Finding Solutions in an Era of Depletion and Economic Hardship


In difficult economic times such as these I always look for the innovators.

Too often, I’ve noticed, stuck in our familiar, old and retiring ways of doing things, it’s easy to get lost in a labyrinth of uncertainty and fear as costs for gas, food and housing continue to climb.

Beset with worries over how to make next month’s bills, we might overlook the possibilities; our choices appear limited, solutions seem out of reach.

Bleak necessity, unlike any the nation has seen in decades, has many people wondering how they will support and manage their homes. How will we ever furnish our families with safe and secure households if we can’t pay our bills?

I hear these concerns voiced often in my daily runs through town, and in my frequent visits to the more populated California southland, a suburban landscape and auto-centric culture that in many ways got us into this mess of excessive consumer demand and limited resources.

The American empire was built on the belief that the earth will provide us with unlimited wealth, that we can mine the planet of its metals and fossil fuels and expand the nation’s needs and wants, its growth-based economy, without end.

It required massive infusions of cheap oil to build and maintain, and now it appears that we will soon have to look elsewhere to power those same energy needs.

More people have begun to acknowledge that there are limits, that conservation and protection of natural resources is a good idea, that the bottom line ought also to be calculated not just on how much money we make but on the quality and condition of our natural resources at the end of each business day.

As Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy, it’s hard to create wealth, “at least for very long, by impoverishing the world around you.”

The recent economic dislocations that have occurred around the globe are likely the first rumblings of a shift away from fossil fuels. Writers like McKibben have for years warned that this was going to happen.

Some writers, such as James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (published in 2005), take a less favorable view of the future. The challenges of “peak oil,” he says, meaning the world oil supply has peaked and we’ve entered into an era of depletion, will be far greater than we are prepared to meet.

As the extraction of oil becomes costlier and riskier, so too will the global economy be thrown into turmoil.

“What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before oil and gas actually run out,” he writes. “The American way of life — which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia — can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible.”

This is where the innovators come in. While Kunstler argues that no resource has yet been discovered that will drive the global economy the way cheap oil has, others have turned their attentions closer to home and to their local communities for solutions.


My first introduction to thinking differently about how to live came more than 10 years ago when I met a group of people who were experimenting with permaculture, an innovative design system to create homes and communities that work with rather than against nature.

Developed more than 30 years ago by Australian land-use pioneer and author Bill Mollison, permaculture brings together a number of disciplines, including sustainable agriculture and architecture, for example, in an attempt to build more ecologically sound homes, gardens and farms, which do not require enormous outside inputs but are capable of preserving, protecting and producing their own vital resources such as precious water and soil.

Each household system serves more than one function or purpose, giving maximum output with minimum inputs. The water systems in our homes, for example, need not go from faucet to drain to sewer system without first being used for other purposes.

We can harvest and store rainwater, in drier regions especially, to add to our short supply; we can run water through our homes for cleaning and laundering, and close the waste loop by filtering grey water through our gardens and landscapes. We can eliminate lawns and flush toilets, saving our precious water for more intelligent uses.

Indigenous cultures might look upon our practice of relieving ourselves in perfectly good drinking water as nothing short of insane, Mollison argues. This requires a new way of thinking.

Mollison’s permaculture ethos of “care of the earth, care of people” underpins all of the designs and practical applications that go into the building of sustainable homes and communities. Humans can learn to live in harmony with nature again.

Only a fool, he has said, would soil his own bed and sleep in it. So why do we build and live in homes and communities designed with little or no consideration for their impacts on the environment? Why not turn our homes into closed loop systems that have minimal, even favorable impacts?

People can learn to live more responsibly and independently by using natural systems to help them in their undertakings rather than using nature as a place to dump their excesses, he says.

Whole communities and villages around the world such as Crystal Waters in Australia have since grown up based on his pioneering ideas, which have subsequently been developed into more innovative and ecologically sound applications, a turn away from fossil fuel dependencies.

My own local community is fortunate to have in its midst one of the world’s leading experts on permaculture, Larry Santoyo of Earthflow Design Works, which offers course instruction and consultation in ecological land use and planning.

His own pioneering work has brought these sound principles of building and design to the attention of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals seeking a better way to live well and with minimal impacts on their surroundings.


Ecological farming and community building
Another source of inspiration comes from an annual gathering of ecological farmers, which takes place near Pacific Grove, Calif., and has been going on for more than 30 years.

The EcoFarm Conference, to be held this year from Feb. 1-4 at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, brings together creative individuals, mostly farmers, ranchers, merchants and food handlers, who share a mutual interest in building, maintaining and promoting healthy, safe and just food systems based on sound ecological principles.

They share some of the same goals as the innovators of permaculture by developing strong local farms that produce not just healthy organic food but in an ecologically responsible way, which means improving soils, reducing outside inputs, and relying upon nature’s biodiversity rather than depending on chemically intensive, monocultural systems that destroy the biodiversity of healthy plant, insect and microbial life.

These farmers try to go beyond being simply organic and develop methods of farming that also take into account the area’s ecology, have low impacts, which means they don’t bring in a lot of fertilizers but build their own soils through the use of green manures, composting and mulching.

They try to develop balanced miniature ecosystems, including the use of home-brewed biofuels and technologies, to keep their farms operational. They’re independent thinkers and tinkerers eager to share what they’ve learned.

The conference features workshops and discussions with updates on the latest farming issues and legislation as well as methods for improving life on an ecological farm.

One of the speakers for the afternoon plenary session on Thursday, Feb. 2, “Organic Agriculture as a Strategic Tool for Global Change,” will be Dave Henson, a founding member of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Northern California, another fine example of forward-thinking individuals and organizations seeking a way through the challenges ahead.

The center similarly provides education and hands-on examples of alternative, low-impact measures for creating healthy communities based on vibrant ecosystems, thriving watersheds, sensible housing and food production. It also provides workshops in deep democracy  and building community based on the center’s more than 17 years of working through communal issues.

Finally, there’s a wealth of resources and information from the Bioneers organization, which also meets annually and brings together the brightest minds and innovators who see the future as an opportunity to live well and simply.

If necessity is the mother of invention, now is the time to think creatively, to venture into new territory, to think differently about how we’re going to live.

These are just a few examples of the individuals and organizations that not only know how to think and work outside the box but respect the environment and future, who seek creative ways to reduce their impacts while bringing about positive change.

There are solutions, plenty of them. We just have to know where to look. Hopefully, some of these outlets will be a good place to start. §