Back to the future: Peak-oil scenario fuels 'go local' campaign
By Kathryn Casa
Good news! The world is fast approaching the end of its oil supplies. Their depletion will lead to a Malthusian catastrophe as oil-driven economies crash, petroleum-linked world food supplies shrink, transportation costs skyrocket, and industrialized urbanization reverses itself, sending people fleeing their SUV-dependent suburbs for a rural lifestyle.
It takes a real optimist to see opportunity in such a dire scenario. But, a handful of Windham County activists see the end of oil dependence as the beginning of a better way of life.
“I believe that there are tremendous opportunities embedded in this whole issue/crisis of peak oil,” said Brattleboro ecological engineer Tad Montgomery.
“I’m seeing a lot of people wake up. A lot of people who have wanted to implement alternatives for years or decades finally are saying this is the time to put up those solar panels or drive a biodiesel car. They’re insulating their homes, riding their bicycles, growing gardens, and preserving foods, finding self-reliance,” he said.
Montgomery is a co-founder of Post-Oil Solutions (POS), a group of about 10 people who have been meeting twice a month since the summer to brainstorm ways to insulate and strengthen their communities against the potential effects of an oil-based economy crash. Self-reliance is the POS watchword, but so is interdependence: the ironic juxtaposition that community interdependence will achieve independence.
What’s it all about?
The term “peak oil” refers to the gradual depletion of oil supplies. Because oil has powered phenomenal economic and population growth over the last century and a half, a decline in production is expected to significantly affect societies like ours that are leveraged on cheap oil. According to Energybulletin.net, “Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable.”
Peak-oil chatter re-emerged on the Internet several years ago, helped along by what many see as an oil-driven war in Iraq. Add global warming and a hyperactive hurricane season, and a Google search for “peak oil” on Oct. 4 netted more than 1.83 million hits.
Major publications like The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Scientific American, and The Wall Street Journal have also picked up the drumbeat.
“Nobody says oil won’t peak,’” said Montgomery. “The question is when. The U.S. Geological Survey says in 2040; the Association for the Study of Peak Oil says somewhere between now and 2010. … But I think it’s really hard for people to believe, and people really don’t want to believe the repercussions.”
On the sunny side
It can be scary stuff, and that’s where POS comes in. Like Montgomery, co-founder Tim Stevenson finds infinite exciting possibilities in the peak oil scenarios.
“The whole issue of peak oil is almost like the answer to the problems that have beset progressive activism over the years, which has traditionally been a negative practice, grounded in criticizing or protesting against something that is happening in the world, directed against our government or politics,” said Stevenson.
“We can no longer afford the luxury of being critical of whoever is responsible, because we’re all responsible,” said Stevenson. “We’re all part of the global economy which is based on cheap, abundant oil; so our approach is not one of blame or criticism, it’s: What can we do to help ourselves?”
First of all, POS volunteers are asking people to put their money where their mouths are. No, not to donate — minutes of a recent meeting showed the group has less than $100 on hand. POS simply wants consumers to buy locally grown and made products, and sign a pledge to follow through.
Vermonters spend about $1.3 billion on food each year, according to state figures. The pledge points out that shifting just 10 percent of those purchases to locally-grown foods could add $130 million to Vermont’s economy.
The group kicked off its pledge campaign on Sept. 20. Since then, POS volunteers have gathered several hundred signatures, giving them the support to take the campaign further, and increase awareness about the importance of supporting the local economy. The group also plans to buy ads, and approach restaurants and chain supermarkets with an appeal to offer local produce and meat.
“Enjoying food products grown, raised, or harvested sustainably and regionally provides great quality, boosts to our economy, protects our farmland, enhances our local food systems, and keeps us and our environment healthy,” the POS pledge states. “Therefore, we pledge to increasingly choose independent, locally owned eateries when dining out, to encourage chefs and owners to buy local, and to add more locally grown food to our own shopping carts.”
Stevenson envisions menus with stickers next to dishes made with local ingredients, and signs or decals that merchants can place in their windows to signal to shoppers that they support the local economy.
Buying local is just the beginning. Still in its infancy, POS has a considerable list of projects in the works. They include free workshops on how to preserve food, and the establishment of community gardens. Montgomery plans to teach a course on permaculture, a holistic system of sustainable landscapes that provide food, fuel, and housing.
The group is working with the Windham County Sheriff’s Department to develop a formal hitchhiking/ridesharing program along the county’s major arteries, in which participants would be cleared through a background check to carry laminated ID cards.
Discussions have also begun establishing a system of community currency and bartering, which exists in several communities in Vermont already, as well as community-owned and operated import businesses such as a co-op department store.
And if all that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.
“It will require dramatic lifestyle changes and we Americans are addicted to comfort — to sitting down with our beer and watching TV and pretending that everything is fine,” said Montgomery. “But when the world reaches a point when there is more demand for oil than there is oil there will be tremendous turmoil.”
Athens resident Treah Pichette, who runs the Putting Foods By workshops and whose family shares a garden and chickens with the Stevensons, said the changes only make sense.
“I was a back-to-the-land hippie in the 70s, so this is not a big change for me in terms of my philosophy of living,” said Pichette. “I have always been someone that grew my own food and put up as much as I could. I have a large family — I come from a family of seven kids — so we had a community. It’s just in my background to be this way. And these are skills that are going to become really valuable now, given everything that’s going on.”
But Montgomery said that for many it will require not only a shift in the way we do things, but also in the way we think about things: “At this point many people in our culture really compartmentalize our lives. Our work, our entertainment, our hobbies are all in different segments. But for a lot of people who are enmeshed in alternative economies, those boundaries blend or merge.”
As an example, he cites the recent POS workshop on canning tomatoes. ”One would think of that as drudgery — stuffed into a hot kitchen canning tomatoes —but we had a blast. I can see a lot of people do things like that as part of their entertainment.”