GMO Industry: The dumbest guys in the room

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on

I am now convinced the GMO industry has managed to hire the worst public relations strategists in human history. By supporting a deeply flawed GMO labeling bill in the U.S. Congress--some would say intentionally deeply flawed--the industry is about to open a Pandora's Box of PR nightmares for years to come.

First, a little background. GMO, of course, means genetically modified organism which more properly refers to genetically engineered crops and animals. GMO industry leader Monsanto and its competitors such as Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical and Sygenta have all been fighting a fierce battle in the United States against labeling foodstuffs derived from genetically engineered crops. After defeating statewide labeling referendums in California, Oregon and Washington, they failed to stop the implementation of Vermont's GMO labeling law which went into effect July 1.

In desperation the companies have been trying to get the U.S. Congress to pass a nationwide labeling law--one that is considerably less stringent and also riddled with loopholes--that would pre-empt Vermont's law. Just last week the Senate approved its version of the labeling law. If the House and Senate can work out their differences, we may see such a law signed by President Obama before too long.

The industry's main complaint has been that labeling GMOs would unfairly stigmatize them in the minds of consumers. Some 64 countries already require such labeling. What concerns the industry is that increased consumer awareness could create a movement that would lead to a ban on the cultivation of GMO crops, a ban already implemented by 19 countries in Europe.

Opponents of the GMO labeling law currently moving through the U.S. Congress believe it is so poorly drafted that almost no commonly consumed genetically modified foods will actually be covered. In addition, food derived from newer gene-editing techniques as opposed to transgene processes--the ones that transfer genes from one species to another--may be excluded as well. The fact that agricultural trade groups are praising the labeling bill--after fighting labeling for years--tells you something about how effective they believe the law will be at informing consumers, namely, not very.

The Senate bill allows food manufacturers to use a symbol, a statement or a so-called QR code that shoppers would have to scan using a cellphone to obtain information on genetically engineered ingredients. Small companies could simply list a phone number or website address.

If you were selling GMO-derived foods, which would you use? Probably the options that provide the least information and which make it most difficult for consumers to access that information. This assumes that anything in your product actually turns out to be covered by the law which looks like it will exclude great swaths of foodstuffs containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Given what we know now, the final bill is likely to be vague and riddled with exceptions and confusing directives. The GMO-friendly U.S. Department of Agriculture will then be tasked with writing the actual labeling regulations.

We are thus assured of months and perhaps years of wrangling over the labeling rules, every step of which will be given wide and probably negative coverage by the anti-GMO activist community. The pending federal labeling law is more likely to assist opponents in sowing mistrust of major food companies than alleviate it. When the rules go into effect, if they are every bit as lax as the law seems to promise, the activists will make a sport out of spotting and telling on companies that are cheating or that are cleverly thwarting the purposes of the law.

The anti-GMO groups will likely put out lists of the worst labeling violators and lists of their products containing GMOs. And, of course, there will be lists based on those enigmatic QR codes. Perhaps those codes will become the equivalent of the skull and crossbones feared by one GMO executive.

The whole shopping experience will be treated like an reverse Easter egg hunt. Can you spot the GMO foods? Can you identify the alleged cheaters on the grocery store shelves and punish them by refusing to buy their products?

Perhaps some enterprising activist, one not afraid of incarceration, will surreptitiously slap GMO cheater labels on various products on the store shelves that are not labeled properly. Any subsequent arrest will then lead to more coverage as some in the public cheer the civil disobedience while others simply shrug their shoulders.

Acquiescence to the Vermont law or acceptance of a federal law with Vermont's straightforward labeling rules would have saved the GMO industry from what will almost surely be a years-long PR debacle if the labeling law before Congress passes.

There will doubtless be many more creative ways than I've listed for GMO opponents to tweak the industry and keep the issue of honest labeling alive and before the public. If only the industry had accepted Vermont's labeling law as the de facto standard for the country, the industry would have in one stroke taken the issue away from its opponents!

But the industry's business and public relations strategists are the same ones who made a colossal marketing error--while believing they had achieved a regulatory coup--when they steamrolled the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into ruling that GMOs are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GMO counterparts and therefore require no testing. The FDA did this despite their own scientists' concerns that these novel life forms might have unanticipated effects on the environment and on humans who consume them. Some of those scientists thought extensive testing similar to what a new drug must go through was advisable to rule out such risks.

The reason this strategy has turned out to be a colossal marketing error is that as the attacks on GMOs have mounted during the intervening couple of decades, the industry finds itself unable to pivot and point to any advantages that GMO foods have for consumers over non-GMO foods. This is because the industry has been saying for more than 20 years that GMOs have no advantages for consumers. After all, GMO foods are said to be "substantially equivalent." That means that the industry cannot give consumers any reasons to prefer GMO foods over their non-GMO counterparts. Any claims of superiority over conventional foods made now will ring hollow and bring down an avalanche of public derision from GMO opponents.

(The industry may cite supposed advantages for farmers and for the environment. But those advantages are sharply and publicly disputed by anti-GMO activists and have nothing to do with taste, nutrition or appearance which are what matters to consumers. While the GMO industry tells us that GMO crops with enhanced nutrition are coming, I can find only one that has been brought to market under a cloud of concerns. So far genetic engineering has focused on creating plants the produce insecticides internally--not a pleasant thought for those eating them--and which are immune to herbicides made by, you guessed it, the companies producing the GMO seeds.)

These same industry strategists have directed a campaign of fear aimed at farmers to prevent supposed intellectual property theft through the use of saved GMO seeds. Even those into whose fields GMO seeds have been swept by wind have been sued. Since farmers growing in areas where other farmers grow genetically engineered crops may be subject to windblown "thefts," they have an incentive to grow GMO crops on their land and pay the royalties to avoid being sued for such "theft." Essentially, it's, "Buy from us or we'll sue you--and we're a lot richer than you are."

Aggressive tactics including smear campaigns have also been used against critics who question the safety and social utility of GMOs and associated farm chemicals. (Click here, here and here.) Mostly, those campaigns have backfired by creating extensive media coverage of the smear campaigns themselves.

These aggressive tactics have made the company most associated with the GMO industry, Monsanto, one of the most hated corporations in America.

All of this would make for an enviable record for anti-GMO activists, and yet it comes from business and public relations strategists in the industry itself. In most industries, a record like this would lead to a rash of sackings.

Instead, the bunglers have managed to bungle into yet another long-term public relations disaster of their own making. They seem not to have learned anything from their repeated failures.

All this should be pleasing to GMO opponents who must be thinking these continuing debacles couldn't be happening to nicer people.

On Surplus

Originally posted on

Written by conference speaker Eric Lindberg

Community Solutions is featuring the writing of several conference speakers in the lead up to the Charting a New Course Conference!

This is Part 1 of a 2 or 3 part series on the concept of surplus.  Surplus is one of the most central features of modern industrial and democratic societies.  In fact it is so central and its permanence so taken for granted that it is scarcely noticed and even less understood.  The following installations are my attempt to discuss several of its facets, for the slow disappearance of surpluses, I think,is the cause of great bewilderment.


A few weeks ago I came home from work one day feeling utterly defeated, oppressed by a life-weight that was buckling my knees.  Money was short, jobs seemed ready to go off the rails, and there was no way I could stay on top of all the moving parts.  The driver’s side door of my truck would no longer open due to some sort of malfunction and a day of scooting over a passenger seat full of job folders, miscellaneous tools, and the other refuse of a contractor/carpenter life was making a previously broken wrist ache. 

I looked around at our house and yard and saw the wreckage of a half-completed life.  I’m a third done with a home restoration project that starts when some money comes in and stops when it doesn’t, but going on year three I leave things set up and un-tidied as if to tell myself (and my restive neighbors) that the work is in permanent progress.  The sink was full of dishes, the garbage overflowing, and the living room an explosion of Legos, Lincoln Logs, sticker-books and crumpled artwork.  Dust-bunnies, dirty socks and cheerios huddled along the walls.  Only a fire or a flood. . . (I thought to myself) could solve this problem.  All of this was the results of two overworked parents who, already running large deficits on our own time, also can’t afford the hired help that would be necessary to keep everything put together in the wake of our twin four year olds and their boundless entropy.  This is not what I expected.  This is now how I grew up.

This scene is of course also our own doing and is indicative of quirks and weaknesses that my wife and I share.  But there are aspects in it that also represents a unique moment in American (and probably European) culture today.  For it is not just about a messy house and overwhelmed parents, but a greater sense of a botched life, of having not lived up to our potential, of grinding ourselves into nubs of our former selves without the prospect of relief; we fight our way through the tangled underbrush without hope of finding a clearing or a vista.  This moment is marked by a place where shrinking paychecks cross paths with our expanding hopes and aspirations, leaving so many of us frustrated, angry, looking for answers.  Though  usually misnamed, this moment and its trajectory seems to be all that we talk about, at least during a political season, though without any real understanding.  Because I have been a student of this moment for almost a decade (let’s keep things general for now and call it the changing wealth of nations) I know not to compare my life with the life of my parents, for the wealth of their nation was far different than is ours.   This difference will be my eventual topic, but I think the lived experience of it is a crucial groundwork.

I know not to make this comparison, then but there are moments of defeat or frustration, when everything seems such a hopeless and uncleanable mess, and I look around and feel like a failure as old images from my childhood--of clean and sparkling success--sneak out from their hiding place.

These images represent not only what I lived as a child, they were additionally pounded into the crevices of my being by years simply of living in America, the land of high expectations, where we walk to the uniform drumbeat of forced want and desire.  You can turn away from all this unfortunate cultural training.  You can know that success is not the same thing as having, and that simplicity can be beautiful, and imagine a beautiful and simple life for yourself.  You can read and write and march and protest in order to dislodge these images, bury them in community gardens dug until your fingers bleed;  but some are so deeply embossed on our emotional backdrops, ready always to remake their mark—ready, in my case, for the moment when the façade of my life appears to crumbling.  For when I came home that afternoon I suddenly recalled in the most vivid crystalline light an image of my childhood home, always tidy and well-kept, my parents relaxing in the shade, tendingthe flower garden and reading quietly after supper.  It was an ordered life, lived well and well within its means.  But virtue of this order, it seemed a modest life; and compared to many portrayed on TV and movies as the most idealized kind of American wealth, it was a modest life--comfortable, yes, but without a hint of ostentation.  Their life, in any case, was the opposite of our frantic overshoot.

“Everything I wanted”

My parents did live extraordinary lives of the kind that could only happen in America and during a short and extraordinary time.  From relatively humble, evangelical origins they marched together away from that past to the top of academic ultra-success--my father writing the books, giving the papers, and directing the institutes, my mother hosting the parties and providing a welcoming place for graduate students and new faculty.  They did this without Ivy League credentials or any insider-edge.  In fact they struggled in the early years of academic life to discard their old inherited evangelical bumpkinisms, like confusing sherry for white wine, a crime against humanity in 1960s Ann Arbor.  They were sensitive, honest, and forthright--and faultlessly dependable.  They worked hard and with spectacular diligence.  And, as my father always emphasized, they were lucky.  Especially when two years into his Michigan appointment, a position opened up in the History of Science department at the University of Wisconsin, where he was to spend the rest of his days.

By the time he was my age, he had published a shelfful of books, many translated into dozens of languages; he lectured widely around the world, and was positioning himself for his end-of-career glory, in which he was bestowed with all the honors available in his field.  He was soon to publish the standard textbook on “the origins of Western science.”  He was awarded a Vilas Professorship from the University of Wisconsin and had countless life-time achievement awards from various scholarly societies in the decade before his death.  He was smart, of course, and very hard working.  He was disciplined, organized, a revered teacher and trusted colleague.  He never missed a deadline and his constant productivity was rewarded with a lifetime of summer grants and other funding that allowed us to spend a year in Princeton when I was four, and a year in Oxford when I was a pre-teen, along with countless other stays in various global academic hotspots.[i] 

Because of the accompanying material comfort and stability, theirs was not just the picture-perfect academic life.  It was an upper-middle class life as well, even though we, like most people in America, felt ourselves to be closer to the middle than we actually were.  It was, to be honest about it, a comfortable life of bourgeois consumption, despite the high-culture and socially critical hue to it—entirely ecologically unsustainable despite its ordinary and modest lack of anything considered excessive.  True, we were more frugal than most of our family friends and neighbors, adopting new middle class conveniences like central air-conditioning, color TV, snow blowers, and automatic garage door openers after everyone else we knew had.  And true, as I noted, our consumption often had an edifying angle to it—Europe rather than Disney World, camping rather than amusement parks.  But the sort of “headwinds” that many experienced during the 1970s energy crisis and economic slow-down had no apparent effect on our lives.  The two week summer vacations never ceased, we bought new (if very modest) cars whenever they were needed.  We upgraded from a modest ranch to a larger cape cod style house in 1973, and we took a 5 week European vacation in 1974.  Despite the years of “stagflation,” the research grants (in the humanities no less!) and summer funding never missed a beat during the seventies, nor, for that matter over the course of at least five presidential administrations.  We were nothing if not economically secure.  If life in America might be called super-abundant, it was also ultra-secure.  That we might have a routine crisis (a car breakdown, the need for a new furnace or washing machine, even a kitchen no longer suited to our position in life) and not have the savings to address it immediately was unthinkable.  Life could be well-ordered and tidy in so many inner and external ways because, like a balanced ecosystem (though that it was not) the flows and supplies, the inputs and outputs all seemed to work according to a well-proportioned logic.

I would write a history of the structural tectonics of the 1980s in a much different way than I would describe lived-experience during the Reagan years.  Although my parents believed Reagan was a scourge on the Republic, they also enjoyed rising possibilities at the same time, though without ever understanding the connection.  The vacations became more frequent and more luxurious, the artwork real, the personal indulgences less reserved.  But still they saved staggering amounts of money—at least from my perspective--had long-term care insurance, a place reserved at a very nice retirement village, and were still able to put two children through private college and then graduate school, help with our home purchases, and still maintain large reserves.  My children, sadly (or not), will have none of these privileges.

Like every life, theirs had its turmoil and tragedies and our family had the normal mix of pathologies and dysfunction, resentments and disappointments.   But, at least in my mind, these never characterized the sum of their life.  As my father once commented to my mother, he had managed to get everything he had wanted in life.  This is an extraordinary feat.  The wants were not extravagant, but they were in many ways highly ambitious.  It was a beautiful life that combined hard work and discipline with leisure and enjoyment, intensive days of research and writing, and relaxing strolls by the Madison lakes.  Their access to money is alien to my experience, but even more befuddling is how much spare time they had—time to pursue hobbies, art, culture, and an active social life.  How did my dad write the books, paint the house himself, never miss one of my soccer games, read every night, exercise, entertain, work for hours in his woodshop?  Where did all that time come from?  And where has it gone?

What I Have

I learned a lot from my parents and consider my childhood to have been good training for my current life.  They modeled good parenting, and I always felt loved.  I was granted remarkable intellectual privileges, for we talked and debated and thought for hours on end as a family.  But beyond this, none of what I have been describing is available to me and my family.  To be clear, compared to most of the world, I still enjoy unwarranted privileges, but not with as much ease and regularity as many of my parent’s generations.  Although I have worked hard, especially over the past decade, to curtail my wants and redefine success, there are days in which I feel like a complete failure.  I have not, to put it bluntly, gotten very much of what I wanted, or at least I sometimes feel like that, and I probably should have more trepidation than I do about my family’s material insecurity.

When I set out in 1990 in pursuit of my own Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature, I believed that I had every reason to expect that my future might bear some resemblance to my past.  We could of course quibble with the details but it is safe to say that my father and I have roughly the same general range of natural talent and I benefitted from a life-long academic acculturation that he did not have.  He was more disciplined than I am, but I am probably a bit more creative.  He was more focused on the end-product, while I am probably more attracted to the ideas themselves. He was moderate where I tend to be radical.  But the same sort of life in the academy was not ruled out by some major break in in aptitude, intensity, or motivation. 

As some of my readers are aware, I am a carpenter rather than a professor.  I had some successes in the academic world, including a number or articles in refereed journals and a page full of conference presentations.  But no job.  The life of a carpenter and small business owner, into which I fell backwards, has some marvelous features and it initially provided an interesting sort of relief from the very different competition and status-based world of an academic aspirant.  It allowed me to pursue urban farming, and perhaps a more radical and free-ranging sort of social activism and intellectual work.   I like working with my hands and my body, and have an interesting niche in the local restoration market.  The life of a carpenter has allowed me to feel strong, resilient, and capable.  If I can’t fix it, I know someone who can.  This is a gift in a world where most of us grow increasingly dependent on high-priced experts.  There is much to be grateful here, especially as the University of Wisconsin inches towards systemic collapse.

But this career path was only partially chosen.  There was a time in which I very much wanted an academic job and worked furiously to secure one.  I am at heart more interested in ideas, language, and concepts than anything else, and for the first time in fifteen years yearn for a life that would allow complete dedication to ideas. In graduate school I wrote a very long and intense dissertation on the history of the idea of the unconscious.  Into it was packed all sorts of social and political philosophy, literature, and a focused study on cultural narratives.  I lived and breathed this stuff, and after a few years of practical respite in carpentry, still do.   I had some job interviews after finishing the dissertation—good jobs that I would have been thrilled to accept.  But, for a number of reasons, none of the jobs panned out and I was soon swept away, for a time, by the excitement of building things that pushed the limits of my knowledge and experience almost every day.

The usual path for a graduate student in the humanities looking for a tenure-track job is to become a “lecturer,” which, at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is a step below the coveted “adjunct professor” position.  The mis-named “lecturer” is a transitional position that, for many, becomes permanent.  It even has a version of tenure, aptly named “indefinite status.”  That means they will probably keep you around as long as enrollments remain high, while those who are not given indefinite status by default have “definite status,” which means they are definitely not going to be kept around for very long.  Marx referred to the industrial equivalent of this as “mobile army of surplus labor,” and the lecturer (or whatever else it is called in other universities) is indeed the university proletariat, the caste my wife belongs to.  

A lecturer in the English department teaches up to four classes (often, because of the low pay, supplemented by another class or two at a community college).  Lecturers do some of the most labor-intensive teaching in the university and often that which requires a level of teaching talent not required to deliver the weekly lecture that many high-ranking professors are permitted; in the English department they work with entry-level students in basic writing classes that involve thousands of pages of writing to be graded and commented-upon each semester.  Although it can be fulfilling (as it is for my wife who loves her students and is revered by them), this is work in the trenches in an institution that is supposed to only have high and broad vistas, and where only merit trumps equality but never at the expense of fairness and respect.  For reasons I will be discussing, the university in America today cannot afford its high principles, nor its lavish grants and light teaching loads.  The low cost of temporary and disposable labor is becoming the financial backbone of the university, just as outsourced labor is used to keep corporate profits aloft.  The wave of retirements (that made job prospects appear promising for my generation of graduate students) resulted less in new tenure-track hires, and more lower-paid and easily eliminated lecturers and adjuncts.  Professors bemoan this situation, but, I should add, are equally unprepared to share their privilege.  They too feel under fire from above.

I opted out of the lecturer track, falling back on my experience as a roofer (where speed, endurance, and focus are proportionally rewarded and at a much higher pay rate than the itinerant intellectual worker) while also finding promise in the growing remodeling industry of the late 90s.  About 8 years later, by which time I had built a small but solid company called Community Building and Restoration, we in the construction industry were beginning to realize that we had been banking on a system of borrowed home-equity money. and had been floating untethered within an exploding bubble economy.

Like most people in my position, I was almost wiped out when the housing bubble popped, found myself laden with unpayable debt, and came out the other side barely limping.  Things have never been the same since.  This isn’t to say that some business models aren’t performing well, as least for now.  But I have given up all former dreams of an upwardly mobile life of a small business man, where I might settle into leisure and comfort as I get older and hand off the harder physical labor work to underlings.  I don’t aspire to this anymore, because I don’t think it is an ethically responsible life, but I couldn’t have it if I wanted it.  There is neither a path from where I am to a parallel version of the life my parents made for themselves, nor for a university-based one secured by my wife, despite her rare talent as a teacher. In fact, there is scarcely much chance for basic economic security in our future.  I hope the university survives and that my body doesn’t break down too soon.  I worry about the next popping bubble, but probably not as much as I should.    

My main purpose in sharing these personal reflections is, perhaps contrary to appearances, to explain the structural tectonics that have fractured the roads to success upon which many in my generation once set out.  My experience, I think, is not entirely unique.  The comparison between me and my parents is largely a generational one.   On a whole, my generation does not live as securely as our parents did and our opportunities are shrinking.  This is born out in the statistics and in the life experiences of many of my peers.  There are of course exceptions.  Those who went into “financial services” live with excessive comfort, as do many physicians and lawyers and people in the “tech industry.”  But for most of the rest of us, whether we work in retail, the trades, manufacturing, as teachers, in most government jobs (the list could go on), the fact that wages have “stagnated” tell only part of the story of slow decline. 

The life of a young university professor, one who did manage to find a foothold into the world in which my father thrived, also provides a good insight into a world I know well, while reinforcing my sense of generational differences.  The university is not funded the way it used to be, and, in addition to the truly beleaguered lecturers and adjuncts, tenured professors are also feeling a pinch.  They can live very comfortable lives, it is true, but the expansive opportunities enjoyed by my father’s cohort have largely dried up.  In the humanities, summer funding is rare, teaching loads are increasing, departments are shrinking, and even tenure is being questioned as the university is being “run more like a business.”

If I am honest with myself, these personal reflections are flavored with own bitter aftertaste.  I admit it—I do have a chip on my shoulder about the university and about the amount of unpaid research and writing I perform in my scarce free-time and for no compensation.  Living in a different generation, my father had more free time to do what he wished after he was done writing, lecturing, and leading seminars than I have to do any reading and writing in the first place.  There is some self-pity (since I’m already opening myself up for dissection, I might as well admit it all) in my moments of defeat, when I just don’t have the time I need to pursue what I value and what might get give me pleasure.  I do, as I have said, sometimes feel like a failure when life has run me down, and when I feel like a failure, I also feel a bit sorry for myself.  So there you have it.  This might all be read as an attempt to come to grips with my own pathetic little feelings.

But this may make it all the more significant, if for no reason other than the wayI have spent the last eight years on what I now think of as a spiritual journey—one bent on understanding not interms of personal entitlement and disappointment, but in structural and historical ones, the changing course of the wealth of nations and especially the American nation.  I don’tbelieve the world owes me a growing economy and increased consumption.  Just the opposite, in fact—for an economy the size of our current one has already overshot the planet’s biological capacity for production and regeneration.  I know this--and still the lived experience of decline and contraction is more than I can gracefully accept or emotionally process when my back is up against the wall.  My wife and are still only beginning to adjust the reality of our material lives so that we might live within the means we can expect.  We, too, are still in a position of overshoot.

So I’m getting personal, here, because I think the struggles I am able to articulate are ones that others will, though each in their own way, also be required to confront as well—if not now, then in the future.  Feelings, hopes, expectations, disappointments—this is where politics and the economy are lived.  And the changing wealth of our nation will give us a difficult journey.  Or maybe it is not so difficult, per se; perhaps we as a people are unprepared for minor challenges of a certain sort.  In either case,  my own unfinished journey to a new acceptance has taken lots of painful and persistent work and I still have a long way to go.

 And when I see the supporters of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump acting as if their candidate could possibly remake the America that my parents and their generation enjoyed, I see denial and postponement of the inevitable real revolution—one of expectations.  When I see faculty at the University of Wisconsin view their current struggles almost exclusively in personal terms of a bad governor and an indifferent state legislature, I see people who have neither begun to understand nor integrate at the level of lived-experience the great structural and systemic changes in the wealth of nations that are afoot.

I know I risk coming off as smug, here, but that is not my intention, even though (to be honest again) I do feel smug at times.  But I am also afraid.  For if the most educated and most adept at structural and historical thinking among us are not able to translate their own lived-crises into a broader systemic one, then what hope is there for the angry, frustrated and increasingly violent supporters of someone like Trump and all that they represent and portend in a world of decreasing surplus?

 For those readers who have made it this far, I would only ask this: listen to my coming systemic explanation for the sorts of frustrations, worries, and disappointments that so many Americans are experiencing today.  See if it makes more sense than the usual explanation, in which America is suffering a temporary setback at the hands of bad governance or a false ideology or those on the other side of the political divide.

In Conversation: Consumerism After Fossil Fuels

Originally posted on

Written by Richard HeinbergAnnie LeonardAsher MillerJohn de Graaf

The creation of the consumer economy—a complex, interconnected system of institutions, goals, rewards, and punishments—was one of the great social projects of the twentieth century, when energy was cheaply abundant and two of our chief economic problems were overproduction and unemployment. The transition to 100% renewable energy raises some key questions for the future of consumer culture and consumption-based economies. For instance:

  • What are the prospects of the consumer economy in this century, when we are changing our energy sources and also dealing with climate change, water scarcity, resource depletion, and overpopulation?
  • How will we create jobs if we’re not constantly expanding consumption?
  • What’s the future of advertising?
  • What are some of the best practices related to reducing consumption and waste that can serve as models as we move forward?

Watch the webinar in its entirety here!

It's Time for a Land Reform Movement: An Interview with Cooperative Property Specialist Cassandra Ferrera

Originally posted on

Written by Matt Stanard

(Leading up to the Charting a New Course Conference Community Solutions will be featuring the writing of speakers at the conference.)

Cassandra Ferrera is Chief Community Officer at Green Key Real Estate, a sustainability-oriented real estate company in Northern California’s Bay Area. The company is clearly in the real estate business, selling everything from villas to tracts of land, all pretty attractive. If you just briefly glance at Green Key’s web site and property listings, you might just see the company as another hip and green business enterprise. But if you look more closely, you notice Green Key also helps buyers transition into cooperative and semi-cooperative communities.

As you might surmise from her job title, Ferrera facilitates these transitions. In helping people find cooperative and sustainable housing arrangements through land trusts and other collectives, she leads people away from traditional property-owning capitalism into very different models of living. Ferrera and Green Key help people find homes in ecovillages, properties utilizing permaculture and natural systems, and similar communal arrangements.

In a community land trust, a nonprofit organization owns the land and leases it to home and building owners. The ownership and management model is shaped to constitute common ownership of the land – shared space with both private and community buildings, often utilizing communally-owned vehicles and other shared resources. Members may build their own houses or rent living space. Some may run small businesses in accordance with the rules of the trust, which can be fashioned to limit income inequality. Because the community may limit profitability on home sales and business practices, members’ business or home sale decisions aren't motivated primarily by money.

Why support land trusts, cooperatives and ecovillages? These arrangements can save amazing amounts of money, allowing people to live on far fewer resources at a far less cost than “mainstream” society. Communities can choose to live in conditions of near-absolute ecological sustainability, using the same scaling and organizational efficiency that makes these communities so inexpensive. It is no exaggeration to say that in building and facilitating entry into these communities, Cassandra and others like her are building the model communities of a sustainable and cooperative future. If you’re guessing I had a fascinating conversation with her, you’re correct.

Matt Stannard: Most people think of real estate as something individually owned or owned with family, just very closely knit private ownership. Your work points to something different. Can you talk about that?

Cassandra Ferrara: Real estate has certainly evolved to reflect our societal notions of “private property ownership.” Common practice of real estate and home finance is designed with this cultural assumption deeply embedded in the design of how we transact parcels of the Earth. However, we know that water, air, animals and all of the living world do not obey private property lines. Our parcels of the Earth are connected in an un-divisible whole.

MS: How does your practice in real estate transactions reflect this knowledge?

CF: The kind of real estate we practice acknowledges that there is a fundamental re-establishment of this interconnection of the health of our watersheds, our foodsheds and our human communities. More than ever before, it seems that people are ready to band together to collectively steward the Earth. We have huge indoctrinated systems to hack, heal and transform.

We call it cooperative real estate because it points to the fact that we are cooperating amongst ourselves as humans, and with the non-human world that is the ecosystem that we are embedded in. On a practical level, this means we work a lot with groups of people desiring to live together in a deeply committed relationship to their place. This drive toward collective stewardship is taking many different forms.

MS: What specific regulations and laws, or categories or types of regulation and law, stand in the way of your “perfect world” in terms of sustainable, community ownership?

CF: Unfortunately, sustainability and collective stewardship are not as “legal” as they will eventually be. We are going to need to work on our zoning laws to allow for greater, clustered housing density to provide for affordable, modest homes for people who are committed to living in a more sustainable lifestyle.

MS: If you could change a few laws or regulations, what would they be?

CF: If I could, I would change zoning laws to allow for different development capacities for land that was held in a protected community land trust context. It’s important in rural lands to protect that higher housing density from getting in the hands of subdivision developers. So, maybe new zoning for land held in trust is a good solution.

In certain areas, there are laws about how many non-related people can live together. That seems archaic and just plain weird. So we need to update that to reflect the current complexity that many family systems are evolving into. People need to be able to legally find and live with their found family.

MS: What about financing? What needs to change about money?

CF: On a financial level, we need lending institutions to be willing to work with groups of people sharing “ownership” of un-dividable land. Banks generally can’t wrap their heads around the group “buyer.” And that is growing niche in today’s world.

MS: Any other changes?

CF:Composting toilets. We need to legalize alternative and healthier systems for dealing with human waste so that we stop contaminating clean water and provide more economic and ecological, small scale solutions. We need to stop pooping in drinking water; it’s just too precious and it’s unnecessary. This will go a long way to helping with higher density in rural lands if we don’t have to do standard septic systems. It will change our understanding of what the true carrying capacity of our land is.

If I could wave a magic wand, schools would also be educating everyone in a more permacultural way of design with, and as members of, the ecosystems so we could actually establish better feedback loops for how we settle land together.

MS: There’s a predatory attribute to capitalism, where it tends to “consume” or overwhelm cooperativism. Is your intent to disrupt and challenge this? How do you seek to subvert the system?

CF: Well, I do love to disrupt this system by being a truth-seeking, honest and transparent person who works collaboratively in an otherwise competitive and defensive system. So, just clearing a field within real estate in which we say, we work with people who are working together to steward the earth, is in and of itself subversive. Other real estate agents don’t know what to do with those clients, but they are my inspiration.

On a systems level, I am most excited about community land trusts as a way to move land out of the speculative real estate market and into the public trust. This solves so many problems when it comes to establishing permanent affordability for homes that can be cooperatively managed by the people who live there. So we also get more self-governance.

Through the community land trust [movement], we can establish an ethos at the local level of how we hold those lands in trust and re-learn how to care for the land and each other in a way that is not just about “me and mine.” This is positively disruptive on lots of levels. From the personal to the systemic, I sense great promise in it. It is so important that we provide a counterbalance to the continuous land grab that provokes a seemingly endless housing crisis. It’s time for a land reform movement.

The Startup Turning Locals Into Entrepreneurs in Cincinnati’s Gentrifying Economy

Originally Posted on

Written by Araz Hachadourian

When neighborhoods develop, longtime residents are often left out of the boom. This incubator helps local entrepreneurs turn big ideas into businesses.

When Jasmine Ford sold her first cheesecake to a colleague at the Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati two years ago, she didn’t think anything of it. Even as word of her pastries spread and orders rolled in over the months, Ford didn’t imagine she’d one day own a business.

While MORTAR is open to all, the majority of students are low-income women.

But in just a few weeks, after two years of working out of her home, Ford, 24, will be opening her own storefront bakery, Jazzy Sweeties, a space she secured with the help of a local business-incubator called MORTAR. To start, she’ll get help from her brother and husband, but hopes to hire an employee soon after the doors open.

“I was so nervous about how I would get the money,” Ford said. “I knew when I got accepted to [MORTAR], this is what I was supposed to do.”

MORTAR is a nine-week business course designed to provide local entrepreneurs like Ford with the information and resources they need to start businesses, from a T-shirt printer to a paleo catering company. While MORTAR is open to all, the majority of students are low-income women.

The idea sprung from founders Derrick Braziel and Allen Woods, who live in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Once a working-class neighborhood made up mostly of German immigrants, the area was later populated by African Americans arriving during the Great Migration. Most businesses then were bars and small shops.

Over the years, tech firms moved in and more than $843 million was invested in Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding downtown area, bringing an onslaught of development and new residents. Braziel says the neighborhood still has small businesses, “but they’re serving a different demographic now.” 

Allen and Braziel realized their neighborhood was changing and the new businesses didn’t represent the community. But it wasn’t for the community members’ lack of entrepreneurial spirit.

“A lot of the entrepreneurs that we work with operate out of the underground cash economy,” Braziel said. “They’re running businesses out of their living room or they’re doing business out of their trunk or they’re hustling in some way, shape, or form. There’s talent all around, what’s lacking is the know-how.”

A recently released report from the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City suggested incubators are in a prime position to support the creation of more minority-owned businesses, which currently make up only 18 percent of businesses in the United States. “Incubators provide the type of help that all entrepreneurs can use: business training, access to capital, and access to networks for customers, suppliers, etc.,” said Kim Zeuli, director of research at the Initiative. “If you’re a low-income entrepreneur, incubators can help fill that need.”

In addition to the training, MORTAR gives each student a business coach and connects students to networks that can help them take their ideas to the next level. A local commercial kitchen, for example, lets students with food-related businesses use its facilities, while students from a nearby college volunteer to help participants create a social media presence for their companies. Throughout the year, MORTAR also hosts pop-up shops—opportunities for entrepreneurs to occupy a storefront on a bustling street to test the popularity of their ideas. 

“You want neighbors to have a stake in their neighborhood.”

Funding, though, is still an issue. At the moment, MORTAR isn’t able to finance the businesses in their program, which is why Braziel hopes that someday MORTAR can access a loan fund or operate its own. It helped two students raise money through crowdfunding platforms, including Jasmine Ford, who raised $10,000 through a Kiva Zip campaign. But Braziel says it’s not a reliable process: Ford had to raise $3,000 on her last day in order to reach her goal, and some students just don’t have the networks to raise the money they need.

Still, the demand for MORTAR’s services is high: In the two years since it began, 76 people have gone through the program and 25 have gone on to launch businesses. Currently, MORTAR has a waiting list of about 100.

Kathy Schwab, a member of MORTAR’s board of directors and director of the Cincinnati office of Local Initiatives Support Corp., a neighborhood revitalization group, said that as the city rapidly develops, it’s important that residents have a role in this new wave of business. 

“You want neighbors to have a stake in their neighborhood,” Schwab said. “You can’t leave the longtime residents behind—they have to be part of this new economy.”

Ford’s looking forward to her store’s opening, and to swapping a long series of business meetings for more time in her new kitchen. Facebook recently reminded her of the day she started her MORTAR program a year ago. “I posted a picture with the caption, ‘Watch me make my dream a reality,’” she said. “It happened. I’ve come a long way.”

The Faux Insurgency of the Climate Change Deniers and the Need for Closure

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

Climate change deniers like to style themselves as latter-day Copernicuses and Galileos, lone visionaries bucking the established wisdom of the ages embodied back then in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

There is a certain appeal to imagining oneself as isolated and embattled but unbowed. The analogy, however, is specious on its face. For neither Copernicus nor Galileo had giant international oil and coal companies supporting them with tens of millions of dollars of annual public relations expenditures and scores of fake think tanks which would have provided them comfortable and profitable sinecures while shielding them from the attacks of the church.

No, the climate change deniers actually work for the established church of our age, wealthy corporate interests opposed to doing anything to mitigate the ongoing carnage of climate change--the very interests that continue to have a stranglehold on the legislative bodies of the world to such an extent that relatively little has actually been done to address climate. The most compelling evidence is the steady march upward of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels measured at the world's best known measuring station, the Mauna Loa Observatory.

To hear the deniers one would think that we are already groaning under the weight of carbon taxes across the globe. The reality is that only a handful of countries and jurisdictions have bothered with such taxes, and one of them, Australia, repealed its tax. Yes, yes, there are cap-and-trade emissions schemes in the European Union, northeastern United States, California and Quebec. None of these jurisdictions has collapsed economically as a result. In fact, all are becoming leaders in a technological revolution that is moving us away from dependence on finite, climate-changing fossil fuels.

The real insurgents, the real Copernicuses and Galileos, then are the pioneers in climate research including the originator of the aforementioned measuring station at Mauna Loa, Charles Keeling. Keeling began taking measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in 1958, observations which constitute the longest series of carbon dioxide measurements available and which are now called the Keeling Curve. In the early years, Keeling had difficulty maintaining funding for measuring something that seemed unimportant at the time.

Strangely, we now know that much excellent research on climate change was done by Exxon Corp., the world's largest oil company, in the 1970s and 1980s. Later the company chose to bury that research and deny the importance of climate change, thus switching sides from climate pioneer to climate change denier. The company threw its enormous financial resources behind a network of advocacy organizations and fake think tanks acting as front groups for its agenda to forestall action on climate change. Talk about inconvenient truths!

What group of well-intentioned Galileos actively tries to thwart discovery, inquiry and debate when that group already knows from its own research that the truth is the opposite of what it is saying? We now know that is what the climate change deniers have done for more than two decades.

What they are sore about is that they've been exposed and they've lost the fight, at least over whether climate change is real and whether humans have the lion's share of the blame for it.

Commenters on my climate-related pieces often include deniers who get upset when I refuse to post their comments or delete their comments when they do get through. Deniers protest that I am censoring them and that I'm not interested in a discussion with people holding opposing views. (Never mind that many of those people are paid to hold and propagate those views.)

It is a common tactic to claim that all publications ought to be billboards for climate change denialism and that those that refuse to make themselves available for this purpose are not interested in genuine inquiry and debate.

First, privately-owned publications in the United States and many other countries have the right to publish whatever they please and not to publish whatever doesn't please them. This is the very essence of freedom of the press--not to be coerced by anyone.

Censorship then cannot emanate from a privately-run publication, broadcast or video service.  It can only come from the government coercing such media outlets to run or NOT to run something.

The deniers have their own websites, their own publications, even their own cable news network, namely Fox. No one is preventing these media from denying the human role in climate change. They do it every day.

The second charge, that those who refuse to engage with deniers are not interested in genuine inquiry and debate, is also a trick. There is nothing in my right to free speech and inquiry which obliges me to engage with people I do not wish to engage with. Nothing! Freedom of speech and freedom of association mean that I'm free to research and write about topics in any lawful way that I see fit.

Genuine engagement presupposes one very important thing: that both sides are open to logic and evidence and the possibility of changing their minds. Where that is not the case, the only result can be stalemate.

I would be greatly relieved if bona fide climate scientists discovered compelling and convincing scientific evidence that countermands all that we currently understand about climate change and that shows we are, in fact, about to experience a regression to the climate I grew up with. This is always a possibility even though it seems highly unlikely given what we already know. I am, of course, not talking about cherry-picked data taken out of context from the very climate scientists that deniers despise, but a profound alteration of the contours of climate science as we know it.

A denier never admits the possibility of changing his or her mind. Just ask a climate change denier what will convince him or her that climate change is real and caused by humans. I guarantee that he or she will not have a response. Evidence simply doesn't matter, so they have never considered what evidence would convince them to change their minds.

The deniers are free to try get people to listen to them. If I were physically to prevent others from listening to them (unless those others are minors under my guardianship), then I would be guilty of coercion. But I haven't done that and won't do that. I'm already quite good at convincing the people I can reach not to bother listening to deniers.

Here are the crux of the deniers' strategy and the horrible implications of it: The deniers want to convince the world that no policy action can be taken so long as there is any disagreement. They somehow pretend that there must be 100 percent consensus one way or the other.

The hypocrisy of this, of course, is that there is no 100 percent consensus that we should continue to burn fossil fuels; yet, by policy we continue to do so in large quantities every day. Would the deniers consent to a moratorium on burning fossil fuels so long as there is a debate about the consequences of burning them? When the shoe is on the other foot, it doesn't fit so comfortably, does it?

I'm sure deniers will be shocked, SHOCKED, to find out that public policy is always made without 100 percent certainty. Were it not so, there would be no public policy at all. Deniers know this, and that's what they want, public policy paralysis.

But there is something else that is disturbing about the deniers' tactics when we look at such tactics through an historical lens.

No doubt there are those who even today might argue that slavery ought to be legal. After all, the Bible, the holiest of books in the Christian world, sanctions slavery. And, the Bible was a frequently used weapon by the slaveholders and their apologists. Perhaps in the interests of honest inquiry we should engage those who argue for the reimposition of slavery.

Too farfetched? How about those who continue to argue for segregation of the races? Today we call them white supremacists. Shall we give them our ear in order to make sense out of the debate over segregation? Should we withhold our judgment about segregation until all the facts are in? (I am generously presuming that a white supremacist could actually give me facts.)

How about women's suffrage? There are cultures yet today that do not believe women should have a role in governing their own societies. Women, they say, are too immature and weak-minded to participate in such a lofty enterprise. Perhaps we should listen to those advocating the end of women's suffrage (or its prevention where it does not already exist) so we can try to discern whether we should take the vote away from women in our own societies.

As hard as it is to believe, some debates are actually closed. Yes, there may be a few dissenters left, but they are almost exclusively talking among themselves.

But those are social issues, you may say. Scientific inquiry is never closed off. Ideally, that's true (although one should note that in the cases cited above scientific arguments were made supporting slavery, the superiority of whites and the inferiority of women).

Scientific inquiry should and does go on even after policy decisions are made. But as a practical matter, we as a society through industry associations, for example, come to common understandings leading to product standards. It would be impossible to produce and use a cellphone without such standards. We could not do such a thing if we insisted that no cellphone be produced as long as there is not absolute agreement about all the aspects of physics thought to touch even remotely on their function (which there isn't since the science of physics is an open enterprise always subject to change). We do the same through government with regard to clean water and clear air regulations. Our understanding continues to evolve in both areas. But that does not prevent us from making needed policy and product standard decisions.

Keep in mind that the same people who brought us the full-throated defense of cigarettes as a harmless pastime have brought us the well-appointed packaging of climate denialism. I can only say that if they are true to their convictions, they should now all be chain-smoking cigarettes without any mental reservation or fear.

Society as a whole through its government cannot be effective if it must wait for every dissenter to quiet down. In fact, waiting for all dissent to dissipate would be the equivalent of not governing at all.

Representative government is a mechanism for debate, for letting those who dissent from the majority to be heard and possibly persuade. But then it's time for action, and those on the losing side are not asked to relinquish their free speech rights, but rather asked to accept the will of the majority (at least until such time as the issue is properly placed before the legislature to reconsider).

Those who deny human-caused climate change have been and continue to be free in most countries to say whatever they please. The real problem the deniers are having is that their audiences are getting smaller and smaller. That's what happens when you don't have a very compelling argument and the total weight of the evidence is so lopsided against you.

Zika and the Mentality of Control

Originally posted on

Written by Charles Eisenstein 

The ruling institutions of this world are quite comfortable with a virus.

First with SARS, then H1N1, then ebola and now the Zika virus, mainstream media and official organizations have been quick to recognize and counter the threat with travel advisories, quarantines, research funding, vaccine development, and heightened levels of vigilance. Yet information about other kinds of threats that are just as deadly, such as pharmaceutical residues in drinking water, pesticide contamination, or heavy metal poisoning from air and water pollution, are usually relegated to alternative media, ignored, or even actively suppressed by public health authorities. Why is this?

The ready answer that comes to mind is economic. The manmade threats listed above are byproducts of profitable activities by corporations who have tremendous political influence. If we were to thoroughly address toxic contamination of our biosphere, our entire economic, industrial, medical, and agricultural system would have to change.

More deeply, a virus or other pathogen fits neatly into the basic crisis response template of our culture. First, identify an enemy – some unifactorial cause of the crisis – and then go to war against that enemy using all available technologies of control. In the case of a pathogen, control takes the form of antibiotics, vaccines, or antiviral agents, draining wetlands or spraying them with insecticides, quarantining infected individuals, and perhaps telling everyone to wear facemasks, stay indoors, or restrict travel. In the case of terrorism, control takes the form of surveillance, bombings, drones, border security, and so on. Whatever crisis we face, personal or collective, our pseudo-instinctual tendency is to enact this pattern of response.

Another way to look at it is that in the case of an infectious disease, our society knows what to do (or thinks it knows what to do). The solutions that present themselves are comfortably familiar. We just have to do more of what we have already been doing. We just have to extend the reach of our control-based civilization a little further, control things that hadn’t been under control before. Thus the machinery of containing or conquering a disease coincidentally aggrandizes agendas of social control generally. It justifies, exercises, and develops control systems that can be turned to other purposes.

The present situation with the Zika virus, which is blamed for a horrifying epidemic of microcephaly in Brazil, exemplifies the rush to a pathogen. Tests have shown the presence of the virus in the blood and amniotic fluid of some microcephalic fetuses in about one-tenth of confirmed cases in Brazil.  However, Zika is also prevalent in Colombia and Venezuela, where no microcephaly outbreak has been reported.

The plot thickened a few weeks ago when a group of Argentinian doctors claimed that the outbreak is much more closely correlated with a larvacide aimed, ironically enough, at destroying the very mosquitoes that are blamed for the spread of Zika. The larvacide, called pyriproxyfen, was added to drinking water reservoirs in the same areas, and in the same time period, where microcephaly cases have surged.

Obviously, it is much more politically convenient to blame an outside agent for the disease than for governments and large corporations to take responsibility. It is also more ideologically convenient, from the perspective of the narrative of humanity ascending over nature. Rather than blame human activity, we can march against yet another threat from the natural world that we must overcome with a technological solution. That is something our culture is familiar with. Our institutions know how to do that; it exercises their capacities and justifies their existence.

Let us also be cautious, however, about identifying pyriproxyfen as “the cause” of the microcephaly. For one thing, the rush to blame a pesticide isn’t that different from the rush to blame a virus. It still fits into the ideology of control and the mentality of defeating an enemy. In fact, some cases of microcephaly occurred in regions where the pesticide wasn’t in the drinking water; pyriproxyfen, furthermore, is widely used around the world. It is a weak and circumstantial argument that identifies it as the culprit.

In the preceding phrase (“...the culprit.”) I have smuggled in an assumption that lies at the root of the problem. I am assuming there is “a” culprit, a unifactorial cause. Whether it is a virus or a chemical, that gives us something to control, to fight. Whether it is over a virus or over a state government or chemical company, the path to victory is clear.

The ideology of control depends on reductionism, ideally reduction of a problem to a single cause. Multifactorial, nonlinear, emergent problems defy reductionistic strategies. So, while we should undoubtedly ban the use of pyriproxyfen in drinking water immediately, even if the microcephaly epidemic ceases, that doesn’t mean we can continue business as normal and continue thinking in terms of linear cause and effect. Maybe it is Zika plus pyriproxyfen that is causing the deformities? Or maybe the chemical isn’t a direct cause, but increases the effect of some third substance in the body? Or it could be that it disrupts the aquatic ecosystem in some way we don’t understand that elevates another unknown environmental risk factor. We just don’t know.

We need to ask questions like, “What are the ecosystem disruptions that occur when you kill larva in any water (not just drinking water)?” “What are the cumulative and synergystic effects of thousands of artificial chemicals entering the biosphere and our bodies?” “How are we to make decisions about safety, when the usual means for testing safety is to control all variables except the one being tested?” You see, the paradigm of control extends all the way to a key formula for producing scientific knowledge: isolate a variable and test its effects.

Until we begin thinking in holistic terms, we will lurch from one enemy to the next, forever suppressing symptoms even as we worsen the disease. The questions above have no easy answers, but a good first step would be to pull back from the paradigm of dominating the enemy, controlling the Other, and conquering the self, and look with fresh eyes at everything we do from that paradigm: the drones, the prisons, the security state, the war machine, antibiotics, pesticides, genetic engineering, psychiatric medication, debt payment extraction... domination (including domination of “othered” parts of ourselves) threads through our entire civilization. It isn’t working so well anymore.

Compost Capitalism

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Samuel Alexander

I’ve had a handful of requests from people asking for a transcript of my short introduction to the film premiere last Friday (full documentary is now available here). I’ve turned my notes into a script which I think is pretty much word for word.

Good evening everyone, a very warm welcome to you all, my name is Samuel Alexander and I’m very happy to be introducing tonight’s premiere screening of ‘A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity,’ a documentary that I co-produced with my very good friend, Jordan Osmond of Happen Films. Thank you all for being here tonight. It’s extremely encouraging and uplifting to see so many friendly and familiar faces in the audience. I won’t speak for long tonight but I would like to say a few words by way of introduction to the film, and to close with some brief but necessary thank yous. 

I was drifting through cyberspace recently, not really absorbing the words in front of me, when I came across a sentence that tripped me up, so to speak, and forced me to pay attention. That sentence read: ‘The pain you feel is capitalism dying.’ The writer went on to explain that it hurts because we are inside this dying system, we are inside this unsustainable form of civilisation while it is undermining the life support system we call Earth, and what is perhaps most unsettling about this is that it’s not yet clear what comes next; nor is it obvious that the global problems we face even have smooth, painless solutions. The hour is dark and a bright new dawn is not guaranteed. 

‘The pain we feel is capitalism dying.’ The words left an impression on me I think because they describe that strange, existential ache that we probably have all felt at some time or another, when contemplating how we should live our lives in a world that seems so tragically off track. I am referring here to the emotional or what one might even call the spiritual challenge of living in an age of crisis; of living in an age when the myths and stories that have shaped and grounded our cultures and even our identities have begun to breakdown, unsettling our sense of purpose and place in fast-changing world. 

But this crisis of meaning in our culture, if I can put it that way, presents itself to us, I think, as a heavily disguised but tantalising opportunity. One of the most promising aspects of the biological world we live in is that the cycles of nature embrace death and decay as a necessary part of rebirth – as anyone who composts knows very well – and if we understand this, then we can see that as the existing form of life deteriorates in the face of environmental limits, new ways to live will inevitably evolve, and are evolving, like green shoots peeking out of the widening concrete cracks in capitalism. And our challenge I think is to face this inevitable breakdown with defiant positivity and set about turning today’s crises into opportunities to reinvent ourselves, our cultures, and our economies in more localised, more resilient, more humane ways. We are, it seems, like tiny microbes inside this massive, decomposing system, being challenged to work creatively away in our own small ways, building the soil from which a diversity of new worlds can emerge. In short, I would say that we are being challenged, at this moment in history, to compost capitalism; and in the rich soil of resistance and renewal, our task, our collective task, is to seed a new Earth story. 

So how, as Charles Eisenstein would say, can we create ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’? Tonight’s film is a humble gesture in support of that world. It is a small but hopeful contribution to the emerging web of social movements and counter-cultures that are trying to experiment creatively with new, less impactful ways of living, in the hope of building new worlds within the shell of the old – for the sake of our beautiful but fragile planet, for the sake of others, and even for our own sakes. And when asked how we are going to do this, or whether we will succeed, I think it is ok to reply: ‘We don’t really know, but let’s do it together.’ 

So the documentary you will see tonight doesn’t offer answers to the big questions facing our species, as such – we don’t have the answers – but it does seek to provoke thought about them, so ultimately you will be left to digest the issues as you see fit: to throw out the bits that may not apply to your life and build on the bits that do. To be clear, our aim in making this documentary was not to provide a blueprint or template for sustainable living that everyone should or could apply in their own lives, irrespective of context. And there are many important questions and issues we weren’t able to address. Our aim, instead, was simply to document one example of a small community swimming bravely against the tide of consumer culture, authentically exploring the question of what one planet living might look like on a planet of seven billion people and counting, and learning from the inevitable contradictions that are faced when trying to live simply in a growth-orientated world. 

In an age when it can sometimes seem like there is no alternative to the carbon-intensive, consumer way of life, being exposed to real-world examples of alternative ways of living has the potential, I think, to expand and radicalise the ecological imagination. And in those moments when we are able to break through the crust of conventional thinking, we just might come to see that the world as it is, is not how the world has to be.

The last couple of years making this documentary have confirmed that life proceeds in twists and turns, never straight lines. As the documentary was taking form, it often felt as if Jordan and I were trying to direct things while going backwards down the rapids. Or, to change the metaphor slightly, I feel this project has been like one of those rollercoaster rides which leaves you both trilled and exhausted – proud that you were brave enough to go on the journey but unsure whether you’d do it again, at least in the same way. But I can say, no humans were harmed in the making of this documentary – physically at least, psychologically, it’s too early to say. 

Whatever the case, I think it is fair to say that the entire process has shaped the people involved just as we have tried to shape it. It’s been a sharp learning curve, but it’s also been a meaningful and fulfilling one, even if it hasn’t always been easy. And perhaps that speaks to a greater truth at play here. The future isn’t shaping up to be easy for our species – the problems we face can often seem overwhelming – but the struggle for a more beautiful world promises to be meaningful and fulfilling, if we take to the task with humility, compassion, and creativity. We offer tonight’s film in that spirit. 

Before we turn the lights off and watch the film, I must share a few short thank yous. First and foremost I need to thank Nick and the entire Lampel family for their extraordinary generosity. As people here tonight will come to learn, if you don’t already know, the Lampel’s own the land which is literally the foundation of tonight’s documentary and without their openness and willingness to share, what you are about to see could not have happened. Nick, thanks for being who are.

Secondly, to the community of poet-farmers who formed for this mad documentary project – Liz, Emmet, Taj, Liam, Rachel, Antoinette, Ross, Renee, Ruby-Moon, Paddy, and Dan – most of whom are here tonight – I’ve said it a million times privately, but now let me say it once more in this most public forum. Thank you all for the faith that you put in this project and for the passion, creativity, and authenticity with which you threw yourself into the year’s experiment. You all inspire me; I’ve learnt so much from all of you; you all challenge me in fruitful ways; and I feel very lucky to have you as friends.

Thirdly, to my co-conspirator in this documentary, Jordan Osmond. It’s been such an incredible honour to have worked with him on this documentary. Creative collaboration is never easy, but for every moment of creative conflict there were at least one thousand laughs, so thank you for everything Jordan. I am very happy to say that Jordan is a fast emerging filmmaker of boundless talent and vision, he’s quickly developed a massive online following, and I’m very proud to have co-produced this film with him. You’ll all be hearing and seeing a lot more from him in the future, and I find that a very exciting prospect.

I also have to express special thanks the most lovely Antoinette Wilson who has worked tirelessly with me and Jordan in recent months. Without her unwavering commitment, without her editorial and organisational talents, and her creative input, I think I can say this film would never have become a reality – at the very least, it would still be a year away from release. And, in those moments of creative disagreement I mentioned, having a third person involved in the writing process also made democracy possible, which averted war. 

On a more personal note, let me just say a loving thank you to Helen and young Laurie, both here tonight, for being so unconditionally supportive of me throughout the full gestation of this project. This documentary called for regular absences from my household and while those absences were always full of purpose and invigorating hard work, I always looked forward to returning home. From the bottom of my heart, thank you Helen and Laurie for making our household so warm, even when I don’t let you turn on the heating. 

Thanks once more to you all for coming tonight, thanks to the many people who helped organise tonight’s event, I hope you all enjoy the film, and I look forward to some discussion afterwards where I hope the collective genius gathered in this room can feed off itself. We’ll be inviting David Holmgren and Helena Norberg-Hodge up on stage to be part of that panel discussion, along with some of those involved in the film, so please stick around afterwards. Now, without further ado, I give you, “A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity.

Midwest Sustainable Communities Conference

Originally posted on

Community is an important missing link in addressing climate change and resource depletion, and the Midwest is one of the best regions in the US to create community. So let’s get together for a weekend and create some community!

This year join us in thinking of the 4th of July as Interdependence Day and come together to learn, network, explore, and inspire each other to create a more cooperative and sustainable world.

Workshops and networking sessions throughout the weekend will bring us new ideas for how to live sustainably, collectively. Program tracks will target the interests of aspiring community founders, current intentional community members, and folks wanting to deepen their understanding of the sustainability-community connection.

Talks and casual conversation will bring us insight into the radical contributions community building can make to ending the worst social and ecological ills of our time. We’ll even do some climate change activism together for those who are interested. And of course spending the weekend in the midwest’s premier ecovillage, Dancing Rabbit, will help inspire hope: sustainable is not only possible, it is also, here, now, and fun (plus there’s a lovely swimming pond)!

The tentative workshop lineup (more to come!) includes:

  • Starting an Intentional Community, Ma’ikwe Ludwig
  • Collective Carbon Farming and the Commons, Ben Brownlow
  • A Systems Approach to Organic Land Care, Javier Gil
  • Natural Death and Burial – Your Final Act of Love, Alline Anderson
  • Cultivating Cooperative Culture, Ma’ikwe Ludwig
  • Cookin’ with the Critters!, Katherine Hanson
  • Holistic Animal Management, Mae Ferber
  • Transforming Conflict into Connection with Restorative Circles, Alyson Ewald and friends
  • Inner Sustainability, Sara Peters and Tereza Brown
  • Simple Off-grid Solar, Brent Whistler
  • Learning Good Consent: Patriarchy and Anti-Sexism, the Northeast Missouri Consent Collective
  • Climate Egalitarianism: Class, Climate and New Economies, Matt Stannard

Event Pricing:

Adults (ages 13+) $160 – $210, sliding scale

Children (ages 3-12) $20 – $60, sliding scale

Children (ages 0-3) no charge

Click here for more information or to buy tickets!

Why a "Modern" Can't Understand the Risks We Face

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

In my previous piece, I discussed why it is useless to argue with a person clinging to what I called the "religion" of modernism. I summarized four main tenets of the modern outlook as follows:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

These assumptions make modern humans particularly susceptible to becoming captives of the bell curve. Our understanding of risk is mediated by a misleading picture of regularity in the physical world and in human society. Moderns believe that nearly all risks--and certainly the nontrivial ones relating to our survival as species--can be easily calculated and managed.

The truth about risk is actually much more disturbing. The generator of events in the universe is hidden from us humans. We see the results and make up theories about the causes and the processes. Some theories work well such as those relating to the prediction of the orbits of planets, for example. But, others have a challenged track record. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarking on his own profession once said: "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."

The idea that the study of human psychology, sociology and economics would yield theories as powerful as those we have for predicting the orbits of planets has long since been abandoned (except by economists, it seems). Humans remain quite unpredictable. And, the trends in the societies in which we live are all the more difficult to perceive and forecast since there are so many people interacting with each other using our worldwide communications and logistics system, each pursuing their individual aims.

Now let's return to the bell curve, a famous statistical construct. Many phenomena in nature when tallied on a graph result in a bell curve. Such a curve can be quite useful for understanding distributions of physical characteristics that are constrained by the laws of physics and biology. For example, we can reasonably predict that a distribution of human height will fall along something resembling a bell curve. The constraints of biology and gravity imply a range for the stature of humans. We might expect to see very few adult humans who are either 3 feet tall or 7 feet tall, but many in between. We would, however, expect to see none who are 100 feet tall. And, we could easily arrive at an average that would not be far from any individual, say, 5 feet.

Social phenomena, such as wealth distribution, are not governed by the laws of physics in the usual sense. While one might find quite a few people at a social gathering who are near 5 feet in height, there would be no one who is 5,000 feet tall. On the other hand, it is quite possible for one person in a room to have a net worth of $50,000 and another to have 1,000 times that or $50 million. There is no physical constraint on the creation of money other than the energy required by a clerk to type instructions into a computer at a central bank.

While social phenomena such as wealth distribution do not follow the same pattern as physical phenomena, they can still be quantified and illustrated.

So far, we've been talking about things which we can readily measure, and we have said nothing about the future. This is where things get sticky. Risk is all about judging the likelihood of something happening in the future--and we can know nothing about the future for certain. (Even the orbit of a planet might be altered by its collision with a comet or a rogue planet. This is unlikely in a short time frame, but grows ever more likely with time--admittedly long spans of time.)

Now, it is one thing to say that in the future adult humans are very likely to remain mostly between 3 feet and 7 feet tall with a few outliers, but none 100 or 1,000 feet tall (unless the laws of biology and physics change). It is quite another to predict the stock market, predict world oil supplies 40 years from now, predict the date of the next world war (which we'd have to define since there are wars going on all the time) or predict human population 1,000 years from now.

There are so many variables which affect predictions such as these that all we might do is hazard a guess. If we end up being right, it will be more a matter of luck than method.

But a "modern" might make generalized, but confident predictions about some of these. The stock market will go up in the long run, say, over the next 50 years, because economic growth will continue apace during that time--growth resulting from the deployment of many new technologies and new abundant, cheap energy sources.

A modern might predict that oil supplies will be irrelevant 40 years from now or predict that they will continue upward during the next 40 years because of--you guessed it--new technologies.

A modern might predict that human population will be larger in 1,000 years as the human ability to provide for greater populations with much higher efficiency continues to develop.

Part of what is lacking in these pronouncements is an understanding or even acknowledgement of the risks inherent in the technology that will allow these felicitous (depending on your point of view) outcomes.

Since we cannot view the generator of events in the world, we can only theorize about causes and effects, never know. While the interactions among unpredictable humans make social forecasting very difficult, adding that unpredictability to human interactions with the physical environment makes long-term forecasting in human affairs as a practical matter impossible.

And here we must acknowledge that our understanding of the physical world is very limited, however much we may think it is comprehensive. Scientists in all disciplines continue to discover relationships and processes which challenge long held views. If such revelations happen over just one lifetime, and we are basing our projections on our current understanding, then we simply cannot fathom how perceptions of the world around us will change over long periods--or whether those new perceptions will tell us that we are getting ever closer to a complete picture of the universe or that we will never arrive at one.

The modern seems unaware of what I've called the chief intellectual challenge of our age, namely, that we live in complex systems, but we don't understand complexity. I alluded to complexity as a double-edged sword in my previous piece, both a tool for adaptation and barrier to it.

The failure to understand how little we know about the world we live in and the inability to see that the world cannot be reduced to an engineering problem have led us to deploy inventions the consequences of which we cannot know--and more important, which threaten systemic ruin for human civilization.

A friend of mine calls this the Midgley Effect after the noted mechanical engineer and chemist, Thomas Midgley Jr. Midgley was responsible for two major inventions which are no longer in use because they were so injurious.

One, lead in gasoline, has had myriad well-documented public health effects. Yet, at the time of its invention, lead was heralded as an innocuous additive to gasoline to improve engine performance. Almost no thought was given to where the lead would go once it exited the tailpipes of the world's gasoline-powered transportation fleet.

This theme carried over into Midgley's other now infamous invention, chlorofluorocarbons, known by the trade name Freon. The world needed a liquid that would be highly volatile and chemically inert to aid the spread of refrigeration. Early refrigerators used toxic, flammable and corrosive liquids to transfer heat from the inside to the outside of the refrigerator. Chlorofluorocarbons as a nontoxic and nonflammable refrigerant seemed an ideal solution.

The problem, of course, was that no one thought about the systemic risks of releasing chlorofluorocarbons into the environment, substances which were designed to persist over decades.

If it were not for the efforts of one curious scientist, F. Sherwood Rowland, in the early 1970s, we might not have learned about the emerging catastrophic interaction between chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer. Rowland asked a simple question: Where do chlorofluorocarbons go after they are released into the environment?

The answer was shocking. They were reaching the ozone layer and destroying it thereby threatening all life on Earth, life which had evolved under the ozone layer's protection from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. This was really a case of potential catastrophic ruin that might have gone undetected until the damage was far more advanced.

Rowland's research led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a worldwide agreement to phase out the use of ozone-destroying chemicals.

But the inventor of chlorofluorocarbons was widely lauded during his lifetime, winning several top awards for his achievements in chemistry and even serving as president of the American Chemical Society.

Since then, we have had many examples of worldwide systemic releases of dangerous chemicals which were thought to be innocuous or at least "safe" by the standards of the day.

Ignoring all this the modern pretends that we've learned our lessons and now couldn't possibly do things which could bring down civilization, that is, pose the risk of systemic ruin.

Everyone feared the destruction which a nuclear war might bring. But it wasn't until computer modelers suggested that total nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could bring on dramatic summer cooling of 20 to 35 degrees C that the full systemic consequences of a such a war were understood. The shroud, known as nuclear winter, that would envelope the sky would initially block out 99 percent of the natural radiation. It would mean a wipeout for the world's food supply and the end of civilization and possibly many species, including perhaps humans.

Such a nuclear exchange seems unlikely today. But it is still possible.

We humans continue to flirt with systemic ruin by touting the benefits of those things which could cause it. Genetically engineered crops (often called genetically modified organisms or GMOs) have been introduced worldwide with virtually no testing on how such novel genes might interact with the natural environment. As author on risk Nassim Nicholas Taleb has explained, where there is repeated use of a technology with a nonzero risk of systemic ruin, that ruin over time becomes almost certain.

If you do something which has a 1 in 10,000 chance of killing you and you do it only one time, you will probably survive. But if you do it 10,000 times, you will almost surely end up in your grave. That is the problem with GMOs, and we have no way of even calculating the risk. We face the possibility of a wipeout of the food system for reasons which we cannot anticipate--that come fromthe hidden risks accompanying the spread of novel interspecies gene transfer without any understanding of the dynamics of such transfers once released. If we stopped now, perhaps we would avoid such a wipeout. But if we continue, we are only playing a more elaborate version of Russian roulette with gene-splicing technology.

Others have noted the systemic dangers of creating self-replicating nanobots, possibly leading to the so-called gray goo problem in which nanobots consume significant portions of the biosphere in order to feed and replicate.

Some systemic risks are more passive. We've created a worldwide electrical system which we now know is vulnerable to solar storms. It is only a matter of time before one capable of shutting down much of the world's electric power generation hits. So critical is electricity to the daily functioning of our global communications and logistics systems and to everyday systems such as water purification and wastewater treatment, that a denial of electricity to much of the world for more than a few weeks might very well lead to mass death and the end of modern technical civilization. Yet, we as a species have done little to prepare for this event.

What the modern believes is that such scenarios are so unlikely that we should ignore them. He or she believes that the bell curve (normal distribution) of outcomes applies to such risks, when, in fact, we cannot calculate their probability since we cannot quantify what might cause them in the first place.

The point about systemic risk is not that any one of these scenarios is likely. It is that any one of a thousand unlikely systemic risks could seriously endanger all of society. We don't need all of them to take place to experience catastrophe. We just need one. Climate change comes to mind.

And so, as we pile risk of systemic ruin upon risk, we are doing nothing more than whistling past the graveyard, lost in modernist denial--obliviously believing that we know far more about and have far more control over our environment than we do.


Carbon Free Athens: A Vision From the Future

Friends and fellow citizens of Athens, you give me great honor to speak to you today in 2035, only 20 years after our start, to summarize the steps by which our town of Athens has achieved such international prominence by taking the lead to demonstrate the advantages, and relative ease and speed, of getting almost entirely off any dependence on fossil carbon as an energy source.

The essential first step was obvious - we recognized the absolute necessity of getting off carbon, for our own good and especially for the good of the next generation. Scientists had warned us that the entire biosphere could be in overwhelming danger from runaway climate caused by human-generated carbon in the atmosphere.  We HAD to stop, NOW.

The next vital step we achieved by a bit of luck-  many of our better-off citizens needed little persuasion to see the wisdom of taking assets from their investments in unknown distant activities and placing them on known beneficial efforts, done by people they knew, right here-  We worked with the motto:

 “ Make HERE the place I’d rather be”.

With that done, the next step was again obvious - to find out best practice the world over- no need to waste resources re-inventing anything that had already been shown to work. 

Many highly capable and energetic young people, searching the web and visiting distant places, soon discovered a rich store of proven successes in waste reuse, solar energy , building retrofitting, transportation technology and organization, and many others- all to the goal of a carbon-free, good life.

With this new information, we hardly needed to do more than simply choose the most appropriate for our situation, and implement these best practices that were here. Very little additional innovation was required to achieve the remarkable results we see here today.

Below is an extremely abbreviated summary of our achievements in several important categories of activities which have contributed most to our town’s outstanding achievement in carbon reduction, and its demonstration to the world of what can be done.

ENERGY- Without which, nothing.  Energy was the essential ingredient in everything that followed.  It was clear from the beginning that to get off carbon we had to find a source that was large, widespread, everlasting, and clean.  One such source stood right in front of everyone’s eyes- everywhere- solar energy, in all its multitudinous forms, including wind.  All over the world, we found solar was being used in many very large and very small applications, and very effectively-- for warmth, cooling, cooking, industrial uses and most importantly, generating electricity.  And best of all, we found that each one of these uses was being very rapidly improved in performance, and reduced in cost.  And still is!

So our energy choice was simple- go for solar/wind in a big way, and get the resources to do it by redirecting priorities from the old fuels and from the many profitless activities of the past, and move them there. That agreed, progress toward all-solar power was astoundingly swift.

ELECTRICITY- It was clear from the beginning that here was no technical barrier to the replacement of all ff electricity with solar and wind, with backup from waste-fueled combustion engines.  All needed hardware and know-how was immediately available. All that was required was a sufficient diversion of resources from non-essentials to the investment in all solar/wind., and the business agreements allowing sharing by way of the grid.  With energetic promotion and many indisputable examples from everywhere in the world this was quickly done. 

An essential component of this quick shift to solar was recognition by many highly motivated and energetic protestors against fracking and all the other messy indicators of the fossil fuel addiction, that the best way to eliminate what were in fact merely side effects,  was to simply QUIT using the root cause of them all- carbon fuels. The best way to do this was to go to all-solar as quickly as possible.

And, most important to accelerate this process was a recognition that the change was affordable, easy, quick and FUN, since it brought the community together for a common purpose, readily achieved in very visible steps.

Fun became the signature of all of our community projects- good food, music, entertainment at each gathering.

WASTE- First, we recognized that there is in fact no such thing as waste. Every bit of it can be used to some good purpose. Then we made as little of it as possible, reduced packaging, repetitive advertising, over-selling anything, and all the other obvious things we had ordinarily used to do little or no purpose, and now, don’t do.

 Next, we reused what could be, by way of repair, repurpose, reshape, resell.

Then, recycle, as we do food waste, all of which goes to the biogas generator to generate methane for electric power generation, and fertilizer.

And, where appropriate, pyrolyse --use any available source of heat to decompose, gasify, carbonize any bio-material-tree trimmings,  weeds, leaves ,pond scum, etc,  to produce fuel gas, and carbon.  The fuel gas going to electric generators, and the carbon to to the ground or many other valuable uses.

Pyrolysis is a carbon-negative energy source, energy from plants (the sun) and carbon from the air and to the ground.

TRANSPORT-  Since about 1/3 of all of basic energy use, and most petroleum had been used in transport, it seemed at first glance that getting off petroleum transport would be very hard to do. Not so, we quickly found.

The first and most effective way to reduce carbon in transport is to do less transporting, with that more efficiency, and with solar-derived electricity.  One already well proven way was to use car clubs,  eliminating the extremely wasteful system based on private vehicles sitting more than 90% of their time doing nothing at all but depreciate, taking up amazingly large fractions of the area of a town.  This one step reduced transport carbon by at least 20%.

And of course transport running on electricity,  from PV, biogas, syngas from pyrolysis.  The best and most copious being PV- solar electricity, then getting cheaper by the day---and still doing it!

 A major advantage here came from an early effort to develop user perception of electric vehicles as simply better than the old combustion ones---the superior performance and much lower net cost of operation of electric vehicles, and the fact that an electric transport system is highly reliable and resilient- and immune to fluctuations of fossil fuel prices.

 SHELTER- Buildings used to take about 1/3 of the fossil fuels previously used.  So it was vital that they be improved just as had been the transport system.

 It is easy with modern technology and design skills, to make a new home that requires nearly no power input, deriving all of its needs for heat, cool, cooking, lights, etc from a combination of solar panels and import/export with the grid.  Such designs were made highly desirable, even essential by way of the carbon tax.

But most houses are old and usually quite energy wasteful.  Fortunately workers all over the world had shown how to retrofit even the worst of them to save a very large fraction of that wasted energy.  We copied the most successful.

With the aid of our far-sighted investors, and with citizen labor led by experts, we went from house to house, retrofitting the best ideas we had found, and as predicted by others, got as a result a marvelous great leap forward in both energy usage and comfort and convenience for the entire community.

Retrofit gave employment to anyone willing to work, with the highly beneficial effect of making the town fully employed, so allowing a claim that our town had zero unemployment at all times.

In this retrofit process, we were very careful to make the process FUN for the participants- lots of good food, music, companionship and sharing.

FOOD- Here we found a great gain in low carbon food production by way of new crops we hadn’t even thought about before.  New vegetables, well known in their own countries, but unknown here,  edible insects, tasty, nutritious and easy to grow, and from thousands year old Asian highly feed-efficient,  multi layer fish ponds , a truly outstanding new source of protein and delicious new flavors quite suitable to the local climate.  And many others.

EDUCATION- It was clear from our visits to other countries that the one most successful methods of education was an ancient one, very well proven- apprenticeships- in which each child works directly with an adult for a fraction of each school year, learning first hand what is needed to be a productive citizen- and what is most congenial to that child.

One important emphasis in education was the advantage of reuse, recycle, repurpose, and the benefits of putting a first priority, in the case of a need, to look for it in those areas.

A favorite student assignment was a challenge to go to any town dump and from its contents, make something useful, in one day.

GOVERNMENT-Examples all over the planet show one form of town government to be by far the best- a committee of elders, each one already having proven through their own life that they possess the essentials - absolute integrity, intelligence, empathy and wisdom. Each serves but one limited term, and each new one is chosen by the others by consensus. As many over the ages, not just Plato, have noted, one essential qualification for the position is - they do not wish to have it.

BUSINESS-  One very productive new business, initiated in response to the challenge of climate change, was Athens Innovations, a loosely constructed grouping of innovators, funded by locals, each doing what they desired in the way of energy conservation, carbon reduction and related matters, all roughly patterned on the famous building 20 phenomenon at MIT after the war, in which space and some tools and equipment and a little office support- bookkeeping, house maintenance, etc, were made available to assist almost any such activity, freely chosen by individuals and small groups without management restraint, resulting in an enormous outpouring of both good and bad ideas, some of which later became world famous.

A sample list of some ideas from Athens Innovations is appended.


ENERGY EFFICIENCY CATALOG- Records details about concepts, designs, recorded performance of world-wide compilation of proven energy-saving devices, processes, policies.  Continually updated.

BIOMASS PYROLYSIS- Takes any material made by sunlight and atmospheric carbon by way of photosynthesis and heats it to make gas/liquid fuels- electricity, and carbon from air to ground.  Carbon-negative energy!  Can use weeds, any woody trash, paper, sawdust, algae, duckweed etc, etc.

Can in fact be extended to city solid wastes, using clean techniques now used in Europe to burn trash from USA!

Scalable to any size from small water heater to multiple housing heating and power system.

ENERGY STORAGE APPLIANCES - Fridge, freezer, AC, heat pump, using stored heat/cool when sun available, storage when not - coasts thru periods of no sun/wind.  Think of the absurdity of using coal-derived electricity to keep a fridge at 40 F when outside it is near zero and your house is barely warm enough!

A very useful component of any such heat device is a heat pipe, which is able to transfer large amounts of heat by way of a small pipe.  Such a pipe could for example, unobtrusively transfer the fridge heat thru a wall to the colder outside.

INSTANT EV BATTERY BOOST- self driving trailer snaps on to any EV in seconds for full range boost.  Allows all EV transportation with never any range worry.

CARBON POTTY - Replaces highly wasteful flush toilet with smell-free, simple system producing highly valuable sterile, antibiotic free fertilizer.  Saves huge amounts of energy, eliminates highly expensive sewage treatment. A sprinkle of carbon/humus over each offering keeps everything totally smell-free.  The contents dump out into the collector truck as a single quite rigid lump, eliminating need for any bag.

The carbon comes from the atmosphere by way of the biomass pyrolyzer.

Also highly convenient, since potty is so easy to move and site.

COVERED BED/MINI LIVING ROOM.  A room of your own inside an existing bigger one, small but perfect for you year around, uses very little energy to make the exact right conditions for you in all circumstances.  What kept kings comfy in the frigid castles where lesser folk shivered all year.

REFLECTOR FOR HIRE- any south facing hillside could house highly accurate solar reflectors, which could deliver, on phone order, as much heat at any spot below as customer wants - dry clothes, heat water, grow pot, etc etc.

HEAT DRIVEN WATER PUMP- for any home hot water heating system.  Replaces electric pump with very simple bit of plumbing which circulates water as soon as it is heated,  no electricity, no noise, no maintenance, very low cost.

RIVER FLOOD PLANE- arranged as multiple string of ponds, with islands holding PV panels, fish hatcheries, vacation cabins, and adjacent uphill ponds for hydrostorage of any excess solar power.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know them

Originally posted on

Written by Charles Eisenstein

I’m dealing with massive cognitive dissonance right now. Multiple, contradictory beliefs and perceptions inhabit my mind, each compelling on its own terms. How do I choose?

I’ll share two of the most contradictory. Last weekend I spoke at a wonderful music festival near Asheville called Kinnection Campout. I’ve not yet been to a festival with such a positive, friendly, gentle atmosphere. The entrance booth staff were jovial; the security personnel solicitous, and I didn’t see any of the aggression, bad drug trips, or drinking that is often an undercurrent (though usually not dominant) at such festivals. It occurred to me that this event was a field generator for a “new normal” of compassion and sharing on earth. What fed my optimism the most, however, were the astonishing conversations I had with young people there about topics like subtle activism, social permaculture, regenerative politics, indigeneity, and so forth – conversations that basically did not exist when I was in my 20s. They embodied understandings that took me decades to develop and that I still inhabit most tenuously. What will they accomplish from this place that they are seemingly born into, or reach with just a single activating experience? Nor, to address the skeptics among you, were these people weekend philosophers who play with these ideas in between workweeks. They had little buy-in to the rewards and promises of the system, little ambition in the conventional sense. For them, the old story is finished. Even if they are yet a minority among their age cohort, they provide ample proof that the consciousness behind ecocide and injustice is changing.

My second input has come in the days since the festival as I’ve immersed myself in my book research. I’m looking at some of the most dire predictions of climate change which, in case you weren’t aware, basically entail the near-term extinction of most species on earth, humanity with them. Of course I’ve been aware of this narrative for a long time, but actually engaging the data about the various positive feedback loops is driving it deeper into me. Earth has already passed the tipping point into catastrophic climate change. Even if we eliminated all fossil fuels right now, that wouldn’t be enough to arrest runaway warming. The IPCC’s position is extremely conservative, and even its recommendations are politically infeasible. In the face of the facts, any optimism I might feel from the festival is a delusion.

Yet then I return to the still-vivid memory of those beautiful, alive faces, the clear eyes shining with the light of deep intelligence, and I know deep within my being that somehow, the logic of despair is a false logic. I cannot muster any convincing evidence of its falsity, but I know it nonetheless. Am I to trust that feeling I am calling “knowing”?

In fact, I can construct a rational narrative – highly implausible though it may strike the conventional mind – in which we can avert civilization-destroying ecological catastrophe. It comes from the understanding that the modern worldview, which is at the root of the ecological crisis, also generates our understanding of what is possible and how to effect change in the world. Stepping outside of it, as so many of those young people have done, opens up wider domains of the possible and the real. We can see the lineaments in everything we call holistic or alternative: technologies or modes of technology that produce impossible results. This will be of small comfort if you wholly embrace the modern worldview and dismiss everything that deviates from it. But if you have experienced what we’ve been told is impossible, then the impossibility of humanity making the transition is no longer so clear. If someone can recover from “incurable” stage 4 pancreatic cancer, what else is possible? What is the correlate of that on the level of politics or ecology? This is a question many of these young people are beginning to explore.

That is one thread of my narrative of optimism, tenuous though it may seem to you. I won’t go into the others, because my point is that the feeling I got from the festival is not wholly at odds with reason. Nor, however, does it constitute proof. Each of these two narratives stands in self-sufficient wholeness, a reality unto itself. Which, then, shall I believe?

There is a saying from the Bible: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Each of these beliefs bears different fruits in me; each corresponds to a state of being. I find the near-term extinction narrative to be paralyzing. It demotivates anything I might do to serve healing in the world on any level. What issue that I care about matters in the face of it?

The other narrative, which I’ll call “the evolution of consciousness that will save the world,” confers on me an enthusiasm to serve that evolution in all its manifestations and practical applications. This narrative is not without its pitfalls: self-righteousness, spiritual elitism, and escapism are among them, particularly when it is ignorant of the very real facts on the ground. The horror and suffering on this planet extend far beyond climate change. (In fact, I believe climate change is a symptom of a deeper illness that will continue to generate crises even if climate change turns out to be less of a threat than we think.) To bypass the planet’s hurts and perils and to deny their accompanying grief through spiritual bromides like “It’s all happening for a reason,” or “the shift in consciousness will save us,” is to divert the expanded creative and healing powers of the new story away from their necessary purpose.

The illness seeks the medicine. The multiple crises that we face are precisely commensurate with the capacities they will draw forth from us. That is why both narratives I have voiced above are necessary. We must apprehend the illness, or the medicine will remain inaccessible, stunted, an embarrassing secret in the cultural closet called “alternative.”

Gazing into the most hopeless and horrifying phenomena on the planet, our own hidden wounds and unprocessed grief surface for clearing, and we discover that each form of denial – the outer circumstances and the inner wounds – mirror each other. For our optimism to be genuine as well as effective, it must countenance what is actually so.

I am fond of saying that no optimism can be authentic that has not visited the depths of despair. But today I have realized a corollary: no despair is authentic that has not fully let in the joy. Festivals like Kinnection exercise a powerful practical function by obviating the logic of despair and bestowing enthusiasm and motivation to serve the birthing of a more beautiful world. It is not that an internal inconsistency in the logic is revealed; it simply becomes somehow less relevant, less dominating, and less captivating. Without, at first, reasonablecause for hope, we find we no longer need reasons. Experiences of play, joy, and communion insinuate an unreasonable knowledge of expanded possibilities. Without these, the gloom-monger is missing an important data point. Few will listen to him because they will intuit that his despair is a joy deficit disguised as objective reasoning. Whatever he is missing, the young people I met at Kinnection, and the event itself, seemed to radiate.

So if you want to be effective in spreading alarm, go to some festivals or other places of your greatest joy. And if you want to be effective in spreading joy, visit your places of greatest grief.

I am of course aware of the political critique of festivals like this one: that they are diversions for the privileged that make our unjust and ecocidal world a little more tolerable. But I hope I have shown that they are also the opposite: they make that world less tolerable. They give us a glimpse of the world as it could be, and they nourish us with the inner resources and outer connections to serve that world.

The Hundred-Year Plan

The Hundred-Year Plan

Written by Jim Merkel

By Jim Merkel

During Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, he called for a lifting of the embargo, along with a two-way exchange of ideas. Cuba’s forced isolation led to lifestyles and systems with dramatically reduced ecological impacts. I checked the box as “professional researcher” and promised not to enjoy the beaches and ventured to learn what Cuban women have to share from their decades of experience in family planning, life with scant fossil fuels and organic, small-scale food systems. 

To bring context to what Cuba might offer: according to Johan Rockström, author of Big World, Small Planet, industrial agriculture is “the world’s single largest contributor to climate change and loss of biodiversity… (and) the world’s single largest consumer of both water and land.” I wanted to find out for myself (and for a documentary film), if there is another side to the “failed state” analysis.  Could this opening be an opportunity for the over-developed world to have a “reality check.” We’d need four planets to have the world’s people adopt American lifestyles. Can we not “ruin” Cuba and instead learn?

Pedro Martin and I hopped off a trailer pulled by an old Russian tractor, paid the farmer and set off down a dirt track. We headed toward a windmill and a green oasis on a gentle hillside outside Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. The track became muddy and rutted through a cool hollow then rose into a sunny field of tomatoes.

We trekked past a small clapboard home, where a friendly couple was harvesting their February crop. They confirmed we were headed in the right direction: “See that gate up ahead?  The Casimiro farm.” 

Through strings of contacts of empowered Cuban women, we were directed here, to one of Cuba’s own permaculture giants, Leidy Casimiro Rodríguez, who returned to her family’s degraded tobacco fields at the age of ten during Cuba’s deepest recession, known as the “special period.”

Through the gate in a living fence of thorns and coppiced trees, we entered the shade of a tropical food forest. Leidy’s younger sister, Chavely Casimiro, greeted us and called off the pack of barking dogs. We walked past banana and mango trees up to the family compound of vine-covered whitewashed domes, amongst a permaculture playground including a large open cistern fed by a windmill-powered water pump, two biogas digesters and a rabbit house. We entered the dome used as a kitchen and dining area and met Leidy, now 35, who was working on her PhD in agro ecology in Columbia.

When I secured an invitation to their “finca” or family farm, I explained that our film, “The Hundred-Year Plan,” tells the story of empowered, educated women around the world, who are leading society toward a more sustainable future by having fewer children and learning to live well with small ecological footprints. Leidy, who has two siblings and is mother to one boy, Darío, let me know that almost any Cuban women from her generation would have something to say about this topic.

According to Cuban demographer Marisol Alfonso de Armas, the demographic transition in Cuba began in the 1930s — ahead of Latin America. An influx of immigrants, contraception and public health initiatives dealing with mosquito born illnesses, alongside the depression of the ‘30s, are thought to have instigated declining birth rates.

By 1978, fertility was below replacement levels and by 2008 it stood at 1.59, a rate comparable to the most developed social democracies in Europe. For more than 50 years, Cuban women have had universal access to education, healthcare, contraception and safe, legal abortion. These are the leading conditions demographers suggest improve the health and survivability of children, improve women’s health and lower birth rates. 

Leidy’s father and mother, Caridad and José, were raising two young children in 1989 as Cuba faced its toughest test. The dissolution of the Soviet Union amplified the impact of the U.S. embargo. Cuba had lost its primary trading partners in the Eastern Bloc. Without markets for its sugar and without imports of fuel, pesticides, raw materials, and food, all sectors of the economy screeched to a halt. During this “special period,” the average Cuban lost 20 pounds.

After Leidy’s father, José Antonio Casimiro González, took a permaculture course, they now saw the shortage of energy and pesticides as an opportunity. José left his job as a traffic cop and returned to their abused tobacco land. With few tools but new skills, he set to work with a deep commitment to not see his family go to bed hungry.

The systems of permaculture originated in indigenous and pre-green revolution agrarian societies around the world.  Dozens of fruits and vegetables are interplanted and assisted by intelligent interaction into a food forest that restores soil and ecological health.  As José deconstructed the former extractive and poison “green revolution” practices, the land slowly responded.

Harnessing neighborly support with bulldozers, they built a sizable pond below the old clapboard home site and installed a homemade hydraulic ram that pumps water without fossil energy to the top of their site.

Leidy walked us down to the pond, a human-made natural paradise budding with wildlife and Tilapia – fish that wind up on the dinner table. After reveling in the stillness, Chavely led us further down the spillway and switched on the ram pump. With sprays of water and rhythmic clicks, the diaphragms began miraculously pulsing water uphill. Chavely explained that the water is piped to the land’s height into a giant tank that overflows into a deep round cistern. Chavely, the family mason, helped to build the cistern while in her teens.

As we walked back up the hill, the keyline design, which slows and directs the water flow laterally across the slope, was apparent, with gently terraced fields alternating with fruit trees and annual crops, all watered from above.

Before heading to Cuba on this “scouting” trip, my last visit was in 2009. I was nervous about how my topic of small footprints would be perceived and received. After all, billboards around Cuba then and now show a hangers noose, with the caption “Blockade, the longest genocide in history,” calling for an end to the U.S. embargo. The intent of this American policy has been to make ordinary citizens suffer to such a point as to call for a regime change toward free market capitalism. 

I intellectually get the severity of the strongest and longest embargo in history. And, having had a top-secret clearance in the 1980s, I’m not naïve to the hundreds of covert assassination attempts and terrorist acts on Cuban soil, funded and supported by the U.S.  So, to be from the U.S. and making a film about their small footprints seems thorny. Just as the developed nations complete their most consumptive and destructive 50-year period in all of human history, of which Cuba was left out, a North American comes to Cuba to glamorize their suffering in a film.

My 25-year exploration of “Radical Simplicity” inspired by my travels to Kerala, India was voluntary — a reaction against our imperialism and ecological exploitation. It was also around action — creating and living inside my wildest dream of a sustainable future.

Now, after weeks of hitchhiking, making friends and experiencing real people’s lives, homes and daily decisions, I see the embargo’s effects up close. Personal. Their involuntary simplicity, with all its creativity and austerity, might, after 50 years, feel “normal” to them, but to me, the sheer scarcity of income and availability of goods is shocking. 

Like a thorn in a sock, the irritation and frustration of the noose comes and goes. Nonetheless, a rural generosity and hospitality is present, similar to Kerala or Mexico or rural Maine. Most Cubans know that our incomes are 20 times theirs, and when in popular tourist areas, a gringo like me can become a walking dollar sign. This radical inequity is painful to witness and takes time to digest. 

The night I left Havana for the countryside, I visited the home of Mabis Dora Álvarez, one of 300,000 literacy volunteers, who trekked off to the countryside armed with a backpack filled with pencils and notebooks in 1962, on the eve of the U.S. invasion at the Bay of Pigs. As the U.S. stood up for the rights of the United Fruit Company to exploit another nation, Castro was delivering on his promise of education and health care for the most underserved.

Now in her 80s, Mabis tends her ailing cat and dozens of vibrant plants covering her veranda in the Vedado district of Havana. I ask about her plants. She explained that she was trained in Russia as an agronomist and spent her life working with women farmers across Cuba from the time the first agrarian reforms were signed into law on May 17, 1959.

When I explained my film project to Mabis, she responded that the agrarian reforms of Cuba were, in her mind, the most important beginning to improving the lives of women and children. 

The Agrarian Reform Law limited land holdings to 993 acres and distributed the expropriated lands to the peasant farmers and the government. Families were encouraged to grow food for their family and produce for the market. Expropriated lands were to be compensated by bonds based upon assessed values used for taxes. The U.S. was not happy.

Fidel Castro commented, "They (the United-States) are practically telling us that if we go ahead with agrarian reform, they will strangle us economically... No country can have political independence if, when it issues a law, it is told it will starve to death.”

The Casimiros returned to their 17-acre farm, determined not to starve. They had a vision of building a beautiful and sustainable subsistence life, swearing off growing sugar cane and tobacco or using chemicals.

We regroup in the communal kitchen as Leidy’s brother, José, now 34, comes in from his work with a bunch of ripe bananas. He quietly joins the conversation.  Behind him, stacked on the counter, are sacks of rice and dried beans — several hundred pounds. Behind the counter, the hiss of the pressure cooker and the quiet preparing of dinner goes on while our team sits down and describe our documentary film project to the family.

As we explained the small footprint part of the film, they told us about their 25 years of work and transformation. They break out the before and after pictures — from a barren grassland to a food jungle. 

As they described their process, the father José strayed quickly from the practical to the philosophical and global, providing a context for the diverse motivations and contributions they see their lives offering Cubans and the world. Subsistence farms offer tremendous food security, but also healthy and creative work when done sustainably.

My worries that the small footprint topic would be thorny evaporated as we discovered our shared synthesis and understanding of humanity’s peril and the power of putting forward a practical demonstration of the possible. Pedro Martin, the young filmmaker who hitchhiked around Cuba with me, insisted that I show them some of my slides of building my home from the trees on site in Belfast, Maine and my own permaculture gardens. He translated my story of how I limited my income to world average, at the same time they were entering the special period.  As we recognized our kinship at a deeper level, we dove deeper into the tougher conversations, doubts and opportunities for creating a sustainable future. 

After 25 years of working to promote small footprints in North America, in the last five years I’ve noticed a heightened recognition that we must create the alternative reality, both in our families and communities. And more people understand that if the world’s lived American lifestyles, we’d need five planets.

The Casimiro family clearly conveys both agency and sustainability.  Against all odds, their resourcefulness, artful functionality, serious research and dexterity unite this family. Their biogas digester, built by young Chavely, produces methane to cook their food, provides light and refrigeration and the effluent fertilizes the crops.

Where locavores in the U.S. argue over favorite “wildcards” of coffee, chocolate, bananas and olive oil — items that we cannot produce in our climate — I wondered what this family was not able to produce.  They had dozens of fruits and vegetables, sacks of rice and beans, raised chickens, pigs, rabbits, fish and dairy cows, pressed their own oil, made soap, and yes, ground their own coffee. 

     The Casimiro family was one of half a dozen families we were invited to share rice, beans, and yes, homegrown coffee with, who might contribute to our documentary film. 

Osmany’s family were peasant sharecrop farmers before the revolution. They now live in an extended family compound and grow the bulk of the family’s food. Their daughter Madaysi is studying medicine in the nearby city. 

Marielys Dias Simon is a 26-year-old family doctor in a clinic in the Republic of Chile, one of the first cooperative communities formed by the revolution under Castro. The families she serves all live within several kilometers and they have free and easy access to her services. 

Yeny works in a health clinic conducting tests during pregnancies in Playa Larga, deep into the Bay of Pigs. She couldn’t recall when the last child or mother died in the birthing process. Her daughter Roxanna competes in national math competitions and enjoys time with her friends. The younger daughter, Rosaly, loves art and dance. Rosaly’s teachers, Lazaro and Suzana, work as popular educators teaching art, song and dance in the school. Rosaly is among the many children they feel lucky to learn from.

Yuliet lives in La Conchita, a town centered around a food processing facility.  She forgoes jewelry to purchase bricks and mortar for the house she is building, while teaching at a university.  Speaking of her relationship with her 17 year-old daughter Alexandra, she says they share everything. Then emphasizes, “everything.” Alexandra has gotten national attention for the documentary and fiction films she makes, along with a team of neighborhood friends, that delve into the social issues of their community.     

Each family is ordinary and extraordinary. Each graciously opened their life to me, a stranger from the “evil empire.” Each held no grudge. Each offered a sacred piece of their humanity to my consciousness. My most profound moments in Cuba were of being on the receiving end of generosity and hospitality by warm people with a fraction of the income, assets, diversions, and stuff that my country folk and I take for “normal.” What is most clear, as I am back and again swimming in a sea of excess, is that this excess isn’t making us any happier.

What else is clear is that the 1001 ways that the U.S. is attempting to dominate the world are truly upsetting and they hurt real people. I could analyze and critique Cuban policy, systems and culture, its shortcomings and mistakes. However, I’ll leave that for the Cuban people. Don’t worry, they actively discuss all that and more and get on with their lives. The biggest fear I heard from the tourists I met in Cuba is that the island will quickly be spoiled by consumerism and the decadence of modernity if the U.S. corporations come there. My biggest hope would be that the tourists return home inspired to live more simply, play more music, and lighten up.

I’d hope too that they’d return home and work for the embargo to be lifted and for Guantanamo Base to be returned to Cuba. Let the Cubans direct their own destiny. When I asked people if they thought Cuba could avoid the mistakes of the “developed” world’s last 50 years, many could visualize that path, but also internalize the complexity and uncertainty of our moment in time. 

One thing the embargo did teach Cubans is how to live well at a fraction of the footprint of the developed world. If the world’s people birthed at the Cuban rate of 1.5 children, on average, in 100 years, world population would retreat to 3.8 billion. And if the world’s people consumed at the Cuban 4-acre ecological footprint, humanity would consume 15.2 billion bioproductive acres of the 30 billion acres available worldwide, leaving half the planet for nature. 

Currently humanity consumes 1.5 planets. Those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, stuck in the grips of poverty, could glean a few ideas around universal education and healthcare from Cuba — healthy, educated people on a shoestring. Those whose stomachs ache from too much and whose spirits sag from not enough of what matters might find Cuba offers a breather, along with 1001 practical ways to live lightly and still have fun. 

Our film, “The Hundred-Year Plan,” lays out the essentials for diffusing the population bomb, easing climate change and averting the "sixth great extinction.” It tells the quietly dramatic story of educated and empowered women around the world who choose small families, while creatively living with small ecological footprints. These two conditions, played out over one hundred years, could return a healthy balance between humans and nature.

The film’s Cuban production is a cooperative effort between The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and the Arthur Morgan Foundation for Community Solutions from Yellow springs Ohio. The team of filmmakers include: Producer, Panchito Álvarez, Oscar winning Producer Deborah Shaffer, Emmy winning Director of Photography, Robert Maraist, Editor, Eric Johnson, Associate Producers, Susan Jennings and Pedro Martin and Advisors Julia Reichert, Tony Heriza, and Catherine Murphy. Jim Merkel is the director. The film’s production begins in April.

Biologist E.O. Wilson explains, it is not an asteroid or volcano that will cause this extinction, rather human impact —“a death of a thousand cuts—a little bit taken here, a little bit ceded to an oil company there.” Added together, we are losing about 30,000 species a year, where fossil records indicate background rates of 10 per year.

On the side of hope, Wilson adds, “Our species might just luck out, with enough dropping population, improved production, and shrinking ecological footprint, that we can win the race to save the rest of life.” Wilson’s new book, Half Earth, suggests that by leaving at least half of the earth’s areas intact, we could avert the 6th great extinction. “The Hundred-Year Plan” seeks to show how Wilson’s “Half Earth” solution could come about by taking control of two things that you and I actually have control over: How much we take and how many children we make.

Jim Merkel is the author of Radical Simplicity and founder of the Global Living Project. He lives in Maine, volunteers, writes, lectures and consults with campuses and municipalities on sustainability initiatives.

What's Right with the Youth Today?

Written by Community Solutions Miller Fellow Scott Montgomery

I have been disheartened lately because of the messages I have been hearing about my generation. As a Millennial, I have been bombarded with messages describing us as cry-bullies, narcissists, lacking grit, and  having a poor work ethic. Millennials are thought of as the unfortunate result of participation trophies and the self-esteem movement. I find myself internalizing these criticisms and wondering if we are all doomed. As Millennials have reached adulthood, this narrative describing them as a self-obsessed, social-media generation has persisted. This ignores the fact that Millennials created the revolution that is social media and have rewritten the rules of marketing, politics, community organizing and countless institutions. In fact, Millennials have disrupted the majority of the institutions they have come into contact with. As Joel Stein wrote in Time magazine:

 "They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one.”

 While the fight to stop climate change has begun already, Millennials and Generation Z will lead the charge, and if people judged these generations by media representations, they could expect some awesome selfies of the apocalypse.

However, on a trip to Hayward Middle School in Springfield, OH, I was blown away by the capabilities of the youth I encountered who turned these stereotypes upside-down. Through the Energy Navigators Program, Community Solutions assists Springfield Promise Neighborhood in administering an after school program at HMS. On this afternoon I had been invited to film a Yellow Springs High School student presenting a working prototype of a Stirling Engine he had built. A Stirling Engine is a motor with a piston pushed by air pressure. He walked me through how a solar concentrator could be attached to make the engine carbon free. The design process was indeed complicated and his first effort did not succeed. The second iteration worked beautifully.

Stirling Engine

Stirling Engine

As the engine whirred, this bright young engineer elaborated on how he perfected his design by watching YouTube videos. The confluence of technology and young inquisitive minds has the potential to be the recipe for reversing climate change. The icing on this proverbial cake was the ease in which this young man communicated what he had created to his middle school audience. In turn, these middle school students were a captive audience and asked insightful questions. 

After listening to the demonstration of the Stirling engine, the middle schoolers moved on to building rocket stoves, a super-efficient heating source for cooking. After this, they showed off a compost pile they had built and explained the composting process. These youth were not only interested in the project, but they were actively creating a more sustainable environment around them. With a solid educational foundation and room to be creative, these students are thriving. As they reach adulthood, Millennials and Generation Z will create a new culture, one that could mitigate climate change.

Rocket Stove

Rocket Stove

Rather than observe and wonder what's wrong with kids these days, we might  ask a different question: What's right with these kids? Different questions lead to different answers. Millennials are sometimes disparagingly referred to as Generation Why. While intended to be a dig, I take pride in this designation. As a group Millennials are asking Why? and when they find the answers inadequate, they take responsibility for finding solutions.

See a clip of the Stirling Engine in action!

We need Regenerative Farming Not Geoengineering

Originally posted on

Written by Charles Eisentstein

Geoengineering has been back in the news recently after the US National Research Council endorsed a proposal to envelop the planet in a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.

The proposal has been widely criticised for possible unintended consequences, such as ozone depletion, ocean acidification and reduced rainfall in the tropics. Perhaps even more troubling, geoengineering is a technological fix that leaves the economic and industrial system causing climate change untouched.

The mindset behind geoengineering stands in sharp contrast to an emerging ecological, systems approach taking shape in the form of regenerative agriculture. More than a mere alternative strategy, regenerative agriculture represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature.

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?

Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarter of current emissions.

Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.

That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, none of this is license to perpetuate a fossil fuel infrastructure, since there is an eventual limit to the amount of carbon that soil and biomass can store.

Read More on the Guardian's Website

Why You Can't Argue With a Modern

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

The modern world is filled with things many of us regard as antiquated and old-fashioned. Modern people often say that ancient rituals are mere superstition, that science tells us what is real and what is not, and that we are now free from ideas including untestable ideas from religion that have slowed continual improvement in the lot of average humans.

That the modern outlook has all the hallmarks of a religion never occurs to a thoroughly modern person (whom I'll refer to merely as a "modern"). A modern believes that the modern outlook is above and outside all superstition and groundless belief. In effect, the modern outlook is a myth that does not believe it is a myth.

In using the word "myth," I do not mean to label the modern outlook false. In this context myth is simply a narrative that outlines a worldview. It turns out that a myth of any vintage, ancient or modern, can be a powerful tool in motivating behavior, in explaining and manipulating the world, and in assigning meaning to human existence. And any myth of any vintage can turn out simply to be mistaken in some or all of its details.

The modern myth has some unique characteristics that make it particularly powerful and particularly dangerous at the same time. The modern myth tells us the following about the world and our place in it:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

Let me take these claims one at a time.

First, let's see whether, in fact, humans are in one category and nature in another.

A key element of the modern narrative separates humans from nature. We humans are different for many reasons. We have speech. We use tools. We use abstractions to order the world. We plan for the future.

These presumed advantages have allowed us to become the dominant species in the biosphere. One measure of that dominance is what is called global human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP). Net primary production refers to the "net amount of biomass produced each year by plants." Humans appropriate biomass directly through their use of plants for food and fiber. They appropriate it indirectly through the consumption of domestic livestock and wild animals (mostly fish) which must, of course, feed on plants or other animals that in turn feed on plants.

Estimates of HANPP vary widely depending on who is counting and how. The most recent estimates range from 14 percent to 55 percent. But no matter how one estimates HANPP, the portion of the Earth's net primary production devoted to humans is truly remarkable for one species when we consider that there are an estimated 8.7 million species on Earth.

Still, just because one species is dominant does not mean that it is outside the natural world. And, in fact, the modern does not put the human body outside the natural world. The human body is the subject of rigorous scientific investigation through the discipline of biology and its many subdisciplines such as physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology to name just a few.

So, if our bodies are not in a category outside nature, then what part of humans separates them from nature? Well, our minds, of course. While no one can say precisely what it means to say humans have minds, we all know we have thoughts because we experience them. Extreme materialists will say that our thoughts are merely our perception of brain chemistry at work. Thoughts have no independent existence. If that's true, then the distinction between humans and nature falls apart.

Now, nature is a loaded word with a long history. We speak of "human nature," but don't mean necessarily our bodies so much as our social character. And, we usually mean it in a negative way.

Nature can be holy. It was and is to followers of nature religions. It can be something fallen and evil. It is in Christian tradition though that view has softened with the advent of the modern environmental movement. It has also changed as Christian teaching has evolved on human sexuality, long viewed as an evil part of human nature.

The adjective "natural" often signifies the property of not being man-made. It is getting harder to distinguish the two states as humans take over more and more of the biosphere. Humans raise livestock in specific ways and yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a category for "natural" products from livestock. The climate is changing almost certainly because of human activities. Is the climate no longer a natural phenomenon?

Bruno Latour, the French sociologist of science, suggests that humans and nonhuman entities are all part of a connected network which he loosely refers to as the collective. In any case, those things which we thought distinguished us from the other animals are gradually falling away.

It turns out animal calls now appear to have characteristics of what we regard as language. And, elephants communicate with sophisticated sign language. Dolphins apparently have a "sono-pictorial" language of communication. And, they appear capable of using nouns and verbs to form intelligible sentences.

We now know that many animals use tools. Primates use tools. But so do non-primates such as sea otters which use rocks to crack the shells of edible seafood.

Crows have convincingly shown their ability to think abstractly. Primates and dogs can think abstractly, too.

And, it turns out some animals can plan for the future just like humans including apes and birds.

I am not making the case that humans are exactly like other animals in every respect, only that our oft-cited defining differences aren't differences after all. We share so many abilities and characteristics with other animals that it is difficult to conclude that we belong in a separate category. As such, we have no vantage point outside of the natural world from which we can hope to observe it objectively and know it completely. We are stuck inside that world and faced with the limitations of a participant/observer.

So, if we humans don't belong in a separate category, then we may very well be subject to many of the same constraints as animals. We humans are adapted to our environment in ways that have allowed us to become the dominate species; but the fossil record suggests that our dominance is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.

Whatever we call the category that includes humans and everything else, in an age of ecological understanding we would be foolish to pretend that we are separate from what we call the natural world and not subject to its laws.

Second, while our success as a species is undeniable, we conclude from this success a notion that may turn out to be fatal to us or at least to modern technical civilization.

The faulty conclusion we draw is that scale doesn't matter. Many modern readers have been dazzled by the analysis of writers such as Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, who argue that the presumption of a pristine landscape described by Europeans landing for the first time in the Americas is overdrawn. By that time indigenous peoples had altered the landscape in thoroughgoing and profound ways. From this Mann and others conclude that humans can continue this alteration without fear of taxing the physical environment in ways that might lead to civilizational collapse.

What Mann and others seem not to grasp is the problem of scale. Native populations in the Americas might well have been higher than previously estimated (about 25 million instead of 1 million) and their alteration of the landscape might have been greater than previously believed. But that does not mean that the more than 7 billion people now on Earth with their highly intensive extractive ways can continue live as we do indefinitely without risking systemic collapse. As a group we humans today put pressures on the environment that are orders of magnitude greater than those of the much smaller and less resource-intensive world population of the pre-Columbian era.

The scale of human exploitation of the biosphere already has altered the climate in ways which are believed to be potentially catastrophic to human civilization. In addition, fisheries are being depleted. Soil is being eroded as never before. Forests are being felled at unprecedented rates. And, all this is being done without a comprehensive understanding of the systemic effects on the environment and by extension on the viability of human civilization as it is currently constituted.

The old saw that "we will figure something out" is merely a statement of faith. And, any statement of absolute certainty about the future is religious by its very nature since in the realm of practical and scientific knowledge we cannot be absolutely certain of anything about the future.

Which brings us to supposition three of the modern: History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past. Here I am less concerned with recorded history than I am with archeology. Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, shows us that highly advanced societies of the past make mistakes that lead to collapse.

His thesis is that while the proximate cause of some collapses has to do with climate change and/or resource depletion, the ultimate cause is the inability of complex societies to respond effectively to such challenges. Complexity, which initially is highly adaptive and successful, ultimately becomes a cause of collapse as societal systems become so complex that they are no longer capable of processing the information they receive from the environment effectively in order to take the necessary actions to avoid collapse.

The modern doesn't know this history or dismisses it as irrelevant since "we know better now." He or she asserts this even as complexity is piled upon complexity without solving our most urgent and perilous problem, climate change.

In the realm of political affairs, we had a passing fancy that history was ending when Francis Fukuyama told us in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that liberal democracy would be the final form of governance for all humankind. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism made some people believe that the end of ideology had arrived, that politics was no longer politics, but now a kind of science with one method, the liberal democratic method as currently defined.

And this brings us to the fourth claim of the modern that science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world. Of course, science is no such thing. It is a loose set of disciplines employing widely varying techniques for various ends. It is true that the so-called scientific method has proven to be a powerful tool for harnessing the forces of nature for our purposes.

But the range of what we call science shows it to be a highly differentiated set of disciplines--sciences rather than science--with inconsistent and in some cases irreconcilable theories and practices. Field biology is science, but is it the same kind of science as the study of quantum mechanics? And quantum mechanics, a subdiscipline of physics dealing with the very small, continues to be at odds with general relativity, another subdiscipline of physics that describes gravity and thus the world of the very large. As it turns out, no one has been able to find a theory that would unify the two. They seem to work in very different ways.

Science by its very nature is open-ended. It draws conclusions from observations and from experiment. But it does not claim that any theories developed by scientists are the end of all theories. Quite the contrary, science in practice is about continual testing of hypotheses and theories. And, it is about altering our theories to match new observations.

As the tools of scientists reach farther into space, deeper into the oceans, and more minutely into the life of the cell and into the very basis of human life, the soil, scientists are realizing how little they know about the universe around us. The fact that we are finding so much more to study tells us that we only know the tiniest fraction of all there is.

The extent to which we have altered the biosphere without realizing it by using the technology that has flowed from our scientific understanding tells us how little we understand the complex systems around us.

The modern cannot find humility in the face of our ignorance and therefore cannot understand that in large part the scale of our human enterprises explains our current predicament.

The modern always has a "solution" to every big problem. It can be technological or it can be merely an appeal to faith in what he or she calls "progress." Somehow, modern humans are Houdinis who can collectively extract themselves from every fix before time runs out. Even if we have no answers to our major problems today, those answers will show up soon. Just wait!

This begs the question: If humans are so clever and if they've known about our major environmental problems for decades, then why do the indices by which we measure these problems keep getting worse? Why haven't humans solved these problems already with their cleverness?

Of course, there were those who four and even five decades ago called for rapid deployment of renewable energy, control of and even decline in human population, a move toward more sustainable agricultural and forestry methods, and an end to our consumerist culture. But their voices were drowned out by the moderns and their allies who could not accept the idea that there might be limits on what humans could take from the biosphere and dump into it.

And, to say that human welfare has improved over this period only speaks to our ability to extract ever more resources from the biosphere for our own use (HANPP mentioned above) and dump whatever we choose back into it. The question is not our ability to do this, but the sustainability of exponential growth in this extraction and dumping and the stability of the biosphere which supports us under the pressure of these trends.

It is a mere mathematical fact that exponential growth in the use of resources cannot go on indefinitely on a finite planet. But this mathematical truism is one that a well-propagandized modern either knows nothing about or responds to with that ever present article of faith: "We'll figure something out."

And, now at last we arrive at why you cannot argue with a modern. It is because you are not ultimately arguing about data, facts or observations, but about faith. The modern has a religion-like faith that all human endeavors from here on out will not fail to avert the downfall of civilization and the extinction of humankind. It is my experience that it is very, very difficult to argue anyone out of their religion,* and that's what such a belief amounts to.

To ask someone to reject their own religion is asking them to leave behind beliefs that anchor their lives in the world, that are the very framework for their daily conduct. To abandon one's religion means abandoning an entire way of living and painstakingly building up a new way.

My point is that moderns cannot be convinced of the narrowness of their vision and the folly of their uncritical optimism even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Rather than arguing with those with whom argument is futile, it is better to remember what every political candidate knows about voters: There are those who will always vote for you and those who will never vote for you, and those who are persuadable.

It is for the persuadable that we need to learn the weaknesses of the modern outlook. The persuadable are open to understanding the world in new ways because something in their experience has shown them that mere belief is not enough to assure that things will turn out all right. It takes action.

And, it is personal action, especially action designed to change the current dangerous trajectory of humankind, which the modern seeks to avert. Far from being a change agent, the modern is now the most reactionary of all thinkers, believing that stability and progress are compatible and inevitable and that therefore individual action seeking to alter our current trajectory is not merely misguided but dangerously misguided. With the rise of environmentalism the modern now parades as a clever contrarian while actually being the quintessential representative of the status quo.

The modern's outlook is actually quite restful. It demands nothing of us except acquiescence to the current power structure and its prescribed trajectory for the human endeavor. The modern's message soothes our worries and calms our fears about our future and that of our descendants...until the day comes when it doesn't.

Why the Economy Should Stop Growing—And Just Grow Up

Originally posted on

Written by David Korten

Listen to the political candidates as they put forward their economic solutions. You will hear a well-established and rarely challenged narrative. “We must grow the economy to produce jobs so people will have the money to grow their consumption, which will grow more jobs…” Grow. Grow. Grow.

But children and adolescents grow. Adultsmature. It is time to reframe the debate to recognize that we have pushed growth in material consumption beyond Earth’s environmental limits. We must now shift our economic priority from growth to maturity—meeting the needs of all within the limits of what Earth can provide.

Global GDP is currently growing 3 to 4 percent annually. Contrary to the promises of politicians and economists, this growth is not eliminating poverty and creating a better life for all. It is instead creating increasingly grotesque and unsustainable imbalances in our relationship to Earth and to each other.

Specifics differ by country, but the U.S. experience characterizes the broader trend. Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at a record high. The U.S. middle class is shrinking as most people work longer hours and struggle harder to put food on the table and maintain a roof over their heads. Families are collapsing, and suicide rates are increasing.

The assets of the world’s 62 richest individuals equal those of the poorest half of humanity—3.6 billion people. In the United States, the 2015 bonus pool for 172,400 Wall Street employees was $25 billion—just short of the $28 billion required to give 4.2 million minimum wage restaurant and health care workers a raise to $15 an hour.

Humans now consume at a rate 1.6 times what Earth can provide. Weather becomes more severe and erratic, and critical environmental systems are in decline.

These distortions are a predictable consequence of an economic system designed to extract Earth’s natural wealth for the purpose of maximizing financial returns to those who already have more than they need.

On the plus side, as this system has created the imperative for deep change, it has also positioned us to take the step toward a life-centered planetary civilization. It has:

  • Globalized awareness of humans’ interdependence with one another and Earth,
  • Produced a system of global communications that allows us to think and act as a global species,
  • Highlighted racism, sexism, and other forms of xenophobia as threats to the well-being of all, and
  • Turned millennials into a revolutionary political force by denying them the economic opportunities their parents took for granted.

We cannot, however, look to the economic institutions that created the imbalances to now create an economy that meets the essential needs of all in balanced relationship to a living Earth. Global financial markets value life only for its market price. And the legal structures of global corporations centralize power and delink it from the realities of people’s daily lives.

Restoring balance is necessarily the work of living communities, of people who care about one another, the health of their environment, and the future of their children.

The step to maturity depends on rebuilding caring, place-based communities and economies and restoring to them the power that global corporations and financial markets have usurped. Local initiatives toward this end are already underway throughout the world.

“How do we grow the economy?” is an obsolete question. The questions relevant to this moment in history are “How do we navigate the step to a mature economy that meets the needs of all within the limits of a finite living Earth?” How do we rebuild the strength and power of living communities? How do we create a culture of mutual caring and responsibility? How do we assure that the legal rights of people and communities take priority over those of government-created artificial persons called corporations?

Living organisms have learned to self-organize as bioregional communities that create and maintain the conditions essential to a living Earth community. We humans must take the step to maturity as we learn to live as responsible members of that community.

Introducing Turn 21

by Craig Litwin

Originally published by

As part of Launch Turn21, we were recently interviewed for the University of Hawaii’s student paper, Ke Kalahea. Here are the answers to their questions, useful in conveying what Turn21 is about. 
What is Turn 21?
Turn21 is a group of committed and concerned citizens of the planet dedicated to preserving the only world we have, here in the 21st Century.  Our goal is to educate, inform, and exponentially grow in number those individuals who share this vision in order that we may take action as fast as possible to preserve the planet’s ability to sustain life.
What is Turn 21 trying to achieve?
We have put out a massive call to action every month, every 21st, urging all concerned people to be activists at least one day a month. Our hope is that this effort will spread like mycelium. 
Launch Turn21, our call to action for April 21st (the day before Earth Day) urges everyone to take action now and be involved every month on the 21st in protecting our planet from further destruction, preserving it for the future. 
As part of Launch Turn21 we are showcasing 7 amazing groups that are doing incredible work around the world. But mainly, our underlying purpose is to stoke the flames of activism because “business as usual” is morally unacceptable, given the challenges we are facing as a planet.
How can someone join Turn 21?
It’s not really an organization you can “join” in the sense that there are fees or membership dues. Of course, we have a website and people can sign up to receive our newsletter via email, but mainly we see ourselves as a resource—that catalyst--for getting individuals to commit to the collective action that real transformation is going to require.
How did Turn 21 form, and by whom?
It started with a group of like-minded individuals—a network of brainiacs with hearts, you might say--who were interested in articulating the realities of the situation we find ourselves in and finding ways to educate and promote radical action. Where did it start? Where did Rosa Parks start, or Darwin, folks who demanded we view things for what they are? Our culture was born from the industrial revolution and is heading towards a cliff full steam ahead. It is fair to say that our dire predicament as a human species is where this was born.
How did it get its name?
It was a catchy name that brought together the new, 21st century and the idea that it was time for each one of us to grow up, to act like we care about our home and future generations. We then tied it to the 21st of each month as an easy trigger to remember to consistently take action.
How is Turn 21 different from other advocacy programs?
The main difference is that it is not driven by membership numbers. We are advocating for action every 21st of the month, as an individual, in an affinity group, or by joining groups and organizations that are already doing great work, often in one’s own community. Being a paid activist is a job, and many live, sleep and dream about their work. We are not suggesting people quit their day-job, but take at least one day a month to be part of the movement if you are not  already a full-time activist. 
What are Turn 21's plans for 21st of this month? Next Month?
As mentioned earlier, this month—the day before Earth Day, which seemed appropriate—is our huge effort, Launch Turn21. Our website is showcasing 7 organizations that have joined Turn21 as Affiliates and we will be doing cross-promotional work with them for the month of April and beyond, encouraging folks to plug in and help out wherever they can. In May we will be expanding and showcasing new Affiliates as they join us and we will have a special focus on the Resiliency Challenge, a project of Daily Acts, during the month of May
How wide is Turn 21's reach? Small groups here and there, statewide, national, global? If it isn't widespread, are there any plans for promotion?
We are in a global crisis. We’ve been involved with groups and actions in places like Kenya and Greece, but because the U.S. is such a major polluter and believer in growth above all costs, our efforts have initially centered on U.S. organizations and actions. Actions speak louder than words, and through increased collective action we can promote this globally. 


Policies for a Post-Growth Economy

Written By Community Solutions fellow Samuel Alexander

Originally posted on 


The 1972 publication of Limits to Growth sparked a controversy that has yet to subside. This book argued that if population, resource use, and pollution kept increasing on our finite planet, eventually economies would face environmental ‘limits to growth’ – with potentially dire consequences. Although evidence is mounting in support of this position (Turner, 2014; Steffan et al, 2015), any suggestion that nations might have to give up economic growth, or even embrace a ‘degrowth’ process of planned economic contraction, is typically met with fierce resistance, especially by mainstream economists. In response to such arguments, most economists tend to insist that technological innovation, better design, and market mechanisms will mean that economies can and should continue growing indefinitely.

Those counter-arguments have shaped the cultural understanding of this debate, meaning that the ‘limits to growth’ perspective is widely and casually dismissed as flawed. Most people, including most politicians, still believe that sustained economic growth, in terms of GDP, is necessary for societal progress, and that such growth is consistent with environmental sustainability. For example, questioning economic growth never entered the key discussions at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, which implies that mainstream political and economic discourse still deems continuous GDP growth not just consistent with a safe climate, but a precondition for it.

The main political implication of the growth paradigm is that governments shape policies and institutions with the aim of promoting economic growth, giving society a pro-growth structure. This is supported by consumerist cultures that seek and indeed expect ever-rising material living standards. On the flip side, any policies and institutions that would inhibit economic growth are presumptively rejected or not even given a serious hearing.

This paper provides a summary case for why there are, in fact, limits to growth, and outlines a range of bold policy interventions that would be required to produce a stable and flourishing post-growth economy. The analysis draws on and attempts to develop a rich array of thinking from literatures including ecological economics, eco-socialism, degrowth, and sustainable consumption. For decades a huge amount has been written in critique of growth economics, but the literature on what a post-growth economy would look like, or how to get there, is far less developed. This is inhibiting the movement for change. I acknowledge that most people do not recognise the need for a post-growth economy and therefore would reject my policy proposals as unacceptable. But as the limits to growth tighten their grip on economies in coming years and decades, I believe the debate will inevitably evolve, and the question will not be whether a post-growth economy is required, but rather how to create one – by design rather than disaster.


Corruption, Resources, Climate and Systematic Risk

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Corruption is a loaded word. One person's corruption is another's sound social policy. Some people believe providing unemployment benefits to laid-off workers corrupts them by making them "lazy." Many others think such benefits are sound social policy in an economic system that is prone to major cyclical ups and downs.

Fewer people agree that bailing out major U.S. banks at taxpayer expense in the aftermath of the 2008 crash was a good use of public money. An alternative would have been for the U.S. government to seize the banks, inject funds to stabilize them, and then resell them to investors, perhaps at a profit.

Was it corruption that led to the bailout instead of a takeover? Or was it an honest difference of opinion about what would work best under emergency circumstances?

We can argue whether these examples of transfers of funds from one group to another are fair. But by themselves they do not constitute a systemic risk to the stability of the entire economic and social system. In fact, some would argue that such transfers enhance that stability. However one evaluates these transfers, I would contend that a much worse corruption is to subject our society knowingly to systemic failures such as severe climate change and widespread crop failures.

To understand this contention, we must review the material basis for our modern society. Despite all the hype about the service economy, the activities which make the service economy even possible are agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing. These sectors create the surplus food and fiber, the surplus energy and minerals, and the surplus goods that allow so many of us to do something other than farm, fish, log, mine or manufacture goods.

By "surplus" I mean that those engaged in the five essential underlying activities of the modern economy provide more food and fiber, extract more energy and other mineral resources, and make more things than they themselves will use. In fact, in so-called developed societies, the people in these occupations create surpluses in their respective areas that are nothing short of astonishing.

In the United States for example, those working in agriculture, fishing and forestry number 2.4 million or about 1.6 percent of the working population of 149 million as of 2015 according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those working in mining including oil and natural gas production (which, after all, is really just another type of mining) number 917,000 or about 0.6 percent of the working population. These two groups provide most of the raw materials for the rest of the economy while constituting just 2.2 percent of the workforce. Some raw materials, notably oil and metal ores, are supplemented with imports. But that is counterbalanced in part by agricultural exports that are about one-third of all crops grown.

Those working in manufacturing number 15.3 million, dwarfing the number who actually provide the feedstocks for that manufacturing. But manufacturing workers still only constitute 10.3 percent of the total U.S. workforce. We also supplement our manufactured goods with imports. But we export high-value goods such as airplanes, pharmaceuticals and advanced machinery.

So, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that provides the actual material basis for the economy amounts to only 12.5 percent.

Even though American agricultural, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing systems are exceedingly efficient, this doesn't mean that they are sustainable in the long run. Our agricultural practices by and large erode the soil and undermine its fertility, a process that ultimately will lead to a decline in food and fiber production if unaltered. Our fishing practices empty out fisheries faster than they can regenerate. Our forestry practices may be called sustainable, but removing vast carbon stores from the forest and merely replanting is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

When it comes to mining, we already know that mining nonrenewable sources of energy (oil, coal, natural gas) and other raw materials is by definition not sustainable in the long run. For fossil fuels, climate change makes this doubly true. We will ultimately have to find renewable substitutes or go without. Recycling is important, but we cannot recycle oil, coal and natural gas that have already been burned. And, a significant portion of metals that we mine are not recycled but scattered in landfills and in countless other places.

Now I finally return to the idea of corruption. We don't normally think of unsustainable practices as corrupt. Corruption normally implies that the corrupt actor knows that what he or she is doing is ethically wrong or contrary to law. Most unsustainable practices are not contrary to law, and people will argue about whether they are even unsustainable. An act is not normally considered corrupt if the actor is acting in good faith and believes honestly that he or she is behaving ethically and legally. The person might be mistaken. But we don't put people in jail very often for making honest mistakes (as opposed to negligence).

In the absence of definitive answers on sustainability--which we won't have them until it's too late to do anything--we surely face systemic risks. The failure of one or more of these five basic economic sectors to deliver the resources and goods upon which our society depends could be catastrophic--think: worldwide crop failure, decline in available fossil fuels, a shortage of critical metals needed for electronics (which are crucial to the functioning of modern society).

At the very least it is corrupt to subject society knowingly to potential catastrophic failures merely to enrich oneself or one's associates. I am reminded of a cartoon in The New Yorker many years ago depicting a financial presentation for which the caption read:

And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.

While we are being entertained with the exploits of corrupt politicians and businesspeople who hid their money from taxation using dummy corporations concocted by Panamanian lawyers, we should try to remember that, while despicable, this kind of corruption pales in comparison to the kind that threatens to undermine the very material underpinnings of our society.