slowing and growing in a peak oil world

Last week I returned from a visit, for family reasons, to Southern California. I hadn't been there in years and only dimly remembered the fact that, in the vast sprawl of towns and malls that is SoCal, no one walks. Ever.

Last week I returned from a visit, for family reasons, to Southern California. I hadn’t been there in years and only dimly remembered the fact that, in the vast sprawl of towns and malls that is SoCal, no one walks. Ever.

As I hurtled with my sister-in-law along 12-lane freeways, I felt as though I’d been trapped in some futuristic nightmare universe composed entirely of machines. So I was intrigued to hear a prominent Canadian economist this week talking about what the near future will look like. (Hint: it won’t look like Southern California.)

In his book Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, Jeff Rubin, former chief economist and strategist at CIBC, argues that the disappearance of cheap oil will change the global economy far more profoundly than the current financial meltdown. “In the process,” he says, “(it) will change all of our lives—from where we work, to where we live, to what we eat.”

Rubin envisions a world where, with oil costing US$225 a barrel by 2012, most of our food and manufactured goods will have to be produced locally. “You can liberalize trade all you like, but it won’t make a difference if no one can afford to ship the things you want to sell,” he’s quoted as saying in the Toronto Star.

He may, of course, be wrong—he’s a controversial figure with his share of hits and misses—but his forecast is supported by the sober analysis of Canadian equity research firm Raymond James. Global production of petroleum actually peaked early last year, says the firm in the same article. “A paradigm shift of historic proportions,” they call it, urging us to “get ready to live in a peak-oil world.”

And what will that world look like, in concrete terms? As Rubin sees it, much of our North American urban sprawl will be converted back into farmland. As for its former occupants, they’ll be moving into the higher-density cities we’ll require, where they’ll be driving far less. In other words, the kind of car-dependent lifestyle I saw in Southern California is doomed. Back to the future, anyone?

Yet, far from being a limitation on our freedom, the loss of cheap oil may be the best thing that ever happened to us. As Rubin says, “We will soon become far more attentive custodians of our own little worlds, and that is likely to make our neighbourhoods better places.”

In a world where we have to slow down, we’ll rediscover the pleasures of neighbourhood shops, locally produced produce, cleaner air. As a result, we’re likely to develop fewer diseases, both physical and mental. Our social connections may grow, too, when haste and busyness no longer define the fabric of our days.

We can only become “attentive custodians,” however, if we re-establish our connection to the natural world. The universe-as-machine metaphor that has prevailed since the Industrial Revolution, argues the writer Stephen Harrod Buhner, has helped to sever us from a connection that was once taken for granted. “Once human beings are defined as the only intelligent life-form,” he writes in his book The Lost Language of Plants, “a unique kind of isolation enters human lives, a kind of loneliness that is unprecedented in the history of human habitation of Earth.”

One way to re-establish that connection is to produce our own food (a fact of life in a peak-oil world), to plunge our hands into dirt instead of using them to move a cursor across a dead, glowing screen. In fact, local food production is entering the mainstream.

In the US, Michelle Obama dug up the White House lawn this spring and planted an organic vegetable garden. In Detroit, of all places, a singer and entrepreneur called Taja Sevelle came up with the idea of turning wasteland into free vegetable gardens, with the ultimate goal of eradicating hunger around the world.

“We started with three gardens in 2005,” she says of her organization, Urban Farming, in a profile on the entrepreneurial website Ladies Who Launch. “We will have 160 gardens across America and Jamaica this year (2008). We’ve just added Newark, New Orleans, and Atlanta. We’ve got farmers giving food away in Canada, North Carolina, and Florida, and people interested in being a part of our mission to end hunger in Belgium, Italy, England, Vietnam, and Africa.”

Surprisingly, Motor City’s role as the motor of a new urban greening movement goes back to the late 80s. The city’s first black mayor decided, in the wake of lost industrial jobs, that the future depended on casino gambling. According to longtime writer and activist Grace Lee Boggs, that failure of imagination resulted in the creation of a grassroots organization called Detroit Summer.

From youth volunteers working on community gardens with African-American elders, to a program run by Capuchin monks to educate school children in organic agriculture, to a public high school for pregnant and single-mother teens where the students produce their own eggs, milk, meat, and cheese as well as fruits and vegetables, the result has been not only an escalating agricultural movement but massive social change. “A quiet revolution for self-determination,” says a friend of Boggs who’s a retired city planner.

As a demonstration of how to meet today’s growing crises of global warming and spiraling food prices, it’s also a preview of what the future might look like. In Vancouver, City Farmer, an organization that cheekily calls itself “Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture,” has been around since 1978. Its demonstration garden is in Kitsilano, mere blocks from my brother’s condo. Today they offer courses on everything from growing organic vegetables in an urban environment to “wormshops” that show apartment dwellers how to recycle food waste using a worm bin.

Executive director Michael Levenston marvels at the fact that previously fringe ideas such as green roofs on skyscrapers and vertical farming on city buildings are becoming mainstream. In Victoria, according to the city’s largest seed supply company, seed sales are up 30 per cent this year—up 60 per cent from two years ago. They now find themselves dispensing basic advice to many first-time and younger gardeners.

We’re about to return, many of us, to the use of our own two hands in learning age-old lessons about the concrete world we occupy. Of course, many of us have already been doing that for decades, though as a lifestyle choice rather than by necessity. In the meantime, by way of making the transition to a peak-oil world, we can promote the value of oases wherever we find them. In Southern California, I found replenishment in a reclaimed wetland that existed cheek-by-jowl with a noisy freeway, providing nesting and feeding habitat to avocets, stilts, egrets, and five varieties of terns. Even in SoCal, land is being reclaimed from the empire of the car.

Meanwhile, gotta dash. (Or should that be “gotta stroll”?) I’m off for a lesson with a local organic gardening business on how to grow my own veggies.

Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas. Her column appears on the

last Friday of each month.