Positive energy

The terrifying prospect of a post-oil future: no more ready meals, traffic jams or lonely nights in

We held an ‘internal conference’ recently on the theme of climate change. These internal conferences give us an opportunity to meet together for three or four days a couple of times a year to consider matters of importance that face us.

During this most recent conference, it felt like the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis really landed within the community. In particular, a film of George Monbiot’s Schumacher Lecture based around his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Boiling, had an electrifying effect. True to the spirit of this place, the predominant mood was one of excitement at the scale of the challenge rather than depression.

Anyway, I was asked to give a presentation on the likely impacts of climate change for the work and operating methods of the community. I began by describing the various ways in which we as a society have developed structures – for the provision of food, clothing, building materials, in fact just about anything you can think of – that are entirely dependent on the availability of cheap energy. Fine, except that the age of cheap energy is ending before our eyes, caught between the rock of climate change and hard place of Peak Oil.

Then, keeping a straight face with some effort, I provided a stern introduction to the images I proposed to show to illustrate the world that I suggested we are about to move into. "Scramble for the remaining oil... resource wars... starvation... armed gangs purloining food at the barrel of a gun..."

Some of the images I would show, I suggested, were so disturbing that those of a nervous disposition might choose to avert their eyes. But I defiantly declared myself unapologetic about being the bearer of truths that might be hard to hear.

What followed was a slide-show of happy people working and playing together in community. "We will have no choice but to learn to live without chemically produced food shipped in from the other side of the world" – images of people working in our food gardens. "No more processed, ready-made meals" – pictures of community members happily working in our kitchens. "No more coal-fired power stations" – shots of our wind turbines and solar panels.

"I am sorry, but we are going to have to learn to survive without traffic jams" – photos of folk cycling and working in the myriad small-scale enterprises we have around the community. "No more pouring our shit out into the sea" – an image of our Living Machine biological waste treatment plant. "No more lonely nights in front of the television!" – shots of people here singing, dancing and creating theatre.

The talk had its desired effect as we opened to the possibility that a lower carbon lifestyle might just have its upsides.

Does this mean that the transition before us will be pain-free? Of course not. The point is that it is still very much within our hands whether that transition will be seeped in blood and suffering or will involve the restructuring of society along simpler, more decentralised, equitable and convivial lines.

There are now countless community initiatives around the country that are preparing themselves for life post-cheap energy. I am part of a team putting on an international conference to be held here next Easter that will showcase many of these. It is called: Positive Energy: Creative Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change.

One of the presenters at that conference, Richard Heinberg, has this to say about the times that lie before us:

"Let us accept the current challenge – the next great energy transition – as an opportunity to re-imagine human culture from the ground up, using our intelligence and our passion for the welfare of coming generations and for the integrity of nature’s web as our primary guides."

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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