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On April 20th and May 6th of this year, two seemingly unrelated events brought to stark relief — for those willing to pay attention — that while we're good at throwing our hyper-technological, globalized economies into overdrive, we're not so good at putting them smoothly in reverse.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster and the 1,000 point "flash crash" of the stock market are but two examples of what can happen when the massively complex, inter-connected world we've built hits up against the very real limits to growth. A quick glance at world news and you can easily see other examples: a deadly tsunami caused by glacier collapse in Peru... a credit crisis in Greece threatening to topple the government in Germany... ethnic strife in Central Asia inflamed by conflicts over water, natural gas, and other resources... and so on.

This is just the beginning.

In 2009, Post Carbon Institute recruited 29 of the world's leading sustainability thinkers to answer one fundamental question: How do we manage the transition to a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable world?

Like us, our Fellows see five key truths:

  • We have hit the “limits to growth.” This is not a moral question (or not only one); nor is it merely a question about the fate of our children and grandchildren. The truth is that we have no choice but to adapt to a world of resource constraints, economic contraction, and climate upheaval. And thus the only question that remains is this: How will we manage that transition?
  • No issue can be addressed in isolation. Thankfully, recognition of these crises has grown in recent years. However, all too often they are viewed in isolation. We must connect the dots in order to get to their source — not just their symptoms — and to maximize what little time and resources we have to address the enormous challenges they pose.
  • We must focus on responses, not just solutions. As John Michael Greer says, we face a predicament, not a problem. “The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether a solution can be found and made to work and, once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.”
  • We must prepare for uncertainty. While the general trends are clear, it’s simply impossible to predict, specifically, how world events will unfold. Therefore, it’s critically important that we aim to build resilience on the individual and community scales. Resilient people and resilient communities are characterized by their ability to manage unforeseen shocks while maintaining their essential identity.
  • We can do something. The bad news is that we simply cannot avoid hardship or suffering in the journey from a fossil fuel- and growth-dependent world to communities that live within ecological bounds. The good news is that we can prepare and make positive changes in almost any area of our lives and the lives of our communities. How much and how successful those efforts are all depends upon the thought and effort we invest.

The Post Carbon Reader

Post Carbon Reader coverThe first step, as we saw it, was to aggregate the most current, systems-oriented thinking about these interconnected threats, as well as the most promising responses. I'm proud to announce the outcome of this effort — The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises — will hit bookstores and classrooms in October 2010.

The Reader includes 35 essays by 28 Post Carbon Institute Fellows, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Sandra Postel, Michael Shuman, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Bill Ryerson, Gloria Flora, and many other leading sustainability thinkers.

We're pleased to be partnering with Watershed Media and University of California Press to distribute this much-needed resource as broadly as possible. University of California Press is offering a 20% discount for early orders. Just follow these instructions.

Free Downloads

Over the coming weeks and months, we'll be posting free pdf downloads of many of the articles included in The Post Carbon Reader. The first two, by Fellows Sandra Postel and Warren Karlenzig, have just been released.

Sandra's piece — "Water: Adapting to a New Normal" — looks at how these shortages will affect growth in the United States.

Warren's — "The Death of Sprawl: Designing Urban Resilience for the 21st Century Resource & Climate Crises" analyzes the high, true cost of urban and exurban sprawl in the United States and proposes multiple appropriate responses.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter for new releases or check the downloads page regularly.

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Reader Comments


reply to David Thomas

From: Asher Miller, Jun 28, 2010 10:15 AM

David, it’s clear that you are as deeply concerned about the state of the world as we are, and are rightly passionate about it. However, I find it odd that you would choose to express this by parsing words and criticizing an organization that is essentially saying the same thing you seem to be.

I’m not sure where you got the impression that we weighed all issues equally or failed to see causality, or that we’re unwilling to address population. I’d recommend looking more closely at the work of PCI Fellow William Ryerson ( I’ll personally email you the article he wrote, to be included in The Post Carbon Reader, when it’s released.

I’m also not sure what gave you the impression that our emphasis on responses vs. solutions relieves us or others of responsibility. The point of this “hairsplitting” as you call it, is to stress that no technological solution or addressing of a single issue in isolation is going to get us out of the mess we’re in. In fact, the reason why we stress this differentiation is to put the responsibility squarely back on our collective shoulders, rather than waiting for the market or policymakers to do take care of things for us.

With regard to the definition of resilience: This certainly can be debated or defined differently, depending upon the context. In our view of things, resilience is not about returning to a previous state but rather, as Rob Hopkins describes it, ““the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” We don’t believe our essential identity as human beings is the current throw-away-consumerism of business as usual.

Lastly, with regard to the “hand holding” of our belief that we CAN do something: We honestly believe this or else, frankly, we wouldn’t be engaged in this work. It’s clear that, in your legitimate concerns over carrying capacity you fear “watering down” the message. I can understand that. However, I believe that we must strike a balance between facing reality and speaking truth, and providing people with real hope and a vision forward, without compromising the former. The latter may not be a motivation for you, but I can say with conviction that it is for most people, including myself.

PS: Speaking of carrying capacity, you may wish to see the presentation that I myself give about the challenge we face:

Five key truths?

From: David Thomas, Jun 25, 2010 09:38 PM

It's difficult to imagine that the fellows at the Post Carbon Institute, known for their insight and depth of understanding, could get it so wrong.

A very quick critique of your 'five key truths':

1. We have hit the 'limits to growth'

Well, yes of course, but no mention of the growth issue that affects all others? The first 'key truth' and perhaps the only one necessary, should have, instead, been:

We are in Carrying Capacity Overshoot.

All effective analysis, transition, and problem solving flows from this understanding.

2. No issue can be addressed in isolation.

A correct, well worn, and well known insight, but not helpful if one doesn't understand that issues are not all equally weighted. A decision tree of action will lead one into failure if causes are not separated from symptoms.

3. Responses, not solutions.

Greer is wrong. Predicaments/responses (plagiarized from Toynbee's 'challenge and response') is semantic hairsplitting and relieves us of responsibility.

No, we face a 'problem' and it is 'overshoot'. The 'solution' is to carefully reduce levels of population and economic activity. So, is Post Carbon Institute uncharacteristically bowing to political correctness here by not wanting to talk about the elephant in the room, population?

4. Prepare for uncertainty.

Really, how much time was spent agreeing to this? It's true, but not useful, if again, we don't understand how we got here.

Moreover, 'resilience' means 'to return to the previous state'. If there's one thing we shouldn't do it's be 'resilient' and return to business as usual. Bad word to adopt in describing the goal of future communities. And 'sustainable' is far too corrupted and virtually meaningless. Replace 'resilient' with 'durable', please, when you talk about what we should transition to.

5. We can do something.

Of course we can. Was this the 'let's give them some hope' part of the 'five key truth' dogma. Or whistling in the dark, maybe? Come on. We're beyond this kind of hand holding. 'We can do something' actually meant something in the 70's. Most of us, however, who have been 'willing to pay attention' as you say, and have followed global data and trends for decades know we are far beyond the 'event horizon'.

This 'five bean soup' analysis is watered down, tasteless, and more than disappointing. Gosh, you guys and gals can do better than this. Richard, where were you when they came up with this stuff?

How then do we transition to durable local and international communities?
We acknowledge the cause of unsustainability in the first place:

carrying capacity overshoot.

What is the solution?

reduce to carrying capacity.

That is, carefully, fairly, humanely, democratically scale back levels of population and economic activity.

Look, we can make this as simple or as complex as we want, it doesn't matter to nature how we look at. Ultimately, the transition question is, do we reduce to carrying capacity voluntarily or involuntarily? The answer to that question will determine the steepness of collapse and the fate of civilization.

The gang of 29 lost their focus putting this together and just plain got it wrong. Just like 'the best and the brightest' in the '60's got it wrong about SE Asia and didn't want to admit their error until it was too late. Why? Because they didn't have the courage to understand causes and get beyond politics. They wasted lives, resources, and a generation of opportunities while trapped in shallow thinking and band-aid symptom solving.

Post Carbon Institute, dust off your paperback copy of Limits to Growth, read the ten year follow ups, rethink your 'five key truths'.
And start over.

David Thomas

You must read this book

From: Hannah , Jun 24, 2010 04:47 PM

Uncertainty is fast becoming the greatest truth of our time. And so, it is a time for what Daniel Lerch calls a "purposeful transitioning." And it is time for the post-carbon era to begin. We should all look to the leaders and educators in this volume for guidance and follow in the path of their unspoiled optimism. A dependency on Change is the only dependency we can afford to have.