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The Dinner Party

I was asked this by a friend recently, and it has been stuck in my head (even though the whole idea requires an egomaniacal suspension of disbelief) – “If you could sit down to dinner with the people you think see the world we’re in most clearly and spend dinner working on how to change things and be ready for a crisis, who would you invite to eat with you?” He added the caveat that I can have as many people as I want, and no, I don’t have to cook and clean up.

Actually, if I were going to do this, I would love to host. I like nothing better than to be the one doing the cooking, although I won’t complain if someone else helps with the dishes afterwards. Honestly, I’m never happier than putting together dinner for a crowd, so let’s call it 25 people (which is the sit-down limit in my dining room with two tables open). Since this is my fantasy, my children are off visiting someone else for the evening, and so besides Eric and me (of course my husband, who has always been the most interesting person to me in any room since I met him is the first person I want) I get to invite 23 guests to make the plan to save the world.

That’s a bit of a crowd, and I do have to recognize that since 25 people can’t really all speak to one another over two tables easily, we might have to have dinner three or four times before we save the world. That’s ok. I have lots of recipes, and I love having dinner guests. I still think more is good – and the intersection of people who might not otherwise meet worth a lot in terms of opening up ideas. And hey, if they all won’t actually come to dinner, well, at least you can meet them here and see their work.

I have intentionally not emphasized political power players – the task was to come up with responses, not (yet) to implement them. My observation from working with people in power is that they are (correctly) aware of current limits in ways that are probably not helpful – I agree those limits exist, but I also find that crises change limits in a moment – one day something is impossible, the next it is necessary. My assumption is that the parameters that were set involve a response taken out of the box when you need it, not necessarily the (equally necessary, but you can’t do everything at once) adaptation of the current zeitgeist to make change possible.

Because this is a dinner party, I’ve mixed people I already know and respect who are important thinkers, with a few more famous people that I’d like to meet, often people who might help get the message out. I’ve tried to put in people I agree with, people I disagree with and a nice mix of different perspectives. So here’s my ideal dinner party.

- Jeffrey Brown, creator of the Export Land Model. The ELM is probably the most critical factor in how oil depletion will play out, and almost no one understands it. I’m lucky enough to know Jeff personally, and serve with him on the ASPO-USA board (which isn’t an accident, I drafted him), and I’m continually shocked by the fact that this incredibly important idea is so badly understood.

- Juliet Schor Her work on how we use time and money and resources is critical to understanding the possibilities of the future – and that we are not bound by our present paradigm. I can’t think of anyone else who intersects issues of real life, sociology and economics so brilliantly. I don’t know her, but boy I wish I did.

- Bill McKibben I assume pretty much everyone knows who Bill is, and his work on climate. I don’t always agree with his focus, but what’s remarkable is his ability to put together functional activist organizations and to move on issues that are stagnating in other ways. McKibben and I have corresponded before and he has kindly read and blurbed my books, but he hasn’t been to dinner. But hey it isn’t too long a ride, and we’ve got mutual friends as well!

- Naomi Davis is often the person in the room getting folks to grasp energy and environmental issues, particularly climate change. Her organization, Blacks in Green and her work in Chicago neighborhoods as really made a critical difference in raising understanding. I’m lucky to serve on the board of ASPO-USA with her as well, and what I’d really want is her advice on how to make inroads into conversations that don’t yet include these issues.

- Andrew Sullivan of The Dish at the Daily Beast has done more than anyone I can think of to put his view of the world into the cultural mainstream – and it is a nuanced and complex viewpoint. Sullivan’s writing suggest he’s aware of peak oil and certainly concerned with climate change – I’d love to get him connected to someone like Jeff Brown to make a clear explanation of exactly why you should be worried about oil issues.

- Aaron Newton and I wrote a book together, so he’s an easy sell to me. But since _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron has created the role of Local Food Czar (ok, that’s not his official title, but county governments use dull language) for his county in North Carolina, focusing not just on local food production, but on the kinds of infrastructure building that allow the processing and expansion of lcoal food. Aaron is a genius, and he’s doing on the ground work – both small farming and supporting local food that needs to be duplicated all across America.

- Kurt Cobb It might seem strange that so many of my fellow board members at ASPO-USA are on this list, but let’s just that knowing one another through our work on the board has made it obvious just how extraordinary my colleagues are and how lucky I am to work with them. Kurt simply writes the clearest, most sparkling, most accessible prose on energy and environmental issues out there – period, no debate. If there’s one person that could make the general public understand the complex issues of climate and energy despite mass scientific illiteracy, he’s it.

Rod Dreher, of American Conservative Magazine believes in and understands peak oil, climate change and why growth may have to end, and in his book _Crunch Cons_ began to stake out a space for an environmentally conscious conservativism based on the preservation of the future. His is a really critical voice in this discussion, because no one side of the political spectrum has the power to implement mass change alone. Rod and I are long correspondents and friends, but we’ve never met in person, so this would be a good chance to get him to my house. He’s currently in France, so he can bring wine and political leaven.

I’m going to allow myself one totally unbelievable dinner guest, for for that I’m going to ask for Ban Ki-Moon. I know the UN Secretary General isn’t coming to my house, but if I have to go for broke, I think I’d go there, and want to take a real shot at getting the UN to think seriously about energy depletion. Without putting realistic geological estimates into their models the UN is flying blind talking about the future, and much could be done if they’d stop.

-Art Berman (yes, yet another ASPO colleague) presents a clearer picture of our energy situation than anyone I know – he is both articulate and entertaining in his presentation, and his work on why natural gas is not going to save us is something everyone needs to hear. I’m seating him next to Mr. Ban.

- Nicole Foss Getting Nic to come over for dinner from whereever she is lately (she’s the original “Tuesday? Belgium. woman these days, in huge demand worldwide as a lecturer) would be a challenge, of course, but worth it. Wouldn’t you work around her to get Juliet Schor and Nic Foss together?

- Kathy Harrison might seem like an odd choice, given her focus on personal and domestic preparedness, but then again, I’m probably an odd choice to host for the same reasons. Ultimately, I really want us to remember that the experiences we are talking about are not universal – ultimately, policy is policy, but what we really need comes down to solutions that work at the home, neighborhood and community level, and Kathy is right on there. I want her there to bring the abstract down the human, and to remind us this has to work for real people.

- Jeff Rubin former CDC Chief Economist and advocate of the economics of relocalization would also be a guest, because I think it is critical that we have open discussion about multiple economic scenarios. Are energy prices likely to rise and rise, making localization necessary, or will they tank the economy making oil at least temporarily cheap and many of the alternatives not economically competitive. Foss and Rubin have a lot to say to one another (and they have said it kinda loudly in the past), but dinner parties need some lively debate (and in a house full of children, I can offer them water pistols at 20 paces if they must express their feelings more directly. Seriously, both sides of this discussion need to be heard and discussed.

- I’d like them both to listen to Tom Princen who is the most important genius analyst of the limitations of economic concepts that you’ve probably never heard of. His book _The Logic of Sufficiency_ is way more important than it sounds. Like Jeff Brown, more folks need to hear him.

- If we’re talking about authors of books you should have heard of but haven’t, Maria Mies, co-author of a number of important books including _EcoFeminism_ with Vandana Shiva and most importantly _The Subsistence Perspective_ (co-written with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen) would be my single first choice as a “the dinner guest everyone who comes has to read right now.” Yeah, I know, you don’t think you want to read a book about feminism and ecology. YES YOU DO (read _The Subsistence Perspective_ – it is the more important book) – even translated from the German. Before Transition, before Rob Hopkins, before everything, Mies and her co-authors laid out a model for a new economy that we could actually live with. She’s coming, even if I have to personally fly her in from Germany. And I don’t fly. And no, she doesn’t know me from Adam.

- I’m also bringing in H. Patricia Hynes, who I also don’t know, but ranks up there in my top 50 people I wish I did. She’s the author of critical texts on subjects as diverse as urban agriculture, population and the military’s role in environmental health. Donella Meadows once wrote a remarkable essay about how astonishing hearing her speak on population was.

- I’m lucky enough to know Lt. Col. Danny Davis just a little bit, and to admire the hell out of him. Besides his now-famed whistle blowing on Afghanistan (a tough role to take from inside the military), he’s also been a staunch ally of ASPO-USA, helping strategize on bringing peak oil to critical eyes. I’d be lucky to have someone as brave (in quite a number of ways) put in his thoughts.

As long as we’re working on as many opinions as possible, let’s bring in my friend Langhorne (Taury) Smith, New York State Geologist. Taury got nailed for daring to say that he thought that natural gas from hydrofracking’s benefits might outweigh the risks, based on his concerns about imminent oil depletion. Whether you agree or disagree, smart people arguing honestly is worth a lot. Plus, unless he’s in Saudi Arabia again, I don’t have to fly him in from anywhere, he’s practically a neighbor.

- If Kurt Cobb writes about peak oil better than anyone, Fred Pearce does the same for climate change, with that same clarity that can get through the scientific illiteracy of the general population. Someone has to make climate make sense outside the purely partisan while they eat stuffed peppers, right?

- Peter Rosset, one of the creators of the idea of food sovereignty would be high on my dinner party list as well. I don’t know him, but if there is a single person whose work on food has most influenced me, he’s probably it. His work with Via Campesina and the international food soveriegnty movement would bring a much needed perspective.

- Let’s get Rachel Lauden out to dinner. Her historical critique of the local food movement has merit, even if her assumptions and mine aren’t the same – so we don’t come to the same conclusion. I don’t find “Luddism” to be a dirty word, either, but she’s smart and thoughtful, and if Jeff Rubin and Nic Foss or Taury Smith and Art Berman are going to get into it, well, I’ve got to have someone to argue with, right.

- You’ve never heard of my friend Alice Oldfather, but I’m not just inviting her for moral support and because she’s a mean cook, but because I think she gets why we are having such a hard time getting our message out – and she can help change that. The reality is that if such a crazy dinner party ever did produce a plan, we’d have to get it into the right hand at the right moment.

Last, but not at all least, I’d like to bring David Gushee who may have done more to de-partisan climate change than just about anyone else – his work to bring climate change to the fore in conservative Christian communities is a change that needs to happen – and potentially a gift to anyone who imagines us needing to mobilize whole communities.

Oh lordy, I’m going to have to have a lot of these dinner parties. How did I leave out Dmitry Orlov? Helena Norberg-Hodge? Or Richard Douthwaite? Why, oh why did Chalmers Johnson and Joe Bageant have to die before I got to have them to dinner? Someone is going to yell at me for not including climate scientists (mostly because I think climate scientists have a much more public voice and forum than oil depletion scientists do). And why don’t I have the nerve to invite Wendell Berry or Stephen Colbert? Will there be enough pears in grape syrup? Oh, the dilemmas!

Who do you want to sit down with?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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