Book Review: The Post Carbon Reader

Kyle Curtis Facebook

A primer about everything that's wrong in the world- and what you can do to fix it.

Book Review: The Post Carbon Reader

Let’s make this clear from the beginning: The Post Carbon Reader is not an easy read. Indeed, if you’re looking for a breezy take on the end of the world, I would instead recommend World War Z. But whereas Max Brooks’s novel is a gore-drenched take on the zombie apocalypse, I'd state that The Post Carbon Reader is much more horrifying. There is little to fear of a rise of the undead. But throughout the Reader’s 450+ pages, it becomes clear just how and in what manner we are collectively destroying our fragile planet. The stark truth about how the actual end of the world is currently occurring is much more unsettling than the most fantastic fictional scenario possibly imagined.

That said, The Post Carbon Reader is an essential read, for no other purpose to have the quotable facts and information readily available. This will come in handy for engaging nay-saying friends and family members, of course, but this information is also helpful to engage policy makers and elected officials, encouraging them to address the myriad of issues discussed in this book. Once you complete The Post Carbon Reader, it might be all too tempting to throw your hands up in the air, overwhelmed to do anything about the host of problems our modern society faces. Instead, the Reader should serve as inspiration that provides a blueprint of the next steps that need to be taken. As the title of the final chapter reads “What to do now,” the Reader explicitly makes its case about what is wrong. The challenge is: what are you going to do about it?

The Post Carbon Reader was developed by the Post Carbon Institute, an organization devoted to finding the solutions for a “peak oil” society. Based out of Santa Rosa, California, the PCI has a satellite office in Portland, sharing space in a suite with such other non-profit organizations as Physicians for Social Responsibility and Portland’s Gay Men’s Chorus. As the Publications Director for the PCI, Daniel Lerch is the sole staffer manning the Portland office and it was from here that he pieced together The Post Carbon Reader. To mark the one-year anniversary of the publication of the Reader, Lerch spoke from Mexico at the tail end of a sabbatical, where he discussed the process of editing the Reader, the differences between Portland and Mexico City, and provided insight on a few of the issues addressed by the Reader.

Before we discuss the book, I am interested in the experience you’ve had in Mexico City. Clearly, there is a cultural difference going from the United States to Mexico, but there must also be another form of shock when you go from Portland- and its reputation for sustainability, planning, and livability- to one of the world’s megalopolises. How has that been like for you, coming from the perspective formed through your association with the Post Carbon Institute?

I’ve had a wonderful time in Mexico City. This is an incredible city. There are so many amazing things to see and do. The one thing, though, is that the traffic is so bad- to do anything you really need to walk or catch the subway. So you end up not doing as much as you might want to. This is a very different time than when I was last in Mexico City, about seven years ago. Then I stayed in a youth hostel and was right next to the subway and able to walk everywhere. And I was able to check out all of these really incredible local economies scattered throughout the different neighborhoods. This time, however, I’m apartment sitting in a really nice, upscale neighborhood nowhere near the subway. I need to take taxis everywhere; it’s hard to get around. Without traffic, it takes fifteen minutes to get from my place to the airport on a Sunday morning. On a Friday afternoon, it takes two hours.

From a Peak Oil perspective, and the Post Carbon Institute’s emphasis on planning and developing a society that’s far less reliant on fossil fuels, does your experience in Mexico City make you cringe?

In so many ways, Mexico City is a real-world example of the extreme sustainability challenges we'll be facing. Particularly in regards to transportation- just like every other large city in developing countries, there is this growing middle and upper classes and as a result there are a large number of new car owners that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. The infrastructure was not prepared for the increased number of cars on the road. While transportation planning is sort of a sustainability problem, the biggest issue facing Mexico City is that of water. The city has a population of 20 to 30 million residents- there isn’t enough clean water available for that many people. It’s a huge city in the middle of fairly arid country, not like Portland which is right next to a glacier. In Portland, sustainability problems aren’t so apparent. In Mexico City, these sustainability problems are very tangible: air, water, economic inequality. There is just so much out in the open, both bad and good things.

So let’s talk about The Post Carbon Reader….

Did you get horribly depressed when you finished it?

I’m going to make it clear that it’s a pretty tough read to have how we are destroying our planet explained in explicit detail. Could you describe the process of how the Reader was put together? Most of the contributions were provided by “fellows” of the Post Carbon Institute- were these previously written and published works, or were they written and contributed specifically for the Reader?

I just recently wrote something for the Post Carbon Institute website about the process of editing the Reader to mark the one-year anniversary. But to get a full idea of what went into putting the Reader together, I should go back to the beginnings of the PCI in 2003. The Institute was founded to focus on what the effects of Peak Oil would be on society, and how to plan for them, and then to collaborate with grassroots organizations that were tackling these issue by offering support, especially with relocalization efforts. Up until 2008, the concept of Peak Oil was not really well-known besides various circles. My interest in Peak Oil came from my city planning background, certain that planners needed to know about these issues. And then 2008 happened: oil shot up to over $150 a barrel, Lehman Brothers crashed and Wall Street got bailed out, Obama was elected- a whole set of changes that the Post Carbon Institute viewed as an opportunity. Finally, people might be able to understand that something funky was going on with oil prices and maybe- just maybe- people might be willing to “get it” regarding Peak Oil, sustainability, the climate.

For the Post Carbon Reader, we recruited thirty fellows, each of who had a similar viewpoint regarding the end of cheap fossil fuels, climate change, an end to unrestrained growth- basically viewpoints about how we need to rethink society. The Institute viewed the Reader as the opportunity to put our statement out, a statement about what we believe in. We wanted to avoid the term “manifesto,” but we wanted to put our viewpoint out there. In early 2009, we started collecting content, with most of the Reader comprised of original content from authors for the book. The shared themes of the contributions provided for the Reader included building resilience and the limits to growth. There were deeper views provided from experts of different areas. The Reader goes deeper into certain areas- while there is a shared theme of building resiliency, each author keeps their own voice. For example, Josh Farley provides an academic chapter on ecological economics. In the food chapter, the contributions were provided by non-academic writers. There is a whole range of voices between these examples. The only authors we reprinted works from were Bill McKibben and David Orr, who are both busy but quite prolific. McKibben’s contribution was a reprint of the first chapter of his book ‘Eaarth,’ which clearly explains the realities of climate change.

By the time I finished The Post Carbon Reader, my copy was dog-eared and marked up, so that I could easily refer to certain points. It almost looks like a college textbook. Has the Reader been incorporated into the curriculum of any college courses?

Absolutely. There are twenty different college courses that are currently, planning, or have used the Reader in their past curriculum. The Post Carbon Institute is collecting the various syllabi and quotes from instructors and students who have used it in their studies. On our website, there is an opportunity for students and teachers to connect who have used and would like to discuss the book. The Reader has definitely been embraced by academia, which has been a driving force for the book’s sales. When we were ready to send to print, we went with a small publisher so that we could have complete control. But that meant we had to sacrifice on the connections and resources that a larger publisher would have. We are also going through the electronic-book direction as well. So far, ten thousand hard copies of the Reader have sold, along with twenty thousand electronic copies. Those are pretty good sales figures, especially for an independent reader on what’s not exactly the most attention-grabbing subject matter.

So let’s talk about particular excerpts of the book. One interesting chapter was the one provided by Bill Rees, who wrote about how it was part of “human nature” to live in an unsustainable manner. As such, being able to collectively adopt the sustainable lifestyle choices necessary to ensure long-term survival is a challenge. As Rees points out, for this to occur, entire belief systems will need to be restructured due to the cognitive dissonance and political inertia of modern society. I found this chapter to be insightful when I consider interactions with those who willfully resist all scientific arguments and evidence that dramatic changes need to occur, immediately, to avoid future catastrophe.

This was one of my favorite chapters of the Reader. Bill Rees is incredible- when you watch a video of him speaking on these subjects, he sounds like you would imagine from reading him. The idea of rigid belief systems that need to be reconstructed is an incredibly important point. You can’t just throw data and facts at people, who are going to reject them due to emotional processes. When you talk about overwhelming issues, people are going to get down. Human beings are hard-wired not to deal with that, and I’m not exactly sure how to get over that. That’s why it’s incredibly important for sustainability advocates and activists to talk with psychologists to understand how the brain works, particularly in regards to messaging. To show how things are worse than we think they are we need to think in a different way, one that is more realistic and grounded.

First World Problems

There is a chapter on buildings, and how they are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions. This might be news for a large number of people, who may view buildings as having a passive impact on the environment, compared to vehicle emissions or coal plants spewing toxic emissions. In Portland, there is much discussion about net-zero buildings, with construction set to begin on the Oregon Sustainability Center and developers seeking to standardize the net-zero concept. Do you believe that by addressing how our buildings are constructed- and as a result how our cities are designed- will have a sizable effect on the threats posed by climate change?

The conversation about buildings is big and complicated, and is best served being viewed through a larger sustainability lens. There is a false feeling that we can innovate our way out of the sustainability crisis, that if we just use the right technology then everything will be fine. From the Post Carbon perspective, new technology is fine, but it is unrealistic to expect that it is going to lead to the massive 80 percent reduction in energy needed by mid-century. It is vital that we view LEED ratings and triple-glazed windows in the right context. If every new building was constructed LEED platinum, if every existing building was retro-fitted to LEED platinum, that is still not enough to solve this crisis. There is so much to unpack about buildings, architecture, and planning- including how they are inhabited, located, and needed. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves to solely rely on steps that aren’t going to solve the crisis.

Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter that focuses on the steps communities can take towards resiliency. Rob Hopkins, the chapter’s author, links the degree with oil dependency with the degree of vulnerability- which should give pause to the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd who is arguing in support of the Keystone pipeline. While Hopkins argues for localization, he does not suggest that the outside world become walled off, but instead focusing on meeting the needs that can be met locally, locally.

Richard Heinberg, one of the founders of the Post Carbon Institute, has a saying he likes to use, that we are moving away from globalization whether we want to or not. At the same time, it is too much to expect that we will fully transition to completely local economies- we've had globalization in one form or another for thousands of years. Localization is about control, and how we can control where the most basic things come from to where we are. With globalization, we do not have that control. A vast portion of our community food supply is from sources far away. Globalization is a set of systems and structures that has a lot of vulnerabilities. The economy is wrapped up in a global system. Consider this: we might celebrate when a WalMart closes down and goes out of business, but that’s now a couple hundred families without a source of cheap food. If WalMart were to suddenly go away entirely, many people would need to re-learn former patterns of meeting their needs: from finding and buying food from more expensive sources, to possibly even preparing and preserving their own food. Same with transportation- we got around without cars one hundred years ago, but can you imagine getting around without them now? If oil tops $200 a barrel or $7 a gallon, horses and streetcars aren’t going to suddenly re-appear. Globalization, with these systems that are continually threatened, will break down. And, as they say, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” So, in preparation, we may want to create what PCI co-founder Julian Darley called "a parallel public infrastructure", one that is well-suited for a world of more expensive oil. We need to re-examine all the various systems that create our life- communications, social, and others to make them beneficial both for the present and the future.

From your position as Publications Director for the Post Carbon Institute, are there any particular stories or issues you are keeping an eye for the upcoming year?

I am really impressed by the efforts of Bill McKibben and his organization,, in resisting the Keystone pipeline. They have been remarkably successful in inserting their discussions into the political sphere. I think that’s better than just showing up and raising a stink. I am following Occupy Wall Street, and we sent copies of the Reader to the library in Zucotti Park that was destroyed.

I’m staying on top of domestic fossil fuel extraction- such as shale gas and oil shale- that really took off last year. Environmental groups have been talking about the health risks of this kinds of energy development for years, but the mainstream media didn’t focus on these stories until, what, about six months ago? Also, the Post Carbon Institute is trying to figure just how much of this stuff is out there. We want to make clear what the consequences are of pursuing these resources, especially as we believe that this production is unfounded for energy independence. The Post Carbon Institute is not only interested in influencing the public conversation, but influencing policy as well. The Obama administration hears quite a lot from fossil fuel industry lobbyists and from the Department of Energy that shale gas reserves will be the source of our future energy needs. We need to inform them that shale gas isn’t the energy of the future, and provide science-based reasons why that's so. When people are given bad information, they make bad policy decisions. So I’m paying attention to shale gas, climate issues, net energy issues. I am more and more trying to find the pieces of information that are not being told, and getting this information out there.

Are you looking forward to trading the Mexico City megapolis lifestyle and return to Portland?

In some ways I don’t miss Portland- I know what the weather’s like. The culture in Mexico is deep and nourishing. Mexico does have problems- although I have avoided the narco-violence, it still pops up. When I was in Guadalajara, I heard that twenty headless bodies were found not that far from my apartment. News like that makes everything more real. When compared to developing countries, it makes me realize not only how good we have things in the States, but how what happens in the States almost happens in an unreal world, due to our immense wealth- especially our energy wealth.

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    As was seen in Copenhagen and Durban, the US government, with either GOP or Democrats at the helm of the exec branch, which selects the delegations to the UN talks, is the single most intransigent and destructive government in the world.

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    Thanks Kyle, this makes me want to read the book.

    Questions: "The shared themes of the contributions provided for the Reader included building resilience and the limits to growth." Growth typically has been the easy answer to trying to meet social equity issues under capitalism. Do the PCI authors address issues of equity under steady state economics?

    "Localization is about control, and how we can control where the most basic things come from to where we are."

    I think this is only true in a globalized context. This comes from my research and study as a historian of Africa (and peasants globally). Before the 19th century in Europe and the 20th century elsewhere, speaking very broadly, life expectancy was about 30 years, reflecting a combination of pre-five years of age mortality approximating 50% and higher older death levels due to injury, hard physical labor and infectious disease. The main driver of mortality was famine, which lowers immune function and raises disease mortality.

    Famine in turn was driven by local vulnerability. Localized food systems isolated from one another are vulnerable to local climatic and warfare events leading to mass deaths. Globalization (markets in food) reduced mass death famines while creating new systems of persistent mass hunger. See e.g. writings by Diana Wylie on this in Africa.

    Now we are coming to understand the potential vulnerability of the petroleum-intensive food production and redistribution systems. That vulnerability is real.

    But we shouldn't imagine that means local systems are not vulnerable. In fact the vulnerability posed by potential collapse of globalized systems is partly re-exposure to local vulnerabilities.

    Do the PCI authors talk about ameliorating local vulnerabilities, about sustainable forms of globalization to such ends?

    Although a lot of attention was paid to passing 7 billion global population, arguably as or more important was the passing sometime in the last year or two of over 50% of global population being urban, which inherently means great dependence on transported & purchased food. Do the PCI authors address that at all?

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