The last time I encountered localism was in the 1990s, when a number of rural towns launched “buy local” or “buy Australian” campaigns in an attempt to stem the bleed of money to distant cities and corporations. Now the idea has been revived, but for a very different reason.

Today’s neo-localism is a response to global warming and the idea that global oil supplies will, within 10 to 20 years (if they haven’t already), reach their maximum production. After that happens, peak oil aficionados say that the price of everything that uses oil in any way – and that’s most things, even it is only for transport – will rise substantially. The implications for our oil dependent society, they say, are profound.

Peak oil is one of those ideas that have spun into mainstream thinking from society’s innovative fringe. What is interesting is how readily the idea has been accepted and how influential and knowledgeable people, some having an association with the oil industry, support it.

Now, concerned citizens in Australia, the US and the UK have decided to take action for themselves rather than wait for further debate or to wait even longer for business and government to take action.

People taking action

Some US peak oilers are already becoming anxious about the prospect of oil shortfall and talk of heading for rural retreats to wait out the deprivation and conflict they see coming as oil supplies dwindle to a critical level.

This probably has a great deal to do with the American tradition of apocalyptic thinking, something which, thankfully, does not afflict their Australian and UK counterparts who show more resilience and determination to take positive action.

Perhaps the UK is the location where citizen action is most advanced. There, in the town of Kinsdale in Ireland, students of the Practical Sustainability course at the local college of further education devised Kinsdale 2021 – an Energy Descent Action Plan (PDF 1.2MB). Essentially an exercise in collaborative scenario planning and the stocktaking of local resources, the students, under the direction of Rob Hopkins, investigated solutions for food, housing, education, health, energy, waste, transport, tourism and the local economy to deal with the changes that peak oil might bring.

To some extent, those solutions could be applied to dealing with the possible impacts of global warming, depending on how they manifest themselves. Were neither of these challenges to eventuate, the process of developing solutions and the solutions themselves should benefit local business, farmers and the town as a whole by stimulating local community and business enterprise and refocusing attention on the wellbeing of the town as a social and economic entity.

Hopkins did not stand still after Kinsdale 2021. In 2005, he went to England. The outcome has been the Transition Town Totnes program, something of a replication of the Kinsdale process although more integrated into the broader community of this little town in Devon. Through a course at the town’s community college, through teams set up following town meetings and through use of the Harrison Owen’s participatory “open space” technique of participatory, do-it-yourself solution discovery, Hopkins has instigated a new process of community self-help.

Peak oil comes to Australia

It was the national speaking tour of American journalist, lecturer, and member of New College of California, Richard Heinberg, and Australian, David Holmgren, that inspired citizens in capitals and country to think seriously about peak oil and its potential impact and to ask what they could do to deal with it. The 2006 tour played to packed houses and attracted not some fringe element but a largely mainstream audience.

Heinberg is author of The Oil Depletion Protocol (New Society Publishers, 2006) which describes ways of dealing with the oil shortfall-rising costs scenario. Holmgren, a graduate in the late 1970s of the then-Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, went on to develop the Permaculture Design System with Tasmanian academic and researcher, Dr Bill Mollison.

In 1978, they published their ideas in Permaculture One (Mollison, B. and Holmgren, D; Corgi, Australia; since published in seven languages). In recent years, particularly since the publication of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Holmgren D, 2002; Holmgren Design Services, Victoria), David has remade himself as a successful public speaker on the subject of sustainability, touring first to promote his book and, later with Richard Heinberg, to promote the peak oil message.

Prior to publication, Holmgren’s energy seems to have gone mainly into the development of his rural smallholding in Victoria but, following the release of his latest book, he has replaced Mollison as the most prominent speaker and teacher of the Permaculture Design System.

Although the pair’s Sydney city talk did not adequately address medium density living to the extent that some in the audience had hoped, it outlined possible strategies for coping with the consequences of peak oil in the suburbs. Through a Powerpoint presentation that took viewers on an imaginary journey over decades, Holmgren described how Australia’s suburbs could be converted to produce food (download Powerpoint) and, importantly for global warming, how housing could be made more energy efficient.

Food production and distribution, more so than home heating and cooling, are large consumers of fuel oil and any strategies which reduce that reliance are pertinent to reducing future global warming and oil dependency.

Relocalisation as solution

The talks inspired a small number of groups to get people thinking about what has become known as the “relocalisation” solution to global peak oil. Among sustainability educators there exists debate over whether peak oil or global warming deserves priority.

Some say that solutions devised for one are often of benefit in effectively addressing the other. All agree that increasing the use of local renewable resources and developing local economies, especially their capacity to cater to local demand and for import substitution, are key strategies in dealing with the potential impact of a reduced oil supply.

The Totnes program provides clues about what local transition associations can do to start people thinking about ways to address the two issues.

Ideas already acted upon include: developing a neighbourhood skills database and relocalisation directory; local food production in market gardens, orchards, home and community gardens; advocating for local government to adopt energy descent plans; and organising walking tours to acquaint participants with local resources relevant to relocalisation. There are more, of course; these are just starting points.

It seems that Australia already has some institutions and initiatives that fit well the relocalisation agenda.

Locally produced food has received a boost through the growing number of farmers’ markets in our towns and cities (see the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association’s Guide to Farmers’ Markets in Australia and New Zealand). These provide a middleman-free market for growers and orchardists in the regions. The increasing number of community food gardens and the popularity of home garden food production – a visit to the gardening shelves of any bookshop will confirm that popularity – would be elements of any relocalisation strategy.

Staying with food, there’s business initiatives like the organic food home delivery services which make use of the Worldwide Web for online shopping, reducing the number of private motor vehicle journeys and, in their own small way, addressing the high energy consumption of supermarkets. And that’s just food – there are many other initiatives that are of value in dealing with a possible fuel shortfall-costs increase scenario.

Well ahead of the environment lobbies

In 2005, author and relocalisation advocate, Helena Norberg-Hodge, told Byron Bay locals that the town needs to look inwards at its own considerable resources to develop a local culture rather than bring in outsiders ( > journalism > Time for a New Localism, says Norberg-Hodge). She wasn’t recommending parochialism, just the development of the local economy and a distinct, local culture that drew on itself rather than from outside the region.

One of the people behind Byron Bay’s successful organic farmers’ market, Norberg-Hodge has since taken that message to other towns where she propagates the idea of relocalisation as a partial solution to peak oil and global warming.

People like Norberg-Hodge, Holmgren, Heinberg and the relocalisation associations now starting to appear have placed themselves well ahead of the major state-based environmental lobbies, for many of which relocalisation is not yet on the agenda.

While the staffs of some environmental organisations seem to spend a lot of time in their offices, the relocalisers are out in society organising meetings, showing videos and talking to people to get their ideas out.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Green Homes program is an exception when it comes to environmental organisations, as is the NSW Nature Conservation Council and its household team-based Community Climate Challenge, limited in extent though it is. Their work directly addresses global warming, indirectly addresses peak oil and proposes the sorts of actions that relocalisers would identify with.

There is now a good argument that state government grants – such as the Environmental Trust grants distributed annually by the NSW Department of Conservation and Environment – should go less to the big, state-based environment groups and, over time and as the groups build their capacity to act, to the relocalisers. Their ideas have broader social value in terms of community and local economic development and livelihoods.

Four qualities needed for success

Peak oilers act in a competitive marketplace for ideas, and to be successful they will have to carefully craft their key messages to have three qualities.

First of all, they need to distance themselves from apocalyptic thinking, from the doom-and-gloom messages associated with past pseudo-disasters. Going back to the late-1960s, these include Paul Erlich’s “population bomb” scenario, nuclear winter, environmental collapse and the Y2K computer glitch. Being seen as yet another disaster scenario does little to empower citizens to act in their own lives and to take the kind of collective action necessary to make positive changes.

Another quality is that of not putting full responsibility for adaptation to peak oil and global warming on the shoulders of households and individuals. It is unlikely that peak oil and global warming will be successfully dealt with without concerted government and industry action. To put responsibility onto individuals and the community alone is to ignore the reality of policy and international accords and the responsibilities of government and industry.

The third quality is that the ideas relocalisers propagate need that difficult-to-define property that makes them “sticky” enough to capture the public imagination and adhere to it. In this, the relocalisers have done reasonably well so far, given that they are really only a proto-social movement at this stage. Their message now needs to be taken further into mainstream society.

Local government – the relocalisation multiplier

Of all the initiatives that relocalisation associations can take, perhaps the one with the greatest potential to create long-lasting, deeper change is encouraging local government to participate in the development of energy descent policies.

Just as the South Sydney Council food security policy of the 1990s, What’s Eating South Sydney?, enabled local food initiatives to get underway, adoption of a policy opens the way for councils to support, in various ways, citizen and local business initiatives that comply with relocalisation aims. Even if the impact of peak oil is not as drastic as some say it will be, the activities enabled by local government policy would still benefit municipalities.

This is still too big an ask for many relocalisation associations. They are new and still finding their feet in the world of community development and advocacy. Many lack the know-how to co-operate in policy formulation, but not all. What they need to understand is that policy is an enabling thing under which a great many socially-beneficial initiatives can be launched.

But how receptive would local government be to developing policy to deal with peak oil? Some councils would not have the slightest interest and relocalisation groups in those areas would have to develop their own policies. Other councils may be receptive once they come to understand relocalisation, especially those – like Randwick, Manly, Hornsby and Warringah councils in Sydney – that employ sustainability educators. Much of what these people already do is compliant with the relocalisation agenda, an agenda that would give their activities a timely, bigger-picture context.

Crises and large scale challenges create fear in many but inspire others to act. Relocalisation is an idea thrown up in response to the possible peaking of the supply of oil and, to a lesser extent, to global warming. What gives it greater value than many of the solutions coming from the environment movement is its broader benefit to society, especially to local farmers, producers, community enterprise and businesses.

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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