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Curtailment & Community


Megan Quinn Bachman

Where Do We Go From Here?

Surviving Peak Oil, Thriving in Community

Prepared Closing Remarks, International Conference on Peak Oil and Climate Change, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 30-June 1, 2008.

Five years ago, when I first started giving Peak Oil presentations, my message could more easily be ignored. The disconnect between the picture I presented of dangerous and destructive fossil dependence and people’s daily lives could be maintained. Perhaps the crisis seemed too far off in distance and time to matter in the here and now.

Today, that illusion has disappeared. The Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times," is an understatement. Oil and food prices are skyrocketing as the age of cheap, abundant fossil fuels comes to an end. A global financial system based upon infinite growth on a finite planet is teetering, and news of water and soil depletion, deforestation, species extinction and catastrophic climate changes gets worse every day. Our fossil fuel dependence is "coming home to roost."

As the global situation deteriorates, it becomes clear that it is no longer just about being sustainable; it is about being survivable. The question is: Can we survive the severe and multifaceted threats facing us, from geological to geopolitical? But just surviving is not enough – it’s also about having a planet worth living on.

As we speak today, a myriad of solutions are being proposed, developed, and implemented to survive Peak Oil and climate change – from tar sands, coal-to-liquids, hydrogen, and electric vehicles to genetic engineering and climate modification. But what kind of world would we create with these so-called solutions?

Are we implementing solutions that maintain an extractive, industrial society which would continue to exploit the earth’s natural resources and plunder the developing world? Instead, we should ask what kinds of solutions not only address Peak Oil and climate change, but create a society that is more equitable and ecological regenerative, not destructive? Those are the solutions I’m interested in.

Community Solutions, my organization, talks about "curtailment" and "community" as the best solutions. Both require new practices, skills, and values as we move from our over-consumptive, high-energy, competitive way of life to a more frugal, low-energy and cooperative way of life. Let’s start with curtailment.

Curtailment means simply the dramatic reduction in our fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide generation to avoid the worst consequences of Peak Oil and climate change. In contrast with sustainability, curtailment recognizes that you cannot be sustainable if you’re using a finite resource – that there’s simply no sustainable way to use a finite resource. So instead of trying to live "green" or "sustainable" we need to stop using fossil fuels. That’s the simple truth. And curtailment, in contrast with the softer concept of "conservation," connotes that it won’t be easy to reduce our fossil fuel dependence.

Fossil fuels feed us, shelter us, warm us, and transport us and everything else we need to survive. Consider that one gallon of gasoline is equivalent to six weeks of human labor. U.S. daily oil use is equivalent to 20 million years of person-labor. With this energy we wield a tremendously destructive power, and destroy we have – slowly, over the years, with seemingly trivial decisions about how to provide for our needs and fulfill our desires. Now, our ability to continue to meet our needs and desires is under threat, and yet most solutions talk about how to continue to meet them, rather than justifying those needs and desires in the first place.

Curtailment is about reviewing our consumption, determining what we really need, and cutting the rest. We need to ask: What do we really need to survive? Does everything need to keep growing? Do we need bigger houses and cars and paychecks every year to be happy? There’s an interesting survey that asked people how much money they needed, and it was graphed against how much money they made. The amount that people said they needed was always just a few thousand dollars ahead of what they made. And when they reached that amount, they needed a few more thousand dollars. At some point, we need to find what is sufficient – what is enough – because we cannot grow indefinitely on a finite planet.

How far do we need to curtail? By 2050, with global population projected to be about 9 to 10 billion, annual CO2 emissions must be kept at or below 10 billion tons a year to curb rising global temperatures. So we will need to be emitting up to only 1 ton of CO2 per person per year. We in the U.S. now emit 20. In Europe it is 10. The world average is 4. So we in the U.S. have to reduce our fossil fuel use by 80 to 90 percent, if we want to decline equitably. That’s 4 to 5 percent per year, every year. This will not be accomplished by just changing our light bulbs – we need a deep and ongoing transformation in the way we live. So how can we make the needed changes?

Necessity vs. Choice
Let’s then assume that there are two options for change – necessity and choice. Many say that the peak in oil production along with high prices and occasional shortages will force us to use less oil. We hear that "people only change when they have to." We have examples such as Cuba, which made a huge change out of necessity when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off its oil shipments. The Cubans converted their agriculture to 90 percent organic, created urban gardens, decentralized energy generation and developed shared transportation. There’s the example of the Arab oil embargo on the U.S. in the 1970s, which led to lowered speed limits, higher fuel economy standards and other conservation measures.

One option is to wait for things to get worse. Unfortunately this is a luxury which in the U.S. only the middle and upper classes can afford. Others living closer to life’s edge in the U.S. and especially those in the Global South don’t have that luxury. Sure, those on the edge can make changes, but at some point it becomes very difficult for them to survive while the rest of us over-consume.

The other option for change is out of choice. This means recognizing that the world we created with fossil fuels has many problems – the highest inequity in history, continuing environmental degradation, declining health indicators and loss of community being just a few. It is based upon the notion that we can create something better. So instead of just talking about the drawbacks of the fossil fuel paradigm, we need to also talk about the benefits of the alternative.

There is a subtle but important difference between necessity and choice. It’s the difference between telling people they have to change and encouraging them to want the change. We need to recognize the importance of the intention and the motivation with which we do something. Consider the difference between skipping a meal because you’re on a fast or you can’t afford or don’t have access to food. The question is – how enduring will be the changes made out of necessity? Again, during the oil embargo, most people viewed it as an inconvenience and a temporary aberration. When more oil was produced– and prices fell – because of discoveries in the North Sea and Alaska, consumption went up, and what followed were the fossil-fuel guzzling decades of the 80s and 90s. But as Bill McKibben, climate change activist and author, recently wrote, "All of a sudden it isn't morning in America it’s dusk on planet Earth."

Now, let’s return to the example of Cuba. Yes, the majority of Cubans changed their lifestyles in the early 1990s when they were forced to by circumstances. But we learned in Cuba that had it not been for a few pioneering researchers, Cubans would have suffered much more during their transition. In the 1980s there was a small group of organic agronomists at a university in Cuba studying sustainable agriculture, which they viewed as a much more sound and secure approach. Their policy recommendations were ignored for years, as Cuba had the most rapidly industrializing agricultural system in Latin America. But when the crisis hit, because these researchers had laid the groundwork for a transition to organic agriculture in Cuba, they were able to take leadership positions, and the Cuban agriculture system was transformed in just a few years.

The lesson here for us activists, educators, organizers, pioneers and early adopters, is that we cannot wait for the dire need to change. Instead, we must plan, prepare and plot now. If we were thrust into positions of power at our work places, schools, or local governments, what would we do?

So it’s important that we begin before necessity arises. But we also need to communicate that despite the incredible hardships we will face in this transition, that our lives could be happier, healthier and more fulfilling because of community. In community we fill our lives with valued relationships not valued possessions – and can consume less, but live better. So in choosing a more favorable future rather than having a future thrust upon us, we can assure that the changes we make can be sustained – because it’s clear that we’re not going to get a second chance to create a society that adheres to the limits of nature.

Enemies of Action
No longer can we claim ignorance of the impact we have on the planet, and the multiple grave crises we face. But why is it then, that despite all of the educational efforts and good models of low-energy living we’re creating and disseminating, we don’t see much change at the mainstream level. In fact, the saying that "things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster" seems to apply.

So I’m going to talk about the main reasons why people can convince themselves to stay in denial and not take the necessary actions to reduce their dependence on the fossil fuels which are destroying the planet. I call these the "enemies of action."

The first enemy of action is the savior mentality, the belief that someone will save us. It could be corporations with their high technology, or governments, which are, after all, supposed to take care of us. It is questionable whether corporations and the government have our best interest at heart. Secondly, the inability to respond appropriately to Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that all levels of U.S. government could be severely hindered in trying to deal with a nationwide emergency. But even if corporations and governments could save us, at what cost would that be? And what would it mean for democracy and freedom? Would depending on a more centralized authority really serve us? Should we not instead take responsibility and realize that we have to save ourselves – but not necessarily as individuals.

One of the biggest differences between my grandparents’ generation – the WWII generation – and mine is that they believed that governments and corporations were looking out for them, and my generation, the ultra-cynical generation, believes that no one is looking out for them. As a result, we feel isolated and react with the mentality that we all need to move out into remote rural areas and protect our land with guns. This is another enemy of action because it gives the impossible expectation that everyone can provide for their own needs and their own security. My hope is that by my grandchildren’s generation, they will trust in their community taking care of them.

Another enemy of action, and one which I see in the younger generation as well, is the inability to deal with the hypocrisy implicit in trying to live morally in modern industrial society. We critique the lecturer on climate change who drove to the presentation, or the environmentalist who eats meat. Apparently the thinking is that we all need to go back to living in the wilderness as wandering hunters and gatherers or do nothing at all. It’s useful to acknowledge the hypocrisy of our lives because we can be motivated by it rather than immobilized by it – motivated to continue working to align our lifestyle with our values. But because it’s not easy to live morally in such an immoral society, there will continue to be hypocrisies.

For this we need courage. One of my favorite quotations, attributed to American writer Ambrose Redmoon, is, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear. The timid presume that it is the lack of fear that allows the brave to act when the timid do not. But to take action when one is not afraid is easy. To refrain when afraid is also easy. To take action regardless of fear is brave."

Another problem is finding the sufficient level of action. The paradox is that you don’t want to make it so daunting that people go into denial or depression and don’t do anything, or so easy that they do too little. We wouldn’t encourage everyone to cut their energy use 90 percent in the first year. But mostly, the solutions we hear about are just not enough. As a German architect recently said, "Incrementalism is death." Small changes to our way-of-life and no changes both end up in failure – if we don’t reduce our CO2 generation below a certain amount, we will trigger runaway climate change and if we don’t drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for our most important needs, we will be remain vulnerable to shortages.

Still another problem is that people who think that the solutions are easy aren’t preparing themselves psychologically for the change ahead. These "easy" solutions are demonstrated in the "Top 10" ways to save the environment, in repetition about changing our light bulbs and recycling with little discussion of the more difficult, yet more transformative solutions. So people don’t make the more transformative solutions because they become complacent after sorting their recycling.

Finally, many cannot see where curtailment leads – there isn’t a clearly articulated vision of the future we are creating. At some point we cannot even begin to guess what the future will be like, but if we assume the future will be like the present this will doom us to that future. At the same time, assuming the future will be nothing at all like the present may frighten us to lose everything we know and have known and jump to some altogether different reality. Our vision of the future must be somewhere in the middle. We definitely won’t be going backwards, and we likely won’t be without computers, electricity or modern medical knowledge. So what is the vision of the future?

Community Solutions
We talk about community as that vision. Curtailing our energy use has to be the number one step, but we clearly need to make structural, systemic changes which support and advance these individual lifestyle changes. The global industrial system, which is dependent upon cheap fossil fuel energy and huge inputs of other non-renewable resources – and which will become an increasingly problematic and unviable way to provide for our needs – has to be replaced with something else. We describe this community paradigm as decentralized, place based or local, self-reliant, and low energy.

So as we curtail – contributing less and less to the destructive global industrial system– we must begin to contribute more and more to its alternative – community. We have to redevelop resiliency, or the ability of our communities to withstand outside shocks, by meeting our most essential needs closer to home. Financially, we can no longer put our money in the global growth system which is undermining its own ability to continue and thus provide returns to us. Instead, we need to invest locally in the people, businesses and technologies that directly sustain us and will sustain generations to come. This includes participating in such ventures as community-supported agriculture, community-owned renewable energy systems and small business incubators, but also building social capital, so that "when things get hard," as deep ecologist Joanna Macy recently said, "we won’t, in fear, turn on each other."

Arthur Morgan, who founded my organization, Community Solutions, nearly 70 years ago, talked about the most important kind of community as small and local. Small refers to a more realistic scale of human habitation, which is less centralized and operates more as a web of interconnections among people, allowing more meaningful relationships to develop. Our species has lived in small groups of a few dozen to a few hundred people for 99.5 percent of its existence, so this is a way of living that we are well suited for. Local refers to living close to those with whom we have economic relations.

Part of the reason we can continue to allow and contribute to the ecological devastation of the planet and the growing misery of the world’s poor through our daily economic decisions is that we are separated from this reality by so much distance. Everything and everyone who provides us what we need to survive is an abstraction. We consume brand names, not resources and people. If we could see abused workers toiling on the industrial farms and in sweatshops, and the falling forests and scarred landscapes, we could not morally continue to treat them with such disregard.

So in re-developing more face-to-face economic relationships we will come to have more respect for those who provide our necessities, by making sure they have a fair wage and safe working conditions. In turn, they will make sure that our health and safety are provided for. This mutual relationship serves to improve everyone’s well-being, including the well-being of nature, not just corporate profit.

Community – and really life – is about intimate interdependence. The more we separate things – production from consumption and producers from consumers – the more we hide the reality of the consequences of our decisions from our everyday life, the more we create an illusory world. The more we forget the connections and presume they’re not there, the more difficult it is to come back to the real world. At its root, this movement is about re-connecting to each other and nature, and relearning the relationships that sustain us, physically and spiritually.

What does decentralization mean? By small, local community, Arthur Morgan meant small towns to be sure, but urban neighborhoods can also function as small communities. Many people point out urban areas are denser so that less transportation is needed and mass transit is more practical. But urban areas are without access to sufficient land resources so they must bring in resources from elsewhere, and dispose of their more concentrated wastes elsewhere. Rural areas face long-distance transportation problems, though they have land for food, water and energy procurement and waste recycling. Due to these factors, and the increasing amount of labor needed for sustainable agriculture and other land-based economic activities, re-ruralization around small towns with a high degree of regional interdependency will be the most likely form of development over this century. The dying small towns of today may be the future economic powerhouses and vibrant cultural centers for the agrarian revival.

In sum, community is about sharing, conserving and living with our local resources – which we acknowledge as scarce – rather than depleting, competing over, consuming and destroying seemingly abundant global resources. But the values of community transmitted through interdependent living are critical in helping us through the coming challenges – values such as cooperation, moderation, frugality, charity, mutual aid, confidence, trust, courtesy, integrity and loyalty. In community living, risks and opportunities are shared, relationships are the highest priority, and there is intimate personal acquaintance.

In contrast, think of some of the non-community values which are prevalent today, and their role in creating or exacerbating the crisis at hand – individualism, selfishness, comfort, convenience, indulgence. Wealth accumulation is the highest priority, not relationships. We have less intimacy or intimacy with fewer people. A study done in the U.S. showed that from 1980 to 2004 the number of "close confidants" people had had dropped from three to two and the number of people without any close confidants has more than doubled.

Author and farmer Wendell Berry calls the dominant system the "global economic party" and he contrasts it with what he calls the "community party." He says the global party is self-aware, highly organized, small in number and increasingly powerful. The community party is just becoming aware of itself. It’s small though potentially numerous, and weak though latently powerful. Instead of lamenting the power the global economic party has, let’s spend our precious time and energy developing our potential.

Time for Action
I want to end my talk and this conference with a final plea for action. We can delay action by various measures, some of which I’ve described, but there are others as well, like blaming other people or entities for the problems in which we find ourselves (oil companies, the current U.S. administration). It may make us feel better temporarily, but in reality, we, the billion or so over-consumptive middle class people on the planet, are the greatest perpetrators of global destruction – not the small number of elite consumers or the destitute and more self-reliant majority.

So we are the problem, but we are the solution, as well. The changes that we make in our own lives can have more of an impact in reducing global resource use than entire communities in other parts of the world, or entire communities in the future.

Sometimes it may feel like the knowledge of the impending peak and decline of oil resources and catastrophic climate change is a curse rather than a blessing. But we have a tremendous opportunity to use this head start to create successful models of what’s possible. We need models at every scale, in every community.

We’re working on a model neighborhood-community called "Agraria" that we intend to build in our town of Yellow Springs, Ohio. It will consist of very small, passive houses – meaning designed so that they don’t need heating or cooling systems – plus vegetable gardens which will provide much of the food in the neighborhood. Agraria will be based on interdependent social and economic relationships both within the neighborhood, and within the greater community. Most importantly, we envision it as the educational and cultural center to transform our small town of 3,700, and a model for re-ruralization.

Another important model is Cuba. While consuming one-eighth the energy of the average American, Cubans have the same lifespan, a lower infant mortality rate, a higher literacy rate, and more teachers and doctors per capita than the U.S. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund identified Cuba as the only sustainable nation in the world because of its low resource use combined with a high level of well-being. Cuba is proof that we can live well with less.

Our film, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, describes what the Cubans did, and importantly, how they did it. When the crisis hit, Cubans didn’t hope for someone to save them, even their own government. They took the initiative in their communities, and survived, revitalizing exchange at the local level as they transitioned to a much more agrarian economy.

I believe that this is how the change will take place, not from above, but from within. From individuals and communities and eventually entire nations pioneering a better way to live on this planet, and planting the seeds of a sustainable future.

I thought it appropriate to end with an epitaph. The following is inscribed on a tomb of an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey on 1100 A.D. It says,

"When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.

But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.

And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family.

From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world."

Thank you.

– Megan Quinn Bachman is the outreach director of Community Solutions, a non-profit based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA which provides knowledge and practices to support low-energy lifestyles, with a primary focus on reducing energy consumption in the household sectors of food, transportation and housing.

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