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.”
There are local enterprises all over the place in the North Bay, poking up like mushrooms in fecund soil. But the localism movement in Sonoma County is so decentralized that it’s hard to describe, says Marissa Mommaerts, who works with the Sebastopol-based Transition U.S.
The Transition Town movement 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 is now global.
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. 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.”
The North Bay is fertile ground for this kind of work. Kelley Ragala is a cofounder 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. Oren Wool, another inspired North Bay visionary, coordinates the Sustainable Enterprise Conference, now in its 10th year with 160 participating companies.
“Companies that are sustainably run are our best community citizens,” says Wool. 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 which 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, which lets practitioners 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 Food 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.”
Grady is 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 [Sonoma County] health department had great foresight in seeing the link between diet and health,” says Grady. “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.”
Food, yes. But what of wine?
Back in 2011, the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) association ordered a study on climate change in Napa Valley, to figure out what the actual impact could be for winemakers. It found that there was a slight uptick in nighttime temperatures for part of the year.
“We can all agree that something is going on with the climate in our world,” says Patsy McGaughy, communication director at NVV. “In Napa Valley, we are trying to figure out what that means.”
The Napa Green Winery and Napa Green Land programs predated the organization’s climate change study by a few years—and set out 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 vineyards get the coveted certification from Napa Green Winery or Napa Green Land. Vineyards and wineries get 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 has to “do even better than you just did,” says McGuaghy.
The organization hopes to get all its members certified by 2020 (there are 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 Marin Clean Energy. And the winery bought a company car for errands—a Nissan Leaf, natch.
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 do any good?
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 program has grown from 628 pledges nine years ago to 6,500 this year, and has spread to Humboldt and the East Bay through Transition US (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,” says Heckman, “it’s just the best and the right thing to do either way.”
Heckman advocates for the Gandhian idea to “be the change you want to see in the world.” He boasts the first permitted graywater system in Sonoma County and worked with a local group to change state policy on graywater. Daily Acts (see the Bohemian, “Beat the Heat,” June 11, 2014) 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 graywater 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 over a decade and was founded by two women whose main concern was climate change. Those women, Rebekah Collins and Odessa Wolfe, had a big role in getting the county’s landmark community-choice-aggregate Marin Clean Energy (MCE) off the ground.
Climate change “has been a driving force in everything we do,” chimes in Fairfax vice mayor and Sustainable Fairfax voluneer Renee Goddard at the nonprofit’s office in downtown Fairfax.
Rather than eco-shame luxe Marin County residents, Sustainable Fairfax leads by example. As the organization was prepping for an upcoming rollout on a big transportation initiative to get people 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,” says Hammond. “It was kind of a blast.”
Goddard ticks off the trip: “Bike, bus, BART, train, walk, run.”
The emphasis, says Goddard, is in getting people to take stock of the very small things they can do—simple things, such as which disposable coffee cups are compostable? It’s tricky.
“We are big on educating people to affect and mitigate impacts of the climate crisis,” says Goddard, “but we don’t take positions that alienate people. We are not here to advocate a politics. We advocate collaboration.”
The stakes could not be any higher. “In the rocky future we have already made inevitable,” Naomi Klein wrote in last year’s 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 humanity 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 to this story.