by Erik Lindberg
Transition Milwaukee is the local branch of Transition USA, which works closely with the Transition Network, a UK-based organization that started it all. To learn more, visit transitionmilwaukee.ning.com, or attend one of the many events announced on the website. –Ed.
When people think about environ-mentalism or the green movement, many picture wind turbines and solar panels, hybrid cars and canvas shopping bags. Sustainability means changing your light bulbs to CFLs, buying products advertised as biodegradable or organic, paper instead of plastic, and separating recyclables.
You may shop at farmers markets and encourage legislation for high-speed rail. You probably lower your heat, insulate your house and bundle errands to limit driving.
You “lower your carbon footprint” while listening hopefully to promises of clean-burning natural gas, ethanol-fueled cars, carbon-dioxide free nuclear, and new sources of oil.
Hang out with Transition Movement people, and you’ll hear a different conversation – words like resilience, localization, re-skilling, powering down and energy descent.
Instead of talk about recycling, you’ll hear discussions about creative reuse. In a Transition member’s refrigerator you’ll probably see fewer neatly packaged foods with a Whole Foods label, and more slightly misshapen or dented homegrown vegetables – foods that are really whole. Where some environmentalists may chat about new “green” products, Transition members attend soap-making workshops or spend a work-day on the nearest community garden. You’ll hear a lot about peaks: peak oil, peak uranium, peak water, peak coal, peak iridium, peak economy, peak everything.
Instead of a future that looks like the present, Transition envisions a future with greatly reduced energy consumption. This “powerdown” or “energy descent” suggests a future in which local community becomes more important than individual consumption, in which neighbors not only know each other, but work together to increase their community’s resilience and self-sufficiency.
Transition envisions a world with far fewer cars, in which cities and neighborhoods are re-configured so as to support walking, biking, and mass transit, in which people use products they make or are made locally. Looking to the future, Transition sees gardens everywhere, pantries filled with home-canned goods, fruit cellars packed with carrots, potatoes, and squash, fruit and nut trees lining our streets. The soft clucking of hens replaces the constant buzz of traffic; the noise of cars and trucks everywhere, all the time.
The pastoral Transition vision may be optimistic. Given the immense challenges posed by entrenched political, economic, social, and ideological expectations on the one hand, and rapidly diminishing natural resources, crashing eco-systems, and run-away climate change on the other, it may appear unrealistic. But it is far more realistic than the mirage of continued economic growth in a clean-energy economy.
The truth of it is that the amount of energy provided to us by fossil fuels is irreplaceable. Oil is perhaps the most unique and versatile substance ever discovered. The concentration of the easily extractable and useable energy it contains is staggering and unprecedented.
Consider a few examples: a diesel truck can move 80,000 pounds five miles in five minutes, using only one gallon of fuel. Importantly, it can do this while carrying on board enough of this magic liquid to repeat this task for hours on end. Without oil, this amount of work becomes a monumental task. Provide a strong and motivated person with a well-made hand cart, and this work would take him or her 80 days or more.
Consider the amount of oil-powered work performed on every American’s behalf and you’ll realize that our weekly, even daily, consumption could take a year of non-oil powered labor to support.
In fact, the average American consumer uses the amount of energy that 50 “energy slaves” could produce. Imagine 50 people in your backyard, peddling stationary bikes, day and night, year round. That’s the amount of energy we use to support our comfortable lives, our global consumerism, our digital service economy.
The average calorie of food you eat needed 10 calories of fossil fuels to grow, transport, package, and store. Cheap oil makes it possible for Norwegian fish to be shipped to China for processing and packaging, and then back to Norway for sale as a local food. An average of 350 gallons is used per person, per year, on food for Americans. A 400 horsepower combine tractor is just that: the power of 400 horses.
While we use a staggering amount of energy in our daily lives, a different sort of energy is expended to convince us that this sort of consumption can continue indefinitely, whether with oil or with alternatives. Simple math, addition and subtraction (perhaps some multiplication and division for dramatic affect), reveals this to be the illusion that it is. There just isn’t that much oil left (even if burning it wouldn’t make the earth uninhabitable). We have used about half of all the conventional oil that ever existed on earth. Most unconventional oil (tar sands or shale oil) take nearly as much energy to extract as they produce (this is referred to as ERoI: Energy Return on Investment). At current use rates, with no increase in consumption, there are less than 40 years of oil in reserve.
But our problems don’t begin only as we consume our last few barrels. At Transition meetings you’ll hear a lot about Peak Oil. Peak Oil signifies the moment that the world’s production rates top out (currently at 85 billion barrels a day and unlikely to go much higher). After this, extraction becomes increasingly difficult, expensive, and slow. Meanwhile, we have organized our world so that demand will increase and is in fact necessary to keep our precarious economic system from imploding. Skyrocketing prices and economic and political turmoil are likely to follow Peak Oil. Resource wars will become more frequent and more intense.
But what about alternatives like solar, wind, and waves? What about the hydrogen economy that has been promised? What is more prevalent than the sun and wind? Isn’t hydrogen the most common element in the universe?
It is of course impossible to prove that there won’t be some unimagined and unprecedented technological breakthrough to provide a clean energy source equivalent to the one provided by oil and other fossil fuels.
However, there is very little evidence that a breakthrough is in the works. Optimistic projections predict that wind and solar and other renewable sources of energy can supply about 20% of the energy we currently use. Hydrogen takes more energy to extract and store than it produces. It has countless practical problems that make its widespread use all but impossible, even if we did have the time and political will to completely rework our entire energy and transportation infrastructure. Notions that the market will respond to supply and demand forget that the price markers that trigger change will occur at the moment when we need new sources; they don’t allow for the necessary decades of planning and building.
There is great emotional incentive to grasp at renewable straws, even without the marketing machine dedicated to conjuring and maintaining such illusions. Our history of technological breakthroughs gives the impression that technological innovation is entirely reliable. Sixty some years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took flight, we put a man on the moon. Certainly inventing a new energy source wouldn’t be as insurmountable as that!
But our widespread faith in technology needs to be put in the perspective of energy. The age of great inventions and technological breakthroughs has also been the age of cheap energy. We need to start considering the way in which energy should receive primacy over the technology that is has made possible. Likewise, the ubiquitous model of economic growth and increased prosperity may in fact be a story about energy rather than economic freedom or unfettered market forces.
Telling a New Story
The Transition movement has taken note of the fact that drastically decreased energy consumption is all but inevitable. Its immediate task is to raise awareness about climate disruption and resource depletion as well as the likely future we can reasonably expect.
But its mission is nothing short of leading the charge in reorganizing our world – nearly everything about it – so that we can survive and prosper in a world without cheap and plentiful energy.
Our communities lack the resilience to deal with price-shocks in oil, coal, and natural gas, not to mention their gradual disappearance. Resilience and community building need to be at the top of our agenda.
One of the most important ways of building our resilience is the process of re-skilling. Education for citizens of post-industrialized nations focuses not on making things but on making money. Skills, arts, and technologies needed to grow our food locally, build using local materials, subsist on water and energy found within our region were commonplace only a few generations ago. But they are increasingly absent in a world where all needs and wants are satisfied by others, often others who live on the other side of the globe.
The need for localism is obviously significant and pressing. Our expectation that we can and should be able to have things made or extracted anywhere is an-oil fed entitlement. Globalism needs cheap oil; relocalization is inevitable in a post-oil world. Our communities and neighborhoods will become the center of our lives – whether by choice or necessity.
This can be grim and terrifying stuff. Perhaps the greatest revolution in expectations is necessary and is upon us. The potential for disruption is tremendous and frightening.
Yet The Transition Movement rings with optimism and roars with gleeful laughter.
While planning for community rebuilding and localization, members of the Transition Movement have made an amazing discovery: working side-by-side with your friends and neighbors toward a common purpose can be a source of great joy.
Hopefulness is self-perpetuating and has a force and momentum greater than that of combusting oil.
Unlike material energy, hope does not follow the second law of thermodynamics. There is no such thing as Peak Hope, Peak Joy, Peak Resilience, Peak Friendship. As we reconnect with others, turning off the TV, lowering the lights, and moving closer to each other’s warmth we discover that the world of individual consumption and personal comfort may have prevented us from enjoying far more important and beautiful things.
For more information on Transition check out the Transition Handbook on this website: