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Transition Town Handbook

I’m currently feeling inspired as a result of a pretty depressing realisation. I’m still making sense of it because it rocks your world a bit. But I feel that it’s something that needs to be shared. So I hope you’ll read on.

Let me explain…

I’ve just read a book called The Transition Handbook. At it’s heart is a theory that I didn’t really know much about.

Peak Oil.

Here’s a very rough summary of Peak Oil theory.

Oil is a finite resource. It’s not going to last forever and at some point we’re going to use it all up. For the last 150 years or so we’ve been discovering new reserves of oil and finding more and more inventive uses for the energy it provides us with. And, in the process, becoming very dependent on it.

However, the number of discoveries of new oil fields are getting fewer and fewer. Where in the past we were discovering more oil than we were using. Now we’re doing the opposite. We’re using more oil than we’re discovering.

But that’s alright because there’s still loads left right? Well no…

It’s not that simple. We can’t just keep going until we use the last drop. The theory’s called Peak Oil because it’s the peak of production that is important.

Once we go past the peak, demand for oil will start to outstrip the supply. Which means that the price of oil will begin to rise as it becomes more scarce. And this also means that everything that we consume that relies on oil will also become more expensive.

And that’s pretty much everything.

Our society is totally dependent on oil. We use it to heat our homes, to make plastics and fertilisers and, most fundamentally, we use it for transport.

Transport is key. It’s not just about our personal travel. It’s about everything that we transport. And that includes our food.

Very little of the food we now eat is grown close to us. And much of it is imported from far flung reaches of the world. It comes a long way. And without transport to bring food to us, we could stave.

During the truckers dispute in 2000, the UK came one day away from enforcing food rationing. The army was readied to deal with the civil unrest that this might cause. Fortunately the dispute was resolved and we never knew.

Because of the way Supermaket supply chains work to maximize efficiency, a single day without deliveries could wipe out stocks of chilled and perishable goods. Other products would begin to run out within three or four days. Within weeks the shelves would be bare.

As the old saying goes, “civilization is only three meals deep”.

As well as food, we need oil to transport building materials, clothes and everything else that we once sourced locally but now buy in. We’re also pretty reliant on oil to create electricity for heating, lighting and cooking.

A world without oil would be quite different.

So when will we reach Peak Oil?

Well no one really knows. But it’s likely to be quite close. It may even have already happened.

Oil companies are, understandably, not very willing to share information about their oil reserves. Their businesses (and share prices) are dependent on us living our lives on the assumption that there’s loads of it. They’re not going to tell us if they’re getting a bit short.

There are indications though, that they are preparing for their businesses to be smaller. Some are buying back their own shares and there is a fair bit of consolidation happening. Both are signs of a market preparing to contract.

A number of independent observers have tried to estimate when the peak will be based on what data we do know. Some suggest it has already happened in the last couple of years. Some suggest it will be very soon. Hardly any have estimated it will happen later than 2015. That’s means we’ve got six years tops before the price of oil begins to rise.

And all this is without thinking about the effects of climate change which is a whole other, perhaps better reason for us to kick our dependence on oil. The book also looks at this but since it’s a much better understood topic, I won’t go into it here.

But, I hear you cry, surely new technology will save us?

Well unfortunately, according to Rob Hopkins the book’s author, it’s unlikely. At least in the near future.

Renewables like wind, solar and wood are very important and will go some way to provide us with the electricity we need. If we use it more efficiently. However liquid fuels – petrol and diesel – are much more tricky.

Biofuels aren’t the answer. We’d need six times as much land as there is on earth to grow the grains to meet the current demand for fuel. And technologies like hydrogen are far from working.

So we’re going to have to find ways to cope with a lot less oil. Or only use it for things where we’re willing to pay a high price for it. So that certainly means less transport. And only transporting stuff over much shorter distances. Which obviously is a very big deal. We’ve created a society that is very fragile.

That’s the depressing bit.

I was a bit quiet for a couple of days after I read the first few chapters.

But then I read on…

There’s a reason that it’s a “handbook”. And this is where it becomes inspiring.

The book’s strap line is “From oil dependency to local resilience”. A resilient society is one that can cope with external shocks. Shocks like rapidly rising oil prices. The idea is that we use this knowledge and we do something about it. We start working to make our society resilient.

Rob argues in a very compelling way that we should start to do something about it now. We could transition to a much more localised economy within 20 years and escape the most catastrophic effects of peak oil and climate change. We could produce the essentials we need to live – food, energy and building materials – within our local community.

We could also, in the process, end up with a much more pleasant way of life. We could embrace the need to change and use it as a way to improve how we live.

A world with less traffic would be more peaceful, less polluted and slower paced. We could be healthier, with a better diet and more exercise, be less stressed and generally happier. And living in a localised society would give us a much greater sense of community and purpose.

A society reliant on the local community has lots of benefits. If things are produced nearby, we’re much more likely to make sure they’re done in a way that we are comfortable with. Animals are more likely to be farmed in a humane and healthy way and clothes are more likely to be produced by people who earn a decent wage and work acceptable hours. With a resurgence in local manufacturing, there’s likely to be higher levels of employment. And a local bank that invests in real things within it’s local economy is a lot less likely to get into trouble.

We’d have much more of a connection to people who grow our food. If it starts to become more scare, would you rather be reliant on? Your neighbour who’s growing it in the field next door or somebody who lives on the other side of the world and knows nothing about you?

Doing without oil, doesn’t mean going back in time. There is plenty from the past that we can learn from but we have a lot more knowledge and technology now that we can use to make sure our lives continue to be pleasant.

So is it possible to change our oil dependant ways quickly?

Well, Hopkins points out there’s a very good example in the recent past of a time when our society did change rapidly.

In 1936, two-thirds of the food Britain consumed was imported. With the threat of war looming, plans began to be made to make Britain more self-sufficient. But it wasn’t until 1940, after the outbreak of hostilities, that a long term policy was produced.

By 1944, food production had risen 91%. Britain was able to feed itself for 160 days rather than 120 days as it had in 1939. That’s a massive change in only four years. After petrol rationing was introduced, car usage dropped 95% between 1938 and 1944. And people coped.

Rapid change can be done. But ideally you want to do it over 20 years so that the change is more gradual, less dramatic and easier to manage. Which means we need to start now. And this is where Rob’s Transition Town initiatives come in.

Rob Hopkins is the founder of the Transition Movement. The initial experiment began in Kinsale near Cork in Ireland whilst he was lecturing in Permaculture. However, it was only when he returned to his home town of Totnes in Devon that the first true Transition Town began.

It’s a grass roots initative, started by Rob and local people but it has grown to touch most of the community and now has the support of the local council. The idea is that change needs to begin and be managed at a local level.

Totnes now has an energy descent plan: a roadmap to wean itself off oil over the next twenty years. It has it’s own local currency, accepted by most local shops and designed to encourage the community to invest in the local economy. And there’s many other projects designed to move the town gradually to a more sustainable future.

There are now hundreds of Transition initiatives all over the UK and other parts of the world. Lewes in Sussex soon followed Totnes’ lead. This week there was an article in the free London paper about Brixton launching it’s own local currency. Some are more advanced than others. There may well be an initiative near you.

According to a recent Waterstones poll of book’s that MPs are reading, The Transition Town Handbook came number five on the list. People seem to be beginning to notice.

Recently, I heard the head of the soil association talking about peak oil. He compared it to the credit crunch. Now it’s happened, most of us can’t understand how no one saw it coming. It seems so obvious now that it would all go wrong. It could easily be the same with peak oil. A food and energy crunch is next. We’ll look back and wonder why our government didn’t prepare us for what could be a catastrophic oversight.

The thing is, Governments only will do what they think people will vote for. And that’s why starting with grass roots initiatives seems to make sense. If the government see that it’s something that people are worried about then they’ll look at developing policies to do something about it. In places like Totnes, it appears that it’s already beginning to happen on a local level.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been quite take by the compelling argument that Hopkins sets out in the book. And, perhaps more importantly, his approach to dealing with the problem. If you’re not, I’d urge you to read it. I’m sure he puts it better than I have.

Whether peak oil comes to pass or not, I believe we should make sure that we have the fundamentals to our survival within easy reach. It seems bonkers that we don’t. We should grow enough food to feed us in our local communities and only import in stuff that we can’t grow ourselves and that isn’t essential to our survival.

Even if peak oil turns out to be a myth, climate change is another almost certainly better reason to leave oil in the ground.

The future seems increasingly uncertain, with the world’s globalised economy in the worst recession for eighty years and the first effects of climate change beginning to be seen.

So I reckon we should begin to prepare ourselves to cope in the way that we did in 1939.

Just in case.

But we should also seize this as an opportunity to change the way we live for the better. To go back to growing food in a more natural and less industrialised way. To make our communities more reliant on each other and in the process more friendly and cohesive.

It’s easy to get depressed and feel helpless about subjects like peak oil and climate change. It’s easy to pretend it’s not happening and live in denial. But it clearly is happening.

What I like about the transition approach it is about embracing the problem, it’s about doing something about it and sharing the anxiety about the future with others. It’s about turning a big fat big negative in to an even bigger positive. It’s a good way to deal with it.

Once you get passed the gloomy first few chapters the book is relentlessly upbeat. You could argue that it paints a bit of a utopian fantasy. But why not? You’ve got to have something to aim at and the picture it paints is a society that I’d rather be part of.

Like I said at the start, I’m still processing this information. It’s a lot to take in. And probably not something that should be rushed. But I suspect I’m going to do something with it. And if you’ve read this far, I hope that you might too.

Listen to Rob Hopkins explain peak oil and the Transition Movement in The Soil Assoication’s podcast.

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