Daniel Lerch and the Post Carbon Institute Flame. The PlanetShifter.com Magazine Interview by Willi Paul
Daniel Lerch and the Post Carbon Institute Flame. The PlanetShifter.com Magazine Interview by Willi Paul

"Victorville's residents are utterly dependent on private cars to get to work-or anywhere else. The town has no public transit of any kind and, statistically, zero percent of people in town walk or ride bikes to get to work. Lacking other options, private cars are economic necessities in Victorville, as they are for millions of people living in similar exurban boomtowns across much of the United States. During 2007, almost a quarter of the people in Victorville spent over two hours driving to and from work each day, and 10% spent more than three brutal hours in their daily work commute. These super-commuters were largely heading to and from the massive Los Angeles region, located over a small mountain range to the south. At least partially because of traffic jams on the 80-mile route into greater Los Angeles, 15% of people in Victorville in 2007 left on their morning commutes before 5 a.m."

From: The Post Carbon Reader -- a valuable resource for policymakers, college classrooms, and concerned citizens.

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What is uncertain in our pollution-packed industrial economy? We burn fossil fuels and emit carbon. The Earth dies, Right?

The Earth is going to continue along just fine even if we manage to set off catastrophic climate change. It's been through massive climate upheavals before and it will again. What matters to us is whether we continue to the same kind of biosphere in which we were able to evolve into Homo sapiens, develop culture and civilization, and built the modern world as we know it. And that, really, is the ultimate uncertainty we're flirting with in our fossil-fuel-dependent global economy of nearly seven billion people: we're consuming and wasting so much, so fast, that we really are threatening the ecological basis of our modern existence.

The Post Carbon Institute home page uses the "addicted" in the stark choice between staying the course and choosing alternative fuels. What do you mean by addicted? Who is the pusher? Who is the addict?

The easy answer is "we consumers and our economies are the ones addicted to fossil fuels, and it's the big energy companies and their cronies in government who are the pushers." But of course it's more complicated than that. It's really the entire modern, globalized economic system that is addicted to fossil fuels, and you could argue that anyone or any institution that contributes to that system in its current form -- whether it's building a new lane of highway or permitting a new offshore oil well-- bears some responsibility as a "pusher."

Moreover, think about what "addiction" really means. I think when a lot of people talk about our "addiction to fossil fuels" there's an implication that it's a simple choice between than and renewables, almost a Nancy Reagan-esque "just say no!" attitude. But it's not at all a simple choice. As communities, businesses, households, and individuals we have inherited a centuries-old, deep-seated addiction, and trillions of dollars worth of institutions and infrastructure all built around that addiction. It's not something we can change with a simple choice or with simple actions. And yet, we need to break that addiction, and quickly. So it is a choice, and it's very stark choice.

BP is careful to walk a fine line between their "one time" incident in the Gulf and their POV that the USA will need more and more fossil-base fuels moving ahead? Who should the consumer believe?

Folks who say we will need more fossil fuels moving ahead are correct up to a point. The world's trillions of dollars worth of fossil-fuel-oriented infrastructure is not going to be converted to wind-generated electricity overnight, or in five or ten years (that was one of the big points of the famous Department of Energy "Hirsch Report" a few years ago). If we want to have what has been called an "energy descent" --as opposed to a crash or collapse-- we're probably going to have to have some amount of new fossil fuels coming online for the next few decades or so. That won't solve the current peak oil problem -- even drilling all-out right now wouldn't really solve the current peak oil problem -- but it could mean the difference between a manageable fossil fuels decline rate and an global-economy-collapsing fossil fuels decline rate.

Now, that's not to say that we should drill all-out. We shouldn't. One of the arguments made by folks concerned about peak oil is that our money is better spent on investing in renewable energy infrastructure for the long haul instead of throwing it at increasingly-expensive, ecologically-disastrous, non-renewable energy sources like deepwater oil, tarsands oil, polar oil, mountaintop-removal coal, and unconventional natural gas
So, yes, we'll need some amount of new fossil fuels for some time to come -- but society's investment in those energy sources should be a steadily declining fraction of our investment in renewable sources and technologies.

And as far as BP saying this is a "one-time" incident: Well, I guess it's a one-time incident until it happens again, isn't' it? The technology and engineering to get at these increasingly-difficult sources of oil is only going to get more complex, and more expensive.

Isn't the transition to a greener world best viewed as a local effort first? Do you know about DailyActs.org in Petaluma or Transitions US?

The "Transition Town" process is an incredibly valuable model for taking effective action on these issues at the local level, and Daily Acts is a great example of how that can be done. The transition to a society and economy that runs largely on renewable energy needs to happen at all levels, from the more local to the most global. I wouldn't say that it needs to be a local effort "first," but given the political and economic realities of how our world currently works, those local efforts are probably also the most important -- because that's how the ideas are spread and the political will for built for the larger-scale policy and structural changes needed.

How is Obama doing on his green energy vision?

Well, I don't know that he had much of a real "green energy vision" to begin with. He was quite clear before the election that he supports coal power and nuclear power. And frankly, I don't follow stuff at the national policy level too much. There's so much that goes on behind closed doors, and there are so many different relationships and power issues in play, that, to my mind, it's almost useless for an outsider to try to follow it on anything less than a full-time basis. I pay more attention to what's happening at the local and state levels -- both because it's usually more obvious what's happening and why, and because historically that's where the action's been on energy and climate policy.
So when things happen like the president suddenly talking about offshore drilling moratoria and reforming the Minerals Management Service, it's great and I take note. But the events that led to that happening were unpredictable, and nobody but nobody knows what other events it will really take (or not take) for the president to ultimately act on those words seriously and definitively.

Tell about PCI's zero waste strategies.

Internally we try to reduce our waste as much we can, of course -- and we're a pretty small organization, so that's not too hard. We recently moved our headquarters office to a more central location and I bike to work up here in the Portland office; we're very light on our paper use, even to the point of paying vendors by electronic direct deposits as opposed to by mailed paper checks.

Our larger zero-waste philosophy is in line with our friends at the Product Policy Institute and their executive director (and Post Carbon Fellow) Bill Sheehan. That true zero-waste philosophy puts the focus on reducing material use overall, shifting financial responsibility for waste from the consumer and taxpayer to the product producer, and challenging infrastructure decisions like waste-to-energy and landfill-gas-capture that lock us in to waste production with relatively minor energy or climate benefits. Bill and PPI President Helen Spiegelman wrote a whole chapter that digs into these issues in our forthcoming book The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises (http://www.postcarbonreader.com).

Is Clean Coal really viable greentech or an industry sham?

"Clean coal" is not yet a significantly viable green technology, and my understanding is that it's yet not clear that it ever could be. By "significantly viable green technology" I mean that it would need to make a significant long-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of coal burned (which is important because carbon sequestration reduces the efficiency of generating electricity from coal, so putting in these systems means that more coal needs to be burned), and do so in a way that keeps coal cost-competitive with renewable energy. The technology is still quite young, and the coal we're burning has a worse and worse net return on energy (as with oil, we got to the high-quality first, and now we're increasingly resorting to the low-quality stuff).

So again it comes to that argument by the peak oilers I mentioned earlier: Does it make sense to keep throwing our money at dying resources, or should we instead invest in resources like wind and solar that will never die out?
What is PCI's track record on environmental / social justice issues?

Post Carbon's roots were in the peak oil world, back in 2003 when only a few people outside the petroleum geology field were even talking about peak oil. We brought an environmental perspective and a local-issues perspective to the conversation, and that had a much stronger social justice component to it than most mainstream environmental groups (although we didn't of it as such at the time) -- because we were talking about how the economic challenges ahead would affect local communities and vulnerable population, and how the responses to these challenges needed to come not from big business or the federal government but from local citizens.

As Post Carbon grew and as the peak oil issue became more well-known, we learned more about how disadvantaged communities were all too often left out of even local decision-making structures and processes -- and at the same time, we learned about people doing essential work on transition-related social justice issues, people like Van Jones, Majora Carter, and Will and Erika Allen (of Growing Power in Milwaukee and Chicago). So we had a lot of conversations with a lot of folks, we recruited Majora and Erika as Post Carbon Fellows, and we continue to explore how social justice issues and the deep history of social justice struggles inform our more-established work on peak oil and environmental issues.

It's fascinating, it's a constantly evolving story. I had a great conversation earlier this year with Erika Allen about Growing Power's work doing what I'd thought was basically just small-scale urban farming with disadvantaged inner-city communities. She showed me how it's not just about teaching gardening skills -- it's full-on organizing around the community taking ownership and control of its own food supply system, and all the social and economic benefits (for individuals, for households, and for the whole community) that brings. She showed me what their work means in the context of centuries of racial and class discrimination -- and also in the context of very present-day political and corporate power dynamics. Powerful stuff; we transcribed and adapted that conversation for The Post Carbon Reader as well.

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Daniel Lerch Bio -

Daniel is the author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, the first major municipal guidebook on peak oil and global warming. One of the few experts specializing in local government responses to global fossil fuel depletion, he has delivered presentations and workshops to elected officials, planners, and other audiences across the United States, as well as in Canada, Ireland, the UK, and Spain. Daniel has worked with urban sustainability and planning issues for over thirteen years in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies from Rutgers University in New Jersey and a Master of Urban Studies from Portland State University in Oregon.

Connections -

Daniel Lerch, Program Director: Communities, Government
Post Carbon Institute
"The Post Carbon Reader" series portal
707.823.8700 x103
Daniel at postcarbon.org

Discuss with Daniel! China - Global Sustainable Business in LinkedIn