“We are entering the tough terrain of an unforgiving new century. But there is a path forward,” says Jones in this excerpt from Greg Pahl’s book, Power from the People.
This book rests an optimistic message on a pessimistic premise.
The sobering underlying thesis is that human civilization is already in big trouble—both ecologically and economically. And things are set to get much worse. The hopeful underlying message is that we still have the capacity to pull good outcomes from even the most frightening scenarios.
The paradox is this: Only by recognizing how much worse things can get can we muster the energy and creativity to win a better future. In that regard, the book you hold in your hands is not just an action guide; it is a survival guide.
The Bad News Is Very Bad
At this late date, there is no point in mincing words about the impending series of calamities. The global production of oil will soon peak, ending forever the era of cheap crude. The resulting price spikes and fuel shortages could throw all of industrial society into an ugly death spiral. Worse still: We have seen only the earliest examples of the kind of biblical disasters—the super-storms, wildfires, floods, and droughts—that climate experts predict are in the pipeline, even if we cease all carbon emissions immediately.
The polar ice caps haven’t melted yet; if they do, they will send temperatures and sea levels soaring, forcing us to redraw every coastal map in the world. Even under the friendliest scenarios, we will likely see food systems disrupted, life-sustaining fuels priced beyond reach for many, and our health challenged as tropical super-bugs invade formerly temperate climes. On a hotter planet, we could face the choice between water rationing and water riots. As stressful as the present moment is, worse times are possible—and even likely.
At the same time, the majority of the world’s people now live in cities. And though cities cover only 2 percent of Earth’s surface, they already consume 75 percent of the planet’s natural resources. As more people continue crowding into cities, that figure will climb even higher, which means urban areas have become the main driver in the ecological crisis. Many cities are sinkholes of human suffering, especially for a marginalized population of low-income earners and people of color. And in the United States, the word urban has become synonymous with the word problem. Many urban neighborhoods are plagued by economic desperation, violence, pollution, and crumbling infrastructure.
Climate change and the economic and equity crises of our communities may appear to have little in common, but they share a key determining factor—namely, our near-complete dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas. The carbon dioxide produced by driving our vehicles, heating (and cooling) our homes, and lighting our cities with fossil fuels is the main culprit behind climate change. Meanwhile, that same dependence on fossil fuels sucks billions of dollars every year out of communities across America, with the poorest households often hit hardest.
But what if we found ways to power our homes, businesses, factories, and vehicles that didn’t warm the planet, that kept local dollars circulating in local economies, and that even created local jobs? What if we spread those climate-friendly, local-economy-boosting, job-creating ideas to every city and town across the country?
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
It is too late for us to avert all of the negative consequences of 150 years of ecological folly and resource wastefulness. Our challenge is to begin implementing real changes, rapidly and from the bottom up. Certain bills are coming due, and certain chickens are coming home to roost, no matter what we do. But there are steps we can take to cushion the blow.
We must prepare ourselves (and our communities) for the worst possible outcomes. In considering the most pessimistic scenarios, we must talk less about economic growth and more about economic resilience; less about abundance and more about sufficiency; less about sustainability and more about survivability. It may be wise to consciously deploy our forces in a three- pronged, “trident” formation: some of us fixing the system from the inside, some of us pressuring the system from the outside, and some of us exercising the “lifeboat” option, thinking up alternative strategies for survival.
Power from the People is rare, because it gives some guidance on all three around the most important component of that system: energy.
You’ll read about courageous local government leaders finding creative ways to invest in local renewable energy; citizen activists pushing for (and winning) smarter regulations for green power; and entire communities taking matters into their own hands to prepare for an energy-scarcer future. Throughout the stories here, from both urban and rural communities, you’ll find a common theme all too often missing from the sustainability conversation: local prosperity . Local renewable energy is the heart of the new energy economy because it is the most obvious starting point for creating green jobs and generating local wealth. Local renewable energy puts the power in local empowerment.
By itself, however, even the most advanced local energy initiative can do little about our energy and environmental crises. Local actions must be multiplied to the level of movements . . . and nations.
Can America summon the strength, courage, and resolve to avert disaster and usher in a new age of sustainable prosperity? Both the ideas and the constituencies exist to turn the corner. We need a hard-hat-and-lunch- bucket brand of environmentalism . . . a we-can-fix-it environmentalism . . . a muscular, can-do environmentalism. We need a pro-ecology movement with its sleeves rolled up and its tool belt strapped on. We need a social uplift environmentalism that can fight poverty and pollution at the same time—by creating green-collar jobs for low-income people and displaced workers.
The time has come to birth a positive, creative, and powerful environmentalism, one deeply rooted in the lives, values, and needs of millions of ordinary people who work every day (or desperately wish they could).
We need an environmental movement that can put millions of people back to work, giving them the tools and the technologies they need to retrofit, re-engineer, and reboot the nation’s energy, water, and waste systems. Green-collar jobs can restore hope and opportunity to America’s failing middle-class and low-income families while honoring and healing the Earth. Those new jobs could create a ladder up and out of poverty for jobless urban residents. Under even the most depressing of scenarios, there certainly will be economic opportunities and green-collar jobs—from building dikes and levees and reconstructing devastated structures to installing community-owned wind turbines and operating renewable biofuel factories using regional feedstocks. The United States can fight global warming, energy scarcity, and poverty in the same stroke.
With 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States now produces 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution. It also locks up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in its domestic incarceration industry. Those numbers document the notion that too many U.S. business and political lead- ers govern as if we have both a disposable planet and disposable people.
As the new green economy springs to life, will we live in eco-equity or eco-apartheid? Will clean and green business flourish only in the rich, white parts of town? Will our kids be left to deal with the toxic wastes of polluting industries, the life-threatening diseases that decimate polluted communities, and the crushing lack of economic opportunity as the old polluting economy goes bust? How we answer these questions will impact the fate of billions of people.
On this crowded planet, we have responsibilities that extend beyond our national borders. Therefore, it is good to be a global citizen. But we must never forget: The very best gift that we can give to the world is a better America. The peoples of the world want and need our country to set a global example for human and environmental rights while being a global partner for peace and progress.
We are entering the tough terrain of an unforgiving new century. But there is a path forward. It is narrow and treacherous, but it leads to the best possible outcome for the largest number of people. And it starts with developing local renewable energy.
This excerpt appeared on AlterNet on August 21, 2012 .