Blessed Unrest

Mike Lewis's picture

by Mike Lewis

“We are psychologically stuck - we are good at what we know, but are too scared to try anything else. If we could directly transfer the mobilization power of oil into a new energy economy, into a new economic measurement, into a new level of coordination and cooperation - where the true cost of development is clearly laid out - we may have a chance.”

Lee Brain, testifying at the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Joint Review Panel, Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Feb 18, 2012

“Our global economic system is broken not because of the credit crisis; it is broken because it is predicated on perpetual, resource driven growth with no recognition of scale limitations.”

John Fullerton, “The Relevance of E. F. Schumacher in the 21st Century,” June 2008

Dear Lee,

Eight years ago, late September I think it was, I went to Stamp Falls, just outside Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. For years and years I had been going to the falls, drawn by the sheer wonder of thousands of salmon returning to secure the next generation and then to die.

It was different this time though. I went hand-in-hand with a 3-year old girl, my first grandchild. It was enough to make any reasonable person start to reflect on the mystery of life’s rhythms. But this time there was more on my mind.

The previous day I had read a study that suggested salmon may not exist in 40 years. Climate change could raise the temperature of fresh and ocean water beyond the range in which salmon can survive. As I savoured my granddaughter’s exaltation at salmon jumping against the roaring cascade of white water, my heart began to break. Might she not be able to return to this place with her first grandchild and experience the same wonder?

Thus started my transition. Perhaps, when he encounters your first child, your father will start his. Perhaps, your testimony before the Enbridge Panel will suffice.

Your description of him is so wonderful: his energy, his intelligence, his talent for languages and, most importantly, his capacity (and yours) to respect and love someone despite drastically different worldviews. It was so poignant to hear your reflection on that unique, month-long visit he arranged to northern India, so you could see the inner workings of a 1.2 million barrel-per-day oil refinery.

He wanted you to understand the power of oil. He certainly succeeded, given what you said to the Panel.

You’re right - we need to be gentle with each other as we struggle to understand how to make the transition to a low-carbon economy. I also agree we must reject economic “solutions” which involve increasing our use of fossil fuels. Our challenge is to reduce fossil fuel use, not to produce more, faster, so growth can be sustained or increased here or in the U.S. or in China. That’s like stepping on the accelerator as we drive towards the edge of the cliff. Not so smart if we want to be able to walk with our grandchildren to watch salmon return.

In the Overview to its 2011 Annual Energy Outlook (pages 6, 10), the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicts that, by 2035, energy-related CO2 emissions will grow by 16%. As the chart on the right shows, coal and oil will continue to predominate. Renewable energy sources will increase moderately, but that reduction in emissions will be offset by growth in energy demand overall.

The EIA goes on to state, “this pathway would almost certainly commit the world to catastrophic climate change, including rapid sea level rise, extreme famine, desertification, and ecological collapse on land and sea.”

The question is, even when we agree that this path we are on is catastrophic, how do we get off it? Resistance to Enbridge and other growth-obsessed projects is important. But we also have to find ways of being the changes we want to see in the world. We have to do this not just as individuals, but collectively in the communities and regions where we live.

How are we going to meet our basic needs for energy, food, shelter, and finance more sustainably and equitably?

I would love for you to review the manuscript which I and my friend Pat Conaty have just written for our book, The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a-Steady State Economy. New Society Publishers will have the book in the stores in June. Here’s a flyer about it.

Perhaps you would even consider commenting on it. You would be in good company. Hazel Henderson, Bill McKibben, Noam Chomsky, and Thomas Homer-Dixon are among many who have enthusiastically agreed to review the manuscript. I think they appreciate how it identifies select innovations and challenges in food, shelter, finance, and energy, and begins to connect some of the dots between them. By doing so, it helps us begin to discern pathways to a more resilient future.

Here’s an excerpt of the text, Fossil-Fuel-Free Kristianstad, now published as a feature article in the ejournal, i4.

Imagine a district municipality of 26 communities which decides to become fossil-fuel-free. Since 1999 that’s what the people of Kristianstad, Sweden have done and are doing. It is so exciting, Lee. They are getting close. They are showing it can be done. They are showing us a path forward.

You said to the Enbridge Panel, “We need to use all of our resources we have left wisely to create a whole new system of operation that is global in scale.” I agree whole-heartedly with the need to radically decrease the rate and way we use resources. However, I am not sure that the solution must be ”global in scale.“

In my view, Kristianstad offers a better example of what we need to see more of. It decentralizes the solutions and democratizes the ownership of the means. It seems to me this approach reflects the principles of resilience you hold to so strongly. It is local in scale but global in relevance - a “Glocal” strategy. Is this what you have in mind?

I fully understand why you maintain that we are “stuck” in a fossil-fuel culture. But if there’s one thing that this book has taught Pat Conaty and me, it’s that there are a lot of innovations out there. In diverse settings people are forging remarkable solutions, each of which help us grasp factors critical to navigating transition and to making our communities more resilient. Our challenge is to scale resilience innovations across more and more communities and regions.

It is possible. Nobody can claim otherwise. This does not necessarily mean it is probable. As Thomas Friedman stated in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, we have 70% of the technologies to solve the carbon problem right now, but they are not being deployed effectively or quickly.

We need many more people like your father to take the path of John Fullerton. After 20 years as a managing director of Wall Street’s JP Morgan, Fullerton has eschewed the 20th-century paradigm of economic growth. Instead, he is investing his time, energy, and resources in the transformation of finance from profit maximization to resilience maximization. (He has also agreed to comment on our manuscript, by the way.)

And we need more people like you, in Prince Rupert and in communities across this country, who are willing to put their shoulders to the wheel, to resist a paradigm run amok, and to build a low-carbon, equitable, and resilient future.

The challenges are daunting. The outcomes are uncertain. Our courage remains untested. But we are not alone; “blessed unrest” (as Paul Hawken says) is all around us. Change is possible.

I will close with the same question that ends The Resilience Imperative, “What stories will we be able to tell our loved ones about what we did to advance the Great Transition?”

May your father and you know together the joy of seeing your first child cry out in wonder at a salmon leaping upstream to ensure the next generation.

Thank you for witnessing to the future, Lee.


Michael Lewis