Book Review: Plan C
“Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for peak Oil and Climate Change” by Pat Murphy published by New Society Publishers
First Printing May 2008 Paperback ISBN 978-0-86571-607-0 $19.95
I was sent this by the publishers but only in the last month. I was quite surprised to see that it was now a year old – and it becomes apparent early on that this was written long before the advent of Obama – let alone his election. Because it is written by an American for a US audience.
Pat Murphy is the Executiuve Director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization which focuses on achieving sustainability by reducing energy consumption in the household sectors of food, housing and transportation. … Community Solutions has hosted annual Peak Oil and Solutions conferences since 2003 in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
I was hoping when I picked up the book that I would actually discover an alternative to plan A (Business as usual) and Plan B (New technology). And while there is certainly a well argued case for such an approach there is not nearly enough in my view about how one goes about creating communities in places which have to a large extent lost them. There is of course a great deal of explanation about how we lost our sense of community – and who is responsible for that – but not nearly enough about what we can do to recreate that.
In fact this evening – because the CBC is taken over by hockey – I was watching Global TV news and they had a short bit on community gardens in Vancouver (for Earth Day, of course). The demand for these gardens is greater than ever before – and the recession seems to have stimulated even more people to grow their own food. But what got the City of Vancouver really interested was how the establishment of these gardens improved neighborhoods. They made them safer because people started to get to know who their neighbours are. People who had lived in the same apartment building for years actaully found out who the people were on the other floors! We really have very little contact with the people who live closest to us – and gardens do build communities. This simple idea is not referenced at all in the index to this substantial (300 page) volume. How to start building a community seems to me to be the key to getting Plan C working.
There is a lot in the first third of the book which makes it a useful reference source – the whole thing is annotated in endnotes – but much of it will be reasonably familiar to people who have been concerned enough about the problem to pick up this book in the first place. Since it is American it has to deal with the widespread misconceptions about climate change and peak oil – but if you do not need to be convinced you may skip that part. It will also mean you can avoid a long and quite vitriolic condemnation of the history of imperialism – which to some extent explains why the third world is so angry that the first world seems so determined to hold back their achieving our lifestyle. But there are odd gaps – for instance the very short section on electric cars omits the current organizational developments in Israel around leasing batteries which may well overcome the serious issue of lack of range. And unfortunately the book misnames “the father of the fuel cell” George Ballard (he was actually Geoffrey Ballard) – and also neglects to point out that Ballard Power Systems themselves have abandoned the idea of developing a fuel cell powered car.
I naturally turned to the transportation section hoping for better. But nearly all of it is devoted to the idea of the “smart jitney”. Now this is an idea that I have also thought would be very useful in civilizing suburbia, and technically I think it would be reasonably easy to do. The problem is the very real legal and social barriers. In my own view, this is going to be a very hard sell to politicians – and against the considerable and well entrenched opposition of people who currently operate both taxis and transit. We do need something that is smaller than a bus and cheaper than a taxi – but I think that self drive vehicles are still going to be the answer (through car co-ops) long before we resolve the issue of getting into a car with a stranger driving. Since the book is about community organizing most of the obvious ways of improving local transportation through better transit are simply ignored. About the only extensive reference is to what Cuba cobbled together when it lost access to Soviet oil.
Apparently one of the essential things we must do is “kick the media habit”. And, yes, I can see why that would be a good way to reclaim some time and get away from the very narrow world view presented by the mainstream media. But it also seems to me that is a very patrician view: that most of us are incapable of seeing through the spin and sorting out our own alternative sources of news. For people who can find their way around the internet there are many other ways of getting news and information. But according to Pat Murphy you have to get away not just from the tv but your computer as well. As a blogger I cannot recommend that approach.
And as an activist, and now an aspiring politician, I am also not ready to give upon the political process. Much of the change we need to bring about needs to be at the various levels of government. Much of the first Greenhouse Gas Action Plan for BC that I worked dealt with regulatory issues – and many of those still need to be dealt with. For instance rules that prevent people from taking simple effective steps to cut energy use like using a clothes line or installing a solar panel. But also of course stopping governments doing stupid things like widening freeways and getting them to do sensible things like converting more of our streets to bus lanes.
I think there may well be a Plan C – and it does have a lot to do with people discovering the power that they still possess when they get together to do things. Stopping a P3 in a provincial park for instance – but also positive things like organizing car pools and community gardens. There does need to be a handbook to help that along. This is not it.