How will Scotland plan for life after oil?

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Ewan Aitken invites schools to enter the debate on energy and the environment, in the form of an essay competition

The recent discovery that past governments have kept secret the true monetary value of the oil to be found in Scotland's waters over the past 30 years has met with a huge outcry in some parts. The assumption is that, if Scots had known the true value, we would not simply have Holyrood, we would have our nationhood unfettered by Westminster sovereignty.

Oil has great significance, not just for us as a nation, but for all nations. Oil has not only lubricated the world economy, it has created the global village along with its virtual sister, the internet. It has given us power to build, create, heat, travel and much more. It has been a huge gift for humanity in many ways.

But there is a downside. It has also contributed to global warming more than just about any other substance known to humanity. The recent 21 storms, a record since records began, that have danced their destruction on the other side of the Atlantic are only one small example of what awaits us because we have used oil to do so much, to create so much wasted power and products.

As well as this serious downside, the point about Scotland's oil is that, even if we had known what it was worth 30 years ago and so built our economy around it, estimates suggest that it will run out in the next 20 years. We would still have needed to do what the world needs now to do for other, more pressing reasons - plan for life after oil. If we don't, our world will be suffocated by its own progress.

We need to inspire a generation of thinking and thinkers in all aspects of life that will drive us towards a world where we need much less oil and use much more of what nature offers that does not destroy nature in return.

Options that use wind and wave power and that promote public, communal travel over individualist modes such as cars. For those vehicles that remain, only allowing the use of cheap, eco-friendly fuels. Ideas which include ways of living that focus on simpler, less consumerist lifestyles and understand that happiness can't be bought, only discovered within.

Policies that reward sustainability over price, understanding that limiting environmental impact is a value added which overrides bottom lines and short-term budgets.

Closer to everyday living, things such as dry toilets, switching off lights and computers, metered water, solar-powered homes, only boiling the water you need, sharing baths - the simple and the complex are all needed for life without oil.

But that is only my opinion. Unusually for a columnist, or a politician for that matter, I want this debate not just to be about my opinion. I want to know yours too. We all need to know each other's opinions. This subject is the next big question that will shape our world and the society we live in.

It is political, philosophical, practical and much more. It cannot be simply ideological.

What I want to know is what our future thinkers, leaders, scientists, engineers, economists, geographers, policy-makers think. What answer would those who will be in charge when we are in our dotage give to this question? What do they want us to do now for when they are in charge. To encourage this debate I am launching today an essay competition, sponsored by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and The TES Scotland. It is open to any secondary pupil in Scotland. The title is: "How do we prepare for life after oil?" The essay should be no more than 1,000 words. The prize will be in two parts, pound;200 for the sponsoring school department to spend as it likes and Pounds 200 for the winner and publication of their entry in The TESS.

This could be an exercise for any subject area. The thinking can be any combination of scientific, philosophical, geographical, meteorological, political, practical thinking, or any other innovative way of approaching the theme.

Entries should be sent by January 31 to Life after Oil competition, TES Scotland, Scott House, 10 South St Andrew Street, Edinburgh EH2 2AZ. The judges will be myself, Neil Munro, editor of The TESS, and Gillian Macdonald, assistant editor. The winner will be announced around the end of February.

This is a subject that already affects us all. No one has the whole answer.

We need to piece together the future using the insights of all agendas, all wisdom, all interest groups. That is the challenge. I am sure there are young minds out there ready to face the question with innovation and inspiration. I ask you to help them try to do so.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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