Transition Culture Interview with Richard Heinberg - Part Two… Powerdown and Transition Towns
[ See also part one of this interview. ]
What role to communities such as Totnes have in preparations for peak oil?
What I see happening in towns like Totnes in the UK and Willits in California are test-tube experiments for what the rest of society is going to have to do. Right now we are talking about very few communities who are making some groping experimental steps in the direction of energy transition, but very soon every town, every city in the world is going to be faced with the need for making the same kinds of choices. So having at least a few communities that have undertaken the process voluntarily and proactively and have tested out the options and found ways of doing this successfully it is going to be very important. These towns will be the way-showers for rest of us.
Which municipal, town scale responses have most impressed you?
Clearly the smaller the community the easier it is to get things done. It is easier to get access to politicians, to policy makers, easier to change policies and so on, but I think it is important that these efforts be undertaken in cities of all scales. So I’m very heartened to see a medium-sized city like Oakland in California undertaking similar efforts to what’s going on in Totnes and Sebastopol and Willits, because if its only confined to these very small village sized communities then the benefit is limited to other communities of the same size. We have to have experiments going on at all scales.
Can you tell us a bit more about what they’ve done in Oakland?
Well so far, not much. But Oakland has committed itself to becoming oil-free by 2020, following in the footsteps of Sweden in that regard, by setting that goal. The mandate is coming directly from the Mayor’s Office, they are setting up a team to study Oakland’s oil dependence and to plot a set of strategies for achieving oil independence by 2020 and that’s going to have many facets to it undoubtedly. It’ll have transportation, zoning and other implications. I’ve been askd to be part of that team, and I think it is a very exciting opportunity.
What should be the priorities for communities planning for life beyond oil?
Well, each community is going to have to figure it out for itself, because every community is different in terms of its vulnerabilities and opportunities. Vulnerabilities in terms of how and in what way it is dependent on fossil fuels currently, and to what mix of fossil fuels, whether coal or oil or natural gas, and its opportunities for substitution and conservation. Some communities like Totnes are pre-oil communities in a way, in other words the town was designed before automobiles and oil became facts of life for the modern world.
Other communities like suburban communities in the US are completely designed around cars and trucks and there are no other options. The city where I live has no train service whatsoever, it’s a city of 170,000 people, yet a train has not been through it in over 5 years. So clearly the priorities and options for Santa Rosa would be very different to those of Totnes.
What are your thoughts on how to engage people from outside the usual 'green' circles? How do we really get to those who just aren’t interested?
I think it is important to talk to Government policy makers, and business leaders, and in both cases to emphasise the risks of inaction. Policy makers and local Government leaders are responsible for the health and safety of their citizens. If they understand that there is an enormous challenge coming in the form of energy shortages, it is up to them to formulate responses, that is part of their job description.
It is important to remind them of that, in a kind way, in a way that offers them support and information and so on, not in a confrontational way but in a supportive way. With business leaders it is helpful for them to understand that Business-as-Usual is about to come to an end, whether they like it or not, whether they plan for it or not, it is inevitable.
The evidence is very persuasive in this regard. Even if we take the notion of peak oil off the table, there is virtually universal agreement that energy prices are likely to stay high and go even higher over the years ahead, and this is coming from international sources from Russia’s Energy Minister to the International Energy Agency now, and many others.
That has enormous implications for business. The businesses that plan for the energy transition, that systematically reduce their reliance on fossil fuels will be much better off as a result of that. So I think there is every reason for them to be interested in that message.
Do you have any particular advice for the Transition Town Totnes process, or encouragement you might offer?
Who am I to say?! I’m not involved and its for you all to work it out for yourselves, so whatever I am to say, take with a pinch of salt, take it or leave it as you will. My sense is that for small communities the effort to keep them depoliticised is very important. If towns become divided in terms of liberal and conservative, those who are in favour of the transition and those who are opposed to it, it creates an opposition atmosphere in which it becomes much more difficult to make progress, and the progress that is made is made over the bodies of the opponents. Whereas if the efforts can be undertaken co-operatively, in a spirit of adventure of good fun, in the sense that everyone is going to benefit, then I think those efforts will go much further.
You recently toured Australia with David Holmgren. How have permaculture principles informed your work and your way of looking at this whole question?
I’ve been interested in permaculture for a very long time, I did my permaculture course with Bill Mollison over 10 years ago. I’ve had very high regard for permaculture for some time, but I have to say it was an honour and a treat to be able to spend so much time with David Holmgren and to benefit from his wisdom and pioneering in this field, and to stay at his home, and his partner Sue Dennett.
Clearly one of the great challenges of the energy descent is going to be with regard to food, feeding ourselves and our communities, and I think permaculture is a system, not just a food system obviously, it’s a complete design system, but it’s a system that was created in the 1970s with our current dilemma in mind.
Mollison and Holmgren had been reading Limits to Growth and other similar publications that were coming out during the 1970s in response to the energy crisis that was happening then, they saw that society would be going through this transition and they designed permaculture as a response to that. I think we will need lots more food producers over the years ahead. I have suggested the US will need 40-50 million new farmers over the course of the next two or three decades.
Industrial agriculture as we have it today based on large fuel-fed farm machinery, transportation of food long distances and so on is simply not going to be possible. So smaller scale, horticultural, perennial food production by way of permaculture is, I think, going to be the best way forward.
Sometimes I see in the environmental movement in that on the one hand it wants to change society, while on the other hand it wants to be outside society, and it strikes me that for those of us in permaculture and related movements, peak oil and powerdown is really our call to re-engage back into society again?
Yes, I think you’re right. Its actually very exciting and heartening to see. I’m delighted for example to see David Holmgren assume a more public role with regards to permaculture and urban planning in Australia. Maybe it has been helpful for the permaculturists to be off on the sides for these years experimenting among themselves and developing their ranks and so on, but the time has certainly come for those experiments to be shared openly and implemented on a much broader scale.
Apart from the Oil Depletion Protocol, what’s next for Richard Heinberg, or is it just the Oil Depletion Protocol?!
The Oil Depletion Protocol will be my main area of work for the next year, but I am also very much involved with farming groups. I’ll be speaking to the Soil Association in the coming year as well as to the Canadian Farmers Union, the Eco-Farm conference in California and others, because I think again its time for a lot of these movements that have been on the sidelines to be put centre-stage.
In order for that to happen they are going to have to, to a certain extent, refocus their efforts, their public campaigns and co-operate among themselves to a much greater degree. The world needs the efforts and strategies of these groups, and it is up to these groups to step up and offer their expertise now. We also need public policies to support these kinds of things being implemented. The US Department of Agriculture for example has to stop supporting the huge agribusiness cartels, and start mandating more smaller farms, more production for local consumption.
Colleges and universities need to step up and start offering degree programmes in permaculture and biointensive farming, and so on. Those things aren’t going to happen though unless there’s some pretty strong advocacy going on, so that’s going to be another area of my work. Then I don’t know how much time the city of Oakland is going to require of me but I am very interested also in working with them. That’s plenty on plate for the next year!
Where does your energy come from to sustain you in driving forward on so many fronts?
Chocolate! (laughs). No, all of this is very rewarding work. Over the last year I have met so many wonderful, committed intelligent people. I just feel like the most fortunate person on Earth, to be able to be in the right place at the right time, to offer a message that many people consider to be helpful and to hopefully play some kind of positive role in this really important transition that’s going on.
Joanna Macey argues that the agricultural revolution took centuries, the Industrial Revolution took decades, and that this revolution has to happen very very quickly. How hopeful do you feel that we are capable of achieving that?
Oh I don’t know. Realistically I think we are in for some very difficult times, but in adversity sometimes people are capable of remarkable things that you would not think they were capable of.
Thank you very much.
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