Post-Carbon Living

Chevy Chase LibraryStaff Picks

Post-Carbon Living

Individual, Family & Community Adaptation to Life after Fossil Fuels

The lifestyles of most of us in the industrialized world depend heavily on fossil fuels. Despite its normalcy for many of us, the era of fossil-fueled extravagant living will look like a fleeting moment within a larger view of human history. Formed over half a billion years, fossil fuels are non-renewable, depleting, declining in quality and net energy, and their contribution to climate change, pollution, and other forms of ecological degradation make perpetuity of this way of life impossible. Either we change voluntarily, or let crises increasingly force us to change.

Those who understand these realities believe transitioning away from fossil fuels now builds our resilience in a chaotic future, while also improving quality of life. Although the books below acknowledge the need for political change, they focus on practical action at the individual, family, and community level beginning here and now. I chose these authors, not only because of the depth of their knowledge and insight, but because they have all made major changes in their own lives, strengthening their writing's integrity.

Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus
A climate scientist and suburban father of two, Peter Kalmus could no longer live with cognitive dissonance, aware of how his lifestyle was contributing to the climate crisis he studied professionally. He ultimately reduced his climate impact to under a tenth of the US average. Part One discusses the science of climate change and explores our predicament caused by our addiction to growth. In Part Two he shares stories of practical action he took to reduce his dependency on fossil fuels, involving biking, growing food, installing a solar hot water heater, giving up air travel, reducing waste and consumption. Additionally, he explores the centrality of meditation and spirituality in his journey to re-connect with the earth and live more deliberately. Devoting a chapter to collection action, Kalmus acknowledges the necessity of policy change. Yet he believes that individual change is simultaneously important and strengthens policy activism. Merging science, practical action, and spiritual wisdom, Kalmus inspires readers to lessen their climate impact too by making positive changes in their lives.

Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and Other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate-Tech Toolkit
by John Michael Greer

In this comprehensive manual, Greer proposes the role of a modern wizard who possesses a wide array of skills useful in an age of economic unraveling, climate change, and when fossil fuels and resources become scarcer. Blending philosophical and practical expertise, he first introduces basic concepts of ecology and whole systems thinking. Then he discusses practical skills revived from appropriate tech and organic gardening movements that sprang up during the 1970s energy crisis that sadly were mostly abandoned for lifestyles and politics of excess consumption. Well-articulated for the novice, topics include gardening, composting, saving seeds, raising small livestock, food preservation and storage, energy conservation, home retrofitting, solar water heating, small-scale alternative energy, and more, with suggested resources for further exploration at each section's end. Each lesson also includes a personal exercise for readers to apply new knowledge in their own life. Although Greer believes industrial society abandoned the possibility several decades ago to transition smoothly to a sustainable future, his proposal of green wizardry offers hope for the many ways individuals and communities can still improve their resilience in uncertain times.

The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins
In a very short time, most humans have become heavily dependent on oil and an unsustainable economy. However, amidst the realities of climate change, petroleum depletion, and increasing economic instability, adaptation to a post-oil future is paramount. Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network, discusses these realities and why relocalization, rebuilding community resilience, and re-skilling are necessary in response. He also explores the psychology of community change and the cruciality of developing a positive vision for a future with less oil. To share an example of positive community action, Hopkins tells the story of Transition Town Totnes, the first Transition Town he founded in England in 2005. Transition-led projects there involved community building, re-skilling, local currency creation, nut tree planting, creation of a local food directory, and creative storytelling. He presents the philosophical underpinnings of the Transition concept and provides tools to start a Transition Initiative in one's local area. Now there are more than 1,130 Transition Initiatives worldwide.
Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place by Sharon Astyk
With grace, humor, and philosophical insight, Sharon Astyk shares how making our homes and daily lives more resilient amidst turbulent times can also make our lives more fulfilling. While she discusses the converging realities of climate change, energy descent, and economic instability that make changing our way of life a necessity, her book focuses mostly on practical strategies to save and use less. Topics she covers include: housing, heating, cooling, refrigeration, laundry, food, cooking, transportation, marriage, family, and work. Throughout the book she shares stories of changes her own family has made, interspersed with profiles of others from diverse backgrounds who are also adapting in place. Astyk shows how living with less energy and consumption can bring more joy and meaning into our lives, all the while strengthening our families and communities.

The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Sometimes people think that to live more sustainably they need to move to a rural area with lots of land to farm. Although urban living does present some challenges for sustainable living, it also offers possibilities. Given that most humans now live in urban settings, it is impractical for many to leave the city. For those urban and suburban dwellers seeking to live more self-sufficiently and less dependent on fossil fuels, this guide offers an abundance of projects and suggestions. Topics include: growing food anywhere, raising backyard livestock, composting, food preservation and fermentation, urban foraging, alternative transportation, conservation and generation of water and energy. For further ideas on how to reduce dependency on consumerism and fossil fuels, I recommend the authors' other guide, Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. Its 70 do-it-yourself projects include personal care and cleaning products, beekeeping, chicken coops, various foods, drinks, and more.

Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels by Richard Heinberg
This compilation of fifteen essays explores the inevitable societal transition away from fossil fuels that will likely be as significant a transformation as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of thirteen books, discusses the political, economic, and ecological constraints that make a smooth transition difficult, while also highlighting potential opportunities for positive change. Although not a practical skills manual, this book provides important insights to help guide the work of concerned citizens. Essays cover an array of topics, from the collapse of consumerism to the need to preserve cultural achievements of value for future generations. All emphasize the need for more local economies and community action to build greater resilience within a challenging future. Amidst a realistic deeper analysis of converging trends ahead, Heinberg offers hope and inspiration for grassroots level work. Heinberg's most recently published book, Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for 100% Clean Energy, also shares valuable perspectives on the 21st century energy transformation.

For more in-depth reading on the issues underlying the need for practical action, check out my earlier Read Feed: The Fossil Fuel Age and After.
— Rachel W.