Radical Community Agriculture

SUBHEAD: Reconnecting people to growing of their own food may prove to be a radical means of healing.

By Jared Spears on 22 July 2022 in Resilience -

Image above: Photo promoting education in organic farming.  (https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/organic-farming-degrees-careers/).

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one of those rare ideas which combine transformative potential with an elegant simplicity. The CSA model of funding and sustaining locally-rooted agriculture has grown exponentially around the globe over the past four decades. Since the first formal CSA at Robyn Van En’s Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Massachusetts in the early 1980s, CSAs have become a household fixture across the US and elsewhere; the most recent estimate by the USDA (2012) counted approximately 13,000 CSA farms in the US alone.

The success of community-supported farming has coincided with rising demand for organic food since the late 1970s. But the model’s popularization has meant that, sometimes, CSAs can be misrepresented as ‘just another way’ for consumers to purchase fresh, seasonal food. Important elements embedded into the CSA model, such as that of shared risk among members, make the arrangement more than merely transactional. In fact, the origins of the CSA movement in America have radical roots, drawn from the prominent environmental movement and a subculture dissatisfied with the prevailing economic system.

A 1985 paper newly digitized from the Schumacher Center archive, “Community Supported Food Systems”, clarifies the deeper motivations which brought CSAs to the US in their present form. It is a timely reminder of the transformative potential the broader concept of Community Supported Industry still holds today – especially in light of our urgent need to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and foster resilience in our supply chains.

Given renewed interest in the concepts of local food security and food sovereignty as principles of climate action and economic justice, it is worth revisiting the transformative potential of the CSA model as grasped by those who first put the idea into action.

Importing the CSA model from Switzerland

The community-supported farming movement popularized in the 1980s had multiple antecedents around the globe. With examples of localized farming initiatives from Chile, to Japan, to rural Black communities in the Southern US, this movement may be best thought of as a spontaneous, distributed reaction to the conditions of globalized food markets. At the same time, growing concern around the health impacts of chemical pesticides, as well as the environmental costs of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, added impetus to the organization of organic farming at a more human scale.

That said, the formalized CSA model which subsequently spread across the US and beyond was pioneered in the Southern Berkshires, in the state of Massachusetts. And as the “Community Supported Food Systems” paper shows, its character was highly informed by models developed earlier in Switzerland. The ethos and organizing principles of these Swiss examples were documented and brought to Massachusetts by one Jan Vander Tuin.

Vander Tuin, a champion of pedal-powered transport and car-sharing, would later go on to make his mark advocating for appropriate technology in transportation. But before all that, he was a disillusioned farm laborer looking for alternatives. As Vander Tuin recalled in a 1992 article in RAIN Magazine, he went to Switzerland in the early ‘80s from the US having “felt burned economically… with an eye open for alternatives to market agriculture.” As he described the attraction of Switzerland at that time:

The early 1980’s were inspiring years for Swiss activists. The youth were rebellious, and citizens at large asked questions of the nation that epitomizes capitalism. I saw many evolving solutions to problems that I, coming from the States, had written off as unsolvable.”

After some time working first-hand on an organic farm outside Zürich, Vander Tuin was directed to a successful producer-consumer food co-op in Geneva, which had been inspired by the cooperative movement in Chile during the Allende administration. Vander Tuin called the project the most radical food co-op group he had ever encountered: it “addressed almost every problem I’d encountered in modern farming.” This project’s philosophy went beyond ecologically sustainable practices and pesticide-free produce, addressing the steep economic challenges faced by organic farming in an era of big, corporate agri-business. 

The basic notion that consumers personally cooperate with producers to fund farming in advance, he wrote “makes for more efficient use of land… and much less stress for farmers…” In short, Vander Tuin recognized that this model made organic farming for local consumption not just economical, but also more elegant and communitarian – in a word, more beautiful.

What drove Vander Tuin, as expressed in the paper, is “the feeling that existing food infrastructures are hopelessly entangled in the societal/cultural systems, especially the ‘free’ market.” Rather than wait for planners and experts, Vander Tuin noted how, in the Swiss examples, “concerned consumers and frustrated food workers” decided to provide responsibly-grown organic food for themselves. Shared values such as organic growing and energy-conscious distribution were identified from the outset. Everything down to how shares were calculated – based on the amount of produce the average non-vegetarian consumes per year – underscores the ambition for local self-reliance in food production.

The document also highlights a strong desire for economic fairness at every step in CSA practices. The costs of start-up investment and land would “ideally…be divided up equally (or by sliding scale).” 

 In the Swiss example, wages for farm labor were to be estimated at “the average wage of worker in region – not banker unfortunately” Vander Tuin added with a dose of humor. “The emphasis in all economic thinking,” it concludes, “was not to work the maximum profit principle but on the need/cost coverage principle. This meant more trust and more participation.”

Finding like minds in the Southern Berkshires

Vander Tuin documented these practices, eager to bring them back to the US for implementation. He caught wind of a group in the Southern Berkshires who had set up a sort of buying club for locally-grown produce, including a handful of local growers meeting the demand. The Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy (S.H.A.R.E.) was a community micro-loan program which grew out of the activities of the E.F. Schumacher Society (precursor to the Schumacher Center) in South Egremont. 

Vander Tuin became aware of the group, according to Schumacher Center co-founder Susan Witt, after reading a news article about their novel SHAREcropper initiative. Community-members would pool to list requests for locally grown produce in the SHARE newsletter, enabling them to identify farmers to grow the food locally. Those growers, in turn, secured demand for their crops in advance.

In other words, SHAREcroppers was managing, in an ad-hoc way, what Vander Tuin envisaged as a systematic alternative to corporate, mono-crop agriculture.

When Vander Tuin presented his proposal to members of S.H.A.R.E., they promptly sent him down to the road to meet one of their growers: Robyn Van En, who ran Indian Line Farm. Robyn not only held equally radical ambitions, but possessed the roll-up-her-sleeves attitude needed to make them a reality. With a community around them dedicated to the cause and willing to help see through the implementation, they could set to work.

Having moved to the Southern Berkshires several years earlier from California, Van En was pursuing her own alternative vision for growing at Indian Line. She brought deep ethical convictions about humanity’s relationship with nature to inform the early CSA movement. She later articulated the ‘Ideals of Community Supported Agriculture’ for a CSA manual in such terms:

Agriculture… is the mother of all our culture and the foundation of our well-being. Modern farming…driven by purely economic considerations, has driven the culture out and replaced it with business: agriculture has become agribusiness… Our ideals for agriculture come to expression in the biodynamic method of farming which seeks to create a self-sustaining and improving ecological system in which…everything has its place in the cycle of the seasons… The community involvement in the rhythms of the seasons and the celebrations connected with them will also enable us to find our proper spiritual connection to nature again.”

With a new agricultural ethic clear from the start, Van En also recognized early on a need for a new economic approach as well. As she later described: “I knew there had to be a better way…something cooperative, that allowed people to combine their abilities, expertise, and resources for the mutual benefit of all concerned.” 

 When S.H.A.R.E. members introduced her to Vander Tuin in 1985, they “only had to talk for a few minutes,” according to Van En, to know that what he’d brought back from Switzerland articulated just the sort of community framework she’d been looking for. As she later summarized:

The prices we pay for food may be cheaper than ever, but the hidden costs… are being paid [in other ways]. Unlike agribusiness, which has the motto: ‘The end (profits) justifies the means (exploitation)’, CSA’s motto is: ‘The means (community) assures the end (quality food).’”

Planting the seeds of the CSA movement

The group’s first venture in 1985 involved shares for apples and cider from the orchard adjacent to the present-day Schumacher Center. After the growing season, shareholders were invited to the autumn harvest in a spirit of celebration. (Vander Tuin reportedly even designed and built a pedal-powered cider press for the occasion). Producers and consumers were brought together in relationship with the land and its produce, creating space for community while proving the viability of the CSA model.

The following season, Indian Line Farm became the first fully-fledged CSA in the US. Credit for the success of the model in the Southern Berkshires goes to the many members of the community who supported Indian Line in various ways. 

But it was only the beginning for Van En: an educator by training, she would go on to become a tireless advocate of the CSA model and biodynamic farming and a vocal critic of industrialized agribusiness. The propagation of the CSA model across North America in the following decades owes much to Robyn’s conviction and endurance.

A final aspect of the CSA concept, originally outlined by Vander Tuin, remained only a theory until Indian Line Farm came on the market in 1998, one year after Van En’s untimely passing. At that time the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires and two area farmers formed a partnership with a local Nature Conservancy chapter to purchase the farm. Placing the land into the Community Land Trust in perpetuity was yet another innovation. 

Effectively decommodifying the land on which community food was grown while permitting the leaseholder to own the value of improvements, the move made good on an idea which, in Vander Tuin’s original proposal, appeared speculative: “community influenced land stewardship in the form of a ‘Community Land Trust’,” he wrote, seemed “applicable and desirable” compared to “normal ‘property’ arrangements.”

Today, the CSA model articulated by Van En and Vander Tuin remains a vital, community-based alternative to the host of health, environmental, and economic issues posed by industrial agribusiness. No wonder that the growth of CSAs has reportedly surged since 2020. Growing healthy, ecologically-sound food locally is, for a multitude of reasons, the most economical way for a community to provide for this most elemental of needs. 

Cutting out intermediaries and import dependency is a cornerstone of community food security and food sovereignty, as marginalized communities around the country and the world increasingly recognize. Combined with agro-ecological farming methods, relocalized agriculture holds great potential in our efforts to address climate change: reducing carbon emissions and helping to sequester carbon already in our atmosphere. And by layering on the innovative Community Land Trust model, affordable access to farmland can be secured for future generations of growers as well.

At the most human level, reconnecting people around the growing of their own food may prove to be among our most effective means of healing our widespread sense of disconnection from nature and community. It offers the promise for any community to rediscover how working in harmony with nature, rather than merely seeking to exploit it, can be as economical as it is beautiful.


Past the Limits to Growth

SUBHEAD: A half century since "The Limits of  Growth" was published we long for regeneration.    

By Jeffery D. Sachs on 26 May 2022 in the Seneca Effect  -

Image above: Aerial view of a banana boat in Brazil. From original article in Italian. (https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/finalmente-abbiamo-capito-che-crescita-e-sviluppo-non-sono-stessa-cosa-AEJH2obB?refresh_ce=1) .

Fifty years ago, Italian business leaders in the Club of Rome gave a jolt to the world in their path-breaking report Limits to Growth.  That thought leadership continues today as Italian business leaders launch Regeneration 2030, a powerful call for more holistic, ethical, and sustainable business practices to help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.  

The 50-year journey from Limits of Growth to Regeneration 2030 shows how far we have come in understanding the critical challenges facing humanity, but also how far we still have to go to meet those challenges.
The half-century since Limits to Growth also defines my own intellectual journey, since I began university studies at Harvard University exactly 50 years ago as well.  One of the first books that I was assigned in my introductory economics course was Limits to Growth.  The book made a deep and lasting impression on me.  Here for the first time was a mathematical simulation of the world economy and nature viewed holistically, and using new systems dynamics modeling then underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 
Limits to Growth warned that compound economic growth was on a path to overshoot the Earth’s finite resources, leading to a potential catastrophe in the 21st century.  My professor huffily dismissed the book and its dire warning.  The book, the professor told us, had three marks against it.  First, it was written by engineers rather than economists.  Second, it did understand the wonders of a self-correcting market system.  Third, it was written at MIT, not at Harvard!  Even at the time, I was not so sure about this easy dismissal of the book’s crucial warning.   
Fifty years later, and after countless international meetings, conferences, treaties, thousands of weighty research studies, and most importantly, after another half-century of our actual experience on the planet, we can say the following.  First, the growing world economy is indeed overshooting the Earth’s finite resources.  Scientists now speak of the global economy exceeding the Earth’s “planetary boundaries.”  Second, the violation of these planetary boundaries threatens the Earth’s physical systems and therefore humanity itself. 

Specifically, humanity is warming the climate; destroying the habitat of millions of other species; and polluting the air, freshwater systems, soils, and oceans. Third, the market economy by itself will not stop this destruction. 

Many of the most dangerous actions – such as emitting climate-changing greenhouse gases, destroying native forests, and adding chemical nutrients to the rivers and estuaries – do not come with market signals attached.  Earth is currently treated as a free dumping ground for many horrendously destructive practices. 

Twenty years after Limits to Growth, in 1992, the world’s governments assembled at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit to adopt several environmental treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity.  

Twenty years later, in 2012, the same governments re-assembled in Rio to discuss the fact that the environmental treaties were not working properly.  Earth, they acknowledged, was in growing danger.  At that 2012 summit they committed to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide humanity to safety.  In 2015, all 193 UN member states adopted the SDGs and a few weeks later signed the Paris Climate Agreement to implement the 1992 climate treaty.
In short, we have gone a half-century from the first warnings to today.  We have adopted many treaties and many global goals, but in practice, have still not changed course.  The Earth continues to warm, indeed at an accelerating rate.  The Earth’s average temperature is now 1.2°C warmer than in the pre-industrial period (dated as 1880-1920), and is higher than at any time during the past 10,000 years of civilization.  

Warming has accelerated to more than 0.3°C per decade, meaning that in the next decade we will very possibly overshoot the 1.5°C warming limit that the world agreed to in Paris.    
A key insight for our future is that we now understand the difference between mere “economic growth” and real economic progress.  Economic growth focuses on raising traditional measures of national income, and is merely doing more of what we are already doing: more pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, more destruction of the forests.  

True economic progress aims to raise the wellbeing of humanity, by ending poverty, achieving a fairer and more just economy, ensuring the quality education for all children, preventing new disease outbreaks, and increasing living standards through sustainable technologies and business practices.  True economic progress aims to transform our societies and technologies to raise human wellbeing.  

Regeneration 2030 is a powerful business initiative led by Italian business leaders committed to real transformation.  Regeneration aims to learn from nature itself, by creating a more circular economy that eliminates wastes and pollution by recycling, reusing, and regenerating natural resources.  Of course, an economy can’t be entirely circular – it needs energy from the outside (otherwise violating the laws of thermodynamics). 

But rather than the energy coming from digging up and burning fossil fuels, the energy of the future should come from the sun (including solar power, wind, hydroelectric, and sustainable bioenergy) and from other safe technologies.  Even safe man-made fusion energy may be within technical and economical reach in a few decades.   
On my part, I am trying as well to help regenerate economics, to become a new and more holistic academic discipline of sustainable development.  Just as business needs to be more holistic and aligned with the SDGs, economics as an intellectual discipline needs to recognize that the market economy must be embedded within an ethical framework, and that politics must aim for the common good.  Scientific disciplines must work together, joining forces across the natural sciences, policy sciences, human sciences, and the arts.  

Pope Francis has spurred the call for such a new and holistic economics by encouraging young people to adopt a new “Economy of Francesco,” inspired by the love of nature and humanity of St. Francis of Assisi. 
Sustainable Development, Regenerative Economy, and the Economy of Francesco are, at the core, a new way of harnessing our know-how, 21st century technologies, and ethics, to promote human wellbeing.  The first principle is the common good – and that means that we must start with peace and cooperation.  Ending the war in Ukraine at the negotiating table without further delay, and finding global common purpose between the West and East, is a good place for us to begin anew.


One more lap around the Sun

SUBHEAD: Whatever seemed normal, is about to vanish in the rear view mirror.

By Juan Wilson on 14 July 2022 for Island Breath -

Image below: View of Hawaiian Islands from hear space looking northwest. From (https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/the-hawaiian-island-chain).






There were times in the past when we would publish 2 or even 3 articles in a day for Island Breath. Back then we used ti have a subscription to a Kauai published and printed daily paper. In those days the ability to find a job, rent an apartment, and buy a car were vital services of a local daily news paper. 

That world has blown away like tumbleweed by the onslaught of features and function of the ubiquitous iPhone and it's copycat competitors. 

As a result one can hardly find a restaurant with a printed menu any more. You're invited by the "staff" to "scan it!"... Some people (like some baby-boomers, and and toddlers don't have an iPhone. "No Prob... we have a printed menu behind the bar... I'll see if I can find it. 

When we cannot keep up the near space telecommunication technology we have developed along with the wireless networks utilized by the iPhone and its copycats.

All might have gone well if we were not in total denial of the dire straights humanity has cornered itself into. Too many people, ruining, abandoning and throwing a way too much stuff for too long.

We have had half a century -since 1972- when the Club of Rome first published its predictions for our future based on resource losses, consumption increases, human population growth.

I'm going to try and get back in the saddle... meaning getting back to doing fresh, new articles... although I suspect they will not all avoid some cynicism.

I'll be back... soon I hope... Juan Wilson

Summer's Over

SUBHEAD: Another season has passed as we tip into the darkening side of the year.

By Juan Wilson on 11 November 2021 for IslandBreath -

Image above: Fall colors at peak in mid Atlantic states two weeks ago. From (https://www.washingtonian.com/2021/09/30/heres-when-fall-foliage-will-peak-around-dc/).

For some people this last year has been a blessing, not a curse. I know there has been suffering... there always is in a pandemic. However, here on Kauai the impact of Corona Virus was largely mitigated by our County and State government closing down much of commercial tourism. On one hand, some people have lost jobs and are burdened by debt they cannot avoid. On the other hand things on Kauai went back to being more local and independent.

I have see more local people fishing and gathering along the shore. There has been less car traffic at the beach and less suntan lotion floating in the water. There have been mornings with just a couple of people swimming at our Salt Pond Beach Park. slowly, the wave of rental cars is resurging. 

But my sense is that the real hangover from the pandemic and the the collapse it has generated is just beginning... and that is okay... or at least sufferable.  But with over 8 billion of us there are too many people are groping for a mansion on a cul-de-sac.  The idea that humans can go on reproducing and consuming at the same rate for another generation does not look realistic. It's not a situation of the more people the merrier. What we need more of is more elephants, whales and eagles.

In the case of all the great apes (our closest cousins) there are a total of about 500,000 total. The Great Apes include all the gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos in the world. Humans are just one branch on that tree... That means there are more than 16,000 times as many humans than all the other great apes we share our traits with.

Not only that, but we take a much larger share,  individually, of the all the resources of the world - land, water, timber, etc.  

The solution... step back, take less, do less, travel less, eat less, buy less, spawn less. Walk more, talk more, make more, share more, grow more, love more. Buy used and refurbished. 



Revisiting an old friend

SUBHEAD: Coming back to this website is a bit like returning to Kauai after an absence.

By Juan Wilson on 13 August 2021 for Island Breath  -

Image above: French painting of "The Work of the Year", circa 1460-1475 From (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/107804984815741397).

It has been over half a year since our last post of an article for Island Breath. That is the longest hiatus since we began publishing the site. Much has changed in that time... In a way we are living on another planet. 

The planet wide ongoing pandemic is an obvious aspect of that change. But there is more than disease to worry about... we are in the midst of an overpopulation of the Earth by human beings that is a threat to all life on Earth as we know it. Our planet is in the midst of a transformation into something akin to Mars. 

Forget about human civilization being baled out by high-tech solutions or sensible long term planning. We have already scooched the pooch. The great greenhouse gas management of planet Earth by massive tropical jungles in Africa and South America have been consumed by human priorities. Fire storms are consuming northern forests, and the oceans have been strip mined for proteins.

There is no way to stop the freight train of transformation that we are riding. There is only "going with the flow". The way that works is that you you must be responsible for what is most immediately around you to be transformed into a thriving living self sustaining environment that provides food and shelter in trade for your sustained work.

You need to be situated to live off the resources you can walk to. And that will only work out if there is a collapse of the ginned up real estate development market for the rich who are escaping to their McMansions to live in Paradise and the push for "low cost housing"  for the serfs who mow their yards and fix their cars.

As the climate where you live becomes less friendly and reliable you will need as much green thriving trees and plants around you as you can get. Besides providing shade and holding moisture, plants will provide food and medicine and habitat for you and other nearby species. 

Well, it's good to be back, however I find myself quite rusty getting this blog post up and running.


Your Value Added Products

SUBHEAD: You made a more lasting value, like turning berries into jam, or a piece of wood into a bowl...

By Juan Wilson on 6 February 2021 for Island Breath  -

Image above: A gourd shell preserved and decorated for use in carrying water made in Kenya, Africa, for sale online. From  (https://www.secondvoyage.ca/listing/533640266/africa-gourd-calabash-kenyan-carved-jug)

It does not mean you have hack out a canoe with an adze or stretch a birch bark canoe from scratch. In this case "value added product" merely means making some item longer lasting and of more useful function.

It can begin with something you grew from a seed, or something you found on a walk. It often means producing, processing, preserving and packing a food product. It can also mean transforming something into a completely different utility, like a corncob into a tobacco-pipe or a calabash into a drinking-gourd. it transcends beyond being a bit of food.

Certainly, transforming various forms of the plants and animals that we eat into useful and more permanent items has proven both useful and valuable to people for millennium. Sadly, most of us in the 21st century have forgotten transform and trade some bit of what is around us into anything useful. It becomes trash,waste or garbage.

Among other things, my partner Linda has learned to make and package comfrey salve, macadamia-nut butter, and jarred bee honey produced on our 1/2 acre yard. 

Other kinds of efforts include fishing or hunting and having the skills to processing, dry and preserve the results. 

Beyond just food are such activities as transforming plants and prey into woven fabrics, cured wood,  tanned leather and feather ink pens. 

There is much to re-learn and master in order to thrive in the world we are abruptly going to enter. Once the funny-money checks stop coming and the Costco shelves are empty we better have a reasonable grip on the resulting future where we the Producer and not just the Consumer.  

Of course, there are whole other categories of activities other than making a meal and maintaining a home. Expertise in entertainment and medicine come to mind as areas of skill that can keep a roof over your head and a chicken in the pot. 

If you want that kind of life you'll probably will have had to already been practicing long and hard.

In any case, your value added products will be of use to you as well as to those who want them. Trading locally produced products will be the re-newed normal... And that will be a blessing. 




Getting Through Collapse

SUBHEAD: Things are unwinding, but there are preparations you should begin immediately.

By Juan Wilson 29 January 2021 for Island Breath -

Image above: Plowing a field in a community garden near suburban homes. From (https://www.treehugger.com/how-to-start-a-small-farm-3016691).

There has been a sense of dread for some time...  by that I mean decades. Much of the 20th Century was embroiled in World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and fear of nuclear extinction. Now we face a disease that appears more dangerous than the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

As we wrote in "Winning the Trifecta last year - See (http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2020/06/winning-trifecta.html) with the subhead "To win we will have to solve all our problems together... health, wealth and environment."

That has not changed, other than to intensify. The human condition is rapidly changing and not under our control or in our perceived interests. The trappings of civilization and culture are wearing thin under the yoke of lock-downs, indebtedness, fear of the future, and isolation.

There are not many realistic ways out of our dilemma that does not include a major human population reduction and a severe reduction in our consumption of Earth's resources and will require a monumental increase in recycling, repurposing and renewing those resources we have converted to "garbage". 

Here in Hawaii it is a realistic possibility that modern trans-Pacific container shipping will no longer be economically feasible. We will have to grow the majority of the food we consume in the islands. And more food will be necessary for feeding the eggeries, fisheries, dairy farms and other food and resource related agricultural operations that won't be distant factory operations but neighborhood businesses. 

In short, sustainable farming will become the major human operation in Hawaii. And that will be true in any place that has sustained human population. 

Yes, there will be some nomadic hunter gatherers... small bands of tribal people that move with the herds and the seasons. But the majority will exist in a condition more like the early18th century in rural America... but without great abundance of natural resources that was cut down, plowed up and mined.

I do not expect to see the complete transition myself. I'm a Baby Boomer in my late 70's. But I imagine it will be a life without personal automobiles, vast shopping plazas and on demand multi-media entertainment. 

My wife, Linda, and I are trying to grow as much food and herbal plants as we can and creating tradable "refined" products... like organic eggs and vegetables, macadamia nut butter, bottled hot sauce, jams, comfrey salves, etc.

These and other self employed efforts like:

    • Providing fresh water through rain-catchment, solar water-pump.

    • Providing multiple, overlapping systems for power hot water, and communication.

    • Growing and storing food from a place you have some managing control over. 

    • Having stock of materials, tools and know-how to maintain and repair what you have.

    • Ways to entertain yourself with neighborhood theater, music, card games, puzzles, or crafts.

Just remember there will be no TGI Fridays, Bed Bath & Beyond, Starbucks or GameStop to fill your cravings.

Bottom line... we are on our own in a land we are unfamiliar with. We are in a "New Normal" that is not going away, but is evolving into another world.  One that is not nearly as friendly as the Garden of Eden, but hopefully more comfortable than the Dark Ages, "1984" or "The Matrix"

Getting better at navigating that new landscape will be a major  determination of how happy you are.

That navigation will require the capability of fixing and maintaining some 20th century tech - like a small simply designed diesel engine or electric tools - but won't include repairing iPhone or maintaining full spectrum satellite communications systems.

So get yourself a good set of tools for the shop, garden, garage and sewing room... you're going to need them. Once you have the tools - start using them so when the time arrives you'll be useful.



Whitewashed Hope

SUBHEAD: A message from indigenous leaders on permaculture and regenerative agriculture.

By several indigenous authors on 18 January 2021 in Resilience -

Image above: An indigenous East Indian couple in indigenous clothing.
From (https://www.climatescorecard.org/2020/08/indias-indigenous-peoples-are-key-constituents-in-climate-action/).

A note from Resilience.org:
Our intention is to invite proponents of western ecological agriculture (e.g., regenerative ag / permaculture) to go deeper and encourage their peers to go deeper—to not just ‘take’ practices from Indigenous cultures without their context, but to also encompass the deeper Indigenous worldviews… inspiring a consciousness shift that hopefully will support us to go from a dominant culture of supremacy and domination to one founded on reciprocity, respect, and interrelations with all beings—including, of course, among all humans.

 Whitewashed Hope

Regenerative agriculture and permaculture claim to be the solutions to our ecological crises. While they both borrow practices from Indigenous cultures, critically, they leave out our worldviews and continue the pattern of erasing our history and contributions to the modern world.

While the practices ‘sustainable farming’ promote are important, they do not encompass the deep cultural and relational changes needed to realize our collective healing.

Where is ‘Nature’?

Regen Ag & Permaculture often talk about what’s happening ‘in nature’: “In nature, soil is always covered.” “In nature, there are no monocultures.” Nature is viewed as separate, outside, ideal, perfect. Human beings must practice “biomimicry” (the mimicking of life) because we exist outside of the life of Nature.

Indigenous peoples speak of our role AS Nature. (Actually, Indigenous languages often don’t have a word for Nature, only a name for Earth and our Universe.) 

As cells and organs of Earth, we strive to fulfill our roles as her caregivers and caretakers. We often describe ourselves as “weavers”, strengthening the bonds between all beings.

Death Doesn’t Mean Dead

Regen Ag & Permaculture often maintain the “dead” worldview of Western culture and science: Rocks, mountains, soil, water, wind, and light all start as “dead”. (E.g., “Let’s bring life back to the soil!” — implying soil, without microbes, is dead.) 

This worldview believes that life only happens when these elements are brought together in some specific and special way.

Indigenous cultures view the Earth as a communion of beings and not objects: All matter and energy is alive and conscious. Mountains, stones, water, and air are relatives and ancestors. Earth is a living being whose body we are all a part of. 

Life does not only occur when these elements are brought together; Life always is. No “thing” is ever dead; Life forms and transforms.

From Judgemental to Relational

Regen Ag & Permaculture maintain overly simplistic binaries through subscribing to good and bad. Tilling is bad; not tilling is good. Mulch is good; not mulching is bad. We must do only the ‘good’ things to reach the idealized, 99.9% biomimicked farm/garden, though we will never be as pure or good “as Nature”, because we are separate from her.

Indigenous cultures often share the view that there is no good, bad, or ideal—it is not our role to judge. Our role is to tend, care, and weave to maintain relationships of balance. We give ourselves to the land: Our breath and hands uplift her gardens, binding our life force together. 

No one is tainted by our touch, and we have the ability to heal as much as any other lifeform.

Our Words Shape Us

Regen Ag & Permaculture use English as their preferred language no matter the geography or culture: You must first learn English to learn from the godFATHERS of this movement. The English language judges and objectifies, including words most Indigenous languages do not: ‘natural, criminal, waste, dead, wild, pure…’ 

English also utilizes language like “things” and “its” when referring to “non-living, subhuman entities”.

Among Indigenous cultures, every language emerges from and is therefore intricately tied to place. Inuit people have dozens of words for snow and her movement; Polynesian languages have dozens of words for water’s ripples. 

To know a place, you must speak her language. There is no one-size-fits-all, and no words for non-living or sub-human beings, because all life has equal value.

People are land. Holistic includes History.

Regen Ag and Permaculture claim to be holistic in approach. When regenerating a landscape, ‘everything’ is considered: soil health, water cycles, local ‘wildlife’, income & profit. 

‘Everything’, however, tends to EXCLUDE history: Why were Indigenous homelands steal-able and why were our peoples & lands rape-able? Why were our cultures erased? Why does our knowledge need to be validated by ‘Science’? Why are we still excluded from your ‘healing’ of our land?

Among Indigenous cultures, people belong to land rather than land belonging to people. Healing of land MUST include healing of people and vice versa. Recognizing and processing the emotional traumas held in our bodies as descendants of assaulted, enslaved, and displaced peoples is necessary to the healing of land. 

Returning our rights to care for, harvest from, and relate to the land that birthed us is part of this recognition.


Regen Ag & Permaculture often share the environmentalist message that the world is dying and we must “save” it. Humans are toxic, but if we try, we can create a “new Nature” of harmony, though one that is not as harmonious as the “old Nature” that existed before humanity. Towards this mission, we must put Nature first and sacrifice ourselves for “the cause”.

Indigenous cultures often see Earth as going through cycles of continuous transition. We currently find ourselves in a cycle of great decomposition. Like in any process of composting there is discomfort and a knowing that death always brings us into rebirth. Within this great cycle, we all have a role to play. 

Recognizing and healing all of our own traumas IS healing Earth’s traumas, because we are ONE.

Where to go from here?

Making up only 6.2% of our global population, Indigenous peoples steward 80% of Earth’s biodiversity while managing over 25% of her land. Indigenous worldviews are the bedrocks that our agricultural practices & lifeways arise from. 

We invite you to ground your daily practices in these ancestral ways, as we jointly work towards collective healing.

  • Learn whose lands you live on (native-land.ca), their history, and how you can support their causes and cultural revitalization.
  • Watch @gatherfilm and Aluna documentary.
  • Amplify the voices and stories of Indigenous peoples and organizations.
  • Follow, support, donate to, and learn from the contributors to this post.
  • Help republish this open-source post: https://bit.ly/IndigenousWorldViews



Making Biomass Sustainable

SUBHEAD: Coppiced woodlands, pollarded trees, and hedgerows provided sustainable energy. 

By Kris De Decker on 15 September 2020 for Low-Tech Magazine

Image above:Pollarded trees in Germany are a technology worth keeping. Photo by Rene Schroder in original article.

IB Editor's note: The article has many more images of coppiced and pollarded wood farms in Europe that have operated for centuries.

From the Neolithic to the beginning of the twentieth century, coppiced woodlands, pollarded trees, and hedgerows provided people with a sustainable supply of energy, materials, and food.

How is Cutting Down Trees Sustainable?

Advocating for the use of biomass as a renewable source of energy – replacing fossil fuels – has become controversial among environmentalists. The comments on the previous article, which discussed thermoelectric stoves, illustrate this:

  • “As the recent film Planet of the Humans points out, biomass a.k.a. dead trees is not a renewable resource by any means, even though the EU classifies it as such.”
  • “How is cutting down trees sustainable?”
  • “Article fails to mention that a wood stove produces more CO2 than a coal power plant for every ton of wood/coal that is burned.”
  • “This is pure insanity. Burning trees to reduce our carbon footprint is oxymoronic.”
  • “The carbon footprint alone is just horrifying.”
  • “The biggest problem with burning anything is once it's burned, it's gone forever.”
  • “The only silly question I can add to to the silliness of this piece, is where is all the wood coming from?”

In contrast to what the comments suggest, the article does not advocate the expansion of biomass as an energy source. Instead, it argues that already burning biomass fires – used by roughly 40% of today’s global population – could also produce electricity as a by-product, if they are outfitted with thermoelectric modules. 

Nevertheless, several commenters maintained their criticism after they read the article more carefully. One of them wrote: “We should aim to eliminate the burning of biomass globally, not make it more attractive.”

Apparently, high-tech thinking has permeated the minds of (urban) environmentalists to such an extent that they view biomass as an inherently troublesome energy source – similar to fossil fuels. To be clear, critics are right to call out unsustainable practices in biomass production. 

However, these are the consequences of a relatively recent, “industrial” approach to forestry. When we look at historical forest management practices, it becomes clear that biomass is potentially one of the most sustainable energy sources on this planet.

Coppicing: Harvesting Wood Without Killing Trees

Nowadays, most wood is harvested by killing trees. Before the Industrial Revolution, a lot of wood was harvested from living trees, which were coppiced. The principle of coppicing is based on the natural ability of many broad-leaved species to regrow from damaged stems or roots – damage caused by fire, wind, snow, animals, pathogens, or (on slopes) falling rocks. 

Coppice management involves the cutting down of trees close to ground level, after which the base – called the “stool” – develops several new shoots, resulting in a multi-stemmed tree.

When we think of a forest or a tree plantation, we imagine it as a landscape stacked with tall trees. However, until the beginning of the twentieth century, at least half of the forests in Europe were coppiced, giving them a more bush-like appearance. [1

 The coppicing of trees can be dated back to the stone age, when people built pile dwellings and trackways crossing prehistoric fenlands using thousands of branches of equal size – a feat that can only be accomplished by coppicing. [2]

Ever since then, the technique formed the standard approach to wood production – not just in Europe but almost all over the world. Coppicing expanded greatly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when population growth and the rise of industrial activity (glass, iron, tile and lime manufacturing) put increasing pressure on wood reserves.

Short Rotation Cycles

Because the young shoots of a coppiced tree can exploit an already well-developed root system, a coppiced tree produces wood faster than a tall tree. Or, to be more precise: although its photosynthetic efficiency is the same, a tall tree provides more biomass below ground (in the roots) while a coppiced tree produces more biomass above ground (in the shoots) – which is clearly more practical for harvesting. [3

Partly because of this, coppicing was based on short rotation cycles, often of around two to four years, although both yearly rotations and rotations up to 12 years or longer also occurred.

Because of the short rotation cycles, a coppice forest was a very quick, regular and reliable supplier of firewood. Often, it was cut up into a number of equal compartments that corresponded to the number of years in the planned rotation. 

For example, if the shoots were harvested every three years, the forest was divided into three parts, and one of these was coppiced each year. Short rotation cycles also meant that it took only a few years before the carbon released by the burning of the wood was compensated by the carbon that was absorbed by new growth, making a coppice forest truly carbon neutral. In very short rotation cycles, new growth could even be ready for harvest by the time the old growth wood had dried enough to be burned.

In some tree species, the stump sprouting ability decreases with age. After several rotations, these trees were either harvested in their entirety and replaced by new trees, or converted into a coppice with a longer rotation. Other tree species resprout well from stumps of all ages, and can provide shoots for centuries, especially on rich soils with a good water supply. Surviving coppice stools can be more than 1,000 years old.


A coppice can be called a “coppice forest” or a “coppice plantation”, but in reality it was neither a forest nor a plantation – perhaps something in between. Although managed by humans, coppice forests were not environmentally destructive, on the contrary. Harvesting wood from living trees instead of killing them is beneficial for the life forms that depend on them. 

Coppice forests can have a richer biodiversity than unmanaged forests, because they always contain areas with different stages of light and growth. None of this is true in industrial wood plantations, which support little or no plant and animal life, and which have longer rotation cycles (of at least twenty years).

Our forebears also cut down tall, standing trees with large-diameter stems – just not for firewood. Large trees were only “killed” when large timber was required, for example for the construction of ships, buildings, bridges, and windmills. [4

Coppice forests could contain tall trees (a “coppice-with-standards”), which were left to grow for decades while the surrounding trees were regularly pruned. However, even these standing trees could be partly coppiced, for example by harvesting their side branches while they were alive (shredding).

Multipurpose Trees

The archetypical wood plantation promoted by the industrial world involves regularly spaced rows of trees in even-aged, monocultural stands, providing a single output – timber for construction, pulpwood for paper production, or fuelwood for power plants. 

In contrast, trees in pre-industrial coppice forests had multiple purposes. They provided firewood, but also construction materials and animal fodder.

The targeted wood dimensions, determined by the use of the shoots, set the rotation period of the coppice. Because not every type of wood was suited for every type of use, coppiced forests often consisted of a variety of tree species at different ages. 

Several age classes of stems could even be rotated on the same coppice stool (“selection coppice”), and the rotations could evolve over time according to the needs and priorities of the economic activities.

Coppiced wood was used to build almost anything that was needed in a community. [5] For example, young willow shoots, which are very flexible, were braided into baskets and crates, while sweet chestnut prunings, which do not expand or shrink after drying, were used to make all kinds of barrels. Ash and goat willow, which yield straight and sturdy wood, provided the material for making the handles of brooms, axes, shovels, rakes and other tools.

Young hazel shoots were split along the entire length, braided between the wooden beams of buildings, and then sealed with loam and cow manure – the so-called wattle-and-daub construction. Hazel shoots also kept thatched roofs together. 

Alder and willow, which have almost limitless life expectancy under water, were used as foundation piles and river bank reinforcements. The construction wood that was taken out of a coppice forest did not diminish its energy supply: because the artefacts were often used locally, at the end of their lives they could still be burned as firewood.

Coppice forests also supplied food. On the one hand, they provided people with fruits, berries, truffles, nuts, mushrooms, herbs, honey, and game. On the other hand, they were an important source of winter fodder for farm animals. Before the Industrial Revolution, many sheep and goats were fed with so-called “leaf fodder” or “leaf hay” – leaves with or without twigs. [6]

Elm and ash were among the most nutritious species, but sheep also got birch, hazel, linden, bird cherry and even oak, while goats were also fed with alder. In mountainous regions, horses, cattle, pigs and silk worms could be given leaf hay too. Leaf fodder was grown in rotations of three to six years, when the branches provided the highest ratio of leaves to wood. When the leaves were eaten by the animals, the wood could still be burned.

Pollards & Hedgerows

Coppice stools are vulnerable to grazing animals, especially when the shoots are young. Therefore, coppice forests were usually protected against animals by building a ditch, fence or hedge around them. In contrast, pollarding allowed animals and trees to be mixed on the same land. Pollarded trees were pruned like coppices, but to a height of at least two metres to keep the young shoots out of reach of grazing animals.

Wooded meadows and wood pastures – mosaics of pasture and forest – combined the grazing of animals with the production of fodder, firewood and/or construction wood from pollarded trees. “Pannage” or “mast feeding” was the method of sending pigs into pollarded oak forests during autumn, where they could feed on fallen acorns. 

The system formed the mainstay of pork production in Europe for centuries. [7] The “meadow orchard” or “grazed orchard” combined fruit cultivation and grazing -- pollarded fruit trees offered shade to the animals, while the animals could not reach the fruit but fertilised the trees.

While agriculture and forestry are now strictly separated activities, in earlier times the farm was the forest and vice versa. It would make a lot of sense to bring them back together, because agriculture and livestock production – not wood production – are the main drivers of deforestation. 

If trees provide animal fodder, meat and dairy production should not lead to deforestation. If crops can be grown in fields with trees, agriculture should not lead to deforestation. Forest farms would also improve animal welfare, soil fertility and erosion control.

Line Plantings

Extensive plantations could consist of coppiced or pollarded trees, and were often managed as a commons. However, coppicing and pollarding were not techniques seen only in large-scale forest management. Small woodlands in between fields or next to a rural house and managed by an individual household would be coppiced or pollarded. 

A lot of wood was also grown as line plantings around farmyards, fields and meadows, near buildings, and along paths, roads and waterways. Here, lopped trees and shrubs could also appear in the form of hedgerows, thickly planted hedges. [8]

Although line plantings are usually associated with the use of hedgerows in England, they were common in large parts of Europe. In 1804, English historian Abbé Mann expressed his surprise when he wrote about his trip to Flanders (today part of Belgium):

 “All fields are enclosed with hedges, and thick set with trees, insomuch that the whole face of the country, seen from a little height, seems one continued wood”. 

Typical for the region was the large number of pollarded trees. [8]

Like coppice forests, line plantings were diverse and provided people with firewood, construction materials and leaf fodder. However, unlike coppice forests, they had extra functions because of their specific location. [9] One of these was plot separation: keeping farm animals in, and keeping wild animals or cattle grazing on common lands out. Various techniques existed to make hedgerows impenetrable, even for small animals such as rabbits. 

Around meadows, hedgerows or rows of very closely planted pollarded trees (“pollarded tree hedges”) could stop large animals such as cows. If willow wicker was braided between them, such a line planting could also keep small animals out. [8]

Trees and line plantings also offered protection against the weather. Line plantings protected fields, orchards and vegetable gardens against the wind, which could erode the soil and damage the crops. In warmer climates, trees could shield crops from the sun and fertilize the soil. Pollarded lime trees, which have very dense foliage, were often planted right next to wattle-and-daub buildings in order to protect them from wind, rain and sun. [10]

Dunghills were protected by one or more trees, preventing the valuable resource from evaporating due to sun or wind. In the yard of a watermill, the wooden water wheel was shielded by a tree to prevent the wood from shrinking or expanding in times of drought or inactivity. [8]

Location Matters

Along paths, roads and waterways, line plantings had many of the same location-specific functions as on farms. Cattle and pigs were hoarded over dedicated droveways lined with hedgerows, coppices and/or pollards. 

When the railroads appeared, line plantings prevented collisions with animals. They protected road travellers from the weather, and marked the route so that people and animals would not get off the road in a snowy landscape. They prevented soil erosion at riverbanks and hollow roads.

All functions of line plantings could be managed by dead wood fences, which can be moved more easily than hedgerows, take up less space, don’t compete for light and food with crops, and can be ready in a short time. [11

However, in times and places were wood was scarce a living hedge was often preferred (and sometimes obliged) because it was a continuous wood producer, while a dead wood fence was a continuous wood consumer. A dead wood fence may save space and time on the spot, but it implies that the wood for its construction and maintenance is grown and harvested elsewhere in the surroundings.

Local use of wood resources was maximised. For example, the tree that was planted next to the waterwheel, was not just any tree. It was red dogwood or elm, the wood that was best suited for constructing the interior gearwork of the mill. When a new part was needed for repairs, the wood could be harvested right next to the mill. 

Likewise, line plantings along dirt roads were used for the maintenance of those roads. The shoots were tied together in bundles and used as a foundation or to fill up holes. Because the trees were coppiced or pollarded and not cut down, no function was ever at the expense of another.

Nowadays, when people advocate for the planting of trees, targets are set in terms of forested area or the number of trees, and little attention is given to their location – which could even be on the other side of the world. However, as these examples show, planting trees closeby and in the right location can significantly optimise their potential.

Shaped by Limits

Coppicing has largely disappeared in industrial societies, although pollarded trees can still be found along streets and in parks. Their prunings, which once sustained entire communities, are now considered waste products. If it worked so well, why was coppicing abandoned as a source of energy, materials and food? The answer is short: fossil fuels. 

 Our forebears relied on coppice because they had no access to fossil fuels, and we don’t rely on coppice because we have.

Most obviously, fossil fuels have replaced wood as a source of energy and materials. Coal, gas and oil took the place of firewood for cooking, space heating, water heating and industrial processes based on thermal energy. Metal, concrete and brick – materials that had been around for many centuries – only became widespread alternatives to wood after they could be made with fossil fuels, which also brought us plastics. 

Artificial fertilizers – products of fossil fuels – boosted the supply and the global trade of animal fodder, making leaf fodder obsolete. The mechanisation of agriculture – driven by fossil fuels – led to farming on much larger plots along with the elimination of trees and line plantings on farms.

Less obvious, but at least as important, is that fossil fuels have transformed forestry itself. Nowadays, the harvesting, processing and transporting of wood is heavily supported by the use of fossil fuels, while in earlier times they were entirely based on human and animal power – which themselves get their fuel from biomass. It was the limitations of these power sources that created and shaped coppice management all over the world.

Wood was harvested and processed by hand, using simple tools such as knives, machetes, billhooks, axes and (later) saws. Because the labour requirements of harvesting trees by hand increase with stem diameter, it was cheaper and more convenient to harvest many small branches instead of cutting down a few large trees. 

Furthermore, there was no need to split coppiced wood after it was harvested. Shoots were cut to a length of around one metre, and tied together in “faggots”, which were an easy size to handle manually.

To transport firewood, our forebears relied on animal drawn carts over often very bad roads. This meant that, unless it could be transported over water, firewood had to be harvested within a radius of at most 15-30 km from the place where it was used. [12

 Beyond those distances, the animal power required for transporting the firewood was larger than its energy content, and it would have made more sense to grow firewood on the pasture that fed the draft animal. [13] T

here were some exceptions to this rule. Some industrial activities, like iron and potash production, could be moved to more distant forests – transporting iron or potash was more economical than transporting the firewood required for their production. However, in general, coppice forests (and of course also line plantings) were located in the immediate vicinity of the settlement where the wood was used.

In short, coppicing appeared in a context of limits. Because of its faster growth and versatile use of space, it maximised the local wood supply of a given area. Because of its use of small branches, it made manual harvesting and transporting as economical and convenient as possible.

Can Coppicing be Mechanised?

From the twentieth century onwards, harvesting was done by motor saw, and since the 1980s, wood is increasingly harvested by powerful vehicles that can fell entire trees and cut them on the spot in a matter of minutes. 

Fossil fuels have also brought better transportation infrastructures, which have unlocked wood reserves that were inaccessible in earlier times. Consequently, firewood can now be grown on one side of the planet and consumed at the other.

The use of fossil fuels adds carbon emissions to what used to be a completely carbon neutral activity, but much more important is that it has pushed wood production to a larger – unsustainable – scale. [14

Fossil fueled transportation has destroyed the connection between supply and demand that governed local forestry. If the wood supply is limited, a community has no other choice than to make sure that the wood harvest rate and the wood renewal rate are in balance. Otherwise, it risks running out of fuelwood, craft wood and animal fodder, and it would be abandoned.

Likewise, fully mechanised harvesting has pushed forestry to a scale that is incompatible with sustainable forest management. Our forebears did not cut down large trees for firewood, because it was not economical. 

Today, the forest industry does exactly that because mechanisation makes it the most profitable thing to do. Compared to industrial forestry, where one worker can harvest up to 60 m3 of wood per hour, coppicing is extremely labour-intensive. 

Consequently, it cannot compete in an economic system that fosters the replacement of human labour with machines powered by fossil fuels.

Some scientists and engineers have tried to solve this by demonstrating coppice harvesting machines. 

[15] However, mechanisation is a slippery slope. The machines are only practical and economical on somewhat larger tracts of woodland (>1 ha) which contain coppiced trees of the same species and the same age, with only one purpose (often fuelwood for power generation).

 As we have seen, this excludes many older forms of coppice management, such as the use of multipurpose trees and line plantings. Add fossil fueled transportation to the mix, and the result is a type of industrial coppice management that brings few improvements.

Sustainable forest management is essentially local and manual. This doesn’t mean that we need to copy the past to make biomass energy sustainable again.

 For example, the radius of the wood supply could be increased by low energy transport options, such as cargo bikes and aerial ropeways, which are much more efficient than horse or ox drawn carts over bad roads, and which could be operated without fossil fuels. 

Hand tools have also improved in terms of efficiency and ergonomics. We could even use motor saws that run on biofuels – a much more realistic application than their use in car engines. [16]

The Past Lives On

This article has compared industrial biomass production with historical forms of forest management in Europe, but in fact there was no need to look to the past for inspiration. The 40% of the global population consisting of people in poor societies that still burn wood for cooking and water and/or space heating, are no clients of industrial forestry. Instead, they obtain firewood in much of the same ways that we did in earlier times, although the tree species and the environmental conditions can be very different. [17]

A 2017 study calculated that the wood consumption by people in “developing” societies – good for 55% of the global wood harvest and 9-15% of total global energy consumption – only causes 2-8% of anthropogenic climate impacts. [18

 Why so little? Because around two-thirds of the wood that is harvested in developing societies is harvested sustainably, write the scientists. People collect mainly dead wood, they grow a lot of wood outside the forest, they coppice and pollard trees, and they prefer the use of multipurpose trees, which are too valuable to cut down. 

The motives are the same as those of our ancestors: people have no access to fossil fuels and are thus tied to a local wood supply, which needs to be harvested and transported manually.

These numbers confirm that it is not biomass energy that’s unsustainable. If the whole of humanity would live as the 40% that still burns biomass regularly, climate change would not be an issue. What is really unsustainable is a high energy lifestyle. 

We can obviously not sustain a high-tech industrial society on coppice forests and line plantings alone. But the same is true for any other energy source, including uranium and fossil fuels. 

Gaia's Response to Us

SUBHEAD: The Earth is not dying, Gaia is just reacting to our mistakes.

By Erik Assadournian on 20 December 2020 for Gaianism.org -

Image above: One of the earliest images of the whole Earth from 29,000 miles into space taken from NASA Appolo 17 spaceship on way to Moon. It was titled the Blue Marble and and is one of the most reproduced images in history. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_Marble).

So often we hear the phrase ‘save the world’ or the ‘save our planet.’ We may even use it. But sometime back in my career someone wise corrected that, explaining that the planet is not dying but changing—and through that change many species, including our own, will probably die. But the Earth, in all likelihood, will not die.

But to say the Earth is changing, just as to say it is dying, is passive, like, saying ‘Oops, too bad, we were born on a sick old planet—just our bad luck.’

No, Gaia is responding. Responding to our actions. Whatever metaphors you want to use here, feel free: You want to make Gaia into a finely-balanced aquarium filled with exotic fish, and us a wild child dropping soap in the tank to ‘clean’ it

You want to make Gaia a partner suffering from domestic abuse who finally lashes out on us, her abuser, after years of mistreatment? You want to make Gaia a complex planetary system that holds heat from space with a thin coating of co2, a layer that has increased to a level not seen in 23 million years, higher than even three million years ago when global temperatures were 2 degrees C warmer and sea levels were 15-25 meters higher? While the last isn’t artful, it is accurate.

Gaia is responding. To the altered conditions we have unleashed—with our profligate burning of fossil fuels, our cutting down of forests and ravaging of oceans, and our sheer numbers (us and our pets and livestock).

Amazingly, I don’t see us correcting course any time soon.

This past year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we shut down large parts of our economy. And so far an additional 1.7 million people have died from COVID. Each and every death is a tragedy. But guess what? Atmospheric concentrations of co2 increased this past year, hitting yet another record (though at this point every year is a record as long as it keeps going up).

That’s pretty amazing. Air travel declined dramatically and is currently 46% lower than in 2019. Road travel in the US declined 11 percent compared with last year. Many businesses were shuttered and will never come back, particularly restaurants. 

But we kept eating, kept making things (after a brief pause) and perhaps even more things to fill consumer demand for novelties while stuck at home (from appliances to backyard patio sets),** plus, all the personal protective equipment (129 billion masks a month!), vaccines, and the equipment needed to deliver them (see, for example, the current boon in freezers and dry ice).

If anything, this year of pandemic, of urgent antiracism protests and prodemocracy demonstrations (not just in the US but countries like Belarus), and of endless Trumpian shenanigans and stoking of conflict and partisanship have crippled the climate movement.

Online protests don’t draw eyes—especially when there are half a dozen other crises to report on every day (including climate-driven ones like raging fires and a record hurricane season). And while groups like Fridays for the Future and the Extinction Rebellion have remained active, the smaller actions they’ve taken have gotten much less attention.

This past week, my wife, son, and I watched I am Greta. It was certainly a moving film, exploring how Greta Thunberg went from one individual striking, alone, in front of the Swedish parliament building for the climate, to sparking a global climate movement to becoming a symbol—both of youthful leadership and truth-telling as well as a vilified figure for those on the right, even receiving death threats.

And thus Greta has also become a symbol of this whole polarized nightmare. Climate change is a threat to our existence, but truly effective action (meaning economic degrowth and daunting levels of cultural change) is a threat to “our way of life” (i.e. the dominant consumer-capitalist paradigm). 

And thus, as viewers see in one scene, Thunburg argues passionately for action in front of the European Economic and Social Committee and Jean-Claude Juncker (president of the European Commission at the time) responds by saying that they’re working “to harmonize all flushes across all toilets in Europe,” which will help save water and energy. You could see the palpable contempt on Thunberg’s face.

Deep down I was hoping my son, 8.5, would say to me let’s start going to the Middletown Town Hall each Friday to strike. I’d be up for that. I want to do that. But I want him to lead that. I don’t want to ‘use’ him, like in an uncomfortably funny scene in the Dutch show Rita where parents make their daughter lead a school climate strike in order to get a book deal.

But the majority of kids, nej, the majority of all people do not want to spend their days protesting. They simply want to enjoy their lives.

But Gaia is responding. To our carbon-intensive life-enjoyment processes. And if we don’t try something different, perhaps partaking in “good trouble”, we’re gonna be in great trouble.

Carbon March to DC

Back in late 2008 (12 long years ago), I shared a proposal with some of the leaders of the climate movement at the time. It was a proposal to organize people from around the United States to walk to Washington,*** taking several months, building the energy and media attention as smaller groups merged into bigger ones and neared the capital, and then blockading major entryways into the city until the new president, Barack Obama, and the Congress felt compelled to respond. 

Note, this was before Occupy Wall Street and XR but absolutely not a new idea—I took it directly from Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi mixed with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and other non-violent actions (as you can read here).**** I got some generic positive comments, like Greta at the European Commission, but nothing more. 

And considering I had a cushy job at a sustainability think tank, and had just been invited to direct a new book (on consumerism and cultural change my passion), I didn’t push very hard. Especially as everyone else seemed so optimistic that, under the new president, we’d deal with climate change.

But we didn’t. And I should have pushed harder. And I should now. But even now, as the crisis is upon us (not a looming threat any longer), when I have a young son who will inherit this mess, I find myself hesitating at the idea of putting life on hold and risking life and liberty. 

Sure, in part it’s because I have a child, though old enough to walk with me now (and he’d probably get a kick out of walking from Connecticut to DC, where we used to live). And partly it’s because I’m conflicted about whether it’s simply too late to stop the climate unraveling (see the postscript below). But if I’m honest, it’s also because I’m too comfortable.

Yet, without sustained and consistent pressure, Biden’s climate policy, especially with a divided Congress, will not be enough nor will the Green New Deal that activists are advocating for and mostly consists of unsustainable techno-fixes instead of returning to live within Earth’s limits. No country is currently doing enough, as yet more research shows. Do we just accept that and prepare for collapse as best we can or do we fight, risking our freedom, safety, and comfort for that?

Perhaps the Carbon March is not a good idea (though I admit I still really like it, post-pandemic) but we certainly need to expand, support, and deepen efforts of groups like XR and Fridays for the Future, particularly in the United States, where climate protests have taken a back seat to issues that feel more pressing (and frankly have never gotten enough attention or energy here). 

Of course, we need to address racism, COVID, inequality, growing far-right extremism, and gun violence, as well, but if we don’t find a way to fold climate change into the mix, or even fold all of these into an intersectionalist environmentalist framework—then we’re toast, and, as the world burns, all the social gains fought for over the past two centuries will go up in flames with it.

Postscript: To Fight or Adapt? Or Both?

Taking on one other dimension of this, there is a new divide growing between those still trying to ‘save the world’ (aka stop runaway climate change and the mass die off of life including people), and those who simply think it’s too late, and that the best we can do is prepare for the inevitable transition ahead. This latter community, perhaps best represented by The Deep Adaptation Forum, may be right. But that doesn’t mean we can throw in the towel. 

Every part per million of co2 in the atmosphere is going to make things worse (in a non-linear kind of way). Yes, we need those working on preparing for the transition (in both direct ways, like the Transition Town Movement, and deeper ways, including, I’d argue cultivating an ecocentric spirituality that can help us get through the horrors ahead with our humanity intact), because a post-growth future—one wracked by a never-ending series of disasters—is coming soon to a theater near all of us. But we also need those slowing down this march to collapse (especially as after a point, adaptation is impossible).

This is the ideal, though: the actions we take in one realm would also help in the other. For example, a months-long march to Washington to press for climate solutions would also build social capital, engage communities around the country, teach participants to live simply (and get used to living with less), and rediscover basic skills like cooking (for their cadre of marchers). 

This might subtly do a lot to get us ready for the degrowth/collapsed reality ahead. And cultivating an ecospirituality that strongly encourages its adherents to be engaged politically and socially (especially in ways that help normalize degrowth) would also support both realms. 

Ultimately, with the scope of change needed, it does not much matter if you devote yourself to deep adaptation or to slowing the collapse—both are essential and both are part of our bigger collective struggle. The only thing we cannot afford is no corrective action at all.


*Then again, as James Lovelock has noted, Gaia is older than Gi once was. There is a point when the strain of switching states could end all life on Earth and thus Gaia. And of course, like all beings, it is inevitable that Gaia will one day die, the sun’s growing heat and finite life guarantee that. But I have faith that Lynn Margulis is right in that the bacteria deep in the Earth will spread out and create new variations to fill in the empty niches of the new hot world humanity unleashes, starting another cycle of life.

**And factoring in hoarding, we may have even consumed more household goods and food (though it is feasible that this increase might have been offset by food waste avoided from eating at restaurants).

***Due to the nature of this journey, many of the participants would be students and elders (retirees) supported by the communities with food and shelter and attention as they passed through.

****I was inspired to write this after listening to Wendell Berry speak, telling his audience of environmental journalists that the time for “symbolic” civil disobedience was over (in 2008). By that he meant short-term actions that were designed for media attention but did not really disrupt anything in any sustained way that would force a serious response.


When Consensus is Fractured

SUBHEAD: In 2020 we found ourselves in a world where we could not agree on what is reality.

By Richard Heinberg on 18 December 2020 for Resilience.org -

Image above: Volunteers help clean up the parking lot outside a Best Buy store, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, after vandals struck overnight in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. From (https://www.hotsr.com/news/2020/aug/11/hundreds-ransack-downtown-chicago-businesses/).

Virtually everyone agrees that 2020 was an abomination. An entire industry of opinion writers is busying itself with end-of-year hand wringing, scouring every online thesaurus for adjectives to express just how horrible the last twelve months have been. 

But what facet of the awfulness to focus on? For the appalled chronicler, the most obvious starting points are the coronavirus pandemic, which has left illness, death, shuttered businesses, and lost jobs trailing in its wake, and the chaotic US presidential election, in which the soundly defeated incumbent has attacked and seriously weakened the very foundations of democracy on his way out the door. 

These two baskets of grim news (pandemic and election) have been accompanied by a shift in the national (and, to some extent, global) zeitgeist—a shift that’s been obvious to anyone paying attention, but that’s nevertheless challenging to capture in words. 

Let’s call it the fracturing of consensus reality. While it won’t be the top story of the year according to most news roundups, it may end up being just as impactful as anything else that’s happened during our latest orbit of the sun. And that’s saying something. 

What’s Real? Let’s All Agree As social and linguistic creatures, we humans—operating in groups—create shared mental worlds. We perceive sensory data, then we verbalize and conceptualize those perceptions, and finally we check our verbalized and conceptualized accounts of reality with other people. 

Over time, a consensus emerges. This language-mediated reality-building process is hardly new; it’s been going on since we all lived by hunting and gathering. Then, everybody within their little groups shared the same stories and the same basic mental map of the world.

After we adopted agriculture, social classes and full-time division of labor ensued. With slavery, kings, and a dramatic reduction in the social power of women, consensus reality became more of a Venn diagram, with the king having the final word in defining the overlapping region on the diagram representing consensus. 

Later, the emergence of writing and Big God religions enabled reality to be codified for empires, and elements of the dominant consensus (e.g., Roman law and Christianity) could be spread among alien cultures. 

For most Europeans, even as dynasties came and went, reality remained essentially whatever the Bible, the church, and the king or emperor said it was. Consensus reality was never consistent or complete and never a correct map of what it purported to represent; it was always an approximation skewed by power relations. 

Some people’s realities were privileged, while other people’s were marginalized, excluded, or intentionally destroyed. And there were always blind spots—actual trends, vulnerabilities, and consequences that nobody noticed or talked about, such as the gradual depletion of natural resources—that only became “real” when they could no longer be ignored. The modern era (from roughly 1500 on) brought new sources of diversity to the consensus-building process. 

As Europeans conquered societies around the globe, “reality” began to reflect the sounds and flavors of these diverse cultures; the result was everything from jazz to fusion cuisine. Meanwhile, the power of commerce greatly increased, reducing the influence of church and aristocracy. 

Increased diversity and a shift toward commercial primacy were accompanied by new integrative trends in the process of collective reality-building. Principal among these was the emergence of science—a self-correcting method for discovering objective truth. 

Of course, science had its blind spots, too (for example, it was often subject to commercial influence—witness the long lags in recognizing the nasty side effects of tobacco and pesticides), but it was persuasive: assertions could be tested by controlled experiment. 

Over the decades, science built formidable structures of knowledge that most people lacked the expertise or temerity to question, but that could be verified by anyone with the necessary resources. Reality became “enlightened.” Another integrative trend consisted of the development of new communication tools—the printing press, and later radio, movies, and television. 

Increasingly, through these media, nearly everyone was exposed to common facts, ideas, and images. The wealthy banker and the destitute farmer uprooted by the dust bowl were marinated in the same Hollywood imagery, and the same civics homilies taught in compulsory public schools. 

Cracks in the Modern Consensus The emerging global consensus suffered a couple of serious ruptures during the modern era. In Europe, fascism brought more than a new set of political power relations; it created a mental universe so dominated by notions of racial and national superiority that it demanded the rewriting of textbooks. 

And in Russia, communism built a narrative in which the dictatorship of the proletariat—under constant attack by the forces of capitalism—must ultimately prevail, leading to a workers’ paradise. 

Both fascists and communists used new mass communication tools (radio, movies, and newspapers) to give their consensus realities force and credibility. Even science could be repurposed to support alternate realities. In the Soviet Union, the state decided to back an alternative to natural selection and science-based agriculture. 

The originator of this heterodox set of views, Trofim Lysenko, became Director of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences, where—with Stalin’s approving help—he rooted out the study of Mendelian genetics and taught instead the theory that characteristics acquired by parents can be directly transmitted to their offspring. 

Opponents of Lysenko were accused of “mysticism, obscurantism, and backwardness,” then banished to Siberian work camps. As a result, biological science in the Soviet bloc was set back decades. After the defeat of fascism in WWII and the fall of the Soviet bloc, the West’s consensus—shaped largely by the US—seemed to become reunified and stabilized. 

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama called it “the end of history.” But blind spots persisted and grew. Some of these profoundly shaped not just the dominant worldview itself, but the contours of daily life for multitudes. 

One telling example: the so-called science of economics codified for nearly everyone the false assumption that perpetual growth in industrial activity is possible, and denied all evidence to the contrary. 

Economics concealed other blind spots as well, as it continually ignored widespread signs that the “free market” does not in fact benefit everyone, and that people do not actually behave like idealized rational self-interest-maximizing robots. 

Some persistent and periodically worsening cracks in the consensus ripped along economic, ethnic, or political fault lines: especially during the Jim Crow era, African-Americans and European-Americans in southern US states inhabited sharply different realities, and stark inequities have persisted to the present. 

Other cracks, fed by suspicions that powerful people were manipulating the consensus to their own benefit, led to what came to be known as conspiracy theories—including doubts about the official accounts of the JFK assassination and 9/11, as well as misgivings about the safety and “real” purpose of water fluoridation and vaccination. Meanwhile, communications media were evolving still further. 

While radio and television had a largely unifying effect during the 20th century, the internet and social media are proving to be disintegrative to consensus in the 21st. Algorithms capture users’ interests and prejudices and feed them news and opinion articles that lead them to have ever-more-extreme views. 

“Do you think the government is suppressing information about space aliens? You don’t know the half of it! Read this!” 

The radicalizing propensity of social media was a factor in the sudden political ascendancy of Donald Trump, who acted as both symptom and driver of consensus breakdown. As a real estate developer and reality TV personality, he seemed an exceedingly inexperienced and unlikely candidate for the top political office in the country, and arguably the world. His intellect and ethics were widely suspect. 

But he had the ability to give utterance to the grievances of a sector of the populace that feels left behind—people of mostly European ancestry in low-density towns and rural areas across the nation (in recent decades, most of America’s wealth and cultural attention has flowed to high-density, multi-ethnic cities). 

Even if Trump could not change the material circumstances of small-town families, he could make them feel as though they had a voice. Ironically—and perhaps therefore somehow even more fittingly—it was the voice of a gaudily privileged New Yorker. 

But it was an angry voice, and it spoke in words of few syllables. He was the first Twitter President. The Trump team’s communication strategy, in the immortal words of former top adviser Steve Bannon, was to “flood the zone with shit.” Disruption of consensus reality wasn’t a regrettable side effect of their efforts; it was a central goal. 2020: The Dam Breaks In short, prior to the year now ending, consensus reality in the US was already starting to crumble. But 2020 delivered two sledgehammer blows: a pandemic and a polarizing presidential election. First, the pandemic. 

As many observers have pointed out, COVID-19 has greatly varying infection and death rates by nation, and countries with higher levels of social cohesion have generally tended to do better at combatting the disease. 

The United States has fared the worst of all countries in raw numbers, with over 17 million total cases so far and over 300,000 deaths (about a dozen smaller countries, including Belgium and San Marino, have suffered higher per capita rates of infection and mortality). Currently the US is seeing over 200,000 new cases each day and roughly 2,500 deaths. 

Unless the trend changes, total mortality for the country may eventually begin to rival that of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, in which about 675,000 died (though the per capita death rate will almost certainly not be as grim, given today’s far larger population). 

 Why has the US suffered such a horrific outcome? 

Much of the blame certainly must be borne by President Trump and his political appointees and allies in the federal government. They mounted almost no coordinated national pandemic response; instead, states were left to formulate their own policies and to compete with each other for medical supplies. 

Messaging from the executive branch was likewise unhelpful or downright counterproductive: in the early weeks, when the virus was largely just a distant menace and preparations could have made a huge difference, the President dismissed the need for concern (on January 22, he told a CNBC interviewer, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”). 

Then, when it became clear that sickness was spreading and people were dying, Trump invented the term “China virus,” evidently seeking to deflect blame while still failing to forge a national response plan. Later in the year, as economic and political concerns took the spotlight, 

Trump returned to almost completely ignoring the disease, even omitting attendance, for weeks at a time, at meetings of his coronavirus task force. With no clear messaging from the President, it was essential that the appropriate federal agencies step in. But here again the response faltered. 

The Centers for Disease Control at first advised the public against mask wearing, despite clear evidence that masks were effective at stopping the spread of the disease. Only later, once masks became more widely available, did the CDC change its recommendation. 

But this self-contradiction had undercut the agency’s credibility. Many people continued to believe that mask wearing is ineffective, while the President encouraged his followers to see mask mandates as government overreach. Conspiracy theories immediately filled the vacuum of leadership and consistent government messaging. 

Millions of people, stuck at home under lockdowns, were spending more time than ever on social media and Google, exploring ideas and opinions about the coronavirus. A pair of YouTube documentaries titled “Plandemic” became instant sensations.

 Many people adopted the view that there simply is no pandemic, and that the “fake news” media ginned up the story as a way to enable globalist liberal elites to exert more control over citizens and the economy. Now that vaccines are on the horizon, the conspiracy mill is cranking harder and faster than ever. While the anti-vax movement has been slowly simmering for decades, its current leaders’ books are suddenly among the top-sellers on Amazon.

Up to a third of Americans say they will likely refuse to take a vaccine when it is available. While many people hope that the advent of vaccines will halt the pandemic in its tracks, anti-vax fervor, along with the soaring rate of infections, may mean that the disease will continue to spread and kill far into the new year. If Americans were divided prior to the pandemic, their tribalism only intensified as the decision about whether to wear a mask became an instantly visible expression of group identity. 

But division was deepened also by the fact that 2020 was a presidential election year. Elections are always polarizing. That’s the point: each voter must choose one candidate or another; “all of the above” is not an option. 

But this election season pushed the polarization needle far into the danger zone. Democrats steeped themselves in books and articles detailing accusations that Donald Trump presents all the clinical symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, and that he is an authoritarian, a rapist, a tax cheat, a business fraudster, a Russian puppet, and a traitor.

At the same time, followers of QAnon (who is supposedly a patriotic government insider) spread the notion that leading Democrats are Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring, while Trump—a messiah sent by God—heads a heroic behind-the-scenes effort to preserve decency, freedom, and Christianity (QAnon believers now occupy seats in Congress and many state houses). The election outcome was unequivocal. 

Biden bested Trump by 7 million popular votes, with electoral votes stacked 306 to 232. Even Republican election officials in swing states said the balloting went off with scarcely a hitch. But Trump, evidently unwilling to be seen as a loser (or perhaps wishing to avoid prosecution for financial crimes once he leaves office), claimed that the election was rigged and that he had actually won. 

A flurry of almost 60 lawsuits followed, two making their way to the Supreme Court; all were dismissed. No convincing evidence of widespread irregularities was produced. Nevertheless, Trump’s followers adopted the narrative that millions of dead people had voted for Biden, and that suitcases full of illicit Biden ballots had been surreptitiously delivered to vote tabulators. According to one poll, only a quarter of Republicans think Biden was legitimately elected.

 A steady drumbeat of evidence-free assertions resounding through right-wing media channels and parroted by Republican elected officials (who fear retribution from Trump’s base) has created a formidable alternate reality in which Trump won fair and square, while Biden is being falsely elevated to the highest office.

 Consensus Dynamics Cognitive dissonance—the holding of contradictory thoughts or beliefs—makes people miserable. And when a person’s own interpretation of reality runs counter to the consensus reality, some degree of paranoia or depression often results. 

Alternatively, a person unmoored from the dominant consensus may become a dedicated paradigm warrior intent on converting others to their own views, sometimes even by violence. The loss of consensus is therefore also problematic for society as a whole. 

People who have left the consensus behind may disregard or flout norms (such as longstanding informal rules with regard to elections and Congressional procedures). Society then becomes less capable of solving problems; and so, if economic, social, or environmental crises materialize, societal collapse of one sort or another becomes a real possibility. 

As individuals find themselves not just disagreeing on politics or religion, but living in different and directly conflicting mental universes, they individually experience cognitive pain and anguish. Families are torn apart, friendships severed. 

But the collective risks of consensus breakdown go deeper, and include the possibility of widespread rage, pushing society toward civil violence, coup, or state failure. If, as is often the case, the fracturing of consensus results in (or is caused by) strong feelings of grievance among one group against another, a cycle of retribution may ensue. 

Recent brain research by James Kimmel, Jr. at the Yale University School of Medicine shows that the brain on grievance craves retribution in much the same way a brain addicted to heroin craves more heroin. 

 Is the fracturing of consensus reality a symptom of societal decline due to other factors (such as economic crisis or limits to vital resources), or is it an independent variable, capable of causing collapse by itself? 

In my view, the former is more likely the case: if a society is doing well economically, it is usually able to resolve occasional cognitive contradictions over time. A polarizing demagogue (like Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace) may appear, but the status quo eventually reasserts itself.

However, if a society is experiencing an economic, political, or social emergency, consensus breakdown may contribute to a self-reinforcing process of collapse. People’s views of reality don’t diverge arbitrarily and without cause. They do so because people’s self-interests (which may differ by income, status, region, religion, or ethnicity) are becoming further divided. The divergence of worldviews is thus a secondary problem.

But once consensus begins to shatter, people’s interests are likely to diverge even further as bifurcating worldviews create economic and social islands. People may even separate geographically, moving to be closer to people with whom they share values and views. 

Further, if an increasing majority people in a given community are espousing a new shared belief, others may feel compelled to alter their previous beliefs in order to belong. The fragmentation of consensus reality isn’t just a war of ideas. It is a more profound and disturbing process both psychologically and socially. People who have abandoned, or who have been abandoned by, the consensus may find dubious new beliefs to cling to; but they may also become keenly aware of cultural blind spots that others continue to ignore. 

They feel themselves flung into a new universe; the experience can be either terrifying or thrilling, or both. One of the effects of loss of consensus is the lowering of social trust. Trust is the basis of cooperation, and high levels of cooperation are required for modern complex societies to function. 

According to surveys by Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans think interpersonal trust has weakened in the past 20 years. There is a strong correlation between low trust and Trump voters—which could be an explanation for why the pre-election 2020 polls were inaccurate: people who are distrustful not only disproportionately voted for Trump but also refused to participate in polling surveys. Because the costs to society of loss of consensus are obvious and considerable, societies invest heavily in maintaining a shared worldview. 

But if there are severe and growing flaws in that consensus, keeping it whole may not be an option. 

When consensus fractures into two directly competing narratives, some people may seek to resolve cognitive dissonance by claiming that the two narratives are equally valid. But this is a difficult stance to maintain, as the narratives are usually mutually exclusive. Take the current case with regard to the US presidential election: the main competing reality claims are not on equal footing with regard to facts or outcomes. 

The “Trump really won” claim is simply fantasy; the “Biden really won” claim is backed by clear evidence that will result in the actual inauguration of a new President. But, in a way, facts are beside the point. Over a third of Americans are so alienated from the consensus that they prefer to believe obviously fabricated lies rather than to acknowledge demonstrable proof. 

The new Republican “reality” is tenable not because it is based on anything physically verifiable, but because it is emotionally satisfying for people who refuse to accept the dominant narrative. In the post-Trump era, traditional Republican ideology (low taxes, states’ rights, limited government spending) becomes entirely expendable. 

Any argument that “owns the Dems” is good, regardless how specious. 

Democracy itself becomes an impediment to the goal of wrecking the consensus. Defenders of the dominant worldview can’t understand why anyone would be so upset with it. Isn’t it based on science and established values and traditions? 

Doesn’t the alternative represent a devolution into pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and deepening dissension? 

To a certain extent, the fervor of the disestablishmentarian faction is traceable to economic and social trends mentioned earlier (the flow of wealth and power to coastal urban centers and the slow demographic shift of the country toward multi-ethnicity). The upholders of the mainstream consensus accept those trends, which their elites use to their own advantage, but they fail to take account of those left behind, or to see the holes and blind spots in the consensus they defend. 

 Perhaps the deepest blind spot in the current US consensus is that it has no satisfying and unifying vision, no coherent ideology; its main guiding value is simply “more.” Its implicit message: we must keep on doing what we’re doing (producing more wealth by turning more of nature into waste) because to do otherwise would result in economic Armageddon. 

The best we can do is to somehow avert catastrophic climate change and reduce extreme wealth inequality with technical work-arounds, even as we continue to do the very things that cause those problems. 

 The central lie of the consensus is that the rising tide of economic growth will lift all boats . . . eventually. But eventually never seems to come. As the folly of expecting endless economic growth on a finite planet starts to reveal itself—via the need for ever more drastic measures to maintain the appearance of growth and to prevent widespread destitution—something has to give. People who feel unfairly treated as the impossible perpetual-growth machine decelerates begin fleeing the consensus, even if doing so leads them to curse imaginary scapegoats and believe obvious fictions. 

 Can the Old Consensus Be Repaired? Can a New One Be Built? Joe Biden is central casting’s answer to the call for a tried-and-true figurehead to restore the old consensus. Anyone who’s not swept up in anti-elite fervor probably finds it easy to sympathize with his exhortation to bring America back together, and his intention to be President of all the people, including those who voted against him.

However, Biden faces daunting if not insurmountable challenges. These arise not just from fervent, defeated, and angry Trumpists, who may attempt to run a “shadow” presidency, countering every action of the new administration. 

There are also hurdles inherent in the taming of the pandemic and the stabilization of the economy. Less widely acknowledged but perhaps most formidable of all is the challenge of finally coming to terms with the blind spots and lies embedded in the worldview that still runs the machinery of our economy and government. Consumerism—a way of organizing the economy that is fundamentally at odds with nature’s limits—is so deeply and implicitly woven into the warp and weft of modern America that only a cathartic collapse and renewal is likely to expunge it. 

The best Biden can likely do, even if he has the strategic brilliance to propose a Rural New Deal, is to be a competent placeholder. The perplexing fact is that we don’t know what kind of new consensus may emerge, or when. 

Indeed, it is entirely possible that, in the context of energy and economic decline, the human ideasphere will remain fragmented from now onward. However, I’d like to think that a new consensus is indeed possible, and that it will comprise the best of what we humans have learned so far. 

And, though what follows is entirely speculative, it seems appropriate to close this essay with an exploration of what that consensus might look like. Science would be an obvious candidate for inclusion, blind spots and all: its self-correcting mechanism tends to deliver improving approximations of truth with regard to physical reality. 

Of course, in a world with a smaller and slower economy and much less energy available, only comparatively small and simple experiments might be possible, but it’s the method that matters. 

 Science can’t tell us much about values and goals. For those, knowledge is less important than wisdom. And wisdom comes from intelligent self-control. As sages have always taught, it is in the taming of selfish urges that we find compassion and contentment. 

After the environmental and social mayhem that our two-century fossil-fueled consumerist mania will ultimately and undoubtedly unleash, I think we are likely to develop a strong and healthy collective skepticism regarding the aggregation of power for its own sake. 

A sustainability-oriented worldview would acknowledge the ongoing need for a low and stable population relative to environmental carrying capacity. And it would prize sufficiency, equity, resilience, and happiness above accumulation and ostentatious display. 

Our remarkable human capacities for language and tool making have gotten us into plenty of trouble over the millennia, never more so than now. A healthy consensus worldview would channel those outsized abilities away from geopolitical dominance and the production of wealth for the few, and toward the democratic (rather than just elite) production of beauty in all its possible forms—including poetry, literature, movement, music, art, drama, and architecture. And it would guide aesthetic appreciation toward the enhancement and emulation of nature.

Finally, a future consensus would take account of varying human needs, proclivities, modes of expression, histories, brain chemistry, and more, seeking reconciliation and community rather than exploitation and dominance. 

Such a consensus reality, such a culture, is far from where we are now. Between here and there sits a valley we must cross. If we travel together, we have a better chance of arriving safely on the other side. That requires healing the divisions among us, if and when we disagree. 

Have a peaceful holiday season.