Transition or Bust

A growing number of visionaries are preparing for Calgary’s post-peak-oil future

By Tadzio Richards

“I’d say the long-term prognosis for Calgary, unless there’s a paradigm shift, is not good,” says geologist David Hughes. We’re standing on Scotsman’s Hill, overlooking the Stampede grounds, the glass and steel office towers rising from downtown. Hughes has greying hair and the earnest yet relaxed demeanour of a man at peace with difficult conclusions. “I flew in to the city and a very educated taxi driver drove me home from the airport, telling me about putting in another runway down Barlow Trail, finishing the ring road around the city to make it easy to drive,” he says. “I scratched my head and thought ‘all of this is predicated on a cheap energy future.’”

Hughes recently retired after 32 years at the Geological Survey of Canada, where he mapped and analyzed the nation’s supplies of coal, gas and oil. Now he’s back in Calgary to sell his house so he can move to a property he owns on Cortes Island off the coast of BC.

He gestures with his arm, a wide sweep that takes in the downtown as well as suburbs that sprawl out toward the horizon, a city that at 746 km2 occupies nearly as much land as New York City but with only a tenth of its population. “It’s simply not sustainable,” Hughes says.

At the Geological Survey of Canada, Hughes researched and fine-tuned a talk he’s delivered to numerous gatherings of industry and government officials in Canada and the US. Based on his analysis of global energy reserves, Hughes thinks we’re close to peak oil, the point when global oil extraction reaches a production peak and oil prices grow ever higher as global reserves begin a slide into irreversible decline. He looks over Calgary, a city whose own economic development agency calls it “the capital of Canada’s energy industry… the decision-making hub and head office location of every energy company doing business in this country.”

Hughes shakes his head. “I’d go so far as to say the situation is hopeless,” he says. “I think that until we get awareness of this problem to a certain tipping point, politicians won’t do anything. [Change] would be political suicide—unless citizens understood why it’s being done.”

Like many North American cities, Calgary followed a suburban growth model. In 1950 the city dismantled an extensive streetcar system, and private vehicles became the dominant mode of transit just as oil and gas discoveries brought immigrants and fortune-seekers flooding into Alberta. Bulldozers gobbled fields and pastures. New homes sprouted at the city’s perimeter. It’s a pattern that continues to this day: when oil prices are high, construction booms. Calgary is now home to over a million people (1,071,515 according to the 2010 census); a growing, low-density city where suburban homes and shopping malls envelop hills, coulees and prairie once home to ranches and farms.

Today oil prices are again rising, and despite signs that global peak oil may be imminent, it’s clear that many Calgarians don’t expect their city to “transition” away from their current growth model anytime soon. In June 2010 the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers released a report projecting oil sands production in northern Alberta could triple in the next 15 years. In its best-case scenario, CAPP predicts Alberta will produce 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, or 81 per cent of Canada’s total crude production by 2025. The US Department of Energy expects that by 2035 oil and natural gas will provide over half of our southern neighbour’s energy needs, with Canada providing up to 40 per cent of total US imports. But as geologists such as Hughes point out, mining sticky bitumen from muskeg—in terms of the energy investment and the environmental cost that comes with extracting the oil—is “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

“The long-term prognosis for Calgary, unless there’s a paradigm shift, is not good.”—geologist David Hughes 

In 2010, one of England’s largest insurance companies, Lloyd’s of London, released a report that warned of increasing oil scarcity, predicting that by 2013 the price of oil would be over $200 US per barrel. In the US, a Joint Forces Command report said that by 2012, “surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” A leaked German military report said peak oil would occur sometime around 2010, and that shrinking global oil supplies could tilt the world’s economy toward mass-scale upheaval in 10–15 years, a market crisis that could create “room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government.”

In a peak oil future, all that’s clear is that Alberta will have a growing share of remaining global oil reserves. The province might capitalize as a result. And it might not. It’s unclear how much of an advantage our reserves will be, given that Albertans are Canada’s biggest per capita consumers of energy, will have to compete in the global market for oil that’s still mostly refined out of province, and are largely dependent on imported food (which will become more expensive as oil gets scarcer).

“We may end up being insulated because of our oil,” says Calgary engineer Chris Wade. “That may allow Alberta, and Calgary [in particular], to maintain an inefficient, wasteful quality of life longer than most other places. I think that would be a huge mistake.”

Wade was director of infrastructure services for the City of Calgary from 2000 to 2010. Prior to that, he was the City’s chief engineer. He took his retirement in April 2010 after 38 years of service. “The layout of the city is very energy intensive,” he says. “We’re forced into high consumption by our urban form. We build freeways, we build ring roads around the perimeter; hell, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars and traffic is still plugged up. It doesn’t work.”

We’re sitting at a table in Vendome Café, in the neighbourhood of Sunnyside. The café is packed, every seat taken, the clatter of dishes and cutlery ringing through the din of conversation. Wade’s only back in the city for a week, having spent much of the summer building an energy-efficient home on Hornby Island off the BC coast. “Calgary developed in the heyday of the automobile,” he says. “Our whole urban planning was based on cheap land, cheap oil, cheap gas and cheap automobiles. We’re too spread out.” He leans back in his chair. “Our current urban form is not well suited to efficiencies and quality of life.”

As director of infrastructure services, Wade played a key role in initiatives aimed at creating a more sustainable city. In 2003 Calgary became the first Canadian municipality to adopt Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards for new City buildings. By 2012, through projects such as the District Energy Centre, a $31.8-million facility providing renewable energy for heating downtown buildings, the City of Calgary will become the continent’s first large municipal government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels. Wade also participated in “imagineCALGARY,” a 100-year sustainability visioning process, and helped draft Plan It Calgary, a land use and transportation plan for a more transit-based, energy-efficient city.


I ask how successful the plan has been so far. “Administratively it was an uphill battle,” he admits. “We don’t have a holistic view. We’ve got billions of dollars of infrastructure to maintain and we’re subsidizing new development at the perimeters of the city.” Despite scattered initiatives, the city does not have an official policy for responding to peak oil, Calgary’s economy has yet to meaningfully diversify away from a dependency on oil and gas and the neglect is manifest in the city’s development patterns. “If you have a city that’s oriented around cars, and you can’t walk from point A to point B, and you have to drive, it doesn’t develop much of a sense of community,” he says. “Calgary needs to evolve. We need to increase density. Crisis [will] force us to act.”

Crisis, however, may not be the only impetus for change. New citizen-led initiatives such as the emergent Transition Town movement are already starting to prepare Calgary for a future with less oil.

“My mother left this handbook on my coffee table one day,” says Heather Hendrie, sitting among four other presenters by the altar in the sanctuary of Hillhurst United Church in northwest Calgary. She holds up a book with a green and white cover, The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience. “I resisted it for a long time,” she says, “then I finally opened it up and got to the page that said ‘Transition is about parties, not protest.’ I thought, ‘Parties? That’s something I can really get behind.’”

The audience laughs. It’s a Saturday, the second day of a June 2010 conference called “Cities and Towns in Transition: Moving toward sustainable post-carbon resilient communities.” Artists, geologists, community activists, a councillor from Portland, Oregon, academics and many more citizens crowd the curving wooden pews. Hendrie, who has curly red hair and flashes a bright toothy smile, is a community organizer with Green Calgary. “I see Transition as a powerful way of engaging people in a larger movement for change,” she says. “I’m a cheerleader for what this model can do here.”

The Transition Towns movement started in the UK in 2005, co-founded by Rob Hopkins, a teacher of permaculture (or ecological design) and author of the handbook that inspired Hendrie’s way of thinking. The Transition movement promotes grassroots action aimed at building local communities prepared for climate change and peak oil. Though rising oil prices and consequent spikes in food and transportation costs can be seen as a dire prospect, the Transition movement sees a peak oil “energy shock” as a catalyst for change—an opportunity to reduce energy use, increase self-reliance and build resilient communities. It’s an idea that’s catching on: in five years, over 300 communities in at least 13 countries (including Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer) have started initiatives based on the Transition Model.

Hopkins’s handbook offers a 12-step process that advocates local networking and collaboration and the growth of communities where people garden together, support local artisans and businesses, share cars and actively engage with their government. While the process can lead to the creation of an “energy descent plan” in which communities are weaned off oil dependency, there are no guarantees. As the UK-based Transition website notes, in a good-humoured caveat emptor, “We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale.”

Change can be met with elation rather than guilt or anger. “The future with less oil could be preferable to the present.”—Transition’s Rob Hopkins

The experiment came to Calgary in December 2009 when activists from Green Calgary, the Arusha Centre and Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association founded Transition Calgary. They created a Facebook group and helped organize the June conference at the University of Calgary and Hillhurst United Church.

Two days into the conference, I look around the sanctuary. I’ve had conversations about rain barrels, bike lanes, the 100-mile diet and the art of following municipal politics on Twitter. I’ve learned that Transition has its philosophical roots in permaculture, which is “a design science for creating sustainable human habitat,” according to Adrian Buckley, a former urban planner and the founder of Big Sky Permaculture. He explains the word is shorthand for permanent agriculture. “Permaculture draws on concepts in ecology such as the way forests arrange themselves. We can use that pattern to design communities. All the answers to environmental and social problems can be found in forests.” I don’t know what he means. I’ve made strange notes: resilience pattern, permablitz. It looks like a constellation, but one I don’t recognize—emergent nodes in a network I can’t comprehend.

As if aware of my confusion, Hendrie speaks up. “My personal approach is around positive visioning and inclusivity,” she says from the front of the church. “So, for me, Transition is what we in the room are already doing.” She smiles. “I simply see Transition as a vehicle, or a really nice painted bus, if you will, hemp- or vegetable-oil-powered, that’s heading toward a vibrant, resilient, relocalized future, with a great big sign on it reading ‘All welcome. Want to get there too? Hop on with us.’”

In the face of peak oil and climate change, the Transition Town movement offers an optimistic vision for the future. As Hopkins writes, the coming threats can be met with a spirit of “elation rather than guilt, anger and horror.” In part, optimism emerges from the strategy of forming interwoven social networks. A network pattern is a resilient pattern. The more resilient the system, the more it’s able to recover from disturbance. As in an old-growth forest, or the human immune system, or the Internet, the ability to withstand shock emerges from a diversity of interconnection. The Transition movement imagines that human communities can reorganize the same way, and that when we work together to build walkable communities nourished by local food and intimate connections with the natural world, we’ll live fuller and more enjoyable lives.

Currently, both Transition Edmonton and Transition Calgary have Facebook groups where members can engage in dialogue and share relevant information on transition-related speakers and events. Transition Calgary also made a YouTube video to highlight local resiliency initiatives such as Calgary Dollars, the CATCO car-sharing program, a growing number of community gardens, the Hillhurst co-operative housing venture and the Bow River Flow, a human-powered transportation festival that’s about to enter its third year.

“We had 6,000 people at Bow River Flow,” says Gerald Wheatley, a Transition organizer and a staff member at the Arusha Centre. “We had a Transition Town stage set up. We had hula hoops, DJs, chickens for people to check out, bike activities, sidewalk painting. It was a huge success.”

Wheatley seems earnest, but he points out that many Calgarians were already working toward Transition’s goals albeit in different groups and for different reasons. “The Transition Town movement brings together a lot of initiatives that already existed in Calgary,” he says. “Car sharing, complementary currency, local food production, urban beekeeping, bike advocacy—all of these things on their own aren’t a coherent movement, but Transition Towns connects them. I hope it represents the beginning of these things going mainstream.”

I’m standing in a back yard in Forest Lawn, a neighbourhood in east Calgary, at the home of Rob and Michelle Avis, the founders of Verge Permaculture. Rob Avis is clean-cut, with short dark hair and glasses. He consults and teaches courses on permaculture design. “I was an oil and gas engineer and I was disgruntled,” Avis says. “On the day I was about to cut down 300 acres of trees to put in a pipeline, I got an email about permaculture, titled Greening the Desert. I recognized right away that there was a better way of living. It was a five minute email, a butterfly effect.”


Permaculture is the inspiration for the Transition movement. A resiliency design science that originated as an Australian agricultural technique in the 1970s, it uses systems thinking and design principles to consciously design landscapes that mimic patterns and relationships found in nature. The front and back yards of the Avises’ home showcase a two-and-a-half-year-old permaculture garden, or “food forest.” It’s modelled on the growth pattern of a wild forest, in which the mix of plants changes over time as the forest matures. Designed to thrive using only rainwater, the mounded-earth garden teems with a mix of squash, strawberries, young apple trees, radishes, the nitrogen fixers clover and alfalfa, and plants such as dill weed that attract predatory wasps to eat pests that would otherwise need to be killed with pesticides. “The polyculture of plants creates resilience,” says Avis. He reaches down, rubs black soil between his fingers. “I only put 36 hours of work into it all year. Planting and harvesting. I don’t weed.”

“Permaculture is not just a way of gardening,” he adds. “It’s a way of taking care of all of our basic human needs.” So far five private city lawns have been transformed into permaculture gardens. But Avis sees potential for many more. “Calgary’s the perfect place for permaculture to explode,” says Avis. “We’ve got enormous amounts of urban sprawl, and one of the things we can say about sprawl is that it’s the farm of the future.” Rob Avis and Adrian Buckley facilitate the “permablitz network,” where volunteers turn a suburban lawn into a permaculture garden within a single day. In 2010, four new “food forests” were created. In 2011, up to 40 more are expected to join the growing network.

“Alberta’s primed for change,” says Avis. “We’re a province of pioneers, we’re people who go out and get it done. We’ve got the resources, the optimism. And I think there’s a general understanding that there are problems, so there’s a real hunger for solutions.” In Alberta’s cities, the Transition movement offers a hopeful, if nascent vision for the future, one in which positive solutions emerge from people working together to raise awareness and build resiliency. It will take time. But it’s possible. And as Rob Hopkins writes in the handbook: “The future with less oil could be preferable to the present.”

As David Hughes and I wrap up our conversation at the top of Scotsman’s Hill, I ask if his bleak vision of the city’s future is the reason he’s moving to the coast. “If you’re going to watch the collapse of the civilization as we know it, Cortes Island is a pretty good vantage point compared to suburban Calgary,” the retired geologist says. “And I like gardening. Working outside is a pretty good life compared to fighting traffic in Calgary.”

We stroll to the car. Hughes is being playful (he bought his island property in the 1970s, long before “peak oil” was common parlance). And even he leaves me with a glimmer of hope for his former hometown. “If we take the long-term view, there’s no reason we have to personally suffer to move to the next paradigm,” he says. “At this juncture we have time to plan a transition to something that makes more sense.”

Calgary’s Tadzio Richards has won two National Magazine Awards and worked on documentaries for CBC and Discovery Channel.


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