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Transition Initiative: Feeding Ourselves Tomorrow

Robert Haw: Climate change is fact. It will bring us great misery if fossil fuel use continues unabated. Perhaps a better name for the phenomena unfolding around us is climate chaos, because “a climate” (as we define it) will no longer exist.

The Transition Initiative, fundamentally, is all about food. It’s also about more than that, but food quickly excites people when it’s withdrawn. Cheap energy has allowed our society to cut a lot of corners in the farm-to-market business, and now we’ve come to expect cheap and abundant food as an entitlement.


So the question has to be asked: will groceries remain plentiful on store shelves in coming years, and if yes at what cost?

This is not a far-fetched speculation. There have been numerous food-shortage riots around the world recently in places with previously ample foodstuffs. And if it can happen there, the possibility exists that it could happen here too.

Oil is fundamental to our times. Like any commodity if it’s in short supply its price will increase. And high-priced oil means food will also get more expensive since petroleum is used to A) plant and grow food, and B) transport food to market (over possibly thousands of miles). This is where Peak Oil and Climate Change, combined, force us to re-examine our modern world.

The Peak Oil premise recognizes that we are not close to running out of oil. However, we are close to running out of easy-to-get, cheap oil. Very close. It might have happened last year or it might be 5-6 years away, but it will arrive. It means we have already used up half of our planet’s petroleum inheritance. From now on new discoveries will not compensate for declining production along with increasing demand. Earth is about to enter Petroleum Descent – the era when, year after year, oil availability decreases. Mind you, other energy sources still exist (e.g. coal, natural gas) but either they lack the convenience and flexibility of oil, or they are difficult to transport internationally (and their peaks are only about a decade behind oil).

Climate change is fact. It will bring us great misery if fossil fuel use continues unabated. Perhaps a better name for the phenomena unfolding around us is climate chaos, because “a climate” (as we define it) will no longer exist.

The Transition Initiative is a proactive, forward thinking response to these realities. It is a set of steps that individuals, groups, towns, cities can take in preparation for the double-barrelled impact of Peak Oil and Climate Change. At its heart it is a process of re-localizing all the essential inputs that a community needs in order to function. For example, growing food locally because long-distance transportation costs will become prohibitive. As well, growers will need to adopt alternative farming methods because intensive, petroleum-based methods will be too expensive.

A precedent for this kind of transition exists: Cuba. After the Soviet Union fell in 1989 Cuba’s oil imports fell dramatically. Since the American embargo remained in place, Cuba had no choice but to rely on local solutions in order to survive. Its government recognized that industrial agriculture was no longer viable with severely limited fossil fuels, so their food production system was re-designed along organic lines, using permaculture techniques.

Farmer’s salaries were increased to match that of engineers. Urban farms and gardens were encouraged. Many other innovations occurred. But the bottom line is that no one starved and after 10 years Cuba was mostly self-sufficient in food. 80% of the food grown on the island came from farms that happened to be organic (because that was the cheapest way). Its people were healthy.

The Cuba example is but one case study of re-localization. The point of the example is to illustrate the Transition goal of increasing resilience, so society can accommodate and adapt to the changes ahead, while preserving a livable environment. Yet how to achieve this resilience? The list below represents some candidate ideas for resilience-building. They probably won’t all happen in every community, but certainly some should happen everywhere.

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  • Electricity from renewable energies (and maybe from nuclear during early years)
  • Significant power-down (energy conservation)
  • Highly energy-efficient housing
  • Local, sustainable agriculture (“permaculture”)
  • Urban community gardens and backyard gardens
  • Community/group problem-solving (learn to help each other for times of need)
  • Well-integrated public transportation
  • Efficient personal and/or goods transport (bikes, small electric vehicles)
  • Use of local materials
  • Local manufacturing for many (but probably not all) goods
  • Maybe even local currencies (for preserving some capital within the community)

Of course we could just try to maintain our society as we’ve come to know it, in spite of the accumulating harm. One way is to keep doing what we’re doing now (“business as usual”), which will burn through every last ounce of fossil fuel we can extract from the ground, and leading to a thoroughly wretched, despoiled planet and quite probably the loss of our global civilization. Another approach could be a high-tech solution providing abundant clean energy (eg orbiting solar power satellites). That may be feasible given a half-century or more of lead-time (and plenty of capital), but it won’t arrive soon enough to solve our immediate problems.

So the only way through this maze of seemingly endless, imminent crises seems to be to quickly transition society away from its high-power, high-consumption lifestyle toward a lower-powered, localized future. A future with less oil and less energy can be as satisfying as what we have now - IF we consciously design it to be that way.

To wrap up, here is a brief summary of Transition philosophy:

  • Life with less access to cheap energy is probably inevitable, and it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
  • Climate change is real, it’s dangerous, and it’s accelerating.
  • Most of the modern world has lost the flexibility to cope with “shocks”. Our communities need more resilience – lifestyles that can adjust and adapt to rapid change without “snapping”.
  • Communities must look out for themselves because no one else cares, and they have to act now.
  • As an individual, try to purchase fewer goods, but when you must: buy local. Learn to grow some of your own food. Accustom yourself to a lower-energy lifestyle. Generate some of your own energy. And respect the web of planetary interdependencies of which we are all a part.

Robert Haw

Robert Haw is an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is deeply concerned with the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and is active in bringing this awareness to the public.