Last week I was invited to speak at an event hosted in Bandon, Co. Cork. The event was organised by Dr. Philip Michael of the Irish Environmental Doctor’s association, with a view to initiating a localisation/powerdown group in the town. Also speaking were Colin Sage of UCC; Alison Wickham of Sustainable Clonakilty; and Klaus Harvey of Transition Towns Kinsale.
I have been giving variations of this presentation around Ireland over the past three years, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on this time and give an outline of some of the issues I think are the most important to get across.
About three years ago while at a conference in Dublin, Davie Philip of the Cultivate Center showed me for the first time the film *The End of Suburbia- Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream *.
Looking back, it now seems a little naive to have been so outraged by the news that the figures put out by oil companies and the major oil producing nations about their remaining oil reserves might well be spectacularly false, but it certainly jolted me out of my complacency then. Prior to this, I had been strongly influenced a few years earlier by Thom Hartmann’s book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight and had been regularly giving classes in primary schools around West Cork and Kerry raising awareness about just how much the modern world depends on oil for just about everything; but it was The End of Suburbia that really brought home to me for the first time the concept of Peak Oil and just how perilously close the world was to this momentous event.
I traveled back on the train the next day with my head spinning: everyone needed to know this information, and the film itself provided the perfect medium for spreading the world.
I began reading around the subject, starting with Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, and was most surprised to find that the author of the book’s forward was written by another name from the film, Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, who lived just a few miles away in Ballydehob. I remember looking him up in the local phone directory and asking him to come and introduce the first film screening in Skibbereen, which he kindly agreed to do. The event was packed- in fact we had to turn people away after the small room used by the local film club started overflowing- and was the first of many such film showings and talks I have done since then on the subject of Peak Oil and community responses.
I gave a copy of the film to Rob Hopkins, who was still teaching the course I now run in Kinsale, who immediately launched into action, showed it to the students and embarked on the now famous project which resulted in the report Kinsale 2021: An Energy Descent Action Plan. The key significance of understanding Peak was I think, that the environmental movement finally had a date- or an approximate date- after which the machine of the industrial world would begin to decline. Up until that point, for the past 40 years of the environmental movement, we only had a general concern that things were getting worse- more destruction and pollution and that this system based on consumption and growth could not continue indefinitely.
Nevertheless, as I left behind my student protest days and developed my own resources a little from the very basic lifestyle I had practiced in my days as a communard in England in the 1980s, I think I may have pushed to the back of my mind the prospect of imminent societal collapse which seemed still relatively distant – at least a few decades off. The motivation to practice permaculture and the sustainable life was more out of love of the natural world and a general preference for the simple life and a desire to have as little impact myself on the natural world as possible.
Peak Oil changed all that. After thousands of years of human history, it seemed we are now at or just a couple of years away from the all-time peak in energy available to humanity. What a time to be alive! What a truly awe-inspiring event to actually be living through! We should have a party to celebrate the end of the 150 year Oil Party.
Not only that, but we thought that this information would prove to be the greatest boost to the environmental movement in 40 years. This was for some of us Peak Opportunity to draw together all the issues of the sustainability movement under one common concept- energy depletion. Pollution (eg from plastic packaging), over-fishing, cutting down the rainforests, and of course climate change itself were now seen as aspects of the use and abuse of energy and these issues would themselves change and be significantly affected by oil peak.
A subtle shift of motivation was required, however, one that I think still has to be unpacked and elaborated on, and that is the shift from wanting to “do the right thing” for moral reasons and to “save the planet” to a much more personal sense of urgency in the sense of personal survival. Heinberg has pointed out how the two related issues of Climate change and Peak Oil are expressions of these two very different forms of motivation: the heart-string pulling pictures of polar bears stranded on melting ice-flows on the one hand, or the “how-will-I-pay-the-mortgage-drive-to-work-heat-the-house-and-feed-the-children” concerns of the other.
The Opportunity that Peak Oil awareness provides is to focus the mind on the inevitability and immediacy of the changes in our economic systems that will force each of us and the whole system to change very soon. It seems to me that although there is certainly a proportion of environmentally aware people who have always responded well to the “save the planet” mode of motivation, essentially this group has remained small and rather marginal. What I call “The Environmentalists’ Dilemma” has always been: how do we get the majority of people who are clearly disinterested or who have other priorities to come and join our club?
It seems to me that this in never likely to work. What has a chance of being far more effective- if articulated in the right way- is to focus on what fundamentally will motivate all of us: personal well-being and survival. Peak oil tells us that the current system will come to an end, not in some far-distant time after we are gone, but in the very near future, and that we will be forced to change our lifestyles very dramatically to survive. So dependent are we on an over-bloated globalised system of food and energy production that few of us can really imagine the changes that will be necessary as fossil fuels become unfordable, or the time it will take us to make the changes necessary.
I am often accused of being a negative gloom-and-doomer for spelling out the message the way I see it, but I just feel that half measures will not do. You cannot be a little bit sustainable. The small changes that everyone can do -change the light-bulbs, cycle to work-are important, but will never be enough unless the really major strategic changes are required are taken seriously: how will my community really manage to feed itself? What sort of jobs will there even be in the future? What kind of survival or emergency skills should I learn? What sort of Energy Descent Plan should my locality adopt?
During the Vietnam war, when asked by US Peace activists, “How best can we help Vietnam?” replied “Have the revolution in your own country”. In a different context, David Holmgren was making a related point when he told us during the course he ran in Ireland in 2005 “I don’t do Permaculture to Save the World. I just think it’s a better way of life”.
Very soon, it may be the only way of life. Next week I will give an outline of the issues I cover on my Peak Opportunity talks.