Yellow Springs, Ohio – Participants at the Third U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions learned how they must use less energy, save and share resources and grow food in their communities.
This response to the coming peak and permanent decline of global oil production, dubbed “Plan C: Curtailment, Cooperation, and Community,” was a major theme at the conference last month in this small southwestern Ohio town, the epicenter for a growing national movement.
More than 300 activists, educators and others from 33 states attended the three-day conference at Antioch College to hear from nationally-known experts on ways to meet food, housing, transportation and other needs in an energy-starved world through lifestyle changes – not promised technologies.
At the conference, participants learned energy-saving tips, other practical strategies and new perspectives and visions of a post-peak oil world.
“The food to feed the world is not going to come from farmers – it will come from everyone,” said Peter Bane, an expert in designing sustainable food production systems, including food gardens and edible landscapes.
Other experts included simple living guru Vicki Robin, author of the best selling “Your Money or Your Life,” who talked about living fully on far less energy; Oberlin College Professor David Orr, who discussed the obstacles posed by corporate power in confronting peak oil and climate change, and peak oil educator Richard Heinberg, who talked about his latest book, “The Oil Depletion Protocol,” a plan to avert oil wars and economic collapse.
The conference, subtitled, “Beyond Energy Alternatives,” was organized by The Community Solution, a non-profit organization based in Yellow Springs which promotes local, low-energy solutions to peak oil and climate change.
Pat Murphy, the non-profit’s executive director, spoke about Community Solution’s Plan C, contrasting it to more traditional efforts which focus on competition over remaining resources and more technology as a way to try to maintain increasing energy consumption and economic growth.
“We are no longer attracted by the siren singers of breakthrough technologies that promise us we can continue living in a manner that denies a future for our children,” Murphy told conference participants.
“The solutions are not going to come from the same people who created the problem,” Murphy said. “The answers are not in the corporations of technology but in the villages and neighborhoods.”
Murphy’s theme was echoed by Bane, who zeroed in on the need for local, low-energy food production and consumption to replace energy-devouring long-distance transport of processed and packaged food. “Who feeds you and who do you feed will be the central questions for the next few decades,” said Bane, publisher of the quarterly magazine, Permaculture Activist.
“Going beyond conserving, permaculture aims to turn people who are now consumers into producers, making them independent of a centralizing authority that is increasingly derelict,” Bane said.
Bane estimated that lawns in the U.S. could feed 70- to 150-million people, and would “pull the guts out of agribusiness.” He emphasized “top-down thinking and bottom-up action” to take the economy back into the household and become domestically self-reliant.
Bane expounded on the tremendous opportunity to use the remaining finite fossil fuels to build a sustainable low-energy infrastructure, and give a lasting gift to future generations.
Sharon Astyk, a back-to-the-land activist known through her posts on the Yahoo internet discussion group “Running on Empty,” shared Bane’s vision of a local agricultural revolution.
“Before the industrial revolution it took six people farming full time to support one person doing something else. If fossil fuels and industrial agriculture aren’t going to feed the world … how are we going to feed them?” Astyk said.
“I felt if not me, who? If not now, when? And if we need a 100 million new farmers, I guess I’d better be one,” said Astyk, who runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription farm in upstate New York which delivers vegetables weekly to its members.
Astyk called on participants to see themselves as part of a revolution. “Most revolutions start with many fewer people than are gathered in this conference hall,” she said. Coming out from behind the lecturn, she said, “I am not thin, I am not athletic. If I can do it, every one of you can do it!”
“We can’t just consume our way out of this one. You can’t just join the CSA, you can’t just buy organic. More is going to be asked of every single one of us,” Astyk said.
Simplicity movement leader Robin encouraged participants, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “to be the change they wish to see in the world.”
“Simplicity is about having enough and living frugally with a high joy to stuff ratio,” Robin said. “It is living a life that is outwardly simple, and inwardly rich and where we live simply so that others may simply live.”
Of those in the peak oil awareness movement, Robin said, “You are the people who are engaging the conversation of our time. Even though the critique is very severe there is a background sense of delight that we’re up against it, that we can do better than before.”
“Some people call this the doom-and-gloom crowd, but I haven’t seen that. I call it the ‘creative engagement with the ultimate limits’ crowd,” Robin said. She described limits as the shaping tools of freedom, even though many Americans think that freedom is having no limits.
Robin claimed that 25 percent of Americans want to live a more simple life. She suggested that those in the peak oil awareness movement appeal to people’s desire for self reliance, not be afraid to talk about values with them, and work to solve systemic problems in such sectors as the “sickness care industry,” that hinder efforts to live simply.
In the conference’s opening talk, Professor Orr, a pioneer of environmental literacy and ecological design at Oberlin, focused on the risks of inaction in the face of peak oil and climate change. He discussed the melting glaciers and ice sheets that foretell of rising global sea levels by up to 20 feet in the next few decades and the rising global temperatures that suggest a rapidly unstable and unpredictable climate. He cited a World Health Organization statement that global climate change now causes more than 150,000 deaths per year.
Orr said the challenge is to reduce global carbon emissions from 8.5 billion metric tons of carbon per year to less than 3 by 2050 – which he described as a daunting task for a growing global population with an ever-increasing appetite for energy.
Still, according to Orr, there remains another major challenge in dealing with climate change and peak oil: confronting corporate power. He quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength.”
As Orr sees it, despite Jefferson’s hope, today’s corporations, now blessed with personhood and citizenship rights granted by the U.S. Supreme Court, have immense power over government and society. With nearly total control over the major media, corporations, Orr said, manipulate the public to overconsume through advertisements which appeal to infantile self-gratification.
Orr proposed to re-frame political dialogue from liberal and conservative. “The real dividing line is how we relate to future generations,” Orr said. “Those on the left and right of the political spectrum need to work together.”
“The challenges of peak oil and climate change aren’t just a matter of technology or politics,” Orr said. “They are a test of our heart and our goodness. When we get to the post-peak world after we’ve stabilized carbon and protected the rights of future generations, it needs to be a world of compassion and joy, a lot better than it has been.”
Murphy, Community Solution’s executive director, said in his talk, “Plan C: Curtailment, Cooperation, and Community,” that the solution to peak oil is to conserve, share and save resources – not compete for them, hoard them and overconsume them. He contrasted “Plan C” with what he described as Plan A and Plan B.
“Plan A is to find alternative fuels like clean coal, tar sands, and oil shale. Plan B is to use wind, solar, and biofuels,” Murphy said. “Both assume technology will save us and that we must increase economic growth by increasing energy consumption.”
“Yet the results of an economic model based upon increasing consumption aren’t good,” Murphy said. “With high crime rates, record high incarceration, continuing environmental degradation, soil depletion, growing inequity, deteriorating health, and the loss of civic engagement and community, we need a better way.”
Murphy gave strategies for a Plan C lifestyle in the key areas of food, housing, and transportation. For food, he suggested participants eat less, avoid manufactured food and industrial meat, and grow, prepare, and store their own food. For transportation, he recommended buying more efficient cars, including hybrids, and sharing rides. Housing strategies included living in a smaller space, retrofitting homes by increasing insulation and replacing or covering windows, and upgrading to more energy-efficient lighting and appliances.
Peak oil educator Heinberg noted that oil production is now in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil-producing countries and that Chris Skebrowski, editor of the highly respected UK Petroleum Review, now says it is his gut feeling that worldwide oil production may peak in 2008.
Heinberg then criticized the much-touted anti-peak oil argument that there have been many incorrect predictions of oil production crashing throughout the 20th century. “In fact, false predictions of abundance have been much more common,” Heinberg said.
Heinberg cited as an example the U.S. Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook 2001 which stated, “The United Kingdom is expected to produce about 3.1 million barrels/day by the middle of this decade (~2005), followed by a decline to 2.7 mb/d by 2020.” But, Heinberg said, the actual production peak was in 1999 at 2.68 mb/d, which fell to 1.65 mb/d by 2005.
Heinberg dismissed the idea that peak oil is a fringe concept, noting recent comments by former President Bill Clinton on peak oil and a New York Times associate editor stating, “The concept of peak oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look—largely because it is almost certainly correct.”
Heinberg also talked about his most recent book, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse. “We need an agreement to gradually reduce oil consumption in order to discourage competition, stabilize prices, aid with planning and preparation, and protect the resource base,” he said.
Heinberg compared the emphasis today on developing alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power to heroin addicts lining the shelves with methadone instead of reducing their heroin use.
“How about if we just start using less oil? That’s the only thing that’s going to make any difference, because as long as we’re lining the shelves with alternatives we’re going keep increasing our oil consumption,” Heinberg said.
“So the Oil Depletion Protocol goes straight to the problem and says that each nation shall aim to reduce oil consumption by at least the world depletion rate,” Heinberg said. He explained that the protocol can be implemented by organizations and individuals who assess their current oil consumption and plan to reduce the total by three percent per year.
“I realized the best way for me to feel less fear about the coming crisis is to follow the ideas of the Oil Depletion Protocol as an individual,” conference attendee Kelley O’Connor of Sterling, Massachusetts said. “In a way, I have already been following it, I just haven’t been measuring it,” she continued, “and if I can see a number, I can feel like I’m making progress towards using less energy.”
Julian Darley, founder and director of the Vancouver-based Post Carbon Institute, offered strategies at the community level for “global relocalization” as a response to peak oil. Darley summarized his strategy as “Reduce Consumption: Produce Locally.”
“All civilizations are built on surplus.” Darley said. “What happens as that surplus reduces or even becomes non-surplus?” he asked. He described humanity as being in ecological overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity, and suggested that relocalization will help humanity return to a “safe carrying capacity” well within its ecological limits. “We need to move from great surplus to sufficient – from, abundance to enough,” Darley said.
Post Carbon’s Relocalization Network, with 122 “outposts” throughout the world, offers support, knowledge, and tools for communities to produce more food, energy, and other necessities locally, move from a fuel to a foot economy, and relocalize currency, governance, and culture.
Darley highlighted other Post Carbon initiatives, including an energy farm, its internet broadcasting station Global Public Media, a proposal for community supported manufacturing and energy, and a citizens toolkit to work with municipalities to pass a peak oil resolution, form a peak oil task force, and sign on to the Oil Depletion Protocol.
Going deeper into the details of Plan C, Community Solution board member and University of Dayton physics professor Bob Brecha described his recently-built straw bale house. The Yellow Springs house has a solar hot water heater, radiant floor heating system, earth plaster, and passive solar features. “Straw bale construction has low operating energy use, low embodied energy because of using waste, local and recycled materials, and involves the community,” Brecha said.
Brecha gave participants practical tips for saving energy in housing. Along with building low-embodied energy buildings such as straw bale houses, he suggested, “Insulate, insulate, insulate, use renewable energy, build smaller and fewer houses, change lighting, and heat and cool to less extreme temperatures.”
“Setting back by 2°F during the day and 10°F during the night would save approximately 15 percent on heating energy,” Brecha said. He urged participants to get a home energy audit from a growing field of “home energy doctors” to help them retrofit for energy efficiency.
Housing expert Jeff Christian of the Building Technology Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee explained his experience with five “zero energy” homes and dozens of different kinds of construction materials. “Each home has a simple house plan, is 50 percent more energy efficient than the typical home, includes a two-kilowatt solar array for electricity, and is constructed using structurally-insulated panels,” according to Christian. Other energy saving features include geothermal heat pumps, high performance windows, and air-tight houses.
For retrofitting existing homes, Christian encouraged participants to get a home energy inspection. Because the largest energy use in a home is space heating, which uses 30 percent of the total energy, Christian suggested adding insulation in the attics, walls, and floors, caulking and weather-stripping windows, sealing all ducts, setting back thermostats and considering window replacements. He also suggested upgrading appliances to energy-efficient refrigerators, front-loading washers, and compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Richard Olson, an environmental studies professor at Berea College in Kentucky, shared the energy- saving strategies of the Berea College Ecovillage which include a community-wide sewage processing plant called an “ecological machine,” an underground rainwater collection cistern and community composting. The homes were built with structurally-insulated panels utilizing a passive solar design. One residence, the Sustainability House, has an attached greenhouse to treat water from the sinks and showers, maintains a composting toilet, and gets all of its electricity from solar photovoltaic panels. “If we’re to have a future economy, the primary energy source will be the sun,” Olson said.
Olson talked about other sustainability initiatives at the college, where, he said, “students, staff, and faculty are transforming their campus into an institution that can survive the coming perfect storm of peak oil and climate change.” He said they are retrofitting campus buildings for energy efficiency, developing a local food initiative to promote a sustainable food system in Berea, and creating educational programs on sustainability.
Olson also emphasized personal responsibility. “We need to start looking at what we can control and how our actions as consumers impact other people,” he told conference participants. “Unless you translate what you learn here into action, then it wasn’t worth the fossil fuels used to get you here.”
Olson left participants with a quote from 19th century nature writer Henry David Thoreau as they contemplated returning to their communities to integrate the conference’s lessons into their lives and work: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been planted, I have faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Megan Quinn is the outreach director for the Community Solution, a nonprofit organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio which educates about peak oil and community-based solutions (www.communitysolution.org). She can be reached at [email protected] . To order DVDs of the conference, visit its website, contact her by email or call 937-767-2161.