On peak oil, climate change, thinking global and acting local

I’ve just finished reading the Transition Handbook. Reading it has changed me. I’ve known about the transition movement for some time – I’ve been hearing Peter Merry talk about his experiences in the early days of Transition City Den Haag. We’ve been talking about transition countries – even Transition Planet. Now I know better what the fuss is about, and I’m all fired up!

The Transition Initiative is definitely a product of our times. To quote Richard HeinbergIf the 20th century was one of unprecedented growth in nearly every significant parameter (population, energy use, per capita consumption levels, etc.), the present century promises to be one characterised by declines in nearly all of those same categories, along with catastrophic weather events and drowning coastlines”.

The Transition Initiative is concerned with the transition to a post-fossil fuel society, based on the necessity of change forced by the twin premises of peak oil and climate change. Heinberg again: “Fossil fuel depletion might be seen as a good thing, given the horrific environmental costs of using those fuels. But our societal dependencies on oil, coal and gas constitute an enormous collective vulnerability, since there are no ready substitutes capable of fully replicating their services.


Fossil fuel addiction

Thus, as fossil fuels go into decline, we will see a century of contraction in consumption levels that could cause the global economy to implode, undermining the survival prospects for the next generation. Unless we wean ourselves from these fuels proactively, societal support systems will crash just as the global climate gets pushed past a tipping point beyond which there will be nothing humans can do to avert worst-case impacts including sharply rising sea levels and devastated crops. Depletion and climate issues converge to make a deliberate, cooperative transition away from fossil fuels the centrepiece of our human survival strategy for the remainder of the 21st century.”

When I stop to think about everything in our society that depends on fossil fuels, I get a runaway list that takes my breath away and leaves me in despair. So it’s not OK to stop there, after delivery of the bad news. That just leaves us feeling overwhelmed and fatalistic. What the Transition approach does is hitch onto the terrifying reasons for change a vision of the future which is not only well within our grasp but also extremely uplifting and compelling, because – no matter how you look at it – it is so much better than what we have now.

Resilience and relocalisation

Using local materials – cob building

Central to the Transition approach is the concept of ‘resilience’ – the ability of a system, from individuals to whole communities, to hold together and maintain their ability to function in the face of change and shocks from the outside. Founder Rob Hopkins insists that as we move to cut carbon emissions, we must give equal importance to rebuilding the resilience of our communities. If we fail to do so, we will cook our goose anyway. The degree of oil dependency of economic globalisation – irrespective of the injustice and environmental destruction it has caused – means that we have no choice now but to move towards more localised, energy-efficient and productive living arrangements. What becomes clear from the Transition Handbook is what fun that’s going to be!

Visions of how we could be living

Imagine communities where homes are made from local materials, set in edible landscapes, grown according to permaculture principles and capitalising on local varieties of fruit and vegetables. Intensive organic gardening techniques, carpentry, nutrition and cooking, composting and using local building materials are part of the standard educational curriculum and many pupils and students run their own enterprises in service of their community. Local currencies, backed by the national currency and by locally-produced energy and food production, keep wealth in the community. Healthcare is about wellness and education, the population lives a healthier lifestyle, with more exercise and better diet (less processed food); doctors prescribe (and procure) locally-sourced medicines. Energy efficiency and retrofitting, domestic solar panels and wind turbines and other locally appropriate energy sources feed locally-owned and managed minigrids that supplement the national grid and keep the community energetically independent.

Edible landscape

There are a host of reasons why relocalising the economy is both desirable and inevitable. They are all set out in the Transition Handbook and they all make sense. Much more sense than our current trade relations in many cases. As a convinced European, I squirmed to read that “In 2004, the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; we imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream by weight, from France, and exported 9.9 million.” All the difference that such transactions make in the world is to burn the fossil fuels and pump carbon into the air – oh, and have lorry drivers sitting in one position for 12-15 hours a day away from their families… and enrich the middle man… and inflate the trade figures and the GNP. When I get back to work at the European Commission after my holiday, I’m going to start asking some serious questions!

Honouring our humanity: Storytelling and addiction strategies

Local currency

Another key ingredient to the Transition approach is telling new and appetising stories about the future. “Our culture is underpinned by cultural myths we all take for granted: that the future will be wealthier than the present, that economic growth can continue indefinitely, that we have become such an individualistic society that any common goals are unthinkable, that possessions can make you happy, and that economic globalisation is an inevitable process to which we have all given our consent.

So true. And so clear that we need new stories “that paint new possibilities, that reposition where we see ourselves in relation to the world around us, that entice us to view the changes ahead with anticipation of the possibilities they hold.” This is where the Transition approach differs starkly from conventional environmental campaigning. It leaves us not wallowing in guilt, anger and horror, but excited to get started. “Rebuilding local agriculture and food production, localising energy production, rethinking healthcare, rediscovering local building materials in the context of zero-energy building, rethinking how we manage waste, all build resilience and offer the potential of an extraordinary renaissance – economic, cultural and spiritual.”


Intriguingly, the Transition Initiative recognises that our early 21st century societies are addicted to fossil fuels, and part of its approach is to get to grips with the psychology of addiction and change. For my money, recognising and tackling these inner obstacles will be one of the keys to the movement’s success. The other will be its ability to build strong friendships and community as an unavoidable by-product of the process.

Power to the people – and a new role for government

Governments generally don’t lead, they follow. Many of the decisions that governments would have to take to facilitate “Powerdown” (reducing consumption and moving to a post-fossil fuel economy) today seem inconceivable from an electoral perspective. But if communities have already set out where they want to go, moving towards a positive, co-created vision of a lower-energy future, then they can start to set a very different agenda: “Here is our plan: it addresses all of the issues raised by the coming challenges of climate change and energy security, and it will also revitalise our local economy and our agricultural hinterland, but it will work far better if carbon rationing is in place, and if the true costs of fossil fuels are reflected in goods and services”. Policies which were once electoral suicide now become election-winners.

A learning expedition for participatory democracy

The Transition Initiative has a great recipe for getting people involved. First it holds an evening talk on a topic – like food, energy, building using local materials, etc.  Then, a few days later, it holds an Open Space Day around the same subject, inviting people to come together to dream and co-create the community’s next steps around the topic in question. This is the royal road to harvesting the community’s collective intelligence and creating ownership for locally-generated solutions.

The transition movement is spreading virally across the world. In three short years it has replicated itself in more than 90 different locations, from small communities to large cities and even bioregions. It provides a strong support network for new initiatives and learnings from one community spread rapidly to the others through a community wiki and newsletters.

The other part of the equation: global governance

The transition movement is a powerful and hope-giving grassroots template that can provide a lot of solutions to the ‘localisation’ part of the equation. But since so much of the problem has to do with globalisation, we’ll get nowhere if we can’t tackle that, too.

“Governments remain reluctant to address [the climate change] threat because any country acting alone to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, without similar commitments by other governments, risks damaging the competitiveness of its industries” (Financial Times – 16 November 2006). In other words, it is not that governments don’t want to act, it’s that they fear it will harm their economic competitiveness in the global market.

Destructive international competition

According to John Bunzl, the man behind the Simultaneous Policy campaign, the problem lies in the relationship between governments, and in particular its destructively competitive nature. This astoundingly simple and obvious insight seems to have escaped us all in this era of globalisation. The failure to ‘grok’ the primacy of this fact is most likely rooted in the dominant Rational worldview that underlies the nation state system and drives the current economic paradigm. That worldview can see the fish (the individual players – nation states and corporations), but not the water that governs their relationship (destructive competition). Destructive competition is the chief weakness in this worldview that renders nations incapable of dealing with the new life circumstances created by globalisation.

Almost regardless of the global problem we seek to address – be it climate change, trade justice, human rights or global poverty – and almost regardless of what NGOs, charities and activists may do in an attempt to mitigate them, no substantive progress is likely unless and until the underlying problem of destructive competition between nations is adequately recognised and dealt with.

Freedom to act constrained by competitive pressure

The above figure shows how the need to maintain competitiveness constrains governments. Where the competitive pressure between nations is low, as it is on domestic issues, they remain relatively free to act. But as soon as that competitive pressure stiffens – as it does for all international issues under globalisation – their freedom to act is severely curtailed.

When we look a little deeper, we see that this destructive competition also undermines democracy. The free movement of capital and corporations forces governments to implement only policies that won’t displease global markets. So whatever party we elect is constrained to a very narrow range of business-friendly policies that maintain international competitiveness. In terms of macro-economic, social and environmental policy, it no longer matters much who we vote for, or whether we even vote at all.

According to John Bunzl, any solution to this abysmal state of affairs must meet three criteria:

  • It must be global – Because the free movement of capital and corporations is global, only global governance can suffice. Since there is currently no global supranational body with binding authority over nation states, the solution will have to come – at least to begin with – from the level of nation states themselves.
  • It must be implemented simultaneously in all countries – Given the vicious circle of destructive international competition, any solution must be implemented simultaneously to cut the cycle. Only if all or enough nations act simultaneously, will no nation, corporation or citizen lose out to any other.
  • It must operate through existing electoral systems – Since the most powerful governments may not see global cooperation as in their interests, the citizens must use the only power they have – existing electoral systems – to compel their governments to cooperate.

If left to reach a critical stage, competition as a strategy for individual survival becomes a strategy for collective suicide. We have now reached the point where cooperation is in everyone’s self-interest. But to achieve cooperation at a new higher level without descending into chaos, we need not only global and simultaneous action to overcome the barriers to international cooperation – we also need a catalyzing political process.

This is what the Simultaneous Policy campaign (Simpol for short) is seeking to provide. And it really is simple: individual citizens join the campaign by writing to all parliamentary candidates in their electoral area, informing them that they’ll be voting in future national elections for ANY candidate or party (whose other policies they don’t find objectionable…) that pledges to implement the campaign’s global policy package simultaneously alongside other governments. Politicians who sign the pledge attract those votes and yet they risk nothing because the policy package gets implemented only if and when sufficient governments around the world have signed up too. But if they fail to sign the pledge they risk losing their seats to their political competitors who have.

The policies that qualify for inclusion in the global policy package are those that generate an affirmative answer to the question: “Would the unilateral implementation of the policy measure (i.e. by a single nation or by a relatively small group of nations) be likely to have an adverse effect on the nation’s (or group’s) competitiveness?” – the yellow field in the figure below.

The Simpol playing field

Currently, the policies are selected and developed by the community of citizen-adopters through an annual proposing and voting process. The next big challenge will be to develop this collective policy formulation process so as to maximise on the collective intelligence of the greatest possible diversity of contributors. I can imagine the work of Tom Atlee around Citizens’ Deliberative Councils being invaluable in this context.

Where local and global meet

I can’t help putting two and two together at this point – what the Simpol campaign and the Transition Initiative have in common is that they are both driven by individuals acting collectively. I see no reason why grassroots movements like the Transition Initiative cannot take care of the ‘grey areas’ in the above figure – where the degree of freedom for local action is high – while the Simpol campaign – or something like it – takes care of the yellow areas where nation states must collaborate or we will all die.

Both the Transition movement and the Simpol campaign are using the internet to reach out globally – to collaborate across distances and spread their message virally. They are also harnessing the power of community to spread the word and educate the public. With our growing arsenal of social technologies for collaboration and communication, humanity is not sitting idly by waiting for disaster to strike. We have everything we need to make the leap to the future that most appeals to us. We just have to believe it and act accordingly.

Permaculture vision

About iyeshe

Woman returning to the wild. Cunning linguist, mother of twins, witch, host, harvester, spaceholder for the dawning Aquarian age, evolutionary wooden-spoon wielder, self-mitigating carbon footprint, wannabe holon in the forthcoming collective buddha...
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2 Responses to On peak oil, climate change, thinking global and acting local

  1. Pingback: Zero Energy | All Days Long

  2. Pingback: An adventure in intentional manifestation | Dorpsstraat

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