Building Lifeboats – Building Community


“‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” ― Voltaire

The sinking of the Titanic is horribly memorable for many reasons, but one stands out above all: that so many lives were needlessly lost due to “if only” or “what if.” The “unsinkable” vessel lacked sufficient lifeboats to easily hold all passengers and crew, and when launched, those boats were only partly filled.

Looking deeper: many more Titanic passengers could have been saved if only the crew had been better trained, if only the lifeboats had been deployed in a timely way, if there had been a lifeboat drill, If third class “steerage” passengers had been assigned emergency stations, and if only the ship’s captain had taken iceberg warnings seriously instead of being in deadly denial. Today, no passenger vessel can leave port without an adequate number of well provisioned lifeboats, proper training and preparedness. So the impacts of disasters at sea, which do inevitably occur, are minimized. 

Leaping forward from an historic calamity to a looming catastrophe: the world is sailing toward a Titanic moment — a collision of unprecedented proportions between blasé “business as usual” planning and a rapidly escalating and increasingly violent climate crisis. New York’s Hudson Valley is the world in microcosm.

Looking forward rationally and unflinchingly at all major indicators, extreme weather events far worse than Hurricanes Irene and Sandy could lie just over the horizon, meaning that our communities could soon face cataclysmic food and energy shortages, transportation disruptions, infrastructure failures, inundation of vital facilities and valuable properties by sea level rise, a massive financial meltdown and all manner of attendant debilitating social disarray. But no one is seriously preparing.

forest fire

 We lack both the leadership and the necessary wherewithal at the state, regional, and community levels. But we know that intensifying climate shocks are no longer far off, low probability events. We’ve been warned not only by the climate models — maps of our potential future — but also by daily current events: unprecedented heatwaves storms and droughts are here now. For proof, we need look no further than the cataclysmic fires in Australia and the Amazon, or Paradise, California.

The stages of climate grief:  

With every passing day it grows more dangerous for us to depend on good luck or forced optimism and false hope as our best protections. Sooner or later the United States, the Northeast and the Hudson Valley will be slammed by climate disaster. Will we be ready?

The short answer: we won’t, unless we rapidly move through the stages of climate grief, from paralysis to action. The climate change facts at hand tell us we should already be well past the first stage, denial. But that isn’t the case, with the national government — our ship of state — making its rudderless way through a wildly roiling sea of political division, while individuals are consumed by incapacitating grief. Clearly, the only way forward right now is through decisive local action.

To help determine the healthy way ahead, let’s look at the stages of our global trauma:

Obviously, we need to move to the fourth stage as quickly as possible — without panic, acting rationally as we prepare ourselves for unpredictable, but increasingly likely climate shocks, the “what ifs” of our current historic moment.

Survivalists, preppers and lifeboat builders:

Some may compare lifeboat builders with survivalists (1) and preppers (2) — those constructing fortified bunkers in remote areas to protect themselves from the “others” in event of “Apocalypse.” 

But there is a significant difference: lifeboat builders aren’t only thinking of themselves; they’re leading the way, constructing small, local, resilient community systems where we will all be able to rely on each other for survival and safety. This sort of local resilience allows us to live not separately, but together in hope and possibility, rather than in fear — to thrive rather than merely survive.

Like a ship captain and crew, however, today’s lifeboat builders must prepare well in advance of chaos. They must anticipate disaster as it might unfold, making sure they’ve provided enough boats, stocked them with adequate provisions and trained crew who know how to respond in a crisis. As we sail into the uncertain waters of climate chaos, we must ready our households, neighborhoods and communities. 

And just as we would never accuse a ship captain who conducts regular lifeboat drills of “doom and gloom thinking,” we must face reality: the real danger of impending climate chaos comes from us ignoring the signs and doing nothing. Inaction puts us all at significant risk. Action offers us hope.

A New Narrative:

As a species, we are storytellers. And the stories we tell collectively, whether they be found in Gilgamesh, the Bible, or traditional American History all serve as action plans for the time. They tell us what worked well in the past so we might move into a productive future. But sometimes those tales become outdated and the signposts pointing to safety in the past instead lead us down paths into danger.

The tale we’ve told ourselves over the last 300 years, since the Age of Reason and on into the Modern Age of Expansion, is that we live in a time of limitless progress, of ever-expanding opportunity and possibility, in which there is a high technological fix for every problem.

In this story, we tell ourselves that unlimited growth and soaring GDP is a real measure of economic health and community wellbeing; that a rising stock market protects us, no matter how rundown our neighborhoods;  that deregulation stimulates investment, even as climate destabilizing emissions rise; and that national security need only focus on existential threats beyond our borders, and not on quality of life and preservation of civil liberties.

Today, climate change — along with the socio-environmental and economic upheaval it brings — is turning the idea of endless progress on its head

Unnatural disasters — pandemics, human-amplified heatwaves, intensified storms and droughts, and rising sea levels falling like bombs randomly across the landscape — are as destructive and demoralizing as war. Extreme weather events now batter whole countries, states, cities, suburbs and rural areas; disrupting commerce, undermining the bottom line, putting human lives at stake, destroying homes and hopes.

That’s why it is long past time for us to tell a new story: one that recognizes the turbulent sea of change we sail in; a story that recognizes the dangers around us, but doesn’t demand a fear or grief response. This new story inspires us to prepare together as communities with open eyes, minds and hearts — ready to face the risks of impending calamity while embracing the promise of resilience and hope of regeneration.

We need to change the narrative now, embrace a new story truer to circumstance — a storyline in which we heroically face adversity together, creating abundance out of crisis together, moving with agility through chaos toward new community values that will sustain us in the unsettled years ahead.

The roots of that story are certain: we will thrive only by being earth and community stewards, rather than exploiters; only by demanding that our leaders address not only the economic balance sheet, but also our ecological and equity balance sheets. Only then will we be able to go ahead with hope and find a safe harbor in the climate crisis. Only then can we leave a better world for our children.

Planning resilient, future-proof “too small to fail” Hudson Valley communities:

Future proofing communities can be difficult….  Thinking ahead to the challenges of tomorrow is not something that every community proactively considers. By doing so however, and by actively working with an eye to the future, communities can both improve themselves now and put them in a better position for the years to come.

While it is true that there is little that small communities can do to independently reverse climate change, there are many things these same communities can do to mitigate the climate crisis in their area as it unfolds, and to future-proof themselves against climate chaos.

Importantly, because communities are smaller than states or nations, they have the capacity for rapid change and quick course corrections. They are better able to bring citizenry together, to reach consensus and to act decisively.

As such, individual Hudson River communities can serve as laboratories, where citizens work together to build lifeboats, to stock and staff them against the dangers ahead. Moreover, many local communities acting in this way throughout the region could ultimately “float all boats” in a climate emergency — increasing our chances of mutual survival across the region.

Where to begin? Every community needs to start by objectively assessing threats. Then we need to unflinchingly evaluate the greatest points of weakness — whether these take the form of infrastructure; social, public health, economic and political structures. Finally, communities need to fortify those weaknesses against the storms to come — work that will enrich our towns and neighborhoods in the present, while reducing risk and enhancing resilience for the future.

food Security

A few practical lifeboat building ideas: community flood-proofing in preparation for climate chaos, implementation of drought-resistant landscaping, institutionalization of green building practices, zoning against development in climate disaster-prone floodplains, the installation of redundant storm-proof energy systems, the establishment of community-wide food security, and the creation of damage control centers equipped to deal with sudden disasters — all of this and much more can protect our communities now, while future-proofing them against the harms common on a much warmer, more turbulent planet and in a post-carbon future.

Resilient communities are at the core of a “Too Small to Fail” future. If we don’t plan for more robust proactive communities, and implement solutions for looming problems, a catastrophic crash seems inevitable. However, in our new storyline, crisis can equal opportunity — as our nation learned during the Great Depression and World War II.

But if sensible democratically arrived at plans to manage disaster aren’t formulated and pressed forward now, the opportunity afforded by crisis could be hijacked by a better organized, well-financed minority with an authoritarian agenda that benefits the few at the cost of the many. One need look no further than autocratic governments in today’s Brazil, Turkey, Venezuela, and China to see what is at risk.

Here is glimpse of what our Hudson Valley Lifeboat Culture might look like:

  • Governance: We will prosper via an eclectic egalitarian innovative amalgam of businesses, public interest non-profits, county and municipal governments working together towards a common goal;
  • Energy production: We will promote rooftop and regional solar farms, wind farms, small hydro, tidal energy, community choice aggregation, and conservation to achieve energy independence from the global fossil fuel grid;
  • Food production and food security: We will encourage and protect rural and urban farmers (and the land), develop a new “Grange,” promote “victory” gardens and rooftop/backyard apiaries; convert city and suburban lots into linked “front yard” farms; provide opportunities for artisanal commercial fisheries, fish farmers, and fish mongers; grow our local farmers markets, and build and stock community/emergency food and water storage facilities.
  • Transportation: We will work toward a local water-based and human electric/transportation system to bring goods to market and continue to move people from place to place.  That system will also be hardened and fortified against the impacts of rising sea levels and extreme weather events;
  • Communication: We will develop communication networks and devices that are independent of large corporate telecommunication networks.  An emergency ham radio system for communication in a disaster, community and neighborhood internet, community equitable internet initiatives, and mesh services, and expanded neighbor to neighbor communication.
  • Emergency preparedness:  In the event of an emergency citizens and organization have to be trained and in a position to augment the emergency services, or when those are overwhelmed take a leadership role in both preparing for disaster and implementing responses.
  • Environment: We will clean up our waterways to make them more productive; restore and create wetlands that guard against flooding and storm surges, while serving as nurseries for fish and wildlife; nurture wildlands and “forest gardens” where fruits, nuts, mushrooms and herbs can be sustainably harvested; manage sustainable forests that are logged selectively with an eye on future production; convert urban brownfields to greenfields that balance natural systems with commercial needs.
  • Economics: We will avoid sole reliance on a nationally volatile currency by creating a (or expanding the use of existing) local currency used to pay for local commodities; buying and hiring (and training) locally; creating public works projects for sustainable development, move away from an international and national economy toward a regional economy that fosters local businesses and micro-industries — ranging from brewers and butchers to cheese makers and toolmakers; from ship builders and seafarers, coopers, blacksmiths, and bicycle builders; local wind turbine, solar collector, and tidal generator manufacturers and installers; shoemakers, Repair Cafes, and fix it shops; composters and fryer fat oil recyclers.  Land for farming and sustainable forestry will be protected through conservation easements and equitable urban development will be conserved through community land trusts.
  • Society and education: We will develop regional and seasonal “Common Ground” fairs and celebrations and Chautauqua’s with music, dancing, demonstrations and exhibits of local makers’ products, local food, beer, wine and spirits, and fellowship. Encourage an education system that doesn’t result in graduates leaving for other regions, but in their staying within their communities to pursue sustainable livelihoods. We will ensure affordable housing, improve work opportunities for disadvantaged groups, and allow seniors and children to play useful and valuable civic roles.

These goals can seem utopian, especially if we look at them through the lens of the old story of “progress.” There are, of course, also hard realities to contend with as we develop a Lifeboat Culture.  The Hudson Valley and the New York City Bioregion — is connected to the rest of the world by literally thousands of lifelines, all of which are now at risk. These include an aging and increasingly failure-prone power grid; an aging and leaky water system; and a vast network of roads, rails, shipping and air routes that rely exclusively on fossil fuels whose supply is prone to sudden cost spikes and shortages.

Like a patient on intravenous life support, any major interruption in the flow of these resources to the  region can hamstring or harm its economy and people. With global oil, gas and coal production predicted to irreversibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, a related economic collapse becomes not a question of if, but when — unless we act now to soften and deflect the blow, creating redundant energy, food, product and transport systems that kick-in as international resources become unreliable.

In the face of this reality, how do we transition from the storyline of unlimited growth and intense capitalist competition to a storyline that calls for community union, local shared economic prosperity, and the building of a Lifeboat Culture? The journey begins as:

  • The region and its communities commit to being a leader in sustainability and resilience.
  • Local people hold their elected officials responsible for inaction and reward effective action.
  • We recognize that real economic pain is associated with the changes needed to mitigate and avoid the effects of sea level rise and climate change, and find ways to reduce that pain.
Main Street

Main Street versus Wall Street:

Any plan for a resilient bioregional economy must insure that every citizen has fundamental needs met for nutritious food, shelter, healthcare, education and ecosystem services. This must be a non-negotiable condition if we are to meet the climate change challenges ahead and satisfy the promise of our great egalitarian democracy.

As radical as the ideas presented in this proposal may seem when seen from inside our current myopic progress-obsessed worldview, many of these concepts are rooted in our common regional immigrant heritage:  my immigrant grandfather, for example, joined with a friend who owned a pushcart to start a lumber company. They scavenged construction sites daily for discarded lumber and wood scraps, selling the material for what it was – a recycled product. They built their company into a large wholesale/retail lumberyard, and eventually became a regional self-serve hardware and lumber company.

What my grandfather and uncles, who eventually took over the business, never forgot was that they had an obligation to their employees — many of whom worked at the company for their entire careers. The firm sold a good product, treated their customers with respect, supported their community, and made a living for their families. But after my uncles retired, their partner sold the company to a Fortune 500 company and within a few years it no longer existed.

I tell this story for a reason: that lumber company was a Main Street business — locally rooted and privately held. It was innovative, successful, and sold materials to people who became repeat customers because of the quality and service they received. As soon as the company became the property of Wall Street, those values were lost; replaced solely by a drive for limitless profit. Until that point, their business had been “too small to fail.”

Evidence increasingly shows that every dollar spent at a “too small to fail” locally owned business generates two to four times more economic benefit – measured in income, wealth, jobs, and tax revenue – than a dollar spent at a globally owned business. This is because locally owned businesses spend much more of their money locally and thereby are a regional economic multiplier.

Under our present economic system, large transnational companies reap big profits. But no local businesses receive any of our pension savings, investments in mutual funds, venture capital firms, or hedge funds. The result is that many of us over-invest in Fortune 500 companies we distrust, and under-invest in the local businesses we know are essential for a strong local economy.

That’s why we need new mechanisms to enable investment in local, place-based, “too small to fail” Main Street businesses. At the heart of such mechanisms is our investment in a Lifeboat Culture. By thinking small, not big; local, not global, we strengthen community resilience against climate change.

Main Street investing is how the local economy once functioned, and it was the basis of much 20th century urban prosperity. It was then in the interest of well-off farmers, merchants, and small town banks to loan money to, and invest in, businesses that hired local people, in order to make something that held value and created real wealth.

When we support “buy local / hire local” campaigns, promote “locavesting,” urge a resurgence of local currencies; and institute new public and community banks, community development financial institutions, credit unions and other local lending institutions, we reinvigorate our region’s Main Street economy. And by so doing, we strengthen our regional Lifeboat Culture — put simply, in such a world, the Hudson Valley thrives!

Revival of the Commons: Share management of shared resources

A key strategy of our Lifeboat Culture, if it is to succeed, will be for communities to take back the commons — finding ways to manage our waterways, fisheries, pastures, forests and other local landscapes in a sustainable manner that can be productive for hundreds of years.

This means reinstituting many of the rules that people created and used in generations past to protect shared resourced for future generations so that they could be harvested and shared without degrading ecosystems. While local supervision flies in the face of 21st century trends of federal and state management, corporate exploitation, or privatization — it helps to build community resilience.

Like a bank account, a farmer or fishermen never removes more from a commons ecosystem than nature can replace in a reasonable amount of time. And it is the community that ultimately benefits.

The co-operatives model:

Co-operatives in various forms (production, retail, housing, and credit) are another organizational model in which ethics are embodied and embedded, and which are vital to a functioning local Lifeboat Culture.

Co-operative principles confer greater resilience – which matches the priority for safety and security in difficult times. Although there are no panaceas and co-ops can fail too, it is also true that co-ops have a track record of longevity and survival that is superior in many cases to private companies that is vital in times of economic contraction and environmental turmoil.

Living fully in a world of “what if”

At the start of this proposal we profiled the human tragedy resulting from the wreck of the Titanic — an unnecessary loss of life that occurred not only because of a natural disaster, but that resulted from human carelessness, unpreparedness, elitist hubris and stupidity.

As the Hudson Valley sails into an uncertain, but surely dangerous, climate crisis, we can learn from the horrors experienced by the Titanic on the high seas. We can move steadily away from dependence on increasingly undependable fossil fuels, giant transnational companies and international finances. We can build energy, food and economic redundancies into local communities to buffer them against international and national shortages and systems collapses. We can invest in our neighborhoods and our neighbors, working together to create “too small to fail” Main Street businesses, non-profits and local governments that strive in union to serve their communities and the people.

None of this will insure us totally against the dangers ahead, but preparedness as engendered in a Lifeboat Culture, will give our communities resilience and staying power. By acting now with foresight and hard work, we can care for each other, reinvesting in people and the land, creating a future for the Hudson Valley that emphasizes Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share.

We can create organizational and institutional structures that are sustainable, endowed with ethical values that serve all citizens not only a privileged elite. In our Hudson Valley Lifeboat Culture, the emphasis will not be on blind, reckless progress at all cost, but on the creation of an equitable society that avoids resource depletion while fostering slow growth, and most importantly, hope for everyone, including the most vulnerable people and species. 

Ultimately, the journey begins simply, with the joining of hands; the breaking of bread; and in taking a first step together, in your community or in mine. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

(1) a person who makes preparations to survive a widespread catastrophe, as an atomic war or anarchy, especially by storing food and weapons in a safe place.

(2) a person who believes a catastrophic disaster or emergency is likely to occur in the future and makes active preparations for it, typically by stockpiling food, ammunition, and other supplies.  “there’s no agreement among preppers about what disaster is most imminent”

(3) a farmers’ association organized in 1867. The Grange sponsors social activities, community service,

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