One of the ports of call during the last two weeks that I have been away was the 6th international conference of ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) in Cork. This is the body, founded by former oil geologist Dr Colin Campbell, which more than any other has brought to public consciousness the imminent peaking in the availability of cheap fossil fuels.
'Fun' was hardly the word for it, but it was good to be in the company of people who have clearly understood the pivotal role of cheap energy in creating the highly abnormal and completely unsustainable global society in which we live today. Unsustainable precisely because the cheap energy on which the whole edifice is built is getting more expensive by the month – and is set, bar the odd blip, to do so indefinitely.
Within the peak oil community, the experience of realising this very simple but paradigm-altering truth is coming to be called ‘peak moments’. People at the conference were exchanging stories about their own peak moments, when their focal point suddenly shifted from the pattern of the deckchairs on the fore-deck (the stuff of political and philosophical discourse over the last couple of centuries) to the iceberg of resource (and especially energy) depletion towering over the ship.
It is within the context of this radically altered understanding of what the current moment of history is all about that the eco-village phenomenon comes to make sense. It is lovely to arrive back in Findhorn to see the wind turbines cheerfully twirling to the tune of the brisk, autumnal northerlies; the vegetables being taken from the gardens to kitchens, passing the food-scraps from the last meal making the reverse journey; self-builders working away on their energy-efficient homes; hand-carts coming in from the forest laden with logs being put in for the winter.
However, the point is that these are not primarily the cute and eccentric behaviours of over-privileged urbanites who have chosen to escape the grind of the cities (though there may just be a touch of that as well!)
Rather, the whole experience – here and in a growing number of eco-villages around the world – can only be understood as a profoundly sane response to the imminent energy crisis. (Of course, it is not only eco-villages that have got the message. I return from Cork with serious and intelligent energy descent plans from, among others, the cities of Brisbane and Portland Oregon and the town of Kinsale in County Cork.)
I chose to travel to and from Ireland over land (and sea) which, apart from being enormously more agreeable than flying, also gave lots of uninterrupted time for comfortable reading. On the return journey, I read ‘Making Globalisation Work’ by former World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz.
Now there is a man, if ever I saw one, who is in need of a peak moment. The book is full of admirable – sometimes inspired – proposals for tweaking the current system to make trade work better for the planet’s poor. However, there is no recognition that the energy needed to continue to ship stuff around the world might not be available - or could be spent without climate-changing emissions.
I have been struck on recent working visits to Sierra Leone and Senegal by just how few private motor vehicles were on the road. The answer soon became clear: the governments were purchasing much of the diminishing oil imports (diminishing because of increasing prices) just to keep the lights on, if only sporadically. Meanwhile, the spark that ignites the flames in Burma is……….yes, a doubling in the price of oil.
As a civilisation, we are in big need of a collective peak moment. Let us embrace the inevitability of expensive energy and use it to our advantage, creating more decentralised and human-scale communities that live well within their means.