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Powering Down

Part of the Transitions Network program is a series of courses called “Skilling Up for Powering Down”. One of the challenges is convincing people that there is value in preparing for a power-down scenario. If you read the news or watch TV – you’d’ be forgiven for assuming that the world is already well on track to replacing petroleum products with wind power and hybrid vehicles. As my dad, who was in advertising, always said, don’t believe everything you read – or see on TV.

The Techno-Miracle Fallacy

We lived in Newcastle, Australia for about 4 years before moving to the Kootenays, BC. Newcastle is just north of Sydney and the main port for coal extracted from the hunter valley region. Surrounded by mountains of coal waiting to be shipped off to faraway lands stood a lone wind turbine, right by this hype-industrial harbour, built on the profits of fossil fuel extraction. This wind turbine was something of a novelty in a land of coal-fired power plants, it’s turbines eliciting a hypnotic response from drivers distracted by the large white structure towering  beside dirty coal tankers and miles of coal handling facilities. This is the irony, a region reliant on the sale of coal to overseas markets and using coal to generate most of it’s electricity had one of the first wind turbines in Australia – with no more development in wind in the following years.

California's largest wind farm, Altamont passCompared to coal, the level of investment in alternative sources of energy like wind, tidal or wave power is negligible, and for any increase in investment – it requires a shift of money from something else – if you haven’;t noticed, there’s just not a whole lot of money floating around looking for something to do! Technology will be part of the solution, but it is prudent to remember that for thousands of years before the last century, there were no major industrial activities, or a financial sector, or even an industry built around the extraction of materials to create electricity. For most of history, the main efforts of humanity have been on a local scale and have involved the local production of tools, food and goods for personal and community uses as well as for trade with the “outside” world.

Reduced dependence on fossil fuels is a key component of combating climate change as well, (for those who don’t get the whole Peak Oil thing).  The challenge is whether or not you believe that technology can really “save” us in time – either before the oil and gas runs out, or before climate change can’t be stopped and we face a much warmer future, with all that that entails.

Powering Down

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The Transition Handbook offers many suggestions for how communities may make the transition to a lower energy future. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it – and while you are purchasing it, get a couple of copies for your local elected leaders.

If you’d like to support UrbanWorkbench and the work we do here – use these link to purchase the book from amazon.com or ca:

Acknowledging that changes to how we live and operate as a society are the first steps in understanding what is required to make that change. Last week  I had a discussion where the group came to the realization that animals may be required again, to perform heavier tasks in transportation or agriculture, and we would need to re-learn the skills of animal care, feeding and breeding. Also, the equipment required for animals, such as bridles and saddles, despite modern materials is still best constructed from metal and leather – again suitable local industries that require a skilling up for sufficient capacity to be sustainable.

Powering down is recognized by groups the world over as a safe means of transitioning away from a fossil-fuel based society.  Interestingly, people assume that their level of life satisfaction or health will deteriorate as a result of less energy. I’ve heard it said that people think they will be happier with more goods and income, but, so the theory goes, often when these goods are available, quality  of life actually decreases as our time gets wrapped up in paying for the goods through more work, our relationships diminish and society crumbles as individualism flourishes.

Powering Down would require intense community cooperation – this is the scariest part for many people – they don’t know their neighbours… relationships can be tough. If it comes to a survival scenario – i.e. a “Long Emergency”, will we operate as an efficient community? Or will we attempt to survive on our own in the woods, (or the suburbs, as the case may be)?

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.