Obviously, we all know what Peak Oil is (ahem). But for those of you who are feeling a little overwhelmed by green jargon here is a short summary: Peak Oil is the point at which the world production of oil reaches its maximum. Some say it will happen in ten years, some say two and some argue it has already happened. The implications will be an even sharper rise in the price of oil and the inevitable curtailment of our petroleum based lifestyles.
So what’s in store for our post-peak lives? I recently attended a Peak Oil talk at the Bath Royal Literary and Science Institution where I learned the answer….
Humanity loves to think about the future. A glance at the sci-fi sections of any book or film store will prove this. Representations of the future broadly fall into two categories: either we have moved forward hugely in our scientific way of life, or we have regressed to a more primitive level of civilisation.
This first vision, where technology and humanity co-exist (with or without tension), is normally a bigger, more powerful and shinier version of today’s world with robots to do the washing up, personal ‘copters and silver buildings stretching off fluidly into the distance. Blade Runner, Brave New World and Futurama all offer varying versions of this future. The problem with this type of future (despite the obvious lack of harmony present in all three examples) is the simple fact that we lack the energy to reach it. All fossil fuels are finite and the most important ones (oil, coal and natural gas) are peaking. Unless a new sustainable form of energy is discovered and implemented within the next five years (the doomsayers claim it is already too late), we will have to massively reduce our energy consumption just to survive.
‘What about biofuel?!’, I hear you cry. Well, maybe, it’s definitely a possibility, and the same applies to renewable sources of energy. However, right now, there’s nowhere near enough investment in either ‘solution’. Furthermore, many green thinkers are concerned about the various side-effects of biofuel, the most significant being the ‘food vs. fuel’ debate: I, for one, would rather cycle to work than die of starvation in a traffic jam.
The second generic vision of the future offers a hugely altered but, again, recognisable society, where economical, social, political or natural collapse is found in various cheerful combinations. Waterworld features life on a flooded earth, Mad Max pictures a petroleum- impoverished society suffering from a breakdown in civil order and Twelve Monkeys describes a life forced underground by a deadly virus on the earth’s surface.
Not a great choice then: the first is unachievable unless we discover and implement some radical new form of non-carbon, sustainable energy within the next five years, and the second is less than optimal for the majority of the world’s population.
But wait! There is a third choice! Sarah of Transition Bristol (part of an international movement that aims to respond to the twin challenges of Peak Oil and climate change in towns and cities) offers the suburban lifestyle of Wallace and Gromit as the vision of the future we should be aiming towards. With its close-knit community and love of organic vegetables, this way of life is wholly sustainable.
The opening credits of the feature-length film Wallace and Gromit: The curse of the Were-Rabbit pan across a series of pictures of the pest-fighting duo. The couple begin by smiling but then become annoyed with one another and move into separate frames. Peace is restored by the small act of Gromit knitting a new stripy tank top for Wallace, thereby doubling his collection. In a post-peak world where the three r’s of green thinking, reduce, reuse and recycle, are expected to become a more staple way of life, this homely harmony is an ideal model of a more restrained lifestyle. For example, the home knitwear and the terraced housing of this nondescript Northern town will help keep heating use to a minimum.
Wallace and Gromit’s local community is based around the parish and the well-respected bobby patrols the streets at night. Many scenes in the film take place in the terraced backyards of the community where all space is judiciously devoted to the organic growth of vegetables- not many air miles there. A Giant Vegetable Competition is held annually at Tottington Hall and the locals take enormous pride in their entries and in their pursuit of the much-coveted Golden Carrot award. This kind of annual celebration of vegetable growth would be a key feature of any Transition Town’s community spirit: Think big, act local.
Problem solved! There we have a ready-made vision of the future that is neither unachievable nor catastrophic. Or do we…? What if, like Wallace, you don’t really like vegetables and would prefer to dine on Stinking Bishop- a cheese with, no doubt, an energy-inefficient production process? Gromit’s disapproving looks at Wallace’s expanding waistline and the community’s obsession with vegetables create a desperate situation for our poor hero and, in a rather sinister turn of events, he resorts to mind control to conquer his apparently inappropriate urges.
Does this not tell of a community fixated with conformity? The result is the creation of a monster (the Were-Rabbit) who is, quite literally, forced underground to survive. As the plot thickens we are subtly presented with a version of Frankenstein’s creature- the misunderstood beast brought into existence against its will, shunned by society and forced to survive through theft and violence. Denied a real partner he resorts to abducting the local totty, conveniently named Totty, and holds her ransom atop Tottington Hall in a scene evocative of King Kong.
Not then, the environmental utopia it first appears.
So, you have your choice: a cheese-free, vegetable-obsessed nanny state or a guerrilla style existence in a flooded/deserted/anarchist world (delete as appropriate). I wonder if we need to commission some more variations on our visions of the future.
Enjoyed this? Or perhaps you’re terrified by the thought of a cheese-free future. For an altogether different take on the future, check out our interview with futurologist Ian Pearson.