Vision for Sustainability, Resiliencey by Post Carbon Institute

What will we do post growth, post cheap energy, post resource abundance and post climate change? The Post Carbon Institute (PCI) convened its first meeting of Fellows this weekend in Berkeley to address these concerns. Many there and elsewhere have argued that these transformational changes are already becoming evident.

PCI Fellow Bill Rees, the co-originator of the Ecological Footprint, captured the mood of the group best when he said, “We have to adapt to the change rather then repress the change.”

The Institute’s Fellows were gathered by PCI from a wide variety of fields: energy, transportation, population, food/ agriculture, building and development, economics, social justice, education, urban issues, health, climate, biodiversity and water. The event marked a maiden face-to-face (and virtual) voyage to examine the brave new waters of the 21st century. About 25 of PCI’s 29 Fellows participated.

PCI Fellows Retreat, David Brower Center, Berkeley (Post Carbon Institute photo)

Asher Miller, PCI’s executive director set the table for the three-day event. “Facing such daunting issues, we can either: 1) pack up and go home; 2) be a witness to history; 3) save what we can, which I call the Noah’s Ark approach; or 4) work as hard as we can, and go as big as can go. Collectively we can come up with one thing, or do lots of things–we don’t know which one will bring the best results.”

The group of Fellows up until this point has been focused on producing a book (cover pictured above) of essays and case studies that will be released by University of California Press with Watershed Media in July, The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises.

The Berkeley retreat focused on developing connective tissue among Fellows through facilitated exercises, planning and presentations. Some highlights–or lowlights–as many of the participants (myself included)  could be accused of being bearers of bad news:

Richard Heinberg, the Senior Fellow whose extensive work (The Party’s Over, Blackout, Peak Everything) has provided a nexus for PCI while helping define “Peak Oil” thinking, has spoken to world leaders from Congress to European Parliament.

“I have nothing to show for all my presentation to political leaders,” Heinberg said. “Anyone who questions the concept of growth is shunted off.”

Erika Allen, Chicago manager for Growing Power, a national land trust that provides access to healthy local food in disadvantaged communities, explored a scenario where food supplies are cut off because of an energy supply disruption or other crisis. “We’ve been preparing around the principles of providing seven days of food for Chicago–what systems are in place to respond? We need to be able to grow food on concrete and on the tops of buildings.”

The issue of sustainable agriculture, both urban and rural, was an overall emergent issue of the weekend, with talismanic Wes Jackson, founder and director of The Land Institute, providing an urgent view into a survival system that has been taken for granted.

“In the long run, soil is more important than oil,” Jackson said, citing research that soil carbon concentrations in US have been halved since non-indigenous settlement, from 6 percent to 3 percent, because of poor conservation and industrial practices.

Grave consequences for climate-change influenced mass migrations were forecast by Brian Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins professor in public health. “Moving populations (because of climate change) will be very bad for society, the environment and health in every aspect.”

Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course presentation examined unsustainable levels of US debt, uncovering shocking new snapshots on the historic level of government and personal debt after a decade with zero job growth.

Martenson, a former corporate executive, later confessed that there are emerging opportunities in certain investments, job sectors and geographic areas. He was also optimistic about the can-do nature of Americans: “Give people something to do, and they’ll put it together with joy and creativity, such as the Burning Man village.”

Similarly, Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town movement, reported from the UK via Skype video (he gave up flying three years ago) that the effort to form locally organized community resilience around food, energy, construction and culture is rapidly multiplying in global locations. “It’s spreading very, very fast, with new Transition Towns in Chile, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Australia.”

“With resilience, we see an opportunity to take a shock and then make a step by the community in the right direction so it can advance itself,” Hopkins said of the 300-plus transition initiatives. “Our role isn’t to manage a lot of projects, but to support projects as they emerge.”

Other Fellows presenting included author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and, Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Joe Brewer, founder and director of communications strategy consultancy Cognitive Policy Works, also led sessions on communications and messaging.

The results of the event included a forthcoming mission statement that was co-authored by nine different groups. My group on cities also consisted of Johns Hopkins professor Schwartz, City University of New York professor (and former New York City green building standard originator) Hillary Brown, and transportation expert Anthony Perl, author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil.

We contributed concepts around “bioregionally grounded human communities” based on non-automotive transportation options, human-scaled neighborhoods and regionally produced sustainable food and energy. 

Groups also prepared proposals for collaboration and post-event project action, including a Resiliency Preparedness Kit; a communications strategy and roll-out plan; a regional sustainable agriculture investment model for production, processing and urban distribution; and a PCI-informed community development prototype approach for both domestic (Oberlin, Ohio) and international (most likely India or China) communities.

“We need to foster experimentation, re-localization,and  differentiation in our redundancies and behavior,” said PCI executive director Miller. “Simple living can make us happier and can tap into the long history of humans as a species.”

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon


Shell: “Oil Supply Will Struggle to Keep Pace” and “Environmental (CO2) Stresses are Increasing”


Shell released this month two new scenarios about the future of energy and global climate change, and they are quite sobering. To the credit of Shell’s scenario team, they did not pull any punches, nor did its executives water down the results.

The global oil giant, based in The Netherlands, has been developing scenarios since the late 1970s as a way of informing its medium to long-term business strategy. Peter Schwartz, who now heads the scenario consultancy Global Business Network, was credited as the main innovator behind scenario planning, which takes a future launch point and asks: ”What if?”

Schwartz and Doug Randall were the authors of a prescient 2003 scenario on the potential political, security and economic impacts of global climate change that was commissioned by the US Department of Defense. 

Shell’s two new scenarios “Blueprints” and “Scramble” represent two differing visions of the next 50 years. Both project that, “by 2015, growth in the production of easily accessible oil and gas will not match the projected rate of demand growth” and that, “remaining within desirable levels of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will become increasingly difficult.” 

Each scenario also sets the expectation for the increased growth of coal as an energy source in providing both dirty and carbon sequestered power for electricity generation. 

From this point, the two scenarios diverge.

Scramble offers up a world where nations refuse to agree on climate change mitigation treaties and efforts, instead focusing on getting energy to meet their economic needs without minding future political, environmental, climatic and corresponding economic consequences.

Under Scramble:

  • nations will only focus on getting more energy supply rather than curbing demand because “it is too unpopular for politicians to undertake.”
  • Developing nations get hit with food shortages as a result of first generation (ethanol from corn) biofuel production.
  • Coal production doubles by 2025 and dirty fuel sources such as oil sands and shale are heavily tapped, despite the exponential extra greenhouse gas emissions that result. 
  • Greenhouse levels subsequently rise to a level on a path to being “well above 550 ppmv” (what some scientists call a climatic “point of no return”) and the world hits an economic slowdown by 2020. Only then are major actions taken, but at much greater cost than if they had been taken earlier. 

The more hopeful scenario, Blueprints, presents an emerging network of government, business and NGO coalitions from the local level up to the international level that collectively reduce global energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

This passage from Blueprints was especially relevant:

In the early part of the 21st century, progressive cities across the globe share good practices in efficient infrastructure development, congestion management and integrated heat and power supply. A number of cities invest in green energy as sources for their own needs and energy efficiency…In an increasingly transparent world, high-profile local actors soon influence the national stage…Perceptions begin to shift about the dilemma that continued economic growth contributes to climate change…In addition, successful regions in the developing world stimulate their local economy by attracting investments in clean facilities made possible by the clean development provisions of the international treaties that replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. (p. 27)

I’ve seen evidence of this emerging approach through our firm Common Current’s recent work with nations and the State of California that is based on my book How Green is Your City? In How Green is Your City? I describe how some cities such as Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; New York; Chicago; and Seattle are setting the agenda for the future of our nation in their climate change mitigation policies and practices.

Now other nations are trying to develop policy based on international urban best practices. In Korea last month I met with national and local leaders on plans for developing potential green city metrics and approaches. The trip was sponsored by the US Department of State. Next month I will be meeting with European Union officials from the Environment Agency and the EU agency for Sustainability and Information Technology, ACIDD, in Brussels and Paris, where I will be presenting on U.S. city metrics and approaches.

Shell in its Blueprints scenario credits the EU as the key enabler of future international green energy systems through its CO2 pricing mechanism and carbon emissions trading scheme, which it speculates will be adopted by other countries, including the U.S. and even China. “This trading regime gives a new boost to new industries emerging around clean alternative and renewable fuels.”

Blueprints depicts an international network of zero emission vehicles, wind and solar power and electric transport, even in developing nations. It suggests that 60% of global electricity will be generated by non fossil-fuel sources by 2050. Moderated consumption of oil, meanwhile, allows “most nations to reach a plateau of oil production without the (oil) shocks that they would have otherwise experienced.”

The scenario concludes:

By 2055, the U.S. and the EU are using an average of 33% less energy per capita than today. Chinese energy use has also peaked….in Blueprints, in a critical mass of countries, people support national leaders who promise not only energy security but also a sustainable future. Initial pain has reduced uncertainty and prepared the way for long-term gain. (p.36)






Rebellion in the Colonies

truckers protest in tampa

There has been a populist uprising today among truckers about gas prices. They’ve banded together at 20 mph three-abreast on Interstates to slow traffic to a halt, in protest of record prices.

They want the government to intervene, as they pay $1,000 per fill up and can’t make a living anymore. 

Locations for this sort of modern day Shays’ Rebellion (crica 1780s), included the New Jersey Turnpike and Peoria, Illinois. (Though Shays, protesting agrarian debt in Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley, didn’t want the government to intervene.)

Will it play?

Photo: “Truck driver David Santiago, of Valrico, Fla., speaks to the media
after about 50 independent truck drivers parked their rigs Tuesday
morning, April 1, 2008 in Tampa, Fla., in protest of rising diesel fuel
prices.” –AP/Jeffrey Gold/Chris O’Meara


What’s Rockin’ Our World?

glass ball.jpg

The next thirty years will present more changes to the global, political and social economies than have occurred since the era of the Explorers. Why? Here are the big three:

  1. Peaking Resources:
    • oil
    • natural gas
    • coal
    • minerals
    • topsoil
    • fish
    • fresh water

We are testing the limits of supply, extraction, and consumption. In some of the above, there might be additional resources available but not without untold energy and financial expenditures as well as cultural/environmental destruction. Richard Heinberg outlines this state of planetary affairs in his new book, Peak Everything

  1. Global climate change adaptation.  Now that climate change is a given, watch the economics of climate change adaptation come into play not only in energy markets, but in myriad unexpected ways. Global seaport consultant Scott Borgerson in the upcoming March/ April 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs describes how the rapidly melting arctic ice creates open waters, which absorbs even more sun than ice, known as the “ice albedo feedback loop.” The result? Consistently navigable waters for the first time in human history. Expect new shipping arctic megaports, with a mad scramble for newly available oil and minerals. 
  1. $100 a barrel oil. Our planet’s main source of mobile energy is at its historic price high. Any movement beyond current pricing is bound to multiply impacts in food markets, supply chains and public mobility. Whatever the causes, no conventional expert has forecast oil price dynamics accurately since 2005, when crude’s price began its stratospheric ascent. From now on, any major or perceived major disruption in supply will continue to cause even more dramatic price spikes, impacting global trade, government and civic life.

So What’s the Game Plan for the U.S.?

Mind the New Superpowers–To stay in the game with the new line up of superpowers  (thanks to Parag Khanna), the United States must continue to lead with big ideas, innovation, implementation and hard work. The European Union is constantly adding new members and is upping its political power with the strength of the Euro and its development of renewable energy and smart planning. China is expanding its reach for energy and political influence in the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond, while bolstering its technology education, training and implementation.

The Next New Deal–Public-Private Partnerships: The early mandates being set by government to combat climate change are in motion, including California’s AB 32.  In response to baking AB 32 into economic development, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a Performance-Based Infrastructure plan that promises to set the stage for a new way of both governing and doing business, at least in this country.

Executive Leadership That Gets It. All three major U.S. presidential candidates and most heavy-hitting world leaders are strong backers of global climate change related legislation and treaties, and all three running in the US horserace for CEO have strong alternative energy platforms.

  • John McCain was the first major Republican advocating climate change measures nationally (even before Arnold), back in 2003.
  • Barack Obama has written of taking on the “tyranny of oil” and has announced a program to pour $150 billion into renewables and green collar jobs.
  • Hillary Clinton has plans for a $50 billion Strategic Energy Initiative

De-linking Carbon Production and Economic Growth: The Scandanavian Model. Scandinavia has some of the world’s highest quality of life, and is rapidly making the switch to become fossil-fuel free. Economic growth is strong in Norway, Sweden and Denmark: Sweden has reduced greenhouse emissions about 40 percent since the 1970s, with GDP growth up 105 percent. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Sweden and Norway are about one-third of those in the United States.

The best systemic solutions will require rapid innovation amongst business and government leaders, as well as public awareness and behavioral change. For this to happen, we’ll need data, communications and shared knowledge fueling media, entertainment and policy.

Cisco, Microsoft and others are beginning to put the necessary relationships in place to meld information technology, knowledge and sustainability innovation around everything from carbon accounting to connected transportation and building energy systems. The European Union already has an association for sustainable development communication and information, AICDD. Our government’s plan for this new paradigm, along with clean tech and  land use/ development incentives, will move us far beyond the advances being made locally in such cities as Portland, San Francisco, Austin and Chicago.

The bottom line: the green revolution is about greenbacks now more than ever. Whether it’s the rapidly growing market in organic and local food, green building and renewable energy technologies, green information technology, or larger scale planning and development efforts such as the new LEED-Neighborhood Development program, the nation needs to scale up capacities to create a less carbon-intensive economy that is second to none.  


Photo courtesy Flickr user lexrex