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The World of Tomorrow (transcript of filmed talk to Transition Town Kildare)


Brian Kaller is an American-born journalist now living in County Kildare, Ireland. He has written for the American Conservative, Permaculture and several other publications, and is one of the heads of FADA, a group working to prepare Irish communities for the future. He blogs at

This is a filmed rehearsal of a talk to Kildare Transition Town Nov. 18, 2008, based on a seminar written in December 2006 for the Dublin-based organization

The World of Tomorrow, part 1: The Old Future

Thank you very much. My name is Brian Kaller, I live here in County Kildare, Ireland.

I was a reporter and newspaper editor in America, I’ve been interested in ecology and the Limits to Growth all my life, and I learned about peak oil about a decade ago, but found that no mainstream paper wanted to write about it. About five years ago I got my first front-page article on the subject into a magazine, and I’ve been writing and speaking about it ever since.

I am the vice-chair of FADA, a group that is preparing local communities for the kind of future I’ll be talking about. In only the last two years FADA members have organized street festivals that drew hundreds or thousands of people; persuaded the head of the county’s major industry to switch to clean energy; created community gardens and Farmers’ Markets; spoke from pulpits of local churches against climate change. For two years we have published probably the only weekly newspaper column about dealing with peak oil, and we have given talks on the subject to hundreds of teenaged students and youth groups.

Tonight I’m going to assume that you all know the basics of peak oil and climate change, and move past the debate about whether they are real, move past the more apocalyptic and fearful ideas, and think about what kind of futures we might realistically see.

My favourite books as a child were about the world of tomorrow. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s reading the science fiction of the previous decades, and with the gravity of a child I absorbed their domed cities, robots, jetpacks, the whole futuristic world I would get to see someday, when I was a very old man of, say, 30, in the faraway 21st century.

This standard Futureworld still shows up here and there, and has remained remarkably stable for a century – there are Russian drawings from the 1890s that looked a lot like Blade Runner a hundred years later – and it was always just a few decades away. It wasn’t just Star Trek and a few cartoons – this philosophy was all over popular mechanics magazines, lay science books, advertisements – dating back to the 1890s, and always a few years away. A lot of this focused on the millennium – as in the film 2001, with its space stations and moon bases. This comic book, 2000 A.D., shows the requisite impossible architecture, apparently two miles tall, high-speed rails, ray guns and, in this case, big cyborg gorillas.

Of course they were ridiculously inaccurate even about the near future – when I was a teenager in 1989 I saw the movie Back to the Future II, set in futuristic 2015, and with the usual flying cars and such, but with everyone sending messages by fax, because no one imagined that in a few years everyone would have e-mail.

I wanted to show this one in particular – you can't see the writing, but it is a 1968 article about life in the future – set within a few days of today. It begins, “It is Nov. 18, 2008,” and a businessman kisses his housewife goodbye and sets off in his hovercar at 250-miles-an-hour from his domed city to his office. These were all supposed to be good things.

You can see how this Futureworld was created, though – this is the curve of oil production, and parallels our population growth, extinction, carbon emissions -- writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were born into a largely agrarian world and lived to see it transformed. By the mid-1900s everyone had electricity, their own personal telephones, their own high-speed fuel vehicles, we had highways, nuclear power, men on the moon and the United Nations. Futureworld just extrapolated that trajectory.

Where did they go wrong? Well, that trajectory was exponential growth, and that never lasts long. A straight line here would have been arithmetic growth (2,3,4,5). Do this 50 times and you get 50. A curved line like this is usually exponential growth (2,4,8,16). Do that 50 times you get 1.2 quadrillion.

Any percentage increase you see, no matter how small, is also exponential growth – the world’s population is increasing at a rate of 1.2 percent per year – its growth looks like this.

Our exponential growth is behind most of our problems. I showed oil use, but there are similar curves for carbon emissions, as we burned all that ancient atmosphere, sealed away from a time when the earth was hotter, and flooded the air with it; global temperature rise, species extinction.

The world used five million barrels of oil a day in 1930, and if we had stopped our use then, when people already had some industry and motorcars and modern conveniences, we might have been able to maintain a petroleum-based society for hundreds of years. Instead, we’ve doubled our oil use about once every 20 years, so we’ve used almost as much oil in the time the Simpsons have been on television than we did in the entire previous history of oil, back to the time my country had slaves.

The World of Tomorrow, part 2: The Darker Futures

As awareness of these issues has spread in the last few decades, I don't think it's a coincidence that our visions of the future have become almost exclusively horrifying. Most video stores have a single section for science fiction-and-horror – if it shows the future, it will be obscene. Except for Star Trek, a holdover from an earlier era, I can't think of a single book, television programme or film in my lifetime that depicts a positive future. Think about what that does to a generation.

Part of that, I suspect, was that starting in the 60s and 70s, some people began to sense what was happening. Remember, much of what we know today about climate change and peak oil was available then, just not widely publicized. The greenhouse effect was discovered by Irish scientist John Tyndall in the 19th century, and others have predicted for more than 100 years that human emissions would cause global temperatures to rise.

I have on my shelf a popular science book from 1955, “The World We Live In,” which states quite casually that carbon dioxide from our cars and factories were radically changing the Earth’s climate. The first presidential address to Congress that mentioned the dangers of human-caused climate change was from Lyndon Johnson on February 8, 1965.

The same is true of peak oil -- M. King Hubbert first proposed his peak oil theory in 1932 and in 1956 publicly predicted the U.S.’s eventual peak. Even after he was proven right, and went on to predict that the world would peak around 2000, he was ignored by all but a few people – one of the only thoughtful articles on the issue, in 1976, came from a Wisconsin angler’s magazine called Fishing Facts. It was not until the 1990s, shortly after Hubbert’s death, that a few retiring petroleum geologists took up his cause and publicized peak oil across the young Internet.

This Green movement – which has really been going on for several decades, but received a boost in the last few years as knowledge of peak oil spread -- is the largest movement in history, a global network of people who are abandoning the fashions of their peers, re-adopting the frugal lives of their grandparents’ generation, thinking soberly about where their water, food and power come from.

The most widely-publicized voices in peak oil, though, are also the most dire, and as awareness of these issues hits a tipping point, people like Michael Ruppert, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg and others are often the first points of entry. spreads, these people are often the points of entry. These people are heroes, they are probably largely right, and their doomsday warnings are something everyone needs to hear. They are not the only things people need to hear.

At a conference in Cork last year, I met a man from Australia who was attending for his teenaged son. His son had learned about peak oil in 2005, read Michael Ruppert’s works, and became more and more convinced that everything that lay ahead of him would be a desperate and despairing future in which most people would die. After he had studied peak oil obsessively for a year, he vanished, two years ago today. Only when his parents went through his computer files did they discover his interest in peak oil. His body was found two months later. He was 19.

Tasman McKee learned about peak oil in 2005, when relatively few people had heard of the issue. Now hundreds of times more people have learned about such issues, and predictions like volatile oil prices and economic disruptions are coming true, and my fear is that many more people will see a future as bleak as the one Tasman saw.

This is not what we need. Just as a Depression-era panic could crash a bank that would not otherwise have failed, so a widespread belief in a violent and hopeless end could actually make people less likely to work together during the next outage or shortage.

There are a lot of other futures besides Star Trek and the Zombie Apocalypse, outcomes that are not as interesting to Hollywood but might be much more realistic, and we might have some power to choose between some of them. That’s what I hope to get people thinking about tonight.

The World of Tomorrow, part 3: Four Scenarios

Barring any fantastic new invention, we know that the amount of energy we currently use to make products and wrap them in plastic, and to grow food and ship it around the world, will decline. More food will have to be grown nearby, using traditional methods and without our modern petrochemical turbochargers. We also know that we will see freakish weather ahead, that the Arctic may disappear, and that deserts will spread – but we don’t know how much or how fast.

I’m going to use a model proposed by Australian ecologist David Holmgren, one of the inventors of permaculture, that divides our future into four outcomes.

The best future would emerge from a slow climate change and a late oil crunch, giving people time for a comparatively smooth transition. We could help this along by turning to simpler living, clean energy and mass transit, and not only prepare for the Crisis, but reduce its impact. That’s an advantage we have that no one has pointed out – evacuating New Orleans might have saved some lives, but it would not have reduced the power of the hurricane at the same time.

The resulting “Green Tech” could retain business, courts, trains, buses, libraries, factories, the Internet. Economies would be city-states supported by surrounding farms, small enough to use only local resources but large enough to have electrical grids and public transport.

Holmgren’s second future would see fossil fuels continue to power us for a while but climate chaos hitting us hard. Corporations, governments and armies would remain armed and mobile, but the people would suffer from crop failures and a flood of Third-World refugees. There might be a danger of a revival of police states.

Anyone who dislikes this idea would do well to look for early signs of such a future. For example, a small article in “Market Watch” last January noted that the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security was planning massive detention facilities in the event of “an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S.” I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think people should keep an eye on little news items like that and try to find out more.

Just as with Green Tech, small steps toward a Brown Tech future would build on themselves. The real danger might be a turn to coal, oil shale or tar sands, which can be made into liquid fuel at a high cost – stretching our driving a little longer at the cost of catastrophic climate change.

A slower change in world climate coupled with an imminent oil peak would allow local ecologies to continue with limited damage, but would pull the rug out from the Wal-Mart economy that so many Westerners have come to rely on, forcing a return to small farms and small towns.

This “Earth Steward” future could signal a return to the kind of community and village life most humans knew until a century or two ago. I have spent some time with the Amish in my native Missouri, and they live generally long and happy lives with almost no fossil fuels or electricity.

Of course, there is a fourth future, in which the oil peak comes quickly, the climate changes swiftly and severely, and we get smacked down hard. This world Holmgren calls “Lifeboats.”

Holmgren cautions, however, against thinking of these as simply four futures; the Crunch will affect Sweden differently than Sudan, and the coming decades will see all of these scenarios happen somewhere, at different places and on different timetables.

In fact, Holmgren said, all four outcomes could exist in a single nation, since their differences are mainly of scale. National governments, with military bases and pipelines, would lean towards a Brown Tech state, but could also contain Green Tech city-states, Earth Steward villages and Lifeboat refugees.

Even a Green Tech future would require us to use much less energy than we do now, but that doesn’t have to be a hardship. I personally like to use the metaphor of America in the 1950s – if my countrymen’s income and ability to drive dropped by two-thirds and their flying by 98 percent, people would see that as the Apocalypse. But that is how people lived in the 1950s, and that was not a horrifying wasteland –happiness, family togetherness, neighborhood community – as defined by survey responses – peaked then and have declined even as wealth increased. The Fifties parallel is not perfect, of course – nor were the Fifties -- but I use it because it is instantly recognizable by most people, widely desirable, and rather easily attainable.

The World of Tomorrow, part 4: Emergency Preparation

Of course there are many things governments and corporations can do to help create a Green Tech future, and we can start lobbying them now, but I recommend our top priority be to cover our most basic needs first – to have gardens and skills and know that, in a Lifeboat situation, we could live and help our neighbours. When a critical mass of such people are so prepared, they can organize more ambitious neighbourhood and county-level projects, and work our way up to a Green Tech future. That is how good changes tend to happen – they start in living rooms and library cellars and percolate into the halls of power under sustained pressure.

For example, if the power went out, how could be store food? Well, the same way people did for thousands of years before refrigerators – they ate seasonally, they staggered their planting and harvesting, they left food in the ground for longer, they stored potatoes under earth and straw, they pickled, salted, dried, fermented, kept in oil or liquor, and made jams for vitamins in winter.

Many medieval people had skills few people remember. Eastern Europeans kept warm with masonry stoves, which used a giant thermal mass of cob or brick to absorb a fast-burning fire of straw or sticks and then radiate the heat through the house. The English built homes out of cob that still stand; the home of Walter Raleigh, made this way, is standing today. Arabs used systems of pools and ventilation for keeping cool in a desert. People made beeswax or tallow candles for light. It would be worthwhile for you and your friends to each cultivate skills that survive today mainly in last names – thatcher, smith, cob, tailor, mason, miller and wright. Even if you never need to use them, your children might, and the few people left who have these skills are often very old.

But no matter what happens, we won’t be simply turning back the clock to any era – we have many innovations and discoveries that don’t require fossil fuels and electricity, that no one had simply thought of until recently. For example, people suffered terrible plagues because they didn’t know about germs, and that simply keeping clean and boiling drinking water goes a long way towards wiping out illness.

Knitting is a recent innovation -- Neanderthals could conceivably have knitted clothing for themselves, but no one winkled out the technique until around the Renaissance. Author John Michael Greer, uses the example of slide rules, which can be made easily out of wood and allow you to make the complex calculations that put men on the moon. Tools like sextants and calculus; techniques like semaphore, four-crop rotation, the scientific method; discoveries like evolution, Gaia Theory or perma-culture -- all these are recent inventions that require little technology but can be very useful.

One thing to keep in mind about the future is that this world we live in, with its roads, bridges, homes and suburban infrastructure, is not going away. This was always a problem I had with science fiction set 30 years in the future – everything in it looked futuristic, there were no working-class families driving only slightly futuristic cars. The plastic littering the streets might still be around thousands of years from now, as will galvanized rubber tyres.

Salvage will become a major opportunity, as we will still have many of the items we have now, but they will not be as useable in their original forms. Some of them can be used for new forms – Greer, again, uses the example of turning car alternators, which transform motion into electricity, into wind turbines. Plastics, for example, are lightweight and waterproof, and could have many uses even beyond what we use them for now – say, for roofing -- if we can smelt enough milk bottles. Tyres could be used to make walls, as in the Earthship method of building, or can be cut for shoe soles, as Vietnamese used to do.

The World of Tomorrow, part 5: Local Industry

At this point we're moving beyond the household into things that require more infrastructure and division of labour, so let's say we are prepared for a Lifeboat scenario and are now organizing neighbourhood industry – spinning wheels, looms, shoemaking, sailing ships, potter’s wheels and so on. We have the raw materials to make these things again if need be, but the knowledge to make them is rare and fading away.

Once people learned to turn wood into charcoal, they could create the temperatures needed for melting glass or metal. A community that can cast and shape glass could theoretically create eyeglasses, windows, telescopes and microscopes. The ability to cast metal could allow for the creation of clocks, bicycles and basic machinery. Straw balers could also fall into this category, and they are very useful not only for storing cattle feed but for making light and insulating building walls. We need to invest in local industries that could actually create these things if need be, and manufacture replacement parts.

There will be many engines still around several decades from now, but most of us just won’t have our own high-speed personal vehicles, any more than most of us have our own personal planes. We can run a sharply reduced number of engines on bio-fuels, though, and I recommend we save them for fire trucks and ambulances – the things we really need. I recommend every region – say, every county in Ireland – keep a few fields for growing bio-fuels of switch-grass, beets or whatever fits the climate, in order to supply their emergency vehicles and factories.

For thousands of years people got by riding horses and carriages, and I suspect that will make a comeback. In some areas canals exist for transporting freight, and many areas still have useable rail lines.
Unfortunately, most Western countries have torn up much of their rail infrastructure – here is Ireland, and the damage done in my own United States is of course much more extensive. I would like to see people restore the old rail networks, but we might not have the energy to do so. Electric or bio-fuel buses would seem more widely applicable, and would have more flexible routes.

One possible intermediate step toward rail would be to make buses into trams or streetcars, running on electricity from overhead lines, as is still done in some British cities today. Dublin used to be covered with tramway lines, even having double-decker cars like you sometimes do buses, and American cities used to be covered with similar (we called them) trolleys or streetcars. When people talk about expanding rail lines, it is too often diesel trains expanding along existing lines so as to be fast and not interfere with traffic – but remember, if cars become rare, traffic will not be an issue and almost any speed will become fast. I could see trolley lines run along every major road, so that every major town is connected – and that things like crops, manufactured goods can be distributed widely.

The World of Tomorrow, part 6: Electricity

Finally, there is electricity, which right now generally comes from fossil fuels. Nuclear power is one possibility, although plants take a lot of money, energy and time to create. I encourage people to invest more in solar power, but in the interest of being realistic, they offer much less energy than we are used to having at our fingertips, they need the sun to be shining, their manufacture requires us to mine and smelt rare minerals (using fossil fuels), and they only last decades – and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever built a solar-powered solar-panel factory. In theory we could close that loop, and continue society indefinitely, but no one has bothered yet, and we are running out of time to try. We could, however, create solar power from something called Stirling engines, which focus sunlight to boil water.

Wind power seems to me to be the most likely source of electricity in the future – it does not need the exotic metals of PV panels, and while the electrical parts would require some industry, in the short term they can be salvaged from alternators and other scrap. Much of the other structure – tower, blades -- can be made by hand. Like solar, however, it will not generate much power and is intermittent, so we would need regional grids, so that when the wind is not blowing one place, it is blowing in another. I don’t see many waterwheels being used for generating electricity, but we easily could do so.

There are a few things that I would like to keep that require electricity. First, refrigeration – not for food, which we don’t need, but for medicines.
Second, tramways, to allow for cargo and passenger travel.

Most important for me, though – and this is right behind saving human lives – is computer storage. I am young enough to use the Internet for almost everything and old enough to remember life before it existed, and so I value it a great deal. I like the near-infinite storage capacity of computers. I really appreciate that anyone with internet access can access the wealth of human knowledge almost instantly, from anywhere, and send it to anyone, and share their ideas with the world. One of my fondest hopes is that we can maintain this – even if we have to have computers cobbled together out of a million scraps, even if every village or neighbourhood has one computer that everyone rents a slot to blog and download on.

I’ve just unloaded a lot of information, and our understanding of these issues is always evolving, so things might turn out differently than anyone imagines. But if you grow a garden, keep chickens, learn skills, consider these words and meet with other people doing the same, and it turns out that peak oil and climate change are not as bad as we thought, what have you lost? But if any of this is even remotely right, then we need to energetically prepare, and live like the fire-fighters I sometimes see relaxing on the station lawn – savouring the day, but prepared for an emergency.

It’s difficult to talk about these issues, but I’m hoping that by doing so, we can see that a post-fossil-fuel world can keep most of what we value and gain a great deal that we have lost. Because of all the images of peak oil, there is one I almost never see. Our modern era has brought so much destruction, so much inequality. Even we lucky inhabitants of prosperous countries often live very stressful lives and work twice as many hours as the average medieval peasant.

I think this is our chance to lose those things and keep the good things about the modern world – gender equality, individual liberty, the internet, and modern medicine – and to restore the best of the traditional world. I hope that a map of the future like this, and these goals, can help us realize that we are capable of walking into the Long Emergency unafraid, and with a plan.

Editorial Notes: Brian Kaller is an Energy Bulletin contributor. He recently allowed us to post Future perfect: the future is Mayberry, not Mad Max

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