Albert Bates interview

SUBHEAD: A new paradigm of living locally and having multiple resilient systems.  

By Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton on 14 January 2009 in Hen & Harvest - (

Image above: still from video of another Albert Bates interview at

The following is an interview with Albert Bates conducted as part of the process of writing A Nation of Farmers, by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton which is available for pre-order now and will be published in March of 2009 by New Society Publishers. An edited version of this interview appears in the book. Albert Bates’s latest book is The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times.

Bates is described as: "... an influential figure in the intentional community and ecovillage movements. A lawyer, author and teacher, he has been director of the Institute for Appropriate Technology since 1984 and of the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee since 1994." Bates has been a resident of The Farm since 1972.

A former attorney, he argued environmental and civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and drafted a number of legislative Acts during a 26-year legal career. The holder of a number of design patents, Bates invented the concentrating photovoltaic arrays and solar-powered automobile displayed at the 1982 World’s Fair.

He served on the steering committee of Plenty International for 18 years, focussing on relief and development work with indigenous peoples, human rights and the environment. An emergency medical technician (EMT), he was a founding member of The Farm Ambulance Service. He was also a licensed Amateur Radio operator. More on Albert Bates.

A Nation of Farmers (ANOF): 
I wanted to start by asking about something I’ve heard you say in other interviews.A lot of other people, even some of the cheery folks, tend to talk about peak oil specifically in really gloomy, sad terms.You tend to talk about it as a potentially positive development for humankind, and I wondered if you could talk about why.

Albert Bates (AB): 
There are a few reasons behind that I think everybody at some point has to go through the process of having the realization.That may come as kind of a rude awakening, or it may come as “Aha, I told you so!”, but at some point everybody goes through it. It tends to deepen as time goes on, and people have their own periods of weeping and gnashing the teeth, but then you have to cope, you have to get up and do something about it. I think the more important thing is to have an attitude that something can still be done.

You can’t exclude the possibility that the future is still malleable, that there is still an opportunity for positive change if we exert our capacity or our abilities to do that. I think it’s important to paint a positive vision for the future to galvanize the kinds of changes that people are capable of, rather than to focus on the various dystopias, which is all too common in peak oil literature.

We’re going to have to talk about energy and energy descent, and that’s ultimately about energy ascent — which is to say re-energizing. Re-energizing communities and culture, re-energizing the way we go through our lives so that we’re much more of our human selves, so that the separation that we’ve lost with nature is repaired.

And that’s the key to realistically embracing the possibilities of our situation rather than being overwhelmed by the kinds of challenges that our situation presents us with. That’s part of it. And then the other piece of it, this whole idea of neurological evolution and the way that the human brain works and hormones and things like that.

One of the kinds of things that we’re investigating in recent years has been the feedback mechanisms, the chemical stimulators within the brain. What we’re learning, slowly, over a long period of time now, is that people who have a pessimistic outlook tend to close off parts of their brain that would normally function to provide alternatives, lots of ideas.

And people who have optimistic attitudes tend to produce the kinds of body chemicals that stimulate the creative centers in the brain and produce the kinds of ideas that might actually provide solutions for some of the problems that are confronting us. So what we tend to do by being pessimistic is create a self-fulfilling prophecy that we cannot get out because we’re stuck. If we actually have an optimistic outlook, even though it’s unrealistic, it has a better chance in the long term of succeeding than even a very cautious attitude.

It’s reinforced even by biology and chemistry! That’s very interesting. Well, you certainly have a positive vision for the future and you’re working towards it. Your most recent book,

The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, talks about preparing for a transition to a new way of being, to a new way of living. Could you talk in broad terms about what that transition itself might look like? I think some people have the expectation that we’re going to flip a switch and things are going to be post-carbon.

Yeah, it’s not actually going to go that easily. I think that’s kind of wishful thinking, and I think the key theme that I’m harping on these days when I go out and talk or lecture or give permaculture courses or speak to groups of students is that what we need more of is resilience.

That’s essentially the quality of defense in depth that allows a community to provide for most of its essential needs: food, energy, water, raw materials, from multiple sources, most of them local. So that in the event of large-scale system failures, collapse is averted because there’s smaller-scale, local community resilience, and that has the wherewithal to fend for itself.

Getting to that, that idea of resilience, actually means traveling back on a development path that we had previously gone the opposite direction on. In a sense it’s kind of a reversal, but at the same time, it’s something that we are familiar with, that we know how to do, because we’ve been there before. We actually have a lot of things that we’ve developed in the last century of high-tech, fossil-fueled, civilized progress, and we can apply many of those same kinds of things to this new paradigm of living locally and having multiple resilient systems.

To give you an example, the bicycle. The bicycle has advanced hugely in the last 20 years and even more in the last 50 years. If you look at that kind of progress and you say, ok, apply that now to getting to the post office to pick up the mail, or the postman delivering the mail, or the cop on the beat instead of going around in a cruiser being on a bicycle.

That kind of thing is actually more doable now than it would have been back when everyone had a single gear clunker that weighed a quarter of their own body weight. At the same time, I don’t want to completely throw out those heavy-duty steel frame models.

Arguably they won the Vietnamese their independence. They were the workhorses that carried artillery shells up the mountains to Dien Bien Phu and ran supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail through all the B-52 craters.

Are you at all concerned about the loss of knowledge concerning low-tech technologies that could come into play? I’m thinking here everything from pottery making to just even basic food production and farming skills, because we haven’t been doing that.

No, I’m not in the least, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve had the benefit of having had a forty-year experience with that which many other people don’t have. And so I have a certain level of confidence and ease that many people who have not had that forty-year experience may not.Let me break that down for you with some history.

The Farm started here in Tennessee in 1971. It came out of an exodus, a hippy exodus from the cities — San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, New York’s East Village, and so forth, and arrived here at this cattle farm in the middle of the forest where land was 70 dollars an acre. And for hippys, that was less than the cost of a kilo at that time, to get an acre of land, you know?

We didn’t understand at that point, myself included, why it was so cheap, and I’m including myself even though I didn’t actually get here until 1972 when I shelved my law career in favor of retiring young and came out to the country. The reason that the land was 70 dollars an acre was that it had no soil.

It was essentially a clear-cut in an oak forest, made a century earlier, and it had actually been clear-cut several times by the 1950s and turned into a cattle ranch which pounded the ground in an area with 50 inches of rain in winter and dry dusty summers, to the point where there wasn’t any soil left, just chalky clay and gravel.

Our first objective, our necessity for the first couple of years here, was simply to make soil. We got horses from the Amish. I was somebody who grew up in Connecticut and my high school sport was equestrian arts like dressage and stadium jumping and that sort of thing. And so I was enlisted by the horse crew to work behind draft horses in the field, and to teach others how to work with horses and care for them properly.

There was a certain amount of carryover there, I mean a horse has certain kinds of needs that I knew how to fill, but I had to learn other skills that you don’t get when you work a yearling on a lunge line. I had to learn that gee and haw turn them right and left. I had to learn how to work with old-fashioned harness and double-tree hitches. I had to learn how to make canvas collars because we were vegetarians and actually pretty serious hard-core vegans, and we didn’t believe in using leather at all. So we replaced everything we had that was leather with something that was not leather, mostly riveted canvas and nylon.We had to re-make all of the harness and tack.

So I learned how to do that. My friend Eli Gifford went off to Maryland to learn to be a ferrier so he could come back and make horseshoes. And we learned how to make crops with draft horses, and in three years time we took a bunch of art majors and English majors and by 1974 we were nearly food self-sufficient.

We grew pretty much everything we needed to feed 800 to 1000 people, the exceptions being things like rice and fruit, which we also would have gotten around to eventually. Fruit takes a while, but we had probably 20 acres planted in fruit trees and bushes. We had to go out and buy toilet paper , matches, light bulbs, salt and things like that.

But by 1976 we had a hundred-man farming crew here at the farm. We had a cash crop of sorghum that we made into molasses for our sweetener. We had a canning factory that could turn out a thousand gallons of ketchup in a night.

We had a walk-in solar dryer for herbs and sliced vegetables. I gradually moved off the horse crew and onto the flour mill crew, and worked with a five-man team re-learning the skills of making wheat flour and buckwheat flour and cornmeal and grits and groats and horse feed and peanut butter and coffee from soybeans and things like that. We went out and salvaged old milling equipment, old flour mill equipment from places that had been abandoned for years, and took all that small-scale, intermediate scale kind of stuff and brought them back to The Farm and built elevated buildings that functioned like giant machines. It was village-scale stuff that nobody used anymore.

And we put it back to work. Like I say, we had about 300 acres under till in Tennessee. We had some people come to join The Farm who had lived in Florida. They had some land in southern Florida, and so we used their place to stay and we rented land near there to grow food in the winter. We had some folks who joined The Farm from Michigan and they had a nice apple orchard, so we sent a few hundred people up there and farmed that, too, and had the apples to bring down to Tennessee.

We dried some of that fruit and made fruit leather at another satellite farm near Denver. By the early 1980s, a network of more than 20 such places had formed and were coordinated from our base in Tennessee, using ham radio. Gradually, over the course of a decade or so, we re-learned all those skills. They’re not so far away. People in other parts of the world still have them. Our Amish neighbors never lost them. And so it’s not so difficult to do as you might think.

 It seems to me that when we’re talking about food production, today we’re facing two simultaneous problems. The first being that fossil fuel energy used to produce food is becoming less available and so it’s more economically expensive. But also using that fossil fuel energy to grow food is more ecologically expensive. Is food the intersection of these issues?

Could it be the catalyst for a greater social change?

By that I mean, peak oil and climate change the flip sides of the same coin.

And so I’m wondering, because so much petroleum is necessary to continue industrial agriculture, and because burning that petroleum and the other fossil fuels used in agriculture are warming the planet causing our climate to change, because both of those are coming to bear on the same issue, that is, how we eat, could food be the issue that really puts peak oil and climate change on the map?

I think that’s entirely possible. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going to put it over the top. There are 37 countries right now that are in serious food shortfall, and that’s why you’re getting riots in Haiti, Egypt and Mexico, in some places banging pots in the street and in others people actually dying in riots. They’re protesting in a lot of different places — they’re protesting in France, they’re protesting in many parts of the world, Africa and so forth. It’s true, that’s definitely coming to the fore. I’m not certain everyone makes the connection yet, however, between the shortage of food and the energy and climate crises.

We’ve got essentially four converging factors on the food supply. The first is the high cost of petroleum products, and that includes the fertilizers and chemicals, the fuel for the tractors and the combines, and the storage costs, the transportation, the drying of the grain and so on and forth. All of that is bearing on the costs of the food and making it much more expensive.

We’re watching in the US the average market basket increase in price about 30 percent a year, just the same as the rise in the price of crude oil. Now we’re seeing the second shoe fall, which is the competition over land created by alternatives to fossil fuels, specifically biofuels.You see a lot of places that are starting to switch over their corn production or their soybean production or some other things to biofuels, and that’s putting more price pressure on food.

A lot of that corn and soy production was not for food anyway, but that is another story. The third thing is you have the whole world moving towards the American or European food standard. I have to say the US food standard, because even the Germans eat only a third of the meat in an average day that US citizens do. And so we are losing the caloric efficiency of eating lower on the food chain. Every time you move up the food chain a notch and eat something that ate something else, you’re losing about ten times the caloric efficiency.

The typical chicken might cost you 30 calories for every 10 calories that you’re actually able to achieve from the protein value of the food that the chicken ate. I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be, but you get the picture. Essentially what’s happening is we’re moving into a meat-eating culture worldwide, and because that requires a huge amount of grain, a huge amount of land and so forth, it’s putting pressure on food prices.

Also, we’re running out of food. We’ve got oceans that are running out of fish now. They’re starting to catch tuna in the Gulf of Mexico that are really just fry because they cannot meet world demand by what is left in the Atlantic. If you catch one of those Blue Fin Tuna that are as big as the ones that we had 10 years ago, you’d get 275,000 dollars for one fish! So what they’re doing, to satisfy the new Chinese craving for sushi is they’re going and catching the fry, and that means of course that there won’t be any of those big tuna anymore.

That’s a world population issue, and a dietary fashion issue, that’s coming to bear on the food supply. And then the final issue is the climate change issue, which is essentially saying that you’re not going to be able to grow food in places that you’re accustomed to growing food, because of the change in climate. We’ve had two revisions of the USDA planting chart here Tennessee while I’ve lived here, because they keep having to move the isotherms northward to reflect the change of seasons because of global warming.

Not to mention then chaos caused by the late freezes and the early frosts, and the heavy rains in some places.

 Yeah, not to mention all the pests that can survive that didn’t used to be able to survive and are now invasive. That is also another function of the fossil fuel era, which is moving those sorts of things all over the world and finding them new niches in which they have no predators or in which their favored food supply lacks resistance.

You talked about The Farm and the evolution of food production at your community. Could you talk about cooking as an important building block of the community? I’m thinking here of the technologies and the skills that it takes, but also the sharing and the communal aspect of eating and cooking together.

When I first came here, I arrived on a cold November day. I had just walked the Appalachian Trail from north to south, and I had been on the Trail for 103 days and had been making my own meals, cooking for myself every day.

I came in here and they had turned an old line shack that had been a cattle feed storage building into the community kitchen. There wasn’t enough room inside to seat anybody, but they had enough room in there for a few stoves, a bread oven, prep tables, dish washing sinks and so on. People who lived on The Farm in those days lived mostly in busses and tents and things. We hadn’t had time or money to build buildings yet.

So we would take turns; each tent would take a rotation in staffing the kitchen. We would create these huge meals for 300, 400, 500 people in long lines — tables outside and people sitting on the ground — and we would cook. In those early days we didn’t have the advantage of giant pressure cookers, so there would be a bean watch that would go overnight for the next day’s soybeans. It takes eight or ten hours cooking soybeans to denature the trypsin inhibitor in soybeans to make them edible, unless you are a ruminant with multiple stomachs and can chew cud. In a pressure cooker you can do that in 45 minutes to an hour and a half.

Without that you have to watch the pot for eight, ten hours. So we were taking turns, on rotation, doing that sort of thing. We had a chore wheel. Pancake breakfasts would go on for hours, if we tried to feed 500 people a pancake breakfast. So we learned how to do these kinds of things, but here’s the interesting thing about all that.

If you look back in American history, you can see that there’s been a lot of communal experiments over the years, a lot of weird strange cults and stuff that came over from various different countries and settled in North America, and a lot of those didn’t survive. Most of them didn’t survive, and several of them had fairly serious death tolls the first few years. We survived, we made it.

And part of the reason we made it was we were able to feed everybody from soybeans. Soy was our miracle plant. It was the wonder bean of China, and for 2,000 years people in Asia had been developing a marvelous cuisine. The Indonesians had developed tempeh, the Javanese had developed ontjom, the Malasians yuba, the Japanese natto and sufu, and the Chinese had tofu, soy milk, and yogurt and things like that.

We just kept pushing that envelope and taking that into the hippy realms of California cuisine — soy burgers and soy burritos and soy cheesecake and soysage and soy pizzas and soy coffee and things like that. We were the Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck of soy. And because soybeans in those days cost about three dollars a bushel, which is 60 pounds — today it’s probably up to about seven dollars a bushel — what that means is that you can feed one person their protein needs for a year on three to seven dollars if you can make it tasty enough to repeat almost daily.

So we could actually make some very elegant world fusion dishes, and to do that we built ourselves a soy dairy, eventually, where we could make milk and tofu and ice cream; frogurt, whipped cream, mayonnaise and things like that. And then we also eventually developed canning and freezing and processing plants to help produce things that would last for longer periods of time. Pickled eggplant was one of my personal favorites. We got into texturized vegetable protein and soy isomers and various forms of frozen deserts, eventually buying an ice cream factory at salvage prices and selling Ice Bean to an 8-state region.

It sounds like the eating was really an important part socially, a cohesion, a wonderful thing to look forward to.

There’s actually been a study done by a guy at the University of British Columbia. A professor there did this lovely study where he looked at what is it that communities that have lasted the longest, intentional communities that lasted the longest, what are the factors that they have in common. And one of those that he signaled as being pretty important, that you can pretty much rank the longevity of any community based on this, is common shared meals. The more often people come together, the better their odds. So if they come together daily, three times a day, their odds are excellent. If they come together a couple times a week, their odds are still good. If they come together once a month, they’re still better than not coming together at all. There’s a direct correlation there between people eating together and getting along in a community.

Certain sociologists say the same about individual families don’t they?

Probably so. You know, the other thing about it is that there is a joy in cooking, there’s a joy in providing for others by the fruits of your labor. And you see that personal satisfaction of watching other people eat what you’ve just cooked and complimenting the chef and so on and so forth.

All of that is a self-maintaining, self-gratifying kind of effort, but it’s also very important from the standpoint of kids growing up in that and propagating that meme of the happy family out to larger and larger groups of extended family and community and so forth. We had lots of kids living in close confinement here — in the early days we didn’t have much in the way of housing, so people were living thirty, forty people to a standard house, what you’d call a house in the US today.

And so a lot of kids being raised there in those communal settings, going to meals three times a day with everybody else, all the other kids, all the other grownups, and seeing this kind of interaction over the food. It has an effect of making the community more stable from the kids up. As the kids grow into that, they grow up more stable in their social relationships.

It’s funny — it’s much maligned by a lot of modern Americans, the idea of growing their own food and, God forbid, cooking it, anything other than a prepackaged microwaved meal — but there really is a joy that many people are missing out on.

That’s right. You can go back — I don’t know how old you are, but for me, I’m in my sixties now and I go back to the early days of television and I remember Mrs. Goldberg, you know, and the old 12-inch black and white TV and the Honeymooners and stuff like that? There were always people standing around the stove, right?

There were always people who were making a pot of spaghetti sauce or something. That’s what they did. You go to an Amish community and you see the same thing; you go to a Hutterite community and you see the same thing, which is that there are people who are the cooks. They’re the ones who really take pleasure in making sure that everybody’s well-fed all the time.

You mentioned successes and some failures in the intentional community movement. I see them as having been wonderful incubators for ideas during the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. What do you think of as their role in the 21st century?

Well, I think you hit the nail on the head; they’re incubators. There was never any sense, I think, in any of the intentional communities that somehow that was the mainstream. People went to intentional communities or joined experimental spiritual communities or bohemian tribes specifically to live outside the mainstream.

What they’re were doing was living on the edge, experimenting, trying to be true to their personal values and to live in a way that didn’t offend their personal values and life goals or make it impossible to raise sane children. If they were lucky, they’d find a bunch of people who had similar values and could live together, practicing what they believed, and that’s the nature of the intentional community.

Now once you’ve gotten to that stage, you’ve freed up a certain amount of creative energy, and you can begin to explore interpersonal dynamics, gestalt therapy, the opportunities to work together in various forms.

And as you do that, you begin to actually advance new ideas and new memes which quite often then spread out into the larger mainstream. So the mainstream may not notice, or may not credit the intentional communities with starting some of these things, but actually those kinds of things come into general use after a time because they’ve been proven out in small experiments out of the limelight. It’s kind of a Jeffersonian way of looking at the larger society — every separate entity is its own sovereign and creates its own ways of doing things.

And as long as they’re peaceful towards each other, they can experiment to their hearts’ content. That’s how the more liberal thinkers among the US founders– Jefferson, Franklin — saw the States, as opposed to the federal government, in the early days. I’m showing my Southern roots here, because I have a view of states here that’s different than people in the North. [laughs]

Well, I’m in North Carolina here, so I’m familiar with that. [laughs]

AB: That’s how the Framers thought, if you go back to the Constitutional Convention, or read the Federalist Papers, particularly the southerners. They felt very strongly about having the States as crucibles of experimentation on their own terms, and not be welded into mere divisions of a single homogenous central government, and all look exactly the same.

Right. And for our book, A Nation of Farmers, we’re talking specifically about Jeffersonian vision of democracy because I feel like he had this idea of fairly self-sufficient individual farms, of a people who were marginally sovereign as families or groups of families. They still interacted with others of course, and traded amongst their communities, but that certain level of self-sufficiency insulated them, gave them a certain amount of freedom because they weren’t beholden to others for their basic needs.

That’s right. Here’s another piece of that, which is that one of the tensions that you always find in intentional communities, indeed anywhere that people are living together, is this continuum between privacy and public space, or personal space and public space.

People want to be able to be left alone, but they also crave the company of people and the opportunity for conviviality. So you have to have a balance in your life, and you have to have a balance in your space, and you have to have the development of forms, patterns that allow for people to be in whatever place they want to be in that given moment and be able to move freely.

If you’re successful in creating those kinds of forms where people have the option of being public or being private, where people have shared purse or common enterprise but they also have the ability to provide for their immediate needs or their families’ immediate needs, then you get to a certain point where you can actually obtain enough happiness, enough contentment, that actually new creative energy comes forth that might be more synergistic, more multiplicative than what you had when everybody was just sort of contending for what they individually needed.

[Aaron] I’m trained as a landscape architect, so it really bothers me to see what post WWII land development has done to the previous design strategy of a series of private to semi-private to more public spaces as you move farther from the home. What we have now mostly is a really private space, the home with a deck in the back, and then these transportation quarters that move you at high speeds to really public nasty spaces, and those are really your only two options.

Here at the training center, one of the courses we teach is Ecovillage Design and what you’re discussing is exactly the kind of thing we’re talking about — pattern language, Leopold Kohr’s sense of management scale, and the Jane Jacobs idea of having shared spaces but a continuum of privacy and public space, and transportation corridors and viewscapes that are pedestrian-scale, government that is personally connected and locally accountable, and that sort of thing.

You mentioned the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, and you helped found that almost fifteen years ago?

1994, so actually that’s about right, almost 15 years now. I’ll take you back a little there, because I had a number of years after being the horse farmer that I described earlier, and a flour miller, where I would have to describe myself as more of a ronin. You know, that’s the samurai who gets kicked out because the lord can’t afford him anymore and so he kind of becomes a freelance samurai?

I retired from farming and flour milling, and also a short career as a brickmason, and was working with The Farm’s alternative energy crew, and in the process made a number of inventions, some of them patented, for solar powered hybrid electric cars, bamboo windmills, tofu presses, flour sifters, mobile concentrating photovoltaic collectors, that sort of thing. We displayed a lot of that at our Appropriate Community Technology Pavilion at the 1982 World’s Fair, which was an old Victorian house we helped keep from being leveled to make room for the fairgrounds.

In 1977 I started an organization called the Natural Rights Center, which was based on this concept that there are transgenerational torts — wrongs by some persons against others — and that we actually have a transgenerational threat matrix; our nuclear energy, transgenic, climate-tampering technology, all those kinds of things, are creating conditions for future peoples which they will be powerless to do anything about.

It’s being imposed upon them by the present generation, and that’s actually criminal conduct, organized criminal activity, and that there ought to be something that can be done about that if you take it to a court of law. So my push over the next twenty years — eighteen years, actually — was to take that stuff and make it into civil rights battles, human rights battles, internationally, and also to write legislation on various things to improve the situation.

I got into the Who’s Who for law, Who’s Who for science,Who’s Who for engineering, and Who’s Who for emerging leaders. And I decided at some point that I was much too much of a Type A individual to be doing that kind of stuff; I was getting high blood pressure, I needed to get out of it. So I retired from that.

Once I really understood climate change, I got out of that whole thing of fighting the bad guy, and I purchased a small business called Mushroompeople which was a way of improving the health of the forests and the health of people by using mushrooms — forest mushrooms, rather than the kind that are manufactured in large factories.

We brought that to The Farm and started a little mail-order business selling kits to farmers for making a living from growing forest mushrooms. I stayed with that for a few years and then some other things intervened. The Farm was awarded the first Right Livelihood Award — we shared it with an Egyptian architect, you may know, Hassan Fathi — and that brought me to a conference in Italy where we were talking about the things having to do with the future, and Helena Norberg-Hodge, another recipient of the Award, said an interesting thing.

She said, “Ecovillages are so important to the world that people ought to be paid to live in them.”And I thought, I don’t think we can actually sell that idea very easily, but I think that you have the right idea, the right sentiment. We’re actually getting more information about the way we need to live in the future by that way than we are from all of the grants that are being paid to scientific or academic organizations to study climate change or to deal with some of these other major issues or resource limits. Just by people changing their lifestyles it would change the world tremendously, but nobody knows how to do it. And yet, ecovillagers are doing it.

So about that same time, because of that same conference, I got invited to a meeting in Denmark to kind of coalesce the ecovillage movement.We set up the first conference on ecovillages and sustainable communities in 1995 in Scotland, and at that conference I was elected to the board of the Global Ecovillage Network, although a year earlier I had already founded the Ecovillage Network of the Americas.

That launched me off onto a new career out of the mushroom business and into twelve years of traveling ecovillage to ecovillage all over the world, talking to different government authorities, talking to the UN, doing things like that, and kind of being “Johnny Ecovillage Seed” for this concept.And now I’ve retired again.

[laughs] How many times have you retired? AB: If you ever get me to a college where they do a commencement ceremony and I’m the speaker, my advice: “Retire early, retire often!”. [laughs] So I retired again, because I had taken that about as far as I could take it.

After a dozen years I was president of the Global Ecovillage Network, president of the Ecovillage Network of the Americas, and I got tired. So I’m now a simple permaculture teacher, teaching here at The Farm in this training center. Our effort is to try to empower people to create change through personal lifestyle choices and through creating communities, whether these are transition communities like the Transition Towns movement or new villages like ecovillages or modified intentional communities or whatever it is.

We give people skills and tools to help them do that. ANOF: It looks like we’re going to have a shortage of arable land going forward, as our human population grows and as we salinate, and desertification and deforestation…

We’ve got a shortage now, and it appears that that shortage is growing. The thing about that is that there’s this whole bugaboo about people saying that since the last ice age we’ve been depleting our soil and that we’re in this irreversible decline now; we’ve past peak soil and we’re now on this downslope, and so we’re going to face this huge famine from that.

My personal experience is, I know how to make soil. I teach people how to make soil. We’ve been making soil here at The Farm for years and years and years; we know how to make soil. It’s not difficult to make soil, and I say the same thing for arable land. We can make arable land. One of the things I do when I go out and talk is I go up there on the stage and I put up the projector and I have this short Shockwave Flash movie of Geoff Lawton making forest in the middle of the desert in Jordan. He is growing mushrooms in the soil and the mycelium is locking up the salt in the desert so that the soils have tilth and come alive.

And we can do that: we can take all of our deserts and turn them into farmland. Lately I have been researching the paleoclimatology of the Sahara and I am beginning to think it is even possible there. We can at least reverse the desertification trend in the Sahel, and it is possible we can reforest in Chad and elsewhere where there are aquifers.

How about our suburbs? AB: Well, suburbs are poorly designed. Being an architect, you probably understand. They need some redesign — David Holmgren has some interesting ideas about that. You can take out every third house or every fourth house and begin to cluster up a bit and have connections between houses, and have land that has farming uses or other kinds of common activity. But the suburbs need redesign if for no other reason than they don’t have essential infrastructure within walking distance. They need to have food production, they need to have water, but they need to have shops, schools, churches, theaters and clinics, a cemetery and things like that in every suburb.

How much does food production and cooking factor into the systems you teach at the center?

We do two long-term apprenticeships here at the center. One is in natural building and the other is in food, principally growing, although there’s a certain amount of work in the kitchen as well. There’s a bit of overlap there — the people who come to do natural building also get to learn about cooking and gardening. We do concentrate on those because we feel that it’s pretty important that people change their lifestyles, and a chunk of that is how they make food, how they prepare soil, how they preserve water, how they go through droughts.

Climate change is real. I mentioned the USDA changing it’s charts; we’ve got an isotherm migration here of about 35 miles per decade since about 1971 when The Farm was started here. It’s been speeding up that whole time, so now it’s estimated to be closer to 70 miles per decade.

That’s moving from southwest to northeast; that means that we’re warming here at a rate of somewhere between 30 and 70 miles per decade, and the climate that was here when we got here in middle south-central Tennessee in 1970 is now up in Lexington, Kentucky. And the climate that we have now in middle south-central Tennessee in 2008 was in Nashoba County, Mississippi back in 1971. That’s real.

Now, can you actually provide for food when you have a sustained drought like they had in Georgia or Tennessee last year? You can, if you know what you’re doing, if you know a few basic skills like mulch, like rainwater storage and replenishing your aquifers and things like that. So we teach all of that.

We did not lose any of our crops in the drought of 2007. The deep mulch retained moisture at the roots. I think of that when I travel and see all of these gardens and fields laid bare for the sun to bleach out all the life-giving bacteria and soil microbes. How 15th Century!

Derek Jenson, the author, has this great quote — I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember exactly — but he says something like, “The great thing about everything being so fucked up is that there’s so much to do!”

And the other Derek Jenson line that I often quote is, “We’re fucked, and life is very, very good.”

 [laughs] Well, you seem to have a handle on so many of the changes that are going on and you’ve been doing this for so long, I just appreciate getting a chance to talk to you and interview you for this project.

Well, let me just close by saying something about the future for us. We may soon find that the model that we’ve created for a business here for the Ecovillage Training Center will not sustain past the period of no airplanes flying or people having the ability to travel long distances to come take a course here.

And national currencies could become worthless also. So we’re actually looking at a transition now, and some of our effort is directed toward the surrounding communities — going out to several counties around us and teaching these skills at the very simple level of where people are at in the surrounding areas rather than telling them that they have to learn permaculture or something. I have learned much from my friend, Rob Hopkins, and the Transition Towns movement, and I think that offers a strategy that is the next step after the experimental vessel of ecovillages. It is really a synthesis of ecovillage and re-localization, intentional community and sustainable development.

Then also the example of The Farm has transitioned out of its early days of more self-reliance into much more bourgeois living in people’s middle age or later years. And so we actually have to go back and say, “You know, we learned a whole lot back in those early days of the 70’s; we sure could be doing a lot more of that now again. “We’re having to re-learn or think about reclaiming some of that earlier skill set. So we’re in a transition here.We’re stable but not static. It’s much tougher now, because our population has aged and our youth are still somewhat disinterested, but we’re moving. We’re in the process of changing ourselves. Events will force us to speed that up soon enough. Best of all, we have tools we did not have in 1971.

We have permaculture, biochar, E.M. (effective microorganisms), compost tea, biodynamic preps, aquatic garden systems, and activated water. We can terrace slopes with our bulldozers and road graders that can run on pond algae and used cooking oil. We have Japanese forest mushrooms, tempeh, and home-brewed beer. I’m happy, because the children have, to a larger extent then they may appreciate, already got it and they’re turning around and heading in the right direction pretty quickly. My son,

Will, is living in a passive solar house and farming; he’s got several acres in CSA vegetable gardens now, and he’s coming by all the time and asking for different bits of advice and tools and things. One of my next-door neighbor’s kids, Biko, has spent several years living in ecovillages in South Africa and India and has returned with a whole new set of skills.

That’s the kind of thing that gives me real hope — that the next generation is hip, they’re on board, they’ve got the vision, and they can see what’s possible. And having done it all myself when I was young and full of crazy ideas, I don’t worry that they can do it just as easily as I did. And everyone else can too.

Thank you for your wonderful vision of the future.

See also:
Island Breath: Soylent Black 1/14/09
Island Breath: 2007 Interview with Albert Bates 4/218/07 .

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