By Dave Bennett
Survival is a universal topic of discussion these days, given clearly evident faltering economies, climate change and rapidly diminishing resources.
Three recent books offer guidance from seemingly disparate authors. Cy Gonick -- editor of Canadian Dimension magazine -- has assembled a well-ordered series of essays which provide a Canadian context on these crucial and relevant topics.
Sharon Astyk is a Shakespearian scholar turned farmer; Pat Murphy, is a computer scientist who became an activist and builder of homes engineered to consume low energy.
Astyk focuses on family, which she ultimately extends to all humanity. Murphy traces the historical roots of consumption from the time of the Roman Empire, making his point that the nature of imperial power is to pillage the resources of subjected peoples, and that modern America is no exception.
Both Astyk and Murphy write with prophetic zeal. The authors foresaw the crises in global warming and financial chaos. They offer -- from different perspectives -- practical guidance on ways to alleviate our predicament, coming to the same conclusion: We stand or fall together. Survival in hard times is -- has always been -- a matter of living together in community.
Energy Security and Climate Change A Canadian Primer edited by Cy Gonick - Fernwood Publishing / Canadian Dimension 2007
Gonick’s book is divided in two parts, one focused on Peak Oil, the other on Climate Change. Richard Heinberg defines the difference in his article, Bridging Peak Oil and Climate Change Activism: “The first has more to do directly with the environment, the second with human society and its dependencies and vulnerabilities.”
Petr Cizek sets the stage with Scouring Tar and Scum from the Bottom of the Pit
In a section headed “The Tar Sands Appalling Impact” Cizek lists some of the costs: “Around Fort McMurray, over 430 square kilometers of boreal forest have been eradicated....[M]ining operations are already licensed to divert 349 cubic metres of water per year from the Athabaska river...” Other revealing sections are headed “Follow the Money” and “Buying the Environmental Movement.”
The other essay titles are self-explanatory: Fudging the Numbers: [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s Response (Dale Marshall), The Corporate Climate Coup (David F. Noble), Climate Change and Energy Security for Canadians (Gordon Laxer) and finally, A Twelve-Step Program to Combat Climate Change (Cy Gonick & Brendan Haley)
Plan C - Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change by Pat Murphy (New Society Publishers – Sept. 2008)
Pat Murphy addresses American readers who have swallowed the myths of Manifest Destiny; but there is much that the rest of us can learn and identify with.
The book begins with the statement, "We are facing multiple world grave crises -- peak oil, climate change, inequity and species extinction. to name just a few. When I began this book our situation was very serious. Now it is life threatening."
He defines Peak Oil as “the term used to describe the point in time at which oil production reaches the maximum and then begins to decline. After 140 years the world has consumed about half the oil available. In the next 40-50 years all the oil in the earth will have been burned."
Plan C’s strength is in its powerful graphics and its compelling logic. Throughout the book, he presents charts and diagrams in support of his arguments. He builds his case systematically as one would expect from a computer scientist and engineer.
Murphy traces the North American sense of entitlement to the arrogance of earlier imperialists, pointing out that “It is the nature of aggressive empires to see themselves as benefactors and saviors of the people whom they conquer...The greed is good economic theory, maintained with nearly religious fervor, has tended to create extremes of wealth and poverty along with unsustainable environmental destruction.”
Murphy faults the consuming lifestyle “promoted and controlled by corporate owned mass media...To gain the wisdom to survive the dual crisis of peak oil and climate change, we may have to abandon our media habit....All teach consumption, competition and violence and tend to make us think along the lines that support a corporate consumer agenda.”
Having set up some major targets, Murphy then explains his title, Plan C. He reviews and discusses the options:
Plan A: Business as Usual (‘The growth-oriented paradigm obsessed with technology.’)
Plan B: Clean Green Technology (‘Cleaner technology is available, it just needs to be deployed.’)
Plan D : Die Off (‘Die off of the race or a drastic population decline.’)
Plan C: Curtailment and Community (The first priority...is to drastically reduce consumption.’)
In tracing the roots environmental destruction Murphy writes, "Undoubtedly one of the most destructive is the private automobile...The car is more than a mode of transportation -- it defines America's homes and communities. The car has formed our physical communities through suburban sprawl and to a great extent destroyed our social communities. Although the car supposedly represents freedom and independence, it may be the greatest creator of alienation between humans that has ever existed."
He sets out to demonstrate how all of the dreams of technical solutions -- from hydrogen fuel cells to battery power -- are in the remote future or too costly in terms of the fossil energy required to create them. In a later chapter he proposes what he calls ‘the Smart Jitney,’ based on the existing pool of cars and augmented by high-tech computer and GPS links. He contends that “The Smart Jitney can replace the private cars, help restore community and reduce emissions substantially.”
Murphy's chapter The Energy Impact of Buildings is stunning. He reveals that “The energy used and CO2 generated by the automobile or food production is much less than the energy consumed by US buildings...[and] we must not forget that a building is a container for a large number of machines that use energy.” He makes suggestions for retrofitting and replacement, which he admits may be expensive and force hard choices, a case of ‘pay now or pay later.’
Murphy takes pains to define the various meanings of Community. He points out that “community cohesion is not likely to be restored by simply calling for cooperation in our present affluent and individualistic society...Once conditions cause people to come together locally to cooperatively organize their own economic affairs and together deal with the issues of survival,”
The question is: Can we do it, and can we do it in time?
Depletion and Abundance, Life on the Home Front - Coming to Terms With Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times by Sharon Astyk (New Society Publishers – Sept. 2008)
Astyk begins her book by reminding us of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. This becomes a recurring metaphor: We can’t expect that those in authority will act appropriately, even if -- as was actually the case -- they had ample warning but chose to take refuge in denial. We must “take things into our own hands and prepare for the changes at hand.” If we are warned of hard times ahead, the best thing we can do is plan a way to deal with this, even if it is only to get a map of escape routes. Her book is such a map. It is also a chronicle of how she enlisted her family, including four young sons, to the cause.
Astyk’s sweep is wide, with topics ranging from finances and health care to politics and resource wars, all in the context of family and community.
She writes, “The hard times I am talking about do not lie in the conveniently distant future, but have begun already...And many of our problems are going to continue getting worse because we lack either the will or the money or the energy or the time to fix them.”
Astyk describes her despair of finding solutions until she “began looking for solutions that could be applied on the level of ordinary human lives, that involved changes in pulling together, the reclamation of abandoned ideas, and the restoration of strong communities, I began to feel hopeful, even excited...”
She transmits her fervour honestly with wit and wisdom. Her style is often anecdotal, sometimes confessional and seems to emerge organically from her vantage points as mother, feminist, scholar and deeply spiritual person. She doesn’t just pay lip service to saving the planet. Her whole family is involved, from the teenagers to the toddler.
The targets Astyk sets up have to do with setting goals for practical solutions -- some easy, some difficult. She reveals these by describing her family’s journey into voluntary simplicity and what she calls the subsistence economy, pointing out that subsistence is not necessarily the same as poverty.
“Poor agrarian societies generally have stronger social ties. In many cases, people who live in simpler economies, enticed with fewer things they can’t have, report themselves to be happier,”
Astyk writes with a genuine moral fervour that is hard to ignore. She closes her book with these words: “Peak Oil is not about petroleum geology or economics when you get right down to it. Climate Change is not about ice cores and meteorology. These things matter but they aren’t the center of things. Peak Oil and Climate Change are about justice, plain and simple. They are about fairness, morality and integrity -- we in the rich world have chosen to steal from the poor in our own country and other nations and from our children and grandchildren and we need to stop it right now.”
All three books are superb guides and reference works for thoughtful people who choose to survive in a world of diminishing resources.
Dave Bennett created many films about the environment, and spent some years in the Third World, where he learned about the benefits of a subsistence economy as well as the traps of poverty. Now retired, he lives with his wife in Belleville, Ontario, Canada.