Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rob Hopkins - transition to post oil

This is an insightful interview with the founder of the transition town movement Rob Hopkins featured in my previous post. It is quite a long talk (almost 53 minutes) but I would like to encourage you to watch the whole interview.

More information about Rob can be found at his home site at "Transition Culture".

Monday, April 28, 2008

Transition cultures

The recent price hike for crude oil and the resulting jump in petrol prices is a good reminder that we are living on borrowed time. I find it fascinating that despite the fact that peak oil proponents have accurately predicted what would happen to the oil price this year, most analysts quoted by mainstream media are at pains to point out that the current price explosion is not due to peak oil, rather they point to market speculation, various problems at oil production facilities, an unwillingness on behalf of OPEC to increase production and the fall in the value of the US dollar. I am sure all those aspects play a role, but I also think that we are approaching peak oil and we should stop pretending it will not happen.

Whatever the reason for the current high oil price, it is a stark reminder that we have made ourselves vulnerable to uncontrollable outside forces, and it is time that we change our perspective and re-think our local communities.

And this is where Rob Hopkins idea of transition towns comes in. Hopkins is a permaculture activist whose thoughts and ideas have changed the town of Totnes in the UK. Hopkins has promoted his transition project further, and as of late last year, more than 20 other towns, villages and hamlets across the UK have taken up Hopkins' ideas. So what is a transition town?

According to the Transition Network

A Transition Initiative is a community working together to look Peak Oil and Climate Change squarely in the eye and address this BIG question:
'For all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?'

The resulting coordinated range of projects across all these areas of life leads to a collectively designed energy descent pathway.

The community also recognises two crucial points:

* that we used immense amounts of creativity, ingenuity and adaptability on the way up the energy upslope, and that there's no reason for us not to do the same on the downslope
* if we collectively plan and act early enough there's every likelihood that we can create a way of living that's significantly more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than the oil-addicted treadmill that we find ourselves on today.

Hopkins shows that amidst all the angst around climate change and peak oil, we also have a wonderful opportunity - to rebuild our communities and in the process to create much better lives.

Here is Hopkins himself:

In November 2007, The Ecologist did a great interview with Hopkins which is worth reading.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Al Gore's revised slide show

Al Gore gave a short, updated slide show in Monterey, California, earlier this year, which included new scientific research that shows that the climate is already changing faster than anybody had predicted. The TED Institute published this presentation as a free video on their website in April 2008.

Gore argues that "in order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis". The issue is not that we cannot tackle this huge challenge, the issue is that our media still do not give the topic the urgency and importance it needs, and that we lack the political will to make the radical changes that are necessary.

This is a video that is both frightening and uplifting, and it does add to Gore's original slide show featured in the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth".

Gore's intended audience for this new presentation is the United States. However, the core messages in the video apply to everybody.

I recently had a conversation with a well educated friend who remarked that "climate change is the current pet project of the media", assuming that it would go to the back burner some time in the near future. My friend is surely not alone in the assumption that "yes, this is bad, but it will go away".

I think, most of us have absolutely no idea of what is heading our way. We need to understand that climate change is a challenge as big as the two World Wars taken together, and we need to make every possible effort to tackle it. We cannot afford to pretend otherwise any longer.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Permaculture: An introduction by Bill Mollison

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren founded the permaculture movement. In the following years, Bill Mollison travelled extensively and brought the ideas of permaculture to many countries around the world. In the following series of video clips, Bill Mollison explains what has been happening to our beautiful planet and what we can do to return degraded areas back to a Garden of Eden. (Note: If you have a fast Internet connection, you might also be able to watch the same video clips as one continuous google video Unfortunately, my own Internet connection is not up to that, so I couldn't check whether the google video works.)

In the following video clip, Mollison shows how even somebody living in an apartment can turn their balcony into a permaculture haven and produce around 25 per cent of all food required for two people with the help of a small aquaculture system. This sounds like something I should try next year!

Mollison also looks at the history of agriculture and the mechanisation of our food production. Since the end of World War II, 70 per cent of the world's soils have been destroyed. 40 per cent of our water has been contaminated. In our quest to feed the masses, agriculture has become a weapon against nature.

In the next segment, Morrison describes the reaction he got from the establishment when he began teaching his permaculture ideas. In his words, "Modern agriculture is not a system for producing food but for producing money... No-one pays for the damage at the end of the chain."

In this segment, Mollison also gives some practical ideas, such as how to grow potatoes in a no-dig straw patch and how to use mulch for successful gardening. He shows how careful planning results in a highly productive food forest, explains his system of "swales" to harvest water and shows the role of poultry in a garden forest.

The next video clip expands on the theme of poultry in the garden, that is how the garden uses poultry for clean-up and fertilising, and how poultry use the garden for food. Mollison also speaks about transforming cities into a food production area. Food sold in our big cities would be 95 per cent cheaper in energy cost if it was grown in the cities themselves. Our modern system also makes cities highly dependent. A three-day transport strike would leave the supermarkets empty.

The segment ends with some thoughts on genetically modified organisms.

In part 5, Mollison explains the connection between forests and rainfall, and the many roles forests play in the nutrient cycle. In some parts of the world, the system has been destroyed. Haiti, for example, has not only lost its trees but also its topsoil.

Mollison's message is reaching many parts of the world, as shown in a permaculture project in India. But it is not only the developing world, the so-called "developed" world needs sustainable development, too, and permaculture designers have begun working with property developers to achieve better planning for our suburbs and cities.

The documentary finishes with a visit to a Garden of Eden - planted seven years ago, left to its own devices a few years later, the garden produces without further human input.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lester Brown: "Plan B 3.0"

Some time last year I borrowed Lester Brown's "Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble" from our local library. The first edition of this book was written in 2003, an updated and revised edition called "Plan B 2.0" appeared in 2006. I found the book informative and impressive but maybe a bit too optimistic about our ability to change our political and economic landscape towards a more sustainable future.

Now, Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, has published a third edition of the book, with a new title "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization". Brown has made "Plan B 3.0" available for free download from the Earth Policy Institute website.

Brown's most important message is that "We have the technologies to restructure the world energy economy and stabilize climate. The challenge now is to build the political will to do so. Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us has a leading role to play." (Plan B 3.0, Preface page xiii, highlights by Chervil)

In all three editions of "Plan B", Brown details how we can save the planet based on existing technologies and through some changes to our lifestyles. In the preface to the revised 2008 edition he explains why he changed the title and re-wrote the book:

Perhaps the most revealing difference between Plan B 2.0 and Plan B 3.0 is the change of the subtitle from “Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble” to simply “Mobilizing to Save Civilization.” The new subtitle better reflects both the scale of the challenge we face and the wartime speed of the response it calls for.

Our world is changing fast. When Plan B 2.0 went to press two years ago, the data on ice melting were worrying. Now they are scary.

Two years ago, we knew there were a number of failing states. Now we know that number is increasing each year. Failing states are an early sign of a failing civilization.

Two years ago there was early evidence that the potential for expanding oil production was much less than officially projected. Now, we know that peak oil could be on our doorstep. Two years ago oil was $50 a barrel. As of this writing in late 2007, it is over $90 a barrel.

In Plan B 2.0, we speculated that if we continued to build ethanol distilleries to convert grain into fuel for cars, the price of grain would move up toward its oil-equivalent value. Now that the United States has enough distilleries to convert one fifth of its grain crop into fuel for cars, this is exactly what is happening. Corn prices have nearly doubled. Wheat prices have more than doubled.

Two years ago, we reported that in five of the last six years world grain production had fallen short of consumption. Now, it has done so in seven of the past eight years, and world grain stocks are dropping toward all-time lows."

As the backlog of unresolved problems grows, including continuing rapid population growth, spreading water shortages, shrinking forests, eroding soils, and grasslands turning to desert, weaker governments are breaking down under the mounting stress. If we cannot reverse the trends that are driving states to failure, we will not be able to stop the growth in their numbers.

Some of the newly emerging trends—such as the coming decline in world oil production, the new stresses from global warming, and rising food prices—could push even some of the stronger states to the breaking point.

I think it is hard not to agree with Lester Brown that time is running out and our planet is changing much faster than most of us anticipated or appreciated just a couple of years ago. This book is a must-read for anybody concerned about our future.