If at first you don't fail, try again

By Gene Miller, September 2014

What can local citizens do that will truly make a difference on a local scale?

The Last Iceberg—An Eco-Tale for Kids.

 Iggy the Iceberg sat in a darkened bar, nursing his third Maker’s Mark, idly watching a rerun of The Big Chill on the silent, wall-mounted tv. Actually, the Maker’s Mark was almost nursing Iggy, who was now approaching tumbler-size. He slumped there, dripping, remembering the glory days when, massive and towering, he first calved from the Ross Shelf in…“Cut!” [Sounds of paper being ripped from typewriter and crumpled.]

Climate Wars: A Cautionary Tale for Eco-Hysterics. 

The Capital Regional District’s latest communiqué from the Global Warming Front: “We’re throwing our entire policy framework at them, plus the grass clippings bylaw, Captain, and it’s not even slowing them down.” “Cut!” [Ditto. Cursing.]

Who’s Your Zombie? (End of the World Reader, Chapter One) 

It was the Azuma Gourmet seaweed salad. 

I was eating the stuff right out of the plastic tub and couldn’t help but notice the deep green, nacreous, almost vibratory glow. I was reading something—a report, a magazine—but turned back toward the container when I caught movement, a wave-like stir, in the depths of the seaweed. Next thing, quicker than hate, this tiny alien surged out of the container and tried to swallow my head. To an observer, it must have looked like I was crazy-fighting with a whip-tailed toilet plunger or struggling to remove an aggressive, flagellating, fanged sock from my head. The tyke had an incredible jaw-span, but I’m notoriously fat-headed. Finally I tore it loose and pulped it in the Cuisinart.

My hair’s growing back, covering the scars nicely. Thanks for asking.


Older readers and serious doomers will likely recall the pre-figurative 1953 Invaders From Mars. It featured actors dressed in costumes so cheesy you could see the zippers. My memory’s softened by a lifetime of trivia, but I remember holes suddenly opening in sandpits and creatures shambling along underground passages. 

Our A-Bomb fears, our worries about the Russian threat (remember fallout shelters and Commies?) and other miscellaneous expressions of 1950s’ paranoia were transposed in our cultural imagination into aliens burrowing under the skin of our planet. 

More worldly and culturally mature now, we realize our great threat comes not from Them! but from Us! Some might add the word “again,” noting the biblical injunction in Galatians, true then as now (and a classic of ecological foretelling): “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.”

You can still hear bible-thumpers maunder on about God’s perfect plan, or cynical denialists with vested ideological and economic agendas claim “Earth’s tough. Earth can take it.” 

In fact, Earth, miracle though it is, can’t. Earth turns out not to be some big, anvil-fisted lug in an alley fight, but a roughly 14-mile-deep ecosystem, from the top of the viable atmosphere to the base of its living oceans—a thin layer of lively, potentiating stuff smeared on top of a mantle of rock and a molten core—resilient, yes, but incrementally and steadily yielding to human influences. The ecosystem, in other words, is a network of fragile accidents and absent this, there is no life, human or otherwise. Finally, perhaps inevitably, we’ve successfully outraced and overmatched Earth’s biorhythms and natural cycles. The planet can’t clean the air and water or neutralize the poison spews; can’t bring the thermostat back down to the comfort zone; can’t endlessly regenerate or provide bounty. If the human project has been a quest for limits, we done found ‘em and are cheerily destroying the conditions of life upon which we owe our existence. God’s perfect plan, unfortunately, comes with an auto-destruct button. 

Ninety-five-year-old scientist, environmentalist and futurist James Lovelock is best known for his Gaia hypothesis which postulates that “living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism, a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the interconnections of the chemical and physical environment.”

He argues that the destructive disrespect humans have had for natural limits is diminishing the system’s capacity for self-repair and that collective human behaviour will soon overwhelm the planet’s regulating capabilities. Asserting that wholesale climate change is at this point probably irreversible (“too many actors and interests, too much denial”), Lovelock anticipates that most of the Earth will become uninhabitable for humans and other life forms later in this century, with a massive extension of tropical deserts. He proposes humanity’s “sustainable retreat” into a network of self-regulating and self-sufficient Singapores—city-machines able, within protective hives operating as independent biospheres, to maintain an artificial version of a habitable climate. 

You have my concurrence if the phrases, “good luck with that” or “it’s zombie time again” are stirring in your mind, or if Long Emergency author James Kunstler’s grim projections seem all too likely: “The journey to where we’re going, the transition to the next economy and the society that comes with it, is liable to be harsh and disruptive. People will lose a lot—imagined stability, security, faith in institutions—and depending on how disorderly politics gets, people will be very unsure of who or what they can depend on. We might expect pervasive desperation, anger, and despair.”

So looking forward to that movie.

What are all of us living here in our nearly perfected paradise, Victoria, supposed to make of and do with even discounted versions of such scary ecological and social prospects, assuming that we want to be neither oblivious nor immobilized by terror?

Rob Abbott was, until recently, executive director of Carbon Neutral Government and Climate Action Outreach for BC and, a few years ago, the superlative moderator of the seven Gaining Ground Sustainability Summits held here and in Vancouver and Calgary. He and others have been working on an initiative called 50x20. He believes it’s a plan worth spreading, and an answer to the timely question of “what can I do with others in my community that will truly make a difference on a local scale?”

The idea practically explains itself: “50” is 50 percent—less of bad impacts, more of good ones. “20” is 2020, a goal or target year for achieving these outcomes regionally. (He begs us not to get lost in a quibble about exact percentages or target years.) In the initial 50x20 brief Rob writes:

“Imagine our region in 2020. Our communities have become yet more peaceful and serene because cars and buses are whisper quiet, 50 percent of vehicles exhaust only water vapor, and we’ve strategically peeled back some of the concrete—and created incentives to access backyards—to expand urban food production. We are so successful in this regard that we produce 50 percent of the food we consume within the region or on the island, and we do so while using half the carbon-based energy we did in 2014.

“The lines above are a vision of what could be. We call it “50 by ’20” to reflect an aspiration to use 50 percent less carbon-based energy by 2020; locally grow 50 percent of the food we consume; and so on. It is audacious, and deliberately so. We would rather fall short of an audacious goal than meet something that is too achievable, too content with the perception that we have it pretty good right now and don’t need to stretch into whole system change. These lines above are the frame on which a story can be built, a story that acknowledges the very real urgency we feel with respect to our resilience and island self-sufficiency in the event of wider ecological stress or crisis—and the knock-on social and economic crises that may follow.

“At risk of stating the obvious, we assert that it is absolute folly to imagine that in the face of such severe want and stress people will behave well. Better by far to craft a compelling vision, a story of possibility; communicate it well to achieve a broad base of support; empower that broad base to take action; achieve short term wins to sustain momentum; and ultimately, change the system or model of how we live, work and sustain culture here.”

It is hard to put oneself in a receptive mindset for 50x20 while living day-to-day in this world of continued, uninterrupted bounty. The sun’s up on the snow-capped Olympics; it’s another great day for gardening. You wonder: “Do I have to give up anything? Is my life going to be diminished?” Your inner geo-specific denialist pleads: “They call it global warming, but that can’t mean here!” 

50x20 appears hopeful concerning matters of diminution, but mindful, at the same time, of Kunstler’s musing:

“The key to getting through this is to understand that our main political task for the next few decades will be to manage contraction in a way that minimizes human suffering.”

While it’s human nature to procrastinate to the last moment, do we really want to stall on this—the existential event of our age—until the walls of the future close in? Blind faith in technological magic fixes, intoxication with gadgetry, convenient amnesia about history, faith in happy endings, or the expectation that God is out there plowing the road for us, are no substitute for open-eyed preparation and moves toward greater self-sufficiency. 

I’m all for Abbott’s 50x20 plan, not least because I don’t want to find myself on the bar stool weeping with Iggy, or defending my home from the zipper zombies.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.