Climate shocks are on the way. We’ve already spewed so much carbon into the atmosphere that a cascade of worsening crop failures, droughts, floods, and freak storms is virtually guaranteed. You, your family, and your community will feel the effects.
Ironically, however, avoiding climate change also has its costs. It makes sense from a climate-protection standpoint to dramatically and rapidly reduce our use of fossil fuels, which drive global warming. But these fuels largely, well, fueled the spectacular economic growth of the past 200 years, and weaning ourselves from them quickly now—while most industrial economies are over-indebted and starved for growth—could risk financial upheaval.
Oil, the most economically pivotal of the fossil fuels, is getting more expensive anyway. Cheap, onshore, conventional crude is depleting; its replacements—deepwater oil, tar sands, and tight oil—cost more to produce, in both dollar and environmental terms. Though high oil prices discourage driving (good for the climate), they also precipitate recessions (bad for the economy). While renewable energy sources are our hope for the future and we should be doing everything we can to develop them, it will be decades before they can supply all our energy needs.
In the face of impending environmental and economic shocks, our best strategy is to build resilience throughout society. Resilience is the subject of decades of research by ecologists and social scientists who define it as “the capacity of a system to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes.” In other words, resilience is the capacity to absorb shocks, reorganize, and continue functioning.
In many respects a resilient society defies the imperative of economic efficiency. Resilience needs dispersed inventories and redundancy, while economic efficiency—in its ruthless pursuit of competitive advantage—eliminates inventories and redundancies everywhere it can. Economic efficiency leads toward globalization, resilience toward localization. Economic efficiency pursues short-term profit as its highest objective, while resilience targets long-term sustainability. It would appear that industrial society circa 2012 has gone about as far in the direction of economic efficiency as it is possible to go, and that a correction is necessary and inevitable. Climate change simply underscores the need for that course correction.
Building resilience means helping society to work more like an ecosystem—and that has major implications for how we use energy. Ecosystems conserve energy by closing nutrient loops: plants capture and chemically store solar energy, which is then circulated as food throughout the food web. Nothing is wasted. We humans—having developed the ability to draw upon ancient, concentrated, cheap, and abundant (though ultimately finite) fossil fuels—have simultaneously adopted the habit of wasting energy on a colossal scale. Our food, transport, manufacturing, and dwelling systems burn through thirty billion barrels of oil and eight billion tons of coal per year; globally, humans use over four hundred quadrillion BTUs of energy in total. Even where energy is not technically going to waste, demand for it could be substantially reduced by redesigning our basic systems. More