Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Obviously the title of this discussion is a playful plagiarism of the book on Integral Ecology by Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman. I do believe that the subject of gross physical energy has been woefully under-discussed in the integral community.
A great place to begin is a recent essay by Richard Heinberg that has been received to high acclaim over on the Resilience.org website, which is operated by the Post Carbon Institute, for which Heinberg is a senior analyst. Heinberg has been writing about energy for 12 years, and is the author of books such as Cloning the Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology; The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World; Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines; Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis; The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality.
In his latest essay, Our Renewable Future, Heinberg demonstrates that he is what I would call an energy realist. He does not demonize the fossil fuel industry, but he clearly lays out the formidable challenges we face as the climate crisis worsens and as easy access to these fuels continues to recede. Nor does he communicate as would a lobbyist for the renewable energy industry, hyping the benefits and downplaying the problems in this field.
Instead, Heinberg approaches the problems from multiple perspectives and honestly conveys his own biases, and encourages us to broaden our thinking:
I consider myself a renewable energy advocate: after all, I work for an organization called Post Carbon Institute. I have no interest in discouraging the energy transition—quite the contrary. But I’ve concluded that many of us, like Koningstein and Fork, have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources). The fact that renewables can’t do that shouldn't actually be surprising.
What are the right questions? The first, already noted, is: What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power? The second, which is just as important: How do we go about becoming that sort of society?
As we’ll see, once we begin to frame the picture this way, it turns out to be anything but bleak.
I believe this to be an extremely important essay, and the embedded links provide even more depth, providing a great resource for essential 21st century energy literacy.
Our Renewable Future
(7000 words, about 25 minutes reading time)
Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options.* On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.
On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).
Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.
If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”...
Wow, a great, deep question. It's hard to know where to start (and where to stop).
More than 10 years ago I read a newspaper article about the state of the world. I don't remember the content of the article, but I remember being shocked hearing about how bad things were getting, and realizing this wasn't a far-off problem, but likely very near at hand. Soon after that I heard about a small local group that was hosting a salon where people could come together and talk about these things, and I began attending. About a year after that (2004) a movie came out called The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (the movie begins with the Thomas Hardy quote above). My wife and I watched it together, and it was another big shock, telling us "peak oil" was right around the corner. It was really a life changing moment - many in the peak oil community have experienced what has come to be called an "end of suburbia moment" where nothing is the same afterwards. We started thinking through with other community members how embedded we are in oil, doing thought experiments trying to think of things in our lives that weren't either made with oil as a component or transported via oil. I started to do my own research, checking out all of the talking heads from the movie, looking at the opposing arguments - it seemed too important not to do my homework and consider as many perspectives as possible. I was eventually satisfied that the evidence was sound and convincing, and that it was coming from a wide array of backgrounds and political affiliations, not just the usual list of left leaning social or eco critics.
There were feelings of fear and sadness, and deep concern for the future. What could we do? The problem seemed out of proportion to anything we could do about it. My wife and I decided that prioritizing our health was number 1. After that we bought bicycles (though we still don't ride them as much as we'd like) and tried to start shifting our habits of resource consumption. And I became increasingly involved in a new community group that sprang up after that movie showing. We realized that individual survivalism tactics were not necessarily the best response to a long emergency; we wanted to raise awareness and help create a community level response to these issues. I took to heart the words of my grandfather, who was once quoted in a newspaper saying "Good gosh sakes, people have got to get more involved!"
I've now been involved long enough with the issues of oil depletion, climate change, and economic instability I can sometimes be a little numb to the emotional aspects, or how these things might affect me and my family personally, and I can very easily just think about it on an intellectual level. It's good to remember not to be too cavalier when discussing it with others who are just beginning to grok the implications. When our group was working on trying to raise awareness, we would try to make time for people who needed to talk about it in a group. One friend hosted a weekly gathering just for that purpose of processing, and when I planned an event to show the emotionally charged movie What A Way to Go : Life At the End of Empire, we held a talking stick circle with the film-makers after the movie to assist people in processing what they had just witnessed.
Some have noticed that people tend to respond to these issues in stages similar to the 5 stages of grief.
Denial (don't worry, they'll figure it out; economic substitution will take care of it); Anger (it's the fault of those other people); Bargaining (it'll be OK as long as I install solar panels and drive my car less); Depression (if I can't have the life I've been expecting, it's not worth carrying on); and Acceptance (learning to live with what we've lost and calibrating to a new normal).
Although I've been living with this information for some time now, and can often just think about it abstractly, there are still also times of angst on a personal level. I can still get caught up in the business as usual, things are fine scenario, and then something will remind me that I'm not doing enough to prepare. My wife and I rented spaces at a couple of small farms for a couple of years and then bought a place with solar panels and a half acre to grow food, and I've gotten a Permaculture design certification. And yet I know I am woefully unskilled in so many practical ways, and I worry about this. I always remember Mark Morford's humorous article I Cannot Yet Skin a Deer.
And yet, I feel that the best preparation, other than maintaining good physical health, is developing good spiritual/psychological health in relation to these issues. For me that means staying engaged, eyes open, doing what I can, and then letting go and not being attached to outcome - equanimity. Vipasana teacher Shinzen Young passes on the teaching of Sasaki Roshi, who asks "What are you gonna do when the earthquake comes?" Some kind of "earthquake" will eventually befall all of us - how will we respond to life's challenges? I've also found it helpful to listen to Andrew Harvey talk about Rumi and the Apocalypse and the connection between suffering and enlightenment.
I hope the above to some degree touches on what you were wanting to hear about my personal experience and emotional engagement.
Ambo Suno said:
Hi David. Sounds right.
I'm curious, to the extent you feel like answering, where in you and how these issues land in you, reside in you, touch your interest, and maybe get motivating purchase in you? How do they affect you in emotion, affect, mood, thought and imagery? How personal do you feel these issues and themes, how close or distant - maybe some things like that?
Thanks for the comment. I know it's often not easy to face some of these difficult issues and predicaments.
Remember the words of Thomas Hardy: "If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst."
The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Community
Saw this movie last night. Well done, in that it has a nice rhythm with just enough information shared, in between sections that address feelings, emotion, spiritual response, and what people are doing in practical ways.
Joanna Macy makes this statement in the film: "If you want an adventure, boy, what a time to choose to be alive. Don't waste time and self pity over darkness. Don't waste time trying to figure out better circumstances that you might like. You're born into this, and you're here to love it, and to see that it goes on. "
Here's a letter I wrote to a local paper in 2011 in response to an article by Michael Klare...
The complete version of my Letter to the Editor of Cascadia Weekly (published July 13, 2011. The letter was given the unfortunate title "Dark Future" by the Weekly. For sure, I see hard times in our future, but there are also many opportunities. As David Holmgren has written, "We have trouble visualizing decline as positive, but this simply reflects the dominance of our prior culture of growth." My primary reason for writing the letter was to point out that, contrary to Michael Klare's position, I don't think 30 years of violent resource wars are inevitable. Our future could be brighter than Klare envisions.
Thank you for publishing Michael Klare’s recent article (“The New Thirty Years’ War: Winners and Losers in the Great Global En...,” 6/29/11). There are many points on which I agree with Mr. Klare, most importantly that we are entering a period in which issues of energy will be front and center as climate chaos is in our face and supplies of fossil fuels are dwindling. This is an important discussion to be having.
As Klare notes, the planet will need a new system for organizing itself around energy needs, but it is extremely unlikely that in 2041, on a hotter and stormier planet, that economic growth and continued growth in energy consumption can continue. Klare is correct to note that alternative energy systems today cannot replace fossil fuels at current rates of consumption. I believe he is also correct that we need to be putting more effort into developing these resources. However, to expect that these resources will be able to meet future “requirements” after another 30 years of implied growth does not compute.
Two years ago I served on the city and county appointed Energy Resource Scarcity / Peak Oil Task Force. The task force agreed that energy scarcity was an urgent concern, and the majority believed that declining energy will be a key driver of human history in the coming years – see the city’s website for a copy of the report.
The good news is that, contrary to Klare’s assertion, there is a possibility of turning back from participation in violent resource wars. David Holmgren (co-originator of Permaculture) has pointed out that spending resources to capture more resources works in an era of rising energy, such as the 20th Century. In the years to come, during the era of energy decline, those that continue to pursue that strategy will fail, and that failure will be obvious very quickly. Warfare is energy intensive, and is a loser’s game when resources are scarce.
Holmgren goes on to state that in ecosystems with limited energy available, we see large amounts of symbiotic and cooperative relationships, networked structures, and a great diversity. When there's less to fight over, nature (including people) can learn pretty quickly that it’s not worth fighting. Strategies that people in the past have seen as idealistic or utopian, are actually just effective survival strategies for any ecosystem experiencing limited energy.
I believe Klare is right to place his bet on local, resilient, and efficient energy systems that are “decentralized, easy to make and install, and require relatively modest levels of upfront investment.” An important addition to this recommendation is to recognize that we will need to curtail our energy consumption to the level at which the ecosystem allows for humankind to remain truly sustainable on this planet.
Systems ecologist Howard Odum warned us of the real danger nearly 40 years ago: “The terrible possibility before us is that there will be the continued insistence on growth with our last energies by the economic advisors that don’t understand, so that there are no reserves with which to make a change.” We can choose instead to embrace the transition and be willing to adapt to what our ecosystem demands of us. In doing so we may come to realize that what is good for the ecosystem is good for us. It is time to let go of economic expansionism and “seek out the condition now that will come anyway.”
Richard Heinberg: Only Less Will Do
"...Population has grown from 4.4 billion in 1980 to 7.1 billion in 2013. Per capita consumption of energy has grown from less than 70 gigajoules to nearly 80 GJ per year. Total energy use has expanded from 300 exajoules to 550 EJ annually. We’ve used all that energy to extract raw materials (timber, fish, minerals), to expand food production (converting forests to farmland or rangeland, using immense amounts of freshwater for irrigation, applying fertilizers and pesticides). And we see the results: the world’s oceans are dying; species are going extinct at a thousand times the natural rate; and the global climate is careening toward chaos as multiple self-reinforcing feedback processes (including polar melting and methane release) kick into gear.
I'm currently reading Bryant's Onto-Cartography and taking notes in preparation for starting a thread on it. In the meantime, he talks of thermo-politics. In order to effect change in the dominant system of say big oil, one has to speak the only language it understands: money. So to force it to change one must do things that make it notice a loss of profit, like boycotts, reduced use, alternative use, better gas mileage and so on.
If one just tries to attack it on the symbolic level of capitalist ideology, an oil company doesn't even register that complaint. Granted such complaints might have effectiveness in attracting the like-minded to organize, petition, vote etc., which in turn may ultimately affect legislation to shift to renewable energies.
I'm only in chapter three and he's yet to specifically elucidate his three domains of the real, symbolic and imaginary, and how they interrelate, from the above it seems that we must address the domains differently for different results. And he does go over holarchy in that machines congregate in assemblages, so we have 'levels' as well as domains, thereby making his approach integral from a different angle.
For now though the point is that in dealing with the Real we must also address politics thermodynamically and take actions that force big oil's hand in the only language it can understand.
Yes, it sounds like a form of integral multi-lingualism that Barrett Brown has talked about - if you're hoping to meaningfully communicate with orange, you can't just focus on your green ideals, you have to have some emphasis on profit/loss. Here however, it sounds like Bryant is including that but also not just limited to stage awareness.
One of the approaches being taken currently across the U.S. is activism to get universities and other large organizational investment funds to divest from the oil companies.
Also, last year permaculture co-originator David Holmgren raised a bit of a stir with his essay "Crash on Demand" where he encouraged activists who were working unsuccessfully fighting against the system to instead withdraw financial support of the system by becoming more self-reliant, hence taking up Permaculture principles and practices. By withdrawing consumer support for the system, a small percentage of the population doing this might just have the effect the protesting and sometimes violent are wanting to see (because the current financial bubble is so fragile right now anyway). In Permaculture the idea is that by becoming more self-reliant we can become less dependent on, and less supportive (with our dollars) of the current dominator/capitalist system. Rather than being dependent consumers, we become more responsible producer/consumers.
That Crash on Demand essay resulted in numerous responses, many of them mis-interpreting Holmgren (hence a series of posts on my part trying to sort it out).
So now, this year, a recent "Great Debate" was staged, to ask the question, to crash or not to crash the economy in order to save the ecology.
The Whole Debate, including Holmgren, George Monbiot, Nicole Foss (worth skipping ahead to about the 34 minute mark to see), and others weigh in:
Tim DeChristopher: The Church Should Lead, Not Follow on Climate Justice
DeChristopher is a second-year master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School, studying for Unitarian Universalist ministry. The story of his 2008 act of civil disobedience disrupting a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction is chronicled in the film Bidder70.
"...These necessary goals are so bold as to seem unreasonable. As has been the case in every social movement that has struggled for fundamental change, there will undoubtedly be setbacks and points at which there can be no reasonable expectation of success. The movements that persevere are those which find a form of hope, a reason to continue the struggle, even in those dark times. The conventional wisdom of the climate movement is that optimism is the only form of hope, for without optimism people will have no reason to continue the struggle. But optimism is a silly and fragile kind of hope. This is the most important point around which religious leaders must not follow the movement, but must provide moral leadership. I believe that a major reason why religious communities have played an important role in so many social movements is that in those moments of despair, when optimism is ridiculous, religious people base their hope on faith and continue the struggle. In those dark moments we continue to struggle for justice, because that is what it means to be faithful to the people we love, to be faithful to the world we love, and to be faithful to a God who loves the world.
Reconnecting and reaffirming those loves is the critical work of moral leadership in this movement. As much as we need to fully recognize the harsh truth of the nature of our challenge, we must just as fully affirm with gratitude the goodness and beauty that we love in the world, in God, and in each other. Our faithfulness to this love becomes the bedrock of a more resilient kind of hope, a hope that doesn’t bend to the winds of political feasibility. As Katy Allen, a rabbi and chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said at the recent HDS conference, “There’s never a time when it’s too late to redefine your hope.”
As religious leaders, we are not called to be optimistic; we are called to be faithful to our love. We are called to the climate movement, not merely to add respectability with our signatures on a petition. We are called not just to provide photo ops with collars out front. As people of faith, we are called to be the rock of the climate justice movement, the solid rock of hope that remains strong on the darkest days. Let us pray we are up to the challenge."
Energy, Ecology, and Economics
"In early November of 1973—during a visit to MOTHER's [Mother Earth News] new home in the mountains of western North Carolina—New Alchemist John Todd gave the magazine's editors about the 14th-generation Xerox copy of what can conservatively be described as a dynamite paper.
We had only to glance at this extraordinary document to realize that the paper (originally written at the request of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) is one of the most concise—yet most sweeping—examinations yet made of the real problems of the world. Read it and see for yourself. The paper which follows—written by the same author for a press conference held this past January—is more of the same.
The man who produced this work is Howard T. Odum, Ph. D. . . . Director of the Center for Wetlands and a Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In the past, he has been Professor of Ecology at the University of North Carolina, Chief Scientist for the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center and Director of the Institute of Marine Science of the University of Texas at Port Aransas. Professor Odum has many other environmental credits to his name including the book, Environment, Power and Society (John Wiley, 1972).
We feel that Dr. Odum's papers, presented here with his permission and the permission of The Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden, are important enough to replace the PLOWBOY INTERVIEW usually found in this section of the magazine."
Excerpt of the Royal Swedish Academy Introduction:
“Many are beginning to see that energy, ecology, and economics form a single, unified system, states the author, who gives twenty points to explain the energy control of our economy and the relationship to the environment…He offers a general answer to the present world situation, where ‘boom and bust’ economies may soon be forced toward a steady state: reject economic expansionism, stop growth, use available energies for cultural conversion to steady state, and seek out the condition now that will come anyway.”
As long-predicted energy shortages appear, as questions about the interaction of energy and environment are raised…, many are beginning to see that there is a unity of the single system of energy, ecology, and economics. The world's leadership, however, is mainly advised by specialists who study only a part of the system at a time.
Instead of a single system's understanding, we have adversary arguments… Many economic models ignore the changing force of energy, regarding effects of energy sources as an external constant; ecoactivists cause governments to waste energy in unnecessary technology; and the false gods of growth and medical ethics make famine, disease, and catalytic collapse more and more likely for much of the world. Some energy specialists consider the environment as an antagonist instead of a major energy ally in supporting the biosphere.
Instead of the confusion that comes from the western civilization's characteristic educational approach of isolating variables in tunnel-vision thinking, let us here seek common sense overview which comes from overall energetics…
With major changes confronting us, let us consider here some of the main points that we must comprehend so we may be prepared for the future.”
Even so, when it showed up today, calling this neo-liberal pro-nuclear, anti-ecological, and anti-natural piece of propaganda, and referred to it as "Integral Environmentalism," it really got my goat!
I confess I don't yet have the composure to actually listen to the program (or read the transcript). I only read the introduction by Brett Walker.
One of the ideas expressed in the EcoModernist Manifesto is the suggestion that we decouple man from nature, with the idea that we can become less dependent on nature, and therefore less destructive.
Gregory Bateson had the opposite idea, expressed with the title of one of his books: Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity.
And here's what I think is a relevant quote from his other book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind:
"A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part - if you will - of God.
If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you...The environment will seem to be yours to exploit...
If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite." (p. 462)
History has shown that improved technology and better efficiencies do not generally reduce consumption of resources, but rather increase consumption, because more resources become available at lower cost. This phenomenon is known as Jeavon's Paradox, or the related term "rebound effect".
Gail Tverberg has an important perspective that should be added to the mix. She argues that energy resource scarcity initially leads to higher prices (such as we saw in early 2008); higher prices result in reduced demand. Reduced demand leads to lower production. Lower production leads to lower consumption. Lower consumption leads to recession...
She also argues that globalization is a boost to the world economy in the short term, but it is not a long term solution...
Here's the conclusion of her recent article:
BP Data Suggest we Are Reaching Peak Energy Demand
Our World Economy Has No Reverse Gear
None of the issues I raise would be a problem, if our economy had a reverse gear–in other words, if it could shrink as well as grow. There are a number of things that go wrong if an economy tries to shrink:
Many have focused on a single problem area–for example, the requirement that interest be paid on debt–as being the problem preventing the economy from shrinking. It seems to me that this is not the only issue. The problem is much more fundamental. We live in a networked economy; a networked economy has only two directions available to it: (1) growth and (2) recession, which can lead to collapse.
What we seem to be seeing is an end to the boost that globalization gave to the world economy. Thus, world economic growth is slowing, and because of this slowed economic growth, demand for energy products is slowing. This globalization was encouraged by the Kyoto Protocol (1997). The protocol aimed to reduce carbon emissions, but because it inadvertently encouraged globalization, it tended to have the opposite effect. Adding China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 further encouraged globalization. CO2 emissions tended to grow more rapidly after those dates.
Figure 14. World CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, based on data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.
Now growth in fuel use is slowing around the world. Virtually all types of fuel are affected, as are many parts of the world. The slowing growth is associated with low fuel prices, and thus slowing demand for fuel. This is what we would expect, if the world is running into affordability problems, ultimately related to fuel prices rising faster than wages.
Globalization brings huge advantages, in the form of access to cheap energy products still in the ground. From the point of view of businesses, there is also the possibility of access to cheap labor and access to new markets for selling their goods. For long-industrialized countries, globalization also represents a workaround to inadequate local energy supplies.
The one problem with globalization is that it is not a permanent solution. This happens for several reasons:
It seems to me that we are reaching the limits of globalization now. This is why prices of commodities have fallen. With falling prices comes lower production and hence lower total consumption. Many economies are gradually moving into recession–this is what the low prices and falling rates of energy growth really mean.
It is quite possible that at some point in the not too distant future, demand (and prices) will fall further. We then will be dealing with severe worldwide recession.
In my view, low prices and low demand for commodities are what we should expect, as we reach limits of a finite world. There is widespread belief that as we reach limits, prices will rise, and energy products will become scarce. I don’t think that this combination can happen for very long in a networked economy. High energy prices tend to lead to recession, bringing down prices. Low wages and slow growth in debt also tend to bring down prices. A networked economy can work in ways that does not match our intuition; this is why many researchers fail to see understand the nature of the problem we are facing."