reality of Peak Oil. Being a country with over 1.2 billion people, with a small land mass, a high growth rate and no significant oil reserves, we are sleepwalking into disaster.
Cuba – A Real Peak Oil Story
I end this book with the example of Cuba – the only country in the world that has faced the most extreme version of Peak Oil. Their successful response is exemplary. It is imperative we learn from it and take heart that there is indeed a valid response to the inevitable energy descent.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba registered an overnight decline of oil imports. As a result Cuba’s economy took a direct plunge. Cubans were confronted with living a situation comparable to that of a sudden and extreme onset of Peak Oil and that Cubans refer to as “The Special Period”. Oil imports fell by 75% and food by 80% resulting in transport services crumbling down and food and fuel becoming rationed. The average Cuban lost almost 10 kg in four years. Blackouts and water shortage became a Cuban’s daily bread and the Cuban currency devalued to the point of being useless. Despite all of this, the country survived and the resilience of Cuban communities prospered. The Cuban example is therefore an excellent observation ground for understanding how to deal with Peak Oil and Economic Collapse.
A documentary called The Power of Community directed by Faith Morgan and released in 2006, explores how Cubans dealt with their own economic and energy crisis, developing a local system that very much resembles that of the Transition approach described in earlier sections.
Morgan was amazed by the resilience of Cubans and realized that the country’s economic impasse was not solved by finding new energy sources, but by shifting the people’s economic mindset and tackling their situation with a community approach. She learned how Cubans transitioned from an industrial agricultural system similar to ours to organic farming and local food markets. Cuba went from using 21,000 tons of pesticide in the ‘80s to a mere 1,000 tons in 2005.
Following the economic collapse, Cubans from all walks of life started exploring the benefits of more traditional or alternative farming methods such as composting, permaculture, vermiculture and crop rotation. People got together to find and make the most out of any urban or rural area that would be available to grow food. Today 80% of Cuba’s food production is organic. This has not only improved the soil’s quality but also the general health of the people.
Fuel scarcity and the resulting failure and unreliability of the public transportation system prompted the government to provide over a million bicycles to a population who adopted cycling as a practice in their daily lives. This also entailed an improvement in general public health.
It was clear that there was something intrinsic to Cuban people that facilitated this transition, and that was the sense of community. The co-operative nature of the response effectively proved that all this did not need high-tech solutions but relationships between people. This was community and resilience building at its raw best.
The Cuban approach intuitively embodied all the principles of the Transition approach – rebuilding the soil, rebuilding the community and its resilience, growing local food, developing alternative and earth-friendly agriculture and encouraging local initiative. All this was lost because of plentiful cheap oil.
The Cuba experience therefore is a showcase for the rest of the world to learn the core principles of Transition in dealing with energy descent. Though the conditions in each area and country will be different, the core principles remain the same. The cultural perspective of revitalizing the local community has to take center stage in all our plans to cope with energy descent. This is a qualitative change and the only kind that can actually make the necessary quantitative change of consumption that is also necessary.
If Cuba could do it, so can any part of the world, provided we first recognize the new reality of shrinking energy and money and then adopt the principles of the Transition method.
This book urges that it is imperative we globally act now and start preparing for our inevitable but meaningful journey down Hubbert’s curve to the eternal Third Curve.