From The Santa Cruz News
June 23, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California
…Voudreau, a member of Transition Santa Cruz’s steering committee, said that drastic change is coming whether we want it or not, that there is no point in discussing whether or not we should be driving, and soon, in fact, the luxury to make such choices will not even exist.
“We’re here,” she said, “to talk about peak oil.”
But Transition Santa Cruz and its several hundred members firmly believe that, although dramatic change may be in the works, we can prepare for it if we reorganize the way we live. The organization was born last summer as just one localized faction of the worldwide Transition movement, which first began in 2007 in Totnes, England. It was there that one Rob Hopkins recognized that the modern world will not be able to continue on its current trajectory when fast, easy access to oil peaks and begins to dwindle—or when global warming and economic meltdown, the other two drivers of the Transition movement, become inescapable realities.
But in an ideal Transition town, society would be ready for such changes. With limited gas-powered transport or oil-based products, a Transition community’s people would live within cycling distance of one another in a township built upon complete self-sufficiency, with extremely localized infrastructure for agriculture, clothes making, metalworking and other basics of life that humanity largely abandoned to the factories in the late 1800s, when oil power turned life into a sort of leisurely vacation from reality…
A financial system based upon debt and an economy based upon a dwindling fuel source are fated to fail, Levy says—and possibly soon. He and the handful of others on Transition Santa Cruz’s steering committee would like to see Santa Cruzans pull together, relocalize production of food and goods, build resilience into the community and hit the ground running when the oil crash arrives.
“I want to plant the seeds for an alternative system of living, because the current system is in trouble,” Levy says. “We need to become more self-reliant and be able to handle big changes like peak oil and climate change.”
In a viable Transition Town, resourcefulness and thrift would prevail as citizens learned to produce their own goods, tools and other products that societies today often import from halfway around the globe. With machines and factories no longer readily available, almost all citizens would need to participate to some level in such production.
To address this, Transition founder Hopkins detailed a 12-part process in The Transition Handbook, which has sold more than 10,000 copies nationwide. In its pages he describes, among other essentials, “The Great Reskilling,” an effort in which communities must retrain men and women in such trades and crafts as saving seeds and growing foods, pickling vegetables, building simple structures, installing rain catchment systems, building composting toilets and many other fundamental life skills of which most dwellers in the modern era know nothing.
It wasn’t so long ago that this was just ordinary life. In the 1850s, societies functioned largely as local entities, without deep reliance on global economies. Many, if not most, Americans lived on or near farms. They knew how to work with their hands and feed themselves. This was true well into the 20th century—and our elders can remember that era. In fact, The Transition Handbook includes a chapter titled “Honoring the Elders,” in which Transitionists are advised to gather information and anecdotes from old-timers about life before everything was mechanized, prepackaged and seemingly effortless…
“If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, discretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider ‘doom,’ because your life is going to fall apart.”
“There is nothing that can replace oil and allow us to maintain life at the pace we’ve been living,” he says. “Crude oil is hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight, and we’re using it all up in a few generations. It’s like living off of a savings account, whereas solar energy is like working and living off your daily wages.”
The sheer cost-efficiency of oil eclipses all purported alternatives. Removed from the ground and burned, oil makes things move almost miraculously. A tank of gasoline in a sedan holds enough energy to equal approximately five years of one person’s rigorous manual labor—an almost mind-boggling analogy that illustrates the impossibility of replacing oil power with manual force. Historically, too, oil has been very easy to get since the world’s first well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859; for each barrel’s worth of energy invested in the process of accessing crude oil, 30 barrels are produced, says Fridley. By contrast, ethanol is a paltry substitute; each barrel’s worth of oil invested in ethanol production produces a mere 1.2 barrels of raw product. Other renewables offer similarly poor returns. “The thermodynamics just don’t add up,” Fridley says.
Put another way, societies of the pre-oil age worked their butts off. Roughly 90 percent of the population toiled in jobs that produced our energy, like coal, food and water, while just 10 percent of the populace reaped the rewards through jobs in politics, the arts, begging and prostitution, to name several fields. Today, by contrast, just 5 percent of Americans work jobs that relate to producing food and energy, while 95 percent reap the rewards, working at abstract tasks in offices. To be suddenly denied machine labor in a nation like ours—which has been built upon oil-age expectations—this top-heavy employment imbalance can only do one thing, peak oil folks say: capsize…
They Got Hope
“People who feel hopeless about this are doing so because they feel alone, due to the erosion of community in our society,” he says. “But the power of coming together and acting in solidarity is tremendous, and that’s what Transition is about. Anyone who says there is no hope is not being realistic. There is always hope.”
Transitionists are readying for the new era with open arms while struggling to convince others of the severity of the matter. In Santa Cruz, several city figures, including Councilman Don Lane and the city’s climate action coordinator, Ross Clark, have attended multiple meetings of Transition Santa Cruz. San Francisco, too, has acknowledged peak oil, and a city-appointed peak oil task force recently submitted to the supervisors a 120-page report detailing the city’s readiness for and vulnerabilities to peak oil.
Elsewhere, most politicians and leaders don’t take peak oil seriously, and full governmental support may never arrive; Levy believes that politicians locally and nationally will be even more reluctant to discuss peak oil than they’ve been to address climate change.
“Transition is probably going to grow from the ground up before the government comes onboard,” he predicts.
Fridley also believes assistance will not come from the world’s leaders. Transition can only be a grassroots revolution. He points out that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was previously the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where Fridley has done much of his thinking about peak oil and Transition.
“[Chu] was my boss,” says Fridley. “He knows all about peak oil, but he can’t talk about it. If the government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall Street would crash. He just can’t say anything about it.”
Fridley says no one wants to face the fact that the oil-age feeding frenzy can’t continue forever. “Ask a scientist if something can grow forever exponentially, and they’ll say, ‘No.’ Then ask how our economy can keep on growing, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it has to.’
But it can’t, and the peak oil folks say something will have to give. The question is when—and will we be ready? The small gathering of 70 people who met at the Center Street police station in May believe, or at least hope, that we have time to prepare.
“I believe peak oil is going to have enormous consequences for the culture, civilization and the world,” said Chuck Atkinson, a retired UCSC professor of creative writing who attended the meeting last month. “There’s been very little government involvement so far, and I think this will start from the ground up.”
And it is. Transition movements are appearing worldwide—there are now roughly 150 localized efforts using the capital T… a small yet promising faction of the world clearly recognizes that, as the sun sets on the oil age, a revolution will occur, and we have two choices: React or prepare.