Monday, September 19, 2005

Community Planning: Our Last Chance?

In a comment to last week’s post, Phil wondered if there were any actions a community could take to prepare for Peak Oil outside of the support or active involvement of municipal authorities. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. Towns and smaller cities situated less populated regions, particularly those with access to basic resources, certainly will have a better chance at succeeding (or at least surviving) in the coming decades. Population and resource availability is only part of the picture, though. How the inhabitants manage and adapt to the changing circumstances, will ultimately determine how well the location will survive the backside of the energy curve.

The local municipalities should ideally be well positioned to handle the coming challenges, as they are on the front lines in terms of land use decision making and service providing. Since they are the closest to the people, they should be able to better understand the situation than any other jurisdiction.

The reality of course, is quite different. Most local officials are so focused on the fine-grain aspects of planning and governance that they will miss the big picture altogether. The daily grind of city management, combined with the belief that things will continue as they always had, has led to a general complacency on matters fundamental to our existence. Politicians have a different set of concerns, namely getting (re)elected. The constant need to seek reaffirmation from the public often leaves the elected official hesitant to breaking bad news until it breaks on its own. Similarly the at-will government managers and directors are hesitant of crossing the opinion or direction of the elected officials. Then add the vested interests (property owners, businesses and interest groups) and you have a recipe for inaction.

So what’s a concerned citizen to do? In a handful of locations, civic-minded individuals have banded together to try and take matters into their own hands. The model that immediately comes to mind is the Willits Localization Committee. There, a diverse group of citizens have worked together as a community to try and take action to head off the ramifications of peaking energy to their town. They held meetings to draw attention to the growing crisis and instead of continuing to just talk about it, they set out on their own to tried to start drafting a plan to actually cope. Towards that end they formed ad-hoc subcommittees, each focused on a particular area, such as food or energy. Just this past week they
released an energy audit of the town’s total energy use and concluded that to make it in a post fossil fuel era, significant amounts of conservation would required in addition to boosting certain renewable energy sources.

Where will the process go from here? And what about other communities who are also preparing such reports? Who knows. In all likelihood one of two scenarios will occur. The first—and more likely—result will be that the local governing body and uninvolved citizens look at the actions as fool hardy, overly panicked or downright crazy and will give the work scant attention until it is way too late to try to prepare. The more optimistic outcome would result in an actual change of course in public and political viewpoints. This would occur as the general public of the town and its leadership came to fully accept the reality of our future and the need for dramatic, if not drastic actions to rectify inevitable problems. As is the case with any other activity that occurs in a state of denial, getting the individual to recognize themselves that there is a problem will prove more successful than authoritatively dictating it from above.

Successful change in other words, is a bottoms-up process. Only through the shifting of public opinion will politicians and civil servants be granted the cover to make those drastic and needed steps. Ideally this would occur through persuasion. In a less optimal scenario however, an economic crisis or bone fide food or energy shortages may also do the trick. Unfortunately, plans hatched during that kind emergency will never accomplish as much as a plan that has access to the full gamut of resources to develop and implement.

We need to get going on this and soon. Time is rapidly running out and any bit of community driven activism would be better than nothing.

If we are lucky, enough smaller communities could grasp this concept and make it through the inevitable crisis. Combine that with some geographical advantages and perhaps a light version of this contraption called civilization could continue. One would hope that anyway.

The alternative would be really dark indeed.


Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The community might buy into changes made in building and zoning codes.  Sell them something like a mini-downtown with boutique shops and such on the street, flats upstairs and rooftop patios (perhaps with living roofs), excellent insulation, lots of daylighting and solar hot water systems.  I'd leave the option for PV or solar Stirling dishes but not spec them as it's uncertain which will be better and the prices of both appear to be coming down fairly rapidly.

Heating costs are going to get people's attention in a BIG way this winter.  Use it as consciousness-raising to promote better insulation and high-quality windows.  Does your new town have any buyers with good negotiating skills?  If the city could orchestrate something like a bulk buy of insulation & windows and lure installers to work cheap by guaranteeing them steady work for months, you might be able to pull off (and sell to the public) a double benefit:

1.  Slash energy needs (and costs), and
2.  Plow the money into wages paid locally, benefitting other local business.

Are there any laws or regulations you could change to promote e.g. district heating?  A cogenerating district heat system would save lots of money and keep an area viable after energy costs have priced others out of the market.  (Europe is way ahead of us in this regard.)

9/21/2005 10:22 AM  

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