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Charting the journey home

Yellow Springs, Ohio -- More than 350 people from 39 states and five countries gathered here in late September with about 100 area residents to learn how to prepare at the local level for the coming steep decline in global oil production.

This permanent decline will follow an all-time high in production, known as peak oil, which will require developing local and sustainable economies, local food systems, and "eco-village" communities, participants at the Second U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions were told.

Presentations on peak oil, alternative fuels and the geopolitics of oil were also given at this three-day conference held at Antioch College and sponsored by Yellow Springs-based Community Service Inc. which through its Community Solution program seeks the resurgence of small local communities in an era of increasingly scarce and expensive oil.

"Peak oil will undoubtedly be tough," said Pat Murphy, the nonprofit’s executive director, in his opening remarks. "We can make it tougher by trying to hang on to an out-of-date lifestyle or fighting wars for the last drops of oil."

"Our theme is the journey home," Murphy said. "Like the Bible story of the prodigal son who left his community for the lure of the big city, we find ourselves in big trouble. It’s time to return to the community, make amends, clean up the mess and get back on the right path."

The conference speakers included key leaders in the fast-growing peak oil awareness movement. Among them were oil industry expert Jan Lundberg, who headed up a Petrocollapse conference on Oct. 5 in New York City, and energy consultant Steve Andrews, co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil - USA, which will hold its first conference this November in Denver.

John Darnell, the science adviser for U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland, attended the conference. Bartlett, who also held a peak oil conference in late September, has spoken repeatedly on the House floor about peak oil.

Richard Heinberg, author of the seminal work, The Party’s Over, gave a keynote address on the unprecedented challenge of peak oil at the global and local level. Heinberg summarized the evidence for an imminent global oil peak, reviewing the American oil experience of declining production, dramatically declining global discovery rates, production peaks and declines around the world, spurious reserves in the Middle East, and reports and comments from oil companies and governments.

In reference to the American government’s ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina, Heinberg said of the coming peak oil decline, "Given the demonstrated inability of the federal government to anticipate and prepare, most of the responsibility will be borne at the local level." Heinberg then questioned the audience about how many of them had given a presentation on peak oil or written an article. About two-thirds of them raised their hands.

Andrews, the ASPO - USA co-founder, followed with an assessment of alternative fuels. Though unconventional sources like tar sands, oil shale, ethanol, gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids often are touted as the solution to peak oil, Andrews stressed that alternative fuels won’t come on line fast enough, take more energy to produce, and are much worse environmentally. Further, he calculated that at best all of these sources combined could yield 4 million barrels per day (mbd) in a world that consumes 85 mbd. Another 3 to 3.5 mbd could be added through efficiency, which is the best short and mid-term strategy. "Long term, we must focus on renewables," he said.

John Ikerd, an economist and author of a recent book, Sustainable Capitalism, said that the solution lies in moving "toward an economy based on sustainable energy." He contrasted the guiding principles of the industrial economic paradigm, to maximize productivity and growth, with that of sustainability, to create permanence. "The fundamental flaw of the industrial economy," Ikerd said, "is that it uses energy but it does nothing to renew, restore, or regenerate energy." Thus it cannot last, he said.

He brought the audience to a wild applause when he ended by saying, "We will choose an economy of sustainable energy when we realize that our happiness depends on our relationships with people and with nature, as well as our individual, material well-being. We will choose a life of social responsibility when we realize that caring for others is not a sacrifice, but instead enhances our quality of life. One by one, we will create an economy of sustainable energy, as we realize that working and living sustainably is simply a better way to work and a better way to live."

Murphy, from The Community Solution, then discussed the fundamental choice to be made - Armageddon or Eden. He gave an uncensored history of global colonialism, which continues today through economic globalization and resource wars. He explained this colonialism as the exploitation of people and resources for the enrichment of a few, stating that it is leading the planet towards World War III and global nuclear annihilation.

"We must become conservers rather than consumers," Murphy said. "Consumers are industrial, individualistic and competitive, whereas conservers are agrarian, social and cooperative." Murphy outlined his peak oil-driven lifestyle changes, including moving from a 1700- to a 600-square-foot home, buying a hybrid car and raising chickens. He ended with a challenge - "The world needs change leaders now - become one!"

Next up was Lundberg, whose vision of "petrocollapse," as Congressman Bartlett recently put it, is that "the trucks will no longer pull into Wal-Mart. Or Safeway or other food stores. The freighters bringing packaged techno-toys and whatnot from China will have no fuel. There will be fuel in many places, but hoarding and uncertainty will trigger outages, violence and chaos. For only a short time will the police and military be able to maintain order, if at all."

Lundberg, founder of the Auto Free Times magazine, Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, and CultureChange.org, talked of this upcoming petrocollapse as a chaotic disruption of society that may occur from even a small decline in oil supplies. He screened a short documentary, "Our Synthetic Sea," on the accumulation of plastics in the ocean (and in marine life) in the central Pacific, which has increased 300 percent since 1990. Every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere, and as it breaks down into smaller particles and plastic "dust" it can cause potentially devastating effects to ecosystems. The solution, Lundberg said, is to stop using plastic.

Faith Morgan, a Community Service trustee, showed The Community Solution’s still-to-be-released video documentary, "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil." The documentary shows Cuba’s response to the collapse of the USSR in 1990 and the subsequent loss of 50 percent of oil imports. Morgan gave a tearful introduction, "When I first went to Cuba, in 2003," she said, "I became so deeply moved by what I was hearing and seeing that by the end I wanted to document it, so it could be shared with everyone concerned about Peak Oil." The Community Solution staff, in three trips to Cuba, saw firsthand the hope that the Cuban experience can bring to a discussion of surviving peak oil.

In Cuba, the Soviet collapse was followed by what they called the "special period." Times were tough - the average Cuban lost 30 pounds, and there were frequent electric power blackouts. Yet, as the documentary reveals, local and national initiatives along with the values of mutual aid and cooperation allowed Cuba to successfully overcome the crisis. The documentary also highlights the development of urban agriculture and rooftop permaculture in Havana, the transition to organic farming and animal traction throughout the country, and the increasing use of renewable energy. The video will be released in January 2006.

After a lively panel discussion about Cuba at the conference, an open forum led by Fred Bartenstein of Yellow Springs Mediation brought questions and comments on such topics as draft horses, corporate power, eco-feminism, cob housing, urban survival, spirituality, home self-sufficiency and military use of fuels.

The conference’s second day featured a second keynoter, community development specialist and Going Local author Michael Shuman. He presented the two options for local economic development - TINA (There is No Alternative), which emphasizes export-led development and LOIS, (Local Ownership Import Substituting), which promotes developing community self-reliance in place of reliance on imports. According to Shuman, in a post-petroleum economy, the LOIS model "maximizes self-reliance, minimizes global shipping, revitalizes communities, and inoculates localities against oil shocks."

Shuman offered practical advise for the transition to a LOIS economy, including developing new and expanded local businesses, educating and supporting new local entrepreneurs, mobilizing local finance, spearheading "local first" campaigns, and removing subsidies for export-focused economic development. He ended with a revised version of Patrick Henry’s famous speech: "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me community or give me death!"

A module on "Creating Alternative Communities" came next, featuring three women, two leaders in the cohousing and ecovillages movement and one from The Community Solution with its proposal for a model post-peak oil neighborhood-community.

Diana Leafe Christian, editor of Communities magazine and author of Creating a Life Together, showed more than 200 slides of intentional communities, which she defined as "a group of people who live with, adjacent to and near enough to one another to carry out their common purpose together." Many of these communities grow much of their own food, employ energy efficient and natural building techniques, share amenities, and some generate their own electricity.

Christian explained that ecovillages, a type of intentional community, are particularly focused on sustainability. Earthaven Ecovillage in western North Carolina, the community Christian calls home, is off the grid and utilizes solar photovoltaic panels and a micro-hydroelectric system, composting toilets, sustainable forestry, natural building, rainwater catchment, grey water recycling, organic gardens, consensus decision-making and local business.

Ecovillage pioneer Liz Walker, founder of EcoVillage at Ithaca (in New York state) and author a book by that name, described the features of her community as well as its broader outreach. The community is made up of several cohousing neighborhoods of energy efficient, passive solar homes, on-site businesses, and a large community-supported farm.

Walker explained a unique aspect of EcoVillage at Ithaca - its focus on outreach, education and collaboration. The community has received intense media attention, with reports by CNN, PBS, NPR, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and more. It is working with Cornell University and Ithaca College on sustainable energy and community courses, and with Tompkins Country officials and residents on a sustainability initiative, among other local projects.

Megan Quinn, outreach director of The Community Solution, presented its Agraria project, a model post-peak oil community to be developed in Yellow Springs. Quinn described peak oil as an opportunity for the resurgence of small, local community living. "We have spent over 99.5 percent of human history in small communities," Quinn said, "The era of cheap and abundant oil is an aberration, and soon we will begin the journey home."

While the first Agraria neighborhood-community will be developed in Yellow Springs, the goal is to create a model that can be replicated across the country. "The role of these communities, Quinn said, "is to accommodate the inevitable urban to rural transition that will occur as the peak oil crisis deepens." They will also serve as vital educational centers to disseminate the new skills of a low energy world and as models of cooperative, sustainable living.

Agraria will incorporate energy efficient home and community design, organic agriculture, shared facilities, offices and workspaces, waste and water recycling, renewable energy systems, and car sharing for a goal of reducing the residents’ energy usage to 1/5th of the U.S. average per capita.

Robert Waldrop, moderator of the "Running on Empty" peak oil web discussion group and founder of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, knows much about reducing personal energy use. Murphy, from The Community Solution, introduced him as a personal hero because when Waldrop learned about peak oil he "began living the way we will all live in a post peak oil world." Waldrop grows 100 varieties of edible plants on 1/7 of an acre and uses a hand-crank washing machine, among other energy saving techniques.

Waldrop talked about the development of local food systems, which will be critical when the petroleum-dependent global industrial food system collapses. Waldrop offered a variety of practical suggestions for participants, including eating with the season, preparing meals from basic ingredients, buying locally produced foods, growing one’s own food, preserving and processing foods at home or in community kitchens, practicing food storage, and avoiding meats from confined animal feeding operations. At the community level, Waldrop described a variety of structures for local food systems, such as food buying cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture/subscription programs, vegetable stands, websites, and other forms of direct sales from farmers to customers.

The conference ended with a final address by Heinberg, who pointed to an anthropological view of humanity’s problem - a 10,000 year departure from hunter-gatherer life to living in large agricultural settlements, then to an industrial society dependent on unsustainable, depleting nonrenewable energy. He called on conference participants to lead humanity down a new path.

Murphy, from The Community Solution, ended the conference, by saying, "The most important thing is for all of us to ‘become the change you wish to see in the world.’ If you want a low-energy, caring community way of living, then become a member of that community - even if you are initially the only member."

"Remember that community is the solution and the solutions are in community. Have a safe journey home."

Quinn is the outreach director for The Community Solution, a program of Community Service Inc. She can be reached at megan@communitysolution.org . To get DVDs of the conference contact her by email or call 937-761-2161.

Editorial Notes: More coverage of the conference by the local paper (Yellow Springs News): Hundreds come to village for 2nd peak oil conference Housing model solution to peak oil Reports on the conference by Stuart Staniford of The Oil Drum: Friday Saturday Sunday Community Solution website UPDATE (Oct 12): Just posted is a report on the conference by Jan Steinman (the report is about 7 entries down in the forum). -BA

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