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