Conflict and change in the era of economic decline: Part 5 – A theory of change for a century of crisis

December 20, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe following is the final part of an essay which was originally an address to the International Conference on Sustainability, Transition and Culture Change, November 16, 2012, by Richard Heinberg
Read Part 1,
Part 2,
Part 3,
Part 4

If groups seeking to make the post-carbon transition go more smoothly and equitably are to have much hope of success, they need a sound strategy grounded in a realistic theory of change. Here, briefly, is a theory of change that makes sense to me.

For the past four decades, since the release of Limits to Growth, there have been many scattered efforts to develop alternatives to our current fossil-fueled, growth-based industrial paradigm. These include renewable energy systems; local, organic, and Permaculture food systems; urban design movements seeking to reduce the dominance of the automobile in our built environment; architectural programs with the goal of designing buildings that require no external energy input and that are constructed using renewable and recycled materials; alternative currencies not attached to interest-bearing debt, as well as alternative banking models; and alternative economic indicators that take account of social and environmental factors. While such efforts have achieved some small degree of implementation, varying significantly from place to place around the globe, they have generally failed to substantially reduce reliance on fossil fuels, to blunt the overall momentum of society toward increased consumption of a wide range of renewable and non-renewable materials, to reduce financial instability, or to curtail profound environmental impacts including climate change, loss of biodiversity and topsoil, and more.

What will it take for the conservers, localizers, and de-growthers to win? They have a lot stacked against them. The interests promoting a continuation of growth-as-usual are powerful and have spent decades honing advertising and public relations messages whose proliferation is subsidized by hundreds of billions of dollars annually. These interests have captured the allegiance of nearly every elected official in the world. Most ordinary folks are easily swept along because they want more and better jobs, cheaper gasoline, more flat-screen TVs, and all the other perks that come with fossil-fueled economic expansion.
The main downside to growth-as-usual is that it is unsustainable: it is destined to end in depletion of resources, economic unraveling, and environmental catastrophe. The hope of the conservers, localizers, and de-growthers must therefore be that if the growth-as-usual bandwagon cannot be turned back with persuasion, its inevitable crash will occur in increments, so that each incremental step-down in industrial output can be seized upon as an opportunity to demonstrate the need for alternatives and to promote them.
Advocates of the post-carbon crisis theory of change can point to several useful historic examples. One is the transformation of Cuba’s food system during the Special Period in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting disappearance of subsidized Soviet oil shipments set the stage with a crisis. Several Cuban agronomists had previously advocated for more localized and organic agriculture, to no avail; but when the country was suddenly threatened with starvation, they were called upon to redesign the entire food system. The moral of the story: advocates of a post-carbon economy are likely to make limited headway during times of cheap energy and rapid economic growth, yet when push comes to shove obstacles may disappear. The Cuban example is encouraging, but it is often called into question on the grounds that what worked on an island with an authoritarian government might not work so well in a large, pluralistic democracy such as the U.S.
Paul Gilding, in his book The Great Disruption, proposes World War II as an illustration of the crisis-led theory of change: “[O]n the objective facts, Hitler represented a clear and undeniable threat long before action was taken to defeat him,” writes Gilding. “Famously, Churchill and others had long warned of this threat and been largely ignored or even ridiculed. Society remained in denial, preferring not to recognize the threat. This was because denial avoided full acceptance and what that meant—war and a strong change to the status quo. Yet once . . . denial ended, the response was swift and dramatic. Things change almost overnight. Without the benefit of a retrospective view, it would be much harder to predict when exactly the denial of Hitler’s threat would end. So it’s also hard to predict when the moment will come [when the need for action on climate change is finally recognized], even though in hindsight it will be ‘obvious.’”
Post-Fukushima Japan offers yet another example. In the wake of catastrophic nuclear plant meltdowns, the Japanese people have insisted that other reactors be idled; today only two of the nation’s atomic power plants are operating. That has left Japan with substantially less electricity than normal—enough of a shortfall that economic collapse could have resulted. Instead, businesses and households have slashed energy use, driven by a collective ethical imperative. PV systems have appeared on rooftops across the nation.
The Kansas town of Greensburg was flattened by a tornado in May 2007, but the residents—rather than drifting away or merely trying to rebuild what they had—decided instead to use insurance and government disaster aid money to build what they are calling “America’s greenest community,” emphasizing energy efficiency and using 100 percent renewable energy.
Economist Milton Friedman may have laid down a manifesto for crisis-led theories of change when he wrote: “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend upon the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” In this brief passage, Friedman not only sums up the theory nicely, but also forces us to contemplate its dark side. In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein describes how Friedman and other neoliberal economists used crisis after crisis, beginning in the 1970s, as opportunities to undermine democracy and privatize institutions and infrastructure across the world. Somehow, the opportunities presented by crisis need to be seized first by citizens and communities to build local, low-carbon production and support infrastructure.
The post-carbon theory of change doesn’t seek to expedite or exacerbate crisis; instead, it encourages building resilience into societal systems in order to minimize the trauma of rapid change. Resilience is often defined as “the ability to absorb shocks, reorganize, and continue functioning.” Shocks are clearly on the way, so we should be doing what we can now to build local inventories and to disperse the control points for critical systems. We should neither simply wait around for crisis to hit, or hope for crisis as an opportunity to alter the status quo; rather, we should do as much as possible to conserve ecosystems and to re-localize production and trade now so as to minimize the crisis—which, after all, could potentially prove overwhelming for both humanity and non-human nature. If and when crisis arrives, such preparations will be crucial in guiding response efforts and providing a basis for resisting “disaster capitalism.”
What’s the likelihood of success? It depends partly on how we define the term in this context. Many people speak of “solving” problems like climate change, as though we could make a modest investment in new technology and then carry on living essentially as we are. Implicit in the post-carbon crisis theory of change is the understanding that the way we are living now is at the heart of our problem. Success could therefore be better defined in terms of minimizing human suffering and ecological disruption as we adapt toward a very different mode of existence characterized by greatly reduced energy and materials consumption.
Some self-proclaimed “doomers” have concluded that crisis will overwhelm society no matter what we do. Many have joined the “prepper” movement, stockpiling guns and canned goods in hopes of maintaining their own households as the rest of the world comes to resemble Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Other doomers are convinced that human extinction is inevitable and that efforts to prevent that outcome are just so much wasted motion.
I do not share either outlook. Of course there is no guarantee that crisis will open opportunities for sensible adaptation and not simply wallop us, leaving humanity and nature wounded and reeling. But for those who understand what’s coming to simply give up efforts to protect nature and humanity before the going gets tough seems premature at best. There could hardly be more at stake; therefore extraordinary levels of effort and extreme persistence would appear justified if not morally mandatory. The post-carbon crisis theory of change may appear to be a strategy born of desperation. But we should hold open the possibility that it will prove surprisingly apt and effective—to the extent that we have invested our best efforts.
As we build resilience and prepare to make the most of the opportunities that come our way, it’s important that we celebrate the improvements in quality of life that come with reducing our dependency on consumption, advertising, automobiles, and all the other life-smothering accoutrements of our crumbling industrial existence. Let’s also celebrate our adaptability in times of crisis, and continually remind one another that small committed groups sometimes do make history—just as history makes them.
Giant bar chart image via shutterstock

Richard Heinberg

Richard is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. He has authored hundreds of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature and The Wall Street Journal; delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences on six continents; and has been quoted and interviewed countless times for print, television, and radio. His monthly MuseLetter has been in publication since 1992. Full bio at

Tags: conservation, degrowth, economic growth, relocalization