What does Post Carbon Institute do, exactly?
In a nutshell, we are a megaphone for some of the world's best thinking on the 21st century's global sustainability crisis. We've assembled a team of experts and leaders who recognize the complexity of the interconnected challenges facing the world today, and we organize and promote their work through our various publications and our Speakers Bureau. We also make connections and build relationships among them and the many people and organizations doing like-minded work. Our programs page tells more.
How are your Fellows selected?
When recruiting our team of Fellows, we looked for original thinkers who understood that their own area of expertise was part of a larger picture increasingly defined by the challenges of climate change, peak fossil fuels, and the limits of economic growth. We sought Fellows who had a piece of the puzzle we didn't yet have, and who could speak to the specific challenges facing the United States. We also aimed for diversity in sex, ethnicity, age, sector (for example, academia, business, government, community), and geographic location. We're very proud of our Fellows, and continue to work on bringing in more women and those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to contribute to the Institute's knowledge-base and voice.
Do you have Fellows outside the United States?
What's your relationship with Transition Towns and Transition U.S.?
We've been fans of the Transition Towns movement and its founder Rob Hopkins (now a Fellow of Post Carbon Institute) since the beginning. In 2009 we provided seed funding to Transition US to help maintain the momentum of the work being done by the steadily growing number of Transition and Relocalization groups in this country. Our Executive Director Asher Miller and our Senior Fellow-in-Residence Richard Heinberg are on the Transition US board, but we otherwise do not formally collaborate with Transition Network on activities in other countries.
Post Carbon Institute works closely with Transition US to bring to the Transition movement our Fellows' knowledge and ideas, and to provide our Fellows with insights about emerging models and on-the-ground challenges and opportunities.
What's your relationship with Energy Bulletin?
After providing technical support for a couple of years, we formally adopted Energy Bulletin in 2009. Energy Bulletin is a tremendous resource for people looking to gain deeper insight into our energy dilemma and related sustainability issues. We've also found it to be a great forum for new voices and new ideas. Special thanks go to Bart Anderson (US), who has managed EB as a full-time volunteer; Simone and Kristen (UK), who continue to keep the site running; Adam and Liam (Australia), who founded the site in 2004; and all of the volunteers who have helped over the years.
How can I stay up to date on PCI efforts?
Subscribe to our newsletter to get monthly email updates full of news, analysis, and great ideas from our Fellows, staff, and friends. If once a month is not enough for you, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for our RSS feed.
May I have permission to repost articles that appear on postcarbon.org?
You are welcome to repost material which appears on postcarbon.org and spread the word as long as you follow these guidelines:
- for all material which appears on postcarbon.org in full (unless specifically stated otherwise at the end of the article) you may repost. We ask that you keep links intact, that you include a link back to our site, and that you include a credit which states the name and title of the author, along with a mention of the Post Carbon Institute. Images should also be credited per the original.
- for material which appears as an excerpt on postcarbon.org we do not own the rights. You will therefore need to contact the original publisher to gain permission for reprints.
- a small amount of material is published on postcarbon.org with specific permission from the author, but without blanket permission to repost. Where this is the case it will be stated clearly at the end of the article.
- you are providing the material for free and not for commercial use.
- you do not alter, change, or add to the material.
Do you endorse politicians?
Nope. We endorse ideas, not people. As an independent think tank, we are not affiliated with any government, corporate interest, religion, ideology, or political party.
Are you liberal? Conservative? Radical?
None of the above and all of the above. Individual Fellows, Advisers, staff, and Board members may align themselves with differing political views, but the Institute's collaborative output is intended for the broadest possible audience. To side with a particular political viewpoint would not only alienate us from many of the people we serve, it would limit our scope of possibilities. Our best hope is to transcend the narrow confines of ideology and include the most useful ideas for achieving our highest aims and collective needs. As Fellow Bill McKibben has said about political bickering over climate change, "physics and chemistry don't negotiate, and they don't care which party we belong to."
How can I support your work?
Let us count the ways. You can donate electronically, by mail, by monthly pledge, by stock gift, by bequest, or by some other means you devise (unfortunately, we cannot accept barter). Please be sure to check if your employer provides matching gifts—you can double your impact!
What issues do you work on?
We used to be focused largely on peak oil and re-localization. Then came the turning point of 2008: energy prices hit all-time highs, the global economy teetered on collapse, and the shift in U.S. political power opened up new possibilities for action on climate change. We saw an opportunity to talk more deeply about the fundamental, interconnected limits to growth, and so expanded our mission to include all of the major environmental, social, and economic issues facing the world in this new century. Click here for a full list and description of the Issues we're working on right now.
What do you mean by "post carbon"? Aren't we made of carbon?
Life on earth as we know it would not exist without carbon, this is true. We also use hydrocarbon fuels (that is, petroleum, coal, and natural gas) as the primary energy source for just about everything we do. We are now so utterly dependent on hydrocarbon fuels that we increasingly risk major economic and social upheaval as the easy-to-get supplies are used up, and no comparable alternative energy sources are emerging to take their place.
Even more worrisome, over 150 years of burning more and more hydrocarbon fuels has released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — more than the planet's plants and oceans can absorb without changing the global climate. We increasingly face major economic, social, and environmental upheaval as sea levels rise, droughts and floods increase, and agricultural zones shift.
So at Post Carbon Institute, we aid the transition to a world in which we are no longer dependent on hydrocarbon fuels, and no longer emitting climate-changing levels of carbon into the atmosphere.
What is your position on geo-engineering as a response to climate change?
The scale of intervention required to have a significant effect on atmospheric carbon and/or the effects of climate change makes climate geo-engineering a poor response choice for many reasons.
It would require enormous investments in a very new technology for unknown benefit; instead, those funds could go toward proven solutions like energy conservation measures (including redesigning cities and food systems to use far less energy) and the development of renewable energy sources.
It would risk worrying economic, environmental and social consequences, as the effects of manipulating weather and climate patterns at large scales over large periods of time (e.g., forcing rain for a drought-stricken area may well cause drought elsewhere) are very much unknown -- with obvious potential for political abuse.
Finally, spending untold multiple billions of dollars on technological efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon contributed by the burning of fossil fuels makes little sense if those fuels are becoming scarce anyway. Coal, oil, and natural gas are dead ends from both economic and environmental perspectives. All of our scarce energy investment capital should be going toward transitioning to a post-carbon world -- independent of hydrocarbon fuels, and resilient to the economic, social and environmental challenges of climate change and peak fossil fuels that are already unavoidable.
Are you a nonprofit? Are my donations tax-deductible?
Most certainly. Post Carbon Institute is the "dba" name of Metafoundation, which is incorporated as a non-profit organzation in the state of Oregon. We have federal 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, so your donation is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. We're an independent think tank, not affiliated with any government, corporate interest, religion, ideology, or political party.
Donations can be made to either "Metafoundation" or "Post Carbon Institute." Our Federal Tax ID number is 65-1208462.
Where do you get your funding?
At the risk of echoing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Post Carbon Institute gets the majority of its funding from "people like you," through large and small contributions. We also receive some private foundation grants (special thanks to our friends in Palo Alto, who have asked to remain anonymous), and earn modest revenue from book sales and speaking appearances. We appreciate and respect all of those working to create a better future, through your good work, fine examples, and generous donations.
To support Post Carbon Institute please donate here
What's your response to claims that evidence that the climate crisis is not real or has been overblown?
A recent article by Post Carbon Fellow Bill Rees pretty much sums up our position:
First, climate change, particularly global warming, is an undisputed fact. The mean global temperature has increased by .8 Centigrade degrees over the last century, glaciers are melting, the Arctic sea ice is disappearing, deserts are expanding and sea levels are rising-all ahead of climate model projections.
Second, while it is true that Earth's climate is primarily determined by various non-human factors, including solar output and shifting ocean currents, there have been no changes in these sufficient enough to explain ongoing temperature increases.
Third, by contrast, human activities have significantly increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Carbon dioxide is up 38 per cent from a preindustrial 280 parts per million to 388 ppm today. Other GHGs have climbed proportionately even more -- but the CO2 increases alone are more than sufficient to account for the observed warming.
Fourth, increasingly severe weather events are already displacing or killing tens of thousands of people annually and this trend is likely to worsen.
End of story. Details are arguable, but the big picture could hardly be clearer.
I keep hearing that scientists disagree on whether climate change is real / caused by humans / really all that bad. What's right?
Our position is simple: Serious debate about climate change has been over since 1990.
The scientific work since then has consistently painted a more and more worrying picture. The controversy that exists is largely political. While some scientists disagree over things like the contribution of solar activity and other natural phenomena, these are very minor points that do not contradict the international scientific consensus that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and is a major threat to both human civilization and countless plant and animal species around the world.
What does a "post carbon future" mean for me and my family?
Everyone in the modern industrial world needs to live a more sustainable&—or "green"—lifestyle if for no other reason than basic social equity. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "live simply so that others may simply live" (see: ecological footprint).
Fortunately, living more sustainably turns out to be one of the best things you can do for both economic security and personal well-being. Spending less on fossil fuels decreases your vulnerability to rising energy prices and leaves more money in your pocket to spend locally, which supports your community's economy. Getting more of your food from local sources means you'll eat healthier and support local farmers, which helps protect your area's agricultural land. These and other "green" lifestyle changes actually build resilience against the increasing uncertainties created by peak oil and climate change.
The "post carbon future" will have more uncertainties and less sheer material abundance than we've become accustomed to, but there's no reason it can't actually be better and happier than what we have now. Countless studies (not to mention most of the world's religions) tell us that material wealth, past a fairly basic level, has almost nothing to do with happiness. The international Transition Towns movement is one example of how we and our communities can respond to the challenges ahead with hope, planning, and even humor.
But what about natural gas? I’ve heard we had a 100 year supply. Can’t we use natural gas in place of oil? Won’t natural gas be a good “bridge fuel” to get us to a green, growing energy economy?
Actually, US proven reserves of natural gas amount to only about 12 years’ worth of supply. More gas resources will no doubt be discovered, thus adding to those reserves, but most of the new sources will be in “tight” shale deposits, where production costs and depletion rates are high. Currently there is a shale gas supply glut due to very high rates of drilling a few years ago, when natural gas prices were several times their current level. But now that gas is so cheap, the producers that specialize in shale “fracking” are actually losing money; therefore they’re cutting back on drilling. In a year or two we will see declining production and higher prices. Bottom line: while it’s true that new technology has increased natural gas supplies over the short term, the long-term outlook is more complicated. Natural gas is a depleting fossil fuel, and technology cannot change that fundamental fact. Natural gas will not substitute in any meaningful way for increasingly expensive oil, because very few vehicles currently are able to use natural gas and it will take decades to change that situation—and gas supplies won’t be sufficient even if we could retrofit existing vehicles fast enough. Moreover, the climate impact of producing and burning gas from shale deposits is no better than that of mining and burning coal—so the environmental argument for using more natural gas doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
I’ve read about the extraordinary potential for “tight oil” trapped in low-porosity rocks like shale. Apparently so much of this is coming from North Dakota now that some people are even saying that America could be oil independent within a few years.
Yes, tight oil production in North Dakota is booming—but why? Geologists have known about the Bakken oil deposits for a long time, and have had the technology needed to get the oil out of the ground. But costs of extraction were too high to justify drilling. Now that rates of global crude oil production are failing to grow to meet new demand, oil prices are very high—and that makes production of marginal sources like tight oil economically viable. And that in turn means continued production from these sources depends upon continued high oil prices: if the price level falls, production will slow. Several analysts have described recent claims for reserves and potential production rates from tight oil plays as overoptimistic. A realistic forecast shows US crude oil production continuing to increase for the next decade (as a result of additional tight oil and deepwater production), but then resuming its decline. In this most-likely-case scenario, US crude oil production in 2020 will not come close to matching the peak it achieved in 1970. Unless Americans reduce their oil consumption significantly, the nation will still be hooked on imports.
What about coal? I heard we have a 250-year supply. Won’t coal keep our economy growing, even if the environmental consequences are awful?
Several recent studies (including ones by the USGS) have concluded that coal supplies for the US and the world as a whole have been exaggerated. Enormous amounts of coal exist, but the great majority of it is unlikely ever to be mined because of its depth, the insufficient thickness of seams, and the quality of the resource. As with other fossil fuels, we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. Two recent studies conclude that global coal output could peak within the next decade or so. Meanwhile, as China’s consumption grows (that country now uses 4 billion tons per year, fully half the world’s production), coal prices are set to increase substantially even in countries that are self-sufficient in supply, like the US.
Further reading: Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis,
Introduction and Chapter 8; Heinberg and Fridley, “The End of Cheap Coal
Vol. 468, November 18, 2010
Then what about nuclear? Couldn’t modular/thorium/breeder reactors power the world for centuries?
Too expensive and too risky. A detailed report in a recent issue of The Economist magazine—not known for any knee-jerk anti-nuclear stance—called nuclear power “the dream that failed,” and concluded that its role in the foreseeable world energy picture will never be more than marginal. The ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan has led that country to abandon nuclear power, and Germany is following suit. Even though China appears to be doubling down on its nuclear bets, from a global perspective the industry is essentially moribund.
Further reading: The Economist,
Special Report, “Nuclear Energy: The Dream that Failed,” March 10-16, 2012; Tom Murphy, “Nuclear Options
Isn’t the real problem human population? What’s a truly sustainable human population? Won’t there be a huge die-off?
Yes, population is a vitally important issue. Population growth exacerbates every problem facing us. As the global economy stagnates or contracts, the impact of declines in per-capita industrial output can be reduced by policies to rein in population growth. Moreover, a good argument can be made that family planning investments will benefit the poorest nations first and foremost, since large, poor families tend to spend all their income on food and shelter, leaving no surplus for education or the formation of a small business. But while good population policy is desperately needed, it is no cure-all: changing demographic trends is a slow process, and many of the challenges facing us will converge over the course of the next couple of decades—far too quickly to be adequately addressed by reducing birth rates. So we need to think systemically to address a range of economic and ecological issues simultaneously while doing our best to support seven billion humans and counting. And while we’re doing all that, we also need to reduce birth rates.
When I think about all of these challenges, I just get overwhelmed. Where do we go for hope?
First, address your mental state. If you’re emotionally overwhelmed by information about climate change and resource depletion, you may need to ration your news intake so as to increase your effectiveness at helping tackle these enormous global problems. Spending hours a day in front of a computer screen feeds depression. Take time off, go outdoors, do some gardening, and interact with other people face-to-face. You will probably find inspiration in community resilience-building projects, where you can see and touch the results of your and your friends’ efforts. Cultivate a creative hobby and spend time in nature. Your efforts to save the world will be far more effective if other people perceive your mental and emotional state as being grounded and balanced. That doesn’t mean you should deny and suppress the pain and fear that any healthy human inevitably feels when contemplating the fix we’re in. Allow yourself to feel those emotions (otherwise you’ll be detached and inauthentic at best, unhinged at worst), but don’t let yourself be incapacitated by them.
Further reading: Kathy McMahon, “The Survival Mindset
”; Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
I’ve been thinking this way for years. The problem is all those people who don’t “get it.” How do we convince them?
We wish we had a sure-fire answer to that one. Sometimes simple persistence pays off. If people have dug themselves into a certain worldview, it may take time for them to change their ways of seeing. It’s important for you to have the facts at your command, but it’s just as important to create “frames,” as George Lakoff calls them—stories that make sense of the data. Often simple metaphors, such as “low-hanging fruit,” help people grasp the essential character of situations that might otherwise require lengthy explanation. It’s also important to tailor the message to the audience: if you understand where other people are coming from, it’s much easier to connect with them. Unfortunately, there are many people who are completely invested in maintaining a cornucopian view of the world, and there may be no way of reaching those people. Don’t waste your time on them; focus your attention on people who can be educated.
Isn’t the real problem one of distribution? If wealthy Americans consumed less, there’d be enough for everyone. Similarly, if the “one percent” weren’t siphoning all the world’s wealth, we’d all be doing fine. Shouldn’t we just be fighting for fairness?
As long as our economy is set up in such a way that it requires continued growth in order to function, then even if we distribute wealth fairly we will hit resource limits and fail. That’s not to say that equity is unimportant. As the national and global economy inevitably shift from growth to contraction, more equitable distribution will be necessary if we are to maintain social stability. If distribution of wealth becomes even more inequitable (and that’s the current trend), people will rightly conclude that the system is inherently unfair and not worth saving. They will rebel, and governments will crack down brutally to maintain the status quo. The result will be a chaotic, violent collapse of the entire system. It doesn’t have to end that way. If wealth is more evenly distributed as a result of reform, and if everyone is encouraged to understand the challenge facing us, then people can be persuaded to make shared sacrifices in order to build an economy that fits within Earth’s limits.
Aren’t the oil and car companies sitting on patents for free energy devices or carburetors that get 100 mpg? Can’t we solve our energy problems just by defeating these evil corporations?
I’ve heard stories about suppressed energy technologies, but have been unable to verify them. Typically the stories entail oil or car companies buying up patents and hiding them, but every patent ever issued in the US is freely searchable, so it should be easy enough to find these “suppressed” inventions. On the other hand, many machines that have been patented don’t actually work, and that’s why they haven’t been commercialized. Now, it’s true that the automobile industry actively discouraged the development of new safety features, including seat belts, and also lobbied Congress for decades to delay energy-efficiency regulations. Moreover, the oil companies have spent enormous sums in efforts to distort and mute both the scientific research and the public discussion regarding climate change. Such corporate abuses must be brought to an end, and I support activist efforts to do that. However, even if they succeed, that won’t solve the basic problem: we’ve become addicted to energy sources that are unsustainable, and there are no “silver bullet” alternatives that will enable us to maintain economic growth such as we’ve seen over the past century.
The problems seem so huge, the solutions so small. How can little efforts like Transition Towns hope to deal with war, resource depletion, and climate change, if national governments can’t?
There are two answers to that question. First: We have to do what we can. Yes, fundamental national and international reforms are needed to deal with global problems like climate change and resource depletion, and activist efforts to address those issues are needed now more than ever. But we are seeing a general deterioration in the ability of our national political system to respond both to converging global problems and to the public’s concerns. Reforming our national government is a big, multi-decade job, if it’s even possible to accomplish. Our economic and environmental problems will not remain on hold while we put the country’s political system in order, so we have to do what we can where we have more leverage—at the local level. Second: There are good reasons for working locally anyway, regardless of difficulties in achieving national and international reforms. Localization is inevitable as transport fuels become more scarce and expensive. If we don’t increase local self-sufficiency proactively, the reversal of globalization will result in the collapse of essential support systems—so building local food systems should be our first priority. Also, local organizing creates the necessary basis for political, social, and economic change at higher levels.
Innovation has solved problems and opened opportunities for us in the past. Why would you think that innovation can’t solve all our problems now? Don’t we just need to put more money into research?
Innovation will be essential as we adapt to our new economic reality. Some new technologies (such as renewable energy and ways to use energy and resources more efficiently) will need to expand significantly. But every technology has its costs. Economies cannot grow forever, even if they are based on renewable energy. We must adjust to the fact that our civilization has reached limits with regard to population, water, soil, raw materials, and, in all likelihood, energy. In the end, our adaptation will require as much social innovation as technological change, as we learn to live with less, and to live more equitably.