Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Practical Revolution

While our policy leaders grapple with the problem of keeping the status quo of political and economic power in place, a revolution is gaining momentum that will hopefully have a healthy alternative in place by the time it becomes impossible to maintain it. That was my takeaway message from a recent conference on the “local economy in Transition.”

The Transition (or “Transition Town”) movement is only one manifestation of the revolution, which has been in progress for several decades. Predictions of the end of cheap energy (“peak oil”) have been refined since M. King Hubbert first proposed it in the 1950s. Combined with evidence of widespread environmental degradation (which spawned the “environmental movement,” and is only now becoming most evident in the acceleration of global climate change), mainstream citizens from around the world are preparing for what will either be a massive catastrophe or the beginning of a new, healthier, and more responsible way of life. Most of us are hoping and working to ease the “transition” to the latter.

The focus of Colorado's Transition contingent is on developing the ability to feed people with local resources, since food is the most critical need we have. Boulder County is the epicenter of the movement, both geographically and culturally, the first and most active such group in the United States, and the conference dealt mostly with the details of feeding that specific place. In the spirit of the movement, which is really more of a network than an organization, local lessons and experience will be shared with everyone else so they can use what might be practical for their situations, recognizing full well that each locality will have its own unique problems and solutions.

I met a number of local farmers, government officials, business experts, and people like me who have more than a passing interest in the subject. We each have our own perspectives, and were able to share them. The global perspective (my favorite) hung over all of us, since it is framing the timing and severity of the changes we must plan for. The conference opened with a new movie that addresses it, “The Economics of Happiness,” which argues that economic globalization is perhaps the single greatest contributor our present condition. In isolated cultures, people are self-sufficient, sustainable, and very happy; and when those cultures are exposed to the dominant global consumer culture, they become very unhappy, unsustainable, and are subject to a host of other maladies. The movie highlighted a core belief among sustainability advocates that happiness, among other indicators of health and wellbeing, decreases with wealth. Having studied the statistical evidence (which in the aggregate suggests otherwise), I attribute the difference to how isolated a population is: In a closed system, whether it be an isolated society or our entire planet, the trends will be as I expect (though perhaps with unique growth parameters); whereas, in an open system, the equivalent of a temperature gradient will develop between regions of different resource concentration, altering the perceptions (and other characteristics) of the smaller group to more match those of the larger one.

The first full day of the conference started with a presentation by Nicole Foss from The Automatic Earth, who described how the global economy is likely to collapse, and soon, due to over-speculation and the realities of energy availability. A large part of her evidence took the form of graphs showing the life-cycles of economic bubbles, and how the global economy resembles them. I was particularly struck by the resemblance of those curves to the graphs of population over time that I've derived, especially where the bubbles burst. Foss had a list of recommendations that match the best advice I've seen, regardless of one's economic situation, key among them staying out of debt and building a reserve of cash and physical assets that could be useful when the collapse occurs. I shudder at how naive those last words appear, imagining someone building a tiny snow shelter to protect against an avalanche hundreds of feet deep.

A friend of mine was on a panel about relationships, which dealt with the psychological aspects of the transition: how we can personally cope with living in two worlds at once, and how our relationships with each other and the natural world can help make us resilient. One piece of advice became a theme throughout the conference, to find a way to share food with neighbors as a starting point in building relationships, which could expand to include small groups of people. Without a clear notion of how fast the transition would need to occur, it seemed that fostering generally healthy behavior was the solution most favored, including one of my favorites, play, which I had a chance to explore in more depth at the end of the conference (and affected my overall reaction when I got home).

Michael Brownlee, perhaps the most visible face of Transition Colorado, led the conference, and did a masterful job of interweaving themes from the global and local viewpoints into a laser-like focus on the challenges facing Boulder County in achieving sustainability. This included a sober assessment of the area's local “foodshed” and how unprepared it currently is to meet its own food needs. He enlisted the help of Michael Shuman, an economist from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), who had done an analysis of Cleveland, Ohio to find out how to meet even 25% of that community's needs. Interestingly, despite Boulder's agricultural base, Cleveland is better prepared. Shuman described what he saw as the best approaches to achieving even that modest goal, which included getting active participation from businesses, non-profits, and academia. Much of the discussion was oriented around how much communities depend on long supply chains for even their most basic needs such as food, both in terms of how expensive this is from a resource point of view (not just energy), and how vulnerable it makes them to sudden and uncontrollable disruption.

Delving more into the “revolution” idea, Woody Tasch from Slow Money compared what is happening now to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and the predictions of movies such as “Network.” His organization is attempting to get one million people to invest one percent of their assets in local food enterprises within a decade, which in conventional terms is fairly radical, but I fear not near radical enough. He reacted to the “radical” label attached to people advocating support of local economies by pointing out how radical it really is (and I'm paraphrasing) for people give their money to strangers to invest in something they don't understand, somewhere they've never been, hoping that those strangers will deliver what they say they will subject to conditions they have no control over.

I learned in several sessions that the local food infrastructure has been dismantled by globalization and how it will effectively need to be rebuilt. Local farmers and government officials associated with Boulder's open space management debated the details, including how to process, store, and deliver food to people, not to mention revitalizing soil which has been leached due to large-scale agribusiness practices. More of us will have to participate, directly and indirectly, in the process building human-scale relationships across the state. With only about three days of food available in the event of a major disruption, this effort will need to progress as quickly as possible.

For a long time now, I've had the sense that our civilization has been systematically disabling past ways of surviving as it relentlessly pursues new technologies and cultural norms that increase its energy flow. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness that doing so may end up killing us all, and we should start reconstructing them (or hopefully, something better) – and soon.

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