More soil organic matter makes more rain

Originally posted on

Written by Alan Newport                                             

Some meteorologists say up to half of the rainfall on a continent comes from the evapotranspiration of plants and soil. This implies a huge reward for better soil management.

To be contrarian, I say meteorology has similar problems to economics as a science. Neither discipline can truly control enough variables to make a good measurement of the effects of a single happening, therefore they can only use scientific principles to imply those results. Nonetheless, I'm going to agree in this case that the amount of soil organic matter and therefore the amount of moisture present in the soil has huge effect upon plant health and therefore upon plant transpiration. Therefore, across large expanses it should have huge effect upon moisture put back into the air and upon rainfall.

Another way of measuring all this was drawn to my attention recently. It's a year's worth of satellite data on worldwide soil moisture.

It began with the launch in 2015 of a NASA satellite called Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP). It is designed to provide globally comprehensive and frequent measurements of the moisture in the top two inches of soil every two to three days. SMAP’s first year of observational data has now been analyzed and scientists on the project say it is providing some significant surprises that will help in the modeling of climate, forecasting of weather, and monitoring of agriculture.

Apparently, this top level of soil preserves a “memory” for weather anomalies, more so than had been predicted from theory and earlier, disparate measurements. The researchers' use of the word "memory" refers to the persistence of effects from unusually high or low amounts of rainfall. Contrary to most researchers’ expectations, it turns out that these effects persist for a matter of days, rather than just a few hours. They say on average, about one-seventh of the amount of rain that falls is still present in that topmost layer of soil three days after it falls — and this persistence is greatest in the driest regions.

Researchers also say the data also show a significant feedback effect that can amplify the effects of both droughts and floods. When moisture evaporates from wet soil, it cools the soil in the process, but when the soil gets too dry that cooling diminishes, which can lead to hotter weather and heat waves that extend and deepen drought conditions. These things were known true at the micro level, meaning they have been measured with soil thermometers and moisture meters, but had never been quantified on a large scale.

I'll remind you this is from depleted soil, which today is the standard the world over. What if we were dealing with healthier soil, with higher organic matter?

Let's think about what could happen if we raised the organic matter significantly and across large areas. Since science tells us a 1% increase in soil organic matter holds at least 20,000 gallons of water in each acre of soil, that suggests my home state of Oklahoma, containing 44.7 million acres, could hold at least 894,694,400,000 gallons more water in the soil after each rainfall event of one inch or more. We can multiply that by the number of one-seventh from the SMAP satellite data. That means seven days after that one-inch rainfall event, Oklahoma's soil would still have an extra 127.8 billion gallons of water the plants could continue to use for evapotranspiration, thereby further moistening the air and increasing the potential for more rainfall.

This is exciting because it strongly suggests grazing and farming that builds soil is not only directly beneficial to those practicing it for higher yields, lower inputs, more profit and more drought resiliency, it also appears it helps make more rain for everybody.

Which Species Are We Sure We Can Live Without?

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Kurt Cobb

As a new administration takes over in Washington, both houses of Congress and the presidency will be in the hands of one party. As it turns out, that party, the Republicans, want to curtail the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Many Republicans complain that the act hinders ranching, logging, oil and gas exploration and water projects.

The key question they are not asking is this: Which species are we sure we can survive without? More on that later.

The act has in practice been used "for control of the land," says one congressman, and not for the rehabilitation of species. His statement stems from a misunderstanding about what it takes to revive an endangered species, namely habitat. That means the land, air, water and other species (plant and/or animal) which any particular species depends on in order to survive.

First, it's important to understand how humans and, in fact, all organisms obtain the resources they need. There are basically two strategies, takeover and drawdown. Takeover simply refers to taking over the habitat of other species to extract resources.

Humans routinely take over land with diverse plant and animal species and use it to grow crops of our choosing, tearing out trees and boulders and turning over the soil to kill the remaining plant life. We keep away nutrient-leeching weeds by pulling them out, plowing them under or killing them with chemicals. We also kill and repel insects that can eat part of what we grow.

Drawdown refers to the drawdown of finite resources such as fossil fuels, metal ores and other mineral deposits such as phosphates for fertilizer. Usable deposits of these are not regenerated by the Earth on any timescale that matters to humans.

Ranchers who take over rangeland for grazing livestock don't like it when wolves protected by the ESA decide to assert their desire to "take over" livestock and eat them. Ranchers are in peril if they try to kill protected wolves even to defend their investment. The conflict isn't over whether the livestock will die. It's about who gets to kill and eat the livestock and when.

We humans, it turns out, are in competition with other predators for food. What the opponents of the ESA are complaining about is that we are fighting these competing predators with both arms tied behind our backs. Why be concerned about what other competing species need? The priority should be what we humans need, right?

Now we arrive at the crux of the matter. Are we humans merely in a war of all against all in the biosphere? Don't all species compete with one another for advantage in the struggle for survival?

The answer to this question is yes and no. Species both compete and cooperate to survive. Dogs have evolved to cooperate with humans. Cooperation has been kind to the household dog population which now numbers close to 78 million in the United States alone.

Compare the ancient relative of the dog, the wolf. As a competitor, the wolf is definitely losing the competition with dogs (and humans). Only about 5,600 remain in the lower 48 states. A far less developed Alaska may have up to 11,000 wolves. But both numbers are minuscule compared to dog populations. Seeking to outcompete other species isn't always the most successful survival strategy (though I wouldn't count the adaptive strategies of dogs and wolves as consciously chosen.)

We have another very recent example of a species the population of which dropped precipitously as a result of unintended consequences of human action. The widespread adoption of the herbicide glyphosate is thought to be responsible for wiping out much of the milkweed in North America, the only plant that monarch butterfly larvae feed on. East of the Rocky Mountains, monarch populations have declined up to 90 percent. We humans didn't know that this would be one of the results of the widespread use of glyphosate. We found out the hard way.

Which brings us to the question of which species we are sure we can survive without. The answer so far is the ones that have already gone extinct while we humans have been around on the planet. We are now in what many scientists consider the Sixth Great Extinction. The main culprit is human activity and our sheer numbers.

As we are learning each day more and more, human survival relies on complex interdependencies with other microorganisms in our own bodies. We are also dependent on the microbiota of the soil that impart the fertility necessary to grow crops. In both areas we are learning just how much we do NOT know about these microorganisms and their interactions with us and with the soil.

If you consider that the broader world with which we interact has millions of species of which we are not aware, it becomes apparent that the Sixth Great Extinction is a rather clumsy and thoughtless way to play Russian roulette with human existence. We could easily cause an organism essential to our survival to go extinct without even realizing it.

The surprising decline of phytoplankton in the oceans comes to mind. The cause is likely rising ocean temperatures due to climate change. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that form the base of the ocean food chain and produce two-thirds of the world's oxygen. Recent research suggests a rise of 6 degrees C in ocean temperatures "could stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis." How many other species might pose this kind of outsized danger to our existence if they were to decline, disappear or cease to function in a normal way?

You will now have an answer when a congressman, businessperson or fellow citizen asks, "Why be concerned about what other competing species need? The priority should be what we humans need, right?" Perhaps. But if one of those needs is to prevent our own extinction by keeping other organisms alive, then we'll have to define "need" differently than we do now.

I am under no illusion that the ESA in its current form is somehow the critical firewall to forestalling rapid biodiversity loss. There are too many human activities outside U.S. control and outside the jurisdiction of the act inside the United States that are responsible for the vast biodiversity loss we are experiencing. As a result I have what I believe is a not unreasonable fear that our experiment in species management called the Sixth Great Extinction could lead to the extinction of the one species we think we are saving by killing off so many others.

Framing Audacious Goals

Written by Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings


Early last December, I and three Community Solutions board members attended a three-day seminar with Australian microbiologist Walter Jehne on the Soil Carbon Sponge. Hosted in Vermont by author Didi Pershouse of the Soil Carbon Coalition, the presentations and discussions focused on the perilous state of soils internationally, and the promise of regenerative land use practices to restore their biological vitality. The intersections of healthy soils, healthy people, and restored water cycles were a primary focus.  Coming on the heels of recent international climate goals focused on carbon sequestration in soil, the seminar was a hopeful reminder of the agency that individuals and communities have to repair the planet. On the last morning of the seminar, Walter suggested that we in the United States frame audacious goals around regenerative soils. One suggestion: “Rehydrate California.”

We’ll be discussing the audacious goals we might set at a regional level during our upcoming Healthy Soils Symposium to be held February 24-25 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs.  We’ll be learning about the soil carbon sponge—the ability of soil to retain rainfall, sustain transpiration and cool climates-- from Didi Pershouse, Peter Bane, David Brandt and others.  Farmers, gardeners, and others who tend our community soils will be speaking about their challenges and successes in restorative landuse practices.  Together, we’ll explore the roadblocks and promises of regenerating a healthy landscape.

Audacity is threaded throughout our 2017 schedule. At a community organizing conference on March 18th, we’ll highlight how the fierce commitment to community demonstrated at Standing Rock also resides in our local citizenry. In October, at our Economics of Happiness Conference, we’ll collectively explore alternative metrics of community well-being.

You can read and hear from a few of our Healthy Soils speakers here.  We hope to see you in Yellow Springs in February. Registration for the symposium is now open. To register click here



Peter Bane discusses how to cool the planet with natural systems

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions fellow Peter Bane

Peter Bane has outlined what Walter Jehne presented about cooling the planet.  I think this has the power to pull us back from a climate collapse if we get acting now.  Here are some concepts that are being talked about:

Walter Jehne at the recent 3 day intense soil seminar offered the concept of “Net Carbon” where starting 1.2.3 years in the future every one must start sequestering the same amount of carbon they are adding.  This would be ramped up over a number of years and would require some to seek carbon offsets while others could change the balance of what they were doing.  It has the advantage of not being a TAX.  Just who would have to comply and how the compliance would work is a work in progress.  Land management sequestration could become highly sought after.  And yes the corporate boys could distort the playing field but they also could help to drive implementation of the system.  Abe Collin’s measurement technologies would be a piece of the puzzle as would Jeff Woolf’s Terrapass which does this now on a voluntary bases for those who feel the need of offsetting their emissions.  All this does not address carbon reduction through efficiency nor cost shifts that might occur to more disadvantaged people but it would send a message to all that externalities must be considered.

Listen to the whole conversation here

Soil Health Profile

Originally posted on USDA website

Written by conference speaker David Brandt

Ohio soil health pioneer forges new frontier in farming

While David and Kendra Brandt like what they see from the soil health system they’re using on their central Ohio farm, everything they do still has to pass muster through the combine’s yield monitor.

They’ve used no-till on their corn, wheat, and soybean operation since 1971, but when David saw a drop in corn yields in 1978, he added hairy vetch and winter peas to the system to get more nitrogen.

“We were using commercial nitrogen then, and I wasn’t really thinking about the health of the soil,” Brandt says. “We saw some improvement in water infiltration at the time, but we didn’t reduce nitrogen inputs until we learned our soils were changing and we didn’t really need it,” he says.

Reducing Crop Inputs

“Cutting back on commercial inputs has been a tough one for me, because we’ve always been taught we need so many pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash to grow a decent corn crop,” Brandt says. “We’re learning now with cover crops that we don’t need to buy those additional nutrients because we can bring them up from deeper in the soil. They just weren’t available to the crop before.”

“In fact, we’ve learned in the last two years that we can go to using almost no purchased commercial fertilizer or herbicide and still produce a great crop of corn and beans.”

“Our nitrogen use in fields without cover crops is 170 pounds an acre. Where we have cover crops and longtime no-till, we’re down to about 20 pounds an acre. That’s more than $100 an acre per year nitrogen savings, and we’re not sacrificing any yield.”

The nitrogen comes from cover plants like hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, cow peas, and sun hemp. They pick out nitrogen from the atmosphere and translocate it into nodules on the roots, Brandt says.

“Some of those nodules will be as big as your thumb. Soil bacteria break them down, and the nitrogen is released slowly in an organic form that the corn plants can use,” he says.

Every cover crop grown on the farm has at least two species. Brandt is moving toward multiple species in the blend, because some—like hairy vetch, late-planted winter peas, cereal rye, barley and wheat––will stay green and keep growing through the winter.

“If we can keep something green in the ground with multiple species, we can build soil faster. So we like multiple blends better than two species,” he says.

“It will take 6-7 years to change or improve a soil with just no-till, but that time can be shortened to 4-5 years or as few as three years if you also use the right blend of cover crops.”

Covers bring up nutrients

Brandt is trying 8- and even 14-way blends of covers. “I’d like to learn more about which covers can bring up trace elements,” Brandt says. “We’ve seen buckwheat bring up phosphorus and zinc, for instance, and sunflowers bring zinc up too.”

Yet, he won’t put in a cover if it won’t pay for itself. “You shouldn’t spend any more for seed on a cover crop than what you can gain in reduced fertilizer costs or increased yields. That’s always been our philosophy,” he says.

Generally for Brandt, cover crops cost from $20 an acre to $35 an acre.

Suppressing pests naturally

The soil health payoff can come in other reduced inputs, too. “We’ve had less weed and pest pressure as we’ve gone along. We see more host insects that will prey on the insects we don’t like to see in the fields,” Brandt says. “We’ve found radishes give off a sulfur smell, for instance, that fumigates the soil and reduces cyst nematodes and slugs in the soil. We’re proud to say we’ve quit using insecticides on the farm.”

Their cover crops suppress winter annuals and broadleaf weeds, and Brandt has cut herbicide use in half.

“We have less sudden death syndrome and less white mold in our beans and less northern corn leaf blight in our corn, too,” he says.

More Microbes a Key

Brandt says he didn’t realize microbes were so important to farming a few years ago. “But I’ve read about how vital they are, and now I see as they increase, we see more good things happening in our soil—more nutrients being released, more water infiltrating into the soil. The more microbial activity we have, the better off we are,” he says.

“I’m really intrigued with the amount of water infiltration we’re seeing with our cover crops. As we go to cover crops with deeper roots, and bigger root masses, we’re seeing rainfall dissipate through the soil better. We don’t have water pockets in our tight clay soils any more.”

Cover crops also moderate soil temperatures. “On hot summer days, with air temperatures over a hundred degrees, our neighbors had soil temperatures of 118 degrees and ours was 86 degrees. Our corn really looked great at those times,” Brandt says.

Sharing the knowledge

Brandt has had to learn about soil health by trial and error on his farm. But he wants others to have an easier road. “I’m trying to pass on what we’ve learned here. I don’t want everyone to reinvent the wheel. I want people to see our failures and our successes,” he says.

“So many farmers have learned to sit on the tractor seat and let an agronomist make their decisions. I like to have farmers come and feel the soil here, dig in it, smell it, and see for themselves how healthy soil should look and feel. That’s when they get excited.”

That includes his banker. “It was hard to get him to understand what we are doing here until we got him out here. Now the quality of our soils and our reduced inputs show up on our balance sheets,” Brandt adds.

“And our landlords are tickled. We can show them how we’ve added organic matter to their soils and made their land more productive, and at the same time kept increasing their crop yields.” 

Any Graphic Designers Out There? A Call Out for Collaborators

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions fellow Samuel Alexander

The Simplicity Institute is mobilising for a new ‘culture jamming’ project next year and we’ve started gathering a team of skilled graphic designers (and potentially visual artists more generally) to collaborate. If this sounds like you and you are keen to volunteer some of your time (a few hours or many hours) to creating striking images that challenge consumerism and the growth economy, and advance the visions of voluntary simplicity, permaculture and degrowth, then please leave a message below (I won’t publish any of the messages). I’ll be in touch to discuss. There is an opportunity here to publish some of your work in books, prominent counter-cultural magazines, websites, well as contribute to social change.

If you know others who might be interested, please pass this message on. Contact me at


Is President Trump the reincarnation of President Tyler?

Originally posted on

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Many commentators are saying that the election of Donald Trump, a novice who has never held political office, to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented. There have been others who went directly to the White House without first having held other elective office. But the only ones I can think of were previously generals and war heroes; among them were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The presidential comparison that strikes me as most apt, however, is between Donald Trump and the nation's 10th president, John Tyler. Like Tyler, Trump's party affiliation changed over time. Trump had given most of his political contributions--prior to his presidential run in 2012--to Democrats before joining the Republican Party and running in the 2012 presidential primaries.

Tyler was a Democrat who defected to the Whig Party and eventually ended up on the Whig ticket as vice president in 1840 with presidential victor William Henry Harrison. The campaign was famous for the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Harrison died within one month of entering office elevating Tyler to the presidency.

Tyler rejected the Whig platform and vetoed many of the bills his party sent him. Trump has yet to take office, but we already know that he and Congressional Republicans do not agree on Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, or his stand against existing and pending trade agreements. On the other hand, Democrats are already trying to forge an alliance with Trump on infrastructure spending and trade.

After Tyler's vetoes, the Whigs expelled him from the party. Then, almost all of Tyler's cabinet resigned. Trump is still awaiting his turn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but already there is intraparty turmoil at his transition headquarters in New York City's Trump Tower. Trump has purged some Republican party stalwarts in favor of outsiders and family members as his suspicion grows.

The Whig Party leadership never contemplated that Tyler might become president just as the Republican Party leadership never believed that Trump had a chance at the nomination. Once he had won the nomination, they believed he could not win the presidency.

Tyler was recruited to be Harrison's running mate to balance the ticket by attracting Southern voters. But Tyler's states' rights views ran counter to the Whigs' desire to use to the federal government to modernize the economy and the infrastructure, a program known as the American System. Hence, Tyler's disagreement with the plans of Congressional Whigs. He felt the states should remain responsible for infrastructure.

Of course, in contrast, Trump wants the federal government to engage in a long and costly program of infrastructure improvements, a program not favored by Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the other hand, Trump's focus in a globalized economy on "making America great again" is reminiscent of Tyler's focus on states in the era of an emerging national economy.

Those hostile to Tyler nicknamed him "His Accidency." It is fairly clear from the reaction to Trump's victory that few people expected him to become president. While it wasn't an accident, it may have seemed that way to a Republican establishment whose primary system was supposed to crown an establishment choice early on and make that candidate impossible to catch.

In fact, it's possible that Trump did not at first intend to run a serious campaign. In that respect his success may have seemed like an accident to him. Trump may have started out intending only to raise his public profile in order to enhance the Trump brand. Trump nemesis Michael Moore claimed that he had direct confirmation (though the source remained anonymous) that Trump was merely trying to get more money for his reality television show, "The Apprentice." And, an insider from the nominally independent pro-Trump Make America Great Again PAC (which was eventually closed down) said that she was told Trump was merely trying to make a good showing. But then Trump became enamored with his own success.

In the end even statements and actions by Trump which Moore and others characterized as self-destructive only seemed to draw more supporters to him. Was Trump intentionally trying to self-destruct only to be caught off guard by the appeal of his supposedly self-destructive words and behaviors? Only he can tell us.

There is already talk that Trump could be impeached based on possible illegal activities that surface from his past. The standard response to such an assertion is that Republicans control both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. But the claim is that Congressional Republicans will soon tire of having someone in the presidency who though nominally Republican cannot be counted upon to enact their agenda. The successful removal of Trump from office would, of course, make Vice President Mike Pence president. Pence is a seasoned politician who is aligned with the Republican agenda.

Tyler differs from Trump, of course, in key ways. Tyler was a lawyer who came from a political family and held several elective offices before ascending to the vice presidency and then the presidency. But it's worth noting that the fractiousness of the Tyler presidency was a prelude to the dissolution of the Whigs--which by the early 1850s had disintegrated due not only to internal disagreements over slavery, but also lack of a coherent, unified message.

Republicans face internal divisions among those who voted for them as well. The traditional Republican coalition of business interests, libertarians, and social conservatives was augmented this year by an influx of white working-class voters feeling besieged by economic globalization. Of course, many white working-class voters had already been voting Republican for a long time because of their discomfort with what they perceived as the liberal social agenda of the Democratic Party. But it was the new and crossover working-class voters who proved decisive.

Those voters oppose the free trade agenda of the Republican Party and are skeptical of the party's corporate ties. Moreover, social conservatives can hardly find Trump's embrace of same-sex marriage comforting. And, the business lobby hates Trump's opposition to so-called H-1B visas, the kind that allow foreign high-tech workers to work in the United States. Scarier yet for the business-oriented globalist Republicans, Steve Bannon, Trump's closest advisor, is calling for what he dubs "an economic nationalist movement."

Will these internal tensions cause the Republican Party to go the way of Whigs? At the very least, the road ahead for the Republican Party and Donald Trump does not look like a smooth one, and Trump's unpredictable style is likely to keep the public and the pundits guessing every step of the way about what comes next.

Voters Win More Solar Energy Options Despite Opposition From Big Energy

Written by Adam Lynch

Originally posted on

Corporate-backed utilities have quashed solar initiatives for years, but residents fought back.

Commonly topping any list of obstacles to a home solar energy boom are price and storage—photovoltaic panels aren’t cheap to own or install, and they maintain the obvious drawback of producing energy during daylight hours only. However, another barrier to the spread of consumer-generated solar has been the utility companies powering American homes.

“Power companies only sell one product in order to make their profit. They don’t sell cars. They don’t sell T-shirts. They sell electrons, and they’re not in the business of having those electrons taken off the grid,” said Ted Trabue, managing director of DC Sustainable Energy Utility, a nonprofit specializing in promoting energy efficiency in Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas.

Through rates, regulation, and political influence, the utility industry has managed to suppress solar energy production even in sunny states where one might reasonably expect a boom. But that might be changing, thanks to recent votes in Nevada and Florida and a surprising new regulatory agreement in Mississippi.

“It’s taken a long time to put this together and get it launched, but it’s come to fruition,” said Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller of a new, progressive net metering agreement between the Mississippi Public Service Commission and utility companies. The rule changes, made in September, will make home electricity generation more profitable for customers. “I have people in Austin, Texas—one of the bluest cities in the country—who say they don’t have [a net metering policy] this good,” Miller said.

Will Hegman, owner of solar installation company Mississippi Solar LLC, has worked for years under an energy commission that rarely encouraged his business. Even now, after so long with such scant support, he says he is still afraid to get his hopes up.

“It’s too soon to see a difference,” he said. “I’ve had utility companies use every trick to stop me and my customers—from convoluted permits to impossible connection requirements—and there was nothing to stop them but our determination to make solar work. After all that, it’s hard to be optimistic just yet.”

But in changing its tune on net metering, Mississippi is showing a promising new trend toward standing up to the corporate-backed utility industry and its underhanded tactics.

For homeowners, one of the biggest roadblocks to installing $30,000 worth of solar panels is the cost. Many work around the price by signing lease or rent-to-own agreements with solar installers, which then recoup costs by selling the energy their panels generate back to the power companies. If solar electricity costs less to the utilities companies than the juice from their power lines, homeowners sees lowered monthly bills. Through a net metering agreement, customers might also get a credit from power companies for the electricity sold back to the grid.

The success of these leases depends on what the local power company is willing to pay for home-generated electricity. However, and historically, the price paid in Mississippi has been paltry. Utility companies like it that way, Trabue says.

In 2013, electric-company shareholder advocate Edison Electric Institute acknowledged the threat solar posed to the power industry. Its report explained that solar customers might be tempted to limit their grid use to backup purposes only or even permanently abandon the grid as solar technology grows more affordable. This is bad news for the power industry, which requires a stable army of ratepayers to recoup construction costs for its big, expensive power plants and infrastructure.

But the utility industry, however embattled, is still wealthy and politically entrenched. It can afford to donate heavily to political campaigns. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval received $10,000 in campaign contributions from Nevada Power Company in 2010 and another $10,000 from Sierra Pacific Power Company, among others, in 2014. As governor of that sun-drenched state, he appointed three members to the Nevada Public Utility Commission that single-handedly hobbled solar and recklessly endangered almost 6,000 solar-related jobs by tripling solar customers’ monthly charges in January. The commission also cut solar customers’ credit for the home-generated electricity sold back to the power grid.

Nevada’s “solar caps” further hamstring the solar movement by limiting homeowners’ eligibility for credits once solar-generated electricity exceeds a certain percentage of total power generated in the state.

While Nevada stumbled, however, Mississippi bounded ahead. Its September agreement created potential electricity buyback rates that are closer to the local rate power companies pay themselves when trading each other’s electricity. The new rates are especially helpful to people with low incomes, since a solar panel owner who is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level now receives an additional 2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity they generate, on top of the increased buyback rate.

Mississippi replicates Nevada’s 3-percent solar cap, but advocates say the restriction is not likely to throttle the state’s near-nonexistent solar production yet. Mississippi Commissioner Brandon Presley said the cap may be temporary, in any case.

“We’re going to monitor the rule, because this rule was meant to [open the door] … to renewable energy. This is a work in progress,” Presley said.

In Nevada, despite the intensifying corporate efforts to stifle solar, voters recently took a successful stand. In November, they approved a ballot initiative that blasted the state’s monopoly utility system, wherein ratepayers were captive to the utility company serving their area. The new competitive electricity market will allow ratepayers to choose their own power provider, regardless of their location. Elon Musk, chairman of electric car manufacturing company Tesla Motors and solar panel provider SolarCity, backed the initiative. It was opposed by Nevada energy tycoon Warren Buffett, whose company Berkshire Hathaway owns Nevada utility company NV Energy.

Florida is another sunny state where solar potential has historically been shaded by aggressive utility influence. It has no regulated electricity buyback rate to encourage customer solar investment, and by not allowing power purchase agreements between solar panel installers and consumers, its constitution kills most leasing plans that would have provided customers with alternative methods for buying expensive panels. Mississippi, in comparison, made sure to couple its generous new rates with a rule permitting third-party leasing.

Florida also restricts electricity sales to utility companies, so no landlord or business can reduce its carbon footprint or electricity bills by installing solar panels. Mississippi rejected such a third-party restriction outright.

Like Nevada, however, Florida voters appear to be slowly skewing toward solar. They rejected another November ballot amendment, largely funded by power companies, that claimed it would have encouraged solar development but actually would have given power companies a constitutional mandate to lobby the state’s public service commission with rate hike proposals for solar customers.

Al Gore, in an October speech at a Miami university, railed against the amendment: “[Utility companies] are trying to fool you into amending your state constitution in a way that gives them the authority to shut down net metering and do in Florida what they did in Nevada and just kill the solar industry.”

Mississippi’s new agreement also puts it ahead of perpetually sunny Arizona, where power company APS is trying to lobby that state’s public service commission to saddle solar customers with a per kilowatt charge that is more than twice that charged to nonsolar customers. Utilities routinely discourage development by charging solar owners prohibitive monthly fees for connecting their systems to company power lines. Mississippi commissioners deftly quashed that tactic when they decided to limit all extra charges to a one-time upgrade charge of $87.

Yet, even this stand might not have happened without a trigger. Like in Florida and Nevada, it was individual Mississippi voters who stepped up and pushed renewable energy forward. The stand came after Mississippi Power Company squandered $6.9 billion on an experimental lignite-burning plant costing more than Mississippi’s entire 2014 and 2015 annual budgets. Enraged voters busted the three-person public service commission that approved the construction of the plant and replaced its two corporate-friendly members with two very angry people who made utility company acrimony the basis of their campaigns. The refurbished commission wrenched an ignored net metering docket out of limbo and had it before power companies to sign before their chairs were warm.

A second Mississippi power company, Entergy Mississippi, signed onto its own consumer-friendly net metering agreement with the commission in August. The company appears supportive of the measure, despite the PSC approving a generous electricity buyback rate, and solar lease and renter options, against Entergy’s recommendations.

“We believe our customers should have the choice to self-generate electricity for their own use and should also have the ability to provide excess energy to the distribution grid and be credited for such energy on their electric bill,” said Entergy spokeswoman Mara Hartmann.

Miller said power companies still might have revolted had a timely legal settlement not dragged pack leader MPC to the negotiating table. The company’s recent settlement with the Mississippi Sierra Club restricts it from opposing solar-friendly net metering policies and lobbying Mississippi legislators against those policies. Miller said commission turnover and the settlement provided a perfect one-two punch that knocked the teeth out of every tactic power companies successfully exploited in other states.

“The power companies took too much this time, and we were able to use that against them,” Miller said. “You know what they say: A young pig gets fed, but a fat pig gets slaughtered.”

Five Ways the Paris Agreement can Address Oversupply of Fossil Fuels

Originally posted on

Written by Michael Lazarus, Harro van Asselt

The World Energy Outlook 2016, released last week, is just one among an increasing line of studies showing how nations need to slow and, ultimately, phase out investment in new fossil fuel supply infrastructure – from oil fields and pipelines to coal mines – if they are serious about keeping warming to 2C or less.

At the same time, Norway is making licenses available for offshore drilling in the Arctic. New pipelines from the Canadian oil sands would enable the export greater amounts of highly polluting oil. The Australian government has approved large new coal mines to supply the Asian market. These types of investments only make economic sense in a future with 4–5C of warming.

While these and other governments have adopted nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement that promise to reduce their own territorial emissions, their plans are silent on slowing the production and export of fossil fuels. “Fossil fuels” still seem to be taboo words at the UN climate talks.

Yet as evidenced by the packed room and intense discussion at a side-event we co-hosted at the Marrakech climate change conference, there is growing recognition that the oversupply of fossil fuels is an urgent problem. And although the Marrakech talks skirted the topic, the Paris Agreement does offer opportunities to limit future fossil fuel production. Here are five ways to do so:

First, governments can use the agreement’s overarching goal to keep warming “well below 2C” as the basis for a “climate test” to be applied to major new permit requests or proposed investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Are these projects consistent with a 2C pathway, or will they make it harder to reach by making fossil fuels cheaper and creating new vested interests in continued production?

We have the tools and techniques for such a test, and some US government agencies have even begun using them – most notably in the review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the programmatic Environmental Impact Statement process for the federal coal leasing program.

At the international level, a similar test could be applied as part of the “facilitative dialogue” to be held in 2018, and the five-yearly “global stocktakes” starting in 2023. Countries could be asked to report on existing and planned fossil fuel production, so the parties can assess whether, as a whole, this is in line with global climate goals.

Second, parties to the Paris Agreement can incorporate trajectories for fossil fuel production and investment as they prepare low-emission development strategies to 2050, as called for in the agreement. For example, studies suggest that to stay below 2C, the US would need to cut aggregate fossil fuel production by 40–60% from current levels by 2040.

Third, parties can integrate fossil fuel production phase-out targets, as well as policies and measures to constrain investment in fossil fuel supply, into their next round of NDCs. A good start would be to pledge to remove the tens of billions of dollars in direct taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

A forthcoming paper from the Stockholm Environment Institute and EarthTrack shows that in the US, in particular, production subsidies can spur otherwise uneconomic investment, lead to significant added emissions, and also transfer taxpayer resources to company profits.

Other potential measures to consider are moratoria on new coal mines, such as those that China and Indonesia have already enacted (on a temporary basis), or coal export taxes and royalty increases that others have suggested. Although countries’ own domestic emissions may not be significantly affected by such measures, NDCs could indicate the global emissions benefits provided by reducing fossil fuel supply.

Fourth, to further encourage supply-side action, parties should support the adoption of new emissions accounting approaches that make it easier for countries to measure and claim credit for supply-side actions. One possible approach is extraction-based accounting, a very simple way to calculate and track the emissions associated with the fossil fuels produced in a given country. This would be a valuable complement (though not alternative) to the territorial accounting used to date.

A fifth, crucial step that governments can take is to actively support a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy for communities (and countries) that now depend on fossil fuel production. As Samantha Smith, director of the Just Transition Centre, stressed at another side-event we co-hosted, this requires close engagement with communities to build trust and plan together for a different future, backed by strong investment.

On an international level, it is important to recognize that countries with fossil fuel resources have not benefited equally from extraction activities to date, nor will they be affected equally by future production constraints. Some countries are counting on fossil fuel revenue to fund basic development. They may need additional international finance to support a low-carbon transition.

The “response measures” track of the climate negotiations has the mandate to address these concerns. While in the past it has been used by petro-states as a vehicle for obstructing the negotiations, it is increasingly starting to focus on the need for economic diversification and just and orderly transitions, particularly in developing countries.

The Marrakech talks may not have tackled the gap between global climate goals and fossil fuel production, but individual governments don’t need to wait to show leadership.

Great again?

Dear Friend,

This is a season of nostalgia for many of us, with traditions of meal and memory sharing helping to erase the distance of miles and years. Yet this year’s homecoming is set against a discordant backdrop of unseasonable warmth and record financial, environmental, social, and political uncertainty. Nostalgia also played a key role in our recent elections, where it was clear that many people were hankering after another kind of country, one where their jobs and societal structures were familiar and certain.

What does it mean to make America great again? For some of us, a great society is one which assumes the rights of all of us to safety and physical security. Greatness also assumes shared responsibility and commitment for the health of our communities and our planet. This kind of greatness has no limits, and fosters creativity, connection, and personal growth. Contrarily, any greatnessthat relies on fear, hatred, and greed runs into limits of all kindsincluding the limits to physical and emotional growth.

Our recent conference was a celebration of interconnectivity and an examination of how we can creatively and constructively respond to our physical limits. From carbon farmer David Brandt expressing his pride in his regenerated soils to Richard Heinberg sharing what a renewable- energy economy might look like, the sessions mirrored back to all of us the excitement and agency possible when we forthrightly face up to the transitions we need to make. Keynote Nicole Foss began the weekend suggesting that we put our hands and hearts in our communities, and in session after session, we heard from those who are leading the waythrough new economic structures like workers cooperatives and public banks, through regenerative land use practices and decentralized energy systems, through reconnection with nature and with each other.

The conference was structured around our new strategic focus on Resilient Communities. Resilience has entered the political and academic lexicon as a definition of a person or entity that is capable of “bouncing back” after disastrous events. Since we are in the middle of a variety of long emergencies, we need to expand the idea of resilience into a state of preparation and readiness for the various dislocations we face. Rather than focusing on stasis or a return to life as we knew it, resilience suggests that we continually re-examine our definitions of assets and what we need to live a healthy life.

Thankfully we have many local, historical, and international models to draw from. Our current film, The 100 Year Plan, examines three societies that have high human development coupled with low ecological footprintsCuba, Kerala State in India, and Slovenia. The message of director Jim Merkel is that 100 years of small families and small footprints could help regenerate the planet.

In addition to our media and conferences, our work on building resilience centers on Regenerative Land Use, Community Economics, Energy Democracy, and “Being the Change.” From foodshed analyses through developing community economic incubators and new educational programs, we are in this work for the long term. It may seem paradoxical to focus on structural change when the world isliterally and politicallyon fire. Yet planning is what we need to ensure that we get the world we want. Arthur Morgan started our organization on the eve of World War II when the world was similarly in a dark place. One of Morgan’s main tenets was the need for vision and planning in the creation of healthy communities.

We are dreaming now not for a nostalgic past, the contours of which continue to recede, but for a resilient future for all who share our planet.

Please help us sustain our expanded programming by giving generously today. We look forward to building with you.

With best wishes for a peaceful and abundant holiday season,


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Susan Jennings Executive Director

Why I'm Not Devastated

Written by  Erik Lindberg

Originally posted on

Actually I am a bit devastated, but not nearly as much as most people from my liberal neck of the woods, mainly because I am lucky enough to have stumbled, about eight years ago, into a world of political activism that lives beyond the current political divide.  Around 2:30 last night when I rolled over and emerged from my safe world of dreams, I made the mistake of rousing myself enough to check the results.  When I had gone to bed Trump was giving Clinton a scare, but all the big states except Ohio had yet to be called.  Certainly this couldn’t actually happen.  When I turned on my laptop in the wee hours and saw the sea of red—Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, even Pennsylvania--the air seemed suddenly sucked from the room and I was struck with that terrible sick feeling that so many others felt at some point last night.  I tried to fall back asleep, but couldn’t.  I read an article from Politico, turned to The Nation on line, checked in on Facebook.  No solace.  Too soon for reflection.   Then I lay in bed looking at the ceiling, breathing slowly and deliberately, breathing out the excited emotions, reflecting upon our country, our past, our shaky present, and our uncertain future with as much understanding as I could muster, freeing myself slowly from reactive fear and anger.

This midnight moment of self-liberation was, I think, much easier for me than most people outside of the deep sustainability world, largely because of an alternative view of history it has provided me, and thus very different expectations for the present and future than I used to have.  I am often misunderstood to be saying that partisan politics don’t matter, which is not actually the case.  Rather, I spend a fair amount of effort thinking about how much they matter, while suggesting that other things may be of far greater import.  The election of Trump is, of course, terrible short-term news, particularly for a number of Americans that aren’t pictured in Trump’s America, and may bring additional pain and suffering not only to us, but those living in lands far away.  I’m thinking, here, of my friend who asked, “what will happen to my health care”; of all the immigrant laborers whose invisible work is far too likely to go unnoticed; of my Muslim neighbor, who appeared utterly drained this morning as he backed his car out of his garage; and, finally, of the people living in embattled lands who may become victims of a Trump-ordered air-strike.

But there is also a crucial existential aspect to Presidential elections, and especially this one and I think it is too easy for us to paint a self-admiring picture of ourselves in which ourpolitical alignments are rational and magnanimous and our outrage mainly policy driven.  For our politics are reflections of our identities, our hopes and dreams, and it is important to remember that these contain a lot of projection, on the one hand, and, on the other, are ruefully curtailed by a two-party system.   Just like any Trump supporter, however, we are frightened that our country won’t look like us or think like us.  We are afraid that it may speak a different language, in this case a course and belligerent one, rather than one originating in a different country.  I think my sister captured the existential facet best.  I spoke with her a week ago, when a Clinton victory seemed a near-certainty.  Even then, the mere rise of Trump, she explained, had forced her to look at the painful truth that we are not the country we had believed ourselves to be. 

I understood her very well, for I had come to the same conclusion; only because of the reading, activism, and emotional work that I had been forced to perform when I happened by chance upon the Transition Movement about 8 years ago, it had happened far sooner and much more gradually.  I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to reflect in relative peace and quiet, without the sound and fury of a political circus being performed above.  Like many in the “deep sustainability” world, then, I had already begun the difficult and painful reworking of my hopes and expectations to fit the world, I think, we actually live in.  From this perspective, Trump was not a surprise; rather he was an unwelcome sign of a terrible sickness with which, I had come to believe over the course of several years we, as a culture and society, are afflicted—all of us, not just those who reached for the Trump lever with anger, hate, and despair.

History Without Two Sides

As even a brief reflection on any political campaign can reminds us, politics is about story, about the narrative of where we came from and where we might expect to go, especially if we select the right people or ideas to lead us.   But for a while, now, I have been considering the world from a standpoint beyond the world of partisan rivalry, about which I will say more below, but instead from the standpoint of resource depletion, climate instability, human displacement, and economies that have reached the limits of growth without ever figuring how to maintain an equilibrium according to which everybody might just get enough.   Taking these seriously has forced me to assemble me a far different narrative than the common American political ones[i]—ones which ignore the impact on our daily lives that changes in the very basic features of a global human and natural ecology have wrought and will bring in far greater measure in years to come.

Although the way I would specifically narrate this history has a number of crucial sources, none is more important than John Michael Greer’s theory of the expansion and contraction of societies, or as he calls it, “Catabolic Collapse.”[ii]  Although he employs a good deal of historical evidence, the rise and fall of past empires never too far out of sight, Greer’s theory stands out as history of the present.  Far better than aspirational histories, according to which our dreams may come true if only we make the right choices, Greer can explain a broader range of phenomena as well as the frustration aspirational histories have been experiencing for the past forty years or so when someone attempt to make them materialize in the form of a new morning in America.   

Greer’s theory is one of rise and fall, growth and decline.  Following the work of anthropologist Joseph Tainter, Greer focuses on the way complex societies build and maintain their complexity by way of growth and expansion, for the simple reason that maintaining complexity is expensive and needs a constantly expanding supply of resources, especially as it becomes necessary to service an impossibly complex web of high-maintenance infrastructure.  Thus do empires on the rise constantly acquire additional territory and, often, more slaves, just as economies are always on the prowl for new markets.  But this expansion can only go on so long, whether actual territory is at stake, or whether we are talking about the increasingly rapid use of energy to turn raw materials into usable and sellable stuff.  As Greer explains it, “The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call ‘primitive societies’ – that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure – usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn’t become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society’s stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can’t be covered by the resources on hand.”

 At this point, the civilization begins to collapse.  They don’t collapse simply because of bad decisions by their leaders; and certainly not because a Trump was chosen over a Clinton; rather they collapse because they were never sustainable in the first place.  As Greer explains it, “the problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable increase, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.”  This has never been as more the case than with the current American economic empire, and a global economy that is forged in its image.  Our current order of things is drawing down upon a finite savings account of non-renewable natural resources, that simply won’t be available to future generations, while at the same time using up renewable resources faster than they can regrow.  Our prosperity and our power has always been based on them and the false promise that more will be available every year.  Closer to home, Americans require about one quarter of the world’s energy, natural resources, and finished industrial products to maintain our way of life.  It is no wonder we spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, for only such a show of force could keep this imbalance in place.

When people think of the collapse of civilizations, they usually involve images of rapid events that occur overnight or over the span of several weeks or months.  Think, for example, of “The Day After Tomorrow” or “The Walking Dead.”  As Greer explains, in our experience of history as history time is “foreshortened,” such that we forget that the Great Depression developed over about four years of ups and downs and not on one memorable day in October, that the Roman Empire took centuries to collapse and there was no grand dramatic moment of indifferent violin playing, that the French Revolution occurred over a span of thirty years, a time during which entire lives were lived, often with a great deal of mundane normalcy.   The catabolic collapse of America, then, is something Greer expects to play out over the course of a century.  

Part of the reason it takes so long for complex civilizations to collapse is that they do adjust to immediate crises, even if they are unable to manage a longer view of their future.  In this way do societies in decline manage crises “of rising maintenance costs” by cutting those costs.  It is these cost-cutting responses to crises, it seems to me, where Greer’s explanatory power is most relevant to the recent American experience, and the experience fresh (if misunderstood) in the minds of many Trump supporters.  As Greer describes it, “the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That’s rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff.”  Collapse, then, is “not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses. The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.”

Put in more concrete historical terms, one need only survey the past forty years of American history and see the way we have bounced from crisis, to partial solution and back to crisis again, starting with the Arab Oil Embargo, which coincided with the peaking of American domestic oil production, and ending most recently with the housing crash of 2008.  In each recovery, however, a major part of American infrastructure has been neglected, and a significant class of Americans have been kicked into the nearest dumpster of political invisibility.  Each recovery brings us an America with more income inequality, a smaller middle class, and a lot more tarnish.  Although some of us may come to accept third world healthcare in our big cities, or in rural enclaves, as a new kind of normal, almost unremarkable because of its sometimes gradual appearance in a place we keep mainly out of sight, what is left of the American middle class is able to maintain its illusions of progress as society eliminates all sorts of other services.  Thus do we build a new stadium in the suburbs, while entire sections of major cities become modern ghost-towns and while bridges and roads go unrepaired.

But the memory of those who have been pushed into the dumpster of American society sometimes lives on long after it has been downsized or offshored.  This is especially true, it appears, with white Americans living in rural areas who have emerged, under Trump’s awful tutelage, as a self-conscious political class.  Granted, many Trump supporters are themselves not desperately poor, but they live in circumstances that have limited prospects for the future and, I think, are experienced in sharp contrast to the picture of itself painted by educated urban America.  This is why the current election, even had the results been different, reveals the stairstep sequence of decline described by Greer.  We are a country of indifference and neglect in which some people want only to lash out at some sort of establishment, while the establishment can hardly imagine itself as such, while our ears ring false but nevertheless continue to ring with tales of progress, and affluence, and the promise that you should always expect more. 

Imagine that you were tasked as some sort of creative writing project to describe the people and institutions within a society that is in the midst of a long and slow, ragged and unstoppable decline.  It is not unlikely that you might describe a world with deep social fault-lines, government institutions that no longer work as designed, and economy that cannot keep its promises.  You might imagine its military entangling itself in foreign misadventures without the competence and clout that the citizenry had come to expect, while a restive world that looks on with both admiration and despair chafes against the rules that were always against them.  You might, of course, imagine the rise of demagogues who would manipulate the fears of a bewildered people.  Indeed, how could you not, eventually, imagine a Trump or someone like him, giving an easy angry voice to the soon to be dispossessed.


Trump’s America, Our America

Let me admit in advance that this simplifies some complex issues, but one is not entirely off-base to see the just-concluded election like this: from within the context of a slowly eroding society, we were given two choices.  Clinton represents a shrinking middle-class elite (among which me and my very moderate liberal friends have a difficult time seeing ourselves, even though statistics on mean and median income bare it out, not to mention immense reserves of cultural capital) that has managed to maintain the basic contours of a middle class lifestyle complete with expanding horizons, or the intact and still believeable fantasy of them.  Trump, strangely of course, represents a broad group of people who have either been downsized along with lowering surpluses and shrinking margins, or clearly see the writing on the wall of their overly-mortgaged homes.  America does not offer them anything resembling the future they were promised.  That Trump gives voice to this group in the most awful way, and offers nothing more than slogans, scapegoating, and silly simplistic solutions does nothing to diminish the historical changes that have given a menace like him such an eager and receptive audience.  For like all empires in decline, the urban centers of power and influence in our society have been sucking the lifeblood out of an American periphery that these centers now, because of Trump, feel more licensed to hate and disregard than ever.

From the perspective of a contracting civilization, Trump, or someone like him (perhaps even worse) was entirely predictable.  I have been waiting for him—with dread, yes, but also without surprise.  I have thus been able to ready myself for him and the truths he reveals about our fracturing and eroding society.  I have had eight years to prepare for such an event.  The historical perspective I share is not meant to be immediately comforting.  As I mentioned, I am not devastated mainly because I worked through this devastation, felt it, already.  Yes, compared to many Americans I remain physically safe with relative security.  There is value, however, in accepting and understanding and then awaking to a new world of action.   But I want to say another word about our contracting nation and, more significantly, its stories.  For regardless of political affiliation, there is one official story about America: that it cannot contract.  If it does, then someone or something is to blame.  Given the reality of life in an empire that has reached its peak, or of living in a nation that consumes a quarter of the world’s resources, this is just about as bad a narrative as one can imagine.   There is no telling to what depths it might descend, nor how many Trumps it might create.

The standard political explanation for the taste and texture of politics and society today—our threadbare infrastructure and dysfunctional public deliberation, an economy that won’t grow the way economists claim it “should,” increasing hostility from both the far reaches of our economic empire and from the neglected hinterland of our country—is, of course that the other side is responsible for this.  This is a story that Democrats and Republicans tell with a remarkable degree of symmetry, real differences notwithstanding.  As pundits ceaselessly declare, we are a divided nation, but I seldom witness any recognition that this division refers to something more significant than the mere fact that two sides have different belief systems.  In our divided nation each side blames the other.  Someone—you!—has taken my American dream from me, each side says.  Both sides thus need each other and are locked in a dysfunctional relationship of mutual dependence.  What ever would we do if we didn’t have Reagan, Dan Quale, W, Palin, and now most outrageously, Trump, to hold responsible for the mess we are in?  We would, of course, have to look at ourselves.

The strength of the single American political story is remarkable, even as its credulity is tested year after slowly crumbling year.  Educated liberals are able to see directly through Trump’s story about making America great again.  But do these same people really believe that Clinton has some magic way to reverse years of job loss, deindustrialization, disenfranchisement?  Have you looked at a rustbelt city, driven over Gary Indiana on the freeway, or through the miles upon miles of Milwaukee (where the GMC plant once stood) beyond the sliver of prosperity sitting along the lake?   All this is not going to be made great again.  Our IPhones are not going to save us.   Clinton is not going to discover a hidden trove of low-hanging fruit, an untapped market of new cheap labor or of eager and moneyed consumers ready to buy more of the crappy stuff and junky culture that we market and sell, but can’t even make ourselves.  The coal mines are not coming back, Trump’s promises notwithstanding.  But neither is sort of sudden and unrepeatable consumer expansion that returns us to the 1964 poised for reemergence in our political fantasies.  No one is going to discover a way to grow the global economy at 3% per year without, at the same time, devastating the planet’s environment and ecology.  Clinton doesn’t have some magic new way forward or path into the future.  That little of this is noticed can of course be explained by the disgusting and repellent personality of Trump.  But it also has much to do with, I don’t know, an intellectual laziness, some strange willingness to stand in line and accept a political identity stamped with Republican or Democrat, or signed with the name Trump, Clinton, or maybe Sanders, Rubio, or Bush; is it because outrage is such an easy, and initially delicious emotion?

In an article written for The Nation on line, Joan Walsh grieved Trump’s victory, but suggested that it is mainly a temporary roadblock to progress.  “The world represented by the Obama-Clinton coalition is still the country we are becoming; a Trump victory can only postpone it.”[iii]  I see her point and it has some merit.  There is good reason to believe that there are demographic and broadly unstoppable social forces which will continue to chip away at racism, sexism, and homophobia.  The election of Trump doesn’t change that.  But it terms of all the other issues at play, I see things in the opposite.  Clinton’s unflinching support for business as usual would take us only more slowly to a place perhaps speeded by Trump’s victory.  I do have real and substantial trepidation that certain dangers may, suddenly, be knocking at the door.  But the existential transition--the acceptance that this is our world and this is what we must now concern ourselves with managing—this is something different.  I know, I know. The obvious response will be “easy for you to say, middle-class white boy living in Shorewood.”  True, perhaps, but still again not that easy, for there is a lot of intellectual and emotional work in these words—but still words thought and written in safety, I realize.  And if so, if it is still easy for me to say it, I’d better say it while I can because once lost, sympathy and understanding are difficult to regain.

So what if, to the extent we live in a place where we can, we turn disappointment and bitterness into deep, perhaps sad, reflection?  What if we give our available political choices what is due, but refuse to allow partisan politics to dominate our political consciousness, while refusing, in turn, to let our political consciousness dominate a deeper and more earnest will to understand and make sense of things?   The division of the world into two parties, two belief systems, two sides (the “other one” making life miserable for “us”) dominates not only our sense of reality, but our very sense of possibility.  It gives us false hopes for quick and easy changes that require almost nothing of us, and then turns them into unnecessary hate and anger.  We are not at the fork of the road in Frost’s widely misunderstood poem, with history hanging in the balance; we are all lost, together, in the great forest of American bewilderness. 

When one begins to look beyond all the manufactured choices and options, we might begin to accept the fact that we are part of a great and sprawling, out-of-control system whose interconnected parts and personalities cannot be isolated, rather than as a good-guy victim attempting to make things right (or great) again.   While we cannot rebuild our empire to its previous heights (nor, should we want to if we care a shred about the atmosphere or remember Iran, Chile, United Fruit, The Bay of Pigs, the Contras, Viet Nam, Iraq, and all our other propping andnation building misadventure), there are a number of ways we can inhabit our ongoing contraction.  If we put our hopes in the likes of Clinton (or Obama for that matter) and their own stories about making America great again, we can hope for little better than the likes of Trump.  Our electoral system and, I would add, the fetishization of partisan politics, makes it too easy to evade responsibility (“I didn’t vote for him”); but our lives here on Earth and among each other are far more complicated and demand far more responsibility than that.   I sure would have like to see Hillary save us from Trump.  But then the question would still have remained: who is going to save us from Clinton and her ultra-affluent team marketers and financiers, all determined to keep America more or less the way it is now.

If, on the other hand, we tell a new story, take responsibility for our affluence and the resources it requires, seek national forgiveness for the theft of our land and the slaves we stole to build it out and develop it for our comfort today, consider with compassion the lives of the coal miners or steel workers or family farmers who have been discarded like so much trash in the face of a globalist middle class march of progress—then, just maybe, we can find a way to live with peace and dignity.  This, at any rate, is why I write.  So that others with the capacity to think historically, in terms of systems and structures, with an understanding of the power of impersonal forces might, for a moment here and there, take a step back from their self-assigned role in our system and maybe, if nothing else, bear witness to who we are, what we have done, and where we are going.

My thoughts following the election

Written by  Richard Heinberg

Originally posted on

Dear Friend,

America has plunged into the unknown. Why? Robert Parry has nailed it about as well as anyone. I leave it to him, and a thousand other pundits, to perform the post-mortem on yesterday’s surprising election results. What’s important now is to size up the situation and decide how to move on.

On the good side: Under a Trump presidency, there is likely to be no war with Russia, as might well have occurred if Clinton had prevailed. The TPP is hopefully dead, and the U.S. can be expected to move toward at least some post-globalization trade policies. The neoliberals’ dominance of the Democratic Party suffered a grievous and perhaps fatal blow. Millions of Americans who have felt ignored by the Washington and Wall Street elites now feel they have a voice. Even though foreign relations and trade policy will likely be in the hands of business-friendly Republican apparatchiks who will ultimately throw working people overboard with giddy glee, regular middle-Americans will be able to reassure themselves that at least “their guy” is in charge. Maybe things could be worse; after all, as my friend Ugo Bardi has pointed out, Italy survived 20 years of Berlusconi.

On the bad side: There will be no more federal support for climate action or research, for environmental protection (the EPA will be gutted), or for alternative energy. All federal lands will be opened up for oil, gas, and coal exploration. Most of Yellowstone will be paved over as a parking lot for a new Trump resort (okay, I’m kidding—a little). With the Executive Branch, Congress, and Supreme Court all dominated by the same party, there will be no brakes on efforts to defund government agencies, or overturn regulations of all kinds (on guns, banks, workplace safety, you name it). Having witnessed Trumpism’s success, a new generation of politicians will adopt the tactics of utterly demonizing their opponents. It’s hard to see how civility can return anytime soon. These will be dire times for women and minorities.

The pundits rightly see the election as a repudiation of the establishment. But who will actually be running things in the months ahead? Mostly, the same old revolving-door lobbyist-officials. When the next economic crisis hits, the entire country will face a rude awakening, and mere tough talk won’t do much to actually keep food on the tables of anxious Iowans or Missourians. Rather than admit that he can’t actually make America great again, expect Trump to line up the scapegoats. And rather than admit that “their guy” is incompetent or wrong, expect many Trump supporters to hoist the modern equivalent of pitchforks (for which background checks will no longer be required).

Crises won’t go away because government refuses to acknowledge or address them. Climate change, resource depletion, and over-reliance on debt are wolves at the door. In light of all this, Post Carbon Institute’s organizational strategy continues to make sense: Build resilience at the community level.

For the time being, national policy-based action on climate and other environmental issues is a closed door. But the most promising responses to our twenty-first century crises are showing up at the community level anyway. It’s in towns and cities across the nation, and across the world, where practical people are being forced to grapple with weird weather, rising seas, an unstable economy, and a fraying national political fabric. Whatever workable strategies are likely to be found will arise there. We see our job as helping that adaptive process however we can. This is not about winning; there is no finish line, no election day. Just a new opportunity each morning to encourage, educate, and build.

If you haven’t already, join us. You're needed.

Richard Heinberg

First Statewide Carbon Tax Is What Our Climate Moment Demands

Written by Richard H. Gammon

Originally posted on

Being on the front lines of climate science research, I have struggled with how to share my fears about climate change publicly. But when I think about the future of my 7-year-old granddaughter, Hazel, I am compelled to speak out, because frankly, I find the climate science predictions terrifying.

One of the things you have to know about scientists is that we’re not always the best educators or public speakers. Most of us joined the field because we like finding out how the world works, hunkering down and doing good science. We research, we publish, and we largely leave it to others to explain what it all means for society—but many of us who work in climate science feel as though we’ve been ringing the alarm bells on global warming for decades with nobody paying attention.

Well, we can’t afford to do that anymore. At this eleventh hour, we need to take bold action to staunch the unchecked flow of carbon emissions that are overheating our planet and rapidly destabilizing the environmental systems on which all life depends for survival.

As the planet has been heating up, massive ice sheets at both polar caps are melting faster, causing sea level rise to accelerate. With roughly a third to a half of the global population living close to sea level, there will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees over the next century and a half. The oceans have been absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted from our burning of coal, oil, and natural gas forming carbonic acid and becoming more acidic.

In Washington, my home state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has warned that “Puget Sound has some of the world’s most corrosive waters … so corrosive that they are eating away at larval oyster shells before they can form.” Animals that have evolved over millions of years are now going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate. According to Audubon research, more than half of North America’s bird species are at risk due to climate change. And, because climate change makes weather variations more extreme, we are seeing more frequent and severe wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and flooding across the globe.

Even if we were to somehow, miraculously, halt all of our carbon dioxide emissions this minute, we would still see dramatic climate changes for generations. The effects of climate change will be long-lasting and devastating both to society and the natural world.

So what can be done?

First of all, we must put a price on CO2, which would slow the warming more effectively than any other policy tool we have available. Putting CO2 into the atmosphere is not free, we just have not been paying the real cost.

Washington state has a proposal on the November ballot which would do just that. Initiative 732 puts a stable, predictable, and rising price on carbon, and it uses the money raised to make our state tax system fairer and more progressive. I-732 will ensure that those most impacted will receive the most financial relief. It makes the money polluters pay to lower the state sales tax a full percentage point, which benefits everyone. It lowers some business taxes to keep jobs in the state, and it invests $1 billion over the first six years in direct checks of up to $1,500 annually to 460,000 low-income working families through a 25 percent match of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has already made implementing a carbon tax a national priority. One early adopter, British Columbia, implemented a carbon tax in 2008 and has seen decreases in its greenhouse gas emissions from 5 to 15 percent while its economy has grown at a faster pace that the rest of Canada. This demonstrates why economists say the “holy grail” of climate policy is to put a price on carbon.

The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank, analyzed I-732 and stated that it would “put wind in the sails of Washington’s clean energy economy as nothing else possible,” and called it “the biggest improvement in the progressivity of Washington’s state tax system in 40 years.” The New York Times said it could set an example for other states to follow.

I recently joined more than 50 of my fellow scientists at the University of Washington who signed an open letter endorsing this initiative. James Hansen, one of the most celebrated climate scientists in the world, endorsed I-732, saying it would make the price of fossil fuels more “honest,” by more accurately reflecting their costs to society. Until it is no longer free to dump CO2 into the atmosphere, the climate impacts will continue, with compounding, and long-lasting effects.

The hour is late, and we have an inescapable moral responsibility to leave our children and grandchildren a cleaner, healthier, safer world. 

The most powerful word in politics is 'no'

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on Resource Insights

I always advise candidates with whom I consult to find something to which they can say "no" and to say "no" to it often. I am neither being perverse nor merely negative. I am being realistic. The most powerful word in politics is "no."

It is a testament to the power of "no" that a U.S. presidential candidate 1) who is a billionaire and reality TV star, 2) who has never held elective office, 3) who appears to have very little policy knowledge, 4) who has inveighed against the threat of all Muslims and immigrants in general, 5) who has demonstrated distasteful and dismissive conduct toward women, 6) who has bankrupted companies he controlled several times, 7) who has called his opponent a crook with frequency, 8) who has run an underfunded and disastrously disorganized, undisciplined campaign, 9) who has demonstrated a thin skin through narcissistic fits of anger during live television debates and 10) who claims publicly that the election has been rigged to prevent him from winning--that candidate, Donald Trump, is running neck and neck in the polls with an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has virtually every advantage.

Make no mistake about it. Donald Trump is the candidate of "no." In this race he represents "no" to the established political order of both parties. (Whether he would be that "no" in actual practice is an open question.)

If I had read you the above list of 10 items a year ago describing a presidential nominee for a major party and told you that that candidate would be virtually tied with his establishment opponent right before the election, you and most everyone within earshot would have had a good laugh. But here we are.

More often than not voters seek to vent their spleens when they vote. There is always something to be angry about, and the easiest thing in the world to do is to express anger. We humans are made for it. It is an instinctual response meant to warn others. Expressing it as voters has the added benefit of giving us a feeling of power. Voting is one of few arenas where the average person has the same say as the richest billionaire.

(The corollary to anger in this context is fear. And, while people often vote their fears, the way they tend to articulate their reasons for voting their fears is through the expression of anger.)

America's elites are puzzled about why there is so much anger among the electorate this year. Those elites are out of touch with the damage that the globalizing economy has inflicted on rural and small-town America. They are out of touch with a population whose incomes have stagnated or declined since the Great Recession. They are out of touch with people who have simply given up looking for work and are therefore no longer counted among the unemployed.

One might make the case that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee for president, he might be far ahead of Donald Trump given Sanders' consistently high polling numbers versus Trump. But part of Sanders' secret is his ability to harness the power of "no." "No" to big bankers. "No" to barons of industry. "No" to unfair trade deals. Still, Sanders had more than just the word "no." He had a plan for addressing the damage done to middle-class families by the powerful. Sanders had a "yes" as well.

Clinton often seems as removed from the suffering masses as the elites I described above. I understand that her temperament would never have allowed her to growl like Sanders or Trump. But she has not been able to find a definitive "no" in an election that is turning out to be all about "no," either "no" to the establishment or "no" to Donald Trump.

When Chile's implacable dictator, Augusto Pinochet, made himself subject to a plebiscite in 1988 to determine whether he would continue as president for another eight years, he handed his opposition the most powerful word in politics. The "No" campaign has become famous and has been chronicled in a film of the same name. Pinochet lost, and the "No" campaign effectively ended his rule.

Not every important issue lends itself to "no." The "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign never made much of a dent in illicit drug use. Saying "no" to climate change--that is, telling people how terrible it will be in order to get them to act to prevent and mitigate it--has not been a very fruitful strategy. Instead, climate change deniers have styled climate change as a hoax, and have, in a sense, taken over the "no" position.

In order for "no" to work well in public discourse, it helps to have a villain to whom you are saying "no": rich bankers, dictators, "evil" political opponents, foreigners. "No," when used against an amorphous atmospheric problem such as climate change, falls flat. Vilifying coal and oil company executives works much better. We want to say "no" to somebody specific.

The problem with "no" is that when it is not paired with a "yes" in some form, it leads to nothing more than the politics of anger. Entire political movements can be fueled for a long time on anger. But very little positive change can be accomplished unless there is ultimately something to say "yes" to that will unite the disparate chorus of "no," the members of which don't automatically agree on solutions.

Beware of the "no"-mongers who offer you no comprehensible and feasible path to "yes." They just want to keep your anger alive for their own gain and that of the powerful vested interests they represent.

One more thing: Solving the problems behind the "no" would actually undermine the power of the "no"-mongers. That's why they don't ever actually try to solve them.

Return To Joy

Written by Andrew Harvey and Community Solutions fellow Carolyn Baker : Foreword by Francis Weller

Originally posted on

Mythologist Joseph Campbell often returned to a phrase in his teachings that came out of his studies of Buddhism. He said that the principle aim in life is to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” For many of us, we are all too familiar with the sorrow, but rarely do we know how to cultivate joy. This makes our suffering something we attempt to avoid, overcome, or to rise above. There is something in Campbell’s phrase, however, that suggests that joy and sorrow are entangled, forming something akin to a prayer. At this grave time, we are in need of an education of the heart that can once again show us the ways that we may return to joy and be able to hold our suffering, and the suffering of the world, with compassion and generosity.

I have spent many years working with grief. In my writings and workshops, I have seen the wide range of sorrows that we carry in our hearts. Far too often, we are asked to walk with these losses in isolation. When we come together, however, in the company of one another and share these stories of sorrow, something begins to change. And then, in the container of deep ritual, we set our grief down and we return to joy. I have seen this over and over again in our grief ritual gatherings. It may be that we need a village to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.

This is a demanding book. Harvey and Baker reveal the wholesale changes we must make in order to find our way back to joy. We are often enticed to believe that change comes quickly and easily. Just a matter of shifting one’s perspective or thinking positively. In truth, real change is hard won. It demands everything of us, and only a thorough devotion will suffice. Carl Jung said that change requires three things: insight, endurance and action. Insight offers us a new way of seeing, a revised perspective about who we are or how the world works. To hold onto that insight, however, and allow it to ripen, requires endurance. We must be able to stay with the new way of seeing things or it will vanish like last night’s dream. We must keep it in front of us, write about it, dance it, draw it, mull it over with a close friend, meditate on it; whatever we can do to keep our attention focused squarely on the insight. Then, maybe then, the insight will have found a new way to express itself in the world as action. Jung said psychology is involved only in the first stage, that of insight. The second two steps are moral matters. To what will we choose to devote ourselves? What commitments are being asked of us which will enable this insight to deepen into an embodied change?

Return to Joy is a book suffused with moral courage, offering us scores of ways to work with the core insight the book offers which states that “joy is the ultimate nature of reality.” The authors declare that “the true task in life is to uncover this primordial joy in oneself and then live from its peace, energy, radiant purpose and embodied passion.” From this initial revelation, we are asked to take the second step and practice endurance, keeping this insight in front of us. Baker and Harvey say that we must commit everything to this cause. It is because of their steadfast conviction to the work at hand, that I am convinced of their sincerity. The return to joy, it turns out, is not a light matter: It is weighty and requires our ongoing effort. This effort is more of a shedding, however, a letting go of the cultural conditioning that has diminished the wider arc of our lives. Joy, itself, is always available and within our reach. It is, as the authors remind us, the very ground of our being.

We need this book. We need the wisdom and vision that it offers. Baker and Harvey have crafted a concise guidebook capable of reminding us of our deep time inheritance, which is joy. They offer many practices to help us recall that we are creatures shaped for delight, rapture and intimacy. Our entire makeup is designed to drink in the wonder and beauty of this world. But there are many forces that thwart this exchange such as the fact that we live in a “flatline” culture, the rise of the corporate machine, the degradation of the feminine and others. Baker and Harvey look squarely at these forces that oppress our spirit and imprison our minds that often result in an insidious forgetting of who we are, where we belong, and what is sacred. Fortunately for us, they also offer many remedies to this forgetting, an abundance of homeopathic tinctures to help us heal and mend from our long amnesia. Many of them are familiar and ones we might anticipate: beauty, creativity, the Earth, the sacred, but others will surprise us. We are invited to come to joy through conscious grieving, shadow healing, truth- telling and justice-making. Joy comes through many gateways and it is up to us, you and me, to return to joy.

To free the heart, to once again fall in love outwards, as the poet Robinson Jeffers suggests, is at the core of this book. The authors remind us over and over again, that joy is our natural state. It is the true home of the soul. The mystic poet Rumi echoes that statement when he declared the “soul is here for its own joy.” I want that in my life and in the lives of our children, grandchildren, and the wider community; joy that is infectious and that keeps our hearts fed during hard times; joy that enables us to step back from the feeding trough of consumerist society. When joy is present, we are enough, and we have enough. Our incessant emptiness is abated and we can cease the relentless search for more.

We need this book. This is a book that peels back the coverings over our hearts and dares us to touch the world again—to fall in love with moonlight and the blue of the sky, the caress of the wind and the smell of rain. Joy is a gateway to awe, wonder and enchantment, the heart enamored with the beauty of the world. We need this capacity now more than ever. When our hearts are aroused, we find ourselves living in a scintillating world, one riddled with wild and fragrant life. Joy illuminates the shimmering world that is, and we are granted a glimpse of the eternal in the here and now.

We need this book. We need what is found here to help us come home to ourselves, to each other, to the watersheds and the great wheeling galaxies. Joy is our true nature. This is cause for celebration.

Deepwater Horizon and our emerging 'normal' catastrophes

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on

While watching the recently released film "Deepwater Horizon" about the catastrophic well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history, I remembered the term "fail-dangerous," a term I first encountered in correspondence with a risk consultant for the oil and gas industry.

We've all heard the term "fail-safe" before. Fail-safe systems are designed to shut down benignly in case of failure. Fail-dangerous systems include airliners which don't merely halt in place benignly when their engines fail, but crash on the ground in a ball of fire.

For fail-dangerous systems, we believe that failure is either unlikely or that the redundancy that we've build into the system will be sufficient to avert failure or at least minimize damage. Hence, the large amount of money spent on airline safety. This all seems very rational.

But in a highly complex technical society made up of highly complex subsystems such as the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, we should not be so sanguine about our ability to judge risk. On the day the offshore rig blew up, executives from both oil giant BP and Transocean (which owned and operated the rig on behalf of BP) were aboard to celebrate seven years without a lost time incident, an exemplary record. They assumed that this record was the product of vigilance rather than luck.

And, contrary to what the film portrays, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was years in the making as BP and Transocean created a culture that normalized behaviors and decision-making which brought about not an unavoidable tragedy, but rather what is now termed a "normal accident"--a product of normal decisions by people who were following accepted procedures and routines.

Today, we live in a society full of "normal accidents" waiting to happen that will be far more catastrophic than the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. One of those "accidents" is already in progress, and it's called climate change.

People in societies around the globe are doing what they are supposed to be doing, what they routinely do, to stay alive, produce and enjoy what they produce. They do not think of themselves as doing something which is bringing about the biggest "accident" of our time, climate change. No one set out to change the climate. And yet, this is the result of our normalized behavior.

Climate change still appears to many to be building slowly. This summer was hotter than last summer and the one before that. But we've coped. We stay inside in air-conditioning on especially hot days--ironically so, as the fossil fuels making the electricity for the air-conditioner are adding to the warming itself.

It is as if we are all on the Deepwater Horizon just doing our jobs. We notice there are a few things wrong. But, we've dealt with them before, and we can deal with them again. The failures and the breakdowns are accepted as just part of how we do business. And we've managed to avoid anything truly bad up to now. So, we conclude, we must be doing things safely.

Part of the normalization of our response to climate change is the spread of renewable power sources. I have long supported the rapid deployment of renewable power, suggesting that we need the equivalent of a warlike footing to deploy enough to bring about serious declines in fossil fuel use. And, while renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, it is not growing nearly fast enough to meet the challenges of climate change.

And yet, society at large has relaxed into the idea--promoted by the industry--that renewable energy is well on its way to creating a renewable energy society despite the fact that more than 80 percent of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. We have normalized this response as adequate in the public mind. There remains no generalized alarm about climate change.

Certainly, there are scientists, activists and others who are genuinely alarmed and believe we are not moving nearly fast enough. But this alarm has not translated into aggressive policy responses.

The argument that things have worked just fine in the past so there is no reason to believe they won't work out in the future is a well-worn one. And, it seems to be valid because so many people say it is. (Steven Colbert might even say that this assertion has a certain "truthiness" to it.)

But there is a reason that financial prospectuses say that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Likewise, no bad accidents in the past are not a guarantee of no bad accidents in the future. It is in the structure of how we behave that the risks build. The tipping point finally reveals that we have been doing risky things all along.

If you play Russian roulette with a gun having 100 chambers, you won't think that skill had anything to do with the fact that you aren't dead after five pulls. But if you don't know you are playing Russian roulette (hidden dangers with hidden connections), then the fact that you aren't dead after 50 pulls (50 repetitions of the hidden dangerous conduct) won't seem like luck, but simply the result of sound procedure.

Climate change, of course, isn't the only place where we have normalized procedures which appear to be reducing risk, when, in fact, we are increasing it. Our monocrop farms and the small variety of major crops grown on them using modern industrial farming methods are supposed to reduce the risk of major crop losses and thus of famine. In fact, these methods are depleting the soil and undermining its fertility in ways that will ultimately lower farm productivity. And monocrop farming is an invitation to widespread crop loss. Polyculture tends to prevent the spread of devastating plant diseases while monoculture tends to promote that spread.

We can talk about the normalization of industrial fishing as well. It is designed to increase our harvest of food to feed growing human populations thereby reducing our risk of food shortages and giving us another source of nutrition. In fact, industrial fishing practices are threatening the viability of practically every fishery around the world.

In addition, temporarily cheap oil and natural gas are lulling us into a complacency about our energy supplies. Energy depletion that just two years ago seemed to be indicated by high prices is rarely discussed now. We are projecting the current moment into the future and believing that the rising energy price trend of the last 15 years is meaningless.

Practically everything we do to reduce risks to human populations now creates broader, longer term risks that could turn catastrophic. The Slatearticle linked above references the "high-reliability organization." Such organizations which seek to avoid catastrophic failures share certain common characteristics:

1) Preoccupation with failure: To avoid failure we must look for it and be sensitive to early signs of failure.
2) Reluctance to simplify: Labels and clichés can stop one from looking further into the events.
3) Sensitivity to operations: Systems are not static and linear but rather dynamic and nonlinear in nature. As a result it becomes difficult to know how one area of the organization’s operations will act compared to another part.

For our global system as a whole to act like a high-reliability organization, we would have to turn away from technopian narratives that tell us we will always come up with a new technology that will solve our problems including climate change--while forcing us to change our lives very little.

Instead, we would anticipate and scan for possible failure, no matter how small, to give us warning about perils to our survival. There are plenty of signs flashing warnings to us, but we have not fully comprehended their gravity.

When it comes to energy supplies, we are often faced with the simplifying assertions as mentioned above that are designed to prevent us from examining the topic. People in the oil industry like to say that the "resource is huge." They don't tell you that "resource" simply refers to what is thought--on sketchy evidence--to be in the ground. What is actually available to us is a tiny fraction of the resource at today's prices and level of technology.

The effects of the recent bankruptcy of one of the world's largest ocean freight companies have given us a window into the outsized effects of a failure of just a small portion of our complex system of worldwide logistics.

If we had run our society as a high-reliability organization, we would have heeded warnings made decades ago. I like to tell people that the American public first learned that oil was a finite resource when Clark Gable told them so near the end of the 1940 film "Boom Town," a remarkable speech for the time.

American leadership found out that we would have to make a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy way back in 1954 in Harrison Brown's widely read The Challenge of Man's Future--and, that such a transition would be fraught with peril if not begun early enough.

Other warnings included Limits to Growth in 1972, a book widely misunderstood as predicting rather than modeling our predicament. More recently there was Jared Diamond's Collapse.

In general, what we as a society have chosen to do is to create narratives of invincibility, rather than heed these warnings. We are, in effect, normalizing highly risky behavior.

Perhaps our biggest failure is noted in item three above. We think of the world we live in as static and linear rather than dynamic and nonlinear. That has given us a false sense that things move gradually and predictably in our world, the same false sense that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Mitigating Oligarchy

Originally posted on

Mitigating Oligarchy

Most global citizens are not revolutionaries, so how can we take power from the wealthy without spilling blood in the streets. 

In today’s geo-political corporate capitalist world there’s little separation between wealth, power and governance. Global companies exert power and influence well beyond their market share writing legislation to be rubber stamped by politicians they helped place in office. Together they pillage resources from the commons and push the externalities of their profits on land, sea and air. Still these companies and their cronies are the economic engine that bring so many jobs to our communities. What can we do to mitigate the influence of ruling class?

Get involved in government!

First is to learn about your government and politics. You’ll want to know the key officials and how they came to power. Attend local council meetings. Stay informed on legislation and policy, and once you understand an issue, then it’s time to get involved. When you hear about a policy you don’t like reach out to the officials making that policy. Let them know you’re paying attention. When you see something you like – get behind it. You can share what you find with friends and family that might not yet understand the issues. If you’re lucky to find an issue you feel strongly about you can volunteer your time in support. Vote and encourage others to vote.

Make your strongest actions locally!

Think globally, act locally, is a common refrain and a reminder that our local efforts can have the biggest impact. At the local level citizens can meet their government officials face to face and influence policy. Community groups can form and tackle issues that government is unwilling or slow to act on. Just like retail corporations looking for the hottest trends in consumer spending, savvy politicians are tracking the marketplace of ideas. Successful city policies become state initiatives. Be vocal about policies you support.

Vote with your dollar every day!

Where and how you spend your money matters. Supporting locally owned companies keeps more of the money in your community. Use a local bank. Buy locally made products. When local products aren’t available, shop wisely as each dollar you spend is virtual “vote” for the company that made it. Another option is to buy less stuff. These are all market signals that influence future business decisions. 10 years ago organic food was a fringe category, now it’s the fastest growing segment of the food industry. This change in our food system was driven by consumer demand. Invest in the future with conscious spending.

Today is the 21st! It’s our day to take action toward a better future. Share a bit of what you think makes a better future with your community. 

“More striking still, it appeared that, if the process of concentration goes on at the same rate, at the end of another century we shall have all American industry controlled by a dozen corporations and run by perhaps a hundred men. Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.”
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

Introduction to 'Deface the Currency'

Written by Community Solutions fellow Samuel Alexander

Originally posted on

Below I have posted the table of contents and the introduction to my new book of dialogues, Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes. The book is available here.



Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek philosopher, born in 412 BCE. His father, Hicesias, minted coins for a living, but when Diogenes was a young man both he and his father were embroiled in a scandal and exiled from Sinope for allegedly striking the face off coins. They lost their citizenship and all their possessions, thus initiating Diogenes’ philosophical career as a wandering beggar.

Lore has it that upon being exiled Diogenes traveled to consult the Oracle at Delphi about how to live, and he received the reply: paracharattein to nomisma, a riddle typically translated as ‘deface the currency’. Diogenes interpreted this advice to mean, not that he should deface coins, as such, but that he should deface the ‘coin of custom’, that is, he should expose the folly, vanity, and greed of human conventions and thereby change what people value. In particular, he set out to change the value of money, by showing that it was far less important to the good life and the good society than most people thought.

In that spirit, Diogenes lived a life of staggering material renunciation – a life of voluntary poverty. He embraced such a life in order to show himself and others that a full and flourishing life does not depend on material riches. He slept in a large ceramic barrel – often called a tub – dressed in rags, and possessed only a cup, a staff, and a lantern. He was always ‘barking’ at his contemporaries for living stupid, greedy, unfree lives, for which he earned the title ‘the dog’. Despite his provocative eccentricities, by the time Diogenes died in 323 BCE he was recognized in Athens and beyond as a great philosopher, in an age of great philosophers.

It is thought that Diogenes wrote as many as thirteen dialogues, seven tragedies, a set of letters, and some poetry, although by all accounts none of his writings survive. Diogenes may also have written a political treatise called The Republic – a common title at the time – which described an anarchist utopia founded upon a culture and economy of ‘simple living’ and a politics of ‘self-governance’. Some say that late in his life, at the request of a young friend, he also wrote or dictated a short summary of his philosophy, in the form of six dialogues, collectively entitled Deface the Currency.

Why is it that today none of Diogenes’ writings survive, despite vast literatures from his philosophical contemporaries having survived? Was his vision of a ‘simple living’ utopia so threatening to the vested interests of the time that his books and essays were destroyed? And how is it that almost two and a half millennia after Diogenes died – in an age that needs his ideas more than ever – the present volume of Diogenes’ dialogues have come to light? The answers lie within.

One final note before letting the text speak for itself. Although the following dialogues are set in ancient Athens, one could just as easily imagine them taking place in our own time, with Diogenes being recast as a dumpster-diving homeless man who haunts the shopping malls, and who engages the city Mayor rather than Alexander the Great and a distinguished university professor rather than Plato, and so forth. But whether the protagonist is ancient or postmodern, it is a testament to the depth of Diogenes’ insight into the human situation that his ideas and ways of living can remain so relevant despite the gulf of time that separates us.

Donald Trump and the impossible destination of globalism

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb

Originally posted on

In a recent columnThe New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman shows himself to be as good a spokesman for the world's elites (with whom he often communes) as anyone on Earth. He asks one simple question about Republican presidential candidate and billionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump: How?

Friedman's column-length answer is a catalogue of Trump's puzzling views about NATO and ISIS, his poor command of the major issues, his contradictory statements and his strange embrace of tax avoidance.

What's missing, of course, is the centerpiece of Trump's appeal: his criticism of major trade deals which have devastated entire industries in the United States and destroyed the middle-class jobs that go with them. To the defenders of globalism--and Friedman is one of globalism's fiercest defenders--Trump's criticism is nothing short of heresy.

But the billionaire's bluster embodies the anger that people affected by those deals feel every day. Not a few of them have previously been consistent Democratic voters. Of course, there are plenty of Republicans who are voting for Trump because he is the party's candidate. And, there are plenty of evangelicals and so-called "values voters" supporting him (despite his profligate ways) because his party has traditionally opposed abortion, supported prayer in schools, and fought same-sex marriage.

But disaffected, downwardly mobile American workers are the ones keeping the race very close, a race that few thought would ever be close just a few weeks ago. So strong is the fear of globalism and all that it represents among a certain class of Trump supporters that they readily dismiss mainstream media critiques of his fitness for office and his understanding of policy. Those supporters want to protect what little they have left. And, some want to go back to retrieve what they and their communities--often small and rural ones--have lost to the globalist onslaught in the last two decades. In this desire they are not being irrational.

Now here's the dirty secret about the top four U.S. presidential candidates who regularly appear in national polls. None of them actually rejects globalism. (I'll come back to this later.) At this point I'm finally obliged to say what I mean by the amorphous term "globalism." A friend recently put it into historical perspective and included the resource angle that regular readers must have already suspected I would mention.

With the discovery and then exploitation of fossil fuels on an ever growing scale, societies everywhere were faced with figuring out how to govern a world with ever increasing energy surpluses. Those surpluses made so many new things possible and in doing so led to rapid social and technological change.

We tried laissez-faire capitalism, communism, fascism, democratic socialism and finally globalism which I'll define as the management of worldwide economic activity and growth by large multi-national corporations which have no particular allegiance to any one country or people. Our belief has been that this arrangement is the most rational and efficient. Therefore, trade deals which bring down barriers both to international trade and to the movement of capital and technology across borders are believed to encourage global economic growth. That growth supposedly will ultimately lift the world's poor into the middle class and enrich everyone else while doing it.

Around the time that the fall of communism made possible the uniting of the world's economies into one great global system, we were also discovering that this system was doomed to failure for environmental reasons. Climate scientist James Hansen's testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1988 presaged the many "thousand-year floods" which are hitting the United States and other places around the world, and that is just one of the many emerging and dangerous consequences of climate change. And, climate change is just one of a thicket of interrelated threats including resource depletion, pollution and overuse of groundwater, ocean pollution, overfishing, soil degradation, and toxic pollutants in the air, water and soil.

Contrary to what the apologists for globalism suggest, scale actually matters. One million humans living as we do today would not likely undermine the habitability of the planet, for humans at least. When 7 billion live in this way, our combined effect has made us the dominant force on the planet so much so that we have created a new geologic age named after us: the Anthropocene.

It is now clear that globalism as an engine for an ever growing world economy will lead to catastrophic climate change and other untoward results that will destroy the underpinnings of modern society. In other words, globalism is a suicide pact.

The idea that we can expand globalism to any size we choose was discredited long before now. One version of this fantasy was that the Earth would be able to accommodate U.S.-style consumerism worldwide. But we know that if all residents of the planet consumed like Americans, we would need four Earths to sustain them. Therefore, the destination offered by globalism no longer features prosperity and stability for all, but a ruinous decline. And yet, our politics and our public discourse speak as if we can still go there.

Trump in his rejection of current trade treaties is saying that we need to go back to something else. He says he wants to "make America great again," which, of course, means America's greatness is somewhere in the past. As another friend quipped, implied in Trump's platform is the idea that we can get into a time machine and go back to a past that is more to our liking.

So, it's no surprise that Trump's critics are saying he is backward-looking. The future, those critics say, is an ever more connected global society. But, in such a discussion we are left with only two destinations: We can try to go back to a past which we cannot hope to reconstruct and which, even if we could, would send us in a direction which is considered the opposite of progress.

Or, we can go forward toward globalism's dream of a connected worldwide sphere of material prosperity (and the inevitable ruin this trajectory implies). In our broad public discourse there is no third non-globalism destination for which we have a description and a justification because any such attempt at describing that destination is labeled backward-looking, as merely going back to the past. And, who wants to be accused of that? The accusation tends to end the discussion.

In truth, Trump is not actually proposing a retrograde movement. He merely proposes to renegotiate America's trade deals. That means he embraces the globalist system whether he admits it or not. Hillary Clinton has now said she will oppose the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And, she has supposedly told one union leader she will reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. She, too, continues to embrace globalism, merely wishing to alter its terms.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson wants to lay the groundwork for "massive job growth across the entire country." He believes in reducing regulation to encourage that growth. And, he believes in free trade which is a codeword for embracing globalism.

Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, has a lot in her platform that working people should like. But her call for increased spending on renewable energy, drastic cuts in defense spending and broader protection of human rights probably won't go down well with many whites whose jobs depend on the old fossil-fuel-burning industrial economy, who think military spending is synonymous with security, and who perceive non-whites as competitors in the job market.

Like Trump, Stein would replace current trade deals with new ones that are "fair." Again, we have no explicit rejection of globalism as a system. We will somehow survive that system if only we embrace the "Green New Deal" plan which she proposes.

Bernie Sanders, Clinton's opponent in the Democratic primary, sounds a lot like Stein. He would mitigate the worst aspects of globalism without really challenging its legitimacy. But Sanders did something which Clinton by temperament could not or by choice would not do. Like Trump, Sanders embodied the anger of those injured by globalism.

This is why he consistently polled higher than Clinton in one-to-one matchups with Trump. (Compare Sanders' and Clinton's polling numbers.) Sanders was the candidate who not only displayed his anger at globalism, but also (unlike Trump) had a detailed plan for addressing it. That plan appealed to many Trump voters who could not register that appeal when asked about a Clinton-Trump matchup. But they could register their approval when asked about a Sanders-Trump contest, and they account for Sanders' runaway margins in polls which show him attracting voters who would otherwise support Trump in a contest with Clinton.

It would be political suicide for any serious candidate for the presidency of the United States to announce that economic growth as we know it is over and that we will have to organize our society based on other principles. Just what those principles might be has been articulated by such people as Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists. But then, Daly isn't running for anything.

Even though the idea of a steady-state economy may seem utterly foreign to us after 200 years of unprecedented economic growth, it has become a lived reality for many since even before the 2008 financial crash.

Critical to how we proceed is to understand what is actually slowing down economic growth. Climate change will certainly over time become a huge detriment to economic activity and, if unchecked, is likely to disrupt our modern technical society to such a degree (particularly when it comes to growing food) that it will not survive intact.

Many of the theories about slow growth revolve around financial and demographic constraints. What needs to become part of the discussion are energy limits (see here and here) and pollution limits, particularly on greenhouse gases.

We are now waiting for our politics to catch up to this reality. Donald Trump, the exit of Great Britain from the European Union, and threat of exit by movements in Italy, Greece and Spain, all point to the same problem. Globalism as a system has no future. The pain it has inflicted so far has been on the middle and lower classes. At some point, that pain will spread to the highest reaches of society. Will we have to wait for that in order to get definitive movement toward a third destination?

Jared Diamond in his book Collapse pondered our predicament. Elites in past societies that have collapsed insulated themselves from the consequences of environmental and resource constraints so that they perceived no need for drastic changes.

If Thomas Friedman's column represents the thinking of today's elites, then they are truly well-insulated. Even Friedman who is more broadly informed and nuanced in his thinking shows how he himself is insulated when he writes that "income gaps are actually narrowing, wages are rising and poverty is easing." A minor beneficial move in the statistics after so many years of moves in the opposite direction is hardly the stuff that matters to people who are hurting.

The elites and Friedman can't understand Trump's appeal because they don't have much contact with those who are suffering from globalism's many side-effects. Whether or not Trump actually understands those injured by globalism, he successfully embodies their rage. And, it is that rage which is propelling his campaign to the amazement of elites out of touch with America's middle and lower classes.

Unfortunately, the answer to globalism's dead end cannot be found in the current U.S. presidential campaign. But the loud cries of its victims are audible to all those who are willing to hear them. And those victims may end up deciding who will be America's next president.