By Asher Miller
After major disappointments in Copenhagen and Washington D.C., millions of us concerned about the climate crisis have been left wondering “what now?”. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the political and infrastructural challenges so large and complex, that it’s no surprise to see soul-searching and disagreements over the best course of action. Especially when legislative and diplomatic efforts to date have fallen flat. When folks like Dave Roberts — who fiercely advocated for admittedly weak Cap & Trade legislation because he felt that it was our best hope for progress — have given up on the nation’s capitol, it’s clear that a lot of people are being forced to re-evaluate.
The Debate – Scale Vs. Feasibility
It’s understandable why activists invested so much to securing a binding diplomatic agreement in Copenhagen and legislation in Washington, D.C. Their belief was that only a coordinated, international policy mechanism could address a crisis that is, by its very nature, global in scope. They’re right. But negotiating such a response is akin to getting 192 drug addicts to check-in to rehab, when treatment won’t start until everyone shows up. Believing this is a fool’s errand — unlikely to work, at least with the result being anything meaningful — others have advocated for concentrating on where we’re more likely to make progress: the personal and community scale. But reducing your carbon footprint to nil, or even that of an entire city or state, is not going to keep the climatic forces away if elsewhere they continue to burn coal or deforest the Amazon. Unless someone can invent the dome from Stephen King’s imagination. It’s easy to pick holes in each of these strategies because the sad truth is that none are likely, on their own, to be commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Which is why I think it’s our expectations, not approaches, that need to change.
The first expectation shift is to move our thinking away from trying to “solve” this crisis to “responding” to it. This may sound like a difference without a distinction, but it’s fundamental to the approach we should take, particularly when climate is so inextricably connected to the concurrent economic and energy challenges we face. In attempting to “solve” a problem like climate change, we’re looking for a miracle that’s going to allow us to get back to business as usual. In trying to “respond” to it, however, we acknowledge that business as usual is no longer an option. This is clearly necessary for a number of reasons:
The cat is already out of the bag when it comes to climate change. We’ve already altered the climate, even if we completely stop using fossil fuels this very second. Hence the planetary name change, a la PCI Fellow Bill McKibben. Some level of adaptation is required, though how much is still in our control.
As our report Searching for a Miracle details, no known combination of alternatives can fully replace our current use of fossil fuels.
Even if we could somehow to discover and bring online a clean energy alternative at sufficient scale and speed, there are numerous other limits that will prevent business as usual from continuing.
Redundancy, adaptability, and experimentation are going to be key in how we respond to this and other crises.
The second thing to understand is that it needn’t be — indeed it shouldn’t be — an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and proposition. When done right, efforts at different levels can amplify one another and are iterative. This can even be true when groups reasonably respond to the same opportunities in totally different ways. For example, some of our friends in the UK are considering holding a “Great Stay At Home” during the COP 16 meetings in Cancun, Mexico in late November and early December 2010. The idea, as articulated by Transition founder and PCI Fellow Rob Hopkins right after COP 15 last year, was this:
So how about this, as a co-ordinated approach for the next time there is such a gathering, which will again, no doubt, be trailed as ‘the last chance to save the planet’? We (that is, those who care passionately about climate change and the need for a proportionate response), confound expectations, and stay at home. Using the web-based technologies we now have at our disposal, we co-ordinate an international festival of meaningful change. We stay home and insulate whole streets, create community gardens, work meaningfully with our local authorities to do projects with them, eat local food diets for the duration of the conference, live without cars, insulate our schools, set up an area of the settlement in question as a model for what it would look like transitioned. We start bringing the future that we can imagine but which is still beyond the comprehension of so many, into focus.
I think this a fantastic idea. But does that mean that NGOs and environmental activists should all boycott COP 16? Absolutely not. Without allies in Cancun to bear witness, keep delegates’ feet to the fire, and push for meaningful international agreements then the odds of delegates paying any heed would be close to nil. And conversely, when delegates attempt to hide behind excuses about political or technical feasibility, our friends in Cancun can point to what’s being done right then back at home by everyday citizens with shovels, caulk guns, and bicycles. Done right, these two approaches can be greater than the sum of their parts. If there’s anything that gives my cynicism pause, it’s the possibility of divergent efforts like these amplifying rather than defusing one another. And that is why I want to encourage every single person out there to get involved in a 10/10/10 Global Work Party. No, Glenn Beck, it’s not some International Neo-Communist Party. It’s hundreds of thousands of people in more than a 140 countries making a statement by getting their hands dirty. As our friends from 350.org explained:
Since we’ve already worked hard to call, email, petition, and protest to get politicians to move, and they haven’t moved fast enough, now it’s time to show that we really do have the tools we need to get serious about the climate crisis. On 10/10/10 we’ll show that we the people can do this–but we need bold energy policies from our political leaders to do it on a scale that truly matters. The goal of the day is not to solve the climate crisis one project at a time, but to send a pointed political message: if we can get to work, you can get to work too–on the legislation and the treaties that will make all our work easier in the long run.
Part of what I love about 10/10/10 is that even if actions fail to move politicians sufficiently, through these projects a foundation can be laid — no matter how small or simple the projects — for transitioning each and every community. Yes, it’s a focused day of international action. Yes, it’s intended to make a statement. But it can and should also serve as the start or boost for ongoing resilience building.
10/10/10 Sonoma County
The 350.org site has some ideas and resources for creating a project (including starting a Transition Initiative) but I wanted to share what we’re doing here in Post Carbon Institute’s home base to give folks just one example of what can be done. PCI is part of an ad hoc coalition of local nonprofits and the County that set as our vision: “10 Issues. 10 Communities. 10,000 People.” Because of the short time frame and the unique characteristics of the county (nine cities and a number of smaller towns, with a population that’s generally progressive and climate aware), our intention was to encourage grassroots groups throughout Sonoma County to take the lead in organizing local projects. As organizers, our strategy is simply to provide the framework and tools to facilitate, promote, and support projects. That said, it’s vitally important to us to use 10/10/10 as an opportunity to engage people in longer-term and more robust efforts. And so we set for ourselves the following goals:
To educate the community about the impacts global climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels has on virtually every aspect of our lives and the countless, concrete ways we can break this addiction. So we’ve named 10 issues that are directly impacted by or relate to the climate crisis: biodiversity; buildings; economy; energy; food; health; social/economic justice; transportation; waste; and water.
To organize a minimum of one project focused on each issue area and at least one project in 10 Sonoma County communities.
To provide participants with suggestions and resources for personal actions they can take in each issue area to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and their impact on the climate. A website will provide people with a way to make reduction pledges, as will each project site.
To get the participation of elected officials in each of the nine Sonoma County cities, as well as the County Board of Supervisors. We don’t want them making speeches. We want them to get their hands dirty alongside their constituents.
To use this weekend as a vehicle for ongoing engagement.
The most ambitious effort will likely take place in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. Our friends at the newly formed CAReFree Sunday Street Scene (part of the growing international Ciclovia movement) are working with the City of Santa Rosa to close off a major section of downtown for biking, walking, and entertainment. Along the route — which includes City Hall, Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, and a greenway along the Santa Rosa Creek — they hope to set up ten projects (one for each issue referenced above) where pedestrians can stop, participate, and learn. The folks at CAReFree Sunday Street Scene have been talking with organizers of Tour de France cyclist and Santa Rosa native Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo bike event, which takes place the day before, about staying to join in the ciclovia. Hopefully, with creative project ideas like this, we’ll meet our target of 10,000 participants.
We’ll know in a few weeks how successful this organizing effort was, but the key thing is also the simplest thing: Try something. So please visit 350.org today to find a project in your community. If one doesn’t exist, start one.
(Asher Miller is the executive director of Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa, California, USA.)