Last weekend, Post Carbon Institute hosted its first ever retreat—a three day gathering of Fellows, board, and staff—aimed at fostering collaboration, developing a shared vision, and setting the organization’s programmatic direction for the next year. Twenty-two of our 29 Fellows joined us in person, while a few others observed and participated remotely.
The retreat was a culmination of a year-long strategic shift by the Institute towards serving as a think tank focused on the interconnected sustainability crises of the 21st century—"a one-stop shop for all the cutting edge thinking on the transition to a post-carbon world."
Of our 29 current Fellows, only five had that role with the Institute before 2009 and of these, only Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg was active in any capacity. So while several of our Fellows knew one another prior to last weekend (some, like David Orr and Wes Jackson, for almost as long as I’ve been alive… sorry to make you feel old, gents), this really was, in many ways, an introduction.
In the days since, one of the things I’ve been teasing over was a question that should have been relatively easy to answer: What brought everyone there? Obviously, each of our Fellows has a passion and expertise in an area of economic, energy, or environmental sustainability, and they were drawn by our call to work across specialties on the underlying crises that bind their work together. That much is obvious.
But while we wrestled with the sheer enormity and complexity of these crises, something was missing that you’d normally find in a gathering like this: disagreement. Of course, viewpoints and opinions were not unanimous—how could they be?—and people, rightly, brought their own emphasis to what are our biggest challenges. But there was by and large consensus in the room, and that even after Richard Heinberg presented David Holmgren’s Descent Scenarios, which are so ripe for debate. This is a testiment, I think, to both the growing awareness that "all the bills of our industrial bonanza have come due" and a quality about the people we gathered together for which I feel particularly proud—their willingness to face reality.
I don’t say this lightly, especially after the sessions held during the retreat with Joe Brewer from Cognitive Policy Institute, which helped me understand just how little reality actually has to do with our thinking. We’re all guilty of emotion, neurological wiring, experiences, language, etc. leading us to view the world through frames that are far more absolutist than "reality" … the New York Yankees are the pure embodiment of evil, Republicans hate the planet, Democrats are socialist/communist/fascists, or something else. But in that room was, I think, a shared willingness to live and work in a world of contradictions:
- The next five, ten, twenty years are going to be remarkably different than the last. We have effectively reached the limits to growth, the nearly simultaneous crises of global climate change, peak oil, fresh water scarcity, debt and economic growth, population, biodiversity loss, top soil erosion, etc.
- We must prepare for uncertainty. How events will transpire we can’t fully predict.Think about how complex climate models must be. Multiply the complexity of that system 1,000 or 1 million fold and the only thing that becomes clear is that nothing can be fully predicted. Nothing but rapid and massive change that is.
- We need to focus on responses, not just solutions. There is no silver bullet, no combination of solutions that will allow us to maintain the status quo or avoid hardship. Does that mean there is no role for innovation, technology, or other advances? Of course not. But to think that we can invent our way out of these crises is just sheer folly. Dangerous folly.
- We can do something. The good news is that there is no shortage of places or ways to exert our energies: building awareness and understanding, supporting individual and community preparedness, foster experimentation and re-localization in food and energy production, and—trickiest of all—changing behavior.
- Whatever we do, it won’t be enough. There will be victims (there already are). There will be suffering. There will be loss. This reality, personally, is the hardest to bear. But that doesn’t mean we can or should give up.
- Life can be as good, or better, than the present. It’s circumstantial, of course, but the consumer-driven way of life is not particularly fulfilling. Levels of depression, obesity, debt, social disconnection, etc. are at historic highs, at least in the industrialized world. A life more connected to community, more grounded in ecology, with the fruits of our labor more tangible and meaningful, can and will be more fulfilling.
Working against that backdrop, Fellows, staff, board, and guests rolled up their shirtsleeves and came up with some fantastic and ambitious ideas for how we can work together and with partners to grow resilience and lead the transition toward a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world. The results of their brainstorming will become clear over the coming months.
I can’t express enough how humbled and honored I felt to be in the room with everyone there. What I told our Fellows last weekend is even truer now than it was then: I can’t guarantee them that we’ll be successful (heck, I’m not even sure I know how to define success in this work of ours), but I can guarantee that I will work at least as hard as they do. And that is all that we can ask of ourselves and one another.
To those of you reading this, I say with all sincerity: I hope you join us. We need you.
More On the Retreat