The two great oversights of our times are peak oil and climate change. Both are symptoms of a society that is hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and the energy rich lifestyles it provides. Climate change says that we need to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere or we will destabilize our planet's environment, risking extinction, mass casualties and enormous costs. Peak oil says that the end of cheap energy is upon us, and that civilization will have trouble coping with the high energy oil prices.
There are those who study peak oil who don't take climate change seriously, and there are those who study climate change who don't take peak oil seriously. Some climate change activists believe that peak oil should be left out of the debate entirely because the study of peak oil might legitimize the case for biofuels, increased coal use, and tar sands development. These solutions, they say, would prove devestating for the climate.
There are also peak oil activists that believe that rising oil prices pre-empt the climate change debate...that because of rising oil prices, demand for fossil fuels will decrease, leading to decreased CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere. They say we don't have to act on climate change at all. This view is over simplistic and assumes that the atmosphere can handle several more years of excessive CO2 output before life threatening consequences occur.
Transition Initiatives believes that peak oil and climate change are both symptoms of the same problem...our dependence on fossil fuels. We try to address both problems simultaneously by ending our own dependence on fossil fuels and helping others to do the same. This transition involves voluntarily cutting down on fossil fuel consumption, improving our own energy efficiency, and re-learning how to do things with our own labour.
At a community level, we need to transition towards a society that has well developed alternative transportation systems, requires lower amounts of clean energy, and can produce most of what we need to survive within our local region. Members of our group try to promote and initiate projects that advance this vision of what our future communities might look like.
Peak Oil is the point in time where we can no longer produce enough oil to meet projected demand. We passed this peak in early 2006 and since then oil prices have risen 300%. Rising oil prices have serious consequences for our modern industrialized society, which is heavily dependent on oil to power our transportation and food systems.
Peak oil does not mean that we are running our of oil, in fact we still have quite a bit of it left. The problem is that we can no longer produce oil at a fast enough rate to meet our demand for it, which continues to increase. Because oil is so vital to our way of life, people have a tendency to pay whatever price is asked for this oil. Demand for oil is inelastic, therefore prices will have to rise significantly before we adjust our consumption patterns to the available supply.
When oil prices go up, so will the prices of a lot of other things. Plastics, asphalt, waxes, some pesticides & fertilizers are all made from fossil fuels. Many of the goods in our local stores are shipped long distances to our local market in diesel burning vehicles. The food we eat is manufactured by burning oil and applying chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas and coal).
The more serious effects of peak oil are:
- Rapidly rising costs of transportation fuels
- Rising costs of many other products and services
- Increasing food prices
- Decreased availability of goods and services
- Economic contraction AND high inflation
Many of the predictions about peak oil are starting to come true. We are presently in the midst of one of the worst recessions in history and a significant cause of these economic problems that is often over-looked is high oil prices. With high oil prices, companies can't continue to grow and factories can't continue to produce goods with the amount of money they are spending on transportation energy. Ultimately, they have to raise prices to cover their higher costs and this is what inflation is.
High food prices and food shortages have led to riots in North Africa and other parts of the world that depend heavily on food imports. The costs of transporting food to these countries is going up as a result of high oil prices, and the price of grains and corn has increased to the highest levels ever recorded.
There are things we can do to lessen the impact of peak oil but we can't bring our current lifestyle with us. Driving less and producing as much food as we can at home or close to home will help reduce the demand for oil and also help us save money. Making this transition to a less energy intensive lifestyle more fun and enjoyable is one of the goals of our organization.
Climate change as a result of high levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, most notably CO2, is a serious but survivable predicament.
Although there is evidence that a portion of our current warming trend may be due to non-human factors, such as solar cycles, it is generally agreed that human activity is responsible for the majority of the recent warming trend that has been observed.
Presently the issue has garnered widespread attention in the media and politicians have started vying to be the greenest. We do not get involved in the political debate, rather we focus on solutions that will help reduce the human part of the impact and at the same time ensure we strengthen our local economy.
People are motivated to change when they see a positive reason to do so, therefore we feel it is important to present accurate information about global warming without dramatic embellishment. More local and regional research needs to be done to determine what the regional effects of climate change are likely to be so that individuals, families and businesses can make plans for an uncertain future.
Global warming is such a scary topic that many people prefer to avoid it all together. Some of the local scenarios that might be anticipated include:
- Warmer than average northern and eastern artic temperatures
- Unpredictable and changing water levels
- Longer and more severe droughts
- Increased dangerous storm activity
- Changes in the population of animal and plant species that make up our natural habitat
- Risks of extinction or invasive species
- Water quality problems due to increased fequency and intensity of blue-green algae
- Shortages of drinking water as our supply is diverted to other areas
Climate change is not something that can be solved; at least not in the sense that we can find some way to continue on with our energy rich lifestyles. When we consider oil and gas depletion, significant causes of high energy prices, we can see that the energy market is already starting to signal a transition away from fossil fuel energy and towards cleaner sources of energy like renewable energy.
Transition Initiatives try to help communities become more resilient so that they can withstand the environmental shocks expected from climate change and continue to prosper. The transition will not be easy, but with proper forsight, preparation, and a focus on building more resilient communities, we can survive the transition away from fossil fuels.
Many of us sense that globalization is an error and try to object to it on vague moral or ethical principles, or perhaps we are concerned about the havoc globalization has had on our local economies and job markets.
Prior to the 'discovery' of cheap liquid energy, oceans and distance were seen as unsurmountable obstacles. Only luxury items like spices and beaver pelts could be economically shipped between continents. Food was produced within a few hundred kilometers of where it was consumed because it could not be shipped long distances without spoiling. The thought of shipping raw materials thousands of kilometers to be manufactured into something and then shipped back would have been considered ludicrous.
The fact is, globalization has been very good for us and people in third world countries because it allows everyone to produce what they are most efficient at producing and trading those goods and services for other things they need. Under globalization, the whole world ends up producing more goods than we could if everyone had to maintain a diverse economy. This improves our quality of life as we can consume more while expending fewer resources and energy.
One of the effects of globalization has been the rising affluence of people in China and India, who together account for 44% of the world's population. More people in asian countries are now purchasing their first automobiles, which leads to increased demand for gasoline and higher oil prices.
Although there are very good economic reasons for globalized trade, it is unlikely that a system of globalized and centralized production will continue due to the increasing costs of transporting things long distances.
Moving raw materials and manufactured goods across oceans requires large amounts of energy, and this energy can only be provided by non-renewable energy sources. With the costs of fuel rising due to peak oil, the transportation costs of overseas manufacturing for our North American market place will likely cause a shift in the types of goods that can be profitably manufactured in other countries for our own consumption here at home.
The type of oil burned in these large container ships is a minimally refined and cheap form of fuel called 'bunker fuel' that releases a lot of pollution and CO2 into the atmosphere. The international shipping industry is therefore a major contributor to GhG emissions and other pollutants and under current proposals to create a market for pollution rights, goods shipped across oceans would incur a lot of these costs.
A world based on highly centralized and globalized production is much more susceptible to economic shocks than one where production is distributed regionally. A problem affecting production in a given region won't spread across the entire world economy like we see now, it would be more contained to one particular region and easier to resolve through traditional methods.
Transition Town North Bay sees the end of globalized trade and the re-localization of economies as an inevitable result of high oil prices and efforts to end the externalization of pollution costs. Unfortunately, many of the local industries that used to exist in our region to produce goods for our own consumption have had to close their doors because they couldn't compete with the inexpensive labour of foreign countries. As a result of the decreasing profitability of globalized trade, however, many of these industries may decide that they are better off relocating closer to where the goods will be consumed.
It makes no difference whether GhG's are emitted here or in China because these gases quickly disperse around the globe. By keeping some factories close to home, we can reduce overall GhG emissions by reducing the distance goods have to travel to our own market. We need to be prepared to welcome industries wanting to set up shop in Northern Ontario if we are to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
Economists, politicians and media personalities are frequently citing economic growth as a desirable characteristic of modern day society. One year we are able to produce a certain amount of goods and services and the next year we are expected to produce more goods and services or markets go into turmoil. One would think that a functional economy may be able to contract somewhat without causing hardship and there are several situations where economic contraction might even be a desirable trait.
This need to grow is related to how our money supply is created. The paper currency and coins we are familiar with as money accounts for only 3% of the total supply of money, the other 97% is created by central banks when they loan money to government and other banking institutions, being essentially created out of thin air by a few keystrokes on a computer. Despite being created out of nothing, these loans have to be paid back with interest, therefore every year more money has to be created to cover the interest payments on the original loans.
As an example, assume that there is no money at all and a central bank creates the first $100 of money by loaning it to a bank at interest. The following year, the loan becomes due and the original amount plus $2 worth of interest must be paid back to the central bank. Where does this $2 come from? The answer is that the next year, the bank must borrow $102 dollars. $100 to maintain it's original capital, plus $2 to pay back the interest on the previous loan.
Every year, the amount of money in circulation has to increase to cover interest payments on the money that had been previously created. This is why we need continuous economic growth.
If our economy grows by the same amount as the rate of interest every year then all is well, but if the economy doesn't grow then it causes inflation: where the amount of money in circulation increases relative to the amount of economic productivity. The end result is that the price of goods appear to be going up, when in reality its the purchasing power of each individual dollar that is going down.
Having no growth in a given year is not inherently a bad thing, it simply means that we produced the same amount of stuff that we did last year. When we have to produce more goods and services to sustain the needs of a growing population then growth is a necessary and healthy part of the economy. The difficulty arises when population stabilizes at a certain level, like it has in most of North America, and we continue to use a monetary system like our current one. A future sustainable society will require a better monetary system to be developed that can survive zero and even negative growth without these sorts of difficulties.
Transition Initiatives believe that a better idea is to create multiple competing regional currencies and let them co-exist in an open market. Its actually an historical oddity to have only one currency in circulation; for much of our history each bank had it's own 'bank notes' and these were sometimes traded in competition with naturally evolving money like gold and silver. Similar forms of money have existed in the past, and while they existed worked much better than our current form of money.
The concept of natural money relates to the observation that human beings naturally create money to help facilitate trade. Usually objects chosen to form money have certain characteristics: long lasting, divisible, and valued as a useful commodity. Barley, gold and silver are examples of commodities that have been commonly used as money. Like any other naturally occuring system, the more we try to manipulate it, the worse our problems get.
Under competitive or natural monetary systems, money tends to increase in value over time as the amount of goods and services increase while the supply of money remains relatively constant. This eliminates the need to pay interest on savings as the purchasing power of money naturally increases the longer it is saved. In some religions and cultures, the charging of interest was actually considered a sin and people engaged in the practice were severely reprimanded.
Local currency initiatives investigate and promote alternative forms of money, which we hope will build local resiliency and provide a means of maintaining local wealth as our national monetary system continues to unravel in the face of resource shortages. A system of multiple competing regional currencies would help contain the results of bad fiscal policies, like the ones that caused the current economic crisis, to the region where those bad fiscal policies originated.
We've heard the phrase "addicted to oil" come from the mouths of presidents but what does it mean and is this really an addiction? When we think of addiction, most of us think of a skid row drunk or a drug addict, but people can also be addicted to behaviours such as shopping or gambling.
People can be said to be addicted to something when they keep using it despite the knowledge of adverse consequences. The addict denies and minimizes the problem and subconciously employs a variety of distorted thought processes to ensure they will not have to part with their addiction. When the addict truly does want to quit, they find that they have lost the ability to completely abstain from the destructive behaviours on a consistent basis.
This accurately describes how many individuals and society as a whole respond to information that challenges our use of fossil fuels. We make excuses and rationalizations about how we need to burn fossil fuels and that we can't live without it. Some of us believe that some miraculous energy source or new technology will come to our rescue so we can keep on "using". There are many forms of this sort of "magical thinking"; for most of us, we aren't even aware that we're doing it.
In our own efforts to reduce fuel consumption and live more sustainable lives, we may come across some of these thought patterns ourselves. One way to become aware of and overcome these sorts of thoughts is to be involved in a support group, which is why treatment for addictions is almost always done in a group setting. Transition Town North Bay recognizes that change is difficult for people and tries to create fun ways for people to remain engaged in their efforts to reduce their energy use.
The end of the petroleum era will mean that our lives will change whether we want them to or not. How we see our future without fossil fuel has a lot to do with our confidence in technology to save the day.
Some people theorize that a new technology will be invented to replace fossil fuels as an energy source and point to the technological progress of the past 200 years as evidence of their beliefs. They claim that technology grows exponentially and can keep pace with the exponential growth in population but fail to explain why for the past 10,000 years of recorded history, technical advances have only been a recent phenomenon. This phenomenon coincides with the discovery of coal and the steam engine which provided energy that freed up time to explore human ingenuity.
Future generations may not have these same luxuries and it would be a mistake to assume that the recent trends in innovation will continue, especially when so much is at stake.
Technical miracles are seldom cheap, at least in the beginning, and the innovation hypothesis assumes that another miracle will take place: that funding will be available to implement the technology. While technologies like fusion are already achievable in very expensive laboratories, the cost and time required to design our infrastructure around new technology can be measured in decades. So even if a new technical miracle is just around the corner, the chances are we won't see it implemented on a large scale for several generations.
There are also many environmentalists who disregard energy and economic issues, and see government mandated regulations as the only viable solution to climate change. Their utopian vision of a post carbon society includes solar, wind and living in harmony with nature but provides no insight into how we might achieve that vision. They are sure all would be utopia if government would simply act to prevent factories from producing goods or people from driving their cars.
An increasing number of people believe that societal collapse and disintegration is the most likely outcome of peak oil and climate change. These people have lost faith in the resiliency of the human spirit our ability to rise to serious challenges like we have at several points in our history. Humans are one of the most adaptable species that has ever existed, allowing us to live in extreme climates like deserts, the artic, and even outer space.
The transition approach is something new and involves the evolution of our collective mindsets as a solution to these problems. While Charles Darwin emphasized competition and survival of the fittest to explain natural selection and his theory of evolution, any keen observer of bee colonies can see that mutual aid and co-operation plays an equally important and vital role in the survival of the fittest too. Maintaining societal cohesion is therefore required as a means of achieving a transition to our future society. We can't fix the problems of today with the same sort of thinking that created them, and what is needed is for each of us to become more flexible in our beliefs and philosophies about how the society should function.
Our transition scenario presumes that the existence of a future form of society that is much better than the one we live in now. This future society uses far less energy, consumes resources at a sustainable rate, can exist with zero and even negative growth, and keeps human population is at a stable and sustainable level. People in this future society act quite a bit different than we do now and have beliefs that may seem strange to us now. We may not know what this future society will look like, but we know that if we can build more resiliency into our communities now that we can successfully transition to this future society and avoid a lot of pain.
There is no such thing as a collective mindset, it merely being the sum of all of it's individual parts. When any one individual makes the decision to change their lifestyle to become more fossil fuel independent, they are contributing their small part to this collective change. We don't wait for the collective mindset to change for us, rather we make it happen by make a different decisions today than we did yesterday. That might mean taking the bus to work or riding a bike or it might mean installing more insulation. The collective result of humans acting in their own best interests is what allows us to be so adaptable as a species. This is the essence of what transitioning is all about.
As transition town members, our role is to begin this process and assist and support others in the task of making difficult changes. Our website and the Transition Network literature present a general set of tools that we have found effective in supporting this change and helping ourselves and others to overcome any difficulties we might be having. These tools can be applied to any situation we might face as we work towards transitioning our lives, our households, and our communities.