Monday, January 16, 2012


A few years ago we were speaking at a peak oil conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan and our assigned topic was ecovillages, although at that time, having published The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times (New Society, 2006), we were well equipped to provide advice across a range of topics. Then the conference management threw a curveball at us.

“Could you do the breakout session on finance?” they asked. They had bought the hype about our being some kind of polymath. But we do teach permaculture, and understanding how systems and patterns function, including the financial system, is part of that curriculum.

In the permaculture certificate course we usually let that financial story be rendered by Andrew Goodheart Brown, an Appalachian storyteller, who weaves a spell about an island culture where dried fish starts just needing better storage and winds up getting commoditized into paper, then warrants, and eventually collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other secondary and tertiary derivatives. The point, often reiterated in the 72-hour Design Course, is that the map is not the territory. You can eat fish but you can’t eat paper.

We gave the talk and illustrated some of the major points — that currency is a relatively new invention in human affairs and that money equals debt, or an obligation against something or by someone — showing clips like The Goldsmith’s Tale  from the documentary Money As Debt by Paul Grignon, and talking about fractional reserve banking and interest rate manipulation.

The thing is, we don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about economics precisely because it is so derivative. We prefer teaching people how to store rainwater, build a perennial food supply in unforgiving terrain, and enjoy life in ways that improve the future for our children. The first rule of money, we remind students, is not to think about it. Just do it — money will come.

Alan Watts, in his lecture series on The Nature of Consciousness, said “Being able to represent what goes on fundamentally in terms of a system of symbols, such as words, such as numbers, you put, as it were, two lives together at once, one representing the other. The symbols represent the reality, the money representing the wealth, and if you don't realize that the symbol is really secondary, it doesn't have the same value. People go to the supermarket, and they get a whole cartload of goodies and they drive it through, then the clerk [punches] up the counter and this long tape comes out, and he'll say '$30, please,' and everybody feels depressed, because they give away $30 worth of paper, but they've got a cartload of goodies. They don't think about that, they think they've just lost $30. But you've got the real wealth in the cart, all you've parted with is the paper. Because the paper in our system has become more valuable than the wealth. It represents power, potentiality, whereas the wealth, you think oh well, that's just necessary; you've got to eat. That's to be really mixed up. So then, if you awaken from this illusion, and you understand that black implies white, self implies other, life implies death — or shall I say, death implies life — you can conceive yourself. Not conceive, but FEEL yourself, not as a stranger in the world, not as someone here on sufferance, on probation, not as something that has arrived here by fluke, but you can begin to feel your own existence as absolutely fundamental.”

Understood this way, the financial crisis begins to take shape as just another misallocation of our limited attention. Watts, in a separate talk said that the Great Depression was caused by a shortage of dollars, not by a shortage of labor or natural resources. It was like carpenters arriving at a construction site and being told that even though there was plenty of wood and nails, there was a shortage of inches. Until more inches could be manufactured, work had to cease.

Today’s so-called crisis is another shortage of inches. Inflation (an excess of money in relation to available goods, which raises the prices of goods) is less of a near-term threat because, being a representation of debt — what we call “money” — it is rapidly going out of existence as governments and banking institutions fail and their obligations are liquidated at a small fraction of previously assigned worth.

Deflation (a shortage of money in relation to available goods, which lowers the price of goods) is held in check only by the shrinking availability of goods and services — because the limits to growth on a finite planet have been reached and exceeded and a retreat, not to say rout, is underway. We would need three or four planets to honor the debt obligations that back the global quadrillion-dollar financial bubble. That the system is flat bankrupt is squarely the fault of classical economics, and those trained in it, that neglected to insert a part about living on a finite planet and assumed that demand would always create supply. For them we have a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.

Once you have a grasp of this equation: money equals debt; nature is making a margin call — the era of growth is over; notions that we are in a transitory recession are insane; and the reckoning includes  meltdowns like Fukushima, cascading climate catastrophes, regional famines and population collapse — then you can begin to once more think and plan clearly for your own future and the future of your friends, family and community. You can give up notions of missions to Mars, an Aquarian awakening, or some other Deus ex Machina. Just do what you need to do to prepare.

For the past several years we have been pondering the way forward that kills and maims the least number of people, repairs the damage to the fabric of the natural world that we will desparately need to sustain our grandchildren, and might even return the prospect of hope for a better future. False solutions are unhelpful and need to be out-ed and discarded. Anything that assuages political guilt but doesn’t stop a runaway greenhouse effect or de-nuclearize our future needs to be discarded. Any scheme that diminishes soil, fresh water, phosphate, potassium, whales, coral or rainforests needs to be discarded. Flagrant abuses of human rights, torture, and usurpation of tyrannical power need to be not only prohibited but punished.

Rant Alert. Obama-fans cover your ears.

Yes, you Mr. Obama. We are talking to you. Consider the 1,717 and 2,680 individuals whose lives you have taken with your expanded, unmanned predator drone program that has more operators in the field than the entire employment roster of the Central Intelligence Agency. Consider just the young life of Tariq Aziz, age 16, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile. Malia Obama is turning 14 this year, her sister Sasha will be 11. Do they ever look up at the sky and wonder what might be up there, looking back at them? How do you define terrorism, Mr. Obama?

Rant Alert All Clear. Obama-fans you can uncover your ears.

So, thinking about solutions, we need to address finance, climate change, renewable energy and human security. What can move us in that direction most rapidly, as a whole global society?

What we came up with was eCOOL.

The design science of eCOOLnomics combines the Ecovillage and Transition Towns movements (seeking changes in patterns of land use and creating local resilience with community food systems, green incubators and carbon-negative micro-enterprise) with permaculture, carbon farming and popular culture to seed culture change multipliers.

The eCOOL meme draws upon cool hunting, viral propagation and creative volunteerism to accomplish what so far has eluded the UN climate, population, food security and sustainable development negotiations: a way down from overblown expectations, gracefully; a way back from the precipice; a way forward into a steady-state future that is ecologically sustainable.

We can imagine eCOOLnomics driving the launch of carbon-minus rural and urban eCOOLvillages and transitional eCOOLtowns on six continents. We think this idea has the potential to infect the world with a viral meme — that living in a sustainable way is way eCOOL. It is also more fun than any of the alternatives.

The scientific consensus of climate change is unequivocal. We must cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 to 90 percent within the next decade in order to avoid catastrophic warming.

The drivers of climate change are embedded in our global culture — population expansion, which depends on carbon-producing buildings, transportation and workplaces; broadscale industrial agriculture that generates greenhouse gases (both by transforming fossil energy into food, and by emissions from land use change, irrigation and the plow); deforestation and desertification (that removes the light-and-carbon-absorbing capacity of forests and vegetation); and addiction to energy-intensive production and consumption patterns (particularly in the North). No amount of haggling will address these real problems without deep and dramatic cultural change. That change can be positive, however, and eCOOLnomics explores the potential transition paths and modalities.

The Global Ecovillage Network has been pointing the way in this direction for the past 20 years. Launched formally at the UN Habitat-II conference in Istanbul in 1995, GEN existed as an informal network for some years earlier, with at least one of its member ecovillages having been around for 75 years, and other founding members for 40 years or more.

The idea of an ecovillage is that people who share a vision of living lightly on the Earth come together to found settlements that embody a whole-systems approach. Renewable energy, natural building, organic no-till and biodynamic agriculture, holistic medicine, egalitarian governance, gender, ethnic and race neutrality, consensus and conflict-transformation, and progressive education all come together in the ecovillage living matrix. The challenge then becomes, how can we make all this also carbon-negative? How can we sequester more — by our lifestyles and cultural choices — than we emit? How can we better preserve biodiversity in the oceans, reseed great rainforests, and protect the fragile Arctic while meeting our human needs?

Fortunately there are recent examples that show us the way. Take the Satoyama restoration movement in Japan. Forty percent of the land area of Japan is called satoyama, the area between human habitat, fields and wilderness. It is a mosaic of minimal intervention, where farmers, foragers, hunters, and others foray, take a little out, then leave it alone to regrow. Literally, satoyama translates as “Secondary Nature.” It is a management practice that has been around since the beginning of the 17th century.

The satoyama model is promoted by the UN Satoyama Initiative as a model of sustainable living that is increasingly under threat from urbanization, industrialization, and aging of rural populations. Their disappearance leads to increasing poverty of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as biodiversity.

But in 2009, the Hozu Farmers Co-op came up with a new idea.

In the 1990s, global agri-business and forestry conglomerates undercut local markets. In rural Japan, farming families dropped from 9.7 million in 1970 to 2.85 million in 2000 (a 69% decrease). The chances that a given rural mountain community will vanish in the next ten years are 83.2%.

Working with Kameoka City Groceries, Hozu Farmers Co-op started growing cabbages in biochar made from satoyama bamboo and branding "cool vegetables."

No Chemicals + Biochar = Cool Food

The Kameoka Carbon Minus Project said that if biochar was applied at 2.5t/ha over the entire area of Kameoka’s agricultural land (2,100 ha), the carbon equivalent of 154,000 tons of CO2 emissions could be sequestered. That offsets a third of the yearly CO2 emissions from Kameoka. In the process, 570 million yen ($6.2 million) could be gained through the sale of carbon credits (roughly 3,700 yen or $40 per ton CO2).

COOL Vegetables were a great success! People liked the idea of buying healthy food that cooled the planet!

The origin of the cool foods revolution was not in the bamboo forests of Japan, however, but rather from the practices of soil management discovered more than 8000 years earlier, as described in our book, The Biochar Solution. In pre-Columbian times, American peoples took the refuse from their kitchens — fish and animal bones, broken pottery, nut husks, turtle and oyster shells, and cinders from their fires — and built dark earths. Millennia later, those soils provide triple soil productivity over “parent” soils only meters away. So powerful is the soil fertility effect that when the populations of the Americas were decimated by Spanish contact in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, their fields and fine cities returned to forest and vine,  pulling so much carbon from the atmosphere that Europe literally froze!

For nearly 300 years, soil scientists — following the work of Bettendorff, Hartt, Katzer, Sombroek, Glazer, Neves, Steiner, Lehmann and many others — have known that the Amazonian dark earths were man-made. With the discovery of biochar, it finally became possible to duplicate the process. In addition to soil fertility, biochar’s benefits include waste recycling, reduced fertilizer use, nutrient capture, water retention, capture of nitrates, lead, and radionuclides, reduced N2O and methane emissions, job creation, and rural economic development. Part of the secret lies in the micropores that are formed in cellular plant structures when they are burned in the absence of oxygen. Those pores become habitat for soil microbes much the same way a coral reef provides beneficial coastal habitat. A strong soil food web builds fertile soils, rapidly.

If you add in a mix of good carbon farming practices — composting, manuring, microbial teas and seed microfauna, organic no-till, holistic pasture management, keyline water management, and selective agro-forestry — you can build meter-deep soils in a decade or less. The effects are most dramatic in areas with the poorest soils, such as regions on the verge of desertification.

Burning without oxygen can also mean burning without smoke, which leads to the idea of replacing home heating and cooking stoves with pyrolizing kilns that provide the same functions but are clean-burning, inexpensive and easy to use, and instead of generating smoke and ash, make biochar for farming, gardening, and reforestation.

Replacing "three stone" stoves with pyrolytic stoves provides a health dividend equal the eradication of malaria & AIDs combined.

That is precisely what is being done by, whose small biochar stove manufacturing enterprises are now springing up all over Africa, and by the Toledo Cacao Growers Coop in Punta Gorda, Belize, thanks to a grant from Craig Sams, founder of Green & Black's, and Kraft industries. Watch for cool charcolate bars in your neighborhood store in the future! They will have been grown in biochar-enhanced cacao groves, sustainably grown and harvested by Fair Trade cooperatives. While you eat your chocolate, you are locking carbon into the soil for a thousand years. That’s eCOOL!

eCOOLnomics is about building a carbon-negative economy. It requires integration of cultural and scientific goals through a holistic, eCOOL branding approach; rebalancing global eco-stasis by ecoagroforestry, permaculture, pyrolytic energy, ecovillages and cool living. As ecovillages around the world are already demonstrating, it is possible to derive your energy, grow your food, build your buildings, and provide for all your other needs — communication, transportation, governance, etc. — while steadily removing carbon from the atmosphere and oceans and putting it into the soil. We could be annually switching 10 gigatons of carbon from labile forms (carbon-dioxide and methane — rotating through the atmosphere on decadal time-scales) to carbon in recalcitrant forms (biochar — rotating through on millennial time scales). eCOOLnomics is how we can get back to 350 parts per million carbon concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere this century, while at the same time living better, not worse, than we are right now. eCOOLnomics could buy Mother Nature the time she needs to heal.

Building sustainability into human economic systems requires us to construct overlapping and complementary spheres of action — construction, agriculture, manufacture, inhabitation, commerce — that together change the operating instructions for human civilization.

One new financial system for this might be something suggested by the late Richard Douthwaite: soil credit finance. An international fund could be established to deposit and lend soil-carbon based currency. The basis for its grants and loans would be soil fertility. If a nation improves its soil carbon quality (measured by both remote sensing and ground surveys), it would receive credit at the Soil Bank. If a nation degraded soil carbon quality by misguided land use practices or other shenanigans, it would lose credit or even be fined. Another extension, proposed by Herman Daly, would be to implement carbon-like trading for all of Earth’s non-renewable stores. If an industry like agribusiness wrecks the nitrogen cycle and pollutes waterways, it must pay into the fund. Those payments can then be employed to make the switch away from agribusiness and into sustainable agriculture. Likewise for cement manufacturing, fracking the tar sands, or overfishing the oceans. Price non-renewables by the unsustainability of their depletion rates and charge accordingly.

The tipping point — why eCOOL will be more successful than negotiating international regulatory frameworks (although that would help too) — is the stickiness of the idea and allure of the meme: cool living. For individuals, is all carrot, no stick. What are needed now are a combination of grassroots demonstrations — proof of concept — pop celebrity endorsements, and the viral power of the internet.

We recently made a proposal to the BRAC for a pilot program to transform existing ecovillages — one in the North, one in the South — in to eCOOLvillages. BRAC is a development organization dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor to bring about change in their own lives. It was founded in Bangladesh by Fazle Hasan Abed in 1972. BRAC now operates in ten countries in Asia and Africa, with offices in the U.S. and the U.K. If adopted, our program would bring BRAC into Latin America for the first time.

You, dear reader, can help support this proposal by going to the Facebook BRAC page and scrolling down to our proposal, then hitting the LIKE icon. The ten most liked proposals by the end of this month advance to the finals.

Granted, spinning out a new, world-changing meme and hoping it gains traction is a long-shot. Fail, and we continue on a path to ecological catastrophe combining climate change, drought, floods, famine, epidemics, financial collapse, mass migration of the desperate, and resource wars for food and water in a world armed with weapons of mass destruction. Succeed, and we have the opportunity to enter a new golden age, rebalancing Mother Nature’s cycles. eCOOLnomics describes the elements of that transition path.

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