Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cicero’s Obamney

" What we have, in what passes for US democracy in 2012, is a kabuki play that Cicero put to papyrus 1948 years earlier. All historical empires and war aggressors have used propaganda to claim their looting and police states were necessary and helpful to the 99%. Instead, a sorrowful history tells us they were almost always for the sole benefit of the 1%."

His excellent hillbillisimo, James Carville, in a piece for the May/June Foreign Affairs, “Campaign Tips From Cicero: The Art of Politics, From the Tiber to the Potomac,” reprises the advice given by Quintus, the younger brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero, when Marcus was contemplating a run for the chief elected office of the Roman Republic in 64 CE.

Quintus Tullius Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, or "Little Handbook on Electioneering," is good advice on winning elections. It can be, and is, summed up in quintessential Carvelese as “sucking up and spitting down.” The younger brother, observes Carville, “urges his brother to go negative early, even bringing up the character issue (it must be easier to do when your opponent is a murderer, child molester, and ‘friend of actors’). He then moves brilliantly back to base development, urges his brother to pander, and anticipates Napoleon’s advice that a leader should be ‘a dealer in hope.’ … He suggests sticking to generalities during the campaign, telling the wealthy you are for stability and peace while assuring the common man that you are always on his side. Oh, and accusing your opponents of ‘crimes, sex scandals, and corruption.’”

The irony of this has surely not been lost on Carville, but his Foreign Affairs dissection is as tame and pandering as Cicero’s candidacy was. Carville first came to national attention when he emerged from the smoke-filled rooms in Little Rock to steer Bill Clinton’s campaign into the Oval Office, rendering Washington’s anointed designee, George H.W. Bush, a one-term president, with jaw agape. He never saw “it's the economy, stupid” coming.

Carville’s campaign for Clinton was textbook Cicero: “Impressing the voters at large... is done by knowing who people are, being personable and generous, promoting yourself, being available, and never giving up.... Nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces.”

“People like to hear that you are good to your friends at events such as banquets, so make sure that you and your allies celebrate these frequently for the leaders of each tribe. Another way to show you are generous is to be available day and night to those who need you. Keep the doors of your house open, of course, but also open your face and expression, for these are the window to the soul.”

Clinton’s walk over Bush Sr. gave impetus to Karl Rove, who must have researched Carville’s library check-outs. The Bush v. Gore campaign in 2000 bore Cicero’s fingerprints. “You desperately need to learn the art of flattery—a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office. If you use flattery to corrupt a man there is no excuse for it, but if you apply ingratiation as a way to make political friends, it is acceptable. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.”

“If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a larger number of voters.”

Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.”

When Obama took the stage in 2007, he also leaned heavily on the younger Cicero’s advice: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you. On the other hand, you should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or the people. Stick to vague generalities. Tell the Senate you will maintain its traditional power and privileges. Let the business community and wealthy citizens know that you are for stability and peace. Assure the common people that you have always been on their side, both in your speeches and in your defense of their interests...”

“There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people…. As for those who you have inspired with hope — a zealous and devoted group — you must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them. Let them know that you are grateful for their loyalty and that you are keenly aware of and appreciate what each of them is doing for you.”

Obama’s pledges to his base were breathtaking. According to a Brookings Institution piece in the same issue of Foreign Affairs, they were to “refurbish the United States’ image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; “reset” relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; elicit Chinese cooperation on regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East.”

That he couldn’t make good on all of these is not surprising. That he did not accomplish a single one of them (although he made some small progress with Iraq and China) and instead went 180-degrees in the opposite direction explains why he is losing with the voters in the current campaign. With Obama’s string of broken promises, the outcome is firming up and the number of people affected is large. Estimates for Obama’s criminal war casualties run into the tens or hundreds of thousands. Gaza is still smoldering. The Fukushima cover-up casualties may yet run to the millions.

What we have, in what passes for US democracy in 2012, is a kabuki play that Cicero put to papyrus 1948 years earlier. All historical empires and war aggressors have used propaganda to claim their looting and police states were necessary and helpful to the 99%. Instead, a sorrowful history tells us they were almost always for the sole benefit of the 1%. Obama’s moves in the financial crisis were unquestionably tilted towards the 1%, threadbare propaganda about “Main Street” notwithstanding.

Romney’s script is straight from Cicero’s advice about going negative early and pandering to your wealthy but anxious base. The candidate “must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary,” Cicero wrote. This is easier now that six mega-media corporations control 90% of US “reporting.” And that is the principal reason that Romney, a morality-free pious hypocrite, now leads Obama, the slick-back toadie, in the national polls.

Obama, in 2008 the outsider, in 2012 must defend a governing record that looks like George W. Bush on steroids:

  • Suppression of news of serious war-crimes, including assassination of war correspondents, by prosecution of whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and Julian Assange
  • Corruption of the Justice Department, NSA, FBI and CIA to cover an ongoing criminal enterprise involving some $5 trillion in long-term graft from no-bid contracts going to the 1% — $50,000 per average US family, being extracted in taxes, inflation, bank defaults, student loans and diminished public services
  • Conspiring with local police and mayors to quash and evict the Occupy movement
  • Pursuing murderous US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Orwellian opposition  to international law
  • Expanding US wars and armed attacks into more and more countries, despite treaties after both world wars that make use of military unlawful unless a country’s government attacks first (Kellogg-Briand and UN Charter)
  • Expanding terrorist-by-definition drone wars on Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen (now spending more on drone operations than the entire budget of the CIA)
  • Calling for more illegal wars on Syria and Iran while darkly hinting of an official first strike policy for use of nuclear weapons
  • Torpedoing the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament negotiations and ramping up new nuclear weapon design, testing, and deployment
  • Suppression of news from Fukushima, including ordering EPA to halt air and food sampling and working with other countries towards the same ends
  • Assassination of Americans upon the non-reviewable dictate of the president
  • Maintaining the Bush-era torture prisons and black sites
  • Maintaining illegal rendition as official policy
  • Control-drown/waterboarding anyone deemed a “terrorist” and extending sensory deprivation to local jails and State prisons despite all US and international case law finding this to be torture
  • NDAA 2012 and 2006 Military Commissions Act that state the president can dictate any person as a “terrorist suspect,” and then disappear them without challenge or recourse
  • Signing presidential executive order saying the US government can seize any resource, any person, at any time for “national defense”
  • Minting his own Alberto Gonzales continuing criminal enterprise rubber stamp — Eric Holder
  • Siding with Exxon, BP and the Koch brothers to accelerate climate- and ocean-destroying pollution; and
  • Torpedoing the climate talks in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban.

Cicero had some advice for this predicament also, although Carville delicately avoids bringing it up. The first piece of advice is to go negative by portraying Romney as a man of low morals.

Said Quintus to his brother, “Remember how [Antonius] was expelled from the Senate after a careful examination by the censors?... When he ran for praetor he could only muster Sabidius and Panthera to stand beside him.... After he was elected... , he disgraced himself by going down to the market and openly buying a girl to keep at home as a sex slave...” Romney may not have sex slaves at home, but the Mormon card will be played — bet on it. The Banes Capital corporate raider card is already in 30-second spots in key markets.

Wrote Cicero, “To speak bluntly, since you are seeking the most important position in Rome and since you have so many potential enemies, you can’t afford to make any mistakes.... Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favors, old connections, availability, and natural charm…. There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people.”

What neither Carville nor Obama care to recall is that there is much older advice, going back to Aristotle’s Politics, Book V, four centuries earlier:

 “Constitutional governments and aristocracies are commonly overthrown owing to some deviation from justice… the rich, if the constitution gives them power, are apt to be insolent and avaricious.
“In all well-tempered governments there is nothing which should be more jealously maintained than the spirit of obedience to law, more especially in small matters; for transgression creeps in unperceived and at last ruins the state, just as the constant recurrence of small expenses in time eats up a fortune.”

And in fact, that is what history tells us became of the Cicero brothers. They were killed two decades after that election, during the civil wars that accompanied the demise of the Republic of Rome and the birth of the military-dominated Roman Empire.

If there is a hopeful note in the 2012 Tweedledum and Tweedledumber election, it is being sounded by the Occupy movement, which is now in Chicago at the NATO summit and plans to turn out for both political conventions (some occupiers may right now be staying in the Chicago burb of Cicero, Illinois).

“Nobody for President” has never had greater meaning. Democracy, real democracy, has never been closer to coming home.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Food's Critical Path

" Peter Bane’s big idea here is not entirely original — Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren, and even the UN Rappoteur on Human Rights have written about it — but it is timely and Bane describes it with greater depth and practical guidance. The big idea is that creation of 21st century garden farms at all scales and in all locations — horticulture not agriculture — provides a serious, necessary challenge to 20th century factory farms."

A Review of A Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country by Peter Bane (New Society Publishers, 2012)

When NASA was getting ready to put men on the moon, they developed a complicated mission plan, at the core of which was a critical path. These were the steps that had to be accomplished in order for the mission to succeed. They were non-negotiable.

Ever since the Manhattan Project in 1940-1943, critical paths have been used in engineering, and are now common in software development, skyscraper construction, aerospace and other large projects. When Apollo 13 found itself hurtling through space on the way to far side of the moon with a huge oxygen leak, a critical path was assembled that returned all souls safely back to Earth.

In his Permaculture Handbook, Peter Bane has mapped the critical path to a safe landing for civilization in the 21st century. That path runs through the back yards of suburbia and across the rooftops and balconies of urban apartment houses.  As he precisely puts it:

 “There can be little doubt that paving over much of the nation’s best agricultural land and cutting old growth forests to frame shoddily-built McMansions was a tragedy of epic proportions, but the question is not whom to hang but what can be done with it now?

His prescription is garden farming, a step at a time, gradually expanding to tree crops and animal husbandry at the margins of cities and within cities themselves.

Peter Bane’s own accomplishments best fit his description of organic gardening: “as an heroic and undersung achievement in the face of overwhelming institutional neglect, cultural dissipation, economic monopolies and dire ecological challenges from … society.” He has labored long to produce a cohesive understanding of permaculture, at times being treated with less respect than he deserved. This book is his sweet revenge.

For decades he has been reading manuscripts submitted to the Activist, accepting some with edits, rejecting many, and sending more back for do-over. He has been the Activist’s principal book reviewer, and in that position has probably read far more new titles than he got around to writing reviews of. This effort, year in, year out, gave him a breadth and depth of knowledge that confers authority. To be as cynical and pithy as Bane can occasionally be, you have to really know your subject. Without laying an extended logical foundation in the fashion of a John Michael Greer or Jeremy Rifkin, he can shock you, but you absolutely believe him.

As a writer using his best gifts to bedazzle, Bane is not one to be speed-read. Rather you savor the page, paragraph and line, putting the book down to exhale after reading one of his exceptional flourishes.

Here is Bane on suburban-angst:

During the 1950s this patchwork of farm fields, forest remnants and village-scale neighborhoods, peopled by the children and grandchildren of factory workers, immigrants, ex-farmers and other groups newly enriched by the war economy, became the dream landscape of the boomer generation, the largest in North American history. Small herds of children roamed this bucolic terrain, secure in the privilege their parents extracted as world conquerors until, of course, the next development took down a totemic patch of woods or replaced a mysterious meadow with a cul-de-sac of new houses. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, as it reached adulthood, this age cohort sought meaning in nature amidst a world seemingly mad with the designs of human dominance, corporate conformity and mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons.

As suburbs grew to become the dominant habitat, not just in the United States but in Latin America, Europe and Asia, the agrarian life receded farther and farther from view, leaving children to wonder where the food they see in stores comes from. For USAnians, the usual answer these days is China, same place their plastic, electric, planned-obsolescent stuff comes from. Amazingly, the same answer can now be provided to Mexican children, who used to eat corn and rice grown in Mexico. “Your country,” la abuela might say, “even exported to other countries,” like that one directly north.

Bane’s central point is that we can go back, but probably not to the status quo ante. The future of agriculture is small-holder horticulture, not export agribusiness. But, here, let him say it:

In a clumsy, expensive and still incomplete way, we have marked out a pattern for a democratic yeomanry. Many potential garden farms are located on some very fine former farmland: northern New Jersey, northern Illinois, the south end of San Francisco Bay and the Lake Ontario lowlands. And even where the soil was not originally well developed, the land is usually flat to rolling. These territories have been supplied with extensive road and water networks, and both labor and a rich array of resources, biological and industrial, lies all around. The largish houses, especially those built after 1980, may be poorly configured at present, but they could accommodate the extended families and larger households that will be needed to grow food and manage land with lower energy resources and technologies.

That passage also reveals one flaw in the book that may pass unnoticed in North America but will glare when it traverses either ocean. The Handbook is a 450-page encyclopedia that provides everything a starting practitioner, or an experienced activist, might want to improve their use of permaculture, but despite occasional stray references to other parts of the world, the book is decidedly North American. Perhaps, since the Permaculture Designers Manual leans more to the tropics, the Handbook is best seen as the later half of a two-volume set. Together they book-end a 30-year span, with the Manual extending decades back to unfold Mollison’s foundational research and the Handbook extending decades forward to tap Bane’s exceptional perspicacity.

Permaculture books, and there seem to be a flurry lately, seem to fall into a few distinct categories. There are those that are a data dump of teacher notes, and A Permaculture Handbook suffers from this. It would be hundreds of pages slimmer without that, but it might not be a handbook.

Then there are those that take off in a particular narrow direction, like Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm by Darrell Frey (New Society Publishers 2011); People & Permaculture Caring & Designing For Ourselves, Each Other & The Planet by Looby MacNamara (Permanent Publications 2012), or The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups by Starhawk (New Society Publishers 2011). A Permaculture Handbook fits into this category too, with its special focus on developing a pattern of permanence for urban and suburban properties.

A third category contains those books that make a new statement that is foundational. These special books address a problem that has not been well addressed in the past. They pose a solution that will likely be pivotal in the future; one that many of us will build upon. Peter Bane’s big idea here is not entirely original — Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren, and even the UN Rappoteur on Human Rights have written about it — but it is timely and Bane describes it with greater depth and practical guidance. The big idea is that creation of 21st century garden farms at all scales and in all locations — horticulture not agriculture — provides a serious, necessary challenge to 20th century factory farms and our widely accepted myths of how best to feed, shelter and clothe 8 to 10 billion people confronting emergy yield ratio decline and catastrophic climate change.

To Bane, if “the unhealthy industrial food system, which includes bought-and-sold politicians who dish out massive subsidies for a handful of commodity crops, giant mechanized farms and feedlots (complete with antibiotic-doped animals and antibiotic-resistant microbes), rail lines, barges, trucks and a few hundred airplanes, factories that butcher, extract, distill, emulsify, blend and preserve thousands of products from a tiny handful of basic crops, a vast amount of packaging and refrigeration and advertising agencies” is the solution, than what is the problem that it solves? Certainly not providing improved health, food security and longevity to the world population.

Bane’s Chapter 6, which could rightfully be a book of its own, lays out Bane’s vision of the alternative solution — garden farming. This is the author’s fusion of all those decades spent pouring over manuscripts, books and publications in the field. It is clear Bane has had the kind of “Ah Hah!” moment that Wallace had when he realized he’d unlocked the puzzle Darwin had foundered on, that extinctions were the key to evolution. While more modestly framed, Bane’s revelation is equally world changing.

Adopting the language of Christopher Alexander and his Berkeley team, Bane lays out 68 patterns in 38 pages. These are the DNA of sustainable re-development of the built environment and they bolster all three legs of the sustainability stool — ecological, social and economic. Here, for instance, is the harmony-auguring element of “Communal Bathing” (pattern 68):

The sauna room, like the back-deck hot tub, is very often detached from the house and invites bathers to be reborn into the open air. For a household that works together, communal bathing affirms that relaxation and renewal are not solely a private affair, and that the cycle of group life can regularly return to its root. Care for the body makes the boundary around Family Table (17) appropriately porous.

Place the communal bath in a well-protected location toward the private end of the household gradient. Combine its heat functions with food drying, a Greenhouse (38) or a utility space such as a Workshop (23). Let it be out-of-doors, directly opening to the outside of a building and near a pond for dipping if possible (33—Ponds and dams). Provide a roofed area for clothing to hang and benches for changing. Surround the bath with clean decking or pavement that can be swept and is free of hazards to the feet. Design the stove or water heater to run on wood fuel, so that this most primal of survival functions can be met from raw elements of the world at hand.

Equally delicious are Bane’s forays into his personal experiences as a lone hill-country farmer, then ecovillage pioneer and (currently) suburban remodeler. Here he talks about eating with the seasons:

If you have a poultry flock you may already know that egg laying surges in spring. What might have been three or four eggs a day out of a dozen birds in the winter becomes 6, 8, 10 and 12 by late March. Suddenly, omelets are on the menu: asparagus and morels, spinach/cilantro or kale and shiitakes. Scallions are abundant in spring and grace every dish. Each day’s salad is a little different with lettuce, endive, beet greens, mizuna, arugula and early radishes mixing it up. Cut the bitterness with sweet berry jam and rich oils in the dressing. Later in the season, lambs quarters with their brilliant magenta tops enliven the bowl, and along the way redbud flowers, violets and pansies adorn the greens.

The crops of spring are meant to awaken us from the lethargy and depression of winter. They don’t fully relieve hunger, but begin to replace minerals lost during the months of eating stored food and battling cold. Bitter greens are tonic: the endives and first dandelions bring a powerful infusion of mineral nutrients to clean the blood and stimulate the liver. As dairy animals get onto green pasture, their milk fattens up and gains large amounts of Vitamin A, and this, plus the extra eggs from hens, make up some of the caloric deficit from cold spring days and extra work. Steam a pot of buckwheat and open a jar of applesauce to bulk up the menu.

Soon enough, the heat of May (or June if you are farther north) brings fruit and then new potatoes, peas and more carbohydrates, which need the extra light and heat to ripen sugar and starch. There may be some early beets, but the main excitement comes from the burgeoning berry crop. I love the seemingly endless fruits of this season but care less for the steamy days that sometimes accompany them, so I get up early and spend an hour picking while morning shadows still stretch over the bushes.

In North America, more people are now choosing to start farming than at any time since World War II. It is difficult to imagine any of these new farms being without this book. It is a handbook for every season, and for every resource a farm can produce. It contains tips I have never seen anywhere else, reams of them, and they are collected and cataloged here in a way no piles of back issues of Permaculture Activist, Mother Earth News or Back Home would.

A man named Max posted to Club Orlov (Dmitry Orlov’s humorous blog) recently that he had purchased 160 acres in Southeast Kansas and tried to become a modern farmer. Southeast Kansas in the early 21st century is not like the Kansas described in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon — a near desert suitable only for buffalo and rugged Comanche horsemen — but stripped of modern HVAC systems it can yet turn cruel and deadly when the dirt blows in August and the blizzards in February.  

“You realize after a while it is mostly hard, dirty, repetitive and boring,” Max relates, “ Mud, blood, shit, sweat, discomfort, disappointment, death.… To peer into the future and see nothing beyond an endless re-run of this hard living is enough to put fear and dread in most hearts. I find it increasingly difficult to believe that dispossessed cubicle dwellers will be able to adapt physically or mentally.”

Enter the hype about permaculture, wherein “the designer becomes the recliner,” “observation not perspiration,” “aikido not karate.” Has anyone actually succeeded with this?

Peter Bane is an archetypical egghead, a computer nerd, not someone you could imagine out in the mud and blood of the pig wallow behind the barn in Kansas. Given a working farm, he outfitted it with rainwater harvest systems, intensively mulched gardens and handmade building retrofits, but then settled back into reading and editing — the life of the mind — where he was much more at home.

Then, joining with friends to purchase a large tract of land and found the Earthaven ecovillage in North Carolina, the same pattern re-asserted itself. His intrinsic nature overwhelmed any idealistic intentions to spend his days milking cows and chopping firewood (although he did). If you were to assemble all the book reviews and research pieces he wrote during that 20-year period, it could easily fill a large number of books. So how can someone like that rescue collapseniks from hard, dirty, repetitive and boring farming?

Answer: with elegance and grace. This is the real science of permaculture, warts and all, and the real discoveries that have flowed from a life of small experiments and probing observation. Bane intersperses stories and studies: of Jerome Osentowski, growing hothouse salad greens at 7200 feet in Colorado; of Bob and Betty Gregson, CSA pioneers who made a comfortable living on less than an acre of vegetable and egg production; of Radical Roots Farm in Virginia, a 5-acre family homestead that is walking the narrow line between market gardening and investing in ecosystems; and of Gene Logsdon, whose small-scale rotational grazing farm in Ohio gave him the leisure time to write 23 books of non-fiction and 4 novels.

Bane’s best advice is to never to think you can go it alone.

Through the exchange of labor that it will elicit, garden farming offers the promise of helping to heal our broken communities, even as it helps us to cope with the predicament of an energy-constrained future. Contrary to conventional economic thinking and many modern attitudes, people as workers and people as eaters are not the problem. They’re part of the solution. Creating a new way of life, or resurrecting the best parts of an older culture and offering to share that treasure with others — your family, your neighbors, young people in your community — could just be the adventure you’ve been looking for. If you set out on that yellow brick road though, be sure to pick up some allies along the way — you’ll need them, and they’ll need you.

And pick up a copy of the Permaculture Handbook, too. You’ll need it, and find yourself going back to it, again and again. Like the Apollo mission, Bane has jury-rigged our carbon dioxide removal system by re-tasking other components — small scale horticulture, aquatic plants and foraged trash, for instance — to buy us breathing room. This is a must read. I am buying copies as presents for my children and grandchildren.

A shorter version of this review of Peter Bane’s A Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country appears in the current issue of The Permaculture Activist, now on newsstands.




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