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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.

26 Comments, RSS

  • I’m at a point where I want to invest directly in a system or model — rather than a think tank — that can be resilient. Preferably, my investment would be secured by real estate or at the very least, access to the model or system.

  • Thanks for reading, Matt. As a nonprofit, Post Carbon Institute cannot operate like a forprofit. Our work is for public benefit.

    We can offer a thank you note that you apply for a tax benefit; your name on our list of Supporters (http://new.postcarbon.org/about-us/supporters/); our undying gratitude; and the warm glow you enjoy from working together to help create a planet where people can live within Nature’s budget of renewable resources.

    That’s a pretty good deal, considering how the real estate bubble is once again inflating….

  • Hi Ken-

    Please understand that I am 100% behind the message in the article. I just think that we have to transition to a new paradigm and I’m not sure that *contemporary* non-profits will fit into a truly sustainable and/or resilient paradigm. For-profits will not fit into a sustainable paradigm either. The model has to transcend both… Those who get the tax break for donating are solidly in the current paradigm. I can guarantee that 99% of those who donate have a footprint larger than 1.

  • Thanks, Matt, for being 100% on board. Yes, managing the transition includes organizations like Post Carbon Institute, which live in the current economy, but do not have a clear place in the emerging economy.

    Various PCI team members have written about this topic (see, for example, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2011-09-18/resilient-philanthropy-giving-beyond-growth) and reposted at: http://www.supergreenme.com/go-green-environment-eco:What-Would-You-Say–Tell-Me-How-NOT-to-be-the-Skunk-at-the-Garden-Party). So, we’re 100% with you on this being a conundrum.

    It’s an interesting way to live, one foot in the familiar present, and the other striding into a largely unknown future. We do what we can, while we can, in the present, so that the future might be a little less daunting and a little more sustainable.


  • What a strong argument, and something that needs to be become part of public discussion. The need for an urgent solution while explicitly accepting there ‘is no solution (at least to continue the status quo). The Post Carbon Institute is certainly fulfilling a key role in this (much hoped for) transition. The need for synergy between this and other organisations is equally necessary.

  • Can you outline, Matt, how such an investment would be realised, and what form it might take?

  • Very well put, Asher and Ken. I am glad to continue to support PCI, and salute you all for continuing to pursue this incredibly pivotal work.

  • Thanks Chris. A lot of our focus is on building relationships with and trying to influence other sustainability NGOs to think more systemically because we see them as the vanguard for people most likely to become early adopters. One example is the paper we wrote specifically for environmentalists, “Climate After Growth”: http://www.postcarbon.org/publications/climate-after-growth/.

  • Thanks for your good work and support, Dan.

  • Sustainable Chris-

    You can find a description on my website, ecoevo.club, by pressing the link symbol on my Disqus page. However, I continue to refine how I describe the concept. One way to envision what I have in mind is to think about a credit union that finances only pedestrian-friendly and locally self-sufficient campuses that practice ecologically sophisticated gardening. The credit union does not have employees that sit behind a desk. In fact, the credit union does not have any employees. It would be governed by a congress that would be similar to the early days of the U.S. where congress got together for 2 or 3 days each year — and there were no lobbyists. Those who understand that we have to radically change the way we live would deposit money without expecting a return. However, they would have access to the properties which will be more important in a post-peak oil world.

    The key is that we have to practice sustainability and not just talk about it or do it on the margins (greenwashing). I practice it currently through not flying or driving (well, two weeks per year), living in a small apartment, and gardening in what was formally an unused backyard. However, I would like to be a part of a more cohesive community and a college campus seems to me to be the best infrastructure. It should be noted that it would not a conventional college entity. Instead of professors and administrators, there would only be autodidactic students who are willing to get their hands dirty and discover a right livelihood as a gardener, gourmet cook, winemaker, beer maker, etc. or a combination of the above. And then provide guidance and leadership to other like-minded students as well as guests/investors.

    In an advanced world, there would not be any money within the system. Realistically though, there would have to be some in the early stages. I still haven’t figured out how to deal with the student loan debt of those who want to participate but had the misfortune to get entrapped by the specialization — and expense — of conventional higher education.

    Any questions or comments are welcome.

  • Ken- Thanks for the links… Please note that the first one does not link through because a parenthesis appears at the end of the link.

    Please see my response to Sustainable Chris above. Let me know if you have any questions or comments.


  • Thanks, Matt–link corrected.

    And also for your good thinking on new ways of living and learning. I’m sure you’re aware of trends on retirement on or near college campuses http://www.campuscontinuum.com/resources.htm which seems in line with your direction. Appreciated the references to Strauss & Howe, Fromm, Bateson, et. al.

    Your concept seems to cover ideas about fruits and vegetables (and byproducts), and speaks to low-energy living quarters. Are you assuming many other inputs will be in place soon, and that trade/services will cover other needs?

    You might this of interest, although the school is for primary-aged kids: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-11-25/atamai-village-an-experiment-in-resilient-community


  • It is a fact that none of us, however big and authoritative we may be, can save even our own children or
    our own villagers or countrymen without saving the whole world.

    Well, you will be convinced of this startling reality once you happen to notice the level
    of collective stupidity we are all in and I am sure that you will get close to
    the whole gamut of this fact once you go through the book Life On Meltdown
    (2014) and this booklet.

    To give a hazy hind about this solution proposal, I think it is worthwhile to quote
    Albert Einstein on a similar context in his later years, when he realized the
    mortal facts about his own inventions and equations which, he subsequently
    realized, were creating more problems than solutions. He wrote: “If I had
    only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the
    problem, and only five minutes finding the solution”. Well, in my long
    attempt to find solution to the problems of mankind, I have been defining the
    PROBLEM though my two books (Story Of Man: Layman (1990) and Life On Meltdown
    (2014) and this booklet. Now I will spell out my solution proposal after a few
    more pages of the last leg of defining the PROBLEM. See more on the topic at: http://www.humanfirst.in

  • Here’s my alternative that I pledge to keep alive and would like some help in this effort. I am constantly amazed that since we are pretty much out of time, and know what the essential first step is, that we are not not doing everything possible to launch that step on a broad scale. Oh, that step? Energy efficiency and conservation.

    According to Lawrence Livermore Labs America, one of two global leaders in greenhouse gas production, wastes 61% and perhaps as much as 85% of the energy we use. As an energy surveyor and auditor I see this every day. There is a cost to this since we Americans spend about $1.2T annually on energy. We can use the savings to help fund the waste mitigation.

    In the years it would take to actually make the shift we will become clearer on what else needs to be done and what is feasible. The exponential degradation of the environment will offer us some incentives well before we finish that task. Therefore the next step, possibly a crash program on creating decentralized energy generation using solar, wind, tidal, current, etc. or whatever, could be ramped up as we cut the waste.

    If this doesn’t seem logical or doable I’d like to know what better ideas are out there so I can shift my focus.

  • Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

    This is why I’m here – and then, to add in one more argument: Whether things turn out as bad as we fear or not as bad, whether we create the systemic change we want to see or fail in that endeavor, many of the things we can roll up our sleeves for and do will also be good for us individually.

    Yes, sure, different ways of living from those that are now considered normal, and that are often very convenient (as long as things are going well, anyways), are not so easily desirable, let alone marketed nearly as much. However, there are many ways in which they fit not only the world better, but also ourselves. Ways in which they prepare for problems, nudge towards better futures, and also help us live more happily and meaningfully now.

    Thank you for the inspiration to get back in the saddle, and I hope we can work together, indeed.

    Gerald, “The Ecology of Happiness” – http://www.beyond-eco.org

    Fittingly, here’s my argument for change: http://www.beyond-eco.org/do/how-to-change/

  • Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

    Isn’t it funny (in not a very fun way) to see how much energy goes into keeping up the status quo even as we see many ways in which we don’t exactly like it? Argue for change, everyone seems to think immediately that it’s an argument for worse. Collapse because of the environment, or collapse because the current economic-technological model is given up.

    It seems like we’ve become good only at believing that we can’t do any better (unless, of course, it’s the Silicon Valley model of better…)

  • Ken-

    Once again, thanks for the links. I was aware of Atamai but had not checked in on them in quite some time. I’m aware that Nicole Foss has made it her home base. It is certainly something to keep in mind. With respect to campuscontinuum, I think that there will be literally 100’s of campuses for sale once the education bubble pops.

    As far as inputs/trade/services, I would anticipate maintaining an interface with conventional society by attracting — as guests — the top 10% wealthwise. While the wealthy may not always be with us, they will not go away soon. (See Piketty’s Capital) This interface may also serve as a way for those who have a lot vested — especially in the form of debt — in the current system to work their way towards a more sane system. I’m not a fan of barter or trade as I think it takes too much energy.

    For security reasons in the upcoming descent, it seems to me that 500 plus residents and/or guests would be a minimum number per property. Also, it may be important to have several properties in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere. (see Living Well in the Age of Global Warming)

    For a general sense of what a campus will look like, see the graphic (Duany etal) at the home page of Raymond K De Young: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rdeyoung/

    Can I count on PCI to launch a capital campaign to get the ball rolling? it’s a perfect fit. : )


  • Thanks, Gerald, for your thoughtful ruminations. And for quoting Wendell Berry:

    “You can describe the predicament that we’re in as an emergency… and your trial is to learn to be patient in an emergency.”

    “[N]o great feat is going to happen to change all this; you’re going to have to humble yourself to be willing to do it one little bit at a time. You can’t make people do this. What you have to do is notice that they’re already doing it.”

    The former is a paradox with which we wrestle like Jacob grappling with the Angel. The latter is what we endeavor to practice.


  • Matt:

    So: “The wealthy you may not always have with you, but you can help them any time you want.”? Mark to Marx to Piketty–a great triple play combination, if you’re a baseball fan!

    You might find PCI Fellow David Orr’s work on the Oberlin Project of interest: http://oberlinproject.org/

    It engages the wealthy, and others as well.

    As for the capital campaign, bonne chance!


  • What do you think about ecovillages? That was my best answer to the situation of wanting to be more independent from the destructive economy. The thing that got in our way was the exact same thing as what we were trying to get more independent from, the economy. We couldn’t get the money together to get it going. It seems to me that ecovillages could be the lifeboats during and after collapse. It also seems to me that, in general, Americans are weak with the social skills needed to live communally. As the article stated, we will be forced to learn these skills during crisis.

  • While immediate local mitigations are needed right away, only a systemic shift from a monetary system globally can provide the speed and scale necessary for significant change. The mechanism i propose to facilitate this is a non-fungible value index http://netplanetaryvalue.wordpress.com.

  • The environmental changes that you are advocating are great – but they need to intersect with a population level that the world can support.

    The symptoms of our excess population/consumption worsen while you work on consumption issues as consumption ramps in every corner of the planet.

    As we watch fisheries collapse, water-mercury levels increasing, water tables shrinking, species disappearing, temperature rising, resource wars increasing…all the result of the population/consumption.

    Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, PCI…remain mum on population and immigration (immigration being the the source of growth & back filling).

    It is perhaps THE factor we need to address, but let’s let someone else handle it. This occurs both at the organizational level and the personal level because you just don’t get the same social feedback from telling people your working on population issues vs….

    Population issues have to do with women’s empowerment, women’s education, birth control, infrastructure and social security…and, yes, immigration for the purpose of relieving population pressures….and that includes lack work – which is a whole nother can of tomatoes.

    ‘Population’ is a long-term issue in every sense of the word – no change in course takes longer to make. So, can we a few seconds on it now?

    It does not have to be about an advertising campaign, but at least discuss the issue in your corporate mission. Same at the personal level – not suggesting anyone give up their cause/s – just that we need everyone’s attn now on this issue because every soln that follows will be less effective otherwise. We are all just serving beverages on the deck of the Titanic – until we change course, of course.

    How long until ‘environmental’ organizations represent the environment?


  • We have long been
    miseducated by the ruling clique – the ‘1%’ – on the realities and
    relationships between money, wealth, inequality, work, debt, need for ‘full
    employment’ – wage-slavery instead of leisure – despite the growing levels of automation, etc. This is being
    challenged by Critical Thinking – info@freecriticalthinking.org; or see my
    own booklet, http://www.sustecweb.co.uk/Wheres_the_Money_to_Come_From.pdf
    I show how wrong the drive
    for everlasting wage-slavery and ‘economic growth’ is, and how the main change
    needed is reform of the money-creation system, as well as a range of other
    changes which, without this primary change would be difficult or impossible to

    We need fair distribution
    of the potential wealth we could continue to create, without continued use of fossil fuels, if we stopped engaging in
    the obscenely wasteful practice of ‘planned obsolescence’, which was introduced
    at the end of World War 2 to save Capitalism from the arrival of abundance,
    which the huge increase in productivity which that war had fostered would
    otherwise create, and so destroy the market needed to keep the profits of the
    corporations growing, and keep the ‘99%’s noses to the grindstone, and not
    allow them to realise how wrong this was.

  • I’m afraid you’re misinformed on PCI’s stance on the population issue. It is not something we remain mum on. One of our fellows, Bill Ryerson (http://www.postcarbon.org/our-people/bill-ryerson/), has worked on population issues for decades. If you’re not familiar with it, you should check out the work of his excellent organization, Population Media Center.

    This is a chapter on population we included in our book, The Post Carbon Reader: http://www.postcarbon.org/publications/population-the-multiplier-of-everything-else/

  • Talking about giving the issue equal weighting in the population x consumption x method of consumption identity describing the human ecosystem. Because so-called environmental orgs are essentially ‘mum’ on the subject – it gets no attention. Too much social stigma related to population/immigration. Result is that a big ‘zero’ goes in the above relationship- which means all the efforts to change out plastic bags, save this, lower that…are less effect – on even worse all for nothing. No other factor has more importance in the identity. Think the most important thing someone interested in the environmental movement can do is get their favorite ‘environmental’ org put this issue front and center in their message. If enviro orgs remain (effectively) mum, who else would take the lead? …that has the media presence that this needs?

    The population/immigration issue involves a long lead times…like eternal. It should be guiding so many other decisions. So many reasons to act.