Daniel Lerch on the Reality Report (transcript)

MediaDaniel Lerch on the Reality Report (audio)

Jason Bradford: Alright, we are back. This is the Reality Report on January 21, 2008. I'm your host, Jason Bradford. And today we're going to talk to Daniel Lerch, manager of Post Carbon Cities, a program of the Post Carbon Institute and author of the book for local governments titled, Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. Daniel is on the line with us from Portland, Oregon. He has a master's in urban studies and is a co-founder of the City Repair Project, an award-winning non-profit organization working on community public space issues. And his website is postcarboncities.net. So, thanks for being here today with us, Daniel.

Daniel Lerch: Thanks for having me on the program, Jason.

JB: Alright. Well, why don't we begin by explaining your position at Post Carbon Institute and the purpose of your new book, Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty

DL: Well, as you mentioned, I'm the program manager for our Post Carbon Cities program and that is our support program for local governments. We focus on what local government officials - mayors, city council persons, as well as the local government staff - can do about peak oil and global warming. And that's to complement our work with supporting grass roots organizations through the Relocalization Network.

Now, the guide book, Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, which was just released last October, is really our flagship project right now for this program. The book was also written specifically for local government officials and staff. And all that really means is that it's written for lay persons, the people who are officials at the local level and often times staff at the local level, especially in smaller towns, are generally people just like you and me. They don't necessarily have any special public policy experience or government administration experience, they're just regular folks who decided to take a leadership position, or I should say, decided to campaign for a leadership position in their communities.

And we saw a need to describe what was happening to the people who were making these local decisions about land use and transportation and local governance. And the way to do that, I certainly feel, is to give them the information in a very clear and accessible manner. And, unfortunately, I think a lot of the information our there right now about peak oil in particular, but also to a certain degree about global warming, is very technical.

I'm sure many of your listeners are... you're aware of the resources out there. You go the oildrum.com or some of these other sites and there's a wealth of information there. But it's really hard to dig through, especially if you're a smaller city, a local official, you don't have a lot of time on your hands and you really need to digest the information and make sense of what's happening. And I think particularly for a subject, an issue like peak oil, where there are a lot of conflicting messages surrounding it, we really wanted to create something that people could digest very easily, could understand fairly quickly; that this is a legitimate issue and an essential issue to be dealing with at the local level.

JB: You've now been traveling around North America, so you've had some idea of how the book, and the way you've been framing the discussion, is going. Where have you gone and what has the reception been like so far?

DL: Well, when we launched the book in October I started off right away with a five-week book tour. I actually started off down at the Peak Oil Conference, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil down in Houston; met a whole bunch of great folks down there. And then the local government tour started up in... I flew up to Montréal in Québec, and from there on for the next four or five weeks I visited a number of different cities of all different sizes, going through New England, down through the Mid-Atlantic then ending back up in Toronto.

And throughout this tour I was meeting with, in some cases, a small group of local officials and government staff, did a couple workshops here and there. And in other cases there was a public presentation. Sometimes the presentations and meetings were organized by a local community organization. Other times it was a local government person who was organizing it. And overall the response was really, really, very good. I really didn't quite know what the response was going to be, especially in the northeast. Out here on the west coast, I think, we tend to have this sense that once you get east of the Rockies folks aren't quite up on a lot of the sustainability and progressive issues that are so commonly discussed out here.

And I was very pleasantly surprised, especially in New England. New England, of course, does a whole lot of work on sustainability issues and progressive issues out there. But I was really pleasantly surprised at how many people were already quite aware of peak oil and knew they needed to do something about it but didn't necessarily know what they needed to do. With me being there and with the presentation and the book I feel we really helped to fill that gap, giving people a sense of why they need to be acting on the local level. Because you can understand peak oil, you can understand what it's going to mean if you're a local elected official. But if you don't understand how it might play out at the local level, you're not going to know how to develop policies for it. It's a very complicated thing. It's much like with climate change. A lot of people understood what was happening but how do you address this on a local level?

JB: Yeah, you hear about ice caps melting, the polar bears are in trouble, but you say, "Well, what does that mean for us here?," right?

DL: Exactly, exactly. So, throughout New England, I just wanted to tell you, to give one example, in Providence, Rhode Island. I was hosted there by a newly elected council person, Cliff Wood. And they were so taken with the message and they were so excited to do work after I'd met with them and their planning staff and did a public presentation, they ordered 50 books...

JB: Oh, great.

DL: ...within the next week and they were distributing to the whole staff. And we're certainly hoping to see more and more cities do that. The Minneapolis Pollution Control Agency, I was just told, ordered 100.

JB: Nice. Yeah, I think that's what it takes, is enrolling the whole staff so that it's just not one person feeling like they're trying to sort this out themselves.

DL: Exactly.

JB: No one can do it by themselves. So, we should probably do a quick overview of energy consumption in North America. Whether you are talking about peak oil or you are talking about climate change this ultimately comes down to how much we're consuming and therefore how much we're polluting. So, what activities lead to the greatest use of energy in North America?

DL: Well, I think that the biggest, when you look at the energy statistics, the national statistics, you can do the easy breakdown that looks at transportation, residential, commercial and industrial. Or you can do a really complicated breakdown where you have to parse a whole bunch of data. I tend to, again, since I work with local officials, or, basically, lay persons, I try to look at the easy data and communicate that. And from the local perspective what really matters, the biggest thing by far, is transportation; that there are certain... in industrial energy, that sector is actually 32% of our total energy consumption, versus 28 for transportation.

But industrial... we don't have a whole lot of control at the local level over industrial energy use. There are a lot of efficiencies that have already come through on the industrial side that we're not going to be able to push. On the other hand, on the transportation side, there's a whole lot that we can do.

And the powers that local elected officials have are directly related to transportation. In most parts of this country you do have power over zoning codes and building permits; you have a certain amount of control over local transportation planning. And I talk about this a lot in my presentations. The built environment, the way in which we built our cities and suburbs and rural areas, is by far the biggest contributor to our energy over use and our energy vulnerability.

I mean, just think about the ways in which we've constructed the urban and suburban landscapes in the post-war period, building these giant highways, expanding cities and suburbs in ways such that it's impossible to meet some our most basic needs without hopping in a car and burning a few gallons of gas. And there's a lot of efficiency to be had in there, but at the same time this stuff is very, very difficult to change. It took us 50 years to build that; we're not going to change us overnight. As my colleague John Kauffman of the Oregon Department of Energy was saying in our joint presentation in Minnesota just this last week, "You're not going to wake up one morning and see that gas is at 5 bucks a gallon, and say, 'well, okay, let's go build that rail system this afternoon.'"

JB: Right. It takes a lot of thinking ahead.

DL: Yeah. These things take a whole lot of thinking ahead, and, again, I think your listeners are aware of the Hirsch Report.

JB: Yeah. Department of Energy-sponsored report, yeah.

DL: Yeah, from just a couple of years ago, and one of the big pieces of the Hirsch Report, one of the big points, is that we need 10-20 years of intense mobilization of World War II-scale effort, practically. And that's what they're talking about, they're talking about this stranded infrastructure, this built-in infrastructure, and these built-in patterns that force us to consume oil.

And specifically oil because it's not just the highways and the streets and the large houses and the low density settlements, it's also the entire gasoline, fueling, and distribution infrastructure. We are set up to use gasoline, not hydrogen, not electric - gasoline. These are huge, huge problems.

JB: Yeah, it's pretty daunting. Whenever I take trips out into the hinterlands and see all the people living out there and I just go, "wow." All this stranded infrastructure I sort of imagine, 20-30 years hence, what happens to this stuff.

Well, when talking to local government officials or politicians, I'm wondering, do you frequently run into any common, fundamental assumptions about resources in the future that need to be reconsidered?

DL: I think everyone has, in modern society - and I'm the same as well - we just assume that these basic energy sources are going to be there. In my presentation I talk about three ways in which peak oil creates challenges specific to the local level. The first piece of that is our overdependence. And a key part of our overdependence characteristic is our assumptions about oil. We assume two very important things about oil and natural gas, as well. We assume that it's going to be there tomorrow and next year. We also assume that it's going to be affordable tomorrow and next year.

And if we didn't make those assumptions we would not be making so many decisions that we make at the government level, and the business level, and even the household level. If we couldn't assume that oil and petroleum products are going to be relatively affordable and available five years down the road we wouldn't be spending 15 years and multi many billions of dollars embarking on a massive highway construction project. You wouldn't see businesses putting in million of dollars and many years of planning and construction into some of these suburban housing developments.

It's those assumptions about the availability and affordability of oil that are changing. And that's what I really tried to get across to local officials and staff, is that, recognize the assumptions that we have about the availability of oil and also our assumptions about who has responsibility for what. We also tend to assume that there's some higher level of government that's looking out for us to some degree, that's going to take care of that shortage if it comes by.

Hurricane Katrina just demonstrated that that's a fallacy in a number of different ways. Not only what happened in New Orleans, but also, a colleague of mine did a study of what happened in North Carolina after a major pipeline - a petroleum products pipeline - was shut down in Hurricane Katrina. She found that a lot of these municipalities, when they ran out of gasoline, they just assumed that the state had a strategic petroleum reserve and was going to provide them with gasoline to keep their emergency vehicles on the road. And she found out that when they went to the state the state told them, "Well, actually we've never intended for you to use this, we need this for our state troopers, our emergency vehicles." And the city leaders had to walk home empty-handed and explain to their constituents and their businesses why they didn't have a plan in place. It's very serious and concerning assumptions that we have about energy.

And they're understandable. We haven't had to think about these things for decades. I think everyone who works in peak oil understands this and I think is why people get so passionate about this because they realize that, boy, everyone pretty much assumes that things are going to be relatively the same in the near future as they've been in the past. And, again, that's what we do as humans. That's how we plan, for the most part. But that's not the case anymore. The fundamental factors are changing, the assumptions are changing, and we need to change the way that we're thinking about, basically, the most important resource, and material to the global economy.

JB: What happens to me when I start thinking about energy issues is that I start seeing connections to so many other things. I point of view becomes so much more broad and holistic, and I'm just wondering if you could discuss a little bit how a focus on energy in itself which seems like "this is a narrow focus," because we have social problems and we have broader environmental issues and we have economic problems. But how is the focus on energy, in and of itself, lead to, then, a breakdown of obstacles to holistic or systems thinking in general?

DL: That's a great question. In the book we actually wrote up a little section in the appendix. I covered it with a colleague of mine who works in systems thinking. And it's basically Systems Thinking 101. And we put that in there because we realized that to address these issues you're dealing with an extremely complex systems problem. You can't use linear thinking to address these things. And one example I've given in the book to illustrate this is that after peak oil happens, or as we start coming into this peak oil area... I actually hate talking about peak oil. Peak oil is just a phenomenon of petroleum geology. Peak oil isn't the problem. The problem is uncertainty surrounding peak oil. Hence, the subtitle of the book, Energy Uncertainty.

So as we get into this time period of energy uncertainty we start to see a whole lot of different changes, including changes, not only in the price and availability of petroleum products, but also unrelated products. For example, the changes we see in the price of meat. The price of oil goes up, there's a reaction at the federal level to keep fuel available. They institute subsidies for ethanol production. The ethanol subsidies encourage farmers to send more of their corn to the ethanol refineries and less to the feed stocks and as a result meat prices goes up. That's four orders of difference. That's a systems problem. Except for some peak oil enthusiasts five years ago, who would have thought that high oil prices would have had this effect on meat prices through the vehicle of ethanol subsidies?

That's the kind of system-related issue that local officials and local staff need to be thinking about. We don't have ways of modeling this stuff. We can model some of it, but the tools are sort of available but they're really out there yet. We're not used to doing systems thinking; we're used to, again, looking at what happened in the past and extrapolating it out to the future.

JB: And in the past we could always get more, we could always just get more.

DL: Yeah, yeah. So, absolutely. Thinking about energy, it forces us to think about all the different ways in which everything is related to energy. And, of course, everything is related to energy in this modern, 21st century society - not just energy, but oil, of course. Everything about how we move ourselves, we move goods in this society. So much about the ways in which we live and the places in which we live, the places in which are businesses are located... I can assume that I can hop on a plane pretty much any time and go back and visit my family back on the east coast. If I didn't have that assumption I probably wouldn't be living out here in Portland, Oregon.

JB: Right, right. And now you're starting to wonder about for the long term, right?

DL: Yeah. And all our grocery stores assume that they're going to have a steady flow of fresh vegetables and fruit coming from many thousands of miles away.

JB: Yeah - daily restocking of shelves. So, now within a nation we have governments that play roles at different scales. And I know it's difficult for a city to make a transportation plan on its own, for example. So I'm wondering if you can give us a brief explanation where the zones of control are for some key decisions that impact energy consumption.

DL: That's a great systems question, there, Jason. Every country has its own system. In the U.S. we're also a little bit different in that not only does the country have a different decision-making structure than other countries, each state has a somewhat different decision-making structure and each municipality, each jurisdiction, has its own somewhat unique decision-making structure. So, that makes it really great for experimentation but it also makes it really difficult to kind of give across-the-board answers to problems, and also to effect across-the-board change. In general, the way things tend to work in land use, the control over land use tends to rest with the cities, your jurisdictions have a zoning controlled state system say over at that as well.

JB: The county controls a lot too.

DL: Yeah, in places where there's not incorporation the county will have some control as well.

So, you've got local officials making zoning decisions, sometimes within a larger state framework, but sometimes not. And the zoning codes are deciding what's going to built where, they're deciding how it's going to be built through building codes, and they control the way in which those codes are followed or not followed through the permitting process and through regulation and enforcement, that sort of thing. That's the land use side.

And use and transportation are intrinsically related. We've come to a big realization in the last 20-30 years in planning that you cannot address land use without transportation. Unfortunately, the land use regulation happens at the local level. Transportation regulation and planning happen sort of at the local level but because it tends to be... you can plan a development parcel at the local level but you really can't plan a highway or a highway system or even a large road system at the local level as easily. It's kind of a different order of magnitude.

So a lot of the transportation planning happens at the state level, at the county level. And, of course, a lot of the funding comes from the federal level. So you've got all these different pieces coming together to develop - to plan, to fund - the urban and suburban landscape. And that makes it very difficult, of course, to develop the kinds of land use and transportation patterns that we actually do want to see.

The reason they can built these compact transit-oriented cities in Western Europe is because they have a different system of land use regulation, land ownership, different legal regulation surrounding these things. Very different system of transportation planning and funding and personally feel that we've tried over the decades in this country, to a certain extent and in certain places, to emulate what's happened in Western Europe. Think, for example, back in the 's there were a lot of cities that were building pedestrian zones or pedestrian malls and that by and large failed. In part, because we were trying to pluck one piece out of a very complex system over there and plop it down over here and assume that just because we've built it to look a certain way it's going to function the same way. That's just not the case.

JB: Sure, so while you're, maybe, densifying and making pedestrian-friendly center you're also then scattering residences to the periphery and building strip malls on the edge.

DL: Exactly.

JB: And, so, you can't do both, in other words and expect that they'll succeed.

DL: Yeah. So, to get back to your question as to how the zones of control, that becomes a serious challenge and I think that's why we have these concepts in this country like "smart growth" and "new urbanism." Those are different ways of approaching this problem. New urbanism is kind of from the design perspective - transit-oriented development. And smart growth is kind of more from the planning and development perspective. And they all weigh in with these ideas of what we should build and how we should go about doing it.

But there is no, again, one size fits all message of doing this stuff. You look up here in Portland. Portland is often looked to as this great model of sustainability and smart urban planning and transit-oriented development, and whatnot. And what we have up here is the result of 30-some years of regional planning. Again, we did not develop this up here overnight, so to speak. And that's another really key piece, I feel, of addressing peak oil. You absolutely need to coordinate at the regional level. You can't have one jurisdiction doing one thing and another jurisdiction doing another. Whether or not land use and transportation, or energy, as well.

JB: Right. Yeah. We have that all the time here. We have a city wanting to densify and then the county deciding they're going to put a subdivision on county land right outside the city limits, or something. It's really tough to have this non-coordinated, sort of mutual respect and understanding. So I think you're absolutely right.

Now, in North America the local governments and regional councils tend to be responsible for water supplies and treatment, as we've talked a lot about, transportation systems, emergency services, they deal with schools. Of course, land use planning and regulation you've talked a lot about. In what way are some of these basic services vulnerable to energy decline and climate change?

DL: Well, one of the key lessons in things we try to get across in the guidebook is that it's going to be different in every municipality. That's partly why we encourage cities to do a local peak oil task force or a vulnerability assessment like has happened up here in Portland, like you did down there in Willits, California.

To give one example, in the case down there in Willits, you did your vulnerability assessment and you found that your water supply was actually an area of big concern. And the city of Willits decided to focus on that right away. And, I think, that's the sort of thing we'll tend to see, especially in California, where water supplies are a big concern. In other cities it's going to be different. Up here in Portland when they did the task force their lead recommendations were focused on just reducing consumption across the board very, very quickly - two percent reduction of oil and natural gas consumption per year for the next 25 years. And then the second recommendation was transportation and land use - continuing the work that has been done up here.

I think among the vulnerabilities that exist out there and the things that we need to keep working on, you mentioned schools before. Obviously, many, and I would guess probably most jurisdictions in this country at his point, the vast majority of students are bused to school.

JB: Yeah. Bus or private vehicles are about half and half here in the Willits area.

DL: Yeah. So how are those kids going to get to school with the price of diesel to fill the school buses doubles in the next few years? We can budget for that but the money's got to come from somewhere. And, again, it's not just finding a different way to get them to school. It's that these children are all distributed across the area in this land use pattern that is not easily changed. We're not just going to magically find electric-powered buses and send those out there. Everyone's talking about a recession and inflation now - what happens to all those parents who are driving their kids to school from, perhaps, far away and what going to happen there?

JB: Right. We've actually talked to local transportation authorities about getting non-diesel-dependent busses. Is there electric jitneys? A lot of the problem that is there are so many regulations about what they're supposed to have with wheel-chair access and the electric vehicles don't have that and they're not at the scale that they're used to and then they might be more expensive and they have an existing stock that is not depreciated fully yet and so where in the budget can we justify phasing these out? And, so, then in a recessionary environment - like our school system's talking about a 10% across-the-board cut - then how do you invest in an alternative that may cost you money upfront?

DL: Yeah. It takes doing the long-term investment ahead of time, that's a big challenge.

One other area, and this is an example from the guidebook, one thing that happens that we just don't even really think about that cities do is street maintenance and construction. And in the summer of 2006 versus the summer of 2005 the price of oil went up only about five percent but the price of asphalt doubled, and in many parts of the country it even tripled. And that's, of course, because asphalt's a byproduct of refining oil so when the price went up the refiners had less of an incentive to produce the asphalt and more incentive to produce the high-value stuff like jet fuel and gasoline and whatnot.

Of course, that creates a big problem for cities. All of a sudden cities are kind of out on the loose and their street maintenance budget needed to be tripled if they were going to do what they needed to do for street repair and street construction. And what I point to in that anecdote for cities is the way in which this panned out for different cities across the board, it really depended on how individual cities had planned and prepared or not planned and not prepared. There were cases that you had neighboring cities, one city had to cancel pretty much all of their street maintenance projects and street repair projects - the local street paving company, perhaps, has to lay off some people; a new development that was coming in that depended on a new street being build had to be delayed - and where the other city right next door was just fine because they had prepared for it.

JB: Like they foresaw the price rise and they'd purchase early or what? Or they set aside contingency money?

DL: Yeah. They had a contingency fund or they had planned ahead and knew that we could reduce, we can postpone these certain pieces or cancel these outright without throwing the whole system in to disarray...

JB: Oh, I see, yeah.

DL: It's really about foresight.

JB: So, they made a sort of triage. They kind of made a triage decision ready to go - if these are our priorities - and so they made quick decisions, in other words.

DL: Yeah. Well, again, the lesson there is that some communities had prepared and come communities hadn't. And those that had prepared knew that they could not just assume that the market was going to provide the asphalt, again, in the way that was assumed and a way that was affordable, just like our assumptions about oil that I mentioned previously.

And I think we can apply that anecdote to pretty much anything that a city does. And I ask local staff and officials when I meet with them to think about this. We've given you the peak oil argument, here's the data, here's what we're probably facing and there's a whole lot of uncertainty about what the actual results are going to be. When you go back to your job think about how this will impact your responsibilities and your ability to do your job. No one else knows that but you, only you and your supervisor - if you're a staff person - know how the city works and know what needs to be done.

JB: Right. You're listening to KZYX Philo, KZYZ Willits and Ukiah. This is The Reality Report. I'm your host Jason Bradford, and our guest today is Daniel Lerch. He's manager of Post Carbon Cities, a program of The Post Carbon Institute and author of a book for local governments titled Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. Daniel has a master's in urban studies and lives in Portland, Oregon and is also a co-founder of The City Repair Project, an award-winning non-profit organization working on community public space issues. His website is postcarboncities.net.

So, one of my big worries in all this, among many, is that the local governments seem to be at capacity already. I mean, staff are busy keeping the current system running. As you mentioned before, elected decision makers are often new to government and they'll be holding down full-time jobs while serving on councils. Budgets are kind of tight and shrinking. The existing infrastructure itself is old with high maintenance costs. We have a dwindling public confidence in our government right now. And so, do you have any suggestions... I mean, how can local governments cope with this additional burden of just learning about, and planning for, energy and climate uncertainty?

DL: Well, I think it's definitely incumbent upon local officials, and also local staff, to educate themselves about this. I think we assume, and rightly so, in our communities that our local leaders are there to think about the foreseeable future and think about the possible threats that face us and try to do something about that. I believe it is why saw, at least in this country, the response to climate change. It didn't come form the federal level; the federal level balked for years and it really came from the local level.

Just a couple of years ago it was Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols that put together the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. And we have over 700 mayors in all 50 states that have signed on to that agreement. That was not a federal initiative. So I think the local leaders... and a lot of them do understand this already, they just don't know necessarily how to address it.

I think in smaller communities like Willits, for example... Again, with Willits economic localization and the vulnerability effort and the task force that you had down there was a great example of how smaller communities can address this. I spoke with some of the staff and officials down there about a year ago when I was writing the book and they both said having citizens come in and help us process this stuff - do the research, find out where do our energy sources come from. What are the initial vulnerabilities? What is our... do that audit of community energy use. In a town like Willits, they don't have extra staff to do this. Up here in Portland they barely have extra staff to do this.

JB: But a big city has some leeway, I guess.

DL: A big city has some leeway but, in some ways it's also larger cities have somewhat less flexibility. Especially when you get to large ones like New York City, for example; talk about a giant bureaucracy.

JB: Right, it almost has to be that big to keep things running.

DL: Yeah. It's interesting, because he more I follow local governments, the more fascinating it is to me to see how just regular people, people who, again, aren't necessarily trained in public policy and government administration find themselves in these roles and they just find ways of dealing with it. And many times it's a leadership that coming from an elected official or a staff person, and preferably those, and they get their heads together and decide, okay, this is a serious problem; let's get a task force together; let's propose a new department or office together, or at least some sort of initiative to deal with this. And let's just start working on it and not wait for some higher level of government to come in and tell us what to do.

JB: Yeah, I mean, I guess when something becomes a priority you find a way to make it work, in a sense. If there's a crisis you find a way to try to deal with it.

DL: Yeah. I think particularly for smaller communities, having local community groups like Willits Economic Localization, up here in Portland it was Portland Peak Oil, if you go to our relocalization network program at Post Carbon, relocalize.net, you'll see a world map of, I believe now it's over 175 groups all across the world, but largely in the U.S. and Canada, citizen groups that are working on these issues. They're the ones that go to their elected officials, tell their officials that this is an important thing to deal with, give them the political pressure and backing to address these issues, and do the work.

Elected officials are busy people, they're dealing with all sorts of different stake holders competing for their attention. They can't drop everything and devote their whole attention to even an issue as important as this, especially if they don't see that the community is not fully backing them on this. And right now it's just not an issue that's fully on the radar screen. So it's that much more important to citizen activists and small community groups to talk to their elected officials and really push them on this. I want to repeat this, when I say "push them," it's not just calling your elected official and haranguing them and asking them why they're not doing it. It's calling them and saying, "What can I do to help you make this happen?..."

JB: I think that's key, yeah.

DL: "...What information do you need? What can I get for you? How can I help you do what needs to be done?"

JB: Yeah. I sort of see this around here as if the top administrators are so busy, but if you can make yourself like a partner with them and say, "I want to sit with you on this committee, and want to be there following what the minutes are, and I want to help do the research that we all agree needs to be done." So, the question for me then becomes, in these situations is, if the citizen groups are providing input, how do they make sure that their input is credible and taken seriously when you're not necessarily dealing with an issue that has this broad public understanding yet?

DL: That's a very, very good point. Especially these days with the internet, there is so much information out there, and so much bad information out there. And when you're dealing with elected officials, just like when you're dealing with business people, you're making a business deal, you need to be very careful about what information you present to them and how you present it. We definitely wrote the Post Carbon Cities guidebook with that in mind. It's a guidebook you can either hand physically to your elected official and staff person, or just direct them to it online and they can look at it, and I've seen people do this. It's kind of funny, actually, they look it like, "oh, what a nice cover." It's a skyline of Toronto with an urban windmill right there. And they flip through it, and they don't even read it; they flip through it, and like, "oh, this looks really great!" They haven't read it; it could be written in Greek for al they know. But, it's designed in a way, and look accessible and looks professional. If they look at the executive summary there in the beginning they can see, okay, this is a serious effort to explain to someone like me, an elected official, what on earth is going on. If you print out something from one of those doomsdayer peak oil web sites, they've seen that before; they're not going to pay attention to it. Just the same, if you print out a multi-hundred page report from the General Accounting Office, they're not going to read that either. And I think always keeping in mind - and I think in most cities, even probably in the most conservative communities - there's usually at least a handful of elected officials, and probably even more staff, who are aware that there's a problem and are interested in making something happen. And they're just waiting for someone from the community and come up and say, "Yes, I support you in this. I want to see this happen, too. Here's how I can help you do this."

JB: Yeah, it really becomes a social kind of networking. And getting mutual reinforcement for each other I think is really important in this situation.

DL: Yeah. And I think also in terms of information, I mean, I often point people to energybulletin.net. I think that is an excellent, excellent resource on peak oil. It's very accessible, it's very clean. The editors there do an excellent job of bringing all of this information and not cutting the corners and not prettying it up and making it seem like everything is okay, but at the same time also not... you're not going to go there and see pictures of mushroom clouds and whatnot.

JB: Right, right. So what are some methods and tools that might be used? Let's say you have some council persons, some staff people, and some citizens who say, "Okay, we've got a problem; we've looked at, maybe, your guidebook and how do we bring this home? How do we start working on this together, here, in our community?"

DL: Well, like I mentioned before, having cities do a task force is really the most important. It's a great first step and I think it's a very essential step. There's different ways you can do a task force. We look at a number of different examples in the guidebook. We profile three different cities. We profile Willits, we profile Portland, and we also profile Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton didn't do a task force. They commissioned a report by a former city councilor of Toronto, a neighboring city. So there are many different things a city can do.

I think doing a task force, in particular, the way in which we encourage cities to do task forces is following the Portland model where you have you're elected official convene a committee of five, or 10-12, 15 different people from across the community, and these are people that are vetted to a certain degree. Up here we had an application process and the officials also could appoint a few people here and there as well. And that's really important because that makes sure that they people that you have on the task force are people who are known quantities, they were known that these people who have some professional expertise in an issue or a field that's important. They're known to be respectable - I hate to use that word. But people who other people in the community, in the business community and elsewhere, are going to look at and say, "Okay, this person has their head screwed on straight." We can kind of do this in a city like Portland because - and we're a lot bigger than Willits, but we're still small enough that a lot of people know each other. A lot of the professionals know each other and a lot of the political people know each other.

And that's really important for getting buy-in on the final product. You don't want to have just a bunch of folks that no one's ever heard of with no credentials on there. And there were people working in back who weren't necessarily people that other folks knew about. I think having a task force that involves the business community, as well. I mean, we had people from different agencies throughout the region, from different businesses, from some of the local universities, we had some former government staff on there.

And in the Portland case, and I believe Willits and Sebastopol were somewhat similar, they looked at the different sectors: transportation and land use, food and agriculture, public service, social services, and the economy. And just kind of piece by piece, step by step, looking at what are the ways that our particular community is vulnerable in this one sector, given peak oil. Again, the sort of thing that a state agency or a federal agency can't do - going through talking to local stakeholders, talking to local people who have the information. The Portland task force interviewed over 80 different people over a nine-month period, finding out what are the ways in which our community is vulnerable in these ways.

JB: So, you had different people who understood the different systems that the government was sort of responsible for handling or managing or dealing with. You had then the task force interviewing those people who manage those systems and running through scenarios with them, essentially, about what would happen in an oil shock, or with energy decline, etc.?

DL: Pretty much, and not just government but also business. I sat in some of these meetings. The Transportation and Land Use Committed, for example, they were meeting with representatives from the local trucking association. They were talking, "how is thing going to affect your industry?" And those are people who work with this every day, and they can come in a say, "Okay, well, you know, we've got... there's fuel that comes from in this place and these are the sorts of things that can be cut back, that can't be cut back; these are the challenges that our people face."

The Food and Agriculture Committee, I believe they brought in a regional manager of Safeway, a big supermarket corporation. And that person was able to tell them, "Well, if we have a shortage we've got only about three days worth of food on the shelves."

JB: Yeah, same in Willits.

DL: You've got to go where the information is. Let me underline a key. You're not going to get a regional manager of Safeway in if it's just your local community group...

JB: Right. Doing a cold call.

DL: ...doing a task force, unfortunately. That's why having leaders bought in, having business leaders, community leaders and elected officials bought in.

JB: Yeah. We tried calling Safeway a few times. They were like, "Who are you? We don't give that information out." And finally we had someone who they knew do the call for us. So, yeah, exactly right.

Now these changes are coming so rapidly and the effects are so difficult to anticipate and I kind of get the feeling that we need governments that are really smart and nimble - traits that governments aren't always known for. I'm wondering are there special circumstances created by what you might call an emergency that enable governments to become more effective to work rapidly together if they've planned ahead, if they have good leadership, if they've cultivated public trust. Can you think of examples that might be applicable to the situation we're facing?

DL: I can't think of any specific examples on hand. I think what happens in a time of emergency, especially at the local level, at the federal level there are certain... at every level there are regulations that say when certain decisions can be made. And then there are always emergency resolution that can be passed and often abused in one way or another. I think it's more of the case that when there is a crisis - say we do face a sudden oil crunch for some reason, that there's convergence of factors at the global level and there's a crunch - I think what you'll see happen is the community and business and government coming together and basically demanding that the local government do something about it.

JB: So they better have plans.

DL: People kind of expect their local leaders to be on top of things and to provide leadership.

JB: So getting ahead of that situation and being ready for it is one of the main, sort of, goals, I guess; you have this planning process.

DL: Well, it's a goal. Of the 11 recommendations that the Portland task force put together, an emergency plan was actually the last. That's not to say it's not important. But I think they recognize that because these are such complex systems, and this is such a complex situation that we're looking at, it's in some ways it's better to just start reducing your exposure to high and volatile energy prices off the bat rather than spending a lot of precious time developing an emergency or contingency plan for an event that we don't know what it's going to look like and when it might happen.

JB: I see what you're saying.

DL: We know that we need to reduce our vulnerability but we don't necessarily know - do we face a shortage, do we face a long period of gradual hikes, do we face a period of very volatile price swings? How does that affect the local and global economies? It's almost become impossible to plan for it in certain ways.

One thing - we're kind of running out of time here, so maybe I can start to warp up with this thought - in the guidebook we kind of talk a bit about this concept of adaptive management, which comes out of the natural resource management sector. And basically adaptive management is building into your decision-making process a function of assessing what's happening out there and a function of assessing what the effects that your decisions are having on what's going on out there, and then the flexibility to change those decisions.

And it's something that we didn't used to do that with natural resource management and we ended up having catastrophic situations like the collapse of the North Atlantic fishery, or all sorts of problems with the national forests, as everyone here on the west coast here understands. And we have this same linear problems with local governments. We get ideas and projects and initiative and investments moving and sometimes it's a number of years before the thing comes to fruition. But if the facts on the ground have changed in the meantime, and there's no way of adjusting course, then we've got a problem. I think - and I encourage local officials and staff to think about this as well - what are the ways in which we can be doing our job, making these decisions, pursuing our policies, starting initiatives, but have them be flexible so that if the price of oil is twice next year what it is now, or maybe even 10 percent lower next year, we can adjust; we can make whatever we're doing still make sense.

JB: Well, do you have any more... you've got your postcarboncities.net is a good place to go for resources. You blog there and you have also links to good articles, and you've mentioned energybulletin.net.

DL: And I encourage people to visit the web site. And postcarboncities.net is not just for officials and staff at the local government level. We have a daily news item that is looking at this connection between energy and cities. As you mentioned, we have the weekly blog, we have resources on there. We're looking at developing support so that we can have local government officials connect with their colleagues across the country. We're looking at organizing some conferences. I'm going to be doing some touring down in California in the next couple of months.

JB: Alright. Let us know about that. I would love to have you down in this area.

DL: I'd love to come back down.

JB: Alright. Well, thanks a lot, Daniel. Thanks for listening to KZYX Philo, KZYZ Willits and Ukiah. This has been The Reality Report. I'm your host Jason Bradford and today we had Daniel Lerch, manager of Post Carbon Cities, talking about his book and program, Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. Thanks to our members of the station, and my studio engineer, Tim Gregory, as well. Alright, have a great week everybody, and happy Martin Luther King Day.

MediaDaniel Lerch on the Reality Report (audio)