Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Transition Bristol - Preparing for Post-Oil Life

The Transition Bristol talk at the Trinity Centre last night was a very interesting affair with many positive points and plenty of unanswered questions. The talk was about peak oil and how we might prepare for it. If you've not yet heard about peak oil (and gas), its the theory originated by petrogeologist M King Hubbert that oil is extracted from the ground in a predictable manner – initially it gushes out and is easy and cheap to obtain, then it hits a peak whereupon the rate declines no matter what. This, when applied to a regional or global supply means when we hit the peak it is downhill all the way!

(Image 'Peak Oil' by Tim Floyd, from exhibition in winter 2006 at Kebele)

The talk was a very positive and well attended event. In contrast the the first peak oil event in Bristol back in summer 2004 where a small group of us sat in around in St.Werburghs feeling very bleak about the future.

Patrick Holden, director of the soil association opened the evening saying that he felt there were three main issues facing us in the 21st century; climate change, localism and food security, remarking, "If climate change is our guilty conscience then peak oil is the train about to hit it..." He went on to introduce the main speaker Rob Hopkins to a packed out audience of a couple of hundred people.

I'll do my best to summarise Rob's speech: He said that with oil until the peak, demand has driven its supply. After the peak this reverses and supply will dictate demand. He talked of how North Sea supplies have peaked and are some of the most rapidly diminishing energy supplies on the planet. Despite this the UK government says we don't need to worry about supply until 2030 based on official figures. However for various reasons such as OPEC quotas, historically the official figures are often overestimated. He cited Kuwait as an example which may have exaggerated its reserves by double the real amount and if this is true its drops the global supply by 5%! He also talked about peak gas – as big a questions and one that follows the same theory as oil only if seems to happen at a quicker rate as our indigenous supplies that fuel about 90% of our needs currently diminish rapidly. So when will the peak hit? In the US it hit in 1970, in the North Sea it hit in in 2004. Globally the figures go from a couple of years ago up to 2050. Rob suggested that if you look to the independent surveys on the issue they tend to go for somewhere around 2009 to 2012. If this is the case, he noted, then we need to act and quoted the Hirsch Report into the Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management commissioned by the US Department of Energy;

"The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."

Coupled with the predictions of peak oil cited, that would mean action needed to begin a couple of years ago! From here he said there are four possible routes;

- Techno-Fantasy – where technology solves all our problems with sci-fi advances such as mining the moon and so on.
- Green Tech Stability – where we carry on as we are just using greener technology alternatives and hope it works out.
- Earth Stewardship – where we begin to prepare to the low-energy future as best we can.
- Atlantis – where the empire of man falls. ("The world shrinking down to a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true." - from The Road)

He suggested that Earth Stewardship is the only reasonable approach to the issue. The Techno-Fantasy is too much of a risky dream, the Green Tech Stability ignores reality (for example to run the current cars in circulation on biodiesel would take four times as much agricultural land as we have in the UK).

He talked of the issues of 'resilience' and that the amount of resilience a community has is a measure of how well it can adapt and cope with the rising oil prices that will follow the peak. This has already happened in Cuba, who following its loss of cheap oil from the former Soviet Union has to adapt, and has done so amazingly.

So what can be done? He said we need to increase the resilience of our communities. Things like local composting, planting trees with produce we can eat, local building materials, local investment schemes and currencies. This will also mean a huge range of changes; moving to low/zero energy building based on local materials, new local economics, re-discovery of old knowledge from the pre-oil days, a great practical re-skilling, designs based on local availability, growing hemp (hurah!). He set his students as Kinsale, Ireland to look at the issue and together authored the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan – a vision of a post-oil community. This has since been adopted by the town council to be implemented. There is also an ongoing project in Totnes.

Following his speech, which got a huge round of applause, Barbara Janke (LibDem leader of Bristol City Council) stood up and said she was interested in looking at this issues. Questions from the floor followed; how would a large urban area like Bristol with suburbs cope? (it was suggested that Bristol is more like a collection of villages and so it may need to be done on a community level) How do we stop people green-washing the issue (good point, no clear answers as to how), how would these ideas fare in the face of corporations/governments who saw their power eroding (we have to build the institutions and infrastructure we would like to see in the post oil world.

A couple of reflections occur – we can't be underestimate about how the powerful will respond to this crisis. We have already witnessed the launching of a global resource war (under the disguise of the 'War on Terror (TM)' which has seen tens of thousands killed, millions displaced and billions spent in the pursuit of control of the diminishing oil supply.

Another reflection is how rubbish our local paper is. On the day of this talk the Evening Pest ran with the headline 'The Quay to Success?' - an uncritical gushing about an identikit 'development' project who's design is to make the waterfront look like any other waterfront and is the antithesis of everything the packed Transition Towns meeting was discussing. (Note: this is another SWRDA project, the vacuous, gray bureaucrats who are backing another white-elephant in the form of the Bristol Airport expansion).


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