It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation which give happiness (Thomas Jefferson 1788)

The University of Michigan's 10th president, in an inaugural address, said that universities are responsible for training and research that serve current economic and cultural needs. That was predictable and uninspiring. What was said next was fascinating. A public university also, "has a fundamental responsibility to be critical of society's current arrangements and to entertain, construct and test alternative visions." Now that is a radical and exhilarating thought.

These localization papers take up this responsibility.  They anticipate an end to cheap energy and a significant drop in the availability of high-quality resources sometime during this century. They also understand that climate disruption is empirically established and settled science. Profound changes to the earth’s thermal patterns are occurring and appear to be accelerating. Furthermore, what were once worst-case and decades-distant consequences are now taking place. There is hope that the Rio/Kyoto/Copenhagen/Cancun/Durban/Doha/Warsaw/Lima/Paris negotiating process has finally created a nascent global response. Nevertheless, few people are so optimistic as to believe this response will allow techno-industrial society to continue unchanged or for the planet to return to its preindustrial climate.

These papers envision an alternative to our current arrangement with the planet. They develop a response that moves beyond interventions that are expert-driven, modest in request, serial in implementation, and short-term in horizon; such change no longer suffices. One implication is that everyday life will differ substantially from conventional expectations. There will be reduced consumption and likely less specialization, curtailed mobility and decentralized settlement patterns. Life would be much less affluent, more agrarian. And yet, perhaps as a direct result, psychological well-being improves.

We have evidence that this downshift is inevitable and yet are uncertain as to its timing. We might start by debating the timing, but this is a dangerous distraction since, afterwards, we'd still need to develop a response. It is more sensible to accept the downshift as plausible, explore the many implications of resource limits and climate disruption, and then construct reasonable responses and test them. It is prudent to start this transition while we still have surpluses of material, energy and social capital.

These papers have several goals: Helping us get to a downshift moment where we accept the coming resource descent. Helping form responses that plan for, motivate and maintain a wholesome and durable existence under a descent. Pre-familiarizing ourselves with living well within local ecological limits. In short, exploring the need for, and features of, an urgent transition.

Raymond De Young, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Environmental Psychology and Planning
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109