Transition Lewisham

The international Transition Town movement is an increasingly important force in Brockley politics. Transition Brockley meetings are well-attended and brimming with ideas. The group already outnumbers many longer-established local groups, who can only look enviously at the manpower their volunteers offer.

Transition Brockley was a driving force behind Hilly Fields’ new orchard, is collaborating with the Brockley Cross Action Group on the re-planting of Brockley Common and tries to incentivise local businesses to adopt greener business practices. Politically independent, the group nonetheless shares many ideas with the Green Party and exists partly to “raise awareness” of environmental issues, so it’s not surprising that an area which is a Green Party stronghold is also a Transition Town bastion.

The news that Transition Town were behind the orchard, provoked a grumpy response from Ladywell blogger William Canynge, who dismissed them as a “bunch of obscurantists”. Judged by their size, they can’t be called obscure, but it is worth understanding the ideas behind Transition Towns.

They say:

In a nutshell, the Transition Movement is about communities deciding they can't hang around for governments to act on climate change and peak oil, but they need to start building up local resilience to prepare for an era of ever-rising fuel prices, fuel shortages and the impacts of climate change.

The debate about climate change is well worn, so we don't propose to go over that ground here, other than to say Brockley Central accepts the view of the vast majority of climate scientists, who believe that humans are playing a key role. Peak Oil Theory predicts that at some point, the amount of oil we’re able to pump from the ground will peak and start to decline. At that point, a resource war is on, the price of oil will skyrocket and so will the stuff we use it to make and distribute. Transition Towns groups regularly show films about how Cuban farmers responded to the collapse of oil imports from the Soviet Union to produce food without oil for agrochemicals and machinery and argue that these principles should be adopted in places like Brockley.

In Brockley Central’s humble opinion, the price mechanism (assisted by rising carbon taxes) will encourage new exploration and greater substitution to other energy sources until the world becomes less reliant on the stuff. Of course, the market is imperfect and there will be supply-side shocks along the way, as there have been in decades past. This will cause economic hardship from time to time, but we won’t see the upheaval imagined by Transition Townies.

Put simply, Peak Oil theory suggests we need to radically restructure society and the economy or face dire economic consequences, including possibly, starvation. This idea is at the heart of the Transition Town philosophy, although the clever thing about the movement is it combines the grand narrative of a struggle for the future of our planet that ideologues tend to get off on with a battle-plan that consists of neighbourly stuff like planting herbs on Brockley Common – an approach that even the skeptics among us can get on board with.

The problem is, that – as William Canynge’s reaction demonstrated – while the Transition Town narrative can be a great motivator for some, it can also be deeply offputting for others.

The blogger Will Wiles puts it nicely:

The proponents of urban farming often muddle up doing it because we must (that is, we face shortages if we do not) and doing it because we should (self-reliance being a virtue, food security being desirable and so on) — necessity and desirability. And it’s the questions of necessity that tend to be the most powerful arguments: no one wants to face shortages. But if people see urban farming as only a necessity, it will only ever be seen as an emergency response to a crisis, to be rolled back when (if) more secure times return. Moving to a more diverse and stable system of food production — including some urban farming — has to accent that is is a desirable option in good times and bad.

In other words, a group like Transition Brockley would be better off arguing for change on the basis that localism and self-reliance are social goods, not because they will save the world. But stripped of the drama of impending doom, they’d be little different to many other community groups – the ones that struggle for members…

Transition Towns has groups in Brockley, Ladywell, New Cross and Honor Oak. Click here for more details.

There is another reason for discussing Peak Oil Theory, which we'll come on to shortly.


Anonymous said...

I want to make a few points.

Peak oil is not a 'theory', it's a description of a geological phenomenon: oil supplies will at some point peak and decline (if they haven't started to do so already). I'm guessing no one is suggesting oil supplies are infinite, so this is no theory. Various theories abound over when the peak comes and what its effects are to be.

Second, Nick believes (hopes?) that pricing will "encourage new exploration and greater substitution to other energy sources until the world becomes less reliant on the stuff". Unfortunately there is no such thing as substitution for oil - there just isn't anything out there with that energy density and in such a useful form - nothing else comes even remotely close when you compare Energy Return On Energy Invested. What this means is that we face having to cope with a future in which there is less energy available. That's quite an upheaval, regardless of whether it plays out as a sudden energy famine (unlikely in my view, but possible in some parts of the world) or a series of shocks during an extended, bumpy decline.

Third, I think the TT movement does do what Nick suggests, arguing that moves to localise our economies are not just necessary but could be attractive in themselves.

Personally, I think that is a good strategy, but I think neither TTers or Greens, or any other parties for that matter, are sufficiently laying the ground yet for the inevitability that we will have to make do with progressively less in the future - and less energy means less of a lot of stuff we've become very used to benefiting from, including public health services and other elements of what is a far-reaching government safety net. If we don't discuss this issue openly, starting now, then extremists brandishing easy scapegoats and all-too-easy answers will have the head start.

Thanks for sparking the discussion, Nick.

Brockley Nick said...

@Anon - thanks for the points.

There must be a finite amount of oil in a finite planet, but the "theory" part of peak oil theory is that the peak will be forced on us by geological constraints, rather than the fact that we choose to pump less because we don't want the stuff so much any more and we're not prepared to pay the price needed to extract it as it becomes more difficult to get at.

The substitution bit relies on technological progress in terms of efficiency of renewables but I should also have said substitution to less energy intensive technologies - from more efficient vehicles to better-insulated homes. There's already enormous progress on both these fronts.

Agreed, TT do argue that their ideas can be socially beneficial, but front and centre is the ticking timebomb of peak oil.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Nick. I completely agree that Transition Towns should focus on the positive benefits rather than labouring the negative drivers of Peak Oil and Climate Change - but I think they actually do quite a good job of it already.

The funny thing is that most of us seem to broadly agree on where we're headed, regardless of whether we're motivated by fear of Peak Oil or runaway climate change or by the desire for a better, cleaner, safer, healthier future.

What I particularly like about the Transition movement is their focus on real practical actions; not sitting around talking about our differences, but getting our hands dirty making a better world happen.

Anonymous said...

I do agree that Transition Town's arguments are muddled, I appreciate urban farms but I don't think they are a model to solve the world's problems.

At the public meeting on the Loampit Vale development held in November the Transition Town presentation focused on the Carbon usage that those buildings would add, only that at one point it dawned on me that much of what was talked about was the impact of the "people in the buildings", not the "buildings". And those people have an impact whether they live there or elsewhere.
Ironically they would have a much bigger impact if they were living in the countryside.

I entirely agree with Nick and William Canynge, towns are towns and imperfect as they are they streamline the flow of resources to satisfy the needs of the masses.

I agree that all aspects of human production and consumption must be improved, starting with a re-assessment of needs on to agriculture, technology, industry, housing... but to make farmland out of towns is not a solution.

Anonymous said...

Agree about the postivity. Something I've found though is that, the negative connotations of peak oil - negative in that you stand to lose the luxuries you've come to take for granted - can be very effective in getting the interest of those who have not been reached by an environmentalist message.

You can choose to not care about climate change etc, but those same people care very deeply about the comforts of the modern world. That's not supposed to sound like smug green schadenfreude, it's just to say that some people are engaged by the can-do positivity, others require the shock of the negative connotations in order to even start down that path.

Anonymous said...

'Making farmland out of towns is not the solution.' No one's suggesting this drastic picture you paint, just that we could and should be utilising some of our underused spaces to supplement our diet with some home-grown.

But Max, what you say is partly true, because there IS no solution to peak oil, only a range of possible responses. Urban food growing is a good contribution towards increasing our resilience in the face of energy supply shocks, and that's going to be an increasingly important attribute. Most of the food we eat is dependent on long, long supply chains themselves dependent on oil, and vegetables themselves dependent on oil-derived fertilisers and pesticides - a system whose days are numbered. If we can help ourselves to weather the shock of its ending, that's eminently sensible.

[Besides all this, it's healthy (for exercise and diet), and it can never be a bad thing to reconnect with the seasons.]

Agree on urban living having a lower carbon footprint than those in the country.

President of Brockley Dogging Society said...

Are Brockley apples going to be a free-for-all, first come first served affair, or sold with an 'artisan' label with an equivalent 'artisan' price?

welcome to 2010 said...

"there just isn't anything with the energy density of oil"

Nuclear fission offers far superior "energy density" already today.

William Canynge said...

Nick - thanks, genuinely, for highlighting my post.

You are very right to say that: "while the Transition Town narrative can be a great motivator for some, it can also be deeply offputting for others." I think that that is fair summation of my views.

I'm not going to disagree with the stated Brockley Central view that, "the view of the vast majority of climate scientists, who believe that humans are playing a key role" and I despair of the boneheaded buffoons who disagree with this most obvious of situations and are not prepared to do anything about.

I also appreciate that in an area such as this, with a large Green electorate, that the Transition Towns movement is going to have a broad appeal. Therefore, I apologise for the "obscurantist" comment, at least in terms of the numbers in the locality, and any inference from me as to their sincerity, which I respect.

Yet Brockley is not the world, and while applaud the motivation, commitment and sentiment of Transition Town activists, I remain to be convinced that showing films about Cuba will make any differnce beyond our very small and already converted enclave.

Tyrwhitt Michael said...

People also forget that all fossil fuels are simply a convienient store of energy - albeit converted by organic life forms into a form we can use - which originally cane from the large nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles above our heads.

Perhaps we simply need to rely directly on that a little more.

Not smart enough to work at CERN said...

Well it's a little less scary that far away, it's when you put one in Essex (a fission reactor to be exact) that people get twitchy. Having said that I'm just about in favour, I doubt the mass of people will reduce their energy usage significantly and I do have sympathy for the developing world, it's it bit much for us to tell them to ease back when our small western populations are burning through fossil fuels.

Now I must get back to my shed and crack the fusion problem. I need 10 million degrees to get those pesky dueterium atoms to fuse, my microwave is strugling reach 110C

Anonymous said...

@ 'welcome to 2010': Allow me to introduce you to uranium, a finite resource upon which nuclear power depends, and which faces its own peak within a few decades. And to the time it takes and the cost of getting a nuclear power station built and up and running. It also doesn't have the usefulness of liquid oil, as it has to be used in the form of electricity (if you can suggest a way in which we can retool quickly enough to replace 700m internal combustion engines with electric vehicles, you'll be a rich wo/man).

Brockley Nick said...

@Anon - it's a fallacy that uranium is in short supply. It isn't, it's just that demand has been low for the last couple of decades, because nuclear power stations went out of fashion. Now countries are looking at nuclear and uranium extraction capacity is growing again as the price goes up.

Your second point hits the nail on the head:

"if you can suggest a way in which we can retool quickly enough to replace 700m internal combustion engines with electric vehicles, you'll be a rich wo/man"

That's precisely the market mecahnism which will drive innovation. Electric, hybrid and fuel cell technologies are here today. The profit motive will see them be rolled out faster and faster. And of course, you don't have to replace 700m combustion engines in the short term, you have to replace a fraction of those. You're also talking as though the only solution is to replace like-with-like. More public transport, urbanisation, car clubs, etc. All sensible ways to cut our need for cars.

The number of cars owned in the US peaked in 2005. In Japan, car ownership has declined by 21% since its peak in the 90s.

This is my primary criticism of many peak oil advocates - they present every challenge we face today as though it would be insurmountable, denying the potential for innovation because, at heart, they are luddite.

Brockley Nick said...

PS - coping with peak oil - if US cars were as fuel efficient as European ones, fuel consumption would be cut enormously. Of course, Bush opposed attempts to set fuel efficiency standards for the US auto industry, which is one of the reasons why their manufacturers are in such a state today.

Unknown said...

"This is my primary criticism of many peak oil advocates - they present every challenge we face today as though it would be insurmountable, denying the potential for innovation because, at heart, they are luddite."

Pretty unfair Nick, though no doubt true of some. I think part of the problem here is the terms of the debate and people's understanding of it.

Many people take the view that the goal is to preserve the lifestyle that we have and continue the trajectory of growth no matter what, and latch on to particular technologies as the saviour technology that will allow this (nuclear and hydrogen are perennial favourites). When that is the way the debate is framed, then the peak oil 'advocates' are correct that it is insurmountable - our current lifestyle cannot be preserved in its current form, however hard we wish.

When the debate is the more nuanced one that you are framing - that we do need to make very significant, unavoidable changes but should seek the right mix of technologies to cushion us in that transition, then you will find that you overlap a good deal with many peak oil 'advocates' - at least in the terms of the debate, if not the choice of answers.

PS. On uranium, I didn't say it's in short supply, I said it will face a peak within decades (and ever earlier the more we depend on nuclear). On hydrogen fuel cells - it's not ready for mass roll-out and may be decades away from being viable - my understanding is that you need to generate electricity from somewhere in order to power them (they are an energy carrier, not an energy source), and so far all you're getting is a way to make a net energy loss.

Brockley Nick said...

@G - yes, shades of grey. But I think my arguments are considerably more nuanced than many in the peak oil brigade.

re: Uranium supplies. Potato / potato - they are not going to peak in the next few decades.

welcome to 2010 said...

G who are these people who want to preserve our current lifestyles just as they are? What lifestyles are you talking about?

Our 'modern way of life' is changing constantly. The foods we eat, the ways we spend our money, the places we visit and the ways we get there. Everything is changing always. Life today is different to life 10 years ago.

Anonymous said...

When you consider that there are literally billions of people in china and India who want (not unreasonably) to have heating, decent lighting, cars and all the 'stuff' we take for granted then surley the world needs
to find a lot of extra low co2 energy very soon. That's why I think the nuclear option may be unavoidable. No matter what we cut, the developing world will use that and much more?

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