Monday, November 29, 2010

Truth Needn't be Scary

For those of you following along at home, Erik Curren has responded to my response. (also archived here) The primary third party to this exchange, Dmitry Orlov, has posted some additional comments on this exchange as well.

A quick semantic clarification is in order, especially regarding my own writing. I don't consider the immanent end of Western industrial civilization--the Industrial Growth Society--to be equivalent to collapse. I tend to think of collapse as something bad. While Western civ is causing collapse in many areas, such as with the rampant biodiversity loss that's breaking numerous links in the food chain, and there's a high probability that it will cause collapse in ways we haven't even thought of yet, ending an era of domination, exploitation and destruction I find difficult to put in the category of collapse.

I'd first like to thank Erik for this opportunity to continue engaging in an intelligent conversation to allow clarification of points. This demonstrates that we're in agreement on quite a bit. The "What I know" section of his response points out many of these areas.

I sure don't know what the future will look like either. But I do know that if we apply a rational framework that is based on the natural systems principles that ecosystems use to become sustainable, we can guide human societies in a direction that works for life in general instead of mainly for the elite control hierarchies that have gotten us into our current mess.

I also know that when the non-profit my wife and I run started doing public screenings of the documentary End of Suburbia in 2004 that it woke a lot of people up. You could, in many cases, quite literally see the fog lifting from people. EoS connected a lot of dots and supplied some badly needed missing information that mainstream sources would rather ignore and deny. Admittedly, the attendees at these screenings were mainly an educated crowd--whether university or self-learners was irrelevant. They were either already aware that the status quo was dysfunctional, or they had that uneasy sense that things were amiss and would rather do something about it other than take any of the culturally popular mood-altering drugs and pretend that everything was just fine.

So, yeah, in American culture today this makes for a small, but growing, percentage of the general population. There are various reasons for this, well known to students of Western culture--the dumbsizing of public education, the debt trap of consumerism which requires longer working hours, the distractions of pop culture, the effects of the world's largest experiment in operant conditioning known as advertising, and the fact that modern psychotherapy focuses on making one feel sane about living in an insane world. It also helps when you can rig an economy so that one's best chance of obtaining a higher education means first taking your chances as cannon fodder and being subjected to military indoctrination.

Something else I know in the area of economics is that our current economy is based on fairy dust. Whether people listen to Nicole Foss or Jeff Rubin means little if their primary goal is to guide speculation in wealth accumulation. The fact is that we're not in a recession; we're at the end of an historic period in Western civilization. And Foss comes much, much closer to speaking this truth than Rubin does.

I also know that we don't need a source of power--at least one that comes from a centralized grid or contributes to the degradation of the natural world--to keep from shivering in the dark. We know how to build extremely efficient zero-carbon homes--they just can't be slapped together in a week by a group of half-drunk minimum wage high-school dropouts and are thus less profitable to the growth lobby. The Inuit managed to survive just fine without Consolidated Edison. But even if this isn't the lifestyle of choice for many people, a technologically advanced society can exist within the carrying capacity of their supportive ecosystems. They just have to be honest about that balance point among population, consumption, and waste assimilation.

The attempt at arguing $225/barrel oil means people can no longer afford insulin is both a strawman and a red herring, as well as a thinly disguised argument in favor of maintaining the status quo. Decent public transportation in walkable cities instead of Lexus payments--as well as not taking on mountains of unnecessary consumer debt in the first place--would allow people to afford their insulin. More importantly, if they were to stop eating processed death foods and washing them down with high-fructose corn syrup that has a few cancer agents plus a neurotoxin and an endocrine disrupter thrown in for color, flavor and preservation they might not need the insulin in the first place. And, of course, getting off their duff once in a while would be a big help too.

Using John Michael Greer in an appeal to authority argument doesn't carry much water either. In a conversation with Rob Hopkins, that I also weighed in on, Greer takes a viewpoint that since we can't forecast the future, that planning is both a waste of time and gives people false hope.

As Curren points out in his "What I know" section, the rapidly accumulating evidence that we are about to slam into a brick wall is becoming inescapable. So Greer's position that rapid collapse is unlikely and we'll have a long, slow, multi-generational descent--I guess because he doesn't want to frighten anybody either--ignores what we know about tipping points, and are coming to better understand about feedback loops. Due diligence is indeed what we should be doing, and post haste. Unfortunately, Greer seems to be advising people to do the opposite.

Giving up on society doesn't automatically mean grabbing your family and locking yourself into a bomb shelter. What I'm talking about is giving up on the failed assumptions of Western industrial civilization. There's a big difference. When coupled with the rational alternative a systemic implementation of relocalization offers, the benefits of a different way of creating our social relationships points to a positive way forward that feels good to participate in.

In Curren's selective quoting of Yevgeny at Club Orlov he rather conveniently skipped the most important final phrase in that quote. "[B]ut that's only if they find enough fuel to get there and back." I'm always having to point out to people that the gangs of Los Angeles aren't going to invade Tucson because we're more than a tankful of gas away. The Sonoran Desert is going to be littered with lowriders, and they're going to be wishing the racist Arizona legislature hadn't shut down all the immigrant water stations.

Because something else I know--from direct experience--is that if you take the time to honestly lay things out for people, they get it. This works best if you first take the time to listen to their concerns and hopes. This is how I ran my campaign for Arizona State Senate this year. I ran as an independent on a platform that used relocalization and steady-state economies as the only rational response to peak oil, global warming and corporatism, and although I lost, I gathered support from across the political spectrum. Neither the Democrat nor the Republican candidate would debate the issues, and spent most of their time talking about how bad the other was. But after every forum or other speaking engagement, I'd have a handful of people come up to me and say I was the only candidate making sense, and that it was so refreshing to hear someone speaking truth and offering actual alternatives. These were people I'd never met before, i.e. they were outside the choir.

Now, some people are just very deep in the consensus trance, but many of the people I've talked with over the years who say "Don't scare people, they can't handle the truth, they'll just shut down," turn out to be stalwarts of the status quo of growth and empire, even when they insist that they're really dog soldiers for the peace or environmental or whatever movements. The conditioning that declares growth and material accumulation as necessary for progress and prosperity runs very deep, and the artificial stimuli that enforce this worldview are constant and applied in myriad ways.

Which is actually one of the things that underpins my optimism, strange as that might sound. Studies in operant conditioning show that as soon as the artificial stimuli are removed and/or the subject is returned to a more natural environment, subjects (from any species) revert back to more natural behaviors much quicker than it took to train them to act against their nature. Other studies show that neuronal growth and new pathways occur in as little as 45 minutes by simply enhancing one's environment. Literacy and the ability to successfully challenge the status quo can take as little as three weeks. There's no reason to accept that the change we seek is going to take generations, or even decades, to come about. And it can start as simply as turning off your TV and attending a meeting of your neighborhood association.

We have the ability to rapidly change. It seems that what we're really lacking at a cultural level is the motivation, which a full set of facts can help provide. So I very much agree with one aspect of Curren's message. We must become better communicators, and use many different communication techniques and styles. One thing that using the models and metaphors of natural systems shows is that there is a whole lot of diversity, so a one-size-fits-all "solution" isn't going to cut it.

Some people are better at certain tactics, some people respond better to certain stimuli (some of the lessons of operant conditioning can be useful), we're all at different points of awareness, and some people respond faster than others. One of the problems I have with any of the stage models of change or development is that they tend to ignore individual differences, that change doesn't have to be tepid incrementalism, and that people have the ability to quickly jump to advanced stages while skipping intermediate stages entirely.

As Derrick Jensen so correctly points out, change begins by believing in it, not by talking ourselves out of it, and definitely not by talking others out of it--and I might add, or the style with which they're most effective.

And for the record, while I support the transition movement as a step in the right direction, I'm not committed to it. I am one of the co-founders of Transition Pima--a Transition US regional hub--but what I'm committed to is getting back in balance with a living, sensuous Earth which relocalization--a practical and affordable process to create a sustainable future--could do when combined with reconnecting with nature and steady-state local living economies.

Hopefully we can make the transition to a sustainable future fun and exciting and all that. It doesn't have to be about sacrifice and austerity (except for people who just can't give up the bankster mindset). And in fact, when one honestly examines what passes for Western "civilization," it's not hard to come to the conclusion that sacrifice and austerity is its modus operandi.

I think most people would quite willingly give up their body burden, despair, and the lack of time to develop any type of meaningful, lasting relationships with family, friends, community, and environment. The truth needn't be scary, especially when there are alternatives to the dysfunctional status quo to be offered. But we must be honest about how much damage we've already caused, about how it's come to be, and about what we could start doing differently. Because what we're facing now is a global Truth or Consequences.

Peak Oil: Apocalypse or Promised Land?

The Energy Bulletin published on November 24 the following response I wrote to an article by Erik Curren, which was first published on Transition Voice which you might want to read through first for the full context, and especially to some of the articles Curren links to as they provide good background information on what we're facing.


I found it rather hard to tell what point of view Erik Curren is actually arguing for or against in "Peak oil risks becoming an apocalyptic cult." But it seems to be don't tell people the truth as they might ignore you, or even worse, laugh at you. So, let's browse through the sections of Curren's article.

First off, though, if we can't honestly admit that staying the course means slamming into a brick wall at high-speed before the wreckage sails over a very high cliff we won't make the necessary changes to do any more than stave off the inevitable--at best. The reality of the global situation today is that if you're not scared, you're not paying attention.

Predicting collapse becomes a pretty safe bet considering how far into the overshoot range we are--in the areas of population, consumption, and waste generation--and the fact that our "leaders" still believe we can get away with even more of what got us into our current dire straits, coupled with their insistence that we're not actually in dire straits, but even if we were, some whiz-kid will invent something to take care of it and we can all happily get back to the normal that created our dire straits in the first place. This is the type of optimism that makes pessimism redundant.

Curren starts out with a refrain that is becoming a bit too familiar. Mentioning the facts that the Industrial Growth Society is entirely dependent on cheap and abundant supplies of fossil fuels to power the growth necessary to pay off yesterday's debt, and since we've passed the peak in conventional supplies the global financial system can't survive much longer is somehow seen as equivalent to the American survivalist movement--and Curren throws Glenn Beck in as an additional bogeyman just for good measure.

Now, if one were to stop their inquiry into the peak oil movement at that point it would be easy to come to the conclusion that it's nothing more than bunch of doom-n-gloom misfits who can't adapt to civilization and are praying for the apocalypse. But being that superficial is generally associated with swimming at the shallow end of the gene pool.

The peak oil movement, pretty much since its inception, has always pointed out that there is an alternative--at least if we begin to implement it before too many tipping points are passed. Powering down, relocalizing, reconnecting, and remembering how to build mutually supportive community relationships are all mainstays of the peak oil movement. As well as of the global warming, social justice, and ecological integrity movements.

Communities are sets of relationships which operate at many scales. Curren says the guest post by Yevgeny on Dmitri Orlov's blog "deconstructs the idea of 'community.'" I'm at a total loss to see how he comes to that conclusion. Yevgeny does an excellent job of describing exactly what community is when talking about his father's village. The word itself may not be exactly translatable into Russian, but the concept is pretty universal. Who is rejecting the idea of community? I sense an attempt to create a straw-man, but I'm not sure who or for what purpose.

Nicole Foss does a good job of helping people realize our current economy is built on fairy dust. If Transition Norwich is an indication, I'm glad to see the Transition Movement waking up to reality, and especially their very mature response to it: "We didn’t have to be Pollyannas anymore." The end of affordable consumer goods would be a blessing in disguise, because none of them actually deliver on their promise of fulfillment. $225/barrel oil would help people discover they don't actually need the stuff in the first place.

By remembering how to share, build stuff to last, decentralize the grid with clean renewables, and a handful of other common sense changes that are technologically feasible today, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that we could have technologically advanced societies that are sustainable (and yes, there's a humane way to deal with the overpopulation problem). The only "downside" is that none of this supports economic growth. The main concept that changes is growth being necessary for progress and prosperity goes into the dustbin of history. The only suffering falls on bankers and insurance salesmen. But as Richard Heinberg says, we need 50 million more farmers anyway. The sunshine will do them good.

The collapse of an economic system that is based on debt, exploitation, and destruction is the opposite of an apocalypse, especially when relocalization/transition offers a positive alternative that actually can improve people's lot in life. Innovation and entrepreneurship can finally fully blossom because it won't be narrowly tied to only those products and industries that prop up the growth machine.

The fact is that we've been lied into our current perception of reality by the status quo, and it's not meeting the needs of everyday people, let alone offering anything approaching fulfillment. Cultural maturation beyond this story sounds much more like the promised land than the apocalypse.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mitigating Global Warming: Protecting Water

The following is a transcript of my talk at Transition Pima's Oct. 2 Chautauqua for Change, where the focus of the day was water.

Good afternoon. I'm glad so many of you could join us today. My name is Dave Ewoldt, and I'm one of the co-founders of Transition Pima, as well as being an independent candidate for Arizona State Senate in LD 28.

My research background, professional life, and community activism are built on a foundation of ecology, systems science, and policy analysis pertaining to sustainability and its basis in scientifically validated natural systems principles. I've also been a member of the Arizona Hydrological Society, and had a paper published in their annual conference proceedings a couple of years ago, so I'm at least marginally qualified to speak on the issue of water.

Today, more groups such as the Southern Arizona Green Chamber of Commerce, are springing up almost daily whose primary interest is sustainability; who advocate a community based on ecologically sound policies and sustainable practices; and who lobby to enact practical legislation to encourage green practices in our communities. Locally, the City of Tucson and Pima County have created sustainability departments. We also have the Watershed Management Group, Drywater Harvesters, Sonoran Permaculture Guild, Barrio Sustainability Project and other groups who focus on food and energy security that is sustainable.

My contention is that in order for these efforts to be successful, the first thing we must do is honestly define what we mean by sustainability. This can be done in both an ecologically sound and a legally defensible manner. This will provide a foundation that is consistent, that will allow rational planning, and will provide a yardstick by which to measure progress.

Most of you here today have heard the definition I propose using before, but I'll repeat it because we must keep it in mind as we talk about the water situation here in Southern Arizona. This definition contains three clauses that are intimately interrelated and that inform and support each other.

Sustainability: 1) Integrate human social and economic lives into the environment in ways that tend to enhance or maintain rather than degrade or destroy the environment; 2) A moral imperative to pass on our natural inheritance, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in its ability to meet the needs of future generations; 3) Entails determining, and staying within, the balance point amongst population, consumption, and waste assimilation so that bioregions, watersheds and ecosystems can maintain their ability to recharge, replenish, and regenerate.

The third clause it what gives the definition its legal teeth, because it is scientifically measurable. It provides the foundation for setting growth threshhold standards and optimum population size studies which have been successfully carried out in other communities around the country.

With this definition in mind, one thing that stands out to me in the various water forums and symposiums I've attended or participated in over the past few years is a term commonly used by local, regional, national, and international water experts. This term is overdraft. Everyone says, that everywhere you look, fresh water supplies are decreasing. We're using more than can be naturally replenished. But then, often in the very next sentence, they all go on to say we're not in danger of running out of water.

Now, I realize that math skills are also decreasing in this country, but what planet are these people from? Is there a parallel universe, or another dimension that I'm not aware of where all this water is going to come from? Isn't "inventing" new water supplies the same as the alchemy used in the Middle Ages to turn lead into gold? The best any of these experts could offer is a belief in a future technological miracle occurring to save us from ourselves. I call this the techno-rapture. None of the experts want to address the inconvenient truth that pretty much every technology that we've applied against the natural world has had the unfortunate side-effect of decreasing the ability of the natural world to sustain life.

I have this bad habit of looking at everything from a systems perspective; of studying relationships; of being concerned with underlying causes. If we don't understand what the real root of the problem is, the solutions we develop won't change anything because we'll be responding to the wrong problem.

When properly presented, sustainability additionally provides an overarching meta-vision of a just, equitable, and peaceful democratic society that is in balance (or, more accurately, in holistic integration) with the natural world. Sustainability, when strongly defined from the perspective of ecology--which is the study of relationships--fully informs the work of progressive activism, as well as providing the support and nurturing necessary for progressive activists. While some people take the narrow view that sustainability is an environmental movement, sustainability is actually a community movement.

I'll get into some of the details of why here in a moment, but the status quo needs to change while there's still anyone left around to change it. And the experts who look at global warming trends (more accurately referred to as catastrophic climate destabilization) say we're going to be looking at greatly reduced populations in the Southwest deserts over the coming decades. There is an intimate relationship here with water.

Steven Chu, Nobel laureate and former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in regard to diminished supplies of fresh water in the Western US from the 30-70% reduction of mountain snowpack says, "There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster, and that’s in the best scenario." There are a number of credible studies that have been published within the past few years that come to the conclusion that the Colorado River could be functionally dry as early as the next years or two, but at least within the decade if trends continue.

Speaking of trends, it's instructive to note that many of the worst case global warming scenarios from less than ten years ago, which weren't predicted to occur until 2085 to 2100, have already occurred. The best example is the opening up of the Northwest passage in the Arctic.

We must begin being honest about the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. There is actually no disagreement that our current water supplies are running out. The water table in the Tucson region has dropped from 20 feet to over 300 feet in the past three generations, and is continuing to drop between 2-4 ft/yr. In the 1940s in Phoenix you couldn't build a house with a basement because the water table was too high. Now it's at 1,000 feet.

We're selling water to industry for $5.80/af, but the cost to CAGRD (Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District) to secure increasingly difficult to find replenishment supplies is $200/af. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Colorado River is decreasing and is expected to be at 40% below normal in the coming years. The Central Arizona Project is pumping water over 300 miles 2000 feet uphill to Tucson in an open concrete ditch through the middle of the Arizona desert.

We're betting our future on paper water. The current ADD water process (Acquire, Develop and Deliver Water) is analogous to the fed printing money to "solve" the financial crisis. It allows the continuation of rubber-stamping growth without the water actually being there. And we're allowing our local planning departments to continue approving trophy subdivisions in the foothills, and 60,000 home "planned" communities south of Tucson. As if putting the word "planned" in there makes everything alright. Everybody seems afraid to point out that smart growth gets us to the exact same place as dumb growth, we just get their first class.

One of the things we're told by status quo water managers is that we can continue growing if we manage our water resources better; for example, if we all just begin water harvesting.

What I'm going to spend the rest of my time talking about today involves deepening this overly simplistic view. We require a much fuller understanding of the system relationships within hydrologic cycles in order to craft realistic water policies.

The executive summary is that our collective abuse and displacement of water is contributing to both global warming and local weather disruptions. Abuse through industrial and agricultural pollution is fairly well understood. Displacement is less well known and concerns moving water from where it sustains healthy ecosystems and hydrologic cycles to where it gets used in irrigation or for cities, where it generally ends up in the oceans. There is also a "virtual trade" in water due to globalization, which is the 20% of daily water use for humans that is used for export crops or manufactured goods. Urbanization, deforestation, and wetlands destruction also cause the removal of vegetation necessary for a healthy hydrologic cycle, which leads to a loss of precipitation over affected areas. This all contributes to global warming, as well as lowering nature's ability to sequester carbon dioxide. Solutions must protect water as well as watersheds and all of their users.

Here are the details on how this functions and occurs. Much of the following is taken from the work of Maude Barlow, board chair of Food and Water Watch and senior adviser on water to the president of the U.N. General Assembly.

We can't ignore the interconnected nature of our world, its cycles, and humanity's role in them. Global warming is having negative impacts on global fresh water supplies. Warmer temperatures cause increased evaporation from rivers and lakes, decreased snowpack and earlier runoff, and increased glacier melting.

However, our collective abuse and displacement of fresh water is also contributing to global warming. This issue must be added to our strategies to mitigate global warming as well as the restoration of watersheds and the replenishment of aquifers.

There are two major factors in this.

The first is displacement of water from where it sustains healthy ecosystems and healthy hydrologic cycles. We've polluted so much surface water that we're now mining aquifers much faster than nature can replenish them. We move water from where nature has put it to where we need it for food production where much of it gets lost to evaporation, and to supply the voracious thirst of cities where it usually ends up as waste dumped into waterways and oceans.

We also lose water through the virtual trade in water. This is the water used for export crops and manufactured goods, and it accounts for about 20% of the daily water use for humans that is exported out of watersheds. Piping water long distances for industry leaves behind parched landscapes.

The second factor is loss of the vegetation necessary for healthy hydrologic cycles. Urbanization, deforestation and wetland destruction destroy water-retentive landscapes and leads to loss of precipitation over the affected area.

The living world influences the climate mainly by regulating the water cycle and the huge energy flows linked to it. Transpiring plants, especially forests, work as a kind of biotic pump, causing humid air to be sucked out of the ocean and transferred to dry land. If the vegetation is removed from the land, this natural regulation system is interrupted. Soil erodes, reducing the content of organic material in the ground, thus reducing its ability to hold water. Dry soil from lost vegetation traps solar heat, sharply increasing the local temperature and causing a reduction in precipitation over the affected area. This is the unmentioned side of the urban heat island effect. This process also destroys the natural sequestration of carbon in the soil, leading to carbon loss.

So, just as removing vegetation from an ecosystem will dry up the soil, removing water from an ecosystem means reduced or non-existent vegetation. Taken together, these two factors are hastening the desertification of the planet, and intensifying global warming. Even if we successfully address and reverse greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels, we will not be able to stop global warming if we do not deal with the impact of our abuse of water.

It is also a tenet of sustainability that a region--however defined--cannot consider itself sustainable at the expense of another region. Central and Southern Arizona will not be sustainable as long as it depends on Colorado River water. The same can be said for some of the current pipe-dreams such as building another water canal from the Mississippi River or building desalinization plants. As if the communities dependent upon the Mississippi River would even allow the former to occur in the first place.

And of course there's also the tie-in to our energy production and use. Coal-fired power plants use approximately 1.5 trillion gallons of water a year in the US. Some folks might actually use more water turning on the lights in their foothills McMansions than by drinking a glass of it. Power plants also create more toxic waste than the plastic, paint, and chemical industries, and this waste gets dumped into rivers and other waterways from the scrubbing process. So, we've managed to clean up the air a bit and instead of breathing the toxins, now we drink them.

So, how do we answer the increasingly loud cry of, What can we do?

The solution to the water half of this crisis is massive watershed restoration to bring water back into parched landscapes. It's instructive to remember that the Tucson Valley used to be a desert wetlands. The only remaining example of this is a small section of the upper San Pedro River valley.

We must return water that has disappeared by retaining as much rainwater as possible within the ecosystem so that water can permeate the soil, replenish groundwater systems, and return to the atmosphere to regulate temperatures and renew the hydrologic cycle. This means we must be ecologically realistic about the unsustainability, as well as the basic infeasibility, of supporting a local population of one million entirely through water harvesting. Don't even get me started on the current growth lobby fantasy of doubling our local population by 2050.

We must restore forests and wetlands - the lungs and kidneys of fresh water. For this to be successful, three basic laws of nature must be addressed.

1) We must create the conditions that allow rainwater to remain in local watersheds by restoring the natural spaces where rainwater falls and where water can flow. Examples of water retention include: roof gardens in family homes and office buildings; urban planning to allow rain and storm water to be captured and returned to the earth; water harvesting and drip irrigation in food production; capturing daily water discharge and returning it clean to the land through technologies such as living machines.

2) We cannot continue to mine groundwater supplies at a rate greater than natural recharge. Future generations will not look kindly upon us if we do. Governments must regulate groundwater takings before these underground reservoirs are gone (and before our cities subside into them). This means a shift in policy from export to domestic and local production.

3) We must stop polluting our surface and groundwater sources, which is usually done merely to increase corporate profits. Water abuse in fossil fuel production and in mining must stop. We must wean ourselves of industrial and chemical-based agricultural practices and the techno-fantasy of water-guzzling agro-fuel farming. National policies and international trade rules must support local food production in order to protect the environment and promote local sustainable agriculture. Policies must also discourage the virtual trade in water, and ban the mass movement of water by pipeline. Government investment in water and wastewater infrastructure would save huge volumes of water lost every day. Local laws could enforce water-harvesting and grey-water recycling practices at every level.

Governments around the world must acknowledge the water crisis and the role water abuse plays in the warming (and drying) of the planet. All activities that will impact water must conform to a new ethic -- backed by law -- that protects water sources from pollution and over-pumping. This will require a strong challenge to government policies that exclusively focus on unlimited global economic growth, as well as directly challenging those who insist that it is politically infeasible to propose, enact, or enforce any regulations that might decrease profitability.

International policies currently focus on giving the two billion people in water stressed areas more access to groundwater sources. But current levels of groundwater takings are unsustainable. To truly realize the universal right to water, and to protect water for nature's own uses, requires a fundamental reordering in our relationship to the world's finite water resources, as well as all the other resources our economies, lifestyles, and very lives depend upon.

Until we find the courage to perform a systemic and comprehensive carrying capacity analysis, we won't know what we have to work with, or even the general direction we should be heading. This makes all of our current planning efforts moot.

We are currently overdeveloped. We are in the overshoot range of both environmental and economic carrying capacity. This is a very inconvenient truth, made all the harder to hear because we have defined our very essence by its negation.

Addressing these issues is a fundamental aspect of the relocalization project--a viable and pragmatic process to cooperatively develop a sustainable future. We're running out of time to get busy on it. But, it is something that is within our ability to do. And it starts by simply making new choices, in our lifestyles and with the people we elect to set our governing policies and regulatory framework. Simply replacing one color of the status quo with the second most popular color is not a choice our grandchildren are going to be very happy about.

Or our children. Or our spouses, for that matter. The time, quite literally, is now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In a Nutshell

Since what we're doing today obviously isn't working when it comes to improving our lot in life and protecting our life support system, and we have an urgent need to develop realistic responses to the rapidly converging Triumvirate of Collapse--Peak Oil, global warming, and corporatism--who or what might be standing in our way? More importantly, what could form a realistic foundation for doing things differently?

The main group standing in the way of getting back in balance with the natural systems principles that create and nurture life seem to be those 1) who believe that economic growth and financial incentives are necessary for progress and prosperity, not that we're naturally innovative, inquisitive and intelligent creatures, 2) who believe we are separate from and in control of the natural world, and not subject to the consequences of our actions, 3) who believe that money and material accumulation are acceptable substitutes for spiritual and emotional health and well-being, 4) who believe we can "greenly" resume business as usual and have an economic recovery that returns us to "normal" and don't want to admit that normal is what brought us to this point, 5) who believe that because compound interest can be mathematically shown to expand to infinity that this "proves" natural resources can do likewise, and thus banksters are to be venerated in their wisdom of usury and worship of mammonism (the deification of greed), 6) who believe this is a cruel and heartless dog-eat-dog world and not that the Universe is friendly to life and its evolution, and 7) basically, those who believe that force-based ranking hierarchies of domination and a pathological sense of an inferior other (anything outside the ego) are normal.

While this may make life-supportive change sound next to impossible, I think it is important to help people realize that it's all based on nothing more than a story that emerges from #7. We (Western industrial civilization) can remove the legitimacy we grant to that story, and we can develop a new story that better meets our needs, which necessarily includes a healthy living world that increases diversity by remaining within the carrying capacity limitations of bioregions, watersheds and ecosystems.

I believe we can help people remember and rekindle their fundamental connection to a sensuous living world in which the prime activity of living organisms is the tendency to self-organize into mutually supportive relationships. This is the basis for community. For those missing this important link in the way we think, this part of the process can be easily learned through Project NatureConnect.

Depending on one's perspective, there really aren't major, if any, sacrifices to make--except within a few economic sectors like banking and insurance--when it comes to powering down and evolving beyond growth. Well, we'll sacrifice our body burden, as well as the major contributor to stress, depression, angst, anxiety, despair...

And there's a sizeable chunk of people who would welcome the opportunity to find an alternative to the rat race; to shifting their focus from having more to being more. This is what social studies for the last half century have been saying is exactly what people really do want.

However, no one in their right mind would accept less and contribute more to a system that practices economic cannibalism and ecocide. That's why modern psychotherapy and pharmaceutical companies exist. As J. Krishnamurti said, it is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.

There's a rational economic and ecological alternative that addresses the "doing with less" and austerity concerns of dropping the myth of infinite growth and that embodies the intrinsic rights of the natural world. This alternative is known as relocalization--a practical and affordable process to create a sustainable future--that is the polar opposite of, thus the antidote to, corporate globalization. It combines reconnecting with nature, steady-state economies, permaculture, bioregionalism, natural healing, non-hierarchical communication and organization methods, eco-cities that are people friendly instead of car friendly, alternative energy, and related areas. The leaders and teachers we need today are those already involved in all of those areas, as well as those working in the hundreds of cities around the world focusing on powering-down and becoming sustainable through Transition Initiatives.

For practical examples, we could make less stuff if it were built to last and be easily repairable. We could share infrequently used stuff with friends and neighbors (or have a community rental coop). We could quit believing Madison Avenue when it insists that we are unworthy if we have last years stuff. We could make stuff less toxic, using less toxic processes, and more energy efficient by simply admitting that people and planet are more important than profit. We can build carbon neutral dwellings. We could decentralize the energy grid, quit losing the 25-50% that gets lost on long distance transmission lines, and have local energy independence.

We already know how to do all of these things but don't because of fear of losing "competitive market advantage" and the need to pay usurious interest rates on bank loans that have been extended on easy credit to keep the overall economy growing. What much of this comes down to is that we must admit it is highly irrational to continue believing that we can all continue to benefit forever from our mutual indebtedness--financial and ecological.

If we were to also get global population down to a sustainable level (and we've already proven it's possible to reduce birth rates below replenishment levels through education and giving women the right to control reproductive choice), we could probably get by just fine with even less alternative energy than we're already producing. It must be more widely distributed, but we don't need more of it. We could end our addiction to fossil fuels today. And I haven't even mentioned all the common sense conservation methods we can build into the social milieu, instead of propagating the fear that by conserving ourselves we're simply making it possible for others to use more.

Becoming sustainable doesn't require donning hair-shirts, moving back to the cave, and carrying water. Unless, of course, that's one's preferred lifestyle. (Most of us would probably skip the hair-shirt part.) I think most people would gladly contribute more if they knew they were contributing to mutually supportive community that was consciously and spiritually aligned, or holistically integrated, with a sensuous living planet. This is also the best manner of getting more back ourselves. Being a responsibly contributing member of one's community is how we satisfy those natural expectations for fulfillment that our senses of community, belonging, and acceptance require to be whole and healthy ourselves.

Changing the concepts of wealth and status from the size of one's bank account, yacht, or lawn to the quality of one's personal, social, and environmental relationships is integral to all of this. But I don't see anything irrational or unnatural about becoming better instead of bigger. This is actually where much of my overall optimism springs from, along with all the research that demonstrates that people can make fundamental change in a short time-frame with the proper motivation. The tricky part is finding that motivational trigger point for people thoroughly embedded in the consensus trance of the Industrial Growth Society.

We can mature beyond mechanistic, reductionistic, dualistic Enlightenment thinking and realize that in an interconnected and interdependent world, wisdom emerges from the combination of science and spirituality. While we must first heal the disconnection among body, mind and spirit so they can fully inform and support each other, we can simultaneously build on a framework that combines ancient indigenous wisdom with evolutionary biology, quantum physics, and ecology that requires less energy to increase opportunities for all to work toward their potential.

I believe this is the path to sustainability, and that a sustainable future is only possible if founded on ecological wisdom, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy. This means it must be founded on the core natural systems principles of mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. The models and metaphors amply supplied by a climax ecosystem as it develops health, vitality and resiliency--a system which has been successfully functioning for billions of years in order for life to support more life--can be used to create lifestyles and social systems that are every bit as sustainable.

Before it's too late, if it's not already. Gaia, our living planet, original mother to us all, will eventually heal. But without humans, she will have lost her voice for many centuries, probably millennia, more.

The system is not invincible. Elites are neither supernatural nor immortal; they exhibit the same weaknesses and foibles as you and I; their greed and arrogance is just slightly more pronounced. Systems of power--hierarchies of domination--have been created by humans, and we can remove the legitimacy we bestow on those systems. True systemic change starts by believing in it, not by talking ourselves out if it. And certainly not by trying to talk others out of it.

This means we could do it today; it is a natural aspect of who we truly are; we don't need to wait for a new technology to be invented, or for a new prophet to emerge; we can think and act the way that nature works. Collectively, we the people are more powerful than we dare to believe, and it's time for us to mature from Nature's children into Nature's adults regardless of the manner in which we internalize--the name we apply to--the creative life force.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The nexus of sustainability and the peace movement

I was asked to be one of the speakers at Tucson's annual Peace Fair and Music Festival on February 27, 2010. Here are my prepared remarks.

Good afternoon. My name is Dave Ewoldt. I'm an ecotherapist, systems scientist, and executive director of Natural Systems Solutions, a non-profit whose tagline is "Facilitating Sustainable Lifestyles, Organizations, and Communities." Our work is based in ecopsychology and involves reconnecting with nature for health, healing, and wisdom. If you've seen the movie Avatar, we help you remember how to deeply connect to our own living planet without sensory fibers coming out of the end of your ponytail. We do personal and group counseling, but since you can't counsel an organization (even though they actually need it), we "consult" with them to institute sustainable changes in all levels of business relationships. We also work with communities on sustainable policy development and economic resiliency without the disempowing and costly dependence on growth. It's all about becoming better instead of bigger. To try to sum all that up, I've started calling it Paradigm Shift Coaching.

Today, since this is Tucson's annual Peace Fair, I'm going to talk about the nexus of sustainability and the peace movement, and connect the dots amongst the greatest set of converging crises facing industrial civilization and perhaps life on earth as we've become comfortable with it, which are global warming, peak oil, and corporatism (which I refer to as the Triumvirate of Collapse), but we can't ignore economic growth, material accumulation outrun only by accumulating waste, empire and hegemony, an ever widening wealth gap, environmental toxicity, biodiversity loss, and the paradigm underlying them all--force-based ranking hierarchies of domination and control that depend on fear and a pathological sense of the other, whether that other is the natural world, a different culture, or a different name for god.

And I'm going to let you know that there is something we, together, can do about it all--a readily available, viable, systemic alternative. One that doesn't make us put on hair shirts, return to the cave, and start carrying water. That would improve people's quality of life and start giving ecosystems the opportunity to begin their own healing.

But, that's quite a bit to cover in five minutes, so you're going to have to listen up.

Our modern times are waiting for the terms and expressions to emerge necessary to describe them. Apocalypse is forecast, but never arrives. Unprecedented systemic changes are taking place, and the blue-light specials are still available at K-Mart. From an ecological perspective, apocalypse may well have occurred already. We really have no fucking idea how to even really begin to measure it. And it's started to take on a feeling of normalcy, as it unfalteringly unwinds itself on a daily basis. We've come to expect it, and that in and of itself is probably the greatest violence that's being done to our sense of self and nullifying our potential as a species.

So, we find ourselves with front-row seats to a planet in steady decline; a catastrophe in slow motion.

Whatever shall we do? Do we really want to institute change, or have we become resigned to an eventuality? Do you find yourself thinking that this is just the natural state of things, the only way it could have happened, it's our human nature and couldn't be changed even if we did want to? Perhaps you're among the group that's silently praying that some genius will invent something to allow us to go on livin' large, while simultaneously hoping that a Predator drone didn't just drop a bomb on his wedding party.

I'll tell you one thing. If we have any hope of pulling our collective ass out of this one, it's going to take more than the cosmetic and superficial changes of swapping out squiggly lightbulbs and buying Priuses. In fact, the latter just has to cease post haste. We have to quit wasting our collective dwindling resources and money on making the world more convenient for, and continuing our dependency on, the automobile. We also can't waste our time hoping for things to return to normal, because normal is what got us into our current sorry state.

But we can change, and do so rather quickly should we decide to. I base this assertion on evidence, research, experience, and historical precedence. There is a viable, pragmatic alternative available. Whether or not we can do it in time is an open question. But, there is no inherent reason, no natural law or principle putting roadblocks in our path, only cultural ones--which means it is nothing more than blind adherence to a story that is holding us back.

When activists get together and talk about creating coalitions or hub organizations of some type, they often come to the conclusion that we must organize around our commonalities. I submit that our core commonality is that we all come from the earth, and in an interconnected and interdependent universe, that is fundamentally friendly to life and its evolution, what we do to the earth we do to ourselves. Thus, the one goal that can support all of our individual passions and life's work as change agents is the goal of creating a sustainable future.

To do this we must first realize that sustainability is not a meaningless buzzphrase. It can be defined in a way that is both legally defensible and objectively measurable. We must quit allowing the other side to define our terms and then tell is that it's not possible.

There are three necessary clauses that make up a viable, comprehensive definition of sustainability. They are:

1) The integration of human social and economic lives into the environment in ways that tend to enhance or maintain rather than degrade or destroy the environment; 2) A moral imperative to pass on our natural inheritance, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in its ability to meet the needs of future generations; 3) Determining, and staying within, the balance point amongst population, consumption, and waste assimilation so that bioregions, watersheds and ecosystems maintain their ability to recharge, replenish and regenerate.

Transition Pima, which is a regional hub for Transition US, is an organization based on these principles that can provide the framework for a "big tent" type of effort. Generically speaking, the transition movement looks to create a sustainable future through an on-the-ground process known as relocalization. More than just food and energy security, though, transitioning into a sustainable future--which means one based on ecological wisdom, social justice, economic equity, and participatory democracy--requires all the puzzle pieces, including the one labeled "fun," to be in place. We don't get partial credit if any of the people who contribute to quality of life are missing--ecstatic dancers, farmers, caregivers, bookkeepers, cops. Relocalization is not slapping band-aids on the wounds of empire; it is both anathema and antidote to corporate globalization. It's not single issue branch clipping; it's pulling the diseased root of domination and empire all the way out and planting and nurturing something completely different.

At a fundamental level, sustainability is a term that connotes any living system's ability to adhere to the natural systems principles that allow an ecosystem to become and remain healthy, vibrant, and resilient. This also means adherence to ecological carrying capacity (the third clause in the definition of sustainability), which is the point at which most Westerners tend to run screaming in the opposite direction. Sustainability spells the end of the culture of narcissism. It sounds the death knell for dominator hierarchies, centralized control, and economic growth. It forces us to face the addictive substitutes we've come to rely on for the natural fulfillments that are withheld, through various means from schooling to advertising, in a paradigm that focuses almost exclusively on consumption, accumulation, aggressive competition, and hyper-individualism.

Sustainability is not a special interest--it is life. It isn't my way, it is our way if we truly wish to leave a habitable planet to future generations; if we want to learn how to holistically co-exist with the other millions of species that make up the web of life and the food chain on which we depend for our basic sustenance--as well as all higher levels of fulfillment.

Sustainability is foundational to the peace movement. A truly sustainable world will be a world at peace, but the reverse is not necessarily true. We could quite peacefully and "greenly" consume ourselves into extinction. Peace on Earth requires peace with Earth. The exploitation of all of nature must cease. This explicitly means that we must quit providing the legitimacy for the stories, religious and otherwise, that exploit, abuse, and stifle our own inner nature.

According to the thousands of scientists who study catastrophic anthropogenic climate destabilization, we're quickly running out of time. According to geophysicists and biologists, we're running out of natural resources and the biodiversity needed to keep the food chain from collapsing. No food chain, no food. It doesn't get much simpler than that. We have to quit being afraid to say this is exactly what's happening just because it might alarm or upset or challenge deeply cherished worldviews.

I mean, since America already ranks next to last out of 150 countries on the UN's happiness scale, when 50% of the American population requires at least one prescription drug per day, when our lifespans, our incomes and our sovereignty are steadily decreasing, what have we got to lose by being honest with people, with forthright truth telling? We actually are capable of handling it. The myth that insists otherwise does nothing but support the status quo, so be very wary of those who repeat it.

The concept of relocalization, as manifested by transition initiatives, is a path toward sustainability. It's a different way of doing things based on the four natural systems principles of mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity, and the values we tend to share that emerge from these principles. These values are perhaps best expressed by the four pillars of the Earth Charter--respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, nonviolence and peace. The Earth Charter is an internationally recognized and widely adopted and endorsed soft-law document for sustainable development that has already undergone a decade long vetting process. We don't have to reinvent any wheels, nor are we alone here. In fact, we're actually the majority.

And the thing is, reconnecting and relocalizing, undertaking this Great Turning, this shift in consciousness, can't do any actual harm to anything except a story. Well, and to bankers and insurance companies. But it doesn't require anyone to sacrifice themselves... or their pet goat. Instead of burning energy, renewable or otherwise, for continuous industrial growth, let's shift our focus and priorities toward the development of our human potential and start measuring wealth by the quality and quantity of the mutually supportive relationships one can develop and maintain. Let's fully engage in the entire transition process. Let's rebuild community through safe and healthy neighborhoods that are energy efficient and ecologically benign. Let's create local steady-state living economies that are vibrant and resilient. Let's start to think and act the way nature works. Let's embody peace.

When one truly understands sustainability and all it entails--the interconnectedness of all beings--it makes one more afraid of hating than of dying. And I can't think of a better foundation for an effective and lasting peace movement than that.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Alternative Energy Ignores the Problem

Gillian Caldwell, Campaign Director for 1Sky, recently had the chance for a quick chat with President Obama, which she blogged about here:
and to which I replied:

Hi Gillian... I think you and the Prez are both missing another, and much more fundamental, problem. We won't be getting all of our energy from wind and solar, either now or in twenty years, if the assumption is that we need to keep things going along their current trajectory, meaning a continued increase in energy demand.

The arguing over "clean" coal and nukes is a distraction to keep people from waking up to the fact that economic growth, and its role in industrialism, is a failed paradigm. Planned obsolescence, the throw-away society in general, and the substitution of materialism for psychological and spiritual health and well-being is a mistake--and a rather deadly one. The simple fact is that we could kick our coal habit today because all coal is doing is powering our waste and excess.

Plus, the Industrial Growth Society is only possible with the embedded energy of fossil fuels, which are post-peak and what's left of them is so environmentally destructive to obtain that only a society that has completely lost its way would attempt doing so. Even 100% LEED building standards, hybrid vehicles (or any other proposal that thinks we can "green" consumption and continued growth) can't overcome that basic ecological fact.

And since there is a viable alternative that would improve quality of life, that systemically replaces the diseased root of fear-based ranking hierarchies of domination instead of allowing itself to be satisfied with the occasional compromised clipping of branches, why are nationally recognized and rightfully respected organizations such as 1Sky reluctant to advocate fundamental systemic change? 1Sky's masthead states "America wants bold action," so why ask for minor reform on the fringes?

The bold, but thoroughly pragmatic, alternative to the status quo includes powering down, relocalizing, reconnecting to the natural world and each other, and giving ourselves the gift of time for what really matters. This alternative uses steady-state economies that focus on becoming qualitatively better instead of quantitatively bigger; it requires no new technologies and works with who we are right now--not after some shift to a higher state of consciousness or evolutionary adaptation; it can begin restoring all aspects of the natural world, which of course includes ourselves and our communities; it doesn't require mortgaging our future by bailing out industries thought to be too big to fail.

We could move toward true sustainability (which can be both ecologically and legally defined) and become a role model for the rest of the world that our grandchildren would be proud of--instead of our current sorry, disconnected path in which we won't have grandchildren.

We're supposed to be rational creatures. I think it is past time we started demonstrating it, and face the fact that it is not a technological problem that we're dealing with nor one that has a market solution. Thinking that we need more of what got us into this mess is not a rational response.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Copenhagen Accord: how COP15 became a COPout

The conclusion of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate talks--known as COP15 for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change--is perhaps best summarized by the headline in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "President Obama salvaged a nonbinding agreement that sets neither a target for cutting emissions nor a deadline for one."

It is quite telling that what emerged as the Copenhagen Accords is seen as a meaningful deal by mainstream environmental organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters. Global warming is seen as little more than an impetus for what is being called clean energy reform, which is the continuation of economic growth powered by just about anything other than fossil fuels. So-called "clean" coal, nukes, and a handful of other techno fantasies that totally ignore the larger system they would have to exist within. Pretty much the entire two weeks in Copenhagen became an ongoing argument over the economics of how to best profit from cap and trade and offsets.

Stella Semino from Grupo de Reflexion Rural (Argentina) stated: "If these new proposals are agreed upon we will see a massive boost for crop and tree plantations alike which, in the name of `climate change mitigation', will speed up the destruction of forests and other vital ecosystems, the spread of industrial agriculture, and land-grabbing against small-farmers, indigenous peoples and forest communities. Industrial monocultures are already a major cause of climate change and their expansion will make it worse."

The Copenhagen Accord (hammered out WTO style in a back room between six countries, the US, Brazil, South Africa, India, China and Japan) stipulates that global warming must not exceed two degrees centigrade, but with no mechanisms or even guidelines as to how this might be achieved, nor does it set any actual CO2 or other GHG targets, goals, or timelines. An early analysis of the non-binding pledges that were offered showed they would lead to about a 3oC temperature rise, which would spell the end of the Amazon rainforests. While the Accord does state that overdeveloped nations should financially help those nations still trying to catch up to the levels of overconsumption, pollution, and general exploitation of life exhibited by the Global North (although not in those exact words), it provides no guidelines as to how this should be accomplished either. So, the COP15 managed to come up with a COPout. Is anyone really surprised?

The rhetoric in Copenhagen was all so phenomenally childish. The major posturing boiled down to, "I'm not going to do it unless so and so does it first. After all, we might lose a percent or two of market share." Never mind that there will be no markets on a dead planet. The final deal in Copenhagen came down to the world's largest polluters agreeing, in the analysis of Naomi Klein, to pretend that the other was doing something about global warming if the favor is reciprocated. But even that is non-binding. And poorer nations are forced to sign on the dotted line if they want any funds to help them adapt to a problem they haven't contributed to but which is affecting them the worst.

It's instructive to look at the recent historical record of global warming mitigation. Before the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions were increasing at 1.5%/yr. After Kyoto the rate of emissions increased to 3%/yr. Some countries, such as Japan, bought off their increases by investing in offsets. Some European countries decreased their national emissions by moving production and pollution to developing countries. Products were then flown back to Europe, because the fuel isn't taxed, and the even greater impact on global warming by aircraft emissions is ignored.

What we should do is leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Barring common sense, climate scientist James Hansen says that fossil fuels should be simply taxed at the point of origin, either at the wellhead or mine, or at the port of entry. No exceptions, no exemptions, no loopholes.

The strategy Hansen and many economists argue for is known as fee and dividend (harder to game and almost immune to speculation) and is being advanced as an alternative to cap and trade (which is basically privatization of the atmosphere). When you take the total amount of coal, oil, and natural gas used in the US, and put a price of $115/ton on carbon, fee and dividend would generate $670 billion dollars, which is about $7,500 to $9,000 dollars per family. This could then be used for energy retrofits, efficiency improvements, and buying locally grown food when it becomes too expensive to fly it half way around the world. This would all help families adjust their lifestyles to a lower carbon footprint.

Most importantly, we must accept that the target of 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2 as the absolute safe upper limit must become the mantra for policy decisions. This is as much a moral position as it is a scientific one. Catastrophic climate destabilization is not an issue that can be compromised on. We can't say we're just going to do a little bit, but we're not going to solve the problem. Our one and only life support system is in a very real danger of passing some tipping points. Whether or not the current cycle of global warming is human caused or not (and there's really very little disagreement among reputable climate scientists that it is) at the very least it is extremely aggravated by human actions.

Perhaps the most difficult realization behind 350 is that the concept of growth in the economic and material realms must be forever cast aside. It's the first step in the realization that for true sustainability to occur we actually need to be heading back toward pre-industrial levels of about 250-275 ppm. And with a sustainable human population size, zero waste clean technologies, and shifting our production focus to quality instead of quantity this is an achievable goal without donning hair shirts and moving back to the cave.

The only real uncertainty is the time frame as we can't know which tipping points will be surpassed due to the carbon loading and ecosystem inertia from the 30 year time lag between greenhouse gas emission and biospheric effect. The climate effects currently occurring (with less than one degree C warming) are a response to the GHG emissions from 30 years ago, and we've done nothing but continuously increase those emissions over the past thirty years. In some cases we've slowed the rate of increase, but in no cases, despite the evidence of the urgency for doing so, have emissions gone negative.

So, there's our current challenge, and how our current crop of leaders are responding to it. In order to meet what is perhaps the greatest ethical, moral, and spiritual challenge of our times (because it's not a question of technology as much as its equitable distribution), I'd suggest that it's time to start making different choices.