Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots

Our Ability As a Species to Respond To the Challenge Presented By Peak Oil

I am optimistic about our ability as a species to respond to the challenge presented by peak oil, the end of the cheap energy era that has lasted about 200 years, and to enter a new cultural phase in our evolution. There are several key developments that, despite the unprecedented challenge of this transition, encourage me to believe that we can make it. These come from both our scientific and technological insights into ways of resolving some deep problems in present cultural habits, and from shifts of perception that are occurring in cultural values.

The primary factor in scientific insight that is producing a major shift of awareness is the recognition that our dependence on cheap fossil fuel to satisfy our needs and desires has now entered the phase of disruption of the complex web of relationships on which the life of our planet depends. This has come from an understanding of the ways in which climate change due to the heating of the planet is causing average temperatures to rise, a consequence of releasing carbon dioxide from its buried condition in oil deposits into the atmosphere. Among the many consequences are the disturbed weather patterns due to the excess energy that gets dissipated through increasingly destructive hurricanes and the rise in sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, threatening all coastal habitation, in particular the majority of cities. This awareness is becoming more and more widespread, leading to both global action as in the Kyoto agreement and in various forms of carbon trading, and in local initiatives to shift our energy source from oil to renewables. There is no guarantee that we will survive this learning process. Every species throughout evolution has had to make hard choices in learning to live the path of sustainable relationships with others, or has gone extinct. We face the same alternative possibilities. We are special in our own way, as is every species, but not different regarding this fundamental dichotomy of life or death.

A shift has also begun within the culture of science itself, where it is becoming clear why our separation of nature from culture has been a useful but dangerous assumption. Although this distinction was made in modern science in order to separate the 'objective' from the 'subjective', reliable knowledge of nature from idiosyncratic expression of human creativity, it has now exceeded its usefulness and encourages us to see nature as a separate reality outside us that is ours to use for our own cultural purposes. However, we are nature, and nature is culture. That is, we are embedded in and reflective of the principles that govern the rest of reality, not separate as a result of our evolutionary gifts such as consciousness and language. So we are all participants in the same evolutionary adventure. This insight came first in physics when quantum mechanics showed us that nature is holistic, not causally separable into independent, objective elements, while 'subjective' observers are contributors to this reality. And now in biology we are learning that it is not the genome that makes the organism but the networks of molecular elements in and between cells that selectively read and make sense of the information in the genes, creating organisms of specific form. The nature of this creative agency is what we are currently trying to understand. As I read the evidence this is leading us to the realisation that organisms use language as part of their creativity, as we do. Networking is also the principle of Gaia, the complex pattern of relationships between living organisms and the earth, the seas and the atmosphere that results in the remarkable properties of our planet as a place fit for continuously evolving life. We are not passengers on the planet but participants in this evolution.

Finally, what encourages me to believe that we have a chance of getting through the most difficult transition that we have ever faced as a species is the proliferation of new technologies, and experiments in trading and monetary systems, that could result in robust local communities that are self-sufficient and sustainable in energy, food production, and other human needs. The key here is again inter-relatedness and networking. Whatever renewable, sustainable energy process is used, whether solar or wind or water or biofuels or other (the combination will vary with geographic location and bioregion) will become the basis of a trading system that naturally links together the components of the community into a coherent, holistic pattern of relationships that is responsive to local conditions and responsible in its actions toward the natural world. These local communities will also trade with one another, but will preserve their distinctness so that diversity is both inherent and valued, unlike the homogenisation of current global relationships. Whatever the population size that emerges in such organic human networks will necessarily be within the carrying capacity of the bioregions that support them. Life will be comfortable but not indulgent, and there will be  a great capacity to celebrate the life of quality that emerges. The deep expression of our capacity to make this transition is evident in powerful expressions of public awareness,  as in this insight from 'A Book of Miracles':

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is not our darkness but our light that frightens us most".

We do indeed have the power and are equipped to make the transition, though it requires a fundamental shift in what drives our power, from fear of nature to a deep sense of connection with her. This new organic way of living that combines science, technology, art, craft and ritual in unified, coherent patterns of learning and doing and celebrating has now become a dream to be realised because it is not only possible; it has also become a necessity.