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5 Ways to Start the Transition

By: 
Henry Robertson
  • Use less energy
  • Eat less meat
  • Cultivate your garden
  • Plant trees
  • Learn the Law of Limits

Earth’s climate is turning against life in its current configuration. This is going to be bad for most creatures, notably us, which is fitting because humanity is the culprit.

You probably don’t feel personally responsible. All of us in the overdeveloped parts of the world were born into a society so thoroughly built on fossil fuels that it can’t last a day without them. If you’re conscientious about it, you probably try to shrink your carbon footprint.

Those less inclined have an easy excuse: individual actions don’t matter. Vast systems of industry, government and the exploitation of nature must change, and the individual is powerless before these forces. This is the most insidious form of climate change denial there is. It’s partly experts telling us to leave it to the experts or the free market, but it’s a fatal encouragement to take a seat on a deck chair and go down with the Titanic.

The truth is that nothing will change without individual action. Individual actions multiplied by the millions, then tens of millions, then hundreds of millions will make all the difference. Politics works the same way. Unless you have the money to buy politicians, your voice making the same demands as millions of others will be heard.

Individual action is also the way to start the transition to a new kind of society that must rapidly evolve if we are to stop the degradation of our natural resource base. It’s not easy to escape the world built on COG (coal, oil and gas), but individuals blazing common trails can bring about the new world. Take one item on the list:

Use less energy. This is easy. In a land so wasteful of energy, anyone can significantly reduce energy use. It’s also easy because it’s negative — it’s mostly what you don’t do: drive, fly, buy all the stuff that took energy to make and all the appliances, tools and electronics that go on using energy after they’re made. Try a solar clothes dryer (a clothesline) because electric dryers are energy hogs. Try fans instead of AC.

There’s a positive side to this subtraction. It takes demand away from the COG economy. Without the oxygen of demand the fossil flame will sputter, shrink and die.

Eat less meat. This is also phrased as a negative, but it engages people to cook and eat differently. We could be eating plants ourselves but as a society we’re feeding 70 % of our grain to livestock. Cattle especially guzzle huge amounts of land and water. Our domestic animals are driving wildlife to extinction. Wildlife keeps nature running in all its unfathomable complexity. Without it we can’t survive.

Cultivate your garden. Small farms will be the base of the post-COG society. Industrial agriculture is utterly dependent on fossil fuels to run its huge tractors and combines, make its fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and haul its crops to the processing plants and then to market.

Growing some of your own food can start with a backyard garden, a container garden on an apartment balcony, or a raised bed in a community garden. Suburbia is good for nothing else. Eventually — soon — small farmers will have to take over the multi-thousand-acre mechanized farms that don’t even feed their own farmers. They just produce commodities on their way to becoming processed food and vehicle fuel to the benefit of no one but the corporations in charge.

Plant trees. A recent study says that one trillion newly planted trees could pull out of the air two-thirds of all humanity’s CO₂ emissions since the industrial revolution began. This is not really a solution. It’s bound to become an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels, but it has the advantage that it could work. Global CO₂ emissions are still rising when they should be rapidly falling, so we’d better get started, keeping in mind the kinds and diversity of trees needed to create genuine ecosystems, not monocrop plantations. Reforestation needs to be done for its own sake anyway.

Learn the Law of Limits. We were all brought up to believe that an economy that never stops growing is necessary and desirable. It should be obvious that this is impossible on a finite planet, but the orthodox dogma is powerful.  

This thinking has to change if people are to advance beyond anxiety about wacky weather to an understanding of how to get out of this predicament and why it can’t be done by building gazillions of solar panels and wind turbines.

The Law of Limits is a body of laws of nature that sets the parameters for living on Earth. Barry Commoner laid down four laws of ecology in his 1971 book The Closing Circle. They are authoritative despite the whimsical tone.

(1) Everything is connected to everything else. Mass burning of fossil fuels was pulling on a thread that has unraveled natural systems in air, land and sea.

(2) Everything must go somewhere. Nature recycles everything. We dug up COG to use as fuel and raw materials and left unassimilated waste in the forms of heat, greenhouse gases, toxic ash and the plastic plague.

(3) Nature knows best. As Commoner wrote, “any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.”

(4) There is no such thing as a free lunch. Any extraction we make from this closed system without replenishment comes at an ecological cost.

Embedded in Commoner’s laws are the two Laws of Thermodynamics known to physicists:

(1) Matter-energy is always conserved. Matter and energy can be converted one into the other (E=mc²) but never destroyed. However,

(2) when energy is used, the amount of usable energy declines. When complex hydrocarbon molecules like COG are burned, what’s left is waste heat and ash. As a song says, Ain’t no ash will burn. The age of fossil fuels can’t last. We’ll have to live on the only incoming source of energy we have — sunshine.

More than a 5-step program 

More ways to start the transition could be added, such as Learn a manual skill. The climate won’t fix itself while we wait for technical and entrepreneurial geniuses — or, god help us, politicians — to save us. All hands are needed. Individual actions are the only way for us to live a durable future into existence.