T. Vijayendra: Post Carbon Society And Transition
The Industrial Society or the Carbon Society
The present social system that we are living is called Industrial Society. It began with the Industrial Revolution (1760 -1830) in the West and was followed by social revolution in various countries Holland, France, England and the USA, ending the age old feudal society and ushering in a capitalist society. Later, similar revolutions followed in many countries in the West and in Japan in the East. In the twentieth century, many socialist revolutions occurred, notably in Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam. All of them had two things common ushering in an industrial society (whether capitalist or socialist) and ending the feudal society.
However, capitalism spread in other countries too mainly through colonialism, but without effecting a similar social revolution. These countries are generally known as Third World countries, which includes India too. In the absence of a social revolution, it did not unleash the people’s energy as they continued to suffer from poverty and lack of education and good health care. On the other hand, many traditional low energy technologies and ways of living are still active in these societies.
The material basis of industrial society has been coal, oil and many other minerals. These are generally known as non-renewable resources because, unlike plant and animal resources, these are fixed in quantity under the earth and as we take them out, their stock keeps on dwindling. Among these, coal and oil are the most important because they represent concentrated sources of energy. Hence industrial societies can also be called carbon-based societies.
Peak Oil or Depletion of Non-Renewable Resources
When half of these non-renewable resources are taken out of the earth, a peak of production occurs and the production keeps on falling and the price keeps on increasing. Of all these resources, oil is the most important because it is central to the running of a modern industrial economy. With Peak Oil, at first the price of oil rises because the demand is greater than supply. This ushers a crisis in the capitalist society, leading to a recession. When recession occurs, demand falls and the prices also fall and the economy starts shrinking. Production statistics indicate that Peak Oil appears to have occurred in the year 2008, leading to a rise in oil prices.
In 2014, we saw a sharp fall in oil prices, followed by fall in the prices of other commodities, especially metals, which could be early signs of a global recession. It should be kept in mind that periodic crises are endemic to capitalist societies and not caused only by depletion of resources, but other factors including economic and political competition. However, unlike earlier recessions, this recession accompanied by Peak Oil and depletion of other non-renewable resources strikes at the very basis of capitalism. Many believe that this can lead to an end of the capitalist era.
The Post Carbon Society
Today, among people who have been concerned with Peak Oil and other non-renewable resource depletion, it is clear that the present system cannot go on. As Einstein said ‘We cant solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’
If the capitalist era ends what will replace the present system? To begin with we can start with what cannot go on.
1. No alternative energy source can replace the petrol and gas which run our trucks and cars. That’s because all alternatives give electricity (wind, solar, nuclear etc.). There is no viable design of a truck that can run on electricity. Today, transportation is so basic to global capitalism that its breakdown alone can cause the system to collapse.
2. No alternative energy can generate the amount of energy we are using now.
3. The implication of the above is that ‘globalisation’ is no longer possible.
4. The present level of consumption will result in unacceptable level of global warming and ecological degradation.
5. The solutions attempted in the last seven years have resulted in greater inequality which is increasingly opposed by the people of the world.
Based on the above, we can state a broad outline of what to expect. We can provisionally term it as a Post Carbon Society. This society will have the following main features:
2. Scaling down of the use of resources – particularly energy
3. Local self-sufficient economy
4. Ecological restoration of the present degraded ecology
5. A value system or ethical base which is more cooperative and less competitive than the present society
6. There will of course be many other features depending upon what political system will replace the present system and the specific country or ecological region.
While the goal may be relatively clear, the road to reach it is not clear. We will have to have a period of transition between the present system and the goal we have outlined. During the transition there will be certain amount of suffering. The amount of suffering will depend on the type of the society. There appear to be three kinds of societies in the world:
1. Socialist societies or societies with command economy
2. Capitalist societies which had an anti-feudal revolution
3. Capitalist societies which did not have an anti-feudal revolution
Socialist societies or societies with command economy
As a rule, the socialist societies followed a path of development similar to the capitalist societies. Cuba was no exception. But in 1991, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba faced problems similar to the problems we are facing due to Peak Oil. Cuba’s oil supply was cut. Cuba ushered a ‘special period’ and in five years they successfully solved the problem. However, these five years were tough and people did suffer a lot. In the video, Power of Community this story is told. While there is much to learn from Cuba, each society will change from where it is just now. Other socialist/command economies when faced with the crisis may follow similar path as that of Cuba.
Capitalist societies which had an anti-feudal revolution
In capitalist societies, a movement called ‘Transition Towns’ started in the year 2005. It is a grassroots network of communities that are working to build resilience in response to Peak Oil, climate change, food insecurity and economic instability. Transition Towns is a catchword for environmental and social movements founded upon the principles of Permaculture, which originally denoted ‘permanent agriculture’. Today, Permaculture has come to mean a whole life system encompassing various strategies for people to acquire all those resources, including access to land needed to evolve self-financing and self-managed systems to provide for all their material and non-material needs, without depleting, polluting and destroying the natural resources of the biosphere. The Transition Towns movement is an example of socio-economic localisation. There are over 400 communities recognised as official Transition Towns in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Italy and Chile.
Central to the Transition Town movement is the idea that a life without oil could in fact be far more enjoyable and fulfilling than the present: by shifting our mindset we can actually recognise the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth.
Transition Town movement is a high knowledge based movement and assumes a sense of local democracy. It seems to be spreading in the capitalist countries. However one is not sure how they will address the problem of control of resources by the big capitalists, because in the final analysis the resources are finite and we are already overdrawing from the carrying capacity of our planet.
The characteristic feature of a Third World society is, as we said in the beginning, one where an anti-feudal social revolution has not occurred. However, there is a lot of variation in different countries of the Third World. In many countries, these social changes have taken place in various degrees with a lowering of poverty, increase in education and health care. The most promising situation appears to be in Latin America, where many new kinds of socialist experiments are going on. Many countries in South East Asia too have made good progress, while in South Asia Sri Lanka and Bhutan too have made significant progress. The worst scenario countries probably are in Africa and in South Asia. Basically wherever there has been investment in health care and education, more grassroots democracy, the society is better prepared for change.
India presents a mixed scenario. Certainly, we are not as badly off as some of the countries in Africa or even Pakistan. But on the whole, it is not a very optimistic scenario either, what with two third of the people living in poverty and one third in a permanent famine situation. Our education and health care scene too is equally dismal.
While there are large scale protest movements going on against new capitalist projects, few of them have a programme of social change. They are mainly aimed at stopping projects that affect people and loot their resources. Then there are large ethnic and identity movements, including movements for smaller states. They too do not have a programme of change.
The Maoist movement is certainly a movement for change, and in coming years when the present system weakens, they may succeed to some extent. But it depends to what extent their programmes meet the needs of the day or matches the goal we have outlined above.
There are several grassroots programmes both community-based and those initiated by NGOs which have elements of transition and which to some extent have goals similar to what we have outlined above. The Pune NGO Kalpavriksh has documented many of them and there are several of these videos available on YouTube. Transition movement can be built only on the basis of what people have already achieved. But our comments on Transition movement, ‘that it does not address the problem of control of resources by the big capitalists’ applies here also. Below I will discuss some of these initiatives in the Deccan region.
Several organisations and communities have been carrying out experiments with varying degrees of success in the last 25 years or so responding to the crisis they have been facing. What we have to do is to see to what extent they are moving towards the goals we have stated above, learn from them and lend our support to similar projects according to our skills and aptitudes. Below, we will discuss a few of them and see what has been possible. In each case, I have given reference to a YouTube video, so my descriptions are very brief.
1. Deccan Development Society in Medak Distict in Telangana has developed a very inspiring model of Public Distribution System based on local production of millets. They have based their work on Women’s organisations known as ‘sanghas’.
2. M.V. Foundation in its Natural Resource Management Programme have done similar work. They work in Ranga Reddy district which is a ‘rurban’ district around Hyderabad. Here there was a problem of people migrating to the city and leaving the land fallow. They have also worked with women, got some government funds and organised organic farming and regenerated agriculture and restored the ecology to a significant extent.
3. Zero Waste Management in Vellore. This is a very good urban programme on solid waste. The waste is segregated at source, collected and at the centre, the biodegradable part is composted and the non-bio degradable part is further segregated, cleaned and sold to industry. It is a low tech, economically viable project. Similar initiatives but with different organisational approach are coming up in Pune and Bangalore.
1. Ralegaon Siddhi, 2. Hiware Bazar and 3. Menda Lekha
The first two are in the water scarce district of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. The approach combines water harvesting and regeneration of agriculture with peoples organisation and strengthening of Panchayati raj. They also combated ‘social evils’ and managed to have a sort of moral regeneration. In Menda Lekha, the focus is on using the new Forest Rights Act which gives power to tribals to own their forest.
In all cases, both NGOs and People’s Initiatives, there has been a significant improvement in the quality of life of the poor, including in economic life. They have used political organisation women sanghas, used newer pro-people laws like Panchayati Raj as well technical inputs from NGOs particularly in watershed management and re-introduction of local crops.
For every one of these success stories, there are several others where the success is limited for a variety of reasons. I am sure there are some 100 examples like that in the country. It is up to us to help them with whatever skills and aptitude we have.
So what does ‘Transition’ mean in India? The examples given above meet many ideas of Transition except that of scaling down of energy use. While urban India can and should reduce energy consumption, rural India does not consume much as it is (though, here also I think the phenomenal increase in the use of motor cycles can be reduced).
The important thing lacking in these programmes is a lack of awareness of the impending crisis. The other thing that needs change is the value system: “our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth”, as the Transition Town people put it. It is here that a group like Peak Oil India can play an important role. It can show:
1. The development model, that the mainstream is propagating and many believe in it, is no longer working anywhere in the world. Not even in the West, where it is not only failing, but hundreds of experimental initiatives are actually going on to prepare for an alternative.
2. There are several initiatives in India too that can lead us to a transition and that we should enrich it with the awareness of the world situation and a different value system and help it to spread to newer areas.
We can best do it by using videos and lectures, both about the world situation and about our own initiatives. I have listed some videos below which I think groups in Deccan especially can use.
3. MVF Esther Suhashini
Kalasi Kattuga Working Together
4. Solid Waste Management, CMC Vellore
Waste Management Garbage to Gold (an initiative by UNICEF)
5. Ralegaon Siddhi: Anna Hazare
How Anna Hazare greened Ralegan
6. Hiware Bazar: Popat Rao Pawar
Swaraj in Hiware Bazar
￼ swarajabhiyans channel
7. Menda Lekha
Mendha (Lekha) Documentary on Forest Right
￼ Arvind Chaturvedi
The author is a founder-member of Peak Oil India. This article was first published on Frontierweekly.com