Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Gift of the Maya

"The Maya forest garden holds, in its ramblings and roots, a hidden-in-plain-sight way through our present crises."

  It takes a bit of time for the elegance of a food forest to emerge, something on the order of decades. Strolling the garden through the morning mist in a hot Tennessee summer, we tried to remember what this landscape looked like 21 years ago, when we moved to this site, set up our yurt and started in on our little corner of paradise.

What we see today does not remotely resemble what was here then. Then there was a wire-fenced, stony horse paddock in a re-emerging poplar forest. The deep soil tilth now is blanketed in thick vines, their giant leaves hiding pumpkins, squashes and melons. Bamboo cathedrals twined with akebia and passionfruit arch 70 feet (20 meters) over a duck pond next to our cob henhouse. As we let out our poultry for their daily bug chase, bullfrogs croak and leap away. A snapping turtle submerges beneath the mat of duckweed and hyacinths at the water's edge. All around us figs, peaches, apples, pears, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, plums and persimmons bend down boughs under the weight of their fruit, rabbits stealing out to grab a windfall and then hop back to cover, while high up in the oaks, beech, butternuts and hickories, squirrel forest wardens check the progress of their winter larder.

All this complexity, shrouded in mist and glistening in dew, would not be called orderly by farmers trained in Ag schools or raised in a tradition of straight rows and powerful machines with air-conditioned cabs. They can pump food from the earth the way you would pump barrels of oil, but not without depleting reserves accumulated over eons. As they pour on chemicals, the genetically monocultured crops gradually but inexorably lose nutrient density and attract predators.

Our general health as a society reflects that loss and malaise. Family treasures are squandered on biotech voodoo and Roundup potions in the pursuit of a false paradigm of technological progress, but the escalating fixes are unable to stem the tide of biological entropy. And all the while, just beyond the fences, magical weeds of awesome power dance in anticipation of the invaders' surrender and patiently await the return of their lost domain.

We have been reading The Maya Forest Garden by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. It tells the tale of a civilization that weathered many climate changes, foreign conquests and failed attempts at cultural genocide. That civilization is still there today, after 8,000 years. There are more children born and raised in families today whose first language is a Mayan dialect than during the Classic period 1400 years ago.

When the first two-leggeds arrived in Mesoamerica over 10,000 years ago, the region was cool and arid – akin to the Great Plains of central Canada. Over the next 2,000 years, as the Hemisphere continued to emerge from the great Ice Age, Mesoamerica became a warm and wet tropical region, reaching an early heating peak during the Holocene Thermal Maximum before settling back to the wet tropics we find there today.

Ford and Nigh disagree with popular myths told by historians of rapacious city-states that denuded their landscape to bake lime for painting temples and then starved. They write:

The Maya and their ancestors have been living in this region for more than 10,000 years. Why would they cut down the forest that was their garden? Even after concerted efforts by governments and private interests to convert forest to pasture over the past half of the twentieth century, and after development schemes to introduce commercial annual monocrops into the perennial polycultivated croplands, and in spite of global trade agreements that have jeopardized the smallholder, the Maya forest has lived to tell the tale.

It is important to understand that the developed European culture views agriculture and forests as incompatible. That idea is embedded in our understanding of "arable" [Latin: to plow] and in the Malthusian view that agricultural lands are finite, based on the medieval concept of "assart," the act of converting forest into arable land.


To evaluate ancient land use, we must conjure a world without the plow, without cattle or horses, where work in the fields was accomplished by hand, and where transport was on foot.

According to Ford and Nigh, the Maya forest garden was not just an indelible feature that withstood the rise and fall of successive empires, but holds, in its ramblings and roots, a hidden-in-plain-sight way through our present crises.

We argue that conservation of the Maya forest must engage the traditional farmer, whose skills and knowledge created – and continue to maintain – the forest and its culture.

Land use changed over time based on social constraints. In ancient times, smallholders who produced a variety of goods and services from the forest were at times compelled to increase production to pay taxes and to feed the elites and their armies. This process continues today. Greater demands for exports from the forest require denser populations, because working hilly terrain without machines or animals requires hands and feet. Today it may imply imported labor, a form of economic slavery not much different than in the Classic Maya era. To the extent that human labor for cultivation and transportation has been replaced with fossil energy, the requirements for human slaves have diminished.

One barrel of oil has 5.7 million BTUs of energy, or 1700 kWh. An average adult can, in hard labor, generate 0.6 kWh/day. That's 11 years of human labor packed into each barrel of oil. Put another way, fifty dollars currently buys you eleven petroleum slaves working year-round at hard labor. What would those slaves cost if they were human? Ten thousand dollars? Half a million dollars? It depends on where you get them and what tasks they perform for you.

Thanks to petroslavery, we have higher wages, higher profits, really cheap products and more people doing little to nothing. The average USAnian uses 60 barrels per year (or equivalent coal, gasoline and fracked gas) or roughly 660 fossil slaves standing at the beck and call of each and every citizen. Those numbers are quite a bit less in the Mayan world today, but nonetheless significant, and growing. Farmers don't have to carry corn and mangos to the city on their backs, although no one has yet found a way to machine-harvest cacao or spray-pollinate vanilla vines.

Nonetheless, extraction costs for fossil fuels are rising -- 17% per year for the past 10 years. That drives up energy costs and as that price goes up, its like having to pay your slaves. Profits decline, and some slaves get laid off.

As we lose our energy slaves, will we go back to sending our army to snatch human slaves from weaker or less militaristic neighbors? The Classic Maya were something like that. With cheap slave energy gained by conquest they paved roads and built pyramids. Many historians assume they overran their resources or had a slave revolt, but Ford and Nigh have eliminated ecocide, because food resources never diminished. Slavery has its limits and the Maya's slaves may have reached theirs.

Misleading assumptions about Mayan ecological demise, and climate over 10,000 years, came from paleoclimatic reconstructions based on lake sediments and pollen counts. Ford and Nigh point out that the pollen data emphasize windborne pollen, and yet, in the tropics, all but about 2 percent of plants are pollinated by bees, birds, bats and butterflies. 

Ford and Nigh picked up clues from ramon trees and grassland forbs, which were better indicators of the milpa cycle. While climate perturbations, sometimes severe, occurred repeatedly, the heaviest climate changes came in the Early Holocene, before the appearance of the Maya. The milpa system evolved in that era, as proof of concept for climate-resilient agriculture.
The Maya resource system, based on the milpa forest garden cycle of the past and present, adapts to extreme conditions by moderating the impacts of deluges and managing land cover against drought. The system was resilient under conditions of change, and the climatic stability of the Classic promoted the rise of the Maya civilization.
Milpa farming: patch clearance and rotational forest plots
Ford and Nigh conclude that the Classic Era, while it was not without impact -- evidenced by high phosphorus lake sediment loading and diminishing soil quality -- did not end from an environmental collapse. And yet, 1100 years ago, the Empire broke down and retreated back into the jungle. Civic centers gradually depopulated and rural farms resumed their ubiquity. Soil quality began to improve and runoff to decrease.

The Maya did not disappear, they dispersed. Having little to interest outside invaders, the last of their strongholds, at Nojpeten, was not conquered by the Spanish until 1697, on the Ides of March. (In ancient Greece, that date also marked Pharmakos, which involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. History may not repeat, but it rhymes.)

When the human slavery system ended, it was not replaced by machine or animal slaves (they had neither). It was replaced with tree crops – vegetable slaves --  toiling without complaint, providing myriad household and ecological services, and asking only the occasional tender loving care. Skills that could glean the most from any terrain were passed generation to generation down to the present. 

In the Cartesian view of the world everything is separated into chemicals, physical properties, or energy systems. The quantum entanglement of the real world is much less simple. It took a few thousand years for humans to find harmony with their environment and to co-evolve the comfortable Holocene climate, as much a product of human respect for the limits of the natural world as of galactic and planetary cycles. No doubt some shaman warned a Neolithic hunting party not to slay the last mastodon, but they didn't listen, and we got an Ice Age, or worse, agriculture.

Once the original instructions were forgotten, thanks in no small measure to electric lights, television and the internet, the Holocene weave began unraveling. Biodiversity and soil fertility plummeted, population skyrocketed, and the popular culture of idle elite tilted to the kinky, bloodthirsty and perverse. If this sounds like the Maya, that would not be far wrong, but we are speaking of the times we live in. We have lost our way.

The Maya forest shows us a way home, should we choose to take it.

This past Thursday, NASA senior scientist James Hansen and 17 co-authors published a paper, “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2°C global warming is highly dangerous,” in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics discussion group. The paper noted that despite repeated warnings for more than 25 years, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and fossil fuels remain the primary energy source.

"The argument is made that it is economically and morally responsible to continue fossil fuel use for the sake of raising living standards, with expectation that humanity can adapt to climate change and find ways to minimize effects via advanced technologies," the paper says. " We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity…."
Modern farming: trying to recreate Normandy in Mexico and Belize

Specifically, the authors, making an end run around lengthy peer review in order to address delegates who will gather at the UN climate summit in Paris in December, point out that even if the UN denouement is extraordinarily successful and achieves its 2-degree target, civilization will not avert catastrophe.


As Natalia Shakhova, a professor at the University Alaska Fairbanks, told Dahr Jamail of Truthout  last January, the transition from the methane being frozen in the permafrost, either on land or in the shallow continental shelves, "is not gradual. When it comes to phase transition, it appears to be a relatively short, jump-like transformation from one state of the process to another state. The difference between the two states is like the difference between a closed valve and an open valve. This kind of a release is like the unsealing of an over-pressurized pipeline."

Shakhova has been warning for years that a 50-gigaton "burp" of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is "highly possible at anytime." That would be the equivalent of 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), three thousand times what is released from the Siberian shelf in an average year. Humans have released approximately 1,475 GtCO2 since 1850 from fossil fuel burning and land use changes. Ninety percent of that was absorbed by the ocean; some frozen in ocean sediments as clathrates.

The Permian mass extinction of approximately 95 percent of all species on the planet 250 million years ago was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius. The lava caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, the Permian methane "burp" caused temperatures to skyrocket.

Hansen's group warns that is not too late to avert a similar fate this time, but it will take more than reducing carbon emissions.

Rapid transition to abundant affordable carbon-free electricity is the core requirement, as that would also permit production of net-zero-carbon liquid fuels from electricity. The rate at which CO2 emissions must be reduced is about 6%/yr to reach 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 by about 2100, under the assumption that improved agricultural and forestry practices could sequester 100 GtC.

Actually, we know that improved agricultural and forestry practices can sequester on the order of 10 GtC annually, and could return the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial greenhouse chemistries (250 ppmv CO2e) by 2100 if scaled rapidly. We know that from studying, among other clues, the Maya forest.

Ford and Nigh conclude:

If we take these real human and ecological costs into account and systematically compare them to the intensive Maya milpa, we find that milpa is neither primitive nor unproductive and is positive for human health and the environment. Food produced by the milpa is of high quality, as it is based on the natural fertility maintained in the forest garden cycle, where regenerated woodlands continually restore minerals and organic matter. High biodiversity assures that pesticides are unnecessary and all wastes are recycled in the field. Water is managed by the conservation of vegetation and by the infiltration of rainwater stored in the soil. A healthy and natural relationship is fostered for animals that are attracted to the secondary vegetation of the milpa forest garden, resulting in a kind of semi-domestication based on the landscape. Dependence on fossil fuels is nonexistent, and far from contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the Maya milpa creates a long-term store of carbon in the soil.

Significantly, the milpa and its diversity provide a livelihood for farm families and a food surplus for local markets.


Yet milpa agroforestry seems to violate the master narrative of our times: the incessant march of progress from hunter-gatherer to complex sedentary agriculture. The Eurocentric vision assumes that Western civilization is the pinnacle of human progress and that disappearing cultures can only aspire to emulate it. Not only in the popular mind but also in the view of scientists, politicians, and technicians, it is capitalist industrial agriculture that is the unquestioned standard of production; all previously existing forms are, in this view, ready to be replaced.

We must vindicate the milpa forest garden and similarly sophisticated systems of human ecology that are native to their place. Their intricacy, subtlety, and contribution to our environmental balances are critical to our future.

The gift of the Maya, at least some of them, is to never have forgotten. The gift of Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, and James Hansen, after rigorous lifetimes in this arcane scientific pursuit, is the retelling of that story to a world audience.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Stranded Expectations

 One of the birthplaces of civilization is having its cradle rocked again. Apart from the subjugation of women, children and slaves, Greece's beta version, going back 2500 years, was pretty cool – men in togas strolling though olive groves asking existential questions about life, the universe and all that. An updated version, without the wars, slaves and chauvinism, might not be half bad.

Today Greece is the European Union's current favorite whipping boy - the example to be made in order to keep all the other Ponzi'd patsies in line. It is no small irony that despite street protest bringing a new, defiant Syriza  (“from the roots”) government to Athens and a resounding No! Icelandic-style referendum placing Greece in technical default, the realities of needing a cash drip to keep pensioners breathing and buses running have given the upper hand to German, French and British banksters. 

The irony is compounded when one glances at the score sheet for total debt to GDP, with China at 250%, Germany 302%, Greece 353%, USA 370%, Britain 546%, Japan 646% and Ireland at an enchanted 1,000%.

Commented Dmitry Orlov:

The IMF won't lend to Greece because it requires some assurance of repayment; but it will continue to lend to the Ukraine, which is in default and collapsing rapidly, without any such assurances because, you see, the decision is a political one.

After the US-controlled International Monetary Fund acknowledged that Greece has no possibility of ever repaying its debts, the central bankers’ bank, the Bank of International Settlements, recently issued a very blunt warning

“[T]he world will be unable to fight the next global financial crash as central banks have used up their ammunition trying to tackle the last crisis."

If neoliberalism has a Hall of Fame, surely China has a bronze bust somewhere near the entrance. Literally millions of Chinese, newly employed and making consumerist wages, have opened stock trading accounts. For them, its the Roaring Twenties. What changed? China took extreme measures to increase the liquidity in their financial system – precisely what the European Central Bank denied to Greece. 

Liquidity is what pays off the account holders in the event of a run on the bank, because in reality, banks don't store money or any other assets, they only record accounts of running debts. Liquidity builds confidence. Liquidity is what Ben Bernacke forced down the throats of the Wall Street cabal to staunch the bloodletting in 2008. When Europe pulled the liquidity backstop away from Greek banks, ATMs ran dry and depositors took a haircut on their holdings, but systemically, it was much worse than that.

Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and other debtor countries have been under the same mode of attack that was waged by the IMF and its austerity doctrine that bankrupted Latin America from the 1970s onward.
--Michael Hudson
Currently, the average USAnian's net worth is at a record high, but if you were to try to find that average person, it could take you quite a while. Seventy million US citizens are teetering on the edge of financial ruin. They’re one paycheck away from default on their mortgage or health insurance premium. How does one explain their record high net worth? (a) concentrations of extreme wealth at the top of the pyramid; (b) inflated real estate and other asset valuations; and (c) inflated valuation of the dollar, backed by nothing more than vivid imagination. Fantasy is infectious, so there has been a capital flight to Turtle Island on the expectation that it would be a bastion of stability, its deregulated regulators standing as a tall cliff over the tsunami about to engulf the world economy.

Hellenistic Greece "Diadochen1" by Captain_Blood - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Greeks invented modern banking a couple millennia ago - credit based trade, hedge funds, options, foreign exchange, and so on. And, as we might expect, what's happening in Greece now is nothing new. Athens suffered a land and agrarian crisis in the late 7th century BCE and its citizens took to the streets, throwing bottles and protesting food prices. The Archon (city manager) Draco made severe reforms in 621 BCE ("Draconian" they were called), but these failed to quell the conflict. The crisis lasted another 27 years until the moderate reforms of Solon (594 BCE) lifted austerity while paying off creditors, with the added benefit of firmly entrenching the aristocracy.
The first financial crisis happened in Greece around 600 BC. Since then, Greece has defaulted on their loans more often than any other country in the modern world. In the past 200 years or so, Greece has defaulted about half the time.

Even though Greece has already received $284 billion in bailout money over the past five years, they still couldn’t get it together. One reason why was because most of that money went to financial institutions, and only a small portion went to the people.

Another reason why was due to their pension system. By now, everyone has heard the stories of the hairdresser example... That is, someone who’s worked as a hairdresser for three years, then retires around age 50-55 and receives nearly a full pension. Multiply this by more than two million pensioners, along with a whole lot of other financial problems, and you see why Greece is in such deep trouble.
-- Aden Forecast

Our spider senses tingle when we hear someone reading from one of Ronald Reagan's index cards about mooching welfare mamas driving a Cadillac. Those spendthrift pensioners! Originally the Greek debt was owed to French, Dutch and German banks but now is owed mainly to agencies like the European Financial Stability Facility, run on behalf of 19 governments, that most recently lent Greece (to kick the can down the road) 145 billion euros borrowed from the bond markets at high interest. Hmmm. Sounds a lot like the sub-prime market of, say, 2005, with European banks in the position of Countrywide and AIG.
Brian Davey writing for Feasta says:
If you kick the can down the road repeatedly you eventually run out of road. What should have happened much earlier in this process was an admission that the French, Dutch and German banks had made a mistake lending to Greece and they should have taken their loss. Perhaps Greek officials and Goldman Sachs, which helped to hide the fact that Greece could not pay, should have been prosecuted.

Davies goes on to draw the crucial link between energy and economy:

[W]hile Greece (and Spain and Italy and Ireland) was growing there were good reasons to send money to Greece – to invest in the building of holiday hotels for example, or in the building and civil engineering companies that built the hotels and the roads to the resorts. This was not buying and importing Greek goods – but it was putting money back into the pockets of Greeks in the form of investment in the business activities of a growing economy. If deficit countries are growing then mechanisms will exist to recycle purchasing power internationally. Once growth stops then there is no reason to send money to deficit countries and they are in trouble – as has happened throughout southern Europe and Ireland. I think that this is the most plausible way of seeing things. And the reason that growth began to fall off was rising energy prices because of depletion, because we are reaching the limits to economic growth. Because energy enters into all economic activities this undermines growth because people and companies struggle to service their debts AND pay the higher energy prices. That’s the ultimate reason that interest rates had to come down through quantitative easing.
Looking at a historical chart of US debt, one sees that it remained virtually unchanged from first ill-fated settlement in the 16th century, showing only slight bumps with each major war, until approximately 1970 when it went ballistic. What happened then? Gold bugs will tell you it was Nixon taking the dollar off the gold standard, unleashing the beast of fractional reserve banking and fiat currency. Rather, we find it more plausible that 1969 was the year US oil production peaked and, like their Greek counterparts, US companies began to struggle to service their debts AND pay the higher energy prices.

The US trashed Bretton Woods when it took the dollar to the oil standard by getting Saudi Arabia and other producers to sell their oil for dollars only. If you wanted to buy oil you needed dollars, and so dollars flowed back into the US, favorable trade balances masked the dollar's inflation (and the massive debt to sustain cheap energy) and American banks laughed all the way to the voting booths.

Meanwhile, life in Greece goes on, amid the financial wreckage. As Jan Lundberg, who has been trying to revive commercial sail transport in the Mediterranean (to replace more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels now spewing oil smoke and bilge) reports:

The jump in homelessness, many of the housed doing without heat in winter, and foregoing improvements in life that people had grown accustomed to, are well known. So it is no wonder that money is almost universally seen as the problem and the solution. The once hopeful consumer population has been ravaged: 1.3 million people, or 26% of the workforce, are without a job (and most of them without benefits); wages are down by 38% since 2009, pensions by 45%, GDP by a quarter; 18% of the country’s population unable to meet their food needs; 32% below the poverty line. Almost 3.1 million people, 33% of the population, are without national health insurance.

The ECB could solve Greece’s problem with a few computer keystrokes. The effect would actually be to stimulate the European economy.

Instead, Greece remains a whipping boy to keep the rest of the periphery in line. If either side decides to reject the latest deal, we could see an exit from the European Union, and a return to the drachma. This would likely be good for Greece but not for the EU, which could then see so many countries exit that the central currency tumbles into obscurity.

If Greece switches to drachmas, the funding possibilities are even greater. It could generate the money for a national dividend, guaranteed employment for all, expanded social services, and widespread investment in infrastructure, clean energy, and local business. Freed from its Eurocrat oppressors, Greece could model for the world what can be achieved by a sovereign country using publicly-owned banks and publicly-issued currency for the benefit of its own economy and its own people.
 Jan Lundberg says:
There are two kinds of people, whether in Greece or elsewhere: those who welcome or understand that fundamental change and discontinuity are inevitable, perhaps on the way too soon for convenience, and, those who fervently want the level of income and consumption of the past — regardless of economic and ecological realities. Fortunately for Greeks, they have a continuous and ancient society under the surface of the unstable transnational corporate state.

Summer in Greece often brings wildfires and this year is no different, although climate change doesn't help. In 2007 one fire covered 25.000 hectares north of Athens and as we write this flames are again creeping towards Athens from the North and the government has called out the Air Force and Army to help fight 34 separate fires. Isn't it lucky they still have organized fire departments and emergency responders there? They have come very close to not having that.

Greece is retracing its steps back through the ascent of Western Civilization to an earlier era when the best hedge was a good olive press. Many there, as elsewhere, cannot imagine losing the perks of advanced civilization. Stranded expectations - whether in Athens or Brussels - cloud peoples' thoughts. We are all Greeks. Harder lessons are coming. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Evoneers

"Each of us has an inner diversity of interests and talents but none of us can succeed as solitary individuals."

"I'm kind of anti-utopian myself, although I am in favor of the human project continuing."  
- James Howard Kunstler

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at.”
 - Oscar Wilde

This past week the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) celebrated its 20th anniversary with a week-long conference in the Findhorn community in northernmost Scotland. Because of scheduling conflicts we were not able to attend but were grateful a small portion of the conference was live-streamed (and archived). Between sessions of our Permaculture Design Course here in Tennessee we were able to wade into that stream and recommend others do as well.

As incoming GEN president Daniel Greenberg said, ecovillages are not about living together, they are about “the impulse ... this longing for inter-beingness. How can we be intimate with all life, with each other?”

Ecovillages are not a new phenomenon, they are just made more relevant by the times. Efforts to turn fictional visions of utopia (literally "no place") into real, grounded eutopias ("good places") go back to at least Ubaid (4000 BCE)

When a whole new continent was first discovered by an off-course Italian navigator using maps purloined from the Chinese, Europeans did not do as the Chinese did a few centuries earlier and set up a few coastal settlements only to abandon them, but rather, they acquired native peoples' lands through trickery, slavery, pestilence and genocide and then invited religious fanatics of every stripe to come across the ocean and try out the wildest schemes.

See, e.g., Bethehem, PA; New Harmony, IN; Oneida, NY; Amana, IA, or Nauvoo, IL.  In permaculture we call it “wild design.” You take a blank page and fill it. No rules, anything goes. From that process you get mostly duds and a few real gems.

The oldest ecovillage affiliated with GEN is in Iceland, home of the world's oldest continuous parliament. Sólheimar ("home of the sun") will be one of the venues visited in the PDC we are teaching next month with Robyn Francis. It was started in 1930 by a young Sesselja Sigmondsdottir as a sort of Steiner School for developmentally challenged children. The farmland she acquired was graced with a hot spring and so she built greenhouses and began producing winter vegetables. Today Iceland is Europe's larger exporter of bananas.

The word "ecovillage," as far as we know, was coined by architect George Ramsey, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright who became a prototypical "New Urbanist" in the 1960s after observing the waste and ruin wrought by automobile culture. By the 1970s Ramsey was writing prescriptions for a reboot of the built environment to bring humans back into the natural world, hopefully before petrocollapse or climate change cans that whole unsustainable civilizational thingy, in the most painful way imaginable.

In an interview with John Shuttlesworth, editor of The Mother Earth News, in 1974, Ramsey said:
“As we rush toward the limits of our natural resources, our system — which is based on the increasing consumption of such resources — faces a serious threat of breakdown. Every aspect of life in the United States must be reevaluated in terms of the energy it consumes.”
His prescription:
  • Roads and parking should be eliminated wherever possible
  • If a building—even a one- or two-story, solar-heated structure—is placed so that its usage requires long-distance travel in privately owned vehicles by the public, it would not receive a construction permit
  • Building heights, in general, should be limited to three- and four-story walk-ups, thus eliminating elevators and simultaneously permitting the sun to reach street level.
  • Light industries and businesses should be encouraged to move into existing bedroom communities.
  • New villages and towns must be prohibited from agricultural land
  • Streets should be reserved for bikes only
  • Every possible non-polluting source of energy must be tested and—whenever possible—used in preference to fossil fuels, nuclear power, and other polluting sources.

Declan Kennedy, Ross and Hildur Jackson,
and Robert Gilman at the GEN Summit, 2015
In 1977 in Germany, during the political resistance against disposal of nuclear waste in the town of Gorleben, anti-nuclear activists attempted to build a small, ecologically based village. On the 23rd of May, 1980, a micronation, the "Free Republic of Wendland" was founded. They called their hut village an ökodorf (literally ecovillage). In the largest police action seen in Germany since the lead-up to the Second World War, the camp was forceably removed, but the concept lived on, and small ökodorf experiments continued in both eastern and western Germany. The magazine Ökodorf Informationen began publishing in 1985 and later evolved into Eurotopia. After reunification of Germany, the movement coalesced and became part of GEN.

In 1991, Robert and Diane Gilman, founders of In Context magazine, wrote an overview, Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities, for the Gaia Trust in Denmark. They came up with a definition that still works pretty well. An ecovillage is:
“…a fully-featured human settlement, with independent sources of initiative, in which human activities are integrated into the natural environment in a way that is sustainable into the indefinite future.”

Kosha Joubert and Robin Alfred
At the summit this week, outgoing GEN President Kosha Anja Joubert modestly estimated the number of actual practicing and aspiring ecovillages worldwide at 10,000 with more than one million residents. We say modest because if you merely examine one country, Sri Lanka, you would learn about the Sarvodaya Shramadana Societies  self-help initiative, begun by a follower of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne,  in the 1950s that presently counts more than 4 million members in 15,000 villages. The founder's son, Vinya Ariyaratne, has sat on the GEN board and all of those 15,000 villages would consider themselves ecovillages, with an equal number aspiring to be.

In the closing session of the GEN summit, President Joubert and her partner, Robin Alfred, a business trainer and regular contributor to The Guardian whose clients include Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Daimler, McDonalds, the UK Cabinet Office, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Johnson & Johnson, the Bank of Abu Dhabi, and others, took a hard look at the problems GEN faces with dissemination of the ecovillage meme. They took that closing moment to unveil a new project.

We will take a few of your minutes to describe that project here with the caveat that it is as yet a work in progress. As we read the material out loud to our permaculture class, we could see some eyes glaze over. Of course, we lack the passionate delivery of Kosha and Robin, but you can judge for yourself.

The problem, as Kosha outlined it, is a common one. You become aware enough of the challenges facing us as a society, or civilization, or species, to want something to change, to stop the oncoming trainwreck. So you attend a week-long Transition Training seminar, or take a 2-week Permaculture Design Course, or a month-long Ecovillage Design Education course and you become inspired and fired-up and you leave those events just full of energy and ideas and ready to change the trajectory of our planet's future. But if we check back 6 months later, what we see, most times, is frustration, despair, resignation. You are back in your prior life. Why? Because the existing order that you inhabit, the way things work, is designed to frustrate you. There is economic blackmail (called "making a living"); cultural bribery (your data plan, your friends who want to take you out for a night on the town, the consumer society); and a dearth of guides, stepping stones or halfway houses to smooth your transition.

What are you going to do, start an ecovillage? You and what Rockefeller family member?

Enter the Evoneers. We could instantly see this as a perfect marriage between Robin's business consulting background and Kosha's nurturing of a movement in its infancy, daintily bound up with a Findhornesque gift bow. Evoneers is 9-step therapy for post-traumatic permaculture course adjustment.

Running under the umbrella of SIRCle (Social Innovation for Resilient Communities) and drawing upon GEN's growing Solutions Library, Evoneers is an advanced 2-day training in how to get beyond frustration (Step 5: Facing the Dark Night), find the others, cull the chaff from your life and get something serious going. When you get done, you are supposed to leap out of bed in the morning with a bounce in your step and a song on your lips.

The first step, Answering the Call / Igniting the Fire, is about getting past thinking about possibilities and starting to plan actualities. It is recognizing that each of us has an inner diversity of interests and talents but that none of us can succeed as solitary individuals. We need homo gestalt – a like-minded group. Step One is building an authentic, open and supportive team.

We could carry on to describe the whole methodology, but we will leave that to our readers to get from direct sources now online such as this video:

Efforts to turn fictional visions of utopia into real 3D paradise need not fail. We come from a well-watered garden planet and it is long past time we remembered our roots. As Thoreau said,
"In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Navigating the Blockchain: Drones, Droids and BitCoins

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

-- Isaac Asimov, Runaround (1942) 


Barack Obama may be remembered for many things -- becoming the first Hawaiian President of the United States, withdrawing allied forces from epic military disaster in the Muslim World, dismantling market moral hazard, and reopening Cuba to the mob -- but his most lasting legacy may be still to come.

There is a revolution quietly taking shape in Air Force joystick cubicles near Las Vegas, in the Horn of Africa, the Tribal Territories of Pakistan, the DMZ of Korea, and in secret sites in Tel Aviv and Kiev. Autonomous Robot drones are evolving capability to select and execute targets of opportunity. 

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota meaning forced labor, and is generally attributed to a 1924 play by Karel Capek. The idea that men will build machines that may all too easily destroy their creators runs back through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Greek mythology. We have a deeply engrained wariness of anything that might knock us out of our place as top-predator in the food chain. And yet, we ignore these death machines we are building, seeing nothing more threatening than a good movie script. 

The median response from Artificial Intelligence programmers when asked when AI-droids will have better processing power than humans is 2030. Put another way, the coming generations of flying robots that kill their human prey from 10,000 feet up will be smarter than people in about 15 years, barring total collapse of petroleum civilization, or maybe even because of it.

Removing Asimov's three laws from the kernel of killer robot CPUs is a death wish. Actually, Asimov wrote four laws. The fourth or zeroth law that outranked the others:

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.


 In the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, the open source protocol for a public asset ledger called the blockchain was put forward. The core of this invention was the idea of decentralized consensus on a large scale, an app version of Occupy, if you will.

From the blockchain emerged BitCoin. BitCoin was modeled on the gold standard for valuing transportable wealth – there was a finite supply but it could be "mined" to enlarge what was available for transactions by users. New gold went to miners who solved mathematical problems. The Cyberpunk community extolled its virtues:

"Psychopathic tendencies as the side effect of extreme individuality can be brought into balance within a new social contract, enforced by Satoshi’s perfect market with its equilibrium of supply and demand. Characteristics that are often considered negative in society such as risk taking, calculated selfish acts and profit motives can now be channeled to serve a larger shared vision of a more free society.

"Instead of arms races and financial wars, with bitcoin the competition for solving a mathematical problem helps to achieve a global level security infrastructure. This new flow of currency has the potential to end financial apartheid and begin serving the unbanked and underbanked that have been excluded from the current financial system. It can free those who are restrained by rent-seekers and subjugated to financial colonization. Out of the torrents emerging through the massive hashing power, the torus of a new heart grows and with every beat expands our collective goodwill to flow throughout the entire network."
-- Nozomi Hayase, Taming the Beast  

Anytime someone comes on to us like a Snake Oil salesman, we check to make sure we still have our wallet, even if that wallet is now an app on our wristwatch.

Actually, this exuberance is immediately suspect in the case of bitcoin because "free" coins will gravitate towards whomever has the most computing power, leaving a 99 percent of lesser power users to purchase from the 1 percent who get theirs for "free." This is not a paradigm shift, it merely shifts the elite class (temporarily) from banksters to any hackers with supercomputer access and an ability to pay the electric bill.

The top coin miners have a Red Queen problem. In the Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland, everyone runs faster and faster and no-one gets ahead. In coin mining, more and more computing power is required to solve the mathematical problems. The software underpinning the network reacts to successful miners by elevating difficulty, so hackers add even more computing power, and so on. 

As this cycle speeds, it takes more datacenter CPU heat, and more cooling electricity, to mine a bitcoin. The computational power of the bitcoin mining network surpassed the world's top 500 supercomputers in 2013. On average, for every megawatt of electricity spent mining bitcoins, 0.65 tons (1300lbs) of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Dave Carlson, founder of Megabigpower, a mining datacentre in Washington state, figures he spends 240 kWh and releases 312 lbs of CO2 for each coin he mines. Worldwide, bitcoin mining generates about 25 tons CO2 per hour, or 219,000 tons per year. This is not virtual CO2. This is real CO2.

Can the blockchain prevent HSBC’s illegal money laundering for Mexican drug cartels? No. It makes it easier. Nigeria is already becoming a blockchain haven for Citibank, with ambitions to colonize all of payments space. If it seems oddly ironic to speak of Nigeria as a colonial power, just remember how quick its entrepreneurs were to colonize and monetize spam.

Does Citibank have any compunction about employing the fastest available processing power to (a) game bitcoin mining; (b) replace devalued bitcoins with its own CitiCoin; and (c) unleash predatory trading algorithms from the blockchain that operate at warp speed or even employ quantum mechanics to execute trades before they are even imagined by the trading partners? 

The Cyberpunk response is that blockchain transparency will flush the bandit algorithms. But one man's bandit is another's freedom fighter, layering, spoofing, and generating wash trades. The sheriff (SEC, FIRA, FBI, or a State or US Attorney) is outgunned and doesn't usually want to do anything that might jeopardize his/her pension, or the party in power. 

In his White House War Room, The Commander-in-Chief is assured that if we don't do this first, our rivals will. And so we drift, towards unparalleled catastrophe.

Above, circling the heavens, are autonomous killer drones that keep getting smarter by the year. In a world where all things connected to the Internet are hackable, so too are they.




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