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Thesis on peak oil and potential solutions

Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture
LSE Dissertation on Transition Initiatives Now Available

Richard O’Rourke has recently had the unenviable task of writing about peak oil and potential solutions to it as part of a Masters at the London School of Economics, that great bastion of Flat Earth economists. His dissertation, entitled “Transition Towns: Ecotopia Emerging? The role of Civil Society in escaping Carbon Lock-In” examines the Transition model in the context of the concept of Ecotopia, and of previous green movements. You can download this excellent piece of work “here. It also features in the introduction his story of his ‘peak oil moment’ and his subsequent attempts to communicate that awareness within LSE. The dissertation itself is a fascinating take on where Transition has got to.
(22 October 2008)
Rob’s description looked intriguing, so I looked at the thesis and found the following… (nee next item). -BA

Transition Towns: Ecotopia Emerging?
(60-page PDF)
Richard Seán O’Rourke, London School of Economics (MA thesis) via Transition Culture
… My ‘Peak Oil Moment’, as we Peakers/Peakists/Peakniks like to call it, occurred while visiting an old friend in San Francisco in November 2004. I’d just handed over the reins at a software company I’d started and been running for the previous five years and for the first time since found myself with time on my hands. My friend handed me a book called ‘The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies‘ by Richard Heinberg (2003). Skimming the outside back cover I handed it back dismissively, telling him what I’d been told six years previously while doing fuel cell research in Switzerland: ‘there’s another forty years of oil, another eighty of gas, and a few hundred of coal’ (Global Warming was another issue of which I was blissfully ignorant). I didn’t mention that one of the reasons I got out of fuel cell research and into the software business was because I was also told that as long as oil remained at $16 a barrel there would never be a serious investment in renewable technology. I made the common mistake of assuming that oil would continue to come out of the ground to meet demand until the fortieth year, upon which it would stop.

Thankfully, he convinced me to read the book, which I did more or less immediately – this was my ‘Peak Oil Moment’. As soon as I finished it, I turned back to the front page and read it again because, I’d obviously missed a fundamental flaw somewhere in the logic that would allow me to dismiss the central point being made. Not finding it, I turned once again to the front of the book and read the preface by a retired oil geologist, Dr. Colin Campbell, who signed himself as being in Ballydehob, Ireland. A small town in the furthest south western corner of the country, it was the last place I would have expected to find him. I made arrangements to meet Dr. Campbell on my return to Ireland later in December, returning home for Christmas. Unfortunately, I found him to be an utterly credible person and Pandora’s Box was now forever open.

… Through Dr. Campbell, the ASPO network, and organising ASPO6 in particular, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and speak with a vast array of the world’s leading experts in energy related issues. But it has not been sufficient to recognise the problem for, in the words of Al Gore, if you recognise it, you are morally obliged to do something about it. I naively thought that ASPO6 might be such a something. Despite the success of the event I was ultimately dissatisfied. I felt we were preaching to the converted and had made little or no progress at engaging mainstream society, even with the oil price rocketing on its trajectory to US$1003.

Probably for that reason, of the many memorable things from the ASPO6 conference, three stand out. The first is a statement by the opening speaker, former US Secretary of Defence during the first oil crisis and US Secretary of Energy during the second, Dr. James Schlesinger, and it’s not the obvious one: “we’re all peakists now,” for he was clearly premature and I believe he said it because he knew we wanted to hear it. It was, “the conclusions from political reality is that in order to have real movement the public has to be hit over the head with a two-by-four.” The second is from the closing speech given by newly appointed Minister for Energy, Communications, and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD. He said “we need a myth to be created, a modern myth that people can identify with which actually explains this future that we’re heading into”. The relevance of both statements will hopefully become clear in the thesis set out below. However, despite the calibre and lofty titles and careers of many of the speakers, the one for me who stole the show was Rob Hopkins. His was a story of optimism, a beacon of light in a dark and foreboding sea.

ASPO6 concluded, the following week I submitted my thesis to UCC and departed for London to start a second masters, of which this thesis is a product. Having studied the solutions technology and the natural sciences can offer and remaining unconvinced (Trainer 2007, MacKay 2008), I hoped to understand what solutions, if any, politics and the social sciences might offer.

… The decision to study the Transition Town movement was part of a conscious decision to avoid such debates [with a renowned LSE professor] and trying to construct ‘fact’ based arguments to proselytise. This thesis is not intended to be an exercise in rhetoric to convince the reader that Peak Oil is a problem with which they should be concerned. I decided it might be more fruitful to simply study a group of people who believe Peak Oil is a problem and are taking what steps they believe appropriate to prepare for its, in their view and mine, imminent arrival.

My Peak Oil journey over the past four years has in many respects lead me to this thesis and, thankfully, new realisation and a new direction. So in that sense the journey has served its purpose and I found that for which I set out: hope in the face of a truly daunting challenge.

I’ve also learned from this exercise that many of the solutions to the problems we now face were left behind 30 years ago and there is little of value I can contribute other than to remind us. The value of the Transition movement is in its call to pick up those solutions and to finally put them to use.
(22 October 2008)
A very readable thesis. Are there any plans to turn it into a book? -BA

Economic crisis indicates critical need for relocalization

Christopher Ryan, AICP; The Localizer Blog
Well before the current economic crisis hit in full force, a few voices in the wilderness, mine included, spoke at length about the need to develop local resiliency and economic self-sufficiency to better weather significant economic downturns regionally, nationally, and globally. While it is presumptuous to suggest that local communities can develop complete insulation from the swings of the global economy, certainly they can minimize the impacts through localizing many community scale economic activities by supporting local food, establishing a strong buy local program, encouraging local entrepreneurship of sustainable businesses, creating local industries, and developing local alternative sources of energy. The establishment of a local currency like Berkshares or Totnes Pounds is a big step but as a relocalized economy develops and matures, it may offer the critical mass to give such a measure a fighting chance. Other methods of relocalization that keep dollars circulating locally include encouraging local cultural and arts activities to draw people away from their television screens and computer monitors. Perhaps a local film festival featuring local filmmakers would be a great draw on a cold winters night.

Local food programs are perhaps the easiest to implement beginning with backyards, vacant lots, and community or market gardens in both rural and urban areas. These activities can be supported by including in local zoning ordinances provisions that actually support small local farms, market gardens, and community gardens (but not industrial agriculture) instead of penalizing them or focusing on “protecting” housing developments from their odors, sights, and sounds. A municipal farmers market would also provide support by establishing a central location where farmers can market their produce. In regions with harsh winters, farmers markets can offer a variety of seasonal items, meats, dairy, and canned goods. Urban planners like myself can and should take the lead in promoting changes to zoning ordinances and facilitating the development of a central market through economic development incentives.

Buy local programs are beginning to emerge in communities across the U.S. Here in New England, towns like Concord, Ayer, and Groton are working with groups like BALLE to market local goods and services to….locals. Careful and sensitive support of these types of efforts within an economic development policy framework should reap lasting benefits and provide a much more visceral and connected form of public partnership than the traditional smokestack chasing economic development model ever did. Local businesses might actually begin to think that the city or town might have their best interests in mind.

Here in Ayer, MA, the idea has been circulated to consider the development of a small business incubator that includes a sustainable business model as a facet of entrepreneurial education and training. The Town already offers a green and sustainable business startup loan from the Industrial Development Finance Authority and the idea was that we could encourage new businesses to incorporate sustainable business principles and practices along the lines of the Natural Step for Business (Nattrass and Altomare, 1999). This is just one way in which local governments and grass roots organizations can encourage and facilitate entrepreneurship at the local level.

… In the end, communities that continue to be reliant on the global economy for goods, services, and wages who have been hit hard by this most recent downturn should take notice and consider a focused relocalization program to begin disengaging from an economic model in which they currently have little or no control at the local level of the vicissitudes and volatility of the market. In addition, as each local economy and individual household begins to wean from the unsustainable consumption-based economic model, a much greater stability and sense of contentment will be the result. A much stronger sense of community will also come about.

Christopher J. Ryan, AICP is a professional urban planner with 24 years of experience in state and local government. He is currently the Director of Planning & Development with Ayer, Massachusetts. He also currently teaches Land Use and Community Planning at Antioch University New England. He received his AB degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and his MCP at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently ABD at Antioch University seeking a doctorate in Environmental Studies. He lives with his family in historic Concord, Massachusetts.
(22 October 2008)