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Creating Local Community Resilience to Avoid Climate Catastrophe

In some ways, northern New Mexico is ahead of other regions in building local community resilience under increasingly difficult environmental conditions. Drought is a familiar circumstance. The city of Santa Fe has one of the lowest per-capita water-use rates in the nation. But much more than water conservation is involved in local resilience.

Overdependence on the national economy infusing cash into the local economy through tourism, art sales and ancillary commerce may be a risky business emphasis as climate disruption intensifies. [1] As with agricultural monoculture, overreliance on one product line always carries risk. Not much high-end art-market and tourism money trickles down to support communities outside the old Santa Fe city center. The service-labor sector supporting these businesses is generally low-wage, even though Santa Fe’s minimum wage is higher than most. Affordable housing is in very short supply, and there is no significant high-wage industry in the area.

Global Crisis, Local Action

Looking forward, under conditions of increasing climate disturbances, all economic activities must be examined through the lens of local energy flows among humans and their environments to foster ecological sustainability. Northern New Mexico communities need resilient living economies enhanced by the region’s cultural traditions and integrated with the regional ecosystems. Sustainable local economies must minimize dependence upon outside economic systems and forces such as heavily carbon-emitting, international trade-based economies. Part of the larger problem of mitigating climate destabilization is that local resilience will be increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain. Massive reductions in total planetary carbon emissions, which in turn depend on transforming national and international industrial systems worldwide, are necessary. Adaptation without mitigation is collective suicide, not resilience. By turning away from excessive consumption of high-emissions production, local communities can help reduce total emissions.

To say that local economies must increasingly rely on local production and consumption to be sustainable has almost become a cliché among many environmentalists. Clichés are often overstated truths not necessarily acted upon. As the converging global crises of climate, economy and energy intensify, national and global economies grow increasingly less stable. These instabilities will directly affect local communities. To face this reality, we must build largely independent, resilient communities and regions. That must extend to mitigating the destructive effects of profligate extraction-production-consumption-waste.

How can such deep resilience be accomplished? So far, symbolic imagery and gestures, as well as a lot of commercial “greenwashing,” merely feel good to the inattentive. But they also distract from the hard policy choices facing humanity. Tim DeChristopher and Naomi Klein have both illuminated the failure of Big Green organizations to achieve significant environmental goals by trading cosmetic corporate changes for generous donations.[2] Invoking a cosmetic language of sustainability is counterproductive; it trades in illusion. We know deep down that we must reorganize our lives in exceptionally challenging ways for our communities to become truly resilient. That reorganization will be a venture into new territory, barely now begun, which is why I think of it as the Next Great Transformation. [3]

Critics of climate action and the sustainability movement, even some big environmental groups, still imagine a “green” prosperity driven by international trade and perpetual economic growth. This is an illusory “greening” of ever-growing energy use, consumption and waste. This assumption is a major impediment to realistic climate policy, both nationally and locally. Cultural dominance of the growth ideology via corporate media control sustains the illusion that climate action can be contained within the growth economy. The deeper illusion is that the collapsing global political-economic system can somehow be repaired without disturbing “my lifestyle.” Illusory technological fixes via “market solutions”—the disaster that is “carbon trading” or the hubris-laden “geo-engineering” fantasy—contribute to the deeper denial of today’s climate crisis. These business-as-usual illusions implicitly deny the hard facts of a destabilizing earth-systems complex while aiming at patching fragments of the destabilization, as if it were enough.

Most New Mexicans, like other Americans, retain change-denying consumer fantasies. An obvious example is the many overpowered pickup trucks driving at excessive highway speeds, spewing carbon across the high desert into our still blue skies. Parking lots of big-box stores remain crowded. How much of the stuff manufactured on the other side of the planet do we really need, compared to what we actually buy? The new Walmart Superstore at the south end of Santa Fe ominously promotes corporate consumerism and drives out local retailers. Importantly, the Slow Food, Slow Money, and public banking movements are taking root, but they remain much too small. Far more development of these and other cooperative movements is desperately needed.

From Corporate Dependency to Community Resilience

A burgeoning local, organic farming industry in northern New Mexico struggles to mature in the sparse high-desert valleys. The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market is quite popular among residents for whom price is not so important. Yet Santa Fe’s only serious attempt at urban agriculture, Gaia Gardens, has been unable, according to its operators, to survive burdensome zoning rules and neighbor complaints. City support for urban agriculture has not yet been implemented. Urban farming is growing rapidly in both size and popularity in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere. How accurate are pretensions to sustainability in northern New Mexico?

Much of New Mexican agriculture, especially in the southern parts of the state, remains oriented to national markets, not diverse local-regional needs. Local communities still mostly depend on energy-intensive national and international food distribution. Meanwhile, California’s ongoing drought damages production by the nation’s main suppliers of vegetables, fruits and nuts. The United States depends on California’s factory farms for over 90 percent of many staple food crops. Yet powerful agricultural businesses continue old, wasteful, water-usage practices, amplifying the risks of depending on agribusiness for our food supply. Water allocations continue to be made on contractual seniority rather than conservation and need; farmers are being asked to conserve far less than much smaller users in cities. As industrial agriculture begins to falter, New Mexicans, like most Americans, continue buying food produced far away. Long-distance transportation is a significant source of carbon emissions that threatens community resiliency around the world.

The vast majority of U.S. grain and feed crops are produced by giant Midwestern factory farms. The sustainability of large-scale industrial agriculture is increasingly tenuous as soils are depleted, water tables subside, and oil and gas fracking threaten major aquifers. Systems science confirms that large complex systems are inherently vulnerable to catastrophic breakdowns when disturbed by the introduction of new conditions. Unlike airline and aerospace mission-critical systems, our increasingly complex fossil-fuel-dependent food-production systems provide no fail-safe redundancy. Yet, with evermore plastic packaging, fossil-fuel intensity and long-distance transportation, they contribute to their own destabilization.

Continued dependency of industrial nations on energy-intensive, agricultural megasystems puts us all at high risk. But could northern New Mexico lands actually support their current population as national factory-food supplies falter? That urgent scientific question is neither asked nor answered in public. The question of carrying capacity has not been adequately developed for human populations as it has by ecologists for other species in nonhuman-influenced, relatively isolated ecosystems.

No mere industrial technology can save us from drought conditions that may become far worse than those that defeated the much smaller populations of ancestral Puebloans. Modern organic farming is as productive as it gets. On the other hand, new scientific applications and modifications of diverse older and existing less energy-intensive technologies can realistically adapt to severe climate conditions. Remember E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful? It still is. Also, many mostly forgotten technologies from the dawn of the industrial revolution do not rely on fossil-fuel energy but rather on skilled human work. Many of these could be resurrected and given modern refinements.

Real estate developers continue to press for new residential and commercial projects, adding pressure to dwindling water sources. Santa Fe County’s Sustainable Growth Management Plan retains “growth” as a core value despite the high probability that growth itself is not sustainable beyond the very short-term. The Plan and the Sustainable Land Development Code are riddled with references to “sustainability,” but neither addresses the natural limits to growth in northern New Mexico. The fundamental ecological concept of carrying capacity never enters the vocabulary of land development—it’s a developer’s world.

Local political cultures hold to the faltering, international corporate ideology of extractive capital and endless economic growth. Local people’s response to climate change must reinvent the political culture if resilience in the face of climate disruption is to be achieved. Many new energy-efficient building designs have been developed in recent years, some approaching 100 percent energy-efficiency; a few are actually being implemented. However, new construction is a tiny fraction of the approximately 40 percent of total emissions attributable to the “built environment.” A massive program of insulation and weather stripping would do far more to reduce carbon emissions than is possible from new designs for new construction. Priorities must be set. Local political focus on minor factors would be deadly.

Climate forecasters predict that near-term total precipitation may not be extremely low in northern New Mexico. But with rising temperatures, moderate snowpack and early snowmelt, premature runoff results in less usable water. In the hotter climate, evaporation causes huge amounts of water loss. The delicate balance of use between groundwater and surface water will be increasingly difficult to maintain. Extreme storms with sudden downpours result in flash floods, not greater reservoir reserves. This year’s spring and summer rains produced extra fuel for wildfires but added little to usable water supplies.

Climate disruption we now experience was caused by carbon emissions the industrial nations have produced since the dawn of the Industrial Age two centuries ago. It is cumulative and accelerating. Worse yet, its effects lag behind its causes, making the nastiest effects seem far off as they rapidly approach. That, combined with the pervasive corporate ideology of growth, breeds complacency. The climate crisis is already here. The only viable mitigating response is to drastically reduce further emissions to stave off far worse climate catastrophe than is already in the pipeline. Attempting to merely adapt to climate disruption would be suicidal. Almost everywhere, increasingly extreme measures will have to be taken to give relatively stable communities a chance.

The science is solid but lagging. In each successive report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts have consistently underestimated actual climate disruption. IPCC reports synthesize the work of hundreds of scientists with diverse specialties from all over the world, making deniers’ conspiracy theories laughable. The reports have been extremely valuable. Yet the economic and social implications of their specific findings are politically resisted. Clearly, we cannot rely on rationality among national or international politicians. Neither can we wait for them to take the drastic measures necessary to avert the catastrophic convergence of climate disruption, poverty and violence around the world. [4] Unfortunately, political incentives and lobbyists point politicians in exactly the wrong direction. We have far better chances to initiate economic, political and social climate action to maximize resilience of local communities as climate disturbances continue.

Resistance, Replacement and Resilience

The accelerating climate crisis requires massive mobilization of populations to take back control of our lives through resistance, replacement and resilience. Small groups of people around the world have begun to resist the pressures of the hyperconsumer culture and the damage inflicted on their lands and waters by extractive industries. Extreme fossil-fuel and materials extraction methods in risky remote Arctic and deep-sea locations disrupt human habitats and climate. Yet, large majorities fail to “just say no” to the big-box stores.

More and more resisters are trying to replace corporate dependency with a “parallel lifestyle,” [5] focusing on maximizing energy efficiency and reducing waste and dependence on fossil fuels. Resisters are building their local economies, producing and buying locally, reducing excess consumption, buying only low-ecological-impact products and forming co-ops and resilient community institutions. These movements are small, but they must grow rapidly. It is a race against time.

Replacement of corporate dependency with sustainable-community economic interdependence in harmony with living-earth systems requires a new vision. Local communities must forge new ways, adapting some indigenous old ways to transform our relations with the Earth. We must work with—instead of against—the Earth systems upon which we ultimately depend. [6] It takes community creativity to replace corporate-driven consumerism.

Resilience is not merely adapting to climate chaos. It comes from creating viable, living local economies not dependent on the corporate global economy. Local community economies must adapt to the increasingly difficult environments. Most important, we must replace the culture of industrial products with a culture of self-sufficient community economics. The most resilient and self-sufficient local communities will be better able to respond to increasingly severe climate conditions and maybe even fend off extreme climate chaos. They will contribute most to minimizing further global warming and its catastrophic consequences by resisting corporate consumerism and replacing it with local production of necessary products and services. No small task.

These are the first principles of the New Great Transformation that must happen in the next decade to foster human survival by recapturing the economic sovereignty of human populations. The megacorporations and financial elites control the global economy, transcending location and nation. We need just the opposite. The only power we have left is what they cannot take away: the peoples’ power to organize ourselves where we live by resisting, replacing and becoming resilient.

Our greatest challenges are to recognize that our personal and cultural ways of living must change, figure out how to change them and act together, where we live. Taking back control requires resistance to corporate domination, replacement of the consumer culture of waste and creating community resilience by acting and organizing in harmony with the living Earth systems we inhabit.

Only when many communities around the world take these actions can the profligate plundering of Earth’s resources and people be slowed. We must act where we live, right here in northern New Mexico. Earth-integrated local-community resilience must replace the corporate-consumer culture. Then, a powerful social movement will have already arisen from civil society. That global pattern of local movements will force governments around the world to transform growth economics and slow carbon emissions so human survival may persist.

_________

[1] NASA expects increasingly severe droughts in the Southwest and central Great Plains, exacerbated by continued global warming. See Mark Fischetti, “U.S. Droughts Will Be the Worst in 1000 Years: The Southwest and central Great Plains will dry out even more than previously thought.” Scientific American, February 12, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-droughts-will-be-the-worst-in-1-000-years1/

[2] Tim DeChristopher, in a talk at Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater a few years ago, discussed at length the failure of Big Green organizations to achieve significant environmental goals by obtaining cosmetic changes in corporate behavior, in exchange for big donations from the corporations that co-opted them. Chapter 6 of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster 2014) details numerous examples of the environmental and political cost of what she terms the “merger of Big Business and Big Green.”

[3] Karl Polanyi explained the great transformation that was the industrial revolution in his book, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time, in 1944. Many of the concerns he expressed about the trajectory of unfettered industrial capital have come to pass. Only a new great transformation can overcome the resulting destructive trends that are leading to the collapse of climate stability, along with that of economic and social systems (see note 4).

[4] The “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change” across the latitudes most vulnerable to early extreme weather events, mostly near the equator, is well under way and is thoroughly documented by Christian Parenti in Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011). The growing international struggles for control of rapidly diminishing resources, from fossil-fuel and basic-metals deposits in increasingly remote and difficult locations, such as the Arctic and ocean floors, to rare earths and other critical minerals needed for high-tech manufacturing, to arable land for food production, is documented by Michael T. Klare in The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (New York: Picador, 2012).

[5] A new website, www.aparallelworld.com, recently launched from Santa Fe, is designed to provide consumers who want to replace fossil-fuel-intensive products with low-emissions, energy-efficient goods and services with information and referrals on local products and businesses consistent with a resilient lifestyle.

[6] To shape a living economy in support of resilient communities, a lot of good ideas are offered by David Korten in Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. (Oakland, Calif. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015). What we need most now is creative local strategies to implement such ideas. Santa Fean Courtney White, co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, offers 50 suggestions—particularly useful in northern New Mexico—for actions to sequester carbon using low-tech natural techniques and to restore local/regional ecosystems, in his new book, Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combating Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015).

Photo credit: The Quivara Coalition website.

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