Visioning the Future #1 – Peak Oil – The Movie

It was only a matter of time really. We’ve had the Climate Change Movie, The Day After Tomorrow, and now here come the Peak Oil movies. Thanks to the excellent Powering Down blog site for drawing my attention to three forthcoming movies, due for release either on US television or cinemas. I wrote in an earlier blog about our collective inability to vision the kind of future we actually want, and so end up stumbling blindly forward into whatever we get. Watch the trailers for these three films and have a think about it. To what extent is this a self fulfilling prophecy? Do any of these in any way attempt to draw out the best in people rather than their most base instincts? Is this your view of peak oil?

Oil StormMy favourite is Oil Storm, just because it is SUCH a bad name. The second is called The Deal, and finally Syriana. Syriana has Matt Damon in it so I imagine Emma will drag me along to see it at some point.

SyrianaPerhaps they are useful in that they will make people aware of the issue, just like The End of Suburia but on the big screen. I would question though, how many people will watch these and then actually go and do something, as opposed to slump even further into the sofa in a disempowered blob. I’ll bet that in none of these films does a character say “so what I’ve done is talked to all the neighbours and we’re going to take down all the fences and start a community intensive food garden, and we’ve pooled all our energy quotas to put in a microCHP which we’re going to fuel with hedge clippings, and do you know, Mrs Johnson at 37 has started growing shiitake mushrooms in her garage….oh and I love that jumper, did you make it?”. Where is “I Used To Be A Website Designer But Now I Grow Great Carrots – The Movie”, or “When Harry Met Sally And They Did This Great Hemp And Lime Retrofit To Sally’s House 2″. In production no doubt.

Visioning the Future #2 – Urban Tour Guides

Here is an exercise that I do with students on permaculture courses. I always thought that it came from Skye and Robin Clanfield’s indispensable book ‘The Manual of Teaching Permaculture Creatively’, but just looking for it now I can’t find it. I alway find it a very powerful exercise. It comes at the end of a session on urban sustainability that will have looked at a range of strategies for making the town more sustainable and is called ‘Urban Tour Guides”. I take the students to a housing estate somewhere near the college, or more specifically to a crossroads between a few different areas of housing. I divide the group into smaller groups of 4-6, and give each group a topic, such as waste, water, energy, food, community or building. The scenario of the exercise is that it is now 30 years in the future, and 30 years ago this great permaculture course produced some legendary students who went on to redesign the town and now, here 30 years later, this town has become the most sustainable settlement in the world that people come a long way to see (by mule, presumably!). Their job is as Tour Guides. So then they have half an hour to find and devise a 10 minute tour they can take us on to see the marvels of the place. So they point out things (which we can’t actually see obviously) as we walk around, “and here you can see this wonderful conservatory running the length of all these houses, providing a growing space and extra heating” and so on. It is a great exercise, and very powerful, allowing people to dream.

I did it once on a permaculture course I taught in North Cork. There was a very loud and brash Australian lady on the course, who was over visiting a brother who was also doing it. We went off around a housing estate on a Saturday afternoon, people out cutting their hedges and washing their cars, when she starts saying, really loudly, “I mean what can you DO with these people? Really it’s all about education isn’t it?” and so on, very loudly. People were looking across and I was starting to feel a bit self conscious…luckily I then go them doing the exercise and it all sent very smoothly, but I was thinking if she went on much longer I would have to say very loudly “now come on dear, it’s time to get back for your medication…” and leave. Anyway, that’s the only time it was difficult. Other than that it is always a great exercise.

One thing it always shows up is how badly existing settlements have been designed. None of the houses face south, the gardens are on the wrong side and so on. It is very useful for getting people to think creatively about how to deal with that. Try it, I think it is very powerful. The whole area of helping people to vision the future is of central importance to designing beyond peak oil I think. In his book “The Tao of Democracy”, Tom Atlee writes;

Atlee Book “visioning work is especially important to democracy because shared vision has a profound effect on self-organisation: When people share a vision, their actions tend to align to a certain degree even without coordination”.

He writes of a journal he set up called ‘The Ecotopian Grapevine Gazette” (what a wonderful name…) which contained imaginary news stories about events or innovations that had not happened yet, but which I and others wanted to have happen, written as if they had happened. At the end of each article, I put the contact name of someone readers could call to participate in making the story a reality”. I wonder how much more powerful that would be as a tool for raising awareness about peak oil than endless doom and gloom, films like ‘Oil Storm’.

Visioning the Future #3 – Design Your Own Captain Future

In recent posts I have been chewing over the idea of visioning, and its central importance to Energy Descent work. As part of a presentation I am preparing for a talk next week, I hunted down various images from the 1930s of how people then thought we would be living today. One of the best is a character called Captain Future.


Captain Future (Wizard of Science) is clearly a guy you don’t want to mess with. He’s powerful and strong, with a funny gun thing that hopefully for him, given all the aliens he has to deal with, is more powerful than it looks, especially compared to things in films nowadays, such as the Men in Black’s guns which I suspect I would probably struggle to lift off the floor. He has some great clunky space boots which presumably allow him to fly. He has a very tight fitting mask which amazingly doesn’t steam up, and little tiny leather pouches on his belt for carrying those essential knick-knacks you need in space (penknife? chewing gum?).

cf2I imagine he probably has a spaceship too, and visits lots of other planets. For us now looking back it is easy to take the mickey out of poor old Captain Future (who clearly didn’t have much of a future, I’d never heard of him until today). Easy too to laugh at some of the visions of how our cities would be that were formulated around the same time.

Each of us flying to work in our own aeroplane, living on the 300th floor, having hoverbikes. Talk of going on holiday to the moon, living in space cities. None of which of course has come to pass. The world’s energy constraints, even in the last 50 years of outrageous wastefulness and gluttony, have not allowed it. Similarly, when we look at visions for the future that are put forward now, we should be equally sceptical. future3Will this scenario actually be possible in a depleting energy scenario, in an economic crash even? We have to change our dreams from being of moon cities, hydrogen economies, hovering cars and free energy machines to more realistic and achievable, and, I would say, desirable ones. Can we not get as excited about harvesting locally grown apples or building a cob shed as we can about the idea of having hovering boots? It is a mark of how far removed we have become from nature and from reality that we imagine that we can get through energy descent with clean hands and just with the skills we have at present.

In the 1930s technology was a bright new world of possibilities and people had no sense of its limitations. Now we ought to be a bit more realistic. George Bush wants to put a man on Mars (unfortunately he has yet to volunteer himself for the position), but really we all know its not going to happen. Most likely all the technology we will have available to us for our downward journey from the peak is already with us. I know I have already used this quote from Kenneth Deffeyes in a different post, but it is relevant here too, “there is no time for scholarly research. There is no time for engineers to develop new machinery. We have to face the next five years with the equipment designs that are already in production. It’s not going to be easy”.

Our job as peak oil activists, permaculturists and post carbon folks is to create and diseminate a new vision of the future. Perhaps we need a new Captain Future. One equipped to lead the way down from the Peak. Of course it needn’t be a man, like our 1930’s traditional Captain Future. He/she would have a stylish hemp bodysuit with wooden buttons, and wellies. He’d have the brains of David Holmgren and the body of Desperate Dan, “capable of turning a compost heap at the flick of a fork and mixing cob faster than a digger”. She’d be a great poet and teller of tales around evening fires. He would know the plants of the hedgerows and the birds in the trees. He would make great wine and the worms in his worm bin would thrive. She would be able to make fantastic solar panels out of old bits in the garage (how come the A-Team never came bursting out of garages with great solar panels that they’d cobbled together instead of weapons and tanks?) and be capable of inspiring her neighbours to mulch their lawns. He’d be great with kids and would cruise to any emergency on his pushbike.

My sense is that our success in dealing with the next few years is going to depend in no small part on our finding the Captain Future in each of us. We have nothing to lose from that, and everything to gain. When we think about the future, the old saying keeps returning to me, “be careful what you wish for, you might just get it”.

Please feel free to use this page to share your own visions of what a new Captain Future might look like. I’ve set out my mental picture of him/her, let’s hear yours. Descriptions, drawings, poems, all are welcome. Lets build a new superhero for extraordinary times!