Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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16 Mar 2007

Peak Oil and Beyond – Q&A with Heinberg, Campbell and Leggett – Part 4 (the last one…).

discR. So, some questions on peak oil … it’s not very often you’re going to have the opportunity of these three esteemed people in front of you!

**Q15. Yes, it’s amazing. I have a question – I’m still trying to get my head around this time-scale. The idea of say, a localisation program by 2020 in Oakland, is that where we’re going to need to be, when everything starts to become a survival issue?** **I’m particularly interested in creating Transition cities and towns to force the national issue – are you finding any receptivity among the press? Is there any strand of the press that’s open to talking about this?**

Ri. Well, the alternative press is interested in it. The mainstream press sees it as…where it’s more or less unavoidable, where you have the city council passing resolutions, it has to be recorded in newspapers and they have to start taking an interest. So that’s what we really have to do, is get it on the official agenda, at least locally, so that the press does have to report it. And then, sometimes, it provokes a backlash.

In Portland for example, Portland, Oregon, there’s been some very effective organising, locally, and the city council has passed peak oil resolutions, and they’ve begun to set targets and so on. Now there’s a bit of a backlash coming, and in the Portland newspaper there are letters from people saying, ‘What’s all this about? Are they trying to take our cars away from us?’, etc. So the first part of your question was about time frames…this is the scary part, because the speed at which this shift needs to happen is really daunting. When we look just at the climate side of this, the scale of the reduction in carbon emissions that has to happen by say 2020, or 2030, is really enormous. And at national level, this isn’t even being contemplated yet. It’s only in some locales that we’re starting to see some effort.

R. Colin, do you have anything to say about timescales?

C. Well I think conventional oil peaked last year if you look at the numbers, and all kinds will probably – the deep water, the heavies and so on – probably 2010 is a good date. So this is an imminent change of direction. And as I stress, it’s only a gradual decline – it’s not a cliff we’re looking at. We’re not running out in ten years. It’s simply the change from growth to decline.

**Q16. I have a question on peak oil, and confession time as well, because my reading of the situation makes me feel quite a frightened citizen. Whilst you were saying just now it’s going to be a gradual decline, at the same time, our information from the International Panel on Climate Change is saying we’ve got to really get fast in to real speedy reduction. There do seem to be these two scenarios – we’re either just in the hands of people, and producers, and we’ll use it up. As it gets used up, you hope we don’t warm up too fast, vs. the other scenario, which as you say, we’ve got to cut back much, much faster than allowing the market place to dictate the flow.**

**I feel we need some real advice from a group of serious climatologists that can perhaps begin to do some analysis indicators of future scenario…a Guardian article says the CO² levels are much, much higher than predicted and they’re not quite sure why. It seems to be huge amounts of methane from across the UK, and volumes of methane in the oceans are anticipated to come up. That’s why I use the word ‘frightened’.**

**I’m really terrified – I don’t want to come to conferences like this and sort of preach the doomsday scenario because I want to press on with the project of putting it right, but my main question I think, in relation to what I’m saying, is how do we really know the pace change that’s required in order to achieve so called stability? How do we go about it on a national scale, and really come to terms with the challenge? It just seems that the Soil Association are taking the initiative and the political scene, the economic scene, internationally, is hardly tinkering with the issue.**

J. Regarding the scientists – I talk obviously to people in this IPCC process quite regularly, and as one of them said to me the other day, ‘these days, with these climatologist people, mostly gentleman in places like the Met Office and NASA, these days…there’s an atmosphere of ‘barely suppressed panic’. And of course, these are people who are used, all their professional life, to saying, ‘On the one hand this, on the other hand that, but please keep my name out of it.’

They’re not trained…and I speak from personal experience here…I was one of them in the days that I was at Imperial College – people who mixed science with politics got their wrists slapped very hard by their colleagues. So this community isn’t going to help on the policy. They can advise on the science and are doing I think a pretty good job on that, and recently, you may have seen the Tyndall dley Centre, which is one of our centres of excellence in the country, has said, ‘Sorry government, 60% cuts by 2015 just definitely aren’t going to hack it.’

You’ve now got to go to 70% by 2030. But even a target like that – it’s just putting a finger up in the air. The thing is, we have to get to deep cuts as quickly as possible. What I think is exciting and interesting in this regard, is that so many of the survival technologies are highly disruptive. They can invade traditional markets very, very quickly – much quicker I believe than most people out there think. What we need to do is get a series of balls rolling. And – apologies to folk who were in the workshop yesterday on Energy in the Farm – you just look at house building in this country, we build 120,000 homes a year.

There’s no reason, why the government, with a national security emergency like global warming, shouldn’t simply turn around and say, ‘we’re not going to build any more homes unless they’re low carbon, or even zero carbon.’ To be fair to them, Gordon Brown has recently announced this objective of zero carbon homes – no homes will be built in Britain unless they’re zero carbon, in the year 2016, so 10 years from now. That’s better than nothing.

I know for a fact that the house building industry is gearing up for that. More than half the emissions – carbon from buildings, directly or indirectly – and more of those come from residential buildings. So the do-ability of all this, the deep cuts and the emissions, is what is so frustrating. As the lady said…if we have a war time spirit, we’re mobilising for war…spitfires – yes – Lancasters – yes – these ones – no – mulberry harbours – yes! Go, go, go! We can do this! We could.

Transport’s another question… I don’t think we can look to the scientists to say, ‘this must happen by then.’ I don’t think any longer we can look to politicians for leadership. We’ve been failed so badly on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries as well. So to the extent that survival and sanity is possible, I think it has to do with us, and reconstructing the business world. Because the business world does actually seem to be listening. But actually, it’s not really a good idea to kill all your customers.

**Q17. My name’s Anna Ford. I just wanted to ask Colin a question. After your talk yesterday, when do you think that the oil companies are going to come clean about what’s really happening? And what do you predict…we’ve had a lot from Rob Hopkins about small communities and how they’re becoming transitional – I think this is wonderful news. I live in the West part of London – I would like to live in a community like Totnes, because I think that is the way forward, and it’s the way forward for our children. What do you predict is going to happen to people who don’t live in small communities but who live in suburbia?**

C. Well, as far as the behaviour of the major oil companies is concerned, of course, it’s so obvious they must know the situation more or less. I think they’ve managed to evade it by mergers…the practical way in which if you’re not finding anymore, you buy somebody else. We’ve seen an enormous amount of mergers between Exon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, BP-Amoco and so on. Shell was the one company that sort of stood aloof from major acquisitions, and as you all know they finally had to admit to their declining reserves, and this caused a financial problem.

So I think they know, as far as their public statements are admitting to this, I would say Chevron is probably the best. You may have seen this website you have – ‘Will you join us? – where they open the debate. BP is probably the worst I would say. They’re extremely…Lord Brown is forever saying, ‘If you divide production…if you divide reserves by production, you have 40 years of supply – what’s the problem?’ It’s absolutely…a moment’s reflection will tell you how absurd it is to imagine production could stay flat for 40 years and then stop dead over night.

**Q17. Lord Brown’s a gonner then.**

C. Maybe, with a bit of luck! So you have a spectrum of reactions. And internally, within oil companies – I’ve been through this myself – if I would come to the company and say, ‘This Barent Sea place just doesn’t have the geology to really succeed’, the response is, ‘This Campbell isn’t really the oil finder we hoped of him!’ So explorers don’t ever like to put limits on their activity – they’re always trying some other day, and if the Jurassic doesn’t have the right source rocks, well they’ll say there’s long range migration from the Triassic. So internally from the oil companies, it’s very hard to get a straight statement on the limits. This is something that just doesn’t fit in the systems – I don’t know if that answers the questions.

**Q17. What about suburbia and all those people that live in cities and towns – how are they going to be effected by this?**

C. Well I’m no specialist on that of course, but I would say they’re going to be effected pretty badly. The urban life is the thing most at risk. We heard the example of Cuba, and people mentioned immigration – well I guess Cuba is a net emigrant country, so whether Cuba could have all the gardens in the cities and still accept mountains of people from somewhere else I would doubt. So I think you’re right – the cities are the ones that face the greater problem.

R. Jeremy, do you want to mention anything on the oil companies there?

J. Yeah… I don’t know if I have a slightly different view from Colin on this, but I don’t think there’s a great conspiracy – I don’t think they do know, often, in the sense of the average practitioner, quite high up in the oil company. My read of it is that it’s cultural. There’s just a culture in that industry that is insanely rich in machismo. I get invited to their conferences because I used to be one of them, and when my board occasionally let me out of my cage that’s mostly what I do – go in to the lion’s den and say, ‘come on guys, we have a problem, right?’ And they argue back.

So audiences like this, full of people who think I’m just slightly on the reasonable side of insane. And as for Colin, well, you know…! So how do they manage to do it? They have a culture where…it’s defeatism. Any talk of, ‘Oo, we have a problem’, is defeatist. That instantly marks you down as someone who’s not going to get promoted. We have solved problems on the frontiers of the hydro-carbon revolution for 100 years, and by God we’re going to continue to do it! That’s one factor.

Another factor is, very few people see the full picture. They make work in an individual province, or even an individual oil field for much of their working life. They appoint one or two people who look at the reserves across the whole company. In BP, there’s a gentlemen who’d probably better be nameless, and he was in that role, and if you talk to him off the record…he’s almost as worried as we are. Colin knows who I’m talking about. So there aren’t many people who see the full picture.

This is also true in the OPEC governments. I think it would be a mistake to think all these governments are evilly cooking up a conspiracy to drive us all in to a brick wall, and one of the most difficult things to do – as I had to do at the World Economics’ Forum in a side meeting at that a couple of months ago – is argue with Aramco because their view is…they take on an affronted air and say, ‘How can you not trust us? It’s preposterous to think we’re telling lies about our reserves!’ And the people who say that, of course, absolutely believe it. They’re not party to the full facts and figures. So it’s just a desperate, cultural, human thing. That’s my belief. Of course there are a few crooks in the place as well.

R. Richard, as one of the stars of The End of Suburbia, would you have a comment on suburbia?

Ri. Well… I had a wonderful experience this last year, touring Australia with David Holmgren, the permaculturalist, and his presentation was about retro-fitting suburbia. I got to see it about 15 or 20 times, and memorised it! He has this fabulous slideshow about what happens to a kind of emblematic Australian suburban lot, starting in 1950 when they’ve got the chooks in the back yard, the chickens, and so on…and it’s maybe not self-sufficient but people are hanging up their clothes on lines and all of these things.

Then he takes you up through the 1970’s and as they get rid of the chickens, they get rid of the clothes line – they’ve got an electric dryer now, and all of these things. And it shows how in fact now it could just go back in the other direction – people taking courses in permaculture and starting to plough up the front lawn and plant fruit and nut trees, and vegetable gardens and so on. Then they go together and there’s an empty lot on the block, they buy that up and turn that in to a common store where they can… most suburbs are completely car dependant – there’s not city centre there – so these things have to be retro-fitted in to place. He manages to show how this could actually happen.

R. Colin has to leave in a few minutes. Maybe we’ll just take one more question?

**Q18. On a political, national, international level – what do you see is the point of critical mass, that you move away from lobbying, you’ve shifted away from lobbying and raising awareness, and we’re not moving in to the solution, getting things done, fixing all these things that we’ve done wrong? A question for anyone really.**

J. That’s what I was trying to say a minute ago – that there are serial tipping points, and we’re seeing some being triggered. There is definitely something really weird and encouraging going on in the retail sector at the moment. The renewable energy industry has tipped in to one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and I’ve lived through a period over the last 18 months where we’ve moved in to trade where we’re fighting off investors, really serious money who are wanting to go in to these…so you need so many of these tipping points to fashion a survivable future. There’s societal ones, and the ones that have to do with these massive institutional, vested interests, and modes of denial – institutionalised denial – they haven’t broken down yet, and it’s difficult to see when they will, unfortunately.

R. Richard, tipping points?

Ri. I don’t know. Looking at this from a big, large scale perspective, it’s like we’re running history’s greatest experiment in psychology and sociology here. We have this species that’s gotten itself hooked on a cheap, easy source of energy, give any species given some extra energy, what will they do? Gobble it up and reproduce and fill up all the ecological space. But this particular species has this intellectual capacity to understand what it’s doing, and to understand the consequences of what it’s doing, and to look a bit in to the future, and see how all of this will eventuate if they don’t change their behaviour.

So the question is, will we be able to exercise that function and actually change their behaviour? That, in essence, is what this whole discussion is about. In my usual slide show I have the population graph of humanity, and compare that to a population of yeast in a wine vat – and then show a slide, asking the question, ‘Are people smarter than yeast?’ Really, in essence, that’s the question that we have to answer over the course of the next couple of decades.

R. Before we close, just to thank very much the panel we’ve had here…thank you for your questions…if we could give them a big round of applause…

C. Good luck, everybody!