The current economic downturn is the worst in decades. Millions are suffering devastating losses – vanishing jobs, foreclosed homes, and soaring food and health costs. Meanwhile, climate instability, species extinction, resource scarcity, and toxic pollution are threatening the basic life-support systems of the planet. And let’s be honest: All of these are traceable to the grow-at-all-costs economy. We’re finally running up against – if not far surpassing – the limits of our planet.
And yet, the primary ecological challenges of our time remain largely off people’s radar, due partly to corporate dominance over our media, culture, and government. But we environmentalists also share in the blame. All too often, we’ve focused on endangered species and ecosystems, and failed to connect their protection to the well-being of people or communities. In a world with fewer resources to go around, the future of environmentalism may hinge on making it synonymous with building sustainable communities that can meet everyone’s basic needs.
In recent decades, we’ve sacrificed environmental health and community well-being for the sake of convenience, consumption, and accumulated wealth, mostly to benefit the rich. Despite mounting awareness of the dangers, our dependency on fossil fuels continues unabated – rendering our global climate increasingly unstable, and potentially lethal. What’s more, we are now dangerously dependent on far-flung regions to supply us with manufactured goods and fossil fuels to grow our food, power our vehicles and buildings, and maintain our high-tech health system.
A growing chorus of reputable energy analysts and geologists is now warning that our insatiable appetite for oil will soon outstrip supply, if it hasn’t already. We’ve been finding less oil each year, while finding more ways to burn it. The result? We’ll soon be forced to power our societies using ever-diminishing supplies, year after year.
But what about other resources? No alternative source or combination of sources is capable of replacing oil at anywhere near the same energy intensity, flow rate, or overall volume to which we’ve grown accustomed. And as oil supply declines, we can expect the economy to contract as well.
In early 2009, even the normally conservative International Energy Agency warned that the world is headed for a catastrophic energy crunch by 2020, thanks to the plummeting output of the world’s major oil fields. Given that oil is the lifeblood of industrial civilization, learning to make do with less of it while transitioning to renewable energy is now all the more urgent.
Unfortunately, almost no one in high office is talking about adapting to a contracting economy – much less one that’s more locally and regionally self-reliant and able to supply everyone’s basic needs. But that’s the kind of fundamental shift we must accept, prepare for, and shape to our own regional conditions if we ever hope to thrive within the post-petroleum, climate-ravaged economy that’s coming.
Green-jobs champion Van Jones has helped build a powerful movement behind a vision of a dynamic solar-powered economy that lifts all boats. And yet, in his book The Green-Collar Economy, even Jones insists that now is not the time to challenge the growth economy. Instead, he believes that activists today must make smart “minimum demands,” like Green Jobs for All, that can inspire the masses to join the cause.
If we had the resources and time, it might make sense to hold off on directly challenging the growth economy. But with multiple and increasingly dire threats all coming to a head, the idea that we can continue to grow our way into a better economy (green or otherwise) is not only dishonest – it’s also dangerous. By confining our vision to “green growth” demands, we will further compromise the earth’s life support systems and jeopardize the quality of life for future generations. What’s worse, by clinging to growth, we’ll continue to give short-shrift to transformative solutions such as localizing our economies and phasing out fossil fuels from our food, water, energy, transportation, housing, and health systems – moves that will only remain viable while we still have the resources to invest in them.
Differences aside, Jones’ call for an ecologically sound future in which all of us can thrive deserves our firm support. As economic and ecological crises mount, low-income people and communities of color are feeling the impacts first and worst. At the same time, punishing cuts in education, health care, and transit services are only adding insult to injury. With less assistance to weather these challenges, disenfranchised communities must be empowered to cultivate their own assets – building up local resources and equipping themselves with vital skill sets to provide for their own needs.
We at Bay Localize believe that all of our communities must become more resilient. We define resilience as a community’s ability to withstand and quickly recover from difficult situations and hard times. Toward that end, we are working to build a sustainable, self-reliant, and socially just Bay Area where everyone can meet their basic needs with dramatically less fossil fuel. Resilient communities use their assets in creative ways to meet their needs, no matter the circumstances. They can build resilience in the long term based on four criteria:
By advocating for policies and projects that catalyze the emergence of a regionally focused economy, we believe we can help increase the livability of all Bay Area communities and serve as a model to inspire other regions. As a first step toward helping all of our communities become more resilient in the face of peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction, Bay Localize is advancing flexible tools and models that groups and governments can implement locally. In September, Bay Localize launched a Community Resilience Toolkit designed to help groups build ecological, economic, and social resilience in their communities while decreasing reliance on fossil fuels (see www.baylocalize.org/toolkit). Hundreds of groups around the world are already using the toolkit.
In collaboration with Movement Generation and People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), Bay Localize also built a rooftop veggie garden in the heart of San Francisco and led a workshop for POWER’s members, providing them with the skills they’ll need to grow their own food, and showcasing the potential of urban agriculture. At San Francisco’s Green Festival, we hosted a panel discussion entitled “Resilience for All,” showcasing the efforts of a broad cross section of Bay Area organizers who are working across race and class on campaigns to prepare our communities for a post-carbon world.
Part of making local communities more resilient is catalyzing the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. We believe this transition can improve the quality of life for low-income communities and people of color who suffer disproportionately from exposure to pollutants from gas-fired power plants, petroleum refineries, and congested freeways. To that end, in partnership with the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, our Local Clean Energy Alliance won a major victory in July 2009 by getting the Oakland City Council to vote unanimously in favor of groundbreaking greenhouse gas reduction targets that are among the boldest in the nation. Now, we are working to ensure that Oakland adopts climate action policies that create good-paying green-collar jobs, slash pollution, and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. The Alliance is building power regionally to ramp up energy efficiency and access to renewable energy.
Through these and other efforts, a growing network of leaders is coming together to build a truly inclusive and equitable movement for regional self-reliance. We’ve begun sharing diverse strategies to address the deepening challenges ahead, and are also forging key partnerships across organizations to build trust, solidarity, and power among communities working for racial justice and ecological sanity.
Building truly resilient communities will be difficult, and at times positively wrenching. The good news is that moving away from fossil fuel dependency will create millions of new opportunities to rebuild our local energy grid, food system, transportation network, and regional infrastructure. If we do this in ways that empower all of our communities, we can dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone.
Aaron G. Lehmer is the Co-founder and Network Development Director of Bay Localize, an Oakland-based nonprofit working to build a stronger, more self-reliant Bay Area. Visit www.baylocalize.org for more info.
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