On February 16th, we were interviewed by a student. Her questions provide a glimpse into why we’ve been so keen to promote Gaia University as an alternative to what currently passes for higher education. Student: How urgent and concerning of a matter do you think current global warming is? Mr. Bates: Climate change is the greatest threat that humans have ever faced. I would put the chances of human extinction at 99.9 percent within 500 to 1000 years. Saving polar bears is useful to focus attention on the problem, but in reality, mammalian life is unsuited for even the climate change now likely to be experienced this century, never mind the centuries still to unfold once pending tipping points are passed. Student: Do you believe current warming is caused by human actions? Mr. Bates: Yes, like the vast majority of the serious scientists, I think that has been well established as a fact now. To think otherwise is to appeal to faith, not science. Student: Do you find flaws in the Greenhouse gas theory or do you think it is a completely accurate explanation for the changing climate? Mr. Bates: Greenhouse warming is no longer a theory. It passed through that phase more than 100 years ago. If there were not a greenhouse effect, there would be no life on Earth. I have written about this before. In my book, The Biochar Solution, I tell the story this way. In 1824, while working in a Paris laboratory on observations of the Earth, Joseph Fourier described the greenhouse effect for the first time: “The temperature [of the Earth] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.” It was a remarkably prescient discovery, given the science of the time. We know now that “heat in the state of light” arrives as high-energy shortwave radiation, able to penetrate atmospheric clouds (or glass windows), and is transformed by contact into infrared, or what Fourier called chaleur obscure (non-luminous heat), which attempts to depart as low-energy long-wave radiation, only to bounce back if obstructed (such as by airborne soot or clouds of greenhouse gases). Fourier appreciated the infrared effect from the work of a contemporary, William Herschel, and was quick to realize that how you warm the Earth is the same as how you warm a greenhouse. Thirty-seven years later, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that water vapor is one of the important components of Earth's greenhouse shield. “This aqueous vapour is a blanket more necessary to the vegetable life of England than clothing is to man,” Tyndall remarked. In 1898, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius warned that industrial-age coal burning would magnify the natural greenhouse effect. In the 1930s British engineer Guy Callendar compiled empirical evidence that the heat effect was already discernible. By the 1950s, measuring equipment had improved to the point where Gilbert Plass could detail the infrared absorption of various gases; Roger Revelle and Hans Suess could show that seawater was incapable of absorbing the rate of man-made CO2 entering the atmosphere; and Charles David Keeling could produce annual records of rising atmospheric carbon levels from observatory instruments in Hawaii and Antarctica. In 1965, an advisory committee warned Lyndon B. Johnson that the greenhouse effect was a matter of “real concern.” With estimated recoverable fossil fuel reserves sufficient to triple atmospheric carbon dioxide, the panel wrote, “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment.” Emissions by the year 2000 could be sufficient to cause “measurable and perhaps marked” climate change, the panel concluded. Since then, every President has been warned by the best scientists in the world that the problem is serious and getting rapidly worse. None except Jimmy Carter has done anything to even slow the problem, and Jimmy Carter demonstrated that it is a political liability to try. That is why it is so certain that humans will go extinct. Our political systems do not evolve even as slowly as our scientific understanding. Student: Please comment on the opinion that global warming is caused completely by a naturally fluctuating climate cycle. If this is your view, do you acknowledge any additional human impact or no? Mr. Bates: We are trending precisely the opposite from the naturally fluctuating climate cycle, so no, one cannot attribute rapid global climate change to natural processes. It is caused by an imbalance in the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycles that will take tens of thousands of years, possibly millions, to correct, assuming it does correct and we don't just go the way of Venus. Student: Do you think the intensity of the current warming period has surpassed all previous warming periods or is this level of warming nothing new in Earth‘s history? Mr. Bates: At this moment we are only a degree warmer than normal, and that is not dissimilar to the Medieval Maximum, when the rapid deforestation going on in many parts of the world contributed to a significant warming in Africa and Europe (leading the Moors to invade Spain and parts of France). The Medieval Maximum was finally reversed in the 15th to 18th centuries when initially the burst of reforestation from the Black Death and then the depopulation of the Americas so increased the leafy biomass cover of the planet that it brought about the Little Ice Age in Europe. However, one degree is not what has been predicted going forward. On May 19, 2009, Woods Hole Research Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study involving more than 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate data currently available. Conclusion: the effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago, and the probable median of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2°C, compared to a finding of 2.4°C as recently as 2003. Moreover, the study rated the possibility of warming to 7.4°C by the year 2100 (and still accelerating thereafter) at 90 percent. Another report, released in 2009 by the Global Humanitarian Forum, found that 300,000 deaths per year are already attributable to climate-change-related weather, food shortages, and disease. That figure could be called our baseline, or background count — of the 20th-century-long experience of a temperature change of less than 1°C. At 5 to 7 degrees by 2100, the current trend would take us to something similar to the Eocene epoch, when crocodiles roamed the arctic regions. However, we have moved the carbonization of the oceans and atmosphere far beyond the levels that pre-existed the Eocene, principally with the extraction of 500 million years of fossil hydrocarbons but also by reckless land use and desertification. It will take centuries or millennia for the effects of those human-induced factors to fully manifest and so, it now seems probable that what is coming will be far hotter than the Eocene. That is why the Venus Effect has to be taken seriously. Student: Do you think there’s a hidden political agenda behind the global warming debate? If so, to what extent do these hidden motives affect the topic? Mr. Bates: Yes, of that there is little doubt. Science has already reached a consensus, although it took thousands of scientists many decades to reach it, something, by the way, that has never occurred like that before. The debate is now a political one. The principal drivers are the oil and coal interests (Exxon, the Koch brothers, Saudi Arabia, etc.) that have almost unlimited money to spend buying political favors. By almost unlimited, I mean billions of dollars each year, many, many times the amounts that are usually spent on political campaigns. The success of unknown politicians with wacko views in this last election is a direct result of that. It is no accident that the key Congressional committees charged with addressing climate change have been disbanded, the EPA is under attack for regulating carbon, and President Obama's climate advisor resigned. The Koch brothers paid for that. The corruption of the US Supreme Court (specifically the Koch Brothers buying the votes of Justices Scalia and Thomas in the Citizen's United case last year — see this week's New York Times) has now allowed direct and secret donations to climate deniers to come into the US political process from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrein, UAE and others. Big Oil and Big Coal have proven far more powerful than Big Science. That is another reason I put such low odds on human survival. Student: In your opinion, should federal action be taken to control greenhouse gas emissions in the United States? Would this achieve enough success in order to offset disadvantages such as possible harm to the U.S. economy? Mr. Bates: The US economy would benefit from emissions control. Coal costs the U.S. $500 billion per year Other countries (China, South Korea, Germany, Denmark, South Africa, Brazil) have already discovered a little secret: the faster you go green, the greater your competitive advantage. Those that can go completely carbon neutral by 2030 (like Germany and the UK) will have a strong economic advantage over those who wait until 2050 (like Canada and Australia) or don't go at all (like the US and India). There is an international race on, with real winners and losers. The US has been losing that race for 20 years, which is why our economy is tanking, and that will only get worse. The phony "War on Terror" is really just a futile oil grab while creating a security state at home in anticipation of food and price riots. So far, Brazil has been winning this economic game, but South Korea is making a strong challenge to catch up. Their economies may be several times the size of the United States in a few years, while we are already at negative net worth and going trillions deeper by the year. Of course, carbon neutral is not enough, and we need to seriously begin thinking about carbon-negative economies, which is the subject of my new book. It seems likely that is where Brazil may become totally dominant, since carbon-negative agriculture originated there 8000 years ago. And in that is the one tenth of one percent chance that we might still survive as a species, although in a much warmer world. ."For the most part, those calling themselves "skeptics" are nothing of the kind. More often than not, they are fully-imbibed, koolaid-drinking Deniers, who wallow in isolated anecdotes and faux-partyline talking points, egotistically assuming that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-think opinion entitles them to howl ""corrupt fools!" at 100% of the brilliant men and women who have actually studied and are confronting an important topic."- Contrary Brin 11 Feb 2010
"The innate value of this kind of investing is so obvious to me," stated a woman from Ashland, OR during a Slow Money workshop, "that I don't care how much money I make."
That's a stopper. No way around it. An unhittable knuckleball in the fast-pitch world of Buy Low/Sell High.
Innate value? Not caring about how much money we make? What in the world does this mean?
In the case of the woman who said it, it means that that the benefits to her and to her community -- more organic farms, more organic food available locally, a more robust local economy -- are so tangible and so direct that she doesn't need a new benchmark or a new asset class or a fiduciary to explain them.
The word "innate" struck me, when I heard it in this context, as beautiful. Investors talk about the intrinsic value of a company, as distinct from its market cap. But innate value? When I made it to the dictionary, the idea only became more beautiful, rich with connotations of "nature" and "inner," suggesting a confluence of personal values and ecological awareness.
The word "innate" pops up in another most interesting place: E.O. Wilson's term biophilia, which describes the "innate affection humans have for other living organisms." Another of Wilson's terms, biodiversity, is now part of the vernacular. Perhaps biophilia will never become as popular.
Or perhaps the time has come to splice biophilia into the DNA of a new kind of fiduciary responsibility. The kind of fiduciary responsibility that informs the emergence of nurture capital -- a new generation of intermediaries and financial products organized around principles of soil fertility, sense of place, economic, cultural and ecological diversity, and nonviolence.
The kind of fiduciary responsibility
A New Vision
Such talk of biophilia, nurture capital and fiduciary responsibility would have been rather far-fetched as recently as a few years ago. Today this is not the case. It is right in front of us, as plain as day, as confusing as Goldman Sachs' billions made from ultra-fast trading and as tangible as a CSA. We are moving away from hundreds of trillion of dollars of derivatives towards a new way of thinking about money that integrates social capital, natural capital and financial capital as simply as a CSA. How "innately beautiful," the prospect of investors connecting more easily with one another and with enterprises near where they live, with fewer layers of intermediation and less financial razzmatazz.
This is the work of Slow Money, a non-governmental organization now nearing the end of its second year, 1,200 members strong, 12,000 signatories strong, more than a half dozen regional slow money initiatives strong, with millions of dollars beginning to flow into dozens of small food enterprises. What we have found during our launch is that people are ready, remarkably eager, in fact, to engage in a new conversation about money, culture and the soil.
"Slow Money is one of the most remarkable initiatives I've seen in decades," says Tom Miller, former head of Program Related Investments at the Ford Foundation, and an early funder of Grameen Bank. "It is the basis for a fundamental revision of our concepts of fiduciary responsibility."
Food and the soil are the entry point for the discussion, but at its heart it is about a new vision of restorative economics, about what comes after industrial finance and industrial philanthropy and industrial agriculture, about what it means to be an investor in the 21st century.
The energy that people are bringing to these concerns is nothing short of remarkable. In March, 2009, when Slow Money had 40 members, NPR called this a "movement." In November, when there were 400 members, ACRES USA called it a "revolution." In December, Business Week reporter John Tozzi cited Slow Money as "one of the big ideas for 2010."
"Slow Money gets right to heart of everything that's wrong with our economy and our culture," wrote Kerry Trueman in the Huffington Post. "It offers a new kind of capitalism in which both farmers markets and stock markets can flourish."
The strength of this response reflects a number of fundamental trends: concern about the volatility of global financial markets and the self-promotion of Wall Street is widespread; frustration with government policies and programs is equally widespread; awareness of problems in the food system is growing; the organic sector is growing; the localization movement is emerging; and, the amount of philanthropic and investment capital going to sustainable agriculture and small food enterprises remains calculated in fractions of a percent.
The task of rebuilding local food systems and local economies is beyond the capacity of venture capital and philanthropy. The vast majority of small food enterprises lack the proprietary technology or scalability that venture capitalists require. Philanthropy is insufficient as well, because farms and processing plants and distribution businesses and restaurants and seed companies and niche organic brands need investment capital. The billions of dollars a year that are needed to rebuild local food systems and local economies, and to restore fertility in the soil of the economy, are going to have to come from somewhere else.
That somewhere else is you and me -- millions of individuals who sense that every time we move in and out of the stock market we are complicit in an economy that is based on a nineteenth-century view of the world and the economy, a view that equates progress and well-being with maximum consumption and which recognizes no ecological limits to growth, a view developed a century or so before we saw the earth rising over the moon and so felt in our bones for the first time that there is no away to which we can throw our waste. Now, it is time for us to rediscover here with our investment capital. To consider the places where we live, and our land, itself, as much as we consider sectors and distant markets and asset classes when we make our investment decisions.
To catalyze this process, Slow Money is building a national network and local networks, developing a family of new investment products, and creating the Soil Trust, an innovative non-profit fund.
We start with social capital, so that our transactions will be disciplined by relationships -- farmers, food entrepreneurs, donors, NGO leaders and investors all working together to nurture co-investment relationships, develop deal flow and build shared vision. Slow Money's inaugural national gathering, in September, 2009 in Santa Fe, NM, hosted over 400 attendees from 34 states and six countries. $260,000 was invested in four of 26 presenting small food enterprises. Our second national gathering was held in June, 2010 in Shelburne Farms, VT, drawing 600 people and facilitating the flow of more than $3 million into eight presenting enterprises (as of early October), with more expected. 24 entrepreneur presentations from this event can be viewed here.
Slow Money groups are meeting regularly in many regions. In Pittsboro, NC, small loans are being made to food enterprises with help from a family foundation. In Austin, TX a steering committee meets weekly and has hosted one public meeting that was attended by more than 150 people. In Madison, WI, a series of workshops are leading to the design of a local fund. Members of Slow Money Maine have collaborated to make a few small loans. Slow Money Northwest is organizing a Microloan Development Fund and hosted its first meeting for angel investors and entrepreneurs this past fall.
Slow Money Investment Products
Slow Money is exploring with Portfolio 21, RSF Social Finance, Calvert, Mission Markets and BSW Wealth Advisors the creation of for-profit Slow Money products for non-accredited investors, opening the playing field to everyday citizens who want to make sustainable food investments. Investments in these vehicles will promote Slow Money's mission in two ways: first, the portfolios themselves will be as proactively targeted at organic food and soil fertility as possible; and, second, the buying and selling of these securities will have structured into them small contributions to the Soil Trust (described below). Feasibility work is underway on "Slow Munis" (bonds dedicated to local food investing), in collaboration with leading investors and land trust professionals. A number of Slow Money Alliance founding members are launching funds, including Farmland L.P. and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
The Soil Trust
The Soil Trust, a non-profit fund currently in formation, will pool a large number of small donations to create a permanent, philanthropic investment fund dedicated to small food enterprises and soil fertility. The Trust will provide guarantees, co-investment capital and seed capital to local slow money investors.
Why the Soil Trust?
Because our goal is not only to catalyze the flow of capital to small food enterprises and local economies, but to do so in way that "puts back into the soil what we take out." These were Paul Newman's words. We take them to heart. They are integral to the Slow Money Principles, which you can see and sign here http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/6351/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=1637.
The Soil Trust is a vehicle through which individual buy/sell decisions in Slow Money investment products, as well as small individual donations, will be aggregated slowly, over a generation, building a substantial pool of investment capital that is permanently dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the soil. Donations in, investments out. Returns stay in the fund and are reinvested. "Putting back into the soil what we take out" at work. In foundation lingo, a "100% mission aligned foundation." Put another way, a foundation whose primary purpose is investing, not grantmaking.
The prospects for such a structural innovation are exciting. "Slow Money is not only planting inspiring seeds, but also creating the conditions and the relationships for fundamental change and lasting impact," stated Barry Hollister, of Pittsfield, MA. "I was, and am, therefore, extraordinarily pleased to have been able to make the first contribution, right there on the spot in that tent in Shelburne Farms that was brimming with so many wonderful and talented folks, to the Soil Trust. In Soil We Trust."
The Slow Money Principles
In order to enhance food security, food safety and food access; improve nutrition and health; promote cultural, ecological and economic diversity; and accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration, we do hereby affirm the following Principles:
I. We must bring money back down to earth. II. There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex. Therefore, we must slow our money down -- not all of it, of course, but enough to matter. III. The 20th Century was the era of Buy Low/Sell High and Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later-what one venture capitalist called "the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history." The 21st Century will be the era of nurture capital, built around principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place and non-violence. IV. We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises. V. Let us celebrate the new generation of entrepreneurs, consumers and investors who are showing the way from Making A Killing to Making a Living. VI. Paul Newman said, "I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out." Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us begin rebuilding our economy from the ground up, asking: * What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live? * What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits? * What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?
To sign the principles, please go here.
To find out more, visit www.slowmoney.org.
Nuclear war is a bad thing. Right?
Scientists from NASA and a number of other institutions have recently been modeling the effects of a war involving a hundred Hiroshima-level bombs, or 0.03 percent of the world's current nuclear arsenal, according to National Geographic. The research suggests five million metric tons of black carbon would be swept up into the lowest portion of the atmosphere.
The result, according to NASA climate models, could actually be global cooling.
From National Geographic:
In NASA climate models, this carbon then absorbed solar heat and, like a hot-air balloon, quickly lofted even higher, where the soot would take much longer to clear from the sky.
While the global cooling caused by superpower-on-superpower war could be catastrophic (hence the term "nuclear winter") a small scale war could have an impact on the world climate, says National Geographic. Models suggest that though the world is currently in a warming trend, small-scale war could lower global temperatures 2.25 degrees F for two-to-three years following war.
In more tropical areas temperatures could fall 5.4 to 7.2 degrees F.
...even a small exchange of nuclear weapons--between 50-100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, which India and Pakistan already have their in arsenal--would produce enough soot and smoke to block out sunlight, cool the planet, and produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history.
In addition, the extreme weather caused by even a mild nuclear winter would have a tremendous effect on crops and famines, including creating a 10 percent global decrease in precipitation, according to National Geographic. The soot could also cause tremendous harm to the ozone layer, allowing more ultraviolet rays to reach Earth.
The cons seem to outweigh the pros in the event of global cooling caused by even a small nuclear war.
Usually, unless you happen to be one of the fifty-odd people with whom David Brooks customarily eats dinner, throws back a few, or gobbles the free snacks in Jim Lehrer's greenroom, reading one of his columns from the position of a normal, everyday, wage-earning human being gives you the inescapable feeling of being a bug, looking, upwards and backwards through the magnifying glass, at a giant eyeball. No columnist is as obviously convinced that everybody on earth is a specimen in his jar. No columnist is as utterly contemptuous of his fellow Americans if they don't stay pinned right there on the card where they belong. His self-importance is that of a two-bit grifter, looking to sponge the loose change somebody might have left as a tip at Applebee's.
We had something of a masterpiece of the form this week when Brooks bestirred himself to write about the current goings-on in Wisconsin, where they elected an undereducated county commissioner named Scott Walker to be governor. Walker promptly attempted to roll back progressive policies to a point half-past Fightin' Bob LaFollette, and then called upon his fellow governors to do the same. A whole lot of Wisconsinites disagreed, and they have encamped themselves several times now on the state house lawn to say so. State senators ran home to gather their things, and then ran away from home. This has been on television a great deal, and it seems to have chafed Brooks mightily. So much so that he wrote a column about the necessity of shared sacrifice in this time of economic trouble and woe. Somebody put atop it the headline "Make Everybody Hurt," which completed the cosmic comedy nicely. Exactly how Mr. Brooks is going to "hurt" remains unclear — unless, of course, he ventures out into the crowd in Madison and tries to explain why Edmund Burke would have stood with the half-bright goober from Wauwatosa who's made such a hash of things. Then we might need splints and a tourniquet.
(It should be said in defense of Brooks that George Will, who has had a decade or so more practice than Brooks has had at being a public trollop, chimed in with a column praising the Wisconsin governor that made Brooks sound like Emma Goldman, and that apparently was written onto a moist towel.)
Brooks's column is a perfect illustration of a general phenomenon that has been brought into sharp relief in the past two weeks or so. The elites in this country — economic, social, political, journalistic — have ingrained in themselves the habits of oligarchy. They have done it so thoroughly that they can conceive of few answers to any problem that do not conform to these habits. Pain, sacrifice, "austerity," but for thee, and not for them, and certainly not for the larger Them — the actual oligarchs on whose behalf their apologists so degrade themselves.
It is not an aristocracy, even though people like the Koch brothers are born into wealth. (And prank-calling, apparently.) It is certainly not a meritocracy; the economic elite that brought us the current rat's nest of problems wasn't necessarily that good at business, and was never inclined to make decisions for the sake of our political commonwealth anyway. The average American corporate titan has very little use for the political entity called the United States of America. His citizenship exists only to keep the riffraff mollified. Among the rest of our elites, this is seen as as normal a situation as 9-percent unemployment has become.
Consider the debate. A woman named Sue Lowden was laughed out of a senatorial primary in Nevada last fall when she seemed to suggest that we should return to a system of barter in order to pay our medical bills. (Lowden specifically mentioned chickens.) However, any suggestion that we might help ourselves with the dreaded Deficit by, say, raising the top-end tax rate even to where it was under Bill Clinton is treated as no less fanciful than paying your dentist with poultry would be.
When royalist economics meld with political oligarchy, the former always drives the train. The institutions of the latter become impotent dumbshows or, worse, outright shams. In this, you can today see the framework of a new Gilded Age: a spavined pet Congress, and a Supreme Court rendered little more than a soprano chorus. Only this time there is no manufacturing boom in sight on the horizon within which the counterbalancing forces of organized labor can gestate. There is no occasion for a G.I. Bill that might build a viable middle class. Even the checks and balances of history are lost.
There remains, of course, a president from the party that was once theoretically opposed to all of this. But the evidence is growing that Barack Obama, if he is not entirely comfortable with the habits of oligarchy, at least believes that he can devise a workable truce with those who are. In this, he is sadly mistaken. Those habits are inimical to the kind of community he so endlessly cites as being at the heart of the American soul. In this, Obama may go down in history as the wrong man at the wrong time. They do not need to be dealt with. They need to be rooted out. Those who have found their place within the habits of oligarchy need to be forced to find new and more gainful employment. Maybe Applebee's is hiring.
Real Political Math in Wisconsin By Howard Fineman on 25 February 2011 for Huffington Post - (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/25/the-real-political-math-in-wisconsin_n_828429.html) Image above: The real political math in Wisconsin isn't about the state budget or the collective-bargaining rights of public employees there. It is about which party controls governorships and, with them, the balance of power on the ground in the 2012 elections.
For all of the valid concern about reining in state spending -- a concern shared by politicians and voters of all labels -- the underlying strategic Wisconsin story is this: Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-tinged Republican, is the advance guard of a new GOP push to dismantle public-sector unions as an electoral force.
Last fall, GOP operatives hoped and expected to take away as many as 20 governorships from the Democrats. They ended up nabbing 12.
What happened? Well, according to postgame analysis by GOP strategists and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi -- who chaired the Republican Governors Association in 2010 -- the power and money of public-employee unions was the reason.
"We are never going to win most of these states until we can do something about those unions," one key operative said at a Washington dinner in November. "They have so much incentive to work hard politically because they are, in effect, electing their own bosses -- the Democrats who are going to pay them better and give them more benefits. And the Democrats have the incentive to be generous."
This is how top Republicans see the matter: a vicious cycle of union-to-Democrat-to-union power that they are determined to break.
And there is a lot of money and manpower involved. In the 2010 cycle, the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees spent $87 million, making AFSCME the biggest single source of independent campaign spending last year -- bigger than Karl Rove's American Crossroads.
The manpower is even more important, though, especially that of AFSCME and the National Education Association. The public-employee troops are concentrated, in absolute numbers and by percentage, in 18 states. In California alone, there are 1.4 million government employees represented by unions, according to AFL-CIO numbers. In Illinois, it's more than 400,000; in New York, 1.1 million.
Last fall, Republicans took away governorships in four of these public union-heavy states: Ohio (where 46.2 percent of public employees are represented by unions), Michigan (51.7 percent) , Pennsylvania (53.4 percent) and Wisconsin (49.6 percent). It was an impressive Rust Belt sweep.
But the GOP had been hoping for much more in other such states. They thought they had good chances in California (with 59.6 percent unionized public employees), Minnesota (59.2 percent), Oregon (56.9 percent), Illinois (52.6 percent), Connecticut (66.4 percent), Massachusetts (64.4 percent), New Hampshire (50.3 percent) and Rhode Island (66.6 percent).
Republicans lost them all, though many quite narrowly.
The GOP strategic aim is simple enough. If they can abolish union collective-bargaining rights, they can undermine the automatic payment of dues to the public-employee union treasuries. Shrinking those treasuries and reducing the union structure and membership will make it harder for Democrats and their allies to communicate directly with workers.And under the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, unions -- like corporations -- are free to spend as much as they want directly advocating for a candidate. That makes the math even more urgent as the 2012 election season approaches. .
DW: Back when I was a teenager in the 1960s, I felt queasiness lurking in the easy-going euphoria of the American lifestyle. Gandhi once said, “Speed is irrelevant if you’re traveling in the wrong direction,” and it was obvious to me that the accelerating pace of life in the U.S. didn’t have a real direction.
Everything was becoming automatic, comfortable, and “convenient,” yet other than going to the moon, banishing germs from our kitchens, and scrapping with the communists, we seemed to be floating up and away from reality like soap bubbles. We each wanted to expend as little effort as possible but still get paid handsomely for it so we could live the good life, before we… popped.
I began to notice that people whose lifestyles didn’t center on money were often healthier and more interesting. They seemed more caring and unselfish, and they were passionate about doing active, celebratory things like playing music, dancing, playing chess or bridge, embroidering, fly fishing, cooking delicious meals, studying history, gardening, and staying current with political issues.
TV wasn’t a central part of their lives; they were less distracted by commercial hype and less detoured by all the products. What they earned seemed less important than what they learned. I was fascinated that in many cases, the ordinary, American Dream-life was much more expensive than the extraordinary lives of these unique, self-creating people who lived their lives rather than trying to buy them. They had the real wealth – things that made them feel glad to be alive.
Since those early years, I’ve worked ten years with the U.S. EPA, written or edited ten books, produced fifteen videos and TV documentaries on various aspects of sustainability, and helped design and govern the neighborhood I’ve lived in for 15 years. My conviction that our species needs a new way of being in the world has only gotten stronger. The rules and norms we live by – our social “software” – are now obsolete in a world in which temperatures and populations are rising but water tables and human satisfaction are falling.
We urgently need to adopt and implement a simple but proven 4-step strategy to break our addictions to various substances from oil to stuff to prescription drugs.
1. Admit we have a problem of unprecedented proportions.
2. Humbly seek support and cooperation from each other, from whatever higher power we acknowledge, and from history.
3. Create a healthy new cultural identity.
4. With fresh new goals and priorities, intervene in the broken systems and patterns that are destroying the world with which we evolved.
We should shoot for health and wellness rather than wealth and “hellness,” and agree to move, together, away from a lifestyle of deadlines and dying species and toward lifelines and living wealth. In The New Normal, I researched and presented 33 leverage points or key places to intervene to quickly shift our economy and culture in a more admirable, affordable, and sustainable direction. The big picture is that production and consumption will no longer be the defining characteristics of the emerging era – cultural richness, efficiency, cooperation, expression, ecological design, and biological restoration will be.
CB: Right now as you and I sit here, the prices of food worldwide are surging daily. Yet you tell us in your book to buy organic food. We can grow some food, but much of it we can’t. And in this time of global economic crisis and skyrocketing food prices, why should we spend the extra money for organic?
Americans are overfed but undernourished. We have the cheapest food as a percentage of income in the “developed” world, but the most expensive health care. In recent years, national spending on health care jumped from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, largely to treat preventable diseases. Meanwhile spending for food fell from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. However, judging by the trends, we will spend more of our discretionary income for healthy food in the near future and less for poorly designed gadgets, clothes, and monster-houses. And this change in dietary priorities will deliver solid, satisfying value. We’ll have more energy and be more productive. We’ll spend more time baking and breaking bread with friends and family, and less time at the doctor’s office.
“Let food be your medicine,” Hippocrates counseled long ago, and insurance companies nervously agree. Observes Michael Pollan, every case of Type 2 diabetes they can help prevent with better diet and exercise adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly every can of soda or deep-fried chicken nugget in a school cafeteria is seen as a threat to future profits. So the insurance and health care industries are part of a coalition with enlightened farmers, politicians, and citizen activists, that is bring radical change to the food system.
Evolution dictates that we should eat organic. The better food we eat, the less we go to the doctor. Furthermore, organic food gets CO2 out of the air and back into our food. What is more, organic materials hold water, and this is especially relevant here in Colorado with its water issues. We would all do well to shift our budgets so that we can eat organic.
But our backs are against the wall, there’s no doubt about that. The assumptions and goals that guided agriculture in a world of one billion (1800) or two billion people (1930) are way out of date. We need to preserve the source of our food – the farms themselves – or else the global food system will collapse, as it already has throughout history. Yield and profit are important, but so are preservation of soil and water; restoration of biological diversity; safety and healthiness of food; radical reductions in fossil fuel consumed and greenhouse gases emitted; and co-evolution with an increasingly urban population.
Fortunately, the global food system is one of most easily adapted major systems (though it won’t be a snap) for several key reasons: agriculture has until recently been solar-powered, and can be again, when oil becomes too expensive to prop up the industry. The supply-and-demand economics of the food system are accessible to consumers, who are becoming more aware of the overall value of food purchases. Because food affects the most important issues of our times – energy, health, security, equality, biological habitat, and climate change, agriculture will come under increasing public and political scrutiny. The trend toward organic produce and whole foods grown in market gardens and small farms will continue – not just because it can be financially lucrative but also because the work is satisfying to a certain, green-thumbed sector of the population. For example, 2010 was the first year in many that there were more farms in the U.S. rather than fewer.
CB: We live in a state (Colorado) that is going to confront very serious water issues in the near future, especially as climate change worsens. From your perspective, what should we as a state and as local communities be doing about this now?
The issue of water has always been interwoven with keystone resources that lie beneath the bottom line of our abstract economy: oil, grain, minerals, and topsoil. Ask farmers and ranchers who have relied on “fossil water” from aquifers if water shortages are real. Many have now gone out of business. Many of the strategies we need to implement are already underway, but we need to amplify and expedite them. Our landscapes are far too thirsty, and can benefit greatly from a higher level of water-conservative design, using more appropriate plants, mulches and increases in soil organic matter to hold the water. Innovative farmers drip water right into the root zone, however many of them still ship water thousands of miles in the form of juicy peaches and tomatoes. Long “food miles” to transport watery produce may one day become a taxable offense.
Water is embedded in many other products and practices currently in use. For example, although plumbing fixtures are becoming more efficient, there’s still great potential in products like the dual flush toilet. Why use a gallon and a half of water to flush urine? Water and wastewater treatment will be much more efficient in the future, and operate at a much smaller, more local scale. For example, “living machines” can treat wastewater right in the neighborhood with cattails, snails, fish, and other organisms in greenhouse tanks, without nuisance odors, providing clean water for irrigation. Another emerging energy technology, the fuel cell, can also produce clean water for neighborhood use, without any noise or pollution. This is a huge departure from fossil fuel and nuclear plants which require up to 40% of a region’s water for use in cooling towers.
We need to collect rainwater and use gray water in our state, which can only happen when state laws change. Already, Arizona, New Mexico and California laws allow these uses, why nor Colorado?
In the long run, the best way to conserve water is to host fewer people at a time on our small planet. When the fossil water runs out and glaciers dry up, our current “normal” will be revealed for what it is: a very temporary and excessive binge.
CB: In “The New Normal,” you have a section on the new affordable economy which is absolutely amazing. It is a roadmap for where we need to be in order to insure the continuation of our planet and our species. What are some of the characteristics of that economy, and what has to happen for us to get there?
Though we still cling to our current, high-stress lifestyle, it’s become crystal clear to many that the half-millennium-long Industrial Era is running on empty. There’s not enough rich industrial ore, topsoil, or biological habitat left for the same old hyper-consumption game to continue— especially as human population and expectations continue to swell. There’s not enough natural resilience to absorb our wastes and provide immunity; not enough climatic stability, psychological stamina, cheap energy, timber, or potable water, either. A primary goal in the new era will be maturity rather than growth. In their most mature, climax stages, biological systems have learned how to optimize diversity, resourcefulness, and resilience, weaving partnerships among species to make use of each scrap of resource. As a subset of nature, so should we. To create an affordable economy, the Holy Grail should not be unlimited growth but maturity, like a well-practiced, flawless concerto or a basketball team whose plays are perfectly executed. The players don’t need to be bigger to win games, just better.
It seems that a majority of Americans don’t yet understand that there are too many transactions, too much “throughput” for biological systems to remain stable. More consumption isn’t the answer to our economic challenges; it’s where the problems began. Every single day, the global economy extracts the volumetric equivalent of about 112 Empire State Buildings from the earth, disrupting the nests, seedbeds, roots, and hunting grounds of gazillions of living things—our planet’s real wealth, which provides clean air and water, flood control, pest control, pollination, renewable energy, fertile topsoil, and climatic stability. When natural systems degrade, life becomes more expensive.
One of the most powerful points of intervention is social: the definition of “success.” In the new normal, we won’t consider individuals and cultures successful unless daily life is rich in discretionary time, trust, health, social connection, and meaning. Yet, in a recent Gallup survey of 150 countries, the U.S. ranked at the bottom, below 145 other countries in overall stress – just ahead of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the quest for material wealth is bankrupting nature and filling us with anxiety, why don’t we just change the goal? Stepping outside the box into a brand new paradigm may be the most effective lever of all.
Right now, our economy is all about plunder—destroy nature and make money. It must become about preserving nature as a way of making money.
The restoration of nature should be our overall mission for the remainder of this century. We already see remarkable results from approaches like marine reserves, where fishing is temporarily banned. After a New England snapper fishery was protected for a number of years, the local population of snapper increased 40-fold, and as supply went up, prices came down. Yet old-normal federal subsidies for fishing, farming, and forestry encourage depletion of resources like fish, water, soil, and old growth trees, because they reward yield and neglect to protect the source of that yield. Instead of subsidizing farmers based on quantity of yield, our money will be better spent rewarding maintenance of soil and diversity of species. Protecting natural resilience avoids environmental and social costs that make life more expensive, such as erosion, pesticide and fertilizer pollution, and loss of rural communities.
If we look at other systems that support our current way of life, we see many opportunities to create a truly affordable economy, in which we could work less and play more. For example, if we avoid energy losses in America’s millions of buildings—with better insulation, windows, appliances and fixtures—energy experts document more than a trillion dollars in savings. We can finance these improvements as much with information as capital, because they provide a continuing stream of avoided costs, or “negawatts.”
The redesign of America’s suburbs can also make life less expensive. By changing zoning laws to permit restaurants and hardware stores, by growing gardens rather than lawns, by establishing neighborhood vanpools, shared power sources, and recycling systems, by creating town centers that supply what local residents need, we avoid the need for relentless economic expansion by meeting needs directly. Dysfunctional systems are not affordable.
The way we make and consume products offers a universe of opportunity, too. High on our hit list are reductions in unnecessary packaging and air travel, excessive meat consumption, glossy green lawns, and food waste (the average household throws away 14% of what they buy). Flagship American industries like cement and steel are only half as efficient as the global state of the art. In the case of steel making, we miss an opportunity to convert to high-efficiency electric arc furnaces because they use recycled steel, and our recycling rate for steel is a dismal 60%. In the new economy, recycling will become a ritualized, standard practice, embedded in design and policy, so less costly extraction is required.
We can have much greater quality and durability in our products if we stage a cultural revolution of “consumer disobedience.” Maybe our motto can be “fewer things but better.” With fewer things, we’ll be happier in smaller, less expensive houses, and as a society, we can convert much of our expansive housing stock to multi-family dwellings.
We currently spend $900 per capita to be shelled with unsolicited advertising, embedded in the cost of products and services. A culture that is less consumer-driven will tolerate less advertising and less debt. And less debt means less interest on the debt.
Close to half of the diseases Americans suffer are preventable with improvements in diet, exercise, and stress reduction. For example, we spend $150 billion annually to treat diabetes and $120 billion on obesity. Many of these ailments are symptoms of the way we live. For example, one economist suggests that the huge gap between rich and poor in America is creating unprecedented stress. Our unaffordable economy is making us sick. We are a nation on the edge of a nervous breakdown. We consume two-thirds of the world’s anti-depressants as we battle for position in the economy. Why not just declare a cease-fire with the Joneses we’ve been trying to keep up with? We’ve bought into the notion that if we’re not wealthy, we’re not good enough, which creates horrible stress and anxiety. Why not become citizens again, creating employee-owned businesses and member-owned credit unions that can reduce both killer stress and unnecessary expenses? (Credit unions save $8 billion a year in interest on loans because they are non-profit) Why not invest in community bonds, portfolios and banks and make living returns on our investments?
Savings like these are possible not because we are “cutting back,” but because we’re tuning up our value system, getting rid of waste, creating and adopting more sensible ways of getting things done. Rather than mandating 100,000 hours of work and commuting per lifetime, a more affordable lifestyle enables each citizen to work less and pay closer attention to things that really matter, like the health of our families, communities, and the environment.
Of course we can’t do these things individually. It’s an agreement, and the whole culture needs to say, “Enough! Now we must serve the economy instead of expecting the economy to serve us.”
CB: In “The New Normal,” you have another section that is my personal favorite and that we could spend all day on called “The 12 Paradigm Principles.” As you know, I’ve written a book entitled Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, and my new book is Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you has to do with something you say in the first paradigm principle which is: “The challenges we face are not just technical—they are social, biological, political, and even spiritual challenges.”
So with that in mind, what do you think needs to happen spiritually and emotionally for humankind to embrace these 12 principles? Can you spell that out specifically for our readers and tell us a little bit about what that would look like? Some of it may be pleasant to think about, and some of it may not be pretty.
It’s been said that we humans don’t usually make major changes when we see the light—we also need to feel the heat. That convergence is well underway, but many of the changes we are making are not visible. They are not about flashy new technologies or innovative policies, and they are not about “doing without.” You could say they are more about “doing within.”
Changes of heart and mind have often created social tsunamis – almost-instant transitions to a new way of seeing the world (like a school of fish reversing direction). In turn, this renaissance leads to changes in technology, policy, and behavior. When that happens, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we make these changes sooner? They’re far more sensible, comfortable and equitable than we thought they would be. It’s just the way we do it now.”
But this cultural epiphany can’t take place unless we are willing to leave our comfort zones, and unless we recycle some familiar assumptions that are no longer useful. For example, that the environment is inside the economy. That people are only worth what they are paid. That economic growth of any kind is always good. That one country can teach another how not to kill, by killing them.
We have experienced a mini-Golden Era since World War II. Many of our challenges have been solved (or at least apparently solved) with technological innovations that have increased labor and land productivity. However, we now face challenges of a different nature; technology is not the limiting factor of productivity—resources are. Deeper wells can’t pump water that’s no longer there, and larger boats and nets can’t harvest more fish when fish populations have been wiped out. Since we can’t change certain biological and geological realities, we need to change ourselves instead. As in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s progression towards the acceptance of death or tragedy, we need to move through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and accept that the game is different now.
We need to rethink what we are trying to accomplish as a species, and what we truly want to do with our time. Do we really want to let technology guide human evolution ever further into a blind, lifeless alley, or do we want to choose only technologies that enhance our humanity? Now is the time for ecology-based design that lets us participate with our hands and minds, that lets us produce what we need the way bees produce honey: without harming the flower.
New systems of accounting will track productivity in terms of quality, not just quantity. For example, exemplary companies now track tons of cement or sheets of paper produced per unit of energy (not just per dollar invested). Similarly, to evaluate the overall productivity of farming, the new metrics will track the nutritional value of the food and the health of the farms it came from, not simply bushels of grain or pounds of beef.
If we are to save our civilization, all human activity should be based on meeting needs, fully, rather than creating marketable but superfluous wants. A sustainable economy maximizes the productivity of resources in addition to people. When we maximize the productivity of people, we use fewer people, but we have more people than there are jobs. Basically we are using less and less of what we have more of (people) and more and more of what we have less of (resources). That kind of economy just doesn’t make sense. Why not move toward full employment of a part-time workforce, giving us enough income to thrive in an affordable, secure economy and also have enough time for living? It seems obvious that we could very quickly reduce the high unemployment rate by making workweeks shorter and sharing the work, as Germany has done successfully. To fund public services and infrastructure, why not finesse an American political stalemate by cutting taxes on income and levying taxes on fossil fuels and pollution?
These are some of the paradigm principles that guide the discussion in The New Normal. More than ever before, we need to rely on intuition and instinct to challenge the stranglehold of institutions. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to come back in a few hundred years to see if we stopped the stampede in time?
CB: Thank you David for taking time to answer my questions and thereby give us a powerful and inspiring vision of a new normal.
David Wann is a writer, speaker, and filmmaker on the subject of sustainable design and sustainable lifestyles. He’s now completed a trilogy of books about culture shift: Affluenza, Simple Prosperity, and his most recent book, The New Normal. This interview draws largely from material in The New Normal. He lives in Golden, Colorado in a cohousing neighborhood he helped design. To find out more, visit www.davewann.com.
A homestead economy needs to be flexible, and a winter of very heavy snow has forced me to adjust my building plans. During my work week the storms and three-plus feet of snow on the ground have chased me inside the shop to make cabinets for one house and doors for another. For our own addition my original plan to drag or carry logs out of the forest and then hire or trade with a farmer/contractor friend who owns a portable sawmill to come over and help saw the logs into timbers isn’t possible. So I decided to cut the trees and hew the logs in place, then carry the lighter timbers out once the snow has melted. Hewing is quite a bit slower than a sawmill, but it was also my first choice, since I particularly like the rippled surface of a hand-hewn timber. The snow gave me the excuse I needed to accept that the project is going to take longer than I first planned.
It’s been four years since I’ve worked on a project that involved hewing for most or all of a day, and my muscles and technique suffered the first couple of days from the long layoff. The work was much harder than it needed to be, since I was forcing it rather than finding an easy rhythm and letting the axes (felling ax for scoring, hewing ax for finishing the surface) do the work. As a result my muscles tired more quickly, and then the quality of the work suffered since I had less control of the hewing ax as I squared the side of the log down to the line.
Since timber framing is my livelihood, I expect the results to be professional, and when they’re not I get frustrated. So for a couple of days I was at war with myself. This week was better. I stopped pushing and settled down into a consistent rhythm, and the pleasure I’d found in the work before returned. I wouldn’t want to do it day after day and year after year, but going into a forest with a couple of axes and turning trees into timbers is one of the things I’ve most enjoyed in the time I’ve been building and renovating timberframes.
I haven’t written very much here about the relationship between building and ecology yet, which probably seems a little odd for a blog published by someone whose livelihood is house-building. I plan to take it up in the weeks ahead, but I want to take this week to ground the various themes I’ve raised over the past couple of months on a solid foundation. When I’m building a house, my first choice of foundation material is stone—slabs of granite or field stone. Maine’s coast is famously rocky, so raw material is abundant, the stones are beautiful and last essentially forever, and even once the house that sits on the stone foundation decays, the foundation or the stones can be reused.
The foundation I have in mind serves two purposes. It provides a ground for our story to stand on, and it guides and informs our actions as we try to build a homestead economy that is not at war with our native ecology. The memoir half of a philosophical memoir should stand on its own; at worst you’ll find our story uninteresting or unrealistic or find us disagreeable or flaky. We can live with that. But the philosophical half, the argument, needs a solid foundation, and I want something as hard and immovable and unassailable as the granite outcrops along the coast here.
I’ve written that we came here to become part of an ecology, that we identify with the native forest, that we’ll work with the land to help it become what it wants to be, that we’ll make a place for ourselves within that context; that we’re seekers of happiness and richer, deeper experiences of being alive. All true. I’ve written that our economy, the economy that consumes frontiers, the economy that is rooted in agriculture and mining and drilling, the economy that too often levels native ecologies to extract the commodities they contain, has run out of new frontiers to exploit and so must inevitably begin to cannibalize itself. It defines the word unsustainable. I think that’s the best interpretation of the evidence.
I’ve written that this economy has altered the makeup of the atmosphere, changed the climate, and reduced biodiversity to the point that life on earth is now in its sixth major extinction epoch. As a matter of verified scientific fact, yes.
These concerns and convictions, our determination to live a certain set of principles, these are the values that animate our story. And there is the story’s weakness, for we’ve learned that values are relative. Yours may be different from ours. Your story may not be our story. Our story is certainly not the story of those who look at a landscape and see only resources to be exploited, or who see economic growth in and of itself as the highest good, or who believe that we stand apart from the wild green world, enabled by our intelligence and technologies, to conquer and subdue. But how will we judge whose story is better? Where is the unmoving ground on which that judgment depends?
This ground I’m searching for is a first principle, some unifying thing or principle or movement that can be used to explain the world and everything in it. The search for this first principle is as old as our western intellectual tradition; in fact it explicitly defines the very moment of birth of our intellectual tradition. It begins when Thales, the first of the Greek natural philosophers, seeks to discover the one thing that everything in the visible world is made of. Western philosophy begins with this single question. Thales is quickly followed by Anaximander and Anaximenes, who propose different answers to the same question.
As Greek philosophical thought progresses through Parmenides and Pythagoras, it becomes increasingly abstract and the search to discover a material first principle is dropped in favor of purely theoretical organizing principles for the visible world. But the emphasis on a single, unchanging, eternal, unifying principle that orders the visible world with all its apparent complexity and change is nearly constant.
By the time Plato adapts these ideas, another shift in emphasis has taken place as well: to Plato the material world of trees and rocks and rivers and flesh and bone is a deceptive, flawed, unredeemable mess that serves as nothing so much as an obstacle to true knowledge. He invents an invisible world of forms or ideas that are perfect and unchanging and eternal. The world that we see and experience with our senses is merely an imperfect imitation of that divine invisible world. That in a nutshell is Plato’s metaphysics. If you’re unfamiliar with the specifics but it all still sounds familiar, that’s because Plato’s notion of two worlds, one visible and corrupt and deceitful and the other invisible, perfect and pure provided the basic architecture for western ideas about the nature of reality and knowledge until the nineteenth century when the whole edifice came crashing to the ground.
I bring this all up here for two reasons.
First it is simply impossible to overstate the importance of the development of Greek thought and culture from 750 BC, when literacy returned to the Mediterranean world following a 400-year dark age, to the death of Aristotle in 322 BC. Our culture, our institutions of learning, and especially our ways of organizing reality owe everything to this period.
And second, because the defining feature of our intellectual tradition for the vast majority of its history is a conviction that unity is superior to diversity, simplicity is superior to complexity, that the spiritual is superior to the material, that being is superior to becoming.
As I said above, as a metaphysics, the whole edifice came crashing to the ground in the nineteenth century, but the looming shadow and residue of that edifice are with us still. We are still living that legacy. Not at the highest levels of academia perhaps, but as a matter of cultural habit we still believe in unity, and one is still the number of divinity.
A society, an economy, a culture organized around unity implies centralization, control, a diffusion of knowledge and intelligence from a single point. But ecology points to a different model entirely. Where is the center of a forest? It depends on rain and sun and warmth, but those are so elemental to almost all life on land that it makes little sense to talk of them as centers. They are preconditions.
Intelligence in an ecosystem is diffuse. So is energy. Diversity and complexity are its most salient features. Try to photograph it and you quickly understand that no single point draws the camera. The forest is everywhere all at once. This is the key to ecological resilience. Try to kill the forest. The obvious way is to cut down or burn all the trees. But the forest’s DNA, its intelligence, is stored in the soil and it quickly regenerates itself. To kill it it must be destroyed again and again until all that stored intelligence has been wiped away. It can be done, but it requires continued, repeated assaults.
Try to kill a centralized state, whether it is fed by oil or corn or wheat or coal. You don’t really have to do anything but wait. All its intelligence flows through its single fuel source and the military/administrative/religious establishment that feeds off it. Its resilience is limited by the resilience of that energy flow and that single cultural node. Cut that off, or wait for it to fail or run out, and the entire organization fails. History provides a nearly endless run of examples.
As long as the frontiers are large or numerous enough, the centralized state can survive. But frontiers inevitably close. They closed for Athens when access to the timber it needed to rebuild its navy was cut off. They closed for Rome when the Iberian silver mines ran out and it had to debase its currency. They’re closing today in the Middle East as oil production declines and revenue streams dry up.
I’m suggesting that to the extent that our culture and economy are built on the intellectual tradition that began in Ionia in the sixth century BC, developed in Athens in the fourth, and prevailed throughout the Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods in Europe, it is vulnerable to collapse. Centralized systems aren’t resilient. Collapse—or restoration of a more dispersed state depending on your loyalties— is inevitable because it operates in direct opposition to the first principle that organizes the reality of living ecologies.
This is the ground for our story. It expresses itself in a trend that is observable across the whole history of the living world. I think it qualifies as a first principle, and to the extent that it organizes the visible world, I think it is similar to what the early Greek philosophers were after. I think it is sound enough to form the basis for value judgments.
For the purposes of building a homestead economy and ecology the forest itself is probably good enough as a starting point. Forests have existed for 350 million years. They’re ubiquitous, persistent, and resilient. They naturally occupy about half the land area of the planet. As I’ve written before, forests work. Other ecologies work too, but forest is what works here where we live, and probably where you live too, since forests and humans have many of the same requirements.
The answer to why they work is also the answer to the search for a first principle on which to ground our story and our actions: diversity and complexity. Forests are the planet’s greatest terrestrial storehouses of diversity and complexity. The large majority of the planet’s land species are found in forests. Forests work because diversity and complexity work. As Edward O. Wilson put it in his book The Diversity of Life,
“Biological diversity embraces a vast number of conditions that range from the simple to the complex, with the simple appearing first in evolution and the more complex later. Many reversals have occurred along the way, but the overall average across the history of life has moved from the simple and few to the more complex and numerous…Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard... It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant.” [bold mine]
It’s a memorable synopsis from one of the world’s foremost scientists. Life is up to something. It is becoming more diverse and more complex. Not always, and not in every place, but as an average across all of time from the beginning of life. Life may not have a goal, but the trend is unmistakable. The first principle that organizes reality has been with us all along. It’s the opposite of what the Greeks were looking for, the opposite of what the western intellectual tradition accepted as a given, but it’s what the world is made of, and it’s what we’re made of.
And for what it’s worth, the same movement is seen in the history of the universe as well, from nothingness to singularity to a few elements to many, from simplicity to complexity. Diversity and complexity work, the evidence suggests that they are woven into the nature of things, and they express themselves most often on land as forests.
That’s our rock, the granite upon which our story stands. We have a first principle. We can build an economy, make judgments, create new myths, find an intelligible context for history and the world around us. We can work within an ecology and be confident of our actions. Since intelligence is dispersed throughout the ecology, we can do less rather than more. We can watch and learn rather than dictate and control. We can build resilience and retake our place in the majestic pageant of life. We can revalue our commodities, restore our native ecologies and cultivate diversity and complexity. We might find our way back to Eden. Resources:
The hewing ax I use is made by Gransfors Bruks. It’s a very nice tool, but the blade lacked the correct curvature when I first got it and I had to spend quite a bit of time modifying it. To hew properly and produce the rippled texture that makes hewn surfaces so appealing, the back of the blade should be slightly convex in both directions. The Ax-Wielder’s Handbook by Mike Beaudry is a good introduction to hewing.
I don’t have a good general-interest book to recommend on the development of Greek thought from the presocratics to Plato. The one I used in graduate school is The Presocratic Philosophers by Kirk, Raven, and Schofield. It’s the standard bilingual academic text, but best suited for someone who really wants to immerse themselves in the topic, as I once did.
The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson is one of the books that has most informed and influenced my thinking about biological diversity over the past couple of decades. I highly recommend it.