14 May 2008
You and Yours get the End of the Age of Cheap Oil, Bigtime…
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.