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Solutions and Sustainability

Past the Peak
How the small town of Willits plans to beat the coming energy crisis

R. V. Scheide, Metroactive
…A boyish 37-year-old with a Ph.D. in biology, Dr. Jason Bradford only relocated to Willits from Davis with his wife, Kristin, a medical doctor, and their two children last August. Initially interested in energy issues while studying climate change in the Andes several years ago, Bradford didn’t really know what he was getting into when he decided to sponsor several screenings of The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream just two months after arriving in town. Hosting a film that proclaims human civilization is going to run out of oil and is therefore doomed doesn’t usually guarantee a visit from the welcome wagon. But then again, Willits isn’t most towns. Bradford’s initial invitation to view the film has blossomed into a popular movement that aims to, in the words of one member, “reinvent the town.”

“Thirty people showed up the first time,” he says. A number of people stayed to chat after the movie, and sensing local interest in the topic, he hosted another showing. Sixty people turned up that time. Ninety came to a third presentation. Bradford, who’d never really led anything larger than a small research team, could feel the momentum building. “Oh, shit!” he thought. “What do I do now?”

As it turned out, Bradford didn’t have to do too much to keep the ball rolling, other than volunteering all of his spare time. That’s because there’s a current running through Willits that harmonizes exactly with what needs to be done to prepare for what petroleum experts call “peak oil.” That current is supplied in part by the very same ecotopians who flocked to the region in the ’70s. Under Bradford’s leadership, they’ve teamed up with concerned professionals, local government officials and ordinary citizens to form the Willits Economics Localization (WELL) project. It appears to be one of the first civic groups in the United States dedicated to preparing for the coming energy crisis. But if other communities are to have any hope of retaining some semblance to the lifestyles they’ve grown accustomed to during the age of cheap oil, it definitely won’t be the last.
(August 10-16, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian)

The Peak-Oil Crisis:
A Role for the Post Office

Falls Church (VA) News Press (“Local News. Global Perspective.”)
As gasoline becomes less available to the average motorist, either because it costs too much or sitting in gas lines takes too many hours, the first sacrifice will be discretionary use of the car. If your livelihood depends on people coming by car so you can provide discretionary goods or services to them, your business will hurt. There will, however, be no serious harm to society as a whole if you don’t make it to the movies on Saturday night. In fact, life will be more pleasant for those still driving, as traffic will be markedly reduced.

However, as depletion continues, the unavailability of gasoline will start to threaten the two things most can’t do without: commuting to work and getting the stream of life-sustaining “stuff” (food, clothes, medicine) to our homes.

…Over the last 75 years, the US has developed a retail distribution system that involves getting into a car and driving down to the store, mall, shipping center, supermarket, dealer, etc. for anything from a pack of cigarettes to a new car. While some objects are too big for delivery by car and FedEx and UPS are starting to deliver more and more things purchased over the Internet, it is still a miniscule share of the daily flow of stuff to our homes.

It will be possible to extend our current distribution system for a few months (or years) after oil depletion sets in through better planning of trips, shopping pools, and increased use of UPS and FedEx. However, by the time the amount of gasoline available for sale to retail customers is down to some 25 or 50 percent of current levels, we had better come up with a new way of buying stuff and getting it home, especially foods and medicines, or we’ll really be in trouble.

The current delivery companies can take up a little of the slack but they will have a lot to cope with. As oil goes up and up, companies such as FedEx are going to have to rethink their core business of flying stuff to Memphis at night for redistribution.

The most fuel-efficient way to get merchandise to our homes is to have a fleet of trucks – preferably electric-powered – deliver whatever we and our neighbors need with one trip. Does this model sound familiar? It happens on my street every afternoon when the little red, white, and blue US Postal Service electric van toddles up my street and brings us all the mail and some packages I want.
(Aug 11-17 2005 issue)

What ‘Green’ Means

Bill McKibben, Philadelphia Inquirer
We must do more than remedy existing problems; changing our behavior now will prevent new ones
…environmentalism, by itself, isn’t up to the task of stopping global warming. Going after fossil fuels means going after the base of our economy, and hence of our daily habits. That is too central a target for a movement whose successes have involved fixing things around the edges. For instance, the obvious first step to reduce carbon emissions would be to increase the price of fossil fuels. Everyone knows that. But political leaders haven’t done it because there are strong pressures from vested interests not to, and no pressure at all from the citizenry to do so. The vested interests won’t go away, and voters aren’t clamoring for higher gas prices now in exchange for a more livable planet down the road. So the best our leaders (even ones like Bill Clinton, who acknowledged the problem) have been willing to do is talk about magic technologies a few decades away, like hydrogen cars, that might somehow allow us to avoid ever making difficult choices.

So we have a split between a robust environmental movement taking on the relatively simple problems of old-fashioned pollution and a weak one getting nowhere on preventing the collapse of the planet’s stable climate. That will likely continue until something breaks the logjam.

It may be scarcity that does the trick. The currently increasing cost of oil helps (though it does nothing to lessen the temptation of an endless surplus of carbon-laden coal).

Maybe fear will do it. One reason Europe takes climate change so seriously is that 35,000 French and Belgians died in a two-week heat wave the summer before last.

Or it may be some wild card: some new metaphor, some new leader. Or, more likely, some new vision.

More and more, for instance, I find myself writing about local economies – in part because their supply lines are shorter, their energy demands smaller. But also in part because the food tastes sweeter, because the deeper community feels good, because electricity from the windmill on your ridge is better than electricity from the wrecked Appalachian mountain or the overstretched Mideast pipeline. (“Buy local” – is that a liberal vision or a conservative one? Who knows? That we can’t say for sure is probably a good thing.) It’s one possible vision, anyhow, of a world that might not overheat, a vision that owes at least as much to psychology and sociology as to the biology and chemistry that have undergirded most ecological thinking.
(9 August 2005)

Beyond an Encyclopedia: What’s Next for Wikimania?

Danny Schechter, Common Dreams
FRANKFURT, GERMANY AUGUST 9 — In l995, Ward Cunningham, a pioneering Portland, Oregon-based software engineer, had an epiphany and found a name for it. He had used the web to build a productive community of fellow techies who came up with new ideas through a unique cooperative way of working, one in which contributors could edit, revise and upgrade the work of their peers.

They were encouraged not just to review, comment or criticize the online contributions of others, but also to actively change them. Cunningham had a hunch, perhaps even a faith, that if people worked together collaboratively, they could create a product that was better than the sum of its inputs. He helped create software with a simple formatting language that anyone with a web browser can learn and then use to edit a page.

He had been trying to come up with a distinctive name for this bottom-up democratic methodology in an industry where the unconventional and idiosyncratic often stuck. Off-the-beaten-track names such as Yahoo or Linux or even Google are now household words. Cunningham found what he was looking for when he visited Hawaii and was told he could get where he wanted to go on a Wiki-Wiki Bus.

Wiki! How cool.

Wiki it was.

Wiki may sound wacky, but it works.
(9 August 2005)
Information sharing is key to adapting to the energy and environmental crises.

A Roof Garden? It’s Much More Than That

Lisa Chamberlain, NY Times
As temperatures soared over 90 degrees and New York City broke records for electricity use at the end of July, landscapers were installing a “green” roof at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, where parts of the HBO series “The Sopranos” are filmed
Above Tony Soprano’s head will be New York City’s largest green roof, a thin layer of plants covering 35,000 square feet in a design that aims to reduce air pollution, control heating and cooling costs, and absorb storm water runoff.

Proponents of the project, which has been two years in the making, are hoping to use data collected from it to convince commercial property owners and developers that not only are green roofs good for the environment, they can benefit the bottom line.
(10 August 2005)

In the Cards
Brits consider radical plan to measure personal emissions

Mike Wendling, Grist Magazine
What would you be willing to do to slow climate change?

Oh sure, you might drive and fly less. You might already have, like me, signed up for a green-energy plan. But would you hand over an ID card every time you filled up your gas tank? Would you let the government track each time you turned on your washing machine or computer? How about your nose-hair trimmer?

Residents of the U.K. might soon be compelled to take such measures. Although it hasn’t received much publicity outside the climate-research community, the dry-sounding yet radical idea of “Domestic Tradable Quotas” — basically, personal energy rationing — already has some influential backers in Britain.

…Here’s how it would work. Every resident of the U.K. would receive an annual, identical allocation of carbon units, a number that would be reduced each year in line with the government’s climate-change goals. Each energy-quaffing Brit would also be issued a plastic card, like a climate-change Visa with an environmental spending limit. Every time cardholders used carbon-based energy — for example, by buying fuel or electricity — they’d have to swipe the card, and a number of DTQ points would be deducted.
(9 August 2005)

Ask Umbra: Greasing their alms
On subsidies for big oil

Umbra Fisk, Grist Magazine/b via Working for Change
Q. Dear Umbra,
Grist keeps mentioning that the U.S. government gives large subsidies to oil companies, but doesn’t go further into what these subsidies are. I can’t make a good argument against the government’s subsidizing Big Oil if I don’t know more about it: Are the subsidies tax breaks, and if so, for what? Are the tax breaks larger than for most other large companies? How biased is our treatment of Big O
(8 August 2005)

New Urbanism: an Online NewsHour Special Report

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
– A Conversation with New Urbanist Architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
– Forum: Ask the Experts
– Excerpts from “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream”
– What is New Urbanism?
– New Urbanism Under Fire
– New Urbanism vs. Conventional Suburbs
– A Detailed Look at Kentlands, MD, a New Urbanist Development
(no date)
Apparently, text, audio and video versions of the segments are available.