What should you do when confronted with news that your assumptions about the future are as baseless as a tabloid headline? Where you thought your life was going, what you’ve been striving for, even what you believe, just a misunderstanding?
People tend to make sense of this crazy world by patching slowly acquired values and expectations into a sort of ad hoc user guide. It may get tattered, occasionally come up short in direction and even need an update from time to time but, as far as we can tell, it does at least provide some kind of guide. But what happens what you learn of something that causes you to consider ripping up the whole thing?
I’m more or less familiar with the sensations of shock and loss, emotions that can sometimes drag anyone into world weary despair, but when I learnt of the reality of Peak oil I was unprepared for the sheer enormity of the implications. Even after 5 years I still don’t think I’ve grasped them all.
Sounds big doesn’t it? It is big. To explain Peak oil is the theory that world oil supplies are finite, that the easy stuff is always used up first and that eventually all that will be left will be the hard to reach stuff. Sounds rational so far? Read on.
Originally proposed in 1956 by Oil geologist M King Hubbert, the theory states that oil production in a well, region and, by extension the world, traces out a sort of bell shaped curve. Discoveries and extraction lead up to a steep incline which plateaus as extraction and discovery slow. Thereafter there’s a corresponding decline until the well, region and yes world, are dry (of course the wells are never really dry but the remaining oil is just too difficult to extract). With his theory, widely dismissed at the time, Hubbert successfully predicted that the US oil reserves would peak in the 1970’s. He predicted world reserves would follow about half a century later.
Whether or not you believe the pundits who claim 2005 was that year, you have to admit that see sawing oil prices, deep water drilling, shale oil hydro fracturing (fracking) and tar sands sort of look like we’re scraping the proverbial barrel of world oil supplies. And when you consider that industrial cultures depend on oil for everything, from the plastic that makes the keyboard I am writing this on, to the clothes I am wearing, the lights I’m sitting under, the food I had for lunch to the transport that will get me home (I cycle and take a train) it gets a little scary. But it’s when you discover that you can’t actually find anything in the room that wasn’t made using oil that the actual meaning of the word ‘disillusioned’ becomes painfully clear. That reality slaps you like a whale’s tail.
When I first discovered these facts, and began the process of finding out more, I couldn’t believe that more people didn’t seem to know about it. With a story this huge in the offing I was sure that any day it would break big in the headlines; there would be the usual debates and denunciations but changes would be made. Well, years have passed and we’ve had plenty of the former and, as usual when it comes to the really big problems of our time, very little of the latter. Despite some industrious attempts to ignore and discredit the facts haven’t actually changed. In reality the situation has gotten worse and each year that clicks by represents more missed opportunities.
It’s not all bad news (yet) though. Remembering that the real change seldom comes from the top, I began to look around to see if I knew anyone who was already making moves to cope with this changing tide. As it turns out there are a few, they’re not going to shout about it but they’re certainly aware of the challenges ahead.
Nicky, Permaculturalist, Bristol
When I first came across the term Peak oil it made a lot of sense to me. How can their possibly be enough energy resources to sustain the current level of consumerism? But I also have apprehension about the future. Just look at the risks we’re taking: fracking, tar sands, coal gasification, open cast coal mining and drilling for oil in the Artic are desperate measures fuelling our addiction. It seems to me that many scientists have either dismissed it or are simply singing the party line. It’s obvious that no solution will be found if there’s no consensus on what the problem actually is.
The reality of peak oil is already making an impact on my life. I’ve family in Africa but pretty soon I won’t be able to afford to fly and see them, fuel will become so expensive that travel will become elitist. The consequences won’t be limited to travel – transport of resources and food will be affected also. If the UK doesn’t start growing more food locally we will experience food poverty. I’m not saying all the oil will run out but, it will be so expensive that it just won’t be accessible.
These issues are ignored in the mainstream but most people know what’s going on. I am working hard to gain skills to aid in a low impact future, but more and more people need to do the same. I used to work in retail, a very consumer driven world, but after hearing of these issues I decided to get out of it by doing a permaculture design course and running a community food waste project called Peoples Kitchen. I changed the circles I moved in to those with an emphasis on community initiative. I even moved out of London to be in a more natural environment. Currently I’m doing a practical sustainability course in Bristol and doing my best to connect with more people of similar values – it wasn’t easy at the beginning of this journey as I didn’t have many friends on the same page but the challenge has been worth every bump in the road! You’ve got to do the best you can.
From TV transmissions to local transitions
Miranda, TV Production Manager, London
I heard about peak oil from a friend of mine who’d read a book about it. She has four small boys and was seriously freaked out. Her response made an impression. Particularly as everything that is man-made, including our food, has oil as a major component in its manufacture or transport. That’s all that separates us from a 17th Century lifestyle.
The next 10 years will be difficult as the alternative energy options won’t be in place, nuclear power stations won’t have been built. I don’t think I’ll be able to travel as much – and half my family and friends live overseas. If the internet is affected, it will make a massive difference to my life. I’m uncertain about my job options but I think TV production will still happen, as long as there’s power!
If enough people could think along the lines of limiting energy use, reducing and reusing resources, bringing back the repair and share culture, the possibilities are endless! It could be tremendously exciting – and community bonding. I’m guessing there would probably be a lot more face to face interaction like live music and theatre if there’s less TV, but by candle-light! The transition town movement, of which I am now a part, has lots of great ideas for resilience. Since finding out about all this I’ve tried to make some real changes. I’ve spearheaded a community garden project in SW London, which is now thriving and am now a part of a community energy group too. Both have given me fantastic opportunities to meet other locals – sometimes hard to do in this manic city.
A final thing to say is that I’m enormously irritated by the political party’s insistence on emphasising our differences and encouraging blame culture. All that does is divide and polarise people into playground factions! So we distrust our ‘opposition’ when in truth everybody has some really good ideas that could be shared. It’s vital to encourage positivity when the future looks so unclear to people. People can turn their hand to anything when pressed – I’m trying to prove that at least.
Picking another way
Lewis, Project Manager, London
Learning about peak oil was a life changer, particularly as I found out about it shortly after coming to terms with the reality of climate change. It made sense, but I can’t say it was welcome. I watched films, read books and did some research, which made me want to get skilled up and prepare for a future of inevitable shocks, where the norms of stability that we’re used to no longer apply. I’d debate how things might play out in this future scenario with other clued up friends. Would it be a good thing and herald a new age of cooperation and hope? Or would it descend into anarchy?
As an activist I have to be an optimist, so I’m hoping that we’ll make the necessary rapid transition to non-fossil fuel technology. Peak oil has already changed my life; my diet and my work hours, which I’ve reduced to make more time for learning, growing and mending stuff; how much stuff I buy and, most significantly my decision to stop flying seven years ago.
My friends have often joked about forming ‘apocalypse teams’ once the first major shocks hit us; we’ll meet somewhere and head for the hills with our combined skills and specialities. I think my love of Mad Max in my younger years may have influenced my thoughts more than I’ve realised! In reality, recent climate disasters have proved that in times of stress, people come together and help each other. Community has been severely eroded in recent years, but we can build it back. Indeed many people are; community food growing is such a great example of how community action on the ground is blooming in cities right now.
Once I moved to London to work for Learning through Landscapes, I discovered how food has the power to bring people together regardless of class and colour, and in this diversity is strength. These days I work full time on urban, community orchards with the London Orchard Project, itself inspired by the transition town movement.
It’s sad that we’ve gotten to this point, but it is also an opportunity for us to wake up and rethink what it means to be human right now. We have the technology and ideas but just need to wrestle free of the stranglehold of a system that values ideas of profit, endless economic growth and consumption over people and planet. I’ll continue to do the work I do, keep to the changes I’ve made, and continue to participate in acts of civil disobedience as I believe that once we reach a critical mass of resistance to the destruction of our planet, then change will come. Something is brewing.
Care in the (green) community
Freya, community manager, London
I grew up in a very eco-conscious household and we travelled a lot so I grew up pretty well informed about environmental issues, my understanding further cemented by my Geography degree.
To me, the theory of peak oil obviously makes a lot of sense. Of course, at the current rate our natural resources are going to peak and then slip into indeterminable decline. From my very limited knowledge of the subject, garnered mainly from the popular press rather than rigorous academic research, this crisis presents a golden opportunity to create the widespread, embedded and global change of the energy sector which we desperately need. Peak oil could be the trigger for research, design and ultimate justification for green technology!
Of course, my jaded fear is that “business as usual” will prevail whilst corporations pass the problem onto the next generation.
The only way I can see foresee a happy outcome is for the population to shift to renewable energy suppliers. This will pressure investment in to green sectors. I’m afraid I have no more answers than this – if I did, I’d be doing it!
Freya works with Project Dirt
Till it like it is
David, Counsellor & Psychotherapist, London
It does seem obvious that fossil fuels can’t last forever and that a peak would be reached given what oil actually is – fossilised algae from millions of years ago.
It was a shock to find it actually expressed though. People have a great capacity to compartmentalise difficult information, and I was no exception. Since finding out I’ve become far more active in my local community, support Greenpeace, volunteer for a community garden, promote recycling initiatives where I live and try to do more each day – it’s not easy.
Knowing about the finite and declining nature of fossil fuels makes me keener to live a more sustainable life. Although I think it will take time to have the maximum effect on my lifestyle. I think others in more vulnerable positions on the planet are will be affected much sooner than us in the UK. I really feel the problem is that the radical effects are always just far enough in the future to make them easy to forget day to day.
We now have an opportunity for all of our ingenuity to be focussed on renewable clean, sources of energy and better more sustainable ways of living. The “misfortune” is that vested interests keep trying to squeeze more oil out despite the vastly declined returns and increased pollution and environmental destruction. However, we’re the ones propping these interests up, if we use our imaginations instead of letting ourselves be led we can simply begin to replace the current destructive and obsolete system with one that works for all.
David also volunteers for the Tooting ‘Foodival’
Kristian, Activist, London
I think we, at the London Nomad Community, may be doing what we are doing because of Peak Oil. We believe in organic gardening, growing food and building a positive community by creative interaction. The resources that we currently take for granted are going to be going away – we’re doing something to ease in to that change.
We hold quite a daring vision, one which addresses the current global food production inefficiency from farm to plate. Rather than having everything shipped and flown from god know how many miles away, depleted in nutrients and being laden with chemicals, we feel a future of localised farming in cities, towns and villages alike is the sustainable future that is now emerging. Whether this happens smoothly or amidst a chaos of panic is up to us as individuals. I think that by taking personal measures and changing our own attitude, we could spread awareness of this issue. – getting organised into groups and networks to take real physical action. The resources and people with the skills, experience and initiative exist; but the time is ticking away.
We’ve some great ideas in mind for our project here at Rochester Square in Camden. For instance, one way of realising a localised network of sustainability is with the technology of Aquaponics – recycling nutrients from Fish effluent to grow plants with. Yielding 10x as much crop than conventional methods. This means that in relatively small spaces, we can feed our urban population with good quality produce which is grown a mere few miles away. Such centres can be combined to include spaces for community activity as well as be demonstrative of renewable energy – something like a next generation community centre. A collaborative network of food growing community hubs can be optimised to provide enough healthy food for everyone, dissolving the illusion of scarcity. The answers are already all there, it’s just that many are taking no notice. I think change will come by showing people what it looks like rather than demonstrating against what we already have.
A new direction
Hilary, Theatre Director, London
‘Peak oil’ is a huge wake-up call. I hadn’t realised how pervasive oil was in our lives, nor really thought about its impact on the way we live and consume. It’s a finite resource laid down billions of years ago and not in any way easily replaceable so we should be treating it with care, instead of something that gushes from an infinite tap! Lots of people I talk to have no idea, they think of oil as just something that powers cars and planes.
At first I read a fair amount – talks by Jeremy Leggett and Rob Hopkins, followed blogs and online newsletters and even reports from the International Energy Agency. More recently I’ve not really concerned myself with the detail because I think the underlying situation is so clear and obvious that it feels like an unnecessary distraction.
Finding out about it definitely changed my outlook. It motivated me to join Transition Town Tooting and modify how I use the household things I used to take for granted. It also prompted me to try and spread the word. I began to give a number of talks about peak oil to audiences ranging from schools and community groups to professional groups. I started with graphs and quotes to demonstrate what I was talking about but eventually I found images showing the range of things made from oil and of early oil wells with oil gushing out of the ground compared with tar sands extraction processes today simpler and more immediate.
I don’t see the point in blame as the issue is a systemic thing, a consequence of human existence on the planet and the way we have grown and evolved. We didn’t foresee it, but right now we are way too slow in recognising and adapting for it – but I retain hope if enough people know about it then we’ll steer away from the cliff at the last minute. Stranger things have happened.
Find out more about Transition Town Tooting
So now that you’ve heard about Peak oil, maybe for the first time, and about what some are doing about it, there’s a few ways this can go: you could pretend it doesn’t exist (we’re all good at that one), you could utter the holy words ever used by the faithful from the Church of progress – ‘they’ll think of something’ – or you could look at ways right now, this very day, that will allow you to prepare for a radically different tomorrow. No one ever knows exactly how anything will turn out (reminds me of that old joke: Q. what do you call an economist who makes predictions? A. Wrong.), but if there’s even a hint of a bumpy ride the wise always belt up and put their seat upright. Seems there’s quite a bit to get done and we seem to have landed just at the right time.
For more info on Peak oil these sites are a great place to start: