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Open letter: How to get to 350ppm

Transition US blogger, Joanne Poyourow of Transition Los Angeles recently wrote a reply on behalf of Transition US to Lorna Salzman's open letter to Bill McKibben and 350.org, which was published in the May 3rd issue of the Nation Magazine (read the letter here). In this response, Joanne outlines five strategies for how we can achieve a global CO2 reduction down to 350ppm.

To Lorna Salzman
in reply to your open letter to Bill McKibben and 350.org

In your widely publicized May 2010 letter to Bill McKibben, you ask for specific strategies to achieve a global CO2 reduction down to 350ppm. Here’s how, from the United States arm of the international Transition movement.


1.   Understand the full magnitude of the problem. 

Climate change isn’t the only massive, sweeping problem humanity faces right now; it’s simply the very visual one that’s currently getting the most environmental press. The companion issue, which we must tackle simultaneously, is humanity’s ecological footprint – the amount of resources we consume overall. 

One of the most worrisome of these footprint issues is peak oil, the understanding that our planet contains a finite amount of oil and that we are currently burning into the second half of that planetary supply. Everything in our modern society, from transportation to food to water to health care, is completely dependent upon oil. We must wean ourselves off the stuff, starting immediately. And because wind and solar and other renewables are nowhere near picking up the slack, green tech isn’t going to “save” us. The only answer is powerdown – decreasing our energy consumption overall.

But oil isn’t the only resource for which we are hitting “peak.” We’re also up against peak natural gas, peak uranium, peak copper, peak fisheries, and much more. Richard Heinberg calls it peak everything. In short, peak everything demands fundamental redesign of our society, and one of the first steps means abandoning the fiction of expecting a “growth economy” on a finite planet. Globalization is passé. North American opulent consumption is history. “Economic recovery” won’t happen – nor should it, because it is inadvisable to get back on the road toward doom.

Truly viable “solutions” must work for the full array of problems. “Solutions” for peak oil (i.e. coal) are unthinkable for global warming.   “Solutions” which have been proposed for global warming (i.e. petroleum-intense ethanol, petroleum-dependent nuclear) won’t work with limited oil. Massive-scale solar is unlikely amid economic contraction. When we consider peak oil + climate change + economic contraction combined, we end up with a well-defined set of workable powerdown solutions. As George Monbiot wrote, “There simply is no substitute for cutting back.”


2.    Think “radical system change.”

Many organizations – including environmental organizations – have published lists of greener choices, lightweight “10 things you can do” lists. We must be clear that those are only the beginning baby steps. The American public probably knows this; people sense that cloth bags and CFL bulbs simply aren’t enough to “save the planet.” It’s going to take a whole lot more.

While we’re talking about it, it isn’t “save the planet.” The appropriate phrase should be “save the human race” or “save all life forms as we currently know them,” if James Hansen is at all close to accurate. The rocks will survive. (Come to think of it, the cockroaches probably will too.) Really, this is about our basic survival.

Whenever people begin to talk about radical change and “cutting back,” someone cries “What about the economy?” It is very important to remember: the economy exists within the environment, not the other way back. The economy is simply how humans do transactions with each other. The environment is all that surrounds us, including city streets, fresh air, land and water resources, and our fellow human beings. It is functioning ecosystems – humanity’s life support system. The people who insist on “economy first” are denying humanity’s interdependence with the ecosystems of the earth. They are undermining our life support system and our long-term survival in favor of current-day greed.

That said, survival need not be bleak. Rob Hopkins asserts that the creativity that got us into this mess can get us out of it. Some environmental thinkers – McKibben among them – have called for a rallying of ingenuity, entrepreneurialism, effort, and dedication that eclipses the innovations we saw in the space program. Transition from our current high-consumption, energy-intense ways into this new future can involve plenty of the joys of life, including calling upon art and music and dance and comedy to further the vision.

David Holmgren points out that we have become a society of consumers, and must instead become producers once again. In this new world, that will mean producers of fresh, organic vegetables, grown right where the population centers are. It will mean rainwater harvesting and passive solar retrofitting and a panorama of functions surrounding “reuse.” It will mean creating local economies and community-centric finances. These things aren’t new news: when Time Magazine cites some of them as ideas for the next 10 years, you know that people already sense the inevitable.


3.   Plan for resilience.

Make a great plan – an Energy Descent Action Plan: a clear, positive vision of what a lower-carbon, lower-consumption, post-petroleum future could hold, together with a roadmap of how to get from here to there. Communities around the world are beginning to create Energy Descent Action Plans (EDAPs). And they are marvelous to behold. 

Transition initiatives focus on increasing local resilience – the ability of the local community to flex and adapt to change. If our food supply line is thousands of miles from farm to table, fully fossil-fuel dependent the entire distance, we aren’t very resilient when a gas shortage comes around or when petroleum prices skyrocket. If instead our food supply is – at least partially – grown locally in backyard or community garden plot, we stand a much better chance of maintaining food on the family table through such crises. And we stand a much better chance of avoiding food riots, civil unrest, and the worst of what peak oil might have in store, if our entire community is thus prepared.

A lower-carbon, lower-consumption, post-petroleum future in most cases will mean close-knit communities. It will mean working together with neighbors in ways that those of us alive today have never experienced.

Sure, it will mean less travel, but it will also mean less time spent stressing in freeway traffic or sitting in a stifling aluminum tube far above the planet’s surface twisting your body-clock completely out of whack. Instead of over-processed, preserved, chemical-laden, genetically modified franken-foods, it will mean fresh local vegetables where you either know the farmer or grew the plants yourself. 

Did you know that a truly fresh egg tastes and cooks up totally unlike the mass-produced globules we tell each other are “food”? Fresh, home cooking will once again become a reality rather than a slogan on a glossy advertisement banner.  Our daily work will be much more tactile and tangible and, because its ties to our daily needs will be much more obvious, it will likely feel more meaningful and fulfilling.

An EDAP is a grassroots gameplan. Peak oil means we’ll have far less transportation in the future, thus an EDAP focuses primarily on the local: radical (i.e. root-level) comprehensive community-centric restructuring in nearly every sector of human experience. Food, water, business, garbage and sewage, transportation, energy, culture and education, local government policy, all will require systemic overhaul to meet this new future.

If one were to imagine an EDAP at a state or national level it would probably include legislative issues such as you have raised, Ms. Salzman. It would probably include policies such as those suggested by Climate Justice Now. But it would also include termination of subsidies that take us in the completely wrong direction (oil and gas subsidies, subsidies of industrialized agriculture, biofuel subsidies), and shifting of those monies toward organic urban agriculture, solar and wind energy, ultra-efficient mass transit, and widespread powerdown education. It would include an end to the corporate legal status of personhood, which currently protects Monsanto executives from prosecution for the crimes against humanity they have sewn by manipulating our global food supply. It would include campaign finance reform so that we can replace the politicians who are deeply invested in the old ways of doing things. And it would include Fair, Ambitious, and Binding caps on global warming emissions – far, far stronger than those written into the Kyoto Protocol. But this is all supposition because we don’t have an EDAP on the state or national scale – and we probably won’t anytime soon. Transition movement EDAPs are locally-focused and community-created because we are convinced that if we wait for government to do these things, it will be too little too late. If we act solely as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

Probably the reason Mr. McKibben and 350.org haven’t given you the specific strategies you yearn for is that (1) most EDAPs are still being written, (2) EDAPs are necessarily different, fully customized for each local geography and set of local issues, (3) McKibben and company probably don’t yet have their own local EDAP in their Vermont neighborhood, and (4) most people outside of the Transition movement – yourself included – haven’t thought so far as to what such a comprehensive realistic plan for the future might or should contain.


4.   Begin the Transition today. 

First and foremost, start changing your personal habits. Today. “Business as usual” simply is no longer an option, and hanging on to the fantasy may even impede progress.

Even before your neighborhood has created its EDAP, you know which way things are headed. Start shifting to local food, and powering-down your transportation habits, your energy consumption, and the overall amount of goods you use. Try urban chickens. Collect rain water. Hang your laundry out to dry. Learn how to save seed from heirloom vegetables. Rabbi Arthur Waskow once wrote that we should regard this process with as a “constantly moving standard” by which we strive to be doing what is more respectful, less damaging to the earth than what we did last year.

Become an example within your circle of friends and within your community. Encourage others to join you. Bring them with you as you attend classes in breadbaking or pickling. Build a solar cooker together. Compare notes and success stories. Within our conversations with our friends, we set the tone of our culture: your “oh wow” reaction condones an acquaintance’s weekend trip to Paris. Instead, use the power of your network of friends to applaud the good things: “Oh wow, you set up your composting system!” Celebrate progress in the direction of the new future.

Transition your job as well. The jobs of the future aren’t likely to be 9-to-5 paycheck-type jobs at globalized corporations. They’re much more likely to be local businesses, sole proprietorships, hands-on-craftsmanship, making the very real and tangible things we need for everyday living. Clothing, tools, building materials – the very things we’ve gleefully outsourced during this past 50 years of energy surplus – resilient communities will need local sources for all of these. What skills do you have? What skills would you like to learn? Find a class or an apprenticeship. Now is the time to reorient your skill base for the new future.

Even as you continue your activism and your group continues its rallies, campaigns, and awareness-raising, begin the road toward powerdown. 350.org created a revolution in how activist campaigns could be run: hometown sites, worldwide networking, high media visibility, relatively low organizer input, and – relative to the vast number of participants – low carbon footprint. Cut the old 10,000 person marches on Washington, and cut the 10,000 carbon-cranking air flights that entails. Opt instead for 100,000 person gatherings in 10,000 local towns, each person traveling by bicycle with zero carbon footprint.

Within your local community, gather the neighbors. Tell them the things you’ve learned about the realities of the future. Start working on a plan; every neighborhood should eventually have one, regardless of demographics or ethnicity. How can you raise awareness and get the word out to other neighbors? Take an inventory: What powerdown skills do you already have within your immediate geography, and what skills will your local neighborhood need to acquire? Who do you know who can teach these things – perhaps elders within your community? What physical projects might be good to undertake now to assist your community in the Transition? Who else do you know who is doing similar things and how can you work together? These are the beginnings of the journey of Transition.

But we can’t leave out the fine print, our cheerful disclaimer: We don’t know if this will work. We are in the midst of a social experiment that is being played out on a massive scale. Mankind truly doesn’t know how to “solve” or adapt to climate change + peak oil + economic contraction. We’ve never had to do this before. We’re completely making this up as we go. 

It becomes pretty obvious to a serious observer that some things are much more likely to work than other things: Living within planetary limits might be a good idea. To get to that state, it’s pretty evident that we’ll have to make some significant adjustments in the way we have been doing things. We also can’t sit back and expect someone else to do the work. The people within the Transition movement are simply getting things started.


5.   Use teamwork. 

Realize that no one single organization – including 350.org and Bill McKibben – can do everything; each organization has its place. Joanna Macy identifies 3 types of work we need to get to The Great Turning. She emphasizes that all three types of action are necessary; all are integral to the process and any potential outcome.

One type of work is “stopping action,” preventing further destruction. The heroic efforts of McKibben, 350.org, Gore, Greenpeace, and myriad others fall in this category. 

Another type of work is “creating new structures” for the new future, structures which are more healthful and nourishing to us all. As the old societal structures crumble and fail, these new structures will be in place and functioning. Projects like the Simple Living Network, the Permaculture movement, the urban farming movement, local currencies and community economies, and the Transition movement are all working along this avenue. 

The third type of action Macy describes is “a shift in consciousness.” Macy’s body of work reminds us that at the root of our societal problem, we have lost track of who we are. Our Western civilization has forgotten that man fits into environment, that we are not independent from it. Our daily activities, our economies, our ways of feeding ourselves and earning our living have become completely human-centric, far removed from the natural cycles of the planet. Humanity’s consciousness-shifting journey will involve a re‑membering process – once again becoming true members of the interrelated ecosystems of the earth. For this, McKibben has been exemplary in that he has called upon religions of all practices, faiths, and denominations to come aboard and help facilitate humanity’s redefinition of self.

Ms. Salzman, you criticize Bill McKibben and 350.org for not outlining a strategy, yet this is not their function. They are doing a great job at what they do: raising widespread awareness and beginning to influence policymakers. To his credit, in the final chapters of his latest book, Mr. McKibben does lightly outline a vision which has many parallels to the above. Yet the real work of strategy-making and “creating new structures” for powerdown and resilience falls to other shoulders. For this, come join the Transition movement.

 - -

Joanne Poyourow is a blogger at Transition United States and the “initiator” who helped found the Transition Los Angeles city hub. She is the co-founder of the Environmental Change-Makers community group which promotes Transition ideas in her local neighborhood within Los Angeles. The author of two books on comprehensive environmental solutions, Joanne designed the local community garden and continues to manage its plantings for abundant year-round harvests.

Editorial Notes: Re-posted with permission. Thanks to Bill Henderson for pointing out the exchange of letters between Salzman and Poyourow. This exchange seems to me a perfect example of old style activism (Salzman) versus new style activism (Poyourow and Transition). In my experience, the old style activism is not effective on its own. Legislation, policy statements, top-down organizations -- they just don't work in the present political environment. Transition and related movements are a breath of fresh air. As grassroots organizations, they approach the problems at the community and cultural level, getting people involved in a way that purely political discussions cannot. And as Poyourow, one approach does not negate the other. Lorna Salzman is a long-time environmental and Green Party activist (biography). She has written a reply to this letter from Joanne Poyourow, but it does not seem to be posted to the web yet. Her original letter is here. Joanne Poyourow is the "initiator" who brought the ideas of the Transition Movement to many areas of Los Angeles. Learn more about Transition Los Angeles via www.TransitionLA.org. She is also the author of a ecological novel, Legacy. She has a blog at Transition United States. (Bio). We previously posted her article Transition: A movement or an organization?. -BA

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