The hallmark of a successful society in the post fossil fuel era will be its flexibility, its ability to adapt to new, often unprecedented, circumstances. Communities will need to be light on their feet, unburdened with outmoded paradigms, and the baggage of customs and practices that no longer serve our best interests.
This is also true for those of us who are working to build resilient, sustainable communities. There is no question that this work remains absolutely necessary. Continuing our efforts to help our fellow citizens to become well-versed in the re-localized, collaborative skills necessary to becoming self- and community-sufficient in the face of the severe energy, climate and economic shocks we are already experiencing, remains a priority second to none.
But as important as this is, is it sufficient to addressing the growing climate crisis we face? Specifically, are sustainable communities even possible in the new world we’re entering, where potential climate catastrophe has supplanted life without oil as the number one concern?
Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Michael Klare, underscored this question recently when he wrote that, rather than entering a period that will be dominated by renewables (an assumption implicit to the success of the resilient community movement), humanity is, instead, "pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas."
Klare observed how hydro-fracking is accelerating in greater regions of the United States and the world, along with the exploitation of carbon-dirty heavy oil and tar sands in Venezuela, Canada, and elsewhere. According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide investment in new fossil-fuel extraction, which will be increasingly devoted to unconventional oil and gas, will total an estimated $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035, while investment in renewables will amount to only $7.32 trillion.
This is of great concern, of course, because as Klare notes, "Unconventional fuels -- especially heavy oils and tar sands -- tend to possess a higher proportion of carbon to hydrogen than conventional oil, and so release more carbon dioxide when burned. Artic and deep-offshore oil require more energy to extract, and so produce higher carbon emissions in their very production."
Additionally, the hydro-fracking that produces shale gas -- the "clean" fossil fuel -- results in the widespread release of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. And the great amounts of water that are required in the production of unconventional oil and gas have been shown to result in ground water contamination, as well as unfair competition with farmers and cities for diminishing water supplies at a time when widespread drought is becoming the norm in many areas.
As Klare concludes, "Barring unforeseen shifts in global policies and behavior, the world will become increasingly dependent on the exploitation of unconventional energy. This, in turn, means an increase in the buildup of greenhouse gases with little possibility of averting the onset of catastrophic climate effects."
Imminent climate disaster was not central to Post Oil’s outlook when we began eight years ago, nor to the Transition Town movement that followed. Rather, our perspective was significantly informed by peak oil, a scientifically-based concept that saw the existing fields of inexpensive, accessible "sweet crude," that had fueled our industrial civilization for 150 years, reaching its maximum production rate, and then declining over a period of years, no longer able to keep pace with increasing world demand. Our mission, therefore, was to prepare our communities for a world of an increasingly expensive and diminishing supply of petroleum.
Peak oil did, in fact, begin in 2005, when conventional oil production flatlined at 85 mbd. (The IEA estimates that the major fields will lose two-thirds of their production over the next 25 years, their net output dropping from 68 million barrels per day to 26 mbd by 2035.) But with the ensuing increase in the price of oil, petroleum companies became awash in the capital required to engage in previously prohibitive exploration and drilling. This has led to the black-gold rush of the last few years, where Big Oil is pursuing trillions of dollars in profits, and unconventional petroleum is becoming our main energy source.
What this means for the resilient community movement, however, is that we can no longer count on Mother Nature, and her mixed blessing of peak oil, to do for us what we, as a people, have thus far been unable to do for ourselves: reduce our burning of fossil fuels. In the face of potential climate catastrophe, building sustainable communities, while essential, is no longer sufficient. We must also become actively involved with the grassroots effort to resist Big Oil’s headlong pursuit of the very last drop of oil in the ground.
We need to collaborate with each other, as well as those organizations that are already pursuing resistance efforts, especially the 350.org folks. While we’re not a frontline community, with a fracking or tar sands pipeline project in our backyard, it’s important that we recognize that our well-being is very much threatened by the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline through the heart of the country, as well as the potential one through the Northeast Kingdom.
We can participate in the growing divesture movement by building support for a bill in the 2014 Vermont Legislature that would divest state retirement funds from companies that extract, produce, or refine fossil fuels.
Most importantly, we need to engage, educate, and mobilize our communities around the clear and present danger that the extraction and burning of unconventional fuels represents for our planet. Leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground is now a pre-requisite to building a sustainable community.
Post Oil’s Community Resistance Project next meets Monday, September 16, 6:00 PM, Brattleboro Food Co-op.
Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802.869.2141 and firstname.lastname@example.org.