This article originally appeared in Conscious Choice.
Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson realized the American Revolution had failed to provide institutional mechanisms to keep the creative spirit of insurrection alive in the populace. He wanted to institute a township system, giving more self-determination to local communities, or "elementary republics." For Jefferson, the goal of a democratic republic was to make everybody feel "that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election one day a year but every day; where there shall not be a man in the state who will not be a member of some one of its councils great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte." He worried that the representational government devised by the federalists had deprived people of a public space where their freedom could be meaningfully exercised.
Unlikely as it seems, the Jeffersonian model may get its chance in the next few years, due to the converging forces of peak oil and climate change. Richard Heinberg, author of Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, calls the project that confronts us "a species-wide effort toward self-limitation." Such a project requires global coordination and cooperation to reduce resource consumption and energy use, while industrialized countries "forego further conventional economic growth in favor of a costly transition to alternative energy sources." For Heinberg's "powerdown" approach to work, the U.S. would quickly decentralize food, energy and industrial production, and return a great amount of decision-making power to local communities.
While admitting these proposals seem unlikely in the current geopolitical climate, Heinberg believes they are not impossible: "In order to save ourselves, we do not need to evolve new organs; we just need to change our culture. And language-based culture can change very swiftly, as the industrial revolution has shown." In Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire, Alexis Zeigler similarly argued, "The solution to changing the Western lifestyle is the simple impossible act of creating social networks that build social support outside of the mainstream in the context of a truly sustainable society."
We are facing a difficult transition that needs to occur at a rapid pace if we don't want to experience dire consequences. According to Robert Hirsch, author of a 2005 Department of Energy report on peak oil, the problem is "much worse than the worst that we could think of. . . . The risk to our economies and our civilization are enormous, and people don't want to hear that." We use oil to make our food and most of our consumer goods. David Korten notes, "Without oil, much of the capital infrastructure underlying modern life becomes an unusable asset, including the infrastructure of suburbia, the global trading system and the industrial food production, processing and distribution system."
The downsizing of American life is going to be a hard sell, but not necessarily an impossible one. Depending on how it is presented to us, we might see reconnecting to land and community as an improvement over our current alienated state. As Rob Hopkins writes in The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, "It is one thing to campaign against climate change and quite another to paint a compelling and engaging vision of a post-carbon world in such a way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it." Hopkins proposes that cities might be transmuted from "large, bland places with a few 'entertainment' venues, to diverse places with gardens, ponds, artworks, more opportunities for meeting and working with people and generally more to see and do," where people had "less reason to travel to be entertained."
The English "Transition Town" movement prepares local communities for the changes that are coming. It is a highly successful and well-developed grassroots initiative ongoing in over 60 towns and small cities across the UK. Transition Town groups share information, meet with local government officials and organize courses in basic skills that will be needed again as fuel supplies diminish. They have also experimented with issuing local currencies that help to keep wealth within a community.
It may seem a daunting and unenviable challenge to convince people to adopt such a program -- one that includes personal and community sacrifice, a downshift into reduced patterns of consumption and the surrendering of some forms of autonomy for the general good. On the other hand, previous generations of people just like you and I have mobilized for wars and performed enormous acts of service and self-sacrifice.
Hopkins, one of the creators of the program, writes, "Rebuilding local agriculture and food production, localizing energy production, rethinking healthcare, rediscovering local building materials in the context of zero energy building, rethinking how we manage waste, all build resilience and offer the potential of an extraordinary renaissance -- economic, cultural and spiritual." Almost any community can make use of the Transition Town model, which offers a holistic approach and practical tools for raising social awareness about the crises we face. Ironically, the virtual Internet provides the perfect mechanism for distributing tools and practices for rebuilding local communities around the world, instantly, so they are available as soon as anyone feels inspired to make use of them. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.
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