Powering down America: local government's role in the transition to a post-petroleum world
Cheap, energy-dense liquid fuels have enabled the human species to proliferate across the globe, and in the process the transport of people, products, and resources has become an inescapable part of normal life in industrialized nations. Thanks to cheap and abundant energy, the energy intensity of our normal lives is unprecedented. Now demand for liquid fossil fuels seems to be approaching if not exceeding supply. This narrowing gap between supply and demand has fueled a steep price jump, rocketing from $28 per barrel of crude in early 2004 to over $70 per barrel at the end of August 2005. Even if the current price spike abates, geology tells us that global extraction of oil will reach a peak or plateau (very soon according to a growing number of experts) and then go into inexorable decline, approximating the downside of a bell curve. This phenomenon is called “Peak Oil.” The actual inflection point is referred to as “oil peak,” and can be thought of as the point when about half of the original endowment of economically extractable oil on the planet has been burned.
After peak, our growing demand for oil and the multitude products for which it is a critical feedstock will necessarily go unsatisfied. Oil scarcity will also increase pressure on supplies and pricing of America’s second most important energy source, North American natural gas, which is already often strained to its limits despite recent mild winters. Natural gas, which is a primary fuel for electricity generation and heating in many parts of the United States and a common industrial feedstock, has already seen production peak in North America. The global peak of natural gas production is extremely hard to predict - some say it decades away and others (with good reason) suggest that it might happen in a matter of years. For North America the key problem is that it now needs to import more and more natural gas from far away and often unstable or unfriendly places. Furthermore, the required infrastructure is complex, costly and takes years to build.
Once oil crests and goes into decline, much of today’s global-scale transport, industry, and trade will become economically unviable. With the diminishing viability of global-scale human activities, local economies, transport, governance, and culture will become increasingly effective and necessary. As national and global-scale operations and institutions peter out in the face of energy shortages and price shocks, local and community-supported organizations will need to step up and assume responsibility for many social services like food security, transportation, and energy security. Relocalization of key activities and local provisioning could make the difference between a sustainable future and social breakdown. What is in question, at this juncture, is how much effort local governments will put in now, while energy is still relatively cheap and plentiful, to prepare for an energy-constrained future, and how hard we, as the constituents of local governments, are willing to push for timely and substantive action.
Today’s global economic system and monoculture of consumption tie practically every aspect of human life at all levels of organization to cheap energy-dense fuels and petrochemicals, which means, more often than not, to oil. Many less industrialized nations are even more dependent on oil than the industrialized nations, which often have more diverse energy resources and infrastructures (e.g. hydroelectric, coal) and the funds to further expand on this diversity. In industrialized nations, individuals, families, neighborhoods, towns and cities, states, and non-governmental organizations are all dependent to a large extent on just-in-time access to cheap fuels and petrochemicals. For example, individuals who live in energy-intensive urban environments, such as residents of the average suburb or sprawling city, rely on cheap, energy-dense fuels to drive to and from work, to go out with friends and family, to take the kids to school, and for access to affordable food and consumer goods. Cheap petrochemicals are the raw materials for everything from roads and tires to computers, medicines, disinfectants, and food packaging. In many places, cheap fossil fuels enable homes and businesses to have running water, heat and electricity.
It takes a lot of energy and material to keep a city, suburb, state or nation habitable. Without a shift from reliance on cheap fuels and petrochemicals, future oil and gas shortages may incapacitate certain municipal services such as public transit, sanitation, and emergency medical services. Public transit relies on cheap fuel and subsidies for its very existence, as it cannot compete with privately owned transportation in today’s car culture. Without adequate preparation and increased support, increasing costs due to high fuel prices may sound the death knell of many public transit systems. Medical and sanitation services rely on cheap fuel for the availability of supplies and personnel and to power medical technology. Cheap petrochemicals are the raw materials of just about everything – from medicines to plasma bags – that modern hospitals use. Without cheap fuel and petrochemicals, local and national law and emergency response organizations, global agribusiness, national and international disaster relief organizations, and national militaries (just to name a few of the types of large-scale organizations affected) will become very expensive to run, possibly prohibitively so.
Fortunately, not all political leaders are ignorant of or unwilling to address our energy predicament. To help spread the message of such leaders, Global Public Media is conducting a series of interviews with political leaders worldwide who are concerned about peak oil and who advocate immediate response and preparation. To support peak-aware politicians, Global Public Media’s sister organization, Post Carbon Institute, is developing a “Powerdown” platform1 as well as a program for local government to catalyze the powering down of their bioregion that includes transition and contingency planning, the oil depletion protocol, relocalization, and ecological city design.
National Responses are Few
The October newsletter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO)2 reports that the French Prime Minister is the first world leader to publicly recognize peak oil. “We have entered the post-oil era”, said Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on September 1, 2005. “I want to draw all the consequences of this and give a real impulse to energy savings and to the use of renewable energies.” Villepin promised that several million low income households would receive a 75-euro ($91.49) check and to boost the use of renewable energy.
As of October 2005, New Zealand has the only two national political parties worldwide that have openly taken a stand on Peak Oil.3 Less than a year after initial communications with local activists Robert Atack and Kevin Moore, on 5 May 2005, Turiana Turia co-leader of the Maori Party of New Zealand issued a press release indicating that “all parties must wake up to this emerging crisis... Aotearoa4 is economically dependent on continuing oil extraction from wells very far away, along thin vulnerable transit routes, to support our long-range exporting and global tourism, and underlie nearly all economic activity. All people of this nation, have the right to information and planning, to awaken them to the looming price hikes and shortages of oil for which there are no solutions known, only responses which may soften the blows.”5
On August 18, 2005, the Green Party of New Zealand posted a Peak Oil Toolkit on their website which unequivocally dispels the myth of the magic solution and presents steps that can prepare the nation for energy descent such as a revenue neutral “feebate” for cleaner cars and increasing incentives for renewable energy.6 Jeanette Fitzsimons, one of the New Zealand Greens’ two Members of Parliament, says “give people the facts, let them go out and read the information for themselves, do some workshops and public meetings, have a bit of a road show, so that people have the tools that they need to make the right decisions… for their own lives.”7
On the other side of the world, also on the national level, United States congressman Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R, Maryland) has been repeatedly raising the issue of Peak Oil in his special order speeches.8 More resources at the national level have not been mobilized because, according to Bartlett, politicians and industry are only focused on the near term. Politicians run for office every two to six years, and industry strives to keep the next quarter report positive for their Boards of Directors and their investors. The perception is that if a political or business leader takes the risk of supporting preparations for an energy-constrained future, voters and directors will simply find someone else who is willing to promise a future of growth and prosperity. Bartlett explains, “telling the American people that we’ve got to have some belt-tightening in the future, life is not going to go on quite like it’s gone on now because oil is not forever. This is not a happy thing to tell people. I understand why politicians don’t like telling people this.”9
Remarkably, the Republican Bartlett suggests that America needs to redefine success. “Right now, success is judged by how much energy is used. Think about it, the person who is successful has a really big car; they take really expensive vacations; they have a really big house. We have got to have another yardstick by which we measure success because success can’t continue to be measured by how much energy we use.” He further laments, “we think God gave us the right to this quality of life.”
After six months of being an indefatigable advocate of peak oil awareness and policy work including multiple special order speeches, a conference10, pushing sane energy policies, sending peak oil posters and books to his colleagues11, and a private conversation with President Bush12, Bartlett remains the sole U.S. national politician to openly discuss peak oil.
Getting Started Locally: Transition Planning and Town Hall Meetings
According to Post Carbon Institute and other organizations focused on managing energy descent including Ecocity Builders, From the Wilderness, and The Community Solution, the most effective responses to our energy predicament will be place-based and community-supported. In this context, local government can play an important role in initiating projects and programs, removing obstacles and creating incentives, and fostering an environment of cooperation, experimentation, and urgency. Local government assuming this role is essential in large cities and metropolitan areas where grassroots organizing has not been able to mobilize large fractions of their electorate.13 While most activity at the national and global levels consists solely of talk about the problem (which is valuable and commendable), some local and regional governments are talking about and actually implementing such responses.
Andrew McNamara, a member of the Queensland Parliament for Hervey Bay, Australia, has raised the issue of Peak Oil in his local, regional and national governments. In a recent interview, McNamara explains his motivation for addressing the problem of energy dependence.14 “We're entirely road and rail dependent, and accordingly, it struck me that if the price of fuel doubled, and then doubled again and then doubled again, that the tourism industry, which provides the life blood of my town, would simply collapse. And, similarly, the issue of feeding a town like Hervey Bay becomes problematic… Locally, I think we're better than some, better than many larger cities, but our networks are built around cheap fuel, and if Peak Oil represents the end of cheap fuel, then it is a substantial threat to everything that happens in my part of the world. So again, the motivation was very simple. ”
Responding, however, to that motivation was not so simple. “At the heart of the Peak Oil story is that tomorrow there will be less of something, and that's a difficult sell for politicians. The way it works is that [as a politician] you promise more, not less.” His less-kind colleagues in Parliament have dubbed his first Peak Oil speech in Parliament “Peak Career.”
Despite the tendency of politics to punish bearers of bad news, McNamara continues to push for action and has established the Queensland Oil Vulnerability Task Force, “a task force across a number of departments to look at how vulnerable Queensland is to global oil depletion.” McNamara is also pushing for expanded public transit and non-petroleum fueled transport in his constituency of Hervey Bay.
Similarly, a local law to create an energy shortage contingency plan has been sent to council in none other than New York City. The local law (Int. No. 374)15 would define energy emergency response stages, a communication structure to alert the public, conservation strategies for city agencies and the private sector, and rules concerning energy usage and appropriate methods for enforcing such rules for each of the energy emergency response stages. Though this law does not mention peak oil and the authors may not necessarily have been peak aware, such laws can be entry points to get our energy predicament on the local government radar and open a can of worms that can no longer be ignored. In the context of an energy shortage contingency plan, thoughtful consideration of the likely ramifications of global oil peak on local energy availability and prices as well as on the costs and availability of goods from afar, could be the tipping point that springs local government into planning and even preemptive action.
The final speaker of the Petrocollapse conference16 on October 5, 2005, chairman of Post Carbon NYC Dan Miner, called upon attendees and local peak oil activists to campaign for the energy contingency shortage plan with an amendment to address peak oil. Dan is doubtful that neighborhood grassroots organizing approach that is transforming towns in Northern California will be effective in New York City. “While our group has a good number of regular attendees, compared the vast population of the New York metropolitan area, we are not even microscopic” says Miner. “While many are aware of rising fuel prices, very few understand the full scope of the situation, and most are resistant or unwilling to prepare for the new energy paradigm, and we have to meet the people where they are. We have to gain leverage by partnering with organizations that can support parts of the peak oil message that overlap with a conventionally progressive, environmental mindset. We hope that by encouraging people to focus on concrete steps to conserve fuel in emergencies, they will be expanding their reality picture, so when financial pain increases, the seeds of greater awareness we are planting may yet sprout.”
In the city of Sebastopol in Northern California, Mayor Larry Robinson has been instrumental in mobilizing his community to discussion of Peak Oil and action toward energy independence. Robinson told Global Public Media in a recent interview17 that “what I'm trying to do as mayor is shape our future development as a city in such a way that it will minimize, to what ever extent it's possible, the impact of skyrocketing energy cost…” Robinson also said he uses his office as a “bully pulpit” to raise community awareness of Peak Oil and of the need for energy independence.
On September 21, 2005, Mayor Robinson convened a town hall meeting “Peak Oil – Adapting to an increasingly scarce energy supply”. Over 200 people attended, mostly from Sebastopol and with contingencies from Santa Rosa and nearby towns. After an introduction by Mayor Robinson and a presentation by Richard Heinberg about local responses, attendees offered their ideas in a community brainstorming session covering both what the city of Sebastopol can do to prepare for oil scarcity and how can citizens support the city in this endeavor. The intention is to form two working groups of citizens and city employees to explore these issues on an ongoing basis. (Similarly, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkirimi has requested a hearing on peak oil for the Board of Supervisors that is likely to occur in late October or early November 2005.)
When asked about political backlash from his open discussion of Peak Oil, Robinson said that while he has had plenty of backlash from his stance on other issues such as his opposition to the Iraq war, rampant corporatism, and sprawling development, this has not been the case with his discussion of Peak Oil. (Of course, reining in militarism, corporatism and sprawl are some of the best ways to mitigate energy consumption and dependence.) Robinson said of his experience talking about energy independence, “… even the business leaders in this community are realizing that we need to shift to a much more sustainable way of living, that we're all going to pay a high price if we don't. In fact, you know, the longer we wait to make that shift, the higher the price it's going to be, the much more suffering it's going to be in dislocation of people and resources, so I think this issue brings people together across the political spectrum.”
One way that the city of Sebastopol has brought people together to work for energy independence is through the Solar Sebastopol program. Solar Sebastopol is a co-operative agreement between the city, private photovoltaic (solar power, or PV) vendors, the energy technology program at Sonoma State University, and individual citizens. It provides a database of rooftops in Sebastopol that are good candidates for PV installation and free appraisal by the PV companies. The goal of Solar Sebastopol is to, within the next year, install enough PV panels within the city limits to meet a third of the city’s electricity demands. Robinson said that the problem with a big generator is that it is centralized, that “… somebody else is in control of our energy. Whereas a PV system on your rooftop or a small wind generator or a community owned generator puts the power literally in peoples own hands and that’s both a more democratic way and I think ultimately safer and more sustainable.”
The city of Willits, also in Northern California, is also working towards energy independence. Dr Jason Bradford, formerly of UC Davis, facilitated town meetings on Peak Oil after screenings of “The End of Suburbia.” The meetings brought together the Willits Economic Localization (WELL) project, and resulted in the formation of ad-hoc groups of WELL members to address the problems of providing sustained sources of food, water, shelter, health and medicine, communal living and planning, and energy to the community of Willits. “Nobody has a full time job doing this, we’re all volunteers, we all have our own lives”, Bradford says about WELL. “So the trick is try to figure out how to create something new while you are still dependent on the old… that’s very complicated... We have 60 people, 70 people showing up for meetings once or twice per month. They happen at the community center… City Hall just gives us free space.”18
Along with WELL and the Willits Ad-Hoc Energy Group, City Councilman Ron Orenstein sponsored an energy independence report for the city of Willits. Entitled, “Recommendations towards Energy Independence for the City of Willits and Surrounding Community,” the report paints a picture of an urban area that could, given timely action, adjust to expensive energy by achieving energy independence and emerge as a strong, organized and self-sufficient municipality. It also does not sugar-coat the consequences of apathy. The report states, “… if we want to be able to develop alternative sources of energy in order to maintain some semblance of our society today, we need to do so now while energy is still cheap and plentiful. We cannot afford to wait until fossil fuels decline to the point of severe economic impact – the changes to ensure our survival need to begin today. Those same fossil fuels we save by striving for energy independence today will provide the basis for sustaining agriculture and healthcare tomorrow.”19
The report points out that, independent of issues oil peak and energy scarcity, the process of achieving energy independence can be positive stimulus for the local economy. “In presenting these potential steps that the city of Willits can take, every effort has been made to find ways that the transition results in revenue streams to the city and community, with the long-term objective being a stronger self-sustaining economy.”
Small towns are not the only places where Peak Oil awareness is growing. John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver, Colorado, is a retired petroleum geologist and has done much to prepare his city for the onset of energy scarcity. In a guest editorial for the online magazine terrain.org20, Mayor Hickenlooper listed the environmental strides his city has taken. Among these are the use of environmentally responsible or energy-efficient technologies in the city’s infrastructure, such as LEDs in traffic lights and biofuels for the city’s fleet of vehicles. Denver sports two “national models” of infill development, one a former Air Force base and the other a former airport. The city has also begun work to institute green building standards, and has started work on “the most ambitious local transit project in our nation’s history,” a wide network of both light and commuter rail transit.
These actions address many common urban problems and would be beneficial to any urban center, independent of our oil and gas predicament. Not surprisingly, the aforementioned actions have thus far been implemented without public discussion of Peak Oil. Yet now the City of Denver is opening discussion of Peak Oil by co-sponsoring the World Oil Forum with the US chapter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO-USA). The Forum will be held on November 10th and 11th of this year. Mayor Hickenlooper, as well as an array of industry experts, political leaders, authors, and others, will speak at the conference.
Denver’s World Oil Forum is set to address both global and local issues related to energy scarcity. Among the many topics covered will be, according to the conference’s web site21, an “exploration of policy options, especially at the municipal level.” One of the goals of the conference is to help Denver to formulate effective responses to Peak Oil problems through better understanding of the issues. The conference hopes to show that “citizens, corporations, cities, and states can take intelligent actions now to prepare for more expensive petroleum and to mitigate the negative impacts of peak oil.” Communities everywhere can benefit from Denver’s efforts to open a dialogue on the issue of Peak Oil on the local level, if we, as community members, choose to follow up with our own local dialogues about our energy-constrained future.
Community discussion of the ramifications of global oil peak is a vital first step for making preparations for an energy-constrained future. Coverage of the possible effects is growing as the mainstream media begins to take notice, though the media has been unwilling to take a stand since there are credible talking heads on both sides of the “is Peak Oil for real?” fence. Along with the growing supply of cogent and accessible summaries of our oil and gas predicament on the web and print news, more ideas and working models for responses are surfacing. In addition to relocalization, two important mitigating responses are the Oil Depletion Protocol and reconfiguring our settlements to be ecologically, rather than just economically, effective.
Adopting the Oil Depletion Protocol
The Oil Depletion Protocol (otherwise known as the Rimini Protocol or Uppsala Protocol) is a global agreement conceived by Dr. Colin Campbell, founder of ASPO and first proposed at the 2003 Pio Manzu Conference in Rimini, Italy. It will be the central theme of the October 2005 Pio Manzu Conference.22 Currently both Dr. Campbell and author Richard Heinberg have published articles and spoken extensively on the Protocol.23 24
The protocol requires oil exporters to reduce exports by their national depletion rate and oil importers to reduce imports by the world depletion rate. Put simply, “depletion rate” is the total supply of oil that remains to be extracted, divided by the amount of oil extracted per year. Depletion rates would be used as percentages to determine how much a country must reduce its exports or imports. An exporting country would inventory all recoverable oil, divide this number by the amount of oil the country extracted in one year, and then reduce exports by that percentage.
Heinberg reported in August 2005 that worldwide, 944 billion barrels (Gb) had been extracted. The amount remaining in known fields is 772 Gb and the estimated amount yet to be found is 134 Gb, totaling 906 Gb yet to be extracted. Production of conventional oil in 2004 was 24 Gb, yielding a Depletion Rate of 2.59 percent (24/906).
As an example, Norway reports remaining reserves of 11.3 billion barrels (Gb) in known fields with about 2 left to find, or 13.5 Gb left to produce. In 2004, Norway extracted 1.07 Gb, representing a Depletion Rate of 7.4 percent (1.07/13.5). This is a comparatively high rate, typical of an offshore environment. To adhere to the protocol, Norway would have to reduce production from the 1.07 Gb in 2004 to 0.99 Gb in 2005 and an additional 7.4% every year.
The protocol requires importing countries to reduce their imports by the world depletion rate with the intention to bring demand in balance with the diminishing supply. In 2004, the U.S. imported 3.68 Gb of oil.25 If it were to adopt the protocol, the U.S. would reduce its imports by 95 million barrels (2.5% of 3.68 Gb) and an additional 2.5% each year. Implementing the protocol would require importing countries to rapidly institute conservation and efficiency programs to reduce consumption. As years passed and such programs yielded diminishing returns, adopting countries would likely need to shift the balance of their programs towards reconfiguring their economies and cities.
The protocol is intended for adoption by national governments, and frankly would be most effective if all countries were to sign on; this nonetheless seems quite unlikely in the near-to-medium-term. Yet any country that ratifies the protocol now will likely benefit tremendously, as adoption of the protocol will act as a buffer between that country and inevitable energy shortages and price spikes. If regions and cities in laggard nations like the United States adopt the protocol and act accordingly, those regions and cities will also benefit to the extent that they lessen their dependence on oil and gas. Already many cities, states, and regions in the United States are acting along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions. For example, the state of California and a number of states in the New England region of the US all have passed laws that essentially support the Kyoto Protocol and require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those mandated by the federal government. A similar strategy on the municipal and state level could jump-start adoption of the Oil Depletion Protocol. As the ASPO-Ireland website states, “A positive development [in the adoption of the Oil Depletion Protocol] comes when communities, cities and provinces take steps to cut energy consumption paving the way for national responses.”
Many oil exporting countries have already hit a plateau or have begun to decline in their extraction capacity, so reducing exports by their depletion rate would not be as drastic a move as it may sound. Oil exporting countries could enjoy such benefits as a more predictable oil market and a longer time period in which to find other sources of revenue than oil. Oil importing countries would benefit equally, also enjoying more stable oil prices and a longer time period to implement lifestyle change and invest in alternatives to oil. Cities, states, and regions, whether they are oil importers or exporters, could gain the same benefits, independent of their federal governments. Oil importers will, however, have to work hard at redesigning their societies, technologies and economies to achieve even a small percentage reduction of oil imports. Fortunately, ideas and plans for reducing demand exist that can help provide some direction.
Recognizing that 2004 oil prices reached levels unprecedented in recent years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a book titled “Saving Oil in a Hurry: Measures for Rapid Demand Restraint in Transport”. A core mission of the IEA is energy supply security. As such, the IEA has the power to mandate that member countries apply voluntary and mandatory measures for reducing oil consumption on very short notice during an oil supply disruption. The book explores measures to help cope with fuel shortages and oil price shocks. As the transport sector is the prime consumer of oil in most OECD countries, the book focuses on options to rapidly reduce oil demand in the passenger transport sector, over short periods of time.
As shown in Table 1, the cost effectiveness of demand restraint policies in the transport sector ranges greatly and depends on the policy context in which they are pursued. Such policies could be applied to meet the obligatory oil consumption reductions for countries, regions, and municipalities that adopt the oil depletion protocol, and are likely to be imposed by IEA on member countries during upcoming oil supply shortages.
Parallel policies with respect to rationing and energy efficiency are also likely to be pursued in the early stages of implementation of the oil depletion protocol. While such policies may be sufficient initially, they will soon yield diminishing returns. Significant oil and energy consumption is built into the economic system and locked in by the built environment. Additional reductions in oil consumption will require us to reconfigure our economies and cities.
Table 1: Summary of direct cost-effectiveness of various policies
Less than $1 per
Carpooling: large programme to designate emergency carpool lanes along all motorways, designate park-and-ride lots, inform public and match riders
Driving ban: odd/even licence plate scheme. Provide police enforcement, appropriate information and signage
Possibly high societal costs from
Telecommuting: large programme, including active participation of businesses, public information on benefits of telecommuting, minor investments in needed infrastructure to facilitate
Compressed work week: programme with employer participation and public information campaign
Tyre pressure: large public information programme
Likely safety benefits
Carpooling: small programme to inform public, match riders
Less than $10 per
Speed limits: reduce highway speed limits to 90km/hr. Provide police enforcement or speed cameras, appropriate information and signage
Safety benefits but time costs
Driving ban: 1 in 10 days based on license plate, with police enforcement and signage
societal costs from
Less than $50 per
Bus priority: convert all existing carpool and bus lanes to 24-hour bus priority usage and convert other lanes to bus-only lanes
More than $100
per bbl saved
Telecommuting: Large programme with purchase of computers for 50% of participants
Transit: free public transit (set fares to zero); 50% fare reduction similar cost
Transit: increase weekend and off-peak
transit service and increase peak service
frequency by 10%
Source: International Energy Agency (IEA), “Saving Oil in a Hurry: Measures for Rapid Demand Restraint in Transport”, 2005.
Reconfiguring Local Economies
Relocalization is the process of bringing production closer to consumption obviating the need to rely on long supply chains and distant markets so that communities can largely provision themselves. Post Carbon Institute suggests that communities start with local food, local energy, essential goods, and community currencies with the aim to integrate these efforts into a parallel public infrastructure that can serve as a safety net for when times get hard and a launch pad to scale up operations. The process will require experimentation since each community has different circumstances including natural systems, built infrastructure, community resources, and culture. Communities should start the process in earnest now so as to learn as much as they can about what works and what does not before we find ourselves in a full scale energy crisis.
Local government can provide a much needed boost to relocalization efforts by removing obstacles such as zoning ordinances, subsidies to corporations, home owner association restrictions, and local laws that prohibit activities such as gray water recycling. Local government can also provide incentives and make rules favoring purchasing of local goods and funding of relocalization projects. Local government can also provide financial, promotional, moral, and other types of support for relocalization efforts.
In August 2005, the City of Willits and WELL signed a joint statement toward a healthy sustainable community that recognizes, in light of both climate change and oil and gas depletion, the need to “localize” their economy. The City of Willits and WELL will focus initially on food and energy production and on shifting economic development to small, local community enterprises. Implementation of these changes will create businesses and avenues for local youth to express their creativity, improve the landscape, and will provide a “quieter, less expensive, and more dependable set of services, while providing an array of interesting employment.” The statement commits the city to a series of community events, news articles, reports and forums in subsequent months that will provide opportunities for citizens to learn more.26
Reconfiguring the Built Environment
A vital part of reducing overall energy demand is to redesign our settlements so that they demand less energy from those who live in them. Cities are the largest things that we create and their structure drives material and energy consumption and transportation. According to Richard Register, President of Ecocity Builders in Oakland, California, the most effective way to reduce energy consumption, and the only way to produce ecologically sustainable cities, is to reconfigure our cities to be ecologically healthy. Healthy climax ecosystems have low energy and material throughput (meaning that energy and matter tends to cycle within the system, rather than flow through and out), tend to have large amounts of biomass per unit of land, and high diversity. Ecologically healthy cities incorporate those characteristics, and tend to work with the surrounding environment in mutually beneficial ways. Currently there are no truly ecological cities in existence, but existing cities can be redesigned to incorporate more ecological design principles.
Ecological cities rely on renewable energy sources that are, as much as possible, integrated with the city itself, and are therefore energy independent, using, for example, solar and wind generators on the tops of buildings. They are also compact, built for pedestrians and bicyclists rather than motorists, and zoned for a diverse number of uses in a small area so that residents can walk or take public transit to workplaces, schools, and commercial centers. At the same time as being densely developed, ecological cities also leave space for gardens and parks where residents can grow some of the food consumed in the city, reducing the food shipments from outside and maintaining a healthy and pleasant environment even in the city’s core. Compact, diverse cities that provide for their own energy needs are the only way to preserve urban populations while letting go of our car culture and all of its energy demands.
If we cut down on the energy demands from our normal ways of being, we will then have more energy resources available for making other, vital transitions, such as weaning our agricultural system from its dependence on oil and natural gas, and redesigning (and in some senses reverting) our transportation systems to run on electricity rather than liquid fuels. Since an energy-constrained future is inevitable, ecological city design is the best prospect for an urban lifestyle that we can sustain for generations to come.
Cities, suburbs and towns, as we construct and live in them today, stand to lose nearly all of their services and comforts as life-supporting environments in our energy-constrained future. But if those in power act now to change our constructed environments to better reflect the coming reality of expensive energy, cities could preserve far more services for their citizens than could higher levels of government or national organizations. With informed and timely action on the part of both local governments and individuals, cities could adjust to an expensive-energy environment. Given the energy expense associated with engaging in global-scale transport, production, and politics, and energy savings associated with staying local, cities have a better chance of retaining their effectiveness while national-level transport, production and government goes into decline.
While local government may not be ready to jump directly into adoption of the oil depletion protocol, relocalization, or ecological city design, all municipalities would do well to follow the lead of Hervey Bay, Sebastopol, Willits, and Denver. Government has a duty to determine its vulnerability to energy shortage and to develop viable energy and material alternatives in order to maintain a working support structure for its citizens.27 It also has the duty to hold the space for open conversations about preparing for an energy-constrained world in their locale. Similarly, constituents must hold local government responsible for the performance of its duties. Failure to do so by either government or its constituents will likely be seen as dereliction of duty by future generations.
If municipal leaders and planners take action now, cities could become the most relevant political and economic arenas for their citizens. If we, as citizens, follow the action taking place in Hervey Bay, Sebastopol, Willits, and Denver, and spur our leaders to similar action, we may be able to transition to a more ecologically sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling future, rather than suffer through systemic breakdown for lack of cheap energy. While the leaders described above are openly facing the problem of Peak Oil, inviting dialogue on the subject, and even implementing solutions, the vast majority is still conspicuously silent and manifestly inert. Shall we continue to reward this majority for shirking its duties? Or shall we leverage on the courage of the few leaders who have broken the silence and inertia, and demand that all of our leaders – politicians and otherwise – step up to the plate and earnestly begin preparations for the post-petroleum future?
1 Powerdown is a term coined by Richard Heinberg in his book of the same name meaning the government led response to peak oil that involves self restraint, cooperation, and mutual sacrifice. The Powerdown response focuses on drastic demand reduction and simultaneous development of sustainable energy resources.]
3 Individuals and agencies of many national governments know about peak oil and many are covertly acting on this information; a contingency in the peak oil community believes that the Iraq war and China’s many recent deals with oil producers worldwide are such examples.
4 The Maori word for New Zealand or traditionally the North Island
8 On October 18th, Congressman Bartlett was joined on a special order speech by five other Republican Congressmen Gil Gutknecht, Wayne Gilchrest, Peter Hoekstra, Sherwood Boehlert, and Vernon Ehlers. www.globalpublicmedia.com/lectures/531
10 On September 26, 2005, Bartlett had a conference which featured Ken Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg, and Matt Simmons in Fredericksburg, Maryland
12 Bartlett had an extensive conversation with President Bush about peak on June 29, 2005. Bartlett declined to discuss or characterize any of his private conversation with President Bush, but said he was very happy about the meeting. www.bartlett.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE2900=7308
13 It appears that grassroots organizing on peak energy issues is most effective in small towns
27 Post Carbon Institute is currently developing a Municipal Emergency Energy Transition program, which will be available in 2006.