The OregonPEN Interview: Rob Dietz of Post Carbon Institute

(Interview lightly edited for clarity.)

Rob Dietz is the Program Director at Post Carbon Institute, where he is responsible for guiding projects from conception to completion. With training and experience in ecological economics, environmental science, and conservation biology, he has built a career aimed at moving society in sustainable directions.

Prior to joining Post Carbon Institute, Rob worked as a project manager at Farmland LP, helping to transition conventional farmland to organic. He was also the first executive director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (steadystate.org), taking it from an unfunded start-up organization to an internationally respected leader on new economic thinking.  He is the lead author of Enough Is Enough, a popular book on steady-state economics that Noam Chomsky called “lucid, informed, and highly constructive.” Rob also has produced dozens of articles and presentations on a variety of topics related to sustainability.

Rob is a former Presidential Management Fellow, with appointments at the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  He was the first person at the Fish and Wildlife Service to serve as a Conservation Goals Coordinator, a position that combined long-range planning and landscape modeling for the National Wildlife Refuge System. He also did time as an economic analyst at two Washington, DC, consulting firms. His educational background includes a master’s degree in environmental science and engineering from Virginia Tech and an undergraduate degree in economics and environmental studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

Rob lives at CoHo Ecovillage in Corvallis, Oregon, where he occasionally shuts down the laptop and ventures into the Cascadian wilds.

OregonPEN: What’s your elevator pitch for the Post Carbon Institute?

Rob Dietz: Well, the Post Carbon Institute. We envision a world of resilient communities where we got localized economies that thrives within ecological bounds, so that’s really our vision for the world and what we want to see. We know that business as usual is breaking down. We can’t keep growing our population, growing our use of energy and mineral resources.

We’re not going to consume our way out of the environmental economic crisis that are unfolding around us, so we have to make a fundamental change in our individual behavior, our community behavior and ultimately the way that civilization exists on this planet. We can plan to do that in a graceful way or we can let things basically go into an overshoot collapse kind of way. We are trying to look for a graceful change of how society operates on the planet.

OregonPEN: What is the meaning of Post Carbon in that? You never mentioned the carbon – you mentioned pollution, environmental crisis. Why is it called the Post Carbon Institute?

Rob Dietz: Yeah, the idea there is that we receive this one-time gift of fossil fuels which are, they’re an incredible substance. Let’s just take oil. The amount of work that can be done with a very small amount of oil has driven incredible changes in society. That’s industrial revolution into the infrastructure that we see today is all based on what we’ve been able to get out of oil, coal, and natural gas.

We know that that’s a one-time gift. It’s a limited supply. It’s a non-renewable resource so we’re going to . . . We’re going to be moving to a Post-Carbon society one way or another, and we could do that well although we really should have been angling for it many years ago. People have tried.

So we could do it well, if we can plan for it and get ready for it, or we can do it very poorly if we deny that it’s a limited resource. Of course the other limit we’re bumping up against is that burning all that fossil fuel is what is causing climate change, and it’s not just that the supply of fuels is ultimately limited. It’s that we can’t really afford to burn them anyway, so we’ve got to make the change. And the question is, can we do that change in a way that we are taking into account our environmental problems and our equity issues, or do we do it in a way where nations scramble for the last of the resources and we deny the problems until they become so painful that they can no longer be denied.
By then who knows what the politics of that situation would look like. What we imagine for post-carbon societies is these resilient communities where you really focus at that community scale where you have got a localized economy that is much more impervious to these big external shocks that can weather the storms, speaking metaphorically or possibly even literally, depending on what happens with our warming climate.

OregonPEN: Does a world of localized economies, localized communities, these resilient, smaller communities . . . What is the aggregate total of the number of people that can be in such communities? Does PCI have a sense of what is the carrying capacity that permits this resilient life for the remaining people, how many people [total] is it?

Rob Dietz: That’s a good question, and a really, really difficult question to answer. For years, centuries even, people have been talking about that. What’s the carrying capacity on planet earth for people? And we can go back to Malthus and the concerns about population outstripping our ability to produce food.

The problem with trying to come up with a specific number for people is that we have this relationship with energy and technology. Our ingenuity in using those resources has allowed us to put more people on the planet than we previously thought possible. The question becomes, well how far can you go in that direction — and when you look at, we’ve got about 7.5 billion of them right now, and that we’re consuming the amount of resources that we are and producing the amount of pollution that we are, we are in this overshoot situation so living the way we live with a number of us that are doing that is clearly too many people for a long term sustainable society.
Now what that number needs to be . . . ? It is so highly dependent on what we end up doing with our technologies and with how much we consume. There are places in the world where one person consumes a lot more than their colleague in another part of the world.

It really comes down to so many different choices. It’s hard to put one number on it. You know that if we can have a smaller population, that frees up more resources for other people and also for other species on the planet too.

We’ve entered a serious decline in biodiversity such the scientists are calling it, the sixth mass extinction. A lot of the reason behind that is that humanity is consuming more of the planet than these species can deal with, so we’ve taken over habitats for our own [use], appropriated them for the economy. The number, yeah, I’m sorry that I can’t give you a specific number, but definitely a fewer of us consuming less is something we’re going to have to figure out how to get to, in a compassionate and equitable way.

OregonPEN: You worked with Brian Czech in the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Has CASSE got any estimate that they have looked at for it? I’ve seen estimates of a billion or two billion might be in the realm of what might be a sustainable number of people who might be able to continue without imperiling the future ability to exist. Does CASSE have any thoughts on how many people the world might sustain?
Rob Dietz: Yeah. I haven’t been involved with CASSE for a quite a few years so I don’t know if they’ve done anything since I left on that front, but the estimates that I’ve seen for the stuff come more from groups like the WorldWatch Institute. I remember seeing a table that they had produced with what they estimated was a sustainable global population and comparing that to income scenarios.

If everybody’s got a low income, which then correlates to a low amount of consumption, you can have a lot more people. But if you have really high income, you need fewer people, because that smaller number of people — they’re consuming a lot more.

I’ve got the table in front of me, I just don’t have the source but they’re saying something like you could have 13.5 billion people, if everybody consume at this very low income level. Then, you could have, or you could have something like 1.5 billion people if you are consuming more of an average US income level, so it’s really that range in how many of us there are and how much we consume. And I would even throw in that it’s more complicated than that because it depends on what technologies you use, how you employ them, and what you do with the breathing room that you produce if you manage to have a smaller population that’s consuming less.

As you see in the past, we’ve used that breathing room of course to grow the economy, meaning more people consuming more stuff, so we would have to at some point decide that that’s now how we’re going to operate and have the proper or the best institutions and policies in place that help us get there.
OregonPEN: Are there examples of societies that have chosen not to expand to their ecological limits?
Rob Dietz: I’m sure there must be in history. Some smaller communities that are more in step with environmental limits and that they don’t surpass them, but I don’t know of any in modern times. A lot of people will point to, well look at Japan. Their economy has not been growing much over the last decade or so, but that wasn’t really by choice.
They’ve done what they can to try to grow the economy even using the tried and true, “Well let’s do a big infrastructure project,” but that hasn’t worked because they didn’t really need more infrastructure. It’s this well like a short-term blip of jobs while the bridges were being built, but no long-term growth. So I’m not aware of modern examples of that kind of community that made a decision to say “okay this is as big as we need to get, and we don’t need more income, we don’t need more power.”
We have what we want. That was largely, the idea behind the title of the book I wrote with Dan O’Neill called Enough is Enough. We really need a cultural shift away from the idea of more that it’s always better to be bigger and to have more. We need to make a shift from that way of thinking to the thinking of enough. The satisfaction of having enough which is really the right amount. I think of it as the Goldilocks. Not too big. Not too small, but just right.
OregonPEN: Is this anathema to capitalism?
Rob Dietz: Yeah. At least in the form that we have now. I think if you look at what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to grow the economy every year, which . . . . I don’t think most people stop to think of what that means really. I think they look at, well, when the economy is growing that means my 401(k) or my retirement pension or my stock funds are likely to be worth more next year than this year.
They think that’s a good thing. But really, growing the economy means increasing GDP, which is the dollar value of all the goods and services that we produce in the nation over the course of the year, and really, what it comes down to is to grow the economy. You’ve got to grow the number of people or the per capita income or both.
Like we talked about a little bit earlier. When you’re growing income for people, you’re basically growing consumption as well, and so just think about on a finite planet, how long can you continue to increase the number of people and increase the amount that we’re all consuming together and expect the ecosystems that we depend on, expect them not to break down? So I think the system that we’ve designed for the economy and for our financial institutions really is reliant on that kind of growth.
If the economy is not growing, what does that mean for the stock market? It’s going to mean that people investing in company stocks aren’t going to see more money next year. We really need to start developing different institutions. Now that doesn’t mean that you eliminate private ownership of the means to production, but we need to think about how that will be structured differently and how we might take that growth imperative out of the system.
OregonPEN: Gail Tverberg talks about our economics as a emergent system or dissipative structure that must grow because it’s fragile and brittle – it can expand like a balloon, but it is deformed and breaks apart if contraction hits. As I say, any examples of societies that choose de-growth or to not harvest all the available resources and convert them into population?
Rob Dietz: Yeah, I don’t know if there are communities but you can think of some examples of institutions that do that. There are some companies obviously that are hellbent on growth and want to become the biggest in the world, but there are other companies that decide this is the right scale for us. We’re not trying to get bigger, we’re at a level that we can maintain. This is the size we want to be.
And of course a company can just make that decision. If you have a private company, there’s an owner, the owner can just say, no this is the right size. But it’s harder at a community or a society or take some level of political scale, that national scale, it’s harder.
I think Gail is right. All of our economic institutions, coming especially out of the discovery of fossil fuels and what we could do with them, we structured everything for that kind of growth. For companies getting bigger, for geographic expansion, for putting more and more resources into the building of the nation, and then into a military venturing, all kinds of things, to where all of these institutions are geared for growth.
Yeah, if we leave the institutions in the rules exactly as they are, then yes, once we stop growing, there’s all kinds of breakdowns. I think one of the grand projects that we’ve got for the future is how do we redesign things so that that’s not the case. We want a society that where stability is actually more of the goal end and is achievable without breakdowns.
Sometimes I think the biggest fear that politicians [have], especially, [is] about how no growth is the idea of no jobs. We’ve got to change that.
We’ve got to figure out how to do you have meaningful jobs within an economy that doesn’t have that growth imperative, and so figuring out ways to setup our institutions under those circumstances is a huge undertaking that is really important, because one way or another, we’re going to have to get there. We can either try to redesign our organizations, our institutions, and the rules that we play under, or we can wait for that balloon to expand far enough that it pops.
OregonPEN: You’ve used the term overshoot a number of times, and Professor Catton, the late Professor [William] Catton wrote a book called Overshoot about our overshoot century. This century, he said, we are going to go through a very narrow bottleneck, and only a few of us will be able to emerge through that bottleneck onto the other side.
Is that your mental model? Is that Post Carbon Institute’s model or do they think [otherwise]? When I hear Overshoot I think of the Road Runner and the Wiley Coyote and the Coyote goes off the cliff and for a second he’s hanging in the air, and he looks down. Is there anyway back onto the cliff, or do you just drop like a rock off the cliff?
Rob Dietz: Yeah. I guess the answer to the first part of the question is that it’s not my mental model that we’re going to go through this horrendous bottleneck and most of the population — that there’s going to be a big human die off. I think that’s a possibility. I think it could happen and it could be really messy and horrible. We could also get our act together and decide that we’re going to do this in a way that we’re going to have a decreased population and smaller consumption that’s commensurate with what the earth can provide. We’re going to do that in a much better way.
I try to look at it that way. If we had good policies in place, it wouldn’t take that long for humanity to make the turn, and I believe we’d be living in a more of a sustainability culture rather than a growth culture. It doesn’t mean an end to development. We can still work on improving conditions all over the world, but it’s not about increasing our scale.
The analogy you use of, if we are consuming our way over the cliff and we’re dangling in air, is there a way back? Well that’s what I think is more what Post Carbon Institute is about. We’re really pushing the idea of hey, in your own community work on building community resilience. We’re not denying that there are crises, and we’re not trying to sugarcoat it, like there’s some easy way to get back onto that firm ground from floating in the air off the cliff.
It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be difficult. You look at what’s happening with the fight over climate change in the United States. It’s not an easy thing to figure out and to deal with, but this is the time to work on building resilience in your own community. It’s about rolling up sleeves and looking at what are the systems in place here. What are the strengths we’ve got, what are the weaknesses? What can I do to make my community more able to deal with these crises as they unfold?
I think that’s really what we’re about at Post Carbon Institute — coming up with responses to the predicament that we find ourselves in. We don’t think we’re just going to solve what amounts to a simple problem overnight — we’ve got this huge – it’s a predicament. You’re definitely in a place where at times, it feels like there are no good answers, but for us it’s about trying to get that resilience in at the community level.
OregonPEN: Let’s talk about a smaller community than the world. Let’s talk about Oregon a little bit. What brought you to Oregon?
Rob Dietz: Well, it was interesting. I used to be working in conservation biology, mostly in the southwestern United States. I was looking at helping groups work on what would be an optimal conservation state, meaning what are the lands and waters that we need to conserve in order to do the job to protect the variety of species out there.
It’s really a conservation planning job, and as I got more and more involved in it I started realizing that while that, conservation, land conservation, is a huge thing that we can be doing to not only protect species in wild places but also protect ourselves by making sure that we don’t undermine the life support systems or life support services that are provided by ecosystems. I saw the deeper problem of, if we’ve got an economy that’s always hellbent on growth, we will undermine our ability to conserve lands and waters.
I decided I wanted to work on that angle and, as you mentioned, I worked with the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and became its first executive director. A lot of the work for that organization was about public information and getting information resources out there. And so I realized that I didn’t necessarily need to be in a place like Washington DC and I wanted to be in an area that had a what I would think of as a strong sustainability ethic, and I also wanted to live in a different kind of community. I wanted to try co-housing ecovillage which is an intentional community that is trying to put sustainability values front and center.
I found a good spot to do that, which is in Corvallis, Oregon, where one of these communities was just getting started. Moved out here, joined the community, and started my work in the world of trying to re-envision the economy.
OregonPEN: Oregon talks a great deal about the need for a response to climate change and yet the biggest bill, with the greatest interest, with the greatest enthusiasm at the Legislature this year is a rather massive highway bill. I don’t know how closely you track Oregon. Your scale and your focus may not be so Oregon related, but the current legislature is throwing around the idea of an $8.1 billion massive highway bill and yet the Oregon Climate Commission is publishing reports that say we’re not even close to being on target or on track to make our targets for carbon reduction, and transportation is the greatest source of carbon emission in Oregon.
Can you talk about that a little bit? How do we get to sustainability if every time we get any money ahead, we say well what we need to do is more of what we’ve been doing?
Rob Dietz: Yeah, well, this is where the inertia that we’ve got in our way of doing things is — we’re really stumbling with that. The notion of increasing our highway system is absurd in these times. The question becomes, well, yeah, what are we supposed to do when that’s what is happening.
I think there’s different responses. At the individual level, you can voice your opinion. I know that sometimes feels like you’re just shouting into the wind and not really being heard. At Post Carbon, our strategy on that is to try to get people the information resources that they need so that they can understand and respond to these crises like climate change and energy depletion and a lack of economic equality.
We’re trying to get the information to people so that they are able to deal with the consequences of these infrastructure decisions that we’re making, but yeah, that is a strategy that can take a long time for it to manifest, but we’re a small group of thinkers and writers and so that’s what I see as our place [and] where we can add something beneficial to the mix.
There are also activist organizations that are going to take more of a, where they’re going to get into those legislative battles. But yeah, it seems crazy that in this day and age that that’s the best that Oregon can come up with, that we’re going to expand our highway system.
One thing that you can look at with infrastructure is that we’ve built the current infrastructure we’ve got based on the availability of cheap energy and especially oil, and we know that’s going away. And so why we would decide to expand what’s quickly becoming an outdated infrastructure – [it] just doesn’t make sense. It’s like investing in a typewriter factory today. You’re not going to get anything good out of doing that.
OregonPEN: Well, let’s talk about that. I had a typewriter, I had a manual typewriter, and it does not have all the features and power of the Internet but it also requires a lot less inputs. You might say a manual typewriter, assuming the existence of paper which doesn’t make itself, but is a typewriter a sustainable technology compared to very expensive, very high energy Internet?
Rob Dietz: Yeah, yeah, maybe, but I guess the metaphor I’m using is just the notion of investing in infrastructure that is not going to get widespread use in the future. Yeah, certainly a difficulty. On the highway front, if transportation is the issue, which is let’s first look at the need behind it.
We’re trying to make sure that people and goods get to the places that they need to go. The first step there is “What can we do to calm that down?” How do we make our society such that we don’t have to be shipping goods all over the place, and part of that is what we’ve talked about a little bit already, a more localized economy so that’s always your first, best option is “What’s the conservation way of dealing with this,” and part of it is people moving all over the place.
Well, maybe we wouldn’t feel such a need to travel if we were really taking care to build the communities that we actually want to live in. I don’t necessarily need a trip to Venice if my town is beautiful and built in a way that makes me want to spend time there. Beyond that, calming down of all the transport. You need to look at yeah, what are the most efficient ways to get people and goods to where they’re going.
The idea of putting more vehicles on the road, the infrastructure to build a highway and the amount of energy that goes into that and then thinking about well what do you have to do to maintain that. It’s just not something that we can really afford, both from a climate perspective but also just maintaining it.
I thought one of the most poignant stories around that probably came out last year is when the American Society of Civil Engineers did a report card on America’s infrastructure. It’s not like we got an A or even a B, even a C, they were in the D range in grading the state of our infrastructure and the backlog of repair that’s needed. The notion of expanding a system that is so far behind in repair really doesn’t make any sense.
OregonPEN: Well, you hit on one of the favorite topics here at OregonPEN. Are you aware of the Strong Towns organization?
Rob Dietz: No I’m not.
OregonPEN: Chuck Marohn is a recovering civil engineer urban planner who began blogging in 2008 and it ended up getting developed into this national nonprofit called Strong Towns and there’s a lot of echo of what you’re talking, the mission of Post Carbon Institute with the Strong Towns mission, and that is at strongtowns.org.
The Strong Town’s mission is, they categorize themselves as the organization devoted to supporting a modeled development that allows America’s cities, towns, and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. For the United States to be a prosperous country, it must have strong cities, towns, and neighborhood. Enduring prosperity for communities cannot be artificially created from the outside but must be built from within, incrementally over time.
It’s a very different approach to urban planning and he writes a wonderful series – he writes prolifically, but one of the great series you could look at on that website is called The Growth Ponzi Scheme. He talks about our model of development in United States as being a huge growth ponzi scheme where we basically mine the future for the apparent profits of the present. He says we are comprehensively broke, we just haven’t hit the bottom yet.
I really encourage you I think to look at that because I think Post Carbon and Strong Town have a lot of overlap, slightly different, coming from different directions but reaching very similar place in terms of wanting a more sustainable model.
Rob Dietz: Right. Well, I think I appreciate the suggestion. I’ll definitely look at Strong Towns. I think any person or an organization of people who are thinking in systems — looking at how did we get where we are, what are the things that led to the way that we behave and the way that we build our towns and the way that we live — when you start thinking about those systems, then you’d start to see where the real problems are and you can start to think about how to do things differently.

It sounds like Strong Towns is one of those systems-thinking organization and so yeah, I’m definitely interested to take a look at that. This idea, I go back to it again, the idea of building out infrastructure we’re already showing an inability to maintain. And we already know the problems associated with it. It’s yesterday’s thinking. “Of course we expand the highway because it brings more commerce.”

Well, it’s time to think in systems: What does that mean exactly, what is putting our resources into expanding that highway, what is that actually going to do for us, and what are the problems that are going to come with it, and is it something that gives us the vibrant future that we’re looking for? It’s not 1950 anymore. We really got to change the way we’re thinking about how we walk through this life and what we do to the places that we live.
OregonPEN: You mean the electric cars, the self-driving electric cars are not the solution to our ills?
Rob Dietz: Well, yeah. My personal opinion on technology is that technology can be good or bad. It depends on how you use it, what you use it for. If we make a switch to electric cars, that’s great but not if it’s still within this growth paradigm. It’s not going to do much to solve the problem. We’ve still got to change what we’re doing.
Post Carbon is actually working now on a project where we’re looking at technology and how much do we rely on technology to solve our problems, and what we’re finding is that there’s a lot of people — citizens, organizations, politicians — they’re looking at technology to save us, that “Okay, we’ve got climate change, well, no worries, we’re just going to switch to bioenergy and carbon capture and storage,” without really thinking through the feasibility. And it, to me, it speaks to sort of a fantasy that, “well we can just keep on doing what we’ve been doing and we’ll just have better technology, so [we] don’t need to worry about it or change what we’re doing.”
The flip side of that I think is, no, we should be taking back control. People should feel empowered to go out and rethink their households, their communities, their towns in ways that do have a future, that will be sustainable, that where trade is more localized and we’re supporting one another and really building something.
I’m no Luddite, that’s for sure, but I also don’t want to put all the eggs in the technology basket and just hope for this last second techno-boom that’s somehow going to save us.
OregonPEN: Well, most of the problems we have today were caused by solutions previously embraced. Technology is always a solution to a felt problem. The steam engine was the solution for bringing water out of mines so that people could — people who had leveled all the forest and wanted fuel — could use coal, and the steam engine enabled coal mining. That was a technological wonder of its day. We just keep seeking these technological wonders and they just keep creating more and more wicked problems.
Rob Dietz: Yeah. I think you’re right that, as we use our technology in service of increasing scale, continuing with this growth of consumption then you [have] got to wonder, well was that really a beneficial technology? There’s incredible things that we’ve done with technology and as you improve your scientific understanding of the world as we’ve gotten, as we’ve been learning more about how things work.
You can point to things like vaccines and things that have obviously made life better for people, and I don’t think we want to do away with that sort of thing. But what we want to do is just be much more aware of the consequences of pursuing technology in service of growing the economy. I think if we’re pursuing technology in service of improving life . . . that we’re not having some kind of huge negative effect.
I think pursuing technology can be a positive thing, but as you’ve pointed out, throughout our history, it’s a mixed bag. We’ve done a lot of things in development of technology that have really come back to bite us. Being much more intentional and aware of that possibility I think is . . . we’ve got to wake up to that.
OregonPEN: The paradigm technology, I think, of the high tech approach, or the energy intensive approach to maintaining business as usual might be nuclear energy. . . . Is there a concensus view or a feeling about technology, specifically nuclear energy technology, within the Post Carbon Institute? There’s an awful lot of push from the nuclear power folks for, “Well, we have the solution to the carbon crisis. We have a solution that emits very low carbon per kilowatt hour produced and will enable us to maintain the system that we have. It doesn’t require rethinking or downscaling.” Does PCI have a view on nuclear energy?
Rob Dietz: Well, we’ve already come to the conclusion that we’ve got to have rethinking and downscaling. The notion of trying to switch to an energy source that doesn’t require that, that’s not something that we’re getting behind. Nuclear energy, we still haven’t solved the danger problems with it. Look at what happened with Fukushima. There’s clear downsides to taking the nuclear option.
There’s problems, of course, with the idea of we’ll switch to solar and wind, and the problem there is that those sources are not going to support the business as usual economy society that we have now. But that’s okay, as long as we change it in ways that make us more resilient and make us understand our relationship with nature better, and help us work together to build communities that can thrive under conditions where we power down some, and we figure out our transport needs, and we understand how to work together to make a thriving and equitable community.
[With] nuclear you talk about centralization in energy and corporations, and I think we would tend much more towards the decentralized solutions that rather than putting power into the hands of a few. You distribute the power, and that’s one of the neat things about solar energy for instance. You, as a private citizen can own the means of your energy production. That can be very empowering and it can be more resilient. If you get a Fukushima, and the nuclear power plant breaks down, well, then what? If one household’s solar capture system fail as well, there’s another household next door.
OregonPEN: I have 4.5 kilowatt of solar PV panels on my roof and two banks of solar hot water collectors on my house. I’m definitely part of the choir for your message, but I look at those solar panels — which were probably made in China — and that is an apex technology that rest on an enormous amount of fossil fuels. Fabricating silicon panels with rare earth metals and then fabricating the gorgeous evacuated tubes that collect the heat and make hot water for me. Wonderful, beautiful technologies, but quite sophisticated and quite advanced. Not small scale, not locally made. Is it even possible to talk about . . . .
You had a book, the PCI put out a really interesting book called Post Carbon Cities, I think it was. Is it even possible to talk about large scale wind and solar if you remove the fossil fuels from the equation?
Rob Dietz: That’s a good question, and I’m going to be honest that I don’t know the net energy numbers for each form source of energy. I don’t want to say anything that’s way out of turn here, but I think what we’ve got to be able to do is — if we’re going to switch to a renewable energy economy, that means we’re going to have to be able to build the energy infrastructure with renewable resources.
You’re absolutely right that at the moment, we can build solar and wind facilities with this input of fossil fuels to get it going but at some point in this transition we’re going to have to be able to do that with renewable energy. You think about, like, an offshore wind facility. How are you building that with energy that’s generated from renewable sources? It’s a little bit hard to imagine that right now.

 

Because at the moment you would be taking big boats out, essentially with all kinds of powerful equipment that runs on oil and to drill what you need, to get the concrete and the metals and all that is necessary to put those turbines in place. We’re going to have to get there eventually and, again, the starting point is the power down option, which almost no one tends to talk about. It’s out of the question, basically, in political circles, but it needs to become the central question is how do we create our communities so that we don’t require such a massive input of energy?
OregonPEN: Yeah. Well, there was one fellow who said that, after all the analysis and debate, the answer is we just need to stop moving around so damn much. A lot of problems go away if you don’t demand that you could be whisked around the world in minutes.
Rob Dietz: Yeah. I do think we have to think some about what are we willing to give up, but we also need to be thinking about well what do we stand to gain. There’s a lot in modern society that frankly frustrates the hell out of people, and [that includes] the drive to pack more people on the airplane so that they can get wherever they want to at a minute’s notice.
I think we’re seeing a lot of people are miserable. I think of the lonely business traveler who flies around the world jet-lagged to go to meetings. Is that really enriching that person’s life? Well, some would say. yeah, but I think a lot of people would say if they really stop to think about it, question what am I doing and why? What is the real purpose here and I think there are probably a lot better ways to find meaning in life.
Like you said, whipping ourselves around in some frenzied state. I like to think about “It is not just “What do I have to give up” in terms of easy travel or creature comforts or something like that, but it’s what do we stand to gain? How can society improve? How did my relationships with people in my community and with nature, how do those things improve? I think there’s exciting possibilities along those lines.
OregonPEN: The question of what do we have to gain. That’s a nice entrée back to the question about your mission. One of the things we have to gain is the idea that the world might be preserved in a livable state for civilization. You mentioned ecological crisis in the first question I asked you. Crisis, it is maybe an overused word, but crisis implies a disruptive situation that causes harm and, if it’s not addressed, great harm will result. Do you believe that we are in ecological crisis, and that if we do not respond that we will, that civilization will suffer? Or is that overstated, to call our predicament a crisis?
Rob Dietz: Well, when I look at scientific results, when I read the books, the papers, yeah, I do believe we’re in an environmental crisis, [one] that’s based on people overgrowing their economies. My background, I studied economics and environmental science when I went to college and then I decide to go a little further on the science route. Studied environmental science and engineering in graduate school.
In my professional life, I got even more involved in conservation biology, and when you look into the fields of environmental science and conservation biology, most of the people involved are really there addressing their problems. Conservation biology, it’s about “Wow, we have lost so many habitats and so many species that we’re in this free fall of eliminating plants and animals off the planet.” When you’re reading the journals, when you’re discussing these things with colleagues at a conference, it becomes pretty clear that we’re in a crisis.
Climate change is probably the one, it’s the kind of crisis right now because if we overheat the planet, that’s going to have all kinds of potentially devastating feedback loops pushing other crises further along. If you read the science, if you look into what’s going on then, yes, I think you can pretty securely say we’re facing a bunch of crises.
And at Post Carbon Institute, we talk about the four E crisis. It has to do with energy, ecology, economy, and equity. With energy we’re looking at declining cheap energy and what that means for society. With ecology or the environment we’re looking at the problems with climate, the biodiversity crisis, declining access to clean freshwater, other pollution problems like that.
In the economy, we’re looking at what you and I have been talking about all along, which is there are limits to growth and we’ve got an economy that is predicated on growth, and so figuring out what does the end of growth look like and how do we navigate that transition well? And then the fourth E, equity is about in the world today, where we’re seeing increase in inequality, where the “Haves” at the top of the pyramid have more power and consumptive tendencies than ever before, where you’ve got this growing number of have-nots, who don’t even have access to what we think of as basic needs.
Those four crisis, they’re interrelated, they’re all overlapping and have causes that overlap, and that’s what we’ve got to prepare for and have positive responses to as this century unfolds.
OregonPEN: Yeah. I’m struck that you didn’t mention ocean acidification which is, the striking at the very base of the food web, the loss of corals and then the acidification of the ocean. We are at the end of a long branch. We depend on — humans, I’m saying, we as humans depend entirely on this huge network or web of life below us to provide us our sustenance every day, and yet acidification of the oceans and the heating, the destruction of the corals from heating, seems to be pulling the props out from underneath us.
What does Post Carbon say . . . what does PCI think we have in terms of time to respond? Do we have any time left or are we in crisis now and are we going to have to take losses? Or is there a downscaling to a graceful future that doesn’t involve collapse?
Rob Dietz: Well, one of the phrases that Richard Heinberg, our senior fellow seems to utter a lot is “It’s ‘All Hands On Deck,’” so, yeah, we’re in the crisis.
We’ve entered them for sure, and so the issue is, we’ve got to respond, and the sooner you respond the less likely you are to suffer more and more devastating consequences. We may already be in store for devastating consequences, so yeah, we’ve got to start having appropriate responses.
It’s a hard thing for any one person to go out and do but in our best thinking analysis of the problems is that working at your community scale is really the place to begin. You talk about ocean acidification and yeah, that’s a huge problem into, you’re talking about this effect on the ability of people to draw food out of the oceans and there’s more to it than that of course, it has to do with just straight up overfishing.
The New York Times this year had an article about — I believe the number was something like 85% of fisheries are either, have either been decimated or they’re in serious decline and the article is also about how a lot of fishing fleets are now so technologically advanced that they can go way further, to all over the world, they can do a much better job of pulling all the fish out of the ocean. You’re just seeing an erosion of our ability to feed ourselves, from what seems like an endless resource. But of course, everything on this planet is finite.
We really need to learn how to live within that understanding. So yeah, we’re in the crisis, and we need to act immediately. Figuring out how to make your community more resilient is what we’re pushing as the best option.
On that front we’ve got, the Resilience Course, which is a series of online videos that Richard Heinberg has recorded and explains the interrelated crisis that we’re facing and the history of how we got here so that it gives a broad understanding of why we are where we are, but then it turns toward building community resilience and working on ways that we can make a transition.
I’m not going to claim that it will be pain free and fun and easy. But I think there is some fun to be had, and some obvious changes for the good that we’re going to be making, but transitions are difficult and getting people on board is difficult but yeah, we’re in the crisis time and these are things that we’ve got to do.
OregonPEN: There’s certainly no idea here that this is easy. It’s not a happy picture necessarily to talk about living on say 2 or 3% of your current energy budget. If the average person in Oregon in the northwest uses something like a 1,000 kilowatt hours a month and that’s not even counting natural gas demand or car, it’s just for straight electricity. The average northwestern or Oregonian uses a ton of energy and the downscaled [usage] is probably 5% of that at most. What’s in that 5%? Do we imagine that everyone will still have refrigerators and televisions and computers in the future?
Rob Dietz: The idea of predicting what we’ll have is it’s always fraught with uncertainty. The number of predictions that are wrong probably far exceeds the number that are right.
I think, basically, being conscious about those choices is where we’ve got to get to. It might mean that we live in smaller spaces that we don’t have to heat and cool these McMansions. It might mean that we use cars a lot less but that we have a transportation infrastructure that’s better. Honestly when I go around town, I live in Corvallis which is a nice mid-sized college town, I love biking around here. The bike infrastructure, while not awesome, is pretty good. We have a lot of bikes on paths and bike lanes and on the roads, and there are a lot of facilities like bike racks. You see a lot of people taking advantage of that but there are ways certainly that we can live much more powered-down lives. The issue is making those decisions and figuring out how to set up our communities in a way that supports it.
I don’t know what the total amount of money spent on bikes and bike infrastructure versus the total amount of money spent on cars and trucks and motorized vehicle infrastructure is, but it’s a huge discrepancy between the two.

 

You can start to think, wow if society, if our community start to shift that, we could one, save a whole lot of money, but two, really make cycling, for example, safer and more enjoyable for people that are choosing to do that. Well you’ll get a lot more people choosing it. It becomes a lot less fringe. So those are the kinds of conscious intentional decisions that communities are going to need to work on, and that’s again why we [say], it doesn’t really matter at the national level if the Trump administration decides to pull out of the Paris accords, if communities around the nation are saying well, you know, we’re going to work on conservation measures anyway and we’re going to do what we do.
In the meantime, you can always find exceptions and problems, but a lot of the people I know that ride their bikes around town, they’re healthier, they feel happier. They actually like commuting to and from work. There’s a lot of positive effects that come with making these changes so in that sense, it’s a really exciting time.
OregonPEN: H.G. Wells said “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I feel hopeful.” Bikes are probably the epitome of the sweet spot of technology and utility. The most gain for the least input is probably the bicycle.
Rob Dietz: I haven’t done any kind of academic analytical study of it, but certainly in my heart and in my legs, I tend to agree with you. I love riding bikes. I think it’s a hard way to get from here to New York City, for example, but certainly for getting across town it’s easy. It can be faster sometimes than taking a car and obviously a lot less resource intensive. You get a lot of output for the amount of energy that you got to put in.
OregonPEN: I want to give you a minute to sum up and say anything you want about PCI or your work so that I can capture that.
Rob Dietz: Thanks for interviewing me. I appreciate that.

Post Carbon Institute is about trying to move us toward this world with resilient communities and localized economies so that we can all thrive within ecological bounds. We know that there are environmental and economic crises coming our way. There’s not a lot we can do to prevent those, but the question is how do we respond? Do we respond in deeply positive way by building community resilience and changing the way that we live or do we just wait for these crises and fight for the remaining scraps?
Well, at PCI, we are clearly interested in moving towards developing resilient communities and we’ll keep working on how to do that and hope that people will join us in that effort.
OregonPEN: PCI, is it a membership institution? Can people join PCI? Or how can people become connected and more participating in its work?
Rob Dietz: Certainly people can help sponsor us financially. We’re a nonprofit and we’re completely dependent on grants and donations. Certainly, to get involved, there’s a lot of learning that you can do through us. We’ve got Resilience.org, which daily puts out articles on the transition to a resilient sustainable society.
We’ve got different kinds of educational tools. I mentioned the Think Resilience course. You can go right now and sign up for the self-guided course. Richard Heinberg does a guided course. We’ll be doing one of those in October. We’ve got a new book coming out here in a few months called the Community Resilience Reader. It’s a collection of some of the best thinking on the transition to resilient communities.
There are a lot of ways to follow along with us and get better informed and consider ways to come up with ideas for what you can do in your own communities. And certainly we do events, speaking events and things like that. There are a number of ways to get involved with learning with us, and certainly, if you’re inclined and you like what you see on Resilience.org, you can help support us financially as well. That’s certainly always welcome.
We’re a pretty small, what I like to think of as a lean and mean organization. We don’t have a lot of people on staff and we we are pretty, our eyes get pretty big when it comes to taking on project, so we certainly appreciate any help from folks out there.

OregonPEN: Very good. That’s Postcarbon.org for people to make a donation, is that right?

Rob Dietz: Correct. Yeah. We also have Resilience.org for people to see the publishing that we’re doing daily.