Learning from an adult of the future

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Energy descent suggests a new way of thinking about the future: one in which we will need to significantly reduce the amount of energy we use, albeit in a positive way. This presents many new challenges as well as many opportunities to do things differently than at present.

The prospect of an education system without discussion on the issues brought about by climate change for 5 to 14 year olds, is being seriously considered by the UK government. Having a grown-up debate on energy descent is impossible with thinking of the implications of climate change. Both energy descent and climate change are the two defining aspects of the 21st century. Economic meltdown is there too, and is intimately linked with both in transitioning to a sustainable and resilient future for us all.

So, the news that a 15 year old school pupil from London has created a petition to keep climate change in the UK school curriculum gives me some hope for this future. Let’s learn from our children on this one, because it’s clear that us adults aren’t quite up to it yet.

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Business as Usual? Not quite that good.

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So, climate change is being lost from Key Stages 1 to 3 in UK schools.

What?! Is this the Age of Stupid?

Speaking as both a parent and as someone who has taught Geography for the past 15 years, this comes as bombshell.  A report this week outlines that debate on climate change could disappear for pupils under 14. What this could mean in reality is that a large proportion of school leavers will have little understanding of climate change, unless they opt for Geography or Chemistry at GCSE. Or unless they have a teacher keen to incorporate climate change in to lessons.

The enthusiasm, clarity and sense of purpose demonstrated by children wanting to ‘do something’ about climate change is the result of the knowledge they gain between the ages of 5 and 14. My own experience of running various ‘eco-clubs’ over the years has shown me that kids of this age are far more committed and motivated than older students, and much more likely to influence the behaviour of their parents. If you want a flavour of this, check out Eco-Schools.

Some of those agreeing with this loss to the curriculum suggest that a return to more basic understanding of geographical processes should be welcomed. Well, yes, to a point, but back in the late 70s and early 80s I seem to recall endless lessons about coal mining, hill farming, and aquifers. All important, but maybe now we have some new priorities to think about.

What is the purpose of Geography if not to make the connection between what people do and how it affects the environment (and vice versa) and how if differs from place to place? Learning about climate change is more than understanding the physical aspects and science of the greenhouse effect; it is about discussing the implications, debating the role of humans and Earth’s systems, and it is about our options and choices as a species. High tech, geo-engineering, renewables, the future of fossil fuels, appropriate technology, taxation, international agreements and treaties, carbon trading, grassroots responses, global inequality and resource depletion are all themes which the study of climate change can lend itself to, amongst many others.

I had a conversation with a student recently about the themes covered in Geography at A Level. She made the point that it was a bit depressing: ‘All the challenges like population and food supply, energy and global warming. Not very cheerful is it?’ Well, no, but the point is what you do with that knowledge. You could pretend it doesn’t exist (and hope it goes away on its own) or you could motivate the kids to act on it. Debates, projects, tree-planting, gardening, visits to inspirational locations; part of the deal is that responses and solutions are studied as well as the causes of the problems.

The importance of education on climate change was underlined in 2012 by UNESCO in this short film. It makes the case for an holistic approach in four minutes, and goes far beyond telling us to change our lightbulbs.

Taking climate change out of Geography for 5 to 14 year olds means that it becomes marginalised and slips down the agenda; becomes hidden. To me, it feels like denial that there’s a problem. Business as usual wasn’t great; this new shift seems like a trip back to those care-free, pre-climate change days in the 1980s.

In fact, it would seem that this is part of a much bigger issue. The environment loses out in times of economic hardship. It would appear that we have gone back in time with our concerns, despite two decades of growing awareness.

Just as politics is too important to be left to the politicians, so education is far too important to be left in the hands of the Department for Education. There’s a job to be done. We’re all educators now. It’s the future.

Eureka! All our problems solved.

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It’s been a week of tragi-comic news for Energy Descent Beginners.

An appropriate response to current thinking on UK energy?

Firstly, there’s been the kerfuffle over the Coalition Government’s energy policy, with the proposal that energy companies would be forced to offer their customers the cheapest tariff. There’s been a torrent of criticism over the proposals, although listening to Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, it was hard to make out any of that criticism in relation to energy security of climate change.

How depressing. Isn’t it amazing how quickly certain issues drop off the agenda in times of economic hardship?

Although many despairing comments have been made about the merits of a free market versus industry regulation, there have also been plenty on the worrying lack of any real strategy from the UK Government, other than winning a few tabloid headlines. Coalition’s energy policy is even more confused than its ‘lowest tariff’ pledge, wrote Michael Jacobs in the Guardian, and went on to make the point that we now need to decide whether we go for a low carbon energy future which addresses climate change, or just carry on ‘business as usual’.

The thing is, sometimes people do have other reasons for choosing a product than just price. How about organic food, or even a fair trade banana? Well, some crazy people choose to source their electricity and gas from companies that deal exclusively with renewable energy.

But, there’s more to this story. We could look back at that cartoon of the ostrich with his head in the sand, or even that old chestnut about re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic (a personal favourite of mine) and conclude that denial is the big issue here. Denial not just about climate change (which we know, is still a well-documented sport for many), but about being realistic about the UK’s future energy security and the impacts of continued reliance on fossil fuels.

I am continually having deja vu about some of this, thinking back to reading Shaun Chamberlin’s book, The Transition Timeline back in 2010. In fact, I think the ostrich/denial was covered, as was the prospect of ‘Hitting the wall’.

This is the idea that you acknowledge the challenge (e.g. climate change, energy security), but just carry on as before. It is a recognition of environmental challenges, but the dominant mindset states that ‘there is no alternative to business as usual’. Ouch!

Secondly, like a breath of fresh air, was the Independent’s scoop on how scientists have been able to create petrol out of thin air. Hmmm . . . well, on the face of it, brilliant! Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is clearly a welcome impact, and the whole thing sounds too good to be true. Now, not wanting to be over-critical of the Today Programme, there was a great discussion on this story today. Five litres of petrol have been produced over the past three months in this way, and although the chemistry was mentioned, most focus was on the economics of it. How often do we get net energy discussed on Radio 4?

The process uses renewable energy as fuel to make the petrol, but energy still needs to be expended to create new energy. The costs of doing this might be worth a thought. If it’s not affordable for people it’s going to be a non-starter. If the price of carbon is so high in the future, it might be more viable , said Tom Fieldon, Radio 4 Science Correspondent. ‘Eureka! All our problems solved!’ he said.

Some wag has calculated petrol produced in this way would cost £220,000 per litre. Wow! What sort of future economy are we expecting?

The streets are alive!

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When anyone asks me what is Transition about, I usually say ‘community’.  The best place to build community has to be your street and neighbourhood. But where do you start?

Playing in the street, Worthing, June 2012

As the Dad of a one year old, watching her play outside in the garden is up there with those great moments of parenthood. Exploring the grass, standing up against the picnic table, looking at snails, picking up pebbles, and sniffing flowers is all part of the rich development playing outside can offer the proto-toddler.

What happens when they get older? Is playing out in the street an option? We did it in the 70s (no, really, we did!) but what about 2012? Have the quiet residential locales of 1974 been crushed by the car?

Well, no. Not everywhere anyway. Pockets of active resistance to the concept of the street as a danger zone do exist. It’s all too easy to subscribe to idea that streets are for cars, not people. Thankfully a few pioneering parents have taken matters into their own hands.

Road closure: DIY style.

I think the images speak volumes of the fun and connections that were made on the day.

‘Hey, hang on! I thought it said no cars!’

A vision of the post-peak car future in Worthing?

So, what was the inspiration for this day of DIY urban transformation? Event organiser Kathryn Kay directed me to Playing Out, a Bristol-based organisation dedicated to making streets safe for children to play in. Their brilliant website contains free resources and lists ‘ten good reasons for street play’. Each one of the ten of the reasons seems justification in itself, but one of them stood out:

Playing in the street increases community cohesion and brings neighbours of

all ages together by providing a sense of common space and shared ownership. It

can engender a sense of collective responsibility and thereby increase the safety of

the neighbourhood.

The community comes together.

Playing Out has started something here, and maybe this is the quiet revolution. It gives a very different meaning to ‘manning the barricades’ to what most people would imagine, but there is something extraordinarily powerful and comforting about what a bunch of local residents can do when they put their efforts into something positive.

Kathryn explained, ‘ if we don’t provide opportunities for our children to play out in the street, then in a generation all recollection of playing out will have gone.’

The experience of Playing Out in Bristol has led to several projects, neatly discussed in the video below:

The Write Up Your Street project has created temporary art installations at strategic points and gently reinforce the Playing Out message:

Chalk Action!

Tools needed: flourescent tabard, box of chalk, and a homemade ROAD CLOSED sign. Bring it on!

What’s peak oil? It’s time to know this.

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One of my previous posts commented on the need for greater awareness of peak oil. Well, where do you start?

Here are three videos with peak oil as a focus, but with vastly different angles. We’ll start with a gentle introduction.

I’m thinking that this might be a good one to show teenagers, rather than expecting them to sit through the whole of End of Suburbia, as I did last September with a group of A Level students. This one might also be the one I’ll use next time I’m giving a presentation about Transition and energy descent.

The other one I’ve shown before is the excellent Peak Oil: Visually Explained. This has a groovy-sounding soundtrack and some nice, clear graphics. It was also used in the film, In Transition 1.0 to great effect. It really is a good starting point for an audience who are totally unfamiliar with the concepts.

You could allow yourself a little chortle watching this next one. If you like cartoon characters straight out of The Sims with robot voices swearing at each other about the concept of peak oil, then this one’s for you!

Finally, if you feel like a dip into the archives, take a look at this clip from 1976, showing key petroleum geologist, Dr Hubbert, explaining peak oil with state of the art graphics . . .

So, hopefully some accessible ‘for beginners’ introductions to peak oil and energy descent to be found here. Clearly, I’m also anticipating the first Simpson’s episode to feature peak oil too!

Are We There Yet?

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Awareness raising has been the first priority of most Transition Towns, coming before setting up projects, because there is a huge need for some information on the clear and present challenges we face.

There remains a massive disconnect out there, despite growing evidence, about the reality of peak oil. Many institutions, including local authorities, have failed to consider the impacts of resource depletion in the near term, and most development plans assume the growth of available energy (along with the growth of all other indicators). One key global institution which falls into this category is the UN, as outlined on the Post Carbon Institute website today.

On discovering this video today on the Post Carbon Institute, it struck me that the history of the 20th century is also the history of oil. Any of us could tell a similar story based on our own family histories, whether or not we are American. All of us, and our immediate ancestors,  have benefitted from abundant oil and the economic growth that it permitted. The 20th century was an unprecendented era of energy ascent. Where we are today could well be at the top of a peak in oil production. It is well documented that US oil peaked in 1970 and the UK in 1999. What happens next is uncertain, but amazingly, little discussed or even considered by the majority of us.

It is incredible how the role and future of energy is underplayed, and this suggests that there is still plenty of awareness to raise, not only amongst communities, but also within even the largest and most global of institutions.

This video helps to make the link between energy and the economy. Most of us are ignorant of this link. Cheap energy has resulted in creating our ‘normal’ way of life; expensive, less abundant energy will result in a new ‘normal’. The new normal is likely to be radically different. It’s probably worth thinking about this now and doing something. The first thing to do is become aware. The second thing is to act on that awareness.

My own ‘doing something’ was to start up a transition group where I live. Time to get ready for the journey.

It’s Over. Let’s Move On.

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I’m just getting around to reading Richard Heinberg’s new book, The End of Growth. This video has been on You Tube for a few months, but I’ve only just seen it (probably something to do with having a nine month-old baby).

Anyway, it makes rather interesting reading as it outlines what many of us have been thinking for a while. Endless growth on a finite planet just ain’t gonna happen. Sooner or later (possibly sooner) we hit a brick wall.  The End of Growth is a big, uncomfortable dose of reality (not good for business or re-elections). The book is a real eye-opener.

What is the connection between the banking crisis/credit crunch/oil hitting $148 per barrel in 2008/probable Greek Euro exit/continuing recession/double dip recession? What comes after economic growth?

This five minute video sums it all up neatly. So many ideas that are completely ingrained into our society and culture, and just accepted as ‘normal’. The book is a crash course in economics and energy descent.

In terms of energy descent – a future scenario in which declining energy availability is the defining characteristic – the end of economic growth is a pretty devastating aspect. The inter-relationship of energy and the economy is usually overlooked or at best, taken for granted. Massive and unprecedented use of a one-off bonanza of fossil fuels helped create growth (as well as the annoying side effect of destabilising global climate). The crucial point is we can’t rely on this any longer. The sooner we get our little oil-consuming, growth-obsessed heads around this fact the better!

Politicians are keen to stimulate growth and get back to normal. The end of growth suggests that we have gone beyond that point and need to find a new normal. The important question is, can you visualise a future beyond economic growth? Read it now. Start transitioning!

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