Saturday, December 6, 2008

Planning the Future

There's been a recent back and forth between the blogs of John Michael Greer, "The Archdruid Report" and Rob Hopkins, "Transition Culture".

One of Greer's critiques of the Transition initiative, based more on a single conference presentation by overly enthusiastic proponents rather than a thorough understanding of the Transition Towns movement, is that deliberate planning for a better future is both "impossible and counterproductive."

This critique of Hopkins' (and company) Transition Initiative might be more about semantics than anything else. Postcarbon cities and transition towns aren't planning the future. As Greer rightly points out, doing so in the literal sense is impossible, although the attempt is not necessarily counterproductive. We are, however, participants in the future and our actions have consequences. We can examine these consequences and make choices. For the moment, let's not argue about the percentage of time Western culture actually spends doing this. Or the percentage of time an elite subclass spends doing pretty much exactly that to the detriment of all other.

We can rationally examine, and sensually experience, that the Industrial Growth Society is causing much harm and is about to collapse through self-cannibalization by clinging to mistakes in foundational assumptions that are adhered to and defended with religious fervor. The clearest indication of this tendency is that industrial civilization is pretty much diametrically opposed to the sustainability of life, living organisms, and the natural world they depend on.

So, since humans tend to do things, let's do things differently. In a manner that not only honors life, but that models the creative and sustainable processes that underlie it. Since we obviously have to start doing things differently due to global warming, peak oil, and the loss of sovereignty to corporatism and the dominator hierarchies which support it let's start by stating what we do want. If we wish to switch from a culture of death to a culture of life, we need to start by picking a new set of values as a base. And the future we all seem to agree on is a sustainable one based on ecological wisdom, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy (which are goals unto themselves as well).

But this isn't planning the future. This is making intelligent choices based on an honest assessment of what the world is currently facing, and what has caused it. This is just common sense based on a different paradigm that rejects the old assumptions. While proponents of post-carbon cities and transition towns may not know exactly how it will look, there's a whole buncha stuff we know we don't want to do again. Certain options, which mainly revolve around selfish greed and exploitation, have been taken off the table.

Relocalization is a dynamic process based on the natural systems principles from which emerge ecosystems that are vibrant, healthy, and resilient, i.e. sustainable. It's based on a model that's been working for billions of years. It's a model we're intimately familiar with, even if it's been repressed and unexpressed under Western civilization.

There are certain things we do know about the proposed process to create a sustainable future. Permaculture and the relocalization process Transition Towns are based on don't contribute to resource depletion, toxicity, waste, or economic growth. Thus, it doesn't contribute to war. Carrying capacity of both the environment and the economy becomes the prime factor in its calculations of success.

Now, no one is saying that the world is going to majically revert back to a pristine state, or even that this will keep collapse entirely at bay considering how far into the ecological overshoot range we are. But it is a way to start effecting the negative feedback loop of restoration and regeneration instead of feeding the positive feedback loop of destruction.

So, I do see reason for being optimistic about taking the initial steps toward a way that works; that is about being more rather than having more; that just plain feels better. A way where we start thinking and acting the way that nature works. Where we shift the priorities from domination, aggression, competition, separation, and destruction to partnership, compassion, cooperation, connection, and creation. New choices based on giving priority to a different set of values.

And, ya know, at the very least, relocalization sure sounds like a whole helluva lot better plan than the current one to grab whatever you can before someone beats you to it. The reason social change from the imperialism of industrial civilization hasn't worked before is that we've never thrown out, or even seriously examined, the underlying assumptions and replaced them with ones perfectly in keeping with human nature. As Greer points out, follow through is necessary (and Transition Towns help inspire that), but we must also make sure the business as usual plan is dismantled and its harms mitigated.

Dealing with petrocollapse can take other forms than the two Greer says are the only options--finding a replacement for fossil fuel to continue powering industrialism, or replacing the energy dependent parts of modern society. Most people who are looking at the bigger picture throw overpopulation into the mix, and overconsumption is a perennial favorite. Greer is correct in pointing out that little would be left of modern society if we rid ourselves of the energy dependent parts.

In spite of Greer's claim to the contrary, however, the parts for a low-energy society are indeed sitting on the shelf, and there are many who are pointing out the quality of life benefits. The changes that are required socially are even pretty much spelled out in detail in the Earth Charter. Nitpicking energy descent seems like a distraction, unless the real goal is to attempt to keep the economic growth necessary for industrialism chugging along.

Currently, we know how to build things to last, and to be easily repairable. We know how to make them more energy efficient, and less toxic. We know we could quit fetishizing shallow status symbols. The only thing any of this threatens is economic growth and financial empires--which are the drivers of peak oil, global warming and inequity, as well as the major hindrance to democracy.

The choices for where we want to go, and what to stay away from, should be pretty clear. And it sounds like a plan to me.

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