Looming Challenges

People who make money from fomenting and exaggerating political controversy are having a marvelous time with the “stimulus package” President Obama just signed into law. But all the boom and sparkle of the fireworks they generate is, I believe, drawing attention away from issues that need clear analysis and appropriate action.

It should be clear, for example, that if we want public services we must pay taxes. It should also be clear that the tax policies of the last eight years have been disastrous to our economy. It then follows that more of the same will not make the economy better.

I would also like to point out that many companies are downsizing or closing altogether because of a lack of demand for their products. A lack of customers. Not enough people willing (or able) to spend money to buy what they are selling. This cannot be fixed by giving more money and incentives to those companies. The companies were doing well – they had products that had been successful – the problem is that ordinary people became so hard-pressed that they could no longer afford to support those industries.

The simple fact is, without a large population with disposable income to spend, our economy cannot work. Emphasis on the large. When the 10% already own 90% of everything, the 90% can no longer support them.

The rich need to wise up – if they want to live in a functioning capitalistic society, they must tax themselves and their corporations enough to support a large and active middle class of entrepreneurs and consumers. Without them, the system implodes, as the present crisis makes perfectly clear.

That said, it may be too late. I think the present financial crisis will turn out to be different from previous recessions, because the reasons behind it include a very significant difference – the looming challenges of resource depletion and climate change.

Neither of these can be met with our present strategies – including the “stimulus package” – and certainly not with “business as usual”. To the extent that the present package encourages green energy and relocalization it will help, certainly.

But we desperately need to be learning how to live abundant lives within a “steady-state” economy, not stimulating the financial sector to restart economic growth.

Transition Towns

The ‘Twin Peaks’ of peak oil and climate change are looming. To find a successful way forward, we need to develop policies that deal with both of them.  Adopting solutions to ease one while making the other worse is obviously a bad idea. The Transition Towns movement meets this reality square-on –- and with a great deal of optimism.

Transition Towns (www.transitiontowns.org/) takes a new approach to grassroots activism –- aiming always to be inclusive and wholistic, and to act as a catalyst for changes as directed by local people, rather than advocating particular programs or solutions.

They use an assortment of newish social tools, including ‘Open Space’ (www.co-intelligence.org/P-Openspace.html) and ‘World Cafe’ (www.co-intelligence.org/P-worldcafe.html) public meetings and psychological change enablers developed in work with addictions, along with effective group facilitation techniques. These are put together with more traditional networking skills, education, and publicity skills, — and an emphasis on celebrating at every possible point.

They work from “four key assumptions:

  1. Life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and it is better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
  2. Our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe shocks of peak oil.
  3. We have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
  4. By unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected and more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of the earth.”

Given that energy descent is inevitable, and that we must do all we can to stop increasing climate change, the real question, as the author of The Transition Handbook Rob Hopkins says is not “How can we keep everything going as it is?” but rather “How can we learn to live the good life within realistic energy constraints?”

The Handbook’s general answer is “By relocalizing (www.relocalize.net/) the focus of our lives, and by increasing the resilience of our local communities to make them self-reliant (not self-sufficient).” To deal with climate change we must reduce our carbon footprints; to deal with peak oil we must build resilience into our relocalized community economies. A self-reliant community has a diverse and lively economy that produces most of what it needs to survive and prosper, and then trades for extras.

The genius of Transition Towns is that each community brings its own people to the table. Using tools like Open Space meetings, they work together, inspiring each other, and come up with a dynamic consensus of what needs to be done, and a timeline. They produce (and continually update) a plan to move their own community toward the vision they develop (which may be totally different in its practical details from that of other communities, in other places, with other people).