Climate Crisis and the Pursuit of Happiness: Reflections on Community Solutions Conferences

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Sixth Community Solutions Conference: “Climate Crisis – Curtailment and Community – and The Power of Individual Action,” held in Yellow Springs Ohio by The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. To those not familiar with permaculture, the work of Community Solutions or for that matter The Post Carbon Institute, the most remarkable thing about the conference was what was not included – namely, the usual salvo of smart-grids and breakthroughs in efficiency, panel after panel celebrating the decreasing price of solar and wind, the false promise of carbon capture or a new knowledge economy, or, if necessary (so that we might continue to live as if there is no tomorrow) the prospect of blasting the tops of mountain tops, this time to fill the air with sun-blocking dust. There was no suggestion, here, that we might magically maintain our unsustainable way of life with nary an inconvenience; the message was far more optimistic and uplifting than that.

Any foolish hope that we might collectively address climate change in a way that does not involve massive lifestyle changes was disposed of in Richard Heinberg’s opening talk, which highlighted the peaking of world conventional oil production, the limits of tight oil, and the fact that renewable energy just won’t behave like coal, oil, and natural gas, no matter how much we may wish it would. Pat Murphy added to this a significant discussion about the diminishing returns that we might expect from efficiency and thus the necessity of re-engineering our own practices and demands rather than the planet itself. The rest of the conference was geared mainly towards personal and community choices we can make. While some of these changes did had a technological aspect, inner-change, will, and commitment received far more attention. The power of moral reckoning and a commitment to doing what is right on a planet that is hot, crowded, and certainly not flat, were highlighted by Jim Merkel’s rousing and highly-personal account of his model of radical simplicity. No one was suggesting that politics don’t matter, nor that our current societal values might be compatible with humanity’s long term survival. But the stronger emphasis, this weekend, spoke to the belief that this group of activists and aspirants might “be the change they want to see.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the “Plan C” or “Post Carbon” approach to climate change and peak oil, at least for me, is the way data, analysis, and numeracy are interlaced with a deep and reverent spirituality, with which we, the conference participants, were encourage to consider the earth, each other, and ourselves. Surveying the future of climate and energy activism fifteen years ago, one might not have expected that the emerging conclusions of jaded oil-company geologists would find such a happy marriage with the hand-holding and song-singing spiritual wing of permaculture. Part of the success of this unlikely union has to do with some exceptional individuals, like Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan, who have graced us with their extremely sharp minds and oversized hearts. The result, at any rate, was a weekend of depletion graphs and footprint matrixes, intertwined with vulnerable love and care for each other. As Mother Earth is crushed by the weight of humanity, we brothers and sisters are finally coming together to lift each other up as we recall the abundant grace and care with which she has nurtured us.
One of the mantras of modern consumer culture is the need for “smart technology.” Community Solutions, Permaculture, The Transition Movement, and The Post Carbon Institute are, in contrast, solitary reminders that we are in far greater need of wisdom. In this they are in many respects heirs to the many indigenous civilizations that were able to thrive for centuries without the technology that modern people assume it impossible to survive without. As a proverb ascribed to natives of what we now call “Australia” goes, “the more you know, the less you need.” Black Oaks Center Executive Director Jifunza Wright-Carter shared the grief and joy with which she discovered her Choctaw roots in Mississippi, reminding us of the need to draw more directly on the wisdom of peoples who knew so much more about life on Earth than those educated only in the ways of modern industrial civilization. Although not the explicit topic of any single talk, the theme of indigenous practices, tribal self-limitation, and traditional wisdom was, at least for me, a persistent subtext throughout the conference.

As I reflected on the conference as I tossed restlessly, unable to sleep on Sunday night, my mind drifted to the arrogance, cruelty, and violence with which Europeans, armed with superior guns, germs, and steel have ravaged the rest of the planet, first with our conquistadors, and now with our models, marketing, and IMF loans. This cruelty, which we many among us in America and Europe assume we have transcended (forgetting about the permanent wars that they may protest against, but which nevertheless help maintain their privilege), is of course justified in the name of progress and of freedom, concepts which will deserve increased scrutiny in coming years: “We may have destroyed primitive civilizations,” we admit, “but at least we allow everyone protection under the far more important universal rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This last phrase has been sticking out in my mind all day – the pursuit of happiness, especially. A great deal about us as a people is contained, constrained, and detained within this phrase, one which we foolishly believe has set us free. It captures our restless and unsettled character, so sagely described by Wendell Berry. That happiness is a thing to pursue outlines the limits of our imagination, the unthinkable regions lost to a people who have been to the moon and back in pursuit of knowledge, only, as power, and power mainly to subsume and consume. It suggests, simply, that happiness cannot be here – or now. It is somewhere else, later, over there – reflected in that image or whispered in that dream. And so we trample our world – and each other – in a mad stampede to be first to the receding horizon; and then ask, in our infinite cleverness, how could the trampled and spoiled land we have just left behind, full of worthless junk and broken lives, be a place of happiness? Of course, we say with smart and knowing disdain, it must be over there, somewhere.

There is of course a sort of freedom that comes with this disparagement of the here and now, a lifting of responsibility, a permission to be without care – careless, that is. If this indeed is the basis or our vaunted and unquestioned commitment to freedom, then freedom needs consideration and thought. This is a heretical statement, said only with a certain risk when living as we are among the free and the scared – armed, angry, running behind, making a way, trying to get ahead, honing that competitive edge, staying on top, thrashing around in search for the better life that has been promised. These words, if you pause over them, reveal a truth about a people living in endless pursuit. But happiness, I propose, may not be something that can be pursued. Nor can any near-synonymous terms with which we might, following Aristotle, define the ultimate end of a life well-lived. Game is pursued; spoils are too. Riches are pursued, as are fame, glory, a championship ring, conquest, or gold. The prize, as Daniel Yergin admitted in a rare moment of modest clarity, is pursued. But happiness cannot be.

Pursuit, we should admit, refers not only to a short-lived task or campaign. It can itself be a permanent state of being, and some say that a life lived in pursuit is a purposeful one. One recalls the adages, sometimes clichés, that the journey, not the destination, is where one finds the joy and wonder. But pursuit, I think, speaks of a far more narrowly focused and harried dispensation than does a journey. Journeys may be made while staying still; pursuits, I don’t think, can. Rivers may be said to make a journey, but they are not in pursuit of anything. Trappers paddling furiously upstream are in pursuit. A herd of buffalo might be said to be in pursuit of greener pastures, as are the wolves who might hunt one or two of them down. But pursuit, here, is driven by a hunger which, once satisfied, is followed by resting, a roll in the sun, or contented rumination. Whales roam the ocean; Ahab, Melville (the insightful student of our then young republic) realized, is driven by mad relentless pursuit. He is occupied, to use another word that deserves a moment of reflection. But little more than that.

That modern people are in permanent pursuit has no doubt solved some difficult political predicaments having to do with maintaining a sense of freedom and the facsimile of consent. Politicians need to make promises that need only be replaced with further promises. It is of little, surprise, then, that marketing, branding, and political leadership have come to resemble each other. Bigger. Better. New and Improved. Only the best. “America, you deserve a raise,” as Obama recently declared. Nor should it be surprising that both “pursuit” and “limitless” are marketing buzzwords, partners in insatiable want, found in equal measure in presidential speeches. “In pursuit of limitless innovation that excites” – this is my own amalgamation but one can imagine the leathery wood-grain indulgence, the smooth and graceful lines emerging from the shadowy depths of endless craving. Only in an infinite universe, dumb to unseen limits, might one sensibly design a way of life that is always on the go, heading somewhere else. Thomas Jefferson, one of the great architects of our system, believed that the American continent was, for all practical purposes, infinite. Against his better judgment, perhaps, this belief permitted him to inaugurate the habit of substituting decisions about the here and now with endlessly deferring expansions.

What sort of people would be so taken with innovation, excitement, a world without limits—stuck in this permanent adolescence: smart, strong, fast, and quick, unconcerned for now with contentment or wisdom, or the gravity of place? What could have happened to make us so? Was it the continent taken with blood and built with slaves? Was it the unprecedented power of explosive fuel that we had no way of knowing how to manage? Given so much, did we come to know so little? While we may, in some obscure measure, deserve history’s pity, it is far more likely that we will be seen one day as its most proud and arrogant destroyer.

As a child of this culture, made irreverent by the junk and the lies, permaculture provides for me an island of reverence, and conferences such as the one held by Community Solutions allow me to spend time speaking in a native tongue. As with indigenous cultures and the unbreakable commitment to place, it celebrates the here and now, a place that we might love only because it is ours. Thus, perhaps, the conference’s focus on individual choice and small inner changes – not as a naïve celebration of the power of the individual, but as an attempt to clean house first. Simple beauty, appreciation, abundance at home and neighborhood and community – not something we pursue, Martha Stewart’s exhortations notwithstanding – but the place we stay.

There, here, is where we are, or should be. And from here anything might begin.