Government efforts to slow climate change have been so ineffectual that the call has gone out to overhaul the American political and economic system—before global warming renders the planet, and the North Bay along with it, uninhabitable.
The writer Naomi Klein has argued that rightward-leaning citizens resist climate-change policies because they recognize them as a threat to unfettered consumption and capitalism. Climate change is a direct consequence of this. But the grim face of climate change glowers over the banquet table. The party's over, and that's not easy to accept.
And so this spring a group of academics launched the Next System Project. Gar Alperovitz, author of What Then Must We Do?, called on think tanks, activists and grassroots visionaries for ideas. Hundreds of writers, scientists and activists signed the Washington, D.C.–based organization's petition, among them North Bay peak-oil author Richard Heinberg (find the petition at thenextsystem.org; see sidebar for more on Heinberg).
Heinberg, a senior fellow at Santa Rosa's Post Carbon Institute and author of 12 books, does not mince words: "If we were going to arrest climate change, we would have started two or three decades ago."
Instead, we now face spiking temperatures, weird weather, rising sea levels, species die-offs and ocean acidification. Capitalism as a system has failed to address climate change—because capitalism is premised on the idea of unlimited growth and easy credit, says Heinberg.
"We built our economic institutions around consumption based on cheap energy and stoked it with advertising," says Heinberg. "We just can't continue to grow."
The economy is in crisis, says Heinberg, and collapse looms. "We're not very far away from it," he says. "Two or three years."
Sustainability as currently practiced is of no use, Heinberg argues, unless "we move toward deep sustainability rather than fake sustainability. Fake sustainability asks, 'How can we sustain what we're doing right now?' The answer is: 'We can't.' Resilience is a more important term than sustainability. Resilience is being able to absorb shocks and continue functioning."
Americans are used to getting what we want, and many among us have trouble facing the implications of climate change. But while he acknowledges the perils of the climate crisis, Michael Shuman does not think the economic system is not about to unravel.
Shuman is an economist and also a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. He's the author of Local Dollars, Local Sense, his eighth book. Like Heinberg, he is a committed proponent of localism. But Shuman does not believe all is lost under the remorseless yoke of capitalism.
"Yes, many features of doing business-as-usual will have to change. But there's a lot to be said for a healthy private marketplace with government setting the rules, and a high degree of decentralization.
"I think scenarios of economic collapse are the Y2K of the environmental movement," Shuman adds, referring to the turn-of-the-last-century panic over the computer glitch that wasn't. "People predict catastrophes that just never happen. We're a big economy with many working parts. Chances are things are going to go wrong slowly rather than all at once. More self-reliant local economies will make life easier and safer."
Local business is the core driver of our economy, and Shuman says that the more self-reliant our local economies can become, the better able we'll be to weather whatever climate-change calamities loom around the bend.
As Shuman explains, the vast majority of local businesses (about 99 percent) have fewer than 500 workers—yet they provide 90 percent of all jobs.
"Over the last 20 years, if local businesses were really becoming less competitive," says Shuman, "we should have seen a shift from small to large, and while many people believe this is the case, empirically it's not true."
Locally directed spending more than doubles the number of dollars that circulate among community businesses. Economists call it the multiplier effect. The Sonoma County Food Action Plan noted that if an additional $100 million of locally produced food were consumed in the county, local economic activity would increase by $25 million.
And localization nurtures diversity as it fosters accountability. "If a CEO of a company behaves badly, he is exposed to the ire of the community," says Shuman. Shame is a powerful motivator. He adds, "Localization is the ticket for expanding global wealth and even global trade, so long as it is less intensive in nonrenewables."