Monday, December 6, 2010

Both Damned and Saved; or, The Inner Transition

I hope not. (source)
There are many types of transition we must go through to reach the better world we all believe -- or want to believe -- is out there. I consistently return to the conclusion that the most important, most fundamental transition, is the internal (psychological) one. Using less energy, walking and bicycling instead of driving, eating locally and more efficiently (i.e., having a higher vegetable/meat ratio), reducing waste, and composting (etc.) are all important, yet they're all insufficient. Completely. Even all together, they will not even come close to sufficing in the face of everything we know is happening in the world. To me, the true value in these actions lies not in the actions themselves, but in the mindsets or worldviews these actions help to foster. Riding a bicycle, while valuable as a money-saving, pollution-avoiding and health-promoting endeavor, to me finds its true worth in re-introducing us to the joy of using our own bodies and the beauty of the changing seasons -- and to the understanding that the fundamental crime of driving a motorized vehicle is its quiet theft of these experiences from us. It's theft, in essence, of our humanity.

When you know the joy of bicycling, the inner tranquility that a healthy diet promotes, the satisfaction of a near-empty garbage can, you begin to realize how unnecessary are so many modern "conveniences". Not just unnecessary, but actively obstructionist towards a fulfilling life. And that is when Transition becomes truly possible.

Part of the transition is facing up to very difficult facts. In an ideal world, we would have no urgency and could simply amble along the road towards a better world for the simple fact we saw it as a better world. But in the world as it is, we must, in fact, run towards this better world because the one we're leaving behind is crumbling, and threatening to take us with it. I speak, of course, of the twin drivers of the Transition Towns Movement: peak oil and climate change (with a dash of economic crisis thrown in for fun).

This particular post derives much of its motivation from two forces: a speech by Mari Margil of the PA-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) on the harsh reality of the state of the global biosphere, as well as a recent special issue of the Royal Society (the world's first scientific body) on the effects of a mere 4°C (7.2°F) of global warming, which could happen as early as 2060. As a practicing planner with an undergrad degree in math and physics, I am well aware of (a) the stark scientific case for why we're all (almost) screwed and (b) the pathetic political case for why (almost) nothing can be done about it. In a fit of depression, I wrote a short, sarcasm-rich version of this post which I have since deleted. I had made the cardinal sin of forgetting to look at things holistically -- looking only at our collapsing biosphere, I had forgotten about peak oil! You see, most of the worst-case scenarios with respect to climate change and global ocean death require something called "business-as-usual" emissions, which rely on a business-as-usual economy. Thank God for peak oil! Without growing oil consumption, the economy can't grow, and without a growing economy, emissions can't grow -- and, in fact, the prime likelihood is for some deepening economic depression that leads to global economic decline if not outright collapse; in this tangled web we call the global economy, the collapse of one major player can only lead to the collapse, sooner or later, of all the others. So we're saved! By collapse. But maybe there are other options....

It is fitting that we should be both damned and saved by our profligate use of polluting fossil fuels, particularly oil. But the extent to which we are saved rather than damned depends utterly on our willingness to make smart decisions now, while other options remain, rather than wait for the unsympathetic laws of physics to decide for us. It is a guarantee that we will not like the ways in which Mother Nature unilaterally restores the natural balance of things. I would like to believe she'd prefer us as active partners in that restoration, rather than passive victims of our own malign neglect. I know I would.

We have fallen under the influence of the strange conception that "sustainable" means "what I'm doing now, but better", where "better" means "more." What we're doing now -- collectively -- is the problem. What we desire is inconspicuous, painless incrementalism, where what we need is radical transformation. 4°C warming by 2060 -- that's a death sentence for the human race. And the fact that the only politically feasible option we have for averting that cataclysm is political collapse points to the extreme level of dysfunction we have reached as a people.

So what are the other options? I return to where I began with the imperative of the internal transition. The major problem is our expectations for the future, which are out of all sync with reality. They are also all out of sync with ourselves -- our hidden humanity. We've allowed ourselves (collectively) to be lulled into false notions of how the world is. The extent to which we are saved rather than damned depends on our ability to make this internal transition, to deny what we think we know and accept the truths of the world as it is. All else follows.

Transition Lancaster Newsletter #51, with much interesting news.

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