The end of the Age of Oil will also be the end of globalization1, long-distance commutes, and long-distance transportation of goods and services—period. Oil is the only transportation fuel we have today, and it will be for some time. As president, you grasp that there is not going to be a last-minute reprieve from some new magical solution, a secret weapon that is going to win the “war” at the last minute. You look around and realize that localities are bearing the brunt of the hardship and you ask yourself what your role—what the role of the federal government—should be.
Since most Americans live in or near large cities, it might be best to hear what the cities are saying themselves. For almost every city in America oil is the single largest budget item, and in 2005 Denver’s oil costs surged by $1.9 billion. In 2005 and 2006 From the Wilderness attended conferences of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, USA (ASPO-USA) in Denver and Boston. In Denver, Mayor John Hickenlooper made it clear that cities were bearing the heaviest burden because it was cities that delivered the services that mattered most to people.
Ad hoc networking had begun between many cities around the country to share ideas on efficiency, conservation and alternatives. Denver was sharing information with Portland and Chicago. Emergency energy task forces were sprouting up everywhere. Peak Oil was not speculation for these folks but a given at the local level, and there was serious frustration with the federal government, which was perceived as being “out of touch” as unfunded mandates on climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions strained municipal treasuries. Costs were being pushed down from Washington.
By 2008 the gap between what cities needed and the federal government was doing had worsened. I made several contacts with lobbying groups dealing with municipal issues in Washington. All sources spoke on a not-for-attribution basis but were very clear in their positions. “The federal government just doesn’t get it,” was said by more than one source. The general consensus was that by imposing unfunded mandates on climate issues and by continuing to build new roads through cities or major interstates, even as traffic flows were shrinking, the federal government had become a “huge drag on cities’ ability to respond to rising fuel costs and what that does to other services in municipal budgets.” The cities are now crying for what they call “reverse mandates” where cities can tell the federal government what is needed in the way of block grants that could be applied by local governments.
Some of the language was strong. “We’re getting creamed in every direction. The costs of capital improvements are like double-digit inflation. The federal government uses its resources in the most reckless and inappropriate ways.”
As president, your first awareness is that the federal government cannot and will not take on the role of solving problems in cities and townships. That would be inefficient and inappropriate on every conceivable level. Only the people in each locality know and can decide what they need most. Each location has different needs.
Your second awareness is that if localities fail at the bottom, the nation will fail at the top. Tax revenues are shrinking at every level of government. Federal employees all over the country are already having trouble getting to work because of economic challenges. That problem is going to worsen. America’s “all-volunteer” military will shrink because sons and daughters will have to stay at home to help support increasingly distressed families.
Decline is a fact that is not going to go away even if a million wells are drilled. Drilling holes does not mean that oil will be there. We might have better luck in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, although it’s pretty clear that these cities have short life expectancies. As oil supply tightens, the ability of the nation and of each community in it to respond effectively to problems, or to simply function at all, will be dictated by its degree of self-sufficiency and the degree to which it has liberated itself from dependence on anything from outside, whether the outside is 150 miles away or across an ocean. Food is the first concern here. Somehow America must start producing food where it is eaten, the way it did in the 19th century.
Awareness of this truth and some preparations for it have been underway for several years, slowly at first, but now at an accelerating pace—always at the local level, frequently at the individual household level. Yet many long-term activists, organizers and planners in the field complain that such preparations are far behind where they need to be.
As president, you might sit down one morning at your desk and receive the following briefing.
The list seems endless and is growing longer every day. All of these conditions are only magnified by the current depression.
Advisers have suggested to you that the federal government might start issuing mandates on energy use and setting standards for continued receipt of federal aid. As to the second point, you have decided that some standards might be necessary, but you have ruled out ones that require cities, counties, and states to spend money they no longer have. California’s 2008–9 budget crisis has made it clear that unfunded mandates might only accelerate the breakdown instead of slowing it.
One bright spot is that many thousands of individuals and families have, on their own, moved to make themselves less dependent upon fossil fuels and outside goods and services. A problem here is that there is no data base to track these efforts or what has been learned that may be exportable to other areas. There is no clearing house for data on individual initiatives producing a solution in Wyoming that could be applied to Massachusetts or Georgia.
You look around to see if any place else has had to cope with sudden and severe oil shortages. Fortunately there are two clear and unequivocal examples. One shows what works and the other reveals what doesn’t. They are Cuba and North Korea, both of which experienced a sudden and dramatic absence of oil and natural gas products after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Neither country had any significant domestic energy sources although North Korea does have some coal. Both were totally reliant on oil and fertilizer (made from natural gas) exports from the Soviet Union. Agriculture in both countries had become dependent upon petrochemicals as we saw in Chapter Eight. But rather than a serious decline in the availability of oil and gas, for both of these nations it was almost an instant cold-turkey withdrawal.
One nation, following a rigid Soviet-style, top-down management system starved and ultimately nearly failed. Its populace suffered horribly as a complex civilization collapsed on all fronts. Trains didn’t run. There were massive blackouts. Frequently there was no water pressure. There was no fertilizer. That nation was North Korea.
The other nation turned almost immediately to local entrepreneurial capitalism and private ownership. It not only survived but ultimately became much healthier after a serious period of hardship. Its government made land ownership available to anyone who would farm it, even taking fallow land away from landowners who were not using it. It mandated local food production because not only was there no gasoline to drive food around the country there was almost none to power tractors and harvesters. There was no electricity to power irrigation pumps. It lifted all government interference and let the free markets operate in a way that would have made Adam Smith proud. The nation that survived was Cuba.
Cuba’s transition was by no means easy. Its soil had been harmed by decades of dependence on ammonia-based (natural gas) fertilizers and monocropping. So the first and immediate task was soil restoration. During that time only a few crops were grown. But, as time passed, the Cuban diet expanded from basic subsistence to become healthier and more diverse than ever before. Not only that, rooftops and vacant lots, almost every available square inch of land in Havana became local farms and markets within easy walking distance. Barter replaced cash. All food production became organic. Large state-owned farms were broken up, much as large American “agribiz” farming operations will eventually be broken up, out of necessity. Entropy makes everything break down into smaller components.
Notwithstanding the much better climate in Cuba and a series of natural disasters that hurt North Korea’s agricultural base, North Korea did everything wrong. The national government took strict control of almost every aspect of food cultivation. Cuba liberated it. After a few years of hardship Cuba’s population became healthier, the diet diversified and food choices increased dramatically. American film makers travelled to Cuba and documented this inspiring transition, showing that it is possible to survive and eat well after a loss of oil and gas.7 What proved essential was not for the national government to take control, but rather to get itself out of the way. Hunger drove the population to change its thinking or starve.
In 2003, my newsletter From The Wilderness published a two-part series by the brilliant Dale Allen Pfeiffer who had written our earlier story “Eating Fossil Fuels.” Titled “Drawing Lessons From Experience” the series contrasted the experience from both countries. Near the end of Part II Pfeiffer wrote:
The World Bank has reported that Cuba is leading nearly every other developing nation in human development performance. Because Cuba’s agricultural model goes against the grain of orthodox economic thought, the World Bank has called Cuba the “anti-model.” Senior World Bank officials have even suggested that other developing countries should take a closer look at Cuba. This despite that fact that the Cuban model flies in the face of the neoliberal reforms prescribed by both the World Bank and the IMF.8
Megan Quinn-Bachman is the Outreach Director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio—one of the most active relocalization organizations in the world. She is also the co-producer of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, the 2005 award-winning documentary demonstrating that relocalization is the most effective way to deal with energy limitations. She has travelled to many countries and lectured all over the U.S. and Canada on the subject. In her late twenties, well-educated and an engaging speaker, she promises to be an important future leader for the generations that will have to deal with the worst parts of the energy/food crisis. I contacted her and asked her what information she had on relocalization efforts around the country and how such efforts were progressing. Her answer was less encouraging than I had hoped.
“Well . . . there are some localities taking steps. The municipalities showcase some bits and pieces of a good strategy (peak oil resolutions, planning & zoning that preserves land and resources, energy conservation for municipal energy use, etc.) but no place has put it all together and no place will survive the crisis without major challenges. Five years ago it was lip service, now its tokenism and a piecemeal approach. No community I know of has made community-wide (not just municipal buildings, fleets, etc.) energy reduction mandates, nor has any fully embraced a transition towards import substituting businesses and local living/security. None that I know of are storing emergency liquid fuel supplies and setting up emergency warm spaces and food preservation and storage facilities. None are figuring out how to prevent resources and money from leaving the community via banking and purchasing into local business incubators for entrepreneurs to set up local, low-energy businesses and infrastructure improvements (retrofitting homes, sustainable wastewater management, etc.).
Much of the best work is happening outside of municipalities, via community groups, neighborhoods, businesses, and pioneering individuals. CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], food co-ops, local currencies & trading systems, are a few.
Relocalization groups, Transition Towns (http://www.transitiontowns.org/), etc. are all good starts, but they haven’t gone much beyond community education. They could be a great structure to use for disseminating viable options and models, but that’s currently not their use.”
Perhaps the one municipality in the United States with the biggest head start on relocalization is Willits, California.
A simple truth is all too apparent. There is no hope for any of us outside of a community. We must learn to work with our neighbors in developing sustainable lifestyles based upon reduced consumption and sharing of resources. This is difficult for Americans brought up on rugged individualism and competition and who have been taught to measure success in terms of consumer goods possessed and energy expended. But this is how our ancestors, the first settlers of this country, were able to survive and thrive. It is also how the Native Americans before them survived in a sustainable balance with the land and nature. Are we so deluded as to believe there can be no joy in life without rampant consumption?
A wise man once said that success was not having what you wanted but wanting what you had. Perhaps through relocalization, if it is embraced before it becomes an imperative, we will rediscover a quality of life that we have been missing and fill the void that we have been attempting to fill with consumption.
Either way, relocalization is going to happen. We can go there by choice, or we can resist and let our children suffer for our lack of vision. Some of the great champions of Peak Oil and sustainability like Jason Bradford and Matt Savinar live there. The web site http://www.willitseconomiclocalization.org/ is—as far as I can tell—a cutting edge of relocalization planning and experience.