Transition Culture

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

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21 Jan 2008

Is Peak Oil the Best Way of Looking At This… Might ‘Trough Oil’ Be More Useful?

lightIn a conversation at the weekend with climate change expert David Wasdell of the Meridian Group, we mused upon the appropriateness of the term ‘peak oil’. I thought you might be interested to hear, in advance, what I wrote for **The Transition Handbook** when I got home from talking with him. When we look at the standard Hubbert curve, we see a mountain, a rise followed by a fall, an ascent followed by a descent. There is a sense that we have reached the peak and that now we have to grit our teeth for the long journey home, akin to an over-excited child at a birthday party being told it is time to go home. Perhaps the sense that we need to instill, Wasdell suggested, could come from turning this much viewed graphic upside down. We might more usefully use the term ‘trough oil’.

hubbRather than a mountain, we could view the fossil fuel age a fetid lagoon into which we have dived. We had been told that great fortunes lay buried at the bottom of the lagoon if only we were able to dive deeply enough to find them. As time has passed we have dived deeper and deeper, into thicker, blacker, stickier liquid, and now we find ourselves hitting against the bottom, pushing our endurance to the extreme, surrounded by revolting tar sands sticky oils, the scrapings of the fossil fuel barrel. We can just about see distant sunlight still glinting through the water above us, and our desperate urge to fill our lungs begins to propel us back upwards, striving for oxygen.

Rather than being dragged every step of the way, we propel ourselves with focused urgency towards sunlight and fresh air. Viewed like this, the race for a decarbonised, fossil fuel-free world becomes an instinctive rush to mass self-preservation, a collective abandonment of a way of living that no longer makes us happy, driven by the urge to fill our lungs with something as yet not completely defined yet which we instinctively know will make us happier than what we have now. Perhaps arriving in a powered-down world will have the same sense of nourishment and elation as finally breaking through the surface and filling our lungs with fresh morning air, marvelling once again at the beauty around us and the joy of being alive.

Categories: Climate Change, Peak Oil

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Tom Hitchman
21 Jan 11:29pm


22 Jan 12:32am

Nothing like turning that frown upside down!

Roger Cole
22 Jan 12:45am

Hi Rob
Sorry but it doesn’t do it for me! Rob I think we need to talk about Transition and the urban environment. We seem to be losing our way in Bristol and I think it would be a good idea if we were as Transition look closely at the model for Cities and how we apply it. I have proposed a series of lectures and workshops to get us to the stage of being able to form working groups but the transition model seems more relevant to small towns rather than our urban conurbations. What do you think? In peace

Jane Buttigieg
22 Jan 9:58am

Hello from Bristol!
In typical inclusive transition style I am going to use an and/and approach to this and Rogers answer above rather than and/or.
Yes!…the trough analogy is far more positive and I totally agree that we are moving into more enlightened times away from a really negative period in human history through this transition. (We are actually at the start of a revolution)
AND I also agree with Roger that transition will be different in cities…but I don’t think the transition movement so far has argued otherwise. It has always stressed the local nature of any changes and that everywhere will have it’s own particular culture.
I think the size of Bristol alone will mean it

Jane Buttigieg
22 Jan 10:03am

Sorry…pressed a button too early!
I was saying that the size of Bristol will make even our awareness raising a very different thing due to the size of the population we have to reach, and I think the awareness raising will take far longer. It is very important though, to be more inclusive with awareness raising. Advertising film nights on Transition Bristol’s website and in organic food shops and random poster pasting is not enough. We need to get out to different ethnic and cultural groups, faith groups, youth groups, councillors, MPs, local traders etc every time we hold these evenings, and make sure the press is always told.
I am interested in seeing working groups form, and this year am determined to be part of that process somewhere. Can you put your ideas on the Bristol forum Roger?

Vinnie mc cann
22 Jan 10:11am

Hi rob / roger

It great to be thinking of new ways of presenting information, but the truth about Peak Oil is that it is hard to understand, so it demands some concentration of the graphs’ and the explanations in text books and websites, and it is in this very act that, consolidates an realization or conclusion, hence the all of a sudden shock of knowing, that happens to a lot of people, who get the peak oil story.
Changing the visual representation of peak oil, I feel would confuse things as this stage .
It is my experience, that we as transitioners are placing to much emphases on the importance of the peak rather then, its before and after effects, it should be enough to explain an infinite resource as this implies a peak, the rest is in the hands of the people who really need to know.

Vinnie mc cann
22 Jan 10:57am

sorry not infinite as this never runs out but FINITE would make more sence

Dean D
22 Jan 12:17pm

On the problems of Cities.

I think it is important not to look at the cities as a whole but break it down suburb by suburb. Even in cities it can still be brought to the local level. Which is precisely what happened in Cuba. Remember the rooftops can be landscapes. You can find space where ever you care to put your mind to it. Plenty of car parks around which can be converted.
As to understanding peak oil, important of course at this stage, but a lot of people will understand empty stomachs, when that time comes, just as they, once again, did in Cuba.

22 Jan 5:44pm

Maybe ‘Ditch Oil’ works better?

22 Jan 6:18pm

This is a great way of visualizing “peak” oil. The peak analogy is so very depressing that it nearly causes one to simply give up as there is seemingly nothing good about it.

This analogy has actually made me think in a more positive way. Thanks for this.. maybe things aren’t really so bleak as people think (as long as we move towards transition!).

Now, if only there would be a transition movement here in Montreal Canada. Most people are still living in what they think is blissful ignorance. Too bad they don’t think about what their children (and grandchildren etc.) will have to deal with!

If anyone knows of any Canadian groups, let me know!

Klaus Harvey
22 Jan 6:52pm

Or since we are living during the most corrupted and contaminted era ever: Peak Spoil.

22 Jan 6:56pm

There is no such thing as ‘Peak Oil’ There IS NO peak, there never has been and there never will be. It is all a fallacy. It is used to help create a mindset among the general populous that there are too many people on the planet and not enough resources, so let’s do some reduction! Nobody ever tells you how they plan to reduce the population but I think you all can guess. I had a meeting with a professor at the St Petersburg University oil & petroleum dept and he confirmed what tons of research had backed up – that the earth is self replenishing in oil, there is plenty of oil and there always will be plenty of oil.

22 Jan 7:12pm

I can see your point, but “trough oil” does not play out as well to me. The oil curve may be like a mountain we’ve climbed with the aid of disposable sherpas and litter-bearers, wreaking destruction — and learning some things — as we ascended toward some expected Holy Grail at the summit. When we get there we find not the expected treasure but just ourselves, with all our foibles and grace and POTENTIAL. There is no turning back, and to think we can keep climbing evinces a Wile E. Coyote mentality. It’s time to get grounded, feel and honor the Earth and her gifts, and let gravity help lead us to the fertile valley below.

23 Jan 12:03am

Always good to see things from a different perspective! Reminded me of this:

23 Jan 1:24am


I saw a curve much like the one you show here describing the process of alcoholism. The alcoholic starts his/her drinking (on the upper left of your curve) and things are fine for a while. As the drinking continues and increases the alcoholic starts the decline into full blown alcoholism and bottoms out.

If the alcoholic chooses to get sober, they start the climb back up to sobriety and eventually find the means to live a relatively normal life.

I think we are the addicts bottoming out with our addiction to cheap and plentiful energy.

The detox process will be painful and difficult as we get sober, but it will be worth it, just as it is for many addicts who get sober.

The visual (curve) worked for me when I saw it. A therapist was using it to explain the process of alcoholism to me. He told me that my older sisters who knew my dad (the alcoholic) earlier on in his life (at the top of the curve when he was fun) were exposed to a very different person than I was exposed to – I only knew him on the descent into alcoholism – mean and nasty. So my exposure to the addiction was much different.

This is the same with our society. Every generation has had a different experience with cheap and abundant energy. We are all addicted, but at different levels and some for longer than others.

The developing world is joining us in the addiction and we are fighting them for every drop. We will see many of the typical behaviors associated with addiction as we move forward.

Where are we on the curve? People are in different positions on the curve and we need to understand this and deal with it. Some of us want to get sober, some are in denial, some are just starting the addiction.

The journey up the hill to recovery will be a long, difficult, interesting, enlightening and necessary one.

Maybe we could all learn a little about the healing process from the folks who have been studying addiction. It’s worth a try.


23 Jan 10:57pm

Team that is a wonderful image – one that I readily accept as being subconsciously at the bottom of my thinking on Peak et al..

24 Jan 12:38pm

An interesting viewpoint, but distracting, I feel. The main aim (of communicating the message and implications of peak oil) is best delivered using the concepts people are already familiar with, the frames of reference common to diverse fields of inquiry and information gathering. AFTER the message, then perhaps the, dare I say, whimsy or indulgence of philosophical, poetical respresentation.
‘Greens’, ‘Alternatives’, sustainable lifestyle folk have enough to contend with fending off charges of new-age/fey/faery/hick/ woodsy/simpleton images (still!) to want to add to the stew.

Clarity, simplicity, directness = still the best ways to get a message across, starting from a familiar known place (or graphic depiction).

30 Jan 7:08pm

i don’t think its distracting, its a great transformation which seems perfect for transition culture, and the organic, adaptive approach we need. Those that are familiar with the peak image i’m sure can imagine it differently easily, those that aren’t familiar with it can go straight to the trough, as it were!

30 Jan 11:29pm

The trough is a very rich image – it implies we are in the shit and now we can get out of it back to the beneficent natural world, where we can learn about ourselves and other beings within the context of the overarching natural system – whereas the Peak image is that we are well off – independant of the natural system and how do we stay this way… sheer hubris and folly…

The trough can also be adopted by true Marxist who can see the Oil Trough in Orwellian terms as the trough of greed that subverted the rise of the proletariat and led to Totalitarianism and not freedom!!