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“Happy Relocalisers”, Doomers, Wheelwrights and the concept of Resilience

cw1Mulling over Zachary Nowak’s recent piece, Homeowner’s Insurance and Fire Extinguishers, it struck me that a key concept in the whole debate about whether one might prioritise individual survival over communal survival, or vice versa, may well be one found in the study of ecology, that of resilience. It is a concept I have been exploring a great deal over a lot over the last few weeks, and I have found it a useful way of looking at this whole question.

whThe concept of resilience was, for me, a ‘eureka moment’ while I was sitting in on David Fleming’s recent teaching on the Life After Oil course at Schumacher College. For ecologists, resilience refers to the ability of an ecosystem to withstand shock. Ecosystems with increased complexity are, it has been observed, more able to withstand shocks. Think rainforest and wheatfield. In a stunning book I am reading at the moment called The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Sturt (published in 1923), the reader is given a unique insight into a resilient rural economy at work. It is a study of cart makers in a rural English village and what it took to make a traditional horse-drawn cart.

It is a rivetting and compelling look at the interconnection between the local woodlands, those who managed them, those who felled and transported the trees, the highly skilled wheelwrights, and the whole complex infrastructure that supported this local scale industry. These craftsmen, apprenticed into the trade at a young age, were skilled at a level hard to imagine today, making wheels from oak, ash and beech that have lasted over 100 years.

wWhereas our pre-industrial society was built on the foundations of such complexity and webs of interconnections, cheap oil has allowed us to pitch this whole concept into the skip and replace it with linear models and monocultures. Now we are coming to realise that quite possibly our very survival depends on our ability to rebuild this complexity and interconnectedness. Peak oil is a very powerful tool for putting a mirror up to society in order to see that its resilience is almost all gone, far more effectively than climate change.

So how does this concept of resilience relate to the “prepare-for-your-own-survival versus the-prepare-for-your-community’s-survival” debate? Firstly it is important to point out that this is really a discussion of two notional extremes, that we all position ourselves at different points along this spectrum at different moments and on different issues. For example, although I am committed to developing community-scale responses to energy descent, which I see as being the most effective response to peak oil, I also am planning to make my house capable of heating, powering and hot-watering itself without the grid if necessary.

Growing food, planting productive trees and so on, are all essential parts of this, but they are also all part of developing my own family’s resilience. Having some food put by, having candles and lamps in reserve, is all common sense and is a manifestation of resilience that our grandparents were all familiar with. I remember powercuts at my grandmother’s house, out came the candles and all the necessary things. As in any ecosystem, the resilience of the parts adds to the resilience of the larger system.

Clearly, individual and family resilence is key for a number of reasons. It is common sense to be prepared for any eventuality, to create some slack in the system. It is also important in terms of fostering a wider sense of self-reliance and of individual empowerment, which I alluded to in my recent piece about skills, the loss of the sense that one is able to turn one’s hand to anything, I think inevitably affects how one views impending shocks, be it peak oil or leaky roof. It is also important on a cultural level, and also on an economic level, as it fosters the skills that build a local economy and the reciprocity that is essential for a successful gift economy.

feWhere I think focusing purely on individual and family resilience is less desirable as a strategy is when it thinks that it will be the only effective solution. Zach’s analogy of preferring to have insurance rather than a fire extinguisher doesn’t really work for me. One could just as easily argue that engaging one’s community successfully in an energy descent planning process is a far more effective form of insurance than preparing oneself for individual survival. I would see it thus, if the analogy holds; that our most effective form of insurance will be the network of neighbours and relationships that we have built up around us, the shared infrastructure, economic, food producing and energy generating, that we have collaboratively created, and the degree of self-reliance we have engendered in people, in short, the degree of resilence in our wider community.

As I have written before, I appreciate that there is a cultural context within which I am writing this. I live in a Devon market town which largely survived the Blitz and which still has its pre-cheap oil urban layout (in the centre anyway). I do not live in downtown LA or in South Shields. I have no idea whether the concept of Transition Towns and Energy Descent Planning will work everywhere, although the number of other towns popping up in the UK thinking they can do it, and the work of towns such as Oakland indicate that there is an energy building to work at those scales too.

cw2Also in the UK, individual survivalism isn’t really a response. Zach writes that he is interested in wild edibles because “there may come a day when they provide fifty percent of my calories”. That may be the case for a few people, but although wild foods have a role in making diets more diverse and in filling the hungry gap, the idea that where I am living they would provide 50% of the calories simply isn’t realistic. Back gardens are mostly small or even non-existent, we will need a rejuvinated agriculture focusing on local markets, urban agriculture and productive tree crops, as well as back gardens and wild foods.

Those things are only possible with a concerted, co-ordinated community effort involving planners, citizens, farmers and so on. Likewise with energy. It is not feasible for every house to be autonomous. Creating minigrids requires people and institutions working together, raising finance, installing infrastructure and so on, although clearly within that there is a lot of scope for building individual resilience in terms of conservation and demand reduction.

Like Zach I don’t believe in a ‘hard crash’, and share Kunstler’s theory of a long-term downward trend, although as regular readers will know, I prefer to use the term ‘energy descent’ to ‘the Long Emergency’, and believe that if properly planned for and organised it could be a positive transition. A few weeks ago I spoke on a panel that followed a screening of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. The panel were asked what we could do to prepare for the Gulf Stream being diverted away from the shores of the UK, plunging the UK into a Siberian climate. I said I had no idea, that the question was akin to asking what preparations the world could take in terms of being hit by a huge asteroid, ie. not much. I feel the same way about cataclysmic die-off scenarios.

I have been accused of being overoptimistic, of being what Adam Fenderson at Energy Bulletin endearingly referred to as a ‘happy relocaliser’ (I can live with that), of offering false hope and of somehow kidding myself that things aren’t so bad. The Transition Towns process is not about offering false hope, or even of coming up with a range of answers, it is about raising peoples’ awareness about the issue and of peak oil’s potential impacts, and then acting as a catalyst and support for their exploration of what to do about it. The ‘happy’ part feels important to me somehow, that it is seen as positive, fun and engaging, what addictions counsellors call ’self efficacy’.

wheelsIt is a matter of approach. We urgently need to begin building resilience at all levels, from the individual to the national, on the scale of a wartime mobilisation, starting now. In order to do this, what is required is an energised, engaged and enthusiastic population, ready to take on this challenge with creativity. In my experience, to tell people that everything is about to collapse merely re-enforces powerlessness and fear, it is ineffective as a tool for prompting action.

We have to be very careful about how we present the idea of change, and for me the concept of resilience is key. It is easily understood, and peak oil is a powerful tool for mirroring how little of it we, in the West, have left. Rather than discussions about preparations for life beyond oil getting bogged down in a doomer/powerdown discussion, perhaps the concept of resilience offers a useful way of looking at this, that we need to build it through all scales of society.

Indeed I would argue that Zach’s approach of starting at the individual and family level is essential in that it builds resilience also in all the scales above it. This kind of self reliance, if properly presented, has many knock on benefits, a multiplier effect for the rest of society. My thinking though is that it is easier to engage people in thinking about building resilience, in their own lives or in the wider community, when they feel part of an exhilarating process. Those of us able to read depressing peak oil books and turn them into positive action are a small minority.

Our urgent priority is reintroducing the kind of complex resilience that pre-oil societies depended on yet never really thought about, as is so poetically set out in George Sturt’s book into modern societies. We can’t go backwards, but we can begin building on more stable foundations. This work depends on each of us focusing our attentions where they can be most effective, perhaps rather than polarising this debate into doomers vs. powerdownifiers (or whatever), we should see our work collectively as being about the building of resilience on whatever scale we feel most able to address. Our efforts should be seen as mutually reinforcing rather than somehow conflicting.

Editorial Notes: A lot of the peak oil discourse takes The Collapso of Complex Societies author Joseph Tainter's view as a backdrop. Tainter argues persuasively that too much complexity can lead to societal collapse. Or more specifically, that ongoing investments in increased complexity reach a point of diminishing returns, a pattern which has ultimately drained the resources and caused the collapse of several past civilisations. Yet, Rob suggests that we need to actually rebuild the type of "complexity and interconnectedness" of the wheelwrights' and foresters' economy. Of course Rob is talking about local complexity. Currently, the suburbs represent the opposite of local complexity. Children are raised, cookies are baked, a few lawn mowers repaired, but by historical standards our homes and communities are fantastically unproductive. There are few internal economic relations, almost no economic specialisation. Instead the suburbs are composed of isolated homes, used primarily for leisure, shelter and consumption of products made elsewhere. (See how this is so counter to Tainter's definition of complexity.) They can afford to be so simple because they feed of a very complex global economy. While overwhelming complexity, in Tainter's framing, can be the cause of civilisation collapse, that's not to say there's a rule that complexity is bad, simplicity is good. Up to a point, increases in complexity are beneficial, at least in the sense that they offer good material returns on investment. The unprecedented bounty of cheap energy has allowed our global economy to rise to never before seen levels of complexity, and experience unprecented material gains. Probably we're already experiencing diminishing returns on investment in complexity, however with a growing energy supply these can be offset. However, as we face energy peak that will no longer be possible. And socio-political collapse is a real possibility. See for a more concrete look a this see Alice Friedeman's Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge. To intentionally decrease society's complexity is to give it more resilience against these decreasing energy flows, and growing environmental pressures. Whereas for greater local resilience, we need to to increase the complexity, interconnectedness and productivity of household and local economies. And these are obviously complimentary processes – it's through the latter process, increasing local complexity, that we can achieve the former, decreases in the complexity of the global economic system – or to consider it from the other causal direction, collapse or failures of the global economy will inevitably lead to increases in local complexity (relocalisation). I didn't mean to label Rob(!), in so much as the process he is pioneering. Being "positive, fun and engaging" is one of the main ways we increase and recognise opportunities – I agree. I think this was an excellent post, perhaps the last word for now in the doomer / individualist survivalist vs. slow crash / community organising discussion – which has spawned a series very interesting articles, for instance:-AF

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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