Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Next Tango in Paris

"Sweden has decided to decommission all its nuclear plants but has yet to propose a similar program to phase out its wind turbines."

 "Carbon-neutral is so 20th century. We really need to get beyond zero. That is what ecovillages can offer."

Andrei Protsouk
We were just concluding a conference call for Global Ecovillage Network delegates in the run-up to the UN climate summit one month from now in Paris when we said that. The discussion had turned to what our message should be. There is a very good program initiated by ten European ecovillages, called the Fossil-Fuel Free Community Challenge. It is very ambitious, and tracks what Sweden, already carbon-neutral, has recently pledged. 

It is one thing to gradually wean yourself from fossil energy by increments, such as by putting a tax on carbon at the source, as Al Gore tried unsuccessfully to do in 1992, or to strip the fossil industry of its obscene subsidies, as Bill McKibben urges. It is quite another to go cold turkey.

Costa Rica met its entire national power demand using renewable energy for 75 consecutive days this year, but that was only electricity, and anyway, it was Costa Rica. On a spectacularly windy day this past July, Denmark generated 140% of its electrical power from wind alone.

A recent study by Mark Jacobson, David Blittersdorf, and Tom Murphy, originally published by Energy XChange September 28, 2015, shows it is quite possible to switch the whole world to renewables right now, at no net cost. 

To get off carbon, Sweden will have to close its nuclear plants, which have a huge carbon footprint, about 16 kg CO2e per MWh despite what technophiles James Hansen, George Monbiot or James Lovelock may tell you after having drunk the Atomic Kool Aid. Wind power, by contrast, generates 10 kg per MWh. Sweden has decided to decommission all its nuclear plants, but has yet to propose a similar program to phase out wind turbines.

Personally we have no problem endorsing a massive switch to renewables and the sooner the better, but one also needs to place a caveat under that about it not exactly replacing fossil fuels. Nor will it salvage consumer culture.

If one were to think of it in terms of megajoules of energy, we were living off a current account of sunlight up until about 200 years ago, when we discovered that earth had been frugally putting aside a billion-year pension account all this time. That was supposed to help the planet go nova when the Sun runs out of hydrogen. What did we do? We started withdrawing, gradually at first, then faster, and now as fast as we possibly can. We have withdrawn a little more than half of that inheritance now, mainly the easy to reach part. We can't withdraw the remainder because (a) it costs more than we can afford to spend; and (b) it would fry the planet. So we are slowly coming to the realization that we may have to return to our former mainstay, the current income account; you know, the sunlight.

The savings account was a very rich endowment, though. Eating through 500 million years of fossil sunlight in 200 years enabled each of us to have hundreds of energy slaves at our beck and call. As Richard Heinberg says, a cup of gasoline can take a 2-ton truck over a mountain. How many horses would have to be fed how much grain to accomplish the same task? How many hours of wind generators charging batteries? Heinberg points out:

Making pig iron—the main ingredient in steel—requires blast furnaces. Making cement requires 100-meter-long kilns that operate at 1500 degrees C. In principle it is possible to produce high heat for these purposes with electricity or giant solar collectors, but nobody does it that way now because it would be much more expensive than burning coal or natural gas. Crucially, current manufacturing processes for building solar panels and wind turbines also depend upon high-temperature industrial processes fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas. Again, alternative ways of producing this heat are feasible in principle—but the result would probably be significantly higher-cost solar and wind power. And there are no demonstration projects to show us just how easy or hard this would be.
Zero carbon power, or zero fossil fuels, while a wonderful goal, and one put out by Greenpeace USA  and, will entail more sacrifice than many people, including even the Swedes, understand. For one thing, the energy return on invested energy (EROIE) is less than 4:1 for wind, which is marginal and produces only electricity, unless you are pumping water. Biofuels are 1:1.4, or negative return. Corn ethanol costs more Btu — and horsepower — to make than it can provide when combusted. Contrast fossil fuels at historical returns of 100:1 to 40:1 (although falling off the precipice now as we spend more to obtain less).

Electrification of all sectors — heating, cooling, industrial processes, and transportation — would be implicit to an all-renewable economy. But we would need to reduce total energy use by approximately 70 percent, maybe more, to make that switch. Efficiency improvements could potentially take us part way but not all the way.

Richard Young
If there is one thing ecovillages should be good at, it should be making crisis mitigation fun. We weary of the hair shirt approach to mitigating climate change. We can cut consumption and party too. But then Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, have a "set an impossible goal and lead by example" culture when it comes to climate negotiations. Not only have they not gotten any other countries to go along, but their own populations have balked at the austerity required, throwing out progressive governments and replacing them with conservatives, who are anything but conservers, Ponzi'ing up bigger mountains of debt and fattening the larders of banksters with the proceeds of liquidated public assets.

Sure, we have some great fossil-fuel free islands in Denmark and a bicycle autobahn in Germany, but honestly, how many businessmen do you know that would garage the BMW in favor of a 15-speed Hase Spezialräder for that meeting in Bonn, especially in winter?

The alternative we have proposed is to net sequester – go beyond zero – at the home, village and regional scale. The tools we have for accomplishing this are many – carbon farming, eco-agroforestry, biomass energy with carbon capture, and biochar in everything from clothing to buildings.

As we have posted previously, these simple changes can switch civilization from its current trajectory – one that ensures near term human extinction (“NTHE”) — to something we have been calling Civilization 2.0, which returns the planet to something approximating the comfortable Holocene in which we evolved, within a reasonable time. The time variable is the unknown here, because it is unlikely that COP-21, with its low ambition, will do much to speed the necessary conversion.

Will it be possible to live in the high style of consumer culture in our Civilization 2.0? No chance. But we can continue living, and have quite abundant, happy lives, and that is no small deal. The alternative really is NTHE.

George Monbiot writes:

Margaret Ellis
Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. And the media ignores them because … well there’s a question with a thousand answers, many of which involve power. But one reason is the complete failure of perspective in a deskilled industry dominated by corporate press releases, photo ops and fashion shoots, where everyone seems to be waiting for everyone else to take a lead. The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening.

At the climate summit in Paris in December, the media, trapped within the intergovernmental bubble of abstract diplomacy and manufactured drama, will cover the negotiations almost without reference to what is happening elsewhere. The talks will be removed to a realm with which we have no moral contact. And, when the circus moves on, the silence will resume. Is there any other industry that serves its customers so badly?

Rob Hopkins writes:

Change happens in interesting ways.  For example, recently, a community campaign where I live challenged a large local charitable landowner's land use decisions, in particular its decision to submit large swathes of land for development.  The community campaign questioned the link between the organisation's stated values and its actions.  Looking back in hindsight, it's interesting to see how the change unfolded, and how there is no one single Great Change Moment to point to.  But at the moment when the then CEO of the organisation was brazening it out, telling everyone how the organisation was listening and responding when it was clear that he really wasn't, actually the ground had been eaten away from under him, and it was empty words, and a month later he had stood down.  Events were moving, the world around him was changing, he had been left behind.

Similarly the GDR, East Germany, looked to be robust, powerful and permanent in the days before the Berlin Wall came down.  In reality, we now know, it was holed below the waterline, undermined by the number of young people defecting to the West, corruption, rigged elections and much more.  But until the Wall came down, you'd never have known.  So how can we know, in the moment, which point in time we might point to as the moment when the change actually happened?  

While Paris looks likely to not be that Great Change Moment, perhaps it is we who need to take a different approach here.  Our role in Paris, or during that time, in my opinion, is not to see this event as a Great Change Moment, rather as just yet another important step in the ongoing – and of course massively urgent - building of a new, low carbon world.  Instead, we should focus, during that time, on celebrating what is already happening.  And there is much to celebrate. 

We travel to these fetes and hang out our wares so that passersby can notice and lodge our new meme somewhere in the back of their collective brain. When things get bad enough, the meme can move from niche to mainstream. It is already all ready.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The I-40 Highway of Shame

"It is good to remember that Milošević ended his days in prison in The Hague for the Bosnian cleansing while Jackson still graces our twenty-dollar bill."

  On Interstate 40 one leaves Fort Smith, Arkansas, crosses the Oklahoma line and immediately the place names begin to change from words like VanBuren and Muldrew to words like Sallisaw, Tahlonteeshee and Checotah. Highway exit signs point to Broken Arrow, Shawnee, Tecumseh. We pass from Sequoyah County to Cherokee, Muscogee, Okmulgee, Okuskee, Seminole, Pottawatomie. Finally the signs become very dark: Washita, Custer, Black Kettle National Grassland. It is not a cemetery. We are passing through a mass grave. This is what it looks like after an ethnic cleansing. Oklahoma is a museum of genocide.

“I am Shawnee. My forefathers were Shawnee warriors. Their son is a warrior. … Sell a country? Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?” 
- Tecumseh
In the years before the American Revolution, the Creeks and the Choctaws had reached the greatest extent of their range and population. Their huge inland confederation, still relatively untroubled by European pressure for their land, could muster thousands of warriors from hundreds of towns to repel invaders. After the American Revolution their fortunes changed. Southern plantation farmers and land speculators moved into their lands, forcing the government in Washington to pressure them into treaties to cede lands. Among the Nations, the people were divided between the pro- and anti-invaders.

With the outbreak of war in 1812, the Choctaws went over to the new USA side. The anti-foreigner Upper Creeks sent their warriors to Red Stick villages that sided with the British. The Lower Creeks sent their warriors to Red Stick villages that sided with USAnians. Those who wanted to stay out of the conflict stayed in the White Stick villages. Many of these villages are still around today. Some have names like Baton Rouge.

Several thousand Choctaws and Lower Creeks came to the rescue of a severely disadvantaged Andrew Jackson in Tennessee in 1814, nearly wiped out the Upper Creeks to rescue Jackson's troops and enable them to march on New Orleans with a combined force capable of defeating the British. A few months later, Jackson forced the Lower Creeks to cede 8 million acres, about 2/3 of their territory, as a way of saying thank you.

The election of Jackson to the Presidency in 1828 was even more disastrous. Thirteen hundred Creeks migrated voluntarily from Georgia to West Arkansas. The remainder consolidated in Alabama, where an English traveler described them as poverty-stricken, hungry, and ill clothed, “wandering about like bees whose hive has been destroyed.”

Jackson might be better thought of as the 19th Century USA's Slobodan_Milošević,  it is good to remember that Milošević ended his days in prison in The Hague for the Bosnian cleansing while Jackson still graces the federal twenty-dollar bill. Jackson wanted the South cleansed and all native nations moved West of the Mississippi. Although opposed by the majority of the population and our outspoken congressman, David Crockett of Tennessee, Jackson was able to gain Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, extinguishing Native American title to lands in the Southeast.

The Choctaws were the first to feel the cruelty. During the next four years some 4000 of the 13000 Choctaws sent West died of hunger, disease and exposure. White settlers moved in and seized the best native lands, houses and livestock. The Cherokee capital city of New Echota was auctioned off, house by house. In 1836 the reluctant Creeks were removed in chains and manacles, and thousands died on a forced winter march. An estimated 45 percent of 22,000 Creeks never reached Oklahoma.

During the winter of 1837-38 the last of the Southern Nations were moved out at point of bayonet. Between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, Pontiac's Ottawas, Little Turtle's Miamis, Tecumseh's Shawnees, Black Hawk's Sauk and Foxes, and many others moved first to present day Iowa and Kansas, but then were herded into Oklahoma with the already crowded Southern Nations.

In the years that followed, the Native lands in the Oklahoma territories were reduced, tribal councils outlawed, and the region opened to white settlers. In 1907, the lands exchanged in Oklahoma for their patrimony “for as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run” were seized by the State.

We pass this way on Highway 40, following part of the old Route 66, on our way to and from the 20th Anniversary of the Natural Building Colloquium at the Black Range Lodge in Kingston, New Mexico. What we are doing at both ends of the journey is very hopeful. The part in the middle is just sad. It fills us with grief.

We would just as soon see the US out of North America. Failing that, we quietly pray: May the children next born become worthy successors of those who were here before Columbus.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Burning Down the House

"To address the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve air quality, the District has teamed with other public and private stakeholders to ... sequester carbon from biomass waste in a highly stable biochar, and produce renewable energy from the energy-rich byproduct syngas. "

It is no secret we live in house on fire.

This December in Paris world leaders will meet for the 21st time in 22 years in an ongoing attempt to form a bucket brigade and put out the fire. Each time the fire is larger and less easy to control, and each time they end up going home without throwing a single drop of water. Among the issues are where the buckets are, who will be at the front of the line and who at the back, whether those less responsible for starting the fire can opt out of the work, or even rekindle the fire if it starts to lag, and whether, on a cost-risk-benefit analysis, it might be better to let it burn for a few more years before taking time away from profitable economic activities.

At the outskirts of this debate will be those of us in the UN Observer community who are  yelling at the muddled delegates standing around watching the fire to please, will you, just do something! Of course, among the screaming rabble will be those who are quite certain there is no problem and doing nothing is the right course, and those who have placed their fate and the world’s in the hands of an all-knowing bearded Superman who can be relied on to save His chosen, even if everything else goes up in smoke. Their voices will blend with ours to make the cacophony even harder to parse.

We go to these crazy confabs because we have a simple solution to offer, a suite of tools that will counter the carbon menace and send it to ground, buying the human race time to deal with other game-enders — like the overfecundity of our species, Atoms for Peace, and Peak Everything, for instance.

Starhawk addresses the IPCUK Plenary
As the International Permaculture Convergence in England was drawing to a close last month we were in the big tent listening to Starhawk read from the climate change working group's statement, a document intended to be taken to Paris to give voice to permaculture designers. There came an objection from a gentleman who clearly had not taken the time to educate himself on the subject of biochar and thus was of the opinion it was a Ponzi scheme or Snake Oil and wanted mention of it deleted. We held our tongue.

Well you need not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
— Dylan, Rainy Day Woman
Having given extensive biochar talks at Permaculture Convergences in Jordan and Cuba, and more in England, including a controlled burn facilitated by Dale Hendricks two days earlier, we thought we had already answered our skeptics in the permie crowd and won them over. This fellow was apparently a late arrival.

Dale Hendricks explains the cone kiln method at IPCUK
Starhawk had made biochar with us in Belize the previous February, and we had gone over the ethical principles with her in Cuba and Jordan, so we knew she was no stranger to the questions. She deftly handled the heckler by making a small adjustment to the text, placing the words "sustainably produced" in front of the word "biochar" to acknowledge his point about the potential for misuse.

Having had a hand in the drafting of the document, we let it pass that this was the only use of the word "sustainable," a word we abhor, that crept in.

Still, the document is a good one, and we reproduce it in its entirety below.

Can an all-knowing bearded Superman save us from Fire Earth?
We encountered critics of biochar even before we penned The Biochar Solution. The loudest of them is Biofuelswatch, an organization we previously respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious science. Because they are close with many social justice, ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational arguments against biochar have been picked up by many in the environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been shown to be completely without merit, and ridiculous. In our book we discussed the critics' few arguments that we thought had some merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar for carbon credits and what could be done to require biochar to be produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don't follow the rules for that technique.

Nonetheless, it is hard to get very excited by toothless critics when there are so many positive developments. Faced by wildfire and severe drought as the Sonoran desert migrates north to claim California, local government entities in the Golden State are responding with a strategy long overdue but never too late: ecological restoration.

We quote at length from the Placer County Biomass Energy Initiatives, just released.

Placer County includes over 550,000 acres of heavily forested landscapes in the central Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains. This area stretches from Auburn to Lake Tahoe, and includes portions of three national forests, numerous state parks, and 60% of Lake Tahoe's west shore. The forested land is at significant risk for catastrophic wildfire due to the buildup of unnaturally dense vegetation following decades of successful fire suppression and exclusion. The County has experienced six major wildfires since 2001 burning more than 100,000 acres, including critically important upland watersheds and wildlife habitat.


To address the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve air quality, the District has teamed with other public and private stakeholders to implement environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable forest management activities to restore these forested landscapes to a fire-resilient condition. The District's program activities, which you can learn more about in a presentation, brochure, and video  (you may need to install an application called "Mediasite" to view this video).



The District has sponsored the development of a biochar GHG offset accounting protocol with the support of Prasino Group, International Biochar Initiative, and The Climate Trust.  The protocol was formally adopted into the CAPCOA GHG Rx on September 28, 2015.  The final protocol here   provides a detailed accounting procedure for quantifying the GHG benefits of biochar.  Biochar projects sequester carbon from biomass waste in a highly stable biochar, and produce renewable energy from the energy-rich byproduct syngas.  The protocol uses the biochar’s hydrogen to organic carbon content ratio as an indicator of its long term stability, in conjunction with its applied use as a legitimate soil amendment to agricultural field or road crop operations.

The protocol development process involved a webinar presentation conducted on September 9, 2014, which can be viewed  here (Youtube).  A copy of the presentation is here (.pdf).  The draft protocol is here.  The CAPCOA Protocol Primer on the protocol requirements and review process is available here.

We hope to quantify in the future additional GHG benefits that are associated with biochar including fossil fuel based fertilizer displacement, water production and transport, and enhanced plant growth.


Forest Hazardous Fuels Reduction Treatments

Fuels treatments involve the selective thinning and removal of trees and brush to return forest ecosystems to more natural fuel stocking levels resulting in more fire-resilient and healthy forests. Fuels treatments reduce air pollution by mitigating wildfire behavior, size and intensity, stimulating forest growth and vigor, and reducing tree mortality. Forest thinning also produces wood products that continue the sequestration of carbon. When fuels treatment projects include removal of excess biomass in the forms of limbs, tops, smaller trees and brush, the resulting biomass can be utilized for energy production and thus reduce the need for fossil fuels.

Distributed Biomass Energy Production

The District is supporting the assessment of the air pollutant emissions benefits and economics of energy conversion technology suitable for small-scale distributed systems in Placer County, utilizing woody biomass wastes from forest fuel thinning treatments, timber harvest residues, and defensible space clearings. 

We are also an advocate for a regulatory structure that recognizes the full environmental benefits of the use of forest biomass wastes for energy:
  • Participated in the creation of the new Feed in Tariff program at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
  • Assisted with the development of California Senate Bill 1122 which requires the CPUC to direct the three large Investor Owned Utilities in California to purchase a total of 50 MW of distributed forest biomass generation from facilities that produce less than 3 MW at strategic locations near forested areas at risk for catastrophic wildfire. We are assisting the CPUC by participating in the SB 1122 process:
  1. Developing a fair power purchase agreement template
  2. Making sure that the Investor Owned Utilities implement fair and equitable interconnection requirements.
  3. Defining the term “strategic location” in content of communities at risk to catastrophic wildfire.

Permaculture Climate Change Statement

International Permaculture Convergence, Gilwell Park, England, September 2015
Permaculture is a system of ecological design as well as a global movement of practitioners, educators, researchers and organizers, bound by three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people and care for the future.  Permaculture integrates knowledge and practices that draw from many disciplines and links them into solutions to meet human needs while ensuring a resilient future.  With little funding or institutional support, this movement has spread over the past forty years and now represents projects on every inhabited continent.

The permaculture movement offers vital perspectives and tools to address catastrophic climate change.
International Permaculture Climate Change Committee

Human-caused climate change is a crisis of systems—ecosystems and social system--and must be addressed systemically. No single new technology or blanket solution will solve the problem.  Permaculture employs systems thinking, looking at patterns, relationships and flows, linking solutions together into synergistic strategies that work with nature and fit local conditions, terrain, and cultures.

Efforts to address the climate crisis must be rooted in social, economic, and ecological justice. The barriers to solutions are political and social, not technical, and the impacts of climate change fall most heavily on frontline communities, who have done the least to cause it. Indigenous communities hold worldviews and perspectives that are vitally needed to help us come back into balance with the natural world.  We must build and repair relationships across cultures and communities on a basis of respect, and the voices, leadership and needs of frontline and indigenous communities must be given prominence in all efforts to address the problem.

Permaculture ethics direct us to create abundance, share it fairly, and limit overconsumption in order to benefit the whole. Healthy, just, truly democratic communities are a potent antidote to climate change.

Both the use of fossil fuels and the mismanagement of land and resources are driving the climate crisis.  We must shift from fire to flow: from burning oil, gas, coal and uranium to capturing flows of energy from sun, wind, and water in safe and renewable ways.

Soil is the key to sequestering excess carbon.  By restoring the world’s degraded soils, we can store carbon as soil fertility, heal degraded land, improve water cycles and quality, and produce healthy food and true abundance. Protection, restoration and regeneration of ecosystems and communities are the keys to both mitigation and adaptation.

Permaculture integrates knowledge, experience, research and practices from many disciplines to restore landscapes and communities on a large scale.  These strategies include:
  • A spectrum of safe, renewable energy technologies.
  • Scientific research and exchange of knowledge, information and innovations.
  • Water harvesting, retention and restoration of functional water systems.
  • Forest conservation, reforestation and sustainable forestry.
  • Regenerative agricultural practices—organic, no-till and low-till, polycultures, small-scale intensive systems and agroecology.
  • Planned rotational grazing, grasslands restoration, and silvopasture systems.
  • Agroforestry, food forests and perennial systems.
  • Bioremediation and mycoremediation.
  • Increasing soil organic carbon using biological methods:  compost, compost teas, mulch, fungi, worms and beneficial micro-organisms.
  • Sustainably produced biochar for carbon capture and soil-building.
  • Protection and restoration of oceanic ecosystems.
  • Community-based economic models, incorporating strategies such as co-operatives, local currencies, gift economies, and horizontal economic networks.
  • Relocalization of food systems and economic enterprises to serve communities.
  • Conservation, energy efficiency, re-use, recycling and full cost accounting.
  • A shift to healthier, climate-friendly diets.
  • Demonstration sites, model systems, ecovillages and intentional communities.
  • Conflict transformation, trauma counseling and personal and spiritual healing.
  • Transition Towns and other local movements to create community resilience.
  • And many more!
None of these tools function alone.  Each unique place on earth will require its own mosaic of techniques and practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

To deepen our knowledge of these approaches and refine our ability to apply and combine them, we need to fund and support unbiased, independent scientific research.

Each one of us has a unique and vital role to play in meeting this greatest of global challenges.  The crisis is grave, but if together we meet it with hope and action, we have the tools we need to create a world that is healthy, balanced, vibrant, just, abundant and beautiful. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Tyranny of the Straight Line

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1954

“I have a bicycle. Paris is big. I think that the lines I draw through this city with my bike are wonderful. The lines I draw are just as wonderful as all the other lines that I cross over, which other people have left behind. I ride around people and obstacles. I am happy that as a painter that I am finally in harmony and in direct contact with others. These lines, which cost me many hours and make me tired, and have become giant circles by the time of my return, are more beautiful, truer and more justified than those which I can draw on a sheet of paper." 
- Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Nearly 20 years ago, when we were starting the massive cob, strawbale and earthbag structure that was to become The Green Dragon, we wondered whether we had been wise to listen to Bob Kornegay, who was a biodynamic landscaper. Bob had insisted that we needed to avoid corners and follow the lay of the land rather than level the foundation. Now that we have the experience of years in the building to draw upon, we can know how right he was. The building is alive. 

From the moment you enter you feel a sense of wonder and magic in the space. The sloping floor and round pole ceiling give you a sense of a Neolithic cave or a cathedral of boughs in the forest. You feel secure. The light, entering through odd shaped and unevenly placed windows, plays off the irregular surfaces in a dance of color, form and life. The building makes you happy.

Pleasant Hill Shaker Village
We are between conferences this week, having just come from the Communal Studies Association annual meeting at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village and being about to leave, after a short workshop in Natural Building Construction this week, for the Natural Building Colloquium at Black Range Lodge in New Mexico. Curiously, we found in a talk given at the former by Professor Gerald Macdonald of Bochum Germany a perfect bridge between these two worlds – community and architecture.

Steiner's Goethaneum
Rudolf Steiner was an enemy of the straight line. In anthroposophical architecture he conceded posts and corners to rise against gravity and hold stress, but he rounded edges wherever he could. In 1941 when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland and was interned before he could meet with Churchill, Hitler in his rage blamed Steiner's influence and banned all his books and all esoteric groups.

It was small wonder then that little Friedrich Stowasser would be deeply affected by Steiner, whether he learned of him through the Montessori School in Vienna in which he was enrolled in 1935, later from the news surrounding Hess, or from his connection to Heinrich Himmler's astrologer WilhelmWulff, a Steiner devotee.

Stowasser was fond of art and would eventually pursue a career in it.  Like Steiner, he became an enemy of the straight line.

When Hitler annexed Austria, Stowasser, age 10, suddenly had his world turned upside down. His Montesorri School was closed in the Anschluss. His mother was Jewish and to avoid suspicions, she enrolled Friedrich in public school and urged him to join the Hitler Youth, not atypical for Jews trying to hide their identity. The Stowassers survived the war but 69 of little Friedrich's cousins, aunts and uncles went to the furnaces or starved in camps.

In 1948 Friedrich enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and began signing his works Hundertwasser ("Sto" means "hundred" in most Slavic languages). He dropped out after one semester and travelled to Italy, Paris, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily, learning English, French and Italian quite well and some Japanese, Russian, Czech and Arabic. He held his first art show four years later.

In 1953, Friedrich painted his first spiral, which became something of a trademark, but it was in 1959 that he stepped out from the art world in a more profound way. As a visiting professor of fine arts at Hamburg University he staged his first political theater.

On December 18, 1959 at 3:11 o’clock in the afternoon, a date and time recommended to him by his friend Wulff, the astrologer, he began painting an endless line in room 213 of the University of Fine Arts building.

Together with a group of students working non-stop, Hundertwasser painted a continuous line around the walls of the room, including doors, windows and radiators. His intention was for the line to entirely cover the walls and then wander outside of the building into the neighborhood until the entire city district was literally contained in a spiral. He would not only to take the art into the community, but to draw the community into the art. So when newspaper reports about the project implied that it was open to the public, people came. The university, which had approved the work, was unable to deal with the masses storming through its halls in an attempt to enter or at least peek into room 213.

The university ordered Hundertwasser to stop painting and the project ended abruptly 46 hours after it had begun. The line had been competed to a height of about 9 feet. Hundertwasser was not fired, he just declined to return to the university after the Christmas break.

As his students might attest, he vehemently criticized Hamburg’s pragmatic post-war architecture with its sterile straight lines, calling them a tool of the devil. He denounced the profession of architects as a closed club of elitists. Architecture, he claimed, was no more than a conspiracy of straight-liners.

"I dare say that the line that I draw with my feet in order to go to the museum is more important than the lines that one finds on the actual paintings hanging in the museum. And I take endless satisfaction in seeing that this line is never straight, nor, however, is it random. Rather, it is just as it should be. And this holds true in its each and every segment. Beware of the straight line, and of the inebriated line. But especially beware of the straight line. Following the straight line will someday lead the human race to its doom."

In the early 60s, on a visit to Japan and trying to translate his name into kanji, he realized another possibility: Friedensreich, which means either Kingdom of Peace or Rich in Peace. So he became Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

In 1967 he made his now-famous “naked-speech” in Munich, in which he made the case for people’s right to a “third skin.” According to Hundertwasser, people have three skins: their epidermis, their clothes, and finally their shelter.

"A person living in a rental apartment must have the right to lean out the window and scrape away the stucco as far as her hands reach. And she must have the right to take a long paintbrush, and without falling out the window, paint everything pink as far as she can reach so that from the street people can see: A human being lives here."

Later, in 1972, Hundertwasser added two additional layers of skin: our social environment of family, friends and nation, and the biosphere and its role in clothing, sheltering and protecting us. He took the name Regentag (Rainy Day"). He later added the word “Dunkelbunt” (“dark-colorful”), so his full name became Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser.

In 1981 Hundertwasser wrote his treatise “On the Relationship of Architecture to Nature," while in Venice. In it he laid out his love of the colors found in nature, rather than by mixing chemicals, and his distain for smooth surfaces. "Nature, the definition of life itself," he wrote, "is inherently uneven. It is rough, rugged and curvy. Nothing pleases the eye more than an old farmhouse with its corners, curves, warps and crookedness. Such houses appear to grow out of the ground like plants. They appear to belong there."

With modern apartment blocks. One person, the architect, determines how the building is to look, right down to its uniform color. The inhabitants become slaves to the will of the architect. Hundertwasser proposed that apartment dwellers shape the appearance of their apartments, not only on the inside, but on the outside as well. Paradoxically, this expression of individualism creates the diversity that humanizes the space. Not only are the inhabitants humanized, but passers-by as well. Consequently, such a building has a positive effect on the entire community.

According to Hundertwasser, vertical spaces belong to humans (we construct and shape the walls), horizontal spaces belong to nature (grass and trees belong on roofs and walkways). Floors should never be level. From a bird’s eye view, the building is invisible.

We will be taking these ideas to the Natural Building Colloquium, not as new things, but as reminders. Natural building is not a new thing, it is ancient. These structures resonate deeply. Requiring neither architects nor professional builders, they are a people's art. Each structure is an individual expression. It has roots in the earth and touches the sky. It soars, and it burrows. Natural buildings are something very much in alignment with Hundertwasser's powerful vision of human reinhabitation.

Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser died on February 19th, 2000, at the age of 72, on board the Queen Elizabeth II, while en route from New Zealand to Europe. He had chosen an ocean voyage over flying because he loved the experience and he had hoped to paint while on the seas. Had he lived he would be 87 now and could explain himself much better than we have.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dancing with Doom

"The Shakers believed they were living in the last millennium, the final page of humanity, and since all people shared a brother/sister relationship, they should not marry as there was no longer a need to procreate."

What do you do if you think the world as we know it is about to end and the human race, at its crowning glory, go extinct? That was what confronted Ann Lee in the squalid English dungeon where she had been tossed for espousing a radical form of Christianity.

If you are Ann Lee, you sing and dance.

Ann Lee responded to her powerful, apocalyptic doomer vision of 1722 by creating a whole new religion, one its detractors called the “Shaking Quakers” (because they danced and were pacifists) or simply “Shakers.” When she was released from prison she took her vision out into the world and found a large following.

In Mother Ann's view, the Second Coming had already happened, and the world was inhabited now, not with a Christ in the flesh but in Spirit. The world of industrial capitalism, clearances, sweat shops, child labor, closures of the commons, oppression of women and minorities, colonial wars, militarism and slavery is doomed to fail (as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier presaged a century later with his discovery of the civilizational heat engine and the greenhouse effect), as are people, and our role now, in the remaining days, is to return Earth to a heavenly garden for eternity.

Therefore, no one needs to be acquiring and owning private property. What is it good for, if abundance is everywhere? No one needs to have slaves. No one needs to go to war. And no one should bother to have children, because this is the final generation.

To borrow the opening lines from Arthur Bestor's Backwoods Utopias,
The American Republic, remarked the aging James Madison to an English visitor, is 'useful in proving things before held impossible.' Of all the freedoms by which America stood, none was more significant for history than the freedom to experiment with new practices and new institutions. What remained mere speculation in the Old World had a way of becoming reality in the New. In this process, moreover, the future seemed often to unveil itself.
Little wonder then that Ann Lee escaped re-imprisonment in England for her scandalous beliefs in peace, gender equality, antislavery and common property by crossing the ocean and finding land in the North American wilderness, near to where Emerson would later stand and remark:

If the single man plant himself indomitably in his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.
Unfortunately, the Shakers were sometimes met by violent mobs and Ann Lee suffered violence at their hands more than once. Because of these hardships Mother Ann became quite frail; she died at Watervliet, NY on 8 September 1784, at the age of 48.

In August of 1805, three Shaker missionaries, John Meacham, Benjamin Seth Youngs and Issachar Bates (our Great-Great-Great Grandfather, more to be written on this), having traveled more than a thousand miles into the western lands by way of Cumberland Gap and the Ohio River, mostly by foot, arrived at a lovely knoll above the Kentucky River which they called Pleasant Hill.

Within a year, they had 47 converts living together on a 140 acre (57 ha) farm, the twelfth Shaker Village in North America. As new converts came in, they added more buildings and land, eventually reaching 4,369 acres (1,768 ha). By 1812 three communal families — East, Center, and West — each with about 100 members, had been formed, and a fourth, North, was established as a gathering center for prospective converts. On June 2, 1814, the Believers bound themselves together in a more formal covenant with the Shaker Ministry at New Lebanon, New York.

The year 1805 falls into a period of US history that is for some a touchstone of the birth of a great nation, and for others the point of disembarkation for genocide and clearances that continue today. It fell between the War of Independence and a failed British attempt to re-establish a colonial outpost in North America that would only end with the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. In March, 1805, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in for a second term. In April, Beethoven held his baton aloft in Vienna for the first performance of the Symphony Number 3. U.S. Marines stormed the shores of Tripoli in search of Barbari pirates while Napolean was crowned King of Italy. On June 13, Meriwether Lewis and four companions first sighted the Great Falls of the Missouri River. In France, on July 29, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, having just dodged the guillotine, gave birth to their son, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville would later write, after visiting the Shakers:
"I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."
The Shakers believed they were living in the last millennium, the final page of humanity, and since all people shared a brother/sister relationship, they should not marry as there was no longer a need to procreate. Instead they believed people should live communally as a family of brothers and sisters. Children who arrived with married converts or were produced through accident or divine intervention could decide whether to remain in the community when they reached the age of majority.

The site in Kentucky was on poor land a great distance from Eastern markets, but by pooling their property and skills and adopting wholesome, mindful work as their primary spiritual practice, the colony prospered. They raised broom corn and made flat brooms so good that when floated to New Orleans by river they returned home by the Natchez Trace with saddlebags full of gold. They raised fruit and sold it dried or as preserves (more than ten tons in one year). Like the other emerging Shaker communities, they sold garden seeds through catalog sales and by 1825 were a thriving, handsome community with large stone and brick dwellings and shops, grassy lawns, and stone sidewalks.

 Their 40 miles of stone walls took 12 years to build.

They had a municipal water system well before some towns in their area. By 1825 they had spigots in their kitchens. Their mill had an elevator for moving grain to the upper floor, and they had a mechanical corn sheller. Each large dwelling, housing 50 to 100 residents in apartments, had a central kitchen and did laundry in machines run by horse power.

One of their barns included an upper floor for storage of grain and hay, a cutting machine for chopping fodder, and an ingenious railway for delivering feed to the cattle. Even though it was the end of the world, their sense of security endowed them with creative energy that knew few limits.

Their association, according to the Shakers,
is one of joint-interest, as the children of one family, enjoying equal rights and privileges in things spiritual and temporal, because they are influenced and led by one Spirit and love is the only bond of their union: As it is written, 'All that believed were together, and had all things common — and were of one heart, and of one soul.'
In the words of Horace Greeley,
Not through hatred, collision, and depressing competition; not through War, whether of Nation against Nation, Class against Class, or Capital against Labor; but through Union, Harmony, and the reconciling of all Interests, the giving scope to all noble Sentiments and Aspirations, is the Renovation of the World, the Elevation of the degraded and suffering Masses of Mankind, to be sought and effected.
The promise of such an undertaking was seen by the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1840:
Can society ever be constituted upon principles of universal Christian brotherhood? The believing Christian, the enlightened philosopher, answer — IT CAN. Will this organization commence with the entire race of man? With existing governments? Or with small isolated communities. Doubtless, the principles of this new organization must be matured in the hearts and lives of individuals, before they can be embodied in any community, but when the new organization commences, it will doubtless be in small communities.

By the autumn of 1808, Pleasant Hill was established in its current location and in 1809 the Center Family Dwelling, now the Farm Deacon's Shop, was finished. The following year a stone Meeting House was built across the road from Center Family, but the New Madrid quakes of 1811-1812 damaged its stone foundations. The foundations were elaborately rebuilt with two-foot-thick freestack supports every eight feet, and the roof made of great engineered arches to both support the stomping and dancing of 500 Shakers on the first floor, and to permit them to dance and sing unobstructed by support columns, which were made more massive and placed into the 2-foot-thick outer walls.

Access to distant markets for their goods and necessities required them to lay roads and navigate the treacherous Kentucky River. In 1813, they established the first Shaker Ferry five miles North of Pleasant Hill and constructed a wagon road on both sides of the river, lined by their distinctive stone walls. They constructed a North-South road that ran from the river, through the center of their village and then South to Harrodsburg. When the railroad arrived, it crossed the river by high iron trestle just upstream of the Shaker landing.

Economic sustainability was a cornerstone, so brooms, seeds, medicinal herbs, cheese, canned goods, buckets, straw hats, carpets, cloth and shuttles moved on the river, first by flatboat, then keelboat, and later by steam paddlewheel to Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans. Tool castings, building materials, pickling spices, tea, sugar and glass jars came back the other way.

Deacon's House, likely home of Issachar Bates
Something still more important was exchanged. “Shaker” as a brand became associated with purity, frugality, and wholesomeness. This was achieved first by the Seed Division, which produced the nation's first mail order seed catalog and became the largest seed company in the Hemisphere. Later it would be synonymous with Shaker furniture, with its clean lines, lightweight sturdy material, and perfect joinery.

As pacifists and abolitionists the Shakers ran afoul of local opinion, especially in times of heated tempers, before and during the War of Northern Aggression.

It is ironic that it should be the Great Civil War that brought Pleasant Hill low, because that was a war, first and foremost, between combatant paradigms. The rapidly industrializing northern states, fueled by coal, oil (including whale oil), and the latest energy saving machinery from England and Germany, could afford to replace human slaves with energy slaves to considerable financial advantage. They eyed the slave economy of the South, with its cotton and coal wealth, as a way to supply their machines.

Abolition of slavery was not a central goal of the war-makers, and indeed, the Union, as it formed to oppose the Secessionists, contained the slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia.

The Shakers at Pleasant Hill were devout abolitionists. They adopted the practice of buying and freeing slaves, and since freed slaves could not work or own property in Kentucky, they offered them sanctuary and equal stake as members of Pleasant Hill. In 1825 a pro-slavery, anti-pacifist mob attacked Pleasant Hill and destroyed some of its facilities.

Nonetheless, during the War the community fed thousands of soldiers, from both sides, who came marching up the North-South road, the main artery between Harrodsburg and Lexington, that passed straight through the center of the village. Given the choice between rape, pillage and plunder and Christian charity, the Shakers poured out of their dwellings and placed food in the hands of weary soldiers and cared for their wounds. Both armies "nearly ate [them] out of house and home," a Shaker witness reported, but they survived the war intact.

The worse tragedy came after the war, when Lincoln's policy of reconciliation and restoration died with him and the original Northern industrialist goal of regional subjugation returned to the fore. The Shaker's lifeline, the river, was cut off to them, with all Southern commerce on the Mississippi banned and high tariffs imposed on Kentucky trade goods. Living in rural Tennessee, where rural internet and cell-phone service resembles what was available to Californians a quarter century ago, we can personally attest that these policies continue in more subtle forms to the present and most strongly affect border states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where children are still forced by economic necessity (student loans and medical blackmail) to go down into the mines and pick at hard rock seams or operate giant bulldozers, scrapers and cranes to remove whole mountains, to extract coal too dirty to be burned in the United States for export to China.

The policy of celibacy insured that the Shaker religious society would not long outlive the first generation, and by 1900, only 34 remained at Pleasant Hill. The Shaker community was dissolved in 1910 and in 1923, the last member, Mary Settles, died. She was pleased to live long enough to see women's suffrage and planned to vote a straight Democratic ticket on her first ballot. She said that Shaker sisters had always had equal rights within their communal society.

After her demise, the village slowly began going back to nature. Some of the pasture land was used or absorbed into neighboring farms, but occasionally pilgrims would arrive and marvel at what remained. One such visitor was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote:

[T]he marvelous double winding stair going up to the mysterious clarity of a dome on the roof ... quiet sunlight filtering in—a big Lebanon cedar outside one of the windows ... All the other houses are locked up. There is Shaker furniture only in the center family house. I tried to get in it and a gloomy old man living in the back told me curtly 'it was locked up.' The empty fields, the big trees—how I would love to explore those houses and listen to that silence. In spite of the general decay and despair there is joy there still and simplicity... Shakers fascinate me.

After Mary Settles passed, the land went into private hands and was parceled up. The Meeting Hall, with its well-supported grand ballroom, became an automobile repair garage. Oil stains the hardwood floors.

In 1961 a group of Lexington-area citizens launched an effort to restore the property. By 1964 the Friends of Pleasant Hill had organized a non-profit corporation, raised funds for operating expenses, and secured a $2 million loan to purchase and restore the site. Eight buildings were restored by 1968 and placed on public display.

Today, with 34 original 19th-century buildings and 2,800 acres (1100 ha.) of restored farmland, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is "the largest historic community of its kind in America." It is a place of continuing enchantment. Ann Lee herself recognized how revolutionary her ideas were when she said, "We [the Shakers] are the people who turned the world upside down." The walls echo the music and dance of a people who believed they were the last of their kind, but as it turned out, they weren't. At least, not yet.





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