Editor’s note: This has been published simultaneously on The Automatic Earth
There appears to be increasing levels of anxiety among environmental activists around the world and in my own community. After all, temperature records are being set at a pace equaled only to that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. A recent Google news headline said it all: “May is the 8th consecutive month to break global temperature records.”
In other words, October of last year set a record for the highest recorded global monthly temperature, and then it was bettered by November, which was bettered by December, January, and on through May. The hot streak is like that of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France dominance, but we all know how that turned out in the end.
Making history – like the Irish rugby side in South Africa just over two weeks ago – is usually a time to celebrate. Setting a world record would normally mean jubilation – not so when it comes to climate.
Responses to temperature records range from sorrow, despair, anger, and even fury. Anyone with children or grandchildren (and even the childless) who believes in peer review and an overwhelming scientific consensus has every right to feel these emotions. So why do I feel only resignation?
We are so far down the track at this point that we are dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t. Remember the warnings 30 years ago that we needed 30 years to make the transition to a low carbon economy or else there would be dire consequences? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention, it didn’t happen.
While these warnings were being issued by scientists much of the world doubled down – Trump-like – on Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, and other sport utility vehicles. The same appears to be happening now, with the added element that we are experiencing the dire consequences as scientists issue even more warnings and drivers buy even more ‘light trucks’. Forget Paris, the writing was on the wall at Copenhagen.
The bottom line is that most people will (and currently do) experience climate change as a quality of life issue, and quality of life is related to a certain extent on disposable income. Acting or not acting proactively or reactively on climate change is expensive and gets more expensive everyday.
If the international community ever takes collective action on climate change it will make individuals poorer because the cost of energy will rise significantly. If the international community fails to act, individuals will be made poorer because of the devastating effects of extreme weather events – like last year’s historic floods where I live as well as northern England, etc – shown to be on the increase over the last 40 years in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers with verifiable data.
And here is the worst part: most economies around the world rely on some combination of moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels. For example, our local economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it exceptionally vulnerable to both acting and not acting on climate change.
Drought hurts rural economies and extreme winds and rainfall can cost millions in crop damage as well as repairs to fencing, tracks and roads. As a result, both farmers and ratepayers have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family trip. This is alongside living in a degraded environment post-disaster. The net result is a negative impact on quality of life: damned if we don’t.
On the other hand, tourism relies on inexpensive jet fuel and petrol to get the sightseers and thrill seekers to and around the world with enough dollars left over to slosh around local economies. Think about all of the service sector jobs that rely on tourism that in turn depend entirely on a continuous supply of cheap fuel. (This is not to mention peak oil and the lack of finance available to fund any long and expensive transition to an alternative energy world.) I’m told 70% of US jobs are in the service sector, most of which rely on inexpensive commuting and/or a highly mobile customer base.
Any significant approach to curbing carbon emissions in the short term will result in drastic increases to energy prices. The higher the cost of a trip from A to Z the less likely it is to be made. As a result, business owners and ratepayers at Z will have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family vacation of their own. The net result is a negative impact on their quality of life: damned if we do.
I suppose it deserves repeating: most OECD economies and the quality of life they bring rely on both moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels, but these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, regardless of emissions decisions made by the international community, we are already on track for decades of temperature records and extreme weather events that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars.
The response in many parts of the world has been to protest. That’s cool, but you cant’ protest a drought – the drought does not care. You can’t protest a flood – the flood does not care. And even if the protests are successful at influencing government policies – which I hope long-term they are – we are still on track for decades to climatic volatility and the massive price tags for clean up and repair.
Resilience is where it’s at
Go ahead and protest, people, but you better get your house in order at the same time, and that means build resilience in every way, shape and form.
Resilience is the name of the game, and I was impressed with Kyrie Irving’s post NBA game seven remarks that the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated great resilience as a team.
As I wrote for The Automatic Earth over a year ago, resilience is the new black. If you don’t get it you’re not paying attention. http://www.theautomaticearth.com/2015/05/resilience-is-the-new-black/
This article received a wide range of responses from those with incomplete understandings of the situation as well as those in denial – both positions dangerous for their owners as well as friends and neighbours.
The double bind we find ourselves in by failing to address the issue three decades ago is a challenge to put it mildly. Smart communities recognize challenges and respond accordingly. The best response is to develop resilience in the following areas: ecological, equity, energy and economic.
The first two of these I call the “Pope Index” because Francis has identified climate change and wealth inequality as the greatest challenges facing humanity. Applying the Pope Index to decision-making is easy – simply ask yourself if decisions made in your community aggravate climates change and wealth inequality or alleviates them.
For the next two – energy and economic – I take more of a Last hours of ancient sunlight (credit, Thom Hartmann) perspective that I think is embraced by many practicing permaculturists. Ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) is on its way out and if we do not use some to build resilient infrastructure on our properties and in our communities it will all be burned by NASCAR, which in my opinion would be a shame.
As time passes, everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable and approach worthlessness. On the other hand, investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable as the years pass. Additionally, the knowledge, skills and experience gained while developing resilience are the ultimate in ‘job security’ for an increasingly volatile future.
If you know it and can do it and can teach it you’ll be sweet. If not, get onto it before it’s too late.
Sustainability is so 2007. Those were the heady days before the Global Financial Crisis, before $2-plus/litre petrol here in New Zealand, before the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit, before the Christchurch earthquakes, before the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA)…the list continues.
Since 2008, informed conversations on the economy, the environment, and energy have shifted from ‘sustainability’ to ‘resilience’. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this shift, but I’ll focus on just two: undeniable trends and a loss of faith. Let me explain.
Since 2008, most of the pre-existing trends in income inequality, extreme weather events and energy price volatility have ramped up. Sustainability is about halting and reversing these trends, but there is essentially no evidence of that type of progress, and in fact the data shows the opposite.
Plenty of quantitative data exists for the last seven years to document these accelerated trends, the most obvious is the continually widening gap between rich and poor everyone else. The second wave of commentary on the Baltimore riots (after the superficiality of the mainstream media) has been about the lack of economic activity and opportunity in many of the largely African-American neighbourhoods. Tensions have been simmering for years (decades) and overzealous police activity appears to have been just been the spark. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read The Spirit Level, or any similar research on the correlation between wealth inequality and social problems.
You can only push people so far before they crack. For residents of Baltimore’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods the inequities are obvious. People are not dumb. We can see the writing on the wall, and know for the most part that government on every level has not taken significant steps to embrace sustainability be it economic, environmental or social . To me it seems we are running on the fumes of debt on all three: over-extended financially on nearly all levels; over-extended on carbon emissions (and post oil peak); and a powder keg of social unrest waiting for a tipping point.
Which brings me to my second point: a loss of faith.
For most of my adult life I have banged the drum for sustainability. I don’t anymore. Sustainability is about voluntarily balancing three factors: human needs, environmental health, and economic viability. My observation is that it has been a failed movement and that the conversation has naturally shifted to resilience.
These observations do not come casually. I have worked full-time in the environmental/sustainability/resilience field for twenty-five years and I have a PhD in science and sustainability education.
Dennis Meadows, a well-known scientist who has been documenting unsustainable trends for over 40 years puts it this way:
The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.
This is the same quote that Illargi recently highlighted here at The Automatic Earth. Clearly it resonated with me.
This is not to say we cannot and should not be proactive. It is more about where we direct our ‘proactions.’ Being proactive about resilience means protecting one’s self, one’s family, and one’s community from the trends that make us vulnerable economically, socially and environmentally, as well as to sudden shocks to the system.
The recent earthquake in Nepal is another reminder of the critical importance of resilience. Before that it was Christchurch and Fukushima. In the wake of earthquakes we often hear about a lack of food and water in the effected area, along with disruptions to energy supplies in the wider region. In Nepal these have lead to significant social unrest.
Whether it is Kathmandu over the last month or New Orleans after Katrina, we know that we cannot count on “the government” for significant assistance in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Along the same lines, we cannot count on governments to protect us from unnatural disasters such as the TPPA and TTIP.
Whether it is a potential earthquake or the next mega-storm and flood, the more prepared (ie, resilient) we are the better we will get through. Even rising energy prices and the probable effects of the TPPA will siphon off money from our city and exacerbate social problems in our communities.
In most cases, the same strategies that contribute to resilience also contribute to a more ‘sustainable’ lifestyle. But where for most people sustainability is largely abstract and cerebral, resilience is more tangible. Perhaps that’s why more and more people are gravitating toward it.
Resilience is the new black.
A resilient home is one that protects its occupants’ health and wealth. From this perspective, the home would have adequate insulation, proper curtaining, Energy Star appliances, energy-efficient light bulbs, and an efficient heater. By investing in these things we protect our family’s health as well as future-proofing our power bills. Come what may, we are likely to weather the storm.
Beyond the above steps, a resilient household also collects rainwater, grows some of its own food, and has back-up systems for cooking and heating. When we did up an abandoned villa in Castlecliff, Whanganui, we included a 1,000 litre rain water tank, three independent heat sources, seven different ways to cook (ok, I got a little carried away), and a property brimming with fresh fruit and vege. These came on top of a warm, dry, home and a power bill of $27 per month. (We did it all for about half the cost of an average home in the city.)
A loss of power and water for two or three days would hardly be noticeable. A doubling of electricity or fresh vege prices would be a blip on the radar. During the record cold week in 2011 our home was heated for free by sunshine.
Sustainability may be warm and fuzzy, but resilience gets down to the brass tacks.
Above all else, I am deeply practical and conservative. The questions I ask are: does it work?; is it affordable?; can I fix it myself?; and, importantly, is it replicable? Over the last decade I have developed highly resilient properties in North America and New Zealand. All of these properties have been shared as examples of holistic, regenerative permaculture design and management. We have shared our experience locally using open-homes, workshops and property tours, as well as globally through the internet.
When the proverbial hits the fan, which all the trends tell us will happen, I know that I have done my best to help my family and community weather any storm be it a typhoon, an earthquake, rising energy prices, or the TPPA.