Saturday, November 20, 2010

Richard Heinberg, Short Version

I forgot to put on my hat the Saturday of the big wet snowstorm, and walked to South High for the Neighborhood Sustainability Networking Fair, “Building Resilient Communities: Preparing Together for an Changed World.” I was thinking I wouldn’t mind if the world waited a couple of years to change, but I do have ideas about how I’d like it to be, so I went looking for allies.

Alliance for Sustainability organized the event: vendor displays (energy conservation, gardening, electric cars, environmental justice, local food), topical and neighborhood discussions, and keynote speaker Richard Heinberg. Heinberg is a journalist, Senior Fellow at the  Post Carbon Institute, and author of The Party’s Over and other books about scarce oil and its economic consequences. His talk gave the day its subtitle, “Preparing Together for a Changed World.”

Heinberg’s a sturdy sixty-year old with spectacles and wispy sandy hair. He spoke for about an hour, with slides of diagrams and pictures to dramatize his remarks.

We’re living at a critical moment in history. Heinberg’s case runs something like this: The US and the world have a debt that we can never retire. The housing bubble that burst in 2008 was four times as large as any before. The bail out cost in the trillions, compared to The Vietnam War’s $600 some billion price tag. US productivity has nearly doubled since 1975, but household income has stayed flat, with households compensating with debt. All this debt assumes growth, but the end of oil, with no adequate alternatives ready, assures us there will be no more growth. Heinberg quoted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, that the economy is resetting to a lower level of spending and consuming. (I would refer skeptics to Saul Griffith, who has calculated that the world would need an area the size of Australia, “Renewistan,” devoted to alternatives, including nuclear, to replace all but a fifth or sixth of our current fossil fuel use.)

Heinberg says it is up to us to invent a new normal, imagining how we’d like to see the world in 2050 (I’ll be 101), and filling in the steps from here to there. He had a list of areas to work on. We need to emphasize what is positive: community, satisfaction from honest work, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, artistry, and beauty in the built environment. We need to reduce spending and consumption, grow our own food, get to know our neighbors, and imagine the best-case scenario. This crisis is our opportunity.

Our communities need resilience:

    * Redundancy in critical systems, in other words different ways and places to get what we need, and to get around, so we can endure loss of one or some parts;
    * Dispersed system control points, meaning, I think, that commerce and government get spread around, not eliminated;
    * Dispersed inventories: no more big-box bargains, but more work and less vulnerability to disaster;
    * Balanced feedback loops, for instance concentrated wealth would not be able to organize to further concentrate.

Yeah, but, like the widower said at the funeral, what am I gonna do tonight? We need conservation and activism. There’s no excuse not to insulate our houses. Neighborhoods can afford what individuals can’t, so we can share expensive tools. We can relearn the skills that got our parents and grandparents through the Great Depression and war rationing, gardening, canning,
different kinds of repair. Walk, ride bikes, get away from the fastest and cheapest. Pay attention to the block clubs. Get to know Corcoran GROWS. Buy locally, Tom said, in his WalMart jeans and sweatshirt, sipping a cup of Colombian coffee.

In the medium term, we need better rail, cellphone and GPS facilitated ride sharing, local food processing, some way of getting people and businesses into idle buildings, local currencies, and neighborhood economic laboratories, which could also be sites for car sharing, credit union, job center, and clinic.

After Richard Heinberg’s presentation, came the topical breakout sessions, then we met with people from our neighborhoods.

I chose local food because of our household’s almond business. That was a useful choice. Community Table Cooperative was soliciting ideas from local food processors, and I got to brainstorm about how that organization could help us thrive. There was a hazel nut grower from Lake City in my group, and it was good to exchange names with him, since we’ve talked about using local hazels in addition to Californian almonds. (Another member of my group -- somebody I think I recognized from way back in my weatherization days -- told me I should realize that I’m an elder, and I said “Speak for yourself, brother.” I think the world is finally catching up with me.)

The neighborhood session was less immediately profitable, but sitting down and sharing ideas about what we’d like to see in Corcoran forty years from now was fun. I think we made progress.

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