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  • As a culture, we tell ourselves lots of stories

  • about the future,

  • and where we might move forward from this point.

  • Some of those stories are that

  • somebody is just going to sort everything out for us.

  • Other stories are that everything is on the verge of unraveling.

  • But I want to tell you a different story here today.

  • Like all stories, it has a beginning.

  • My work, for a long time, has been involved in education,

  • in teaching people practical skills

  • for sustainability,

  • teaching people how to take responsibility

  • for growing some of their own food,

  • how to build buildings using local materials,

  • how to generate their own energy, and so on.

  • I lived in Ireland, built the first straw-bale houses in Ireland,

  • and some cob buildings and all this kind of thing.

  • But all my work for many years was focused

  • around the idea that sustainability

  • means basically looking at

  • the globalized economic growth model,

  • and moderating what comes in at one end,

  • and moderating the outputs at the other end.

  • And then I came into contact with a way of looking at things

  • which actually changed that profoundly.

  • And in order to introduce you to that,

  • I've got something here that I'm going to unveil,

  • which is one of the great marvels of the modern age.

  • And it's something so astounding and so astonishing

  • that I think maybe as I remove this cloth

  • a suitable gasp of amazement might be appropriate.

  • If you could help me with that it would be fantastic.

  • (Laughter)

  • This is a liter of oil.

  • This bottle of oil,

  • distilled over a hundred million years of geological time,

  • ancient sunlight,

  • contains the energy equivalent of about five weeks

  • hard human manual labor --

  • equivalent to about 35 strong people

  • coming round and working for you.

  • We can turn it into a dazzling array of materials,

  • medicine, modern clothing,

  • laptops, a whole range of different things.

  • It gives us an energy return that's unimaginable, historically.

  • We've based the design of our settlements,

  • our business models, our transport plans,

  • even the idea of economic growth, some would argue,

  • on the assumption that we will have this in perpetuity.

  • Yet, when we take a step back,

  • and look over the span of history,

  • at what we might call the petroleum interval,

  • it's a short period in history

  • where we've discovered this extraordinary material,

  • and then based a whole way of life around it.

  • But as we straddle the top of this energy mountain, at this stage,

  • we move from a time where our economic success,

  • our sense of individual prowess and well-being

  • is directly linked to how much of this we consume,

  • to a time when actually our degree of oil dependency

  • is our degree of vulnerability.

  • And it's increasingly clear that we

  • aren't going to be able to rely on the fact that

  • we're going to have this at our disposal forever.

  • For every four barrels of oil that we consume,

  • we only discover one.

  • And that gap continues to widen.

  • There is also the fact that the amount of energy

  • that we get back from the oil that we discover is falling.

  • In the 1930s we got 100 units of energy back

  • for every one that we put in to extract it.

  • Completely unprecedented, historically.

  • Already that's fallen to about 11.

  • And that's why, now,

  • the new breakthroughs, the new frontiers

  • in terms of oil extraction are scrambling about in Alberta,

  • or at the bottom of the oceans.

  • There are 98 oil-producing nations in the world.

  • But of those, 65 have already passed their peak.

  • The moment when the world on average passes this peak,

  • people wonder when that's going to happen.

  • And there is an emerging case

  • that maybe that was what happened last July

  • when the oil prices were so high.

  • But are we to assume that the same brilliance

  • and creativity and adaptability

  • that got us up to the top of that energy mountain in the first place

  • is somehow mysteriously going to evaporate

  • when we have to design a creative way back down the other side?

  • No. But the thinking that we have to come up with

  • has to be based on a realistic assessment

  • of where we are.

  • There is also the issue of climate change,

  • is the other thing that underpins this transition approach.

  • But the thing that I notice, as I talk to climate scientists,

  • is the increasingly terrified look they have in their eyes,

  • as the data that's coming in,

  • which is far ahead of what the IPCC are talking about.

  • So the IPCC said

  • that we might see significant breakup

  • of the arctic ice in 2100, in their worst case scenario.

  • Actually, if current trends continue,

  • it could all be gone in five or 10 years' time.

  • If just three percent of the carbon locked up in the arctic permafrost

  • is released as the world warms,

  • it would offset all the savings that we need to make,

  • in carbon, over the next 40 years to avoid runaway climate change.

  • We have no choice other than deep and urgent decarbonization.

  • But I'm always very interested to think about

  • what might the stories be

  • that the generations further down the slope from us

  • are going to tell about us.

  • "The generation that lived at the top of the mountain,

  • that partied so hard, and so abused its inheritance."

  • And one of the ways I like to do that

  • is to look back at the stories people used to tell

  • before we had cheap oil, before we had fossil fuels,

  • and people relied on their own muscle, animal muscle energy,

  • or a little bit of wind, little bit of water energy.

  • We had stories like "The Seven-League Boots":

  • the giant who had these boots, where, once you put them on,

  • with every stride you could cover seven leagues, or 21 miles,

  • a kind of travel completely unimaginable

  • to people without that kind of energy at their disposal.

  • Stories like The Magic Porridge Pot,

  • where you had a pot where if you knew the magic words,

  • this pot would just make as much food as you liked,

  • without you having to do any work,

  • provided you could remember the other magic word to stop it making porridge.

  • Otherwise you'd flood your entire town with warm porridge.

  • There is the story of "The Elves and the Shoemaker."

  • The people who make shoes go to sleep, wake up in the morning,

  • and all the shoes are magically made for them.

  • It's something that was unimaginable to people then.

  • Now we have the seven-league boots

  • in the form of Ryanair and Easyjet.

  • We have the magic porridge pot

  • in the form of Walmart and Tesco.

  • And we have the elves in the form of China.

  • But we don't appreciate what an astonishing

  • thing that has been.

  • And what are the stories that we tell ourselves now,

  • as we look forward about where we're going to go.

  • And I would argue that there are four. There is the idea of business as usual,

  • that the future will be like the present, just more of it.

  • But as we've seen over the last year, I think that's an idea

  • that is increasingly coming into question.

  • And in terms of climate change,

  • is something that is not actually feasible.

  • There is the idea of hitting the wall,

  • that actually somehow everything is so fragile

  • that it might just all unravel and collapse.

  • This is a popular story in some places.

  • The third story is the idea that technology can solve everything,

  • that technology can somehow get us through this completely.

  • And it's an idea that I think is very prevalent at these TED Talks,

  • the idea that we can invent our way out of a profound

  • economic and energy crisis,

  • that a move to a knowledge economy

  • can somehow neatly sidestep those energy constraints,

  • the idea that we'll discover some fabulous new source of energy

  • that will mean we can sweep all concerns

  • about energy security to one side,

  • the idea that we can step off neatly

  • onto a completely renewable world.

  • But the world isn't Second Life.

  • We can't create new land and new energy systems at the click of a mouse.

  • And as we sit, exchanging free ideas with each other,

  • there are still people mining coal

  • in order to power the servers, extracting the minerals

  • to make all of those things.

  • The breakfast that we eat as we sit down

  • to check our email in the morning

  • is still transported at great distances,

  • usually at the expense of the local, more resilient

  • food systems that would have supplied that in the past,

  • which we've so effectively devalued and dismantled.

  • We can be astonishingly inventive and creative.

  • But we also live in a world with very real constraints and demands.

  • Energy and technology are not the same thing.

  • What I'm involved with is the transition response.

  • And this is really about looking the challenges

  • of peak oil and climate change square in the face,

  • and responding with a creativity and an adaptability

  • and an imagination that we really need.

  • It's something which has spread incredibly fast.

  • And it is something which has several characteristics.

  • It's viral. It seems to spread under the radar very, very quickly.

  • It's open source. It's something which everybody who's involved with it

  • develops and passes on as they work with it.

  • It's self-organizing. There is no great central organization

  • that pushes this; people just pick up an idea

  • and they run with it, and they implement it where they are.

  • It's solutions-focused. It's very much looking at what people can do

  • where they are, to respond to this.

  • It's sensitive to place and to scale.

  • Transitional is completely different.

  • Transition groups in Chile, transition groups in the U.S., transition groups here,

  • what they're doing looks very different in every place that you go to.

  • It learns very much from its mistakes.

  • And it feels historic. It tries to create a sense

  • that this is a historic opportunity

  • to do something really extraordinary.

  • And it's a process which is really joyful.

  • People have a huge amount of fun doing this,

  • reconnecting with other people as they do it.

  • One of the things that underpins it is this idea of resilience.

  • And I think, in many ways, the idea of resilience

  • is a more useful concept than the idea of sustainability.

  • The idea of resilience comes from the study of ecology.

  • And it's really about how systems,

  • settlements, withstand shock from the outside.

  • When they encounter shock from the outside

  • that they don't just unravel and fall to pieces.

  • And I think it's a more useful concept than sustainability, as I said.

  • When our supermarkets have only two or three days' worth of food in them

  • at any one time, often sustainability tends to focus on

  • the energy efficiency of the freezers

  • and on the packaging that the lettuces are wrapped up in.

  • Looking through the lens of resilience,

  • we really question how we've let ourselves get into a situation

  • that's so vulnerable.

  • Resilience runs much deeper:

  • it's about building modularity into what we do,

  • building surge breakers into how we organize the basic things that support us.

  • This is a photograph of the Bristol and District

  • Market Gardeners Association, in 1897.

  • This is at a time when the city of Bristol,

  • which is quite close to here,

  • was surrounded by commercial market gardens,

  • which provided a significant amount of the food

  • that was consumed in the town, and created a lot of employment for people, as well.

  • There was a degree of resilience, if you like, at that time,

  • which we can now only look back on with envy.

  • So how does this transition idea work?

  • So basically, you have a group of people who are excited by the idea.

  • They pick up some of the tools that we've developed.

  • They start to run an awareness-raising program

  • looking at how this might actually work in the town.

  • They show films, they give talks, and so on.

  • It's a process which is playful and creative

  • and informative.

  • Then they start to form working groups, looking at different aspects of this,

  • and then from that, there emerge a whole lot of projects

  • which then the transition project itself

  • starts to support and enable.

  • So it started out with some work I was involved in in Ireland,

  • where I was teaching, and has since spread.

  • There are now over 200 formal transition projects.

  • And there are thousands of others who are at what we call the mulling stage.