by Richard Register
I attended a most unusual conference two months ago but shrinking cities was in the news and needed some commentary. So I postponed writing and posting this report until now…
Now, as befits a new year, looking ahead – in fact maybe too far ahead – I’ll write about the conference that looked at what happens After the Fall. Say Peak Oil, climate change and accelerating species extinctions may be rushing toward a collision, a perfect storm that could bring on a world economic collapse and general chaos, not a Great Depression, but a full on collapse of now by far the largest civilization the world has known, the technological civilization all us 7 billion and growing are part of, whether benefiting from or not. How can we save something of civilization and begin again – or can we even save anything at all? We (speaking for European history anyway) recovered from the Fall of Rome though it took about 1,000 years and the reorganization was radically different in many ways. Jews have recovered from several thousand years of pogroms back to Egypt and nastiness earlier. American Indian culture is rising in a few places after total extermination of many of its tribes and near extermination of all the rest. What can we learn from religious and cultural traditions and other schools of thought that managed to squeeze through those desperate historic trap doors and start all over again, if not personally, their to the xth generation later descendants? Or can we at all this time around, now that the civilization in question embraces the whole world?
|John Cobb, leading Protestant theologian|
John Cobb, a Christian theologian and professor at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California is no doom and gloom Chicken Little. He’s been extremely upbeat and positive, even inspirational in his commitment to the creative and the healthy ever since I first met him slightly more than 40 years ago and no doubt for years before. He is coauthor with Herman Daly of the book on economics, “Our Common Future – redirecting the economy toward community, the environment and a sustainable future.” The conference with many workshops was called “Brave New Planet – Imaging Ecological Communities.” For a little dark humor I called it, among a few of my friends, the “After the End of the World Conference.” But it was hardly a laughing matter.
So if he has been such a thoughtful and positive man all these years why did the YouTube announcement for his conference start like this? He’s 86 years old, sitting in a chair that looks to be in his back yard, on the lawn. He won’t quit, and he’s looking straight into the camera. You can’t miss it. He’s a genuinely kindly and very thoughtful guy.
“This conference is based on some very bad news. Now, we are going to try to make the conference itself come out with a little better news. But we [the hosts, an NGO called Progressive Christians Uniting] think that we as a people, especially we people in the church, need to recognize that the human activity over the past few centuries and increasing recently has created the situation in which disaster, [long pause] catastrophe, [long pause] is inevitable. The civilization that we have created, the global civilization based on economic growth, has overshot, and that old pattern that biologists are familiar with of a species overshooting, is inevitably followed by a collapse. …Western society… has been using resources and polluting at a rate the natural world simply cannot cope with.”
Added inducement for me to participate was the fact that I knew John passably well in the early 1970s. He was actively interested in Paolo Soleri’s ecological city ideas and John and I had even driven out from the Los Angeles area to a special seminar at Paolo’s experimental town in Northern Arizona, Arcosanti, which was in the early stages of construction at the time. At that 1973 seminar Soleri was introducing his ideas for his arcology (architecture + ecology) city designs powered by solar energy and our evolving creative human spirit. He called it the “Two Suns Seminar,” one being the sun itself, the other being us and our spirit of creativity, responsibility, compassion – all that gives us something of the radiance of our celestial center.
|Paolo Soleri at Cosanti in the 1960s. Photo: Cosanti Foundation|
The other two reasons I went: first I wanted to say I think we still have time to learn fast and fly right so here’s my proposal, and, number two, as my Grandmother once admonished me looking over her shoulder as if someone might be listening and holding a forefinger to her lips, “Say you believe, Richard. Be on the safe side.” So maybe I’d learn something about salvation here or on the other side of the divide that’s collapse in the here and now, or, perhaps learn something about personal death and the heaven most of those in attendance believed they are going to – Earthly civilization collapse or not – on the other side of the life/death divide.
I decided to present a paper in the spirit of “what would it take to not collapse but regroup, learn, plan, build and thrive?” Admittedly a tall order in such a forum or any forum if we take our converging crises and collapse seriously, but to capitulate, even very late in the game as it may or may not be, while I still have some time on this planet, is not my idea of a worthy game to be spending my days playing. Maybe some others feel that way too and want to “get organized.” Imagining what would actually work was a big order, but I’d done some thinking about it already. Some of you reading this may have seen one or another of my talks in the last year and will remember a point of two. But the new and revised version-for-the-occasion I called “World Rescue” to address the coming collapse of resources, biology and climate around the world. I organize it according to these italicized headings:
Goes without saying among those paying attention to our larger world problems.
A clearly formulated, very solidly based strategy, plan or program to address our interlinked problems coming from human overshoot on planet Earth. It would help greatly in moderating the coming crises and provide best possible outcomes in terms of what survives while preventing a complete and genuinely apocalyptic catastrophe for all life forms and human civilization. Beyond the historical, the implications of our crisis of many crises are evolutionary. They portend profound destruction of the normal healthy patterns of life and even dynamic climate stability and ocean circulation on our planet.
In 1992 Al Gore wrote of a “Global Marshal Plan” in his book “Earth in the Balance” and as early as 1974 when Lester Brown founded World Watch Institute he began thinking of his “Plan B” approach for a clear and effective strategy for humans to thrive on Earth with a healthy environment. The idea of a clear means to understand and work for a healthy future with an effective system at its core is not new.
However, the scale of the crisis in the early 21st century certainly is new, as multiple crises compound and signs of appropriate human response, much less true creative anticipation and action for health and thriving, is as weak now as ever. In fact, signs of slowdown, breakdown, bitter recriminations and growing confusion about what to do are growing faster than solution especially in the device politics of the US in 2012.
“Earth” and “planet” have been invoked in serious efforts to organize thoughts and strategies for helping society and nature back to health. But the Earth can take care of itself if people simply stop wrecking it. It is our world we are dealing with, that is, our planet and all that humans create (and for that matter other creatures too). That becomes our total environment including each and everyone of us. Rescue? Because it’s time: “World Rescue.”
The actual strategy:
The Five Big Ones
We need to face the Big Five issues head on and together and recognize our largest Three Sources of Resources for success in the effort to rescue our world.
No one in any media, nor among scientists, government officials, NGOs, religious communities or general social critics have made a serious approach at proportionalizing and prioritizing for what to do to rescue our world. The approach has been far too random, too “low hanging fruit.” What if the low hanging fruit, if easy, don’t do much but waste valuable time or are even counter productive because they are not well informed enough? When it comes to “proportionalizing” there isn’t even the accepted official word for it. Spell Check rejects it out of hand. What it means as we create it however, is getting a proper sense of the true proportions of things so that we can order and sequence how to most effectively solve our largest problems. We discover – then have to face – the “Big Ones” first and most energetically. In other words there’s a proper sequence here: proportionalize then prioritize then get busy. But of course most people would rather put off the difficult until later if we possibly can. We can’t anymore because “later” is now. Things are happening that fast.
The three big physical ones are 1.) overpopulation, 2.) our very destructive agricultural/diet nexus and 3.) the disastrous built environment of cities, towns and villages that has been accelerating in its growth since the Second World War in the form of scattered low-density development dependent on motor vehicles. These cities pave immense tracts of land and consume oceans of gasoline so vast as to be extirpating the complex and versatile fossil organic chemicals called “fuels” from the whole planet. The average American driver burns the equivalent of 11 typical 42 gallon bathtubs of gasoline filled to the edge – about 500 gallons – every year and other countries are trying to catch us as fast as possible, China being the most “successful.” Overpopulation and the problems with agriculture and diet are being broadly addressed, if with limited effectiveness. But the fact that cities are disastrously conceived to maximize waste of land, energy, money, time and lives (in bloody car “accidents”) while contributing the large majority of air pollution and climate change gasses has barely dawned on the minds of the “man in the street” and advanced scientist alike. Silence about the basic design and structure of cities, largest creations of humanity, in UN debates on climate change attests to this fact. These big three need to be addressed or the degree of collapse to be expected is truly beyond normal comprehension.
The two big mental, psychological, spiritual issues are 4.) generosity and 5.) education. Regarding generosity, we need to invest in one, two and three above and in someone other than “me,” than “our generation,” than humans only. A dimension of this is taxing ourselves and investing money well in building a healthy future, both literally in physical communities, food, energy, transport and other technological systems and in terms of life styles.
Another dimension of generosity is not stealing and killing others for material wealth: we need to put an end to war and invest in all efforts to grow human understanding and peaceful resolution of conflict. In the tradition of disciplined non-violence there is an international history with considerable instruction that transcends politics, religion and all other manner of cultural, racial and belief system division.
The Three Sacred Golden Cows
When people say we are in difficult times and don’t have the economic strength to solve our problems, they are failing to see the treasures right under their eyes. They refuse to touch or even talk about the “sacred golden cows,” much less milk them for the benefit of everyone. Never has society had so many good tools and ideas, so much energy to turn into good things and never so much wealth to build and shape a healthy world. Ever.
The paradox is explained by the taboo of looking at and honestly dealing with the vast resources of the very rich, the military and the shifting of investment in the automobile-oriented city into building the ecologically healthy city, town and village of the future. Vast resources are all there if we gain the resolve to tap them, and that requires that we know what to build and do with those resources.
On the resources side, as we consider these things, winter of 2011/2012, there is an awakening regarding the resources available held by the wealthy and the need to “tax the rich.” This started with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and is an encouraging wake up that hopefully will get very serious and lead to addressing the other big opportunities we have for fixing our disastrous world situation. Taxing the top 1% is a start – they are astoundingly wealthy and privileged to keep most of it out of public debate, choices and political process to actualize the common good. But we have to face that we need responsibilities as well as rights, duties as well as entitlements and that taxes for all but those in serious trouble are a good idea, including much higher ones for the top 40% not just 1%. That’s where generosity is required and as said, not just the wealthy but the military needs an whole other approach and has the resources a genuine peace mission needs.
And again, if we are to have “Peace on Earth, Peace with Earth,” we will have to spend a lot of the money of the sort allocated to “defense” to building right. I’ve been studying economics lately and notice that Franklin Delano Roosevelt built a lot of infrastructure in working the country’s way out of the Great Depression, some of it in restoring forests and soil reclamation and other prescient “green” projects. It was a good start that we need to think through again – but go way beyond. And we will need to know far more clearly what to build and how to proceed. In this, understanding proportions and prioritizing for the Five Big Ones is indispensable.
Role of Religions and Philosophies
Considering John Cobb and his Brave New Planet conference were building on Christian theology and some of the discussions circulated around the experience of the traditions of Christianity managing to survive the collapse of Rome, it was important to look at what religion and philosophies for life have to do with it. If John is right, under universal threat of collapse of human civilization due to collapsing resources and ecological systems and because of the attendant chaos, extreme poverty and violence that has always followed, it is time for all religions and philosophies of life, spiritual perspectives and social theories to split down the middle and focus on the positive, life affirming, kind and generous half of their traditions. Is time to ignore and neglect what still might be of interest and worry but that does not summons courage and relate to survival and health for all. Cosmologies that satisfy wants without relevance to the present emergency, that posit different versions of life after death, declare definitions of God hostile to other definitions and endorse governments raising armies and promulgating rationales for launching wars, that harbor dogmas that claim superiority of my beliefs with all rationales for hating and fighting against others – all these strategies to advance my ideas and perspectives at the cost of others must now be put to one side. We need not see these angry beliefs as invalid or “wrong,” but simply as relics of history not relevant or positive in the present emergency.
Strictly from the position of resources collapse in times of overpopulation, overconsumption and disintegration of living systems on the planet, we need to carefully, conservatively rein back gross expenditure and waste, from financing war to buying murderous video games and participating in countless negative or irrelevant activities that waste time and violate what’s good, friendly and compassionate in religion and philosophy. We need to begin restraining the despoliation of the entire Earth, chose relevant things to deal with instead of wasting our time, minds and material treasure. We need to give ourselves most of the remaining resources to reallocation for building a new and far less greedy vision and strategy for living as if humans were one of many species on the planet and capable of kindness toward one another.
Religion has often taken aggressive lead in driving countries into war and genocide – and it has also played a powerful role in opposing such inhumanity; there are that many contradictions in ways of thinking and living based on faith in that which cannot be known by evidence and experience. Those who reject reason for faith in addition to those disavowing violence and overconsumption on a limited planet for reasons evident in misery and injustice also need to choose the positive and creative. It is simply and finally, time to reject the negative and destructive and embrace the sacred quest for the creative and compassionate.
How it Went Over
Well, it didn’t really. I spoke to a breakout session of about 35 people and passed out the paper with about 80% of what you see above. I gave a copy to John a couple weeks in advance by e-mail and gave him a second copy on paper at the event expecting he didn’t have time with all his work organizing the conference to pay it that much attention to my e-mail copy. Several of the most interested people I spoke with in some detail and Bill McKibben, the journalist, author and climate change activist and organizer was there but had the following reaction.
In fact, he was the central star of the conference featured in plenary speaking engagements on three separate days. The central focus throughout the conference was on him and his presentations on the dangers of climate change and the need to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline planned to bring oil to Texas refineries from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. His effort was something I happened to agree with – this multiply environmentally disastrous energy source should never be tapped for minimal-thought, denial-based, maximum-profit burning. But the shift of emphasis away from “how to survive and make a come back” left me a little disappointed. I wanted to delve more into what it would mean to have a real collapse and what we could do about it during and after but also – my specialty – before.
I didn’t speak with McKibben about “the Five Big Ones” or means to access the where with all to build a future that might avert disaster because he hadn’t seen the paper yet and it’s a somewhat long explanation. But I did mention the role of ecocities in radically reducing the demand for energy such as potentially to be provided by the tar sands of Canada. In his talks he mentioned the supply side solutions, of solar and wind energy and energy conservation in general, so I suggested he might mention ecocities also in some of his many talks around the country as a means to reduce energy demand; I thought it might help his message and ours too. He gets large audiences and frequently. Such cities, I said, would make the pipeline less “necessary.” He said he had recently spoken with NASA’s James Hansen, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s earliest and leading climate scientists. Bill had asked what would happen to the atmosphere, weather systems and sea level if the tar sands of Canada were dug up, liquefied, piped to Texas, refined and burned. Hansen then said, “Well, that would about do it.” No chance to avoid absolutely catastrophic climate change on the planet.
The likelihood of the Greenland Ice Cap melting and thermal expansion of the whole ocean raising sea level 30 feet would materialize – there’s a tremendous amount of oil in those tar sands. Therefore, Bill told me, that about did it for him, too, and he just had to stay strictly on message. I said I appreciated that and didn’t want him to stop or divert his work in trying to stop the pipeline, but as he was supporting such alternative energy sources as solar and wind, why not pair good supply with reduced demand for a full picture approach. He said he believed if we could get past this pipeline emergency, getting to the sort of solutions I was talking about would automatically “ensue.” I said I didn’t think it would happen without encouragement. We fixed 95% of the Los Angeles air pollution problem by fixing the car – by putting a smog device on it – and thought it was good, I said. But because we ignored the city itself, the whole system of which the car is an integral part, 45 years later climate change “ensued” because cities all over the world followed Los Angeles’ “clean car city” lead and we now have over 390 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. He promised to read my three-page paper I’d handed him, looked a little harried and walked away.
There has been no response from John, Bill or the others I distributed the paper to, and even the few I spoke with in considerable detail who also received the paper.
But there is always you. In fact I had an actual sleeping dream a few nights ago thinking about that, about how to get people more serious about an organized attempt to confront avoiding collapse in the way I suggested in Claremont at the Brave New Planet Conference. It didn’t have to be exactly as I was laying it out of course, and Lester Brown or Al Gore or who knows who might do a much better job than I’d do – I’m too focused on one aspect of the total picture anyway, the ecocity aspect. I was driving through a desolate ghost city with two friends talking about exactly this, looking for the places I’d remembered when they were alive with people, it seemed only a couple years ago, now deserted, a little restaurant district. I was hungry in the dream. It was nowhere to be seen. Just deserted buildings, dust in the corners, doors slowly creaking in the breeze. I said, “Isn’t there some way to grab people to get them to take this seriously? We stopped in an old quarry where it was completely silent. We got out and wandered around. One of my friends said, “why not call it, ‘Why me? …. Because our lives depend on it.’”
My New Years resolution? Don’t let it happen.
I ran into a passage in a college textbook last year that sent a chill down my back. I’ll let it stand here on its own while you think back on this essay of mine.
The extractive industries depend on the exploitation of minerals unevenly distributed in amounts and concentrations determined by past geologic events, not by contemporary market demand. In physically workable and economically usable deposits, minerals constitute only a tiny fraction of the earth’s crust – far les than 1%. That industrialization has proceeded so rapidly and so cheaply is the direct result of an earlier ready availability of rich and accessible deposits of the requisite materials. Economies grew fat by skimming the cream. It has been suggested that should some catastrophe occur to return human cultural levels to a pre-agricultural state, it would be extremely unlikely that humankind ever again could move along the road of industrialization with the resources available for its use.
Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities by Fellmann, Getis and Getis, Mc Graw Hill, New York, 2008, p.282
Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org