Peak Oil and Climate Change are set to be the defining issues for our civilisation and society in the years ahead. These issues will lead to a paradigm shift in geo political, social and economic relations on a local and global level and will inevitably lead to a more localised world. How can this be so, and what exactly do we mean when we refer to these issues? When we speak of peak oil we mean that the production of oil globally has reached its maximum possible level and thereafter further growth in the production of oil becomes impossible due to supply restraints. Once we reach the peak, production will start to decline, having a significant effect on global oil prices and the global economy generally. Signs that Global Peak Oil is near at hand or has occurred include increasing oil prices, the merging of oil companies to ensure continued profits and the exploration of “non conventional” oil and fossil fuel sources in hard to reach places, such as the exploration of tar sands in Canada or the increased resort to Hydraulic Fracking for the extraction of Shale Gas. The vast majority of geologists and scientists who study oil supply issues predict that Peak Oil will arrive in the very early part of the 21st Century, with some geologists stating that we are already at or have passed peak oil. Could the huge jump in prices at the pump be proof of this?
The 2010 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Authority (IEA) states that conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and as a result we are now more dependent on more expensive, less efficient and more environmentally destructive sources such as Canadian Tar Sands, which have a much lower energy output to input ratio, meaning that a lot more energy is wasted in the extraction process. In a RTE Radio interview in January of this year, Dr Birol of the IEA warned that rising oil prices represents a “wake up call” to the global community. While this may all seem very academic it has a direct impact on our daily lives and the economy. The Oil Price shock of the 1970s saw a 5% decline in the import of oil to the United States for a short period of time, which resulted in huge queues at the pump, panic and turmoil and subsequently a global recession. The key thing to remember is that this price or supply shock was only short lived and after a few months oil production began to increase again, yet this short interruption in ‘business as usual’ had a much longer impact than a few months.
With Peak Oil, the economic effects will not simply be a flash in the pan, and there will be no possibility of cranking up global oil production again to meet rising demands. This will have profound economic and social effects. Many aspects of modern life rest on the availability of a plentiful supply of cheap fossil fuels, not least our food supply, home heating and global trading systems. It will be much more difficult to maintain these as they currently exist, in a post peak oil world, due to rising prices resulting in greater expense for businesses and ordinary individuals. Indeed we are seeing the effect of rising energy prices in our country already with the recent surge in fuel poverty which sees many people, usually the most vulnerable, going cold in their homes. While this presents a huge challenge to us all there are steps that can be taken at individual, community and national and global level to mitigate some of the associated effects. Individuals must inform themselves of the severity and unprecedented scale of the changes we are facing and what it means to them in their homes and their lives and how it will alter their place in society. At community level we need to begin to put in place the infrastructure and the skill sets needed to thrive in a more localised post fossil fuel era, where we will have to produce most of our food and other goods locally and where co operation between people will be vital. Only through greater information and understanding of the scale of the changes facing us can we begin to act in an appropriate manner to guide our decisions for the future. Many of the pre conceived notions of our future that we have are simply unrealistic and fantastical when stacked against the predicament of hitting the limits to growth posed by strained energy supplies. Current economic and social debate, at central and local level, must focus on how we can manage the transition from a globalised world dependent on the abundance of cheap fossil energy and long term economic growth to a more localised, resilient and prosperous society. This is the aim of the transition process, a process which must involve all sectors of the community as it is our collective future that it aims to shape. The transition to a more localised society is inevitable, however, we can either choose to ensure that this transition is foreseen, managed and collaborative or we can sit back and ignore the stark need for change and instead have this new paradigm imposed on us without having put in place any of the necessary measures to flourish in the post fossil fuel era.
Over the next few weeks, Transition Times, will deal with various different aspects of this transition process, what it will mean and how individuals, and in particular young people can shape this process.