The last time I encountered localism was in the 1990s, when a number of rural towns launched “buy local” or “buy Australian” campaigns in an attempt to stem the bleed of money to distant cities and corporations. Now the idea has been revived, but for a very different reason.
Today’s neo-localism is a response to global warming and the idea that global oil supplies will, within 10 to 20 years (if they haven’t already), reach their maximum production. After that happens, peak oil aficionados say that the price of everything that uses oil in any way - and that’s most things, even it is only for transport - will rise substantially. The implications for our oil dependent society, they say, are profound.
Peak oil is one of those ideas that have spun into mainstream thinking from society’s innovative fringe. What is interesting is how readily the idea has been accepted and how influential and knowledgeable people, some having an association with the oil industry, support it.
Now, concerned citizens in Australia, the US and the UK have decided to take action for themselves rather than wait for further debate or to wait even longer for business and government to take action.
People taking action
Some US peak oilers are already becoming anxious about the prospect of oil shortfall and talk of heading for rural retreats to wait out the deprivation and conflict they see coming as oil supplies dwindle to a critical level.
This probably has a great deal to do with the American tradition of apocalyptic thinking, something which, thankfully, does not afflict their Australian and UK counterparts who show more resilience and determination to take positive action.
Perhaps the UK is the location where citizen action is most advanced. There, in the town of Kinsdale in Ireland, students of the Practical Sustainability course at the local college of further education devised Kinsdale 2021 - an Energy Descent Action Plan (PDF 1.2MB). Essentially an exercise in collaborative scenario planning and the stocktaking of local resources, the students, under the direction of Rob Hopkins, investigated solutions for food, housing, education, health, energy, waste, transport, tourism and the local economy to deal with the changes that peak oil might bring.
To some extent, those solutions could be applied to dealing with the possible impacts of global warming, depending on how they manifest themselves. Were neither of these challenges to eventuate, the process of developing solutions and the solutions themselves should benefit local business, farmers and the town as a whole by stimulating local community and business enterprise and refocusing attention on the wellbeing of the town as a social and economic entity.
Hopkins did not stand still after Kinsdale 2021. In 2005, he went to England. The outcome has been the Transition Town Totnes program, something of a replication of the Kinsdale process although more integrated into the broader community of this little town in Devon. Through a course at the town’s community college, through teams set up following town meetings and through use of the Harrison Owen’s participatory “open space” technique of participatory, do-it-yourself solution discovery, Hopkins has instigated a new process of community self-help.
Peak oil comes to Australia
It was the national speaking tour of American journalist, lecturer, and member of New College of California, Richard Heinberg, and Australian, David Holmgren, that inspired citizens in capitals and country to think seriously about peak oil and its potential impact and to ask what they could do to deal with it. The 2006 tour played to packed houses and attracted not some fringe element but a largely mainstream audience.
Heinberg is author of The Oil Depletion Protocol (New Society Publishers, 2006) which describes ways of dealing with the oil shortfall-rising costs scenario. Holmgren, a graduate in the late 1970s of the then-Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, went on to develop the Permaculture Design System with Tasmanian academic and researcher, Dr Bill Mollison.
In 1978, they published their ideas in Permaculture One (Mollison, B. and Holmgren, D; Corgi, Australia; since published in seven languages). In recent years, particularly since the publication of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Holmgren D, 2002; Holmgren Design Services, Victoria), David has remade himself as a successful public speaker on the subject of sustainability, touring first to promote his book and, later with Richard Heinberg, to promote the peak oil message.