Friday, December 11, 2009

TED Talk: Transition to a World Without Oil

In this TED Talk, Rob Hopkins talks about this remarkable and relatively short era we are in the middle of right now called the "petroleum interval" where we've discovered this extraordinary material that contains energy equivalent to 5 weeks of manual labor in a single liter, and we have based our entire way of life around it.

He talks about the fantastic stories told before the era of cheap oil and how these fantasies have become realities in the oil age but we don't appreciate how astonishing these things are. The 7-league boots that take you 21 miles in one stride (easy jet), the magic porridge pot that produces an unlimited amount of porridge with a magic word (wal-mart), and the shoe elves that make shoes while we're asleep (china).

As we are discovering, we will not have oil in perpetuity. For every 4 barrels we consume, we discover one. In the 1930s we were getting 100 units of energy for every unit we put in to extract it. Today, that return is down to 11/1.

He gives a few popular ideas about how we are going to get through this. Some people expect we are going to hit a wall and everything is going to collapse. But our favorite idea as designers is that technology is going to fix everything, that we will side-step the constraints by inventing our way out of the energy crisis.

Regardless, our oil dependency is going to have to change. What Rob proposes as a solution is not sustainability as he once expected, but resilience within individual communities; communities who assess the changes and respond to them resourcefully. Each community's response will look different, but examples of this are local currencies, a parking lot turned into a productive garden, some kind of "plan B." What will we do when we don't have oil as a primary energy resource? Are we going to assume that someone is working on the solution for us or are we creating our own solutions that transition us out of dependency?

This reminds me of Vauban, Germany, which I researched for my branding project, and other eco-cities being proposed globally. They are small-scale ideas of self-sustaining, renewable communities. Our way of life is not permanent and it's an idea that I am quickly getting used to. I'm starting to accept that we may very soon have to let go of some of the things that make us comfortable.

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