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Off the Hook

Posted by Natalie in Environment - 7 March 2011

More and more people are beginning to come round to the idea that we need to undergo an oil detox.  Whether for economic or environmental reasons, it seems to be the only sensible path towards a sustainable future.  But what does it actually mean and how might it look?

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the extent of our oil dependence and what it might mean to get clean.  Then yesterday, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne spoke with some urgency about the very same thing. Admittedly (and unsurprisingly), the government’s motivation is short-term, political and economic, rather than based on a long-term regard for the environment and our finite, polluting resources. In any case, at this stage we can’t afford to quibble about motivations.  Huhne said:

“Getting off the oil hook is made all the more urgent by the crisis in the Middle East. We cannot afford to go on relying on such a volatile source of energy when we can have clean, green and secure energy from low-carbon sources.”

The government is due to launch its Carbon Plan this week, and in anticipation of this important and long overdue document, I’m attempting to envisage what our oil-independent future might actually look like.

Attempting to summarise so generally rather than focusing on specific areas is never going to be comprehensive (the Transition Culture movement examines it in detail), but in order for it to seem more real and do-able, it feels necessary. After all, it needs to all fit together, to make sense in some way, so that it can be grasped, envisaged and acted upon. There’s no birth without conception.

It’s the year 2050 and carbon emissions need to have been reduced by around 80% compared with today.  The key to our success (and future survival) is all about localisation. We may live in large urban areas, but even within this municipal backdrop smaller developments will be the key functioning units. Examples already exist to help us understand what this might mean. BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development) is an eco-housing development in south London. It is currently the UK’s largest mixed use sustainable community, comprising 99 homes.   BedZED’s efficient design (maximising solar gain and thermal insulation) has allowed its residents to reduce their heating requirements by over 80 percent.  All energy is generated on-site, using renewables including 777m2 of solar PV panels and CHP (combined heating and power). Rainwater is harvested, recycling is at over 60 percent, and the building materials were all obtained within 35 miles of the site.

These innovations, already almost ten years old, are impressive demonstrations of how the future might look. Of course, at the moment the people who live there are still dependent on fossil-fuels for most things.  In the future, we may not be able to rely on the major infrastructure that we now talk for granted, such as transport.  Commuting will be increasingly by bicycle, and most people will work remotely if their profession allows.  Food will be produced locally and organically,  and communities may have an alternative local currency such as the existing Brixton Pound, an initiative of Transition Town Brixton.

As for waste, the future will see us change our whole concept of the production and consumption cycle from linear to cyclical; asking not how we can dispose of our waste, but how it can be used to create value. Taking the notion that ‘one man’s waste is another man’s wealth’ to it’s extreme will be key to protecting the environment and enriching our lives.  This video clarifies the point beautifully.

So far, so utopian. But we’re not quite there yet. Aside from being potentially limited in our medium to long-distance travel options, there is one part of our life that will be heavily reduced and not replaced. That most glorious, dirty and omnipotent habit of the post-war age, consumerism, will no longer exist (at least not as we know it). The t-shirts and iPods and mobile phones and computers and so on – basically most of the ‘stuff’ you have lying about in your house – require lots of oil to manufacture (and often as a raw material too). Not to mention getting it to you from the far east or wherever it’s been made.

A few weeks ago climate and sustainability expert Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for the drafting of “Millennium Consumption Goals” to encourage so called ‘developed’ nations to curb their climate-damaging consumption habits, in the same way that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are aimed at ameliorating living standards by stamping out hunger, poverty and disease in ‘developing’ countries.   Prof. Munasinghe points out that  85 percent of all consumption in world is done by the top 20 percent of its population.  ”If they can be more sustainable in consumption, it can reduce the environmental burden by a tremendous amount.”

Suggestions for these goals from the Transforming Cultures blog include halving obesity by 2020, halving the working week to 20 hours, higher taxes for the wealthy, and doubling the rate of non-motorised transport.  These goals make a good start, and are encouraging because they are realistic and achievable. Taking it further, if we are to make a significant step towards a truly sustainable lifestyle, the amount of ‘stuff’ we buy (and then throw away) needs to be drastically reduced.  Recycling and reusing should be at 90 percent, based on the aforementioned cyclical system. Consumption could be stemmed by setting a target of reducing by 70 per cent the number of new products purchased. In the spirit of optimism, I have decided to start with this latter goal now, and aim to buy nothing new from now on.

Of course, no one can know what the future will hold.  The increased prevalence of natural disasters prophecise sci-fi scenarios of a drowned world. On the other hand, dreams of small-scale farming and community living evoke a contrary picture of a simper life, free of the burden of employment and emptiness of consumption. Science, the new religion, through technology gives us hope and faith in our innovative, adaptable potential.

Ultimately, there is one thing of which we can be certain: there will be change.  The shrinking of our world and the limiting of our options won’t be easy, less so the longer we procrastinate. If we’re lucky we may not have to solve any of this just yet, but our children definitely will.

These innovations, already almost ten years old are impressive demonstrations of how the future might look.  Of course, at the moment the people who live there are still dependent on fossil-fuels for most things.  In the future, we may not be able to rely on many of the major infrastructure that we now take for granted, such as transport.  Commuting might be done by bicycle or electric tram, and most people will work remotely if their profession allows it. Food will be produced locally and organically, communities may have an alternative local economy with its own currency such as the existing Brixton Pound, an initiative of Transition Town Brixton.

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2 Responses

  • Stephen Hedley says:

    Very interesting stuff, thanks. I was reading this a few weeks ago and getting very pessimistic about the chances of being able to replace oil…


    “Allowing fifty years to develop each replacement, one cubic mile of oil could be replaced by any one of these developments:
    4 Three Gorges Dams,[14] developed each year for 50 years, or
    52 nuclear power plants,[15] developed each year for 50 years, or
    104 coal-fired power plants,[16] developed each year for 50 years, or
    32,850 wind turbines,[17][18] developed each year for 50 years, or
    91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels[19] developed each year for 50 years”

    It seems fairly hopeless…

  • Natalie says:

    Thanks for reading, Stephen. That’s the point, we can’t replace oil, instead we have to start thinking about how we could live without it, and without a similar replacement.

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