An oil crisis is coming, to add to our climate change woes. And the only practical solution is in our own back yards.
A few weeks ago, the climate activist and inventor Dave Wilks told me he’d hit on a new way to describe the warming of our atmosphere: it’s equivalent to nearly five Hiroshima bombs exploding per second, he said, and the rate is rising exponentially. I’ve also spoken to experts who believe there’s another threat facing us, no less significant than global warming: the end of oil. Our lives depend on ever-increasing amounts of cheap energy, and synthetic petroleum byproducts, and when oil production peaks we’re in trouble. Some believe that will happen as early as 2010.
And it will all, of course, be exacerbated by population growth. Last week researchers at a United Nations forum in Iceland said to keep pace with an increasing population more food will have to be produced world-wide in the next 50 years than during the past 10,000 years combined. We can look forward to economic collapse and literally billions of people starving to death.
In the 1970s, families abandoned the UK because they feared being wiped out by Russian nukes. That dreaded event didn’t happen but I’m aware of two such families, in the Bahamas and Australia, who don’t regret moving out. And it seems to me that the combined threat of climate change and “peak oil” is more menacing.
In fact, I’m starting to wonder about getting out of here – taking my wife and daughter from London before the trouble starts. In this I take my lead from the biblical patriarch Lot, whom Genesis records as having sensibly quit Sodom before it started to rain fire and brimstone; but also from the environmentalist George Monbiot, who turned his back on Oxford last year in favour of rural Wales.
In the three years since I first started to worry very much about climate change and “peak oil”, I’ve done a fair bit to address the problem. I changed electricity supplier, ordered local food to be delivered to my doorstep in a cardboard box, and replaced my lightbulbs. I bought an electric car, protested outside shops that kept their doors open in winter, and even devised an entirely new model for Britain’s energy infrastruc-ture – a community energy cooperative.
Having sent an outline of my idea to virtually every politician I could think of, I found myself delivering an hour-long briefing to John Gummer, leader of the Conservative energy taskforce; and addressing a dinner of my local Liberal Democrats, who raised the idea of the energy coop at a meeting of the local council and won unanimous backing for it.
More recently, I got hold of several Electrisave meter readers, and leafleted hundreds of neighbours offering to lend them a meter at no cost so that they could reduce their domestic energy use. Only seven took up the offer, but – undaunted – I persuaded the local vicar to host a public meeting. Apart from the vicar himself, and a loyal friend of mine who belongs to the Green party, only one other person turned up – bless her.
I mention all this not because I want congratulations – nor commiserations – but because I dare say that many others are doing similar things, and probably feeling no less downbeat about the results. But there is hope. In the past few months I’ve become aware of a growing movement of people devising creative solutions to the problems facing us. Over the same period – and this is important – I’ve started to notice quite how many fruit trees and shrubs are growing in the streets near my home in northwest London – but more of them later.
The Transition Town movement was started by an Englishman, Rob Hopkins, after a stint working as a teacher in Kinsale, Ireland. “I had never heard about peak oil,” Hopkins says. “But then I showed students a film, The End of Suburbia, which I’d never seen and, at the same time, Dr Colin Campbell from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas Ireland came to talk. I have to say it was traumatic and shocking.
“One of the other members of staff said to me, â€˜What has happened to your students, they’ve been walking around looking grey all week!’ ” The film, and Campbell, made clear that no aspect of life will be the same after oil runs out. “When we got over the shock we set about looking at Kinsale. We examined how the town might look in 20 years if it adapted to peak oil instead of pretending it wasn’t happening.” The project lasted for seven or eight months. “We came up with a plan, a vision of how the town would be, and then backcast it to see how to get there, year by year.”
Returning to England, Hopkins helped to create a similar “energy descent” plan in Totnes, Devon, and the Transition Town movement was born. It’s grown incredibly fast. A year after Totnes launched, individuals and groups from 176 places have registered to become Transition Towns.
The first, Totnes, Lewes, Glastonbury and Stroud, were full of middle-class hippie types, but in Bristol it’s the poorer districts that have been most dynamic. And in Wales the impetus has come from the agricultural community. The concept central to transition towns is building resilience. “We have been doing work with people who remember the 1930s and 1940s, people who say it would have been insane to eat apples from New Zealand. Back then, all the food came from near the town. We don’t have that resilience any more. In the lorry strike of 2001, we had only three days of food in Totnes.
“If we don’t do anything,” says Hopkins, “there are all kinds of grim scanarios. But I like to think of those as like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Future – possible outcomes we can avoid.”
The environmental movement, he believes, has promoted despondency and guilt. Transition towns, by contrast, actively create positive change – launching local currencies, planting nut trees, teaching survival skills. Until recently, people like Hopkins believed the most responsible thing to do was to move out, build a house and grow your own food. “But I came to question that. I thought this would only be sustainable if I was prepared to sit at the gate with a shotgun. What would I do with my carrots if the village up the road was cold and hungry?”
A little lugubriously, I point out that if cities don’t get their act together on climate change, and temperatures rise by six degrees, even people with remote smallhold-ings will be wiped out by great fireballs of methane shooting across the sky.
Looking for inspiration I travel to south London for a screening of the latest consciousness-raising film promoted by Transition Town Brixton. A few weeks ago, more people turned up to see a film about peak oil than bought tickets for Ocean’s 13. Tonight’s film has attracted the largest crowd yet.
The Power of Community is about what happened to Cuba after Soviet oil supplies dried up and the US embargo curtailed other imports. It shows how Cubans gradually turned from reliance on carbon-intensive agriculture: urban spaces were cultivated, from window boxes to wasteland. The transition took years and Cubans had to forgo the equivalent of a meal a day – but, by the end, even people in cities were producing half their annual fruit and vegetable needs.
It’s an upbeat film, and the audience is clearly impressed. But before we clear the auditorium a man with a beard points out that there’s a long way to go. “There are people out there with fruit trees who don’t bother picking the fruit. We have to teach them how to do that again.”
The point is well made. Next morning, I rise early and gather a stepladder and my three-year-old daughter for a spot of urban gardening. Without crossing more than one road, we pick 10 figs, a plum, and innumerable blackberries. By next year we may have planted some trees and shrubs of our own – but only if the methane fireballs haven’t torched us first.