Transition and envisioning


The media coverage of climate change over the past few years has been fascinating.  The gleeful fastening on every problem or error in climate change science or its dissemination can be attributed to what Mark Steele said of the Copenhagen summit:  climate change can’t be true, because it mustn’t be true[1].  The climate change denial industry has been likened to the scenario of going to see a roomful of doctors, 95% of whom agree you have a serious disease of, say, the liver. 5% of the doctors, who are ear, nose and throat specialists disagree with the others:  and we decide to believe the 5% despite the evidence of our abdominal pain.  Because we don’t want to believe we are ill, and that things will change.


It is not my intention here to debate climate change science.  For the purposes of this essay I will assume agreement that it is happening and, sadly, that we are approaching or have already reached the stage where the effects are reversible or even escapable.  What might be less well-known but might affect us all as much as climate change, is peak oil.


In 1956 a petroleum geologist named M. King Hubbert publicly predicted (after years of study) that oil production in the United States would peak in about 1970 and then enter a permanent decline.  He was ridiculed and dismissed:  however, as the 70s progressed it became clear that he was right.  He then applied his estimate to the rest of the world and predicted that oil production for the whole planet would peak in about 2000 and then decline.  He made a graph of this prediction, now known as Hubbert’s Peak.[2]


Because the way we usually think of oil is in relation to the fuel we put in our cars, when we think of oil peaking we have an image of oil running out as a fuel tank runs dry.  But the reality is that there will probably be oil of some sort in the earth for hundreds of years.  The problem is that the easy oil (clean, close to the surface) is nearly all used up, and the harder it becomes to extract the oil from the earth, the more it costs, both in terms of money and energy.  When it costs a barrel of oil worth of energy to extract a barrel of oil, the point of doing so disappears.  The volume of oil pumped out of the ground has been greater than the volume of new oil discoveries every year since 1964.  While experts argue about the exact date when peak oil will happen – or has happened – what is not in doubt is that it will.


David Holmgren, a pioneering Australian permaculturist, has combined the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil in his work entitled Future Scenarios.  He states,


Global oil peak has the potential to shake if not destroy the foundations of global industrial economy and culture. Climate change has the potential to rearrange the biosphere more radically than the last ice age. Each limits the effective options for responses to the other.[3]


If we examine a possible future in the light of these two challenges, Holmgren says, we see four possible scenarios, depending on the severity of effects of each of the challenges.  These range from techno-explosion, which necessitates the discovery of huge amounts of an alternative energy source or development of technology (usually resulting in space colonisation); to techno-stability, involving sustainable means of capturing energy, for example large scale use of photovoltaics; energy descent involves a reduction of economic activity, complexity and population in some way as fossil fuels are depleted; and collapse (the “lifeboats” scenario)


suggests a failure of the whole range of interlocked systems that maintain and support industrial society, as high quality fossil fuels are depleted and/or climate change radically damages the ecological support systems. This collapse would be fast and more or less continuous without the restabilisations possible in Energy Descent. It would inevitably involve a major “die-off” of human population and a loss of the knowledge and infrastructure necessary for industrial civilization, if not more severe scenarios including human extinction along with much of the planet’s biodiversity.[4]


What does this series of predictions mean for the applied arts?  In Holmgren’s eyes, the collapse scenario leaves little space for crafts, and in none of the scenarios does he seem to see a place for studio crafts.  However, it seems most peak oil predictions envision the future as very like the mediaeval past – and crafts were definitely central to society then.


Permaculture is often seen as a gardening method.  In fact it is a set of design principles that can be applied to systems varying from gardens to societies.  The transition movement is based on the acceptance of the peak oil/climate change position, and a permaculturist view that there are no problems, only solutions.  If the future holds these challenges, the movement reasons, what is the best way to go about meeting them?


What is interesting about the transition movement is that it pays as much attention to the psychology of meeting this change as it does to the geological and climatology data used to explain the physical position in which we find ourselves. (In The Transition Handbook[5], Rob Hopkins calls these approaches the “head” and the “heart”).  To this end it uses understandings and techniques gleaned from addiction research and therapy to help us understand our addiction to cheap oil and why it makes us act the way we do.  And how we could look to our hearts to find what it is we really want – how to envision a better future, perhaps one more based on relationships and wellbeing than on “things”.  The third part of the transition approach is “hands”:  what do we do about it all?


We will need to find low carbon low energy alternative ways of making things.  Perhaps our ways of making things need to change.  Perhaps we need to make fewer things and value them more:  a new appreciation of craft over cheapness and acquisition.  Or perhaps we need to use crafts as a structuring device for making new communities and relationships: teaching, mentoring, sharing, helping.  Crafts could be about a set of relationships rather than about physical objects.  .  And maybe we would even have a world that suits us better than the one we are in now.  Craftspeople can take visions and make them real, physical, material.  And maybe they can take material things and tune them into visions.  But one thing is certain:  we need to know what kind of future we want before we act, or we will not be clear about where we are going.  We need to envision our future before we transition into it.







[2] Greer, John Michael  2008  The Long Descent  Gabriola Island:  New Society Publishers pp3-4

[3] accessed 13 Dec 2009

[4] ibid

[5] Hopkins, Rob 2009 The Transition Handbook Dartington:  Green Books