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14 May 2008

You and Yours get the End of the Age of Cheap Oil, Bigtime…

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Things seem to be moving so fast these days. About 6 months ago, BBC Radio 4’s consumer affairs programme ‘You and Yours’ ran a piece about Transition Initiatives and peak oil where Jeremy Leggett debated peak oil with a ridiculous guy from Audacity.org, who basically argued that the free market will solve all ills and there is still loads of oil left. The presenters rather laughed off the peak oil discussion as though it was all rather alarmist and silly. How rapidly things have changed. Yesterday’s ‘Call You and Yours’ was devoted to high oil prices and how they are affecting the consumer, and it was powerful stuff (you can hear the programme for the next 6 days here).

It began with one of the presenters asking Robert Peston, the BBC’s Business Editor, if it really was as bad as all that, to which his reply was, in a nutshell, probably yes but there was an outside change of no, but don’t count on it. The first batch of calls to the programme were from people complaining about the rising cost of home heating oil and of driving when living in a rural area.

The second guest was from Shell UK, who defended their astronomical profits and stated that although Shell didn’t believe in the peak oil ‘theory’, the cheap oil was basically gone, and we’d better get used to it (sounds like peak oil to me…). One of the most interesting things for me was when he said that petrol stations are closing all over the country, that there are now only something like 9,000 across the whole of the UK.

He said that when you go to a petrol station and buy £10 worth of petrol, if you also buy a bar of chocolate at the checkout, the petrol station makes more money from the chocolate than from the petrol, and if you pay with a credit card, they may well end up out of pocket. The next round of calls were from people complaining about the rising cost of home heating oil and of driving when living in a rural area.

Then there was a section I missed due to moving around the building. I came in near the end and had a very short amount of time to explain what Transition initiatives are and what they are doing. One person commented afterwards that I might have got more time to speak if I had rung in to complain about the rising cost of home heating oil and of driving when living in a rural area, but that would be somewhat unfair.

I tried to present the case that we could either choose to see this as a crisis or as an opportunity, and that although it asks difficult questions and won’t be easy, the questions will be a lot more difficult the longer we leave thinking about it, and we need to engage some creative thinking.

One caller talked about how he had put solar panels on his house and how, with the rising cost of fuel, the payback period had gone from 12-14 years to 7-9 years. Even so, he commented, his bills are still rising from his, albeit reduced, oil consumption. Another caller who runs a haulage company talked about how the cost of running his trucks meant that when his current lorry reaches the end of its life he will probably just not replace it. The last couple of callers rang in about, well I think you can guess.

The other guest who was in the studio with me (whose name I forget) summed up at the end, saying that we had better get used to it as this is just the beginning, and that people ought to seek to conserve energy wherever possible. At the end, when the programme had gone off air, the presenter described the material the show had covered as “slit your wrists stuff”.

Conversely I, for one, found it terribly refreshing to find that one of the UK’s leading consumer affairs programmes actually took a whole show to explore the issue in such detail. It was extraordinary that all of the guests, despite coming from across industry, the media, academia, and community activism, all basically agreed that the age of cheap oil is over, that this is affecting all aspects of our lives and that this is happening very fast.

We are seeing, in the media blitz on Transition over the past couple of weeks, a sudden sense of urgency and panic, and an insight that Transition has become seen as pretty much the only source of creative thinking on solutions to oil depletion. One of the things we will need to master over the coming months is how to communicate the opportunities peak oil presents to people for whom the financial pressures are already very burdensome (such as those in rural areas who use home heating oil and need to drive a lot) in snappy and accessible ways. It may not be easy, but successful engagement depends on it.

Congratulations to You and Yours for so courageously, accessibly and imaginatively addressing this issue and for resisting the temptation to trivialise it or to downplay the scale of it. For You and Yours to so insightfully explore the implications of the end of the Oil Age is as powerful an indicator as you could wish for that we live in rapidly changing times and that the days when we didn’t need to worry about the price of oil are already a dim and distant memory.

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8 Comments

Stephen Watson
14 May 8:34am

I switched the Radio on yesterday in the middle of a conversation near the start of the program and couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. On R4? Excellent stuff, but hopefully they will devote a longer programme to it.

And Financial Drift – what was that?

RS
14 May 10:45am

“we could either choose to see this as a crisis or as an opportunity”

One of my heroes is Jakob Bronowski and one comment inspires me time and time again, “If we ask an impertinent question, we are half way to a pertinent answer.”

That comment comes back to me more and more often as I get involved in TT stuff.

Jenks
14 May 11:27am

Financial (or fiscal) drift, is a favourite tool of the current Brown administration. It is the policy of letting an allowance, or a threshold stay stationary, (or at least delaying it’s adjustment) thereby gaining extra tax revenue for HM Government.

Example is the Stamp Duty threshold when buying houses. 15 years ago, only the most expensive houses would expect to pay it – and it wasn’t much in real terms 1% of ~£150k would be a real extremen occurence.
Nowadays (even with falling prices) almost every transaction will attract Stamp Duty and it will be more like 3% of ~£250k.
See also car allowances (not moved since 2003) for using your own car for work purposes.
And the best part, because it doesn’t move, it doesn’t attract headlines (stays under the radar), so we all just pay it…

Jason Cole
14 May 7:40pm

One of the things we will need to master over the coming months is how to communicate the opportunities peak oil presents to people for whom the financial pressures are already very burdensome (such as those in rural areas who use home heating oil and need to drive a lot) in snappy and accessible ways.
Spot on. Are there any people already involved in Transition schemes who have such a background?

Put another way, people tend to pay attention to their peers, so I’d suggest that suitable role models be found.

Kind of reminds me of the TV programme “The Woman Who Stops Traffic” that was on a while back. In Boston she didn’t make much headway until one of the prominent people from the estate participated and showed that “someone like us can do it and shows us it can be done so we can do it”.

Jason Cole
14 May 8:50pm

From listening to the programme, it seemed they didn’t get the local-currency idea.

Do you think it would be more helpful to describe it as a “co-operative to reinforce local community trading”, thus minimising the transportation needed to get things done? I think everyone understands “food miles”.

Tom A
14 May 9:21pm

@Jason “I think everyone understands “food miles”” – don’t be so sure! A survey in Ireland last November found that only 40% of people had even heard the term ‘food miles’ and only 30% were aware of the term ‘carbon footprint’. see (http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/ireland/2007/1102/1193444384323.html).

Us eco-folks can live in a bit of a bubble and forget the gulf between us and the mainstream!

Francis Macnaughton
15 May 11:19am

Relevant to this is the Today programme interview of Gordon brown this morning. I lost count of how many times he cited oil prices as a major reason for the economic difficulties the government is facing. What was particularly concerning was his suggestion that it will all come right when the price falls again… is the government in complete denial about Peak Oil or does it have fully prepared plans that are so secret they can’t be revealed? I fear the former…!

Lee
15 May 4:42pm

No matter what we say and however much headway we make in promoting Transition, the British government is not yet in a position to officially recognise the viability of this concept nor officially recognise “Peak Oil” as a problem. Imagine what that would do to all of the (extremely-rich, friends-of-the-government) people that are currently benefitting from the recent inflation… It would destroy the economy, if even only temporarily, but the damage would be done and we would be heading into recession quicker than we already are. The other day, Mervin King said that monetary policy should not interfere with the natural progession of fiscal trends, yet Gordon Brown has, albeit in code, come out today and said he will interfere to keep things as they are.
We all know that for a variety of reasons, Peak Oil included, this cannot be so. Even more so given the recent natural disasters and the strain that will put on gobal food stocks.
Sooner or later, this will come to the fore and it will be like a bomb going off in Fleet St and Wall St.
At its current rate, the governement will be caught with its trousers round its ankles and we will all suffer.