Emergency Planetary Technician: Permaculture Realized, Part I

"If you've ever tried to change money when you're high on acid it's like, ‘what am I doing? What are these pictures of dead presidents doing in my pocket?"

The following transcript, from an interview conducted earlier this month, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Welcome to the Permaculture Realized podcast where we're exploring the paradigm shift that's required to get us through humanity's greatest challenge, climate change. This is Levi broadcasting from our Realized Homestead, February 2, 2016.

Albert Bates is a long-time, influential figure in environmental activism and the ecovillage and permaculture movements. He's a lawyer, an author, and a teacher who's been the Director of the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee since 1994.

He recently attended the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris and he published a book about what happened there, called The Paris Agreement. This interview is packed full of great info so I'm going to just get right into it. I started by asking Albert about his back-story:

AB: The back-story – I went through conventional USAnian, middle class upbringing in rich, white bread suburbia, in my case on the out skirts of New York City in suburban Connecticut although at that time in the early 50s it was a kind of combination of tentative sprawl and farmland. Connecticut at that time was kind of nice and if you've ever watched the television series, “Mad Men,” you can get the idea of what my life as a child growing up was because my father was a mad man. He went to work on Madison Avenue. He worked in public relations and created ad campaigns. That's what he did and he took the New Haven railroad to get into work in New York City every day and came back at night to the little petit mansion and the country life.

As for me, I grew up in Wilton, Connecticut, went to Syracuse University, got a degree in political science, went on to law school, got a degree in law and at that point I had a major shift in my focus in life because I was offered all kinds of jobs in New York. I could have become a New York lawyer and followed the trajectory my parents had set for me or I could break with that meta-programming. I was reading John Lilly at the time and he was writing about the mind of the dolphin, LSD, isolation tanks, and re-programming the human biocomputer so I broke with my whole meta-program. When I graduated law school, instead of sticking around, I went on the Appalachian Trail and a thru-hike from north to south in the course of a summer.

I got down to Tennessee and had heard about The Farm and decided that as long as I was in Tennessee I would go visit it. This was an experimental community which had come out of an exodus of hippies from San Francisco following the Summer of Love. They had started a commune and had found that prices in Marin County and Humboldt County and all those areas were way too expensive so they found some cheap land – $70/acre – in Tennessee and set up shop there for an intentional community on what had been a cattle ranch, replacing 70 cows with 400 hippies.

I joined and became a member in 1972. I fell in love with the place at first glance and ended up staying a month instead overnight and then three months and there I was – the rest of my life. That became a base for me. It was an interesting experiment in many ways. Not only was it a complete detachment from the trajectory that I had been on, but also it was an experiment in living which involved giving up any notion of job, any notion of money. We didn't use money within The Farm, it was a communal society. It wasn't like we were socialist or communist or anti-capitalist — we eschewed isms. It was more like, we just didn't believe in money.

If you go back to the acid days of Haight Ashbury you can kind of understand the etiology of that process. If you've ever tried to change money when you're high on acid it's like, ‘what am I doing? What are these pictures of dead presidents doing in my pocket? Why am I putting so much value on these pieces of metal and pieces of paper? Why am I orienting my entire life on accumulating these things?’ Getting rid of money was really a big step. It was one of the biggest steps we made and it changed everything. When you joined The Farm essentially you gave up everything you ever owned or ever expected to inherit, anything that would distinguish you from someone else.

One of the other tenets of our faith was no social position. We didn't believe in social position. Many people have particular gifts or talents, their heritage, their inclinations, their bliss in life. They follow particular paths and develop their particular talents which is fine, that's all appreciated but it doesn't give you social position. People who are developmentally challenged were on equal footing with people who had Ph.D’s. From that standpoint it was a social experiment which was absolutely one of the most marvelous things I've ever participated in and I'm grateful to this day for the thirteen or fourteen years that we had as a communal, collective society.

image:  Gaspar Tringale for Vanity Fair
We ran into problems with scale. We really were inexperienced teenagers and young people just setting up shop, marrying, having babies and we didn't have the skill sets to do design. Permaculture hadn't been invented at that point. So what we did was sort of ad hoc, take it as it came and, without a design process, we fell into error. That's not bad. Error is a good thing. It's a learning experience but it can also make things harder in many ways. It can waste whatever small amounts you have accumulated. It can destroy valuable assets and things like that. It also makes it very slow and people get impatient.

The problem that we found was not dissimilar to many managed economies: at the age of 30-something we were still queued-up for diapers because we couldn't afford for people to have too many, and tennis shoes, and things like that. And people became generally dissatisfied. They wanted more control over their own lives. At some point we decided to de-collectivize and go back into a system which was similar to what we had come from, a money-exchanging system – but there were also things like a land trust and a cooperative form of self-governance which were much more transparent, consensus-based, using tools and skills which we had developed over that thirteen or fourteen year period.
the author, 1981

For me, I was able to apply my education and my law degree and make living doing useful work. That had started during our collective period because somewhere around the mid- to late seventies nuclear power plants were coming near us. The Tennessee Valley Authority, since it was a Federal utility, was directed by the government under various Republican administrations to make more nuclear power so they were building twenty nuclear power plants and a plutonium breeder. So I dusted off the old law degree, got my license in Tennessee, and went after them and we were able to stop them. We were able to halt that expansion. [This story is told in two books: Honicker vs. Hendrie - A Lawsuit to End Atomic Power; and Shutdown! Nuclear Power on Trial. The Supreme Court brief is here.]

I took on the chemical industry after that – Monsanto, Stauffer Chemical, and AstraZenica, over agrochem pollution – they manufactured pesticides and herbicides using deepwell injection — and got deepwell injection banned in the State of Tennessee which, until recently, included fracking.

I created a non-profit, public interest law project which raised money by donations and we had a small staff of law students and volunteer clerks and went up against the chemical industry and the nuclear power industry. We had the largest portfolio of cases for atomic veterans at the VA. We fought the MX missile and various nuclear weapon systems and programs. We worked for Native American rights.

One of our major areas on The Farm was helping various indigenous peoples’ struggles around the world, beginning in Guatemala and extending to other places. In 1980 I was part of the board of Plenty International when it won the Right Livelihood Award for its work in preserving indigenous cultures. My work also focused on that – saving sacred sites in the Black Hills, preventing uranium exploration in those places, and so forth.

So I was in that field — international, environmental and human rights law — and at some point, I guess in the late '80s, early 90s, I started to get the sense that I was in the same kind of rut I had been in when I was in college or law school, holding a job, doing charitable pro bono stuff, and getting a degree at the same time; that I was a type-A individual and thriving on stress. I have never developed ‘the talent for idleness,’ as Hermann Hesse said. I was getting high blood pressure, my marriage was falling to pieces, and I had too many balls in the air that I was trying to juggle.

So, it was like 'why am I in this mode?’ I decided to retire from the practice of law and get rid of all that and begin to work more in the area of environmental education. But first I became a mushroom farmer. In 1991 I ran a company in Tennessee called the Mushroompeople. We were selling commercial spawn for shiitake, maitake, enokitake — all the Japanese forest mushrooms — as well as selling supplies to farmers and giving courses and workshops in mushroom growing, with Paul Stamets and others.

That led me to create what eventually became the Ecovillage Training Center. I took a permaculture course in '95 with Peter Bane and Chuck Marsh and became an instructor there at our training center. I got involved with the early ecovillage movement. We started a newsletter called The Design Exchange for the Ecovillage Network of the Americas in the 90s and then I was invited to conferences in Scotland, Denmark, and Russia and became part of the founding group for the Global Ecovillage Network which eventually spread to 20,000 villages around the world with over 2 million residents today.

I was president and chairman of the board for a few years and I am still one of their United Nations representatives. What I do with the United Nations is to attend meetings of the Committee for Sustainable Development, the Climate Change Convention, the Desertification Convention, the Biodiversity Convention, and the Human Rights Convention. The tools that I bring to my work at the United Nations deal with permaculture. That's the methodology that I apply in the design of this stage of my life, the pattern of our strategic work, and ultimately, the re-design of the built environment of the planet — how we two-leggeds intend to inhabit our rapidly changing ecological niche.

So you could call me an emergency planetary technician. I'm going to the pressure points where I can stop the bleeding and to places where, if we really apply ourselves, we can change the paradigm. And I have actually witnessed that on a number of occasions, most recently in December in Paris where we were actually able to change the paradigm, or perhaps it was just being present at the moment when the world suddenly shifted, like the hundredth monkey who learns the skill and suddenly every monkey all over the world has that skill. That kind of historic moment.

Levi Meeuwenberg: Since the Paris agreement just took place and I think that a lot of people are curious about that, and hopeful, can you tell us what you witnessed there? What happened?

Continued next week.


Unknown said…
Wow, Albert! You've led quite a remarkable life. I salute you, sir.

I couldn't help but smile when you mentioned being influenced by John Lily. "Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Biocomputer" was one of the very first books I ordered from a faraway bookstore called The Whole Earth Truck Store...must have been about '72. I was still in high school.

We didn't have the internet, but we had The Catalog, which was where this rural hippie kid got a lot of information and inspiration. LOL.

Thanks for all you do and have done for the planet and us humans. I wanted to let you know I'm starting a biochar project of my own here this year. Keep up the good work and keep us posted.

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