12 Jul 2006
Stephan Harding on Peak Oil.
**Stephan Harding** is the co-ordinator of the MSc in Holistic Science and staff ecologist at Schumacher College. He has lived and worked at Schumacher College since it began in 1991. He teaches Gaia theory, Holistic Science and Deep Ecology on the College’s short course programme and goes into these subjects in greater detail on Schumacher’s one year MSc Programme in Holistic Science. He is the author of ‘Animate Earth – science, intuition and Gaia’. Here he answers the 8 ‘Skilling Up For Powerdown’ questions that you’ll have already seen others answer here at **Transition Culture**.
**Do you see peak oil as a crisis or an opportunity?**
Both actually. Its obviously a crisis if we don’t do anything about finding alternative sources of energy. But it is also an opportunity to make us realise that resources are finite, that we don’t live on a planet that can provide us with the infinite amounts of the materials we need for our culture. So it’s a great opportunity for us to realise that there are limits to how big our economy can be and limits to our footprint on the planet. So, it’s both. At the moment of course it’s more of a crisis than an opportunity.
**If the approach that you propose were to come to fruition, and you woke up 30 years from now, in that reality, what would it look like, smell like, feel like, talk us through it.**
I think I would wake up in an eco-village, in a cob house probably. It would be the middle of summer, I’d open the windows and I’d gaze out on a gorgeous sunlit scene of other small cob houses in the ecovillage, with beautiful diverse gardens growing all sorts of wonderful food plants and herb plants all around us. Lots of colours, lots of different species growing together. Then further out there’s be a forest garden, beyond that there’d be meadows, and beyond that a wilderness, of forest (if it was Britain). I would know that I could put on my rucksack and walk out of the village and into the forest and be really in the wild country for days and days if I wanted to. Also that if I wanted to I’d be able to dip out of the forest and visit another nearby ecovillage. So, my vision would be for an interconnected network of ecovillages, with lots of wild countryside in between, but also some lovely small cities where there would be theatre, culture, museums and good libraries, and good coffee shops, gorgeous organic architecture.
The human population would be reasonably small, but it would be enough for there to be interesting intellectual and artistic synergies between people, enough for there to be tremendous creativity. But most of would live not far from wild nature, very connected to nature. All of us would be involved in growing food to some extent, all of us would be involved in looking after children and old people, we’d have a much less specialised and more holistic existence, much closer to the ground. We’d all be engaged in some craftwork, perhaps we’d make our own furniture, or perhaps we’d be involved with making houses, or, as I said before, with gardening. There’d also be a lot of time for celebrating Gaia, for deep meditation, for rituals. Our young people would be taken through rites of passage, which would be mystical experiences, in which they would be opened up to the mysteries of the cosmos.
**How do we get from here to there?**
Well I think on two fronts. We need a top down approach, and a bottom up approach. The top down approach I think is necessary now because the crisis is so severe. This would be simply that Government needs to impose some very strict rules about how much of any given element or molecule can be emitted by us into the body of Gaia. We already have this in embryonic form, with the carbon emissions trading schemes that the European Union and Kyoto are playing with. I think we need to do similar things for every element or molecule that we take out of Gaia or manufacture. So this has to come from the top, to be fairly draconian, given the situation, as it was during World War Two. We need to press Government now for tight regulation. Indeed business is now asking Governments to do this. Recently there was a delegation of big multinational companies that went to see Tony Blair, including Shell, asking him to impose limits on carbon emissions so they could get on and make money based on a sort of level playing field. So there’s an important role for Government in this. So that’s the top down approach.
The bottom up approach is to foster lots of small ecological initiatives all over the world, involved with every aspect of life, food growing, education, architecture, medicine etc, and then link them up as much as possible, so that they create a sort of synergistic net out of which the new way of being in the world can emerge. These two approaches are, I think, really essential.
**To what extent do solutions to the energy problem involve action in other, non energy, fields?**
Well they do because it is a systemic problem, a problem of the entire system. Ultimately the problem isn’t an energy problem, it’s a problem of world view. We just simply have the wrong world view in our culture. We see the world as a dead set of resources that we extract as and when we wish. We see the Earth as a dead thing, the cosmos as a dead thing, as a soulless thing. That is the fundamental problem that we have to solve. If we could see the world as ensouled, as alive, as animate, if we could see our planet as a great vast spherical living personality that hurtles around the sun, then we would have the right world view based in a deep love of the Earth with which to solve the energy crisis. So, fundamentally, it is a problem of world view. But of course, its not just a problem of energy – this is just a symptom of a far vaster problem, since everything is linked up together. But at the core of our difficulties lies a world view that’s rotten in its very heart which we have to abandon.
**What are the problems and bottlenecks?**
One of the problems I think is that we need to move towards a steady state economy, that’s to say an economy where the throughput of matter no longer grows but is kept at steady levels that Gaia can support. We can have growth of love, information, spirituality, poetry, but we can’t have growth in the sheer number of molecules extracted from the Earth moving through the economy. This simply can’t grow without limit unless we want our civilization to plunge miserably into oblivion in the fairly near future. So one of the major bottlenecks I see is the difficulty of moving from a growth-based economy to one that’s at steady-state. Very difficult to achieve given the current growth model.
Perhaps the ultimate bottleneck is climate change itself. That is going to be a real crunch. We only have a certain amount of time left it seems before the huge changes in climate begin to kick in and by that time it’s going to be too late. The changes could happen very suddenly, very quickly, for there may well be tipping points in the climate system, which means that the Amazon could collapse catastrophically, that there could be methane releases, etc. etc. So if these things happen we’ve lost our opportunity. So that’s a bottleneck, a bottleneck in time. The other bottleneck of course is that there’s only a certain amount of energy that’s extractable reasonably cheaply, by that I mean fossil fuel energy, with which we could fuel our efforts to develop viable renewable energy. So if we squander the energy that’s available to us now, there’ll be none left to develop renewable energies.
**What are the skills we need to learn and the training & education we need to put in place to respond to peak oil?**
On an intellectual level I think what we need to do is develop deep systemic thinking. We need to understand that we are part of a vast living system called Gaia, and that our economy is as much a part of it as any microbe, tree or ecosystem. We need to understand that our economy is not separate from the last living economy of the planet. Everything is interconnected. We need to learn the art of thinking in interconnected ways, in which we realize that there are no separate objects, that relationships are primary, that networks are of primary importance, that when you put interacting parts together, surprising emergent properties arise that you couldn’t have predicted from the knowledge of the parts alone. These ideas are the intellectual tools for deep systemic thinking. That’s one thing we need to do.
The other thing we need to do is develop our wisdom, our heart connection with the Earth, through our intuition, our sensing and our ethical sensibilities. This is almost more important than the intellectual development, for this involves the opening of our heart, or our ‘ecological heart’, of our deep ecological sensibility. We can do this by spending time outdoors in the wilderness, perhaps by means of vision quests for young people, as I said earlier. On a more practical level, we will need to teach children, adults, everybody in fact, how to survive- we all need to learn basic survival skills. If it is true that civilization is about to collapse, we’re all going to have to learn to grow our own food organically, we’re going to have to learn to build our own houses using local materials, we’re going to have to learn how to make energy out of what we have available in our immediate surroundings. These are the bprimary, practical survival skills that we all may soon need. We also need skills in community building, and in how to relate effectively with others.
**How can this issue be communicated to the widest possible audience?**
There are various ways. One is Lovelock’s tactic of frightening the hell out of everybody! (laughs). That’s one way you could do it. Fear is good motivator, but love is better. Getting people to fall in love with the Earth, by whatever means, through television programmes (probably the least effective means!). The best way is to actually get people out in nature, either growing things, or being outside in semi- wild places or in real wilderness, or by engaging in ecological restoration, or by helping people to directly experience the living quality of the Earth. We also need practical demonstrations of sustainable living. We need to have functioning ecovillages, and we need to start building them now, to show how much more enjoyable a life in that kind of setting is than in some horrible inner city housing estate.
We need talks, lectures, demonstrations, events, articles, we need to use all the means of mass communication available to us to get the message out, and that message simply is that the Earth is in crisis, and that the Earth is a living being, that the Earth is alive, that the Earth is animate, and that there is tremendous joy in connecting with this great animate being which gave us birth and that we are now threatening.
**What would most help you in your work to achieve this vision?**
I think I could answer that on a very local basis, local to where I live, and that’s at Dartington. I think it would help me hugely if we could have an ecovillage, set up here on the estate at Dartington. If I could be part of visioning that ecovillage and actually creating it with my own hands with friends, like yourself, perhaps we could build our own cob houses, disconnect from the Grid, grow profuse gardens of vegetables, have our children running around enjoying it all, and demonstrate to the world that it is possible to live like in this way and yet be part of wider society. We would demonstrate this is an option for many people, and that it is possible to have a very low ecological footprint and to live a materially far simpler life that is deeply rich in ways that are really important, such a community, connection with nature, time for philosophical reflection, time for artistic creativity.
We could demonstrate to the rest of Britain, and indeed to the rest of the world that you don’t have to have lots of possessions to be happy, that in fact after a certain point there is an inverse relationship between wealth and how many material goods you own. The real wealth comes from community, from our relations with the community of humans and from the community of the more than human beings that surround us and ultimately from the animate Earth herself.
**Thank you very much.**
A selection of articles by Stephan can be found here