Thursday, 4 December 2008

Hometown security - a review of Pat Murphy's Plan C

Megan Quinn of The Community Solution speaks of her visit to Cuba, Peak Oil, the opportunity to create the communities we want, warning we must move to a low-energy lifestyle, that biofuels will not save us.

Pat Murphy, Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change (Gabriola Island B.C., New Society Publishers, 2008).

Civilization as we know it is coming to an end – a good thing, Gandhi might say. Personal recycling will never solve the climate crisis. Even if Americans reduced garbage to zero, they could not achieve the reduction of CO2 by 80% by 2050 needed to stop disastrous global warming (see Bill McKibben's

Plan A is business as usual, the quickest route to ecosystem collapse. Plan B is the dream of a green technological fix without giving up infinite growth and consumerism. Plan C is for “curtailment and community" (radically deep cuts in consumption, and a cooperative, convivial post-carbon way of life). Plan D is die-off, nature's answer to any species that exceeds the earth's carrying capacity. Murphy takes this possibility seriously, but his is not a World Without Us exultation about Gaia's revenge on sinful humanity. Pat Murphy is a former computer whiz in aerospace and energy, builder of energy efficient homes, co-writer and producer of the documentary Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. As director of since 2003 he has been urging Americans to deal with peak oil and climate change. Plan C is also a manifesto of the rapidly growing (re)localization movement, aka permaculture, post-carbon, food security (CSA), transition towns, eco-villages.

Not an easy read, his book crunches the numbers from recent scientific studies. It is superbly indexed, for those who need access to the statistics. For instance, world per capita CO2 emission is about 4 tonnes/year, which must be reduced to less than one tonne by 2050. But the average American produces 19.61 tonnes and our level is rising fast! Data in chapters 5 and 6 demolish the consumerist illusions of tech fixes. Mechanized agriculture needs 10 boe (barrel of oil equivalents) to produce 1 calorie; a generation ago it used 1/5 boe per calorie. New green buildings? “too big, very expensive, one-of-a-kind, architect designed,” needed are retrofits and radical cuts beyond mere conservation. He tells the sad story of the Energy Star thermostat – energy-efficient it was not. The private car? A dodo. The fuel cell (flex, hybrid, electric, hydrogen) has been “10 years away for 35 years” -- a mirage. Biofuels, solar, wind, hydrogen-electric, nuclear, cannot solve the coming energy shortage, nor the oxymorons of sustainable development, Zero Energy buildings (50% not 0%), clean coal, and CSS which he calls “carbon bequestration”.
Consider writing this clause into your will: to my darling children. I, being of unsound mind, leave to you my personal legacy of 3,000,000 pounds of CO2 and a few hundred thousand pounds of plastic, glass and miscellaneous toxins; guard them well. And I also leave you a few hundred pounds of plutonium. Be particularly careful with the plutonium. Think of me and remember I loved you even though it may not look that way.
We must also abandon our addiction to fossil fuels, the religion of economic growth, consumerism and rising inequity at home and abroad. The American way of life and Peak Empire have brought us war, hatred, free trade as a rationale for controlling weaker nations, a fortress mentality, recurring world financial and energy crises. Plans A and B guarantee they will continue.

What then must we do? Chapter 13 on "food health and survival" can be summed up in Michael Pollan's advice: don't eat too much, avoid processed foods, eat organic and mostly plants. More to the point, it shows in detail how our habits of production, transportation, cooking and nutrition must be transformed. And in the coming mindshift, community must replace consumerism. Learn from Cuba and Kerala, which provide high education levels, food security and free healthcare.
Values of novelty, comfort, convenience, ease, fashion, indulgence, luxury and competition... must give way to different values such as cooperation, temperance, prudence, moderation, conviviality and charity... those who desire to make the transition successfully with minimal risk must start now to toughen and strengthen themselves physically and psychologically for difficult times to come such people would be more compared to live in a future that is poorer in material goods but richer in spiritual, psychological and community benefits.
Kick the media habit, urges Chapter 15, pointing out how our entertainment teaches consumption, competition and violence, dumbs us down, protects us from reality, and nourishes our illusions:
  • America's military superiority is a source of pride....
  • Our suffering is most important...
  • Patriots are willing to fight... shame on any who disagree.
  • Might makes right (if we can take it, it's ours).

Housing (currently responsible for 39% of US CO2): cut heat loss and wasteful appliances, insulate, share space, and retrofit. Chapter 10 has a whole panoply of suggestions. Chapter 11 on transportation argues that mass transit and bicycles, though desirable, cannot meet the challenge of US sprawl; it proposes computerized rideshares, a “smart jitney” which already exists in several parts of the world (for instance, It would not have scheduled routes, but operate anywhere anytime and anyplace, and allow persons to input preferences, e.g. women could request rides with other women. Murphy meets concerns about security, safety and privacy. What must change is the car culture of power, speed, force – and road rage.

Chapters 16-17 suggest steps toward hometown and neighborhood security: by localizing food, power generation, manufacturing, investment and banking. Quality of life must replace quantity. What are the characteristics of this new low-energy lifestyle?

- community...assumes friendliness
- a feeling of belonging, being at home
- gardening, studies, the arts
- unity and cohesion: people assume they will be cared for if they are in need of help
- mutual concern and mutual assistance: as the fossil economy wanes, a large non-cash sector will emerge
- civic responsibility, joint ownership, shared tasks and bees
- celebrations, traditions and rituals

Though Plan C quotes recent studies by policy wonks, this closing vision is reminiscent of Marge Peircy's novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).

Other classics of the localization movement:
EF Schumacher Small Is Beautiful (1973), Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America (1977) and "The idea of a local economy" (online, 2001), Bill Mollison Designer's Manual (1988), Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel Looking Forward (1991), John Kortzman Building Cities from the Inside Out (1997), Richard Douthwaite Short Circuit (1998), Colin Hines Localization (2000), Michael Shuman Going Local (2000), Christopher and Dolores Nyerges Extreme Simplicity (2002), Jim Merkel Radical Simplicity (2003), Daniel Holmgren Permaculture (2003 or online), Bill McKibben Deep Economy (2004), this Richard Heinberg Powerdown (2005), James Kunstler The Long Emergency (2005) and his novel World Made by Hand (2008), Michael Pollan The Omnivore' s Dilemma (2006), Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy (2006), Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon The 100 Mile Diet (2007), Rob Hopkins The Transition Handbook (2008 or on wiki), Chris Carlsson Nowtopia (2008), Andrew Simms From the Ashes of the Crash (2008), Lyle Estill Small Is Possible (2008), Lisa M. Hamilton Deeply Rooted (forthcoming). Orion magazine articles. See also "bioregionalism" by Great River, Wikipedia, and resources at, and

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