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06.17.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jenn Irland
DIY FARMING: Michael Levy, second from left, and other members of Transition Santa Cruz want to keep food production close to home.

The End of The World As We Know It

And the optimistic apocalyptic group Transition Santa Cruz feels fine.

By Alastair Bland


IN LATE MAY, a small grassroots organization called Transition Santa Cruz convened for an evening meeting at the police station on Center Street. The subject of the hour was how the community could bolster Santa Cruz's public transportation system and steer residents away from sprawl and dependency on cars for every outing and errand. Led in part by Micah Posner, director of the cycling advocacy group People Power, the discussion quickly veered into a debate over whether or not high-density housing would facilitate a public rail system or do the opposite and lead to more cars on the streets.

One woman, who identified herself as a 30-year resident of the Westside, stood to say that dense residential infrastructure will likely lead to more traffic and congestion, and she scorned the 20-acre Delaware mixed-use development as a disaster in local neighborhood planning. Posner countered that residents of densely populated neighborhoods tend to demand public rail transport, which in turn facilitates the growth of adjacent high-density housing, a virtuous cycle that eases urban sprawl and the need for people to drive cars at all.

But architect Mark Primack, who led the planning of the Delaware project, said city policies are partly to blame for traffic; Santa Cruz, he noted, pointedly favors building proposals that promise to include parking infrastructure in the blueprints--a recipe for cars and congestion that must change.

All of this, however, seemed far beside the point to Julie Voudreau, who stood after an hour of debate to remind the 70 attendees just why they had gathered on this Thursday evening. Voudreau, a member of Transition Santa Cruz's steering committee, said that drastic change is coming whether we want it or not, that there is no point in discussing whether or not we should be driving, and soon, in fact, the luxury to make such choices will not even exist.

"We're here," she said, "to talk about peak oil."

"Peak oil" is a familiar catch phrase, though the gravity of its truest meaning still eludes much of the populace. In theory it represents the end of modern society as we know it, a scenario in which global oil production has peaked and every barrel of crude oil drawn from the earth is more difficult to extract than the one before it. According to this theory, the time is approaching when the effort and cost of oil extraction will no longer be worth the oil itself, leaving humanity without the fuel to power our transportation, factories and farms--and disrupting the very essence of our oil-dependent lives.

But Transition Santa Cruz and its several hundred members firmly believe that, although dramatic change may be in the works, we can prepare for it if we reorganize the way we live. The organization was born last summer as just one localized faction of the worldwide Transition movement, which first began in 2007 in Totnes, England. It was there that one Rob Hopkins recognized that the modern world will not be able to continue on its current trajectory when fast, easy access to oil peaks and begins to dwindle--or when global warming and economic meltdown, the other two drivers of the Transition movement, become inescapable realities.

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 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, metalworking and other basics of life that humanity largely abandoned to the factories in the late 1800s, when oil power turned life into a sort of leisurely vacation from reality.

Now, Transitionists say, it's time to get back to work, and in Santa Cruz Michael Levy, a private music teacher-turned-activist, is helping to lead the charge. He helped launch Transition Santa Cruz in July 2008, when oil prices in the United States soared to record highs. Levy even wonders if global peak oil occurred last summer, and with the financial upheaval that occurred so shortly thereafter, he is certain that something is seriously amiss in the world.

A financial system based upon debt and an economy based upon a dwindling fuel source are fated to fail, Levy says--and possibly soon. He and the handful of others on Transition Santa Cruz's steering committee would like to see Santa Cruzans pull together, relocalize production of food and goods, build resilience into the community and hit the ground running when the oil crash arrives.

"I want to plant the seeds for an alternative system of living, because the current system is in trouble," Levy says. "We need to become more self-reliant and be able to handle big changes like peak oil and climate change."

Eat Local First
Fully localized food production is among the top priorities of Transitionists worldwide. Currently, the average parcel of food travels a great distance before landing on our dinner tables; the commonly cited estimate is 1,500 miles, though some experts assure it's much greater. Such external dependence will no longer be feasible after peak oil, and communities must be capable of producing all their own goods in local fields, orchards and gardens. In and around Totnes, for example, community nut trees have been planted as a sure source of calories in an uncertain future.

In Santa Cruz, Levy says, locals could live well on food from local farms and from backyard and community gardens.

"Within the city limits, the potential for growing vegetables is huge, and we could probably get all our food from Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties," he says.

Rebecca Thistlethwaite, too, sees opportunity in local agriculture. Thistlethwaite raises pigs and chickens at T.L.C. Ranch in Watsonville and is a volunteer consultant to the Transition Santa Cruz Food Working Group. She knows the capacity of the surrounding regions to produce food but says Santa Cruz County has historically discouraged agricultural development. Thistlethwaite, for example, must send her pigs to sites in Glenn and San Luis Obispo counties for slaughter and butchering because lawmakers have never allowed such facilities in the tricounty area. This uncoordinated infrastructure makes each T.L.C. Ranch pork loin, which Thistlethwaite sells at local farmers markets, a 300-mile piece of meat rather than the 20-mile piece it could be. The local Transition movement aims to smooth out such bureaucratic potholes.

"Otherwise we'll always be dependent on faraway places for food, especially protein sources," says Thistlethwaite. "We have almost no protein sources in the county."

Other things must happen for a Transition Town to cushion itself against the drastic changes predicted in a post-oil society. Among these is relearning old trades and crafts.

"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," says Levy. "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 throw-away society."

In a viable Transition Town, resourcefulness and thrift would prevail as citizens learned to produce their own goods, tools and other products that societies today often import from halfway around the globe. With machines and factories no longer readily available, almost all citizens would need to participate to some level in such production.

To address this, Transition founder Hopkins detailed 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 crafts as saving seeds and growing foods, pickling vegetables, building simple structures, installing rain catchment systems, building composting toilets and many other fundamental life skills of which most dwellers in the modern era know nothing.

It wasn't so long ago that this was just ordinary life. In the 1850s, societies functioned largely as local entities, without deep reliance on global economies. Many, if not most, Americans lived on or near farms. They knew how to work with their hands and feed themselves. This was true well into the 20th century--and our elders can remember that era. In fact, The Transition Handbook includes a chapter titled "Honoring the Elders," in which Transitionists are advised to gather information and anecdotes from old-timers about life before everything was mechanized, prepackaged and seemingly effortless.

Life Out of Balance
A smattering of theorists believe the days of oil will never really end, that petroleum is a renewable resource produced by "abiotic" forces inside the earth at a rate sufficient to match current human use. They're in the minority. That theory lacks substantial support from energy scientists and geologists.

Among those who believe oil is peaking and that humanity is looking at tough times ahead is David Fridley, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a regular speaker at Transition Santa Cruz meetings. Fridley believes the effects that peak oil will have on the world are going to be unpleasant for many people.

"If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, discretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider 'doom,' because your life is going to fall apart."

Fridley, a firm believer in Transition, adds that too many Americans believe in solutions to all problems. Peak oil, however, is a terrible anomaly among crises, he explains, because there is no solution other than to face reality and prepare for a dramatic change of lifestyle. Fridley does not believe in abiotic oil. Nor does he see much hope in solar, wind, water and other renewable energy sources. Even nuclear power only creates electricity.

"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 purported 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--an almost mind-boggling analogy that illustrates the impossibility of replacing oil power with manual force. 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 oil 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. Roughly 90 percent of the population toiled in jobs that produced our energy, like coal, food and water, while just 10 percent of the populace reaped the rewards through jobs in politics, the arts, begging and prostitution, to name several fields. Today, by contrast, just 5 percent of Americans work jobs that relate to producing food and energy, while 95 percent reap the rewards, working at abstract tasks in offices. To be suddenly denied machine labor in a nation like ours--which has been built upon oil-age expectations--this top-heavy employment imbalance can only do one thing, peak oil folks say: capsize.

Fridley, in fact, is already preparing personally for the food shortages that can be expected in the near future. Three years ago he purchased 2 1/2 acres of land in rural Sonoma County. He planted drought-resistant blue corn of Zuni stock, fruit trees and basic vegetables while leaving a full acre grown with forest for firewood collection, and today he and several friends and family subsist almost entirely off this small plot of land, with surplus going to charity.

Apocalypse Now
Asher Miller has been trying to convey the urgency of peak oil to the public for several years. As executive director of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, Miller believes global peak oil occurred last summer. From here on out, he says, we will see severe price instability of many foods and products as the age of cheap, easy energy comes to an end. 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 American lifestyle has come to epitomize the worst of unsustainability; 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. Complex 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 of accumulated solar power igniting in a geologic second, and soon the orgy must end. Miller believes the things we have today may still be available in the simpler times ahead, just in lower numbers and at a higher price. He even doubts global transport will entirely vanish.

"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 also adheres to the feeding frenzy analogy and believes there might be a "die-off," just as marine algae blooms and crashes periodically. Yet 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, adding that in our oceans and wild lands, doomsday has already arrived with deforestation, fisheries collapse and extinction. Peak oil gives us cause to rethink and reshape our lives, he says.

Other peak oil proponents, however, see catastrophe. Some of the most frightening predictions about post-oil society come from Santa Rosa attorney Matt Savinar, an infamous figure among peak oil believers. His website, www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net, doubles as a survivalist clearinghouse, with information on dehydrated food and solar-powered batteries and updates on "financial collapse." 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. 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.

While Transitionists see the imminent change as one of potential enrichment--community gardens, cycling, skilled artisans on every corner--Savinar's outlook is bleak and shadowy. 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" as supermarkets close their doors and towns devolve into chaos, all because the lifeblood of oil has drained away.

"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.

'There Is Always Hope'
Michael Levy of Transition Santa Cruz strikes a decidedly more optimistic tone. "People who feel hopeless about this are doing so because they feel alone, due to the erosion of community in our society," he says. "But the power of coming together and acting in solidarity is tremendous, and that's what Transition is about. Anyone who says there is no hope is not being realistic. There is always hope."

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 attended multiple meetings of Transition Santa Cruz. San Francisco, too, has acknowledged peak oil, and a city-appointed peak oil task force recently submitted to the supervisors a 120-page report detailing the city's readiness for and vulnerabilities to peak oil.

Elsewhere, most politicians and leaders don't take peak oil seriously, and full governmental support 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.

Fridley also believes assistance will not come from the world's leaders. Transition can only be a grassroots 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," says Fridley. "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."

Fridley says no one wants to face the fact that the oil-age feeding frenzy can't continue forever. "Ask a scientist 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.'"

But it can't, and the peak oil folks say something will have to give. The question is when--and will we be ready? The small gathering of 70 people who met at the Center Street police station in May believe, or at least hope, that we have time to prepare.

"I believe peak oil is going to have enormous consequences for the culture, civilization and the world," said Chuck Atkinson, a retired UCSC professor of creative writing who attended the meeting last month. "There's been very little government involvement so far, and I think this will start from the ground up."

And it is. Transition movements are appearing worldwide--there are now roughly 150 localized efforts using the capital "T"--and a small yet promising faction of the world clearly recognizes that, as the sun sets on the oil age, a revolution will occur, and we have two choices: React or prepare.

Because with oil peaking, this party is over.

DAVID FRIDLEY will be delivering a lecture on 'Energy Alternatives and the Energy Transition' on Thursday, June 18, 7pm, at the First Congregational Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz.


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