When the oil runs out
By Jeff Neems
James Samuel wants to see New Zealanders get off their couches, into their garden, and get some dirt under their fingernails.
Samuel is the national co-ordinator for Transition Towns, a movement pioneered in the UK in late 2006.
While Transition Towns essentially grew from the notion of permaculture an approach to designing human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic the structure and interrelationship found in natural ecologies Samuel says its "main drivers" are peak oil and climate change.
Transition Towns is based on several key assumptions, says Samuel, who details the first one: "Life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable and it's better to plan for it than be taken by surprise."
"Our settlements and communities lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil."
Transition Towns aims to equip communities with the tools to prepare for life with an environment affected by climate change, and without cheap energy sources, particularly oil. Many oil industry experts believe the world's oil production has peaked already, and that prices will continually increase as supplies diminish and eventually dry up the "peak oil" theory. It is gaining publicity worldwide as crude oil prices push above the $US100 a barrel mark. It has been the subject of the award-winning documentary film Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash and the equally compelling The End Of Suburbia.
"We're really not in a strong position," says Samuel. "I was in Zimbabwe two years ago, and saw what happened to a community that couldn't get oil as freely as it has been able to four-day petrol queues."
In last 150 years since we began exploiting the cheap energy source that is oil we've become isolated from one another, argues Samuel.
"We're sitting in front of our TVs in our houses, being fed information which is rather dubious. At the same time you've got climate change and peak oil issues appearing in newspapers, on the very same pages as adverts for the latest Mercedes, or holidays in Brisbane."
"We could do worse than actually start talking to our neighbours a little more, and find ways to take care of each other."
Samuel says Cuba is an example of a country that had to quickly transform itself when its oil supplies dropped by 50 per cent overnight following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
`They needed to build their resilience very quickly, and it took a little while the average Cuban lost about 20lbs of body fat in the first three months."
Crucially, says Samuel, the Cuban food supply diminished as well: "About half the oil supply in Cuba was used to grow food and if half your fuel supply drops, so does food production."
`Cubans switched to organic food cultivation and localised urban food growing, and their efforts were recorded in another documentary film, The Power Of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
Samuel says Transition Towns' third key assumption is that as a community we have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
The fourth assumption, says Samuel, is that "by using creative genius in the community to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and recognise the biological limits of our planet".
"Transition Towns is like a toolbox, a guiding framework."
While Transition Towns doesn't claim to have the answers to the problems society is beginning to face, Samuel says it aims to equip communities to fend for themselves and adapt from lives of high energy consumption to low energy consumption.
"This is about community. This is not about self-sufficiency, but community sufficiency, and the resilience that can be created in a community when we work together," he says.
People in communities need to look at re-localisation, and not globalisation, he argues.
"(We) bring in chopped spinach from Holland. Can't we grow our own spinach in this country? Can't we chop it ourselves?
"In New Zealand, we are not short on land, and there's plenty of it to grow food on and if you want to build a little resilience into your life, grow some food in your backyard. And if you don't have your own backyard, find somebody who does."
Lots of older people around who have grown food on their properties, have fantastic soil as a result, but can no longer tend it, says Samuel.
"Go and team up with them, build a plot, help feed them as well."
A Transition Towns group in Upper Hutt has listed suggested sustainable methods on the movement's New Zealand website (www.transitiontowns.org.nz): home gardens based on permaculture models, community gardens (there is already one in Hamilton East), keeping chickens, planting trees which produce fruit, improving cycleways (cars will be redundant when there is no oil), implementing home and farm water harvesting methods and aiming to produce zero waste.
Samuel points to Transition Towns' 12-step process detailed on its website as providing guidance for communities looking to begin their transition.
"It's very much about building strength within the community first, about actively getting in, getting dirt under your fingernails and actually making things happen," he says.
"Any initiative like this tends to grow and thrive when it has leadership so the first step is to create a core group to lead."
Samuel believes the Transition Towns movement is growing exponentially in New Zealand, and he sees himself as riding a wave of people who are realising it's a tool kit they can use.
"It's not a prescriptive model," he stresses. "It's a framework, some steps we've found work."
Samuel believes the vast majority of New Zealanders are unaware of what is round the corner in terms of energy depletion and climate change.
"There's a good deal of denial," he says. "The existence of information is not enough to change. There's much more to it."
So when will New Zealanders face up to the problem?
"When we can't get as much oil as we'd like to get, and the price starts going through the roof."
Nor is Samuel concerned by people who disregard the issues society now faces and the problems and possible solutions he's trying to bring to light.
"I'm not going to try to convince them the realities are already showing themselves."