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 350.org), 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.”
Tonight the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), a California-based think tank addressing sustainability issues associated with climate change, peaking resources and community resiliency, kicks off a three-day gathering with its Fellows (of which I am one) in Berkeley.
The Institute was founded in 2003, largely around the issue of peaking oil and energy supplies. Author Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over, Peak Everything) was the group’s first Senior Fellow. Heinberg has been now joined by 28 other Fellows, and this is their first gathering.
From an initial focus on peaking energy resources and their potential impacts, PCI now addresses multiple areas and issues including climate change, consumption/ waste, communities, economies, ecology, education, energy, food/ agriculture, government, health, social justice, population, water, transportation.
Eighteen of those who are coming to Berkeley (five will join in remotely) to address how our government, society, communities and different industry sectors can prepare better for the system-based or “wicked problems” that climate change, peaking energy supplies and global recession present.
Other participants that will join in remotely include authors Michael Shuman, Josh Farley, Bill McKibben and Richard Douthwaite, Transition Town movement originator Rob Hopkins; Johns Hopkins’ Cindy Parker.
Look for my report next week on the outcome of this historic gathering.
The top ten sustainability stories of the past
decade was my last post.
What trends are likely the next ten years? One thing for sure, 2010 through
2019 will be one day be looked at as 1.) the turning point for addressing climate change
by using effective urban management strategies, or it will be remembered as 2.)
the time when we collectively fumbled the Big Blue Ball.
1. Bikes Culture 2.0
Time period: 2010-2019
Around the world, bicycles are becoming a
potent talisman of our urban post-carbon future. The city of
Copenhagen is making noise to replace the Little Mermaid of Hans Christian
with something two-wheeled. Copenhagen residents use bikes for 37 percent of all their transit. But
bikes in Europe represent more than utility; riding a bicycle with the Velib’
bikeshare program in Paris now easily competes (42 million registered users)
with taking a spring walk along the Seine. Bikesharing abounds in dozens of
European cities as well as in Rio de Janeiro and Santiago, Chile. Look for North American burgs to continue their proliferation of bicycles-as-transit use
and bike lane expansion (NYC bicycle use is up 61% in two years).
Bikesharing on a large scale should follow new programs in Montreal, Washington DC, and Minneapolis. Note to China: time to reclaim your status as the world’s “bicycle kingdom.”
Indoor bicycle parking will be
common in commercial garages and offices
even in businesses like cafes, bars (Gastalt Haus in Fairfax, California, is pictured above), stores and restaurants. On public
transportation bicycles will be allowed access at any time. In short, bicycles
and their riders will become legit, which will influence fashion, the economies
and the design of cities in particular. As musician-turned-bike-rack designer David
Byrne observed in his surprise 2009 bestseller Bicycle
Diaries, US metro areas in particular might have to be re-engineered
completely in some cases to accommodate this massive social transformation:
I try to explore some of these
towns–Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Atlanta–by bike and it’s frustrating. The
various parts of town are often “connected”–if one can call it that–mainly by
freeways, massive awe-inspiring concrete ribbons that usually kill the
neighborhoods they pass through, and often the ones they are supposed to
connect as well.
2. Mexico City, Climate Change, and the Future of Cities
Time Period: November-December
Because “Nopenhagen” was a semi
bust, the Mexico City United Nations Climate Change conference is taking on much bigger proportions than initially envisioned.
The UN COP15 Copenhagen conference resulted in no binding treaty status among
any of the 128 nations that attended for them to reduce global
greenhouse gas emissions. This year’s late fall gathering in Mexico City is likely to set
national binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions. If enacted, these
targets will set the stage the coming entire decade’s greenhouse gas reduction
strategies, including sub-national efforts at the regional and city level.
After disappointment in Copenhagen, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon lost no time in
preparing for Mexico City, calling on world leaders to sign a
legally binding carbon-emission reduction treaty
and to contribute to a multi-national fund for developing nations that will be
opened this month. Let’s hope such a fund adequately addresses sustainable
urban development in Asian cities, whose currently unregulated hyper-growth is
expected to contribute more than half the world’s greenhouse gas increases
between now and 2027.
3. The Rise of Cellulosic Biofuels
Time Period 2014-2019
Creating conventional biofuels
from corn, soybeans and palm oil as an alternative to petroleum-based gasoline
hit numerous roadblocks in the past decade. Carbon-sequestering rainforests in
Indonesia continue to be burned down for palm oil plantations; this unforeseen
consequence of biofuel demand caused the European Union to back off on large
orders of palm oil.
Another big unintended consequence emerged when crude oil prices rose to record
levels in 2007-2008. Biofuels, including corn-based ethanol created competition
for agricultural land, resulting in an increase in the cost of food staples.
Global corn prices, which biofuels caused to increase an estimated 15% to 27%
in 2007 alone, were especially impacted.
Cellulosic biofuels, in contrast,
offer the promise by the middle of the decade of creating a viable energy
source (one of many that will be needed) from waste products, such as wood waste, grasses, corn stalks, and other
non-food products. The trick will be to balance land use with energy production http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_rogers_biofuels.html
so that unintended consequences, particularly burning rainforests and urban
food price riots
(Mexico City in 2007 pictured above) will be a thing of the past. Backed by research funding from the Obama Administration’s
US Department of Energy (DOE), companies such as Mascoma Corporation
and Amyris Biotechnologies (with former Amyris founder Jay Keasling now at the helm of the DOE Joint Biosciences Energy Institute) are some
of the current leaders in the quest for a non-food biofuel.
4. The marriage of ICT and Green Cities
Time Period: 2013-2019
Called “the great digital
underbelly” of new and retrofitted sustainable cities by Gordon Feller of Urban
Age, green ICT (information and communications
technologies) holds promise for increasing the energy and resource efficiency of
most aspects of urban development. If these technologies can offset their
operating and production resource impacts (estimated to use 2-3 percent of
total industry energy used, but forecast to double by 2022),
the world could benefit from initial increased efficiencies in the 15-25
percent range (pdf). A crowded field that includes IBM, Cisco,
General Electric, Siemens and others is positioning to implement new ICT for
sustainability in cities, demonstrating applications at the pilot project level.
Cities with pilot or operating projects in green ICT include Amsterdam, San
Francisco, Masdar City (United Arab Emirates), Seoul, London, Singapore,
Beijing, New Delhi, Mumbai,
Stockholm and Oslo. The following are Green Smart City applications and
examples of companies involved:
traffic congestion monitoring and pricing
systems: IBM, Capita Group
water applications (leakage detection,
purification): IBM, Siemens
building applications (sense-and-respond
technologies to monitor temperature, light, humidity and occupancy): Johnson
Controls, Siemens, IBM
intelligent public transportation and logistics:
PwC, Samsung, Cisco
public shared offices with telepresence (pictured above): Cisco,
home and office smart appliances that can tie in
with smart grid energy applications: General Electric, AT&T, Whirlpool
smart grids: General Electric, Schneider
Electric, SAP, Oracle, ABB
data centers for cities: Google, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco
carbon inventories and carbon accounting:
5. Implementation of Carbon Taxes
Exxon Mobil surprised many in
early 2009 when it called for a carbon tax as a way to address global climate
change. Whether the former denier of global climate change got religion remains
to be seen. Carbon taxes have been proposed for oil, natural gas and coal by
many as a way to adjust former so-called market “externalities,” or impacts
beyond classically defined air pollution, which now includes greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
A handful of nations have some form of carbon tax, mostly in Scandinavia. On
the sub-national level, British Columbia and the San Francisco Bay
recently proposed some form of the tax. Costs for carbon taxes can be
passed on to consumers directly, or they could be levied on industry, which
would likely cause manufacturing and operating costs to be wholly or partially
passed onto consumers.
Currently, the costs of producing
and using fossil fuels do not take into account the vast damage these
activities do to the earth’s climate, which is gaining atmospheric carbon
dioxide concentrations at a rapid rate, endangering the stability of natural ecosystems, people’s health, and the economy.
6. The First Big Urban Climate Change Adaptation: Drought
A major effort at climate change
adaptation is underway in Californiaas well as other urban areas that are
experiencing or are likely to feel the early effects from climate change.
Prolonged droughts consistent with the impacts of climate change are being seen
in Beijing, Southwestern North America (Mexico City/ LA, etc.) and urban areas in Southeast Australia.
As Maude Barlow (above) writes in her 2008
book Blue Covenant,
cities are becoming hotspots not only for suffering from the effects of water
shortages, but in many cases urbanization may be actually creating or exacerbating the severity
Massive urbanization causes the
hydrologic cycle to not function correctly because rain needs to fall back on
green stuff — vegetation and grass — so that the process can repeat itself.
Or we are sending huge amounts of water from large watersheds to megacities and
some of them are 10 to 20 million people, and if those cities are on the ocean,
some of that water gets dumped into the ocean. It is not returned to the cycle.
Adaptation strategies will focus
on preparing government, business and citizens for extreme heat events,
wildfires (including urban/suburban wildfires), disease, and large-scale
migration of populations from impacted areas. Some of the efforts will involve
education and community outreach, such as Chicago’s effortsto alert the elderly and handicapped to
imminent heat waves, or having people check on others that may be vulnerable
when conditions warrant. Other measures will require huge chunks of investments in
urban public and private infrastructure
to prevent coastal flooding and to store dwindling seasonal water supplies,
while health care professionals are likely to be first responders to new climate
change-boosted disease outbreaks, such as dengue fever.
The military is also likely to be added to the mix of climate change adaptation
7. End of Cheap Oil/ Onset of Fossil Fuel Shortages
Besides fresh water, oil is the
most threatened increasingly imported resource in developed economies. Energy shortages
or supply disruptions are expected to continue to develop because of political
acts, terrorism, warfare and natural disasters. The issue is not that the
reserves are “running out,” but that getting at the remaining oil in a
cost-effective manner is becoming increasingly more difficult, as has been
outlined in multiple books by author Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over, Peak Everything) and others. As former Shell Oil CEO Jeroen van der Veer said in a 2008 email to
employees, “Shell estimates that after 2015, supplies of easy-to-access oil and
gas will no longer keep up with demand.” Add the coming impacts of global climate change regulations to the scarce oil
equation (see Trends numbers 2 and 5 in this post), and oil will continue to be
an unpredictable flashpoint for the world economy. In 2007-2008, rapidly rising oil
prices helped trigger a deep world recession;
during the next decade oil may set off a chain of economic and civil events
that could be far more severe.
With market uncertainty for oil
prices and oil supplies, this new decade will witness the sunset of exurban-style automotive dependant sprawl in the United States
and in many overseas copycat developments, particularly Asia. The overbuilt market
for large, totally car-dependent single family homes in outer suburbia is expected
by even some developers to not be viable for almost a decade, even if oil prices and supply stay relatively stable. A prolonged recurrence
of oil prices above $100-150 a barrel will drive a stake through the heart of
the exurban car-only model of real estate speculation, and will hit many other
elements (food, imported goods, oil-based products) of the Western economy.
8. Focus on Urban Agriculture and Foodsheds
Time Period: 2012-2019
As fuel prices rise and unexpected energy shortages
occur, food prices will rise rapidly, especially for food that must be
transported long distances via airplanes, stored and processed. The alternative
is greater local and regional food production in and around cities. Existing
cities in Latin America (Havana, Cuba–pictured above–and Quito, Ecuador), Africa (Dar Es Salam, Tanzania; Kampala,
Uganda) and Asia (Seoul, South Korea), have produced significant
quantities of produce or aquaculture within their city limits.
Cities in North America that have maintained or are building or rebuilding
strong regional food networks include Seattle, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia
and San Francisco. Some newly planned cities are being engineered to produce
significant amounts of food that can also be used as a potential energy source
or rich compost nutrient. Examples include Masdar City in Abu Dhabi (United
Arab Emirates) and a supposedly scalable community plan called NewVista that is expected to be prototyped in the
United States and in Asia: both are innovating the production of food from
algae and other low-energy input nutrient sources.
9. Resiliency planning: cities, towns, homes
Time Period: 2010-2019
Resiliency is about making a
system or one’s self stronger and more able to survive adversity. As the
previous items portend, there will no shortage of adversity during the coming
decade from climate change and energy supply instability. One of the major
social phenomena related to resiliency has been the emergence of the Transition
which has grown from a few villages in the United Kingdom to Barcelona, Spain, Boulder,
Colorado, and Sydney, Australia. The founder
of the phenomena, Rob Hopkins, also a Post Carbon Institute Fellow,
has used his transition model of Totnes, United Kingdom, to devise a global organizational playbook. The purpose of transition thinking is to prepare people for potential
shortages in global energy supplies and food caused by peaking oil and climate
change. In contrast to earlier “off-the-grid” movements of the 1970s,
Transition Towns can be located in urban neighborhoods as well as in the distant
boonies, and they focus on community-scaled solutions in transportation,
health, economics and people’s livelihoods and personal skills. Tactics of
local groups vary widely, with events ranging from the familiar–clothing swaps
and art festivals to the seemingly more obscure–“unleashings,”–to
policy-laden activities, such as launching a long-term (15-20 years) “Energy Descent
Action Plan.” The emphasis is on understanding and using collective community
resources, including knowledge and skills, that people have in their own sphere
of influence, versus waiting for top-down government decrees.
10.SustainabilityMovie/ Novel /Art/ Song
There has yet to be a significant
work of popular art that I am aware of that captures the modern systemic
aspirations of sustainability. In terms of modern life, some works have focused
on environmental destruction, (Marvin Gaye’s song “Mercy Mercy Me”), the terror
of abrupt climate change (the unsuccessful 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow),the international political subterfuge behind
oil (2005’s Syrianawith George Clooney, one of my personal favorite films), and the destruction of natural
systems (Dr. Seuss’s 1971 book The Lorax) or cultural/species depletion (James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar), but no novel, song, painting or movie has come
close to depicting a fictional world of what holistic sustainability solutions
might look like, even feel like. Any suggestions of existing or planned works
that would fit the bill?
Odds are that breakthrough art successfully depicting sustainability will feature or draw upon urban culture in some fashion. After all, cities have gone from being perceived as the opposite of what the “environmental movement” has been trying to save, to the epicenter of this new revolution that is launching in a city or neighborhood near you.