A Resilient Response to Our Planetary Crisis: From Ecological Collapse to Community Resilience

On March 27 I gave the closing keynote presentation (!) at the CSU-Chico “This Way to Sustainability” Conference, now in its 10th year. The conference theme was on “Building Resilient Communities,” and my talk shared a nature-based, people-powered response to the converging ecological and economic crises we face as humanity on this planet.

You can view the presentation or read my notes (almost a transcript, with links to additional resources) below.

You can view a recording of my talk at http://bit.ly/resilient_response

You can view a recording of my talk at http://bit.ly/resilient_response

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Thank you! I’m honored to be here and grateful to the conference organizers for giving me the opportunity to be here today.

I’ve spent the last 10 years gathering the information and learning the lessons I’m going to share with you today, but I’m not an expert on any one of the topics I’m going to cover – I’m more of a systems thinker looking at how all of these issues intersect and what kind of opportunities exist for holistic solutions. I’m going to share with you what is essentially a crash course in building community resilience.

On Wednesday I was at the launch of the Oakland Resilient Cities Initiative, and a wise old man who gave the opening remarks said – “Resilience – is a polite word for “survival.”

And he’s right. The challenges we face are great. But before I get into those, I want to share with you briefly what motivates me to do this work.

I’m motivated by a deep sense of love. Love for my family and friends and for all of you, and for all of the beautiful humans around the world who I will never meet.

Love for nature and all the plants and animals and micro-organisms, and the air and water and soil.

I want all of us to be able to survive and thrive.

I also have a deep love for our children and grandchildren, and I want them to be able to live in a world that still has healthy food and drinkable water and clean air, and sea lions and whales and polar bears and elephants and monarch butterflies and the Pacific Islands.

I’m also motivated by a sense of rage, because right now all of those things are threatened because of the way we are living as humanity on this planet.

We need to start doing things differently. Radically differently.

Let’s start by talking about what we’re up against.

Our lifetimes, and the lives of our children and grandchildren and so on, will be marked by the impacts of a set of converging crises.

Ecosystem Degradation: Ecosystems provide vital life-giving services like pollination, producing oxygen, cleaning water, and carbon sequestration.

As we weaken our ecosystems through practices like deforestation, depleting topsoil, pesticide use, and fossil fuel dependency, we undermine earth’s ability to provide these services that we depend on for survival.

Water Insecurity: Given that we humans are over 70% water, and we need water to survive, it should be treated as sacred.

Instead we’re polluting it with oil and chemical spills, agricultural runoff, and human waste.

Harmful industrial agriculture practices that strip topsoil and use water unsustainably have created desertification in many parts of the world.

How many of you saw the recent article about the NASA report that said CA has one year of water left?

About 80% of the water used in CA is for agriculture. And in the central valley, aquifers are being drained to the point that land is sinking. This is serious.

Food insecurity: already around the world more than 800 million people – over 10% of our global population, suffer from chronic undernourishment – in other words they don’t have enough food. How many of you have looked into the eyes of someone who is starving? I have.

For the most part, this isn’t because we aren’t capable of growing enough food, but rather because our food systems are inefficient, and what we do grow is inequitably distributed or wasted.

In addition, our centralized, monoculture food system is very vulnerable to the extreme weather that will accompany global climate change, which means crops will fail, food prices will increase, people will go hungry, and as history shows this leads to migration, political instability, and conflict.

Overconsumption:

In most developed countries and particularly in the US, we buy too many things we don’t need. We are buying too many things we don’t need.

We’re creating huge amounts of waste than ends up in landfills or in massive garbage islands in the ocean, and we’re depleting natural resources faster than earth can regenerate.

Extreme Inequality:

We had an excellent presentation on this yesterday, and I’m grateful the conference organizers started with that topic because it’s really important.

Take a look at how wealth is distributed in the US. I’m here in the negative financial wealth zone because of my student debt, and I bet some of you are too.

In many cases this wealth has been consolidated at the expense of human and environmental well-being. It’s not only unfair, but as we heard yesterday, it’s extremely problematic for building community resilience.

This level of inequality makes some segments of the population very vulnerable to environmental or economic shocks. We’ve seen this with Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, as well as in Detroit last year where thousands of low income households who were late on their water bills had their water shut off.

Even this man, Nick Hanauer, a multi-millionaire who was one of the early investors in Amazon, is concerned about inequality, because as he wrote to his fellow zillionaires in Forbes magazine:

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”

Climate Change:

And finally we’re facing climate change. This changes everything.

We’re already on track for roughly a 2 degree C/3.5 degree F temp increase, and likely quite a bit more than that.

We know the impacts of climate change, right?

Increasing natural disasters and shifting temperatures that mean we’re going to see plants, animals, and people displaced from their homes, like these incredibly resilient people from the Pacific Island of Tokelau.

And climate change will interact with and accelerate some of the other crises we’ve touched on, but we don’t know exactly how or when.

The scale of transformation necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change –things you do not want your children or grandchildren to have to experience-is huge.

Not enough to change a light bulb, to ride your bike, to eat organic, to divest from fossil fuels, to install solar panels. We need to do all of that and more.

In the words of the author Naomi Klein, climate change “is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet.”

Let’s take a moment to sit with this all. It’s pretty scary stuff.

Fear can be paralyzing, but we don’t have time for inaction. So it’s important to be present with whatever emotional response you’re feeling right now. Notice how it feels in your body.

Raw emotion is creative energy that you can try to ignore and allow to fester in your mind and body as you go back to your normal routine, or you can channel it into something productive, which is what this rare planetary moment requires of us.

My friends who study non-violence tell me that wherever there is fear, there is power.

I’ve had to tap into that power to be here with you today, and I’m tapping into it right now, because speaking in front of so many people who really care and have the ability to make a difference, and trying to figure out exactly what to say to you all to convey the gravity of the planetary crisis we’re inheriting while still inspiring and motivating you enough to embrace the challenge and possibility of the extraordinary moment we live in, is fucking scary!

I’ve also heard that when Gandhi was young, he was a scaredy-cat, he lived in fear. And the moment he learned how to overcome his fear, he changed not only his own destiny, but that of the Indian people.

So let us use all the knowledge we have about the state of the world, and all the power we hold as young people inheriting an uncertain future, to make decisions that align our actions with our hearts.

Because we can’t predict how or when these converging crises will interact, or what exactly the impacts will be, we should be looking for solutions that will enhance our personal, community, and planetary resilience, or our ability to bounce back from challenges.

Fortunately, many of the solutions that help us build resilience also help us get off of fossil fuels while healing our planet and our culture, and they’re already being implemented all over the world.

This is a map of the international Transition or Transition Towns Movement, a grassroots response to ecological and economic instability.

Transition is a positive vision for a world without fossil fuels,

a world where people live simply and abundantly,

where they know their neighbors and where their food comes from,

where the economy exists to serve local communities rather than to generate profit,

and where people and the vital systems they depend on are prepared to respond to and bounce back from whatever challenges or shocks might impact their communities.

The word “Transition” refers to the changes our communities must make in order to survive and thrive in these uncertain times.

It’s a model that started in the UK in 2005 and went viral, spreading to more than 1200 communities in 44 countries and 17 languages around the world.

These are some of Transition’s core values:

we believe that local action can change the world,

we believe in the power of having a positive vision of the future and unleashing collective creativity to realize that vision,

we believe that re-building a sense of community is vital to local resilience,

and we organize in a way that is grassroots, decentralized, and bottom-up.

This allows work to happen quickly without the sort of bureaucracy that has stalled national and UN processes from taking action on climate change.

We like to say that “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.”

We also believe that “if properly planned for and designed, our communities can be more abundant and fulfilling while using fewer resources than we currently consume.”

The main design tool we use for this ambitious goal is permaculture.

How many of you have heard of permaculture before?

And how many of you have studied or are practicing permaculture? Great! I like to think of us as emergency planetary technicians.

Permaculture is an ecological design approach based on the way natural ecosystems work, which enables us to work with and learn from nature, rather than working against it.

For example, in permaculture, instead of planting monocultures or using pesticides and herbicides, we strive to create diverse ecosystems that are a haven for pollinators.

We compost organic waste into nutritious soil. How many of you compost the majority of your food waste? If you only take one thing away from this talk – start composting. Food waste that goes into landfills produces methane gas – a GHG that is 21 times stronger than carbon – and is a significant contributor to climate change.

In permaculture we also use fossil fuel free technologies like this chicken tractor to fertilize and till the soil for us.

So Transition started as the final project for a two-year permaculture program at a community college in Ireland in 2005. A group of students and their professor, Rob Hopkins, who is known as the founder of the Transition movement, used permaculture design principles at the community scale to come up with a plan to get their entire community off fossil fuels.

Permaculture is based on three main ethics: earth care, people care, and fair share, or return of the surplus.

Just let that sink in for a moment – what if every decision we made was based on those three ideas: how well does it care for the earth, how well does it care for people, and does it share resources equitably?

In addition, we have 12 design principles – a few of my favorites are use small and slow solutions, use and value renewable resources and services, produce no waste, use and value diversity, creatively use and respond to change, and design from patterns to details.

Nature creates using patterns. In permaculture we look for patterns, and then use those patterns to inform the projects we want to design.

Today, since we are trying to build community resilience, we look for what resilient communities have in common. Here’s a list I came up with based on my own experience doing this work:

Resilient communities have healthy ecosystems,

They have food, energy, and economic systems that are as locally-oriented as possible,

Community stewardship of common resources like land and water,

Neighborhoods that are designed for people, not cars;

People share a sense of community and connection to their place,

There is an openness to new thinking and ideas, and diversity is valued,

And the community is governed by a participatory democracy – by that I mean citizens are actively engaged in the decisions and processes of their local government officials, and that government officials and staff are responsive to community needs.

Right now there are very important conversations and decisions being made about sustainability within our local governments. How many of you go to city council or planning commission meetings to weigh in on what’s being discussed?

Need to see more of you – especially young people participating in local government – even though it can be boring, because its important.

Sometimes I go to meetings just to remind my elected officials of how much is at stake and that they hold power to make changes that will make a difference, just to let them know I’m paying attention.

Ok, so now that we have a sense of the patterns that are found in resilient communities, we can apply those patterns to our most vital systems to see what types of projects and practices help build resilience.

I’m just going to give you a small taste of all of the amazing work that’s happening across the country. There’s also lots of great work happening around the world that I’m not going to get into today.

Many of these projects are organized by local Transition groups, and many are not but still share the same values and patterns.

Let’s start with our food system. We want to create local and regional food systems with ecologically regenerative practices that reconnect humans to nature, improve public health, and alleviate the disastrous impacts of industrial agriculture. Here are a few examples of what this looks like in practice.

On top we have a nine month intensive training program for aspiring permaculture farmers and landscapers at a place called the Permaculture Skills Center, which right down the street from my house.

Below that we have a community seed garden also in Sebastopol, where we grow, save, and share local, organic, heirloom seeds that are adapted to thrive in our microclimate. Taking back community control of seeds is critically important to our ability to have resilient local food systems.

In the middle we have Egleston Community Orchard, in Boston, where neighbors decided to plant a community garden and fruit trees on a vacant lot where there had recently been a shooting, to turn it into a place of community healing.

Below that is my friend Don Hall who started Transition Sarasota, Florida. He organizes a gleaning project, where volunteers harvest leftover produce from organic farms, and over the last few years they’ve been able to donate more than 100,000 pounds of fresh healthy food to local food banks.

On the bottom is my sister and a good friend of mine who first introduced me to permaculture, who are using fossil fuel-free technology to prepare beds for planting on a small permaculture farm in Ukiah.

On top we have Growing Power, an amazing urban aquaponics farm in a low income neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aquaponics grow both fish and produce together as part of the same system, in a way that’s very efficient and very beneficial for both.

Below that is a work party in Sonoma County, where community members came out to help plant a community garden.

Water

When we’re looking at how to improve our water management, we should be thinking about community stewardship of water as a precious life-giving force, using creative, low-tech solutions to conserve, capture, clean, and store it.

For example, rebuilding topsoil and working with the natural contours of a place to improve infiltration. This system is at the Permaculture Skills Center and has an intricate system of waterways that catch runoff from the highway, clean it, water their food forest, and replenish groundwater beneath the properties’ 5 acres and surrounding wetland.

Rainwater and greywater collection systems are also important technologies. Here’s a rainwater harvesting barrel. Graywater systems recycle and redirect household water from laundry, sinks and showers into gardens and into the soil, rather than going down the sewer.

And finally, we should be using composting toilets, which are currently illegal in many places. 27% of household water use is from toilets, and we are pooping and peeing in clean, drinkable water for no good reason.

The great thing about composting toilets is that not only do they conserve water, they also turn poop into soil.

At my house we harvest urine because it has a lot of nitrogen and is great fertilizer for fruit trees. And if these things seem too offensive, at the very least, if it’s yellow, let it mellow. Does everyone know what I mean by that?

Energy

For our energy system, we should be thinking about ways to cut our energy use as much as possible and then switch to small-scale, decentralized renewables for what we really do need.

This picture is from a workshop on how to build passive solar cookers that was hosted by Transition Charlottesville, Virginia.

The image in the middle is from power-down week, a weeklong festival organized by Transition Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to encourage people to practice living and having fun without using electricity – for example with candle-light dinners.

The image of the windmills is from a new project called Transition Streets that we’re currently testing in 14 communities in the US. It provides neighbors with a guide to come together and make DIY home retrofits that reduce energy and water use and save money.

This solar panel is at the Permaculture Skills Center, and what is important about this picture is that it’s not a huge solar farm that is owned by a multi-national corporation and built on a clear-cut forest, but it is part of a distributed local energy system. This panel also provides shade to ducks, chickens, and children on the farm.

A clean, decentralized, renewable energy system really would be a great gift to humanity.

This was my favorite sign at the anti-fracking rally in Sacramento a year ago – last March. How many of you were there?

Transportation

In my community 57% of carbon emissions come from personal transportation vehicles. And overall, long-distance flights are more carbon intensive than almost anything else we do.

On top of the environmental impact, car travel is also a form of social isolation. Isolation is an epidemic in our society that contributes to loneliness, depression, and other mental and physical health issues.

We drive around in our own little boxes and fly across the world to go on vacation somewhere far away, without being connected to the people and place where we live.

So we need to be getting out of our cars and planes and into our communities.

In many cases communities need to be redesigned into beautiful, walkable, bikable neighborhoods that are places where we want to explore, relax, and meet each other.

This is a workshop we hosted last fall as part of a ten-day festival called the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence. The workshop is on intersection repair, or how to redesign intersections to reduce car traffic, improve pedestrian and bike access, and serve as community gathering spaces.

The bottom photo is a bike parade organized by Transition Culver City, in SoCal.

Economy

Our economy is at the root of this mess we’re in, but there are also many hopeful signs of economic transformation.

There’s an important role for locally-owned businesses that use resources responsibly and help build community wealth through good paying jobs.

The example on the top is Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, which operates 3 large worker-owned cooperatives that provide sustainable, good-paying jobs in solar installation and energy efficiency, local food production in a hydroponic greenhouse, as well as a green industrial laundry service that has university and hospital contracts.

There is also a role for projects like this community currency in Brixton, UK. Community or alternative currencies are used alongside or in place of the national currency and help keep wealth in the local economy. I bet someday soon you’ll have Butte Bucks!

And equally, if not more important, we need a cultural shift in what we value, away from material wealth toward connection to each other and to nature.

We can realize this through projects like this tool library started by a Transition group in Seattle, this repair café hosted by Transition Pasadena in SoCal – where people can bring things that are broken and have them fixed, rather than needing to by something new.

And we also need to be having different types of conversations about our economy.

If you’re interested in learning more you can check out this report by the Post Carbon Institute that I co-authored called Weaving the Community Resilience and New Economy movement, which has a lot more information and examples of the incredible work happening around the country to transform our economy.

Reskilling

We also do a lot of work around reskilling, homesteading, and do-it-yourself projects, to re-learn the skills we need to become resilient – things like building and canning and growing our own food.

In my house we make almost all of our own cleaning supplies and toiletries because it’s fun, it’s cheaper, and that way we know we aren’t putting toxic chemicals into our bodies or our environment.

A great place to get started homesteading is reading this book – the Good Life Lab, Radical Experiments in Hands-on Living, about a couple who left their jobs on Wall St to become homesteaders in the desert in New Mexico, and are almost completely self-sufficient.

There are many other things that are part of this great Transition that I don’t have time to go into today, but include things like housing and land access, healthcare, re-integrating the wisdom of elders into our society, and collaborating with local government.

On top is a picture of my friend Obi who is helping with a natural building workshop.

Here are a couple examples of participatory democracy – we organized a community conversation on how to become more resilient, and then used the recommendations from that discussion to write a policy memo to inform our city’s 10 year general plan update.

And here is the mayor helping to install a public food forest at our city hall.

All of these changes we’ve talked about rely on having relationships with each other and a sense of community.

We need to find ways to build community, to share with, learn from and support each other, to heal, and to build political and economic power at the grassroots level.

In my community we do this through potlucks, working together and getting our hands dirty, and a lot of dance parties. We all work really hard, but it’s important to remember to celebrate.

Building resilient communities is necessary, possible, and fun.

And as a fellow young leader in this work, I invite you to step into your power and take action.

Are you ready?

Ok, great! To help you succeed, I want to share a few tips I’ve picked up through my own experience:

Pay attention. We have got to pay attention to what we eat, what we buy, what we support, and the impact our decisions and actions have on our planet. There are a lot of distractions that make it hard to do that. Try to get rid of the distractions. I don’t watch television, or pay attention to mainstream media, or celebrity gossip, because I don’t think it’s a good use of my time, energy, or intelligence given the state of our planet.

Become eco-literate – learn how ecosystems work, and how human activities impact ecosystems. There are many ways to do this, but one of them is to study permaculture!

Learn about privilege – “the invisible backpack.” The invisible backpack is a set of privileges each of us carry with us that are not based on merit but rather on our race, class, gender and sexual orientation, and so on. It’s important to understand privilege simply in order to be a good human, but especially if you want to try doing community organizing or movement building. It’s a lot to go into right now but you can start by just searching “invisible backpack.”

It’s ok to cry. When you start to really understand and feel into what has happened and what is happening on our planet, you will probably feel a lot of sadness and grief, and it’s important not to bottle it up. I cry a lot – you can ask my boyfriend.

Align your actions & values: learn how to live simply. Like I mentioned, many of the changes we need to make require us to consume less and to shift our values away from material wealth. This means we need to learn how to live more simply. It’s a practice that takes time and is not only good for our planet, but is also very fun and liberating.

Skill up in collaboration, listening, & communication. We are shifting away from the age of hierarchy into the age of cooperation, which means we need to improve our ability to communicate and work with each other so we can be effective organizers.

Don’t act from a place of fear or anger. Instead, act from love. Acting from a place of anger or fear is really re-acting, and it impairs our ability to make good decisions and is very unpleasant for the people we are trying to collaborate with. You can be motivated by fear and anger, but be sure your actions come from a place of love.

Reach out to your elders. One of the most important things I learned in my early twenties was that I don’t know everything which was very exciting news to my parents. Our elders have so much to teach us, and so much wisdom to share. Currently much of that is lost because we tend to institutionalize elders instead of honoring and integrating them into an important role in society.

Don’t give up! You will encounter plenty of resistance, closed-mindedness, and apathy – you probably already have. Don’t let it deter you – use it to gain perspective and to motivate you. As a species, we can’t afford to give up, and your spark, your energy, and your brilliance is what we need to succeed.

To learn more:

  • Transition:
    • org & transitionnetwork.org
    • newsletter & facebook
  • My blog: madmillennials.wordpress.com
    • transcript, slides, & resources from this presentation

If you’re ready to take action, there are lots of ways to get involved.

Join the Community Resilience Challenge the weekend of May 16-17, where people around the country all take action to build resilience in their own communities – it can be anything from starting a compost pile to putting in a garden or organizing a community event about clean energy. Last year we registered almost 17,000 actions across the country. The person who founded the Community Resilience Challenge, a friend of mine named Trathen Heckman, is actually an alum of CSU-Chico and asked that I send his regards and get you all to participate in the Challenge.

Another thing you can do is start a Transition Initiative on your campus or in your community. I suggest you start by reading up on Transition and community resilience, and if you have questions or would like to host a more in-depth Transition training, you can email me.

Transition US has a crowdfunding campaign for the Transition Streets project coming up in May, and if any of you are in a position to contribute financially we could really use the support. Right now there are just two of us supporting all 150 Transition Initiatives in the US. We’re also looking for volunteers and interns, and particularly for a summer website revamp.

If you want to get involved, feel free to email me at marissa@transitionus.org or info@transitionus.org. I get a lot of emails but will get back to you as soon as I can!

In closing, I just want to offer my deep gratitude to you all for everything you’re already doing to make the world a better place, and for coming out today and to listening to my talk, and to all the conference organizers for making this possible.

Thank you!

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