Tue, Apr 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

UK towns learnign to be oil-free

Some towns and cities are not waiting to see whether there will be alternative energy sources available when oil supplies run out -- they're already trying to do without it

By Julie Ferry  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Close your eyes and imagine your life without oil. Impossible? Well, according to the people behind the emergence of so-called "transition towns," it may not be too far away.

The first town in the UK to embrace a future without the black stuff was Totnes in Devon last September and since then others, including Falmouth and Stroud, have joined it. However, it is not just traditional rural towns that are keen to embrace this do-it-yourself movement.

Forest Row in Sussex has become the first transition village and Bristol and London's Brixton district are taking the idea to cities.

It was all started by permaculture guru Rob Hopkins and is based around community projects that prepare for life after oil.

The message is that we are on the threshold of "peak oil," the year when oil extraction peaks, after which we will all have to manage with an oil ration that will drop by 3 percent every year. The cumulative impact of this is a 50 percent reduction in oil by 2030.

Given that it is estimated the world currently consumes 84 million barrels of oil a day and that the International Energy Agency predicts this will rise to 116 million barrels by 2030, you can see that the numbers don't add up.

"We rely on oil so much, it is obvious that life will have to change dramatically when it starts to run out," Hopkins said.

And for all those who think that by the time the oil dries up we will have developed new sources of energy, Hopkins and the transition townies believe that there isn't time to wait and find out.

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil says that of the 65 largest oil-producing countries, 54 have passed their peak of production. It is estimated there are only around 1 trillion barrels of oil left and the world currently consumes around 29 billion of those a year.

In the face of such figures, and tired of waiting for the government to come up with the answer, an increasing number of towns, cities and villages across the UK are doing it for themselves and committing to "relocalizing" food, energy, transport and their economies.

"The idea of transition towns has caught people's imagination," Hopkins said.

"All we have been able to do before is protest, lobby or campaign for change. Now we want to give people the tools to be self-sufficient and withstand the kind of shock that a reduction in oil would bring. We don't have all the answers, but the amount of momentum and energy created by the project is amazing," he said.

It all sounds great in theory, but what do you actually do if your town is keen to embrace this transition? Since its "unleashing" (the term that transition townies use for the public launch of the project) in front of 350 people at Totnes civic hall, the movement has screened films and given talks to raise awareness, worked with the town council to develop long-term projects, introduced its own "Totnes pounds" that can only be spent in local shops, and conducted "oil vulnerability auditing workshops" with local businesses to see how they can reduce their reliance on oil. Meanwhile, they have also been working on re-skilling the local community, running workshops on growing fruit and vegetables, bread-baking and sock-darning.

Now, if this all sounds a little 1940s, that's because it is. Some of the inspiration for transition towns comes from the World War II, when the UK was experiencing a prolonged fuel shortage. However, people were more self-sufficient then, with good local food networks, less energy consumption per head and strong practical skills, and so were better equipped to deal with the change.

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