Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Big Wheels: Alexander Lefebvre's velocipede, c. 1843, from the collection of History San José.
Life or Death Decision
While peak-oil activists foment panic, the 'Transition' movement sees a graceful evolution back to the Stone Age
By Alastair Bland
FOR THE PAST couple of years, California has seen an uprising of activists who are training themselves and others to grow food and preserve it, to make soap, weave fabrics, build homes and master other essential tasks. They are learning to do the work that we abandoned to the factories and machines in the late 1800s, when the power of burning oil turned life into a leisurely vacation from reality.
That vacation is now ending, they say, and we must get back to work.
Some are reminiscent of survivalists, while others sound like '60s utopians, but they share one belief: The era of oil is over.
"Peak oil" describes a theoretical yet already unfurling scenario in which the easy days of oil-based society have reached an end. Its adherents see a scenario in which global oil production has peaked, and every barrel of crude oil drawn from the earth from this point forth is more difficult to extract than the barrel prior. According to the peak oil theory, the time is approaching when the effort and cost of extraction will no longer be worth the oil itself, leaving humanity without the fuel to power our transportation, factories, farms--society.
How exactly peak oil will affect our world is a question now being asked by thinkers and activists in Silicon Valley and around the globe. Some predict the end of the world as we know it, while others believe we are at the breaking dawn of a better, sustainable society.
Two schools of thought are offering their own answers and predictions. They are polar opposites, with one--the Post Carbon movement, which has a local chapter--taking a gloomier approach. Its leaders voice prophecies of a future marred by hunger and misery.
The other approach is a warm and heartening contrast, a worldwide movement called Transition. Followers acknowledge that oil-based society has some serious obstacles to consider as fuel production volume diminishes. Yet they remain hopeful. They believe that human ingenuity coupled with a reconnection to the Earth's natural resources and seasonal cycles will result in a utopia of community gardens, walkable neighborhoods and skilled artisans at every corner.
Transitionists see the end of cheap oil as the beginning of a better world without as much noise, pollution, and social apathy. Their hopeful outlook has quickly drawn followers in an extensive network of localized uprisings on several continents. The nearest Transition Town is Santa Cruz, where activists launched the concept into action last August. Silicon Valley is yet to see such an organized effort, though several locals are already using the word freely.
Meanwhile, the local chapter of Post Carbon has attracted just a dozen followers in four years of outreach. One, Saba Malik of Redwood City, is wary of being too optimistic of our future. A married mother of two who several years ago began growing conscious of consumption of finite resources, Malik joined a small grassroots organization in 2005 called Post Carbon Santa Clara Valley, where the handful of members discuss, to put it bluntly, the impending end of the oil age. Malik maintains a bright voice and countenance, but she sees a bleak world approaching--if, that is, we fail to prepare ourselves.
Malik believes that hunger and scarcity could become real elements of American life within the next decade as supermarket food supplies dwindle, and she believes that modern society must eventually revert to the frugal farming-based lifestyles and modest living standards of the 19th century.
Localizing a robust food production and distribution system within and adjacent to the South Bay metropolis would be a huge first step toward staving off some of the dire predictions of people like Malik. Malik, though, has seen very little interest locally in preparing for world change.
"In this area, there is no serious effort to mitigate what's about to come down in the next five or 10 years," she says, a trace of despondency slipping through her British accent. "We need massive change now. Actually, we needed it yesterday, but no politicians want to address this, because bad news doesn't sell.
"They would have to tell people to massively reduce their consumption, and people don't want to give up their luxuries that they're so accustomed to having. Some people do little things, but changing your light bulbs and buying hybrids is not going to solve this."
Malik believes that oil production maxed out--peaked--in 2007 or 2008. From here on, she believes, prices of oil and most other goods will see a steady long-term rise as production rates drop off. Individuals will feel the crunch as oil gradually tapers away; we will find ourselves walking more, buying less and, by barely perceptible degrees of change, entering a new epoch.
She also believes that such oil-addicted nations as our own will have an especially painful time adjusting in a world of increasing economic upheaval, regular blackouts, water shortages and even food shortages.
The local Post Carbon group was founded in 2005, but after four years has just a dozen core members.
Brent Woodcock, a high school teacher at Saint Lawrence Academy, where the Post Carbon society meets for monthly discussions, blames this on the place itself--not Post Carbon group's pessimistic outlook. "It's discouraging to have so few people onboard, but I'm not sure what I could really expect here in the Silicon Valley," Woodcock says. "People here are so geared toward fast-paced and high-tech life."
The media has inadequately portrayed peak oil to the public, Woodcock believes, and he thinks that awareness is the first step toward preparing. Only then can a community begin to build its resilience, build a local food production system and fortify local industry.
This concept of resilience was first recognized and defined in 2007 by one Rob Hopkins of Totnes, England, and is the very essence of the Transition movement. Hopkins--the movement's founder--understood that modern Western society cannot continue with its current pace of life as fast access to oil begins to dwindle, the climate changes and the economy melts down, and he named the process of preparing for the post-oil age "Transition."
He quickly gained followers, and Totnes has since become the shining emblem of the movement; residents have planted public walnut trees as a future food source, established their own local currency system and managed to convince public policy makers to cooperate in the Transition process.
Hopkins has written a manual, called The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, which lays out a 12-step plan that can be applied to any community. In an ideal Transition Town, the book advises, 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, metal working and other basics of life, of which most Americans now know virtually nothing.
In Silicon Valley, Transition remains just a topic of eager discussion among a handful of people, yet localized food production is now beginning to take root.
Liz Snyder is the executive director of Sustainable Community Gardens, a San Jose nonprofit that operates Full Circle Farm, an 11-acre plot of land on Peterson Middle School campus in Sunnyvale. Snyder notes that awareness of the importance of locally grown foods is at an "all-time high," though she isn't certain it's for quite the right reason.
"Understanding of peak oil is still really thin," she says.
People are learning, however, as she and other farm managers teach visiting schoolchildren about the importance of communities building their own reliable sources of local food. Full Circle Farm is an educational platform, says Snyder.
"But the concept of the 150-mile radius around us actually shows that growing all our own food is possible."
Snyder believes in the importance of urban agriculture to bolster food supplies, while "urban-fringe agriculture" could be the key to feeding America in the post-oil age, when cheap global and continental transport will be things of the past.
One of the leading experts in the peak oil discussion is David Fridley, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol. Fridley, who says that too many Americans believe in solutions to all problems, explains that peak oil is a terrible anomaly among crises because there is no solution that technology can supply. He doesn't even see any hope in solar, wind, water and other renewable energy sources.
"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."
The problem, Fridley and his followers believe, is that the sheer cost-efficiency of oil eclipses all supposed alternatives. Removed from the ground and burned, oil makes things move almost miraculously. A tank of gasoline in a car holds enough energy to equal approximately five years of one person's rigorous manual labor.
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, paltry substitute; each barrel's worth of ethanol 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. They had to. Roughly 90 percent of the population toiled in jobs that produced our energy, food and water, while just 10 percent reaped the rewards through jobs in politics, the arts, begging and prostitution, among other leisurely fields.
Today, by contrast, merely 5 percent of Americans work jobs that relate to producing food and energy, while 95 percent reap the rewards, many working at abstract tasks in offices. In a world suddenly without machine labor, this top-heavy imbalance will capsize.
Many software executives and traveling businesspeople are unlikely to find bliss in farm labor, and Fridley believes the change will be very unpleasant for many people.
"If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, nondiscretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii," he says, "then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider 'doom,' because your life is going to fall apart."
Too Good to Be True
At the mere click of a finger, objects continents away assume rapid motion and appear at our doorsteps days later. Food and goods are impossibly cheap. Material things built from fossil fuel byproducts surround us, and when we tire of them we throw them away and buy more. The material world has attained a fantastic level of convenience for much of the population thanks to ages and ages and ages of accumulated solar power igniting in a geologic second, and soon the orgy must end.
Even the peak oil theory does not claim that oil will ever run out entirely; it will only become increasingly scarce and expensive--yet Santa Rosa attorney Matt Savinar, an infamous figure in peak oil premonitions, believes this will amount to global catastrophe. His website, Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash (www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net), offers an informational outlet geared toward helping readers survive the impending disaster.
While other peak oil thinkers frequently talk about "when the shit hits the fan," Savinar says that it already has. "The shit is hitting the fan now. It's just happening in slow motion." Asked what individuals can do to ease their way into life after the oil crash, the 30-year-old advises people to "learn basic camping skills." Wilderness survival tactics will also be handy in the world that's dawning.
While Transitionists see the coming change as one of potential enrichment, Savinar's outlook is a bleak and shadowy contrast. He warns that in the foreseeable future the world will experience "staggering horror." While life in remembered times has been about "the pursuit of victory and money," life in the near future "will be about tragedy."
Linda Perrine, Brent Woodcock's co-founder of Post Carbon Santa Clara Valley, also believes that "massive discomfort" is in store for metropolises like the Bay Area, where seething masses of overfed humanity depend on a constant and intensive trucking system for their food, goods and happiness. Perrine eventually jumped ship; she bought a 47-acre farm just outside Eugene, Ore., and she now lives there, ready and able to feed herself and her family if societal failure begins to accelerate. Woodcock also plans to abandon Silicon Valley should the world crumble.
Ken Foster, co-founder of Transition Santa Cruz, is hopeful of the future and openly rejects the fearful warnings of the Post Carbonistas. He operates a landscaping company largely via bicycle commuting and has done so for more than 20 years. He believes that the future will be one of our own design; if we believe that doom will befall us, it just might, and we may have to learn wilderness survival skills. On the other hand, if we take the Transitionist outlook and actively pursue it with others in our communities, we will create a slow-paced peaceful society of perfect sustainability.
Foster believes the Post Carbon group has attracted so few followers in four years of outreach because people are turned off by such negative warnings and predictions. His Transition group, however, has gained roughly 400 members in less than a year.
"Even Post Carbon's name is a fear-based idea, about the panic of peak oil. Transition is about how we can make the descent after peak oil a graceful descent--and the awesome thing about Transition is that we have the final choice in how the future will play out."
Full Circle Farm's Snyder, as well, is clearly a Transitionist at heart. She does not envision a reversion to the Dark Ages but rather sees a progressive future--"an amazing place," she calls it--where people work outside, walk, ride bikes, make things by hand and pull vegetables from the earth.
She points out that San Jose's city government is taking fresh efforts to preserve green space and develop cultivation infrastructure on city land; urban farmers downtown just broke new ground on June 20 on a quarter-acre plot at Emma Prusch Park, and the state and county have plans to convert the 287-acre Martial Cottle Park into an organic farm.
Kerri Hamilton, a community leader who pays particular attention to preserving parks and providing public gardening plots, notes that developers in San Jose are required to pay a fee to the Park Trust Fund. They may, however, have that fee lifted by providing substantial private garden space within the confines of their housing developments.
Snyder sees Cuba as a beautiful example of life after oil; the island nation lost access to Soviet oil in the 1990s and faced an artificial peak oil crisis of its own. "Cuba went through this and survived," she says.
Almost every patch of unused earth was planted with food crops; parking lots were ripped out and replaced with vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes. The world became literally a greener and quieter place to live. "Farming," Snyder adds, "became the highest-paid profession overnight." She believes a similar green revolution could embrace America, with farming becoming a profession to aspire to. Whereas the "brain drain" effect has historically lured young bright people from rural regions to the cities, the near future might see a reverse in the trend, she says, whereby young people aspiring for success actually seek careers in agriculture. Already, the largest new demographic in farming is young women, says Snyder, 32. Her farm manager, she says, is a 29-year-old woman.
Also at Full Circle Farm, Dan Hafeman, the education manager and an avid cyclist, has hope for a future utopia, a quiet sustainable community of bicycles and gardens in every direction. Hafeman has commuted several miles each way to work for three decades without a car, often hauling 40-pound loads of potting soil, and he is living proof that peak oil's transportation crisis doesn't need to be a crisis at all.
Transition--with the capital "T"--may even become a viable force soon in the South Bay. David Herron, a green technology advocate and writer in Mountain View, read The Transition Handbook last year and would like to see its grassroots approach applied to the region, perhaps in a half-dozen or so island communities. Herron welcomes anyone interested in the Transition movement to contact him via his website, www.davidherron.com, to convene.
Fridley, in spite of his predictions of massive economic and social upheaval, also believes peak oil to ultimately be part of a process of overall world improvement. The environment around us has been falling apart for decades due to our excessive consumption of resources, he notes.
In our oceans and wild lands, doomsday has arrived with deforestation, water pollution, fisheries collapse, extinction and other plagues. Peak oil presents cause to rethink and reshape our lives and the world, he says. Perhaps, he suggests, things can only get better.
There remains no doubt, though, that oil and gas are peaking; production rates are beginning to drop out from under us, and as the sun sets on the wreckage of the oil age, this party is over.
But another party could be about to begin.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.