The Assumptions that Underpin this Plan
When most Councils, businesses or Governments sit down to plan for the next 20 years, they still start by assuming that in 20 years the settlement in question will have more jobs, more energy, more cars, more houses, more businesses, more economic growth and so on. In the past few months it has become clear to many people that each of those assumptions is becoming increasingly questionable.
We are moving from a time in history when our degree of economic success and personal wellbeing is directly linked to our level of oil consumption, to a time when our degree of oil dependency is our degree of vulnerability. For many people, it is increasingly clear that we cannot continue as we have been, and that three key trends are forcing our hands, making major and far-reaching change inevitable. These include:
The beginning of the end of cheap fossil fuels
Nobody yet knows for sure when the world will pass the peak in oil production, although this historic moment may well have already happened in July 20081, when the price reached $147 a barrel, which dampened demand to an extent from which it has yet to recover, and indeed may never do so. Indeed some argue that the current economic situation was, in large part, caused by the oil price spike2. Our lifestyles depend on cheap oil for virtually everything in our homes, from our food to our toothbrushes, from our carpets to our shoes. The 21st century way of living is literally built out of oil. The peak oil argument does not say that one day soon we will ‘run out’ of oil, we may well never see that day; what it says is that we will soon see that end of the age of cheap oil and all that that has made possible. It will prove to be a historic shift. During the Oil Age, we have extracted and burnt 1200 billion barrels of crude oil, nearly half of all the ancient sunlight laid down in prehistory. That is an astonishing amount of any material, never mind one that has the long-term impacts that it has had on the climate, the environment and on humanity. As the Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency now tells world government leaders, “we should leave oil before it leaves us”3.
The Impact we are having on the climate
Every day brings increasingly grim news about the speed and scale of climate change. Most of us have noticed weather patterns changing during our lifetimes; snow and cold winters are now a rarity in Devon, whereas as the oral histories section of this report will show, they used to be commonplace. The average temperature in Devon has increased 1.5°C since 19604, and is predicted to rise by the same again between now and 2030. Globally, of most concern, is the scale of the melting of the ice in the Arctic, long seen by climate scientists as one of the crucial indicators of climate change. The pace of melting is far faster than anyone expected. The last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an unprecedented scientific consensus that climate change is underway, suggested that, in its worst-case scenario, the arctic ice might start to break up by 2010. If current trends continue it could all be gone by 20145. Governments are now responding, but are working to Carbon dioxide concentration targets of 450 parts per million. The latest science tells us that we need to cut to 350 parts per million6. We have already passed 387ppm. Our time for postponing action and for procrastination has long passed. The scale of the cuts we need to make in our carbon emissions is profound, yet achievable, and could be the catalyst for an extraordinary revolution for industry and commerce.
The End of the Economic Growth Bubble
Money is brought into existence by being lent to people, so money, really, equals debt. The UK has become the second most indebted nation in the world (second only to Ireland), with astonishing levels of personal credit and a total national debt 336% of GDP7. The Government has also borrowed heavily in order to carry out its objectives, and more recently, to bail out the UK banking industry, debt for which we will be liable for many years to come. The trouble with generating debt is that it is based on the assumption that the future will be wealthier than the present, in order to repay that debt. Underpinning that is the assumption that there will always be the cheap energy to enable the economic growth required. The current unravelling of international finance, and the realisation that much of that debt is ‘toxic’, i.e. un-repayable, will prove to have far deeper implications than currently realised.
Also of importance is the fact that the UK, situated at the end of many long energy pipelines, sold much of its own indigenous energy at a time when prices were very low, and has become a net importer at a time of great energy volatility. Moreover, the level of national debt incurred in the bailing out of the banks recently has necessitated deep cuts across the economy, which will put in question our ability to rely on pensions and the Welfare State in the way that we have done.
For the past three years, Transition Town Totnes has co-ordinated a programme of awareness raising on these three key issues in the town, bringing many of the world’s experts on the subject to the town. Peak oil specialists have included Richard Heinberg, Jeremy Leggett and David Strahan, climate change experts have included Aubrey Meyer, Mayer Hillman and Tony Juniper, and leading thinkers on economics have included Andrew Simms, Colin Hines, David Fleming, Molly Scot Cato, Bernard Lietaer, Richard Douthwaite, David Boyle and others. It has been an illuminating journey, and much of the wisdom that they have brought to this community is captured in this document.
- Oil Drum, The, 2009, World Oil Production Forecast – Update May 2009. May 19th 2009. Retrieved from www.theoildrum.com/node/5395 [↩]
- Rubin, J. ,2009, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: What the Price of Oil Means for the Way We Live. Virgin Books. [↩]
- Birol, F., 2008, Outside View: We can’t cling to crude: we should leave oil before it leaves us. The Independent on Sunday. 2nd March 2008. Retrieved from www.independent.co.uk/news/business/comment/outside-view-we-cant-cling-to-crude-we-should-leave-oil-before-it-leaves-us-790178.html [↩]
- Jenkins, G, Perry, M & Prior, J., 2008, The Climate of the United Kingdom and Recent Trends. Met Office, Exeter, 2008. [↩]
- Public Interest Research Centre, 2008, Climate Safety: in case of emergency. www.climatesafety.org [↩]
- Pilkington, E., 2008, Climate target is not radical enough – study: Nasa scientist warns the world must urgently make huge CO2 reductions. The Guardian. 7th April 2008. guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/07/climatechange.carbonemissions [↩]
- CNBC. The World’s Biggest Debtor Nations. www.cnbc.com/id/30308959/ [↩]
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