Peak to Pool

Peak Oil – once you are familiar with the term and what it means, you can’t think the words without picturing Hubbert’s Peak, the graphic bell curve showing oil use as a blip on the timeline of human presence on Earth.

And you worry over our response – will we manage our energy descent to ensure the softest possible landing? or suffer the sharp shocks of a run-away descent? or worst of all possibilities, suffer collapse and die-off? You want to help to ensure the soft landing, but it is psychologically difficult – it’s hard work and the danger of despair is always a shadow over your shoulder.

Rob Hopkins has come up with a simple change of perspective that gives us a much better way to look at it in The Trasition Handbook.

It’s simple, he says. Just turn the bell curve upside down and change the Peak to a Pool.

So in 1846 (the year we started using kerosene in lamps) we dove in head-first – and a great adventure it was! There is no denying we did some great things. But we made mistakes too – and over the years the consequences of those mistakes have become harder and harder to deal with.

We now know that (beyond a fairly modest level of money and goods needed for a comfortable life with a bit of disposable income available for fripperies) the consumer life does not make us happy. Nor is our life made better with the stresses arising from trying to cope with the gigantic problems created by enormous systems far beyond the human scale. We have let our technologies outstrip our wisdom and our institutions outstrip our capabilities. We live increasingly isolated and out-of-control lives – no wonder we are unhappy.

So now we are deep down in a sticky hellhole and (most of us) no longer enjoying the swim.

Thus our task is to swim for the surface with all our might – back toward sunlight and pollution and toxin-free fresh air. Swim toward a sunlit surface where the future is healthier, happier, less stressful – a future abundant in community, in time for joining our friends, neighbors, and families in learning new skills for living a rich and convivial life on far less energy.

Looked at like this our new direction becomes “an instinctive rush to mass self-preservation, and a collective abandonment of a way of life that no longer makes us happy.”

If the Transition Towns movement interests you, check out the networking site started by Michael Brownlee of Boulder, Colorado for the U.S. Transition Towns movement:  http://transitionus.ning.com

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Permaculture Principle #9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

The simple yet profound idea of this principle is that human endeavors work best at human scale, both in size and in speed. Let me say it again — we get the best results when we keep our projects at human scale — not too big, and not too fast. Naturally.

Our systems should be designed, like good clothes or shoes, to do the job with style and elegance, while fitting us perfectly. The embodied values are appropriateness, sustainability, beauty, and substance — not power, greed, or display.

The anomalous availability of cheap energy in the last hundred years or so provides a subsidy to large-scale and fast systems. We should keep in mind that cheap energy represents a sharp exception to the lives of most people, most places, most times. But to those of us who grew up in the ‘first world’ in the 20th century this abnormal situation seems normal.

We were born, grew up, and learned to live in a profoundly unusual set of world circumstances. Worse, we have been taught to become boosters for this consumerist way of life.

And yet, somewhere deep within most of us remains the feeling of being a “stranger in a strange land”. We immediately recognize the picture of Hell in Bruce Eric Kaplan’s graphic novel — Edmund and Rosemary surrounded by rude and indifferent strangers talking on cell phones, awful movies and tv, bad art and music, robot voices on the telephone, giant stores that never have what you need — just more and more of what you don’t need, more wars, more religious nuts, more genocide, more diseases, more natural disasters, food contaminated with pesticides and hormones and other toxins, and incessant, overwhelming traffic. (Edmund and Rosemary Go To Hell) More. Awful. Hell.

But nothing lasts forever. The end of cheap energy will once again shift the natural economies of scale back toward smaller and slower systems. This is already beginning.

Those who can prepare themselves to welcome and adapt to these changes will be more comfortable with the transition. The recent upsurge in the sustainability movement, voluntary simplicity, the ‘Buy Local’ and ‘Slow Food’ movements, cohousing and other cooperatives, and so on shows that (at least) a sizable minority of us are already working on ways to transition gracefully.

Holmgren gives example after example of the kinds of problems caused by systems too big or too fast. He reminds us, for example, that slow-growing trees tend to live longer and be more valuable than fast-growing ‘weed trees’. A small, carefully-tended garden produces more and better food per acre than a large ‘factory-farmed’ field. Organic free-range meat animals are healthier and more nutritious than ‘feed-lot’ animals. Too many cars produce gridlock and pollution, and so on.

He uses two proverbs with this principle. “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” reminds us of one of the disadvantages of excess. And “Slow and steady wins the race.” encourages patience and reminds us that grand results are produced by humble steps.