Car boot sales, airports, and the future

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A few weeks ago, I did a car boot sale with my good friend, Mark. The location was Ford Airfield, near Arundel in West Sussex.

Arranging our stall at Ford Airfield: roll up, roll up!

If the term ‘car boot sale’ doesn’t mean anything to you, my guess is that you’re either not from the UK, or you are too rich to notice that these highly organised markets of discarded personal possessions are all over the place. The idea is that you load your car up with your junk (the stuff you’d either want to ritually destroy, throw away, or take to the charity shop), drive to some field or other place (usually an expanse of unloved concrete), and haggle with strangers over pennies whilst trying to sell as much of your detritus as possible.

It depends on private car transport, roads, disposable items (numerous within a consumer society fuelled by cheap oil and labour). It also depends on communication, haggling, swapping, and a certain anarchic/independent spirit.

Typical car boot sale in the UK, circa 2011.

Well, apparently some people do this all the time. Some people make a lot of money. Some people love it.

I don’t think I’m one of those people.

Gateway to the skies! Ford Airfield’s iconic entrance: a defunct Hunter jet guards a defunct airfield. What does this mean?

Maybe it was just the doing of the car boot sale, but it felt like a little post-apocalyptic standing there behind an old wallpaper pasting table with the breeze blowing dust and litter across the wide expanses of concrete. My used possessions set out like a museum display of my life over the past few years (an old GPO telephone, used baby clothes, a fish tank, a broken dehumidifier), and passers-by examining items with semi-vacant expressions as they weighed up whether they had need of a free bag of disposable nappies (yes, I was giving them away free – well, they’d been given to us, but I know this is possibly considered some form of heresy at a car boot sale).

Getting in the ‘zone’

I couldn’t help thinking to myself several things:

  1. That this was not a great way to spend four hours of my Saturday
  2. That even if you said that you only wanted £1 for a push lawnmower, people would rub their chins deep in thought and say something along the lines of ‘hmmm . . . . I’ll think about it’ before moving on to ponder items on the next stall
  3. That this might be the future

A post-oil world might look a bit like this. Regular organised markets with the salvage of the industrial age being bought and sold, despite much of it broken and worn. As we struggle to maintain even the most basic infrastructure without sufficient resources to keep it working, how might our concrete and tarmac landscapes be re-used?

I read an interesting piece last week by Chris Martenson which touched on a similar issue: The Demise of the Car. The article looks at the escalating costs of the infrastructure needed for road transport and how the industrial system has massive overcapacity for car manufacture. The amount that governments have invested in developing this network for oil-based transport makes it difficult to let it go, despite increasing evidence that car sales have been in decline for several years in Europe and North America.

Well, the same could be said about airports. In the UK, the debate continues to ebb and flow over the capacity of airports around London to compete with European neighbours for an estimated increase in air traffic over the coming decades. Whether or not to build a third runway at Heathrow continues to gather newspaper column inches, culminating in George Monbiot suggesting in the Guardian that 28th August was ‘The day the world went mad’ as the record ice melt in the Arctic hardly registered in the UK press, compared with the airport expansion debacle. Fair point, George.

Anyway, back to Ford Airfield car boot sale. Ford was a functioning airfield between 1939 and 1958. Now it is predominently used as a site for selling old possessions out of the back of cars. Times change and I’m guessing that no-one in 1939 would have considered that 73 years later, the airfield would be used for a motorised flea market. Using the legacy of our oil-fuelled and built landscape will evolve as we move further into the 21st century, perhaps with some weirdly bizarre scenes and arrangements. I’m sure Heathrow runways would make substantial spaces for car boot sales in 2030, although maybe the cars will be slightly less than mobile by that time. Who knows?

Technology and the future at Ford Airfield, 2012

One thing I do know is that it’s going to be a while before I’m ready to embrace the magic of the car boot sale again. Mind you, haggling is probably one skill that might be handy in an energy descent future . . .

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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!

Hope Blooms Despite All

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Bad news hits the town. In a big way.

It’s easy to feel despondent walking around Worthing.

Litter swirls around my ankles in the unseasonal wind; the grey forboding skies look ready to open at any moment, threatening to drench the concrete of the 70s brutalist-design multi-storey car park; and people shuffle by wrapped in their own worlds, insulated from the unpleasantness courtesy of ipods and mobile phones.  The local paper concentrates on ‘important’ (see above as an example), but ultimately negative, local issues. In summary, there’s often not a great deal to feel cheerful about.

And then, turning a corner away from a busy road and a roundabout that for some reason often causes the meekest of drivers to morph into road-rage perpetrators, I see this:

Tree with knitted cardigan.

Now there’s a surprise. A garden that has been created on a verge on the edge of a redevelopment site. A few months ago it was weeds, litter and rubble. Now it’s got colour, life and beauty.

Flowers: Better than old MacDonald’s wrappers and empty cans of Red Bull. Discuss.

I originally thought that this might be an example of guerrilla gardening, but no. It has been done by a local church charity group who have gone through all the proper official channels (and months of red tape) to make this happen. Good on ’em!

What’s through the square window?

For me, it shows how even a small location can transform the feel of an otherwise drab, forgotten street into something that explodes with community spirit, life, and hope.

Creativity amongst the concrete

We’ll need more spaces like this in the future. With more veggies than flowers, too. But, then again, I’m pretty certain I noticed a few leaves of Swiss chard amongst the blooms . . .

Pre-Peak Histories #2

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When I think of southern England in the 1940s, the image that comes to mind is Walmington-on-Sea . . .

Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, aka Dad’s Army

A 70s childhood meant that one of my first images of life in the 1940s was shaped by Dad’s Army on the BBC. Thanks! I still enjoy it all these years later.

In amongst the characters and the locations (I’m thinking of the novelty rock emporium and Jones’ butcher’s shop), there is the sense of a community facing incredibly difficult circumstances and coming together with a sense of purpose. All those great George Formby songs, Make Do and Mend posters, and people getting involved remains a source of inspiration. It is nostalgic, but not without a grounding in the reality of wartime Britain in 1940. Walmington-on-Sea was fictional, but based on those south coast seaside towns in Sussex. We definitely need a future post on the relevance of Dad’s Army to Transition Towns and energy descent!

The 1940s is still within living memory of many people now in their 70s and 80s. What was Worthing like then? Does my vision of Walmington-on-Sea hit the spot? What can we learn from those who lived through it?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, oral histories are an important way to uncover what a town was like before the age of cheap oil (usually this means pre-1960s). Hearing personal reflections help piece together a history of local resilience, as it was then, and an indication of what has changed (which usually translates to a loss in resilience over time, as cheap oil undermined local economies and eroded skills).

This second interview was slightly different to the previous one because Margaret (the interviewee) had returned to Worthing after a long absence and noted some changes, although most of her comments relate to the 1930s and 1940s. I’m adding most of the interview here: just the transcription with no other analysis. The hope is that eventually parts of this may be incorporated into an Energy Descent Action Plan.

Did you notice huge differences in Worthing when you returned (1992)?

Well it had spread. Roads here that I’d never heard of. Mother and father had moved into George V Avenue when I was about 14. The houses were still being built. This was around 1933/4. When we lived over the flat in Rowlands Road, there was a field and a barn opposite. I can remember that they put a rope all the way around, a whole lot of men heaved on it and pulled the thing down. That was where the bingo hall is now (previously the Plaza cinema).

Plaza Cinema, Worthing (in 1969)

What do you remember about food in those days?

My father had an allotment, so I think he grew most of our vegetables. Although my mother used to shop along Montague St. I remember Lough’s Sweet Shop. They made all their own sweets and ice cream. Gorgeous place. You walked for everything. You just ate what you were given. My father grew red and yellow tomatoes. During the war, he used used to pack up boxes and boxes of tomatoes to send to his sister who lived near Newcastle. They couldn’t get tomatoes up there.

What can you tell me about getting around?

We had pushbikes, otherwise we walked. If it was too far we took Stent’s taxis. That was in Erinswell Road. The old boy started it and I always remember he had no teeth. His sons eventually took over the business. I think everything was family businesses in those days. Boyfriends did have cars. Our coal was delivered with a horse and cart.

There was always a dairy at the back of us in Rowlands Road. They used to wheel the cans at 4 in the morning and we never used to hear them! My bedroom was at the back too.

What were houses like then?

Lots of my friends lived in a flat above a shop. They just had coal fires, and also in the bedrooms, but they were only lit if you weren’t well. When we moved to George V Avenue, there were electric fires in the bedrooms and the dining room and a coal fire in the lounge. There was a bell from each bedroom to ring for downstairs. Some houses had servants. We had a servant before the war. A Char. A woman what did. She used to come in to do the ironing and heavy cleaning. I always remember that at 11 in the morning my mother and the char used to sit down for tea and biscuits. The electric fires were a big step up! The lights were all electric. In the shop it was all electric. My grandmother lived in Lewes and she had paraffin lamps. I think she had gas in the kitchen, that was all.

What were shops like?

They were all small shops: very individual ones. You had a shoe shop, and a butchers and a fishmongers. Silverthornes was there then. We had fish and chips every Friday night. A family called Rolfe had the butchers. Actually we had rats at the back of the shop because we were between the fishmonger and the butcher. It wasn’t a disgrace to have mice or rats, you just accepted that you had them. We used to set traps. Father set the dog to catch any mice in the kitchen. Hubbards was quite a big shop (where Debenhams is now). Bentalls was there (opposite where Beales is now). Kinch and Lacks (a dress shop) was where the bookshop is. The other one was Water Bros. Along Montague St. Potter Bailey had a wonderful smell. They used to sell seeds.

What can you tell me about community in Worthing at that time?

I think we knew everybody along Rowlands Road. When we lived in George V, Kingsway flats caught fire. My mother took in a young girl and an elderly woman who lived with us for ages because her flat had been destroyed.

What elements from the past should we try to take with us into the future?

There are lots of buildings that should have been left. It was a great pity they took down the old town hall. There were some lovely houses that were bulldozed and they just put up flats.

Worthing Town Hall in early 1930s.

I think we did a lot more for ourselves. When we were young we used to make all of our own clothes. Especially during the war. Someone gave us a whole lot of stuff to use.

We are running out of french fries and burrito coverings. But I got a solution.

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Last night was a real treat. I watched Idiocracy on DVD.

Urban landscape in USA, 2505

Idiocracy is set in a future dystopia in which things have fallen apart, but not in the apocalyptic collapse implied in The Road and dealt with in The Day After Tomorrow. Rather, this is established in the opening scenes as a prolonged decline/descent over 500 years. A descent into stupidity. Idiots rule the world.

The narrator of the film sets the scene: ‘As the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest, reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.’

Possibly it’s just me, but as I was laughing (actually guffawing), I was also disturbed by the bleak vision of the future where the average IQ has dropped after 500 years of ‘evolution’ in which stupidity triumphs. The basic idea is that those with low IQs have lots of children, whilst those with high IQs don’t have any (or too few to count). Over time, the average IQ level drops until you end up with a situation where nothing works properly. A military experiment gone wrong leads to the hero (a very average Joe) being put into suspended animation and waking up after a centuries-old mountain of rubbish collapses, therby dislodging the capsule he has been in over this 500 years of decline.

Who needs water when you’ve got Brawndo?

Plants are ‘watered’ with BRAWNDO: The Thirst Mutilator! It’s what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes! Needless to say, the plants don’t grow. People talk in dumbed-down language. Cars drop off unfinished bridges and crash. Marketing is reduced to a very direct approach, making liberal usage of basic Anglo-Saxon terms. The US president is a wrestler who carries a machine gun and flips the bird at his public as a victorious gesture. Rather than dealing with the causes of this malaise, scientists of the future research restoring hair loss and prolonging erections. Rise of the corporations. And more. You get the picture.

What really got me about this film was not just the connection with other films of a broken future (Planet of the Apes, Age of Stupid, and WALL-E), it was the idea that a descent had occurred over a long period, and what’s more, the people were too stupid to realise it. Now, clearly the film was out and out satire, but the cover is almost enough to be fooled into thinking this might be a documentary.

Think about it in this way: there’s an old story about putting a live frog into a pan of boiling water and watching it jump out, but if you put it into cold water and heat it up it’ll boil to death.

A world run by idiots? Total fantasy.

Pre-Peak Histories #1

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Honour the elders!

Worthing Beach, 1955

That is the suggestion in the Transition Handbook, for helping your town in its transition towards resilience and away from oil dependence. How though?

I did a series of oral history interviews through Transition Town Worthing in 2010/11 to get a flavour of a  time before mass consumerism, central heating, and mobile phone shops. The interview I did with Barbara (below) was one of my favourites.

What transpired was a fascinating sense of both continuity and also a world that has changed fundamentally. Much of what was built in the 1930s still survives, but to hear about it as it was being built on former farmland becomes a vision of huge and exciting change, as well as the final goodbye to the semi-rural edge of the town. The outward expansion of Worthing happened at the expense of losing valuable, productive farm and horticultural areas, and coincided with the growth of car ownership.

Here’s Barbara in her own words:

What are your memories about Worthing in the ’30s and ’40s?

We used to play at the end of Sea Place which was all fields, and on the beach, dodging the waves. We had one very cold winter, 1937 I think, when we used to skate on all these icy ditches. We used to climb trees. There were trees at the bottom of George V Avenue. There were trees at Goring. We once made a sort of catermeran boat from wood they had for the breakwaters.

We walked or cycled everywhere. Durrington Bridge wasn’t made up (before the War), they had pavements but not a made-up road. The other side of that was all fields. They were ready to build on it but then the War came and they had to stop. It was fields from there to Titnore Lane. My mother used to say we were ‘raking around!’ We didn’t have to worry about anything. We just came home for our lunch then were off out again.

What do you remember about food around that time?

1948 Culberry Nursery, Angmering

There were nurseries all over the place. Worthing tomatoes were very famous. There were carnations and flowers. There was one at Goring. It’s all houses now. I think they grew things like cabbages and sprouts. There was a nursery in Terringes Avenue, one or two on the Littlehampton Road, there was one in Heene Road even! And probably cucumbers as well.

After the War food was rationed. Bread and butter. I’m sure we had New Zealand butter after the War. There wasn’t much coffee; we had that awful Camp stuff! I don’t remember ever feeling deprived really. I was used to it I suppose. All the shops were local. On Rowlands Road there was Chaplins and Potter Bailey; they were grocers. They were all little shops. Langmeads, the Maple Leaf, and Frosts. They were dairies. There was a Sainbury’s with lovely marble counters and brass weights. That was on the Goring Road where the Co-op is. And the Home and Colonial. Tarring Road had lots of other shops. Butchers of course and bakers. Knowles the Baker was a local one. Mitchells: that was a Worthing family. They had a cafe just over the entrance to the arcade in Worthing. We used to have birthday parties there. Tea and games upstairs. There were ironmongers I worked in a little private library on the Goring Road, Mason and Hodges bookshop, and the customers would come in and say they’ve got oranges across the road. So we used to shoot and get them or bananas, even eggs sometimes. We had fish gradually after the War, and there were fishmongers.

For a long time after the War you couldn’t go on to the beach because it was all mines and gun enplacements. We all had to grow food in our back gardens. We had to dig up our lawns and dig for victory. Compost heaps and potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes. I didn’t do it. It was my parents who did it. I might have helped occasionally. After the War I think most people were quite glad to get their grass and flowers back!

What was transport like then?

Southdown Bus on route 106 to Ferring and Goring, around 1950

Well I didn’t have a car until I was 45. I can remember that a lot of people had little motorbikes. People gradually started getting cars, but when we moved here, in 1960, I doubt that there was more than about two cars in the road. Now you can’t move for them. So it was very gradual. There were buses, Southdown Buses. Lots of people cycled, Worthing being flat it was very handy for cycles.  There weren’t really that many cars until well into the 80s. Plus the fact that most of the houses in this road are now flats, so you get two cars up and two cars down. Instead of having one car per house, you end up with four cars.

What was your house like?

There were a lot built in the 1930s I suppose, tremendous amount. We were very upset as children because they started cutting down our trees and building houses. After the War, of course, they really took off; even more going west again.

My parents bought a house in 1938 in Bruce Avenue for £999. That was a semi-detached, 3 bedroom, with quite a big garden.

You got an ideal boiler and a porcelain sink with a wooden draining board. You had a fitment with a bit that pulled down, and you worked on that bit, and then you had cupboards. That came in all the 1930s houses.

You had probably a horrible fireplace and you got a bathroom with an airing cupboard in it usually. And that was it, really! Coal fires in the sitting room. Apart from that you just got on with it! I suppose we might have had the odd electric fire, but not normally you didn’t. And oil stoves. When we came here we had a special oil heater in the kitchen and that was it. Then we put the little Valor stoves in the bathroom just to warm it up a bit. We were tough I think, because we had some cold winters! ’61 or ’62, the sea froze!

We didn’t have central heating here until about 30 years ago. I had a washing machine when my son was born and that was in 1961. Other people probably had them before I did! They were the little square ones with the electric ringer and then we got twin tubs. Then we got automatics eventually. Before that, it was a bucket on the gas cooker! I boiled everything up in this tub and then you put it in the sink, then you put it through the wringer, but you didn’t go out to work, at least not many people did, you had all day to do it. Whereas now, you couldn’t do that if you were going out to work as well. You’d never get it done! I’m laughing because my kitchen is not a modern one.

Can you say something about community back then?

Worthing was a smaller place in the 50s.

South Street, Worthing, around 1955

You had the Rotary, and the church, Guides and Scouts. As it grew I suppose it got less so. Most people didn’t move around so much. We didn’t really go into each other’s houses too much, but we did help each other out. It was more . . . you didn’t have television in those days so you probably visited each other a bit more in the evenings. We didn’t have TV until the 60s, but a lot of people had it in the 50s.

Worthing was much nicer in the 50s, with the old Town Hall which gave it some character. The old library was rather nice. That was where the museum is now. All the shops were individual. All the familes too. There was the Hubbards, and the Mitchells, and the Water Brothers, and Bentalls. They were all local people and somehow that gave it more of a community feel. It was much more personal because you knew the people. The bandstand was nice because they had concerts. We went on a Sunday to hear the band playing. They used to have summer shows on the pier. One was called Gay Parade.

We went to the theatre and the cinema much more often. There was a wonderful shop called Bernard Bakers, which had seconds. It was a kind of ramshackle shop, along Chapel Road. They were there for a long time. There were dairies where they sold milk and butter, eggs. Frosts was a dairy with these lovely marble floors. It all helped to keep the milk cool because of course they didn’t have any fridges then, did they? We didn’t have a fridge until about 1950. We went to the shops every day, otherwise the milk would go off. We used to have a man come on a bicycle on a Tuesday to take your order, go away and bring it back two days later.

What has Worthing lost since the 50s?

Shops. We’ve lost some cinemas. That fact that when you walked everywhere, you met more people. People were pushing their prams with their babies, Cooking skills. Younger generation buy ready-made this, ready-made that. I didn’t! You read that they waste a lot of food, whereas if you’re a war-time child, you never waste anything ever! Lots of manual skills. Not many people do dress-making anymore, or knitting. Now it’s cheaper to buy it ready-made. My mother used to buy remnants, then come back and make us dresses. Now, it wouldn’t be worth it. Shame. Darning socks. I was very good at that! Turning collars on men’s shirts. I used to unpick them, turn them round, so they didn’t get worn. Sheets too. We used to do sides and the middle. The sheet wears down the middle doesn’t it. So, you would cut it down the middle, put the worn bits to the outside, sew the two edges together, so you then got more use out of it. We all used to do that! Sides to middle.

What were you glad to see the back of?

Coal fires! Shovelling. You had a coal bunker outside so you had to shovel the coal into coal hole, bring it in, make your fire, light it, then you had to take the ashes out in the morning and throw them away. Oh dear me, that was hard work. You came in and you were all cold and you had to light the fire. Then it wouldn’t draw so you used to have to put newspaper in. We used to keep our coats on until the house got warm. Washing too was hard work before having a washing machine. Yet it isn’t so long ago, really. Things have gone faster and faster and faster! We did lots more reading then too. Once TV came people didn’t read so many books.

Taking part in oral history research opens up a strong sense of community, as those in their 80s and 90s are often excluded. It also enables us to build a picture of the recent past: a time before all the things we take for granted today. Learning about life 60 or 70 years ago is also about living through a period of ‘energy ascent’: a growing abundance of cheap energy during the 20th century.

What we need to learn from our elders is that change happens, sometimes over a very short time scale. Asking a teenager to imagine life without Facebook or their mobile phone, let alone a reliable electricity supply, is guaranteed to generate a look of incredulity. Even for someone in their 40s, thinking of a time before the internet becomes a trip to a dimly-remembered past, as I discovered recently in a chat with someone at work. People have really short memories, and very often a complete lack of awareness of what took place only a few decades ago, well within living memory of many.

Next steps? Talk to your elderly neighbour about life in the past. It’s virtually guaranteed to put a smile on your face. And theirs.

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!

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