Monday, December 27, 2010

Making Things

There are deep snowdrifts outside and fierce, blowing winds. Inside the family is busy with projects. Phil is braiding a piece of wool fabric to patch the  rug that sits in the middle of our living room, a giant ten or more feet in diameter that my grandmother made thirty years ago. The girls are busy with projects they started over Christmas weekend - a lacy turquoise scarf and a warm earth-toned striped one, each perfectly matched to the personalities of the knitters.

Our Christmas was rich with hand-made gifts, too, My parents worked together to make beautiful wooden boxes for each of the grandchildren: sturdy tool chests with wrought iron hinges for the boys, delicate angled boxes for the girls. Phil's knitting needles were flying through socks and hats that weren't quite finished in time for wrapping. Spread across the kitchen table are the parts of a secret present for grandparents, aimed to be finished by New Year's when we'll see them next.

The pure satisfaction around here when the last stitch is knitted and the scarf is draped around a neck or the hat is pulled onto a head is a thing to behold. From the four year-old weaving pot-holders with his new loom under the Christmas tree, to his grandpa unveiling his beautiful wooden boxes, the desire to create things that are beautiful and useful runs strong and deep in most of us, maybe all of us. The products of this desire are as varied as the individuals with the compulsion to create:  well crafted sentences, paintings, patchwork quilts, six-layer cakes, or well-executed computer code. When I look at the people around me, it's the act of creation that brings the pleasure, as much as the finished product.

In the transition to sustainability we are going to need to call upon and depend upon all sorts of new 'high-tech" inventions, from smart-grids to super-efficient materials, but we are also going to need to shift to a world focused on quality rather than quantity, on designing things to be patched and fixed and re-used, rather than tossed away when a plastic part snaps or a circuit burns out.  In the world we need to be moving towards,  making thing will be not just a pleasure but, it seems to me, an integral part of life. Therein lies a blessing:  the forces pushing us to more sustainable ways of living seem to be pushing us towards more satisfying ways of living, at the same time.

Our younger daughter and her friend just came up the stairs to the room next door to my office. "I'm in a project mood" announces the friend.  While I write these few paragraphs, yarn and needles are coming out, the ideas are taking shape, and I keep overhearing snatches of conversation:  a serious disagreement about the definition of knit and purl and finally agreement:('the swirling things are knit and the things that look like braids are purl.' There's some sort of struggle with the 'darned slip knot', a quick lesson in casting on ('you point a gun and then go up with the yarn') and then the needles are clicking in earnest, and the two are chatting away like grandmothers on a front porch.

I worry about these children and their generation a lot of the time. But, along with the messes they are inheriting, they are, in the changed world they will inherit, going to  discover gifts, as well. If they dig deep enough into themselves, they will find, they obviously already are finding, aptitudes and attitudes that will carry them well through turbulent times. Or so I hope.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Borrowing and Sharing

In yesterday's post I wrote about studies of happiness that show people tend to define what they need to be happy in relation to what they see around them and discussed how this can lead to escalating consumption and escalating environmental impacts. The more stuff in a community, the more people feel the need for more stuff, or so the logic of this feedback loop goes.

But in real systems no feedback loop exists in isolation. Today scanning through my Cobb Hill community emails, I was struck by the evidence for the exact opposite process, at least in our little community of 23 families, where borrowing, lending, and sharing often saves us from needing more stuff of our own.

Here, from the emails over the weekend is a sampling of the evidence:

  • I’m looking for a small piece of wire mesh, about 5x5” – could be a scrap of window screen or something heavier.
  • Does anyone at Cobb Hill have a soldering iron suitable for electronics, that I could borrow for a few days?A short length of flux-cored solder would also be helpful.
  • Does anyone at Cobb Hill have a socket set with 1/4-inch drive or similar, with sockets going from about 3/16 to 7/16 inch, and from 4 to 10 mm, that I could borrow for a few days? It doesn't have to have a rachet, a driver will do just as well.
  • Anyone have a bulb for a mudroom florescent light they would lend us until we can get a new one? 2 tubes, four prongs. Your neighbors in the dark.

On top of the borrowing and lending there are four or five emails about activities this week that require no (or hardly any) consumption, from gingerbread house building for kids, to a weekly photography class for teenagers, to Christmas morning waffles in the common house.

All sorts of new habits are needed to move from a world where more abundance around us leads us to us want more and more material goods of our own to a world where more abundance around us means we can be happy with less of our own.

From learning to ask for help to remembering to return things in cleaner, better shape than we received them, none of this seems to be second nature for folks raised in modern industrialized societies. But, ten years into the experiment of Cobb Hill, informal trades and sharing seem to work much more often than they fail. And from simple community email lists to websites specializing in car sharing or barter, new twists on the kind of sharing our grandparents took for granted offer one of the lowest cost, most efficient solutions to the sustainability challenge.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Radical Act of Defining Enough For Yourself

Not long ago, a colleague sent around some results from studies of human happiness which show that despite strong increases in the amount of stuff in people's lives in the developed world in recent decades, self-reporting of happiness hasn't increased all that much. The research shows that people tend to base their sense of what they need to be happy not on some absolute internal sense of well being, but instead on a sort of mental comparison between themselves and others. With such mental calculus, the feeling of "enough" is never constant, but instead is ever-rising. In systems terms, this way of searching for happiness has the same dynamics that drove the Cold War search for security through  assembling ever larger stores of weapons.

System dynamics teaches that there is one way out of any arms race, be it the race to obtain security by stockpiling more weapons than your enemy or happiness by acquiring more stuff than your neighbor. Arms races loose their fuel as soon as one party stops participating. The enoughness race, and its relentless impact on the Earth, would slow if more and more people found a way to set their own definition of enough and live by it.

Easier said than done, as seems always to be the case for true leverage points.

But, after a weekend of simple pleasures, from cheering for 8th grade basketball players, to walking in quiet woods, from listening to Christmas music, to cooking good food, it seems to me that defining enough may not be as hard as we sometimes think. And, not long home from the most recent UN climate conference, a simple fundamental solution, like defining what is enough, seems like it just might accomplish what geo-engineering, carbon markets, and new technologies might not. It might help us create societies that recognize and embrace the reality that our beautiful planet is also finite.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's Not Our Planet, It's Yours

A slow cold rain is falling, I've spent the day catching up on paperwork and emails with one eye on the headlines as the world analyzes and reacts to the 'Cancun Agreements'.  The rush of travel and analysis is behind me for now, the press release analyzing the Cancun Agreements is posted on the Climate Interactive website, and, finally, there is a little time to reflect.

No one expected tremendous progress in Cancun, to say the least. But still, when a journalist asked me today if I found it 'worrisome' that the Cancun talks didn't make progress to close the gap between the level of effort countries are willing to commit to and the level of effort that science tells us is needed, it was all I could do not to snap at her. Worrisome? Of course its worrisome. I've got young children who need us to do better than this. They need us to hand the planet over to them in better shape than we are on track to do so far.

I hung up the phone and watched again a video someone  pointed me towards in Cancun.  In it,  the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres  answers a group of young activists who ask her what inspires her to do the work that she does. "It's you," she says, fighting back tears.
 Look: We’re doing this but this has nothing to do with us. It’s all about you. It’s all about you. We’re the ones that have caused the problem but you’re the ones that are going to have to pay for it, right? The fact is, I’m the mother of two women about your age, and I realized many years ago that I had inherited a planet that was a diminished planet. And that if I didn’t do something about it, my daughters would grow up in a planet that had been severely diminished by what we’re doing. And I just can’t look at my daughters in the eyes and not do whatever I can.
So, it’s you. It’s about the kind of planet that you’re going to have. It’s honestly not my planet. It’s yours, okay? We borrowed it from you for a few minutes. But you will take it over very soon, because it’s yours. And you’re going to have to give it over to your children.
Honestly, there’s no perfect job here, okay? Nothing that we are going to do in Cancun is going to be perfect. Don’t expect perfection. Nothing is going to be highly ambitious. Nothing. Everything here is going to be one step, and everything is going to be insufficient. But it is the best that this group of people in these circumstances, with these political constraints, in this economic environment, can do for the time being. And as soon as this finishes we have to start pushing for the next step. And so it goes. But each one of us that is here has the moral responsibility to do the absolute best that we can at that moment under those circumstances. So what inspires me? It’s you.
 Many people are finding reasons for hope in the outcomes of the Cancun Agreements. I'm not sure, that Christiana's words make me hopeful exactly, but the fact that our world has chosen someone to lead the global climate treaty process who is in touch with her heart and grounded in current reality is, at the very least, a reason to keep on going. Like Christiana, how can we not do whatever we can?

Please, take a moment, and take in the UNFCCC leader's words and spirit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

At COP-16: Some Progress, Further to Go

Last year in Copenhagen, our team's message was "we've made some progress and have further to go."

Whenever we were interviewed by the press or had a chance to brief a policy-maker about our analysis of the pledges for emissions reductions, we stressed that if the pledges were implemented, future generations would experience somewhat less warming than under "business as usual" but that current pledges were not sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change within the century.

Now, one year later, back home after the conclusion of the Cancun round of UNFCCC negotiations, the message of our analysis is still the same.

No countries increased the ambition of their pledges, and the body as a whole did not set forth targets for emissions reductions beyond 2020. The end of the conference had some steps that most observers consider progress, and the Mexican hosts are widely recognized for their skilled diplomacy and consensus-building. The negotiators agreed to keep on talking, and to take up, in 2011, the challenges of increasing the strength of 2020 pledges and making commitments for longer-term reductions. They reaffirmed the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C and agreed to revist the goal in a few years to decide if an even lower target might be appropriate.

With many speculating that the whole process might become deadlocked in tensions between rich an poor nations, the fact that the Cancun Agreements  emerged at all signifies that commitment to global cooperation on climate change is still strong. The rounds of standing ovation for the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs during the final sessions were more about celebrating the ability and willingness of countries to keep on talking rather than any decisive actions on behalf of the climate.

One oft quoted Greenpeace campaigner summed up the results well when he said that the talks represent "a victory for the process more than a victory for the climate".

And so, as in the days after Copenhagen, the message still seems to be:  "We've made some progress, and have further to go."

The glass is half empty, and also half full.

It's not so surprising that this is the case, much as we may wish things were different.

We are living through some of first moments in human history when people are trying to come together as inhabitants of a single planet to anticipate a problem that has not yet occurred, trying to work out a solution together. There are moments especially in the plenary with hundreds of delegates and observers speaking many languages, wearing many traditional dresses, that I marvel that we are, as a species, doing this at all. With our agriculture revolution only 10,000 years behind us, with an ugly past 500 years of colonization and injustice, it is a marvel that we can even imagine stewarding our shared planet together. It is a wonder that, from satellite imaging to sophisticated monitoring we can see and understand our planet as a whole, and that our wired world is connecting us together in new and powerful ways. The glass is half full.

And yet, the process is flawed, unfair, short-sighted, bogged down by local politics and narrow interests. It hasn't managed yet to even agree to the magnitude of effort that the climate demands, let alone achieve the massive mobilization that will be needed to implement any agreement. The glass seems, at times, to be almost totally empty.

With time so short, with emissions needing to peak in under 10 years, progress seems painfully, worryingly, heart-breakingly slow. The halls of the conference were filled with talk of other solutions, outside of a global treaty. Everyone seemed to have hopes for cities, or businesses, or local initiatives leading the way. But a global problem calls out for global solutions. The businesses and cities and initiatives need the lift of a global cap on emissions or a global price on carbon.

Only time will tell, I guess, whether our species is up to the challenge of bringing itself below the limits of the planet, whether we can come together fast enough, and whether we can recognize our common interests and act on them in time.  I do know that thousands of passionate, intelligent, creative folks, and millions more behind them at home around the world, were, over the past two weeks, giving it their best shot. I have no doubt that most of them are now headed home to regroup, reflect, and re-engage, marking the progress that has been made and getting organized to build upon it.

We've made some progress.

We have further to go.

Time to get to work.