Review: Plan C by Pat Murphy and Small is Possible by Lyle Estill

July 26, 2008

Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change
By Pat Murphy
336 pp. New Society Publishers – July 2008. $19.95.

Plan C is a luminous book. Whereas so many other books on curtailing energy usage simply describe ways to cut consumption, Plan C goes way beyond mere description to take a truly penetrating look at how our individual choices make a difference.

Author Pat Murphy’s sharp analysis, which draws on hard numbers from the Department of Energy and other sources, allows us to truly quantify the impact of our everyday habits, and to realize that we’re capable of making far more of a difference than many believe.

Clearly aimed at the broadest possible readership, Plan C contains quite a bit of retread for peak oil followers. For example, it includes that customary dismissal-of-so-called-alternative-fuels section (but done with originality and uncommon prowess), as well as brief primers on peak oil, climate change, growth economics and global inequity.

The book is less conventional, however, in its inclusion of what Murphy calls a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the American people. This section uses statistical analysis to assess the quality and health of American society, as measured by levels of inequity, violence and military spending relative to foreign aid spending, among other indicators. Murphy succeeds in giving this moral inventory the objective, nonjudgmental tone of a typical 12-step program; but it will still make uncomfortable reading for just about any American reader.

The heart of the book is its middle section, in which Murphy defines Plan C and describes what we must do in order to achieve it. Plan C calls for a sharp reduction in fossil fuel consumption and a resurgence of small local communities. The concomitant reduction in our standard of living is to be accepted as “part of being a global citizen.” The three mainstays of Plan C are curtailment (mere conservation isn’t enough), community and cooperation.

Plan C has three counterpoints: Plans A, B and D. Plan A represents our current course, in which we do nothing but blindly trust the free market to solve peak oil, climate change and inequity. A great deal more laudable, but still inadequate, is Plan B, in which we maintain the status quo while merely replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Lastly, there’s Plan D, in which we accept that it’s already too late to take constructive action at the societal level, and focus solely on preparing ourselves and our families for a drastic die-off of our species. Mercifully, Murphy doesn’t consider himself to be a Plan D proponent, though he nonetheless insists that its tenets deserve to be taken seriously.

The chapters in which Murphy spells out the specific steps necessary to implement Plan C are where the book’s magic lies. Murphy cites numbers readily available within the public domain to illustrate that the majority (67 percent) of all of the oil used annually per person in the United States is under each person’s direct control—in the forms of housing, personal travel and food. Thus, by living in smaller homes, carpooling or avoiding automobile use altogether and reducing our consumption of meat in favor of less-fossil-fuel-intensive foods, we can go a surprisingly long way toward both weaning ourselves off of a depleting resource and meeting the CO2 reductions recommended by climate scientists.

The depth to which Murphy has thought through these necessary lifestyle changes is astonishing. He lays out practical suggestions on everything from our diets (eat less, eat local and eat organic); to our use of electronic devices (substitute hand tools and changed practices wherever possible); to transportation (implement Smart Jitney systems that rely on private automobiles and cell phone dispatching); to the very way in which we perceive the world and ourselves (kick the media habit, foster community cooperation rather than competitive anonymity).

Prior to writing Plan C, Murphy served as a co-writer and producer on Community Solutions’ award-winning documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. (Murphy is the executive director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio, devoted to small community living.) That film shows how Cuba successfully adapted to the sudden drop in its fuel and food imports brought on by the collapse of the former Soviet Union. In both the film and Plan C, Murphy cites the example of Cuba as a stirring tribute to what America might be capable of as it faces the decline of global oil production. And it must be said that our post-oil future could be quite idyllic indeed if we managed to fare half as well as Cuba did during its own artificial peak oil event.

Plan C is an astounding achievement, and one with an enormous potential readership. It’s certainly essential reading for any self-respecting peak oil or climate change activist. But it also serves as a rich treasury of real, quantifiable answers for anyone still wondering what he or she can do to help mitigate the multiple world crises now facing us. In Plan C, one finds not platitudes, pontifications or vague suggestions—but a wealth of actual, concrete things that can be done right now.

Thus, the book’s lasting impression is one of a radiant optimism that is miles away from the cul-de-sac of cynicism that can so easily represent the extent of peak oil commentary.

Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy
By Lyle Estill
240 pp. New Society Publishers – May 2008. $17.95.

Lyle Estill, author of Small is Possible, shares Murphy’s faith in the power of community to help see us through difficult times to come. In the book’s introduction, he tells us that it’s partly a response to concerns raised by James Howard Kunstler in his book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. And over the remainder of the book, Estill proceeds to show us exactly why his small community of Chatham County, North Carolina, will be “just fine” during the Long Emergency that Kunstler foresees.

Small is Possible is a lively, fascinating portrait of this small, self-sufficient community in America’s heartland that Estill (a native of Canada) has come to call home. The book’s title was inspired by George McRobie’s selfsame-titled book from 1981, as well as E.F. Schumacher’s seminal Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (originally published in 1973). It has been aptly marketed as a case for “Hometown Security” as an immeasurably more effective alternative to the Homeland Security modus operandi that now prevails.

And indeed, a consistent theme throughout the book is the way in which one diverse, resourceful group of people has managed to solve problems at their local level—rather than depending on government or big business—and to become small business success stories in the process. A few pointed examples include the local, small-town bank where tellers recognize people’s voices over the phone, without the need for code numbers to confirm their identities; a down-and-out jewelry maker who became a very successful yoga instructor; doctors who still make house calls; and an exceptional arts scene that holds its own against those of the bigger population centers in the area.

A seasoned entrepreneur, Estill has been everything from a software company CEO to a noted scrap metal sculptor to co-founder of a thriving biodiesel co-op in Pittsboro, North Carolina, known as Piedmont Biofuels Industrial. And he devotes quite a bit of the book to these proverbial feathers in his own cap—including an entire chapter on the remarkable story of how Piedmont Biofuels went from a small backyard operation to a flourishing, million-gallon commercial facility in just three years. (One can find an even more complete, but obviously less up-to-date, account of this in his previous book, Biodiesel Power: The Passion, the People, and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel.)

At any rate, from a peak oil perspective, it is to Estill’s vast credit that he sees biofuels as only one part of the answer to our energy predicament (second to deep curtailment of energy usage in general), and that he recognizes that displacing land from food production to fuel production is not a good idea (his biodiesel is made from waste fats, not crops that would otherwise be eaten).

In the first half of Small is Possible, Estill provides a bit of history about Chatham County, how he and his family came to settle there and the many hats that he has worn around the community over his wildly eclectic career. In the second half, he supplies countless examples of the town’s prosperous local economy, which manages to be wholly independent of the global economy. Each chapter in this second part focuses on a single aspect of self-reliance—some examples of chapter titles include “Feeding Ourselves,” “Fueling Ourselves” and “Financing Ourselves.”

Even though Small is Possible is a nonfiction book depicting real-life people and events, it uses a literary style to convey its points. Readers who are expecting analysis or fully fleshed-out arguments will be disappointed, because these aren’t what the book is about. Instead, Estill has skillfully fashioned a single grand mosaic out of personal anecdotes, newspaper columns, blog entries and essays, all of which exist simply as variations on whatever theme happens to be the focus of that particular chapter. Estill juxtaposes these various elements much as the great cathedral artists of medieval Rome or Florence might have arranged small fragments of marble, stone or ceramic so as to create a unified whole when seen from afar.

Unfortunately, this arty approach to the material is also the book’s greatest weakness, since it limits the potential readership. Plan C’s readership is huge because of how accessibly Murphy presents the subject matter. But Estill seems to be aiming for a much smaller group. And by not speaking to general readers—or to readers who would simply prefer a more analytical, sequential presentation—he has, sadly, sold Chatham County short. How much more powerful the book might have been if Estill had made the connections clearer for readers, in the same way that Murphy uses Cuba as a model for how America might gracefully adapt to peak oil.

So, in short, Small is Possible has the vexing dilemma of being both a good book and a missed chance.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: Biofuels, Building Community, Coal, Consumption & Demand, Education, Electricity, Food, Fossil Fuels, Geopolitics & Military, Media & Communications, Oil, Overshoot, Politics, Population, Renewable Energy, Resource Depletion, Transportation, Waste