Thursday, July 15, 2010

Catastrophes and Transitions

This is #25 in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

This morning's news reported a resumption in tests after yet more delays in British Petroleum's efforts to contain oil and gas spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. I scanned this story, then wandered into the burgeoning periphery of Gulf catastrophe reporting to read of related concerns – among them, contamination of crab larvae with spots of oil; the huge amount of methane in the water near the mammoth leak; and damage to the seafloor that appears related to the shattered Deepwater Horizon well.

One story lurking on the blogosphere examined the possibility of a catastrophic explosion of methane from the seabed of the Gulf. Based on geologic theories, wrote Terrence Aym on Helium, an explosive release of methane might decimate the entire region and lead from there to planet-wide extinctions. Changes in seafloor structure resulting from the Gulf disaster, said the story, might make such a catastrophe more likely.

I don't have the expertise to evaluate such a risk, but whether or not such a scenario plays out, we have plenty of catastrophes to address already. The disaster in the Gulf has widespread consequences that we are only beginning to see. And even before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, we were dealing with ongoing catastrophes like climate change, the economic volatility of oil production peaks, and the massive military costs of ensuring a largely-imported oil supply.

The catastrophe at the root of all these others is our entire petroleum economy, what some -- including Van Jones, who says this in Josh Tickell's movie Fuel -- have called the petroleum-industrial complex. Even without the BP blowout, even if climate change and peak oil and wars for oil aren't concerns, petroleum has still killed and sickened and poisoned the planet for the last 150 years. The air and water pollution petroleum creates, the toxic chemicals it releases just in the process of "normal" use, the geopolitical tensions it engenders, all are reasons enough to get off oil.

Here's the irony: giving up petroleum is not a sacrifice. In fact, we can be better off without it. Consider, for instance:

-Reducing the petroleum we use for food production by going organic and local gives us fresher, more nutritious food.
-Reducing petroleum use by avoiding petrochemical scents and synthetics in body care products reduces the risk of cancer, allergies and hormone imbalances.
-Using biodiesel instead of petroleum diesel in school buses reduces respiratory illness in children.
-Money invested in walking and cycling facilities helps people near those facilities to live longer and lose weight as they get more exercise – pleasantly, in the course of their daily lives.
-Money invested in trains and transit – including free transit – provides more jobs than building highways, and results in a more egalitarian transportation system, providing more mobility to more people.

I could go on – I could write a book – and oh, yeah, I did in fact write a book based entirely on this idea that we can live better by driving less and burning less oil.

If that's the case, why doesn't our society just do it? The problem lies in making the transition. In places we've begun to shift away from oil dependence, but there is enough money, power and inertia vested in the oil-addicted system to make this change a challenge at best. Look, for example, at California's AB32, the highly praised Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which has already increased investment and created new jobs in the Golden State's green economy. Now an oil-industry-funded measure seeks to overturn that law. California voters will decide in November whether to believe slick oil-company PR protecting the old system, or trust in the new cleaner energy paradigm; their ballots will affect prospects for recovering from oil dependence nationwide.

We have so many good reasons to continue a shift away from petroleum use, to recover from our oil addiction, but how can we navigate a transition with such difficulties? I like the potential that lies in the Transition Town Movement, or Transition Network. Begun in Ireland and England about five years ago, the movement originally sought to reduce CO2 emissions to address climate change and peak oil. It now has more than 300 member communities from around the world, including in the United States.

San Francisco is one of many Transition towns in the United States.

Transition towns are places that can bring together many of the specific measures I've written about in this series. They are places where people can see in action the kinds of programs and lifestyles that allow us to live without oil. I like the idea of transition towns because they start at the bottom up, without waiting for national government leadership. I also like the idea because transition towns can help people visualize how to live without oil.

In the last chapter of Divorce Your Car! I describe a sort of transition town, where a whole community becomes less car-dependent as a result of several small citizen initiatives. To write it, I took several real-life programs and combined them in one fictional place. I plan to revisit and update that material in the next few posts, because with all the oil-related catastrophes now underway, it's a good time to turn this kind of fiction into reality.

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