Resilient People, Resilient Cities
By Greg Greene Documentary filmmaker Back in 2003, when Barry Silverthorn and I were making "The End of Suburbia," we were focused on the consequences of the coming peak oil crisis on the cities of North America. It was the world’s first documentary on peak oil; the theory that world oil production follows a bell curve, and we are on the top, or peak, of that curve. Peaking would mean that the world demand for oil would outstrip the available supply, resulting in rising food and fuel prices, and soaring transportation costs. Despite the grim subject, we managed to make the film ironic, and with all the campy propaganda reels of 1950s suburbia free on the Internet, pretty funny in places. While I think our prognostications ended up on the right side of history, we were also naive about a number of assumptions. [caption id="attachment_3418" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="Poster for "End of Suburbia""][/caption] First, I personally believed the conservative estimates that peak oil would occur sometime after 2015. I believed that we had a good ten years ahead of us to prepare for a permanent oil crisis. The all-time peak in production in fact occurred two short years later, in 2005/6, and total world oil output is likely to never surpass that peak again, despite all the shiny new drilling technologies and promising deep-sea oil fields, like the one we all watched this summer in the Gulf of Mexico. We believed that the car-dependent suburbs of North America would collapse as oil prices spiralled upwards, people panicked and housing markets crashed. That process did begin, as predicted, as the price of oil rose to $147 a barrel in 2008 beginning what urbanist/iconoclast James Howard Kunstler calls "the end of the cheap oil fiesta”. This was followed by food riots in the developing world as prices shot up and the near-collapse of global financial markets. In our documentary, Kunstler warned that vast swaths of sprawl would become the “slums of the future,” and we are very clearly seeing this across suburban America. What we were wrong about, and what we could only have learned through touring our documentary as widely around the world as we did, is the capacity of average people to adapt to the serious challenges coming at us that are directly related to peak oil. Our addiction to oil is more about how we design our towns and cities than it is about energy. I’m not a believer in utopias, and I hold a relatively dim view of humankind’s ability to manage its affairs (not to mention how we are managing the planet’s biosphere). Yet in the discussions and panels following our films’ screenings I began to see people react proactively, moving through the five “stages of grief” (denial, anger, etc) around our addiction to oil -- to ask how quickly they can prepare their communities to live with less. In the process of asking this question, I saw a different side of human nature emerge: unafraid, adaptive, dynamic and creative. [caption id="attachment_3420" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Filmmakers Gregory Greene and Barry Silverthorne with the End of Suburbia Smart Car (photo courtesy of the filmmakers)."][/caption] A permaculturist in Ireland watched our documentary and initiated an urban experiment that went viral globally. Rob Hopkins and his associates launched Transition Town Totnes in 2005, centered around the idea that Totnes could prepare for the inevitable decline of fossil fuels in their community and at the same time lower their carbon footprint, create employment and energize the local culture. There are now thousands of towns and cities around the world adopting the principles of the Transition Towns movement. This has happened in five short years. And what is the secret ingredient in this rapidly growing global movement? It’s the emerging concept of ecological resilience, and it comes from Canada. In 1973, Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling observed the “adaptive cycles” of forest ecosystems (stay with me – this gets kind of scientific, but it’s worth it). A forest grows from an initial profusion of diverse flowers and plants into mature stands of dominant tree species, then to overmaturity, rot and insect infestation. Often disease or catastrophic fires devastate the forest to near collapse, but release seeds to produce a renewed explosion of reorganization and diversity. It is this diversity that gives the forest its ability not only to adapt in these cycles but to prosper. Holling, extrapolating from these observations, posited that human societies similiarly evolve from a diversity of small social structures into greater and greater size, interconnectedness and complexity. But their very complexity renders them vulnerable to the sorts of collapse we see in nature. We see these vulnerabilities all around us: energy, water, arable soil, mass extinctions, epidemics, and as we all know, the list goes on. Since resilience theorists look to nature as their guide, you would think they’d recommend a return to nature. But they are defying the orthodoxies of the past: it’s in the world’s towns and cities, they say, that the principles of resilience thinking most urgently need to be applied. As hundreds of millions migrate to urban shantytowns in search of a better life, cities, our most complex human institutions, become increasingly untenable. Charles Redman, director of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, believes cities will be the crucible in which our capacity for adaptive change will be tested in the coming decades. This is where the emerging "Transition Towns" movement comes in. Transition purposefully embraces resilience and works at the local level to build it through the use of permaculture, or whole system design principles, reintroducing nature and community to cities by creating urban gardens and more inviting public spaces, more affordable and efficient housing, walkable neighborhoods, while supporting farmers’ markets, green jobs, mass transit and non-motorized transport. The current approach of the environmental movement can be described as being "punative environmentalism." So much of what we read and are exposed to is the doom and gloom associated with profound losses of biodiversity, ocean acidification, the collapse of our fisheries, the potential for "runaway" climate change, etc. What seems to work well with the Transition movement is the fact that they emphasize positive change and reframe a lot of these issues in a way that builds community and human connection. Perhaps the most powerful component of Transition is its focus on creativity; bringing neighbors together to re-imagine their community in the future, in ways that are diverse and adaptable, and in the process unlocking the creative potential of its participants. Resilience is a new approach to sustainability that unlocks the creative potential in all of us. We are all resilient people, and our cities can be resilient too. - Greg Greene made "The End of Suburbia," the biggest-selling documentary ever produced in Canada. He followed that with "Escape from Suburbia" and is currently working on a new project about resilient cities. He lives in Toronto.