The Value Of Doomers

Author Paul Hawken has a word for people who can’t shut up about how the whole world is going to hell:  doomers. But during his keynote address to the Sustainable Industries Economic Forum in downtown Seattle on Thursday, he spoke in defense of them.  Because doomers play a key role:  they make designers do a better job.  To effectively respond, designers need to know the true state of reality, no matter how grim.  And in this context designer is a broad term including people who run businesses, make policy, and otherwise influence the trajectory of society.

Hawken is an inspiring speaker, with a graceful balance of data, humor, and soul.  The overarching theme in his talk was the massive change coming with the inevitable rise in the cost of energy caused by peak oil.  But overall, his message was positive:  We have the potential to take on these formidable challenges, do more with less and create a better world:  Now is not the best it will ever be.

For no rational reason, I was given the opportunity to interview Hawken after he spoke (note to aspiring bloggers:  go with a potty-mouthed blog name).   When I brought up  Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency, Hawken asked me to name the underlying premise of the book, and after making a couple obvious guesses, I was stumped.  “People are punks,” was Hawken’s answer.  And it’s so true.  Kunstler’s doomsday scenarios rest on the  assumption that human nature will fail in the face of our imminent transformational crises.  I think it’s safe to conclude that Hawken finds this outlook deeply offensive.

In the context of urbanism,  one of the most significant changes Hawken anticipates is localization.  As the cost of transporting raw materials and finished goods rises, eventually the economic equation tilts in favor of local production.  In which case the large tracts of industrial land just south of downtown Seattle become all the more valuable an asset.  And as personal transport becomes more expensive, people live their lives in a smaller spatial sphere.  In which case, compact communities with access to high quality transit become all the more valuable an an asset.  In short, “location efficiency” matters.

But what doesn’t show up on the economic balance sheet for localization are the potential social benefits.  When people are more locally focused, they tend to form more meaningful bonds with their neighbors and the place in which they live.  And compared to mega-corporate absentee owners, local business owners are almost always more responsible toward their local communities.  This is how, when the full spectrum of life is considered, we get more from less.

Hawken concluded his talk noting that there is no road map for where we are headed, and that all we really have to guide us is compassion for our fellow human beings.  And he proceeded to receive a standing ovation from the packed room of 300 people from the Seattle-area green business community.