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.
Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR