Report: the Crash Course Seminars

This post comes to us from the blog of Don Hall. I attended the Crash Course Seminars last weekend along with Don, and share his enthusiasm for the Crash Course as a tool for spreading awareness and understanding about peak oil and economic instability.

This past week, I had the good fortune to be able to participate in “The Crash Course Seminars: Thriving in Any Future” in Denver with Chris and Becca Martenson. The organization I work for, Transition Colorado, invited Chris to come here to forge an important alliance with the Transition Movement and raise greater awareness about the future of our economy, energy, and environment.

In case you haven’t seen it, The Crash Course is an online video series that has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. With chapters on “Exponential Growth,” “Money Creation,” “Debt,” “A National Failure to Save,” “Peak Oil,” “Environmental Data,” and others, The Crash Course makes an extremely clear and compelling case that “The next twenty years will be completely unlike the last.”

While this data may or may not be new to you, the genius of The Crash Course is in its presentation. Unlike many other presenters, Chris does not beat you over the head with his beliefs, but rather lets the facts speak loudly for themselves. He avoids alienating others by setting aside his politics and religion. And his matter-of-fact tone and sense of humor help to balance out the heaviness of the material, so that people are not paralyzed by fear, but instead are inspired to action.
In the final chapter of The Crash Course, “What Should I Do?” Chris provides a “Framework for Action”: a four-step process by which individuals can assess their strengths and weaknesses and create what I have begun calling a personal resilience plan. While this model is not perfect, and could be redesigned, it does provide a process that anyone can use to move from simple awareness into individual and community action. Until we have our own house in order, we cannot be of much help to others.

There are many ways that the Crash Course can be used as a powerful tool for Transition in your community, and I will cover several of these in the Deepening Community Leadership course this fall. In fact, on the final day of the seminars, Chris and Becca assembled an entire Crash Course Toolbox for participants. While Chris offered primarily left-brain tools, like tips for reading between the lines of the mainstream media, Becca guided us through right-brain exercises and breakout sessions. This pairing of male and female energies, of practical information with heart and soul, worked beautifully throughout the weekend.

I share all this with you not only to encourage you to take The Crash Course to learn more about our collective future, but also to study Chris as one example of a truly exceptional leader. Five years ago, Chris quit his position as Vice President of a Fortune 300 company to create this valuable resource and share it freely with as many people as possible. Please use it to your advantage and help to spread the word!


Systems at Risk

By Adam Brock

A couple recent posts from the Oil Drum warrant a quick read:

Systems thinkers like to talk about how emergent, bottom-up systems are generally more resilient than top-down, hierarchical ones, because power and innovation is distributed more evenly. But TOD contributor Aeldric’s post on the Failure of Networked Systems points out that even these are prone to collapse under certain conditions. His analysis shows when systems aren’t responding to the proper feedback, and when their components are too tightly interconnected, a failure in one part of the system will be temporarily postponed by shifting new input to another part, until the entire structure collapses from overload.

Actuary Gail Tverberg applies this analysis to our current economic system with Peak Oil and The Financial Markets: A Forecast for 2008. She starts from the premise, fundamental to peak oil theory, that the current economic downturn we’re experiencing is not a short-term aberration but rather the first sign of the long, slow energy descent. While this in itself might sound like a radical proposition to some, her predictions for the coming year aren’t actually all that off base from what many other conventional economists are forecasting: a tightening of the credit market, a deepening recession, and a falling dollar. None of these predictions, of course, are very cheery, but Tverberg’s position is that they’re more or less inevitable – and the sooner we recognize their root cause as the decreasing availability of fossil fuels, the better.

Post-Carbon Cities and the Future of Growth

By Adam Brock

Like climate change, peak oil is a difficult concept to understand, and its implications are difficult to accept. It’s no wonder, then, that the theory is still pretty much off-limits to policymakers: openly discussing the fact that we might be in for some serious economic woes courtesy of dwindling oil supplies isn’t exactly a vote-winning platform. But, also like climate change, peak oil presents a pressing and potentially catastrophic threat to our future, and the sooner we take it seriously the better.

Daniel Lerch, author of the recently released book “Post Carbon Cities,” might be the best messenger for yet for the peak oil cause. I attended one of Lerch’s presentations at the NYU law school last Wednesday, and while it wasn’t quite up to Inconvenient Truth standards, I found it to be the most digestible explanation of peak oil I’ve encountered yet. Unlike Albert Bates, the engaging but decidedly forest-hued peak oiler that spoke in New York about a month ago, Lerch came across as practical-minded and sympathetic to skeptics. His target audience is planners and municipal policymakers, and he framed the dimensions of the peak oil crisis in language familiar to those groups.

The talk began with a few fundamentals: the demand for oil is accelerating, while the supply seems to have hit a plateau. Sooner or later, supply will outstrip demand, causing oil shortages that will get ever more severe as the remaining reserves become more difficult and expensive to extract. This much, to me, seems pretty hard to refute.

But why do most peak oilers predict that this energy gap will wreak havoc on the economy? Can’t we just scale back our consumption slightly for now and eventually replace the gap with energy efficiency and renewables? That’s certainly the popular consensus among politicians and grass greens. To quote Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who hosted a peak oil conference in 2005, “I don’t think it’ll affect the consumption of consumer products. It’s not gonna have a dramatic negative impact on our economy – we’re just gonna drive less.”

But according to Lerch, oil shortages are a lot less simple than having to turn down the A/C and line up to refill the gas tank. For one thing, models predict that once production starts slipping, it’ll slip fast – far faster than it’ll take to replace our needs with wind, solar or even nuclear. And as Lerch explained, In the last five decades we’ve become dependent on petroleum in countless ways, and seemingly insignificant disruptions in supply can have far-reaching repercussions. During the summer of 2006, for example, the spike in oil prices doubled the price of asphalt, a low-grade petroleum product. Routine road repairs were suddenly wildly overbudget, and many municipalities were forced to defer maintenance on their roadways.

Another chilling example is urban food supply. Many grocery chains nowadays stock their food on “rolling warehouses”, where food comes straight out of the factory or shipping dock and onto the truck to cut down on overhead. As a result, very little food is in storage near cities, so if an oil shortage like the one we experienced in 1973 were to occur today, many grocery stores could be empty within a matter of days.

One of the key concepts in Lerch’s talk was “energy uncertainty”: the notion that peak oil won’t just make energy prices higher, but also increasingly volatile. This makes it almost impossible to make long-term plans: how is a city supposed to cut a budget for its vehicle fleet if it doesn’t know whether gas will cost $3.50 or $6 a gallon?

Energy uncertainty is, of course, analogous to the “climate uncertainty” that the IPCC’s been talking about with regard to global warming. Put the two together, and you’re left with a frightening conclusion: two of the most complex systems on earth, the biosphere and global economy, are set to become much less stable within the next few decades.

Lerch’s prescription to city governments: start planning now. First off, follow the lead of Portland and Oakland, and create a peak oil task force to determine how petroleum shortages would effect your city. Strategize on how to relocalize energy production and manufacturing, plan infrastructure investments for the long-term, and, most importantly, start adopting a nonlinear, systems-thinking approach.

Peak oil or no, I couldn’t agree more.

Photo credit: flickr/azrainman

Nuclear Asks For Handouts

by Nelson Harvey

The issue of nuclear waste has turned many people off to nuclear power as a solution to our energy woes. But what if, in addition to dealing with that waste, taxpayers had to pay back massive loans on nuclear power plants that went bust? That’s exactly what we’ll have to do under a provision of the 2007 energy bill, whose details are currently being hashed out between the House and the Senate.

The National Resources Defense Council has launched a campaign to kill the provision, which would expand the number of nuclear plants eligibile to recieve government backed loan guarantees. These guarantees would require taxpayers to repay loans incurred by plant investors, in case something went awry during construction that prevented the plant from being built.

The story of government propping up nuclear power is not new. In fact, government support is literally the lifeline for nuclear power plants today. Under the Price-Anderson Act, first passed in 1954, the federal government agreed to insure all nuclear power plants built in the U.S. The reason? No private insurer would touch something with such a high potential cost in the event of a nuclear meltdown.

I don’t mean to entirely demonize nuclear power. From a carbon emissions perspective, it’s great stuff, and it may need to be a part of our clean energy mix going forward. If that’s the case, though, it ought to stand on it’s own two feet a bit more steadily. Compare nuclear to renewable technologies like solar and wind. Both are the beneficiaries of government subsidies, and if wind and solar are to continue growing at the explosive pace of the next few years, they may need these subsides to continue. But unlike nuclear power, these renewables don’t generate tons of radioactive waste that needs to be stored for thousands of years.

I don’t think nuclear deserves the all-out government backing that it has recieved for so long. If you agree, add your voice to the NRDC campaign.

Photo credit: Kenko