The Transition Movement – Preparing for a World After Peak Oil

How will the world function if fossil fuels become scarcer and their consumption becomes increasingly regulated to fight climate change? How will people live with less oil? What will communities be like?


The advocates of a social movement called Transition think the world is now entering just such an environment of oil-scarcity. Transition organizers think the time is ripe to create new systems to make communities more locally self-sufficient and less dependent on long-range transportation, a globalized economy, non-renewable energy, and industries that damage the environment.

Local foods at WycombeAccording to Transition Network, a support body for the movement based in Totnes, Dover, UK, the number of official Transition Initiatives worldwide has grown during about the past five years to 374 as of this writing (mid-2011). Most initiatives are operating in Europe (particularly the UK), North America, and Australia. (Photo: Local foods, Transition Town High Wycombe. Credit: VidyaRangayyan)

Local transition groups take on a range of activities, from simple projects such as workshops teaching people to grow their own food or arranging clothing swaps, to more complex undertakings, such as developing a local currency or devising a long-term community transition plan called an Energy Descent Action Plan, a road-map toward local energy independence (see Totnes’ example here).

The concepts of peak oil, climate change, and permaculture are critical to an understanding of the deeper motivations of the Transition Movement. Widespread concerns about climate change have been discussed extensively in the public forum (for an overview of public attitudes, see our story “Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?”  However, peak oil and permaculture are less well understood, so let me explain those ideas.

Peak Oil: Are We on the Downward Slope?

Offshore oil platformPeak oil refers to the point of maximum worldwide extraction of petroleum, which would be followed by an environment of increasing scarcity and cost. Some researchers think the world has already reached that point, some think it will come in the near future, and some critics say it will take a long time or might never come at all. (Photo: Offshore oil platform. Credit: “Mike” Michael L. Baird)

Many observers think peak oil could result in large-scale economic disruption. Dire predictions abound. While admittedly speculative, the 2010 “United States Joint Forces Command Joint Operating Environment” (JOE) report warns in its section on peak oil that

A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment.

For an entertaining and accessible explanation of peak oil, integrated with a frightening overview of economics, see Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course.”

The Transition movement asks, What does peak oil mean for people’s lifestyles and local communities? What changes does it require, and what can individuals and communities do now to prepare for and cope with a world of declining oil?

In an interview with Global Public Media in 2007 (audio interview here), Andrew McNamara, then newly-appointed Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change, and Innovation in Queensland, Australia, gave his thinking about the appropriate response to oil depletion, sounding very much like a Transition advocate:

There’s no question whatsoever that community-driven local solutions will be essential. That’s where government will certainly have a role to play in assisting and encouraging local networks, who can assist with local supplies of food and fuel and water and jobs and the things we need from shops. It was one of my contentions in the first speech I made on this issue in February of 2005… that we will see a relocalization of the way in which we live that will remind us of not last century, but the one before that. And that’s not a bad thing. Undoubtedly one of the cheaper responses that will be very effective is promoting local consumption, local production, local distribution.

In a 2008 video, Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network and Transition Town Totnes, says peak oil makes populations very vulnerable. As an example, during a 2000 lorry-drivers’ strike in the UK, he says, “we were about two days away from a food crisis in this country. It became clear that we’ve dismantled a lot of the resilience that has underpinned our food system up until now and replaced it with very fragile and long supply chains.”

Transition helps to restore that resilience, Hopkins asserts:

Resilience is an idea which emerges from the study of ecology, which is that a system, whether it be an ecosystem, a community or a town, when it experiences a shock from the outside, it doesn’t just fall to pieces. It has built into it the ability to adapt and change to its new circumstances.

Hopkins describes a Transition initiative as “a process which acts as a catalyst within a community to get people to explore themselves, [to respond] to peak oil and climate change,” helping community members “develop a really attractive, enticing vision of how the town could be beyond its current dependence on oil and fossil fuels.”

Permaculture: Designing Sustainable Human Habitats

Permaculture projectPermaculture is a methodology for designing sustainable human habitats, modeling them after natural ecosystems. The permaculture model emphasizes a move away from industrial agriculture toward a small-scale, diversified, and localized system of food production. In “The Essence of Permaculture,” David Holmgren, one of the originators of the concept, defines permaculture as

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organize themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.

(Photo: Permaculture project, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Credit: planet a.)

More precisely, though, Holmgren sees permaculture as “the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organizing framework” to implement that vision, so that

… permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building or eco-village development as such, but it can be used to design, establish, manage, and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households, and communities towards a sustainable future.

The Transition movement grew in part from Rob Hopkins’ permaculture teaching activities. On his Transition Culture blog, Hopkins writes that a key tool for success in Transition is “the ability to embed good design thinking” in the effort. He believes that “permaculture design offers the clearest and most practical tool for doing so.” Thus permaculture design should underpin the thinking and planning behind a Transition project and any hands-on activities. He cautions that

Although many people associate permaculture design purely with local food initiatives, it ought to be seen as central to the larger process of strategic thinking which the initiative is building up to.

Hopkins likens permaculture to a glue, “a ‘design glue’ if you like, which is used to stick together all the elements that will make up a truly sustainable and resilient culture.” He continues,

If you think of the ingredients that such a culture will depend on, such as local food production, energy generation, skillful management of water, meaningful employment as well as many other elements, what permaculture brings is the ability to assemble those things in the most skillful and beneficial way possible. It has also been described by someone else far more succinct than me as “the art of maximizing beneficial relationships.”

Hopkins thinks that “having at least one person in a Transition group who is steeped in permaculture can make a huge difference to the group… Make sure that some members of your core group have done a Permaculture Design course, and try, where possible, to weave permaculture training and principles through the work of your Transition group.”

Permaculture herb spiralTransition Town Totnes, started in 2005, is one of the oldest and most developed Transition efforts. The organization supports nine groups organized along such themes as Building and Housing, Business and Livelihoods, Energy, Food, and Transport. Nearly 40 projects are underway in Totnes, many focused on food, housing, and energy. As an example, one project aims to make Totnes the “Nut Tree Capital of Britain,” says Hopkins in the video mentioned previously. A project group is “planting nut trees within the urban fabric of the town, both as an awareness-raising issue and as a food security project.” (Photo: Permaculture Herb Spiral. Credit: Samuel Mann)

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Comments:
  • John Weber
    July 11, 2011

    I never see population addressed by transition posts. Growing food by any method without addressing population will only result in same old, same old without fossil fuels.

    WE ARE HERE

    If we don’t blow ourselves off the face of the earth in the struggle for diminishing scarce resources, humanity will survive. We are a powerfully resourceful and inventive animal. However, if we don’t address the issues below then in the long run it will be same old, same old. We will repeat what all animals do and what is particular to us humans.

    As an expression of life, as a representative animal and as ourselves, we are exactly how we would end up. We are not dysfunctional, as some would have it. We did not take a wrong turn in the past, ten thousand years ago at the agricultural revolution. We are not a cancer on the earth and we are not disconnected from our environment.

    There are several natural factors that have aimed us at this particular moment in human history, where population pushes against resource availability, where as a social animal we stand against each other, where we are immersed in an environment of our own creative making and where our brilliance threatens us.

    We are exactly where we have to be. It is the nature of the beast. Every life form, amoeba, oak tree, aphid, mouse, will make as many of their kind as the resources in the environment permit. And they will use those resources until they are no more and they either die out or relocate to more resources.

    We are no different. We have population density because we can. Unlimited growth is written into the code of life. In the universe’s ironic wisdom, not only are we driven by this code, but also it feels good. And, oh my, we know it feels good. So we mate and we do what we can to be able to mate.

    And as any lifeform will do, we will use all the resources available to us both for propagation and for enduring in the present. Here enters the second prong of overshoot – population pressure. We are devouring our environment as fast as we find ways to use it.

    As David Price states in his great essay that all should read:
    “All species expand as much as resources allow and predators, parasites, and physical conditions permit. When a species is introduced into a new habitat with abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival, the population expands rapidly until all the resources are used up.”1

    Price is defining the process of overshoot, the convergence of the dual population issues of density and pressure. (See also Catton, William. 1980. Overshoot. University of Illinois Press. Chicago).

    There is more of this essay at http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/05/we-are-here.html

    AND
    from – Superman Plays With Kryptonite Dice – http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2010/05/superman-plays-with-kryptonite-dice.html

    Population, fueled by agriculture, rose in an upward moving curve. In a repeating ecological pattern, our growing numbers exhausted the land, strained and polluted the water, depleted the forests, and crowded people into unhealthy conditions. Under these pressures, some people relocated using their feet, the wheel and domesticated energy in the form of animals. Or they died of starvation or pestilence or killed each other off.
    One of the early Church Fathers, Tertullian (c. A.D. 160 – 240), commented on the effects of human enterprise on the earth: “Farms have replaced wastelands, cultivated land has subdued the forests, cattle have put to flight the wild beast, barren lands have become fertile, rocks have become soil, swamps have been drained, and the number of cities exceeds the number of poor huts found in former times . . . Everywhere there are people, communities – everywhere there is human life!” To such a point that “the world is full. The elements scarcely suffice us. Our needs press . . . Pestilence, famine, wars, [earthquakes] are intended, indeed, as remedies, as prunings, against the growth of the human race.” (Gies, Frances and Gies, Joseph. 1994. Cathederal, Forge, and Waterwheel. Harper Collins. N.Y. p. 6.)

    AND

    There have been suggestions for energy and material savings periodically posted. These are very important. In the 70s teaching simple living, I suggested that for three or four days as you move through your world consider these things with everything you touch.

    What is it made of?
    Where did it come from?
    How much energy did it take to make?
    Could I make it myself?
    Can I get it locally?
    Do I need it?

    Some of these are questions most of us cannot answer in full or even partially. However, in a world of unstable energy prices, threatened energy availability, and broad environmental degradation addressing our energy and material uses at the head of the stream is a major step towards sustainability. Ask not how to reduce from our present 100 percent use to 90 or 75 percent use; ask what we truly need to live non-brutishly to preserve this earth for the seventh generation.


    • Glimug
      July 12, 2011

      Agreed. The Transition Movement may not be able to address our primal needs in a constructive way even though its a start. Of course, initiating our own movements, whether they be within ourselves or with others will be the only sure thing which can transition the human population down to stable levels without endangering our livelihoods in the process.


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