Making the transition

This is a somewhat unusual post, for me, but it has its points of interest. It came to me via a friend, from the British paper (a very good one) The Guardian. Particularly note the website toward the end,

By Harriet Green
The Guardian
May 2, 2008

For three years, my husband has talked about taking to the hills. About
buying a smallholding on Exmoor where, with our four-year-old daughter, we
can safely survive the coming storm — famine, pestilence and a total
breakdown of society. I would wait for his lectures to finish, then return
to my own interests. I had no time for the end of civilisation. As an editor
on a glossy magazine until a few months ago, I was too busy. There was
always a new Anya Hindmarch bag to buy, or a George Clooney premiere to

But recently, I’ve wavered. Much of what he has been predicting has come
true: global economic meltdown, looming environmental disaster, a sharp rise
in oil and food prices that has already led to the rationing of rice in the
US, and riots in dozens of countries worldwide.

This week, the details got scarier. The UN warned of a global food crisis,
like a “silent tsunami”, while Opec predicts that oil, which broke through
$100 (£50) a barrel for the first time a few weeks ago, may soon top $200.

In the course of an idle conversation at work last week, a colleague
casually revealed that he keeps a supply of tinned food in his bedroom “just
in case”. He has done this, apparently, ever since the July 7 bombings in
2005 and the fear of global pandemics such as Sars and bird flu.

And he’s not alone. On the internet, you’ll find numerous would-be
survivalists discussing strategies: where to find a hideout in the UK, what
goods to stock up on, and the merits of carrying a 48-hour survival kit.
Some are even wondering how to get round the UK’s relatively strict laws on
the possession of weapons.

If not stockpiling food, many others are growing their own, with Jamie
Oliver urging us to turn our gardens over to food production: sales of
vegetable seeds are up 60% on last spring. Others still are moving towards
taking their homes “off-grid”, with rainwater harvesting and solar
electricity, and withdrawing their money from pensions to invest in precious
metals and other time-honoured securities.

I’ve started to worry. Is my family prepared for the worst? I’m reasonably
nimble at the computer keyboard, and a whiz with the hairdryer, but
otherwise pretty useless. I’ve barely made or mended anything in my life.
Thankfully my husband is three years ahead of me, and — with help from the
many self-sufficiency manuals he’s collected — has evolved (or regressed)
into a creature from the past: he’s got an allotment, has turned our garden
into some kind of nursery for innumerable apple trees grown from pips
(farewell, ornamental rose) and recently started knitting. He even has plans
for a composting loo, in the event that water supplies fail.

This kind of survivalism is not entirely new. In the 70s, with the threat of
nuclear war in the air, government leaflets suggested we stock up on food
and drink to last 14 days, and advised how to build our own fallout rooms.
Some of my cousins left the UK for a nuke-free life in Australia.

Then there was the oil crisis, with associated blackouts and abbreviated
working weeks. In 1975, the BBC reflected the forced move towards
self-sufficiency and survivalism in two landmarks series: on a lighter note,
Tom and Barbara dug up their back garden in the Good Life while, more
apocalyptically, the drama series Survivors imagined that 90% of the world’s
population had been wiped out by a deadly bacterium in just a few days. The
series followed a few disparate survivors as they struggled to form ad-hoc
communities, relearning ancient skills in order to survive. The BBC recently
announced that it is remaking Survivors to air this autumn. I can’t help
thinking it’s horribly timely.

Survivalists have always seemed quintessentially American; scary, bear-like
loners in commando jackets, loaded with ammunition. Timothy McVeigh, the
Oklahoma bomber, was a survivalist, as were many of the scary characters in
Michael Moore’s anti-gun film, Bowling for Columbine, including one, with
bulging eyes, who kept a loaded firearm under his pillow. But today
survivalists include the likes of Barton M Biggs, former chief global
strategist at Morgan Stanley, who warns in his new book, Wealth War and
Wisdom, that we should accept the possibility of a breakdown of the
civilised infrastructure.

“Your safe haven must be self-sufficient,

” he advises, “and capable of
growing some kind of food, should be well stocked with seed, fertilizer,
canned food, wine, medicine, clothes etc. Think Swiss Family Robinson. Even
in America and Europe there could be moments of riot and rebellion when law
and order temporarily completely breaks down.”

Aside from climate change, what underpins all this gloom is a belief that we
have nearly reached, or already passed, peak oil — the point at which
global demand for oil permanently outstrips dwindling supplies, causing
prices to shoot up. And not just the price of oil, but the price of
virtually everything else too, because our lives depend on ever-increasing
amounts of cheap energy and synthetic petroleum byproducts.

Dr Vernon Coleman is a writer and broadcaster who has placed full-page
advertisements in national newspapers to promote his new book, Oil
Apocalypse. “This isn’t a script for a horror movie,” the terrifying text
declares. “The lorry that collects your rubbish won’t be running.
Streetlights won’t burn. Hospitals will have to close . . . There won’t be
any more television programmes. You won’t be able to charge your mobile
telephone. Within a generation, five out of six people on the planet will be
dead. I’ll repeat, five out of six people on the planet will be dead.”

Blimey. How long have we got? Well, at the annual conference of the
Association for the Study of Peak Oil in Cork last year, the former US
energy secretary, Dr James Schlesinger, said that oil industry executives
privately conceded that the world faces an “imminent” oil production peak.
And last week it emerged that output in Russia — the world’s second-biggest
supplier after Saudi Arabia – has peaked already. The Saudis may have
peaked, too, but they don’t allow outsiders to audit them, so we won’t know
until it is too late. Brazil announced recently a massive new oilfield, but
within a week its own government had urged caution, warning that the claims
were premature.

“We’ve got to start preparing now,” says Coleman. “The Saudis historically
have always increased oil when there is a need, or if the Americans ask them
to. This time they haven’t done so. Suddenly they have stopped increasing.
All the evidence is there: we’ve reached peak oil.”

Like many others, Coleman suggests that the recent move towards biofuels
would not have happened unless conventional oil supplies had become scarce –
and that it has been a disaster. “How stupid can you be? If you use land to
grow crops that enable Americans to drive 4x4s, of course you’re going to
reduce the amount of food that people can eat.”

After a long period of steadily increasing globalisation, Coleman foresees a
future in which everything will shrink back to the local. “You must prepare
yourself for a different world. A world in which the rich ride horses, the
middle classes use bicycles and the poor walk. If you are planning for the
long-term — and in this scenario, five years is long-term — don’t buy a
house that relies on you having petrol for your car. You want a house in a
town with a small garden where you can grow vegetables, and you want to be
relatively close to railways, hospitals, shops, and libraries. The
government shutting down local post offices is an enormously stupid thing to
do.” Coleman believes that many big companies will collapse, taking their
pension plans with them, and governments will not be able to step in. He’s
switched his own investments to gold and silver.

Another prominent survivalist is Paul Thompson, a graphic designer living in
Reading who also happens to be a modern-day prophet of doom. His website,
Wolf at the Door, offers a brilliantly argued lecture on peak oil for the
beginner and attracts vast numbers of visitors. In person, however, Thompson
is low key. “I’m still pretty cautious. People find the idea that society
might fall apart nonsense. I wouldn’t bring it up in front of just anyone.”

On his website, he takes reasonable account of conflicting arguments about
how peak oil and climate change will play out, but overall he remains
gloomy. “I’m 50 this year. I’ve had a good run,” he says. “I want to enjoy
the next five or 10 years.” With that in mind, he’s leaving Britain for the
Czech Republic, where he will teach English and put into practice the
self-sufficiency theory he’s absorbed from books.

“I’m pretty depressed about Britain. I think we won’t cope well. We are
overpopulated, we have poor transport links. In the Czech Republic they
still have trams. Eastern Europe is better prepared. They were kept back for
so many years, they haven’t become so urbanised. It’ll be easier to slip
back to a more rural lifestyle. We’ve got to get back to little villages and
towns, growing our own food, putting in place micro-generation. You won’t be
able to rely on the centralised state any more.

“I’ve got no house, no immediate family. I have tried to make things more
flexible in the past few years. I’ve taken money out of stocks and shares,
stopped paying into a personal pension, and put all my money into bank
accounts where it’s accessible tomorrow if I need it. I’ve got total

Has he put together any kind of emergency kit? “It’s probably a good idea,
but the problem is you don’t know what you need. You can have petrol in your
garage, food, candles and water. But you don’t know for sure what you’re
going to be facing.”

One of the most gloomy websites that you will ever read is Set up by an American, Matthew Savinar, it
presents the bleakest possible outlook. A lawyer by background, Savinar
litters his website with ads for freeze-dried food. There’s even a picture
of Savinar himself, crouching beside boxes of the stuff in his kitchen. But
when asked if the Guardian could reproduce that photo, Savinar declined: “I
don’t need the marauding hordes descending on me here as my supplies are
quite limited.”

It is presumably this fear that recently led a British member of the
international survivalist community to ask for advice on
(which attracts 82,000 visitors a week). Noting that the British government
has banned samurai swords, he wondered what other weapons might be kept
handy. American correspondents replied that he should get out of England
soon, while the US and New Zealand were still letting in foreigners.

Having no samurai swords at our house, we have little chance of fighting off
the hungry masses when they tear lettuces from our window boxes and scale
the fence of our allotment. And the truth is that probably few places in
Britain are much safer — not even in the most remote parts of the
countryside. Which is why we have put our hopes in a saner band of
survivalists, who believe the answer is to work together.

The “transition town” movement <> was started
by an Englishman, Rob Hopkins, after a stint working as a teacher in
Kinsale, Ireland. After learning about peak oil, Hopkins and his traumatised
students spent several months trying to imagine what Kinsale would be like
without oil, some years in the future – then worked backwards to create an
“energy descent” plan that, on completion, was unanimously endorsed by the
local authorities.

Returning to the UK, Hopkins started something similar in Totnes, Devon,
which became the first official transition town. There are now more than 35
of these grassroots initiatives up and running, not only in towns but also
cities, villages and entire islands — and more than 500 communities,
worldwide, are taking steps to join the Transition Network. Even Ambridge,
on The Archers, is weighing it up.

Hopkins recently published a manual, The Transition Handbook, a startlingly
cheerful book that gives some idea as to how transition initiatives work —
from the very early stages, in which groups raise awareness through film
screenings and talks, to the later development of local food networks and
even the launch of local currencies.

The movement uses 12 steps, rather like Alcoholics Anonymous, to wean us off
our dangerous addiction to oil. This includes honouring elders, Hopkins
says. “They have the knowledge of how things were done in the past” — when
our lives depended so much less on the black stuff. “We have been doing work
with people who remember the 30s and 40s, people who say it would have been
insane to eat apples from New Zealand. Back then, all the food came from
near the town, but we don’t have that resilience any more. In the lorry
strike of 2001, we had only three days’ worth of food in Totnes.”

The key to effecting a smooth transition is rebuilding resilience and
self-sufficiency at every scale — from the household to the wider community
— all at once. To Hopkins and others, Cuba offers a great example of
effective community-based survivalism at the national level. Many transition
towns have been launched with screenings of The Power of Community, a short
documentary showing what happened to Cuba after the breakdown of the Soviet
Union led to oil supplies drying up, and the US embargo stopped many other
crucial imports.

Faced with potential starvation or capitulation to the US, the Cubans
gradually turned from heavy reliance on carbon-intensive agriculture: all
kinds of urban spaces were cultivated, from window boxes to wasteland, and
oxen were put back into use as there was no fuel to run tractors. The
transition took several years, and for a while Cubans had to forgo the
equivalent of a meal a day, but eventually even people in cities were
producing half their annual fruit and vegetable needs.

It’s films like this that explain why Hopkins remains fundamentally upbeat,
and rejects the gloomiest prognoses. “If we didn’t do anything,” he agrees,
“there are all sorts of grim scenarios. But I like to think of those as like
Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future – just one possible scenario.”

Thus, when the price of oil rises, Hopkins cheers. “It’s like a racehorse
owner cheering his horse. The things I want to see happen only happen in
times of high oil prices. In the 70s, there was the most incredible
flowering of creativity. Solar power, permaculture — they all started in
the 70s. Then cheap oil came back, and everything went out of the window.
High oil prices will stimulate creativity all over again: the knock-on of
rising food prices will make it more cost-effective to grow food here; the
higher cost of petrol in your car will make you ask if it’s worth making the
journey.” The bonus is that, as we burn fewer fossil fuels, emissions will
be reduced and climate change might be slowed.

Peak oil can, Hopkins accepts, confirm the widespread belief that people are
inherently selfish. But the “head for the hills” response, he says, is more
typically North American than British. “I wrote a piece on my website,, called ‘Why the survivalists have got it wrong’. That
elicited more comments than any previous post. Some came from survivalist
websites, and included such gems as ‘Which is better, a gun or a club? The
answer: You can use a gun as a club but you can’t use a club as a gun.'”

Hopkins does possess survival skills, and he thinks they’re important.
“Bushcraft training is very useful. It’s very empowering, learning to eat
the things that are around you.” But there are other things we need to learn
too. Indeed, a key part of the transition-town process is what he calls the
“great reskilling”. “We no longer have many of the basic skills our
grandparents took for granted. One of the most useful things a transition
initiative can do is to make training widely available in a range of these

What skills does he have in mind? Bicycle maintenance? Home energy
efficiency? Basic food growing? “You need to look at the skills people used
to have that might still be appropriate, as well as looking at the skills
people have now. Speaking to older people in the area around Totnes, it
turns out that, for example, they all knew how to darn their socks. I know
very few people my age who know how to do that, and it is a skill that, once
we get beyond the throwaway society, we may well need again. Hence the
sock-darning workshop we are running.”

Sock darning, eh? It’s not as glamorous as those George Clooney screenings,
and it lacks the superficial appeal of a hoard of rice, or gold coins. But
I’m pretty sure my husband hasn’t tried it yet, and in the spirit of amiably
competitive self-sufficiency that I’m confident will soon become mainstream,
I have decided that sock-darning may well be the survival skill for me.