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06.17.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Michael Amsler


HOW DOES YOUR... Home food production is an 'entry-level' survival tactic, says Scott McKeown.

Cheer Up, It's Going to Get Worse

Transition communities gear up for society's collapse with a shovel and a smile

By Alastair Bland


Three years ago, David Fridley purchased two and a half acres of land in rural Sonoma County. He planted drought-resistant blue Zuni corn, fruit trees and basic vegetables while leaving a full acre of extant forest for firewood collection. Today, Fridley and several friends and family subsist almost entirely off this small plot of land, with the surplus going to public charity.

But Fridley is hardly a homegrown hippie who spends his leisure time gardening. He spent 12 years consulting for the oil industry in Asia. He is now a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, where members discuss the problems inherent to fossil-fuel dependency.

Fridley has his doubts about renewable energies, and he has grave doubts about the future of crude oil. In fact, he believes to a certainty that society is literally running out of gas and that, perhaps within years, the trucks will stop rolling into Safeway and the only reliable food available will be that grown in our backyards.

Fridley, like a few other thinkers, activists and pessimists, could talk all night about "peak oil." This catch phrase describes a scenario, perhaps already unfurling, in which the easy days of oil-based society are over, a scenario in which global oil production has peaked and in which every barrel of crude oil drawn from the earth from that point forth is more difficult to extract than the barrel before it. According to peak oil theory, the time is approaching when the effort and cost of extraction will no longer be worth the oil itself, leaving us without the fuel to power our transportation, factories, farms, society and the very essence of our oil-dependent lives. 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, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider 'doom,'" he says soberly, "because your life is going to fall apart."

The Great Reskilling

But is it the end of the world?

Fridley and other supporters of the Transition movement don't believe it is. First sparked in 2007 in Totnes, England, Transition was launched when one Rob Hopkins recognized that modern Western society cannot continue at its current pace of life as fast access to oil begins to dwindle. Global warming and economic meltdown are the two other principle drivers of the Transition movement, but in an ideal "Transition Town," society would be ready for such changes.

With limited gas-powered transport or oil-based products, a Transition community's citizens 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 the other basics of life which the Western world largely abandoned to factories in the late 1800s, when oil power turned life into a relatively leisurely vacation from reality.

Now, Transitionists say, it's time to get back to work—and quick. Localized efforts have sprouted from the ground up in Santa Cruz, Cotati, Sebastopol, San Francisco and many other towns worldwide, where residents and neighbors are putting their heads together and collaborating on ways to relocalize themselves, bolster self-sufficiency and build the resilience that communities will need to absorb the shock of peak oil.

Scott McKeown is among several initiators of Transition Sebastopol. A 53-year-old event coordinator by vocation, McKeown believes that as early as 2012 the global economy could founder. "That's when it's really going to hit the fan," he says. "We're not there yet, but we will be very soon."

McKeown founded Peak Oil Sebastopol in late 2007 as a public discussion forum for what was then becoming a popular topic of relevance among social reformers. Yet Peak Oil Sebastopol eventually proved a bit too heavy on the talking for McKeown.

"I wanted to shift from a discussion group to an action-based effort," he explains. "Transition attracted me as a way in which we could actually begin doing something."

Transition Sebastopol was born in 2008 as the ninth Transition Town in the United States. Boulder was the first; Sandpoint, Idaho, the second. Today, 27 Transition Towns, also called Initiatives, have assumed life across the nation, and what began as an idea has become a concrete reality in which people are taking action. In particular, McKeown has seen tremendous community interest in the growing of food. Currently, the average parcel of food comes from untold distances away. The common estimate is 1,500 miles, though some experts assure that most food travels much farther.

Such external dependence will no longer be feasible after peak oil, and communities must be capable of producing all their own goods in fields, orchards and gardens within miles. In and around Totnes, for example, community nut trees have been planted as a sure source of protein and calories in an uncertain future.

In outlying regions of the Bay Area, backyard food production is already an after-work hobby for thousands, and interest in edible gardens appears to be growing fast. At Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol, demand for edible plant seeds, starters and saplings has never been greater, according to nursery manager Kirsten Tripplett. She estimates that sales of lettuce, kale and tomato seedlings has jumped by 25 percent this year, with a particularly large portion of sales going to customers who have never before gardened. Fruit and nut saplings, too, sold out weeks ahead of schedule this winter.

"My reading is that this is the silver lining to the economy going south," she says. 

McKeown, though, calls food production "the entry-level thing to do" among Transitionists; other essential actions must be taken for a Transition Town to cushion itself against the drastic changes predicted in post-oil society. A viable Transition Town must be capable of producing its own materials, tools and other products that society now imports from half the globe away. With machines and factories no longer readily available, almost every citizen would need to participate at some level in production of food, energy and goods.

To address this, Transition founder Hopkins details a 12-part process in The Transition Handbook, which has sold more than 10,000 copies nationwide. In its pages he describes, among other essentials, "the Great Reskilling," an effort in which communities must retrain men and women in such trades and artistries as seed-saving and food-growing, pickling vegetables, building simple structures, installing rain catchment systems, building composting toilets, and many other fundamental life skills which most of us simply know nothing about.

Crude Scenario

Yet it was only a little over a century ago that society first got swept up on the thrilling wave of oil-age progress. In the 1850s, societies functioned largely as local entities, without deep reliance on global economies or crude oil. Many, if not most, Americans lived on or near farms. We knew how to labor with our hands and feed ourselves. In short, people worked—and our elders can just about remember that era. In fact, The Transition Handbook includes a chapter titled "Honoring the Elders," urging Transitionists to dredge from old-timers information and anecdotes from the days before cheap oil. McKeown is currently at work on such a project for Transition Sebastopol, seeking out locals in their 80s and 90s who were young adults during or before the Great Depression.

"It would do us good to talk with these people who remember what it was like to live in a pre-hyperconsumption era," he says.

Michael Levy, a private music teacher who helped found Transition Santa Cruz last summer, agrees that scaling back on individual consumption is among the most fundamental of actions in the Transition movement.

"Most of us don't know how to grow food or preserve food so that we can have things in the winter that grow in the summer. We also don't know how to make basic things, like structures and buildings. Even simple tasks like repairing clothes, we just don't even bother anymore. We've become a throwaway society."

With peak oil and economic ruin looming over us like teetering skyscrapers, Transitionists argue that we can no longer afford such wastefulness. For a while, perhaps even a few more years, this matter may remain one of individual choice and lifestyle, but eventually prices will rise, imported products will begin dwindling from shelves, and we will have no choice but to move into a new era. Fridley says too many Americans believe in solutions to all problems, but peak oil is a terrible anomaly among crises, he explains, because there is no solution. Fridley doesn't even see any hope in solar, wind, water and other renewable energy sources. Even nuclear power creates only electricity, while crude oil is the basis for thousands of synthetic products.

"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. It's like living off of a savings account, whereas solar energy is like working and living off your daily wages."

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 sedan 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 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, holding soft-palmed positions in politics, the arts, begging and prostitution, to name several 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 is poised to capsize.

Post-Peak Pleasures

Asher Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, has been trying to convey the urgency of peak oil to the North Bay community for several years. Miller, a full supporter of the Transition movement, believes global peak oil occurred last summer. From here on out, we will see severe price instability of many foods and products as change comes unfurling. The age of cheap, easy energy is over. Miller likens the last 150 years to a feeding frenzy.

"This kind of thing happens to any species that suddenly finds an abundant food source. Its population explodes and things go way out of balance. Oil was our food source, and we went crazy for a while."

The theory of abiotic oil counters that of peak oil. The theory holds that forces within the mantle of the earth create crude oil just as fast as we burn it up. Proponents of the notion believe, then, that oil is a renewable resource and that peak oil cannot happen. Some of these same theorists have called peak oil a lie promoted by greater powers as a means of artificially hiking prices. Little to no evidence, however, supports the existence of abiotic oil.

Even the peak oil theory does not claim that oil will ever run out entirely; it will only become increasingly scarce and expensive. Miller believes the things we have today may still be available in the simpler times ahead; there will just be fewer of them and they'll be more expensive.

"I'm sure you'll always be able to get something if you pay for it," he says. "It just might cost you $10,000 to buy a computer."

Fridley does not see peak oil as doomsday, though he predicts that there might be "die-off," just as marine algae bloom and crash periodically. In fact, Fridley views Transition as a process of world improvement. The environment around us has been falling apart for decades due to our excessive lifestyles, he notes. In our oceans and wildlands, doomsday has already arrived with deforestation, water pollution, fisheries collapse, extinction and other plagues. Peak oil presents an urgent cause to rethink and reshape our lives and the world for the better, he says.

Jennifer Gray, who founded Transition United States in Sebastopol two years ago, also believes peak oil could open doors to happiness that most Americans never knew were there. A native of the United Kingdom, Gray moved to Mill Valley in 2007 after helping to get Transition rolling in Totnes. She believes that redefinition of wealth is one of the essentials to the Transition movement.

"We need to make that paradigm shift that having less may actually mean that you have much more, and in this country it's hard to convince people of that."

Shit Has Hit

But the worst-case predictions of post-oil society come from Santa Rosa attorney Matt Savinar, a controversial figure in peak oil premonitions. His website, Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash (www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net), offers an informational survivor's guide for what he is certain is an impending disaster. While other peak oil thinkers frequently talk about "when" the shit hits the fan, Savinar says it already has.

"The shit is hitting the fan now," he says unequivocally. "It's just happening in slow motion, and it's not hitting equally in all places."

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. He urges Americans to relocate geographically to within miles of their families, as social support networks will be crucial in the coming age. For himself, Savinar hopes to marry into a large family.

While Transitionists see the coming change as one of potential enrichment—community gardens, cycling, skilled artisans at every corner—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, he predicts, "will be about tragedy. We've been able to externalize this reality to the future and to other places only because we had access to this incredibly dense source of energy," he says.

No longer. Savinar can't say when, but he believes that a time will come well within just one generation when even supermarkets must close their doors. Then, unless the goal of Transition—to build resilience into communities—takes effect soon, chaos could only ensue in a culture so spoiled by excess and mass consumption as ours. In the North Bay, says the Post Carbon Institute's Miller, residents have the open space, the soil, the sun, the water and the resources to hit the ground running when peak oil arrives. What the community doesn't have, he says, is a full collective understanding of how much people need to cut back on individual consumption and how quickly they need to do it.

Savinar says too many people's happiness depends dearly on external items and flimsy concepts of wealth. These people must reprioritize their value systems now and quit "waddling through Wal-Mart." They must wean themselves from the comforts of supermarkets, leisure time and television. They—we—must forfeit luxuries; instead of feasting on steak, one may have to give thanks to a plate of beans and rice. Instead of vacations to Europe, we might have to settle for camping weekends at Salt Point State Park.

Because, if the predictions are true, we will not always have Paris.

Forever Growth?

Fridley has seen peak oil coming for years. From his small Sonoma farm, he may be prepared to feed himself, but our world's dependence on oil goes far beyond food production. Even electric machines need crude oil byproduct.

"Every single machine in the nation runs on lubrication," Fridley says. "If that lube isn't there, then what?"

In theory, the world freezes up. A person may first digest this concept as an abstract, distant nebula, like climate change, extinctions, water pollution and other newspaper headlines. However, when the reality of peak oil hits—when it hits a person so that his or her personal life is deeply affected—it hits hard.

"It's hard to internalize," says Miller, who has seen many people react in many ways to being told that the world in which they have grown so comfortable is about to end. "One tendency is for people to believe that there is a solution, that technology will fix it or that the powers that be will fix it."

But technology and the powers that be run on oil. Santa Rosa author Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute, described peak oil in his much lauded 2003 book aptly titled The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, and indeed, most experts on the matter now agree that the party is over. Transitionists are readying for the new era with open arms while struggling to convince others of the severity of the matter.

In Santa Cruz, several city figures, including councilman Don Lane and the city's climate action coordinator Ross Clark, have stepped up and proven themselves allies of the Transition movement, attending multiple community meetings. San Francisco, too, has acknowledged peak oil, and a city-appointed task force recently submitted to the supervisors a 120-page report detailing the city's vulnerabilities to the crisis.

Savinar has been trying for years to invite government participation in peak oil preparation. In 2005, he sent a letter of warning to each member of the Santa Rosa City Council, advising that they begin aggressively readying the community for peak oil and its aftermath. The letter was articulate and "lawyerly," he says, and included a copy of Heinberg's Party's Over in each package, yet not one councilperson responded.

"And I guarantee that if I was a car manufacturer and I scribbled out a letter with crayons, they would have answered me," he says with a short laugh.

Fridley also believes assistance will not come from the world's leaders. Transition can only be a grass-roots revolution. He points out that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was previously the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where Fridley has done much of his thinking about peak oil and Transition.

"[Chu] was my boss," Fridley says. "He knows all about peak oil, but he can't talk about it. If the government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall Street would crash. He just can't say anything about it."

Thus, world leaders would like to have the populace believe that this oil-age feeding frenzy will continue forever, that the economy will continue to expand and grow. At the 2008 G-8 Summit on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, for example, our leaders declared a resolution to resume economic growth. Fridley says such a goal is impossible, yet no one wants to face the fact.

 

"Ask scientists if something can grow forever exponentially, and they'll say, 'No.' Then ask how our economy can keep on growing, and they'll say, 'Well, it has to.'"

Elsewhere, many politicians and leaders have been reluctant to address peak oil, and full governmental leadership may never arrive. Levy believes that politicians locally and nationally will be even more reluctant to discuss peak oil than they've been to address climate change.

"Transition is probably going to grow from the ground up before the government comes onboard," he predicts.


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