YELLOW SPRINGS, OHIO – Former professor and author David Korten told close to 300 applauding peak oil activists that they are not a fringe minority but the leading edge of a super-majority “and it's time we start acting like it.”
Korten issued his rallying call in October at the “Fourth U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions” where activists from 30 some states discussed ways to respond to declining oil production and other coming planetary woes. Korten joined a dozen other speakers in “Planning for Hard Times,” the theme of the three-day conference sponsored by Community Solution at Antioch College.
“The day of reckoning for our profligate ways has arrived,” Korten said. “Peak oil, climate chaos, exhaustion of freshwater, species extinction, financial collapse, and social disintegration are causing a great unraveling.” Now is the time, Korten said, for a great turning from a 5000-year history of empire, driven today by a suicidal competition over the earth's remaining resources, to a cooperative earth community which shares resources to maintain healthy communities, families and natural systems.
Korten, author of The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, said that empire “elevates the most power-hungry and ethically challenged to the highest positions of power.” And the former Harvard University business professor, also author of When Corporations Rule the World, said the corporations that perpetuate this empire system are best described as “gigantic pools of money with artificial legal personalities and required by law to behave like sociopaths.”
Korten cited opinion polls showing 90 percent of Americans believe that large corporations have too much power and more than 80 percent want to see greater priority given to the needs of children, family, communities, and a healthy environment. And he described economic growth as an engine of environmental destruction which also increases the income gap between rich and poor, with the need instead to focus on living better with less (negative economic growth) and moving toward equality through redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.
Other speakers promoted cooperation and community to create local sustainable businesses, turn millions of Americans into local farmers, and find ways to reduce energy use in housing, transportation and food production.
“It’s about creating a new society, and it begins with us,” said Pat Murphy, executive director of Community Solution, which organizes the annual conference. This need for a societal transition was a continuing conference theme.
“During the lifetime of the boomer generation, roughly half the world’s important non-renewable resources will have been used up…forever,” said Richard Heinberg, a leading peak oil educator and author of The Party’s Over, Powerdown and more recently Peak Everything. Heinberg said this will lead to less available energy, more labor needed in agriculture, widespread relocation of people and a massive replacement of infrastructure.
And he asked: “How do we accomplish this enormous societal reorganization without chaotic breakdown?”
Start with personal solutions, Heinberg said, adding “adjust your own oxygen mask before helping others.” He suggested working locally and regionally because “higher levels of administration may not be in a position to help much with local needs.”
But, he warned, without national and international agreements, irreversible ecosystem collapse is likely.
“There is no hope for a soft landing, business as usual…normal life as we’ve come to know it,” Heinberg said. “So get ready for hard times,” he said. “If it’s not too late,” Heinberg concluded, “what we do now will determine whether the outcome is desirable or merely survivable.”
Homeowner Larry Halpern’s personal account of dramatically curtailing his energy use illustrated this potential. “I don’t wish to see other people suffer because I was unwilling to be inconvenienced and I don’t wish to suffer later because I didn’t have the time for an inconvenience now,” he said.
After learning about peak oil in 2004 and being disillusioned with traditional activism, Larry said he and his wife, Gail, decided to “take a time out trying to change the world, and focus a little more on trying to change ourselves.”
Thanks mostly to behavior changes and do-it-yourself projects in their Springfield, Ohio home, over the next four years they reduced electricity use from around 400 kilowatt hours per month to 36 kWh, cut natural gas use by a third, and lowered water use by a factor of five.
Halpern observed “no electricity days” and removed his energy-guzzling air conditioner and refrigerator. He then replaced some of his appliances with low-energy alternatives, including a solar cooker, an LED reading light, solar battery re-chargers and a composting toilet.
The couple, both professional musicians, also ate exclusively from their own garden, a Community Supported Agriculture subscription farm, the local farmers’ market and a food cooperative.
“When people are presented with the big picture of peak oil they often get overwhelmed and close off,” Halpern said. “I’ve decided to focus less on trying to get people to see things my way and more on just trying to help them live more sustainably and cooperatively.”
Another speaker with a post-peak oil way of life was Judy Wicks, restaurant owner and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and the Sustainable Business Network of Philadelphia. Her Philadelphia restaurant, The White Dog Café, is a model for just, local, sustainable business.
The café sources all produce in season from local organic family farms, uses only humanely raised meat and poultry and gets all fish and seafood from sustainable fisheries. Wind power generates much of the cafe's electricity, the first business in Pennsylvania to do so. Entry-level employees make a minimum living wage.
“Business is about relationships with everyone we buy from and sell to, and work with, and about our relationship with Earth itself,” Wicks said. “We’ve become disconnected from each other and from our places and without direct relationships, few of us think about the consequences of our economic transactions.”
Wicks said that “business has been corrupted as an instrument of greed rather than one of service to the common good. Yet we know that business is beautiful when we put our creativity and care into producing a product or service needed by our community.”
Sharon Astyk, author of the forthcoming book A Nation of Farmers, shared Wicks’ vision of creating sustainable local food economies. She said the United States needs 50 million farmers and 200 million home cooks. “We need to get everyone back in the kitchen,” Astyk said, citing statistics that show one out of every three meals in the U.S. is from a fast food place and only 80 percent of Americans own a frying pan.
Murphy, from Community Solution, also went on to emphasize eating a low-energy diet, including less grain-fed meat and manufactured foods, where 15 to 30 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to produce each calorie of food energy.
Among the other detrimental effects of our industrial food system, according to Murphy, are poor health, tortured animals, lack of crop diversity, deteriorating soil, poisoned waterways, and the drawdown of “fossil” water. He compared this to a more agrarian country, China, where 38 percent of the people are in agriculture, and where they generate six times the amount of calories per acre compared to the United States while conserving their soil.
Murphy also discussed lifestyle changes in transportation and housing, pointing out that Americans annually generate 20 tons of carbon dioxide per person while the International Panel on Climate Change estimates the limit should be one ton per capita.
Bob Steinbach, a Dayton-area transportation planner shared ways to reduce transportation fuel through ridesharing while Linda Wigington of Affordable Comfort, Inc. explained how to reduce the energy use of existing buildings.
With suburbia’s low population density, motor vehicles are the most viable short-term transportation option, Steinbach said. He added that Community Solution’s “Smart Jitney” proposal, a ridesharing scheme using cell phones, is important because, “fuller cars mean fewer cars, which means less oil is needed.”
Steinbach discussed the biggest obstacle to the success of ridesharing programs –willing passengers. “The mindset has to change,” said Steinbach, noting that the privacy and flexibility of driving alone currently trump the environmental and financial benefits of sharing rides.
Wigington discussed “deep retrofit” strategies for existing homes to cut their energy use by 80 percent, using a standard called the “Passive House.” The principles of this German-based model include tight, super-insulated homes, with a thick building “envelope” and high performance windows and doors.
“Our housing is facing a crisis of obsolescence,” Wigington said, “and we have a lion share of existing houses that need to be dealt with to reduce energy in the near term.”
Wigington said home energy use is not just a function of appliances or the structure. “How a family lives in a house has a major impact on it,” she said.
Another speaker who emphasized a fundamental societal change was Thomas Princen, author of The Logic of Sufficiency. “One of the dominant principles of our economy, efficiency, is not up to the task of dealing with peak oil and climate change,” he said.
Princen described efficiency as the basis of an economic order where raw materials are extracted rapidly and thoroughly, converted into products people buy, and disposed of in the least costly and visible manner possible.
In contrast to claims that we can “grow our economy with green products and pollute more efficiently” Princen said that efficiency too easily leads to more consumption, not less, and sufficiency, which is geared toward curtailing excess, would be more useful.
Participants returned to their communities with both a framework for widespread change and the practical strategies to reduce their personal and local energy use. “This has become a special core community to serve the formation of the new world that's being created next in the midst of total breakdown and crisis around us,” said participant Peter Jones of nearby Dayton.
Eric Morrison of Battle Creek, Michigan, said, “Now I have a path to take and…to show others the way too.”
For more information on Community Solution and to order conference DVDs go to www.communitysolution.org/07confdvds.html.