By Adam Brock
I can’t quite make up my mind about peak oil. It’s not that I doubt that petroleum production is at or near its peak, or that demand is starting to outstrip supply. But whether or not that’ll lead to the societal chaos that the P.O. fanatics love to dwell on seems impossible to say. Still, I’m intrigued, and it was with an open mind that I attended peak oiler Albert Bates‘ lecture at the Friends Meeting House last night.
I came to the lecture expected to be inundated with Hubbert curve graphs and foreboding warnings about life in a post-peak future. And in the first fifteen minutes, Bates indeed ran through the numbers of peak oil and climate change, and explained why they would have massive implications on everything from garden planning to global trade patterns.
To my surprise, though, the majority of his talk was upbeat, daring and full of solutions. Bates emphasized right from the start something that I talk about a lot here at WGY: the coming changes don’t have to be bad if we approach them with the right attitude. Climate change and peak oil, he explained, are an approaching wave. Solutions that try and extend the status quo a little bit longer – ethanol, say, or LEED buildings – are akin to digging in our heels and hoping the wave isn’t big enough to wash us away. A better solution is to work with what’s coming our way, and surf the wave.
What that means, essentially, is a large-scale adoption of the Forest Green ethic: reduction in our material consumption, relocalization, and a massive cultural rebirth. Drawing from the ethics of permaculture, Bates emphasized the need to take a long-term view of our future, taking action based on ethics and thoughtful observation. He pointed out that a peak in energy would mean a peak in anything and everything that depends on energy: less cows, less cars, and, quite possibly, less kids.
Of course, halting our material growth doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to grow in other ways, like spiritually and culturally. Bates talked a lot about “reskilling” – learning how to make sauerkraut, for instance, or build a greenhouse. And when he emphasized the arts as an antidote to cultural decay, I immediately thought of the colorful, celebratory spirit of early hip-hop emerging from the squalor of South Bronx in the late ’70s.
The most exciting part of the talk for me was the end, where Bates focused on how cities might thrive in a post-fossil fuel society. Citing solutions from the rest of the world, Bates performed an “urban needs assessment” of food, water, shelter, employment, transportation, and culture. While much of it was a review of the standard green design techniques, there were a few things he mentioned that raised my eyebrows:
- Large-scale terraforming to alter hydrological flows and turn back desertification from climate change.
- Extending the CSA model to local energy co-ops and community manufacturing spaces (like the bike kitchens that are already in most US cities).
- Diets based on backyard perennials (a la edible forest gardens).
- Heating rooftop greenhouses with exhaust heat from vents (duh).
I don’t always buy the doomsday tactics of the peak oil crew, and Bate’s lecture was pretty far-fetched even to my eyes. But whether or not peak oil makes the radical changes that Bates talks about a necessity, I can’t disagree with his conclusion: the best course of action, both for our sanity and the planet’s health, involves a lot less consumption and a lot more community. The challenge, as I see it, won’t be surfing the wave – that part’ll be fun – but convincing the rest of us to get off our feet before it comes.