Image credit: Hammertap
"Climate change says we should change. Peak oil says we must change."
I've heard this refrain, or something similar, from many a peak oil activist. And I think it goes some way to explaining why peak oil is such a compelling meme for many of us environmentalists. But while there is much truth to the idea that impending peak oil can and should provide an impetus for stepping up our efforts for a sustainable society, there is also a danger in assuming we know what the future holds. And that danger stretches well beyond peak oil—everyone who wants to make the world a better place would do well to remember that the future is not yet written. It's important to clarify what I am talking about here—I am not saying we can't or shouldn't make predictions about what is likely to happen. It is an undeniable fact that oil will run out, and that it will get much harder to find long before the last drop is squeezed from the earth. Likewise, unless somebody uncovers some astounding new evidence, the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and is man-made, is more solid than ever—especially given the near complete exoneration of Phil Jones over 'Climategate'.
Where we need to be more careful is in making assumptions about what the specific outcomes of climate change, peak oil, or anything else for that matter, will actually be when the rubber hits the road. There is a tendency among all activists, and probably all human beings, to favor the analysis that best fits our ideology.
Take a recent blog post by the always thought-provoking Rob Hopkins about the UK Government's 'peak oil summit'. In it, Rob welcomes the willingness of politicians to finally acknowledge and discuss the implications of peak oil, but he berates them for their "techno-fix mindset" which focused only on subjects like electrifying our transportation networks, while glossing over the idea that peak oil might have implications for our entire model of development or the idea that economic growth can continue indefinitely.
Now on the one hand I totally agree with Rob—we can and should discuss what peak oil may mean for our globalized economy. And we should take steps to make all of our communities more resilient and self-reliant. But I can't help but note that the relentless focus on the techno-fix, and the absolute certainty that we can and should deliver 'business as usual' through innovation and technology is mirrored by an equally stubborn and immovable belief from others that we cannot.
While not everyone is as pessimistic as the sexy yet depressing Oliy Cassandra, many if not most people in the Peak Oil/transition town movements not only believe that refocusing our economies to a more local level is inevitable, but also that it is desirable. They point out that increased material wealth has not necessarily brought greater happiness, and they argue that more human-scale communities can improve our daily lives in many ways that reach far beyond adaptation to peak oil. And I for one am convinced that they have a point. As evidenced by the non-CO2 case for sustainability, from walkable communities to better nutrition, a move away from fossil-fuel driven growth could bring many additional benefits. (Equally, I have no doubt that electrified transportation infrastructure, giant solar power arrays, vertical farms and other "techno-fixes" could also be of great benefit.)
I am not trying to parse through who is right and who is wrong here. What I am trying to do is to argue that each 'side' (if there really are sides in the struggle to improve/protect our collective lot as a species), would do well to argue for their preferred version of the future based more on its merits than on its inevitability.
There is no doubt that peak oil will have serious implications for our global economy. But just because our economic growth thus far has relied almost exclusively on fossil fuels does not mean that it will do so in the future. When snow storms recently shut down much of the East Coast of the US, it was astounding how many people were able to work from home. Nobody commuted, and much of the economy kept running as normal. We are already seeing freight ships running on wind power once more. And there are countless other examples of disruptive technologies that are turning our relationship with energy on its head.
What worries me most is that those arguing for community-based change that really can deliver vast improvements in our quality of life—whether its urban community farms or walkable communities—will be bypassed if the techno-fixers really do deliver all they claim they can. Likewise, unless solar panel manufacturers and electric car enthusiasts acknowledge and plan for a possible future where the economy is not what it used to be, there is a danger that their vision will remain pie in the sky.
Act. Don't hope. That's all I am saying.