Above photo: Steve Adams on Unsplash.
The Great Disruption
Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands. It all gets to be too much. We have just experienced the hottest summer in what is almost sure to be the hottest year on record. It seems a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see a street turning into a river or a wildfire consuming a landscape. Even as climate pollution levels and fossil fuel use reach new peaks. Whatever the world is doing to address the climate crisis, it is falling far short.
It’s not just climate. We face a profound crisis of global ecosystems. We have undoubtedly reached what has long been projected, ecological overshoot in which the human population outruns the capacity of the planet to support it. Humanity has already transgressed 7 of 8 safe and just boundaries beyond which the resilience of Earth systems and human societies are threatened, Earth Commission scientists reported in May. (The commission represents an alliance of major world research institutions.) Almost every aspect of the planet – atmosphere, waters, land, and biodiversity – is being pushed over the line by human activities.
“Humanity is well into the Anthropocene, the proposed new geological epoch where human pressures have put the Earth system on a trajectory moving rapidly away from the stable Holocene state of the past 12,000 years, which is the only state of the Earth system we have evidence of being able to support the world as we know it. These rapid changes to the Earth system undermine critical life-support systems with significant societal impacts already felt, and they could lead to triggering tipping points that irreversibly destabilize the Earth system.”
Meanwhile, politically and socially, the world is moving opposite of where it should be moving. Where we as a human species should be coming together to address the massive crises barreling down on us, we are instead moving further apart. We still live in a world driven by conflict and competition when our increasing powers as a species demand a greater emphasis on cooperation and mutuality. Great powers descend into deeper conflict, posing a risk of nuclear war that is perhaps the greatest in history. At a national level in the U.S., political divides are widening, with whole regions moving in starkly different directions. A kind of political tribal warfare seems to prevail. How the 2024 presidential election does not intensify this to a breaking point is hard to see. And the result could undermine climate progress that has been made in recent years.
The whole picture sets off ravaging waves of emotions – frustration, disgust, despair – which I know I share with many. We feel grief for the world, and anger at a global system that seems impervious to change on the needed scale. Simply for emotional survival, to function day to day, many of us try to avoid what we feel and focus on our personal lives. The other night, having dinner with friends, one said, “I think all of us at some level feel a sense of doom.” Apocalyptic expectations are rampant. Many believe some form of mass civilizational collapse is inevitable.
The fundamental fact of our lives, unique in the existence of humanity, is that we face a time of great disruption at our own hands. (It may be that our species almost went extinct in the past due to supervolcano eruptions. But this time we’re doing it to ourselves.) Paul Gilding wrote a book by that title back in 2011, predicting that climate disruption would wake us up and cause mass change. He recently did an update at his blog. “We can now expect a destabilization of the global climate system at a scale that is so chaotic, unpredictable and costly, it will trigger cascading disruptive change in the global economy, national politics, investment markets and geopolitical security.” But he still hits an optimistic note. “I have no doubt that, even in the coming chaos, we can choose to turn this around.”
Yet as we have seen, it is beyond climate to the entire condition of the biosphere, a product of the exponential increase in human powers. Those same powers have given us weapons with which we can destroy ourselves. Humanity has been on the track to this great disruption for a long time, at least since the 1950s when the consumer society took off. Graphs show increasing consumption driven by accelerating energy use tilting to near vertical around 1950, while technologies from the H-bomb to mass computerization began to spread. Today, humanity is opening multiple Pandora’s Boxes in fields ranging from biotech to artificial intelligence.
What To Do?
I have to confess, sometimes this all makes me want to give up. But I know I can’t. I don’t see how I could live as a human being if I did. But where do you grab hold of such a system? Where do you begin to make changes that have some possibility to turn this around?
Recently, taking in the news of this summer’s climate extremes, I paced around my apartment, waving my hands, asking, “What do you say to such a world?” I am the son of a doctor, a great family physician who truly cared for his patients, one of the last of the old school predating corporate medicine. He ran a sole practice operating out of a rowhouse in a gritty Pennsylvania industrial city. We are our parents’ children, and from my father’s side I have inherited a drive to seek a diagnosis and offer a prescription. This is what motivates my writing. But what is the cure for this seemingly intractable global situation, out of the hands of any one person or group of people? Who am I to offer anything to get us out of this big global mess?
Sometimes the subconscious provides an answer, and not too long after my pacing, in early morning sitting doing a household task, sewing actually, a phrase came to mind. “Building the future in place.” So I googled it in quotation marks. A couple of seconds and 2.8 billion searches later came the result: “Nothing matches that description.”
I found that a bit surprising. The idea of working for sustainability at local and regional levels is widespread. It is a theme that has often recurred in life, through my years of activism and journalism working on a range of issues, from making cities greener and more sustainable, to preserving forests, to building climate solutions models in cities and states. It is why I identify myself as a Cascadian bioregionalist, and have repeatedly returned to the idea of grassroots action in this web journal.
So the idea was not new. But my google search, and the way it popped out into my own mental foreground, indicated it needs a new emphasis. That is where I will be turning this journal in coming times. This is a refinement based on two key insights.
First, we must recognize, as the planetary boundaries study and the escalation of climate extremes tells us, that we have in many ways already crossed the line. As Gilding notes, we cannot avoid this great disruption. We are already well into it, and will have to live with the consequences through the rest of our lives. This is the furthest thing from giving up and slipping into despair. Instead, it is an instruction for the future. We need to both batten down the hatches for the upheavals that coming, and meanwhile in our actions do what we can to slow the momentum and turn the tide. We need first of all to do this in the communities where we live.
Second, we need to understand why these issues seem so intractable, why this system seems so unresponsive to necessary changes at global and national scales. Because the great disruption is deep rooted in our societies and economies. It is as close to us as the communities in which we live, in the systems that surround us. Here is our leverage point, where we can begin to unravel this seemingly impermeable fabric and begin to weave a new cloth. If transformation of the entire global system seems hopelessly beyond reach, it can begin in small and sometimes simple ways here at home. Action is the antidote to despair, and we need to act where we can, in the places and communities where we live. This is where democratic possibilities are greatest, and the capture of governing institutions by special interests easiest to dislodge.
Building Strong Places
Two words are often used in connection with this concept, resilience and adaptation. But neither is entirely adequate. Resilience indicates the ability to snap back into form after a blow. But many aspects of our system should not return to their existing form. They should change and adapt. But adaptation, indicating the ability to roll with the punches, can have the connotation of simply adjusting to change without addressing the situations forcing change. This is why climate advocates long resisted discussion of adaptation, even though that is changing. The word that I believes describes the kind of communities we want to create as we build the future in place is strong. Strong places. Strong communities, strong enough to both weather the blows and make the transformative changes that will reduce their intensity by addressing the underlying causes.
I am inspired in this regard by the Strong Towns group that is addressing many of these issues from the urbanist standpoint of housing and transportation. This is only one of many groups that is working on the many pieces of this puzzle. As this new emphasis unfolds, I will seek to uncover who is doing the best work in these areas, who is offering resources for change. In fact, it is heartening how many place-based initiatives are happening, often under the radar. There is no need for wheel reinvention, just for bringing together the whole picture in a way that inspires our sense of the possibilities for change. Bringing attention to underreported initiatives and drawing out how they might be woven together are contributions I intend to make.
Weaving is a good metaphor for this. Building the future in place envisions bringing together an ecosystem of community-based institutions and public policies that meets human needs and balances our relations within the natural world. It involves weaving together community initiatives and advocacy campaigns that now often operate in separate compartments to create a coherent politics, built around deep-rooted, place-based movements informed by comprehensive visions for transformative change at local and bioregional scales. It starts where markets and the system are failing, prioritizing communities and people who are being failed the most. In the process, it fills the greatest need now existing in our society, for community. In a fractured world where increasing disruptions can be expected, we need to somehow find our way back to human social solidarity, to being good neighbors.
Much of this thinking goes under the rubric of municipalism, and these are models worthy of study from Jackson, Mississippi to Barcelona, Spain. (My friend, Valerie Costa, did a blog post on why the municipalist experiment in Barcelona drew her to study there.) Municipal organizing is part of the picture, but we need something broader, strong local movements that network at a bioregional scale, ultimately linking across states, nations and the world to spur transformation at larger levels. Murray Bookchin, one of the progenitors of municipalism, had similar ideas. I deliberately do not use the term higher levels, because that signifies a hierarchy in what really is a distributed form, much like the mycelial networks of fungi that link trees through the forest floor. The strongest centers will be metropolitan areas with large progressive populations, and states with progressive majorities. But rural organizing is also vital, especially for breaking down the divides that rise like walls across our society.
The crises facing us, and the fact that the global system has not responded adequately, are spurring a plethora or new ideas for organizing society. One that has recently surged is the concept of degrowth. The basic idea is reduced material consumption oriented to meeting essential human needs in a context of social richness and a more democratic society, moving to sharing and provision of services to each other. A key thought is that we in the rich northern world could trade consumption for fewer work hours and more enjoyable lives, while opening ecological space for the impoverished global south to gain a basic human decency of living standards. In recent weeks a major conference around the topic took place in Croatia, at which the International Degrowth Network was launched. The basic ideas of degrowth are summarized in this short manifesto. Another short statement is in this letter. Lead signers represent some of the major thinkers in this field.
It almost goes without saying that these ideas are in direct contradiction to business as usual conditioned on the drive for endless economic growth that infuses every major economic and political institution. Degrowth amounts to nothing less than a revolution. The greatest likelihood is that it will be forced on us by disruption. In fact, it seems that only the through the turbulence of coming disruptions, ecological, social and political, will these ideas gain enough traction to displace current assumptions that endless growth is possible on a finite planet.
Degrowth advocates are doing what is necessary now, planting ideas. This hearkens to the often quoted words of economist Milton Friedman when advocating for free market policies that had been discredited by the 1930s Great Depression but were picked up in the 1980s after the economic turmoil of the 1970s. “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” Now that the neoliberalism promoted by Friedman is reaching its own set of crises, the opportunity is with those who represent the opposite pole of thinking to develop our own ideas, expecting that events will provide them traction.
Meanwhile, though, we need practical approaches that can begin to make some of those ideas real in the world. What we need is a politics of the positive, based on a transformative vision of the future. Though high-level concepts are important, what really draws people together are not abstractions, but solid, physical expressions of better places and a better world. That is why I believe we should orient around a place-based approach that builds community institutions and systems where we live.
Bringing Together The Pieces
There are many pieces to this puzzle. The following illustrate some of the potentials for building community-based institutions on which I intend to focus.
Community capital – Often it’s about the money. Communities need to find ways to reclaim control of their capital to invest in their own places. Local and state governments as well as businesses and individuals put their money into financial institutions that invest everywhere, often in destructive activities such as fossil fuel production and arms manufacture. We need to build financial institutions at local and state levels that keep the money at home, such as public banking, green banking, and alternative currencies, and invest it in socially and ecologically sound activities such as those listed below. This is a keystone for building the future in place.
Social housing – The housing crisis in in the foreground, with the cost of rent and mortgages growing far faster than incomes. The investment of private equity firms that make housing a speculative market has greatly exacerbated the situation, driving increased homelessness. Nothing is more vital for human existence than shelter. In recent years, more attention has turned to cities such as Vienna. Austria that offer social housing for a range of incomes. Building on nonprofit housing already provided, we need a vast upsurge in social housing investment. That will also provide a check on speculation. Housing is a climate issue, because increasing costs are pushing lower-to-middle income people out of cities where they are most likely to use transit, to suburban areas where they are forced to drive cars. Dense, social housing in areas well served by transit is a sprawl buster. I plan to look into the social housing state of play in North America.
New community forms – Closely related is the development of new forms of community such as ecovillages, cohousing and cooperative housing, with great potential for reduced consumption and common energy and food production. Many models have developed over recent years, while development has moved slower than many expected. And access to disadvantaged populations has often been difficult. I plan to identify the best models and ask how they might be made more available to a broader population. One question that fascinates me is how such concepts might create community in suburban areas.
Community energy cooperatives – Utilities as they exist have an interest in increased power production and deliveries. Regulatory agencies compel them to invest in energy efficiency, but it’s like pulling teeth. Utility commissions also provide a guaranteed rate of return on capital investments, so they also have an interest in owning their own power plants and discouraging private and community ownership. In many cases, unfortunately, similar situations also apply to publicly owned utilities. What we need are community energy cooperatives that operate within the framework of existing utilities, but provide local energy services such as community solar and mass energy efficiency and building electrification retrofits. They can also operate microgrids that provide energy resiliency in the face of increasing, climate-driven power disruptions. I am going to feature some of the best research and models in this area to illuminate the potentials.
New business forms – Worker owned coops, when they remain genuine, offer democratic management. They also provide employment to areas and people that have been abandoned by private corporations. Other new business forms employ a broader range of criteria for success than profit, setting social and ecological goals. I plan to identify good models, particularly those that aim at local and bioregional markets. Though we live in an age of globalization, supply chain crises of recent years have illustrated the fragility of systems. So returning to local and bioregional production for vital needs makes sense.
Sustainable materials – Reducing material use throughout the production cycle is key to coming back in line with ecological boundaries. Circular economics is one concept along those lines, using wastes as the feedstock to make new products. This is a prime area for investment in worker coops and other new businesses. Sustainable materials concepts also include increased sharing, such as tool libraries and libraries of things, a model that is increasingly spreading. I will feature some of the best models developing in these fields.
Food security and sovereignty – In a climate disrupted world, food security is going to be one of the biggest issues. Recent seasons have seen disruptions in many food growing areas, and this is contributing to increased food prices. Another large contributor is the increasing monopolization of food production and markets by a few large corporations. Food security is already an issue for many lower income populations, often living in neighborhood food deserts where it is hard to buy healthy food. What are models in providing food security and sovereignty in terms of local and bioregional food production and distribution? What is the role of regenerative agriculture? I am going to track down some of the best thinkers and practitioners to ask them.
Governance – If reclaiming control of capital is the key to investment in new community institutions, new forms of governance that give greater voice to people are basic to making the whole system happen. This includes an idea fundamental to municipalism, community assemblies that provide citizens a voice in a direct democracy format. These can be places where people converge on transformative visions for their communities. Watershed councils, an idea emerging out of the bioregional movement, can occupy a similar role. The concept of native tribal consultation and consent on major land use issues is another important concept in governance. Other direct democracy models such as participatory budgeting give people a role in deciding how public money is spent. Deliberative democracy that engages people in discussions to shape public decision making is another concept that goes beyond the representative democracy we know today. Another crucial aspect of governance is public safety reform, making sure police are accountable to the public, and employing alternatives to policing. I will be looking at all of this.
Building the future in place also involves an array of policy actions across cities and bioregions. Among them:
- Transportation policies that reduce the role of cars in favor of transit, biking and walking in metropolitan areas, create car-free areas, and build fast electrified rail between cities.
- Building codes that require efficient buildings run on electricity.
- Zoning codes that create dense, mixed-use neighborhoods.
- Water and sewer development that emphasizes on-site water capture and treatment, and green infrastructure over standard pipes and plants.
- A general increase in urban greenspace, and preservation of forests on a bioregional scale.
I will be looking for the best models in these areas.
Of course, this list is partial. I do not claim it covers all the bases. Education, health care, and social services, for example. But these are areas in which I have some basic background, so on these I will focus. I look forward to engagement with my readers to suggest additions and refinements.
The address here will primarily be to situations in the United States and North America, because that is what I know best, though I will draw from models across the world. This is indeed a multipolar world, and I cannot presume to tell other people in other countries what to do. Each society has its own deep-rooted problems. It is up to each of us to take responsibility for our own, and put our own houses in order. And at least set a good example.
Is It Enough?
In developing this line of thinking, I have continually had to test the concept and ask the question: Is building the future in place enough? When looking at what is in effect a longer-term transition while faced by critical global situations, is it a case of too little too late? Facing such monumental situations, we are always confronted by the fact that no one course or solution is enough. Whatever we do is likely to fall short. Yet we must attempt it. We must acknowledge what any one of us does as an individual or place is limited. But there is that common metaphor of raindrops being small on their own, but enough can fill a bucket.
Will building the future in place help resolve our climate and general ecological crises? It can certainly build societies and economies that put less stress on nature, use less energy and resources, and make communities stronger in the face of upheavals to come.
Will building the future in place help make a more peaceful world? Certainly by building economies based on cooperation and reduced resource use, more attuned to local and regional markets, there will be less drive to expansion and empire. The dependence of so many communities in the U.S. on military spending makes this particularly crucial. Inasmuch as the roots of war are in our communities, we can also plant the roots of peace.
Will building the future in place help reduce growing conflicts and national divisions in the United States? That’s a tough question. But by orienting a society to care for each other, and building movements that link urban and rural to meet real human needs, we can begin to rebuild some sense of social solidarity and community.
From a personal standpoint, I hardly think anything is quite enough. But building the future in place is the best I have to offer, and what I will be writing about here.
Building the future in place lays the groundwork for broader progress. If change on the needed scale is to take place, building working models is critically important. Such models are far more feasibly developed in localized conditions. Enough support and political juice can be accumulated in specific places to make new initiatives happen. A record of success builds credibility and attractiveness that spurs replication elsewhere. Enough of those raindrops can result in broader tipping points, stepwise changes at broader levels. An example is feed-in tariffs that pay people a fee for supplying renewable energy to the grid. In Germany they started in a specific place, Aachen, and then were picked up nationwide, a fundamental reason for that nation’s solar and wind successes. When crises grow deeper and disruptions more intense, models working at local and bioregional scales can diffuse rapidly and be adopted at state and national scales.
Of course there are limits of the local. We are constrained by broader political and economic realities. But there are limits at every level, and the local, state, and bioregional is where we have the most traction, where democratic, people power potentials are strongest. At the same time, a place-based approach is not a replacement for other forms of politics. We need to keep doing what we’re doing to press for action at broader levels. But realize that what we can accomplish will be limited by the legalized bribery and special interest capture that rules our system. We need to understand that real change rises from the grassroots and margins, and that building strong places offers the best possibilities to create truly transformative models that can have effects at broader scales. It is the political base for transformative change.
Ultimately, there is an ethical and moral basis for all of this. It is a simple as care for one another, for the other species with which we inhabit this planet, and for the world in which we live. We need to build a society and economy based on kindness and mutuality, that emphasizes cooperation over competition. If this seems lofty and hopelessly idealistic, it is the only realistic path forward in a world plunging into great disruption and deepening crisis. If there really are solutions to a world like this, they rise from common kindness.
It is too easy, considering the news of the day, to let ourselves be ground down under a sense of doom, and retreat into inaction and purely personal concerns. The prescription for despair is collective action where it is possible to act most fruitfully. Any journey starts from where we live. It starts by beginning to build the future in place.