What does Peak Oil mean?
The Transition movement began in response to the twin threats of climate change and Peak Oil.
The originator of the idea of an oil ‘peak’ was M.K. Hubbert, who correctly predicted in 1957 that US oil production would peak between the late ’60s and early ’70s and anounced that the end of the Oil Age was in sight in 1974 (the so-called ‘Hubbert’s peak’ http://www.hubbertpeak.com/summary.htm). However his global estimations were much wider of the mark, due in part to global recession in the 1970s and also to the discovery of new oilfields, including the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, which powered an oil boom in the 1980s.
By 2005, oil prices were rising again and supplies were falling. Saudi Arabia, once the world’s powerhouse of oil production, was producing fewer barrels each year. Its output was mimicking the bell curve observed by Hubbert in the US. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan around the turn of the century, although ostensibly about ‘ regime change’ (ousting despotic leaders), had also seemed driven by the need to assert Western control over dwindling reserves of oil in the Middle East region.
That same year, the organisation Powerswitch (http://www.powerswitch.org.uk/) organised a conference on Peak Oil (which I attended), still a fringe event but it included Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition, among its speakers. He showcased a document entitled ‘An Energy Descent Plan for Kinsale’ (http://transitionculture.org/wp-content/uploads/KinsaleEnergyDescentActionPlan.pdf). Kinsale was the town in Ireland where he was living and teaching Permaculture (a conflation of ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’), an ecological design system based on observations of nature and the beneficial relationships found there which could be applied to organic gardening, farming and human settlements. Pioneered by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia back in the 1970s, Permaculture had spread worldwide.
At the Powerswitch conference, the focus of many delegates had been ‘survivalist’ (run for the hills, sell your house, get a gun etc). The environment was not on their agenda, just protecting themselves and their famlies from the forthcoming Armageddon. There was a sense of panic. Some of us tried to raise climate change as an equally important concern, to argue for a positive community response rather than an individualistic one but we felt like a minority. Rob Hopkins stood out as a rare voice of sanity among the speakers. He saw in Permaculture a means to address not only peak oil but climate change as well. The dual crisis was an opportunity to create a better, more sustainable society.
However, he and others soon recognised the need for a wider movement – they began formulating the ideas for ‘Transition’, the move away from fossil fuels and the lifestyle they enable, towards a low energy future (the ‘energy descent’ he outlined in his plan for Kinsale) but applied both locally and globally and encompassing all aspects of society, economy and environment. Starting with Transition Towns in the UK, the movement then spread across the world (https://www.transitionnetwork.org/).
Over the past decade, with the growth of unconventional oil and gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), fossil fuel energy has had a resurgence and oil prices are falling once again. Does this mean that Peak Oil and hence Transition are no longer relevant?
Peak Oil itself may not be upon us as soon as we had thought. But with developing nations such as China and India increasing their demand for fossil fuels, and a refusal to curb our own consumption in the West, that time will not be far off and we still need to prepare society for the inevitable move to a low energy future. Furthermore, climate change is soon to be at a tipping point where its effects will be irreversible so the message, and tools, of Transition will be ever more relevant to our, and the planet’s, survival.
As a side note and of major importance:
In September 2014, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced it will divest its investments in fossil fuel companies. In March 2015, the chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund stated the two conclusions science lead the Fund to arrive at, one that “it’s immoral to continue down the fossil fuel path”, and secondly that it is “financially imprudent to stay invested in companies whose profits depend on defying both physics and the international effort to restrain climate change.”