What will we do post growth, post cheap energy, post resource abundance and post climate change? The Post Carbon Institute (PCI) convened its first meeting of Fellows this weekend in Berkeley to address these concerns. Many there and elsewhere have argued that these transformational changes are already becoming evident.
PCI Fellow Bill Rees, the co-originator of the Ecological Footprint, captured the mood of the group best when he said, “We have to adapt to the change rather then repress the change.”
The Institute’s Fellows were gathered by PCI from a wide variety of fields: energy, transportation, population, food/ agriculture, building and development, economics, social justice, education, urban issues, health, climate, biodiversity and water. The event marked a maiden face-to-face (and virtual) voyage to examine the brave new waters of the 21st century. About 25 of PCI’s 29 Fellows participated.
Asher Miller, PCI’s executive director set the table for the three-day event. “Facing such daunting issues, we can either: 1) pack up and go home; 2) be a witness to history; 3) save what we can, which I call the Noah’s Ark approach; or 4) work as hard as we can, and go as big as can go. Collectively we can come up with one thing, or do lots of things–we don’t know which one will bring the best results.”
The group of Fellows up until this point has been focused on producing a book (cover pictured above) of essays and case studies that will be released by University of California Press with Watershed Media in July, The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises.
The Berkeley retreat focused on developing connective tissue among Fellows through facilitated exercises, planning and presentations. Some highlights–or lowlights–as many of the participants (myself included) could be accused of being bearers of bad news:
Richard Heinberg, the Senior Fellow whose extensive work (The Party’s Over, Blackout, Peak Everything) has provided a nexus for PCI while helping define “Peak Oil” thinking, has spoken to world leaders from Congress to European Parliament.
“I have nothing to show for all my presentation to political leaders,” Heinberg said. “Anyone who questions the concept of growth is shunted off.”
Erika Allen, Chicago manager for Growing Power, a national land trust that provides access to healthy local food in disadvantaged communities, explored a scenario where food supplies are cut off because of an energy supply disruption or other crisis. “We’ve been preparing around the principles of providing seven days of food for Chicago–what systems are in place to respond? We need to be able to grow food on concrete and on the tops of buildings.”
The issue of sustainable agriculture, both urban and rural, was an overall emergent issue of the weekend, with talismanic Wes Jackson, founder and director of The Land Institute, providing an urgent view into a survival system that has been taken for granted.
“In the long run, soil is more important than oil,” Jackson said, citing research that soil carbon concentrations in US have been halved since non-indigenous settlement, from 6 percent to 3 percent, because of poor conservation and industrial practices.
Grave consequences for climate-change influenced mass migrations were forecast by Brian Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins professor in public health. “Moving populations (because of climate change) will be very bad for society, the environment and health in every aspect.”
Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course presentation examined unsustainable levels of US debt, uncovering shocking new snapshots on the historic level of government and personal debt after a decade with zero job growth.
Martenson, a former corporate executive, later confessed that there are emerging opportunities in certain investments, job sectors and geographic areas. He was also optimistic about the can-do nature of Americans: “Give people something to do, and they’ll put it together with joy and creativity, such as the Burning Man village.”
Similarly, Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town movement, reported from the UK via Skype video (he gave up flying three years ago) that the effort to form locally organized community resilience around food, energy, construction and culture is rapidly multiplying in global locations. “It’s spreading very, very fast, with new Transition Towns in Chile, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Australia.”
“With resilience, we see an opportunity to take a shock and then make a step by the community in the right direction so it can advance itself,” Hopkins said of the 300-plus transition initiatives. “Our role isn’t to manage a lot of projects, but to support projects as they emerge.”
Other Fellows presenting included author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and 350.org), Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Joe Brewer, founder and director of communications strategy consultancy Cognitive Policy Works also led sessions on communications and messaging.
The results of the event included a forthcoming mission statement that was co-authored by nine different groups. My group on cities also consisted of Johns Hopkins professor Schwartz, City University of New York professor (and former New York City green building standard originator) Hillary Brown, and transportation expert Anthony Perl, author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil.
We contributed concepts around “bioregionally grounded human communities” based on non-automotive transportation options, human-scaled neighborhoods and regionally produced sustainable food and energy.
Groups also prepared proposals for collaboration and post-event project action, including a Resiliency Preparedness Kit; a communications strategy and roll-out plan; a regional sustainable agriculture investment model for production, processing and urban distribution; and a PCI-informed community development prototype approach for both domestic (Oberlin, Ohio) and international (most likely India or China) communities.
“We need to foster experimentation, re-localization,and differentiation in our redundancies and behavior,” said PCI executive director Miller. “Simple living can make us happier and can tap into the long history of humans as a species.”
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
Originally published January 28, 2010 on the Green Flow blog at Common Currents.