22 Sep 2006
Teaching Peak Oil Creatively.
I came across a quote by the great Aldo Leopold yesterday, from Sand County Almanac, one of the only things I have ever read of his that I disagree with. He wrote *”one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”*. Poor guy… sounds like he did the wrong course. It is of course possible to teach a course on sustainability that leaves one utterly numb at the helplessness of the whole situation (the environmental degree I did would have done that had I not done a permaculture course prior to starting it), but it is also possible, (and indeed essential) to do the opposite. I want to share an exercise with you which I have found very powerful in teaching people about the impacts the Age of Cheap Oil has had on our societies.
Last Monday was the first evening of the Skilling Up for Powerdown course in Totnes, with 36 students, running over 10 weeks. The first evening was about peak oil and climate change, weighty topics hard to make accessible, let alone fun. One of the most useful tools I have had at my side on my journey as a permaculture teacher is the essential ‘Manual for Teaching Permaculture Creatively’ by Robyn Clayfield and Skye, available here and here. It is a wonderful exposition of a complete approach to teaching, engaging all parts of the brain, and making permaculture accessible to all kinds of students. It incorporates games, role-plays, visualisations, puzzles, silly daft running around things, revision exercises and lots more. I couldn’t teach without it.
Above all it gave me a way of thinking about how information is communicated and how important it is to move away from the “I am the teacher, now be quiet and listen to me because I know all about this” model, to a more engaging and creative approach. I now make use a lot of games, practical exercises, imagination, group work and so on. The communicating of peak oil desperately needs creative tools for helping people to really internalise it and ‘feel’ it, beyond endless powerpoints of downward trajectory graphs.
On the first night of Skilling Up for Powerdown I used the following exercise, an adaptation of one I have used for ages at the beginning of permaculture courses. I have done this with very diverse groups of people and I have never had it not work, it is always very powerful. Divide students into groups of no more than 15-17 (minimum of 6, ideal around 12). Any more than that divide them into smaller groups. Get them to stand in as tight a circle as they can, so their shoulders are touching.
**Equipment needed**. 1 large ball of string. One sticker per person in each group. These are large parcel stickers, that you buy on a roll. On these, in advance, you have written the names of different elements of a native woodland. Here in the UK, my list consists of Oak Tree, Soil, Hedgerow, Badger, Worm, Dormouse, Rainfall, Owl, Leaf Litter,Fox, Robin, Wetland, Hazel, Beetle, Fungi, Blackberries, and so on. You can adapt it for the species where you are.
**Directions**. The stickers are handed round, everyone sticks theirs to the top of their chest. The idea is then to pass the ball of string across and around the circle, the only rule being that as you pass the string to someone you must make clear what your relationship is with them. You give the setting of it being a native woodland (ideally you do this exercise outdoors, in a woodland, under a large oak tree, but this is not always possible, especially in an evening class), and as the string is passed around you can chip in any extra information you might have on woodland ecology that is relevant about relationships between the different elements. After a while you end up with a complex web of string between everybody. When it is finished, get everyone to pull the string tight, and then to put their hands on top of it and see how strong it is. At this stage people feel quite proud of this web they have created, and are rather pleased with themselves.
Once you have the web created you can make the following observations. In nature, this web of relationships is inherent in all ecosystems, and it is the diversity of relationships that makes these ecosystems work. These webs are very complex and resilient, but they are also very fragile. We interene in them at our peril, as we can never really know what effects we are having, as we have insufficient understanding of them. While we have done this exercise about a woodland, we could just as easily do it about a town, with the butcher, the church, the schools, the farmers and so on. Before cheap oil our communities and our economies depended on these networks of relationships and connections. Cheap oil gave us the dubious ‘luxury’ of thinking we can live without them. People can now often live with no idea who lives next door to them. What life beyond the peak will need, and what permaculture is about, is rebuilding these connections.
Permaculture is about reweaving the complex web of beneficial relationships. This game is a useful tool for seeing and giving form to what we have thrown away and what cheap oil does for us. I then walk around the circle and ask them to note how some people are holding more strings than others. These are the key elements of the ecosystem. When we make interventions in this system we do so at our peril. We could be a farmer who decides to clear the oak trees and drain the wetland. We could be the planners in a town with a strong local economy who decide to permit a large out-of-town supermarket. Either way we often don’t see the results of this intervention immediately.
What happens when we clear the oaks (the person who is the oaks lets go of their strings)? We can see that it doesn’t make much obvious difference. So then we drain the wetland (wetland person lets theirs go). Again, it looks a bit worse but not much. Then, using a plausible narrative (“so then the farmer did this, and then that…”), get people to let go of their strings one after the other. At a certain point it all collapses. The point to make is that you have no idea of knowing when that happens. You build the out of town supermarket and 3 years later the High Street is deserted. In essence, human beings before cheap oil used good design, and networks of relationships to make things happen. Since cheap oil we have lost all that. We will need to rebuild it.
For added dramatic effect, you can brandish a pair of scissors and cut the strings! As a way of teaching people about permaculture principles and about how cheap oil has transformed our society, this is a very powerful exercise. It is just one of many that we can use to avoid Leopold’s *”world of wounds”*. By the end of a course, people should be inspired, empowered and equipped. If they aren’t, the teacher has failed in his duty. So far, this is the only tool I have been able to come up with for teaching people about peak oil in a way that isn’t bums-on-seat, slides and information overload, apart from the great game with potatoes that I wrote about here a while ago. Any other ideas out there? Perhaps if we get enough, we could do ‘The Manual for Teaching Peak Oil Creatively’?