Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Citizen Species

I thought the narrative Charles Hall posted to the Oil Drum website yesterday made a lot of sense. To wit:
... Oil was cheap, $3.50 a barrel, at the start of 1973. The US was the world’s largest producer. Peak oil had just occurred but no one noticed. Demand kept growing, US supply fell, foreign suppliers gained leverage. Political events and bulldozer accidents intervened. The price increased by a factor of ten, to $35 a barrel. The proportion of GDP that went to buying oil increased from about 4 percent to 13 percent, restricting discretionary spending for all. All around the world oil that had been found but not developed (as it had not been worth much) suddenly became profitable to develop, and it was. By the 1990s the world was awash in oil, and the real price fell to nearly what it was in 1973. The proportion of GDP that was energy fell to about 5 percent, essentially giving everyone a sudden free extra 8-10 percent of their incomes to play with. Many invested in the stock market, but the burst bubble of 2000 cured many. Real estate was a “safe” bet, so many invested into what was really a huge surplus square footage of McMansions etc. Just as my mother recounted to me about 1929, speculation became rampant. Then as energy prices have increased over the past 6 years an extra 5 to 10 percent “tax” has been added to our economy, and that much of the surplus wealth disappeared. Speculation was no longer desirable or possible as everyone was tightening their belt because of increased energy costs. This may or may not be accurate and it certainly is not a sufficient explanation by itself sufficient (we would have to add in the failure of Allen Greenspan etc to do their regulatory job) but two of my energy-savvy financial friends say “that just about captures it”. In systems theory language: the endogenous aspects of the economy, that the economists focus on (Fed rates, money supply etc.) became beholden to exogenous forcing functions that are not part of their training.
The question this raises for me is whether the US government has any ability to "stimulate" its economy now, such as by sending out checks for $500 to every taxpayer. For most recipients, that money will help them stretch through the end of the week, or perhaps the end of the month. Then what?

We just completed a 3-day workshop in Natural Building here at the training center in Summertown, and it was completely subscribed and a good time had by all. Lots of young couples and some people brought their whole families, teenagers especially. There was no need for us to dwell on the shadows our collective future throws; it was enough just to show how to build homes without going into debt, from materials found on site, or nearby, or from throwaways in a wasteful society.

We have a few weeks now to continue with the apprentices, completing the mudbrick, thatch, living roof and earthbag structures begun or advanced in the workshop. Then we have a 3-day biofuels class (growing, converting your car, troubleshooting) on May 2-4, and a 4-day course on herbal medicine (growing, foraging, preparing, administering) on May 14-18. We will also have a new group of apprentices arriving in May, hoping to have a more in-depth experience of meeting their food, fuel, and building needs and, then returning to their communities to teach.

What many call "social capital" we are now seeing as the only real capital we have any control over. Securities, currencies, bonds, loans ... all paper. You can't eat it, although you may be able to build with some of it (we are making fidobe bricks in a CINVA ram). Natural capital such as rainfall, climate, soil and wildlife are quickly reaching a domain well outside human management capabilities. Climate change is canceling all our bets; humbling us and showing what puny and insignificant creatures we really are.

And yet, we can still build up our social capital. We can learn how to make soil, store water, and plant forests. We can re-learn that most important of all lost skills -- fertility restraint. Having been read our rights now, we can step down from the dock and take our proper place as citizen species.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Reset Button

“What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left.”
— Plato, Critias


I am a dugout canoe trip up river in the Maya Mountains of Southern Belize not far from the Guatemalan border. Miraculously, we have a Hughes Net satellite dish in the camp here, powered by a Southwest Windpower Air-X and some BP polyamorphous solar panels. It is a great place to sit and watch the decline and fall of the Petroleum Empire.

Over the weekend, Bear Stearns was bought out by JP Morgan Chase for about one-quarter of the real estate value of their mid-Manhattan office tower. It was a spectacular fall – from $145 per share on Thursday to $30 on Friday to $2 per share on Sunday. One can only lament the fate of New York state and local government pensioners, including schoolteachers, firefighters and welfare caseworkers, who have $68 million of their retirement nest egg in Bear Stearns stock. If the Bear gives Morgan Chase indigestion, retirement for NY state workers could be less than rosy.

The financial news is all abuzz with the prospect that the Bear will not be the last casualty. Thanks to Matt Savinar at LATOC for these links:
Asia Times: What You See is What the Worse Case Scenario Looks Like;
Business Week: A Red Flag for Bank Liquidity;
CNN: The Magnitude of This Meltdown is Unprecedented;
CNN: Can the Fed Stop the Dominoes from Falling?;
Fortune Magazine: This is the End of Wall Street as We Know It;
London Independent: Financial Markets Have Seized Up;
London Times: City Shaken as Events on Wall Street Unravel;
MSN Money: Wall Street Turmoil Quickly Spreading to Main Street;
NY Times: The Unthinkable Is About to Become Inevitable;
San Francisco Chronicle: Economic crisis worsens. Is anyone in charge?;
Guardian: We're Surprised Americans Aren't Rioting in the Streets by Now;
Wall Street Journal: Crisis Sends a Stake Through the Heart of Wall Street;
Washington Post: There Has Never Been a Crisis This Comprehensive.

Sandy Chen, of UK analysts Panmure Gordon, said: "This is not a liquidity crisis, it's an insolvency crisis." Asia Times: Losses to Come Will Probably Wipe Out the Banking System

It won’t do you any good to try to change dollars to euros in those street kiosks in Amsterdam. They have stopped accepting dollars.

To date, the US and EU central banks have put up $2.5 trillion worth to bail out banks and bond markets. They are doing this to prevent a total banking collapse. If you read all of the above and have become concerned, you might think to go to the bank and take out your money, might you not? As of December, the FDIC was covering $4.3 trillion in insured deposits in the United States with a fund of $52.4 billion. If more than 1.22% of depositors ran to their bank, the FDIC would have to declare insolvency. L.A. Times: Several Major Financial Institutions Are Going to Fail.

Assuming you get your money back from the bank, what will be the value of holding dollars? Here is a chart of the U.S. money supply during the past 15 months, courtesy of Catherine Austin Fitts:

This week gold traded at $1,031 while silver rose above $21. That tells us that people are dumping currency, stocks and bonds for something more tangible. Oil went north of $112/barrel, and the cornucopians say that has to do with dollar concerns. Goldman Sachs Says Oil Could Reach $175 a Barrel Soon.

But can gold and other commodities' high prices hold? A reader of The Daily Reckoning suggests gold may take a detour back to $400 or lower simply because in the deflation to come, which will be brought on by an escalation of the current liquidity crisis, gold will be sold off to pay for margin calls. Then, if gold is re-valued later as the standard against which all currencies will be measured, it might fall under international price controls, so that suggests some not inconsiderable risk in the flight to gold. Other metals, and the commodities you eat, are less susceptible, because they are getting scarcer by the day, even as world population continues to rise. There may be a bit of a hard asset glut in the short term, however.

On March 15th, the Wall Street Journal explained that, after years of relying upon foreign debt to finance the U.S. economy, "The U.S. is at the receiving end of a massive margin call: Across the economy, wary lenders are demanding borrowers put up more collateral or sell assets to reduce debt."

The U.S. Treasury is not at the bottom of its financial barrel, but if you push a stick down there, you can hear it scaping. Of the $709 billion in Treasury bills — borrowed money — 60% has now been applied to bailing out Wall Street. The Fed is committed to new T-bill auctions to raise $430 billion. Lowering the rates will not help sell these bonds, because the latest 0.75 percent drop puts return on investment already well below inflation, and with the need to print more dollars to bail out more banks, and possibly even buy the sour collateral held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, inflation must needs rise farther. It is like sitting by the river and watching your retirement cash float by, dollar after dollar. Can the Euro move quickly enough to become the world's reserve currency and keep the currencies of the rest of the world from going over the falls after the dollar? Stay tuned.

Looking around here in Belize, while this relatively impoverished country is not immune to the wave of failures in world financial markets (the US dollar is a second currency here and the Belizian dollar is pegged to it), they at least grow a lot of food. They will not starve when there is no longer enough gasoline to take them to the grocery store.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Stormproofing


the Nanking Cherry
blooming in a rainy mist
pink flowers on silk
Haiku for Stephanie Mills, 4 Mar 08

The rain and 70-degree temperatures (21 C) have given way to another Canadian clipper sweeping the Tennessee highlands with snow flurries. The birdsong and spring peepers have gone silent and the ponds are frozen over again.

I am off to Belize to teach a 2-week permaculture design course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm up river from San Pedro Colombia near the Guatemalan border. Half the class are Mayan farmers who want to redevelop agroforestry in an ecologically sustainable way. The other half is a mix of Central American and Unidian activists wanting to get a grip on the future and some of our options during and after petrocollapse, including the man who coined the term, Jan Lundberg.

It is becoming more obvious by the day that the Long Emergency has begun, ignited by the subprime meltdown that has gone global now. If you look at the schedule of rate resets for adjustable rate mortgages, what we experienced in 2007 was only a foreshock. Later this month we start the second round of resets, and the number of those coming in 2008 is more than quadruple all of the resets in 2007, and then even more arrive in 2009, 2010, 2011. The financial sector losses in 2007 are now estimated at 1 trillion dollars, approximately the net value of the U.S. banking industry. What does quadruple that look like? Efforts by government to place moratoria on rate changes, foreclosures or evictions are temporary palliatives, because someone is always left holding the bag, and that someone is also part of the economy.



Like most baby boomers, I am reaching my retirement years, although I have to say retirement is not part of my lexicon. The concept is as foreign to me as punching a clock, something I have almost never done, except as a young roustabout or temp’ing for Farm Hands to make the communal basic budget. Work is the visible expression of love, and if you design your life’s work well, it is just a way of getting paid for doing what you love. Why would anyone retire from that?

Still, I am left after 60 years with some IRAs that are now ready for harvesting, and that pushes me to make choices to try to secure the nest egg. If money — ie: the national currency — and securities — ie: the stock market — are becoming worthless and risky, where do I put the egg? Well, apart from expanding the garden with more deer fencing, laying in extra firewood and enlarging the root cellar, I can make a couple of educated guesses for asset conservation and appreciation in the mid-term.

I am out of big energy stocks and my alternate energy stocks are doing poorly. I think market direction may matter too much for those kinds of investments. More recession-resistant investments for me now include Apple Computer (AAPL), available this week with a 35-percent-off pre-MacWorld discount, and Central Fund of Canada (CEF). Whether Apple sells 10 million iPhones this year doesn’t matter that much to me because iTunes and computers are still the core for their business and in a recession, everyone tightens their belts and stays home. Computers, Skype, TV and movies on demand, and internet services will boom.

Central Fund of Canada is a specialized closed-end investment holding company where a lot of pension money in Canada is parked. It holds 90% of its assets in unencumbered, allocated, segregated and insured gold and silver bullion, primarily in bar form. CEF does not speculate with regard to short-term changes in gold and silver prices. On a physical basis, 50 ounces of silver are held for each ounce of gold and CEF’s value has risen with the rush to silver, jumping from $9 per share in October to around $14 today. The second hedge with CEF is that it is traded in Toronto in Canadian dollars, not the greenback. Canadian dollars are now at parity and headed higher, tracking the rise of the Euro as the dollar crashes.


CEF 1 yr price

And that is all I will say about the stock market. Wax your board.

Here is a recipe adapted from a decade-old issue of Vegetarian Times that seemed to be appropriate as we clear out the winter food storage in preparation for the Spring harvest. By now your early peas should be looking good and the strawberries are poking out of the snow. But what to do with those aging cabbages and all that dried basil? Here's a hearty dish that will warm your soul on a chilly evening.

Cabbage Spaghetti
4 to 6 Servings
  • 15- to 19-oz. (1 ½ to 1 ¾ c.) cooked pinto beans
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, slivered
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • ½ medium head cabbage, shredded (4 c.)
  • 1 Tbs. chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp. dried
  • ¾ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 ½ c. vegetable broth or water
  • 1/3 c. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 12 oz. dried whole-wheat spaghetti
  • 1 c. shredded Fontina cheese (3 oz.) or (for vegan) 1 c. tofu blended with 1 tsp lemon juice and ¼ c. nutritional yeast.
  1. Bring large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, measure out 1/4 cup beans and mash in small bowl; set mashed and whole beans aside.
  3. In large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic, carrots, cabbage, thyme and salt and cook, stirring, until cabbage has wilted, 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Stir in broth and reserved mashed and whole beans; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in parsley, vinegar and pepper.
  5. Shortly before sauce is ready, add spaghetti to boiling water; stir to prevent sticking. Cook, stirring often, until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well and place in large warm serving bowl. Add cabbage mixture and cheese or tofu and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Quote of the month:

"There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly." James Lovelock, in The Guardian, March 1, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Message from the Virgin

"Talking against religion is unchaining a tyger" – Poor Richard



There are many reasons why the Mexican people took the Virgin of Guadalupe to their hearts — the sainted mother of the Lord appearing as a Mestizo woman, someone of very low social rank in the 17th century; appearing miraculously to Juan Diego, a poor campesino and someone with no special standing in the church; clad in vestments bearing symbols indigenous and sacred to Mexico; the efforts by some church elders to squelch the special veneration of Guadalupe and to withhold sainthood from Juan Diego. All of these pieces nourished Mexican pride and the dignity of indigenous and mixed-blooded peoples. The Virgin was theirs, and in their corner against all the unfairness and cruelty of the world.



What lessons are there in this story for those of us now trying to reverse the climate change/peak oil/ population/extinction juggernaut? We tiny few, we band of brothers, possessed of the realization that real end times are upon us … unless …

Unless we can somehow accomplish in the space of a short few years what has never been accomplished in all of human history — the voluntary turning away from the pursuit of wealth and power by the broad masses of human population; people who, never having had either wealth or power in their entire lives who have grown up yearning for it; or people who, having had it their entire lives, take it for granted as a birthright, and could never imagine living without it — then all is lost. And what good are wealth and power if there are no humans around to enjoy them?

As more people have the realization of just how dire our situation has become, there are many heroic, absurd, futile, and counterproductive responses being bandied about. National Geographic’s cable-TV channel runs a special called Six Degrees that provides an adequate prelude to mass panic. David Suzuki has begun telling audiences, "What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there's a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they're doing is a criminal act."



I’d suggest that we simply invert the pecking order.

The Guadalupe story I spoke of last week is about memes. How they begin. How they grow. How they become central to peoples’ lives. The Guadalupe meme is so strong that Guadalupeños walk the breadth of Mexico, some on their knees, in devotion. They endure cold, heat, hunger, thirst and pain to demonstrate their faith. They bathe in sacrifice, and emerge in bliss.

In December I learned that the various non-governmental organizations that work the corridors of the United Nations in consultative status were putting together a task group to draft a road map from Bali to Copenhagen, although I suspect for that particular route a sea chart would be more useful.

The United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference in Bali was, as all international conferences dealing with climate change have been, a bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless some progress was made.

The United States made a bald-face attempt to hijack the process, but in the end was hooted and jeered by the other countries. But the big shift came from developing countries, known collectively as “the G-77 plus China.”

Led by China, South Africa, and Brazil, the G-78 stood up to the G-8 bullies and punched them in the nose.

The confrontation came on the unplanned 13th day of the conference. At issue was wording on adaptation, technology transfer, and financing. G-78 countries offered text changes that would bring them into the consensus — in essence, it would accomplish what the Bush Administration had long said was the reason it did not support Kyoto, because developing countries, including China, would not pledge reductions the way developed countries were expected to. The developing world said, “Okay, count us in. We will cap if we can trade.”

When the head of the US negotiating team, Paula Dobriansky, took the floor, she said the US couldn't support the change. Without consensus, the Bali conference would end with nothing accomplished. The US was, on instructions from Washington, refusing to take “yes” for an answer.

Developing countries were already fuming that, due to US insistence, the road map was confining scientific recommendations on necessary emission cuts by industrial countries to a footnote. The Europeans were fuming that Bali would not set any hard targets, leaving EU, with its advanced restrictions already in place and more coming, hanging in the breeze.

Then there was the comment made by a senior member of the US delegation, none less than the head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, who told reporters that “the US will lead” on global climate change, “but leadership requires that others fall in line and follow.”

So when Paula Dobriansky attempted to end the talks on a sour note, she was met with a chorus of boos. One after another, as the conference continued past its scheduled close, nations rose to speak. Each of them in turn supported the G-78 change and roundly criticized the US position as entirely obfuscatory — “most unwelcome and without any basis,” in the words of the South African delegate.

Kevin Conrad, head of Papua-New Guinea's delegation, rose and delivered the coup de grace. “We seek your leadership,” he said. “But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”

And then, much to everyone’s surprise, they did. The US reversed its position and went with the consensus. What that said, in essence, was that all countries of the world will now agree to binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — caps. With caps in place, targets can be set, a trading regime to harvest the low-hanging fruit (rainforest preservation, a ban on gas flaring, and CO2 capture retrofits for instance) put in place and regulated, and a GHG reduction trading bourse established. The only questions remaining are what should the targets be and how quickly can they be put into effect.

The United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 will answer those questions.

And so, here I was in January, joining in writing a scoping draft of a white paper — A Framework for Action — to be co-authored by the various non-governmental organizations involved in this process, and to be delivered to the UN Secretary General in 2008, describing what NGOs hoped for Copenhagen, and offering some friendly advice on how best to save the planet in the coming century.

NGOs were free to put forward topics and coalesce interest around them. The topic that immediately grabbed my attention was “Tipping Points.” I emailed Bill Gellermann, the group leader for that chapter, and identified myself as a UN representative for the Global Ecovillage Network, which has held consultative status for about 9 years now. Bill was happy to have me on the team and I joined a distinguished group of co-authors who are working to craft the chapter on Tipping Points.

There are two observations I will make now about tipping points. The first is that we are talking about two kinds of tipping points, or elements. The first kind are those described very elegantly by a panel of the world’s finest climate scientists edited by Professor William Clark of Harvard and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of February 12, 2008 (PNAS 105:6;1786-1793). The report defines the term ‘‘tipping element’’ as “subsystems of the Earth system that are at least subcontinental in scale and can be switched — under certain circumstances — into a qualitatively different state by small perturbations. The “tipping point” is the corresponding critical point — in forcing and a feature of the system — at which the future state of the system is qualitatively altered.

The illustration the NAS panel employed is a ball in a trough. “The potential wells represent stable attractors, and the ball, the state of the system. Under gradual anthropogenic forcing (progressing from dark to light blue potential), the right potential well becomes shallower and finally vanishes (threshold), causing the ball to abruptly roll to the left. The curvature of the well is inversely proportional to the system’s response time to small perturbations.”



The panel also employed ‘‘degenerate fingerprinting’’ to extract from the system’s noisy, multivariate time series and forecast the vanishing of local curvature, the best example being the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation under a 4-fold linear increase of atmospheric CO2 over 50,000 years. Eventually, the circulation collapses without early warning.



The second kind of tipping point is the type described by Joanna Whitty in her seminal piece in Mother Jones as “The Thirteenth Tipping Point.”

The 13th tipping point is us, homo sapiens sapiens in the late Anthropocene.

After winding her way through a harrowing description of 12 of the kinds of elements described in the NAS report, Whitty comes to a very cathartic and inspired close. Looking at the hunting behavior of dolphins, vampire bats and cockroaches, Whitty concludes that humans need to learn to cooperate in unprecedented ways, at risk of our own species’ extinction. Says Whitty, “The difference between people and corals is that if we build our world poorly, we can rebuild it well. We know what to do. We know how to do it. We know the timeline. We are our own antidote.”

In a book collecting interviews with 25 distinguished persons, Toward a New World View: Conversations at the Leading Edge, Russell E. DeCarlo teases out a theme that our “world view has been greatly influenced by two — historically at odds — streams of influence; science and religion.... Through the lens of science, the universe is a meaningless accident... The physical world (which represents the entirety of created reality) exists independently and objectively unaffected by the presence of an observer.... The other stream of influence shaping the Western world view — the Judeo-Christian religious tradition — offers a different explanation of things.... Man exists separate and apart. Separate from the universe and separate from the natural and spiritual worlds; indeed separate from the rest of humanity."

How do we tip us back into place? When he was launched into orbit, beheld the full light of the stars, and saw his home planet as a tiny orb in the vastness of space, Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell was struck with a revelation. “I suddenly realized it's all one, that this magnificent universe is a harmonious, directed, purposeful whole. That we humans, both as individuals and as a species are an integral part of the ongoing process of its creation.”

Regrettably, we can’t send all of us into orbit to have this experience. So the question rebounds. How do we tip us back into place?

In his book, The Tipping Point: How Small Things Make a Difference, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social movements behave much the same way as epidemics do. Gladwell points to three elements that cause epidemics to spread, and says that these same elements are fundamental to any large scale social change. They are:

The Law of the Few, that tells us that some people spread disease, and also ideas and fashions, better than others;

The Stickiness Factor, or how potent the viral agent is. Without stickiness, a social movement might only influence a fraction of a generation. With stickiness, it becomes universal. Steps to reverse climate change need to continue evolving for centuries and draw in new generations; and

The Power of Context, or how the environment serves to either reinforce the change or to thwart its spread.

The Law of the Few tells us, as Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also tells us that commitment is not enough. The committed have to act, and have to share their commitment with others. Stickiness is where some popular movements work, and keep working, while others fade quickly into obscurity, or even create a backlash. The greater context of our climate dilemma suggests that if a favorable human tipping point is to occur, it will need to be able to cross cultures, genders, age groups, and races. It will need to be sticky across all those differences.

Margaret Mead


Sharon Astyk writes:
“[T]here is no possible way that we can make the necessary environmental cuts without sacrifice - 90% or more over 10 years is a big deal, and some of it will hurt - period. There are thousands of people who really don't want to hear that part - they think that if we just elect the right leader or we just do the right thing we can make everything easy and place all the burden magically on someone else. But we can't. 90% means 90% across the board. That doesn't mean that it can't be made better and easier, but it does mean that this will cost us.

“How do we make that idea palatable? Personally, I think denying the need for self-sacrifice is a huge mistake, and so is apologizing for it, or minimizing it. I think the absolute opposite strategy is called for -- we have to make it a challenge, an honor, a gift to do this. That is, of course, how we have gotten people to make sacrifices and endure hardship before -- whether giving their lives in wartime or climbing big mountains -- we've emphasized how exciting the challenge is, and how lucky they are to participate, how doing so makes them exceptional and heroic. The more we tell people that sacrifices won't be required, the more we make them nervous about the very idea. I think we should be telling people that they should feel privileged and honored to make this sacrifice.”

To succeed, a tipping point strategy must be:

1. Practical — it must work to reverse climate change and bring us back from the brink; i.e.: the global emissions rate will not be able to keep up with sequestration, instead of vice versa.
2. Simple — it has to be something that can be accomplished easily and be replicated; and
3. Desirable — it needs to confer immediate advantages to individuals over the status quo ante.

The tipping point that we need must supply a net greenhouse gas sequestration impact. In coming weeks I will provide many examples of actions being taken, largely by individuals with scant government or foundation support, to achieve this result.

To attract and stick, our tipping point will need to confer greater enjoyment of life or other advantages to individuals, and it must do so in an era of severe population pressure on multiple, essential, but steeply declining natural resources and an epochal transition in energy reliance.

in other words, to succeed, our human tipping element needs to be as attractive as Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexicans. It is not my intention to denigrate or belittle the miracle or the vision. Whether it happened or not, whether it was a clever P.R. move by the Catholic Church or a genuine revelation does not concern me. What matters is that it struck the right chord and it has spread and endured. It was practical, simple and desirable. It employed the power of the few, it was sticky, and it had context, all working for it.



Painting a picture of an idyllic future just ahead, beckoning, while in the same moment experiencing the real-world environment of human population explosion, cascading species extinctions, visible ecosystem demise, unprecedented resource depletion and scarcity, economic collapse and military adventurism is certainly challenging. And, yet, it could well be the only alternative that has a chance to succeed.

As Woody Allen said, “More than at any time in history, mankind faces the crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. I pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely.”

Despite how it may look at the outset, I don’t think despair and utter hopelessness are necessarily required, although they may have a role in the conversion.

Part of the challenge in crafting the Bali agreement was that some States-Parties felt that other States-Parties had reaped the benefits of industrialization at the expense of the global commons and therefore a debt was owed. There is a pernicious tendency to equate a higher standard of living with greater consumption of non-renewable natural resources, and so we witness the developing world now trying to match speeds with the developed world in spending down one-time natural capital.

As if they are owed that.

That fallacy is now laid bare, discredited by any glance at a world map of relative happiness.





On such a map, expressing how much people enjoy their lives, the “standard of well-being” in Colombia, Costa Rica, Guinea and Nicaragua are well above the USA, and tiny Denmark and Iceland — far ahead in their transition to renewables — are above much of Europe. Happiness is becoming a science.

The 20 happiest nations in the World are:

1 - Denmark
2 - Switzerland
3 - Austria
4 - Iceland
5 - The Bahamas
6 - Finland
7 - Sweden
8 - Bhutan
9 - Brunei
10 - Canada
11 - Ireland
12 - Luxembourg
13 - Costa Rica
14 - Malta
15 - The Netherlands
16 - Antigua and Barbuda
17 - Malaysia
18 - New Zealand
19 - Norway
20 - The Seychelles

Other notable results include:

23 - USA
35 - Germany
41 - UK
62 - France
82 - China
90 - Japan
125 - India
167 - Russia

Traveling through Cancun yesterday, I saw a sign on a little street vendor's booth. The man was selling lottery tickets. The sign read: “La Energia de Sueños.” The energy of dreams. We need dreams. We need the stories that go with those dreams. We need those stories to infect us, inspire us, pick us up when we tire, and push us to new and even better dreams.

That is how memes are propagated, and how they stick.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Heroic Gene

Many years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, in which he postulated that a gene will operate like a soulless corporation — entirely in its own interest — even if that means destroying the organism, or culture, that is its host, and that it helped create.

That idea has become conventional wisdom in both molecular biology and our culture. It is cited as a foundational principle by scientists as distinguished as David Baltimore, and by social commentators such as Ralph Nader and John Stossell.

I would like to suggest an alternative view. Genes, and cells, and larger organisms, can choose to broadly cooperate for higher purposes than their own interest. I will give an example from paleovirology.

Humans, anteaters and whale sharks share a common ancestor, one that roamed the seas or land at least 100 million years ago. This ancestor was infected by a retrovirus that threatened its life, even its existence as a species. The retrovirus, similar to H.I.V., possibly even an ancestor, was capable of reversing the flow of information from RNA to DNA, infecting pristine RNA with its parasitic code and then building new cells that served its purposes. It was an entirely selfish organism. The cells it attacked fused together into masses of cells and made thick, solid, malignant tumors.

At the cellular and genomic level, a clever protein chain “decided” that perhaps the attacking virus could be best defended against, not by finding some way to poison it with a novel antibody, but by co-opting its technology. If the defending cells were already fused together, the retrovirus would have no reason to attack, and would look elsewhere. So the protein chain latched onto the strands of code that made cells fuse and wove a barrier of fused cells around its most precious client — the cells that were embryos of its organism’s future selves. The new barrier, made from stolen code, was the tissue we call today the syncytin, the placental wall between mother and fetus whose cells are so fused as to prohibit passage of viruses, bacteria, disease phages, and other potential threats.

By allowing eggs to be replaced with placental sacs inside of the mother, the development of syncytin tissue enabled early mammals to give live birth. It also permitted incubation of the embryo for extended periods with a steady supply of maternal nutrients and the elimination of wastes, something eggs do not have. Mammalian fetuses were able to develop large brains and other advanced specialties in large part due to this nutrient and waste flow.

So, one might ask, why would a rudimentary 100 million year-old protein chain have decided to experiment with adopting virus-like qualities rather than do what it had been instructed to do, which is to defend against viral attacks? Was it a mistake? Was it random trial-and-error? Or was it aikido?

Was it unselfish? Did not the protein choose to regard its enemy as its ally?

Okay, I am going to pause for a moment now and run a side-trip off into something much more controversial. I am going to take on Christianity. I can already feel the backlash.

My ecovillage development hat has me working quite a bit in Mexico these days, and as anyone who has been to Mexico knows, it is a country that is 90-percent Catholic.

How did that happen? The country was deeply religious when Cortes arrived, but the religions that were there bore little resemblance to the Catholicism of 15th Century Europe. Moreover, while the Conquistadors carried the cross, along with their swords, and were on a mission of conversion as emissaries of the Pope, their conduct was hardly something an occupied and terrorized population would likely want to emulate.

I’d venture to say that the conversion of Mexico was a textbook example of how Catholicism spread its meme elsewhere, and, with more than a billion adherents, is the largest organized church in the world today. (Christianity as a whole, with 2.1 billion adherents, runs ahead of Islam, with 1.5 billion, and non-religious or secularists, with 1.1 billion. The world’s remaining 4 billion people are divided amongst some 20 major religions and many lesser ones.)

Any meme is carried along by a powerful central idea, and Christianity has that, in the gospel of its charismatic founder, Jesus of Nazareth. While all of human history is punctuated by a brutal struggle for individual and tribal survival — dog eat dog competition — the central tenet of Christianity is fundamentally pacifistic: return good for evil, all men are brethren, turn the other cheek, sacrifice personal gain for social welfare, and provide special care for the weakest and most oppressed members of society: the outcasts, sick, women, prisoners, prostitutes and thieves.

Muhammad expressly adopted the teachings of Jesus as a central part of Islam. The concept of “jihad,” which seems to run contrary to the message of Jesus, has been interpreted by Sufis to have been intended by Muhammad as a metaphor for spiritual evolution, rather than organized violence. Even Muhammad, it seems, “got” Jesus.

The genius of the Catholic church, extending back to the second century, has been its ability to insinuate itself like a retrovirus into cultures with already well-established religions. The basic Jesus myth succeeded by appropriating elements of both its hosts and its attackers.

The film, Zeitgeist, making the rounds in web distribution, CD and DVD before a planned official release March 15 of this year, reaches like Morpheus into The Matrix and frees us, as Neo, from the world of illusion — opening our eyes to the false myths that surround us.

Our Rites of Spring, celebrating seasonal change, extend back into pre-history, marking the celestial changes hominids observed that enabled us to hunt game, domesticate plants, make babies, build soils, and organize specialized labor classes that birthed our civilizations. Saul of Tarsus, after his fabled conversion to Saint Peter, was a prime adapter, a master meme propagator. He erected his church on the foundation stones of the Pagans, Greeks, Romans, and Jews, building a placental wall of their sacred tenets. Christmas and Easter are taken from pre-existing rituals, based in nature.

As Zeitgeist explains, the three wise men who followed a star in the East were the constellation of the Southern Cross, and at the winter Solstice, a time when days in the Northern Hemisphere are shortest and nature is in its deepest hibernation, the sun at mid-latitudes falls below the horizon and there remains for three days before it rises through the Cross and ascends to its proper place as redeemer of life.

Stepping into mythic legends as old as the pyramids, the Catholic Church imbued Jesus with all of the qualities of the religions it wished to supplant. Rather than challenging the old stories, it merely updated those with a polyglot new story, one that supercharged the high-minded qualities people were drawn to in the first place.

According to some Aztec scholars, Cortes’ papal missionaries were equal to the task of converting as wildly diverse and dis-homogenous but deeply spiritual population as the Conquistadors found in Mexico. It took a few tries, but after returning to Spain at least once, possibly twice, with their cotton serape, the friars recrossed the Atlantic with a third image painted over the preceding two, and that third image was the charm.

The icon syncretically represented both the Virgin Mary and the indigenous Mexican goddess Tonantzin, but contained secret symbols that widened its appeal beyond the Vatican’s wildest dreams.

As the story goes, during a walk from his village to Mexico City on December 9, 1531, a poor peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at the hill of Tepeyac. Speaking in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs still found in rural Mexico today, Our Lady of Guadalupe asked him to build an abbey at that site. When Juan relayed the miraculous apparition to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop demanded a sign to prove his claim.



Returning to the hill on December 12, Juan Diego explained his dilemma and The Virgin told Juan to gather flowers, even though it was winter. He found Castillian roses, gathered them on his tilma, or shoulder blanket, and presented these to bishop Zumárraga. When Zumárraga removed the roses, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared, imprinted on the cloth.

She is a Mestizo woman, the product of marriage between the brown indigenous peoples of the Americas and lighter-skinned Europeans. She wears European silks bearing patterns of cactus flowers, and her robe has 8-pointed gold stars and a gold trim. She stands on a black crescent, like the head of a steer, and under her is a child-like figure, possibly angel-winged, clutching the trail of her garments.



The first written account of these events is the Nahuatl-language Huei tlamahuiçoltica ("The Great Event") published in 1649, but proported to be taken from a Nahuatl story recorded in 1556. The dates are problematic, because Zumárraga did not become Archbishop of New Spain until 1547 and there is no mention of this story in any of his writings.

In 1999 the Archbishop of Mexico commissioned a study to test the relic tilma's age. Leoncio Garza-Valdés, who had previously worked with the Shroud of Turin, discovered that the fabric on which the icon is painted is made of conventional hemp and linen, not agave fibers as is popularly believed.

Garza-Valdés also found three distinct layers in the painting, at least one of which was signed and dated. The original painter was Marcos Aquino, a well-known painter of the Mexican colonial period. The signed date was 1556.



The 1556 layer was much different than the final layer. The Virgin, offset by 15 cm from the top layer, does not have a tunica over her hair and carries the baby Jesus on her left arm. The image bears a strong resemblance to the icon painting in the choir of the Monastery of Our Lady, in Extremadura, Spain, which was painted on wood relief in 1498.

The second image brought out by Garza-Valdés, using infrared and ultraviolet filters, was dated to the 17th Century. After first painting the cloth white, the second painter re-depicted the Virgin, transforming her face to give her more indigenous Mestizo qualities. This second layer was dated at 1625.

The third and final image, coming later in the 17th Century, refines the rays coming from the Virgin so that they resemble agave spines. The Virgin appears to stand on the back of the angel. Some scholars have noted that "Guadalupe" is a corruption of a Nahuatl name, "Coatlaxopeuh,” which translates "Who Crushes the Serpent.” In this interpretation, the serpent referred to is Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec and other indigenous faiths’ God/Man prophet. Images of Quetzalcoatl, said to be a native of Amatlan in the modern state of Morelos, depict him with a pale white face, mustache and goatee. His distinctively non-native, non-Mestizo image is celebrated with masks at annual festivals. Could the person whom the Virgin Mary stands on, crushing him as a serpent, be Quetzalcoatl, rather than an angel? Many of the renditions of the painting that have appeared actually give the angel what appears to be a beard, lending support to this interpretation.



top: Mosaic Virgin of Guadalupe, Photo by Alan Curtis.
bottom: Wooden Our Lady of Guadelupe, Galeria Mi Casa, Austin.

The genius stroke of the final image, however, was the blue-green garment draped over the bodice of the Virgin. A simple Mexican peasant need only invert the painting thus:




Regardless of your origins what you then see is the Popul Vu; the Aztec, Olmec and Toltec creation story; and the entire history of the Americas for thousands of years revealed — as if by magic. The Virgin is none other than Sacred Corn, gift of the Gods.

Inverted, the angel/baby Jesus/ Quetzalcoatl figure issues from a vagina above the ear of corn like an enlarged kernel of silvery smut — huitlacoche, (Ustilago maydis).

Of over 5,000 species of rust and smut fungi, in the Western Hemisphere only huitlacoche is commonly eaten as food, and it originated in Mexico, long before the Aztecs. Native Mexican midwives also apply huitlacoche topically during childbirth to induce labor.

You will probably never see fresh Huitlacoche sold outside of Mexico, but you can sometimes find it canned in the gourmet or Latin section of supermarkets. Here is a recipe I tested in Merida last summer, while sitting out Hurricane Dean.

Huitlacoche Soup
Serves two

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups soy or almond milk
1 cup warm water
3 Tablespoons flour
5 Tablespoons olive oil
4-6 drops mild jalapeño sauce
1 generous cup of Huitlacoche
1 small yellow onion
1 cloves fresh garlic

Blend milk, water, flour, and 3 Tbsp oil. Cook slowly, stirring until the white sauce thickens. Chop finely the onions and garlic and sauté in 2 Tbsp oil with the hot pepper sauce until browned and tender. Add the Huitlacoche last to preserve its strong flavor. Pour the white sauce into bowls, then pour the dark sauce afterwards and swirl once with a spoon, leaving a spiral. Garnish as desired.

Alternatively, you can substitute white corn flour for wheat flour, which produces a thicker and more corn-tasting soup.

In my next entry I am going to relate this story back to peak oil, climate change, population and the fate of the Earth, because it provides important lessons about tipping points.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Why I Write

Albert Bates
I have been quiet this past month or more, not because I had nothing to say, but because I could not bring myself to say it. I have been humbled by the power of the vision. I needed time to absorb it. I needed time to re-assess my role, my purpose, my path through life.

Much creative writing, and particularly blogging, is a Narcissistic pursuit. The author has to have enough ego-centrism to assume that someone would be interested in reading their musings, and then to write in an engaging style, as the font of some higher wisdom to the masses. Different writers assume different postures, and some even acknowledge their personal limits or private gratifications, occasionally dropping their authoritative posture to do so.

This is even truer of public speaking. The shy and introverted, myself included, have to really screw up an inordinate amount of courage to step, naked, in front of a room or auditorium or field full of complete strangers, or worse, before thousands of such unseen rooms within the vast reach of modern broadcast media.

For me, I came to creative writing as a way of venting frustration from the technical writing I was doing as an appellate attorney. Faced with having to raise money through donations in order to be allowed to pursue impossibly complex and hopeless but poignantly worthy cases through the often corrupt and tin-ear’ed courts, I penned a quarterly newsletter, Natural Rights, for more than a decade, in the process creating a style that was emotional, occasionally humorous, and then profound, in order to inspire readers to reach for their wallets and return the enclosed postage-prepaid envelope with a small donation. From tens of thousands of 2-, 5- and 10-dollar donations, and the occasional sugar daddy, a rugged caseload of impossible causes was maintained. Occasionally, we won one, and that kept the game in play.

My anointment as Johnny Ecovillageseed by the formative Global Ecovillage Network in the early 1990s stole me from my Quixotic legal career and placed my writing talents at the disposal of a movement ambitiously intending to alter the lifestyles of the masses and thereby the trajectory of planetary destruction.

For someone who had been fighting against planetary destruction at the retail level — nuclear power and weapons, toxic wastes, cultural, generational and species imperialism — a promotion upstairs to direct the wholesale approach seemed logical. As a type-A personality with high blood-pressure, I also welcomed the opportunity to change my work to something less combative on a day-to-day basis. I was tired of getting up in the morning to go fight bad guys. I had nicknamed my hand-stitched denim three-piece suit the “torero traje de luces” — suit of lights. I needed a break from the bull.

So, I became an environmental educator. That became my soapbox. I climb up on it with something to say, tap the microphone, and begin speaking. Presumptively the audience is here not because of me or my stuff — how I look, how I live, how I speak — but to learn what I am about to teach; they are interested in the subject, and I provide an accessible, perhaps even entertaining, opportunity to gather that particular knowledge.

The Narcissism is necessary, but the message is the thing.

And that has ended my silence once more, and brought me back here to speak. Today is the 101st anniversary of my father’s birth, so, for me, it is an auspicious day — a power day.

In the coming days we'll unleash some thoughts I've been having. We'll see where they lead.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Doomers and Sowing the Seeds of Peace

There is an on-going theme in the Peak Oil and Climate Change communities — the difference of opinion between the doomers and the fixers. Increasingly, as the fixers realize the full scope of the challenge and watch in disbelief how little is being done, they eventually gravitate more towards the doomer position.

Hard-core doomers think in terms of die-off, and see the process as a violent struggle that will envelop the world in brutality. James Lovelock, for the climate doomers, believes humanity will devolve to a few struggling tribes in the very high latitudes. Matt Savinar, heir apparent to Mike Ruppert on the Peak Oil doomer side, sees wilderness bunkers stocked with food, water and ammo.

Soft-landers, such as myself, have a tough sell.

In an odd kind of way, Dmitry Orlov has helped me out with a new book, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. For those who have read Naomi Klein’s recent work, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the collapse and aftermath of the Former Soviet Union will be familiar territory. Orlov came to the US as a teenager and traveled back to Russia during its special period of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He brings a wry, sardonic humor to his descriptions and predictions that helps the medicine go down.

Orlov wants to get us to ask fundamental questions of all aspects of our daily existence — food, housing, energy, transportation, communication, savings, medical — that betray an underlying sense of hope. His two central questions are “’Is it collapse-proof?’” and, if it is not, ‘What can I do to make it collapse-proof?’” He writes, “If, for a given thing, the answers turn out to be ‘No’ and ‘Nothing,’ then the very important follow-up question should be: ‘How can I live without it?’”

Learning to do without all “the stuff” opens the door to a much better life, whether we were to experience Peak Oil and Climate Change, or not (and who thinks “not” is very likely, now?)

Orlov scorns the archetype of the American Survivalist, holed up in the hills with a bomb shelter, tins of spam and an assortment of guns and ammo “with which to fight off neighbors from further downhill” in favor of a more pragmatic approach.

“It’s not a bad idea to own a few of everything you will need, but you should also invest in things you will be able to trade for things you will need. Think of consumer necessities that require high technology and have a long shelf life. Here are some suggestions to get you started: drugs (over-the-counter and prescription), razor blades, condoms. Toiletries, such as good soap, will be luxury items.”

To this short shopping list I would add seed. When the tractors run dry, we will once more become a world of small farmers. As everyone plows up their suburban yards and rushes to the store to buy seed for potatoes, onions, carrots and beans (a nice Irish stew, that), they may discover that the shelves have already been picked clean. That happened in Russia. So, put seed packets in a shoebox in your closet, and be sure to rotate through to keep them fresh. Although germination diminishes with time spent in storage, a few seeds always seem to get through. Oh, and something more mouse-proof than a shoebox might be a good idea.

There are many seed banks in the world today. Some are governmental or intergovernmental. Some are private or commercial. Seed Savers Exchange, started by Diane Ott and Kent Whealy in 1975, has gone viral. In 2008, the Global Crop Diversity Trust will spend $260 million to stock the backup’s backup, hoarding 4.5 million samples from other banks on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, in the Arctic Circle (78°13’ N, 15°33’ E). According to press accounts, there are only two reasons a seed would ever leave this vault: (1) to be replaced by a fresh sample or (2) to reseed a crop that’s been wiped off the earth. The Gates Foundation is the biggest donor, making a 2-to-1 grant with the Norwegian government.

Stored at the temperature of the earth on Spitsbergen, corn will store about 1125 years, wheat 1700, sorghum about 20,000.

Given what we now know about sudden astrophysical or geomorphic calamities that have ended epochs and begun new ones on our fragile planet, having a seed backup backup is a great idea. It would have been nice if we had a backup for the atmosphere or our energy future, but we didn’t, so what comes next will be very different, and unsettling.

It need not be brutal, however. As Robert Anson Wilson said, “the best antidote to stupidity is a strong counter-game.” We should be seeding peace, justice, pacifism, and non-violent conflict resolution the same way we plant a garden. This is not an impossible dream. Just in the way that Naomi Klein said the neo-con/neo-liberal think tanks (those who have the tanks do the thinking) laid their elaborate plans and natural or other disasters provided the opportunities, the peace and justice community has the ability to organize, inspire, and put forward its own plans when crisis strikes.

People get ready.



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