Steve Austin: To sustain our world, we must adapt to new realities

Steve Austin, former director of Bluegrass Tomorrow, teaches landscape architecture at Washington State University.
Steve Austin, former director of Bluegrass Tomorrow, teaches landscape architecture at Washington State University.

As the environmental, energy and economic crises accelerate, it is clear that we are entering a new era in history.

Yet there are positive adaptations we can make. After studying sustainability in Europe for a year, I now teach what I've learned at Washington State University. In this role, I recently led my students in the creation of the first comprehensive regional plan for this area.

Despite being separated by 2,000 miles, this work has many economic and planning implications for the Bluegrass.

Our goal was to create strategies for community resilience, as our research exposed a deep vulnerability to swiftly changing global conditions.

For example, locally grown food comprises less than one percent of the available food in groceries in the region. We learned that we are extravagant energy and water users. We found that we are losing tons of irreplaceable topsoil every year. These facts and much else revealed a dramatically unsustainable region.

To address this, my students recommended planning for local food and energy production, water conservation, environmental healing, as well as building a local, low-carbon economy. They explored ideas such as turning downtowns into food forests, restoring rail service, bringing existing buildings to net-zero standards and introducing permaculture to suburbia. Essentially, these are plans to live within the limits of our one planet.

At the public meeting where the plans were unveiled, I was asked by a reporter for a regional newspaper if the students were trying to create utopia.

After pausing for a moment, I replied that no, they weren't trying to create utopia. In fact, I said, in many ways we lived in utopia now, but that this period was ending. What the students were doing was simply making the best plans for the times ahead.

The reporter seemed taken aback. I doubt that he, or maybe anyone, had ever heard the times we live in remotely described as utopian. Yet if we look at them objectively, we see that they can be described that way.

For example, we have enjoyed an abundant energy supply for over 150 years. This has enabled most of us to live lives of comfort and convenience undreamed of by even the greatest rulers of ancient times. That energy abundance has also created an economy that has grown during the same time, bringing many people vast amounts of material prosperity. And over the last 10,000 years, humanity has enjoyed a stable and beneficial climate.

But all that is now ending.

We have reached the peak of the profuse energy supplies we've enjoyed for so long. Despite fantastic claims being made, the U.S. will never be energy independent while using it in the amounts we do now. Instead, we will have decreasing amounts to share among an increasing population.

This will have enormous consequences for our economy, for without increasing amounts of surplus energy, it cannot continue to grow as it has. Further, because we've used the sky as a waste dump, the stable climate our civilization grew up with has become wilder and progressively more destructive.

These facts, and many others, are converging to reveal that we are indeed moving into a new era. Scientists have given this new era a name: the Anthropocene. That essentially means "human period," in recognition of the impact that we have had and continue to have on the planet. It will be a time marked by resource depletion, mass extinction and a dangerous climate.

We may look back at today with deep wistfulness. Yet longing for a return to what we knew won't make it happen. That's what makes conventional economic and community development so distressing: fashioning plans for a future that will not exist serves only to waste time and resources. It also leaves us vulnerable and unprepared. Instead, we must ask of every decision being made: "How will this help us transition to the real world?"

We face great challenges but we can also see them as market forces. There are an enormous amount of business and community building opportunities in this new era, from developing local food and energy to healing the environment to developing a sharing economy.

Transitioning will take time, so we need to be starting now to create truly resilient communities.

This is not a value choice, a luxury, or a utopian fantasy. The future we face is too serious to be daydreaming about a perfect world. It is much better to be busy in dealing with reality.