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My friends and foes alike tell me I don’t offer enough practical solutions to the problems of unsustainability. Maybe I have the causes right, they say, but your ways to bring about the cultural change needed to get off the unsustainable and on to the sustainability trajectory are too little and maybe too late. The dilemma I see is lies in the choice we must make between quick, invariably technological fixes and slower cultural shifts. Global warming demands that we choose to do something rather than dithering along doing nothing.
Geo-engineering, tinkering with the planetary system on a grand scale, has become increasingly talked up as a solution to meet the challenges posed by global warming. At the same time that many conservative political voices are denying that a problem exists, they are hedging their bets by touting geo-engineering solutions. One of the most popular goes by the name of the Mount Pinatubo solution, named after the volcano that spewed so much particulate matter into the atmosphere that the temperature of the surface dropped a bit. Ironically the physics that explains the effects of dust in the atmosphere is the same as that which explains warming due to increased concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Here is a quote from Discover, a website that reports on science and technology.

“Geoengineering would provide more time for the world’s economy to grow while investors and entrepreneurs develop and deploy new carbon-neutral energy sources to replace fossil fuels,” wrote Ronald Bailey of the magazine Reason. Teller, for his part, wrote in his 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that geoengineering “is not a new concept and certainly not a complex one.” The AEI’s Sam Thernstrom states that cooling the planet using the Pinatubo Option offers “three powerful virtues in a climate policy that mitigation, at the moment, cannot claim.” They were, he said, “fast,” “affordable,” and “effective.”

All it would take is to construct a synthetic volcano and let her rip. It might even be cheaper to get some of the other Icelandic volcanoes to let go. Those interested in learning more should read Eli Kintisch’s recent book, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope – or Worst Nightmare – for Averting Climate Catastrophe. My point here is not to argue for or against geo-engineering; there’s plenty out there on both sides. There are alternatives to this uncertain and risky path.
A completely different model is one that rests in changing cultural values and consequent behavior: transition initiatives.

A Transition Initiative (which could be a town, village, university or island etc) is a community-led response to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and increasingly, economic contraction. There are thousands of initiatives around the world starting their journey to answer this crucial question, “For all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly rebuild resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil and economic contraction) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”

The quote comes from an excellent British website devoted to educate people about this relatively recent incipient movement. They have prepared a downloadable Transition Primer that gives one all it takes to get an initiative going at home. Building or re-building community is a critical step in the way to sustainability. This initiative is a twofer, moving away from unsustainability and toward sustainability at the same time.

Just to weave the climate change and peak oil situations together…

– Climate change makes this carbon reduction transition essential
– Peak oil makes it inevitable
– Transition initiatives make it feasible, viable and attractive (as far we can tell so far…)

Neither of these, however, provides for the need for bold steps to reduce emissions quickly. The transition initiative carries the right message and sustainability values, but not the right political package. National, even global, measures are essential.

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