By Stephanie Hiller
Government efforts to arrest the fact of climate change have been so ineffectual that the call has gone out: What’s needed is a dramatic overhaul of the American political and economic system—before global warming renders the planet—and Sonoma and Marin counties 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 their way of life, unfettered consumption and capitalism. Climate change is a direct consequence. 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. The Washington D.C.-based organization’s petition was signed by hundreds, among them the North Bay prophet of peak oil, 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, he says.
“We built our economic institutions around consumption based on cheap energy and stoked it with advertising,” Heinberg says. “We just can’t continue to grow.”
The economy is in crisis, Heinberg says, 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, he says, 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,” Heinberg argues.
“Resilience is being able to absorb shocks and continue functioning.”
Americans are used to having what we want—and many among us have trouble facing the implications of climate change.
Trathen Heckman is the founder of Daily Acts, best known for its annual Community Resilience Challenge in which folks make pledges to save water, grow food, conserve energy, reduce waste or build community—the five spheres of so-called whole-system regeneration. The program has grown from 628 pledges nine years ago to 6,500 this year, and spread to Humboldt and the East Bay through TransitionUS (Heckman is on the board).
“People say, ‘What if climate change is a hoax?’ If people are healthier, happier, living in community, growing food like this,” Heckman says, “it’s just the best and the right thing to do either way.”
Heckman advocates for the Gandhian idea to “be the change.” He boasts the first permitted gray-water system in Sonoma County and worked with a local group to change state policy on gray-water. Daily Acts is as engaged as can be with agencies at every level to further the lifestyle Heckman models with his family—low consumption of water and energy, growing food instead of ornamentals, and, naturally—building community.
The folks at Sustainable Fairfax recently hosted a panel discussion with Heckman where he gave the good word on gray-water systems, says executive director Jennifer Hammond.
“We need to look at how we localize, prioritize and manage water,” she says. “As climate change accelerates, we expect the drought to continue to worsen.”
Sustainable Fairfax has been around for more than a decade and “was founded by two women,” says Hammond, “whose main concern was climate change.” Those women were Rebekah Collins and Odessa Wolfe, who had a big role in getting the county’s landmark community-choice-aggregate Marin Clean Energy off the ground.
Climate change “has been a driving force in everything we do,” chimes in Renee Goddard during an engaging interview with Goddard and Hammond at the nonprofit’s office in downtown Fairfax.
Goddard is a volunteer at the organization and also the vice-mayor of Fairfax. She notes that the biggest challenge for climate-change activists in Marin is “finding the best channel for behavior change” among residents, many of whom are somewhat wealthy.
Marin County has pushed out numerous initiatives aimed at localized efforts at climate-change reduction, including the “zero waste” initiative and the MCE, a groundbreaking effort to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by breaking free of the PG&E monopoly with local renewables and other green power sources.
“We’ve become the workhorses for some of the county’s goals and initiatives,” says Goddard, “and we are a fired-up nonprofit!”
Rather than eco-shame luxe residents, Sustainable Fairfax leads by example. As the organization was prepping for an upcoming rollout on a big transportation initiative to get folks to leave their cars at home a couple days a week—Hammond and Collins took their bikes, and then public transportation, from Marin to Sacramento for a transportation conference. “We had to make a lot of connections,” Hammond says. “It was kind of a blast.”
Goddard ticks off the trip: “Bike, bus, BART, train, walk, run.”
“We ran to Sacramento to get to this transportation summit!”
The emphasis, says Goddard, in in getting people to take stock of the very small things they can do—simple things like, which disposable coffee cups are compostable? It’s tricky.
“We are big on educating people to affect and mitigate the climate crisis impact,” Goddard says, “but we don’t take positions that alienate people. We are not here to advocate politics. We advocate collaboration.”
Hammond nods in agreement. “We’re not going after minds,” she says. “At Sustainable Fairfax, it’s all about the actions, big and small, that can add up.”
The Napa Valley Vintners (NVV)—a group of Napa Valley growers and winemakers—are well aware of their collective actions. A strong commitment to the environment and the community has been a long-held practice, says Patsy McGaughy, communications director at NVV.
The Napa Green Winery and Napa Green Land programs predated, by a few years, a 2011 NVV climate change study—one that aimed to point out what the impact of climate change could be for winemakers. The goal was to help Napa wineries reduce energy use, water use and waste, McGuaghy explains.
Michelle Novi works in industry relations at NVV and is known as the “queen of green” there. She helps participating vineyard get the coveted certification from Napa Green Winery or Napa Green Land (there’s a lot of crossover given that many vineyard owners also own the land). “We will essentially walk them through a water audit, an energy audit, a waste audit—looking at what they are doing on-site and tailoring their plan to their operation,” Novi says.
A vineyard gets a three-year certification from Napa Green Winery only after the county Public Works Department does its own audit. It’s a tough and coveted designation, and a vineyard that wants to re-certify after three years has to “do even better than you just did,” McGuaghy says.
The organization hopes to get all of its members certified by 2020 (there’s more than 500 of them). This April it highlighted several vineyards for work they’ve done to take up the climate-change call. Among them was Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford, which installed solar fields and got hooked into the Marin Clean Energy community choice aggregate. And, the winery bought a company car for errands—a Nissan Leaf, natch.
Outside of such glowing examples close to home, there is the sluggish national and international response to the climate crisis. But the economic system is not about to unravel, according to Michael Shuman, an economist and 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 a local economy can become, the more its citizens’ lives will be made easier and safer through whatever climate-change calamities are around the bend.
As Shuman explains, the vast majority of local businesses (about 99 percent of them) 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 $100 million more dollars 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 non-renewables.”
There are local enterprises all over the place in the North Bay, poking up like mushrooms out of the fecund soil. But the localism movement in the county is so decentralized that it’s actually kind of hard to describe, says Marissa Mommaerts, who works with the Sebastopol-based Transition US.
Transition Town is a movement that began in Ireland in 2005. Its core tenet is to build resilient person-to-person networks in communities. Irish neighbors worked together to install organic gardens, share skills and tools and enjoy the fruits of their labor in community get-togethers. The movement has spread all across the world.
Mommaerts keeps the dismal specter of climate change firmly in view. She gave a talk recently at Chico State University and said, “If we act alone, it will be too little. If we wait for government to act, it will be too little too late. But if we come together to act as a community, it could be just enough, just in time.”
Mommaerts is 28 years old and hails from Wisconsin. She says that her main goal is to “slow climate change, adapt to impacts and have something left standing on the other side.”
She says the American economy is “at the root of our ecological and economic crises” and says a growing movement is redefining investment so it is about more than profit, and that “extra profit is reinvested in the community.”
Kelley Ragala is a co-founder of GoLocal, a point-earning network of local businesses. Now she’s now engaged in a new project, North Bay Made, to promote Northern California products. Then there’s Oren Wool, another inspired North Bay visionary who coordinates the Sustainable Enterprise Conference that is now in its 10th year with 160 participating companies.
“Companies that are sustainably run are our best community citizens,” Wool says. The Sustainable Enterprise Conference is intended, he says, “to help people find new ways to keep their money active locally. In America one of our biggest problems is economic stratification. A sustainable community would be addressing that. If we had built companies to address environmental problems, we wouldn’t have climate change.”
Farms remain the heart of the local network. Petaluma Bounty is a small urban farm that has helped start eight other farms that are now independent. The group partners with the Petaluma Health Center to host an eight-week program that serves youth at risk of obesity. The program starts with an invitation to the farm so young people can see how their food is grown. There’s also a Produce Prescription Program: For needy patients, practitioners may write a prescription for $10 of organic produce, to be filled at the farm.
Suzi Grady is the director of programs at Petaluma Bounty, which along with dozens of other organizations is a member of the Sonoma County Farm System Alliance.
“You can talk until you’re blue in the face about how things aren’t working,” she says, “and until you put your energy into an alternative that does work, you’re just blowing hot air.”
She’s not blowing hot air: Bounty’s programs reach deep into the community. The alliance has endorsed Sonoma County’s Food Action Plan, a landmark collaboration of stakeholders throughout the county food system, which is funded by the Health Action Initiative, a county-wide effort to “develop a framework for a community engagement effort to get people involved in creating a healthier Sonoma County.”
“The county health department had great foresight,” Grady says, “in seeing the link between diet and health. Sonoma County is considered the foodie destination of the U.S. We’re selling this image, but how do we make it work for everyone? I think we’re ready to have that conversation.”
It’s fitting that an emergent localized economy started around food. The entire purpose of an economy is to provide for needs, as “slow money” investment specialist Marco Vangelisti explains in presentations for Transition US.
Our economy is in trouble and its precarious condition is largely due to its reliance on debt. “People think that the government creates money,” Vangelisti says, “but it’s the banks that create money, and they create it from debt.”
The Napa Valley Vintners understand the complexity and challenges wrought by climate change—but wanted a better understanding of actual impacts in Napa County. The organization notes on its website that over the past decade, there’s been quite a lot of dramatic headlines around climate change and its impact on winemaking. They’re not denying it, but they are looking for some localized context.
“While the news is titillating and makes for dramatic headlines that Napa’s famed wine industry is doomed, the headlines belie the fact that there is a lot that is unknown about climate change as it affects the wine industry and particularly Napa Valley.
“There’s 30,000 Napa Valley jobs and billions in revenue at stake, and even as the vintner’s group noted that climate change can and will affect all fine wine-growing regions worldwide … the results will not necessarily be a blanket effect, as climate change is not a one-size-fits all phenomena.”
The vintner’s organization continued, in somewhat eye-popping manner, with the following observation: “There is also little consideration for the potential impact of global warming on all forms of agriculture and human and animal activity—were this apocalypse to come true, one could argue that world hunger, deforestation, coastal flooding and other horrific environmental changes would dominate the world’s agenda and no one would care about where the best Cabernet Sauvignon is produced.”
Enter the next-economy movement, where optimism splashes forth from all quarters—a refreshing and diverse development. But if governments and big corporations continue to push policies that contribute to climate change, will local efforts to understand and work the problem really do any good?
The stakes could not be any higher. “In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions,” Naomi Klein wrote in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, “an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people, and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism. Climate change, by putting us on a firm deadline, can serve as the catalyst for precisely this profound social and ecological transformation.”
Tom Gogola contributed reporting.
Richard Heinberg: Cheerleader for local
By Jonah Raskin
Barefoot and in a bright green T-shirt, Richard Heinberg kicks back in his Santa Rosa living room and outlines his views on the local, the global and the future of civilization. A charismatic public speaker and the author of a dozen books including Afterburn, his latest, Heinberg and his wife, Janet Barocco, raise chickens, grow vegetables and cultivate backyard fruit and nut trees that nourish them all year long.
“I’m a cheerleader for local and all in favor of local solutions to economic problems,” he says. “We need to reverse the trend toward the global civilization that creates instability and imbalance, and that wreaks havoc with communities everywhere.”
Heinberg offers suggestions for local consumers: Take your money out of big banks and deposit it in credit unions; buy at food co-ops; vote with pocketbooks; and push for local power apart from PG&E.
He also urges political activism. “Citizens should tell their representatives to reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was negotiated in secret and that’s meant to increase the volume of international trade at the expense of local businesses and local economies,” he says. “One provision of the TPP says that if municipal governments promote local over imported, the importers can sue for lost profits.”
Born in Missouri in 1950, Heinberg didn’t tune into localism until 1992, when he settled in Sonoma County and began to track the dangers of globalization. From 1998 to 2008, he taught localism at the New College of California in Santa Rosa. In 2009, he joined the Post Carbon Institute, where he’s now the senior fellow-in-residence.
Heinberg points out the limits to localism. “If your goal is to be 100 percent local, then you won’t consume very much at all,” he says. “The point, however, ought not to be 100 percent local. Trade from distant places will always be necessary. But we ought to return to some kind of balance.”
He adds, “In the last three decades, long-distance manufacturing and trade has greatly superseded local manufacturing and trade, which means that our civilization is much more brittle and far less resilient than it was, say, 30 years ago.”
In Afterburn, Heinberg offers gloomy thoughts on Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and California generally. They’ve all “bet their futures mostly on cars, trucks, airplanes, highways and runways—and therefore, in effect, on oil,” he writes. “It appears to be a losing bet.”
Heinberg hopes to see a dismantling of the power of corporations to maximize profits at the expense of society as a whole. “Our civilization is well in decline,” he says. “The process will accelerate, though we can slow it by moving away from corporations and toward co-ops that operate locally and that offer high-quality products to consumers.”
Despite gloomy thoughts and a host of even gloomier book titles to his name—The Party’s Over, Powerdown and The End of Growth—Heinberg enjoys a good party, a good laugh, a good meal and the good life itself.
A violinist, book designer and illustrator, Heinberg is a sensualist who reveres the senses. To that end, a real sense of joy and delight in community bubbles up between some of the gloomier passages in Afterburn. And he’s positively upbeat in a chapter called “All Roads Lead Local.”