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It’s time to relocalise our lives: Joanna Blythman on life without oil

Sunday Herald: It’s time to relocalise our lives: Joanna Blythman on life without oil

FACED WITH panic at the pumps, Alex Salmond was absolutely right to urge people to behave sensibly and responsibly, by cutting out non-essential trips, and using public transport. But he should have added: “Get used to it”, because we urgently need to realise that this isn’t just a one-off.

While we fret about filling the tank to visit family this weekend, or get to work this coming week, an infinitely more serious, long-term fuel problem is creeping up on us.

This dispute is simply a taster of more shortages in the pipeline, and the sooner we make permanent, structural changes to the way we live to take account of it, the better.

Not so long ago, those who predicted that we would inevitably run out of oil were condemned as gloom-mongers and hysterics.

The prevailing wisdom was that we could afford to use oil and all its derivatives with abandon because for every oil reserve we drained, there would be another bunch ready to come on tap. But now there is a growing consensus among oil economists that we have already, or are about to pass the “peak” of world oil output, the point after which supply will start to decline.

BP’s 2006 Statistical Review of World Energy reported that more than half of oil-producing nations were seeing reduced output. ExxonMobil says that global discovery rates of new oilfields have been declining since 1964. It’s scary really.

There we are, motoring along in the fast lane, unaware that we are plunging headlong into a post-oil world, while level-headed, rational geologists, physicists, bankers and corporate think tanks are all busy calculating when, exactly, oil will run out, and what it will mean.

Oil is as essential to the economies of rich nations as water is to the human body. Without oil, the world as we know it seizes up. While there is agreement that we are slowly running out of oil, opinions differ about when it will happen. One authoritative report by the German Energy Watch Group says that 2006 was the peak; another, that by 2030, oil output will drop to 1980s’ levels.

But by then the world’s population will have doubled and rapidly developing countries such as India will be aspiring to first-world lifestyles, complete with a car in every doorway. We’re heading for what the International Energy Agency refers to as a “supply crunch” when oil-reliant economies crumble, bloody wars over access to scant reserves erupt and prices skyrocket.

Last year, the price of oil broke through the psychological barrier of $100 a barrel. Week on week it climbs, now hovering around $118. Globally, it isn’t going to get any better, and in Scotland – even supposing the government clawed back North Sea oil revenues from Westminster on the “It’s Scotland’s oil” principle – it would be folly to become complacent, or base our economy on what is, at the end of the day, a finite resource.

One little fuel strike and the country is debilitated? This is the nudge we need to remind us that it’s time to start adjusting our lives and building skills for the post-oil age. If we ignore this, then peak oil is the slap on the face that should bring us to our senses.

Instead of driving miles to the supermarket to load up on food just in case the shelves are cleared, or whingeing about strikers’ ability to cripple the country, we would be better advised to start looking at alternative ways of doing things, based on human energy, ingenuity and appropriate technology. Put simply, our default programmes need to be reset. We need to relocalise our lives.

It means more adjustment than merely declining the offer of yet another oil-derived plastic bag. Affluent middle classes in urban areas have to get over their hang-ups and use public transport, not just during the dispute, but thereafter.

Unless we want an ever more monstrous chunk of our budgets to be gobbled up in spiralling fuel bills, then it’s time to think about selling the second, even your only car.

If we can’t walk, bus or train it to work, then employers must start developing schemes that liberate us from environmentally-ruinous commutes, and allow more people to work from home, exploiting all the benefits of email and telephone conferencing.

Businesses need to understand that it is no longer acceptable to fly staff up and down the UK to attend meetings when they could perfectly well take the train.

Domestic flights ought to be a no-no, unless you are elderly or infirm. And when our globalised food supply, retailing and distribution system is so reliant on oil for everything from fertilisers and pesticides to transportation and storage, growing some food of your own and nurturing local food producers, stops looking less like a marginal hobby and more like self-serving common sense.

Fat on oil, we have developed ludicrously unsustainable habits and the planet can’t be expected to cope with the now obscenely large carbon footprint we leave behind us. Declining oil is a threat, but also an opportunity to rethink the way we live.

http://www.sundayherald.com/oped/display.var.2228321.0.its_time_to_relocalise_our_lives.php

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