I think I’ve reached my limit on lists of “15 Ways You Can Stop Global Warming”. Oh sure, we’ve switched to energy saving lightbulbs at our house, we ride our bikes more often than we drive, we turn down the thermostat and put on sweaters when it’s chilly, we water the garden from the rain barrel (or at least we did back in the days when it still rained), but I don’t believe for a minute that we’re stopping, slowing or even slightly jostling global warming. I think it’s too late, and all the lightbulbs and hybrid cars in the world aren’t going to save us. We can’t consume our way out of this one.
So let’s start with this premise: a disastrous witch’s brew of climate change, peak oil, and species extinction is headed our way (read the stats below if you dare) and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We’ve promised developing countries a way of life that even the fat and happy developed countries aren’t going to be able to maintain much longer. It’s no longer simply a question of hotter summers and longer lines at the gas pumps: we’re looking at resource wars (we’ve got one over oil already; water may not be far behind), millions of displaced people, food scarcities, unemployment, disease. The list goes on.
But wait a minute, no, let’s start with this premise. The disaster has already struck and goes on striking. Right this minute the rug is being pulled out from under someone somewhere. In the last couple of decades it has happened dramatically and on a large scale in places like Russia, Cuba, Argentina, and of course New Orleans and Iraq, but it’s also happening every day to someone in the town where you live. We’re looking at a giant rip in the global safety net through which our whole familiar way of life is falling, but we shouldn’t overlook the smaller safety net failures. Some people survive the fall and some people don’t. What’s the difference?
Last night I watched a documentary called The Power of Community. It was made by a group out of Ohio called The Community Solution about what happened in Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its access to cheap oil. For much of the 1990s Cubans experience a stringent time called “The Special Period”, during which much of the Cuban way of life was transformed. Food shortages—Cuban agriculture had been heavily dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides as well as transportation–led to organic gardens, permaculture centers and localized economies. Gas shortages led to better public transportation and decentralized services; energy shortages led to the use of solar and wind power. Cubans actually came out of the Special Period with stronger communities and healthier lives.
I’m convinced that we’re headed for our own Special Period. In some ways I hope it comes as abruptly as it did in Cuba so that we can recognize it when it gets here. Emergencies often bring out the best in people; a slow and unevenly distributed decline in the quality of life often brings out the worst. In any case, I say forget the bottled water and the barbed wire. It’s time to prepare for disaster in the ways that really matter.
Get to know your neighbors and your neighborhood: When the Argentinian economy collapsed in December of 2001 spontaneous neighborhood councils took over, providing everything from daycare to soup kitchens. In New Orleans the Common Ground Collectivebegan in the days after Katrina with three volunteers and $50; while FEMA and the Red Cross were still floundering Common Ground had gathered enough volunteer support to feed people, put them on bikes, and set up a free health clinic. In Boston residents of the Dudley Street neighborhood, collapsing under the effects of poverty, red-lining and neglect, took their community into their own hands and beat the odds. The isolationist survivalist bunker mentality only works if you already have every skill and commodity your family is ever likely to need. It’s much easier to like and trust your neighbors.
Develop skills and share them: During the Depression people used to say: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” We’re living in a strange little era of endless stuff, but it’s not going to last–in what some people call the “post-carbon world” Americans will simply go back to living the way most people have lived through most of human history (and the way most people live in the world now). Richard Heinberg, who has written several books on Peak Oil has just published a new one called Peak Everything, pointing out that it’s not just oil–we’re facing a complexity of shortages including natural gas, coal, fresh water, copper, and platinum. But he goes on to outline some of the things that are nowhere near their peak: personal autonomy, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. Learning to sew your own clothes or build a compost pile or change your own spark plugs may not seem like the first step in a revolution, but it is (and don’t forget that learning to admit when you need help is a skill too…).
Redefine abundance: This gets onto shaky ground for some people—a little too spiritual. But it’s real. Dmitry Orlov, a Russian who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union has written a useful reminder about the lessons Americans can learn from that experience:
“The people who are most at risk psychologically are successful middle-aged men. When their career is suddenly over, their savings are gone, and their property worthless, much of their sense of self-worth is gone as well. They tend to drink themselves to death and commit suicide in disproportionate numbers. Since they tend to be the most experienced and capable people, this is a staggering loss to society.
“If the economy, and your place within it, is really important to you, you will be really hurt when it goes away. You can cultivate an attitude of studied indifference, but it has to be more than just a conceit. You have to develop the lifestyle and the habits and the physical stamina to back it up. It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.”
In other words, learn to value the things that money can’t buy.
I recently came across a statement by something called the E. F. Schumacher Society (“Linking, people, land and community by building local economies”): “A ‘post-carbon world’ does not have to be a dreary place,” they say. “The age we are entering will be an opportunity to celebrate our return to an acceptable level of complexity. Once again we will be able to embrace our neighbors as resources for a better community. The existing skills of the community have been ignored due to abundant energy in the form of coal and oil. Decreased energy supplies would encourage us to create local systems for fulfilling our needs. Waning fossil fuel supply would bring about the harnessing of human energy. Our labor saving devices, powered by the assumption of cheap oil, would be replaced by the skill, craftsmanship and the ingenuity of our neighbors.”