At last the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have been plugged, at least temporarily. The amount of criticism levelled at BP has been wholly justified considering their arrogant assumption that nothing would go wrong, and their failure to have any adequate plans in place in case anything did actually go wrong. Their secrecy in preventing people from knowing exactly what was happening at the leak, their dishonest estimates as to how much oil was gushing out, their use of dispersants which seem to have done more harm than good, their deployment of useless booms on the surface, and their co-opting of police forces to keep people and reporters out of ‘sensitive’ areas all smack of a company trying to hide the truth rather than cope with a catastrophe. However, it’s too easy to simply blame BP for what’s happened instead of looking at the wider picture. BP were surely doing what all corporations have been encouraged to do for the last 30 years of deregulation inspired by Milton Friedman and his admirers Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Wherever possible industry has been allowed to regulate itself, which has meant cost-cutting on safety and environmental concerns and dumping of workers so as to squeeze out a few more dollars in profit. In the case of Deepwater Horizon the government overseers, in the shape of the Mineral Management Services, have been shown to be a joke. BP were simply allowed to call all the shots. So this disaster was just one waiting to happen, and considering there are thousands of oil wells out there in the Gulf, one which ought not to have been a big surprise. Corporations want to make bigger and bigger profits; governments want more and more economic growth: so they collude with one another, with governments all too willing to turn a blind eye to unacceptable corporate behaviour.
What about the rest of us? Why have we allowed this to happen? We seem to fit the stereotype of ‘primitive’ people encountered by ‘civilised’ imperial invaders – give us a few fancy trinkets and we’ll let you plunder our country for its natural resources. The trinkets nowadays are iphones and computers and flat-screen TVs and our indispensable cars and cheap flights to unspoilt beaches just waiting to be trashed. Just keep us all excited about what the latest trinkets will do for us and we’ll ask no questions about where it all comes from. Unfortunately, the fuel that makes all these things possible is cheap oil, and we’ve been having a rare old time, especially during the last 50 years, using it up without a thought for the future. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that our thoughts for the future conjure up a vision of endlessly improving standards of living with ever more wondrous trinkets to play with. Well, maybe the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe will make people begin to understand that the days of cheap oil are over and that the future is going to be very different from what we’ve been expecting. As many people have pointed out, we would not be drilling in such difficult and expensive locations as the deep seas were it not for the fact that they are virtually the only places left where we can still hope to find oil. And as BP have demonstrated, it’s no easy matter getting the oil out in a usable form. So, with the end of cheap oil, and knowing (don’t we?) that our use of fossil fuels is driving us rapidly and relentlessly towards catastrophic climate change, what can we do? Can we rely on government and big business to get us out of the hole we’re in? I think the Deepwater Horizon crisis has been the latest example of what we can expect from them – they’ll dig the hole even deeper. And no doubt we’ll still keep hearing that someone will come up with a technological fix to solve our problems. That particular mantra is going to sound especially hollow after the fiasco of Deepwater Horizon. Where were all the technological whizz-kids for that little problem? So it seems we have to look to ourselves to change the whole system from bottom to top, and that’s where the Transition Movement comes into the picture.
Started by Rob Hopkins a few years ago in the UK, Transition focuses on the twin crises of Peak Oil (PO) and Global Warming (GW) and tries to tap into the genius and expertise of ordinary people living in the local vicinity to come up with ways of reducing the locality’s dependence on fossil fuels and thereby reducing it’s CO2e emissions. Working at grassroots, community level it welcomes all-comers of whatever persuasion, believing that this is something that everyone can contribute to, and that it’s far too important and far too urgent to sit back and wait for the powers that be to come along and save us. Of course, it depends upon an acceptance of the reality and potentially devastating consequences of both GW and PO. In fact, it seems to have tapped into a real need amongst ordinary people as it’s taken off like wildfire in the UK and the USA, and to a lesser extent in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, France and a host of other countries. People clearly see in this movement an opportunity to do something practical and beneficial to combat GW and PO, and clearly feel genuinely ’empowered’ by the whole process. It’s a powerful way to overcome that dreadful plaint of ‘what can I do about it?’ It seems to me to be initially a statement of intent to try to disengage ourselves from the mad dash for profits and growth which entails so much trashing of the planet. It’s a way of saying, ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to swim in the opposite direction.’ However, it’s not presented as the complete solution to these problems, rather as a positive step along the right path, and it clearly sees the need still to get governments to make drastic changes to their policies: it just doesn’t see much point in holding your breath until this happens. I wish I could say that Transition has taken off like wildfire here in Hong Kong, but it hasn’t. I could easily dismiss it as a failure on my part to get the message out – and that’s true in many respects – but there also seems to be an unwillingness to take either GW or PO seriously, with the majority of people in the city seeming to be driven by the sole desire to make money. Being a consumerist city par excellence, perhaps HK is the worst place to try to start a transition group. However, I see nothing else around that is as radical or as inclusive as the Transition Movement. So, I hope this blog will help me to get ideas from others about the way to go forward.