The editors and I asked this books’ contributors to send us their recommendations for things that could be done on a personal, community, national and international level to help prepare for the future. Naturally enough, our request was interpreted differently by different people: some contributors focused exclusively on the subject of their articles in the book, such as the need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions or undertake financial reforms, whereas others took the opportunity to provide much more general advice.
Additionally, not everyone was convinced that it’s helpful to think in terms of escape routes at all. Lucy McAndrew wrote in this regard that “the bottom line is that there is no escape route. If we have created an unstoppable economic domino effect, we’ve also created, with more devastating consequences, an unstoppable environmental effect — in terms of climate change and in terms of biodiversity collapse”. As we’ll see though, she doesn’t think we should just despair over this situation; she has some ideas for concrete action which I’ve included further down.
Emer O’Siochru also believes that “there is nowhere to escape to”, but her reasoning is somewhat different. She goes on:
“We are already reasonably well placed here in Ireland compared to anywhere else in the developed world. We should instead stand our ground […] There is no single cataclysmic [event] to escape from. The events we fear are in the now, happening daily and weekly, all the time. These events will build, breach a threshold, cause major disruption followed by a re-adjustment and form a new baseline from which events will build again. Whether we allow the disruption/s to be so complete that substantive recovery is not possible is entirely in our own hands. The future is ours to create out of this process; nothing is predetermined.”
On that note, let’s start looking at recommendations for the different levels of action.
Re-skilling and staying healthy
Most of the contributors share a belief in the importance of developing skills that would make us less reliant on the industrialised economy. David Korowicz suggests that “an investment in knowledge and skills is the wisest and cheapest of investments”. Brian Davey describes how most people in low-energy civilisations are skilled in basic food growing and preparation, making and repairing clothes and maintaining their shelter: “Activities and training that pre-figure these basics are most useful — and many people [in industrialised countries] don’t have these skills, which are not valued.”
In a similar vein, Nate Hagens believes that “novelty activities” that are plentiful in the oil age will die out and be replaced by “activities more aligned with human time scales — like gardening, or art, or sports”, and he too believes that it’s a good idea to get involved with such activities sooner rather than later. He adds that “human capital — one’s health, skills and talents — will start to replace the security of being able to buy anything with enough digits in the bank — indeed getting back to top physical health is one of the best investments of time and resources one can make, irrespective of future resource availability”.
Oscar Kjellberg suggests that we should “take an interest in basic food growing and preparation and shelter maintenance”, while Lucy McAndrew says we need to “practice basic husbandry.” Anne Ryan comments that “with gardening, transport, technology, recycling, cooking and growing, you can pass on what you know and learn from others.” More detailed ideas for developing food security can be found in Bruce Darrell’s panel immediately below.
Developing a food security strategy
Start by assuming that the land producing your food is deficient in essential minerals and has an imbalance of major nutrients. Assume that the food produced will be deficient in key minerals and will be of minimal nutritional value. Assume that this food may prevent you from starving, but will not sustain or improve your health. Your key task is to correct mineral deficiencies and balance soil fertility.
Educate yourself about the relationship between:
Develop a Food Security Strategy. Determine what food security would look like for your family and community in two, five and ten years’ time. Develop a map or plan on how to achieve these goals which would answer the following questions:
Map your land and the surrounding landscape to determine which areas are needed for ecological services and biodiversity, which areas can be best used for intensive food production, and which areas can be mined for nutrients, material and soil to improve the first two. This ecological triage will see the long-term degradation of parts of the landscape but the significant improvement in the quality and productivity of other areas.
Test the soil to determine the fertility availability and balance, the deficiencies of trace minerals and potential toxicity caused by excessive amounts of heavy metals and pollutants. Develop strategies for dealing with both the deficiencies and toxicity, including changing the location and method of food production if necessary.
Concentrate efforts on smaller areas of land rather than having a diffuse effect over a larger area. It is better to produce smaller amounts of higher-quality food than to try to produce large amounts of low-quality food with increased risk of losing everything.
Use remaining access to money and affordable energy to import fertility and trace minerals, to make major structural changes to the landscape, to build necessary infrastructure and to purchase tools and equipment that will assist in future food production.
Import the broad spectrum of trace elements in the form found in seaweed or other plant materials, ground rock dust or sea salt. Import concentrated forms of specific nutrients that you know are deficient in your soil and carefully incorporate them, ideally through the composting process. Do not let a strict adherence to organic principles or beliefs in natural gardening methods prevent you from quickly fixing what is deficient.
Increase the nutrient-retention capability and biological activity of your soil by increasing the organic content of the soil, incorporate biochar if appropriate, and change the land-management practices to reduce soil erosion and leaching of minerals.
Capture the fertility and carbon that currently flows through your community. This can be done through composting, sheet mulching, anaerobic digestion, production of biochar, and through fungal decomposition. Incorporate this material into the land designated to produce your food, or store it until this land becomes available.
Restrict exports of fertility from your land and community, unless you have an abundant and sustainable supply of fresh minerals and fertility to replace what is exported. If minerals are difficult or expensive to obtain, do not sell or trade food as a means of obtaining cash or other materials and goods.
Develop sustainable and robust nutrient cycling systems so that all of the minerals and fertility that are harvested is returned to the land. This includes human wastes.
Test the nutritional density of your food by using a simple refractometer to determine the amount of sugars, vitamins, minerals and other solids that are dissolved in the juice of vegetables, fruit and plant sap. The nutritional density should increase as mineral deficiencies are corrected, fertility is balanced and production methods are changed to increase the biological health of your soil. If it doesn’t, you are doing something wrong. Food with high nutritional density will improve your health, and is a sign of a healthy and abundant ecosystem.
Dan Sullivan thinks we should consider whether we are reinforcing existing power structures with our spending, or helping to change them: “Regardless of the environmental consequences, money spent on land and natural resources is money given to privileged title holders, while money spent on labor products is money given to your fellow producers. Although all products involve both labor and natural resources, the proportions vary widely.”
Patrick Andrews emphasises the effects of our decisions as individual consumers on the economy and environment. He writes “I recommend you really reflect on who you are supporting when you spend money. What is the nature of the businesses you are engaging with? What’s their purpose and what is your relationship to them? What impact do they have in your community? Can you influence them? We tend to underestimate what impact we can have as customers — by being more conscious of all the choices we make each day when we spend our money, we can have a positive influence on the businesses we engage with.”
Corinna Byrne has a specific suggestion along those lines: “if consumers insist on detailed food-labelling based on the carbon footprint of products, this would help to drive agriculture to reduce emissions.”
Material investments: choosing frugality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Dmitry Orlov, among others, discusses spending more in terms of its personal effects than its effects on the economy as a whole. This fits with his general analysis, which suggests that the larger economic system will probably collapse so there’s little point in large-scale consumer activism. He thinks you should “make arrangements to lose your money slowly over time rather than all at once in a single financial confidence hiccup. Withdraw your money from circulation by tying it down in durable objects that are guaranteed to have residual use value in a non-industrial context.”
Dan Sullivan shares this emphasis on frugality: “Personally, use as little land and natural resources as you can without unduly hampering yourself. Repair rather than replace, and look for products whose value reflect labor costs rather than resource costs.”
John Sharry believes you should “remember to make the most of the wealth and resources you currently have, as these will be much more scarce in the future.” Oscar Kjellberg advises you to “get rid of your unsustainable assets and make yourself debt free. Involve yourself and your money in a community with natural resources to fall back on in case something happens.” Richard Douthwaite also believes that we need to cultivate frugality and build community bonds: “Each family should try to reduce its outgoings as far as possible because it will not be able to rely on an outside income in future. It should therefore link with its neighbours to meet common needs.” As we shall see, this theme of building community is a very popular one.
David Korowicz comments that “we will never be materially richer than now, what we have is a precious resource to be used wisely.” He describes what he calls “resilient investments”, the aim of which, he says, “is not to give a conventional return-on-investment. It is to preserve your welfare in an uncertain future by providing something that is likely to be useful and important in that future. It does not have to make financial sense now.” He believes that “now is the time to liquidate assets held abroad (property, investments); and non-resilient ones at home.” He also thinks that “real assets, production & skills” will hold more value in relative terms than “cash, equities, bonds and much property.”
He has some suggestions for specific things to invest in: “Just because energy and food have the most direct impact on the collapse of systems does not mean that we should just think only in terms of investing directly in renewable energy and food. We might also think of workhorses, trailers, and harnesses; containers and demi-johns; barges and sail boats; shovels & hoes; basic chemicals; waste re-cycling; curing & preserving; bottling & canning; forestry & hydro-saws; reserve communications systems; storage facilities; and so on.”
Corinna Byrne stresses the need for personal investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions: “Switching from the use of peat for home heating to renewable technologies such as solar and geothermal power is recommended. The installation of small wind turbines to power one’s home will also help. When it comes to food, much of what we eat is produced under emissions-intense conditions. Growing your own and purchasing locally may contribute to reducing emissions.”
With regard to energy use, it may be better to keep things as simple as possible, even if that means losing some efficiency. David Korowicz writes “Don’t be seduced by the most efficient technology. It is far better to have something simple and locally repairable, even if inefficient, than something highly dependent upon globalised systems for upgrades, components and repairs.”
Dmitry Orlov thinks we should “consider what’s coming in the context of emergency preparedness — except that this emergency is not expected to end. Stockpile supplies and learn skills to maintain and repair your most important possessions and equipment for as long as possible after new products and replacement parts and supplies are no longer manufactured. Devise alternatives for heating, cooking and transportation that do not rely on fossil fuels. Find alternatives to inhabiting the landscape that do not rely on current built-up infrastructure and provide you with direct access to food (plants and animals).”
Avoiding a bunker mentality
A number of the contributors believe that there is a danger of over-emphasising the role that self-sufficiency should play. Graham Barnes is one of them. He writes that “despite a personal predilection for living in the moment, I would place ‘taking an interest in the future’ as #1 on a personal action level — above the other contender — reskilling/self-sufficiency — which I support and admire but can be part of a bunker mentality.”
Lucy McAndrew makes a moral argument for building community: “[...] we must, for the sake of all that is valuable in the human, resist the urge to shrink our moral circle. We must overcome the tendency that fear will imbue us with to fortify our own ‘castles’ at the expense of community.”
She goes on to suggest: “Instead, and against every fear-mongering product and media-call, we must create links within villages and towns and recognise that even those who think they are against us are actually for us, since they, too, are for survival.” Some readers might question whether being for survival means being for everyone’s survival, or for the survival of one’s own community, or even just one’s own self.
But in any case, there are other practical reasons to avoid a bunker mentality, some of which David Korowicz identifies: “Your wealth will not provide you with a separate peace. Firstly, because most of what is regarded as wealth will vanish. Secondly, we are all dependent on the globalised economy, if it fails, if fails us all. Thirdly, you are unlikely to survive without the skills and networks of others. Finally, sitting upon your hoard surrounded by the anxious and destitute is not safe.”
Emer O’Siochru describes the negative effects of a bunker mentality on the larger community: “Attempting to recreate self-sufficiency at family level in basic food, energy and shelter is not a realistic strategy if generally adopted. Others have pointed out its flaws if adopted unilaterally. Its widespread adoption would certainly accelerate knowledge destruction and social breakdown. It is exactly the same failed strategy adopted by the Congested District Board and the later Land Commission that so undermined the village communities on the Western seaboard, caused centuries of emigration and destroyed the Irish language.”
The role of specialisation
Emer O’Siochru writes that “specialisation fostered by the growth of settlements is still the same powerful wealth and well-being building tool it was when it pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages. Increasing local life-support system integration requires more and better specialist technical knowledge, not less.”
In apparent contrast, Brian Davey believes that “most of us are too specialised for our own good. The chief danger is to think that we are special and that our unique information and skills, which currently fit a high-energy, highly specialised economy, will remain indispensable.”
It seems likely that in the future almost all of us will spend more of our time on activities that are geared to basic day-to-day survival, such as growing food, chopping wood, making and mending clothes, maintaining shelters and looking after livestock. However, specialisation will have an important role to play as well; it just won’t be dependent on high-energy inputs anymore.
Davey is probably right in suggesting that people who spend a great deal of their time in front of a computer screen, such as myself, will experience some big changes in their lives. Instead we’ll need people like coopers, a profession that’s not very much in demand at the moment but that used to be quite important (my great-grandfather was one). Another profession likely to experience a resurgence in popularity is blacksmithing. And some existing professions will remain too, of course: we’ll need expert plasterers to build the kind of ship hulls that Dmitry Orlov describes in his second article, midwives, potters, architects who know how to use local building materials, vets, bakers — the list goes on.
An uncluttered mental landscape
Anne Ryan emphasises simplicity, both in material and in psychological terms: “it is always easier to cultivate hope if one is coping well with present circumstances. We can all use enough to create personal stability. Avoid being too busy, or having a surfeit of possessions; cut down on unnecessary decisions. It is true liberation to know how to live well with just the right amount of material accumulation. Talk to friends and family members about these issues.”
Lucy McAndrew discusses the need for imaginative thinking: “Remember that empathy is reaching out with your imagination, it is a stretch, an extravagance, and therefore it is characteristic, essential to what we are as animals. What extravagant humanity has done is to reach out into the material realm and ensure its comfort, at the cost of the future. Now we have to use our imaginations extravagantly to square the circle of how we can maintain our own comfort in the face of increasing discomforting environmental realities, and in the face of an increasing knowledge of the effects of our actions.”
Graham Barnes, as already mentioned, believes it is important to try to think clearly about the future. He points out that “most of us lead busy lives. Much has been written about the work/life balance and there has been a tempering of the American Dream ‘work for success’ ethic with a search for ‘quality time’. But the zeitgeist is changing more fundamentally than that now. Work and quality of life are two legs of the stool; the third is future. Securing a sensible work/life balance on its own is a self-centred agenda and only an unstable equilibrium is possible without the third leg.”
Nate Hagens also emphasises the need to take an accurate view of the future: “Ultimately, we have been living beyond our aggregate means for sometime and are presently in a society wide ‘Wile E. Coyote’ moment. Given the prevalence of ‘unexpected reward’ as a driver of our behavior, to lower our expectations of the future, and redefine for ourselves and our family what we consider ‘success’ will be a psychological robust strategy that will serve us well in many ways. Who knows, if enough people get healthy, make new friends, redefine wealth, and change their skill sets to something useful for when the fossil pixie dust starts to disappear, we will have not only improved our individual futures but in doing so made a more resilient, sustainable culture as well.” As we’ve seen in Davie Philip’s article, movements such as the Transition Towns one are built on the premise that the future need not be uniformly worse than the present, but rather, as Hagens implies, that progress will be measured in more accurate ways than the present practice of conflating it with an increase in GDP and personal spending.
John Sharry comments that “being aware of the coming peak oil/climate crises can take its personal toll on an individual’s mental health. Seriously contemplating the consequences can cause you to feel anxiety, depression and at times despair. Further, because your awareness will take you outside the large-scale denial in mainstream society, you are likely to feel an ‘outsider’ or marginalised. Certainly if you talk publicly about the problems you can be perceived as a bit of ‘crank’ or even a ‘kill joy’ socially. Preserving your own mental health and well-being is as important as taking action and there are many things that can help.”
He advises us to “seek support from like-minded people who are share your concerns and who don’t belong to the mainstream denial. Joining an environmentally aware organisation such as Transition Towns, Cultivate or Feasta will bring you into contact with a support community.” He believes we have to “accept that the majority of people will not accept the problems and be largely in denial until a major crises hits. See your job as building an ‘oasis’ of awareness and preparedness with a small group of like-minded people.”
He continues: “Many people who face a ‘fatal diagnosis’ report that after an initial period of grief or despair, the news can make their daily life more precious as they learn to appreciate what they have. Learn to enjoy the moment and to prioritise the things that matter the most to you in your daily life such as connection with family and friends etc.”
David Korowicz also emphasises the importance of friendship, in particular its psychological benefits: “you will have to stand up and put your neck on the line [since the longer you wait to take action the more options will be lost]. It can be lonely. Find some fellow travellers to share in the trials and triumphs; and the hilarious predicament in which you find yourselves.”
Nate Hagens adds that “for many reasons if there is less stuff to go around, and higher possibility of certain stuff not being available, having more friends, (and a variety of them) will help both individual and community trajectories.” Let’s go on then to investigate how some of those community trajectories might play out.
Almost all contributors place particular emphasis on community-level action. Emer O’Siochru writes that “the most effective scale to intervene is the local or community scale so I will disregard the others to give it its due prominence. A resilient local community can act as a circuit breaker to halt or slow a cascading collapse of the larger systems and provide absolutely essential support for individuals and families while they adjust to the new reality. My recommendations are both practical and political [...] Get thee to a village or small rural town. A ghost estate house might be got very cheap. If you can afford to, hold on to your rural house as a summer dacha and/or your city house as the best place to be in a sudden or single emergency event.”
Dan Sullivan thinks that when you’re deciding where to live you should “vote with your feet but vote intelligently. The municipalities, states and countries that get the biggest shares of their revenue from taxes on land, natural resources and pollution will have more stable economies and more affordable lifestyles for productive citizens than those which tax productivity.” He believes we need to “show local governments how they can prosper from untaxing productivity and up-taxing land, pollution, and resource extraction to the degree that those things happen in their neighborhoods.”
Dmitry Orlov suggests you “make connections with people around you and work to identify ways to gain access to what you need to survive in absence of an official economy. Convert virtual communities to face-to-face interaction. Make enough personal connections so that you can go “electronically dark” if the network fails or take yourself off the map if the political climate turns predatory.”
Brian Davey also takes a pragmatic approach: “the issue is not: what can I (or I and my family) do to survive the coming crunch?” — it is what can the communities and networks that I belong to do to survive? And what is my contribution to the collective process? As a rule of thumb, if you play a role looking after the community in these basic activities, it is likely that the community will look after you. Important in this respect is to provide support for those members of communities that are vulnerable — the elderly, disabled, sick.”
He believes that at present we tend to neglect our ties with neighbours in favour of more geographically distant relationships: “[...] many of us are members of very widely dispersed communities who keep in touch via electronic and digital communications and we may have very limited near contact with people who live in close geographical proximity. In a crunch situation distant relationships may remain important but, for the provision of essential supplies, it is obviously closer communities, and what they are doing collectively, that are important. Many of us don’t really belong to local communities, so the first step may be getting to know neighbours. People eating together is a good start — the word companion comes from the Latin ‘com pani’ — with bread.” Neighbourhood street parties and potlucks, where everyone contributes something, have a role to play here.
Davey continues: “This may seem very banal and we may see ourselves as having a more important leadership role, becoming a hero or heroine of local, national or international enviromental politics. In fact, it is not the leading lights who make fine speeches and internet videos that are the most important when things start to get difficult — but the ones who can train others how to bake bread, and how to grow the grain to make it with….”
“Anyone reading this book is unlikely to be a complete social isolate and without any practical skills at all — but if you are — then just join something. A community garden is ideal. If you look you will find a few odd people out there who have also seen the chaos coming…like those in the Transition Initiatives. Far more than worrying about how you are going to invest your remaining money, though that’s important — get involved!”
Similar approaches to building community are suggested by Anne Ryan: “Join any of the existing movements: for local food, a local credit union, a local exchange system, swap club or transition-town group. Or join a group campaigning for carbon quotas or a citizens’ income. You can also bring your knowledge and your questions into groups to which you already belong, such as church, trade union, sports club, study group or workplace.”
How big should a community be?
The answer to this depends on what the community is trying to do. Graham Barnes comments that “actions appropriate for a ‘precinct’ of maybe 150 people are rather different from those appropriate for a ‘demos’ of 30,000. Feasta is arguably a precinct; a Liquidity Network [for developing a local currency] probably needs a catchment area of 30,000 or so for critical mass and substantial self-sufficiency. Community currencies are an important part of the emerging localist agenda, but only a part of it.”
Community size can make a difference in the ease of spreading information. Barnes explains that “in a precinct you may be preaching to the converted. In the process the precinct becomes better informed but can create more distance between the group and the man in the street. In a demos, you have to spread the word with more accessible and less ‘technical’ messages, and [the Liquidity Network] must become expert at this type of dialogue.”
Laurence Matthews thinks communities need to engage in meaningful debate about climate change: “The need at local level is [...] to change public opinion: for people to argue in the pubs, in the shops, in the churches, and not least to their local political representatives, for the need to take climate change seriously; to counter the complacent feeling that recycling and cutting down on plastic bags are in some way an adequate response to climate change. Profligate use of carbon, e.g. frequent air travel, has to be seen as irresponsible and socially unacceptable, in the same way that drink-driving has become. This will take courage, persistence and diplomacy.”
In order to discuss important issues effectively, we sometimes need to take a step back and discuss the discussion itself. In this vein, Patrick Andrews reminds us to reflect on the manner in which communities function, and to try and ensure that everyone is getting a say: “At community level, I suggest you pay attention to the ways that individuals interact when they get together in your community. Are the discussions dominated by a few people, or is everyone’s voice heard. Do the structures encourage proper conversations? Are the voices of both men and women able to be heard? What about young and old?”
Lucy McAndrew also focuses on the emotional health of communities: “we must practice trust and empathy, not at the expense of ourselves (we must learn self-defence, too!) but so that we can create a meme, a mental virus which will infect and inspire the people around us and allow us to deal with any forthcoming crisis in the most dignified, the most respectful and, in the highest sense, the most human way imaginable.”
In addition to these ideas, what tangible actions should communities take? Richard Douthwaite believes they should strive to become as economically independent as possible: “Every community should try to meet its basic needs from its own resources and any necessities brought in from outside should be largely to increase choice and balance by similar goods going the other way — exchanging apples for oranges, for example.” One can imagine a scenario such as that described in Orlov’s second article, where apples and oranges are transported by small sailing boats, along with spices and other goods that travel relatively easily and are in high demand.
Several contributors discuss the topic of community finance. David Korowicz suggests that “investing within your community makes you safer by making the community stronger.” He thinks we should “invest to avoid stranded assets. At some stage in an investment cycle there may be a major disruption that will halt the project. Ensure that useful assets will be left behind. For example, don’t front-load grid infrastructure investment; develop localised energy generation first.”
Richard Douthwaite elaborates on the idea of investing within one’s community: “Every community should have its own investment organisation to allow its residents to invest in activities in their own community. This will enable them to take a holistic view of possible investments. They will be able to assess their social and environmental return as well as the income they are likely to generate.”
Oscar Kjellberg has a similar proposal for developing local investment unions: “Stimulate people to reflect on who they are supporting when they are saving money. Find ways to attract savings from investors who want to save with your community and its assets rather than paper assets at stock exchanges or in equity funds that will lose even more of their value as the oil crunch worsens. Develop local enterprises through a community investment bank which should be a place where savers and entrepreneurs can socialise and discuss the development of the community. Create a local business alliance around it.” Community-supportive investment tools such as the equity partnerships and local energy bonds described in this book would fit in neatly with this approach.
To these suggestions we can add the many that Davie Philip makes in his article on the Transition Towns movement. One that particularly struck me is that “as a community [you need to] identify and strengthen your physical, social and human assets. Value the tangible and the intangible, especially the skills and talents of local people.” As mentioned above, setting up a local currency could help with this.
Limits to community action
For certain issues, however, it seems clear that action on a local or community level is insufficient; one of these is climate change. This cannot be tackled by local initiatives alone as one community’s good work could very easily be undone by another’s negligence. Laurence Matthews writes, with regard to this, that “developing local resilience etc. is all very well in itself and as an awareness-raising exercise, but the urgent need is for serious national and global action.” So now let’s look at those types of action in more detail.
The differences in contributors’ approaches become more pronounced at this level. Anne Ryan writes that “if you find you are having success with a local movement, you could go a bit further afield, into national civil society, international civil society, even into government. That is not to say that we should all try to get elected; it is also important to maintain civil society — all those groupings and activities that exist outside the state and the free-trade market — so that government is always reminded of its responsibilities.”
This approach assumes that the current political system, with its emphasis on the roles played by different stakeholders such as governments and business, will be viable in the future. However, Graham Barnes believes that it cannot deal adequately with the problems we are facing. He writes: “It is impossible to know whether politicians are dim, lazy or think they perceive a self-interest in the dysfunctional status quo. And pointless trying to find out. It seems likely that the nation state will be more of an obstacle than a progressive partner for the changes needed. It is in any case relatively powerless compared to international business. So I wouldn’t exactly say ‘don’t bother’ with national action agendas, but I would demand proof of seriousness from any national politicians before spending any time with them.”
In contrast, Dan Sullivan thinks we need to avoid demonizing those in power: “[we should] focus on what is right or wrong rather than who is right or wrong. Some of the great changes of history were triggered by people from among the privileged elite realizing that their privileges were wrong and doing something about it.”
Emer O’Siochru, for her part, believes that “politics really do matter. The Nation State is not dead nor should we wish its demise. Political power is useful, at the very least to remove bureaucratic obstacles, and at best to undertake the fiscal and monetary reforms that could really help us. People who are aware of the crisis should not be too proud nor too clever to march in the streets.”
Anne Ryan agrees with O’Siochru that large-scale collective action is worthwhile: “Efforts for change are most successful when people work together. Solidarity can amplify the voice of the movement of enough; and when your voice has a better chance of being heard, your hope is maintained.”
When one remembers that, just prior to the current war in Iraq, record numbers of people marched in the streets all over the world to oppose it but that they were nonetheless ignored by most of the politicians involved, it’s tempting to conclude that this kind of action is a waste of time. However, the historical record provides plenty of examples where popular pressure did produce political results.
Of course, popular pressure is a double-edged sword: sometimes it brings about results that are highly undesirable, as Brian Davey points out in the article he co-authored with Mark Rutledge. But in my view this should not be taken as a reason to refrain from political activism — rather the opposite. People will need to have accurate information and to know their options in order to avoid mass panic.
John Sharry writes in this regard that “while the general population is largely in denial about the nature and scale of the problems we face, this will change very quickly once a series of major crises hit. At this point people will become devastated, angry and very volatile. It is crucial at this point to have a worked-out and well-communicated understanding of what is happening that provides a pathway forward that brings people together. We need to prepare to provide leadership to a devastated population so as to avoid large scale social unrest and a dangerous social vacuum, and instead inspire people towards constructive action.” In this context, Davie Philip’s definition of leadership as “the ability to inspire initiative and new thinking with those around us” seems appropriate.
Although Sharry provides a strong practical argument for political involvement, we might well wonder whether we have enough time for this kind of strategy. Dmitry Orlov doesn’t think so. He writes that we should “stop wasting time and energy on conventional activism or political involvement. It is more efficient to simply wait for people to come round than to actively try to persuade them. Take “Believe me now, or believe me later!” as your motto. Time is on your side, not on the side of those who insist that they be persuaded.”
While it’s certainly clear that time and energy are scarce, we’ve already seen how the nature of some of our problems — climate change in particular — is such that the need for large-scale action appears to be inescapable. Specifically, there need to be enforceable global caps on greenhouse gas emissions, plus a global framework to encourage carbon sequestration and the preservation of existing carbon stocks.
That’s the stick that forces us to engage in political action, but there are carrots as well. Anne Ryan comments in her article that “politics is about public, collective choices and is closely connected to morality.” Seen in that light, the implications of some of the international programmes that are suggested in this book are quite stunning. What if we combined the curtailing of greenhouse gas emissions with ending the Third World debt crisis and providing billions of people around the world with a nest egg for investing in renewable energy, healthcare and education? The world would likely become a considerably more stable place in political terms, which is an obvious improvement, but it would also be a better one in that we would have taken a step towards redressing many historic injustices. Personally I think that that would be quite a worthwhile thing to try and do, well worth a stab anyway.
The question of political strategy remains, though. Haranguing politicians to try and get them to adopt certain policies might well backfire, particularly if the general public isn’t convinced of them either. As Brian Davey says in his second article, sometimes a more oblique approach works better.
It’s also worth remembering that there isn’t always a clear cutoff between active attempts at persuasion and the simple relating of facts: often both things happen in the same conversation. What if a curious but not-entirely-convinced person asks questions about the decisions one has made about one’s life? How much time, if any, should one devote to answering such questions?
So what should governments do?
Well, let’s assume that governments are willing to act as we wish. What should they actually do? John Sharry is most concerned with the short- and medium-term challenge of dealing with system collapse:
“Whereas many people within the environmental movement are envisioning what a sustainable society might look like, the most dangerous time will [be] the transition time which will be experienced as societal and economic collapse. Preparing for managing this transition time is crucial to survival. [...] In small informed groups, prepare a series of national emergency or ‘disaster’ plans that will attempt to anticipate the exact nature of the many near future crises that will occur so that a range of adaptive responses can be strategised and prepared. This can include plans for dealing with energy and food scarcity, mass unemployment, population migration, currency and financial collapse etc. Both community, national and international responses need to be considered [...] so that informed community and national leaders as well as plans and policies can be available once the major crises hit.”
In order to deal with future problems we’ll obviously need to have competent people around, and so Emer O’Siochru argues that we need to “campaign politically to hold our young and well educated in Ireland. We will need all our various engineers, scientists, mechanics, medical professionals and even generalists like architects, planners and system engineers. It is very important for the middle aged amongst readers to note that a youthful population is the only real insurance of a modicum of comfort for our old age.”
On a more general level, Laurence Matthews emphasises the responsibility governments have to be honest. He writes that we need to “induce governments to speak out plainly to their populations, to tell them the truth in plain language, as in wartime. Can they not pay their people the compliment of treating them as adults rather than fickle children who must be shielded from the truth? We need some leadership, in fact.”
Of course, it is possible that many politicians are simply unable to comprehend the depth of the predicament we are in. One certainly gets that impression when one looks at the investments that governments are currently making. David Korowicz points out that we need to avoid unwise investments at the national level as well as the individual one: “Don’t dig a deeper hole — buying a new car, or building more airports, motorways and incinerators is just.. stupid.”
Dan Sullivan draws also draws our attention to the ways that governments allocate taxpayer money: “Avoid supporting subsidies for greener technology, for greener technology merely pollutes less, and subsidies for technology increase dependence on technology. Paying someone to pollute less is still paying someone to pollute. Those who have arranged their lives so they can travel mostly by walking and bicycling should not have to support those who drive cars with their tax money, even if they are supporting those who drive electric cars.”
He thinks national governments need to delegate more responsibility: “Politically, ask national governments to do less, and to allow local governments greater flexibility. Consider that an ordinary citizen can easily talk to all of his municipal officials, but has an increasingly […] difficult time reaching county, state and national officials. In contrast, the lobbyists for Exxon, which has gasoline stations in tens of thousands of municipalities across the United States, have influenced every US Senator and Congressman. Yet they have never spoken to the people who run most of the municipalities where their gas stations are located.”
Money and business
Richard Douthwaite focuses on the role played by a nation’s currency. He thinks that there needs to be at least two types of currency, one for saving and the other for spending. Moreover, countries should keep their income and capital flows apart, as was done in the Sterling Area in the past: “International capital flows should not be mixed up with income flows. Each country or region should ensure that its import/export account for consumption purposes is always in balance. Imbalances may be permitted in capital flows but only for the purchase of capital goods.”
He believes that we need to move away from debt-based money, and that the area which a currency serves needs to be smaller, for the most part, than at present: “Apart from short-term personal loans, debt-based lending should be phased out in favour of income- or output-sharing participation. Debt-free money systems should be introduced at regional level.”
Patrick Andrews also discusses finance, in particular changes to banking: “My biggest dream at the national level is to turn a bank into a social enterprise, one that is owned by the community (not by the government — it is very different!) and where the voice of customers, staff, the community and the environment are heard in the board room. We should all push for that. This is not an easy thing to set up and implement, there will be lots of resistance at all levels. But to have a bank truly focused on serving the community as a whole would be worth pushing for.”
This fits in closely with Oscar Kjellberg’s idea, described above in the section on community and in more detail in his article, of developing community investment banks where savers and entrepreneurs would make decisions about the development of their community together. As mentioned above, Kjellberg thinks that local business alliances should be built around these types of community banks. On a national level, he suggests that the local business alliances should be joined into a national network.
Land, energy and climate change
As described in Emer O’Siochru’s article, a basic change in the taxation system could help to address climate change and future energy shortages. Here are her recommendations for national-level action:
“Campaign politically for a site value tax on all developed and potential development land that will create the economic incentives to develop local integrated energy, food and waste systems in our rural settlements.” Dan Sullivan’s article explains how such a tax would also shelter communities from economic storms by discouraging speculation on property.
O’Siochru continues: “Campaign politically for a land value tax on the remaining agricultural, forest, bog land and scrubland that will create the economic incentives for preserving healthy eco-system services i.e. carbon capture and storage and biodiversity while maximising food production for local and export consumption. If we do not use our large area of fertile land productively, others in dire need will see that it is used, but perhaps in a way that might suit us less.” Of course it’s also possible that such land would be commandeered by people who aren’t in particularly dire need — i.e. rich people — to meet their energy demands, which adds to the urgency of the situation.
Richard Douthwaite suggests that “a Community Energy Agency should be established to provide advisory and management services to communities wishing to develop their local renewable energy resources. The Agency would also guarantee the bonds issued by communities to raise the necessary finance for as long as it was providing management services.” In his article he describes in more detail how the relationship between energy and money could play out in such a scenario.
Douthwaite also thinks that “each country should strive to become renewable energy self-reliant as rapidly as possible because the cost in terms of the share of national output that will need to be given up to make the switch later on will be much higher.” In this regard it’s important to take energy returns on investments into account. Tom Konrad, in his article, points out that demand-side technologies such as smart electric meters and well-designed public transport have a very high energy return on investment, and their adoption could therefore help us to overcome the difficulties caused by moving away from fossil-fuel use.
Corinna Byrne makes a number of specific recommendations for addressing climate change. She believes we need to “refocus the value of peatlands from energy to carbon storage and sequestration and utilise alternative renewable technologies such as wind and bio-refining to provide for energy needs.”
She also describes a mechanism for dealing with livestock numbers in different countries: “Ireland, working through the EU, should seek to have global livestock numbers capped at their current level and to have the animal units allowed under the cap allocated to governments according to the number of animals kept in each country at present.”
These recommendations would obviously apply on an international level as well. Let’s move on to that now.
Patrick Andrews writes: “Internationally, support “treeshaverightstoo” and push for the voice of the environment to be heard at the highest level of international decision-making”.
One of the reasons why the environment has so quiet a voice at present is that it is not recognised as a legal entity. To some readers, it may seem absurd to suggest that something that is not human, and not even a discrete object, could have legal rights. However, there is a precedent for this, albeit a rather notorious one: the corporation.
The treeshaverightstoo website was set up by Polly Higgins, an international environmental lawyer who addressed the UN in late 2008 on her proposal for a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights. As she points out on her website, there has been a gradual evolution in the recognition of legal rights. Initially, they applied only to educated males with property, but over the centuries they were gradually extended to include all humans. The most recent extension was to include children.
Children can be represented legally by an advocate if they are not old enough to represent themselves, and Higgins believes that the same approach could be taken to represent the rights of species other than humans, and the planet as a whole. In late 2008, Ecuador became the first country to adopt a constitution that includes enforceable Rights of Nature. Many of the ideas described in this book, such as Cap and Share, land value tax, the Carbon Maintenance Fee and changes in the nature of legal tender, will need legal enforcement, and their cases would probably be considerably strengthened by such a measure.
However, other changes are necessary too. Another reason that the environment has such a quiet voice is that it can’t afford a big loudspeaker, unlike the CEOs of large companies and the politicians whose campaigns they fund. So many economists argue that environmental resources need to be priced more accurately. With the correct price signals, they believe consumers would make spending decisions that are much more in line with reality. Laurence Matthews uses this reasoning in his suggestions for global action on climate change:
While the price of the carbon dioxide emissions under Cap and Share would certainly give people pause about spending money on fossil fuels, Matthews makes it clear in his article that Cap and Share would also set an absolute limit on emissions — the cap — which would remain in place regardless of their price. The fossil-fuel producers would have to buy emissions permits in order to sell their product, and there would only be a certain number of these permits available.
Thus, even if there was a recession that caused a slump in demand for fossil fuels, and the price of fossil fuels then went down accordingly, we couldn’t have a repeat performance of what has tended to happen in the past with such recessions — namely, the low prices of fossil fuels triggering a resurgence in demand for them which then undermines renewable energy development. The cap would remain in place no matter what the economic circumstances were, and so there would always be a constraint on the absolute quantity of emissions that could be produced. As the cap was tightened year by year, fewer and fewer permits would be issued and the amount of overall emissions would decrease accordingly. This would enable policymakers and developers of renewable energy to make realistic long-term plans and investments.
So, while price would play an important role in Cap and Share, it wouldn’t have to handle the task of reducing emissions all by itself. This approach seems sound because it reflects the general role that price plays in the economy: pricing things accurately can be useful but it can’t solve all our environmental and social problems, and you have to be careful with it.
Another shortcoming of pricing is that in the absence of additional measures it can’t reduce the instability of an economy that is dependent on debt. Richard Douthwaite writes in this regard: “The scarcity rents which fossil energy and other commodity producers enjoy must be limited to the amount they can spend with their customers on consumption goods and services. A system needs to be put in place to prevent this level being exceeded. With fossil fuels, this could be by Cap and Share, which would capture the rents and spread them as income around the world. Alternatively, the consuming countries could set up an energy-buyers’ cartel which would serve the same purpose.”
As Douthwaite says, the introduction either of an energy-buyers’ cartel or of Cap and Share would help to stabilise the world’s financial system by preventing capital from surging around the world, and by relieving debt. Cap and Share has other advantages as well: it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as we’ve already seen, and it could significantly reduce global poverty and income inequality, at least in the short term while the price of emissions was high.
Dan Sullivan would probably disagree with this analysis, though. He writes: “The poor nations of the world do not merely happen to be poor. Rather, they are poor because they are plundered by international financiers and by absentee landlords. End the plunder, and you end the poverty. Even the people of resource-poor nations need to establish systems of freedom and justice before compensation [for resource use] will do them any good. Otherwise, compensation will follow the pattern that US foreign aid has always followed, taxing poor people in rich countries to subsidize rich people in poor countries”.
Indeed, at present much foreign aid also has the effect of subsidizing the companies in rich countries that provide the aid. However, the commons-based philosophy behind the per-capita distribution of emissions permits dovetails rather neatly with current development theory, which emphasises individual agency, and there does seem to be good evidence that cash transfer programmes are an effective way to reduce poverty.  Moreover, the equitable nature of Cap and Share is a point in its favour in ethical terms as well as practical ones.
A scheme such as Cap and Share isn’t without risks, though. Douthwaite goes on to describe one of them: the possibility that “the higher prices for fossil fuels [triggered by a cap on emissions] will lead to increased deforestation and the release of carbon from soils as land is converted to bioenergy production.” He suggests a solution: “The introduction of a Carbon Maintenance Fee [would] preserve and increase the stock of carbon held in soils and the biomass growing on them.”
Corinna Byrne, similarly, emphasises the need to preserve current carbon stocks: she writes that we should “push for tropical deforestation to be reduced and for the global forest cover loss to be halted”, and she, too, suggests that “governments could introduce the Carbon Maintenance Fee as a reward for holding and sequestering carbon in soils and biomass and to penalise for carbon releases.”
In order for such a scheme to be effective it would be necessary to measure carbon stocks accurately, so she thinks we need to “advocate the development of remote sensing techniques to map carbon stocks with the aim of improving estimates of the standing stock of carbon in biomass and changes in those stocks through time.”
Byrne also draws our attention to the fact that carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. There are other gases whose emissions need to be curtailed:
“Nitrous oxide [emissions reduction] needs to be prioritised because an increased nitrous oxide concentration is likely to lead to an increased methane concentration and thus a greater total warming effect than from the nitrous oxide alone (as nitrous oxide destroys ozone which destroys methane). Policy should be focused on reducing nitrous oxide releases, taking in reductions in methane emissions whenever these are compatible, such as in the use of anaerobic digesters.” Such digesters could be used to produced energy for communities.
Along with several of the other contributors, she also believes that biochar production has important potential: “The use of biochar is one of the few strategies that gives any basis for optimism that the excess CO2 in the atmosphere can actually be removed.” If the claims that have been made for the benefits of biochar have any foundation, it could prove to be an enormous help in addressing climate change, and also as a fuel source. As Emer O’Siochru mentions in her chapter, it could help to revive local economies as well.
Byrne has some specific suggestions about REDD, the international system for offsetting emissions by allowing countries which emit beyond their allowances to compensate for this by paying for other countries to emit less. This system has significant flaws, which Byrne describes in her article. She recommends that we “reject offsetting via REDD altogether or tighten the limits on how much can be done with a view to phasing it out completely by 2020. Funding for whole-country REDD schemes should come from the proceeds of auctioning EU emissions trading system permits (EUAs) after 2012 until a global system can be put in place.”
Dan Sullivan writes that “it is not necessary to support elaborate international schemes to make resource-consuming nations compensate nations from which the resources have been taken. It is only necessary for resource-exporting nations to levy substantial royalty charges on their own land and resources, to tax pollution, to untax labor, and to get control of their own money.” REDD would probably qualify as one of the “elaborate international schemes” that he criticises.
A new international currency
As mentioned above, Richard Douthwaite believes that the scarcity rents for commodities should not be allowed to expand infinitely, but rather should be curtailed and then recycled back to the people and countries who are buying the commodities, preferably by means of trade rather than as loans. A system such as Cap and Share would not only guarantee this recycling of rents, but it would also divide them among the whole population.
However, this measure would not be sufficient for achieving greater financial stability, as we would still be using debt-based money for all of our transactions, and, as we have seen in the many articles in this book that discuss the financial system, that type of money is highly volatile and dependent on unsustainable economic growth.
So Douthwaite also believes that “a new international trading currency should be established to replace currencies like the dollar, the euro and sterling. It would be given into circulation according to the amount of trading a country was doing and its first use should be to discharge foreign debt. In times of disaster such as the Pakistan floods, additional money could be created to finance the relief effort, thus spreading the cost fairly around the world.” A change of this kind is not as radical as you might think. The world already has a non-debt quasi-currency which is given into circulation by the IMF. It is called Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) or more popularly “paper gold”. The IMF insists that SDRs are not a currency but an “international reserve asset” which can be sold for currencies such as the dollar and the euro. They were first issued in 1969 to supplement IMF member countries’ official foreign exchange reserves. Only two issues have been made since, the most recent on August 28, 2009 in response to the global financial crisis. This was because, after the previous distribution in 1979-81, the United States vetoed futher issues so that its dollars were used as reserves instead. Unfortunately, SDRs are not shared out on the basis of population but according the maximum amount of financial resources that each member state is obliged to contribute to the IMF. This means that the bigger, richer countries get most.
There’s been much discussion in this book of the possibility of sudden collapses in civilisations, with whole ways of life being brought to an abrupt end. However, it’s also true that in certain circumstances, ways of life can fizzle away slowly rather than going out with a bang.
That’s been the case in the area where I live, in southern Burgundy in central France. The interesting thing about this area is that, like Pompeii, you can get an unusually clear idea of what life was like in the past. Hereabouts, the high point was the Middle Ages, specifically the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny was enormously wealthy and politically influential. At that time, the villages of the area almost all rebuilt their churches with the help of Italian masons who used hand tools and knotted ropes to measure the stones they worked with, and who left behind a rich legacy of intricate carvings. Such carvings appear not only on the churches but on people’s houses, and frequently depict scenes from everyday life.
The historian Edwin Mullins speculates that the reason for this sudden flowering of artistic expression was that everyone was relieved that the world hadn’t come to an end in 1000 AD, contrary to much dire prediction at the time. But whatever the cause, the artistic frenzy wasn’t to be repeated. The power of Cluny began to wane from the thirteenth century on, and there were no more audacious building projects.
Village life continued, however, and the area remained modestly prosperous until well into the twentieth century. Recently I took a stroll around the village where my husband and I live with a neighbour who is in his seventies and who still lives in the house that he was born in. He pointed out various buildings in the centre of the village and told me “that was a café, that was a grocery, that was a smithy, that was another café, that was a carpenter’s workshop”.
Even though they’re eerily quiet now, the buildings left behind from the businesses are mostly in rather good shape. In fact, the villages as a whole have a bit of an unreal, fairytale look to them, almost too picture-perfect.
The cause of the businesses’ disappearance will probably be obvious to most readers. But just for the sake of thoroughness, I asked my neighbour why they had closed. He smiled wryly at me and said “the supermarkets” — which was of course a shorthand way of saying “the fossil-fuel-based economy”. Just as in many parts of rural Ireland, the arrival of private cars and the economies of scale used by supermarkets had undercut small local enterprises.
However, the dreamy quality of the villages remained unexplained. Eventually though it occurred to me that just as the volcanic ash which flooded Pompeii had a preservative effect on its buildings, these villages too had been flooded and preserved. But in their case it’s capital from elsewhere — money conjured up by the use of fossil pixie dust, to use Nate Hagens’ phrase — which has done the flooding. People from Paris and Lyon, and foreigners from Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Britain, the United States and even New Zealand, have bought second homes here, most of them medieval dwellings that they’ve lovingly restored. They generally fly into Paris or Lyon or drive down and spend a few weeks of the year here, usually during the summer as the winters are fairly intense.
I don’t mean to vilify those people who have second homes in the area — they’ve helped to support the local economy by hiring local masons and roofers to work on their restorations. Their interest in the local culture and history is genuine, and some of them are our friends.
But the uncomfortable fact remains that, as with all communities that don’t have much year-round occupancy, it’s not possible to keep services such as shops going. Additionally, locals have been priced out of many of the more comfortable homes. And of course, there’s also the niggling matter of the whole setup being wildly unsustainable.
I asked my neighbour how long ago all of those small businesses closed down and, much to my surprise, he told me that some of them — even the blacksmith — lasted into the 1980s. He also explained that the land around our house had been a farm which served some of the villagers. He himself had worked with draught horses on farms in the area until the mid-1960s. The communally owned woods on the hillside above were, and still are, a source of game for hunters. In the not-so-distant past, the hunters would hike over the hills to Tournus, a town on the easily navigable river Saone, to sell furs.
All of this conjures up an image of a kind of rural paradise, overflowing with abundance, which I’m sure wasn’t entirely the case. But then again, it’s important not to over-romanticise the modern industrial system either.
Aptly enough, the other day I was in a local supermarket with my toddler daughter. It was busy and there were long queues at the checkouts. We’d been waiting for a few minutes in a queue that had barely moved when my daughter told me that nature was calling.
The aisles were completely blocked with loaded shopping trolleys, so I pushed our trolley aside and went to ask a couple of the staff, who were stacking shelves, if she could use the toilet in the back of the supermarket. They told me that I’d have to get a key from the welcome desk, so we made our way over to it. But there was nobody there; everyone was helping at the checkouts. It occurred to me then that we could just go out the automatic entrance door, which was nearby, and my daughter could fertilize a tree outside, but when we went over to the door it wouldn’t open.
There was an electronics stand laden with gleaming gadgets right next to the door, and I asked the young woman who was behind it if she could open the door for us. She looked up distractedly from her mobile phone and told me that she was sorry, but it wasn’t possible. I assumed she meant that it was against some kind of shop rule to open the door, so I explained why we needed to go out. She apologized again and told me that if she had been able to, she would have opened the door, but it only opened from the outside and the staff had no control over it.
Thankfully my daughter and I did manage to get out eventually by running the gauntlet of the shopping trollies in a checkout aisle. But the whole little episode got me thinking about escape routes, and unnecessarily complex labyrinths designed to suck people so that they consume more resources, and the relative powerlessness of the people working in the labyrinth.
This was just a minor incident, of course, but the contrast between our experience at the supermarket and at our local farmer’s market, which takes place once a week, could hardly be greater. There, many of the vendors know my daughter by name, and if you end up waiting a long time in a queue it’s likely to be because the vendor is having a chat with someone, rather than because some unfortunate customer didn’t have quite enough cash on them to pay for everything in their trolley and the cashier is having to call up the supermarket manager in order to get permission to cancel part of the sale transaction.
The emptiness of material abundance without enough human connection is made very clear when we consider the things that small children really need, as opposed to the things that advertisers say they need. And there’s another group besides children that is particularly badly served at present. Those houses in the villages around here that aren’t second homes are generally occupied by people like my neighbour — people in their seventies and eighties who have witnessed the slow death of their communities. It would be wonderful if they could see life in the villages again; children playing, adults working and socialising.
Of course I don’t mean to imply that I think everything should revert to the way it was before the era of fossil fuels. There’s plenty of room for anaerobic digestors and solar water heaters here and elsewhere, and even if there wasn’t, we’ve seen in this book that going back to the past is not an option. But there are a great many rural places in the world waiting to be occupied again, in a somewhat different manner from before, and there’s still time — just about — to learn valuable skills from the older generation.
It’s interesting to note that most of the inhabitants of Pompeii did realise in time that they were experiencing a true emergency. They managed to flee to safety, escaping the volcano’s ashes. So let’s hope that this parallel with our present situation also holds.
Featured image: Cluny Rue Desbois fenetre. Author: Jan Sokol. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cluny_R_Desbois_fenetre_DSCN1954.JPG
compiled by Caroline Whyte