First things first


Thursday, 11 December 2008

Transition Westcombe - upcoming article for the Westcombe News

Below is an article that will hopefully go out when the Westcombe News' first edition of 2009 lands on doormats.

Blackheath and Westcombe today look remarkably similar to the way they did 99 years ago, thanks to the careful preservation of our buildings and parks. But it is only a surface similarity.

What we haven’t preserved is the innate self-reliance of our forebears, brought to life for me in a 1909 “pocket guide” by the then district traders’ association.

Bespoke shoes were made and repaired in Montpelier Vale. GA Rose delivered his “noted farmhouse bread” by horsedrawn wagon within three miles of Blackheath village.

Henry C Clarke ran stables at Westcombe Park rail station (wedding carriages a speciality). Aylett Brothers supplied ‘home-killed’ meat. Ebenezer Smith made a striking figure atop the horse-drawn wagon essential to his Tranquil Vale cabinet-making business.

A steam laundry in Lee was the place to send curtains and linen. A blacksmith on Old Dover Road was near neighbour to a cycle manufacturer. Saddlers, carpenters, watchmakers, printers, blind-makers, milliners and tailors galore were on the doorstep. There was even a dairy farm on Old Dover Road supplying milk and butter.

If our community’s needs are a cake, much of its base in 1909 was sourced inside a few miles’ radius. Its icing, the luxuries we can survive without, came from afar. Now the situation has flipped: our basic needs are freighted thousands of miles. What is made locally is largely the icing on our cake – trinkets and luxuries. We depend for survival on people and places we’ve never seen.

The reason for this revolutionary reversal is the black stuff: oil. Mind-bogglingly energy-dense, it is a unique boon in human history. One barrel gives as much power as 12 people toiling physically for you for an entire year. No wonder every aspect of our lives and economy has come to rely upon it.

But increasingly, men and women who should be listened to – particularly ex oil consultants, engineers and analysts, freed from corporate pressure to talk up the industry – are warning that the end of cheap, easily extracted oil is very close indeed.

This is not to say the last drop of oil will be sucked from the ground, but that between 2005 and 2015 – only pinpointable in hindsight – we will be unable to pump more out than we had the year before, commencing a difficult decline. In an economy predicated on constant growth, dependent on ever-increasing energy supply, a new age of scarce, expensive oil will have consequences for every aspect of our lives, from our commute to work to our Kenyan mange tout and the heating of our homes.

No alternative comes close to the incredible productivity of oil. Wind, tidal, wave: not enough power or not consistent. Nuclear: tens of thousands of stations would be required, and uranium would be depleted in a decade. Hydrogen saps more energy than you gain in output. Biofuels have the same problem, and gobble up precious farmland or forests. Even an optimal combination would be just a small life raft as we begin to cope without cheap, abundant oil.

There is a movement growing, often called ‘Transition Towns’, which has two messages: that it is better to prepare than be taken by surprise, and that a return to local food, local culture, and a reliance on local community can also mean, in many ways, a better quality of life. The movement aims to bring people together to plan how to make their communities less oil-dependent and more resilient.

It is not a harking back to a mythical golden age, but an acknowledgement that we need to relearn a great deal – and probably fast. There is a huge amount of work and reskilling to do, but where the transition idea is taking hold it is capturing people’s imagination and unleashing real creativity and enthusiasm.

If you would be interested in helping to start a ‘Transition Westcombe’ group, do get in touch via

If you want to learn more, visit and

Monday, 10 November 2008

Post-oil Westcombe - do we have what it takes to survive and thrive?

How well will Westcombe Park and its people manage in a world of more scarce, expensive oil? Is our neighbourhood simply too urban and too dependent upon the black goo, and might it - and much of the rest of London - have to be abandoned because it simply can't provide enough of its basic necessities for itself?

Everyone will have a different view on this, and it would be interesting to hear them. For now, this is just my musing. But starting with the area's physical resources, here is what we might have going for us:


Despite being in what is officially an inner London borough, we live in a famously green part of town. There are many big houses with many large gardens. In the early 90s, when the international blockade of Cuba really bit hard, that country went through a very difficult couple of years. But now? Now Havana provides 60% of its basic food needs from not just Cuba but from inside the city itself, thanks to its extensive network of allotments, kitchen gardens and community gardens. That's a remarkable turnaround, and while there's an argument to be had over whether our society can so quickly do what a socialist command economy could organise, it shows that physically there could be the capacity to feed ourselves.

Less lawn, more veg, fewer fuschias and more marrows, would not be a great sacrifice. For flat dwellers, there is an embryonic trend for garden-sharing with those unable to tend their gardens, and we could see more partnerships like that to ensure that everyone has access to food-growing land and that no potentially productive land is wasted.

Parks and heath

Blackheath, Greenwich Park and a scattering of smaller public gardens and parks are on our doorstep. Greenwich Park, while its status is now sacrosanct - see the high emotions over using it for the 2012 equestrian events - is there as a massive green space if needed.

The heath may not be good growing ground - I don't know, but I suspect that that is why it is heathland in the first place, rather than having been put to productive use - but it is worth researching what we could grow there. Could we grow willow or other fast-growing wood for fuel? And I can't be the only one who's been buffeted crossing the heath and thought there must be the wind resources there for a couple of turbines to provide us with a useful, if not huge, amount of electricity. We should find out.

We know that in the heath gravelpits, just south of the Vanbrugh Park estate, the ground is good enough for medium-sized trees, including healthy cherry trees, so perhaps we could use that ground for a community orchard, with apples and pears. Transition Town Totnes has declared its aim to become the 'nut tree capital of Britain'. Can we let them get away with that? I say a bit of healthy competition from us would do us all good.


There could be another golden age of rail dawning, as the individual motor car becomes too expensive to run. We're lucky to be well served by a series of railway stations - a very good thing if these remain operational, allowing us to get some of our food and other supplies from the countryside surrounding London. We also, of course, have good access not far away to the mighty Thames, whose importance as a transport and trade route might enter another golden age of its own as road and air freight succumb to prohibitively high fuel costs.

Skills and knowledge

This is possibly the area in which every 'developed' society has to do the most work in order to prepare for and thrive in an age of less oil. Skills such as food growing, basic carpentry and even herbalism were once handed down from generation to generation. For the first time in human history, last century that large-scale inheritance of knowledge has been decimated. Most of us have lost the basic skills such as pulling food from the ground. Most of us do highly specialised jobs and have not had the time to apply ourselves to learn other skills. But they are out there - there are talented gardeners, DIYers, builders, engineers and many other useful people in our communities, in our families. It is time for us to get together to start spreading around and teaching the skills we do have.

Other issues

Oil is so all-pervasive in our lives that it seems almost impossible to list all the ways in which scarce, expensive oil will affect us, and there are many important subjects that I don't have the knowledge even to speculate on. For example, will our water and sewage systems be affected, and if so how do we cope and set up alternative systems? How will we be able to treat the sick and care for the vulnerable? All this will become clearer if we put our heads together.


Do we have a sense of community strong and secure enough to take on this often daunting task of adapting to a life after easy oil? Or might we turn on each other in a desperate resource grab?

I've only lived here a few years, so I can't answer definitively. London as a whole is an attraction to many people because of the anonymity it gives us - we can each get on with our atomised lives with minimum interference from others. The downside is that many of us aren't rooted in our community and don't know our neighbours. At crunch time, that means we care less about each other's mutual welfare and don't have the local knowledge of what skills and resources are out there that could help us collectively.

In Westcombe Park I hope it is not as bleak as that. Many of the local houses are so big that they will not be economic to heat. Many seem like fortresses with their high walls and their residents who leave the area by car in the morning, returning in the evening. And many of those jobs that we commute to will no longer be viable.

But we have some real assets. We have the Westcombe News keeping us in touch with each other, we have fairly quiet streets to allow interaction between neighbours, we have amenity societies and 'Friends of' groups dedicated to protecting the community. We have local businesses where many of us know the shopkeepers' names, we have Mycenae House as a useful meeting place to bring people together.

I think the main thing to make us optimistic about our prospects is that we know we have a community - both geographical and human - that is worth caring about. That's a great head start.

What will be really interesting is if others join this conversation, bringing their own skills, resources, local knowledge, connection, friends, neighbours and imagination to this debate - and then begin to make our ideas a reality. And the sooner we start, the better chance we have of shaping the future that we actually want.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

'The transitions of Addison county'

If we are able to get a Transition Westcombe process off the ground, how might it look at the beginning?

Hopefully as positive and exciting as this account of a transition-style event which was held in Addison County, Vermont last month.

It shows how motivating the process can be, asking people to imagine how they would want their community to look in 20 years time in an age of oil scarcity and much lower energy use - and then to plan for those desirable changes. Rather than wondering what can be salvaged from a doom and gloom scenario, it acknowledges that life could be better in many ways.

As one of the facilitators put it:

I remember hearing David Suzuki speaking once about some of these necessary changes. At the end of the lecture, someone put up their hand and said, Do you really think people in a country like this are willing to lower our standard of living? And his answer was, "I'm talking about raising our standard of living."

If we could liver closer to where we work, in larger, multigenerational groups, if we could grow and cook more of our own food; if we could transport ourselves much more with muscle power, if we could provide more of our entertainment, we would be moving in the direction not only of land stewardship, but of pleasure, shared pleasure. Not just sitting in heavy traffic in a really expensive car.

It's a good read, do click through to the article. And if you're interested, here is the Addison County transition website.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Sit back and watch

Okay, I think we're building up a decent bank of 'welcome to peak oil' resources in different formats, including hopefully whichever format best suits your preferred way of taking in information.

I've recommended DVDs, and then last time I linked to a very good written summary of the peak oil issue. Here instead is something online that you can immediately sit back and listen to. This chap, Chris Martenson, has a remarkable skill for communicating sometimes complex subjects in a human, accessible way that doesn't insult your intelligence.

Click here for his audio slideshow.

If you like his style, then look around his site. That link took you to one chapter of what is in fact a remarkable series of presentations on many interlinked subjects, not just peak oil. He looks at problems of debt, population and money supply - so if you're hungry for more, there's plenty there.

Well, soon I hope to localise this blog and do a bit of very speculative musing about what are the strengths and weaknesses of our neighbourhood, Westcombe Park and the surrounding area, in dealing with the challenges of peak oil. I'd love to hear others' ideas on that, because each of us will have different perceptions, different views of what opportunities our local area offers and different levels of knowledge about our community. I certainly don't know enough, and I look forward to learning from other Westcombe Parkers.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

One of the best peak oil 'primers'

In the last post I directed readers to some DVD resources - and again I highly recommend them.

But I realise that that is not a great draw for those who are unconvinced and understandably might not want to go to the expense and effort of ordering them at this stage. And not too helpful for those who are eager to get more information right this minute.

I've been looking for a great, relatively brief introduction to the subject of peak oil, one that explains things clearly in laymen's terms and which answers most of those questions and 'buts' that bubble up in most of us on hearing about this subject.

So here's one of the best I've come across so far: Click here.

It contains a lot of clear graphs and diagrams which really help me to get a handle on the subject - including this one, which, when I first saw a version of it elsewhere, really brought home for me what a strange blip in human history we are living in - and yet one which, because it is many human lifetimes long, seems normal and eternal while you're inside it.

As always, if you would like to get involved in setting up a Transition Westcombe project - it doesn't yet exist! - get in touch at

Monday, 27 October 2008

Where to begin?

I hope to write specifically about Westcombe / Greenwich soon, and how we might apply 'transition' ideas here, but at this very early 'mulling it over' stage, it's probably more appropriate to offer some resources to those who are interested and want to know more about the issues. Once we get talking, our focus will no doubt turn to the specific opportunities and problems facing our own neighbourhood.

So today I simply want to recommend some films which do a very good job of introducing the peak oil concept - and one which looks at possible solutions.

First up, 'The End of Suburbia'. This was available in almost full length on You Tube until a few days ago - now it has disappeared, and only trailers are available on that site. However, it can be bought on Amazon and elsewhere, and it is thoroughly recommended.

Next up is 'A Crude Awakening', which covers similar ground but is probably more comprehensive in covering the technical details - but in an accessible way. I know this is available to rent on Love Film or Sofa Cinema if you are a member.

Third is one I haven't yet seen myself but have heard great things about: 'The Power of Community - How Cuba Survived Peak Oil'. This is probably a necessary pep-up after the gloom of the first two films, as it shows how Cuba survived its own dry run for global peak oil. The country had to deal very quickly with a sudden loss of oil supply in the early 90s, thanks to the international blockade. It achieved remarkable results, and now 60% of Havana's food needs are met from inside the city itself, from gardens and community food-growing schemes.

If you want to get involved in setting up a 'Transition Westcombe', email

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Interview with the originator of transition towns

The UK's first Transition Town is Totnes, in Devon, which has become a model for the hundreds of others now taking shape (although each is, by its nature, bound to be different than any other, shaped by the desires, the skills and the local culture of the people who live there and by the local natural resources and infrastructure).

In this film Rob Hopkins, the gently spoken man behind the transition idea, explains how it all came about and introduces Transition Town Totnes.

Are you interested in helping to set up a Transition Westcombe? Email

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Welcome to Transition Westcombe

The Transition Town idea was initiated in Totnes, Devon, but is springing up now in hundreds of towns, villages and cities across Britain and overseas.

Its aim is for communities to come together to plan, prepare, and reshape themselves for two problems, one well known and the other rapidly gaining people’s interest.

The first is climate change, which demands that we drastically cut back the use of fossil fuels in our lives and our economies.

The second is often referred to as ‘peak oil’, which, to cut out the jargon, says that we are at the point where we have pumped about half of the world’s oil out of the ground.

When this happens in individual oilfields or oil-producing nations – as in the United States in the 1970s – it becomes technically more difficult and more expensive to reach the oil that is left. Production can no longer go on increasing, and less oil is extracted in each year afterwards.

Increasing numbers of oil analysts, consultants and engineers say that this point has been reached – or will be within just a handful of years – on a global scale. In that case, we face a future of ever-dwindling supply of oil in a world whose existence has been based on oil-fuelled growth, year on year.

When we look around at our lives and identify the things that we depend on for oil – our commute, our food, our heating – the consequences are obviously immense. And no alternative energy matches the incredible productivity of energy-dense oil. No combination of them has been shown to be able to provide as much energy as we use now. That means a much lower-energy future.

The two problems – climate change and the end of easy, cheap oil – dovetail in that they demand a rapid ‘decarbonising’ of the economy – and a relocalising, too, with our basic necessities having to come not air-freighted but from our own communities.

These two issues can often seem so overwhelming that their scale can make us feel depressed, demotivated and disempowered, and can drive us into denial, quite understandably. Environmental campaigning has, for decades, failed to engage people in a way that does not bring on that paralysing feeling of doom and gloom.

The transition movement’s ethos is that it is better to prepare for these non-negotiable changes in our lives, rather than to be taken by surprise.

Ride the wave rather than be engulfed by it.

Without harking back to some mythical golden age, it aims to show that life after easy oil – while requiring that we reskill and radically reshape our lives – has the potential to be much more rewarding than our lives now, in many ways.

It aims to make environmental efforts seem ‘less like a protest and more like a party’. It brings together people in their communities to share ideas and knowledge, trusting people to make their own communities more resilient and self-reliant. It encourages people to imagine positive futures without easy oil – because if you can do that, then working practically to make it a reality is a more attractive and even an exhilarating task.

Transition Towns are involving people from all walks of life, and where transition movements are taking off they are seeing previously unsuspected creativity and genuine enthusiasm unleashed.

If you would like to get involved in setting up a Transition Westcombe (a name that can change if we decide on a better idea of where our community is) or if you would just like to know a bit more, then get in touch by emailing