Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Plan C-B

“Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change” by Pat Murphy is one of the most well-researched and comprehensive books I’ve read on the causes of the major crises threatening humanity and what to do about them. The book was recommended by one of the founders of my local Transition group, who found in it concrete suggestions about how to go through “energy descent,” one of the primary goals of the community oriented international Transition movement (Murphy himself runs Community Solutions, a like-minded organization).

If you enjoy detailed analysis full of facts (especially numbers) like I do, you will find “Plan C” to be a treasure-trove. What’s best, in my view, is that Murphy fairly lays out the logic and data behind what he sees as the four main responses to peak oil (the point in time where supplies of oil will start to inevitably decline) and global warming (climate change caused by excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), and why he favors just one of these responses -- reducing consumption quickly to a sustainable level (energy descent, equivalent to “radical simplicity”). Of the other options, he gives the most attention to the low probability of finding new technologies that could maintain something like our current standard of living (Plan B); describes how continuing business-as-usual (Plan A) will lead to disaster; and briefly mentions that some people might simply expect the worst and do their best to survive (Plan D).

Based upon my own research, I’ve advocated a variation of Plan B: Developing a way of living based on renewable and replaceable resources. I dismiss Plan A for much the same reason Murphy does, because population collapse is a virtually certain result; and the close tracking of world population and consumption has led me to shy away from a generic Plan C because it follows that a loss of population would accompany less consumption.

Having documented Cuba’s survival of its own “peak oil,” Murphy suggests that the world could survive by similar means, with the rebuilding of community and a return to a more frugal way of life. This assumes that population and consumption can be decoupled from each other; but I can imagine an alternative explanation that maintains that coupling: There is a fraction of consumption, determinant of overall health and well-being, that is proportional to overall consumption on a global scale (or at least in closed systems); this fraction may be as low as 20%, based on a comparison of U.S. waste data from 1997 quoted in Murphy’s book, ecological footprint data for countries from the World Wildlife Fund in 2003, and my own projections of world per capita consumption. It turns out that more than 80% of U.S. waste is in carbon dioxide (by weight), the main human contribution to global warming, which easily accounts for the remaining amount if extrapolated to the rest of the world (in fact, as Murphy discusses in-depth, most of the carbon dioxide is generated by the richest countries like the U.S, who are rich because they have access to the most fossil fuels). These considerations don’t offer me much comfort, however, since my projections are based on the 20% we directly use, and they show that amount (along with population) reaching a peak in a dozen years; while fossil fuel use is expected by the peak oil experts to reach its maximum imminently, if it hasn’t already.

It is likely that the carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere will have the effect of cutting back on our available time due to the use of more resources as we adapt to the resulting climate changes. The best way to reduce this threat is to curb consumption of fossil fuels; but to keep the world population from decreasing, we will need to maintain the remaining 20% of consumption while more renewable and reusable resources are brought into use. Those who consume more fossil fuels will necessarily bear the brunt of this effort, which will likely also, according to my research, buy a few years as the statistical distribution of consumption within the world’s population becomes less lopsided toward excess consumption (this is a much smaller gain than I suspect Murphy and others like David Korten would be comfortable with, but it is 25% of the time I estimate we have left before the population peak). We will need a good “Plan B” to carry us from there, but with a very different vision of the lifestyle we want to maintain than the one driving the “green” technologists of today.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Taking Time to Make Time

I recently rediscovered the fact that there is a universe of fascinating things and people awaiting us in our own neighborhoods if we just take the time to find them. Slowing down and getting to better know what’s already around us is much more fulfilling than the fleeting artificial experiences we routinely buy and sell at great cost to our planet, our health, and our humanity.

TV and movies come to mind when the term “artificial experience” is used, but even quick trips to hike or visit “must-see” tourist attractions should be included. In such cases we come away with limited memories and knowledge, which there is great pressure to replace with something different or new that someone else has created or at least enabled.

The best experiences are the ones we create for ourselves, making them part of us, and us part of them. This takes time and effort, but ultimately has more staying power, and is most easily done around where we live. Familiarizing ourselves with other people and species, and letting them do the same with us, also establishes bonds that tie us together as a community or an ecosystem.

It is nearly impossible to not have an impact beyond our localities, and to be fully engaged and responsible citizens of the world we have an obligation to know its extent, in lives and places touched. If we took the time to do such research, before we bought something or elected someone for instance, we would most likely reduce both the amount and the deleterious effects of our actions. We would also feel empowerment from the knowledge along with a visceral connection parts of the Universe we can’t directly know, what might be called spirituality.

Living more completely takes time; and because it takes fewer resources and connects us more strongly to the world, it also makes time through improved chances for the longevity of those whose lives we are part of, adding to their richness of life as a bonus.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The World I Want to Live In

I've pretty much concluded that the kind of world I want to live in will be a cooperative community of people who provide for each other's basic needs and those of future generations to the extent physically possible, and then using what's left (or finding more) to provide opportunities for everyone to optimize their personal happiness without diminishing that of others. By contrast, the world we currently live in is largely based on individual competition without enough concern for the consequences to others, now or in the future.

From all the study I’ve done, the most convincing approach to creating such a world is the cultural emulation of an ecosystem, whose parts survive the longest that are best at maximizing the long-term survival of the system. Individuals and species may perceive that they are merely pursuing their own self-interest, but the range of ways they can do so have been restricted by the demands of sustained survival.

It is self-evident that much of humanity does not recognize any restrictions on its behavior, and is in fact dedicated to removing as many as possible. It sees its self-interest as served by the subduing and eventually replacing of the rest of Earth’s ecosystem (the biosphere) with its own creations, extending to those of other planets when possible. Like a virus eating away the body of the planet, it must spread to another host to survive.

Capitalist economies have evolved so that people can maximize their ability to meet their needs and desires by minimally helping others to do the same. Democratic governments co-evolved to offset the worst consequence of this, the starving of the majority of the population to the advantage of the few (though not always successfully, as recent history demonstrates). These two components of society, even when functioning well together, do not adequately (if at all) account for the world they live in, merely its current human inhabitants; they are therefore fundamentally incapable of surviving for very long, because they allow the pursuit of a physical impossibility: perpetual and exponential growth.

A cultural ecosystem would be the kind of world I mentioned at the beginning, where people identify their self-interest with the long-term survival of everyone and everything on the planet, whether consciously or by training. To the extent that we were limited in our awareness, we would live in groups whose size and power allowed us to responsibly operate without our ignorance adversely affecting the whole, just as the biosphere does with localized ecosystems. The net result would be a restructuring of our perception so we can accurately feel that we are helping ourselves while helping others.