ROCHESTER, Michigan – Peak oil activists from across the nation gathered on a college campus over the Halloween weekend to confront the scary prospects of declining worldwide oil production – and to focus on how they and their communities can cope.
Despite grave reports of imminent and permanent falloffs in oil production, combined with financial meltdown and climate instability, participants at the Fifth US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions left Oakland University with strategies to dramatically cut energy use – plus the optimism that they can accomplish much.
“People can find ways to lead happy, fulfilling lives even as this doomed system crumbles all around them,” Russian immigrant writer Dmitry Orlov told the 250 conference attendees at the longest running annual peak oil conference in North America, this year a joint effort of the Yellow Springs, Ohio-based Community Solutions and the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center outside Detroit.
Other speakers offered ways to make needed lifestyle changes – from creating household self-reliance to securing water supplies and increasing soil fertility, to saving gasoline with innovative ridesharing solutions using cell phones and the internet, to cutting utility bills by retrofitting homes to use 80 percent less energy and installing solar hot water systems. Community-level strategies were offered with presentations on creating resilient communities and forming Transition Towns, a community process for economic re-localization which started in England.
Pat Murphy, executive director of Community Solutions, said that cooperating, sharing and curtailing in community must triumph over competing, hoarding and consuming. “Consumerism took our souls, but community will return them,” Murphy said.
Murphy, author of Plan C: Community Survival Strategies of Peak Oil and Climate Change, focused on our severe economic challenges. He said that while peak oil could mean a slow decline in our standard of living and climate change could eventually make the planet uninhabitable for humans, we now also face a financial crisis that may require involuntary and immediate curtailment of energy and resource use.
Orlov described the five stages of economic collapse underway in America today. He noted that the financial collapse has already begun with the disintegrating credit pyramids and the bailout treadmill, in which foreigners either buy our debt or its monetized causing hyperinflation. He said the signs of commercial and political collapse are also becoming clear, as global shipping slows and big box retailers struggle, and states experience major budget shortfalls and slash programs.
“Customer service comes to mean that customers must provide a service,” Orlov, author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, said of a fast approaching time when skills mean more than money. He also foresees shifts in consumption from “all you can eat” to “all you can scrounge” and from buying new products to the mantra of “keep it running.”
Orlov touched on the importance of community in concluding that we can avoid social and cultural collapse, but it will require that people extend personal virtues of generosity, compassion, and charity beyond family and friends to a wider circle “who matter to us, and we to them.”
Author John Michael Greer suggested to participants that a “window of opportunity” was opening for the peak oil movement, in which we can re-define what’s practical, possible, and necessary for survival. He said that similar opportunities arose during the Great Depression and in the 1970s oil crises.
He said that this led in the 1930s to the government adopting previously radical ideas, such as government insurance of bank deposits, social security, and legalized labor unions, and in the 1970s to recycling, organic agriculture, appropriate technology and alternative energy.
Greer, author of a just-released book, The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, argued that highly volatile oil markets with record high price spikes has helped to shift the energy discussion. He quoted former US Energy Secretary James Schlesinger’s famous comment that America has only two modes of response to energy issues – complacency and panic. He said that peak oil activists have gotten use to complacency as a way of life and forgot, “how quickly panic can take hold and get very large numbers of people thinking about the unthinkable in a hurry.”
Greer ended his talk with an inspiring possibility: “The grandchildren of our grandchildren will tell their grandchildren stories about this time, the time when everything changed. And what each one of us does this weekend, and in the months and years that follow, has the power to shape those stories far into the future.”
Peter Bane, editor of Permaculture Activist, advised how to increase household and community self-reliance, such as by securing and storing water supplies, using humanure to increase the fertility of depleted soils, utilizing weeds for medicinal purposes, and sharing our houses. “The quickest way to reduce our ecological footprint is to share things,” he said, adding that while the previous period in human history was about moving away due to the availability of cheap energy, the next period will be about returning home, where “your help and warmth is needed.”
Food activist Chris Bedford talked about how to get communities to use local, organic food as an economic development strategy and persuade schools to purchase healthy, local food. He stressed the importance of organic agriculture, which is equally productive as conventional agriculture in good times, but twice as productive during droughts. He foresees organic farming as the high knowledge job of the 21st Century, and a coming identity crisis for conventional farmers when they realize they don’t know how to grow food without fossil fuels.
John Richter, from the Institute for Sustainable Energy Education, gave an overview of renewable energy. He said that despite great potential, renewable energy constitutes only a small percentage of US energy production, is more expensive than fossil fuels, and provides only intermittent power. Richter cited subsidies misdirected into fossil fuel production as a continuing challenge and concluded that renewable energy is only a partial solution. “Curtailment, or at least serious conservation, is also needed,” he said.
Passive House specialist Katrin Klingenberg discussed her vision for reducing home energy use by up to 90 percent through continuous insulation, air tightness, optimal solar orientation and shading, and the use of thermal breaks, which reduces heat loss through highly conductive materials. “These create steady indoor temperatures that won’t drop below 50 degrees without a heating source,” she said, explaining that her own Passive House is so efficient that she can heat it with a hairdryer.
Several innovative post-peak oil transportation schemes were proposed at the conference. A short-term solution, which uses the existing infrastructure of roads and cars, was the “Avego” shared transport system, a new service that aims to fill empty car seats through GPS technology, cell phones and web services. Sail boating was presented as a long-term utility which requires little maintenance or industrial infrastructure, and since its energy source is wind, is truly sustainable.
Localization activist Michael Brownlee presented the Transition Towns model as a way for people to work in their communities towards re-localizing production of food and other goods, plus services. He quoted Transition model creator Rob Hopkins, who defined the Transition movement as a “creative, engaging, playful process, wherein we support our communities through the loss of the familiar and inspire and create a new lower energy infrastructure which is ultimately an improvement on the present.” Among the “resilience indicators” for communities that he proposed were the percentage of food produced locally, the ratio of car parking space to productive land use, and the number of 16-year-olds able to grow 10 different varieties of vegetables.
Community Solutions Outreach Director Megan Quinn Bachman described her vision of a community economy, in which essential needs are met close to home and security is not defined by how much money we accumulate, but in the acquisition of valuable skills, the support of neighbors, and the maintenance of healthy, diverse, and productive habitats. Voluntary changes and sharing resources will be critical, she said, warning of the dire implications of fierce resource competition during an energy decline.
Author and peak oil educator Richard Heinberg, speaking via webcast, said it was important to act from the bottom up because power holders enthralled to their vested interests won’t lead the transition to lower energy use. He called for developing crisis management and disaster response programs and contingency plans to deal with coming economic hardship. “We need a way to circumvent political polarization and revitalize culture while addressing the immediate economic crisis,” he said. “Now is the time for alternative movements to stop being alternative,” Heinberg concluded. “We need to become the mainstream.”
Participants left Oakland University inspired to put what they had learned to cut energy use to work. One described the conference as a "kick in the butt" to get moving and another said, "I realized the power that resides in my own choices and the decisions of my own community."
George Perkins, a participant from Louisville, KY, echoed a similar view of the need for both personal and community empowerment. “This conference reinforced a sense of urgency to make significant personal changes and raise awareness in my community," he said.
Megan Quinn Bachman is Outreach Director of Community Solutions, a non-profit based in Yellow Springs, Ohio which promotes energy reduction strategies for peak oil in the household sector. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To download conference presentations or order DVDs of the event, go to http://www.communitysolution.org/08conf.html