Thriving in Community: Surviving Peak Oil and Climate Change

Five years ago, when Community Solutions first began researching and teaching about peak oil and climate change, these problems could more easily be ignored. The disconnect between the picture we were presenting of dangerous and destructive fossil fuel dependence and people’s daily lives could be maintained. Perhaps the crisis seemed too far off in distance and time to matter here and now and, as a Brethren we know said about his religious order, "We found ourselves caught up in the pleasure of our affluence, making it easy to turn from the simplicity of our beliefs."

Today, the illusion that this comfortable life can go on forever has disappeared. The Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," is an understatement. Oil and food prices are skyrocketing as the age of cheap, abundant fossil fuels comes to an end. A global financial system that is based upon infinite growth on a finite planet is teetering, and inequity is now higher than during the Great Depression. News of water and soil depletion, deforestation, species extinction, and catastrophic climate change gets worse every day.

As the global situation deteriorates, it becomes clear that living a simple life is no longer just about living in a sustainable manner; it is about survival. It’s about taking a hard look at the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. We need to ask ourselves if we can, in good conscience, retain this extractive, industrial society that continues to exploit the Earth’s natural resources and plunder the developing world. We need to ask what kinds of solutions not only address peak oil and climate change, but create a society that is more equitable and ecologically regenerative. The solutions that address the deeper issues of global survivability and inequity are very much in line with Quaker testimonies, and they are sorely needed today.

Clearly, our over-consumptive, high energy, competitive way of life needs to become more frugal, cooperative, and low energy. We at Community Solutions have begun using the word curtailment to describe the first steps toward survivability. Curtailment means the dramatic reduction in our fossil fuel use and CO2 generation required to avoid the worst consequences of peak oil and climate change. In contrast with sustainability, curtailment recognizes that a lifestyle cannot be sustainable if it depends on a finite resource.

Fossil fuels feed us, shelter us, warm us, clothe us, transport us, and provide almost everything else we use to survive in our modern world. Consider that one gallon of gasoline is equivalent to six weeks of human labor. Daily oil use in the United States is equivalent to 20 million years of human labor. With this energy we wield a tremendously destructive power, and destroy we have—slowly, over the years—with seemingly trivial decisions about how to provide for our needs and fulfill our desires. Curtailment is about reviewing our consumption, determining what we really need, and cutting the rest.

How far do we need to curtail? By 2050, with a global population projected to be about nine to ten billion, we must keep annual CO2 emissions at or below ten billion tonnes a year to curb rising temperatures. This means we will only be able to emit a maximum of one tonne of CO2 per person per year. Currently we in the United States emit 20 tonnes per person annually; in Europe the figure is ten tonnes, and the world average is four tonnes. So the United States must reduce its fossil fuel use by 80 to 90 percent for a decline in CO2 emissions to be shared equitably. That’s four to five percent per year, every year. We will not accomplish this just by changing our light bulbs or driving a hybrid car—we need a deep and ongoing transformation in the way we live.

Although such a transition is a necessity, thankfully it can also be an improvement over our current way of life. Despite the incredible hardships associated with a 90 percent reduction in energy use, our lives may be happier, healthier, and more fulfilling. We’ll replace consumerism with community, manufactured food with locally grown and processed food, driving with more walking and biking, and competition with cooperation. In a community, we fill our lives with valued relationships rather than valued possessions.

Living in a community is about finding a more viable and sustainable way to provide for our needs as the fossil-fuel-fed global industrial system crumbles. We have to redevelop resilience, or the ability of our communities to withstand outside shocks, by meeting our most essential needs closer to home. In terms of our finances, we can no longer put our money into the global growth system as it undermines its own ability to continue, and thus provide returns to us. Instead, we need to invest our resources locally in the people, businesses, and technologies that directly sustain us and will sustain generations to come. This includes participating in such ventures as community-supported agriculture, community-owned renewable energy systems, and small business incubators, as well as building social capital, so that "when things get hard," as deep ecologist Joanna Macy recently said, "we won’t, in fear, turn on each other."

Arthur Morgan, a Quaker who founded Community Solutions nearly 70 years ago, talked about the most important kind of community as small and local. Small refers to a more realistic scale of human habitation, which is less centralized and operates more as a web of interconnections among people, allowing more meaningful relationships to develop. Our species has lived in small, decentralized groups of a few dozen to a few hundred people for 99.5 percent of its existence, so this is a way of living for which we are well suited. Local refers to living close to those with whom we have economic relations.

Part of the reason we allow our daily economic decisions to contribute to the ecological devastation of the planet and the growing misery of the world’s poor is that we are separated from this other reality by distance. Everything and everyone who provides us with what we need to survive is an abstraction. We consume brand names, disconnected from the resources and people involved in creating the products. If we could see the abused workers toiling on industrial farms and in sweatshops, and the falling forests and scarred landscapes, we could not morally continue to treat them with such disregard, nor continue to consume as we do.

By redeveloping local, face-to-face economic relationships, we will come to have more respect for and interest in those who provide our necessities. In turn, they will make sure that our health and safety are provided for. This mutual relationship will serve to improve everyone’s well-being, and that of our planet, as people who depend upon local production become more aware that they depend on the health and balance of the natural world. Quakers have a long history of standing up for fair wages and safe working conditions, and a return to local production for local consumption could give new life to Quaker beliefs and actions.

Community—and life—is about intimate interdependence. The more we separate things—production from consumption and producers from consumers—and the more we hide the reality of the consequences of our decisions from our everyday life, the more we create an illusory world. When we forget the connections and presume they’re not there, it is more difficult to come back to the real world. At its root, community is about re-connecting with each other and with nature, and relearning the relationships that sustain us, physically and spiritually.

What does decentralization mean practically? By small, local community, Arthur Morgan meant small towns to be sure, but urban neighborhoods can also function as small communities. Many people point out that urban areas are denser so that less transportation is needed and mass transit is more practical. But this very same density means that urban areas are without access to sufficient land to grow the food people living there need, so food and other resources must be brought in from elsewhere. There is also a problem of disposing such a quantity of concentrated wastes elsewhere. In today’s world, rural areas face long-distance transportation problems. However, there is land for food, water, and energy procurement, as well as waste recycling. Due to these factors, and the increasing amount of labor needed for sustainable agriculture and other land-based economic activities as fossil fuels decline, re-ruralization around small towns with a high degree of regional interdependency will be the most likely form of development during this century. The small towns of today may be the future economic powerhouses and vibrant cultural centers for an agrarian revival.

Community is about sharing, conserving, and living with our local resources—which we acknowledge as scarce—rather than competing over, consuming, and destroying seemingly abundant global resources. But the values of community transmitted through interdependent living are critical in helping us through the coming challenges—values such as co-operation, moderation, frugality, charity, mutual aid, confidence, trust, courtesy, integrity, and loyalty. In community living, risks and opportunities are shared, relationships are the highest priority, and there is intimate personal acquaintance.

In contrast, think of some of the non-community values prevalent today, and their role in creating or exacerbating the crisis at hand—individualism, selfishness, comfort, convenience, and indulgence. Wealth accumulation is the highest priority, not relationships. We have less intimacy or intimacy with fewer people. A study done in the United States showed that from 1980 to 2004 the typical number of "close confidants" people reported had dropped from three to two and the number of people without any close confidants had more than doubled.

Author and farmer Wendell Berry calls the dominant system the "global economic party," and he contrasts it with what he calls the "community party." He says that the global party is self-aware, highly organized, small in number, and increasingly powerful. The community party is just becoming aware of itself. Although it’s small and weak, it is potentially numerous and latently powerful. Instead of lamenting the power the global economic party has, let’s spend our precious time and energy developing the community party’s potential.

Our potential is best exemplified in models of what’s possible. We need models at every scale, in every community. One important model is Cuba. While consuming one-eighth the energy of the average person in the United States, Cubans have the same lifespan, a lower infant mortality rate, a higher literacy rate, and more teachers and doctors per capita. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund identified Cuba as the only sustainable nation in the world because of its low resource use combined with a high level of well-being. Cuba is proof that we can live well with less, but it will require a greater degree of sharing and co-operation.

We all need to step forward in this time of global crisis, creating and disseminating models of local, low-energy living. It begins first in our own lives—in our personal and household energy consumption. Underscoring this universal argument is the inscription on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey from the year 1100 C.E. It says:

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.

But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.

And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.

This article is edited from a presentation to the International Conference on Peak Oil and Climate Change, Grand Rapids, Mich., June 1, 2008.

Megan Quinn Bachman

Megan Quinn Bachman is the outreach director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which provides knowledge and practices to support low-energy lifestyles. Its new book, Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, and more information on its programs are available at http://www.communitysolution .org.