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Transitioning to a post-peak oil world

A Boulder, Colo., nonprofit is urging communities across the country and the world to prepare for the chaos that could come from the end of cheap oil. Daniel Terdiman reports for Road Trip 2009.

A Boulder, Colo., group called Transition Boulder County is helping to spread the word about what communities need to do to prepare for a post-peak oil world. Transition Boulder County

BOULDER, Colo.--The age of peak oil is coming, and some say we're already there. So when the effects of rapidly rising oil prices start to seriously affect the world, will your community be ready?

To Michael Brownlee, a driving force behind a nonprofit here currently known as Transition Boulder County, there is no time to lose in answering that question.

Transition Boulder County is the local outcrop of a growing international movement built around the concept of Transition, or getting ready for a post-peak oil world, and the concern that the effects of such an environment could wreak havoc on just about every facet of human life.

I visited with Brownlee on Tuesday as part of Road Trip 2009, my fourth-annual search for the most interesting stories about energy, aviation, the military, science, space, and more in the United States.

Transition got its start in 2005 when Rob Hopkins, a teacher in the small town of Kinsale, Ireland, had his students embark on a project to study how vulnerable their community would be if the world were to run out of cheap gas. The goal was to come up with ideas for how to make Kinsale more resilient and self-reliant, and to imagine what it would take to achieve self-sustainability by the year 2021.

What they came up with became the jumping-off point for what would come to be known as the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP). And while it started as a student project, the local city council soon adopted the EDAP and is now in the process of implementing it.

For his part, Brownlee explained, Hopkins moved on to another small town, this time an English town called Totnes, and there began to prototype a 12-stage transition process that now has been adopted by 170 private community organizations in 15 countries.

At the heart of the so-called Transition movement, Brownlee explained, is a concept called re-localization. Because a massive spike in the cost of fossil fuel-based energy would drastically change most of our systems--food, energy, economy, employment, and so on--re-localization imagines a new era in which local communities work to meet their own needs rather than depending on a global infrastructure.

In May 2008, the folks at Transition Boulder County became officially affiliated with the movement, and launched the first such initiative in North America. Today, Brownlee said, there are 31 such efforts going on in the United States. And as Transition Boulder expanded its reach beyond the city and then county of Boulder, it began to get involved in Denver and other places in Colorado. Two weeks ago, Brownlee said, the organization's board decided to change its name to Transition Colorado, becoming the first statewide hub in the country.

Now the movement is picking up steam across the United States, and Transition United States is just getting off the ground.

In general, groups like these are funded through private donations and some government grants. And while the city council in Kinsale, Ireland, adopted the local EDAP, that has not been the case in the United States. The closest any municipality has come to doing that has been the effort by the town of Sand Point, Idaho, which is currently in the process of getting the local government involved.

Not demonizing fossil fuel usage
Brownlee explained that although the Transition movement is built around a recognition of the hard realities of fossil fuel depletion, the impact of climate change, and likely economic instability, it doesn't spend a lot of time saying that using fossil fuels are a bad idea. Instead, the message is that, in the not too distant future, such energy will not be as easily available or as inexpensive as it is today.

As Hopkins would say, Brownlee pointed out, "'We're going to make this transition whether we want to or not.'"

Without preparation, proponents of the movement argue, the world is likely to experience a series of "whiplash" cycles, in which energy prices spike, causing food prices to go up, which is then followed by economic distress that leads the prices to drop. And then repeat, again and again, each time getting worse.

The short-term answer, they say, is to begin raising awareness in as many communities as possible. For example, Brownlee said that one of the efforts Transition Boulder County has undertaken has been a series of classes offered to the local community teaching what he called "The Great Re-skilling." This is, essentially, a teaching of the kinds of self-sufficiency skills our grandparents had, but which have been progressively lost as society moved away from the kind of do-it-yourself ethos that has been so prevalent in the past.

Among the skills being taught are food cultivation, construction, the making and repair of clothing, keeping bees, and much more. These kinds of skills could be crucial for people to have if global supply chains were to break down.

"Communities cannot depend on globalized systems to continue to support them," Brownlee said.

He also said that while not everyone agrees on when peak oil will happen, a common theory is that the world passed the point of peak oil production in July 2008 and that "we will never produce oil at a greater rate." Yet, even as oil becomes more expensive over time, demand will continue to grow as developing countries try to build the kinds of lifestyles that the developed world built on top of our petroleum economy.

Economists may predict that there is still plenty of oil left, but people in the peak oil community aren't so sure. "The joke," Brownlee said, is "economists are somehow more successful at finding oil than geologists, but that oil never materializes."

Positives will emerge
While the scenarios spelled out by the Transition movement may sound dire, there are also some things to look forward to.

For example, Brownlee said that one casualty of the breakdown of global supply chains will likely be the global industrial agriculture system. And while that could cause crisis in unprepared communities, some people no doubt feel such a development wouldn't be the worst thing to happen. Writers and researchers like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, for instance, have argued in books like "Fast Food Nation" and "Food, Inc.," respectively, that such companies are more concerned about profits than people's health.

He added that while there are plenty of areas of focus in the Transition movement, food is issue number one, and it's also where most of their work is going on today.

Still, breaking away from dependence on global systems will require local communities to learn how to take care of themselves in the absence of the kinds of food, energy, and economic networks we've all grown accustomed to.

And until local governments get on board, we won't be able to depend on them to take care of the problems that will come in a post-peak oil world, either, Brownlee argued. That was one of the chief lessons from Hurricane Katrina, he said. "It's going to come from the local level, from the citizen level."

But the good thing, he said, is that he's never seen a grass-roots movement spread at the pace he's seen with Transition. While most of the organizations have sprouted in small towns, there are currently efforts under way in cities like Denver and Los Angeles. However, in cities, he said, it is likely that work will have to be done at the community level and coordinated city-wide, rather than be driven by a top-down structure.

Raising awareness is job one
Brownlee said there are several important points the Transition movement hopes to get across. First is getting people to understand our common global predicament.

"The early part is primarily about awareness-raising about the local implications and about the economic instability" of peak oil, he said. "There is not enough public awareness. It is the key role of Transition to continue to make that kind of information available."

In addition, the Transition movement hopes to show the opportunities and the hope it offers to "people who have concluded there's no way out of the pickle we've got ourselves into."

But what's really important is that communities get going now, Brownlee said. There is little time to waste, he said, and even before new community-based organizations finish putting together their own EDAPs, they need to start the work of raising awareness and thinking about what they can do locally. And that's because the process of getting an EDAP completed takes at least a couple of years, especially when it comes to getting local government involved.

"What keeps me awake at night," Brownlee said, "is that we don't have three years...The (global) changes that four or five years ago we were expecting in the next decade are upon us much sooner than we expected."

Or, as Brownlee paraphrased Hopkins, "Transition is a social experiment on a grand scale, and we don't know if it will work. But we do know that if we wait for government it will be too little, too late, and if we rely on individuals, it will be too little. But if we come together as communities, it might be just enough, just in time."

For the next several weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.