8 Feb 2007
My Talk to the Soil Association Conference.
Here is a very lightly edited transcript of the talk I gave to the Soil Association conference on Friday 26th February 2007. You can also download the accompanying Powerpoint presentation of the talk here.
“Good morning and thank you very much. I couldn’t wish for four better preceding speakers (Porritt, Campbell, Leggett & Heinberg) to go before me in this morning session and they were in the main the people who very much inspired and influenced me during the work that I do and this first day of the conference was very much designed to take you on a journey through encountering this issue and what we might do about it. So as a response, as my part of that, I want to take you on the pathway, the journey that I’ve gone through since I was where you are all now, where you’ve just heard about peak oil. Through the work that I’ve done I’ve observed the same sort of pattern that happens in people when they find out about peak oil.
I’ve come to identify it as what I call **Post Petroleum Stress Disorder**, which is something I’ve seen time and time again. It has a number of key symptoms which some of you might have experienced over the last couple of hours. The first one is slight **clammy palms**, a **slight nausea**, a sense of this sort of slightly not feeling very comfortable, **mild palpitations** and the possibility that actually things as you saw them when you came in here might not look quite the same when you go outside and look at them with your new way of looking.
There’s a **sense of bewilderment and unreality** when you realise, as I was overhearing some people in the tea room just now, talking about ‘Well actually, well that’s made of oil and that’s made of oil and this is made of ….’ and once that sinks in, it’s quite a shift. There’s an **Irrational Grasping at Unfeasible Solutions**, which is where you say ‘oh no we’ll be fine, we’ll just go to hydrogen, that will be fine, I feel a lot better now.’ Again, you see that lots of times, people just grasp at something instant, nuclear power, hydrogen.
**Fear**, it’s quite scary, and I’ve been involved in showing a film called The End of Suburbia which I’ll talk a bit more about later, but a couple of times I’ve had people I’ve had to really counsel down afterwards, you know this information can be quite upsetting for people. There’s also **Outbreaks of Nihilism**, feeling, ‘Well, what does it matter anyway’, or **Survivalism**, the sense of you just look after your own and head to the hills and sod everybody else, which is a strong trend in certain circles of this. There’s also **Exuberant Optimism** where people say ‘Fantastic! Peak oil! Fantastic! Solves climate change at a stroke!’ It’s not quite that straightforward.
Finally, there’s the danger of the **’I Always Told You So Syndrome’** which is where you know, the Soil Association now might be saying ‘we always told you you should go organic’, and I might be saying ‘well I always told you you should build with straw bales and teach permaculture to people’, and you know, you see that in lots of different places.
So I want to take you back to September 2004 which was my own peak oil moment which was, I was teaching at a Further Education College in the south of Ireland, called Kinsale Further Education College, where we ran the first two year full time permaculture course in the world which is still running. On the first day of term I thought I know, someone had given me this video, DVD, called The End of Suburbia. I didn’t have a DVD player so I thought I’d watch it with the students on the first day of school, first day of term. And someone then told me as well that Colin Campbell lived up the road who I hadn’t met at that stage so I invited Colin to come in and talk to the students as well. So on their first day in college, poor things, imagine this… their first day on their new college course, they had Colin and then they had The End of Suburbia.
And one of the members of staff said to me later that week ‘what happened to your students? …they looked grey all week’. And it was the same for me. I had been involved in environmental things for a very long time and I hadn’t seen it coming at all. So if you’re sitting there thinking ‘I didn’t see this coming at all’, it’s a common thing.
So Colin spoke to us and we saw the film, and then we started thinking “what might this actually mean?” We started looking around to see who was already thinking about this kind of thing, was there a community anywhere which had already started engaging in a process of looking where it might move beyond the age of cheap oil? And one of the things that I was drawn to, that I found, was David Holmgren who’s the co-founder of permaculture and I think one of the key thinkers on all of this and he identified four scenarios of where we might go from the peak.
The first one he calls **Techno-Fantasy** which is the idea that we’ll be able to go on holiday to the moon, and that technology will solve all the problems it created, we’ll find a new source of limitless energy and limitless fuel… not going to happen.
The second one he calls **Green Tech Stability**, which is the idea that we can pursue business as usual. We can keep everything going along by just slapping a solar panel on the top and running it on hydrogen and that will be the ultimate extent that this will impact on society. Again I don’t think it’s going to happen.
The third one he calls **Earth Stewardship**, which is the idea that we actually embrace and adapt with this transition and view it as a positive opportunity and start designing and planning for that, because, as if you look at particularly a lot of the North American peak oil literature, there’s always the fourth scenario which he calls **Atlantis**, which is that everything might just fall to pieces. I’d like to see as being the like the ghost of Christmas Future in that sense. So that creative descent, or we use the term, energy descent for that.
I want to tell the story of the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan which emerged from that which was the first time a community looked at what it might do about it. We started out by doing awareness raising, showing The End of Suburbia, doing talks in the town, trying to get people aware of this whole idea. We used a tool called Open Space which is a very powerful way of bringing large numbers of people together to brainstorm ideas. We went around and talked to all the existing practitioners in the area, people who had been doing green building and organic gardening and sustainable woodland management, in that area for quite some time, and asked them what they’d been doing and what insights they would have that could feed into this.
And then from that we started to really try and develop a vision in 20 years time of what the area could be like. What would a powered down Kinsale, look like, smell like, taste like? If you woke up in the morning in 20 years time in a powered down, sustainable, low energy, abundant, sorted out Kinsale, what would it look like? From that, we back cast in terms of how we might actually get there.
This goes way beyond energy, cheap oil impacts on medicine, our education system, our transport system, our leisure… so we tried to look at all of those issues, trying to sum up the present and then trying to sum what a vision might be of that in 20 years time and then to back cast from that in terms of practical steps, so we were trying to design a road map to that in a sense.
Here are a few of the suggestions that came out. One was a natural health partnership bringing together the alternative practitioners and the doctors and so on to look at how the health care system was going to function in this scenario; trying to rebuild the local economy, plug all the leaks in the barrel as it were; looking at local building materials, how we were going to house ourselves using materials from within a small radius; taking sustainable design into schools…
At the moment Kinsale calls itself the gourmet food capital of Ireland so we thought with a little shift it could be the Slow Food capital of Ireland, but that would unleash a lot of the local food stuff. Looking beyond tourism and the whole thing of energy, and trying to make the town more energy independent. So we produced this plan and it was just done as a student project really, but then it was put before the Town Council as a plan that it might like to adopt and they unanimously approved it. Around the same time it also won a big environmental award in the South West of Ireland, so we started thinking we were doing something right there.
What’s been extraordinary since then, since I moved here and the plan was put on the website where people can download it, is that it’s been popping up all over the place as a model that community groups are taking and using. And I think the core idea to it is basically the idea that the future with less oil could be better than the present with lots of oil, but we need to really start thinking about it and planning it. It’s not just going to happen serendipitously if we sit and do nothing. We have to engage our creativity and our imagination in this on a scale that we’ve not really done before.
This is from the South Gippsland Sentinel Times, which I’m sure you all read on a regular basis. It says *’Jessica Harrison led a lively discussion about the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan. A captivated audience participated in a discussion on the possibility of such a plan in Bass Coast…’*. This is in southern Australia.
There’s towns all over place who are using it as a model so I was very much thinking “well we’re on to something here, this seems to be something that has generated a lot of interest”. So I moved to Devon and we set up a project which is called Transition Town Totnes which is the first one of its kind and spent the first year or so doing what we call the Awareness Raising stage, where we did lots of film screenings and talks and tried to really build up people’s awareness of this issue about, around peak oil, using various interesting ways of engaging people in the process which we’ll talk a bit more about in the workshop we’re doing this afternoon.
And then in September we ran an evening which we called the Official Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes. I like to think of this in the context of, as being similar to, those volcanoes that children have where you put bicarbonate of soda and vinegar in them and you spend a while with this process. We spent the year putting the vinegar and the bicarbonate of soda into the community until it was rumbling and about to spit all over the table, and then you put your hand on the top and then that’s when you have the Unleashing, which was an evening where 400 people came, it was extraordinary, and myself and Dr Chris Johnstone spoke, and it was really the launch of the whole process and has propelled it forward ever since. On that evening, Chris said *”maybe they will tell stories about what happened in Totnes, maybe this evening will be something that is the beginning of one of those stories”*.
So the idea is that it was a historic evening which was the beginning of Totnes really starting to look at exploring this process. Since then we’ve run a number of Open Space days bringing together over 100 people to look at – for each one – food, energy, housing – brainstorming what’s this actually going to be like in a post-peak future. We’ve uploaded those live on the website as they’ve gone on so in theory people all around the world can chip in their ideas in real time which can then be fed back to the group, those have been quite amazing.
We’ve also been doing a number of oral history interviews with older people in the area which have been really, really fascinating and we find, for example, for someone like myself who grew up, who was born in the late 60s, has grown up while the fossil fuel party has been in full swing, I have very little recollection of what a world with less fossil fuel looked like.
But talking to people for whom it was a first hand memory, it’s very, very interesting and you learn a lot more about how the town functioned. So for example, in Totnes up until about the mid-1850s, pretty much the whole of the area was self-reliant for food. And the food, the things that came in on the sail boats up the river was the luxuries. I like to think of it that the cake was produced locally what was bought in was the icing and the cherries on the top. Now we’re the other way round, we produce the cherries and the icing and the cake is bought in.
When you start looking back you find very interesting things about how the town was laid out and you find out about some amazing people like a guy called George Heath who was about 20 years ahead of his time and perceived as being about 30 years behind his time. He ran a commercial market garden in the town. He had a series of glasshouses running down what is now the largest public car park in Totnes. He used the manure from the cattle market at the top of town which was then composted and put through a series of tunnels. He grew vegetables, fruit and flowers which he sold in a shop on the high street. I mean it’s just the most fantastic powered down, low food miles, zero carbon agriculture model you could ever want. So one of the things we’re trying to do with Transition Town Totnes is to say to the council, ‘These car parks, use them as car parks for a while but we’ll need them back at some stage’.
So we’ve had lots of speakers, we’re very fortunate in having Schumacher College on the doorstep so we have access to some of the amazing speakers who they have – Richard Heinberg, Helena Norberg-Hodge, David Fleming, Bob Flowerdew. Some amazing people who have come and really raised the profile of the whole process and contributed their insight into how it all evolves.
We’ve also been working with local business and trying to engage local business in the process of looking at how this whole process would work, engaging with a man called Simon Snowdon at Liverpool University where they have a very active department exploring the issues of oil depletion. And he’s developed a process called ‘Oil Vulnerability Auditing’ which you do working with businesses and you can identify where they’re most vulnerable on rising oil prices.
So we’re now running a pilot project with three local businesses. We want to train up a team of people who can run this process with different businesses through the town and it very much draws them into the process in a way that’s useful to them. We run a 10 week evening class called ‘Skilling Up for Powerdown’ which has been very, very popular which is aiming to train people up to be the field workers of this project to go out and work on this in the community which has been very successful.
We’ve set up a number of small groups, a number of sub-groups, so we have one which is called ‘Heart and Soul’ which is exploring the psychological aspect of this which is very interesting. We’re basically asking a large community of people to embark on a substantial transition, and as I said before, you know the Post-Petroleum Stress Disorder manifests in many different ways in different people and it can be quite a fearful process or whatever, so there’s that aspect to it.
There’s also a group looking at medicine and health, and the arts, food, energy, economics, and we have a very strong group which is liasing the project with local government as well. So since, over the last four months – we’ve only been going for four months – and so far one of the things that we’ve set up is a thing we’ve called the Solar Water Heater Challenge where we wanted to get 50 people to sign up for solar panels by July, we’ve already got 40.
We’re setting up a local food directory, trying to draw in all the different local producers who just get very kind of marginalised, and draw them into a food directory to start strengthening the local food economy. There’s an organisation forming out which emerged out of the energy Open Space we did which is called TRESCO – Totnes Renewable Energy Supply Company – which is aiming to start, be a community investment mechanism for cycling money within the community, but enabling the construction of renewable energy.
One of the things for me which is a particularly heart warming and exciting project is something we’re doing which is called ‘Totnes, the Nut Capital of Britain’, which, having heard this presentation, some people might not disagree with anyway, but the idea of that is, we’re very fortunate in Totnes in that we have Martin Crawford who runs the Agroforesty Research Trust who’s spent the last 20 years researching hybrid varieties of walnuts, hazelnuts, butternuts, heartnuts, hazelnuts, which crop prolifically in this climate.
At the beginning of March, we’re doing a planting of walnut trees in the centre of Totnes with the Mayor planting the trees and we’re working the council tree officer who’s very open to us planting them wherever we can identify spaces to put them. I’m a great believer that walnut trees will be one of the main things that will get us out of this mess – fantastic locking up carbon, high value timber – as productive in terms of carbohydrate and protein per acre as wheat and other grains.
This Sunday, there’s a thing called Seedy Sunday, a seed saving exchange day so we’re trying to work that into it as well. Another thing that’s very exciting that we’re doing together with Dartington Trust in May, is going to be bringing together the CEOs, the trustees, and the estate managers of the estates within a certain radius of Totnes to explore the rolesa estates might play in this transition. If we’re looking at how Totnes might prepare itself for a more localised future, we can’t do that independently. People can sit in the town and say ‘Yes yes, we should do this’, but they don’t have access to a great deal of land. A lot of the access around the town, a lot of the land around the town, is owned and managed by trusts so we want to bring them together and inform them about the whole thing and how they can be part of that as well.
What’s been extraordinary for me, having just kicked this off in September, is how many other towns are enthusiastic about the approach that we’ve been developing. There’s now Transition Penwith in Cornwall, we have a Transition Town Lewes, Transition Town Stroud, Transition Town Moretonhampstead, Falmouth, Lampeter are very interested, that’ll be in April, they’ll be a meeting about that. And even cities like Bristol and Manchester are starting to make excited noises in this direction.
It feels to me like an idea whose time has really come, that actually the future with less oil could be a better place than the present with oil but we need to start thinking in advance and planning with imagination and creativity. And I like to think of this as being a process of unlocking the collective genius of a community. We have this idea that we have to rely on professional and experts to come in from outside, the thing that is most heartening when you run Open Space days is the degree of skills and energy that you find already existing within the community.
I was thinking on the way up about ways we can work with the Soil Association on this. Certainly the food groups part of it is a very important part of it. You know, each Transition Town – so far the food groups have been the most vigorous groups, there’s a very powerful role for working with the Soil Association there.
We’ve been talking about the idea and there’s the article which is in the Case for Action handbook you’ll all be getting later today, which is the idea of taking the idea of an Energy Descent Plan, which I talked about for Kinsale and which we’re working towards developing for Totnes, for taking that model and applying it to food and farming in the UK where we say ‘OK well this is a vision for powered down food and farming in the UK in 15, 20 years, now how do we get there’. By pushing the time horizon back then consensus becomes much more achievable. And also the book, the Handbook for Practical Action, will be a very powerful tool I think for those of you who want to develop these ideas and pursue them in your own community.
Patrick Holden referred yesterday to once the shock had sunk in and he’d gone through his first stage of his Post Petroleum Stress Disorder, he began to feel strangely inspired. It was a lovely term he used – strangely inspired – that he found it strangely inspirational that this whole idea, that peak oil could mean that we actually get to do what we have been talking about for some time.
I’m a great believer that the tools we have at our disposal at this point are inadequate for the task that is ahead of us and that it’s an unprecedented scale of task that’s being asked of us here, to rethink a number of basic assumptions that we have and to draw communities together in a way to address this challenge. And so that thing of new tools, I think a synthesis of new tools, is really what we’re looking at developing here with Transition Towns.
It’s not the case that we’re going to be able to get through this purely with what we’ve had before, lobbying, campaigning and protesting. We need a positive vision and I think that the power of a collective positive vision of where we’re going is something we’re only just beginning to tap into.