Using the Internet, Questioning the Internet: Multigenerational Perspectives on Community, Authenticity, and Cyberspace
By Susan Jennings
First appeared in Communities Magazine December edition.
The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, Ohio was founded 74 years ago as Community Service Inc; in 1940 it began the organization that eventually became the Fellowship for Intentional Community. For the last 10 years, Community Solutions’ main focus has been to educate people about the necessity to reduce their fossil fuel energy use and CO2 emissions as a way to mitigate the climate crisis. Much of our research has been on the false technological solutions touted by government and industry, including quantitative critiques of the LEED building system and the electric car.
So the vexing questions of community vs. technology are embedded in our personal and work interests, habits, and output. While all of us working at Community Solutions have been television-less for years, we routinely use the internet to communicate, to source information, and to post our research and writing. We work with the local community on energy projects, but still spend a large part of our time on the internet, oftentimes in conversation among colleagues through blogs and Twitter posts, or learning through alternative news sources. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a 21st century organization doing without the internet.
We remember what life was like before the web, using card catalogs to find information in libraries and relying on magazines, newspapers, and broadcast news for current analysis. Now there’s an almost miraculous amount of information about the planet available instantaneously. It’s hard to overestimate the importance the web plays in the spread of information in a time of rapid environmental, political, and economic changes. Photos and commentary about the damage wrought by climate change and the quest for fossil fuels – including the damage from fracking, tar sands, and mountaintop removal – is visible on your desktop if you are tuned in to the right sites. Citizen journalists with smart phones offer an immediate alternative view of current events – and sometimes the only view. The seeker of historical truth can go down rabbit holes of information, unearthing ideas and facts that might have been hidden at another time.
But by its very nature, information technology is a masterful tool of ideological control and manipulation. In the past decades it’s been at the forefront of the globalization of culture.
Even a brief survey of recent articles about the internet should give the most avid user pause. From the health impacts of wifi, to copyright and speed issues, to the consolidation of media providers and the ecological impact of information technology, battles over the use and control of the web seem to be just beginning.
How can we navigate these dichotomies? Pat Murphy, 75, our Research Director and author of several books, including Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, uses the internet for some of his research. His work involves the accretion of detail and analysis of data – looking at longitudinal trends, especially on the kinds of technologies that have been proposed to deal with energy depletion and climate change. Over the last several years he’s followed the hopeful predictions surrounding technologies like biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and the electric car – seeing them peak and then stall. He’s also watched the predictions about climate change and how the reality has progressed much more quickly than scientists feared.
Pat says: “None of the stuff about climate is easy to learn. If you’re trying to find something on the internet, it takes a long time to find what you want and you have to look at the options and decide what’s useful to you. Like with any field, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff and that just comes from hard work. There are billions of documents on the internet and there’s no way that a person could ever go through all the urls to judge the quality. So it’s very important to develop qualified sources.”
Pat has learned to trust some of the data that government sites like the Department of Energy and The Environmental Protection Agency produce and post, but still finds he needs to do his own analysis on the data. He’s seen writers and researchers with agendas who will cherry pick data to show that, for example, solar power or the electric car are going to save us. He also turns to books. “Most of the philosophy or higher perspective on the situation I learn from books. Books are less susceptible to corporate manipulation and control than the internet. They have better quality control, a longer life, and a much higher density of information than magazines or electronic communication. Books are associated with communities of writers, printers, proofreaders, and a host of other people. A good book comes from this kind of human interaction between qualified people.”
Besides using the internet for research, we also use social media for communication and for getting the word out on issues that concern us, even though most of us don’t use it in our personal lives.
Faith Morgan, 65, Media Director, says: “If I weren’t in the organization I wouldn’t be using Facebook or Twitter and I probably wouldn’t be on the internet. I have lots of interests – painting and gardening and interacting with people, folkdancing, reading, building brick ovens – I have so much that I want to do that I would feel it’s a waste of time using the internet unless there is something specific I want to do such as research for my next film.”
That leaves it to Julia, 21, a junior at neighboring Antioch College and an intern at Community Solutions, to help us with Facebook and Twitter. Julia reads articles and blogs about energy and climate change and abstracts them into paragraphs and sentences for posting. Julia uses the internet for many more activities than the rest of us do.
Julia says: “As a student, I end up in front of a computer for 50-60 hours per week. We need computers for class, homework, and communication with friends and family. It adds up. On top of that – I grew up with the computer. From an early age, I have become accustomed to using it for entertainment, communication, and education. I might go online to research for a project, but I often get distracted – by interesting articles, pictures, conversations on Facebook, pins on Pinterest, facts about other places in the world, house prices in towns I may live in one day, how beehives are built in India, or even researching the ingredients in vegan marshmallows. It is wonderful to have so much information at your fingertips, but at the same time it can be easy to spend too much time on the internet.
“The urge to get on the computer at any boring moment is inevitable. Just check your Facebook real quick! Someone may have messaged you. Go look on Pinterest, you might get an inspiration for this paper you’re writing. Whenever I sit at a computer, I have access to a source of personal communication, silly videos, endless information, creative photos, crafty DIY ideas, vegan cupcake recipes – endless entertainment. Sometimes I literally have to turn off my internet access in order to focus when I’m working on homework. As well, I grew up with the internet. It’s difficult to imagine how I would get along without it. It is my friend when I feel alone, bored, sad, and distracted. Indeed, I cannot remember a time in my life when the internet was not somehow accessible, except in some of my travels.”
It’s precisely the amount of material on the screen that is disturbing to Pat: “A move from the original scientific orientation to an advertising orientation is one way the internet has deteriorated. For example, some of the Department of Energy sites are using more of a merchandising approach, using too many graphics – their site is more like an advertising vehicle and it makes it harder to get the information. There’s an overlay of social media that gets in my way.”
Nowhere is the phrase The Medium Is The Message more true than about the internet. The way that information is presented to the viewer can skew their sense of history, and their sense of the relevance of what they are reading. If you weren’t aware of the immensity of the issues facing mankind, you could spend days clicking through sites without recognizing the realities of climate change. You can get millions of hits on certain topics and still not have any insight into them; it’s a reminder that information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. The web is also all-encompassing and multisensory—huge parts of our population suffer attention deficit. People who imbibe media regularly also tend to be more fearful. News and compassion fatigue can lead to a sense of helplessness—there are so many wolves (or terrorists) that readers are unable to discern the real dangers of climate crisis or the fact that they can contribute to its mitigation.
Some of these issues arise from the nature of the medium, but there’s a sense that much disinformation is by design rather than by default, a view that has been confirmed a thousandfold over the last few years of revelations from Edward Snowden and others. Twitter feeds designed to take down the Cuban government; Wikipedia articles written or edited to reflect a government’s desired view; and studies by Facebook and others trying to manipulate their users’ emotions seem to be the tip of an iceberg many of us who depend on the internet don’t want to acknowledge. Yet we’ve seen information that was previously posted made more difficult to find, or simply disappear. The recent passage of the Right-to-be-Forgotten law means that the revisionist history that’s practiced could make the web more Orwellian still.
Faith says: “So much can be made up and posted on the internet. The ability to perpetuate propaganda on people has been intensified. Hold back the facts and send out the propaganda.”
Pat adds: “You have to remember that technology is really the province of corporations, particularly mass technology that deals with selling products. We are inundated with a level of advertising that is 10 times that of other countries.”
Snowden’s revelations remind us that whenever we are connected electronically, others can also connect to us. We’ve also read of people getting arrested or losing jobs over supposedly private communications via email or social media.
Pat says: “The year-old Snowden Affair may be the death blow for the dream. We are also becoming more aware of ubiquitous surveillance cameras, GPS in our phones, and the ability to track our cars. Smart meters, smart smoke alarms, smart thermostats, and smart appliances extend this concept into the home. Car, cell phone, home, and office are now set up for continuous surveillance by governments and giant corporations who provide the technology. Snowden exposed the collusion of internet suppliers.
“It was a great shock to find out that this was done without the consent of the people. It increased my disillusionment with my government. I thought that they were protecting me but it’s not true. Gathering up this data is a step toward a totalitarian state.”
Have the revelations changed his behavior on the web? “First I understand that everything I search on the internet and everything I say or write through electronic means is recorded. If I want to read anything on Cuba I assume I’m flagged as a suspect but I’m not going to stop searching in hopes that I won’t be noticed. Every social activist needs to know now that it will be easy to be picked up; they won’t have to search your house. The internet may be the most totalitarian device ever invented as we can be monitored so easily.”
It’s a concern shared by most of us, but within our families and workplace, there is a generational difference to the concern.
Julia, our intern, says: “The Snowden revelations don’t bother me, although they probably should. I remember in third grade learning that if I say certain words, the government would be able to track my conversations. However, I have never known anyone personally to be affected by that, so it’s hard for me to imagine that the government is really reading everyone’s emails and listening to everyone’s phone calls. Perhaps I wrote it off because it just did not feel real to me. It is still a disconcerting thought, and I hope our tax dollars aren’t used for things like that.”
Our ecological concerns make internet use even more complex. In his essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry noted that he’d “hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal.” Pat adds, “the answer to a lot of this is to really understand that what appears to be benevolent technology has multiple downsides to it and we’re now seeing that other great benevolent technologies like air conditioning are heating up the planet. All technology has a price to it that can be measured in climate impacts.”
So is it time to turn off computer screens the same way we turned off our televisions? It’s clear that we need to have boundaries around their use. We recognize that internet research needs to be tempered with other forms of communication with each other and with the world around us. But we also recognize our own role in contributing to the body of knowledge that others can access from the web.
Not only older people but younger ones seem to be pulling away from information technology, and specifically the internet. Although Julia notes that she’s heard students say things like “My computer is my life,” and “I would die without access to the internet,” one third of Antioch students are not on Facebook and are otherwise moving away from the internet.
Julia says: “When I survey the amount of time I spend doing meaningless, distracting things on Facebook – as much as I love those random Buzzfeed quizzes – I am embarrassed because that time could have been spent reading a good book, meditating, walking in the woods, volunteering on the farm, finally starting a craft project I’ve been wanting to do, having a nice conversation with a friend, or even napping.
“In many ways I feel the internet greatly impedes me. For one, the internet is a safety net for entertainment and boredom – I am almost never forced to find creative ways to entertain myself. Further, it encourages a constant work day. I feel there is a cultural expectation to always be accessible and able to work. There is an expectation that you will see an email and respond to it promptly and that you will be able to do your homework by tomorrow even if it was assigned that evening. At one time, people were done with their work because the sun set. Now, we can work until the break of dawn if we need to. That capability coupled with my own procrastination results in just that. I have lost balance with the natural rhythms of nature. As I begin to look critically at our society and culture, I’m seeing our inherent separation from nature and the terrible things that have resulted.”
Faith says: “I don’t get on my computer on the weekend unless if have to. If I have a big project I will be on it researching, I get really involved, otherwise I turn it off on Friday and not back on until Monday. This is disconcerting for people, that they can’t reach me by the internet.”
Pat adds: “If we think we can substitute face-to-face with tweets, I don’t think so. The feedback mechanisms are quite different. It’s not good for your mind, like eating bad candy, to take in so much information. People are not changed for the better. Nor can you do any contemplation or deep thinking. Face-to-face opportunities stimulate memories of the environment. There’s a great deal of communication in tone, body language, and very powerful conversation.”
In fact, it is in community and away from our screens that we often rediscover balance. In our own work community we bounce ideas and information off one another and often come to a more nuanced sense of the truth than we can come to individually. We have also found that, when in other communities where we can’t have immediate access to technology, we learn unexpected things.
Faith says: “Last year I was at Twin Oaks, an intentional community of about 100 people. They did not have internet access in every building and you had to be at a land line phone location to use your cell phone. I asked about the restriction. They said that they didn’t want their everyday life to be interrupted by phones ringing everywhere and anywhere. It was a little frustrating and very refreshing.”
Julia says: “Every time I’m away from technology I feel my identity is fuller. Spending time with people, being outdoors, meditating, praying, or making something with my hands all give me so much more life than time on the computer can. My greatest moments of creativity, connection with others, and peace are away from the computer. Yet it is still hard to break away from at times. It can be an easy source of familiarity and comfort, especially in unfamiliar or uncomfortable moments.”
In trips to Costa Rica and Cuba, Julia and other travelers had their internet usage curtailed. “In that specific scenario I was at times uncomfortable, not having access to the familiarity of the computer which could easily connect me to my family and friends – but not having it was so very beneficial in the development of our immediate community. We had more conversations, shared more freely with each other, and relied on each other more for comfort and strength in difficult times.”
Faith was shocked by the discrepancy between her meeting Cubans face-to-face and a mainstream media-driven sense of reality. In her travels to Cuba, she found that her expectations of a poor uneducated populace were totally overturned when she had conversations with farmers and others whose literacy, sophistication, and openness made her realize: “They’re just like us.” Her admiration for what the Cubans endured after the fall of the Soviet Union and the United States embargo contrasted with the way Cuba was talked about by George Bush Jr. as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Faith says: “The reason I did The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil was because I thought that what Cubans faced and came through was very important for the world to know about.” The Power of Community has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people in film screenings across the planet and also on the web. Faith is currently working on a sequel about Cuba’s Energy Revolution, called Earth Island, Energy and Community.
Like our film work, our critiques about the futility of finding a techno-fix to solve the planet’s climate crisis also are posted on the internet. We are committed to contributing wherever we can to a holistic and fact-based view of the planet and the issues we face as a global people. Just like the alternate news sites that inform and sustain us, we feel it’s important to be part of a dialogue about the human future. Abandoning the web to corporate giants is like abandoning agriculture to GMOs.
At the same time, we continue to question the ubiquity of the web and whether its use by others for power and control outweigh its benefits. As our built infrastructure vices preference to the family car over walking or bicycling or taking trains, so the information superhighway can take us away from books and conversations and storytelling. We know we need to keep other kinds of conversations and communities and knowledgebases alive. We need to make sure we continue to tell stories of the way things are and the way things have been so that the only stories that are told are not through the corporate media’s eyes.
by Faith Morgan
Yellow Springs, in southwest Ohio, is not in direct danger from shale gas extraction, aka “fracking” for natural gas; we don’t have the geology for it. It’s another story in eastern Ohio, across the Ohio River from Pennsylvania and Virginia, where there is oil, coal, and natural gas. The early strip mines left bare “high walls” on the Ohio hills. Then giant earth-moving equipment was brought in, such as the GEM (Giant Earth Mover) of Egypt, which moved whole hills aside to get the coal beneath. By then reclamation was required, but 30 or more years later the treeless reclaimed land, with rubble-strewn soil, is still in evidence. When the coal seam went too deep for stripping, south of Interstate 70, long-wall coal mining began. It’s a form of mining that takes place hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, removing square kilometers of coal at a pass, causing subsidence at the surface. Natural gas fracking came next, moving from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Ohio.
My brother, John Morgan, lives in eastern Ohio, so I have heard about shale gas developments. Last week, Eric Johnson and I took our video camera to begin documenting what is taking place around Barnesville, Ohio. It was a trip of great contrasts. We stayed in a community with people who had purchased a large tract of land 44 years ago to protect it from strip mining, and who have not sold their fracking rights for natural gas. We attended a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearing in Cadiz, Ohio, concerning the 42-inch Rover pipeline that will transport natural gas from the tri-state region of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to Canada.
The next day we visited two families who have built or are building earth covered super-insulated solar homes. They are using PV panels and wind turbines for electricity. John then took us on a tour of fracking sites. We saw well pads that took up six acres of land and compressor stations used to clean the gas as it comes out of the ground and pressurize it for pipeline transport. There were also monstrous water storage tanks being filled with water from creeks for fracking use, settling ponds, and wastewater injection wells. We visited the area’s drinking water reservoir to witness the drawdown resulting from selling water from it for fracking. That evening we attended a “Concerned Barnesville Area Residents” (CBAR) meeting. The group organized when it was learned that the first of 23 unregulated Ohio shale gas-related waste facilities was being sited next to Barnesville. This was to dispose of drill cuttings, which we learned commonly contain dangerous levels of radioactivity from black shale formations. Pennsylvania landfills are rejecting these radioactive drill cuttings, so it is being sent to Ohio, along with 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s fracking flowback, which is also coming to Ohio for disposal.
After stopping the dump site, CBAR turned their attention to protecting the Barnesville reservoirs, water source for over 12,000 area residents. Two shale well pads are planned to be located close to the largest reservoir. The village is working on a water protection plan, but whether it will be able to assure the safety of the water supply is uncertain. Some in the group have turned their attention to researching ways to monitor air pollution from shale gas operations as well. It appears that, to date, Ohio is doing minimal air monitoring for possible contamination in the shale region. Eric and I interviewed a couple who had sold their fracking rights and a young woman who had not.
To continue our trip’s contrast, the next day we drove to Zanesville, Ohio where we visited Zane State College’s impressive alternative energy program and the Quasar biodigester. The Quasar facility takes animal and human waste, as well as milk and other produce that can no longer be sold, and extracts the energy (methane gas) before the waste is returned to the soil as both liquid and dry compost. Quasar uses the gas to generate electric power that heats or cools and runs the facility. There is also enough left to make into compressed natural gas (CNG) to fuel their trucks and cars. We were told that if the gas is not used in these ways, it would have to be “flared” off.
The trip showed us both positive and negative things that are happening. On one side were super-efficient buildings with greatly reduced energy demand; the use of solar hot-water heating, wind turbines, and solar PV; and capturing methane gas from waste products rather than put it into landfills. Juxtaposed to this was fracking for natural gas, the water pollution from which could end up being as devastating for this area of deep stone ravines, woodlands, and farms as mountaintop-removal coal mining is to southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Fracking pads are large and, to access the “inventory” of gas, must be laid out in a grid across the landscape; they can be as close together as 1/3- to 1/2-mile apart.
I came away from this trip troubled. On one hand I can imagine what this area might look like when the gas is gone, how polluted it might become, and how people’s lives and occupations could be disrupted, which makes me want to stop the fracking. On the other hand I am dependent on natural gas to keep me warm in winter and to cook my food. I am also aware that the drop in U.S. CO2 emissions is because we have converted some of our electric power generation to natural gas from coal. The night after our tour of fracking sites I was very troubled, I wrote in my journal, “I am the problem; I depend on natural gas for my needs.”
by Susan Jennings
There was a moment on Sunday morning, the last day of our Climate Crisis Solutions conference, when Richard Heinberg spoke about the importance of each of us going down to the forum. That image of us gathering to share what we know helped coalesce the conference presentations and dialogues into a clear, crystalline understanding of where we are and where we need to be.
It was a coalescing of Jim Merkel’s rousing talk of his personal journey to radical simplicity; the careful inquiries into carbon numbers of Marty Heller and Pat Murphy; Bob Brecha’s stories about the IPCC report and Europe’s renewable energy projects; Liz Walker’s documentation of the Ecovillage At Ithaca’s impact on its neighbors and broader community; the individual stories of personal and community commitment and change; and Richard’s own introductory presentation on the need for contraction. We all need to go the forum, Richard said during a panel discussion on Sunday, because of the moment in history we’re sharing, no matter how dangerous, or exacting, or fruitless it sometimes seems.
It’s been ten years since Community Solutions’ first Peak Oil conference in 2004 and many of the same colleagues joined us this year. Our discussions, now as then, were wide-ranging and thought-provoking, embedded in climate and energy realities, and touching on issues of community and individual leadership. We heard Peter Bane and Linda Wigington lead panels of impassioned people who are making deep energy cuts in how they live or in their homes; discussed the need for – and likelihood of – voluntary and involuntary simplicity and poverty; learned of the need for practical tools to create a carbon budget. And, throughout the weekend, we talked to each other about how we might rise to the historic challenge of this moment individually and collectively.
On the Sunday morning panel, reflecting on where change starts – with the individual or in the community – Richard said: “Begin with yourself or you have no authority. Then share with your community or you have no relevance.” In response to Jim Merkel’s earlier examination of our political realities, Richard continued that we are an “empire in the process of cracking up. So that means it’s a dangerous time to be alive and it’s a dangerous time to go down to the forum. Because people are frightened, confused and angry, they don’t understand what’s happening around them and they’re looking for someone to blame. So they need practical guidance in adapting – basically in learning how to be successfully poor because that’s the direction we’re heading in….”
by Erik Lindberg
reposted from Transition Milwaukee
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Sixth Community Solutions Conference: “Climate Crisis – Curtailment and Community – and The Power of Individual Action,” held in Yellow Springs Ohio by The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. To those not familiar with permaculture, the work of Community Solutions or for that matter The Post Carbon Institute, the most remarkable thing about the conference was what was not included – namely, the usual salvo of smart-grids and breakthroughs in efficiency, panel after panel celebrating the decreasing price of solar and wind, the false promise of carbon capture or a new knowledge economy, or, if necessary (so that we might continue to live as if there is no tomorrow) the prospect of blasting the tops of mountain tops, this time to fill the air with sun-blocking dust. There was no suggestion, here, that we might magically maintain our unsustainable way of life with nary an inconvenience; the message was far more optimistic and uplifting than that.
Any foolish hope that we might collectively address climate change in a way that does not involve massive lifestyle changes was disposed of in Richard Heinberg’s opening talk, which highlighted the peaking of world conventional oil production, the limits of tight oil, and the fact that renewable energy just won’t behave like coal, oil, and natural gas, no matter how much we may wish it would. Pat Murphy added to this a significant discussion about the diminishing returns that we might expect from efficiency and thus the necessity of re-engineering our own practices and demands rather than the planet itself. The rest of the conference was geared mainly towards personal and community choices we can make. While some of these changes did had a technological aspect, inner-change, will, and commitment received far more attention. The power of moral reckoning and a commitment to doing what is right on a planet that is hot, crowded, and certainly not flat, were highlighted by Jim Merkel’s rousing and highly-personal account of his model of radical simplicity. No one was suggesting that politics don’t matter, nor that our current societal values might be compatible with humanity’s long term survival. But the stronger emphasis, this weekend, spoke to the belief that this group of activists and aspirants might “be the change they want to see.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the “Plan C” or “Post Carbon” approach to climate change and peak oil, at least for me, is the way data, analysis, and numeracy are interlaced with a deep and reverent spirituality, with which we, the conference participants, were encourage to consider the earth, each other, and ourselves. Surveying the future of climate and energy activism fifteen years ago, one might not have expected that the emerging conclusions of jaded oil-company geologists would find such a happy marriage with the hand-holding and song-singing spiritual wing of permaculture. Part of the success of this unlikely union has to do with some exceptional individuals, like Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan, who have graced us with their extremely sharp minds and oversized hearts. The result, at any rate, was a weekend of depletion graphs and footprint matrixes, intertwined with vulnerable love and care for each other. As Mother Earth is crushed by the weight of humanity, we brothers and sisters are finally coming together to lift each other up as we recall the abundant grace and care with which she has nurtured us.
One of the mantras of modern consumer culture is the need for “smart technology.” Community Solutions, Permaculture, The Transition Movement, and The Post Carbon Institute are, in contrast, solitary reminders that we are in far greater need of wisdom. In this they are in many respects heirs to the many indigenous civilizations that were able to thrive for centuries without the technology that modern people assume it impossible to survive without. As a proverb ascribed to natives of what we now call “Australia” goes, “the more you know, the less you need.” Black Oaks Center Executive Director Jifunza Wright-Carter shared the grief and joy with which she discovered her Choctaw roots in Mississippi, reminding us of the need to draw more directly on the wisdom of peoples who knew so much more about life on Earth than those educated only in the ways of modern industrial civilization. Although not the explicit topic of any single talk, the theme of indigenous practices, tribal self-limitation, and traditional wisdom was, at least for me, a persistent subtext throughout the conference.
As I reflected on the conference as I tossed restlessly, unable to sleep on Sunday night, my mind drifted to the arrogance, cruelty, and violence with which Europeans, armed with superior guns, germs, and steel have ravaged the rest of the planet, first with our conquistadors, and now with our models, marketing, and IMF loans. This cruelty, which we many among us in America and Europe assume we have transcended (forgetting about the permanent wars that they may protest against, but which nevertheless help maintain their privilege), is of course justified in the name of progress and of freedom, concepts which will deserve increased scrutiny in coming years: “We may have destroyed primitive civilizations,” we admit, “but at least we allow everyone protection under the far more important universal rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This last phrase has been sticking out in my mind all day – the pursuit of happiness, especially. A great deal about us as a people is contained, constrained, and detained within this phrase, one which we foolishly believe has set us free. It captures our restless and unsettled character, so sagely described by Wendell Berry. That happiness is a thing to pursue outlines the limits of our imagination, the unthinkable regions lost to a people who have been to the moon and back in pursuit of knowledge, only, as power, and power mainly to subsume and consume. It suggests, simply, that happiness cannot be here – or now. It is somewhere else, later, over there – reflected in that image or whispered in that dream. And so we trample our world – and each other – in a mad stampede to be first to the receding horizon; and then ask, in our infinite cleverness, how could the trampled and spoiled land we have just left behind, full of worthless junk and broken lives, be a place of happiness? Of course, we say with smart and knowing disdain, it must be over there, somewhere.
There is of course a sort of freedom that comes with this disparagement of the here and now, a lifting of responsibility, a permission to be without care – careless, that is. If this indeed is the basis or our vaunted and unquestioned commitment to freedom, then freedom needs consideration and thought. This is a heretical statement, said only with a certain risk when living as we are among the free and the scared – armed, angry, running behind, making a way, trying to get ahead, honing that competitive edge, staying on top, thrashing around in search for the better life that has been promised. These words, if you pause over them, reveal a truth about a people living in endless pursuit. But happiness, I propose, may not be something that can be pursued. Nor can any near-synonymous terms with which we might, following Aristotle, define the ultimate end of a life well-lived. Game is pursued; spoils are too. Riches are pursued, as are fame, glory, a championship ring, conquest, or gold. The prize, as Daniel Yergin admitted in a rare moment of modest clarity, is pursued. But happiness cannot be.
Pursuit, we should admit, refers not only to a short-lived task or campaign. It can itself be a permanent state of being, and some say that a life lived in pursuit is a purposeful one. One recalls the adages, sometimes clichés, that the journey, not the destination, is where one finds the joy and wonder. But pursuit, I think, speaks of a far more narrowly focused and harried dispensation than does a journey. Journeys may be made while staying still; pursuits, I don’t think, can. Rivers may be said to make a journey, but they are not in pursuit of anything. Trappers paddling furiously upstream are in pursuit. A herd of buffalo might be said to be in pursuit of greener pastures, as are the wolves who might hunt one or two of them down. But pursuit, here, is driven by a hunger which, once satisfied, is followed by resting, a roll in the sun, or contented rumination. Whales roam the ocean; Ahab, Melville (the insightful student of our then young republic) realized, is driven by mad relentless pursuit. He is occupied, to use another word that deserves a moment of reflection. But little more than that.
That modern people are in permanent pursuit has no doubt solved some difficult political predicaments having to do with maintaining a sense of freedom and the facsimile of consent. Politicians need to make promises that need only be replaced with further promises. It is of little, surprise, then, that marketing, branding, and political leadership have come to resemble each other. Bigger. Better. New and Improved. Only the best. “America, you deserve a raise,” as Obama recently declared. Nor should it be surprising that both “pursuit” and “limitless” are marketing buzzwords, partners in insatiable want, found in equal measure in presidential speeches. “In pursuit of limitless innovation that excites” – this is my own amalgamation but one can imagine the leathery wood-grain indulgence, the smooth and graceful lines emerging from the shadowy depths of endless craving. Only in an infinite universe, dumb to unseen limits, might one sensibly design a way of life that is always on the go, heading somewhere else. Thomas Jefferson, one of the great architects of our system, believed that the American continent was, for all practical purposes, infinite. Against his better judgment, perhaps, this belief permitted him to inaugurate the habit of substituting decisions about the here and now with endlessly deferring expansions.
What sort of people would be so taken with innovation, excitement, a world without limits—stuck in this permanent adolescence: smart, strong, fast, and quick, unconcerned for now with contentment or wisdom, or the gravity of place? What could have happened to make us so? Was it the continent taken with blood and built with slaves? Was it the unprecedented power of explosive fuel that we had no way of knowing how to manage? Given so much, did we come to know so little? While we may, in some obscure measure, deserve history’s pity, it is far more likely that we will be seen one day as its most proud and arrogant destroyer.
As a child of this culture, made irreverent by the junk and the lies, permaculture provides for me an island of reverence, and conferences such as the one held by Community Solutions allow me to spend time speaking in a native tongue. As with indigenous cultures and the unbreakable commitment to place, it celebrates the here and now, a place that we might love only because it is ours. Thus, perhaps, the conference’s focus on individual choice and small inner changes – not as a naïve celebration of the power of the individual, but as an attempt to clean house first. Simple beauty, appreciation, abundance at home and neighborhood and community – not something we pursue, Martha Stewart’s exhortations notwithstanding – but the place we stay.
There, here, is where we are, or should be. And from here anything might begin.
by Susan Jennings
Community Solutions was founded 74 years ago as Community Service by Arthur E. Morgan, author of The Small Community and over 20 other books. Arthur Morgan was the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, president of Antioch College, a humanist, and a Quaker. On the eve of our 75th Anniversary, Community Solutions is inaugurating the Arthur Morgan Award, designed to recognize individuals who possess the traits that Morgan wrote about: character, vision, entrepreneurship, and love of community. Our first recipient is William Beale, of Athens, Ohio, longtime member of Community Solutions, serial entrepreneur, founder of Sunpower, husband, father, community member, and passionate advocate of solar power.
William Beale was born in Tennessee and grew up during the Depression in small southern towns. He served briefly near the end of the war in the Navy, and went to college on the GI bill, getting a mechanical engineering degree from Washington State in 1950, with subsequent graduate mechanical engineering studies at Cal Tech and MIT. He moved to Athens to take a professorship at Ohio University in 1960. He taught there for 15 years, and slowly learned that he was intensely interested in doing other things, so he started his own business, Sunpower, to develop and market his Free-Piston Stirling Engine, which featured significant improvements in performance, durability and simplicity over earlier versions of the engine. Beale has received 26 patents for his work, and Sunpower spun off two firms: Stirling Technology, Inc. and Global Cooling, Inc.
He sold Sunpower a few years ago, but continues his promotions of solar energy every opportunity he gets: “It’s simply good engineering logic: when you look at the energy situation it’s blindingly obvious that solar is the way to go. Nothing matches its multiple virtues. I’m interested in solarizing as much as we can.
“When I was trying to sell solar, people would say it’s not economic. There’s something wrong there: that definition of economics is crazy. Their definition is just money. We need to get out of this blind alley, this trap of capitalism.”
In a series of op-eds and letters to the editor, Beale has recommended government investment in electric car retrofits, solar water heaters, super insulation of homes, and bio-gas generators. He writes: “What we need is not less government interaction, but more of the right kind, the kind that knows what the future is and helps that future, instead of ignoring the future and helping the past. The past is named fossil fuels.
“We have got used to living in a paradise of free oil, and now we don’t anymore. I myself slid thru life real easy on a big slick puddle of that near-free oil. But now I and my kids have slurped it all up. But we are still stupidly investing in a hopeless chase for the last cheap oil there is left, and we aren’t finding it because there isn’t any. Still, most of us just keep up the hopeless chase for the cheap stuff in the arctic, deep ocean, tight rocks (fracking) and so on.”
Beale married Carol in 1959 and they bought a piece of waste property on a hill overlooking Athens that was partially strip-mined, partially forest denuded, and partially trampled by cattle. They’ve let nature reforest it, and now have a flourishing forest, as well as a large garden that provides much of their food. It was a very ordinary old farmhouse with no insulation or wiring and they plugged away at it, improving it year after year. Their three children complain that they spent most of their childhood in plaster dust. In addition to insulation, they’ve added solar panels and now run the entire house on their output. A year ago the Beales decided to get off fossil fuels entirely, and now they live on solar and wood culled from their forest with no fossil inputs at all.
Beale continues to tinker and create and advises young people to develop a lot of ideas: “Don’t hesitate to have bad ideas-being judgmental too early is bad strategy.” He’s currently working on an automatic transmission bicycle and a wood-burning, gas-producing electric generator that produces power through a carbon-negative process.
Beale is the recipient of the 2012 Ohio Patent Legacy Award and the 2013 Konneker Medal for Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. He has also donated solar panels to the Athens Library and has been a continual catalyst for energy efficiency discussions and projects in his community.
He worries about climate change and our lack of attention to it: “Many of the most energy-consumptive things we’re doing are near useless or worse than useless.” But he has hope for the future: “The torch is being passed to a new generation and the new generation has a big problem, which gives them an opportunity to be heroes. They have a fantastic opportunity to do something really world-changing. So grab that opportunity and go do it.”
William Beale’s Communnity Award Acceptance Speech
First, I thank all the good people here for doing the hard work of organizing this wonderfully encouraging conference – Pat Murphy, Faith Morgan, Susan Jennings and every contributor. And of course, Arthur Morgan himself, whose vision and initiative started up the whole process when few were giving these hugely important problems much thought at all.
I myself, and I am sure many here, have benefitted greatly from attendance at Community Solutions meetings here and elsewhere. Many thanks to for all that hard work to get them all together. And never doubt that your hard work has been worth all that work. It has been enormously beneficial to one and all.
As to the award itself, I, like many others in my situation, confess to a little twinge of guilt in receiving an award which I am quite sure, that there are here present those have earned better than I. After all, I have been fairly well acquainted with this guy Beale for a while, and I know he is hardly any paragon of anything.
But now to the most valuable component of any such award- a chance to say a few words to the young people – the ones who will determine the way that the present is turned into the future.
Young folks, the job is all yours, you have got it. And it’s a hell of a get you got.
Your problem is far more difficult than the classic crises of the past; I remember well the British. Facing a victorious, deadly foe poised to jump at them across a narrow channel, the Americans whacked at Pearl Harbor, had to act fast and effectively, and they did. Those were single immediate obvious dangers requiring instant collective reaction, and the leaders used the circumstances to convince their people to immediately do what was needed.
Your situation is far worse – a far wider and more deadly threat, and an insidious one, sneaking up on an unsuspecting majority still in a mood to just continue playing their happy games. “What, me worry?”
So, feeling guilty about my giving you such a mess, I wonder if I have anything to say that might help you in your gargantuan task. I think of two quotes that did in fact help me to start to think about beginning to do something. They might be useful to you as well.
The first was in a pleasant long conversation with economist Kenneth Boulding, one of my favorite people. We had met by accident at lunch during a Quaker conference many years ago.
He asked me what I did, and when I answered that I was an R&D engineer, he paused a second, and then said in his mild, humorous way, “Ah, yes, engineers – those who spend their lives trying to find the best ways to do things that should not be done at all.”
I was quite taken aback by this remark, but a moment’s reflection showed me how right he was, since – like most of my generation of engineers – I had spent my first decade working on nothing but weapons having the sole purpose of killing lots of people a long distance away.
The second quote came during one of those wide ranging bull sessions in grad school, wherein we were amusing each other with our various childhood interpretations of the concept of sin.
My recollection was typically primitive: “anything you might be tempted to do for fun.”
My rabbinical buddy then gave a definition from his tradition: “A sin is that which our grandchildren will regret that we did.”
This struck me very hard. Of course, it has to be right, since our grandchildren are in fact us once removed. When we harm them, we harm ourselves.
So, I end with the same advice to you that elders over the ages have urged on the young – do oood, and avoid sin.
And good luck with that little problem you inherited from me, the sinner.
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