28 February 2013

The Great Transition (and Our Place in It)

Posted by Admin under: Climate Change; Community Development; Ecology; Economy; Energy; Entrepreneurship; Fossil Fuels; Future; History; Hurricane Sandy; Leadership; Permaculture; Regeneration; Resiliency; Science; Story; Sustainability .

We are, whether we like it or not, moving into an age of great transition.

This transition is beginning to take hold just about everywhere in the world — though in some areas more rapidly than others — at both a global and a local level.

It is accelerating, in part because the effects of climate change are already being felt — in the form of droughts, fires, floods, and hurricanes — in a growing number of areas; and in part because the recognition is dawning on even the elites that we really are overburdening the planet and exhausting many of the most readily-available resources. In the face of these new realities we are slowly but inevitably adjusting to what Bill McKibben calls “Eaarth,” a new and different planet, where the conditions we’ve experienced for the last ten thousand years are changing very rapidly.

What’s most urgent and critical, however, is a change in our outlook, in our understanding of ourselves in relation to nature, and a very practical readjustment in our communities and societies, if — as a civilization, if not indeed as a species — we’re going to survive. When we begin to understand the physical changes taking place, we can no longer continue with “business as usual” (though business has been anything but usual in the last few decades). But in order to respond intelligently to this new condition, we’re going to have to awaken a new ecological self-awareness, in which we recognize ourselves not merely as individuals but more importantly as wholly interdependent beings, interrelated with one another and with nature.

As individuals, we can have all sorts of reactions to our circumstances. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, for instance, it was reported that looters arrived on jet-skis to go through abandoned houses. On the other hand, while this might have occurred once or twice, the almost universal reaction was for people to help each other, to turn out and volunteer, or to simply provide immediate aid and assistance to another human being in need. It is often remarked that crises bring out the best in people.

So we know that we have these capacities — the capacity for empathy, for self-recognition in the eyes of another, for grappling with our place in nature — and what we must now do is connect them up explicitly in our communities and societies in such way that we respond to the ecological crisis in a way that brings out the best in the species. We can learn to function together, to restore sanity to our relationship with the earth, and to create the sustainable prosperity we need to “repair the world” and to heal ourselves.

This is a tall order, given the dismal outcomes of our history. Consider the following: What we know of human history, over the past ten thousand years, is a history of wars and ignorance and suffering. In a world of plenty, as we now recognize it to be, a population of a billion or so people could operate as if their resources were essentially limitless. Still, they fought over religion and ideology, over language and tribal identity, and failed to build a world that truly worked for everyone. So how is it possible that we today can overcome these divisions?

It’s often said that it would take an invasion from outer space to unify all of humanity. Well, we now face such an existential threat — indeed a whole series of them — only they arise from within rather than from the outside. We’re lucky that we haven’t blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons, at least so far. But we are now very rapidly overwhelming our habitat, destroying the very fabric of organic life that keeps us alive and holds us together. If we do not make significant changes, in almost every domain of life, we are very likely to see the “overshoot and collapse” pattern that we’re familiar with in some animal populations, when they get out of balance with their environment. (Actually, we do see it, reflected not only in ecological disaster as in a place like Haiti, but in a fractal, holographic way in our frequent series of financial and political crises, in our personal breakdowns and breakups, in our heartless and mindless institutions. All of these tendencies will need to be overcome if we’re going to survive.)

David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, has described four possible futures as a result of the intersection of global warming and resource depletion. In Future Scenarios (2009), he calls these “techno-explosion” (or “brown tech,” or “business as usual” plus the fantasy of overcoming natural constraints), “techno-stability” (or “green tech,” leading to a “steady-state sustainable society”), “energy descent,” and “collapse.”

“While faith in techno-explosion as the default scenario is now waning, the hope of more environmentally aware citizens and organizations depends on techno-stability, characterized by novel renewable energy sources, while the fears of total collapse of human civilization are continually fed by evidence about climate change and resource depletion, among a range of related emerging crises.”

Indeed, there are now an increasing number of doomsday scenarios, and bizarre TV shows like “Doomsday Preppers,” that feature whole families planning to flee nuclear meltdowns or barricade themselves in their basements with their guns and wait for the hordes to attack them for their supplies of food and water. But for many reasons the collapse scenario is itself a dead end. For one thing, holes in the ground are useless if they are filled with water, and guns are no protection against the sorts of viruses and water-borne diseases that are likely to become commonplace in post-Apocalyptic futures. “Runaway” global warming, in which the melting tundra releases huge reservoirs of methane and other greenhouse gases, or in which the melting ice-caps raise sea levels by more than a hundred feet, are likely to leave much of today’s most-heavily populated areas largely uninhabitable regardless of stashed canoes and jungle gear. As Holmgren says:

“I don’t want to underplay the possibility of a total and relatively fast global collapse of complex societies that we recognize as civilization. I think this is a substantial risk, but the total-collapse scenario tends to lead to fatalistic acceptance, or alternatively, naive notions of individual or family survivalist preparations. Similarly, the collapse scenario is so shocking that it reinforces the rejection by the majority of even thinking about the future, thus increasing the likelihood of very severe energy descent, if not total collapse. Perhaps a majority of people think civilizational collapse is inevitable but think or hope it won’t happen in their lifetime. A more realistic assessment of the possibilities and adaptive responses to the collapse long-term scenario is only possible after a deep and nuanced understanding of the diverse possibilities and likelihoods of the energy-descent long-term scenarios.”

As Holmgren suggests, the most likely scenario, but also the least understood and appreciated, is a long term energy descent, that is realistic about the looming crises, takes advantage of every renewable and sustainable technology, but also recognizes the need for changes in behavior and in social arrangements.

“Energy descent, where available energy and resulting organizational complexity progressively decline over many generations, is the most ignored of the four possible long-term futures, but I think the evidence is strong and increasing that it is the most likely in some form or other.”

While there are obvious reasons that the so-called “brown tech” path of industrial capitalism cannot be sustained, it’s less clear but no less true the “green tech” path is also insufficient. If the green tech path is designed to preserve much of our present way of life by simply shifting from “dirty” to “clean” sources of energy, it fails to address several of the underlying causes of our modern dilemma. As Holmgren notes, green tech solutions

“require not only Herculean efforts to build a new energy infrastructure before energy becomes too expensive and unreliable but also massive reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions today, if not yesterday.

There is also the small problem of reforming the monetary system away from dependence on perpetual growth without inducing financial collapse. I say “small problem” ironically, of course, because growth in economic activity is essential to support the debt-based currency that is the very foundation of our money and banking system stretching back to the beginnings of capitalism and its economic precursors.

For these reasons I feel the techno-stability long-term future has even fewer prospects than the default future of techno-explosion.”

I will personally cop to supporting the green-tech or techno-stability path for many of the reasons that Holmgren criticizes. In a series of papers I have argued for “a path to sustainable growth,” that allows for continued economic expansion based on non-material rather than material growth, on improving the quality rather than the quantity of products, and on valuing services and experiences over products and accumulation. I continue to believe that this is the right approach in the short term, for the very reason Holmgren cites for dismissing it:

“Whether it comes from an ecological or a sociological perspective, questioning economic growth threatens the very basis of our economic system…. While I have been as critical of the concept of continuous economic growth as most environmentalists and scientists, I also recognize that attempts to avoid the ecological precipice by reducing economic growth would bring down the whole system, just as Gorbachev’s glasnost contributed to the unraveling of the Soviet system. The economic hard-liners could be right: There is no way to stop the train of global industrial capitalism (other than by crashing).”

At the same time, as Holmgren immediately recognizes, mainstream sustainability approaches “have contributed greatly in spreading new environmental thinking and many of the practical strategies that appear to be moving in the right direction.” In particular he cites the Natural Step concept, that “aims to protect biophysical systems by creating closed-loop industrial manufacturing through continuous improvements in performance.” Just as importantly, in my view, we need to distinguish “capitalism” (which has come to mean predatory corporatism) from “freedom of enterprise,” which is essential if we are to develop diverse, resilient, and localized solutions to the ecosystemic challenges we’re facing. The historic effort to replace capitalism with what seems logically the more rational and more humane alternative of communism failed for a fundamentally ecological reason, that centralized systems are inherently unstable and unable to adapt to local circumstances and needs. We need to protect and preserve our freedom of action if we are to come up with solutions that meet the needs of different communities and cultures.

So I continue to argue for the need to reform our current economic system from within, rather than trying to undermine it or overthrow it from without, which seems to me not only a doomed effort but also wholly antisocial, in that it necessarily implies widespread human conflict and suffering. But I am increasingly convinced that it is simply not going to be enough: that renewable energy cannot fully substitute for fossil fuels or sustain the lifestyle to which we in the West have become accustomed (and which people in the rest of the world naturally aspire to). Consequently I think we need to embrace a combination of the “green tech” and “energy descent” scenarios that Holmgren describes, and within the latter to the permaculture design principles which are the most comprehensive response offering “a graceful descent to earth stewardship.”

While most people associate permaculture — if they have even heard of it — with sustainable agriculture, it is much more than that. For a good introduction to this broader perspective, I recommend Holmgren’s 30-minute YouTube introduction from 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=887ZUqp1HXQ, and the short Essence of Permaculture ebook which is available as a free download from Holmgren’s site at http://permacultureprinciples.com/freedownloads_essence.php.

So far I have focused mainly on Holmgren’s work, but of course there are many other writings on “the great transition,” most notably those of the Great Transition Initiative of the Tellus Institute, based on the work of the Global Scenario Group convened by the Tellus Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute in 1995. As the Wikipedia article states:

“In 2002, the GSG formally presented their scenario approach in an essay called Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.[1] In the essay, the Great Transition scholars indicate that civilization is currently at a turning point, entering a Planetary Phase of Civilization in which different values regarding the environment, human well-being, and global justice might lead to different scenarios for future development. Three classes of scenarios are discussed – Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions.”

Clearly it not my intention to do justice to this and to the many other discussions of the transformation of our times that both preceded it and followed this fundamental work. My purpose is instead to address “our role or place in it,” and by “our” I mean here a widening sense of we that starts with the nonprofits that Victoria Zelin and I have founded (the Center for Leadership in Sustainability and the Center for Regenerative Community Solutions), and extends through the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University with which I’ve been associated for the past five or six years, to an expanding network of friends and colleagues in New Jersey and around the world.

I have been working in this area for most of my career, beginning with my exposure to energy and environmental issues as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada in the 1970s, continuing through my work as a passive solar designer and builder since 1980, and through several other “career” incarnations over the past thirty or so years. In 1985 I was awarded the UN Environment Award for work in the community on environmental issues. In 1989-91 I developed — with Victoria’s help — an innovative “credit exchange” system which was in essence an alternative currency (and which unbeknownst to me was actually prefigured by the Swiss WIR system created in the 1930s). I have since been involved with green technology, IT, writing and publishing, environmentally-conscious real estate development, clean energy technology and finance, social enterprise, community investment, and related areas — with some successes and a great many more failures. (I consider the latter inevitable when working with entrepreneurial innovation, and as a pioneer I tend to remember all the arrows I’ve pulled out of my back more vividly than the modest achievements I can lay claim to.)

What’s important however is that through all of this has run a constant theme of seeking to engage in beneficial and indeed profitable social transformation. This continues today, in the work we’re doing to create a foundation for the sustainable reconstruction of the NJ Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in the development of the NJ PACE program, to join with others to build an ecovillage, and in several other areas. Just as importantly, I regard our work on personal and social transformation as an integral part of this effort, insofar as it is designed to awaken an “ecological consciousness” (see Theodore Roszak’s “Awakening the Ecological Unconscious,” http://www.context.org/iclib/ic34/roszak/) in the global brain.

Obviously, though, this needs to lead us to a series of practical endeavors. Here are some of the ones we’re looking at or working on that I think are most interesting:

  • Inexpensive solar energy for everyone
  • Other forms of renewable energy, esp. wind and small hydro
  • Energy conservation
  • Alternative currencies
  • “Sustainable Shore” Dialogs
  • Ecovillages and intentional communities
  • Sustainable local food systems
  • Community transformation

What these are, and how they all fit together, is is the focus of the next section.


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Correction: We'll be hosting this year's holiday potluck — "Bringing Solar Power Home for the Holidays" — on Saturday, December 15, from 4 to 9 p.m. Click here for more details. RSVP to [email protected].
Saturday, November 17, 2012, 10 a.m. Eastern: Sustainable Neighborhood & Community Conversations (III).
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2nd 'Buy Haitian, Restore Haiti Conference', January 26, 2012, Karibe Convention Center, Petion Ville, Haiti
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Saturday, March 19, 1-4 p.m. "Creating the Morristown EcoCenter." Held at 55 Bank Street, Morristown, the site of the proposed EcoCenter.
Saturday, February 19, 1-4 p.m. Monthly meeting, ""A Profound Transformation in Consciousness," Morris County Library, Whippany, NJ. Click here for details.
Saturday, January 15, 1-4 p.m. Putting Idealism into Practice: Tour of Half Moon House. Click here for details.
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