Category Archives: Self-sufficiency

Richard Heinberg’s latest words of wisdom

In “The Big Picture,” posted on resilience.org on 12-17-18, Richard Heinberg explains why we need to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources as soon as possible, then adds that “doing so fully would require massive investment, not just for building solar panels, wind turbines, or nuclear reactors (there are some serious problems with this latter option), but also for the retooling of manufacturing, transportation, buildings, and food systems to run on electricity instead of solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels. An energy transition is needed, but it’s not happening at even nearly the pace that would be required in order to forestall catastrophic climate change or to prevent economic decline resulting from the depletion of the world’s highest quality oil, coal, and gas resources. Industrial society’s failure to make this energy transition is no doubt due not just to well-funded opposition by the fossil fuel industry, but also to the enormous technical challenge posed, and to the failure of policy makers to champion and implement the carbon taxes and alternative energy subsidies that would be needed. And so we accelerate toward ecological and economic ruin.

This is fairly typical of what happens toward the end of the conservation phase of every civilization’s adaptive cycle. Each problem that arises, taken by itself, is usually solvable, at least in principle. But, as problems accumulate, leaders who are accustomed to (and benefit from) the status quo grow increasingly reluctant to undertake the changes to systems and procedures that would be required in order to address worrisome trends. And as those trends are ignored, the level of effort and discomfort needed to reverse them soars. Once solving problems requires too much perceived sacrifice, the only realistic ways to deal with them are to deny their existence or to blame others for them. Blame has the advantages of enabling leaders to look as though they’re actually doing something, and of winning loyalty from their followers. But it does nothing to actually stave off snowballing crises.

It’s easy enough to see how elites could lose touch with reality and miss signals of impending collapse. But why would everyone else follow suit? Recent discoveries in neuroscience help explain why it’s hard for most of us to grasp that we’re on an unsustainable path.

We humans have an understandable innate tendency, when making decisions, to give more weight to present threats and opportunities than to future ones. This is called discounting the future, and it makes it hard to sacrifice now to overcome an enormous future risk such as climate change. The immediate reward of vacationing in another country, for example, is likely to overwhelm our concern about the greenhouse gas footprint of our airline flight. Multiply that future-discounting tendency in one instance by the billions of individual decisions with climate repercussions and you can see why it’s difficult to actually reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions.

We humans are also wired to respond to novelty – to notice anything in our environment that’s out of place or unexpected and that might signal a potential threat or reward. Most types of reward increase the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine within the brain. Experiments have found that if an animal’s dopamine receptor genes are removed, it explores less and takes fewer risks, and without some exploration and risk taking, individuals have reduced chances of survival. But the human brain’s dopamine reward system, which evolved to serve this practical function, can be hijacked by addictive substances and behaviors. This is especially problematic in a culture full of novel stimuli specifically designed to attract our interest, such as the hundreds of advertising messages the average child sees each day. We’ve become addicted to stimuli that our culture has multiplied and refined specifically for the purpose of grabbing our attention (for fun and profit) to such a degree that we barely notice long-term trends that are as threatening as a charging rhino.

The power holders in society incentivize smart people below them in rank and wealth to normalize the unsustainable, deny impending consequences, and distract everyone from worsening contradictions. Economists who claim that economic growth can continue forever on a finite planet win Nobel Prizes. Politicians who argue that climate change is a hoax attract big campaign contributions. Pundits and entrepreneurs advance along their career paths by asserting that society can grow its way out of climate change and resource depletion traps through “decoupling” (service economies, it is claimed, can expand in perpetuity without requiring additional energy or physical resources). Technology mavens win fame and glory by informing us that artificial intelligence, 3D printing, or Blockchain will usher in the “singularity,” at which point no one will have to work and all human needs and desires can be satisfied by self-reproducing machines.

Denial comes in shades, some of them quite benign. Many thoughtful and informed people acknowledge the threats of climate change, species extinctions, soil depletion, and so on, and insist that we can overcome these threats if we just try harder. Elect different, more responsible politicians. Donate to environmental nonprofits. Drive an electric car. Install rooftop solar panels. Eat organic food. Shop at local farmers markets. These are all actions that move society in the right direction, but and there’s no point in discouraging them, but those who propose them are denying the reality that the overall trajectory of modern industrial society is beyond our control, and that it leads inexorably toward overshoot and collapse.

If all this is true, we now face more-or-less inevitable economic, social, political, and ecological calamity. Although no one can possibly predict at this point just how complete and awful collapse might actually be, even human extinction is conceivable (though no one can say with any confidence that it’s likely, much less inevitable). This is more than a fragile human psyche can bear. One’s own mortality is hard enough to contemplate. It’s no wonder therefore that so many of us opt for denial and distraction.

Our reasoning shuts down when we assume that collapse means a sudden and complete dissolution of everything meaningful. In reality, however, there are degrees of collapse, and history shows that the process has usually taken decades and sometimes centuries to unfold, often in stair-steps punctuated by periods of partial recovery. Further, it may be possible to intervene in collapse to improve outcomes – for ourselves, our communities, our species, and thousands of other species. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, medieval Irish monks may have “saved civilization” by memorizing and transcribing ancient texts. Could we, with planning and motivation, do as much and more?

Many of the things we could do toward this end are already being done in order to avert climate change and other converging crises. Again, people who voluntarily reduce energy usage, eat locally grown organic food, make the effort to get to know their neighbors, get off the consumer treadmill, reduce their debt, help protect local biodiversity by planting species that feed or shelter native pollinators, use biochar in their gardens, support political candidates who prioritize addressing the sustainability crisis, and contribute to environmental, population, and human rights organizations are all helping moderate the impending collapse and ensure that there will be more survivors. We could do more. Acting together, we could start to re-green the planet; begin to incorporate captured carbon not only in soils, but in nearly everything we make, including concrete, paper, and plastics; and design a new economic system based on mutual aid rather than competition, debt, and perpetual growth. All of these efforts make sense with or without the knowledge that civilization is nearing its sell-by date.

However, the Big Picture (an understanding of the adaptive cycle, the role of energy, and our overshoot predicament) adds both a sense of urgency, and also a new set of priorities that are currently being neglected. For example, when civilizations collapse, culturally significant knowledge is typically lost. It’s probably inevitable that we’ll lose a great deal of our shared knowledge during the coming centuries. Much of this information is trivial anyway (will our distant descendants really suffer from not having the ability to watch archived episodes of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ or ‘Storage Wars’?). Yet people across the globe now use fragile storage media – computer and server hard drives – to store everything from music to books to instruction manuals. In the event that the world’s electricity grids could no longer be maintained, we’d miss more than comfort and convenience; we could lose science, higher mathematics, and history.

It’s not only the dominant industrial culture that is vulnerable to information loss. Indigenous cultures that have survived for millennia are being rapidly eroded by the forces of globalization, resulting in the extinction of region-specific knowledge that could help future humans live sustainably.

Upon whom does the responsibility fall to curate, safeguard, and reproduce all this knowledge, if not those who understand its peril?

We at the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) have been aware of the Big Picture since the founding of the organization 15 years ago. We’ve been privileged to meet, and draw upon the insights of, some of the pioneering ecologists of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s who laid the basis of our current understanding of resilience science, systems thinking, climate change, resource depletion, and much more. And we’ve tried to convey that understanding to a younger generation of thinkers and activists. Throughout this time, we have continually grappled with the question, “What plan for action makes the most sense in the context of the Big Picture, given our meager organizational resources?”

After protracted discussion, we’ve hit upon the four-fold strategy described below.

Encourage resilience building at the community level.

Resilience is the capacity of a system to encounter disruption and still maintain its basic structure and functions. When it is in its conservation phase, a system’s resilience is typically at its lowest level. If it’s possible at this point to build resilience into the human social system, and ecological systems, then the approaching release phase of the cycle may be more moderate and less intense.

The community is the most available and effective level of scale at which to intervene in human systems. National action is difficult these days, and not only in the United States: discussions about nearly everything quickly become politicized, polarized, and contested. It’s at the community level where we most directly interact with the people and institutions that make up our society. It’s where we’re most affected by the decisions society makes: what jobs are available to us, what infrastructure is available for our use, and what policies exist that limit or empower us. And critically, it’s where the majority of us who don’t wield major political or economic power can most directly affect society, as voters, neighbors, entrepreneurs, volunteers, shoppers, activists, and elected officials.

PCI has supported Transition Initiatives since its inception as one useful, locally replicable, and adaptable model for community resilience building.

Leave good ideas lying around.

Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, quotes economist Milton Friedman, who wrote: ‘Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on 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 the politically inevitable.’ Klein’s point is that the key to taking advantage of crises is having effective system-changing plans waiting in the wings for the ripe moment. That’s a strategy that makes sense as society as a whole teeters on the brink of an immensely disruptive shift.

What ideas and skills need to be lying around as industrial civilization crumbles? One collection of ideas and skills that’s already handily packaged and awaiting adoption is permaculture – a set of design tools for living created by ecologists back in the 1970s who understood that industrial civilization would eventually reach its limits. Another set consists of consensus group decision-making skills. The list could go on at some length.

Target innovators and early adopters.

Back in the 1960s, Everett Rogers, a professor of communications, contributed the theory of the Diffusion of Innovations, which describes how, why, and at what rate new ideas, social innovations, and technology spread throughout culture. The key to the theory is his identification of different types of individuals in the population, in terms of how they relate to the development and adoption of something new: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

Innovators are important, but the success of their efforts depends on diffusion of the innovation among early adopters, who tend to be few in number but exceptionally influential in the general population. At PCI, we have decided to focus our communications on early adopters.

Help people grasp the Big Picture.

Discussions about the vulnerability of civilization to collapse aren’t for everyone. Some of us are too psychologically fragile. All of us need a break occasionally, and time to feel and process the emotions that contemplating the Big Picture evokes. But for those able to take in the information, the Big Picture offers helpful perspective and provides a context for strategic action.

Earlier I explained how the findings of neuroscience help us understand why so many of us turn to denial and distraction in the face of threats to civilization’s survival. Neuroscience also teaches us that cooperative impulses are rooted deep in our evolutionary past, just like competitive ones. Self-restraint and empathy for others are partly learned behaviors, acquired and developed in the same way as our capacity for language. We inherit both selfishness and the capacity for altruism, but culture generally nudges us more in the direction of the latter, as parents are traditionally encouraged to teach their children to share and not to be wasteful or arrogant.

Disaster research informs us that, in the early phases of crisis, people typically respond with extraordinary degrees of cooperation and self-sacrifice. But if privation persists, they may turn toward blame and competition for scarce resources.

All of this suggests that the one thing that is most likely to influence how our communities get through the coming meta-crisis is the quality of relationships among members. A great deal depends on whether we exhibit pro-social attitudes and responses, while discouraging blame and panic. Those of us working to build community resilience need to avoid partisan frames and loaded words, appeal to shared values, and pull together in hopes of salvaging and protecting what’s most intrinsically valuable about our world, and perhaps even improving lives over the long term.

Hard times are in store. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Each day of relative normalcy that remains is an occasion for thankfulness and an opportunity for action.”

Richard Heinberg is the author of thirteen books including: Our Renewable Future: Laying  the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy, co-authored with David Fridley (2016), Afterburn(2015), Snake Oil(2013), and The End of Growth(2011). He’s been my go-to guru on energy and sustainability for years.

 

Two important online books

Chance recently landed me on the crimethinc.com anarchist website, where I found two important books (click on “Books”), available for free online in PDF format. The first, No Wall They Can Build: A Guide to Borders and Migration Across North America, scrutinizes the borders that control movement on the continent. “Drawing on nearly a decade of solidarity work in the desert between Mexico and Arizona, the authors uncover the real goals and costs of US border policy, who benefits from it, and what it will take to change it.” The second, From Democracy to Freedom: The Difference Between Government and Self-Determination, makes the case for anarchy (voluntarism and mutual aid) against any form of direct democracy, which will only reproduce the oppressive state. I highly recommend both, lengthy and dense, but key books for your attention.

Here’s a quote I just found in From Democracy to Freedom that I especially liked: “It’s no coincidence that today’s revolutionary movements lack visions of other worlds, or that a great part of capitalist production supplants imagination among its consumers, offering imaginaries that become more elaborate every day – more visually stimulating and more interactive, so that people no longer have to imagine anything for themselves because a thousand worlds and fantasies already come prepackaged. All the old fantasies that used to set us dreaming have now been fixed in Hollywood productions, with convincing actors, fully depicted terrains, and emotive soundtracks. Nothing is left for us to recreate, only to consume. In the current marketplace of ideas, it seems that the only imaginaries that describe our future are apocalypses or the science fiction colonization of outer space. The latter is the final frontier for capitalist expansion now that this planet is getting used up, and the former is the only alternative capitalism is willing to concede outside its dominion. The revolutionaries of a hundred years ago continuously dreamed and schemed of a world without the State and without capitalism. Some of them made the mistake of turning their dreams into blueprints, dogmatic guidelines that in practice functioned as yardsticks by which to measure deviance. But today we face a much greater problem: the absence of revolutionary imaginaries and the near total atrophy of the imagination in ourselves and in the rest of society. The imagination is the most revolutionary organ in our collective social body, because it’s the only one capable of creating new worlds, of traveling outside capitalism and state authority, of enabling us to surpass the limits of insurrection that have lately become so evident.

I know very few people who can imagine what anarchy might look like, and uncertainty isn’t the problem. Uncertainty is one of the fundamentals of chaotic organization, and only the authoritarian neurosis of states obliges us to impose certainty on an ever-shifting reality. The problem, rather, is that our lack of imagination has disconnected us from the world. A vital part of ourselves is no longer there, as it used to be, on the cusp of the horizon, on the threshold between dark and light, discerning, modulating, and greeting each new element coming into our lives. Our prospects, however, aren’t irremediably bleak. Imagination can always be renewed and reinvigorated, though we must emphasize the radical importance of this work if people are once more to create, share, and discuss new possible worlds or profound transformations of this one.”

Utopian/dystopian novels, part 2

I’ve now created a section under “Resources” in the top menu bar for fiction books, including utopian/dystopian novels. There you’ll find a list of my favorites and notes on Octavia Butler’s two Parable novels, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The notes will give you a flavor of these great fiction works, and are better than nothing if you can’t read them in their entirety, but I hope at some point you will, since they function so well as positive, alternative visions for us as we live into our (currently) dystopian future. Such visions, especially so vividly expressed in fiction, also act as healing balms when we’re discouraged by what’s going on around us – which for me is most of the time.

You will see that Butler’s novels detail what the further extension of our dystopia could be like, that Starhawk’s trilogy, including the prequel Walking to Mercury and sequel, The City of Refuge, is a communal vision, and that Le Guin’s book is both a detailed description of an ideal future agrarian society and the individual story of someone born into that society who also lived in its mirror opposite for a time.

I find it interesting that all of these novels are set in northern California, though they also range a bit further afield. Perhaps the Cascadia of another visionary novelist, Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging) will actually emerge as the seedbed for a better world.

As noted on Wikipedia, “Cascadia is a bioregion and proposed country that would consist of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the US states of Washington and Oregon. At its maximum extent, Cascadia would stretch from coastal Alaska in the north into northern California in the south, and inland to include parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, as far southeast as Colorado, and the Yukon. More conservative advocates propose borders that include the land west of the crest of Cascade Range, and the western side of British Columbia. As measured only by the combination of present Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia statistics, Cascadia would be home to slightly more than 16 million people, and by land area would be the 20th largest country in the world.

There are several reasons why the Cascadia movement aims to foster connections and a sense of place within the Pacific Northwest region and strive toward independence. The main reasons stated by the movement include environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties, and freedom, increased regional integration, and local food networks and economies. The designer of the Doug flag, Alexander Baretich, claims that Cascadia is not necessarily about secession but is rather about survival of peak oil, global warming, and other pending environmental and socioeconomic problems.

In 1956, groups from Cave Junction, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California threatened to tear southern Oregon and northern California from their respective state rulers to form the State of Jefferson.

Ernest Callenbach’s environmental utopian novel Ecotopia (1975) follows an American reporter, William Weston, on his tour through a secretive republic (the former Washington, Oregon, and northern California) 20 years after their secession from the U.S. Weston is shown a society that has been centrally planned, scaled down, and readapted to fit within the constraints of environmental sustainability.

A research study by the Western Standard in 2005 found that support for exploring secession from Canada was at 35.7% in British Columbia, and 42% in Alberta. While difficult to gauge support specifically in Washington and Oregon, because no research has been done for those states, a nationwide poll by Zogby International in 2008 found that 22% of Americans support a state’s or region’s right to peacefully secede from the United States, the highest rate since the American Civil War. However, none of these studies are specifically about forming an independent Cascadia. The movement saw much discussion in the 1990s, and while the increase in security and American nationalism after the September 11 attacks set back the movement’s momentum for some time, the concept has continued to become more ingrained into society and the public consciousness. In January 2011, Time magazine included Cascadia number eight on a list of ‘Top 10 Aspiring Nations,’ noting it ‘has little chance of ever becoming a reality.’

Also making this list is the Second Vermont Republic, a secessionist group within the U.S. state of Vermont which seeks to restore the formerly independent status of the Vermont Republic (1777–91). It describes itself as ‘a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union.’ The organization was founded in 2003 by Thomas Naylor (1936–2012), a former Duke University economics professor and co-author of the 1997 book Downsizing the U.S.A.”

 

Getting inspiration from utopian/dystopian fiction

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a long time, and reading Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (2013) has gotten me to actually do it! Womack says that in 2011 she “attended the Think Galacticon conference. Unlike the typical science fiction conference, its creators hoped to use science fiction as a platform for broader changes in society. Held at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the conference brought activists, science fiction writers, and fans together to share perspectives on social change and privilege. Panels included talks on classism in fantasy novels (why don’t the paupers ever challenge the prince for power?), the growing black independent comic book scene, and personal growth tools for revolution.

In her workshop, noted activist Adrienne Maree Brown said, ‘It’s amazing to change the world, but it’s heartbreaking, bone-cracking work, and you don’t often see the change in real time. For me as an organizer, what gets me through has been immersing myself in certain sci-fi worlds.’ She uses sci-fi to frame an inspirational perspective for youth that she works with too. ‘Your life is science fiction,’ she tells them. ‘You’re Luke Skywalker, but way cooler; you’re trans and black and you’re surviving the world of Detroit.’

Brown began her activism work in college. She’s a former executive director of the Ruckus Socity, a nonprofit that specializes in environmental activism and guerilla communication, and is heavily involved with the League of Pissed Off Voters. A Detroit resident, she describes herself as an organizational healer, pleasure activist, and artist, obsessed with developing models for action and community transformation.

She’s also a sci-fi fan. After discovering Octavia Butler’s work, she was inspired to develop new work of her own. Brown is using Butler’s pivotal Parables series and its post-apocalyptic tale as a template for change agency in desperate communities. Her workshop at Galacticon was titled ‘Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies.’ The workshop description read as follows: ‘“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” These words of Octavia Butler’s have impacted people seriously on a personal level, but how do we apply her wisdom on a political organizing level? How would accepting and coming to love the emergent power of changing conditions affect our strategic planning? This session will be half popular organizational development training and half inquiry into what the future of organizational development and strategic planning will look like.’

As far as Brown is concerned, many abandoned urban communities in New York City, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cincinnati, and Detroit are post-apocalyptic and ripe for community-borne transformation. Seeing supports and humanity in Detroit, her new home town, made Brown look at other cities with blighted communities differently. ‘There are people living in places that we associate with the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world – it’s the beginning of something else. An economy based on relationships and not the monetary value you can place on someone else.’

Brown now teaches activists how to use strategies from Butler’s books (like community farming, building relationships with neighbors, and essential survival skills) to build communities in areas where resources are scarce. She emphasizes that people in troubled areas need to have self-determination over their food supply, harking back to the Acorn communities in the Parables – intentional communities, ‘places where people come in an intentional way to build a life together. They’re farming with accountability to one another. They have a spiritual community. This is a strategy that could enable people to survive a future where our resources are unsure. Another is door-to-door relationship building that’s nonjudgmental. After the Acorn community is trashed, the main character goes door-to-door and starts to build a community of believers who aren’t rooted in one place, but in a shared ideology. It’s very similar to the Zapatista ideology. They went around for ten years building relationships one by one. Now a lot of organizing is done around the internet and tweeting each other. If we weren’t able to do that, what would we do? We would work with whoever is there with us.’

Brown is also a big advocate of teaching basic survival skills, including gardening, care for the sick and wounded, and midwifery. ‘I’m also looking at building homes and bathrooms. How do you make a bathroom where there is none?’ Her main point is to generate solutions. ‘We shouldn’t spend the majority of our time trying to get someone else to be accountable for what happens in our communities. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you; provide the solutions yourself…

What is the biggest story we can imagine telling ourselves about our future? It can be a utopia or a dystopia, but we want to get a perspective from people who are actually trying to change the world today. What do they think will happen? What’s the best-case scenario? How do we get people to think of themselves as the creators of tomorrow’s story?’”

I’ve been inspired by Butler’s Parable novels too, and many others, including Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy. In the next few days, I’ll put notes on these books and a list of utopian/dystopian fiction in the Resources section (see top menu bar).

Let’s get inspired!

What really matters

David Korten, author of books like “When Corporations Rule the World” and “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” is one of our wise elders, if anyone is. He has an article in the current “Yes!” magazine that cuts through all the chatter and gets us back to what is perhaps the key question: Why are we knowingly heading toward the extinction of our (and many other) species? The answer is probably that one of the traits of our species is to focus on the short rather than the long term. But, like Korten, I believe we can, if we really want to, make some very important, much saner choices that will enable us to avoid falling off the cliff. As Korten says in his article, “Transformation begins with clarity on the nature of the choice that confronts our species.”

Korten believes we’ll survive only if we answer the following question: “Why does the current system deprive so many of opportunity for a fulfilling life [or life at all] that could and should be everyone’s birthright? Our prevailing cultural choices favor extreme individualistic competition for material goods. Our institutional choices reward the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life and concentrate control by fewer and fewer people over what remains of that capacity. The many are thus pressed into lives of desperate servitude to the few. The obvious alternative begins with the recognition that individually and collectively, we survive and thrive only as interdependent, sharing, and mutually contributing members of Earth’s community of life. We’re better served by working together to create a world that works for all, than by competing for what remains of a shrinking pool of real [natural] wealth. Our defining cultural value must become cooperation. And we must transfer power from institutions that reward predatory competition to ones that facilitate and reward cooperation in service to the common good.”

Of course, the big question is how to make these changes? I think it’s pretty obvious that we earthlings can only do it by creating grassroots, bottom-up democracies all over the world like the kind the United States has always crushed at home and abroad. Of course, other regimes have and are crushing democracy, too, but I focus on our country because that’s where I live and because the US is so powerful. (Check out other articles on this site for examples of its democracy-crushing — US policy in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America comes to mind — as well as ideas about creating real democracy. One definition of the latter would be a system in which if a decision affects you or your community, you have real input in making it.

These are changes that can only take place in the long term. So take your eyes off most of the short term — like the daily “news” stream — and focus on what makes it all happen: what really matters.