What to Do When You Suspect We’re Headed for Collapse

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoIf you’ve been paying attention to the environmental news, then you know people are pummeling the planet. Because of the way we run the economy, with continuously growing population and consumption, we are destabilizing the climate, depleting topsoil, drawing down aquifers, acidifying the oceans, and driving species to extinction. Even as we impoverish the Earth’s ecosystems, billions of us struggle daily to find enough food for a decent dinner.  In this age of worldwide environmental and social turmoil, it’s natural to want to help. It’s also natural to wonder how you can possibly make a difference. These troubled times prompt each of us to ask a simple, but absolutely critical question: “What should I do?”

Before tackling what to do, let’s get something out of the way — what not to do:

  • Deny the severity of the problems. Suppose you go swimming along a beach and notice an agitated 20-foot-long great white shark swimming directly below you. No matter how much you refuse to acknowledge its existence, the shark will still be there, cruising along and considering whether you’d make a satisfying snack. You are more likely to survive if you assess your situation accurately and react to your new reality. (The chances of actually meeting a great white shark are slim because of overexploitation — just like humanity’s relationship with so many species, but that’s another story).
  • Refuse to take responsibility. Too many people deny not only the severity of the problems, but even the very existence of the problems. A disconcerting number of climate change denialists (perhaps better termed de-nihilists) live in virtual bomb shelters they constructed to avoid having to confront reality. It’s up to the rest of us — those who live in the real world and understand the severity of humanity’s plight — to take responsibility. We have to move with purpose and we have to move now.
  • Stick with the status quo. As environmental scientists continue to overload us with sobering findings, the easiest thing to do is to keep walking the business-as-usual path. There’s a certain solace to having a “normal” career, carrying on without making sacrifices or changing behavior in ways that may cause difficulty and even pain. As social creatures, we are pre-programmed to conform to the dominant culture. But the difficulty of taking a countercultural path pales in comparison to the chronic difficulties you’ll experience if your way of life contradicts your core beliefs.
  • Leave it to a higher power. Calling on a spiritual or technological force to save the day offers a soothing strategy for escaping from our environmental and social traps, but it’s also an unconscionably irresponsible strategy. People have good reasons to believe God or Google can deliver some amount of help, but that doesn’t absolve us from doing our part. We got ourselves into this mess — we must look to ourselves to find a way out.

Back to the central question: “What should I do?” Like a flock of vultures, the problems circle ominously overhead. The solutions are more like songbirds; they hide in branches and thickets, but they’re there. Despite their presence all around us, it’s still hard to spot proper solutions. It would be a huge relief to have one simple method for scuttling the vultures, but it just doesn’t exist. Solutions come with a certain degree of complexity (e.g., multiple partial solutions that are related to one another). To begin piecing together your answer to “What should I do,” then, it’s helpful to divide actions into three categories: (1) learn something, (2) say something, and (3) do something.

Learn Something

Seek out colleagues who also recognize the problems, but especially people working on creative solutions. I have found myself in the most amazing, life-enriching company while trying to learn more about how to build a sustainable and fair economy. Listing the scholars and leaders who have taught me how to think in systems and see the world through an ecological lens seems like an ill-advised exercise; I know I would omit someone, and I would feel like a name dropper. But when I think about people I’ve met on my quest to learn something, I feel so fortunate (here’s a short list of heroic “Bills”: Bill McKibben, Bill Rees, Bill Ryerson, and Bill Twist).  I’m thankful to all my colleagues, even those not named Bill!

The upshot: you don’t have to slog your way through boring tomes in the dusty corners of the library. On the contrary, you can engage with some of the most compassionate and insightful people on the planet, just as long as you share their desire to help, and you commit to learning something.

Say Something

"Keep Consuming" Poster by Adbusters

As the writers and artists at Adbusters effectively demonstrate, there are always opportunities to speak up and ask, “Why?”

Saying something (at least saying something intelligent) is tougher than learning something, especially for us introverts. My method of saying something consists mostly of writing. I co-wrote a book. I wrote articles (for example, this one in USA Today). I wrote Daly News essays. It’s easier for me to say something clear with a pen or keyboard than with my vocal chords (although I occasionally work up the courage to stand in front of a live audience and pass along what I’ve learned).

If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you’ll find opportunities to say something, and it doesn’t have to be on some grand stage. If you’re a student, ask your professors and classmates probing questions:

Why does the economy have to keep growing? How much consumption is enough for a person, a community, or a society? What are the ultimate goals of our economy?

If you read news reports, write comments and send letters to the editor. A continuous procession of articles in praise of continuous economic growth marches across the front pages of mainstream media sources, providing ample opportunities to respond.

If you participate in a book club, try Enough Is Enough or something similar. Where my coauthor, Dan O’Neill, lives in Leeds, UK, a dedicated group of activists is strategizing how to build the kind of economy described in the book. The same thing has happened where I live in Corvallis, Oregon, and we’ve heard about other groups forming in Bermuda and Wisconsin. Changes begin with the simple act of discussing and sharing ideas. We can all engage our families and friends — you never know what positive events will emerges from your conversations.

Do Something

Doing something represents another step up in commitment. In choosing what to do, the most important point is to make your behavior match your knowledge and values. For example, you can reduce consumption, especially fossil fuel. You can engage in acts of protest. You can give your time and money to organizations that are championing causes dear to you. I have chosen to live with my family in an aspiring ecovillage. We do our best to support the local economy and disengage from the unsustainable, cost-externalizing, globalized economy. We ride bikes. We make music. The idea is to spend time fostering needed changes and have fun doing it.

It’s in that spirit that I embark on my next career adventure. I’ve said enough for the moment as the editor of the Daly News. To understand the motive behind my move, consider this quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I am excited to be helping Farmland LP build a better agricultural model. We are out to prove that organic, ecologically sound farming practices outperform the outdated model we have been saddled with. The old model, based on 19th- and 20th-century ideas of industrial production, offers no future. In the new model, we manage farmland as an ecosystem — not a mine from which we extract and deplete resources. Farmland LP, founded by Jason Bradford and Craig Wichner, is doing something simple, elegant, and brilliant. The company raises money to buy conventional farmland and convert it to organic. The point is to bolster regional food systems, improve environmental conditions, create meaningful jobs, and provide investors with a good place to put their money. In a sense, we are performing an aikido move. We’re using the momentum of current financial and business systems to create a better way of managing landscapes and providing sustenance. I’m proud to play a role.

I’m also proud of my work on the Daly News. I’ve done my best to move the conversation along, and I look forward to learning more as CASSE continues to curate this forum. I’m engaged in a lifelong journey of learning something, saying something, and doing something. I hope you are too and that you’re bringing friends along. It’s not easy, but you’ll never regret doing what needs to be done. Onward!

Getting to the Root of the Problem

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoFarmland LP is a business born from the “uh-oh moment.” The uh-oh moment arrives when you comprehend just how unsustainable modern society has become. Although it can occur as an epiphany, it more commonly comes at the end of a long journey of grappling with grave topics like climate change, poverty, species extinctions, and resource wars. Jason Bradford’s journey wound through college classrooms, South American forests, and California farm fields. With remarkable determination, he turned his uh-oh moment into acres and acres of inspiration.

Bradford is a stocky ball of energy with a quick smile, hearty laugh, and rapid-fire delivery. All three are on display as he discusses his early career. As a graduate student in botany and biology, he assessed tropical ecosystems. He says, “I studied ecosystems in the cloud forests of Costa Rica because they were so cool — I wanted to understand how they fit in the global ecosystem.” He became the go-to guy for the Cunoniaceae family of plants, and his studies propelled him around the world, including a stop in Peru’s Manu National Park to study the effects of climate change on forest diversity.

“Manu is where I got my big uh-oh. I went from being a taxonomist to a team leader, so I had to understand the big picture.” His big-picture role included digesting reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC conducts assessments that, according to Bradford, take input from one specialty and use it to develop output for another specialty. That output, in turn, becomes a new round of input, and so on. “Climate change predictions start with economic models that estimate future population, resource use, and emissions. With emissions predictions, the climatologists predict temperature changes, and the biologists and agronomists come up with prescriptions.” Bradford detected what he saw as a fatal flaw in this modeling — there was no feedback. The economic models were based on continuously growing consumption, but the storms and emergencies coming from the climate models would, in time, keep the economy from growing. Somehow the modelers had overlooked this critical detail.

“Here I was, a recent Ph.D. at U.C. Davis, and I kept asking, ‘What’s wrong with me? Do I not understand economics?'” Bradford kept digging and unearthing troubling truths. He read the research on limits to growth, studied ecological economics, and concluded that the economic assumptions we live by are pushing us into a terrible trap. His university colleagues avoided the issue. “They would say things like, ‘You’re right, but we can’t do anything about it. Just keep your head down; the implications are too big.'” No one would question the ideology of continuous economic growth. Bradford says, “I understood why it was difficult for people, but I couldn’t erase what I had learned.” His next move demonstrates the determination needed to get out of the trap.

“I could have had a nice career as a professor studying amazing ecosystems, but the cloud forests wouldn’t survive — my research wouldn’t help them. I had to tackle [the problem of] resource overconsumption.” He departed academia and relocated to Willits, California to work on economic relocalization. He started a network of people pursuing a thriving but thrifty local economy. He produced and hosted The Reality Report, a radio program about sustainability. He founded Willits Economic Localization, a nonprofit that served as a template for the Transition Towns movement. That’s a bold and effective response to the uh-oh moment, but it wasn’t enough for Bradford. Not content just talking about the issues, he wanted to create a successful demonstration of economic localization.

Jason Bradford leading the way (photo by Eric Näslund)

Jason Bradford leading the way (photo by Eric Näslund)

No sector of the economy is more fundamental than food, and Bradford’s background in plants made him a natural for exploring the local food economy. He started an organic vegetable farm and partnered with a nearby school to bring his produce into the cafeteria. Despite his farm’s success, his overactive mind wouldn’t rest. “I had worked so hard on one acre, but what I had accomplished wouldn’t show up on a bar chart. Our produce wasn’t selling in Safeway where most of my neighbors went grocery shopping.” Bradford realized that to make a difference in the food economy, local organic farms needed more support, and that meant access to big money. The stage was set for another move.

Bradford knew he needed to be in a premium agricultural region. Hence the move to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Based on land prices, proximity to markets, water availability, and the sustainability-literate population, he recognized the city of Corvallis as the perfect place to launch Farmland LP and bolster the local food economy.

For an organization with a world-changing agenda, Farmland LP has a refreshingly simple model that can be explained in five basic statements: (1) Attract money from investors. (2) Buy conventional farmland. (3) Convert the farmland to organic. (4) Sell high-value crops, meats, and seeds in the local economy. (4) Provide a reasonable rate of return to investors. (5) Scale up operations so that healthy lands and healthy foods become the cornerstone of the economy.

In contrast to the model, getting Farmland LP up and running has been anything but simple. Bradford and his business partner Craig Wichner took on considerable personal risk, working without a paycheck or a safety net for years. But their efforts are paying dividends. They have attracted funding not only to buy land, but also to purchase livestock and equipment and hire farmers. In 2011 they had 260 acres. By the end of 2012 they had bought 6,000 more acres, and now both agricultural products and additional investments are flowing more freely.

It can be real stunner when you internalize the uh-oh moment. It’s enough to make you want to dig a hole, climb in, and hide from what you’ve learned. Jason Bradford dug a hole and found not only the root of the problem, but also room to nurture the roots of a solution.