The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

A Modest Proposal

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The Climate Action Network (CAN) has publicly said we need to phase out fossil fuels entirely, and soon. I’ve been saying the same in this blog since its inception. The recent climate march in New York City may have made the media sit up and take notice, and might possibly have encouraged our political leaders to take some meaningful steps, but most of those steps are still babyish.

As individuals, we can reduce our carbon footprint–and many of us have. But realistically, individual lifestyle change is a luxury of the relatively well-off. A person who is busy struggling to feed three kids and keep the heat on can’t buy a Prius or demand a job accessible by bicycle. It’s also true that even among those who are able, radical lifestyle change seldom appeals to more than a small minority of people. Individual change is therefore not enough. National and international leadership is necessary, but it isn’t enough, either. We need community-level change–towns, counties, states, and regions.

There is the Transition Movement, which I’ve written about before, but it is a fairly distinct thing–it has its own priorities and philosophy that might not appeal to everybody and might not be the best way to approach every community’s situation. I’d like to see a lot of transition movements, a lot of different interrelating approaches to the ultimate goal of getting communities off fossil fuel.

I suggest that such efforts work towards the following goals:

Oil-free Food

Modern food production has a huge carbon footprint, from agriculture itself to transportation to processing. Some people have access to gardens or farmers’ markets, but even where these options exists they don’t necessarily have the capacity to feed everybody in the area. If oil vanished tomorrow, a lot of people would starve.

A transition community can consider part of its goal met when it has the capacity to feed its entire population locally, sustainably, and without the use of factory farming or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t buy “imported” food. I’m not talking about a dictatorship, I’m talking about creating options.

Oil-free Transportation

A town should be walkable/bikeable, should have functional public transportation powered by something other than oil, and should have an economic structure such that people can live and work and shop within the town. Again, that doesn’t mean people can’t drive off, it just means they shouldn’t have to.

A Place to Call Home

A town ready for the post-petroleum age should have post-petroleum housing available. This is important, because the structure of a person’s dwelling has a huge impact on his or her lifestyle choices. For example, in a home with small, shaded windows, you can’t rely on daylight for lighting, even if you want to. In a hot, stuffy building, air conditioning might be a medical necessity in the summer. And so on.

Post-petroleum housing need not be reserved for eco-conscious people. Rather, just as building codes reflect the demands of fire safety (whether or not the people in the building care a bit about the issue), new residential buildings should make living with a small carbon footprint possible.

Besides the building materials and so forth, issues to consider include:

  • Heating and cooling; well-insulated buildings stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter with less energy. By using shade, sun exposure, and air flow properly, an architect can adjust a building to its climate and minimize the amount of extra heating and cooling residents need. Let’s shoot for buildings that can stay between 40° and 80° by themselves. If you want it warmer in the winter you can turn on the heat, but if you’ll never have to worry about the pipes freezing.
  • Lighting; lots of big windows, please. No house should need electric light on a sunny day.
  • Food storage; if a building has a root cellar, a refrigerator is a luxury, not a necessity. Refrigerators suck up electricity, since they run 24/7, and use chemicals that are also greenhouse gases.
  • Resource production; let’s put solar cells on the roof, or put them on walls between windows and put a vegetable garden on the roof. Green roofs are great for insulation.

A Vision for a Community

So, that’s my proposal; that communities work together on issues relating to food, transportation, local jobs, and affordable housing. Notice that these issues are interconnected–local food production and processing supports a more vibrant local economy, which means more jobs. Notice also these these things are all within the grasp of either local government or independent community groups.

Many communities are working along these lines already. Good for them. What I offer is a clearly articulated end-point to work for–the basic principle that the infrastructure of life should make it easier, not harder, for individuals to do the right thing.

Then more people would choose to get off fossil fuel.



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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