Peak oil:

  1. the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.
  2. refers to the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognizing that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion.
  3. the end of the 21st century lifestyle.
  4. a chance to be reborn.
Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

Homegrown harvests and bread baked by the family down the street. Medical care subsidized by local taxes and available to all residents of a municipality. Mixed-use housing, water catchment systems galore, walkable neighborhoods and thriving community connections.

Transition Santa Cruz, a citizen coalition that educates and acts on the principles of personal and community resilience in a future devoid of cheap oil, believes all of these and much more are possible in a post -petroleum world.

Assiduous, relentless, and, above all, positive, they want the city to be ready for the biggest crisis facing the mechanized world: the redefining moment when oil will no longer be the ubiquitous source of energy it has become.

“The crisis is inevitable,” said Michael Levy, a core coordinator for Transition Santa Cruz and a local music teacher, referring to peak oil. “But there are things we can prevent from happening.”

These ‘things’ include, but aren’t limited to: the collapse of the world’s economies (the current crisis will pale in comparison when the fossil fueled, globalized financial system loses easy access energy), famine, civil war (over what oil is left) and, quite possibly, human extinction.

In the face of these hard-to-swallow potentialities, almost all of Transition Santa Cruz’s 450 members are looking on the bright side. They see a break with oil as an opportunity to redefine society on more prudent terms.

Levy, initially frightened by the visions of the world foreshadowed by global warming hypothesizers, stumbled upon Transition and was immediately hooked.

“I saw people having fun. It’s a realistic movement,” Levy said. “I made the decision to see the world in terms of possibility. I don’t think it pays to see the world as probability.”

Transition Santa Cruz, which is a satellite of the international Transition movement that first sprouted up in England four years ago, is staying true to the literal meaning of their name: in order to effectively phase out fossil fuels and make the changes stick, the process must be gradual and organic.

“You don’t have to go around and say, ‘Peak oil is coming! We have to do something!’” Levy explained. Instead, he recommends we begin by building resilient communities where neighbors can rely on one another and individuals are prepared for life without cheap oil.

Levy went on to say that Transition has always been a grassroots effort and that there is a gap between citizen solutions and government rhetoric, a realm where it is unpopular to speak publicly about diminishing energy supplies and halted economic growth.

“There’s no way to have a growing economy with shrinking energy,” he said.

Until there is enough popular support for weaning municipalities off oil, government is going to drag its feet and cover its ears.

Some, however, are listening.

City council member Don Lane, sipping a steaming cup of green tea and gingerly placing his bike helmet on the wooden bench next to him, has attended a handful of Transition meetings.

“Transition is really very practical about what you can do,” he said, praising the group’s positive pragmatism. “People are held back by that ‘What can I really do?’ attitude.”

Lane decided that what he could do was start a home garden, which he says produces copious amounts of lettuce, among other veggies. It took some grunt work, but for him the payoff is worth it, especially when he shares his crops with his neighbors.

He agrees with Levy that peak oil isn’t the most politically savvy subject for politicians to breach, especially when the economy is such a touchy topic. Santa Cruz, though, as the Mecca of conscious living it purports to be, has been quite progressive in terms of city planning and policies.

“We are starting a program to finance people putting solar panels on their roof,” Lane said. “We need to let things be built near neighborhoods – the classic example is small community grocery stores that people can walk and bike to.”

Lane’s favorite proposal is the creation of a high-capacity transportation system between UC Santa Cruz and the downtown area that would cut down on traffic and carbon emissions.

Lane also believes that lasting change won’t come about by mandating what people should and shouldn’t do.

“If it happens fast, then it isn’t truly transitional and won’t last,” he said. “The city government can play a supportive role and facilitate things that are already happening on the grassroots level.”

Neighborhood Ne Plus Ultra

Oil discovery peaked in 1964, meaning that over the last 65 years the number of new oil reserves has declined precipitously. Most experts agree that oil production — the amount of barrel-bound petroleum — peaked in mid-2008. From now on, they say, oil will become increasingly harder to find, both in the ground and, consequently, in the greater marketplace. At the moment, we are using five barrels for every one we discover, a rate that is impossible to sustain for much longer.

Responses to this predicament include everything from survivalist retreat to reluctant surrender to militant denial.

Transition takes a different approach.

“I just see, on the horizon, that culturally and economically, we’re going to have to learn to live within the means of our environment,” Aviva Longenatti, a member, said. “I see Transition as a hopeful, positive way we can live within on our means.”

She posed a question that seems to sum up Transition’s seminal philosophy: “Instead of worrying about what we’re going to give up and live without, what can we do within Santa Cruz county to sustain ourselves?”

Longenatti is spearheading the Neighborhood Working group, one of three smaller, singularly-focused action teams within the larger movement. Her husband, Rick, is the coordinator for the Land Use Working group, and Michael Weaver heads the biggest one, which focuses on food.

“It’s about getting to know the people on our block,” Longenatti said of her working group’s goals, “getting to know each other and support each other, to reconnect with people we live two feet from.”

Reinventing the wheel is not what Transition is about. Though they want to see society dance to a different beat, the group feels all the answers are right next door.

Using what tools are at hand, “reskilling” is a major component of the movement, emphasizing a back to basics, empirical education that provides for the needs of day-to-day living. Transition holds classes on building rainwater catchment systems, forging, compost toilets and carpentry — all skills geared toward preparing members for an era deplete of fossil fuels.

Because meals won’t be able to travel the great distances they currently average before they land on dinner plates, and commuting to and from jobs many miles away will become nearly impossible, “re-localization” is a second major prong of the Transition plan. This is probably the most widely recognized precept of the movement and extends beyond the “Buy Local” mantra to cover other fundamental necessities like health care and currency.

Personal preparedness is tantamount to Transition’s vision of the future, but without resilient communities, that future will be bleak.

Levy and Longenatti both believe that the re-establishment of personal relationships represents the only way humanity will make it through the peak oil crisis. Both of them say that an added benefit of getting to know one another, aside from simple survival, is the enriched personal life that comes with a sense of communal belonging.

“The neighborhood is a great size, in a way,” Longenatti said. “People talk about change on a grand scale, but a neighborhood is like an extended family…It’s a more human scale.”

And until the government catches up, neighborhoods represent the only place where transformation can take root and grow.

“There [do] need to be policies, yes — nationally and locally — to make change,” council member Lane said. “But we need to start at home.”