Just up the road from where I live, about 40 minutes north of the Golden Gate bridge, the small town of Rhonert Park in Sonoma County is planning to build an intentionally green suburban community that may serve as a model for others.

It’s described in this article on Worldchanging.org, and one of the sustainability advisors is an acquaintance of mine, Greg Searle of BioRegional North America. It sounds like a good plan with all the basics you’d expect in a green-from-scratch design – energy-conserving structures, complete energy self-sufficiency, no vehicular traffic, short walking distances to stores and offices, and even sources for jobs for most residents.

Reading the comments posted to the article, you get the usual range of credulity and skepticism. But when they say “social sustainability,” they mean the jobs available and the higher proportion of sustainable housing. They don’t mean the self-governance systems that could be the difference between a green town that acts green and a green town that acts like all the rest of the surrounding towns. Can’t such a community come with a social training kit that helps its residents support one another to comply with some best living practices? That would truly make it an example for the world.

Case(s) in point: if, indeed, the core of cities is the most energy-effective place for people to settle, how and when will we re-inhabit American cities that are being abandoned by the jobless and foreclosed upon?

The combination of job losses and free-falling property values is sending many American urban neighborhoods back to zero, that downward spiraling state of neglect and entropy from which they will need to figure out how to start all over again, resettling abandoned residential areas and rebuilding abandoned infrastructure.

I can imagine the situation getting dire enough that people will be drawn to the giveaway housing of downtown Detroit as affordable and potentially efficient domicile. But the social resettlement requires a plan just as much as the physical resettlement. How do urban planners approach such a challenge?

As reported on in Forbes, a mass exodus taking place from some cities, with vacancy rates spiking.

Now, asking prices for rentals are down 10% from July, according to the Real Estate Group New York, a research firm, and people are packing up: 373,364 residents have left in the last year, according to the Internal Revenue Service, a net loss of 80,000. Unemployment is at 7.8%, above the national average of 7.2%, thanks to a 10% December drop in financial services jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates New York will lose 181,000 jobs in 2009.

With so many crises and pending crises banging around the world, the rubber still hits the road on Main Street and all the other streets or dirt roads where people actually live. The local community may need to go back to its adaptive roots, the ones that sustained communities in past periods of uncertainty, turmoil and disaster.

Frank Rich wrote the other day about “Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news.” Or as I see it, Americans’ insistence on keeping their heads up their asses. Too many of our fellow citizens simply refuse to accept bad news until it hits them in the face.

This insistence (or reluctance to absorb) is broadly and densely distributed across the national culture. And though there are pockets of acceptance and awareness, even in those well-intentioned populations and small regions, how people decide to live fails to align with their knowledge. People who may agree in fact, in principal and on moral grounds with an action that should be taken, rarely are found in the vanguard in taking that action.

These are self-destructive attitudes in that they do not respond to known risks, and to the extent that only the chronically poor – and those who recently have lost all of their money – are practicing the New Frugality, we slip closer to some hazy but highly probable abyss every day.

My pet peeve among these instances of denial, is that while most of us, through habit and addiction, live life as we usual have over the past 20 years, we steadily waste the lead time during which we must eventually, inevitably, change most of what we think of – and act on – as “usual.”

One of the most wrenching changes – related, I’m sure, to the reluctance to give up solo commuting – will be the one from the living in the private realm to the living public realm in as the context for making important decisions. To do so, we must relearn how to engage peacefully and effectively on the personal level with our neighbors and fellow stakeholders in sustainability.

Our federal and state governments have driven themselves and the taxpayers into a financial pit. Partly as a result of that and partly as a compensatory focus on avoiding additional catastrophe, we will find that more of our needs can and must be met close to home, in our own and in our neighboring communities.

The power and the responsibilities will become increasingly decentralized. Just as states in the U.S. are becoming more autonomous, so will counties and towns become more self-reliant. The costs of being centralized and of transportation will have to be mitigated by greater organization and participation in local governance.

This also means more autonomy at the hyperlocal level, in villages and townships that may be separated from larger population centers, or that have distinct cultural values. But through the Net, these hyperlocals can communicate, collaborate, make deals and get smarter.

The problem is, we have largely forgotten how to practice this more intensively cultivated local politic gardening and community organizing. We have not practiced using the Net as an inter-community collaboration tool. And even where those skills have been preserved, developed or rediscovered, we have not yet had to confront the widespread impacts of the Age of Ultimate Limits. This is the situation we find ourselves in, with our home planet maxing out on its natural resources and being destabilized by insatiable human consumption habits.

Lack of complete knowledge where there is risk of total annihilation is no excuse for inaction. We don’t know when or how climate change impacts will affect any particular community. We don’t know if or how well the economy will recover. We do know that neither of these problems have sure or quick solutions. And as situations deteriorate, communities are being forced to adapt or be lost.

Adaptation is a community-level mandate and how it happens is what I intend to follow learn from.

stormcloudsmttam2Wikipedia says:

Apocalypse (Greek: Ἀποκάλυψις Apokálypsis; “lifting of the veil”) is a term applied to the disclosure to certain privileged persons of something hidden from the majority of humankind. Today the term is often used to refer to the end of the world, which may be a shortening of the phrase apokalupsis eschaton which literally means “revelation at the end of the æon, or age”.

I did not know that. But this revelation at the end of an age is becoming more and more concrete as we go through this relatively inconsequential economic re-ordering. Yes, Obama has a shitload of immediate crises to deal with, but how do we wrap our minds and behavior around the 8-trillion pound gorilla that is climate change?

This Friday I’ll be attending a presentation sponsored by the Long Now Foundation featuring noted inventor Saul Griffith, who has been focusing his considerable intelligence and experience on establishing the gravity of the threat that climate change represents to us. Spoiler alert: “”It is not accurate to say we can still stop climate change,” he says.

Long Now will make audio and video of this presentation available on their Web site soon after the event. I’ll also be reporting here.

Too much going on to write a whole post about each one.

Have I mentioned lately HOW URGENT THE SITUATION HAS BECOME?

Post-Carbon Cities reminds us that it’s at the local level that we need to transform sustainability thinking into planning and action.

Our practice of sustainability, however, has lagged. In the 21 years since the Brundtland Report, cities in the US and Canada have made progress on things like recycling, green building and renewable energy. But we’re significantly behind the achievements of most Western European cities, and neither continent is nowhere near a quality of economic development that could truly be called “sustainable” from a global perspective.

Sustainability thinkers realized early on that, while international action was required on big issues like global warming and global inequity, many green goals were best addressed at the level of communities and local governments (hence initiatives like ICLEI). It’s at this local level that both governmental and academic attention now needs to focus: How do we translate the need to reduce oil consumption into urban development practices that encourage renewable energy? How do we apply the lessons of resource use, connectivity and collapse in complex adaptive ecosystems to those ecological-social-economic systems known as cities and suburbs?

Berkeley CA to finance rooftop solar on residential properties. It doesn’t seem to pay for itself. Do I have the math right? Or is the difference in reducing the local carbon footprint? As posted in the article:

City staff has estimated that the average photovoltaic system in Berkeley costs $28,077 with an average California Solar Initiative rebate of $6,108. A hypothetical financing structure for an average system is set forth below.

Hypothetical Financing for $28,077 Solar System (~3kW)
Project Financing Amount: $22,569
Estimated Financing Rate: 6.75% (to be determined)
Program Costs to be Amortized: $600 Bank and Administration Fees
Term of Repayment: 20 years Paid Through Annual Special Tax
Annual Special Tax Charges: 4.5% of Special Tax County and Program Administration

Projected Annual Special Tax: $2,089/Year – Equates to $182/month

The property tax increase will be offset by the value of the electricity produced by the system. At the outset and based on PG&E’s rates, one could expect the solar systems to result in at least $70/month in lower electric bills.

We bike commuters get a Bailout break!

Oh, darn. I work for myself. Can I give myself a reimbursement? Sure, I can. Here…thanks!

Starting in January, workers who use two-wheelers as their primary transportation mode to get to and from work will be eligible for a $20-a-month, tax-free reimbursement from their employers for bicycle-related expenses. In return, employers will be able to deduct the expense from their federal taxes.

“It significantly legitimizes bicycling and elevates it to a credible commute mode, like riding a bus or train,” said Andy Thornley, program director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Land rush to the Northwest? Will there be a climate migration?

You must be kidding. Of course there’s gonna be climate migration. And of course a lot of people are going to move from the waterless oven of the Southwest to the lush green coastal Northwest. When? As soon as enough people see the writing on the wall and begin suffering under extreme conditions. But this article tends to downplay such a scenario.

Under the most aggressive growth model, the area could have more than 6 million people by 2060, according to the Metro forecast. The more likely model, however, indicates a population of 3.85 million, plus or minus 300,000.

From a water supply standpoint, at least, the region should be OK.

“We are blessed with water resources,” said Stickel, the Portland Water Bureau planner. “We don’t even tap, or barely tap, the two largest water resources in the region — the Columbia and the Willamette. Even with climate change, we’re blessed.”

The folks at RealClimate provide a report from the meeting of the European Meteorological Society in Amsterdam. In this post, the focus is on a talk by Tim Palmer of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, and consistent with that groups title, he addressed “the idea of using one system to predict atmospheric conditions on time scales varying from hours to decades.” This he called “seamless prediction.”

Much of the foot-dragging that holds local governments and communities from committing to adaptive planning comes from the lack of dependable forecasting that’s longer-range than the local weather and more immediate than climate models. If you have confidence that the next decade is going to bring you above-the-historical-average precipitation, you’re more likely to approve infrastructure improvements that will mitigate damage from increased flooding, for example.

You don’t have to understand the more technical discussion at RealClimate in order to take away the importance of this new approach. The following paragraphs I found to be educational without being over my head:

Due to historical and practical reasons, day-to-day weather forecasts tend to be performed on different systems than seasonal forecasts and climate change scenarios. Whereas the former can take the oceanic state to be approximately constant for the next few days, slow changes may have a greater impact for the latter two.

Numerical weather prediction (NWP – i.e. the daily operational weather forecast) and climatology communities have drifted apart for a while, but Palmer argued that there is a need to a convergence of the communities. He also proposed using global climate models (GCMs) the way NWP models are used for weather forecasting to test their quality. By looking at the initial part of their evolution, he reckoned it may be possible to get some idea of how good they are. Thus, he proposed a way to weigh the different GCMs up against each other. Time will show if this strategy will work.

It wasn’t a year ago when I was blogging at Climatefrog – the precursor to pResilience – about sea level rise and how it might affect Marin County where I live. I found it difficult to detect any risk assessment activities relating to the impacts of SLR on this county with its 55-miles of tidal coastline, and that was bothering me, given the scientific evidence available in September 2007.

Now, just a year later, after scientists have reported accelerating melt-off of Greenland’s glacial ice, I’m gratified to find that our city council, right here in little ol’ Mill Valley, is holding a public forum titled “Preparing for Climate Change and Sea Level Rise,” attended by the mayor, our local county supervisor, a senior county planner, and Mill Valley’s Sustainability Director.

I should add here that since last year, most of the predictions of the rate of sea level rise seem to have moderated from the extremely scary projections of 20 feet or more. Yes, such a rise is still eventually possible – under the worst-case scenario that global temperatures will soar (due to the amplifying feedbacks of methane releases from thawing permafrost and warming ocean bottoms), resulting in much faster melting. But responsible scientists tell us that such a worst case would take centuries to become reality. See this RealClimate post for a sanity check on SLR for the coming century.

The latest report, published in Science magazine based upon research about the Greenland ice cap warns that the melting could very well accelerate through the 21st Century, resulting in sea level rise rate of “almost 1 metre per century.”This is considerably higher than the IPCC report projected (10cm at most by 2100).

Of course, the researchers cautiously admit that they’re limited to making educated guesses about this.

Climate scientists are uncertain how susceptible ice sheets are to global warming, largely because they have never witnessed one disappear, so researchers led by Anders Carlson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to look back to the end of the last ice age for clues.

I suspect that our town forum on the subject will reach the conclusion that yes, we are vulnerable, but that things won’t get really serious for a few decades. I’ll be attending, to see how they address the prospect of stronger storm surges combined with even a slight rise in our high tides putting most of our sea level sewage treatment plans out of commission. Not to mention our main highway and probably several hundred residential housing units built, romantically, at just barely above high tide level.

How do you share critical knowledge across a large scale distributed network of organizations? I believe we have a great model in the work of an organization known as ICLEI (“ick-lee”), which was founded almost 20 years ago by the United Nations to develop sustainability practices for local governments. Today its mission has expanded to include adaptation, while the intensity of that mission has risen to meet the growing challenge of climate change.

The American branch of the organization – ICLEI-USA – makes use of the knowledge developed by ICLEI-Global in a program centered around what it calls the Five Milestones. These are the basic building blocks that local governments must commit to achieving to even qualify for membership. Resolutions must be passed by these governments before ICLEI will engage them in the program.

In essence, ICLEI shares and distributes its knowledge about effective local government action by insisting that its clients enroll in its program. Along with the benefits of being guided through the implementation of sustainable and adaptive processes, member governments get to share with their peers the results of their creative efforts. Many of these can be found on the ICLEI-USA web site under Success Stories. An upcoming online community will provide opportunities for more peer-based knowledge exchange.

I tend to think of knowledge sharing as benefitting from informality in conversation, where participants drop pretenses and rely on trust to reveal what they know. Small scale encounters seem to support more open communication. It’s good to know that knowledge sharing can scale to the institutional level where informality is replaced with structure and some prerequisites that demonstrate commitment to learn. If ever we needed to learn as a planet, now is the time.

If you’ve got available dirt in your backyard or have managed to schlep it up to your roof, you can cut down on your shopping trips for fresh veggies. This has long been true as a minority of city dwellers have kept small gardens, but the practice of “city farming” is experiencing a renaissance these days and it has a blog to report about it.

City Farmer News: New Stories from Urban Agriculture is based in Vancouver, B.C., and is provided by the City Farmer group that has been active for 30 years. Its latest article, pointing to a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, describes a new business in San Francisco called MyFarm that installs and maintains gardens for customers. Where the garden is so large that the residents can’t consume all of its harvest, MyFarm sells the surplus to its commercial customers for resale to the public or for serving in restaurants.

How can the social tools of the Internet be used most effectively to advance local community activity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. That’s the question Tracey Todhunter explores in this video and will further exploring at a conference at the Rochelle School in London.

Tracey, co-founder of the Low Carbon Community Network in the UK, is one of the organizers of 2gether08, which is going on right now, including a streaming video feed and an event-centered social networking installation. Tracey’s questions are basic to the need for sharing knowledge and experience among the countless communities of all sizes that are facing the harsh realities of unaffordable transportation and uncertain climate futures. We know that change is coming, but we don’t know in exactly what form.

We know that all of us, down to the household level, need to reduce our carbon footprints and learn to live more sustainably, but we don’t know what the impacts will be on each of our locations as global warming intensifies. Just look at the flooding in the American Midwest and the fires in California. Then think about how you’d prepare for such events if you lived in the affected regions.

This is where more grassroots communication and mutual education is essential. Pamphlets and Web pages from FEMA are fine, but they are general and don’t benefit from the experiences of citizens on the ground who must deal directly with impending disasters.

England has suffered major flooding and unprecedented heat waves over the past two years. Many of its small towns are taking climate change seriously, and many highly motivated local activists are attending 2gether08, building and strengthening the social networks that will help them all provide smarter leadership for their local communities.

One big idea now emerging at 2gether08 is using online networking, and public service media, to help communities reduce their carbon footprints.

Groups in towns and villages are already starting to share experience nationally and internationally about local projects to tackle the challenge of peak oil and climate change, through the Low Carbon Communities Network and Transition Towns Network.

However as Tracey Todhunter, co-founder of LCCN, explains in this interview, they need technical help on how to raise awareness and communicate better online, by using social media and attracting the interest of public service publishers like Channel 4.

Tracey plans to gather a team on the first day of 2gether08 to add more tools to their current set of blogs, wikis and other communication methods, and develop their networking skills. They’ll work to a brief developed by Tracey and others in the network – and on the second day present back a working demonstration.

Although the main focus of the project is climate change, the tools and networking processes could be applied anywhere that communities seek to collaborate on projects for social benefit.

That’s why Tracey hopes Channel 4 might be interested in sharing ideas on how to do this effectively. In a series of interviews on 2gether08.com, Channel 4 executives have explained how they are moving beyond public service broadcasting to develop a range of interactive tools and programmes with partners.

The tools developed by Tracey and the team at 2gether08 will be used to build a network that will meet face-to-face at a conference in October. This will bring together the Low Carbon Community Network and the Transition Towns Network.

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