Friday, April 4, 2008

Where's our contingency plan?

As more community forums are being assembled (especially those sponsored by local daily newspapers, economic development agencies, and local government departments that have tacked sustainability onto their name) to deal with the question of growth and a sustainable future, perhaps the most important core question to ask these local leaders is: What is their contingency plan? What set of facts are being used to inform this plan? Is Peak Oil, global warming, or financial catastrophe factored in? What baseline is being used to assess the local assets available to build from? How many acres of arable land are regionally available, what is the current rate of topsoil loss, how many feet per year is the local aquifer dropping, how much compost can we generate and distribute, and thus how many people can realistically be fed?

The US Energy Information Agency reports that global oil production peaked in May, 2005. Saudi Arabian oil production has been declining at about 1 million barrels per day for almost two years. A more interesting and even more unreported fact is that world oil production per capita peaked in 1979, yet we continue to count population growth as an economic positive. How long will local economies as presently constructed survive a cutoff of conventional fuel supplies and products such as plastic and fertilizer derived from fossil fuels?

Supporters of protecting the status quo like to point to the increase in "non-conventional" liquid fuels, but want to conveniently ignore the negative energy return on these fuels, and the manner in which they contribute to undermining the economy and increasing environmental degradation.

A medical analogy is appropriate here. Tar sands, oil shale, and agrofuels are like the extreme measures used in the intensive care unit to keep a patient's heart beating until the family can get to the hospital to say their final goodbye to their loved one.

For example, how many more people will knowingly be subjected to hardship and deprivation when the Central Arizona Project (CAP) that supplies water from the Colorado River to rapidly growing cities is shutdown due to lack of supply as officials continue to entice people to move to the Southwest desert by approving more housing subdivisions and -- the ultimate manifestation of insanity -- new water parks and golf courses?

The Ogallala Aquifer, the water source for America's "bread-basket," is being drawn down at a rate 150% beyond recharge. How long will existing local food supplies that come from this area (and the rest of the globe) last, and how much is being grown that can't be consumed locally, such as alfalfa grown with CAP water in the Arizona desert for California cattle? What plans are in place to address price hikes in basic commodities or to secure people's right to stay in their homes as global financial markets finish their meltdown? If local officials don't have a contingency plan, or are unwilling to make current discussions public, we should ask them to step down and get a job they can manage.

This might sound harsh, but the scientific consensus is quickly shifting to realizing that we really only have about a two year window left to lay the foundation for an alternative public infrastructure that drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions (90% below 1990 levels by 2030) and begins reversing all aspects of biospheric deterioration. People are remarkably resilient and innovative when they have the full facts at their disposal. More people are becoming aware of the bigger picture and the interdependencies amongst these issues. More people are expressing a desire to regain that which has been lost as we've isolated ourselves in our cars and on our couches -- a fulfilling sense of community. More people are calling for a shift to sustainability as they become aware of the permanent nature of the unfolding global crises and their root causes in centralized dominator control hierarchies and the Industrial Growth Society.

The only systemic response that calls for the best in human capabilities and potential I see on the horizon is the process known as relocalization. Building a local economy that is healthy, vibrant and resilient, that protects and enhances local cultures, must draw on the same natural systems principles that keep an ecosystem sustainable -- mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. We must start measuring progress and defining prosperity in a new way; a way that isn't dependent on merely increasing in size or material accumulation, but on becoming qualitatively better for all members of the community.

The technology is available today to do so. Can we develop the will to do so in time?

No comments: