sustainable models for the future

As the Soviet empire was collapsing several years ago, the folks in Moscow made a strategic decision to cut off the funding to Fidel Castro and his tiny island nation off the coast of Florida. It meant no more subsidies, and no more oil. The people of Cuba were essentially on their own for the first time in decades. And, somehow, miraculously, they went right on living. They transitioned to less oil-intensive methods of agriculture, and they were still able to feed their people… And, a lot of us in the global Oh Shit the Oil’s Running Out community took notice, thinking that perhaps the Cubans had provided a model that the rest of us could follow in the future. Here’s a clip from an October 9, 2007 “New York Times” article on the subject:

…Cuba’s economic crisis in the 1990s had a silver lining, scientists are reporting: a decrease in the rates of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.

And no wonder. Average calorie consumption dropped more than a third, to 1,863 calories a day in 2002 from 2,899 in 1989. Cubans also exercised more, giving up cars for walking and bicycling.

Using national vital statistics and other sources, the researchers gathered data on energy intake, body weight and physical activity in Cuba from 1980 to 2005. In Cienfuegos, a large city on the southern coast, obesity rates decreased to less than 7 percent in 1995 from more than 14 percent in 1991….

Yeah, they didn’t have the calories they were used to, but they produced enough food to see them though the year. And, they got healthier in the process. Not a bad trade-off. (As food production increased, however, so did obesity rates.)

Another notable success story is Curitiba, Brazil. My friend Lisa Bashert just sent me links to two films about the city, which seems to be ahead of the curve relative to sustainability. Among other enviable things, they have a great system of interlocking parks, a public transit system that carries 2.5 million riders per day, and they recycle 70% of their garbage.

The first film is a 15-minute documentary on Curitiba by a British production team. The second, embedded here, is a speech delivered by the city’s long-time mayor, Jaime Lerner, at the TED conference. (If you have trouble with his accent, try watching the other video first…. But do watch it… I don’t want to give too much away, but it ends in rap!)

And things seem to be happening in Brittan as well. I just received an email from a reader there named Naiemah, and she wanted to let me know about a conference that was just held called Transition 2008. (Video from the event can be found here.)

Apparently, British towns are undergoing the process of becoming certified as “Transition Towns.” The designation means that they’re putting systems in place to mitigate global warming pollution and curb energy use. And, believe it or not, they’re positioning it as something that, instead of being feared, should be embraced. Instead of projecting doom and gloom, they’re suggesting the unthinkable – that cutting back on oil will make their communities stronger. It might still be something of a neo-hippy fringe movement, built around Rob Hopkins’ book entitled “The Transition Handbook,” but it looks like it might have legs.

The following comes from the Transition website.

…We live in an oil-dependent world, and have got to this level of dependency in a very short space of time, using vast reserves of oil in the process — without planning for when the supply is not so plentiful. Most of us avoid thinking about what happens when oil runs out (or becomes prohibitively expensive), but The Transition Handbook shows how the inevitable and profound changes ahead can have a positive outcome. These changes can lead to the rebirth of local communities, which will grow more of their own food, generate their own power, and build their own houses using local materials. They can also encourage the development of local currencies, to keep money in the local area.

The book has three sections, the Head, the Heart and the Hands. The Head explores the issues of peak oil and climate change, and how when looked at together, we need to be focusing on the rebuilding of resilience as well as cutting carbon emissions. It argues that the focus of our lives will become increasingly local and small scale as we come to terms with the real implications of the energy crisis we are heading into. The Heart looks at where we find the personal tools for responding to what can feel like overwhelming challenges. It argues that key to our success will be our ability to generate positive visions of future, to harness the power of engaged optimism, and overcome powerlessness. The Hands offers a detailed exploration of the Transition model, setting out its principles, its origins, the 12 Steps of Transition, how they were applied in the first year of Transition Town Totnes, as well as offering a taste of how the model has been applied in a range of other settings. The book also contains lots of ‘Tools for Transition’, exercises and activities that can help to deepen this work in your community.

There are now over 40 Transition Towns in the UK, with more joining as the idea takes off. With little proactivity at government level, communities are taking matters into their own hands and acting locally. If your town is not a Transition Town, this upbeat guide offers you the tools for starting the process. It is a process which is, as Richard Heinberg writes in his Foreword, “more like a party than a protest march”….

Yeah, I know, it sounds a little “hippy dippy,” but I think maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s even necessary… If we’re going to pull our shit together and make it though the next 100 years, we’re going to have to rally people around these regional, shared, positive visions of the future. Fear isn’t enough to motivate people to make a change. They need to think that something’s in it for them, that there’s something better on the horizon.

I’m just getting back from a week with my mother’s family in Georgia. Linette, Clementine and I flew. Everyone else drove. In all, there were six cars, and each traveled close to 1,000 miles. I tried to stay positive, and enjoy the week, but I found it difficult not to think that maybe we as a family wouldn’t be able to do such things in the future…. It also didn’t help that my choice of light summer reading was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

…Anyway, goodnight from the world’s biggest polluter.

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  1. Posted July 13, 2008 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing all of this information. I did enjoy the TED conference video.

    I especially like his emphasis on “the time is now.” When Lisa set up the “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” movie at the Corner Brewery, it also noted that at first many people died. The loss of peak oil had some very bad effects on the elderly and frail in a nation of extreme heat.

    I mention this not to detract from the success Cuba went on to make through adaptation. Instead, I feel that there is more we should be doing now with transportation.

    I like how the mayor of Curitiba speaks of Otto the auto as being a big problem but I don’t know how to make a better break and I don’t see plans on the horizon locally to help. I am hoping that you do. AATA does not go near my workplace and I do not have the option of working from home. It is too far away to bike or walk, or ride the bus and then ride or bike.

    I would love it if Depot Town reopened its Depot and I could take a train closer to work, but I don’t know how to move this project closer. WSJ, too, has been running many recent articles on the advantages of train transport.

    –Do you know of any bills even in the State or Nationally that I could even write a letter to support more Federal/State funding of mass transit?
    Do you know of anything concrete that Obama has planned for mass transit?

    –Do you remember how in the 70s we had all those incentives that made car-pooling easier, or how the Michigan Union had the ride board for those who needed rides to locations through the US? Do you know of any source Ypsi has for these sources of transit?


  2. Julesabu
    Posted July 14, 2008 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Mark. Those videos were a nice break from the ever present sense of impending doom that’s been in my brain for some time now. Seriously, it’s nice to hear from optimistic yet pragmatic people. It all comes back to interconnectedness on many levels, doesn’t it?

  3. Paw
    Posted July 14, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Someone needs to isolate the rap and add a kick-ass bass track.

  4. Monica
    Posted July 14, 2008 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Loved that rap! thank you so much for running those clips – inspiring guy. ordinary joe, humble man.

    I just saw the full movie (Curitiba) this month at the library. It was just terrific. Its great to see this kind of movie and have a group discussion after. I couldn’t help thinking about Ypsilanti. Its so interesting the way he manages to accomplish what a subway does by using the buses similarly…

    its so interesting to me that there are so few responses to this post, and so many more to your most recent post… ?curious. what does that mean?

    I also loved Marjora Carter – and recently saw her talk in slower speed that TED’s video — the Bioneer taped talk is wonderfully slow and full. Again, as she describes how they tranformed the river front with so little $$ — just people labor (and believe me she must have been working with a brownfield) I thought of our stalemate on the Water St project… why couldn’t we do something like that – a citizen initiative to get something done on that land that might spark interest and kick start some activity?

    Also, when I saw the sheep in Curitiba — LOL I thought of our urban microfarming family and their goats that need some additional forage… then Mark could go to TED and sing rap and solicit further funding… yeh, I know you’re the guy for the job…
    i can see your lovely daughter singing with you…I’m sure she’d vote for doing this ; )

    Anyhow — fun fantasy. If only we weren’t so caught up in our rules, regs and stuffed shirt consciousness we might be able to make it real.
    And I include myself in there…

    So we’re doing more films that are fun, inspiring, interesting educational and we’re doing Transition Townes followed by discussion time if anyone would like to ck it out! You’d be very welcome
    Transition towne film:

    Or, the Zero Energy home:

  5. Lisele
    Posted July 17, 2008 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    The Road was one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Talk about your nihilist future visions…

    So sad that the detailed reply to this I originally wrote somehow didn’t get posted — MY fault, btw, not the blog’s fault. I think I wandered off in the middle of it. That’s been my kind of week.

    I was so inspired by the story of Curitiba — and by the amazing views of the city. I want parks and public transportation like that!!! I want Peter Thomason’s goats mowing my park!!!

    I also really appreciated the links to the Transition Town initiatives in Britain. I think that some cities in the USA are adopting some similar kinds of plans — for example Ithaca NY is one that I know of. There’s also the ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability at which seemed originally to be doing some innovative thinking, such as the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, but now their site seems to be devolving into double-speak to avoid the hard truths. Much better, I think, is the Transition Towns’ Primer here:

    Simple, readable and to-the-point.

  6. Lisele
    Posted July 17, 2008 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    By the way, I think Ypsi would make a great Transition Town — with or without our big sister to the west. In looking through the 12 steps to Transition, I think we’ve already completed about 4 of them: laying the foundations and education is happening thru Monica’s group and my group (all the films mentioned have been screened locally), many in our area are “re-skilling” meaning learning sustenance skills; and we have physically manifestations to show for our interest in renewable energy in our solar-power projects at the Food Co-Op and City Hall, not to mention our FABULOUS community gardens. I think we need to think about actually forming a Transition Steering Group and Work Groups. I nominate me, Mark, Amanda, Monica, Sean… hmmm, who else??? It’s time, dontcha think?

  7. Asm
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Definitely not Kate Moss or Anna Nicole Smith, but I guess that one’s obvious.

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