A Future Without Oil

By Rob Hopkins22.10.2010Global Policy

Our current system of trade is based on the availability of cheap fossil fuels. Yet the time nears when prices will rise and oil will become increasingly scarce. If we want to avoid this vulnerability, we must now begin to think about ways to reduce our dependency and promote the idea of self-sustaining towns and communities.

In June, Lloyds Insurance and Chatham House issued a report called “Sustainable Energy Security: strategic risks and opportunities for business”, which argued that “energy security is now inseparable from the transition to a low-carbon economy and business plans should prepare for this new reality”. So what might it look like if our response to climate change is also designed to respond to energy security, and the imminent peaking in world oil production (or ‘peak oil’)? The Transition movement, which began in Ireland and is now active in hundreds of communities around the world, is a huge collective experiment in trying to figure this out. Its premise is that just as cheap energy, particularly liquid fuels, have made economic globalisation possible, so will it become increasingly difficult to sustain as these fuels become scarcer.

Oil dependency as a central vulnerability

At the same time that the UK, in 2004, exported 15.5 million kilos of milk and cream to Germany, it simultaneously imported 17.2 million kilos from Germany. The two countries also exchanged 1.5 million kilos of potatoes. While this seemingly pointless international trade was taking place, the connections between farmers and their local communities continue to unravel, and the dismantling of local economies and their being replaced with more corporate High Streets that largely look the same, continues apace. Yet during what we might call the ‘Age of Cheap Oil’, our economic success and sense of personal prowess have been directly linked to how much cheap energy we consume. Now we are entering a time where the degree of our oil dependency is a key vulnerability. Transition argues that both peak oil and the need to urgently reduce carbon emissions should be seen not as a disaster, but as an opportunity. It frames this around the concept of resilience, the need for communities to be able to withstand shock from the outside and to be adaptable to rapid change. However, it goes further, arguing that the strengthening of local economies, the creation of opportunities for communities to invest into themselves and the rebuilding of local food and energy systems to meet local needs, could actually prove a key stimulus to those economies. This concept of ‘relocalisation’ does not mean every community should produce everything, nor does it mean giving up the idea of trade. It simply means, where a need can be met locally, it should be. It means communities should have more control over their economies than large corporations, and that communities should create a new, more equitable basis on which to interact.

Back to the local

So what does this look like in practice? Transition Initiatives are experimenting with local currencies, designed to support local trade, setting up their own community-owned energy companies, buying land for community food production, becoming their own developers, starting to turn urban areas into productive areas, and playfully and creatively engaging their communities in the Transition process. Rather than seeing the changes necessitated by peak oil and climate change as a crisis, they are seeing them as opportunities for entrepreneurship, community, enhanced resilience and a greater quality of life. With the Lloyds report warning that “businesses which prepare for and take advantage of the new energy reality will prosper” and adding that “failure to do so could be catastrophic”, Transition Initiatives are refusing to wait for permission from central government, and are leading by example. Its premise is that “if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late, if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little, but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time”.

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