"Three years ago, David Fridley purchased two and a half acres of land in rural Sonoma County. He planted drought-resistant blue Zuni corn, fruit trees and basic vegetables while leaving a full acre of extant forest for firewood collection. Today, Fridley and several friends and family subsist almost entirely off this small plot of land, with the surplus going to public charity.
But Fridley is hardly a homegrown hippie who spends his leisure time gardening. He spent 12 years consulting for the oil industry in Asia. He is now a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, where members discuss the problems inherent to fossil-fuel dependency.
Fridley has his doubts about renewable energies, and he has grave doubts about the future of crude oil. In fact, he believes to a certainty that society is literally running out of gas and that, perhaps within years, the trucks will stop rolling into Safeway and the only reliable food available will be that grown in our backyards.... "If you are a typical American and have expectations of increasing income, cheap food, nondiscretionary spending, leisure time and vacations in Hawaii, then the change we expect soon could be what you would consider 'doom,'" he says soberly, "because your life is going to fall apart."
"But is it the end of the world?
Fridley and other supporters of the Transition movement don't believe it is. First sparked in 2007 in Totnes, England, Transition was launched when one Rob Hopkins recognized that modern Western society cannot continue at its current pace of life as fast access to oil begins to dwindle. Global warming and economic meltdown are the two other principle drivers of the Transition movement, but in an ideal "Transition Town," society would be ready for such changes.
With limited gas-powered transport or oil-based products, a Transition community's citizens would live within cycling distance of one another in a township built upon complete self-sufficiency, with extremely localized infrastructure for agriculture, clothes making, metal working and the other basics of life which the Western world largely abandoned to factories in the late 1800s, when oil power turned life into a relatively leisurely vacation from reality.
Now, Transitionists say, it's time to get back to work—and quick. Localized efforts have sprouted from the ground up in Santa Cruz, Cotati, Sebastopol, San Francisco and many other towns worldwide, where residents and neighbors are putting their heads together and collaborating on ways to relocalize themselves, bolster self-sufficiency and build the resilience that communities will need to absorb the shock of peak oil.....
Transition Sebastopol was born in 2008 as the ninth Transition Town in the United States. Boulder was the first; Sandpoint, Idaho, the second. Today, 27 Transition Towns, also called Initiatives, have assumed life across the nation, and what began as an idea has become a concrete reality in which people are taking action. In particular, McKeown has seen tremendous community interest in the growing of food. Currently, the average parcel of food comes from untold distances away. The common estimate is 1,500 miles, though some experts assure that most food travels much farther.
Such external dependence will no longer be feasible after peak oil, and communities must be capable of producing all their own goods in fields, orchards and gardens within miles. In and around Totnes, for example, community nut trees have been planted as a sure source of protein and calories in an uncertain future.
In outlying regions of the Bay Area, backyard food production is already an after-work hobby for thousands, and interest in edible gardens appears to be growing fast. At Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol, demand for edible plant seeds, starters and saplings has never been greater, according to nursery manager Kirsten Tripplett. She estimates that sales of lettuce, kale and tomato seedlings has jumped by 25 percent this year, with a particularly large portion of sales going to customers who have never before gardened. Fruit and nut saplings, too, sold out weeks ahead of schedule this winter.
"My reading is that this is the silver lining to the economy going south," she says.
McKeown, though, calls food production "the entry-level thing to do" among Transitionists; other essential actions must be taken for a Transition Town to cushion itself against the drastic changes predicted in post-oil society. A viable Transition Town must be capable of producing its own materials, tools and other products that society now imports from half the globe away. With machines and factories no longer readily available, almost every citizen would need to participate at some level in production of food, energy and goods."
"Yet it was only a little over a century ago that society first got swept up on the thrilling wave of oil-age progress. In the 1850s, societies functioned largely as local entities, without deep reliance on global economies or crude oil. Many, if not most, Americans lived on or near farms. We knew how to labor with our hands and feed ourselves. In short, people worked—and our elders can just about remember that era. In fact, The Transition Handbook includes a chapter titled "Honoring the Elders," urging Transitionists to dredge from old-timers information and anecdotes from the days before cheap oil. McKeown is currently at work on such a project for Transition Sebastopol, seeking out locals in their 80s and 90s who were young adults during or before the Great Depression.
"It would do us good to talk with these people who remember what it was like to live in a pre-hyperconsumption era," he says.
Michael Levy, a private music teacher who helped found Transition Santa Cruz last summer, agrees that scaling back on individual consumption is among the most fundamental of actions in the Transition movement.
"Most of us don't know how to grow food or preserve food so that we can have things in the winter that grow in the summer. We also don't know how to make basic things, like structures and buildings. Even simple tasks like repairing clothes, we just don't even bother anymore. We've become a throwaway society."
With peak oil and economic ruin looming over us like teetering skyscrapers, Transitionists argue that we can no longer afford such wastefulness. For a while, perhaps even a few more years, this matter may remain one of individual choice and lifestyle, but eventually prices will rise, imported products will begin dwindling from shelves, and we will have no choice but to move into a new era. Fridley says too many Americans believe in solutions to all problems, but peak oil is a terrible anomaly among crises, he explains, because there is no solution. Fridley doesn't even see any hope in solar, wind, water and other renewable energy sources. Even nuclear power creates only electricity, while crude oil is the basis for thousands of synthetic products.
"There is nothing that can replace oil and allow us to maintain life at the pace we've been living," he says. "Crude oil is hundreds of millions of years of stored sunlight, and we're using it all up in a few generations. It's like living off of a savings account, whereas solar energy is like working and living off your daily wages."....
Historically, too, oil has been very easy to get since the world's first well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859; for each barrel's worth of energy invested in the process of accessing crude oil, 30 barrels are produced, says Fridley. By contrast, ethanol is a paltry substitute; each barrel's worth of ethanol invested in ethanol production produces a mere 1.2 barrels of raw product. Other renewables offer similarly poor returns. "The thermodynamics just don't add up," Fridley says.
Put another way, societies of the pre–oil age worked their butts off. They had to. Roughly 90 percent of the population toiled in jobs that produced our energy, food and water, while just 10 percent reaped the rewards, holding soft-palmed positions in politics, the arts, begging and prostitution, to name several fields. Today, by contrast, merely 5 percent of Americans work jobs that relate to producing food and energy, while 95 percent reap the rewards, many working at abstract tasks in offices. In a world suddenly without machine labor, this top-heavy imbalance is poised to capsize."
Life Post Peak
"Fridley does not see peak oil as doomsday, though he predicts that there might be "die-off," just as marine algae bloom and crash periodically. In fact, Fridley views Transition as a process of world improvement. The environment around us has been falling apart for decades due to our excessive lifestyles, he notes. In our oceans and wildlands, doomsday has already arrived with deforestation, water pollution, fisheries collapse, extinction and other plagues. Peak oil presents an urgent cause to rethink and reshape our lives and the world for the better, he says.
Jennifer Gray, who founded Transition United States in Sebastopol two years ago, also believes peak oil could open doors to happiness that most Americans never knew were there. A native of the United Kingdom, Gray moved to Mill Valley in 2007 after helping to get Transition rolling in Totnes. She believes that redefinition of wealth is one of the essentials to the Transition movement.
"We need to make that paradigm shift that having less may actually mean that you have much more, and in this country it's hard to convince people of that."....
While Transitionists see the coming change as one of potential enrichment—community gardens, cycling, skilled artisans at every corner—Savinar's outlook is a bleak and shadowy contrast. He warns that in the foreseeable future the world will experience "staggering horror." While life in remembered times has been about "the pursuit of victory and money," life in the near future, he predicts, "will be about tragedy. We've been able to externalize this reality to the future and to other places only because we had access to this incredibly dense source of energy," he says.
No longer. Savinar can't say when, but he believes that a time will come well within just one generation when even supermarkets must close their doors. Then, unless the goal of Transition—to build resilience into communities—takes effect soon, chaos could only ensue in a culture so spoiled by excess and mass consumption as ours. In the North Bay, says the Post Carbon Institute's Miller, residents have the open space, the soil, the sun, the water and the resources to hit the ground running when peak oil arrives. What the community doesn't have, he says, is a full collective understanding of how much people need to cut back on individual consumption and how quickly they need to do it.
Savinar says too many people's happiness depends dearly on external items and flimsy concepts of wealth. These people must reprioritize their value systems now and quit "waddling through Wal-Mart." They must wean themselves from the comforts of supermarkets, leisure time and television. They—we—must forfeit luxuries; instead of feasting on steak, one may have to give thanks to a plate of beans and rice. Instead of vacations to Europe, we might have to settle for camping weekends at Salt Point State Park.
Because, if the predictions are true, we will not always have Paris.
Growth ad infinitum?
"Fridley also believes assistance will not come from the world's leaders. Transition can only be a grass-roots revolution. He points out that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was previously the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where Fridley has done much of his thinking about peak oil and Transition.
"[Chu] was my boss," Fridley says. "He knows all about peak oil, but he can't talk about it. If the government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall Street would crash. He just can't say anything about it."
Thus, world leaders would like to have the populace believe that this oil-age feeding frenzy will continue forever, that the economy will continue to expand and grow. At the 2008 G-8 Summit on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, for example, our leaders declared a resolution to resume economic growth. Fridley says such a goal is impossible, yet no one wants to face the fact.
"Ask scientists if something can grow forever exponentially, and they'll say, 'No.' Then ask how our economy can keep on growing, and they'll say, 'Well, it has to.'"- Alastair Bland