Preparing Vocational Training for the Eco-Technical Transition

Written by Nancy Lee Wood

Excerpt from EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet

Over the coming decades, in the face of climate change, resource depletion, and economic contraction, the kinds of things that people will need to know and the standard approaches to accessing that knowledge will change. As people seek new and innovative ways of building sustainability and resilience into their lives and within their communities, they will encounter a widening variety of educational choices.


Community Solutions buys half of Arnovitz farm

By Audrey Hackett

Agriculture and conservation were the winners at the auction of the 267-acre Arnovitz farm Thursday night, following weeks of speculation about the potential for development along the western edge of Yellow Springs. All nine parcels were sold, to a total of seven buyers, for a combined amount of over $1.6 million.

Nearly half the auctioned land went to Community Solutions. The local nonprofit purchased two of the nine parcels, Tracts 6 and 8, totaling about 128 acres, for $655,000.

“It feels miraculous,” Executive Director Susan Jennings said minutes after auctioneer Ron Denney banged his gavel and brought the auction to a close.

Community Solutions plans to establish a center for regenerative farming on the property, as well as put about 80 acres into conservation in collaboration with Tecumseh Land Trust and other groups, according to Jennings earlier this week. At the auction, Jennings said the nonprofit also hopes to relocate its offices to the existing home on Tract 6.

The single largest auctioned parcel, 124-acre Tract 8, is a conservation priority for Tecumseh Land Trust, or TLT, and the Village of Yellow Springs. The land contains two tributaries of Jacoby Creek, plus woodlands around the creek, and is part of the long-envisioned Jacoby greenbelt. Village Council voted unanimously on March 6 to commit up to $200,000 in Village greenspace funds toward the purchase of a conservation easement, clarifying with a second unanimous vote this past Monday its intent to focus those funds specifically on the creek’s preservation. Jennings said earlier this week that Community Solutions shares TLT and the Village’s commitment to protecting the creek.

The next largest parcel, 84-acre Tract 9, was purchased by Miami Township resident Julie Jones for $400,000. Jones declined to comment on Thursday about her plans for the land, which is currently being farmed.

The Village is in discussions with both Community Solutions and Jones regarding establishing a conservation easement on each property, according to Village Manager Patti Bates at the auction. “If their values match with village values, we’ll go from there,” she said.

Krista Magaw, executive director of TLT, said she believed Tracts 8 and 9, together representing over three-quarters of the auctioned land, would continue to be farmed.

Springfield attorney Greg Lind purchased Tracts 1 and 2, totaling about 26 acres, for $216,000 with conservation in mind. Lind said Thursday that he is working with TLT to conserve 23 of the acres, including protecting wetlands on the property. The remaining three acres will be a homesite, he said.

And local contractor Jimmy Kingsolver purchased 13-acre Tract 3 for $142,000. He currently lives in a home on the property and intends to continue living there, he said Thursday. Kingsolver bid repeatedly on a combination of three properties throughout the evening, winning just the one.

The auction at the Hilton Garden Inn in Beavercreek drew lively interest, with more than 80 people attending, including around 20 residents of Yellow Springs. Forty-nine attendees registered as bidders.

Bidding over the two-and-a-half-hour auction was initially brisk, then slowed down to a contest between a handful of bidders. Particularly hard-fought was Tract 6, which changed hands between Community Solutions and Kingsolver around a dozen times before the local nonprofit made the winning bid.

TLT’s Magaw said she was pleased with outcome. “I’m happy. We had a good mix of bidders,” she said. And she expressed confidence that TLT would be able to purchase easements on “most or all” of the parcels before the closing date of Friday, April 28.

“There’s still work to be done,” she said.

Community Organizing Conference

Written by Community Solutions AmeriCorps Vista Volunteer & Community Empowerment Coach Jonna Johnson

It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.  This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it

Democracy … depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift.  But it's really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power.  We, the people, give it meaning.With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge.

                                            ~Former US President Barack Obama

 Sure, Obama, we need to engage, but how??? 

Well… I am pleased to invite you to a day of exploring Community Organizing.    Join us for a day of workshops designed to sharpen our abilities to engage - building support and coalitions, performing strategic research, creating meaningful action plans, and staying fit for the marathon. 

Meals and a community organizing handbook are included. 

Opening speaker, Naim Edwards, is on the frontline of Detroit’s well-known grassroots movements to co-create a Detroit that works for Everyone.  Local friends Amaha Sellassie, Reece Freeman, and Basim Blunt will be on hand as well!!

 Facebook event

 Speaker biographies

 Registration page

Mail in registration form

Please contact Jonna if you have questions, want to utilize a scholarship or reduced rate, or want to pay Community Solutions directly, or 937-767-2161.  We need a head count for food, and we want to feed you too!  Register by March 14th to be included in our meal count.

Coffee Shops, Beauty Shops and Resilience

Written by Community Solutions Senior Fellow Don Hollister

As I write this over one million households in Michigan are without electricity as a result of a record breaking wind storm. The governor of Michigan urged people in the affected areas to check on their relatives and neighbors, particularly the elderly or disabled, since it is estimated that electric power may be off for many days in some neighborhoods.

That got me thinking, how well do we know our neighbors? The process of checking in on their well being would vary tremendously on how much we already know about them. Information gleaned from casual conversation may suddenly be very important.

“Oh, she said that they would be out of town this week.”

“He gets a fresh tank of oxygen every Thursday”… or “he depends on an electric oxygen generator.”

In turn, your neighbor may be thinking about you. “Is he OK?”  And imagine if everyone down the city block or along the country lane was keeping track of each other. To a varying extent we do that all the time without thinking about it. Some neighborhoods are much closer than others and some individuals are more engaged than others. Of course, not knowing someone or only being slightly acquainted need not keep you from reaching out to see if they need help.  Yet in an emergency, in a time full of surprises, the level of mutual knowledge and of trust built up over the years makes a big difference in how well a community copes. This ability of communities to survive, adapt and grow in the face of shocks and stress is “resilience.”

 Resilience is a term that has gained new popularity, but there is nothing new about the factors involved. How can we be more resilient? There has been increased attention in recent years to emergency management, with fire departments, local police, hospitals and transportation agencies collaborating on local plans. These physical systems are certainly key in surviving a crisis; however, the social side of resilience generally falls below the planning radar.

If you value social resilience how can you strengthen it? How can you increase the social ties and goodwill in your neighborhood and wider community? People write entire books on that question, but it boils down to looking at your own life and the daily lives around you. Where do people bump into each other? When do people get a chance to chat? Do people visit with each other in the immediate neighborhood, across the fence, walking their dog, while putting out the trash, while watching their children play at the playground down the block? Some observers describe the home as the “first place” that you encounter people, family and immediate neighbors, the workplace as the “second place,” and a wide range of neutral social spots, such as churches, beauty or barber shops, coffee shops, bowling alleys, bars, and libraries as “third places” where people meet friends and make friends. Look for the places around you where people do visit and then ask how those patterns of interaction might be shared or expanded. Or look at the patterns in other communities and imagine what might be started in your own neighborhood. These third places, the occasions for repeated back and forth between individuals and families, are a template for relationships, for the weaving of social fabric, for the strengthening of resilience.

During the next wind storm and power blackout, it may well be your neighborhood church, local beauty shop or corner diner that becomes the field headquarters, literally and emotionally, for the recovery operations in your community.

Evidence for microbial-derived soil organic matter formation

This article comes was originally published in the November 2016 issue of Nature Communications

Written by Jack Kittredge





This 10-page paper by Cynthis M. Kallenbach, Serita D. Frey and A. Stuart Grandy was published in the November 2016 Nature Communications, 7:13630 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13630

Summary: For nearly a century soil organic matter (SOM) formation has been depicted primarily as a function of the preservation of biologically stable complex plant compounds. Yet it has been known that soil microbial communities are adept at decomposing such materials, incorporating the released carbon into their microbial biomass. Due to advances in laboratory molecular analytic techniques, the role of microbes in SOM formation has been increasingly recognized. But direct evidence about the degree to which microbes are involved has been lacking. Now, a team of University of New Hampshire scientists has uncovered evidence that microbial pathways are the chief source of the organic matter found in stable soil carbon pools. They suggest that SOM is formed by residues of microbial digestion of carbon from roots and root exudates.

Click here for the full article.

Fertile Health: Parallels between Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Medicine

Written by Healthy Soils Symposium Didi Pershouse

Originally Posted on

The microscope, the telescope, and the deep-sea camera have helped us to rediscover that we are part of a vast interdependent web of relationships, and whatever happens in one part of the system affects the whole.   This means that there is no such thing as “human health” apart from the rest of the planet, there is only health. When I use the word “medicine” I mean something much more profound and far reaching than medical care practiced by, and for, humans. The planet itself has become something like a field hospital, with new species limping in each day, and others going extinct.

The “Sterile” Model of Care

Both agriculture and medicine went through a profound shift in the past two hundred years. As I have tried to understand the issues of our current health care system, it has been useful to note the parallels between industrialized agriculture and medicine as they adapted to the larger markets of the modern-day growth economy.

Both agriculture and medicine shifted away from what I would call a “fertile” model, and towards a more “sterile” one, that competed with, or killed off, what was not wanted. We turned away from stewardship, collaboration, and cooperatives, and towards competition, profits and patenting.  We used pesticides and herbicides, rubber gloves and antibiotics, and turned away from compost and manure, human touch and probiotics.  Both agriculture and medicine shifted from seeing things in the context of whole integrated systems, focusing instead on individual parts. We moved away from diversification and focused instead on specialization, we abandoned small-scale localized infrastructure and invested in large-scale corporations. In the process, we lost touch with traditional knowledge that works with natural patterns and cycles, and rushed instead into chemical and high-tech manipulation of nature. This left us with a planet swimming in industrial waste and struggling to adapt to an entirely new climate—all in the guise of feeding ourselves and keeping ourselves healthy.

In high-tech, industrial models of agriculture and medicine we tend to focus on:

  • Human manipulation of nature
  • Machines, speed, and technology
  • Isolating parts to understand the whole
  • Killing off“bugs” with pesticides or antibiotics
  • Laboratory knowledge
  •  Mono-cropping and specialization
  • Simple chemical fertilizers and synthetic vitamins
  • “Sterility” and separation from the natural environment
  • Growth, profits, and corporations
  • Large, centralized farms and hospitals, and global production of supplies

Bio-Mechanistic Puzzles

The industrial farming model—in which we put an animal in a box, away from its natural environment, give it antibiotics and hormones and then try to determine what nutrients it needs to be maximally productive, or we put a seed into “sterilized” dirt, kill off all the weeds and bugs with chemicals, and try to figure out what artificial fertilizer the seed needs to be maximally productive—is strangely similar to the industrial medical model. We tend to look at patients, like the cow or the grain, as if they were bio-mechanistic puzzles. We put a patient in a private room, away from natural influences, and give him industrially-made food and medicine with the goal of keeping him alive and functional as long as possible so he can be a productive member of society. It’s not a bad goal, just an odd way of getting there: since it doesn’t take into account its effect on everything outside of the hospital.

As we have changed our outer landscape with industrial agriculture and changed our inner landscape with industrial medicine, we have created new problems—many of them intertwined in the ongoing relationships between food and health, and health care and the environment. These include loss of beneficial bacteria, loss of essential micro-nutrients, dwindling supplies of clean drinking water, antibiotic resistance, superbugs, auto-immune diseases, and a general loss of resiliency.

Ironically, modern health-care itself, practiced in the context of the for-profit growth economy, has become a contributor to our health-care problems. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs  properly administered are estimated to be somewhere between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death in the United States.[1] [2] Pharmaceuticals persist in sewage and water-treatment plants, adding other people’s medications (and their side effects) to our daily drinks, and spilling antidepressants and cholesterol-lowering drugs into rivers and lakes where they affect wildlife.[3][4] [5] Until recently, hospital incinerators were a major contributor to cancer-causing dioxins in the environment.[6] Health care is hugely dependent on fossil fuels for heating, cooling, and power, as well as for the raw materials, manufacturing, and transport of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.[7] If you take into account all that goes into running a hospital, medical care for one patient spending a single night in a large teaching hospital adds nearly one metric ton of climate-disrupting CO2e to the atmosphere.[8]

When we change the biology around us, the chemistry around us, the genetics around us and even the physics around us, we change the systems that we rely on for health and survival.  As we begin to fathom the interconnectedness of life, the doctor’s mandate “first, do no harm,” becomes a much more complex task.

The question is: how do we adapt our forms of caring for one another to take all these aspects into account?

Our Common Roots with the Natural World

Farmers and scientists working within the permaculture and sustainable agriculture movements have already questioned the long-term workability of large-scale industrialized agriculture. Out of these concerns have come many new integrated models that revive traditional wisdom without necessarily abandoning technology altogether. These farming methods produce healthier, more resilient crops and animals that actually enrich the landscape, rather than depleting and polluting ecosystems. I think medicine is ready to do the same.


Photo by Didi Pershouse

To do so means that we must acknowledge our place as one of many species living within—and dependent upon—a healthy functioning whole.  We evolved out of the same natural cycles, patterns, and events as the land around us—and we struggle with many of the same issues. Plants and animals deal with bacterial, viral, fungal and genetic illnesses just as we do. They also rely on a wide variety of beneficial microorganisms for survival, just as we do. They are affected in various ways by insects and uncertain weather patterns, and they need nutrients and water, just as we do. When they are resilient, they adapt and change and evolve, just as we do.

We can draw many of the solutions for taking care of our inner landscape and growing healthy people from seeing how sustainable agriculture takes care of the outer landscape to grow healthy food.

The sustainable/organic/permaculture models of agriculture and medicine tend to value:

  • Complexity and diversity
  • Working with natural patterns and cycles
  • Contextual understandings like Family Practice, and Permaculture
  • Complex nutrients teeming with beneficial bacteria and fungi
  • Boosting natural immunity and resiliency
  • Using natural predators and healthy bacteria to balance out inner or outer ecosystems
  • Collaboration and cooperatives
  • Multi-purposed stacking of functions
  • Small, localized, easily accessible farms, clinics, producers, and providers integrated into the community
  • A slow and steady pace, and long-term connections
  • The integration of traditional knowledge and indigenous ways of knowing along with creative use of technology

Returning to the Commons of Care

The future of health care, from what I can see, involves stepping out of the for-profit model and returning to the commons of care. If teachers, road maintenance crews, police and firefighters can provide for our social and physical needs in a model that doesn’t include corporate profits, then doctors, nurses, researchers and creators of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies can do the same. No matter what political system one believes in for the larger society, profit motives have little or no usefulness in the ecology of care.

I encourage those wanting to practice sustainable medicine to welcome in human collaborators as well as a wide variety of microorganisms and other natural allies. The time is ripe to study ecological models of the body, and apply pattern language and permaculture principles as we diagnose and treat illness. By doing that, we can understand the interrelationships between people, pollinators, healthy soil and food, and prescribe traditional diets that replenish the good bacteria in the gut. When prescribing pharmaceuticals or recommending technological interventions, we must do so with the precautionary principle in mind.

Now that we have already committed to at least a short-term climate crisis, health care itself will also need to quickly adapt if we want to continue to provide care in an era of increasing natural disasters, power outages, water shortages and supply chain interruptions. For providers and community members alike, I recommend reskilling in low-impact, carbon-neutral ways of caring for ourselves and others, in order to lessen the impact on the species that share our earth, and lessen the need for high-tech care in an age of powering down and re-localization.

Didi Pershouse’s book The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities is available now.

Feedback Loops

Written by Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings



The notion of feedback loops is an important part of the climate conversation, as climate researchers note that the positive (reinforcing) feedback of methane released from the warming Arctic and peatlands move our time for coordinated climate action up from decades to years.

Feedback loops also allow a more sophisticated reflection on global systems, rather than the linear cause-and-effect thinking that permeates political discourse. If, for example, we see the refugee crisis as feedback from climate change and military policies, we may be willing to reflect on our own deep complicity with international upheaval, rather than attempting to stop the international flow of peoples across borders.

Recent marches and protests are also a feedback loop, alerting us that those who have been nurtured by a multi-cultural society are unwilling to play the politics of separation. This kind of feedback can embolden others to find their own voices. As governors, mayors, and activists of all stripes find their leadership legs, hierarchical systems of control may cede to more sustainable systems of distributed and local leadership.

This sort of virtuous feedback loop is a central concern of Didi Pershouse, upcoming Soils Symposium keynote, and author of The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities. Didi writes and speaks eloquently of the hope that she feels, spurred by the emergence of a ‘fertile’ model of care of ourselves and our soils.  By nurturing our biotic and human communities, a cascade of health, relational, and planetary benefits ensues.  We hope that you will be able to join us in February in Yellow Springs for our Healthy Soils Symposium. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite on the writing of Didi and other presenters below.

Climate Change Requires our Full Attention Now and Biosystems Offer Hope to Blunt the Worst Impacts

Written by Community Solutions by Community Solutions fellow Peter Bane    

      Global temperatures are rising at unprecedented rates along with increases in CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans. Last year (2016) was the hottest since record keeping began. Both phenomena are a result of human economic activities, including fossil fuel burning, the intensification of agriculture, and other forms of land degradation. These trends lead directly to a host of climate change effects, most of which are destructive to the natural world and disruptive of human life.

     The build-up of heat in the atmosphere and oceans, both from increased trapping by greenhouse gases (water vapor, CO2, methane, nitrous oxides, halocarbons) and especially from increased heat radiation off of land surfaces, has globally catastrophic long-term consequences for humanity as sea levels rise. Some of those effects are beginning to manifest at threatening levels. However, of even more immediate concern, global warming is kicking the climate system into overdrive and producing more and more extreme weather events of flood, drought, fire, and storm. These in turn are causing dramatic and widespread economic losses and societal disruptions that have the potential to provoke the collapse of whole nations.

     The climate system is a complex set of global and regional feedback loops and forcing mechanisms driven by orbital physics, tectonic, biological, atmospheric, and weathering effects. While seen against the backdrop of geologic time, Earth is now in an “Icebox” phase, the past 10,000 years have been a relatively mild and warm period, known as an interglacial - between ice ages - during which all of human history has emerged. From about 7,000 years ago, humans entered the climate equation as early deforestation for farming appears to have deflected a long-term cooling trend, while the application of machinery to farming, the industrial era, and fossil fuel consumption beginning about 1850 led to the current spike in global temperatures. Our signature is written all over the climate change now underway.

     While human influence on the climate began with farming, the changes since 1850, and particularly since the end of WWII, have been decisive. Two global trends converge during the last 70 years: a dramatically increased use of fossil fuels for all economic purposes, and a de-greening and de-forestation of the planet, primarily from the expansion and intensification of agriculture, but also from urbanization. Both have driven and been driven by a huge increase in human population, from about 2 billion to more than 7 billion. The second trend is inextricable from the first. Fossil fuels, while contributing excess CO2 to the atmosphere, have enabled humanity to convert green biosystems into semi-deserts by industrializing agriculture and clearing and paving over large areas for human settlement. That has reduced nature’s ability to absorb the CO2 being released by ever-more numerous smokestacks and tailpipes.

Of importance to policy makers and society at large are three things:

     1. Thoughtless and ignorant human activities have provoked unprecedented warming;

     2. Extreme weather events driven by global warming are already disrupting communities with grave consequences should these trends continue; and

     3. The climate system itself has momentum that makes mitigating action urgent within the next decade.        

     The change of scale from humanity’s infancy 10,000 years ago, to its out-of-control rampage against nature occurred in a short period. Feedback was delayed by the vast size of the climate system, an historically mistaken sense of our impacts, ignorance of the complexity and responsiveness of planetary systems, and self-serving ideologies. We have just begun to learn the lessons of climate change, and have further to go before we can adjust our behavior. Unfortunately, because of earlier delays and the momentum of the system, urgent action is now required.

     The frequency of billion-dollar losses due to storm damage has risen steadily throughout the 21st century. These large numbers mask the reality of human tragedy as millions are displaced, homes and infrastructure are destroyed, and thousands of lives are lost—each year. Flooding was widespread throughout the U.K. for months in 2013-14, exceeding record levels set in 2007 and 2000. Budget-cutting by the climate-skeptical Conservative government that targeted coastal defences was blamed for increasing the damage, as $3 billion was lost from a notional saving of $500 million. Baton Rouge, Louisiana received over 30” of rain in August 2016, driving tens of thousands from their homes, and damaging 146,000 houses and thousands of businesses, churches, schools, and public buildings.

     Heatwaves have begun to shatter nations and whole regions. Drought and failure of the farm sector set the conditions leading to the 6-year Syrian civil war, destroying that country and destabilizing its neighbors. In May 2010, Pakistan experienced all-Asia, all-time record temperatures of 129°F in a 9-day heat wave, and two months later the worst-ever nationwide flooding, as nearly two million homes were destroyed. Russian grain exports were halted when heat (111°F) and fires (500,000 acres) in 2010 suppressed the harvest. Smoke blanketed the huge nation and more than 56,000 died of air pollution-related causes. Radioactive lands near Chernobyl were ignited, threatening to spread radionuclides widely. The grain export ban is thought to have bred food shortages that helped trigger the Arab Spring rebellions.

     Sixteen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred in this short century. Over 70,000 people died of heat-related causes in Europe in August 2003 as temperatures soared over 100°F. Chile is presently being overwhelmed by forest fires, not unlike those that have recently raged through the American West. Wildfires burnt almost 120,000 acres in the Southeast this past autumn, including over 700 buildings near Gatlinburg, Tennessee after drought in the summer prepared the way. The Northeast is now in drought, and despite recent flooding, California remains stubbornly below normal levels of moisture, threatening the nation’s most valuable agricultural economy. Fires in Oregon throughout the summer of 2016 made outdoor activity hazardous. Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paolo, home to 20 million, virtually ran out of water in 2015. Ft. MacMurray, Alberta, a city of 88,000, was evacuated last May in the face of massive wildfires.

     These conditions are not normal, and even where studies indicate that similar extremes have occurred in the past, such as 10-year droughts in the Southeast, our modern societies are unprepared for their impacts.

     Ice core data, pollen records, and even historical accounts show that the climate can switch directions abruptly, and that despite its apparent robustness, may be vulnerable to rapid change from forcing or positive feedback loops such as methane releases from melting permafrost, Arctic warming due to reduced snow and sea ice cover (lower albedo), and loss of vegetative cover in semi-arid regions.

     In addition, the oceans are absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and much of the heat load imposed by human activity. At some point which we cannot predict, but which could be soon, this will reverse and the curve of heating may accelerate further.

     The immediate dangers of climate change are increasing extremes of flood, drought, fire, and storm. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, increasing the risk of intense rain and snow events. Warmer oceans generate larger hurricanes and typhoons. Disruptions of oceanic currents and the jet stream from Arctic warming have thrown off familiar patterns of rainfall and seasonal temperature, reducing food production. Added heat in the tropical Pacific is increasing the frequency of El Niño events with world-wide effects that include severe drought, high temperatures, and weakening of the Indian and east Asian monsoons.

     A full litany of disasters would require dozens of pages to present, but we should reflect on the scale of recent impacts lest we lose perspective: two storms, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, cost the U.S. more than $175 billion, over 1% of annual GDP, and claimed more than a thousand lives in New Orleans, New York City, and their surrounding regions. These were fully modern and wealthy cities, both critical to the national economy, but their influence did not spare them. Neither has fully remediated the damage. Both calamities led to permanent out-migration. With already weak underlying economic conditions, it is easy to foresee how the curves of mounting climate disaster and faltering economic growth will cross and fatally undermine our ability to recover.

     Climate scientists have focused for the past 40 years on the growing load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the world’s efforts to address the crisis have, heretofore ineffectively, attempted to limit their annual increase. Because of lag effects, momentum in the climate, and vast amounts of CO2 stored in the oceans, even a complete cessation of industrial and agricultural carbon emissions today would not result in turning down the world’s greenhouse gas levels or temperatures for at least 30 years. Given the impacts we are already experiencing, we cannot afford to rely only on this important but wholely inadequate mechanism.

     About half the carbon emissions from human activity are presently absorbed by forests, soils, and the sea, but human demands on the biosphere continue to erode their restorative capacity. If we are to cool the planet in time to mitigate a growing environmental catastrophe, we must greatly amplify the ability of green nature to rebalance the Earth’s heat budget.

     Greenhouse gas trapping accounts for only about a quarter of the heat dynamics of the atmosphere. Of the greenhouse gases impacts, carbon dioxide represents about one-fifth, other industrial gases another fifth, and water vapor at three-fifths the greatest portion. Other effects, mostly related to the water cycle, dominate surface and atmospheric heating and cooling. Human actions have changed this balance detrimentally and we can change it back.

     Land clearance for agriculture and development has reduced forest cover, while industrial forestry has degraded forest age and density. Mechanization and chemical fertilizers have reduced the seasonal length of green cover on farmland by enabling broadscale clear cultivation and by supplanting crop rotations. Tillage and chemical use have dramatically reduced soil carbon content, and with it the ability of landscapes to hold, and thus to cycle water to the atmosphere. When bare of plant cover, soil temperatures under sunshine can spike from a normal 68° to over 140°F. Radiation from a dark surface is proportional to the 4th power of the temperature difference, so these effects are huge. Radiation from urban pavements is the most evident demonstration of these physical laws, but naked farm fields reproduce the same brutal conditions on a massive scale.

     The churning of billions of tires on roads, the plowing of billions of acres, increasing wildfires, and the hubbub of humanity along with our industrial pollution release immense swaths of dusts, smoke, and hazes into the atmosphere where they contribute to capturing heat from sunlight and preventing its release from the Earth’s surface to space. Hazy night skies are particularly damaging to the planet’s ability to cool itself, and their incidence is widespread and increasing. While these haze particles and droplets of moisture can aggregate into rain and snow, to do so, they must nucleate around either salts, ice crystals, or bacteria. Salts dominate over the oceans, ice crystals in polar regions, and elsewhere — most of the inhabited regions of the planet — aerobacter, produced chiefly in the stomata of tree leaves, make the rain and snow.

     As raindrops and snowflakes form in the atmosphere, millions of dust and haze droplets coalesce, clouds amass, and as they do, naturally reflect incoming sunlight high in the atmosphere, preventing it from heating the surface. When saturation occurs, the clouds release moisture to the ground and further cooling occurs. With subsequent clearing of the air, often at night, yet more heat can radiate to the top of the atmosphere and out to space, leaving the Earth system. All these processes are natural and ongoing, but heating and cooling effects, which have been regulated by biosystems for millions of years, are out of balance due to thoughtless human impacts.

     To restore the Earth’s ability to cool itself naturally and safely, we must increase the water-holding capacity of our landscapes, first by a wide array of micro-engineering works, and in the longer term by returning organic matter (carbon) in soils to levels that prevailed before plow agriculture. Although this will move carbon from the atmosphere into stable storage in plants and soils, it is the thermodynamic effects of water that can make the quickest impact on global temperatures and weather extremes.

     Transpiration and evaporation from vegetated surfaces (called latent heat) releases a quarter of the incoming solar radiation without raising temperatures. Extending the length and expanse of green cover on land is the most powerful way we can aid the planet to cool itself.

     As part of this strategy, we must replant, restore, and preserve forests, and do so in a way that ensures continuous forest cover from the oceans toward continental interiors. Studies have shown not only that forests draw in moisture from the surrounding atmosphere — making it available as regional rainfall — but that they are essential in transpiring and transferring rain from moist coasts to otherwise dry interior regions.

     Our farmers must be supported to reduce chemical use and eliminate most tillage so that farm soils can recover their carbon content. This will entail the greater use of cover crops and the introduction of well-tested agroforestry systems. Grazing practices mimicking predator pressures can greatly enhance carbon uptake in pastures and on rangeland. Wetlands and riparian woodlands must be restored along all streams. Green roofs, porous pavements, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure must come to dominate our urban landscapes with the aim of dramatically reducing runoff to waterways.

            Of course efforts must continue to reduce the use of fossil fuels, to de-link economic value from energy consumption, and to make these processes equitable across society, but even more urgent, if we are to avoid crushing burdens from extreme weather events, is to initiate massive programs for land repair, reforestation, water harvesting, and to transform our agriculture to capture carbon. The effects of these efforts will be felt first regionally — so states, provinces, cities, farm communities, and even individuals can take leadership — but they will impact the global situation. The promise of restored biosystems is a more temperate climate, more comfortable and gracious towns and cities, increased employment, a more profitable and productive agriculture, and lower levels of violence, stress, and trauma across society. The alternative is virtually unthinkable.



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.