Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hello, dear Friends and Family,
The image below is of one set of the new ponds on the village garden area, with the beginning of tilling for Spring planting on the slopes to the right.
These are hopeful, encouraging things, but my mood has been one of unease, as you will see below.

Our personal life continues to be very pleasant, apart from missing beloved people. Jack works on the village, I work on the Transition Towns endeavour and preparing a course on Peace Psychology.
Yesterday, the architects who specialize in 'green' buildings met at our house to discuss the design of the first houses. And last night we spent with a small group of friends planning the first large public meeting for Transition Town Motueka. First all five of us went to a film in 'The Gecko', a tiny movie theatre. We saw 'Grow Your Own', a British comedy I recommend to all. It's about healing through gardening and the acceptance of refugees in a community - delightful film. We walked a few steps to a pizzeria which we often use as a meeting venue and began our planning over pizzas. When the pizzeria was ready to close, we moved back to the movie theatre and occupied one of the small theatres with permission from the very friendly guy running the place. We completed our planning there. This kind of informality is one of the delights of a small town.

I hope you're sitting comfortably with a cup of tea or coffee by your side for the next bit. I see darkness and fog out there.

The unravelling has begun

A few weeks ago I made a presentation to Tasman District Council, as part of a public consultation process about their annual plan. My purpose was to get them to factor oil scarcity and climate change into their planning. I led with the point that the plan was based on a stated assumption that oil cost $60 a barrel and would remain at that price for the year. As we all know, this assumption is laughable. I pointed out that their vehicles would be able to travel only half as far as planned on the budgeted fuel and that they would be able to build or repair only half the road kilometers planned. I went on to discuss climate change impact. At least four other people presented on closely related topics to the council.

They listened most politely. A week or so later, the mayor mentioned to me in conversation that he was considering joining the Communities for Climate Change Protection, as he had found it didn’t bind him to any difficult commitments. Several of my colleagues had made this specific request. This is, without doubt, a good thing, and I will certainly want to convey this to the Council if they go ahead and do it. But what about this extraordinary budget discrepancy? What do they think is going to happen? I assume they think, along with many others, that the price of oil and food is a temporary ‘spike’, to use the term commonly applied. (Of course if oil ‘spikes’ at $120 for half the year, it will need to be totally free of cost for the other half if it is going to average $60, but this absurdity hasn’t occurred to the planners, it seems.) I don’t think so. I think this is the lower slope of an ongoing upward trend in prices, inevitable on the other side of Peak Oil. It will never be the same again.

There is nothing unusual about the people on this Council. It’s very hard for all of us to get our heads around this shocking fact. And there’s lots of noise to help us deny it. Price-gouging by Big Oil, excessive government taxes, intransigence of Middle East oil sheiks, too little investment in oil infrastructure, pesky environmentalists stopping drilling in national parks…. And above all, the faith-based mantras, the market will take care of it, and new technology will save the day.

Coal (climate change disaster), biofuels (human hunger disaster) and nuclear energy (ecological, economic and security disaster) are the immediate solutions being sold. Some assume that energy from wind and sunshine will fill the gap, not realizing that it will take decades and lots of scarce oil to build their infrastructure, and the amount of energy to be hoped for from these sources will not come near that available from cheap oil in the near future.

While wishful thinking and bad solutions hold sway, airlines are going broke, cutting staff, routes and passenger space, merging and grounding planes. Automobile companies are closing plants. Food is increasing in price, affecting the poor in rich countries and the masses in poor ones, refugees dependent on food aid perhaps most of all. Here’s a cheerful datum: in the US there’s less car use and fewer car accidents. Urban houses are diminishing in value. Economic recession seems about to hit everywhere in the globalized economic system. Recession? How about collapse - slow or fast ?

We are not ready for this!!

A friend who works for the Department of Conservation here remarked cheerfully over lunch last weekend that we had better prepare ourselves for when the DoC is unable to continue its pest control functions. DoC is a heavy user of helicopters, aeroplanes and four-wheel drives to keep habitat and agriculture-destroying pests under control. ‘We’ll be overrun by possums, pigs, rabbits, weasels, stoats and goats,’ she said. (I thought of our orchardist neighbour whose eyes light up with joy at the thought of a pig to hunt.)

I am not ready for this!!

But we are trying to prepare ourselves. We have largely stopped eating fossil-fuel dependent food that gets to us by fossil-fuelled transport over long distances. We’re working on our own transport modes, using bicycles more and sharing a car. I’ve even had one pleasant experience hitch-hiking, which I definitely will try again soon. I have a substantial store of staples in case supermarket supply chains should be suddenly cut. We are trying to build a community that will incorporate people with many skills contributing to self-sufficiency. We are learning from experienced gardeners how we can together grow much of what we need. We are trying to work out what we need to get that might be hard to find in the future, or unaffordable – solar panels, for example.

It’s very clear that governments will not lead in these areas, as my above example with our municipal government shows. Our former municipality, Hamilton, Ontario, was worse. Here the Green Party, from whom we might expect most, has made a conscious decision that it will not talk about consuming less, or about the problems of a growth-based economy, because it will lose seats if it does. That’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. (I must add that the Maori Party does address these issues, thank goodness.) In both NZ and in Canada, government will not lead in these issues. We are on our own with the unravelling of the infrastructure of our society and our economy.

Energy supports complexity of society. We can expect a less complex society as available energy diminishes. Highly elaborate divisions of function will diminish. To avoid collapse, we must plan intelligently for devolution of complexity, evolution of human-scale communities with appropriate technology not available to human-scale communities 200 years ago before fossil fuel energy spike, for example, modern windmills, large windows for passive solar architecture..

We need planning at a global level for fair distribution of the remaining oil, with steady cuts in use. If this doesn’t happen, poor countries will be totally unable to buy oil at all and their slender essential industries and services will grind to an early halt before they have had time to make an adequate adjustment. We need measures to promote food self-sufficiency in poor countries – trade rules to prevent dumping, support of small-holder, organic farming.

We need planning at a national level for the priority use of oil. We should assign a very high priority to building infrastructure for the post-carbon society - erecting windmills and making photovoltaic panels, rebuilding the rail network, expanding public transport, retrofitting buildings, supporting changes in agriculture towards sustainability.

We need planning at the municipal level for public transport, for assistance to local food production like farmers’ markets, community gardens. We need changes in land zoning, the retrofitting of existing buildings to use less energy, requirements for new buildings to be passive solar, support of small-holder organic gardening.

We need planning at the personal level - engagement with others to form communities and plan self-sufficiency with backyard food production, Community-Supported Agriculture, food co-ops, protection of peri-urban rural land, forming one or two-child families, giving up the car for alternative transport. Readers of this blog know the rest of this list. But let me add water care, composting, vegetarianism, jobs near work, jobs that make sense with future projections of a less complex society, more time gardening for food production, and time to push governments to do the planning at the level only they can do.

We are not ready. It is very difficult to prepare in the face of such uncertainty. Might we overprepare? What if the unraveling is not as bad as predicted? Wouldn’t we look silly? Maybe, but not nearly as silly as we’ll look when our children and grandchildren wonder why we didn’t begin the work of an easy energy descent and prevent enormous misery for them.

Well, dear ones, that's my mood for the Winter Solstice.
I send you all the warmest wishes,