Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dare to Disagree

"Understand, testifying to Congress is a bit like speaking to a senile aunt. They may hear you, but they just mutter something like "Whatever you say, dear," and go back to their soap opera"

Two years ago a TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan garnered 1,819,512 views, and well it should. Heffernan began her story by telling about a person whose acquaintance we shared, Dr. Alice Stewart (1906-2002)

Our first experience with Alice goes back to 1977, when she testified before a House Committee that was looking into the health effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. The Rogers Committee and had called Alice, her co-worker George Kneale and Dr. Thomas Mancuso to testify about their epidemiology study of the Hanford plutonium workers.

Also testifying that day were Drs. Rosalie Bertell and Irwin Bross, who conducted the Tri-state Leukemia Survey that linked in utero x-rays to childhood mortality and Dr. John W. Gofman, one of the co-discoverers of U-233, whose funding at Livermore National Laboratory was suspended when he revealed the world about the likely cancer and genetic consequences of the nation's rush to nuclear power.

All of these people would become friends of ours, some closer than others, but we took the opportunity while in Washington to bike down Constitution Avenue and attend the testimony Alice gave later that same day to the National Academy of Sciences.

Understand, testifying to Congress is a bit like speaking to a senile aunt. They may hear you, but they just mutter something like "Whatever you say, dear," and go back to their soap opera. Stewart, Kneale and Mancuso were received politely by the Congressmen, but apart from making a public record for the sake of history, nothing would come of it.

Down the road at the NAS it was a different story. The knives were out as soon as Alice had finished her opening statement. She was making waves not just in the world of electric power generation, but in the world of medicine and science. She was prepared to demonstrate, and to defend, strong findings that at even the most infinitesimally small doses, exposure to ionizing radiation carries an inexorable risk of mortality. There is no safe dose. She knew it. She could prove it.

The reason Alice Stewart was not afraid was because she had George Kneale.

George was completely ill-suited for the role he found himself thrust into that day; sitting beside Alice before both Congress and the NAS. A tall and heavy-set Brit resembling an unkempt Stephen Fry in a second hand suit, he gave us the impression, when we first spoke, of being marginally autistic, a savant perhaps, but a man who would not hold your eye and would much prefer he were somewhere far away.

Tom Mancuso, a full professor at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, was more like a pugnacious, union shop floor boss, someone who was not afraid to tussle for the rights of his workers if it came to it. Stewart, the medical doctor of the three, seemed weary, as if this experience had happened too many times before, and she knew it was all a colossal play for time — purchased at the cost of real children's lives, in very large numbers.

According to Stewart's telling at the Right Livelihood Awards ceremony in 1986, Kneale had two major contributions to biostatistics while he was still a young man advancing his degrees at Oxford. The first was to discover a way to isolate the confounding variable of death from pneumonia or other secondary infections by way of an impaired immune system (which is more than 300 times more likely to be fatal in children exposed to radiation) from death by leukemia within 5 years following radiation exposure.

Kneale's second achievement, some years later as he began studying radiation workers, was his proof that resistance to cancer from radiation is exceptionally high in men at 20 years of age, but by 50 years it may be no greater as it was shortly before birth.

Stewart first came to prominence as the first woman admitted to the UK Association of Physicians and the youngest ever admitted to the Royal Academy. During World War II she investigated the effects on workers of exposure to TNT in munitions factories, the effects of carbon tetrachloride, and the mysterious prevalence of tuberculosis among workers in the boot and shoe industry.

Heffernan tells Alice's story this way:
[Alice] was unusual because she was really interested in a new science, the emerging field of epidemiology, the study of patterns in disease. But like every scientist, she appreciated that to make her mark, what she needed to do was find a hard problem and solve it. The hard problem that Alice chose was the rising incidence of childhood cancers. Most disease is correlated with poverty, but in the case of childhood cancers, the children who were dying seemed mostly to come from affluent families. So, what, she wanted to know, could explain this anomaly?
Now, Alice had trouble getting funding for her research. In the end, she got just 1,000 pounds from the Lady Tata Memorial prize. And that meant she knew she only had one shot at collecting her data. Now, she had no idea what to look for. This really was a needle in a haystack sort of search, so she asked everything she could think of. Had the children eaten boiled sweets? Had they consumed colored drinks? Did they eat fish and chips? Did they have indoor or outdoor plumbing? What time of life had they started school?
And when her carbon copied questionnaire started to come back, one thing and one thing only jumped out with the statistical clarity of a kind that most scientists can only dream of. By a rate of two to one, the children who had died had had mothers who had been X-rayed when pregnant. Now that finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom held that everything was safe up to a point, a threshold. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which was huge enthusiasm for the cool new technology of that age, which was the X-ray machine. And it flew in the face of doctors' idea of themselves, which was as people who helped patients, they didn't harm them.
Nevertheless, Alice Stewart rushed to publish her preliminary findings in The Lancet in 1956. People got very excited, there was talk of the Nobel Prize, and Alice really was in a big hurry to try to study all the cases of childhood cancer she could find before they disappeared. In fact, she need not have hurried. It was fully 25 years before the British and medical — British and American medical establishments abandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women. The data was out there, it was open, it was freely available, but nobody wanted to know. A child a week was dying, but nothing changed. Openness alone can't drive change.
So for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn't. So, Alice was very outgoing and sociable, and George was a recluse. Alice was very warm, very empathetic with her patients. George frankly preferred numbers to people. But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, "My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong." He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.
It's a fantastic model of collaboration -- thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking.
So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.
And the more I've thought about this, the more I think, really, that that's a kind of love.
Because you simply won't commit that kind of energy and time if you don't really care. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds. Alice's daughter told me that every time Alice went head-to-head with a fellow scientist, they made her think and think and think again. "My mother," she said, "My mother didn't enjoy a fight, but she was really good at them."
So it's one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we've experienced, mostly haven't come from individuals, they've come from organizations, some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives. So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don't. And that isn't because they don't want to, it's really because they can't. And they can't because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.
Because we are the kind of species we are living in the world we inhabit, ethical choices are absolutely incumbent upon us, every day. Our larger task, as sentient life-forms, is to steward that which is placed in our care, nourish it if it is well, restore it to health if it is ill, and then safely pass it along to responsible successors in the next generation.

We are, by virtue of our genetic heritage as herd animals, required to look out for our kin. As we allow our consciousness to expand, as it must, we extend the definition of kin out to all our relations; those with two legs, four legs, eight legs, wings, fins, shells, roots in the ground and taxa beyond number. All our relations. We need them, they need us. It is because they have worth that we have worth.

This is something Alice and George understood very well. They knew they would not be welcome in the lions' den. They knew their seminal works would be challenged on the size of their statistical sample, on the unorthadoxy of a superlinear dose response curve (lower doses are more deadly than higher because they mutate rather than kill cells) and, far worse, go unheeded while thousands perished from lax regulations of these insidious new poisons.

Alice knew John Gofman was right that nuclear power would kill millions of people from legally permitted emissions, even with no accidents (although accidents happen every day). She knew Rosalie Bertell was right about the cause of a childhood epidemic in x-ray-caused leukemias in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She knew all of that could have been prevented if people like those who sat across the table from her at the National Academy — those whose decisions set the standards — would have the courage to choose to act.

It is not as thought they just sat, though. Those who listened to her two public talks that day in 1977 and had authority to take action did. They cut her research funding. When she received the Right Livelihood Award in 1986 she used the small amount of money that came with that to restore funding to yet another of her studies that was being defunded, an investigation into the potential health damage caused to fetuses by ultrasound.

Before she died in 2002, Stewart told The Guardian:
"'Good people are seldom fully recognized during their lifetimes, and here, there are serious problems of corruption. One day it will be realized that my findings should have been acknowledged.'"

"'Plants get all their energy from the sun and so should we,' she would say. Then she would smile wistfully, for she knew how very long that learning curve might be."

Given this pattern of lopping the heads off anyone who tries to warn of danger, it is a wonder why anyone bothers to speak up the way Alice and George did. We know the territory all too well from working on chronically underfunded but incredibly significant projects, and having done so for most of our lives. Occasionally some allies take notice and help us down the path a bit further. Other times we just have to tough it out or hole up until we find the support to make it to next stages of our research.

This week we published a collection of our essays that appeared on this site from 2008 to 2014 and were selected by our readers as most popular. These are our biggest hits. They are now a free download for members of Kindle Unlimited, and $1.99 to everyone else. It is our hope that the collection will generate enough sales to get us to our next stop, which is the North American Permaculture Convergence in Minnesota over Labor Day weekend. We have been invited there to speak on the subject of the state of permaculture in 2014, but they don't provide expenses or honoraria.

Our feelings about permaculture is that it is a useful framework, a multiplier for energy efficiency, but all by itself does not pay the rent. It may be ethical but it is not always economic, and therein lies its greatest challenge — macroeconomic reform to account for neglected externalities like coral reefs, social justice and children with leukemia.

It's worth having that conversation. We are hoping enough others agree to make it possible. So far, enough people have bought our new book, Pour Evian on Your Radishes,
in the first 24 hours to push it to the ninth best seller of Kindle's collected essays category.  

The last image in the book is a photograph of a handmade protest sign. In a dusty rural village in Mexico we happened upon this, stapled to a picket fence. The wind was blowing, so we had to reach out and hold it to the fence while we took the photo. 

The sign says, "If you want justice, don't have fear. If you want peace, don't be of faint heart."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mr. Toad in Union Grove

"Kunstler is teaching us patience, an attribute that our digital world is trying hard to render obsolete. It is an essential skill for the turn that our collective sense of passing time is poised to make."

A History of The Future  

by James Howard Kunstler

Pulling a copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows off a bookshelf, Andrew Pendergast, without question James Howard Kunstler’s most autobiographical character in this series so far, sits at the bedside of his friend Jack Harron, who is recuperating from a deadly fight with an assailant bent on murdering them both.

“What’s it about?” Jack said when Andrew held up the cover.
“A rat and a mole and a badger and a toad who mess around in boats down by a little stream in the English countryside.”
“They all get along, all these different animals?” Jack said.
“They’re all friends,” Andrew said. “It’s a book about friendship.”

A History of The Future is a book about friendship. It describes another hard won Christmas season in the lives of the citizens of Union Grove, a Hudson Valley town that we have come to know and appreciate in previous installments of the World Made By Hand series. Back are many of the earlier characters, including some we have not seen for quite some time, and new and even more interesting refugees enter our circle of friends.

The novel is an exploration of the process of rebuilding a broken civilization, even as the old continues to decay and collapse in both expected and unexpected ways. Civil society cannot be rebuilt by solitary individuals, religious charismatics, wealthy aristocrats, or fascist dictators although all those find a place in this future world. It takes the whole lot — the rats, the moles, the badgers and the toads — struggling to cooperate as friends, to find common ground and stand a chance.

Kunstler is a moralist. His good guys win. The bad guys get what they deserve, or are just left to inhabit whatever Hell they’ve made for themselves. The tale, though, revolves around what a good guy has to do, just to survive.

The Yiddish word beshert refers to that which God has given. And, in Judaism — as in Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and probably every other religion — there has always been a heated debate about how much of fate is determined by higher authority — a monster in the sky, as Paul Erhlich says — and how much is the result of human choices — good and bad. To quote Maimonides,  “Every human being can be righteous or wicked, merciful or cruel, avaricious or charitable. There is no compulsion exerted upon one. A person chooses one’s way with one’s own determination.”

Maimonides, who lived in Spain at the end of the 12th century, also did not think of progress in terms of technological or cultural advancement, as cumulative. Maimonides said it was cyclical. This is the aboriginal view, and for someone in his time and place, or even now, it’s quite a radical notion. For Kunstler, we can foretell our future by simply surveying the contemporary milieu — global Ponzi economics, gas gauge on ‘E’, weather getting weird — but history is circular. After the cataclysm comes another Christmas.

We have often disagreed with Kunstler’s provincial view of the American South as it occasionally pops up in his nonfiction essays and books. Kunstler is such a devout Yankee that he has often portrayed New England wisdom and ingenuity as the sole province of the old Union; that below the Mason-Dixon Line there be nothing but Skol-chewing bubbas, hearing-damaged NASCAR fanatics, racial bigots and fried food junkies imprisoned by air conditioning.

The War of Northern Aggression, in our humble opinion, was, like most wars, all about energy. The North was rich in coal and the factories run by that magnificent jewel of fossil sunlight. Then, mid-18th century, Col. Drake discovered bubbling “coal oil” in Pennsylvania, a real game changer.

In contrast to these überpowerful energy slaves, the Southern states operated on the old economy, you know, the human and animal-powered one. The one that built the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, and Machu Picchu and the Great Wall. The Southern plantation economy was based on imports of African slaves. The North had the luxury of enough fossil energy slaves to afford emancipation of its human ones. The moral rectitude to actually do so gradually arrived, in fits and starts. Then they had to lord it over everyone else.

Until Texas and Louisiana discovered oil half a century later, the South had no such leeway. In the epic 19th Century contest between machine power and humans, the machine won. A region of the United States that was militarily superior in the acumen of its Generals, the skill of its cavalry and the esprit of brotherly men in arms was occupied and enslaved, then punished for more than a century, reduced to the lowest echelons on every index of human welfare, and finally addicted to talk radio, NASCAR and air conditioning. But don’t count them out.

Surprisingly, Kunstler doesn’t. He takes a more generous tack in A History of the Future. The South, while enthralled by Christian bigots, has established itself as a rival government to what is left of the federal sovereignty, rumored to be somewhere up in the Great Lakes. The center of this rival government is at Franklin, Tennessee, a town with which we are personally very familiar — Old Highway 31S is a route we’ve bicycled.

Franklin today embodies much of what Kunstler-the-non-fiction-expert-on-urban-design lauds. It revitalized its pedestrian downtown by moving traffic out to encircling corridors; enshrined its landmark buildings; in-filled the broken teeth on Main Street with antebellum vernacular; and revived the local arts, theater and music scene. While it has become for now a tony bedroom community for wealthy Nashville commuters, it is a perfect setting for a national capitol in a more austere and decentralized future. In many ways, Franklin Tennessee is Union Grove, only hotter.

The World Made By Hand series gives only short glimpses of the changes in weather that lie in store for any future history. There may be a shortage of wheat or a ruined season for other crops, but Union Grove still gets snow in winter. Sacramento is still above water and apparently no one has died of insect swarms or clathrate flares. Changes in climate, which are almost certain to radically alter our lives in the next 50 years, are not really part of this story.

In any science fiction yarn that becomes a series a writer has to be alert to the danger of revealing too much backstory lest new narrative choices are straightjacketed in with the old, or worse, the details he describes are so ludicrous in light of actual events that his work later falls into ridicule.

In his first two novels, much of Kunstler’s imagined history remained cloaked in mystery and conjecture. As the dust jacket tells the casual browser, “The electricity has flickered out. The automobile age is over. The computers are all down for good. Two great cities have been destroyed. Epidemics have ravaged the population. The people of a little town named Union Grove, in upstate New York, know little about what is going on outside Washington County.”

The third novel gives a much larger sweep of the shocks that presaged the predicament in which the people of Union Grove find themselves. Our “messenger,” Robert Earle’s long lost son Daniel, arrives back on Christmas Eve, near dead from exhaustion and hunger, to tell the story of what he saw “out there.”

So gripping is his story that in the print edition, Grove Atlantic has set it apart with a change of font and format. It is a novel within a novel, and we would defy anyone to set it down for longer than it takes to refill a teacup. With Daniel’s story Kunstler has us in his grip, but he teases us with the intermittent resumption of the “real time” plots and subplots, leaving us hanging onto our curiosity as we wade through the needs of Union Groves’ badgers and moles for their part in the tale. Kunstler is teaching us patience, an attribute that our digital world is trying hard to render obsolete. It is an essential skill for the turn that our collective sense of passing time is poised to make.

When you walk from home to work, or to shop; when you sit out to watch the sunset instead of the television; when you spend a day teaching yourself bicycle mechanics, watercolor, or cheese making — you are once again present in the world. To the uninitiated, peering in at this scenario for the future, it all seems so very quaint. Hardly.

“I got forty-six highly motivated skilled men with good tools,” Brother Jobe tells Magistrate Stephen Bullock. “That’s my insurance. And, by the way, if you thought that was funny, it ain’t.”

This review originally appeared on Resilience.

Albert Bates is author of his own positive vision of the future, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (New Society Publishers 2006), and provided a practicable remedy for global carbon imbalance with The Biochar Solution (New Society Publishers 2010). When not giving workshops at Mother Earth News Fairs he teaches permaculture and natural building in an ecovillage in Tennessee, future capital of the New South.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

One Hundred Thirty Nine Square Miles of Sand, Part III: Denouement

"There is no peace through war. Peace only comes by being peaceful. There is no justice through violence. Justice can only be achieved by non-violence. Ultimately, there can be no peace without first finding a path to justice. It is that simple, and that difficult."

Francisco de Goya, No llegan a tiempo
Deir Yassin was like Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River. Gaza is Wounded Knee.

Before the current invasion, Yuval Diskin former director of Israel's internal security service Shin Bet, told Der Spiegel:

"They [Palestinians] will never accept the status quo of the Israeli occupation. When people lose hope for an improvement of their situation, they radicalize. That is the nature of human beings. The Gaza Strip is the best example of that. All the conditions are there for an explosion. So many times in my life I was at these junctions that I can feel it almost in my fingertips."

Francisco de Goya, It will be the same
The Israeli Cabinet, unable to decide mission or rules of engagement, turned the decision over to the IDF. Which is to say, in 2014, turned it over to the military industrial corporate world by which the IDF, like its US counterparts, has long been captured. The Masters of War decided IDF could spend a year’s defense budget, or five, if it wanted, on the Gaza campaign. It would all be replaced with newer, more advanced, and more expensive munitions over the next few contract cycles. What might 10 or 20 billion in ordnance do to one hundred thirty nine square miles of sand? Only time will tell. There are no restraints.

We keep hearing in the Western press that the current military offensive in Gaza is a reprisal for kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students; and the later firing of rockets by Hamas militants in Gaza when an Israeli settler mob killed a Palestinian child and Israeli police severely beat another. But we have to ask, in all honesty, really?

The military decision had nothing whatsoever to do with these prior events. It came at the end of one of the most tranquil periods in many years. Those events were pretext for what had already been planned — “mowing the grass” as the commanders called it. 

Missile strike on Gazan farm, Unosat image by NY Times
At first glance it seems an impossible task. Israel's strategy in the twenty-first century against hostile non-state groups, such as Hamas, and even moderate two-state initiatives, is disengagement, subversion and brutal reprisal for any offense. Israel and Palestine thus find themselves in a protracted intractable conflict. The use of force in such a conflict is not intended to attain political goals, but rather to debilitate or ridicule the opponent.

The Gaza operation’s army code-name is “Protective Edge” in English, but the original Hebrew is more revealing: Tzuk Eitan, or “solid cliff.” That, the army seemed to feel, is where Israel is headed.

The western press likes to frame the story “as if Palestinians and Israelis were fighting each other on an equal level playing field,” says Mnar Muhawesh, a journalist who lived in Jerusalem (and, in 2009, the first US reporter to wear the hijab to anchor/report the news).

“It was framed as Muslim versus Jew, and the Palestinians were referred to as terrorists or militants in most media coverage. However, the majority of our neighbors in Jerusalem were Palestinian Christians suffering from the same military occupation as their fellow Muslim Palestinians. This was no Muslim versus Jew fight.”

Francisco de Goya, May 3rd
As in Deir Yassin, the Christian churches of Gaza, which seem to be untargeted at the moment, have given shelter to displaced families. At least one pastor has said that Islamic prayers in his church are welcome.

Israel has been surprised by the resistance but, actually, it only helps Israel, not Palestine, when rockets are fired from Gaza. As Israeli peace activist Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote recently, Hamas rocket attacks are “the best friend of the Israeli settlers, right-wing Israeli extremists, and the Netanyahu government.”

“Netanyahu's recent statement essentially confirming that he will never accept an independent Palestinian state show how foolish the US’s calls for ‘more negotiations’ are, because the US just adds fuel to the fire by simultaneously asserting that it supports Israel's right to defend itself when in danger. Israel’s legitimate fear of ISIS, Iran, and fundamentalist forces in the Middle East, does not excuse the state from confronting those of us who argue that the strategy of ‘power over’ is not one that will strengthen Israel in the long run—it will weaken it.


Hamas’s demands all seem quite reasonable to most Palestinians, and really make sense: free the newly arrested Palestinians who were doing nothing but sitting in their homes when Israeli troops invaded looking for the three kidnapped Israeli teens (a complete sham since the Israeli top leadership knew [for 18 days] that those teens had already been murdered the very night they were kidnapped), stop the blockade of Gaza and allow Gazans access to the Mediterranean sea for fishing purposes, and end the targeted assassinations of Palestinians and the drone strikes that have caused an average of 2-3 children to die every week for the past eight years (something that most Israelis and most Americans don't know or can't grasp).”

Clashing Perspectives

In much the way that Hamas short-term goals strengthen the hand of Israeli NeoCons, so continued unfettered financial aid plays into the hands of Arab militant groups and those who would rather Israel simply ceased to exist. As Joel Bainerman, publisher of Tel Aviv Business, wrote for Middle East Quarterly:

“In the debate over U.S. aid to Israel, politics has always taken precedence over economics: supporters of Israel in the United States see money as a means to express commitment to Israel. But this is a mistake. … Unless Israel's supporters see the wealth-generating capability of the Israeli people and their thriving industries, the Jewish state will remain relegated to economic and political dependency, no matter how high its per capita GDP or how large its economy.”

Gaza Main Power Station July 30, photo by @Farah_Gazan
Israel is the only country to receive nearly all of its economic aid in the form of a cash payment. By spending a mere tenth of one percent of the defense spending budget it receives from the United States on elections of Congressmen and Senators in the United States (with no restrictions because of the U.S. Supreme Court), Israel can choose whom it wishes to win any US (or UK, or EU, or Ukrainian) election and whom it wishes to lose. This political truth is clear to anyone running for national office, as can be readily seen from any of their public statements. This is the Balfour legacy: a pox on the governments that divided Transjordan. They are now captives of the devil they knew.

Perhaps we should be grateful. In the Tea Bag era, foreign aid is perhaps the least popular budget item but Israel is easily the most popular recipient of funds. Its presence is often the only thing that makes it possible to pass a bill assisting victims of tsunamis, drought, war and AIDS.

And over that dark cabal — the militaries, the elected officials, the economies that control the citizenry by enclosing the commons — is one ring to rule them all — the ring of corptopcracy; the plutocrats, gold parachutists, vulture capital lenders and banksters. Gaza is being reduced to rubble because there are profits to be made.

Israel had a chance to de-fang Hamas by endorsing the coalition government and all of the concessions Hamas made to get that to happen. It did the opposite, condemning the coalition. Israel had the chance to follow the roadmap to a Two State Solution and instead continued to colonize the West Bank with illegal settlements. We could go on ad nauseum, and can readily acknowledge the Palestinians cannot claim clean hands or clear conscience either. 

Always attracted by its natural beauty and heroic inhabitants, we have returned to Israel and Palestine often since 1991. We have visited scores of kibbutzim and lived in two of them for a time. We have stayed in the Palestinian West Bank, where today we sponsor a Peace thru Permaculture project at a farm near Nabluus. We went with our Muslim friends to morning and evening prayer, learned to make hummus and pita, and picked fresh olives.

We have also shared a Shavuot banquet out in the moonlight on kibbutz under a canopy of lights, and listened to the kuddish recited over a glass of wine, eaten apple slices dipped in honey, and broken challah on Rosh Hashanah in Tel Aviv. These cultures should not be at war. They are very similar; brothers and sisters under the skin. They worship one God, revere desert traditions, and share a common love of the same birds, butterflies and flowers.

Until the political duels of great powers spilled into their region in search of oil, they lived together in peace and prosperity.

For Israel today, it is whack-a-mole. Even if Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other groups could be terminated, the alternatives are draconian: Israeli occupation rule; risky elections with the possibility of even more radical groups; or continuing civilian bombings like Gaza. To the policymakers, there are no good choices.

But actually, there are.

Peace never comes from the barrel of a gun. It comes from willingness to be peaceful in seeking fair and just solutions, even when outrages surround you.

16 March 2003, Rafah, Occupied Gaza. Rachel
Corrie holds a megaphone and pleads with the
IDF soldier who is about to kill her.
It takes courage. We remember with tears in our eyes 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, of Olympia Washington, who, in 2003, placed herself in front of an IDF bulldozer to protect a Palestinian family, and was mowed down in plain view of the driver, who then reversed and backed his blade back over her limp body. 

We think about that young Israeli soldier in 1991, about Rachel Corrie’s age, standing guard in his iron tower at Gaza Beach and thinking how idyllic the scene was. Turning around, he looked down the barrel of his Uzi at 1000 Palestinians, most of them boys of 14 or 16, arrested and imprisoned for life for throwing stones, or because another boy, under hideous torture, named a friend or rival as an accomplice whether it was true or not. That boy wrote: 
“We too, in our way, are the victims…. I realize that the problem is the division of labor—the labor of evil. This division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people.
Francisco de Goya, Prisoner III
After all, the people who voted ‘Likud’ aren’t evil. And the ministers who sit in the Likud government aren’t evil. They don’t hit children in the stomach with their fists. And the chief of staff is not evil. He carries out what the elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil—really not. And the interrogators—well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they say, impossible to govern the territories unless they do it. And as for the jailers, most of them are not evil either. 

Yet in some magical way, all these not-evil people manage together to produce a result that is very evil indeed. Worse: a result that is evil itself. And evil is always greater than the sum of its parts. Or the sum of those who contribute to it. 

That is to say: despite our Schweikian exterior, our clumsiness, our pathetic petty-bourgeois ways, we are the evil in Gaza. Only this evil of ours is an evil in disguise. A cunning evil. For it is an evil that happens, as it were, apart. The responsibility is no one’s.”

We would not venture so far as to say the responsibility is no one’s. We play our part every time we pay our taxes or vote for another fawning lapdog politician. Every young Israeli who chooses to serve instead of becoming a conscientious objector takes responsibility. Every Palestinian who hurls a rock or votes for Hamas must take responsibility.

Sarah Vardi spent 3 years in prison for her beliefs, photo by Judy Rand
And then there is Sahar Vardi. Her Israeli father went to prison as a sarvanim—a conscientious objector. When Sahar was a young girl she would join her father with Ta’ayush, a coexistence group of Israelis and Palestinians. She went to work with Palestinian villagers planting trees and tending crops. She witnessed first-hand what few Israeli children ever see: abuse from teenage soldiers whose powers are unchecked; 1000-year-old olive trees bulldozed; taunts and insults from militant immigrant settlers; the slow, random, meaningless bleeding deaths in ambulances stopped for hours at checkpoints.

She recalls that “[t]he shock was not from the brutality of the occupation or of a specific soldier, but from witnessing the ordinary day-to-day situation of going through checkpoints, fearing the demolition of their homes and knowing that every 18-year old soldier has the power to control their life.”

Sahar is now 21 years old.  In addition to her on-going work as a conscientious objector to military service, Sahar now also actively protests the eviction of Arab Israeli families from their homes in order to make way for Jewish settlements. She is working with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement.

There is no peace through war. Peace only comes by being peaceful. There is no justice through violence. Justice can only be achieved by non-violence. Ultimately, there can be no peace without first finding a path to justice. It is that simple, and that difficult.

Boycotting Apartheid

On July 9 2005, a year after the International Court of Justice declared Israel’s Wall in the Occupied Territories (OT) illegal, Palestinians called upon people of conscience all over the world to launch broad boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel until Palestinian human rights are restored. 

The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad demographics of the Palestinians: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Peace Protest in Tel Aviv
The BDS  strategy is unifying many who used to argue. It is now endorsed by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements. And, it is going global.

We had intended to close this 3-part series with a link to a new crowdfunding campaign, but that did not turn out as we expected. Our Palestinian partners felt it would be unethical and unseemly to turn the groundswell of world sympathy for Gaza to their benefit. 

Moreover, as one of our partners, a Palestinian woman in Jerusalem, pointed out:

My main concern with this is the abuse of the peace concept especially on an environmental level. The BDS movement is growing and becoming strong and after many discussions we had with many permaculturists in Palestine, there seems to be an agreement to follow the BDS guidelines when it comes to permaculture work or environmental work in general. Therefore, any campaign that calls for peace is highly criticized unless it is with partners that are officially acknowledging occupation and are working to a just peace and an end to the control of land and resources. Unfortunately, no Israeli permaculture farm is willing to do that and especially not [green kibbutzim].

Still, to walk the long walk to peace we have to exchange each other's shoes.

So, for example, Noam Chomsky makes the point  that “the United States should also be condemned and punished for providing the decisive military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support for these crimes.”  We wholly concur. Indeed, true justice dictates that the US should get out of North America and pay reparations to the continent’s original inhabitants, as well as restoring their lands, forests, soils and animals.

Irish Protest, Aug 1
That said, even we would have great difficulty adopting a boycott of all US-made products and services to accomplish that end. There is no way we could still remain living here in Tennessee and adhere to such a boycott. Perhaps that is the point with respect to the Boycott National Committee's position towards Israeli peace activists — they should first acknowledge the occupation and then adopt BDS. Easy enough for outside permaculturists to endorse BDS. Not so easy for Israeli permies, or even Palestinian permaculturists living inside Israel.

Permaculture brings peace by achieving food sovereignty, decolonizing our food systems and supporting local producers. It restores the natural world that makes human life possible, even in the desert. People care/Earth care. This is as true in a war zone as anywhere.

Our Palestinian friend concluded:

“I also firmly believe that through permaculture, we will achieve and regain our dignity, sovereignty and power to make the occupation and the government that designed it obsolete — and not merely a peace opportunity.”

We do what we can. Using our website and tax-exempt number, we channel donations directly to  permaculture projects inside both Israel and the OT.  We support the peace flotillas. We recommend especially worthy crowdsource campaigns.  We urge anyone who can, to go there and get a personal experience. Apprentice or take a permaculture course. Volunteer to work alongside Sahir Vardi, wherever she goes. Get on the right side of history.

Lord Balfour may have had the best of intentions, but what he created is something no one should have to endure. If the British had wanted it to be over quickly, they should have gone with Uganda.


The situation may take a sharp turn very soon in any event. Sweltering temperatures and a rising sea will place more demands on an already precarious water supply. Keeping all those high-rise buildings air-conditioned will take a lot more energy. Electricity? There’s a gap of 100 to 150 billion cubic meters between what Israel’s Natural Gas Authority says will be needed by 2020 and what can be produced. Moreover, Israel’s geologists are warning that its natural gas, now one of its major exports, is unlikely to last much longer.

Canadian analyst Michel Chossudovsky has estimated that the amount of natural gas BP has in proven reserves just off Gaza could make Palestine as gas-rich as Kuwait, to the tune of $4 billion at current world prices. That assumes a lot, such as the willingness of Palestine’s government to sacrifice life on Earth by bringing that gas up and selling it (for the value of a one year in public and private US aid to Israel). 

If Gaza ceases to exist as part of Palestine, however, that decision would fall to Israel. It would have to choose between the political truth of air conditioning demanded now and the physical consequence of human extinction a century or more from now. And, when that gas is gone — and the sun is beating down hotter than before — what then?

Take away natural gas, electricity or international aid and what do you have left? If the Cuban Special Period was a preview for what is coming globally, Israel should be preparing for the possibility all its major donors might suddenly be forced to pull the plug on their aid. Philanthropy is already running through a gauntlet of calls for boycott. Nations will too.

If the national electric grid runs out of gas and oil, the supply of food in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be gone in just a few days. What then?

Israelis will suddenly realize that those thousands of agricultural kibbutzim that used to support the economy, and did so amazingly even before modern petrochemical farming, are no longer there, and you can’t eat bullets, helicopter parts and drone software.

In the collapse scenario, who’s the biggest loser? People living in high rises in urban areas, the ones that have moonlight jazz bands on their patios. Who wins? Rural farmers with solid family connections to tribal village support systems. Who are they? Palestinians, by and large.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.