22 Jul 2009
Giving One of the 2009 TED Talks. Gulp.
I don’t normally get nervous about giving talks, but I have one coming up this week that I am feeling very nervous about. I am going to Oxford to do one of the TED talks, and I have to say, I am feeling like it is somewhat stepping up a level! If you are unfamiliar with TED, they give you 18 minutes, an audience of very successful thinkers, inventors, geeks and business people, and ask you to give the talk of your life, which they film in HD and put online where it is viewed by millions of people. And Gordon Brown just did one of the first ones. No pressure then.
Anyway, by way of somehow, in some odd kind of way, sharing the stress I am feeling about it, I am going to post here the master set of notes that I will be using. Do think of me, at 8.30am on Thursday morning, clambering onto the stage, with sweaty palms. In good time I’m sure you will get to see the film, but for now, here are my notes. I will be at TED until Friday evening, so there probably won’t be any fresh posts here until next week.
“Two of the important stories we tell ourselves are either that someone else will sort it all out for us, or that we are all doomed, I’d like to share with you a very different story, and like all stories it has a beginning.
For many years I worked in education, teaching practical skills that were needed in order to live a more sustainable life. I used to teach sustainability based on the idea that sustainability meant reducing the inputs and outputs to a globalised economic structure, that it was about reducing the impact of an economic model that would continue indefinitely.
Then I found out about an issue which fundamentally changed how I looked at things.
I would like now to introduce to you one of the great wonders of modern times, something for which we ought to have a deep reverence…
(Centre stage is a bottle of oil covered in a cloth. With suitable awe and reverence, remove the cloth)
This is really the star of this morning’s show. This one litre of oil contains energy equivalent to 5 weeks hard human manual labour.
That means that it contains energy equivalent to 35 days of someone working hard for you. 35 strong men slaving away, all for £1. Astonishing. Ancient sunlight that has been distilled over geological time to form this astonishingly energy dense substance. We can store it, move it around, turn it into a dazzling array of materials, from medicines and toothbrushes to laptops and clothing. We have designed our settlements, our business models, our transport infrastructure, even the very idea of economic growth, on the assumption that we will always have it.
All the way up the mountain of what we might call the Petroleum Interval, our degree of economic success and personal sense of prowess and wellbeing have been directly linked to how much energy we have consumed, but we are rapidly moving into a time where our degree of oil dependency is our degree of vulnerability. Yet it is increasingly clear that we will not have access to oil forever, indeed that we may well have already begun the long journey back down the mountain.
Clearly we will at some point experience a decline. Discovery of oil peaked in 1965 and has been in decline ever since. We now consume four barrels of oil for every one that we discover. If discovery has peaked and fallen, it is only logical that production must at some point do the same.
An important element is the fact that we have to work harder in order to get energy out of the energy we extract, EROEI. In 1930, the world got 100 units of energy for every 1 it invested in extracting that energy. That has now fallen to 11 as we find that we have used most of the easy, cheap to produce energy, and are now scrabbling around at the bottom of the oceans and in the Arctic Circle.
There are 98 oil producing nations in the world, but of those 65 have already passed their peak in production.
When does the moment come when on average, the world passes its peak? There is a strong case that that is what happened last July when the oil price rose to $147 a barrel, a historically unprecedented price. Ultimately what matters is not when we pass the peak, rather it is the longer view that we are in close to the end of the Age of Cheap Oil and all that that has made possible.
Yet are we to assume, as some do, that the brilliance and creativity that got us to the top of this energy mountain will evaporate when we have to start thinking about designing a way back down the other side? No, but that thinking, and the options we come up with, have to be based on a realistic assessment of where we are.
The other issue that underpins the Transition response, is climate change. I won’t say much about that here, given that previous TED talks have included Al Gore! It is important to note however, the speed at which climate change, and our ever more concerning understanding of it, is moving. The scientists have an increasingly terrified look in their eyes. It is now clear that the speed of change is taking everyone by surprise: the scale of melting in the Arctic looks to be 80 years ahead of IPCC projections, and recent work indicates that even if just 3% of the carbon stored in the arctic permafrost were to be released, it would offset all the cuts in emissions the world needs to make over the next 40 years. We have no choice other than urgent and deep decarbonisation.
One of the questions that fascinates me is what stories will future generations, those further down the slope, tell of us? What myths and stories will they have created to describe the generation that partied so hard and so abused its inheritance? One way of thinking of it is to look at the stories that people before the Oil Age told, limited as they were by the power available to them from the muscle power of their animals and of their communities aided to a small degree by the wind.
We have stories like the 7 League Boots, the giant’s boots that once put on mean the wearer can stride 7 Leagues with each step (around 21 miles), an unimaginable degree of freedom to travel and ability to cover distance.
There’s the tale of the Magic Porridge Pot, where a people who worked hard for their food and who knew where it all came from, dreamt of a pot where, provided you knew the magic word, would provide unlimited food at no effort, so long as you didn’t forget the other magic word to stop it and thereby flood your entire town with porridge!
Then there’s the story of Elves and Shoemaker, where people who work hard making shoes find that magically the shoes are made for them without their having to expend any of their own energy. All stories from a time that couldn’t imagine having such energy at its disposal. Now, the 7 League Boots is EasyJet, the Magic Porridge Pot is Tescos or Walmart, and the Elves are China. But we have lost all sense of the wonder of that.
So what happens next? Where do we go now? It is worth at this point looking at the stories, the cultural stories, we tell ourselves about our options from this point forward.
There is the story of business as usual, the idea that we can just continue doing what we are doing now, and that the future will be like the present, just with more of everything. However, the wheels have rather come off this approach, and in the light of peak oil and climate change, it is impossible.
There is the story which is also prevalent, especially in our popular media, that everything might collapse or fall apart. This is a strong cultural story, especially in the US.
Then there is response that suggests that technology will come riding to our rescue, one, I would observe, is rather prevalent at these TED Talks. The idea that we can invent our way out of a profound economic and energy crisis, that the move to a knowledge economy can allow us to neatly sidestep the very real energy constraints we are facing. The idea that we will discover some extraordinary new source of energy that will sweep aside any concerns about energy security. That we can make a seamless step across onto renewables. It is perhaps because we have shown such great creativity all the way up the mountain, that we assume we can do the same thing all the way down again.
However, the real world is not Second Life. We cannot create new land, new energy systems at the click of a mouse. We live in a world of very real constraints. As we sit on our laptops exchanging ‘free’ ideas with each other, collaboratively building new ideas and concepts, there are still people in China mining coal to power the servers our web access relies on, processing the materials for our new devices, and the breakfast we eat before we start work has been sourced from great distances, with a huge energy and carbon debt, and usually at the expense of the resilient local food systems we have so effectively devalued and discarded over the past 40 years. While we can be astonishingly inventive and brilliant about this, we also live in a very real world with very real demands and constraints. We should always ask;
- what is the full energy cost of this intervention, including all of the embodied energy in the infrastructure needed as well as that from running the system?
- how long will it take to implement and could carbon reductions be achieved any faster with a different intervention?
- do we, as a society, have enough energy overall to carry through our decision?
- similarly, do we have enough money to carry out our decision?
Energy and technology are not the same thing. Technology will be key, but it will inevitably sit within a context of a world where our real, non-virtual needs are provided by a system moving towards becoming inherently more local.
My work has been involved in the creation of a different story, the Transition story. It is the story of the generation that looked peak oil and climate change in the face and responded with creativity, imagination and adaptability. It is the story of seeing that living with less, moving from Gross Domestic Product to Real National Happiness is a step forward not a step back. It is about seeing this inevitable change in direction for humanity as an enormous opportunity rather than an enormous crisis. It is that story I want to share with you today.
Clearly any response to these twin challenges needs to work on a range of levels. We need a robust international response from the talks in Copenhagen in December. We need a deep and committed response from national and local governments, and we need engaged communities. Transition was initially designed to be part of that bottom-up grassroots response. It is designed to be able to move fast, under the radar and to spread far and deep. It has several characteristics. It is;
- Viral: It spread rapidly and pops up in the most unexpected places
- Open Source: It is a model that people shape and take ownership of and is made available freely
- Self organising: it is not centrally controlled, rather it is something people take ownership of and make their own
- Solutions focused: it is inherently positive, not campaigning against things, rather setting out a positive vision of a world that has embraced its limitations
- Iterative: it is continually learning from its successes and its failures and redefining itself, trying to research what is working and what isn’t
- Clarifying: it offers a clear explanation of where humanity finds itself based on the best science available
- Sensitive to place and scale: Transition looks different wherever it goes
- Historic: it tries to create a sense of this being an historic opportunity to do something extraordinary – and perhaps most importantly of all
Transition is, to borrow a phrase from socially engaged Buddhist writer Ken Jones “not about winning the argument, but about changing the climate”.
One of the concepts key to Transition is that of resilience. Originally from the study of ecology, it is about the ability of systems, settlements and organisations to respond to shock from the outside. It is, increasingly, a more useful and relevant concept than that of sustainability. When supermarkets contain just 2 days worth of food at any one time, we need to think beyond the sustainability of their stores, to the idea that actually that is a situation which leaves entire settlements highly vulnerable. Resilience thinking runs far deeper. It is about building modularity, surge breakers, into our current, highly networked ways of operating. This picture is of the Bristol and District Market Gardeners Association in 1897, at a time when the city of Bristol was surrounded by working market gardens. It had a degree of resilience we can only look back to with envy.
Transition is a process that seeks to catalyse responses to peak oil and climate change, seeing relocalisation not as a conscious choice, but rather as an inevitable shift in direction for humanity which we can choose to welcome and make more elegant. So how does it work? In brief, a group of people who are passionate about this, who feel motivated to initiate this process, come together and start awareness raising event, showing films, organising talks and so on. This initial awareness raising stage is creative, playful and informative. This then leads to working groups forming around different subjects, food, energy and so on, and the role of the initiative is to then offer project support to those emerging groups and the actions they initiate.
In the past 3 years, Transition has grown from a handful of initiatives to over 200 formal Transition initiatives and thousands of others at the earlier, ‘mulling’ stage. But what do they actually do? What tangible difference are they making on the ground? There is a wealth of local food projects, from urban growing to local food directories, from assessments of potential local food production to community supported agriculture schemes. A number of communities are now setting up local energy companies, owned and resourced by the community. Many Transition initiatives work with their local schools, in Newent in the Forest of Dean the Transition initiative bought a polytunnel that the students use to learn to grow food in. Many promote cycling, organise the sharing of garden space, plant fruit and nut trees in public spaces. Some have even begun to print their own currencies.
This is the new Lewes Pound. Lewes in Sussex have just expanded the scheme they launched last year so that there are now, £1, £5, £10 and £21 notes, which can only circulate locally, in parallel to national currency, thereby offering a powerful tool to support relocalisation.
Many are now starting to create what we call ‘Energy Descent Action Plans’, in effect community plans based on peak oil and climate change, embracing those twin challenges as a tremendous opportunity to do something extraordinary. ‘Plan B’s, in effect.
It would be entirely fair to say that the scale and pace of take-up of the Transition approach has very much taken me by surprise. As a friend of mine often says “life is a series of things you are not quite ready for”. So where is all this going? The viral nature of Transition is such that it pops up in the most unexpected places. Last year the Transition Handbook was voted the 5th most popular book that British MPs took on holiday with them. That may have something to do with its being printed on recycled paper and therefore being good for mopping up red wine and sun cream, but we are starting to see considerable interest from MPs. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change attended this year’s Transition Network conference, after we invited him to come as a ‘keynote listener’. He’s now telling audiences about the experience of being a keynote listener instead of a keynote speaker.
There are now 2 Transition Local Authorities in the UK, Somerset and Leicestershire, dedicated to supporting the many Transition initiatives in their area. In Stroud, where the Transition initiative, in effect, wrote the local Council’s food policy, the leader of the Council said “if we didn’t have Transition Stroud we would have to create all that community infrastructure around these issues for the first time”. There has even been a Transition storyline on an amazingly long-running British radio soap opera, the Archers!
The Scottish Government, through its Climate Challenge Fund, now funds Transition Scotland with significant funding, and we are seeing emerging national Transition organisations in the US, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand, Japan and others. We didn’t expect any of this, but when an idea is right for its time, such is the nature of how ideas spread. Key to Transition is the thinking that it is not that we have to change everything today, but that things are inevitably changing already, and our work is to adapt creatively to that, basing what we do on answering the right questions. When I first started looking into the issue of peak oil, I had no idea that the responses that were generated would affect my life so much, nor the lives of the many thousands of people around the world active within the search for solutions.
I’d like to conclude by returning to the idea of stories. In our culture we have a dearth of stories that speak of the generation that adapted to challenges such as those we fact today. I see one of the key roles of Transition as being to tell those stories. The story of the town that prints its own £21 notes. The story of the community creating its own energy company. The story of school carparks being turned into food gardens. We have seen recently the story of Michelle Obama making an organic vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House. The last time that happened, when Elinor Roosevelt did that, it led to the creation of 20 million ‘Victory Gardens’ across the US. The question I would like to leave you with is “for all those aspects of life that your community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how are we going to:
- significantly rebuild resilience (in response to peak oil)
- drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change)
I argue that the only way we can respond the challenges we face, of peak oil, climate change and economic contraction, is by shifting our focus to rebuilding the local economies ravaged by years of economic globalisation, rebuilding networks to support local food production and local manufacturing, and that therein lies the potential for the creation of skilled, resilient local jobs and businesses that will actually sustain us into the future. Personally I feel deeply grateful to have lived through the Age of Cheap Oil and all the opportunities it has brought me. I have been astonishingly lucky. Let us honour what it has brought us and move on. The only future it can offer us now is profoundly unmanageable and not a place we want to go. By loving, and then leaving, all that it has done for us, we are able to begin the creation of a new, more resilient, more nourishing world in which we find ourselves fitter, more skilled and more connected to each other.
If we wait for Government to act, it will be too little, too late. If we do it on our own, it will be too little. But if we do it as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
Thank you very much.