Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, November 30, 2007

Lifeboat Time

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (November 29 2007)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull's pierced and water's rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can't be stopped very soon, it's lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who's looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world's rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we're currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren't happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers - the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up fifty to sixty feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren't enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven't been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed "securities" in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn't happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world's largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse {*}. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History (Oxford University Press, 1934 - 1961). If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization - and it's hard to think of a reason why it should not - the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.


No, that wasn't a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire's outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it's hard to miss the signs of decline.

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations may offer a useful perspective on what's coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today's perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 - different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale - may be in the offing.

If that's likely - and I believe it is - we're in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody's making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don't include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I'm thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they've spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I'm thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he'll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I'm thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents's farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis - paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis - are off the radar screen. That's unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there's still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It's no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It's even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in twenty degrees Fahrenheit weather, knowing you'll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS - if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they're still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There's been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that's been useful in its way, but talk doesn't substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Bill Totten

Outsourcing Libraries

by David Bollier

On The Commons (November 06 2007)

There may be no more eloquent statement about the erosion of our civic connectedness than the news that public libraries around the country are starting to outsource their daily operations. Yes, public libraries are being privatized. This should not be entirely surprising, given how jails, highways and even military operations are being privatized these days. Yet it does raise the distressing question - If libraries are vulnerable, where will this momentum for dismantling our civic institutions end?

Julia Silverman of the Associated Press reports {1} that about fifteen cities and towns around the country have outsourced their libraries by signing on with Library Systems and Services, Inc (LSSI), a privately held Germantown, Maryland, company. Among the cities that have privatized their library management are San Juan and Leander in Texas; Redding and Moorpark in California; and the Jackson-Madison County library system in Tennessee.

The reason given for outsourcing library services is always the same: cost savings. But rarely do calmer-minds-in-charge stop to ask how those savings are achieved and what they communicate to the public. The first step in privatization is the hiring of new employees and the laying off of existing public employees and union members. LSSI also shortens library hours, sometimes dramatically. To reap new efficiencies, one can imagine a standardization of book acquisition. Will the new management really care about local needs and sensibilities?

The biggest loss from privatization may be the changed image of the public library. A civic institution serving public needs becomes a quasi-business dedicated to profit. That, in turn, changes our commitment to it. Would you volunteer and sacrifice to help out a local library that is run by an out-of-state corporation?

"This is a shift from the public trust into private hands", one librarian lamented after his library was privatized. "Libraries have always been a source of information for everyone and owned by no one". Libraries are not just another "cost-center" on a budget sheet; they are symbols of a community, democratic culture and equal opportunity. The privatization of libraries symbolizes our political unwillingness to provide for the common good.

Most cities and towns have financial troubles at one point or another, and any responsible government has to make ends meet. But it is telling that this necessity is not being met with belt-tightening or higher taxes - or some other community-based solution - but with a surrender of the institution itself to a private contractor. Our problem may not be with municipal finances per se (although much could be done there), but with our waning sense of the commons ... at least, in fifteen cities and towns.

Link {1}:

Bill Totten

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Opting Out of Junk Mail

by David Bollier

On The Commons (November 07 2007)

As the holiday season approaches and we brace ourselves for a blizzard of unsolicited catalogs, it's perhaps worth asking: Is the US Postal Service really serving our long-term interests in promoting junk mail? It is a little-known fact that the post office actively encourages junk mailers to send us nineteen billion unsolicited catalogs a year. Second and third class mailing constitutes a huge segment of its revenues.

The post office and junk mailers argue that they are doing us a favor. After all, the revenues from junk mail help keep everyone's mailing rates lower. But should that be the only standard that they should guide them?

Forget about our individual annoyance at getting a mailbox full of mail we don't want. (About eighty percent of my daily mail is junk.) The real issue is the harm to the environment. It takes over eight million tons of trees to produce the paper for each year's output of catalogs. Put this in a larger context: Nearly half of the planet's original forest cover is gone today. Forests have effectively disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 have lost more than ninety percent of their forest cover. Deforestation contributes between twenty percent and 25% of all carbon pollution, causing global climate change.

Junk mail contributes to these problems, and the US Postal Service and its bulk-mailing customers are more a part of the problem than the solution. If it were not so intent on encouraging junk mailings, the Postal Service might better represent our collective interest in saving the planet. But ever since Congress mandated that the post office must turn a profit, and not merely be a government service that has a larger mission and vision, it has gotten used to coddling one of its biggest customers.

This helps explains why the post office has not made it easy for people to opt out of catalogs and other junk mailings. If there were an easy way for households to decline unsolicited mass mailings, it could have a huge impact. Instead, the post office, with a dwindling base of first-class mail and a huge number of employees, feels compelled to maximize its economic "through-put" (junk mail) despite the obvious harm to the environment. In a very real sense, the commons is subsidizing the post office's bottom line. The full costs of sending billions of catalogs through the mail are not borne by merchants who mail catalogs, but by the environment.

So what is to be done?

I was thrilled to learn of a new website, Catalog Choice that was recently launched by the Ecology Center, and endorsed by a number of environmental groups. You can go to the site,, and ask that your name be removed from the mailings of more than 600 catalogs. Since the site went public a month ago, more than 113,000 people have signed up to opt-out of over 800,000 catalogs: an amazing launch to this project.

It's too late to stop the mailing of this year's holiday crush of catalogs, but you can start the new year off on the right foot. And the more people who join this effort, the more likely that it will pressure the post office and junk-mail industry to reduce gratuitous mailings.

Over the long term, it's time to take a closer look at how the Postal Service is serving the environment. Its website lists a number of modest "sustainability initiatives" - alternative-fuel vehicles, recycling, et cetera - but nary a mention of the junk mail. So who will step up to name and tackle this problem? In the meantime, go to Catalog Choice and do your part.

Bill Totten

What Was Behind the Honey Bee Wipeout?

Everyone has a theory why the honeybees started dying off. Try malnutrition.

by Gina Covina, Terrain

AlterNet (October 16 2007)

On Alan Wilson's table at the Oakland Farmers' Market, row after row of glass honey jars catch the early morning sun that angles down Ninth Street. Some of the honey gleams a reddish brown, some a paler amber, depending on the particular mix of flower species the bees foraged. All of it was produced by Wilson's colonies, which number a third of what he had last fall, before the infamous bee die-off that afflicted growers around the world. "I'd better get the honey while I can", one customer remarks.

The flurry of media attention given this winter's bee losses, now labeled "colony collapse disorder", has updated the world of bees for a heretofore clueless public. Our image of honeybees is a lot like our bucolic images of farm animals - and just as far from the brutal truth of today's corporate agriculture. We picture fields of clover, blossoming orchards, the wildflowers beneath the trees, filled with happy bees industriously gathering nectar and pollen to take back to the hive. As the bees gather pollen, they transfer it from plant to plant, thus assuring cross-pollination.

Fewer people can picture what happens at the hive, where the bees feed the protein-rich pollen to their developing brood. The adults live on honey they make from collected nectar - sipped from the throats of flowers into the bees' honey stomachs, disgorged at the hive into the hexagonal wax combs made by the bees, fanned by bee wings to evaporate excess moisture until it reaches the perfect syrupy consistency, and then sealed with a wax cap to keep it clean and ready to sustain the colony over the winter. In order to do all this, bees rely on a diverse range of flowers blooming over a wide stretch of the year.

The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a European native, one of very few bee species in the world to store honey in bulk and live fulltime in large colonies (30,000 to 100,000 individuals). It is the only bee with a long history of intensive management by people. For almost all of this time, and continuing today in many parts of the world, the rosy picture of bee life painted above is largely accurate. But when beekeeping meets industrial agriculture, the result is very different. Colony collapse disorder may have many contributing causes, but it comes down to bees hitting the biological limits of our agricultural system. It's not so much a bee crisis as a pollination crisis. And we may end up calling it agricultural collapse disorder.

It's a rare beekeeper in the United States who can survive by selling honey. The trade loophole that has flooded this country with low-cost Chinese honey for the past ten years guaranteed that (fortunately for beekeepers, that hole has just been plugged by new federal tariff regulations). The only income remaining has been in pollination services. Alan Wilson's bees are rented out for almond pollination starting in February. After that they go south to the orange groves, then all the way to North Dakota where they make clover honey. Wilson's Central Valley location near Merced has little to offer bees over the dry summer months except roadside star thistle and the brief flowering of cantaloupes in August. Nearby agricultural chemicals are a concern, especially the defoliant used on cotton before harvest. Just the drift from the defoliant has taken the paint off Wilson's hives. Still, this year he plans to keep his bees closer to home where he can manage them more intensively and try to increase their numbers.

Every commercial beekeeper has different arrangements, but each involves long-distance trucking and the California almond crop. Almonds are entirely dependent on the seasonal importation of honeybees. Growers can't get crop insurance coverage unless they have at least two bee colonies per acre at almond blossom time; some growers use up to five colonies per acre for heavier yields. Over 800,000 Central Valley acres are planted in almond trees. As beekeeper Randy Oliver says, it is "monoculture at its absolute worst - they don't allow one species of weed to grow": mile after mile of bare soil and almond trees. No native pollinators can survive on this wasted landscape to ease the honeybees' burden, and nothing lives to sustain bees before or after the almond bloom.

Truckloads of bees begin to arrive as early as November from all over the nation - it takes virtually all of this country's commercially operated pollination colonies to cover California's almonds. While the bees roll down the highways, hive entrances boarded up, or wait in Central Valley bee yards for the trees to bloom, they're fed a mixture of high fructose corn syrup meant to replace nectar, along with soy protein meant to replace pollen. (Some beekeepers, Wilson among them, have switched to beet syrup as a safer though more expensive alternative.) Oliver sums up the patent absurdity: "When bugs from the east coast have to be trucked to California to pollinate an exotic tree because California has no bugs, it's a pretty whacked-out agricultural system".

Oliver's 500 bee colonies - he was lucky, with losses under ten percent - follow a relatively short migratory truck route that takes them from Central Valley almonds to Sierra foothill wildflowers to Nevada alfalfa. He attributes his success to fewer and shorter moves, reliance on pasture forage for much of the year, and avoidance of artificial feeding. "Some of these guys move their bees a dozen times a year", he says. Popular pollination routes include apples and blueberries, which rely on honeybees for ninety percent of their pollination, peaches (fifty percent), and oranges (thirty percent). Farmers won't bother planting squash or melons if they can't get beehives in place by bloom time. One-third of all US crops depend on honeybee pollination.

It hasn't been this way for long. Even thirty years ago growers could rely on a combination of native pollinating insects and local honeybees for most crops. In 1970, there were 35 beekeepers in Alan Wilson's area; now there are two. As farms grew more and more of fewer and fewer crops, using petrochemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, vast tracts of land have gradually approached the reductionist goal of supporting no life at all except the target crop. It's not just the almonds - every crop is grown this way. That's why it's called industrial agriculture, or factory farming.

Bee researchers have been calling bees "the canary in this coal mine", a different version of the birds and the bees. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein has been popping up all over the Internet: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Einstein never said it, but the instant ubiquity of the sentiment says everything.

Though the media only picked it up this year, bees have actually been in trouble for the past couple of decades. Mites - parasitic insects small enough to use bees as their hosts - jumped from other species to honeybees, another example of collateral damage from global transportation. First tracheal mites in the 1980s, then varroa mites in the 1990s - even before last winter, the world's honeybee population had declined by half in thirty years.

UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen points out that before the mites arrived, winter losses of five to ten percent of a beekeeper's colonies were the norm. The mites increased yearly losses to 25 percent by the late 1980s, and now we're at forty percent or higher, with some years better than average and others catastrophic. Randy Oliver says, "If we made a list of collapses of the last twenty years, this winter's would not make the top five". Last year's losses were bad for Alan Wilson, but the last four years together have decimated his colonies by over ninety percent. The only beekeepers doing substantially better are the very small percentage practicing non-chemical mite control coupled with little or no trucking or artificial feeding - in other words, labor-intensive vigilance combined with lower pollination income. It's not a financially viable option for many fulltime beekeepers.

The difference with this winter's losses is not having an identified cause, and therefore no quick (even if temporary) fix. For tracheal mites, beekeepers developed nontoxic preventive treatments - Alan Wilson successfully doses his bees on a mixture of Crisco, sugar, and peppermint extract. Varroa mites proved trickier, and beekeepers started down the slippery slope of synthetic insecticide use. "Until the mid-1990s nobody dreamed of using chemicals in beehives", Oliver says. Once they did, the race was on, with insecticide-resistant varroa mites evolving neck-in-neck with the newest chemical treatment. European beekeepers, who have had the varroa mite longer, have pretty much given up on chemicals and use an Integrated Pest Management approach. US beekeepers who go this route find it labor- and attention- intensive, and effective within its parameters (not eradication but healthy bees living with a smaller number of mites). According to Oliver, "We're just prolonging our agony as long as we continue to use chemical treatments".

Everyone agrees the honeybee buzzed into the 21st century carrying a heavy load of stress. Colonies were weakened by mites, perhaps by chemicals used to kill the mites, and probably by at least some of the 25 different viruses carried by varroa mites. Add in a fungus, nosema, that's tolerated by healthy bees but a problem for already weakened hives. Then there's the stress of long-distance truck travel, longer distances for more bees every year. The small hive beetle, an African native recently found in Florida hives, posed another challenge; aggressive African honeybees attack the beetle, but European bees, bred to be docile, let it overrun the hive.

Cell phone interference has been proposed as a threat to bees, based on reports of a German study showing bees unable to find their way home in the presence of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. This particular theory must be called inconclusive at best, since the study was not designed with enough apicultural knowledge to produce reliable results.

No bee taken from the hive for the first time, as was done in the study, would be able to find its way back, since bees navigate primarily by landmarks, not electromagnetic homing sensors. Their first few excursions are short orientation flights, not blind trips in a box to a release point.

Of all these factors, many beekeepers judge varroa mites the most consistently debilitating. But there's another weakening influence more obvious and more integral to the larger agricultural dilemma. It's the stressor Mussen calls the most important of all - bee malnutrition. High-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are not any more nutritious for bees than they are for humans (see Spring 2007), and bees in transit and between pollination jobs often must subsist on nothing but these non-foods. Compounding the problem, we're talking genetically modified corn and soy, every cell of which contains a bacterial insecticide. Are bees not insects? US studies have indicated that Bt corn pollen does not kill healthy bees or brood reared on it, but a German study showed that Bt pollen led to "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" in hives already weakened by varroa mites.

We do know that corn pollen in general is poor bee food, high in fiber and low in protein. The Midwest, up until now the country's best bee forage habitat, this year is being planted much more aggressively to GM corn as a source for ethanol - aggressive meaning planting marginal areas and edges usually left to the asters and goldenrods that are high-quality pollen sources in late summer when bees need to raise the generation that will overwinter. Even when bees are out foraging for real nectar and non-GMO pollen, for much of the year they are likely to be ingesting a monocultured diet due to their use as pollinators for industrial-scale agriculture - nothing but almond, then nothing but apple, then only watermelon. They're exposed to pesticides used on their forage crops as well. Oh - and one more influence to factor into the equation - very hot weather can damage the protein content of pollen, decreasing its food value for bees. Global warming is kicking our butts from more directions than we can comprehend.

Given these conditions, last winter's losses can hardly be considered a surprise. Neither can the failure of bee researchers to come up with one specific cause, much less a magic bullet cure. Still, the kind of thinking that got us this far continues. According to Mussen, "the only hope is the USDA Tucson lab" which is working on a liquid feed that bees can eat all year. Randy Oliver calls this the "holy grail" of bee research. The USDA's proprietary formula, if they come up with one that works, will be patented and licensed to a commercial producer, and the whole agricultural system may manage to lurch along for a few more years, complete with pollinators hauled from Florida to California in time for the almond bloom.

How did all those almonds get pollinated this year, on the heels of beekeepers' discoveries that half (in some cases up to ninety percent) of their colonies had suddenly gone missing? It wouldn't have happened without a change in regulations that allowed bees to be imported from Australia. Bee businesses Down Under went into boom mode, sending 100,000 packages of bees to the States. A package is a starter kit of about 10,000 worker bees and a queen, enclosed in a small screened box with a sugar water feeder. The receiving beekeeper shakes the package into a waiting hive, and given proper nectar and pollen resources, within a month a new generation of bees will be expanding the colony.

The Australian influx may be short-lived, as a colony of Indian bees (Apis cerana) was recently discovered living aboard a yacht off Australia. The Indian bee is host to yet another mite that could wreak havoc if it spreads to the European honeybee. Another factor in almond pollination this year was the rental price for a bee colony, which averaged $150, nearly twice what it was last year. This was the first year in which the income beekeepers realized from almond pollination surpassed the income received for the entire US honey crop. There's talk of opening the Canadian border for next year's almond season.

To paraphrase Randy Oliver, we're prolonging our agony by continuing with this profoundly unworkable agricultural system. Suddenly terms like "organic" and "biodiversity" shift from boutique buzzwords to elements of survival. This country has 4,500 species of native insects that are potential pollinators. On the East Coast, where farms are much smaller, more diverse, and broken up by uncultivated land, native insects account for up to ninety percent of crop pollination. Studies done on Costa Rican coffee crops have shown that yields are twenty percent greater within one kilometer of forest remnants. Canadian canola farmers show increased yields by leaving thirty percent of their cropland wild. It's all about pollination.

Fortunately for us, insects are quick to recolonize formerly dead areas. Hedgerows, windbreaks, wetlands, woodlots - the particulars of restoration agriculture are easy and already known. It's the big picture that's harder to shift, from the extractive industrial petrochemical model to the biodiverse ecosystem model. Honeybees have upped the ante, giving us all the motivation we need to change - do we want to continue to eat?


The material appearing here is copyright Terrain magazine, which is published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California (510-548-2235). The material is to be circulated for educational purposes only, and is not to be reprinted in any publication, or distributed for commercial purposes, including copying for sale, without the permission of the editor of Terrain.

(c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Three Million Homes?

Yes, I am sorry to say, we need them.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (November 26 2007)

It sounds preposterous: three million new homes in England alone by 2020. My instinct is to fight this project. It threatens Britain's countryside, the character of our towns, our water supplies and carbon targets. Today the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will help to implement this building programme, has its second reading in the House of Commons {1}. Where should we stand?

Is the housing crisis as acute as some people have claimed? Or has it been whipped up by the House Builders' Federation, hoping to get their claws into the countryside? To find out whether these homes are really needed, I asked the charity Shelter to take me to meet some of the people it works with in London. I had no idea. I simply had no idea.

Wendy Castle moved into her flat in the Trellick Tower in west London when her eldest child was a baby. He's now sixteen, and she has three others between thirteen and two. But her flat has only two bedrooms. She sleeps in one of them with her two youngest children. The room is completely filled by beds. On one side they are jammed against the window, which no longer shuts properly. On the other they are pressed against the heater, which can't be used because of the fire risk. Her two oldest boys share an even smaller room.

She keeps her flat in a state of Japanese minimalism, but in the tiny living room the children were sitting on each other's laps to watch the television. Like all the women I met that day, Wendy - tough as she has become - cried when she told me how this crowding was affecting her children. Her oldest boy is falling behind at school because "he physically does not have space to do his homework. He can't do anything till the other kids go to bed."

But the real shock came when she explained why she was stuck. Kensington and Chelsea, like several London boroughs, operates a points system, reflecting people's level of deprivation {2}. Every Monday morning it posts up the flats available for social tenants (those who pay less than the market rate). People with enough points can bid for them. Wendy has forty. She has been able to bid on only one occasion. Though her family is officially "severely overcrowded", she came 87th out of 92. Eighty-six households, bidding for the same flat, were deemed to be in greater need than hers. "I've tried everything. But when I ring them they say 'I don't know why you bother - you ain't got the points'".

In a block across the road from the tower I visited Aisha and Abdul Omarzaiy. They have 280 points, but they have also been told they are wasting their time. Aisha and Abdul received asylum from Afghanistan in 1992. They were given this flat five months after they arrived and promised that after six months they'd be moved to a bigger place. They now have four children between nineteen and two, in a tiny two-bedroomed flat. (Remember this, next time someone claims that people granted asylum get priority.) {3} The oldest boy and girl share a room, a desk and a homework rota. The youngest girl sleeps in bed with her mother. Abdul and the ten year-old sleep on the living room floor. The nineteen year-old has dyslexia and needs peace to concentrate: he is now re-sitting his A-levels for the second time. He can't bring friends home, as there is nowhere for them to speak privately, and he's embarrassed about sharing a room with his sister. Like Wendy, Aisha keeps the flat neat and sparse. But prison cells are more spacious.

Now suffering from severe depression, Aisha has lobbied the council and written to her MP. "When I had three children they told me I'd be moved straight away if had another one. I didn't want another one. But after seven years the fourth came along. They still won't move us." The council did offer a solution: to put the oldest boy in a hostel. "They told us straight", Abdul said. "They don't have big properties. One comes in once a year and they give it to the highest priority."

Kensington and Chelsea, as the diligent ward councillor Emma Dent Coad told me, has a poor record on social housing: a kind of economic cleansing seems to be taking place {4}. But there are similar backlogs all over London. Shelter took me to meet Jacqueline Pennant, who lives with her children in a tiny maisonette in south Wandsworth. She has osteoarthritis and a hairline fracture in the spine, a prolapsed disc and sciatica in both legs. She should be confined to a wheelchair, but it won't fit in the house. She dragged herself from one piece of furniture to the next, then up the narrow stairs, clutching at the bannisters, her face gnarled up in pain. I saw this in Britain, in November 2007.

Jacqueline and her three children have been in this two-bedroomed house for thirteen years. In 1996, she thought she was about to be moved and packed her stuff into boxes. Eleven years later they are still shutting out the light as she waits like Miss Haversham for the date that never comes. Her oldest boy has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and finds the crowding unbearable. The middle one is routinely hospitalised with asthma, exacerbated by sleeping in a tiny slot between his mother's bed and the wall. In the kitchen you can touch both walls with your palms. "If I can't use my wheelchair I don't have a life", Jacqueline told me. "The strain on my back has made my problems a lot worse. I'm so depressed and frustrated".

This is a small sample, but it's indicative of a quiet social catastrophe. Over half a million households are officially overcrowded {5}, 85,000 are in temporary accomodation {6}, 1.6 million are on the social housing waiting list {7}. Even before you consider the backlog, the newly-arising need for homes is projected to run at some 220,000 a year {8}. Shelter's surveys tell the same story over and over: children struggling with their schoolwork, parents crushed by depression and stress, families living in conditions familiar to Dickens and Engels.

Part of this crisis arises from the Labour government's shocking failure to build social homes. Though she was the first to allow council houses to be sold, so undermining long-term provision, during Margaret Thatcher's tenure social homes were built at an average rate of 46,600 a year {9}. Under Blair, it fell to 17,300 {10}, while almost half a million council houses were sold off, at an average rate of 48,300 a year {11}. In this respect at least, new Labour has been as Thatcherite as Thatcher.

It is true that much more could be done to mobilise empty houses {12}, help elderly people to move into smaller flats and stamp out Britain's ugliest inequality: second homes {13}. It is disappointing to see how little of this there is in the bill. But even if all such measures were used, they would release perhaps half a million homes. I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target. There's a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. But - though it hooks in my green guts to admit it - built they must be.



2. This system is called "Choice-Based Lettings".

3. The claim that people from ethnic minorities get preference is also false. The government points out that "Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) households are disproportionately found in overcrowded households. As the chart below shows, in London, nearly thirty per cent of children in BME households and over ten per cent of children in white households live in overcrowded conditions". Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 58.

4. She cites government figures showing that only 27% of new homes built in Kensington and Chelsea are affordable {social or low cost market homes}. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the best-performing borough, the proportion is 82%.

5. 526,000 in 2005-6. Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 73.

6. 84,900 in Quarter 2, 2007. Shelter, October 2007. Shelter's response to the CLG Green Paper - Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 12.

7. Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 20.

8. ibid, page 17.

9. DCLG, August 2007. Table 244. Housebuilding: permanent dwellings completed, by tenure, England, historical calendar year series.

10. ibid.

11. The annual figures can be seen here: DCLG and Office of National Statistics, December 2006. Housing Statistics 2006. Table 10.1, page 128.

12. Using government figures, Shelter says there were 676,000 empty properties in England in 2006.

13. There are 260,000 in England, according to DCLG, 2006. Housing Statistics Summary, Number 26. Survey of English Housing Provisional Results: 2005/06, page 25.

Copyright © 2006

Bill Totten

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Adaptive Responses to Peak Oil

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (November 21 2007)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

One of the occupational hazards of writing a blog on the future of industrial civilization, I've discovered, is the occasional incoming missive from somebody with a plan to save the world. My inbox fielded another of those the other day. As worldsaving plans go, this one is relatively modest, and by no means entirely misguided.

My correspondent hopes to convince the American people, or at least some portion thereof, to resettle in largely self-sufficient villages of 5000 to 10,000 people, compact enough that nobody will need to own or use a car. Each village owns enough land around it to feed its population, using edible forest crops and the like as the basis for subsistence. There's a good deal more; you can find the rest of the details on the website my correspondent recommended:

Taken in the abstract, this is a great plan, and I suspect that a fair number of my readers would be as pleased as I would to move into such a village. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and it's as ugly a devil as ever graced a medieval morality play. Like those theatrical devils, though, this one has his uses. A close look at why my correspondent's plan won't save civilization from peak oil makes a good introduction to a theme that will be central to most of the next year or so of Archdruid Report posts - the question of how to craft an adaptive response to the coming of the deindustrial age.

It's a rich word, "adaptive". In the jargon of evolutionary biology, it refers to anything that allows an organism to respond effectively to the demands of its environment. When the environment is stable, what makes an organism adaptive stays pretty much the same from generation to generation. When the environment changes, though, what's adaptive can change as well, sometimes radically; genetic variations that would have been problematic under the old conditions become advantages under the new; if the shift is large enough, a new species emerges. This points up the other, dictionary definition of the word - according to my Webster's Ninth, "showing or having a capacity for or tendency toward adaptation".

Both these meanings have crucial relevance to the work ahead of us as industrial society skids down the far side of Hubbert's peak. On the one hand, it's crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the ecological sense - that is, well suited to the new reality of a world of scarce energy and hard environmental limits. At the same time, we won't simply be landing plump in that new reality overnight, nor do we know in advance exactly what that new reality will look like, so it's just as crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the dictionary sense - that is, capable of adapting to the unpredictable changes of a world in transition.

The problem with my correspondent's plan is that it may be adaptive in one sense, but it's not adaptive at all in the other. It seems quite likely that a network of largely independent towns with populations in the 5000 to 10,000 range might be well adapted to the human and natural environments of a deindustrialized world, though that's a guess at this stage of the process. It's the process of getting there that's the difficulty.

Let's look at the numbers for a moment. Assume a population of 8000 and an average of four persons per family, and you need 2000 new homes for the community. We'll assume that these homes are cheaper than the median US home - say, $250,000 apiece on average. That gives you a startup cost of $500 million. Add to that the cost of community infrastructure - everything from water and electricity to a school, a library, and the like - not to mention the farmland surrounding the village, and you've roughly doubled your price tag to $1 billion.

Even if half your residents own their own homes now and can pay for their new housing out of their equity - not a likely situation in the midst of today's housing crash and credit crunch - and all the residents put in a great deal of sweat equity in the form of unpaid labor building the village, it's still going to cost a great deal. If you had 2000 families committed enough to the project to risk their financial future on it, it might nonetheless be possible to make it happen. Still, that's a huge risk, and it's made even larger by the fact that the new village is going to have to provide jobs for all its adult residents - part of the point of the exercise is that nobody owns a car, remember, so commuting to the nearest city is out.

Nor can the village's inhabitants count on being magically transported to a deindustrial world, where they can simply harvest their edible forest crops and barter skills among themselves. For many years to come, they will have bills to pay - not least the costs incurred in setting up the village - and national, state, and local taxes as well. Will the new village be able to provide its residents jobs that will insure their financial survival? Many small towns in the same population range are failing to do that right now. Behind the attractive image of a self-sufficient village in the countryside, in other words, lies the hard reality of a $1 billion gamble for survival against serious economic odds.

That $1 billion gamble, furthermore, would at best only take 8000 people out of the automobile economy - few enough that statistical noise will cover any impact they might have on the larger picture. Imagine a program to take ten percent of the US population out of the automobile economy instead; that's the sort of scale such a program would need in order to have any measurable effect on the fate of industrial society. The price tag there would be around $3.8 trillion in direct costs, plus the huge indirect costs involved in abandoning or relocating ten percent of the country's existing housing stock, residential and community infrastructure, and so on. It would take years, and possibly generations, for the savings in petroleum costs to make up for the huge initial outlay, and if the program turned out not to work - if, for whatever reason, the world on the far side of Hubbert's peak turned out not to be suited to villages of the sort my correspondent envisions - all that outlay would have been wasted.

Now my correspondent's plan is far from the most extreme example of this kind of unadaptive thinking. The poster children here are the dwindling tribe of technology fans who believe that fusion power will save us if we only commit enough money to research. It's been well over half a century since the first attempts to make a viable fusion reactor got under way, and the only working example in the solar system is still 93,000,000 miles away from Earth, rising in the eastern skies every morning as it turns hydrogen into helium at its own unhurried pace. We have absolutely no certainty that another trillion dollars of investment will get us any closer to commercially viable fusion power, and if the gamble fails, industrial society is left twisting in the wind with a great deal of empty space beneath its feet.

The problem shared by these, and so many other proposed responses to the predicament of industrial society, is that they aren't adaptive in the second, dictionary sense. They bet the farm on a single strategy, and if that fails, there is no plan B. Such plans look good on paper, but that's usually as far as they go, because the factors in the human and natural environment that would make them possible simply aren't there. For some forty years now, for instance, people have been talking about village communities like the ones my correspondent described. Very few have even been started, fewer have been built, and the ones that have become viable communities can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

What sort of response to the emerging crisis of the industrial world would count as adaptive? We'll be talking about that for quite a number of posts to come, but a few suggestions might be worth making at this point.

First, an adaptive response is scalable - that is, it can be started and tested on a very small scale, with a minimal investment of resources, and then expanded from there if it proves to work. A fusion reactor is not scalable; you either have one, after trillions of dollars of further investment, or you don't. My correspondent's village proposal is a good deal more scalable than this, but even so it's impossible to give it a try without at least a few hundred families and quite a bit of money. What we need, by contrast, are responses that can start out with individuals committing only the money, resources and time they can easily spare.

Second, an adaptive response is modular - that is, it can be broken down into distinct elements, each of which functions on its own without needing the involvement of all the other parts. That allows something that doesn't work well to be swapped out without disrupting the rest of the system; it also allows elements suited to one stage of the deindustrializing process to be replaced with something else when that stage gives way to another. Think of the difference between a machine and a toolkit. A machine either does the job or it doesn't, and if the job changes, you usually have to replace the entire tool. If you have a toolkit, by contrast, the jobs that can't be done with one tool can usually be done with another.

Third, an adaptive response is open - that is, it can be combined freely with other approaches to the challenges of the future and the enduring predicaments of human existence. None of us can know in advance what belief systems, socioeconomic arrangements, and lifestyle choices will turn out to be most adaptive at each stage of the decline of industrial society. Locking a response into one particular set of approaches limits its usefulness, and could lead people in the future to jettison valuable options because they have become too thoroughly entangled with a dysfunctional economic system or a discredited ideology.

These characteristics look back toward some of the issues already discussed in this blog, but they also open unfamiliar doors. As we peer through those doors in the weeks and months to come, it might be possible to glimpse something of what adaptive responses to the predicament of the industrial world might look like.

Bill Totten

Either / Or?

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (November 26 2007)

The great debate among those of us on the Economy Deathwatch seems to be whether the debacle we observe around us will resolve as a crash or a slow-motion financial train wreck. It seems to me that at every layer of the system, we're susceptible to both - in tradable paper, institutional legitimacy, individual solvency, productive activity, real employment, "consumer" behavior, and energy resources. Some things are crashing as I write.

The dollar is losing about a cent every three weeks against other currencies. A penny doesn't seem like much, but keep that pace up for another year and the world's "reserve currency" becomes the world's reserve toilet paper. Oil prices are poised to enter the triple-digit realm, the psychological effect of which may be jarring to 200 million not-so-happy motorists. The value of chipboard- and- vinyl houses is tanking beyond question. Of course, the government's consumer price inflation figures and employment numbers are dismissed broadly as lacking credence. But anybody who has bought a bag of onions and a jar of jam lately knows that things are way up in the supermarket aisles, and so many illegal Mexican migrants were employed in the Sunbelt housing boom, that their absence in the bust won't register on any chart.

It's hard to describe what constitutes the bulk of the stuff moving through the world's financial markets for the simple reason that it was purposely-designed to be so abstruse and provisional that traders would be too intimidated to ask what it represents - and the growing terrified suspicion is that it's mostly worthless. By this I refer to the global freak show of derivatives, concocted "plays" on hypothetical "positions", credit default swaps, arbitrages in imagined "differentials", nifty equations, hedges, promises, algorithms executed by robots, and "off-book" wishes chartered in the Cayman Islands. Probably all of them, in one way or another, are just scams, since they are unaffiliated with productive activity.

At a more fundamental level, these mutant "investments" were derived from a very tangible trade in loans and mortgages made to flesh-and-blood chumps, but even those are only the last in a long spiral of serial "bubbles", or market frenzies based on unreal expectations. And this leads into the very real realm of poor choices, fiscal and fiduciary irresponsibility, deliberately deceptive policy, criminal malfeasance, and the broad abandonment of standards in acceptable behavior by people in authority. A lot of observers attribute this to the Gordon Gecko ethos - the discovery back in the 1980s that "greed is good", which was meant to trump a previous ethos that life is tragic.

Anyway, the trade in mutant investment entities appears to be collapsing now as their worthlessness in market terms (as opposed to theoretical terms) becomes manifest. The major holders of this dreck are losing the ability to conceal their losses, but suspicion now reigns that the losses are far greater than even the massive multiple billions reported so far by the likes of Merrill Lynch, Citicorp, and others. I suppose that what we've been seeing lately is a desperate attempt to hold things together just long enough to cut those Christmas bonus checks so that when the pink slips do finally fly in 2008, at least some Big Boyz will walk away with enough cash to cover a hacienda in Uruguay and the salaries of a half-dozen private security goons to guard it.

But I must say, at the risk once again of sounding extreme, that the structural and systemic sickness in the finance realm is now so severe that it is hard to imagine we will get through the month of December without some major trauma in the markets. In fact, I'd go so far as to predict a thousand-point drop (or more) in the Dow just in this week after Thanksgiving. Real wealth "out there" is evaporating like popsicles dropped on the floor of Hell's fifth circle. It is coming out of the system whether the Big Boyz or anybody else likes it or not, and its absence will assert itself.

At the risk of sounding even more extreme, I would be hard put to believe any reports that "consumer" spending in the days following Thanksgiving will match the hopes and wishes of economic officialdom. My own hunch is that average Americans are so maxed out on debt that they don't know whether to shit or go blind. Perhaps lot of them are willing to take a last step into fatal insolvency in order to put a plasma TV screen under the Christmas tree and appear as heroes to their families. If that's the case, it would only imply a greater bloodbath in credit card default thundering through the system in February and March, which would only deepen the carnage in collateralized debt instruments further up the food chain.

That stuff probably has a long way to unwind, even as the "train" of losses hits the immovable obstacle of reality and the "boxcars" of consequence fly off the rails. The slow-motion train wreck could sweep away an awful lot of familiar things in its path - banks, companies, government-sponsored enterprises, whole industries, whole economies, nations, up to and including the prospects for civilized existence, if severe hardship leads to war, which it often does.

To some extent, the speed and severity of the financial train wreck will occur in a mutually reinforcing relation to what happens in the oil markets. The rise in price is only the mildest symptom of growing instability for the system that allocates the world's most critical resource. Even in the face of "demand destruction", weird changes are occurring in the way that the oil producers do business. The decline in export rates and the new spirit of "oil nationalism" will take center stage now, even if the US economy seizes up. These phenomena will represent a new cycle in world affairs: the global contest for remaining fossil fuel resources.

Sooner rather than later, the next symptom will appear: spot shortages around the US and hoarding behavior. This is what will finally wake the American public out of its long sleepwalk (and Matthew Simmons said this first, by the way) - when the lines form at the gas stations and the tempers flare and the handguns come out of the glove compartments.

In the financial markets and the economies of nations, it's not a case of either / or. It's a matter of either / and.

Bill Totten

Monday, November 26, 2007

An environmental utopia - up to a point

We downtrodden Brits often look enviously at Scandinavian countries as models of genteel social democracy ...

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (October 11 2007)

The scientist across the table from me was laughing, unusually for a conversation about climate change. "You're in environmental utopia now", he beamed. This being Sweden, he was partly being ironic - but only partly. We downtrodden Brits often look enviously at Scandinavian countries as models of genteel social democracy, and assume likewise that their environmental records must be models for the rest of the world. But, as is so often the case, the truth is a little more complicated.

Take Gothenburg, in southern Sweden, which I was visiting to talk about my book Six Degrees. This is a city that has recently invested vast sums of public money in a combined heat-and-power system, with more than 1,000 kilometers of pipes laid to take hot water directly into domestic and commercial buildings. It is an extremely efficient system that hugely reduces emissions from the building sector, where space heating is often the single biggest user of energy. But where does much of the wasted heat come from? Oil refineries, ironically enough - not exactly the last word in sustainability.

Yet Gothenburg wants to be carbon-free by 2050. There are climate-related adverts everywhere, urging car drivers to use the excellent tram system, and extolling the low-carbon virtues of the municipally owned utility Gothenburg Energy. Partly taking its cue from the previous government's aspiration to make Sweden oil-free by 2020, Gothenburg's energy utility has decided to supplement its new natural-gas-fired combined heat-and-power plant with another facility that will use woodchips instead of fossil fuel, lowering net carbon emissions still further. Some biomass is already burned to generate power, but here lies another irony: despite this being a heavily forested country with a substantial timber industry, wood pellets are brought in by ship from Canada.

Gothenburg Energy is also working with a major international corporation on building the first zero-carbon factory anywhere in the world. The client? Volvo. And the factory will be making cars. It all seems a bit contradictory, but this is a country that is even more in thrall to the car than Britain. The local shop is extinct almost everywhere: if you want a litre of milk or a pack of nappies you need to drive to a supermarket. Smaller communities may have a store selling hot dogs and a few daily necessities, but these are always based around the petrol station - seemingly the focal point for modern village life.

Perhaps as a result of this centralised approach to retail, the number of lorries on the roads and the level of transport emissions are rising rapidly. Even in cities with good public transport, there are still plenty of cars: from my 18th-floor hotel room in Gothenburg, I could see miles of interlinked motorways, all clogged with traffic for much of the day.

Nationally, the electricity sector is already fairly low-carbon, with most power generated at nuclear and hydroelectric plants. But other renewables are lagging behind. Windfarms are a rarity in Sweden, and various big schemes have been shelved due to local opposition, despite the climate-change benefits. Sweden is no exception to the general rule that people want electricity, but not electricity generation.

But before we all get quietly smug over here, on an island that was once considered the dirty man of Europe (not least by Swedes, who in the 1980s had to live with all our acid rain), there is a lot that Sweden has got right. This is a country, after all, which introduced a carbon tax way back in 1991, when most of the rest of the world had barely heard of global warming. It is also a country that inverts the usual dynamic between scientists and politicians: recently, when a scientific advisory committee proposed a carbon reduction target to the Swedish government, the environment minister, instead of trying to lower it, demanded more stringent cuts than even the scientists were recommending.

Sweden also seems to have broken the iron link between economic growth and greenhouse-gas emissions: since 1990 its emissions have fallen by four per cent, despite a GDP growth of 25 per cent. This is largely due to combined heat-and-power generation schemes such as Gothenburg's, schemes that demonstrate a willingness to pump large sums of public sector cash into energy efficiency.

Travelling back south from the ferry port in Newcastle this week (I had made the trip to Scandinavia by boat and train, for obvious reasons), I was struck once again by the scandalous waste of energy represented by power-station cooling towers in this country, whose only function is to disgorge enormous quantities of heat into the atmosphere. A power station like Drax could heat an entire city, yet all this energy is simply wasted, and instead we burn yet more oil and gas to heat our houses, shops and offices. Sweden may not be the environmental utopia we think, but it has certainly got one thing right.

Bill Totten

Bioneers: Groundbreaking Ways to Repair the Earth

An interview with writer & filmmaker Kenny Ausubel about taking back the planet.

by Terrence McNally

AlterNet (October 19 2007)

Human creativity focused on problem solving can explode the mythology of resignation and despair. It is this point of view that inspires the annual Bioneers conference that takes place each fall in the San Francisco Bay area, which now streams via satellite to nineteen sites across the country. The conference (October 19-21 in San Rafael, California) is a gathering of scientific and social innovators who are developing and implementing visionary and practical models for restoring community, justice and democracy, as well as the Earth itself.

Speakers this year include author, Alice Walker, inventor and entrepreneur; Jay Harmon, community arts pioneer; Judy Baca, environmental justice leader; Van Jones, Whole Earth Catalog founder; Stewart Brand; and Native American activist Winbona LaDuke.

In addition to founding and co-directing Bioneers, Kenny Ausubel is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and social entrepreneur specializing in health and the environment. He co-founded Seeds of Change, a biodiversity organic seed company. He authored the books Seeds of Change (Wiley, 1993), Restoring the Earth (Kramer, 1997) and When Healing Becomes a Crime (Healing Arts Press, 2000); edited the first two titles in the Bioneers book series Ecological Medicine (Sierra Club, 2004) and Nature's Operating Instructions (Sierra Club, 2004); and was a key advisor for the Leonardo DiCaprio documentary The 11th Hour.

Terrence McNally: I believe your founding of Bioneers grew out of personal experiences and personal trials in your life. Could you weave a bit of that story for us?

Kenny Ausubel: There were two primary experiences for me. First, I had a very severe health crisis when I was about twenty years old. Conventional medicine was not able to help me, and out of desperation, rather than any philosophical bias, I sort of fell through the rabbit hole into the world of alternative medicine. I began to learn a lot about natural medicine and, over a long period of time, began to recover. Second, in the midst of that, my father very unexpectedly got cancer and was dead six months later at the age of 55.

A couple of weeks after my father's death, I began to learn about alternative cancer therapies - amazing stories of what Bernie Siegel calls "people who got well when they weren't supposed to". In the course of my research, I discovered that there was a deep philosophical conflict between the conventional medicine tradition and the natural medicine tradition. This was quite apart from the war over money and power that continues to this day.

Natural medicine holds that as a healer or a doctor, your job is to support the body to heal itself. Nature has an incredible capacity for self-repair that we barely understand. These experiences led to one of the founding principles of Bioneers: the idea of working with nature to help nature heal itself.

In the course of all that, I was asked to make a film about a very unusual garden on an Indian pueblo north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Long story short, it was there that I met Gabriel Howard, a maniac seed collector and master organic gardener, who introduced me to biodiversity in the garden. In nature, diversity is the source of resilience. The only constant in nature is change. It's the only thing you can really count on. Nature is dynamic and ever-evolving, and diversity is your deck of adaptation options. Those who adapt are the ones who survive in the long haul.

The whole idea of resilience, diversity and what it takes to adapt to a changing world informed my thinking very profoundly. In 1990 I decided to pull together all these people that I had been finding one by one - people who were looking to nature as teacher and mentor and model - and then imitating how nature does it. That was the origin of Bioneers.

McNally: So personal crises with your own body and that of your father led you to a vision of the interdependence of nature around you.

Ausubel: As John Muir said, "Everything is hitched to everything else". So to think that our health as human beings could be separate from the health of the environment is just preposterous. Human health is utterly dependent on the health of our ecosystems and the world that we live in.

McNally: A book you edited, Ecological Medicine, goes into that notion in depth.

Not only can health be a very powerful motivator for people to change behavior, but I think there's a possibility of a shift in worldview where health becomes a metaphor. You can begin to ask not only how healthy is my body, but how healthy is my home or my workplace? How healthy is my community, my corporation or my democracy?

Ausubel: It's all connected. Because the world will always be changing, the ultimate goal is not stability but some sense of dynamic equilibrium.

Businesses and governments use something called scenario planning, where they try to envision different scenarios for how the future might unfold so that they can anticipate how to respond. We're going to have a session at the conference with one of the leading lights in that field, Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network. The premise of Peter's book, Inevitable Surprises (Gotham, 2004), is that if you're paying attention, things should not come entirely as surprises.

Though we'll never predict or imagine everything, he believes a lot is hiding in plain sight. For instance, we can expect the massive spread of infectious disease in the world. Why? Because we've disrupted the basic ecology of the planet, globalization has accelerated how quickly these viruses and pathogens can spread and our immune systems are weakened from living in polluted environments, eating bad diets and, frankly, from our being stressed and unhappy.

Americans work more than anyone else in the world and have some of the worst health and emotional problems, so it's not like all this working has made us terribly better off or happier.

McNally: Andrew Weill wrote 25 years ago, "Health is wholeness ... "

Ausubel: Exactly ... and the author and farmer Wendell Berry says that health is membership. As human beings we're social creatures at heart, and being part of a family or a community is really important. One thing I think people get off on a lot at the Bioneers conference is connecting with kindred spirits.

McNally: I know there are people who return year after year to San Rafael, but there are also nineteen satellites this year. Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the physical event?

Ausubel: The first conference in 1990 in Santa Fe drew 200 people, which seemed huge at that time. It felt almost like being in church, in the best sense: People were just so grateful to come together to look at the magic and mystery and wonder of nature, and how to apply that knowledge and wisdom in very practical ways. Our focus has always been on solutions, on what people are actually doing that's working. A lot of our emphasis has also been on media, communications and education because so few people know about these viable alternatives.

At that first conference, another huge cornerstone was hiding in plain sight. I figured all these people must know each other, but it turned out hardly anybody did - even in the same fields. It became clear over time that getting connected and building social capital is as important as getting the word out and educating people.

We moved the conference to the Bay area in 1993, and it has grown and grown year after year. There's usually about 3,400 people in San Rafael. Now we beam three mornings of the plenary session by satellite to local sites who self-organize their own conferences with local speakers on local issues. Tip O'Neil (former speaker of the House of Representatives) once said, "All politics is local". Well, all ecology is local too. We each live in a food shed and a watershed and an energy shed, and it's important that we take this knowledge and apply it in our own backyards.

McNally: Could you talk a bit about your involvement with the feature documentary The Eleventh Hour?

Ausubel: Because so much cutting-edge work is highlighted at the conference, Bioneers has started attracting a lot of journalists looking for interesting stories. I met the two directors of 11th Hour, Leila and Nadia Conners, about four years ago in Los Angeles. Their company, Tree Media, had done mostly web work at that time, including a couple of short films with Leonardo DiCaprio. A few of them came to the conference three years ago, and it opened up a whole new world for them. As a result, they asked me to be an advisor to the film, and they came to the conference the following year and shot about thirty interviews. I ended up in the movie as well.

When I first saw the treatment for the film, it was very powerful, but it was completely focused on the problem, on the crisis. I really encouraged them to move beyond that to look at solutions. The Bioneers conference had a big influence on their thinking in that regard, and the last third of the movie now opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

From what I understand, audiences come away with, Number One, "Yes, this is the eleventh hour". It's astounding how many people still have not quite awakened to that. But in addition, they also learn that in good measure we know what to do - and that's the mobilizing factor.

McNally: So they leave the theatre motivated rather than depressed ...

What are some of the key themes at this year's conference?

Ausubel: We try to stay current, and at any given moment there are things that seem more timely. The beating heart of the conference from day one has been the science of bio-mimicry, of imitating nature for our technologies. One of the most influential people in the country will be speaking, Dr Paul Anastas, chair of newly created Green Chemistry at Yale University. Paul, who ran the Green Chemistry Institute for many years and worked in the Clinton White House, describes a very fast-moving field that over the next decade is going to completely transform the chemical industry.

Aware of the horrible harms that have resulted from a very toxic system, we all laugh when we hear DuPont's old pitch of "better living through chemistry". But the truth is that there are now viable substitutes and alternative processes that don't poison the planet or ourselves. Critically important from the point of view of business and industry, green chemistry eliminates a huge amount of waste and liability. So large companies like 3M and DuPont are really getting on board.

McNally: Janine Benyus, author of BioMimicry (HarperCollins, 2002), and a former plenary speaker at Bioneers) points out that so many of humans' chemical and industrial processes depend on "beating, heating or treating". To accelerate chemical processes, we expose things either to enormous pressure, extreme heat or cold, or to powerful solvents. Nature does all of these same things - for instance an abalone forming ceramics or a spider forming webs of enormous tensile strength - without resorting to those extremes. Nature does it at room temperature, under natural pressure and in real time. To a great extent, it's the beating, heating and treating that produces pollution. If, by imitating nature, you can learn to minimize those, then the pollution goes way down.

Over the last few years you've featured a growing grass-roots political movement in the country to take back power from the corporations. Is that continued this year?

Ausubel: Well, here we're spinning the dial a bit. This year we highlight local living economies - in many ways the antidote to the corporate system that essentially flows resources out of communities and concentrates profits in fewer and fewer hands. Locally based small and midrange companies can create a local economy with local jobs that actually retain and spread the wealth and prosperity.

We have tremendous strength in that area this year at the conference. Judy Wicks, for one, started a great restaurant in Philadelphia, the White Dog Cafe, which sources all of its food from local farmers. More than that, it's a tremendous hub of community and has created sister relationships with other groups not just around the country, but around the world. They have regular meetings of their customers to do things like visit local prisons and understand how they can help improve conditions or keep people out of prison in the first place.

Judy is a co-founder of a wonderful group called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. I think there's something like 450 chapters now across the country. Their website is, and it's a fantastic network of great businesses who are doing the right thing.

Sometimes people get the impression that at Bioneers we're against business. Not at all, quite the opposite. Whenever people say "free market", my only question is, "Is free a verb?" I would love there to be a free market, rather than corporate concentration and a giant game of Monopoly.

McNally: In his new book, Deep Economy (Oneworld, 2007), Bill McKibben points out that even though material goods are up in America over the last few decades, happiness is down. He cites a lot of research that basically says that the increase in iPods, flat screens and bottled water has not made up for our loss of community. The movement towards localism not only can get folks the food and goods they need, but it can revive community in the process.

Ausubel: Exactly - and also build prosperity. A wonderful economist and author, Michael Shuman, has written a couple of books, The Small-Mart Revolution (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), and Going Local (Routledge, 2001). Michael recently did a study to look at what would happen if people started purchasing 25 percent of their food locally. He found that in just the five-county area around Detroit, it would create 136,000 jobs, $1.5 billion in new revenues and $150 million in taxes. This is what happens when you start to localize your economy.

McNally: There's also a big component of indigenous people at this year's conference, isn't there?

Ausubel: They have always been a very strong presence at Bioneers. I live in New Mexico, and was profoundly influenced by indigenous culture in my work with Seeds of Change. Among many indigenous leaders speaking this year are the thirteen grandmothers who came together about two years ago, when they all had independent visions that they needed to turn prayer into action on behalf of Mother Earth. A film of a satellite space bridge that we did from the Bioneers conference last year during the grandmothers' visit to the Dalai Lama will be shown on LinkTV in October. All thirteen of the grandmas will be at this year's conference.

It's a very strong year for women overall at Bioneers. Eve Ensler, creator of the Vagina Monologues, will be speaking about an initiative for the women of New Orleans for a big event in 2008 that we're going to support as well.


Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at

Copyright (c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Eleven Things We Can Learn ...

... from the Rest of the World

Eleven lessons the West can learn that would improve our lives and create a better future for all humanity.

by Ode

AlterNet (October 23 2007)

The world is becoming One. But the game is being played according to rules set by the West. Where colonialism ultimately failed at running the world, Hollywood and the stock market are succeeding. In the process, we are seeing material gain and progress for developing nations - but also substantial loss. And Westerners may lose just as much in this as the rest of the world. The cultural richness and indigenous innovation that is in danger of being wiped out in Africa, Asia and Latin America by globalization could actually make Western societies healthier and happier. Here are eleven lessons the West can learn that would improve Western life and create a better future for all humanity.

1. Democracy (Ghana)

Ubuntu for all!

by Baffour Ankomah

Here's a surprise. What Africa has to offer the West is democracy! History says Ancient Greece invented democracy. But the Greeks took their inspiration from the other side of the Mediterranean in Egypt. "African democracy", which is practiced to this day in villages and towns across the continent - where seventy percent of Africans live - is very different from "Western democracy". It is based on the humanist philosophy called Ubuntu, originating in southern Africa, which teaches, "I am because you are". African democracy is focussed on including everyone, whereas Western democracy, with its basis in majority rule, divides people and nations.

Traditional African democracy doesn't involve organized opposition. Power is arranged like a pyramid. At the top is the king who exercises supreme authority, assisted by his council of elders and sub-chiefs. But the king or chief has no power except that which is given to him by the people. He is usually enthroned for life, but the actual duration of his reign depends on how well or poorly he performs. If he is a good king, he stays. If he is a bad king - who oppresses the people, or acts against their interests and traditions - he is overthrown by the people, using the constitutional means established for the purpose.

African democracy has a lot to teach the world about decision-making. Minor day-to-day decisions are made by the chief or king in consultation with the council of elders. But major decisions affecting the community are made by the people - all the people. The job of the king or chief is really to implement the will of the people.

In the African system, for example, if villagers want to build a school, the chief calls the whole community together under the trees of the village square. The gathering of the villagers acts like a city council or parliament. Wide and passionate discussions are held that day on the subject of the new school. Everybody is free to voice an idea. There is no organized opposition, but opposing views are strongly and freely expressed. The chief or king is the last to speak, but that doesn't mean he has "the last word" as would be the case in Western culture. At the end of the day, a consensus is almost always reached. And - most important - the new initiative enjoys broad support, since even opponents feel heard and respected. This kind of democracy is not a struggle for power, but an organizing structure.

Baffour Ankomah, from Ghana, is the editor of the magazine New African.

2. Ingenuity (India)

Finding solutions for what's impossible

by Vijay Mahajan

In rural India, you may spot a rather unusual vehicle. Halfway between a cart and a tractor, it can carry maybe twelve passengers. It doesn't need a licence plate, but it does have a motor - taken from a surplus water pump - and can travel up to forty kilometres (25 miles) an hour. That can be a problem, since the cart doesn't have brakes to speak of. When the driver needs to stop, the passengers jump off and drag wooden brake shoes against the wheels.

Jugaad is the name of this motorized problem-solving device, and it costs just 60,000 rupees (about $1,300). A jugaad is an alternative solution, an improvisation, a jury-rigged answer conceived by a creative culture in which scarcity and survival are constant challenges. While India makes headlines in the financial press as an economic force to be reckoned with, the real dynamism of its culture is in creations like the jugaad. It's their talent for improvisation that keeps a billion Indians moving forward into the future. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes - an important lesson for the West. Indian farmers ride triumphantly on their homemade vehicle. It represents their personal victory over the hard reality they inhabit, in which nothing is certain. In their lack of possessions - so unimaginable for Western souls - lies the secret to fulfillment and happiness.

A jugaad is an adaptation; Indians are constantly adapting to their situation. If a train car is too full, they find ways to move over to make space for new passengers. Flexibility is a condition for survival and future success, evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin concluded from his study of nature.

In the West, with its long-established rights and all-powerful lawyers, this wisdom has been lost. If something doesn't work quite right, a Westerner throws it away and buys a new one. An Indian goes in search of a jugaad - and often comes back smiling.

Vijay Mahajan is the founding director of microcredit institution BASIX in India.

3. Work (Nigeria)

Take the initiative

by Seyi Oyesola

Creating work. That's something the West could learn from the rest of the world. Asia, Africa and Latin America all host thriving cultures of entrepreneurship. People here constantly undertake new initiatives and create new jobs - for themselves and for others.

You seldom see local entrepreneurship anymore in the West. People are more likely to be employed by large corporations and organizations. Of course small business pioneers exist in Europe and the United States, but they are relatively few when you look at the entrepreneurial boom we're seeing in China and India. Social-welfare programs have tended to work against entrepreneurship, especially in Europe. Initiative is smothered if you aren't challenged to take care of yourself.

Wherever you go in Asia, Africa and Latin America, you see people creating work - and providing inspiration.

Seyi Oyesola practises medicine in London and is founding director of Global Medical Systems.

4. Yoga (India)

Bend it like a Brahmin

by Jagdish Parikh

Westerners should practise yoga. It's the best recipe for creating a healthier political system, economy and society.

Yoga? This may surprise you. In fact, you probably already know a lot of people who are doing yoga, right? Yoga studios are springing up everywhere in the urban West. They help people relax and stay in shape. But what on earth does yoga have to do with the functioning of society?

Real yoga is actually much more than the relaxation technique touted in the West. Yoga, an Indian life path that's been around for thousands of years, is about experiencing your self. Yoga points the way toward self-realization, which helps you see past identification with the ego to a consciousness more integrated with that of humanity and nature. Yoga is practised on eight levels. Hatha yoga, the physical yoga that's very popular in the West, is the first stage. Hatha helps relax you and promotes good health. These are nice side benefits, but not the core of yoga.

The other, deeper levels of yoga provide answers to a conflict that no economic model - from communism and socialism to the currently victorious capitalism - has resolved: the conflict between the individual as a human being and the individual as a tool for progress. In vain, people seek happiness and fulfilment in economic systems that are solely geared toward material growth. In the dominant Western model, an individual's private and professional lives are incongruent. Every activity is measured in money. Even the abundant supply of books and courses related to personal growth is mainly focussed on accumulating greater material wealth. No one can find happiness in such a model. We are not here to keep the economy going. Every individual comes to this Earth with his or her unique talents, and the true fulfilment of life is about developing those talents. This is why the economy and society must be reformed to allow people to develop and expand themselves through the work they do.

We can only really be happy if we can lead ourselves - instead of being led by the drive for more and more economic growth. To lead ourselves, we must first get to know ourselves. That is the path of yoga. When we learn that we are connected to our fellow human beings and nature, we become capable of making the transition from the current social model based on competition to a harmonious society based in co-operation. That transformation begins within us. Then, based on it, we can reform the way in which work is organized in society. Work should enable us to develop our talents.

Books about what needs to change and why abound. We know. Lack of knowledge isn't the problem. What we're missing is the courage to convert that knowledge into a behavioural shift. That courage can only be found through inner experience. Which is why yoga is so important.

Jagdish Parikh is managing director of the Lemuir Group of Companies, and the author of Managing Your Self (Blackwell, 1994).

5. Community (Kenya)

The real social security

by Kimanthi Mutua

The greatest value that Africa can teach is its culture of collectiveness. Centuries of individualism and materialism have destroyed most of this essential support structure in the West. Today's Westerners are trying to rediscover it on the Web. Social networking is the hottest new trend - people bonding with one another in virtual reality. In Africa, people connect in the daily reality of their lives. They naturally support each other, which builds an experience of community and compensates for the hardships of their lives.

It is important and interesting to note that in studies by the World Values Survey, most people in Africa do not report feeling less happy than people in developed nations despite being the poorest people on the planet. Africa is a living example of the fact that more money does not bring more happiness. That is a mirror the West should look into. Happiness comes from connections, from hope for the future and from the sense that you belong to something bigger than yourself. And because of the support people feel from their communities, hope is always present in Africa. The strong ties within the community also support healing. Look how fast Rwanda is recovering from a ghastly genocide and compare that with another terrible chapter of history - the Holocaust - that still rips through individual lives and politics in the West. Rwandans are overcoming their disaster faster because they find healing in their communities. That is an inspiring message. The West could rediscover the spirit of community.

Kimanthi Mutua is managing director of the microcredit bank K-Rep in Kenya.

6. Raising Children (Kenya)

Families first

by Nthenya Mule

Raising a family is a full-time job. Without my extended family and close friends, I would not be able to take care of my two sons the way I want to do, given that I'm a single working mother. Not only are friends and family always available to step in and take care of my sons as needed, they also support me with advice about how to guide and educate them best. Without them I would not be able to do what I'm doing.

"Madness is genetic - you get it from your children", goes the saying, but before I ever go to a therapist, I have spoken with at least five people in my immediate circle and the problem that initially seemed insurmountable no longer seems as daunting.

I think solutions for problems and conflicts that are found in my community are more suitable, because there is broad and permanent support for them. I can even accept critique more easily, because such advice comes from relatives and lifelong friends, who have my best interests at heart. I know they mean well and care about me. That social fabric supports our lives and those of our children. It's something the West seems, sadly, to have lost in the quest for individualism above all else. Generations - even the world - would benefit if the West could rediscover its own communities again.

Nthenya Mule is the Kenya manager of the Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of poverty.

7. The Village (Tanzania)

Someone looking out for you

by Zuhura Sinare Muro

My marriage was a challenge for our families. I am a Sunni Muslim woman. My father was a leader of the Muslim Council of Tanzania. I fell in love with a man who comes from a staunch born-again Christian family. This was at a time when evangelical Christians were decimating congregations of traditional Christian churches in Tanzania. Knowing the sensitivities of a civil marriage and the family profiles involved, we decided to request our families to allow us do a small wedding ceremony.

When we presented that idea, it caused an uproar. Despite the challenge of the anti-religious wedding, both clans decided to arrange for a big ceremony. The climax was the wedding reception, with 1,200 invited guests, members from both families. Including the pre-wedding festivities, the wedding day and the after-wedding party, more than 2,500 people showed up. This is a typical way to celebrate a marriage in our society. The whole village came because people feel connected and wanted to be part of the event.

These strong community ties support me as a working mother. I can leave my children any moment - even unannounced - in the care of a sister, a grandmother or an aunt. It's easy; it's normal. I don't need daycare, because my children belong to the extended family. I also know that I will be taken care of when I'm Ill. When I die, my family will take care of my children. And I know my clan will bury me.

The flip side of that is I'm expected to take care of my relatives as well. I may serve on the board of an international company, but I cannot leave on a business trip abroad when my mother-in-law has to be taken to the hospital. I am supposed to nurse her day and night. I will be shunned by my family or community if I let a stranger bathe and feed her. I'm also expected to look after any orphan the clan feels will develop well under my care.

The village - in the widest possible sense of that word - supports me, and I support the village. We give and we receive. We are connected.

Zuhura Sinare Muro is a social entrepreneur investing in value-based education.

8. Happiness (Bhutan)

Boost your country's GNH today!

by Lyonpo Jigmi Y Thinley

Governments usually aim to achieve the highest possible economic growth as measured by the gross national product (GNP), which is how the world looks at progress. In Bhutan, however, we believe this is a narrow view that traps people in cages of materialism. All that humanity sacrifices at the altar of materialist progress to appease insatiable wants has not been in the best interests of furthering human civilization.

The king of Bhutan introduced the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is based on the idea that true development of society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. That's why for the past two decades, happiness has been incorporated as a guiding principle in Bhutan's policies.

Over the years, we've made Bhutan greener than most countries and despite the advent of satellite TV and the Internet, the social fabric is still intact. These policies have also made Bhutan more secure than ever before. To us, these are all indications that our policies are beginning to realize the goal of making people happy. And that's what all of us want: to find more ways we can engage in the pursuit of happiness.

Lyonpo Jigmi Y Thinley is the former home minister of Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalayan Mountains.

9. Non-violence (India)

One world, many truths

by Satish Kumar

The most important thing for the West to learn is that there is no one truth. There are many truths. You have a truth. I have a truth. Both could be true. Take a tree. A botanist sees a particular species. The carpenter sees wood for furniture. A religious person sees a sacred tree. A poet is inspired to write a poem and a painter sees a painting. One tree, many views. Many truths - all equally true.

Truth is not important. Anekant - "no one truth" - teaches the Jain religion of India. Without fixed truth, there are no dogmas.

However in the West, and particularly in science and religion, truth is supreme. The West needs believers. Hence the disagreements, the fighting, the wars and the conflicts. The Jains don't need believers. They seek happiness and practise friendship, respect, tolerance and harmony. Nonviolence is supreme; truth is secondary. And seeking the impossible one ultimate truth, with all its divisive effects, is not the primary objective in life.

Believing is temporary. You may change your mind. Today's truth may not be tomorrow's truth. Truth changes. The practise of nonviolence is enduring and universal.

Satish Kumar was trained as a Jain monk in India. He is the editor of Resurgence magazine.

10. Food (India)

The cradle of local food

by Vandana Shiva

Western industrialized agriculture is not as productive as most people think. The extensive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides requires a lot of water, harms soil fertility and poses a threat to biodiversity. Numerous studies have shown that the yield per acre at organic farms is higher than at conventional farms, but just as profitable and often more so. By going organic, farmers can get higher yields, while taking better care of the land.

The very essence of good agriculture is sustaining the land. That cannot happen with the intensive chemical and mechanistic farming methods that characterize Western agribusiness. Some people in developed nations are beginning to understand this, as witnessed by the growth of organic and local food, even though it's nothing new in the rest of the world. This traditionally efficient way of farming in developing nations needs to be protected from the incursion of Western farming methods - so we can better feed our people, sustain our land and continue to offer inspiration to those in the West who understand the importance of these things.

Vandana Shiva is founder of Navdanya, a movement for Biodiversity Conservation and Farmers' Rights, based in India.

11. Humility (Sri Lanka)

Make a bow, receive a blessing

by Lalith Gunaratne

It was an emotional farewell for 24 boys and girls between the ages of fourteen and seventeen who had spent five days learning and sharing together. In keeping with South Asian tradition, most of them bowed down and prostrated themselves in gratitude and respect to the elders who had been their tutors. When they bowed to me, I got a sense of their innocence and felt genuine happiness for what we as adults had shared with them in their learning.

The youth were from six schools in the Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra states in India, participating in a British Council-sponsored experiential-learning program on leadership and teamwork through sports, held at a school in the city of Chennai. I was there supporting the lead trainer from Britain in working with these young leaders and six teachers.

The tradition of bowing to elders is one of the most beautiful acts of gratitude I encounter in Asia. Yet I had not always felt comfortable when someone bowed down to me. My urban parents had not brought me up in that tradition. A lot of hugging and kissing took place at my house, but no prostrating and bowing. So I had always felt embarrassed when anyone prostrated themselves in front of me. My Western beliefs led me to think that no one should feel so subjugated as to go down on his knees to anyone else.

I have come to realize that this is my Western notion of individuality coming out, even though I was born and spent my early years in Sri Lanka. My parents, both teachers, were part of a hybrid generation, having been English-educated in colonial Sri Lanka at Christian schools, but experiencing the Buddhist influence of humility and simplicity in their homes. So I did live in two worlds. The only time I bowed to my parents was at my wedding. My partner Samantha had been brought up in the tradition of bowing to her elders. Her German-born mother encouraged it as a part of her father's Sri Lankan tradition. I remember feeling awkward doing it, but then saw the tears in both my parents' eyes as I got up. It became a moment of great emotional significance for me.

Recently I discovered that in bowing, people are not only showing gratitude, but looking to receive a blessing from you in parting. When someone bows to you, the correct response is to touch the person with love and compassion, giving him a blessing for a happy future. It is a return gift of positive energy. Further, in bowing, a person shows you complete trust and abandons his ego as he puts his head down and takes his eyes off you. He is at your mercy. This show of trust strengthens the bond of our common humanity.

So now I see bowing to another in a different light. To bow to someone in gratitude and respect, in request of blessing, needs one to love and respect "self" first. If we can learn to bow to our self, to each other as the human family and to nature - if we can learn to bow with love and trust, and to receive blessings - we will have done much to keep our hope for humanity alive.

Lalith Gunaratne is a renewable-energy consultant in Sri Lanka and a Readers Blogger on


Reprinted from the October 2007 issue of Ode Magazine.

Copyright (c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten