Friday, April 4, 2008

Practical Steps Toward Relocalization: Part Three of a Three Part Series

Among the initial steps toward relocalization is agreeing to the necessity, and desiring the benefits, of this process. Hopefully, it's become clear from the first two installments of this series that reconnection and relocalization go hand-in-hand, and that they provide a blueprint to remedy what's wrong in the world today.

Relocalization provides the concepts and process for making positive changes -- but what about the power? We only lose the power to make new choices if we willingly give up that power or believe the assertion that we don't have it in the first place.

It's also important to realize that the shift to a sustainable future through relocalization can start first thing tomorrow morning. There is absolutely no need to wait for a new technology to become invented or widely available. We don't have to wait ten generations for our consciousness to evolve to a higher plane. All we have to do is remember that whatever we call the wise, nurturing power that created sustainable ecosystems, created us as well. We embody that wisdom and power. It is lying there dormant, just waiting (crying out, even) for us to tap into it.

It's now clear that we will be dealing with catastrophic climate destabilization at the same time Peak Oil impacts our lives. What does this mean for future energy demands? How will this effect the entire concept of industrial production as the means to prosperity? What are the implications for a cultural identity dependent on economic and material growth? Environmental degradation and resource depletion in dozens of other areas also make it clear that even without global warming and Peak Oil, things must drastically change if we're to have any hope of creating a sustainable future.

Things are starting to fall apart at an accelerating pace. But instead of panicking or giving up, let's take a deep breath and look at reality. The fact is, a major part of what's falling apart is a growth economy which isn't real in the first place -- although it worsens other global crises like Peak Oil and global warming. We can produce what is actually needed to live sustainably with current renewable energy technologies and a dramatic reduction in production capacity. We possess the knowledge to produce efficient, high-quality, lasting goods. What is quickly being lost are the skills -- the craftsmanship -- to do so.

Even if everything we think we know about Peak Oil and global warming turns out to be false, if we start changing the way we do business and re-order our relationships to be in harmony with the natural world, the worst outcome is that we'd leave a healthier and more vibrant world for our children.

As mentioned last month, relocalization has some broad agendas. One of these is to empower and prioritize local decisions on land use and natural resource management based on a regional framework of sustainability. We can rebuild groups of neighborhoods to be friendlier to people and the environment than to cars, and reallocate the money now going to more and wider roads (and other sprawl enablers) to meet peoples' needs for right livelihood, community security, and ecological integrity.

Further, we can rely on local investment where returns are measured in increased quality of life instead of merely profits, and wake up to the fact that growth increases everyone's tax burden -- and beyond a certain point actually decreases quality of life indicators.

We can begin this exercise in rethinking community and economic development by connecting some dots and seeing what picture emerges with just the above two aspects of relocalization.

A relocalized, human-friendly desert community that must reduce sprawl will increase the use of bicycles, other human powered and public transportation, water harvesting, greywater systems, and solar energy. These will synergistically work with the need to quit drawing down and begin recharging the aquifer, and to minimize the energy expended to obtain, deliver and recycle water.

Our community can manufacture waterless composting toilets, bicycle frames and trailers, and water cistern systems. This will involve building a manufacturing base requiring skilled jobs in design, production, and installation. We'll need new skills in urban planning, public works and community health; renovation and redesign of the built environment using environmentally friendly products; and research and application advances in clean production and zero waste techniques.

The waterless composting toilet itself 1) provides ancillary jobs in retrofitting existing infrastructure and solar power installations for the toilet fan and heating element; 2) encourages complimentary production of passive solar devices and other cooling, heating, and energy efficiency improvements; 3) decreases wear and tear on public water and sewer systems; and 4) provides finished compost for neighborhood and community gardens to rebuild soil -- since soil is what actually feeds you. Just this one change provides many opportunities for education, training, and employment in numerous and diverse green collar jobs.

As we shift toward a relocalized economy, we will come to realize that meaningful work doesn't require 40-50 hour work weeks. Human ingenuity and existing technology means that no one must work more than 15-20 hours per week (which could be six months of 40 hour weeks). This would allow technology to deliver on one of its promises -- increased leisure time. Instead of time spent exhausted in front of the television, this can become quality leisure time spent being in community, furthering education, engaging in creative pursuits, and reconnecting with the natural world -- inherently sustainable desires expressed by the majority of people once basic needs are met.

Protecting the poor and middle classes from increasing energy and commodity costs and the effects of global warming begins by creating the process to ensure these basic human needs. This necessarily includes the desire to be a responsibly contributing member of one's community. This can be accomplished without increasing energy demand, or increasing industrial productivity and efficiency (widgets produced per unit of time) as the only true measure of prosperity and progress. The only downside to any of this is that if done sustainably, it doesn't protect a growth economy, and helps clarify why reliance on infinite growth is more accurately described as economic cannibalism.

This fits in with a vision of relocalized, sustainable, environmentally integrated cities that are self-reliant, resilient, and vibrant. It is part of the path toward cities that contain greenbelts among and between neighborhoods, smaller and fewer roads built with permeable surfaces, public transit between neighborhoods and regional centers, electric vehicle co-ops, locally produced food, decentralized renewable energy, sustainable (clean, zero waste) manufacturing, fewer work hours, and full employment. This all leads to people wanting to responsibly contribute to their communities because doing so increases their opportunities to maximize their potential. Social stress and alienation decrease because people know they have something to look forward to -- purpose and meaning returns to daily life.

A future built on the principles of ecological wisdom and social justice may sound utopian, but utopia means "no place." What I'm envisioning by using relocalization as the process to become sustainable is a realistic, pragmatic whole systems view that works the same way nature does. Instead of enriching a small minority at the ultimate expense of all other life, it is more in keeping with true human nature and better able to meet people's needs and desires instead of constraining, limiting, and creating addictive substitutes for them.

Relocalization Nuts and Bolts: Part Two of a Three Part Series

This month’s installment explains what relocalization means and what it offers. Next month I will describe what a relocalized economy might look here in the Southwest desert.

To appreciate the potential of relocalization, it is important to first understand that the status quo is causing our personal, social, and environmental crises. While we know that we’re quickly degrading our life support system with the business as usual approach of economic growth, we can’t say for certain how quickly this is occurring, which adverse impacts will reveal themselves first, or how disastrous these impacts will be. However, there is a large degree of agreement among scientists, and growing agreement among economists, that creating a carbon-cycle neutral economy, and making sure that all human activities and effects are included in evaluating that economy, should be our number one priority.

The real inconvenient truth is that the business as usual approach of infinite and unfettered economic growth has created both catastrophic climate destabilization and Peak Oil. Protecting this system worsens these crises, and attempts to reform a system based on faulty assumptions merely postpones the inevitable collapse. Therefore, we must approach change with a new way of thinking to create an alternative without these liabilities. Relocalization is a whole-systems approach to doing things differently -- a process to achieve sustainability.

Relocalization was developed as a response to global warming and Peak Oil. More than just a band-aid for these symptoms, however, it also seeks to address the environmental, social, political, and economic ramifications at the root of these crises. It includes the concepts that we must rebuild our local economies; recapture our sense of place; reclaim our sovereignty; and restore our community support networks.

From a natural systems perspective, a green economy is a local economy. By meeting the requirements to be sustainable from a bioregional carrying capacity perspective, a relocalized community is “naturally” healthy, vibrant, and resilient.

At its core, relocalization is a strategy to move production of food, goods and energy closer to the point of consumption to reduce dependence on long distance transportation and the whims of distant suppliers. The goal is to increase food and energy security, to empower local decisions in the development of currency, culture, and governance, and to restore ecological integrity and social equity.

If you’re familiar with the mission of anti-globalization activists who use localization to protect local economies and livelihoods from the slow drain of an export economy, relocalization goes a step further with a commitment to reduce consumption and improve environmental and social conditions. It is both antithesis and antidote to the emptiness and inherent inequity of corporate globalization.

Reducing consumption is, of course, directly at odds with a growth economy -- but this is not a call for an austerity program demanding great personal sacrifice and suffering. We can reduce consumption by sharing rarely used items with neighbors. We can reduce consumption by only purchasing items that are built to last and be easily repairable. We can reduce consumption by turning off the TV to decrease its stranglehold on our psyche with its mesmerizing story that popularity and self-worth is dependent on being a walking billboard for this season’s corporate fashion. By removing the need to work longer hours to buy all the stuff that never fulfills its promise to deliver happiness, we will have the time to do all those things that do bring happiness.

The reason all aspects of our society must be included in the task of relocalization is quite pragmatic. The ancient Greek oikonomia is the root of economics. It means the management of a household to increase value to all members over time. It is a systemic view that considers all the relationships -- natural, social, values, language, history -- that contribute to our stay as guests in Mother Earth’s home. Oikonomia looks at the social good, not just the parties to a transaction or claims of ownership of a natural resource.

Relocalization and decentralization are concepts that are feared by the ruling elite because it removes power and control from the hands of those who have become addicted, or think they are somehow entitled by birth, to wield it. This is why you hear about agrofuels and carbon capture, but not relocalization and powering down, on the 6 O’clock News. These latter concepts are ridiculed, marginalized, and said to be unmanageable for a mere “working class” either too stupid to take care of itself or without the capacity to understand how the bigger picture “really” works.

Well, the bigger picture works rather simply by the natural systems principles of mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. It works by self-organizing attraction relationships that make everyone’s life better by making the whole better.

This is what life is all about, and relocalization seeks to return us to it.


More information on relocalization can be found at the Relocalization Network, and you're invited to become involved with Tucson's relocalization group, Campaign For Our Lives.

Relocalizing for a Green Economy: Part One of a Three Part Series

These next three posts are the full, unedited versions of a series of articles on relocalization I was asked to write for the Tucson Green Magazine. They were edited either because they were too long for the space available, or because they presented concepts the "mainstream" wasn't considered yet ready for. Since I do tend to preach to the choir quite a bit, there's undoubtedly more than a little merit to this critique.

However, if you're reading these here, I'm going to assume you've already taken the red pill, or are at least considering other ways of breaking free of the consensus trance and looking for ways to start doing things differently; to actively participate in creating a sustainable future based on ecological wisdom and social justice.

Part One:

No matter how clever we are, our cleverness is wholly dependent on the bounty and health of the Earth and the richness of our relationships.

A growth economy of material goods has an unfortunate outcome for living organisms, and we're told to ignore the connection between constant financial growth and the exploitation of people and degradation of the planet. We're told this is the price of progress. However, we cannot escape the fact that the planet's resources are either finite or have a carrying capacity limit to their rate of regeneration, while money is an abstract concept that knows no bounds, nor has a basis in hard physical reality.

We use money to assign value to a person's status and contribution to community well-being. But this value is not necessarily tied to community equity or fairly earned, as can be seen from lotteries, sweepstakes, and mortgage backed securities. We also let ourselves believe that money can be used to meet all human needs and desires. That this is ludicrous as soon as one stops to think about it is why we're told not to. While money can't buy happiness, it can buy the antidepressants necessary to stand in its stead.

My core belief is that today's financial markets are a major contributing factor to the crises life faces. They are little more than a form of legalized gambling in a highly rigged game. They nurture the fantasy of something for nothing. This has worked well for a select few over the centuries, but we've reached a few global tipping points such as overpopulation causing depletion of fisheries and 50% loss of productive topsoil, and with fossil fueled global warming we're quickly approaching others.

That said, socially responsible investing on a local level could be a leverage point in creating the first steps to a sustainable future. There are models available, such as Solari Circles and steady-state economies, that can help communities regain control of their future and develop sustainably. Today, communities have the impetus and the opportunity to pull together, invest in a future that looks at the bigger picture, and provide true and lasting value for all the species that make up that community.

The main points I think people must begin examining in earnest regard economic growth and accumulation as the only allowable meaningful measures of prosperity and well-being. The pervasive mindset is bigger, shinier, faster, more.

But what is this actually doing to our health and the overall quality of life? What longing are we trying to satisfy that we accept baubles for payoff and a story that allows us to rationalize that this is the best we can hope for? The actual results of this mindset are decreases in every quality of life indicator that actually provide meaning to the human condition -- plus of course all the ones pertinent to other species and the natural world itself. Strictly from a mathematical perspective, a growth economy doesn't work; it is unsustainable. All the evidence points to the conclusion that it's time to seriously consider what we might do differently.

One of the reasons it's so scary to think about the collapse of the current system is that no alternatives to the status quo are allowed to be mentioned without being denigrated and marginalized as unnatural, naively idealistic, or communistic. We remain unaware or won't believe that not only is an alternative available that's not dependent on future technologies, but that both rational reality and spiritual yearnings show to be more in keeping with human nature. The alternative will improve overall conditions because it works with the most powerful force in the universe -- the creation and maintenance of mutually supportive attraction relationships.

This alternative is based on reconnecting our disconnection from nature and each other, and using the process of relocalization to create an explicitly defined sustainable future built on ecological wisdom and social justice. It is an optimistic message that is tempered with an outright admission that if we continue in the direction we're heading, the good news will be the end of Western civilization. The bad news will be passing one too many irreversible environmental tipping points.

Bigger depends on denying and ignoring the drivers of economic cannibalism offered by the Industrial Growth Society. Just one aspect of this is the slow poisoning by the petrochemical industry -- and the pharmaceutical industry attempts to alleviate the symptoms while creating different ones -- and refusal to admit that humans are not immune to being effected by the largest walking chemical experiment in history. This is being allowed, encouraged even, because it contributes to a rising GDP. As recent medical research shows, however, the actual cure for breast cancer is shutting down Dow Chemical,

Better is about having the time and resources available to concentrate on what really matters. It includes having the opportunities available to develop one's potential, without constant distractions that not only support and enrich a small controlling elite by fantasizing that you can be one too, but to go along with an implicit mandate to subvert those natural desires that contribute to fulfillment, community, and life.

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?