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Why should we even bother?

December 29, 2014

Let’s be honest, if you’re aware — at any meaningful level — of the full nature of the human (un)sustainability crisis, you’ve probably asked:

Why bother? After all, the problems are so big and intractable–a climate march, Keystone XL Pipeline blockade, or Transition Town can’t possibly do much. And Post Carbon Institute wants me to not only take action, but also donate money?!?!

Yes. I want you take action. We all need to take action. And, yes, donate money (even if you don’t believe in the US dollar!). Because it’s not hopeless.

Trust me, I get it. Given the long odds — exacerbated by the human propensity to optimism and discounting the future in favor of the present, the power and reach of entrenched interests, and the sheer inertia behind the consumer- and growth-dependent economy — it’s hard to believe in solutions.

I’m going to give it to you straight: there are no solutions, at least not ones that will allow the society we’ve created to continue on its “business as usual” trajectory. (No, not even with a massive deployment of renewable energy.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, that we (and you) shouldn’t even bother to try. Here’s our best thinking for why and how to intervene in the system — and why your role is absolutely critical.

If you’re reading this, we count you among the small but growing number of innovators and early adopters who play an absolutely critical role in developing alternatives to existing policies and practices, to keep them alive and available for the moment they’re needed. Here’s why.

Change Strategy

In our view, the nature of the predicament we face is such that proactive efforts at mitigating its impacts — while still highly valuable — are insufficient to prevent severe crises. In fact, it will be unfolding crises in our economic, energy, ecological, and socio-political systems that create the greatest opportunity for change.

Therefore, the question before us is this: How can we anticipate these crises, build resilience to withstand them, and begin efforts that create change so that society can be ready to take decisive and appropriate action when they arise?

Our strategy responds to this question in three ways:

  • Support communities as they build resilience to withstand existing and coming challenges;
  • Help prevent the worst kinds of shocks or changes—those to which we simply cannot adapt; and
  • Transform cultural norms and economic, energy, food, built environment, population, and socio-political systems to help to steer humanity down a truly sustainable path.

In this effort we are guided by two theories—summarized as “Crisis = Opportunity” and “The Diffusion of Innovation.”

Crisis = Opportunity

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein detailed how “free market” advocates and corporations have taken advantage of crises to further their aims. The following quote from Milton Friedman, the guru of free market economics, best outlines their strategy:

Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When the 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 politically inevitable.

Although the philosophical views and values of the neoclassicists are in many ways antithetical to our own, this framework is very applicable to our mission. What this means in tactical terms is a change strategy focused on two main levers:

  1. Building awareness of the true nature of the predicament at hand. Although key decision makers and society at large may not adopt the right policies and behavioral changes in advance of crises, communication and education strategies are vital in ensuring that the right ideas and models are “picked up” when the right moments arise.
  2. Developing, replicating, and scaling the right ideas and models. Although these alternative ideas and models (which can include everything from alternative indicators of progress to replicable local food enterprises) may exist initially at the margins, current events and coming crises will present opportunities for them to be broadly adopted and quickly built out. Therefore, it is vital to use the time and resources available now to experiment and create best practices—to build alternatives that have the greatest chance of both being “picked up” and succeeding.

Diffusion of Innovations

The Diffusion of Innovations theory describes how, why, and at what rate new ideas, social innovations, and technology spread throughout our culture. Key to the theory is the identification of different types of individuals in the population, in terms of how they relate to the development and adoption of a new innovation: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

The Innovation Adoption Lifecycle

The Innovation Adoption Lifecycle

Although they make up only a small percentage of the total population, innovators and early adopters build the foundation upon which all social innovations take place. The role of innovators is obvious. The equally critical role of early adopters is to embrace a new innovation when it is not easy to do so, and in turn spread that innovation to the early majority. Studies of hundreds of innovations (both successful and those that failed to catch on) have shown the critical role both groups play and what happens when innovations don’t cross “the chasm” by failing to attract enough early adopters.

In the context of PCI’s work, innovators are those developing new insights, messages, or models (e.g., a local food system enterprise) that raise understanding of one or more specific sustainability crisis and/or build resilience in response. Likewise, early adopters are those people most likely to embrace our message of limits and resilience, help spread that awareness, and take action. They may already be engaged with one specific sustainability issue (e.g., climate) or are amongst a group we call “the walking worried”—those who feel that things are amiss, but don’t know what or why (and thus initiate their own process of exploration, or are exposed through their networks to innovators or early adopters).

Diffusion + Crisis

We see the greatest opportunity for significant change where diffusion and crises meet. Knowing that many crises cannot be solved or averted, Post Carbon Institute aims to develop and spread the right understanding, ideas, and responses (by supporting innovators). We also work to increase the odds that these are then embraced when these crisis hit (by increasing the number of early adopters).

We Need You. Seriously.

The focus on supporting innovators and early adopters, along with the spreading of a systemic understanding of the sustainability crisis, is why we at PCI have been so focused on building energy literacy and community resilience. Over the next year, we aim to expand these efforts by:

  • Exploring what kinds of societal and behavioral changes a ~100% renewable energy future will require.
  • Continuing to bust the hype that shale gas and oil will solve our energy woes.
  • Investigating with geoscientists how climate change and peak oil interact.
  • Developing a whole suite of new community resilience programs that provide a systemic framework for building resilience, educate and support young people for the world they’ve inherited, and connect and inspire thousands of community resilience groups and innovators.

This is where you come in. As a follower of PCI, we count among the small but growing number of innovators and early adopters who play an absolutely critical role in “developing alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” It’s you who PCI works so tirelessly to support. We need you.

When we are honest with ourselves, it seems clear that climate, energy, environmental, economic, and political crises are inevitable. What form they take we can’t rightly predict. But in those moments of crisis new possibilities will emerge. On our shoulders — those of us who understand the predicament and what is required for true sustainability — lies the responsibility and privilege of ensuring that the right ideas are picked up. We sincerely believe there’s tremendous potential for the “right” understanding and models to scale non-linearly, if we make the “right” efforts now.

So, we hope you’ll continue to roll up your shirt sleeves by spreading knowledge and developing alternatives. And, yes, we ask that you also support PCI directly. Thank you.