What have you done today to lower your impact?

We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

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Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Sustainability or Resilience?

I recently went to a few lectures of a course the Bermuda Aquarium is hosting on the local ecology, sustainability and human economics.

In most cases the use of the term "sustainable development" seemed to be about finding a way to maintain an unsustainable level of development in a sustainable way. If this seems like an oxymoron to you, it did to me as well. This is certainly not unique to Bermuda. Helping businesses to find a way to do as little as possible to get a "green" label has become an industry in the US and the UK. But Bermuda is like a microcosm of the planet, isolated, with limited almost completely exhausted resources.

Bermuda is a high density island that lives an extremely high energy, as in fossil fuels, lifestyle. While driving small cars at mostly low speeds, practicing rainwater harvesting island wide and in some cases relying on the wisdom of their ancestors passive solar design knowledge, Bermudians are completely reliant on imports for almost everything. They generate electricity with imported oil, they exist on imported food and consumer goods (they do have some marvelous organic farms and a wonderful farmers market however), and they, much like Americans, are addicted to electronics, shopping, and high living. There is precious little open space, agricultural land is disappearing under condo developments, and what is left for growing food is often unused.

They do have an effective, well thought out, reliable and inexpensive mass transit system consisting of buses and ferries. It has reduced automobile traffic and increased opportunity for the citizens of the country to save money on auto related expenses. This system is an example of "sustainable development", one of the few on the island and stands as a model for many an American city.

So in this context, I pondered "sustainable development". In one instance the term was used by a planning officer who moments before admitted that the islands' lifestyle was already unsustainable.

There is a great deal of difference between "sustainable development" and developing sustainability. I believe the first, more often than not is impossible and represents a type of greenwash. A way to get projects approved as "sustainable" when the development can no longer come anywhere close to improving sustainability.

As David Fleming pointed out at the recent transition conference in the UK;

"... I asked him if he could explain why he sees resilience as being a better concept than sustainability. Sustainability, he said, is like the idea of an unsinkable ship, a nice idea, but completely unachievable, like, he added, a spouse that would always be completely faithful. The market economy depends on growth, and sustainability argues that we can grown AND sustain our ecology. The concept of sustainability allows us to grow economically and polish our haloes at the same time, to have our cake and eat it." - Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture

Perhaps it is time to shift to a new term, Resilience.

Here is an article on the subject by David Fleming from Transition Culture;

"**The Transition to Sustainable Resilience.**

**by David Fleming and Lawrence Woodward.**

Very big shocks are on the way. They include energy, climate, water and food, social fracture, displaced populations and pollution from unstable waste, especially nuclear waste. Sustainable development is not an adequate response to serial crisis. It is time now to move on to sustainable resilience. That means a political economy which can cope with shocks. It will need to be decentralised into relatively small-scale localised communities, so that:

• If one part is destroyed, the shock will not ripple through the whole system.
• There is wide diversity of character and solutions developed creatively in response to local circumstances.
• It can meet its needs despite the substantial absence of travel and transport.
• The other big infrastructures and bureaucracies of the intermediate economy are replaced by fit-for-purpose local alternatives at drastically reduced cost.

And that in turn opens up some new possibilities:

• Local closed systems conserving fertility and materials will become feasible.
• Local energy production, distribution and storage can be established, linked by local grids.
• Local social capital and culture can be rebuilt as a necessary condition for the cooperation and reciprocities needed to achieve the transition.

There are several degrees of sanity in this model. It is the only coherent response to the coming shocks. It is a realistic outcome of local initiatives. And such places will be good to live in, benefiting from the latest in technology, but not suffering from the latest in congestion and alienation. It has a chance of achieving the critical property of intelligent design: it is fit for the task. A large-scale economy which crashes very shortly after experiencing the first few outages in the supply of oil is not an intelligent design. Decentralised energy-efficient political economies, by contrast, have at least a chance. We need them now. We had better be quick about it

Being quick about it does not just mean starting soon; it means taking a route that can get there quickly. What matters now is to find the point of leverage – the point at which it is possible to steer the whole system by making it want to go the way you want it to go. The heart of the matter is energy. If we can find a way of moving down a steep energy descent, learning to get by with less and less energy, then we have the link to every other part of the system. It is like the child’s “cat’s cradle”: pull one string and all the rest come together. The low-energy economy has to be the localised economy; and localisation here includes a very substantial local contribution to the supply of food. It will not be possible to live within the energy constraint in any other way.

So, how to you make energy descent happen? By using Tradable Energy Quotas. Here are their main features:

• Every energy-user in the economy is included.
• The currency of the scheme consists of electronically-traded “TEQs units”, defined to represent specific quantities of energy, such as a litre of fuel; the definition may be based on (a) the global warming potential of the carbon released on combustion by that quantity of fuel, or on (b) actual quantities of the scarce fuels.
• All adults get a free and unconditional Entitlement to TEQs units. They can sell any surplus and top up their supply if they need to.
• All other users (e.g. businesses and public bodies) buy their units through a weekly Tender.
• There is a (rolling) 20-year TEQs Budget which reduces step by step, while clearly announcing the quantity of units that will be available in 20 years’ time.

>Individual carbon trading is also attractive because it appears to reach aspects of human behaviour which seem to be immune to other policies and programmes. It can both enforce and incentivise individual responsibility amongst a population which has so far appeared unable and/or unwilling to constrain its collective urge to drive, fly, and consume more electricity. And by explicitly involving the entire population in reducing carbon emissions, it maximises the collective intelligence and imagination applied to the task.
Simon Roberts and Joshua Thumim, Centre for Sustainable Energy – Report to DEFRA “A Rough Guide to Individual Carbon Trading” (Nov 2006)

TEQs guarantee that the Energy Descent will be achieved. They are equitable, since everyone gets the same Entitlement. They are efficient, because they are based on an efficient market, and they give everyone 20 years’ notice to cope with the structural changes that will transform our whole concept of the supply and use of energy (see Appendix 1).

Planned transition is a key process. It requires:

• A view of where you have to get to.
• A timescale.
• A way of involving everyone.

The model that at present we are calling “transition towns” cannot at present fulfil these criteria. It is hard for them really to commit themselves to the deeply unfamiliar vision of the low-energy/local-food (lo-lo) economy which the coming climacteric of peak oil and climate change will demand, or to commit themselves to the timescale set by the oil peak. It is impossible for them to include everybody: it will be an achievement if as many as one household in ten becomes seriously involved. And they are working in the context of a dominant and mature market economy, so they do not have the advantage of being able to go with the flow of a consensus about a deep change in the way we live, move, work and think: people with expensive families and flourishing careers are simply going to carry on for as long as they can.

And yet, the educative process in planning transition towns, the cooperative networks that are formed, and their experimental and practical results, are important. The people who are actually doing it are pioneers. They are taking ideas off the page and starting to work out how to make them stand up on the ground. And they have the crucial and rare insights that a liveable future will look sharply different from our present understanding of what “sustainable” means, and that it will take some time to build a future that works.

The twenty years of the TEQs Budget is about the time needed to develop Lean Energy far enough to begin to cope with the deep reductions in oil and gas that are on the way. The task for transition towns would be made much easier, and the whole concept would be seriously effective, if a TEQs scheme were up and running. It would then be possible for them to focus on how to achieve the transition to which everyone had already become committed, rather than how to commit people to it in the first place. Twenty years is slow, given the imminence of the problems, but it is quick, given the scale of the change that is needed. If an actual energy descent in the form of a binding TEQs budget within which we all had to live were in place, transition towns could get things moving locally and, by example, they could massively help things along in other places, too.

And while we are thinking about speed, it is worth giving a thought to what would happen if the outages that can be expected around the time of the oil peak, and increasingly after it, occurred before any substantial progress had been made in reducing the energy dependence of food production – and in some areas at least, reducing it dramatically. The immediate sequel would be food scarcities, mainly because of the lack of transport. Food would not get onto supermarket shelves in towns in sufficient quantities to feed urban populations. If food does not get in, the people living in towns will come out to get it. It could be hard for orderly transition towns to keep their crops, and indeed many of their other possessions, intact.

There would have to be a response by the Government: a “law-and-order” response which could be fierce, but also, in many ways, welcome. The effect of the Government’s longer-term policy, in the form of intervention in agriculture, may be less welcome. During the World War II, the War Agricultural Committees (“War Ags”) had draconian powers over farmers. They could order them to grow certain crops in certain ways, and if the farmers refused, the committees had the power to sequester their farms.

There could, in the future, be a stand-off between local organic farmers who used little energy to grow for their local customers, and the officially sanctioned methods of farming for unconditional maximum yield: agriculture will undoubtedly have priority for the use of whatever energy is available, and Government will use the leverage this gives them over farmers. Government insistence on intensive, large-scale, GM farming as part of a corporately run food distribution system, backed with the full power of the state, is a prospect we must try to avoid.

We need now to move fast. A mechanism, such as TEQs, for providing the framework and incentive structure for the transition needs to be put in place. Local initiatives that engage people, as transition towns are doing, are indispensable. In fact, “transition” itself is a little bit misleading. Things are not going to be as leisurely as that. The time for waiting is past. The oil peak and the climate are waiting for no-one. The shift from sustainable development to sustainable resilience is profound. It will be one of the big new story-lines in history. There have been four so far. This will be the fifth.


David Fleming is Director of the Lean Economy Connection and originator of Tradable Energy Quotas. fleming@theleaneconomyconnection.net
Lawrence Woodward is Director of the Organic Research Centre (Elm Farm) lawrence.w@efrc.com.

Appendix 1. **Lean Energy.**
The three elements of Lean Energy are:
1. Energy efficiency: to achieve the decisive improvements in the efficiency of energy-services – and corresponding reductions in the demand for energy – made possible by the conservation and energy-saving technologies.
2. Structural reform: to develop the potential for local provision of energy, goods and services, according to the “Proximity Principle”. This major advance, which is difficult but necessary, and achievable only incrementally, will build local competence across the whole range of economics and culture. Deep reductions in travel and transport can be expected to come about rapidly and brutally as the oil market breaks down; adapting to them – and crucially, preparing for them before the event – will take longer.
3. Renewable energy: to design and build renewable energy systems to match the needs and resources of the particular place and site. Renewable energy programmes should not be started until (1) and (2) have been planned, at least in outline."

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