A Community Solution to Peak Oil: An interview with Megan Quinn
Megan Quinn is the Outreach Director of Community Service, Inc. Community Service is a non-profit organization founded in 1940 that has advocated for small, local communities as the most fulfilling, healthy way to live. It's lastest program, The Community Solution, seeks to bring about the re-emergence of the small community and a more agrarian, low energy-use way of life, as the solution for "Peak Oil."
Megan is a recent graduate of Miami University in Oxford, where she studied Peak Oil and its implications for U.S. foreign policy. As the Outreach Director, Megan organizes and gives public presentations on Peak Oil. She helped organize and served as master of ceremonies for the "First U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions" in November 2004, which had over 200 participants. She is also the Project Coordinator for "Agraria," the development of a model post-oil community, and has travelled to Cuba working on a documentary for the organization.
Aric McBay: How do you think Peak Oil is going to play out in the world over the next couple of decades? Could you given us a possible scenario? What do you hope will happen? What do you worry will happen?
Megan Quinn: The next few decades will be a discontinuity in the course of human civilization and human evolution. From the start of the industrial revolution, humans have extracted greater and greater amounts of fossil fuels from the ground. (In turn, we have released greater and greater amounts of fossil fuels into the air as they are burned.) Yet over the course of the next few decades, we will reach the point at which the most fossil fuels will ever be extracted. From that point on, we will extract fewer and fewer amounts of fossil fuels until it takes more energy to extract the fossil fuels than they provide, or we decide that we will no longer extract them.
This represents a divergence point for human societies. The choice is this: we can continue to consume energy as we have by commandeering the world's fossil fuel resources from the rest of the world for a short time or we can commit to the "energy descent" and transition to a lifestyle that consumes much less energy. The first scenario will lead to resource wars, massive global famines and die-offs, continuing ecological devastation, the threat of climate change, and a temporary maintainence or enhancement of our "standard of living." In effect, this choice provides the present generation with a way to maintain their comfort and avoid change while at the same time dooming future generations, threatening the human species, and endangering the entire earth. The second scenario will require cooperation, hard work, and the sacrifice of some of our material comforts, but will allow human evolution to proceed in a more peaceful, harmonious way than with industrial civilization. By acknowledging that all of our natural resources are limited (fossil fuels, water, arable land, etc.), we will seek to limit human consumption of these resources. So when fossil fuels begin to decline, we will decline with them, re-designing our lives and our communities to consume less energy.
Our most important fossil fuel, petroleum, will be the first to decline. According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, oil production is expected to peak and decline around 2008. Natural gas will peak around 2020. While coal may last a few decades longer, the cost of extraction will rise as oil and natural gas become scarce. In addition, if coal is used as a replacement for oil and natural gas, twice as much would have to be used because the energy density is much lower for coal (not to mention the ensuing pollution).
When global oil production peaks, this means that supply will start to decrease. At the same time demand is ever soaring. This will result in an oil shortage. The price will skyrocket similar to oil crisis of 1970s in the U.S. However, this shock will occur worldwide and will never recover. Prices will continue to rise, never again reaching their pre-peak levels. According to Matt Simmons, oil investment banker and advisor to the Cheney Energy Task Force, oil prices are expected to reach $182 per barrel within the decade.
At first the world may not know the cause of global oil price volatility. The issue may be obscured for political motives or there may be an attempt to blame an easy target, such as oil companies or Middle East countries. However, as the world enters a deep recession, awareness may begin to rise and concerned citizens may organize for sweeping societal change. Primarily individuals, households, and small communities must begin producing more of their own food and other goods necessary to survival.
In this chaotic period of rising oil prices, prices will rise throughout the economy, particularly for food. Industrial agriculture relies on petroleum as the feedstock for pesticides and insecticides and the fuel for tractors, combines, and irrigation systems. In addition, natural gas is the feedstock for all commercial fertilizers. By the time the average calorie of food is produced in N. America, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuels. This doesn't include additional fossil fuel energy for packaging and transporting an average of 1200 miles. Any rise in fuel prices will mean rises in food prices and may result in localized food shortages. Because local networks of economic interdependence and specifically local food networks have been destroyed by a globalized food system, localities may have to reestablish such networks in this emergency situation.
My hope is that citizens of the world will realize what is happening when Peak Oil occurs and decide to relocalize their economies and societies to adapt to this new reality of declining fuel availability. Cooperation is required to create this new world of small, sustainable, self-reliant communities. Competition over the dwindling sources may bring us to the brink of extinction.
AM: I understand that you've recently spent time in Cuba, which suddenly lost most of its access to petroleum when the USSR collapse. What were the effects of this there? What did Cubans do to adapt? What is the situation there now, and what kinds of solutions are in place for agriculture, transportation and so on?
MQ: (Excerpts from a 12/3/04 report on Cuba)
Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, upon whom Cuba had become dependent for its oil imports, Cuban society changed dramatically. Almost overnight Cuba, one of the most rapidly industrializing nations in Latin America, lost 50% of its oil, and the country was on the verge of starvation. Over the subsequent years, Cuba's GDP would drop by 1/3rd. In order to successfully weather the crisis, ideological and economic commitments became subordinate to survival. "Socialism or Death" became "A Better World is Possible," and Cuba became a model and inspiration to sustainability advocates around the world.
Because Cuba was dependent upon external energy inputs for its domestic food production, when Cuba lost their oil the system collapsed and many Cubans went hungry. In order to survive, they went from large scale, oil-intensive, chemical-industrial production, to small scale, local, organic agriculture. Petroleum-based food transportation from countryside to cities became increasingly supplemented with urban gardening. Roberto Perez of the Foundation for Nature and Humanity estimates that today 50-80% of Havana's food comes from inside the city limits.
In most cases, Cubans took the initiative themselves, setting up community gardens in their neighborhoods to provide fresh, healthy, and local foods. At the Organipónico de Alamar, a neighborhood community agriculture project in the city of Havana, a worker's collective runs the farm, market, and restaurant. Hand tools and human labor save petroleum, vermiculture (worm cultivation) creates productive soil, drip irrigation conserves water, and diverse produce creates a bounty of foods to provide the neighborhood.
When there is not enough land for such large projects, neighborhoods plant rooftop gardens, have backyard farms, and even put raised beds on parking lots. An organization called the Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ) started a program on sustainable urban development, which now provides Cubans with tools and training to produce their own food. Permaculture, a design system which emulates natural patterns and maximizes productivity, is being taught throughout Havana. The FANJ facility located in the Cerro province of Havana is a living permaculture laboratory and education center. Integrated into the system are rubber tires as planting beds, gerbils for their meat and manure, and grape vines providing fruit and cool shade.
Yet agriculture is not the only area affected by Cuba's oil crisis. Because the island's electricity is generated mostly from burning petroleum, the crisis caused massive blackouts throughout the country. In fact, there were times when Cubans only had a few hours a day of electricity for cooking, lighting, and appliances. Over the course of the next few years, Cubans were asked to conserve as much as possible and their energy awareness and frugality continues today.
Yet even as Cuba began finding and producing more oil domestically, the government began pursuing renewable energy programs that utilized solar and wind power. Cuba Solar, a division of Cuba Energía, was founded in order to research, develop, and implement solar energy programs. Another organization, Ecosol, was founded in 1997 to create a market for various renewable energy sources. Ecosol Solar, its solar division, has successfully installed 1.2 Megawatts of solar photovoltaics in both small household systems (200 Watt capacity) and large systems (15-50 Kilowatt capacity). In all, this accounts for 5,500 PV systems over the course of just four years. In addition, the organization is developing hybrid generation concept, utilizing both wind turbines and PV panels, as well as solar thermal water heaters.
The initiatives of Ecosol Solar include programs which directly empower Cubans, as 60% of their installations go to social programs. One prominent example is the installment of solar photovoltaic panels to electrify 2,364 primary schools throughout rural Cuba. In addition, they are developing compact model solar water heaters that can be assembled in the field, water pumps powered by PV panels, and solar dryers.
Visiting the "Los Tumbos" solar-powered community in the mountainous Pinar Del Rio province demonstrates the positive impact that these strategies can have. Solar panels adorn rooftops of homes as well as the community school and television room. Electricity allows the community to gather for the evening "Round Table Discussions" broadcast on Cuban TV, which are government-run programs featuring debate on some of the most salient issues in the country and world. Besides keeping the residents informed, the television room has the added benefit of facilitating community coherence. Pursuing local, renewable strategies for food and energy production has helped Cuba successfully endure the oil crisis of the early 1990s and start on a path of ecological sustainability. How the Cubans were able to deal with such great challenges is perhaps of greater importance to us on the verge of our own imminent crisis.
Such a question inevitably takes us deeper into the history and culture of this unique place. The last Latin American country to achieve its independence, Cuba struggled long and hard against Spanish colonial oppression. Its independence hero, Jose Martí, is not only a familiar face on sculptures throughout the country; he is an immortalized presence in the hearts of the Cuban people. Yet despite its independence in 1898, Cuba has had to keep an eye on its neighbor to the north, which went from serious considerations of annexation around the turn of the century to powerful economic and political influence up through the 1950s.
With this long history of foreign domination and control, the Cuban people maintain firm resolve to create their own destiny. In the troubling political realities of the century, this has meant the will to resist. "Resistir" is a value and ideal in Cuban society. It demonstrates the strength of the Cuban character and the determination of the Cuban people to overcome any obstacles they may face. Living under a 40-year U.S. blockade has been the ultimate test of the ability of the Cuban people to "resistir."
This pervasive element of the Cuban psyche had a tremendous effect on their ability to deal with the crisis. As they had done before, Cubans would overcome their struggles by making the necessary sacrifices, working even harder, and employing their creative and ingenious talents. They accepted 18-hour per day blackouts, three hour work commutes, and scarce and meatless diets. They began doing whatever they could to scrape by, most successfully from seeking tourist tips. They created new mass transportation alternatives from bicycles, cars, trucks, trailers, and various scrap materials.
Relatedly, Cubans are an overwhelmingly optimistic people. While attending a meeting of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in a Havana neighborhood, a familiar phrase was spoken: "Sí se puede." Translated this means, "Yes, it can be done," an acknowledgement of their proud past as much as their hopeful future (a theme also represented in Ché's famous saying, "Hasta la victoria siempre," Until victory always).
A final element with an undoubted role in Cuba's crisis management is the sense of solidarity among the Cuban people. Through all of their struggles, the Cubans have stood together and relied on one another. Cuba's focus on creating an egalitarian society has enhanced the nation's solidarity, as has their resistance against a common enemy.
At a CDR meeting in a small neighborhood of Havana the critical ingredients of resistance, optimism, and solidarity manifested themselves in a powerful discourse on the value of community in Cuba and during the "Special Period." These neighborhood organizations represent the essence of Cuban society and provide a fundamental function for the community. "Without the CDRs we never would have made it through the crisis," according to one local CDR member. "They helped accomplish tasks in the neighborhood, got the neighbors together, and brought a sense of unity." He continued, "They distributed food, water, vitamins. Essentially, they provided big support in trying to get basic things to the people."
In a passionate statement a municipal CDR organizer clarifies the role of these organizations: "The success of our organization, in that it is a neighborhood organization, is the solidarity of the neighbors. It not only should be a revolutionary organization, the CDR concerns itself with the old woman that lives alone, the mother that lives alone with her children and has no help."
She continues, "If a CDR has divisions among its people, then the CDR looks for the unity between them." Her final statement was powerful: "We were created to defend the revolution and we will die defending the revolution."
As Cuba's crisis hit, the Cuban people came together in many effective, impressive, and beautiful ways. The spirit of community, which runs through the Cuban people, allowed them to successfully survive the crisis. Starting with food and energy, Cuba has made many beneficial changes to their society. Today they are on a more sustainable path than any "developing" nation in the world. We in America have much to learn from Cuba's successful transition. By assessing Cuba's response we know where we must begin. In addition, by studying their sense of community and the role of neighborhood organizations, we become empowered to work with our local communities. Like the Cubans, we can resist, we can look toward the future with hope, and we can draw together in solidarity to create a new and sustainable world.
AM: Have they adopted any of the "high tech" remedies that have been suggested for dealing with oil depletion, like gigantic wind generators or massive photovoltaic stations?
MQ: Please see explanation above of alternative energy. Though there are some systems that have been built (up to 50 kW), the majority of renewable energy systems in Cuba are small. As is noted above, 60% of Ecosol Solar's installations are in small rooftop systems for schools and small towns. Because Cuba did not have the money to invest in such expensive systems, they instead relied on more local, cheap, and ingenious solutions. For example, one can see old trucks turned into taxis, bicycle taxis, and increasing hitchhiking as a way to deal with transportation problems. (Go to the solution page of our website here for more info on Cuba and some pictures) www.communitysolution.org/solution.html
AM: I'm fascinated by the Cuban CDRs. How do you think we can learn from their example for implementing our own solutions where we live?
MQ: CDRs, or "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" are neighborhood organizations throughout Cuba. They are about as large as one city block. Neighbors get together for frequent meetings and parties no less than once per month. It is a powerful social network that facilitates cooperation, care, and service among neighbors.
During the early years of the special period, the CDR structure was critical for the distribution goods to the people such as food, water and medicines. CDRs provide the opportunity to implement effective local solutions in times of social crisis.
CDRs are a good example of local communities taking responsibility and control over their well-being and their future. Rather than rely on a larger, more centralized entity such as city, state, or national government, CDRs work directly to take care of the need of their members. In this way, CDRs empower the neighbors to address the issues of their neighborhood, making this a highly democratic and effective system.
We can look at the CDR model as a way to organize our communities for local action. For example, we can begin talking to our neighbors about local food production and food storage. We can begin to prepare for any sudden resource shortages or other social crises. We can begin a grassroots campaign to purchase renewable electricity systems at the community level. Importantly, local solutions will be the most effective when cheap oil, and thus cheap transportation, come to an end after the global oil peak.
AM: People in general don't seem to like talking about Peak Oil or possibilities of industrial collapse. I think partly people find it scary, and also don't want to confront something that might call them to make big changes in their lives. It's easier to be complacent and let the "experts" and government deal with it. Do you have any suggestions on how to talk to neighbours, family or friends about this? Do you have any favourite, short primers on Peak Oil and related issues?
MQ: Great questions. The main reason that people don't want to talk about Peak Oil, industrial collapse, or ecological collapse is because they categorize these all as "doom and gloom" scenarios. We are labeled as pessimists and discounted. The reason for this is because people feel like their way of life is under attack and immediately get defensive. The best strategy is to explain why the post-oil, post-industrial world will be more peaceful, healthy, and happy. While our current way of life may seem to be prosperous, we in fact are living in temporary material abundance at the expense of many of those in the rest of the world and future generations. Living cooperatively is a more socially and spiritually fulfilling way to live.
The first thing that people need to do is take complete responsibility for their lifestyles, including the energy and material inputs that feed their everyday lives and the wastes that they generate. Even the act of watching TV for one hour burns 20 pounds of coal in the process. After understanding the costs associated with our modern lives, we will begin to reduce the fossil fuel inputs in all our food, clothing, and other products and reduce the amount of pollutants that leave us. In other words, we take responsibility of all that flows into us and all that flows out of us.
The way that I talk to friends and family is to slowly introduce them to peak oil itself without offering any solution. Coming out with it all at once may backfire and they may close off. "The End of Suburbia" documentary is a great place to start because it offers credibility and is an easily accessible format for people to understand oil depletion and why the American way of life is unsustainable. Other short primers on peak oil are available all over the web. Sometimes it is good to let people search them on their own. For suggestions, I like www.wolfatthedoor.org.uk and www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.org. Good primers are available at the ASPO website (www.peakoil.net) and at www.oilcrisis.com. For a longer discussion, "The Party's Over" by Richard Heinberg is excellent, as is "The Coming Oil Crisis" by Colin Campbell.
Once they understand that the problem is real they will most likely just express their faith in technology and the government to take care of the situation. It is at this point that it is necessary to explain the benefits of changing our way of life - to live more sustainably, simply, and with closer ties to our local communities. In explaining this solution it is important that your passion comes through - for this is no longer a technical discussion of energy and technology - it is compassionate discussion of living in a way that honors the earth, our fellow human beings, and future generations. People will understand peak oil through their minds but will only understand and commit to this solution through their hearts. Be an example. Share the joy of your new lifestyle with them. Be patient. We cannot easily withdraw from industrial society overnight. It takes a lot of effort and inconvenience but the mere act is very healing and nourishing to the spirit.
AM: Once people understand the basic energy situation, what are some of the most important things people can do about it?
MQ: Once you understand the basic global energy situation you must first analyze your personal energy budget. How much energy do you use in a typical day? From what sources does this energy come? What are the main areas of energy use? What machines or products that you purchase/use have the most embedded energy? Some of these questions may be difficult to answer do the lack of data, but you can make some guesses. From that point you can begin to identify areas where you can reduce energy use. For example, buying local, fresh, seasonal food drastically reduces the embedded energy that you would consume in frozen, packaged, long-distance food. Another example is sharing a car. This reduces the embedded energy in the manufacture and maintenance of the car and the oil energy used to make more frequent trips (experience shows that those who use car co-ops or car-sharing plan their trips more wisely and efficiently). Have a plan to reduce your energy use by 25% in the first year and continue setting similar goals.
In addition to this gradual reduction in energy use, begin learning the survival skills necessary if your fossil fuel energy use had to drop to nearly zero overnight. How would you get food, water, heat, etc.? By thinking about basic necessities you can begin to simply your life all-around.
Finally, share your experience with as many of your friends and family as possible. Involve them in the process and show them what this means to you. Show them that the experience can be rewarding socially as you build new relationships, physically as you develop strength and stamina, intellectually as you learn new skills and confidence, and spiritually as you re-connect to the natural world.
AM: Do you have any favourite sources for information about reducing your energy dependence, and for rapid-collapse survival skills?
MQ: To reduce energy dependence we must live simpler, less consumptive lifestyles. The Voluntary Simplicity movement has many resources in this regard. There are many books available as well as information from the Simply Living Network. Also I would recommend training in Permaculture, either through the available books and magazines, or by taking a Permaculture Design course. Permaculture is a design system based upon the principles of sustainability that looks at all of the elements of our lifestyle, including food, energy, and waste. By understanding the basics we can maximize our resources while preserving them and create productive, sustainable, and edible landscapes on a small scale.
To develop rapid-collapse survival skills you should start learning more about your ecological community. Buy plant identification guides and begin learning which wild plants grow in your area and their various uses. Particularly, learn which plants are edible and begin learning how to identify them in the wild, harvest them, and prepare them naturally. You may also find useful books on the medicinal value of various plants. Also I would learn how to make various animal traps and how to prepare the meat and use the other parts of the animal. There are many survival guides and identification manuals available for this information. The key is to begin studying, refining your survival skills, and testing them.
AM: Can you tell us a little about your group, The Community Solution?
MQ: The Community Solution is a program of Community Service, Inc. that has been studying Peak Oil and the coming changes. We advocate for a transition to small, sustainable communities due to resource depletion and environmental/social degradation. We are focused on public education about Peak Oil through our website www.communitysolution.org, our quarterly newsletter New Solutions, and our annual conference. We are currently developing a Peak Oil Speaker Training Program, a model post-oil community we call "Agraria," a documentary on Peak Oil, Cuba, and Community, and an Energy Information System so people can reduce their energy use as efficiently and immediately as possible. To join, memberships are $25 for the year. For more information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 937-767-2161, or P.O. Box 243, Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387.
AM: Is there anything you'd like to add?
MQ: The future holds immense challenges and we must prepare to meet them. We are all here at this critical time in the history of the earth and the human species in order to facilitate the transition to a new world and a new way of living. What will be the greatest challenge is also the greatest opportunity. We should be grateful to be alive in these exciting times. Always be aware of your impact and your purpose.
Remember the lessons of our industrial past, but do not long for it - for it is gone. Be mindful of the future and the generations to come, but do not dwell there - for it has not yet arrived. Enjoy the present and the gift of life that flows through you. Survival is the essence of life.
InTheWake.org is "A Collective Manual-in-progress for Outliving Civilization"
www.communitysolution.org is the website for The Community Solution to Peak Oil project for Community Service, with many excellent documents available.
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