Sunday, March 12, 2023

First Principles: Learning from Buffalo

"Many people think that we followed the buffalo, when in fact the buffalo followed us."


I seem unable to explain to some of my critics why I cling to natural solutions over high-tech inventions like artificial trees, nuclear energy, and AI. While surfing YouTube I came across an inspiring, hopeful TEDxKC talk by permaculture master teacher Lyla June, Diné (Navajo).


Lyla June beautifully laid out my first principles of design, which she modestly described merely as indigenous land practice.

  • tap into and align with forces of nature

    “What if I told you I've seen my people turn deserts into gardens? What if these human hands and minds could be such a great gift to the earth that they sparked new life wherever people and purpose met?”

  • expand habitats

    “For millennia, following the grass-burning moon of our lunar calendars, we would transform dead plant tissues into nutrient dense [carbon], nourishing the soil and unlocking the seeds of pyro-adapted grasses and medicines like echinacea. Over time, this fire would prevent trees and shrubs from taking over the grasslands and would nourish the soil to generate topsoils up to four feet deep. Many people think that we followed the buffalo, when in fact the buffalo followed our fire. In this manner, we anthropogenically expanded buffalo habitat as far south as Louisiana and as far east as Pennsylvania.”

  • create non-human-centric systems

    “For example, Coastal Salish Nations of British Columbia enhance fish habitat by planting kelp forests where the herring lay their eggs. This helps that small silverfish lay even more eggs, rebound in even greater numbers, and both the eggs and the hatched herring fish cascade up the food chain, nourishing so many other life forms, such as bear, salmon, orca, eagles, wolves and more. Ironically, by seeding this food web and feeding all life around them, Coastal Salish Nations have greater food security for themselves.”

  • design for perpetuity

    “One Kentucky sediment record shows how Shawnee ancestors took care of a chestnut food forest for over 3,000 years straight. A sudden influx of fossilized charcoal during the same period indicates that they managed it with routine burning of the forest floor. Presumably, this enriches the soil, helps the soil hold more water, and eliminates competing vegetation to boost the immune systems of the trees they selected. Apparently, it worked because it lasted for millennia. What if our systems were designed to last forever?”

That same day, I happened to rent Nomadland and was struck by cross-cutting themes. Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Frances McDormand at the 93rd Academy Awards. The story comes from a book by Jessica Bruder who spent months living in a camper van documenting itinerant Americans that gave up traditional housing to hit the road full-time, similar to the Okie migrants in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

In the film, Fern (McDormand) loses her job and company town when a plant shuts down, sells most of her belongings and purchases a van. Over the course of the film, she warms up to van life to the point where, given the opportunity to go back to “normal,” she chooses to remain a nomad.

What seems to attract her more than the camaraderie and community of fellow nomads is living close to nature. She experiences freedom in a more profound way than she ever had. Despite the hassles and heartbreaks, she is endlessly surrounded by natural wonder, and can almost effortlessly traverse from one moment of awe to another.

Hitting during Covid, Nomadland did not gross its costs and was a box office dud, but went on to win not only the three Oscars but Best Picture and Best Director Golden Globes, Best Film at the British Oscars, and top honors at both Toronto and Venice (a first). Although originally scheduled for a limited release in China starting on April 23, 2021, the film has still not been shown there, which is interesting, because as I explained in an earlier piece, these Nomadland themes are very much in harmony with Xi Jinping’s “Lucid Water and Lush Mountains” policy.

In a scene shot in an Amazon warehouse, Swankie (Charlene Swankie) recites to Fern’s work group that the Three-Points principle means you want to keep three points of contact with a stable surface when climbing or reaching, to avoid spills. Here is my third point.

My friend Rex Weyler recently interviewed my other friend Nate Hagens for Greenpeace Green Talks. He asked Hagens to explain what he calls (in podcasts, YouTube channel, and an animated film) the Great Simplification.


A barrel of oil provides the same total work as a human working full time for 11 years. Since humans can be more efficient than mechanical systems at turning muscle labor into useful work, we discount the oil by about 60%, so a barrel of oil represents about 4.5 years of human work. Since every year we use 100 billion barrels-equivalent of fossil fuels, we get effectively 400-500 billion human workers added to our economic system, to the 4-5 billion real human workers.


We are alive during the carbon pulse, our economic system treats this huge yearly benefit as if it were interest, when actually, we are drawing down the principle, Earth’s natural principle, all the energy and materials we drain from the Earth and use for human economy. We are drawing down the fossil hydrocarbon store 10-million-times faster than it was trickle-charged by daily photosynthesis millions of years ago.


We feel entitled to current large quantities of energy, but after basic needs are met (about 100 Giga-Joules per capita globally) there is very little benefit derived from more energy use. Citizens in the US and Canada use over 300GJ per capita, so there is lots of room to simplify. We can reduce our energy demands without significantly reducing the general well-being of humanity. 

A recovering Vice President at Salomon Brothers (“in 2002 I gave my clients their money back, left Wall Street, and began educating myself on ecology and energy full time”), Hagens believes we are at the cusp of a Minsky moment and Korowicz crunch.

My work suggests that even the next doubling will not occur in the face of very real energy, material, and environmental limits. The moment we are no longer able to grow sufficiently to service debt and financial claims, there will be a musical chairs moment in global financial systems. 

Debt or “credit” allows us to consume resources today that without credit would still be available in the future. We are producing things that we’d not be able to produce without debt. The implication is that once the markets no longer trust that governments can be fiscally responsible or that growth can’t continue, we have a sharp reduction in economic output akin to the 1930s. This will be the beginning of the Great Simplification, the largest event ever encountered by a global human culture.

As Scrooge asks the Ghost of Things to Be, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Contraction is a thing that will be, but some consequences are things that may be only. ‘Which and how many’ are things we may yet have agency over. Path selection should proceed from first principles.

The Green Road is helping these places grow their own food, and raising money to acquire farm machinery and seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.

Those wishing to make a tax-deductible gift can do so through Global Village Institute by going to or by directing donations to

There is more info on the Global Village Institute website at and read this new article in Mother Jones.


The COVID-19 pandemic
destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed climate change, a juggernaut threat to all life, humans included. We had a trial run at emergency problem-solving on a global scale with COVID — and we failed. 6.8 million people, and counting, have died. We ignored well-laid plans to isolate and contact trace early cases; overloaded our ICUs; parked morgue trucks on the streets; incinerated bodies until the smoke obscured our cities as much as the raging wildfires. The modern world took a masterclass in how abysmally, unbelievably, shockingly bad we could fail, despite our amazing science, vast wealth, and singular talents as a species.

Having failed so dramatically, so convincingly, with such breathtaking ineptitude, do we imagine we will now do better with climate? Having demonstrated such extreme disorientation in the face of a few simple strands of RNA, do we imagine we can call upon some magic power that will change all that for planetary-ecosystem-destroying climate change?

As the world emerges into pandemic recovery (maybe), there is growing recognition that we must learn to do better. We must chart a pathway to a new carbon economy that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backward — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience. We must lead by good examples; carrots, not sticks; ecovillages, not carbon indulgences. We must attract a broad swath of people to this work by honoring it, rewarding it, and making it fun. That is our challenge now.

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